Sunday, May 24, 2015

Orecchiette Carbonara with Charred Brussels Sprouts

My first visit to Italy was a culinary tour.  I was — and still am — intoxicated by the glorious country with its magnificent mountains, lush countryside, playful piazzas, and grand churches and structures.  During our trip, I was excited to visit the Italian equivalent of American mom-and-pop stores, offering the best in meats, produce, bread, oils and sweets and then prepare and enjoy a meal, complete, with an afternoon glass of wine, with my wonderful travel mates.  You can read about my first Italian adventure here.

Did you know that spaghetti with meatballs generally do not appear on menus in most restaurants in Italy?  You can get them separately, but you would get the pasta first, as the primi and polpette (meatballs) next as a secondo. If you order them together you will most certainly blow your cover as an American tourist!

One of my favorite books ever is Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  The author travels to different parts of the world in a quest for peacefulness following a difficult separation and never-ending divorce proceedings.  The Eat part refers to her mission of pure pleasure….eating her way across Italy with “no greater ambition than to find the next lovely meal.”  

Sounds like an ideal plan to me

Anyway, in the book, Ms. Gilbert’s first meal in Italy is Pasta Carbonara, devoured at a little trattoria in Rome.  Traditionally, Carbonara is made with bacon, peas, garlic and eggs tossed with a long pasta, like spaghetti, fettuccine or linguine.  When we had dinner at M.’s house, she chose to make a version using pancetta and Brussels sprouts tossed with little pockets of pasta called orecchiette, meaning small ear.

The recipe calls for separating the leaves of the spouts (a loving but laborious task!), but M. used the shredded Brussels sprouts from Trader Joe’s...she's so smart...and efficient.  She also infused the olive oil with garlic because everything is better with garlic.  The reviews from the original article say that the key to this dish is getting a good crispy char on the spouts….this helps balance the rich and wonderfully-salty pancetta sauce.  Other than the the pasta and sprouts substitution, this Carbonara is made exactly the same as its customary counterpart, but I have to say, our crew loved the substantialness of the orecchiette and the subtle, sweet notes of the sprouts paired beautifully with the pancetta!

Orecchiette Carbonara with Charred Brussels Spouts
By:  Philip Krajeck, Bon Appetit Magazine
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed, leaves separated (see note above)
12 ounces fresh orecchiette or other fresh or dried small pasta
Kosher salt
2 ounces pancetta (Italian bacon), finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/3 cup grated Pecorino plus more
2 large egg yolks, beaten to blend

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over high heat. Working in batches, add Brussels sprout leaves and cook, tossing occasionally, until charred in spots and crisp-tender, about 5 minutes; transfer to a plate and set aside. Wipe out skillet.

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente (about 5 minutes for fresh pasta). Drain, reserving 1 cup pasta cooking liquid.Meanwhile, heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in same skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta and cook, stirring often, until slightly crisp, about 4 minutes. Add pepper and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Immediately add 1/2 cup pasta cooking liquid to keep pasta from burning; reduce heat to low and gradually add butter, swirling skillet and adding more pasta cooking liquid as needed, until a thick, glossy sauce forms.

Add pasta to skillet and toss to coat. Add Pecorino; toss to combine. Remove from heat; mix in egg yolks. Add reserved Brussels sprout leaves; toss, adding pasta cooking liquid (or hot water) as needed to thin sauce.  Serve pasta topped with more Pecorino.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Baked Pasta with Chicken Sausage

As you read in my last post, I recently learned that a dear friend used to work for Martha Stewart.  What can I know how I feel about Martha.  I idolize her for many reasons, just as Julie Powell was smitten with Julia Child. What other domestic doyenne could turn an unfortunate incarceration into an opportunity to teach others about her craft and be even more beloved following her release! 

I have a whole library of her books and I used to have every single Martha Stewart Living magazine ever published, but that turned out to be an unrealistic and clutter-inducing obsession, so I recycled them.  Martha would be proud of my desire to keep household order but it brought a little tear to my eye to say goodbye to those periodicals. 

I use Martha's recipes whenever I have an opportunity, just type "Martha" in the search tool to see the hits!  So last week when it was my turn to cook, I honored my one-degree-of-separation friend and said ciao to the last of the cool weather (fingers crossed) with a based pasta casserole dish I found on, Baked Pasta with Chicken sausage.

If you've never had chicken sausage, please try it.  You can use it just like its traditional counterpart and it cooks up beautifully.  My local Co-op offers many varieties of chicken sausage and I often grill the little links right up and serve along side a hearty salad packed with greens, fruit, cheese and nuts.  When cooked in gravy (remember, I'm half Italian!) you can hardly taste the difference.

A couple of changes to this recipe.  I think this was a little dry, so I would add a little more cream to the tomato sauce before incorporating the mixture, maybe as much as a 1/2 cup  (or more vodka!).  Also, I used asiago cheese and it was delicious.  Arugula would be a nice substitution for the would add a peppery flavor.

