Friday, September 15, 2017

Cleaning Torchio Pasta Dies


My Bottene Model B torchio pasta press arrived with two bronze dies to make bigoli (here) and gargarti (here), Venetian variations of spaghettoni and sedani, respectively. Although the torchio originated in the Veneto, the press accommodates a myriad of bronze dies allowing you to extrude classic pasta shapes from across Italy, such as gramigna (here) from Emilia-Romagna or tonnarelli from Lazio.

Search the WWW (or explore this site) and you will find plenty of recipes to make dough suitable for a hand-cranked torchio. You will not, however, find much information on the Internet on how to clean the torchio’s pasta dies. Pasta shops and restaurants that keep pasta machine dies in regular production often store their dies in plain water or water spiked with vinegar (approximately 15 ml per liter of water). Whether you use plain or acidic water, every pastaio I queried recommends changing the soaking water every day.

Although soaking dies makes sense when one keeps a die in constant use, this practice does not work for me and probably not many other home cooks. Here’s my die cleaning routine (which I do not represent as the standard of care). First, after extruding pasta with my torchio, I remove the die and pick out as much of the dough left in the die that I can using a toothpick or other similar small wooden skewer. I can entirely clean certain simple dies, such as my bigoli and gargarti dies, by using a toothpick.


Survey a range of pasta dies and you will notice that many dies have inserts (i.e., bronze plugs that seat into holes bored into the die blank). These inserts, some with open backs while other partially enclosed, do the work of manipulating the dough into the pasta’s shape using surfaces, ridges and/or pins. Certain dies, depending upon their insert’s configuration, take a lot of work to clean. Again, I usually start with a toothpick or small wooden skewer to remove as much dough as possible. I then soak the die in lukewarm soapy water for a couple of hours or overnight. I might again try to pick out more dough by hand and soak the die again. I next use a Waterpik that I purchased to clean dies. I find cleaning dies with a Waterpik yields good results, but also makes quite a damp mess. Spray goes everywhere.

Some dies are so difficult to clean that they need multiple soaks and take a couple of passes with the Waterpik to dislodge all the small pieces of dough that become trapped in their inserts. Nevertheless, the soak and Waterpik method remains the best way that I have found to clean certain complex dies (e.g., lumache, perciatelli and 23mm rigatoni).

Personally, I find cleaning bronze pasta dies A Total Bore. I’ll admit it: I may not buy a die if the die looks like it will be too difficult to clean. Call me lazy, but if a die involves too much work to clean, I am simply less likely to use it. I’m looking at you, perciatelli.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Armenian Tava


I grew up eating Armenian food that ranged from complex, time intensive dishes, such as my paternal grandmother’s Izmir Kufta, to simple country food, like Tava. What is Tava? This depends upon who you ask. According to my mother, Tava consists of lamb shoulder chops baked on top of layered vegetables. My dad will tell you that Tava’s lamb chops rest on cubed—and not layered—vegetables. You’ll find Armenian families that top the vegetables with seasoned ground beef or ground lamb instead of chops and call the dish Tava or Duzmeh. A Book of Favorite Recipes (1968) compiled by the Los Angeles Daughters of Vartan includes a recipe for Tava that layers vegetables on top of seasoned meatballs. Vegetarians, don’t worry: Many Armenians entirely skip the meat and they still call the resulting dish TavaPresent this meatless version to a Frenchman or Frenchwoman and he or she will tell you that you have made Ratatouille.

The vegetables in Tava come from every corner of a summer garden, but mainstays include eggplant, tomato, squash, onion and potato. Expect to find recipes that add bell peppers, green beans and even okra. My mother claims that Tava just isn’t Tava without carrots (layered—and this is important—on top of the potatoes). Most, but not all, recipes pour a little water or tomato sauce over the vegetables. Some recipes call for mint or parsley as seasonings, but most versions call for nothing more than salt and pepper.

With countless Tava recipes, why do I post my version? Because I believe it important to memorialize how a family—in this case my family—makes a loved food. My grandmother and great-aunt frequently made Tava. My mother only occasionally. Unless a family’s recipe boards a food ark, children (or grandchildren) might never eat a dish that comforted their great-grandparents.

Armenian Tava

Pre-heat oven to 375°F. Butter a baking dish. The size and depth of the dish depends upon how much meat and how many vegetables you wish to accommodate. This recipe, which makes 2 to 4 servings, uses 2 large lamb shoulder chops, so I suggest a deep 8-inch by 8-inch baking dish. A deep, 10-inch diameter pie plate also works nicely.