Baked Pasta with Chicken Sausage 

by:  Martha Stewart

Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup vodka (optional)
1 can (28 ounces) whole tomatoes with juice, lightly crushed with hands
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pound rigatoni
10 ounces baby spinach
12 ounces smoked chicken sausage, halved lengthwise and sliced 1/4 inch thick
6 ounces fontina cheese, 4 ounces cut into 1/2-inch cubes and 2 ounces coarsely grated
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Grill or pan fry the sausage, slice into bite-size pieces and set aside.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion; cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in garlic. Remove from heat; add vodka, if desired. Return to heat; cook until almost evaporated, 1 minute.

Stir in tomatoes and oregano; cook until tomatoes are falling apart, 10 to 15 minutes. Add cream; cook until warmed through, about 5 minutes. Season sauce with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cook pasta in the boiling water until al dente, according to package instructions. Add spinach, and cook just until wilted. Drain, and return contents to pot.

Add tomato sauce, sausage, and cubed fontina to pot; toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Divide evenly between two shallow 1 1/2-quart baking dishes.

Top with grated fontina and Parmesan. Bake until browned and edges are crisp, 20 to 30 minutes.

For dessert, we had Banana Coconut Bread and I have an absolutely wonderful Coconut Bread recipe from Smitten Kitchen to share with you!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Semolina Gnocchi

The most recent edition of Cook’s Illustrated arrived in the mail and, as I was flipping through, the recipe for Semolina Gnocchi caught my eye.  

Well now, I just may have to make those little Roman-style discs of savory baked dough.

Then we arrive at C.’s house last week (actually it was two Wednesdays ago, but who’s counting) and what do you think was on the menu….the Cook’s Illustrated version of Semolina Gnocchi.  

Talk about a happy crew.

If you don’t subscribe to Cook’s Illustrated, I hope you will consider doing so.  I’m not a paid spokeswoman or anything but I enjoy this magazine because the test-kitchen stories that accompany the recipes are just as informative as the instructions — and entertaining.  Plus the reader tips are quite useful…like the one for adding a marshmallow to brown sugar to absorb the moisture to prevent the sugar from becoming a rock.

A marshmallow…who would have thought?  It absorbs the moisture.

Semolina gnocchi are not like the luscious little pillows you are used to eating, they are more like dumplings, but just as delicious and addictive.  The writer of the CI article had these little gems in a restaurant and went on a quest to recreate the perfect combination of flour, liquid, egg and cheese.  First, the testers adjusted the liquid to buttery semolina flour ratio to adjust consistency problems with the trial recipes, and the perfect result was 2 1/2 cups of liquid to one cup of semolina.  Next, the testers substituted all milk for any other liquid which gave the gnocchi a rich, creamy flavor. Then they added only one beaten egg.

Softer cheeses did not have enough oomph (because of the moisture) so Gruyere it was and a bit of Parmesan. The woodsy, earthy flavors were introduced complements of rosemary and nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder perked things up a bit.

Shaping was a cinch with a 1/4 measuring cup and to make sure they kept their shape when served, the gnocchi spent 30 minutes hanging out in the refrigerator before baking

C. served with a simple tomato sauce, like Marcella Hazan’s, but these would be lovely with a brown butter sage sauce too. 

Semolina Gnocchi
by:  Cook’s Illustrated

2 1/2 cups whole milk
3/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch nutmeg
1 cup of semolina flour
4 tablespoons salted butter
1 large egg, beaten
1 1/2 ounces Gruyere cheese, shredded (1/3 cup)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat to 400 degrees.  Heat milk, salt and nutmeg in a medium saucepan over medium heat until bubbles form around the edges of the plan.  Whisking constantly, slowly add the semolina to milk mixture.  Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring often with rubber spatula, until mixture is stiff and pulls away from the sides when stirring, 3-5 minutes.  Remove from heat and let cool for 5 minutes.

Stir 3 tablespoons butter and the beaten egg into semolina mixture until incorporated (the mixture will slowly become smooth and shiny).  Stir in the Gruyere, rosemary and baking powder until incorporated.

Fill a small bowl with water.  Moisten a 1/4 dry measuring cup with water and scoop even portions into the cup, inverting each form onto a large plate.  Repeat until mixture is used (you should get about 12) and place the tray of gnocchi in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours if covered.

Rub interior of an 8-inch square baking dish with the remaining butter.  Shingle the gnocchi in the pan, creating 3 rows of 4 gnocchi each, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and bake for 35-40 minutes until golden brown.  Let cook for 15 minutes and top with your favorite sauce.

I made raspberry brownies for dessert and they did not cooperate coming out of the pan. To improvise, we had brownie crumble sundaes with vanilla ice cream and fresh raspberries.  

I found out last weekend that a dear friend used to work for Martha…one degree of separation…I almost peed my pants.