Peel 2 medium-sized yellow potatoes (e.g., Yukon Golds) and slice into ¼-inch rounds. Cover the bottom of the baking dish with a single, overlapping layer of potatoes. As you arrange the slices in the dish, season the potatoes with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. You will add salt and pepper to each following vegetable layer, so season judiciously. Peel a medium eggplant and slice it into ¼-inch rounds. Place a single layer of eggplant slices on top of the potatoes and season. Slice a medium zucchini into rounds—again ¼-inch thick—and layer on top of the eggplant, seasoning the squash layer to taste. Next, peel a large yellow (or white or red or sweet) onion and make ¼-inch thick slices and lay these into the dish in a single layer, seasoning as you go. Finally, slice enough ripe tomatoes to cover the onions and lightly season this final vegetable layer.

Pour about ¼ cup water or tomato sauce over the vegetables.

Place seasoned lamb shoulder chops on top of the tomatoes and cover the baking dish with foil. Place the package in the oven and bake for approximately 1 hour. Remove the foil and flip the lamb chops over and return to the oven to bake for another 15 minutes. Flip the lamb chops again and increase the oven temperature to 400°F and bake for 15 more minutes until the chop look browned.

As I mentioned, countless versions of Tava exist, so feel free to add or subtract vegetables to satisfy your family’s palate. As a general rule, vegetables that give up their liquid sit on top of vegetables that absorb liquid.


Personally, I like to salt the lamb shoulder chops the night before I make Tava. I put a rack into a baking sheet and dust the lamb with kosher salt and refrigerate the lamb, uncovered, overnight. I also like to use mild red pepper flakes—think Aleppo or Marash or Piment d’ville—when seasoning the vegetables and lamb. Sometimes I substitute a splash of dashi (here) in place of water or tomato sauce. I think this completely and utterly nontraditional ingredient adds a lovely smoky flavor to this simple dish.

If you want to have a true Armenian experience, serve Tava with an authentic Armenian Pilaf (here). The lamb and vegetables and pilaf marry beautifully.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Blackberry Whisky


A number of years ago I purchased Booze by John Wright (2013, Bloomsbury). Booze, the twelfth installment in a series of River Cottage Handbooks, guides the reader on how to make infusions, wine, cider and beer. Other handbooks in River Cottage series explore subjects such as Chicken & Eggs; Curing & Smoking; Edible Seashore; Hedgerow; Pigs & Pork; Sea Fishing; and Veg Patch.

I bought Booze to learn more about British infusions. Wright marries his knowledge as a “dedicated forager” with his enthusiasm for infusing. He writes that “few items of vegetable matter have escaped my infuser’s hand.” Case in point, Booze sports a recipe for Oak moss gin.

Booze covers four types of infusions: fruit, nut, floral and plant. Wright instructs the reader on the making of Sloe gin; Sea buckthorn vodka; Haw gin; Gorse flower white rum; Sweet vernal grass vodka, and even Absinthe. But perhaps the Best In Show infusion in Booze goes to Blackberry whisky. Wright writes: “[it] is one of the finest of all infusions, a rival to even sloe gin.” To make Blackberry whisky you need only sugar in addition to the drink’s titular ingredients. Wright’s instructions follow.

Two-thirds fill a Kilner jar with blackberries, then sprinkle sugar over them until it covers the bottom half of the fruit. The blackberries should be dry for this operation otherwise the sugar will not flow. Top the jar with whisky, close the lid and shake gently. Store in a dark cupboard and shake once a day until the sugar has dissolved.

After 6 months, decant the infused whisky into a bottle and store for at least a year to mature.


Since buying Booze I’ve made three batches of Blackberry whisky. I call my 2015 batch The Inferno because I completely disregarded Wright’s counsel on whisky selection: “Do use cheap whisky for this recipe as there is a special pit in hell for those who drink good whisky in any way other than on its own.” I dipped into a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask (so, I guess, I’m going to hell). Save your soul and don’t make the same mistake (and furthermore, to my taste, the Laphroaig’s intense peatiness makes it a questionable base solvent).

In 2016 I made two different version of Blackberry whisky: one using a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey and the other with Buffalo Trace Kentucky Bourdon Whiskey. Both batches taste promising. I used foraged Evergreen blackberries in the bourdon version and a mixture of Evergreen and Himalayan blackberries with the Jameson. Aside: One day I hope to make Blackberry whisky with a local native blackberry variety called the Pacific blackberry or Northwest dewberry. These small berries taste outstanding, but I rarely find even a handful per season. Between the ubiquitous Himalayan and Evergreen blackberries, I prefer the latter, but pick according to your personal taste.

And speaking of taste: How does Blackberry whisky taste? Wright encourages his readers to make this infusion with these words: “For those few who do not like blackberries and the many more who do not like whisky I have some good news. Given time—about a year, but two is better—the flavour mellows into something quite its own, not dissimilar from port, and with never a hint of peat bogs and barely a trace of blackberry crumble.” No hint of peat…unless, of course, you use Laphroaig. Did I mention that I have a special pit in hell?