Saturday, February 3, 2018

Polpette in bianco

For my first post of 2018, I want to share an Italian meatball recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks of 2017, Two Kitchens: Family recipes from Sicily and Rome by Rachel Roddy.  Two Kitchens is Roddy’s second cookbook and, in my opinion, it equals her award-winning Five Quarters: Recipes and notes from a kitchen in Rome, which garnered the Guild of Food Writers’ First Book award and the André Simon Food Book award of 2015.

Roddy originally posted the following recipe for Polpette in bianco (Meatballs in white sauce) on her food blog, Rachel Eats. In this recipe in bianco means a white wine sauce.  After coating the polpette in fine breadcrumbs, you brown the meatballs in olive oil and then finish them in a bath of vino bianco. The wine reduces into a bright, delicious sauce that pairs with the richness of the polpette. Here’s the complete recipe from Two Kitchens (which, with a tweak or two, mirrors the recipe in Roddy’s blog). The dish serves 6.

250g minced beef
350g minced pork
75g soft fresh breadcrumbs
75g Parmesan, grated
1 heaped tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 eggs
fine breadcrumbs, for rolling
6 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves
200ml white wine (you may need a little more)
salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Knead together the meat, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, parsley (reserving a little for later), eggs, a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Work the mixture, kneading and then squeezing the ingredients together into a soft, consistent mass.
Pour [the fine] breadcrumbs on a plate. Take walnut-sized balls of the meat mixture and then roll them firmly between your palms into small, neat balls. Roll the balls in breadcrumbs and sit them on a clean board or plate.
Warm the olive oil in a large, deep frying pan. Crush the garlic cloves with the back of a knife so that they split but remain whole and add then to the pan. Fry gently until golden and fragrant, which should take a minute or so. Remove the garlic and add the meatballs. Fry the meatballs, increasing the heat a little and moving them around until they are brown on all sides. This will take about 6 minutes.
Add the wine, which will sizzle vigorously, and a good pinch of salt. Continue to cook the meatballs, nudging them around. As the wine reduces into a thickish gravy, scape it down from the sides of the pan and keep the meatballs moving so they cook evenly. You may need to add more wine. After about 5 minutes, taste a meatball to see how it is cooking. You may need to cook them a little longer; you may not. Adjust the seasoning if necessary and stir again.
Once cooked, turn the meatballs on to a warm platter, pour over the pan gravy and sprinkle over a little parsley to serve.
People can be funny about their family recipes. They fervently believe that their mother’s or father’s or aunt’s recipe for, say, meatballs, surpass all other versions. (Roddy uses the phrase the “blessed curse of mamma’s meatballs” to illustrate this point.) You might be tempted to pass on Polpette in bianco because how can it possibly compare to mamma’s meatballs? Here’s what you do: mix up a batch of polpette using your preferred ingredients and then use Roddy’s technique of breading, frying and braising. You’ll be happy you did. Since the recipe appeared in Roddy’s blog in 2014, I’ve made the dish a dozen times or more each year and I always use my polpette mixture, which, in all modesty, surpasses mamma’s version.

One last point before we leave polpette: the flavor of meatballs improves when they rest for a couple of hours in the refrigerator before being cooked. Plan ahead and your meatballs will repay your industry with better taste.

I wish more food writers turned out family cookbooks like Two Kitchens and Five Quarters. Roddy has complied recipes that I look forward to making every day of the week. I hope she’s hard at work on a third cookbook.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Best Cookbooks of 2017

A plethora of outstanding 2017 cookbooks made creating a list of the five best a happy challenge. After all, whittling is half the fun of this exercise. I present, in alphabetical order, my picks for the five best cookbooks of 2017.

Bäco: Vivid recipes from the heart of Los Angeles by Josef Centeno and Betty Hallock. Chronicle Books.

On Vegetables by Jeremy Fox. Phaidon.

Slow Food Editore – Osteria translated by Natalie Danford. Rizzoli.

State Bird Provisions: A Cookbook by Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski with JJ Goode. Ten Speed Press.

Two Kitchens: Family recipes from Sicily and Rome by Rachel Roddy. Headline Home.

Why these books?

Flip to any recipe in Bäco and find something exciting to make. Centeno’s cooking reflects Los Angeles’s cosmopolitan olio: The flavors of the Far East mingle with those of the Middle East and Spain, Portugal and France. Without talent, melding these cuisines risks making a mess. But Centeno has the skill to marry different food cultures to create New California dishes. If you like Travis Lett’s Gjelina, you’ll love Centeno’s Bäco.

Jeremy Fox’s On Vegetables gets my vote for best cookbook of 2017. Fox’s collection of recipes will help you to prepare sophisticated yet seductively simple food. Fox’s honest account of his journey to overcome self-doubt and destructive behavior makes On Vegetables worth reading apart from the world-class recipes.

In 2011 I traveled to Bologna and lugged back a very weighty tome entitled Le ricette di Osterie d’Italia by Slow Food Editore. Nancy Danford has translated this massive Italian compendium into English. Yes, this new version leaves out many recipes contained in the original edition, but Rizzoli still deserves kudos for making this English-language Osteria available. (Note: Even trimmed, the new version contains 1000 recipes!) Want to make Crostini con gambi di carciofi from Osteria di Montecodruzzo in Emilia-Romagna? Well now you can even if you can’t read Italian.

State Bird Provisions opens with its recipe for Buttermilk Fried Quail. What follows is a collection of recipes divided into four sections: Savory Larder; Savory Recipes; Dessert Larder; and Sweet Recipes. Boasting big, bold flavors, State Bird does its thing in its own way: Kosho made with Meyer lemon instead of yuzu, and dashi spiked with rosemary, ginger and citrus. Like aiolis? Good! You’re in luck: The book includes 11 different recipes. State Bird Provisions sits proudly alongside my well-worn copy of Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes.

Rachel Roddy follows up her award-winning 2015 cookbook, Five Quarters, with Two Kitchens: Family recipes from Sicily and Rome. Like her first work, Roddy fills Two Kitchens with recipes that you will cook again and again and again. Favorites include: A dead simple yet delicious dish of potatoes and greens; a recipe for meatballs dusted with breadcrumbs, fried and then braised in white wine that bubbles down into a bright sauce; and a comforting braise of chicken with potatoes, anchovies and rosemary. In addition to having a knack of cherry-picking the best recipes from friends, family and others, Roddy writes extremely well. I cannot wait to see what she turns out next.

A lot of books vied for a place on my Best Of list: Bread is Gold by Massimo Bottura; Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden; Kaukasis by Olia Hercules; Tartine All Day by Elisabeth Prueitt; and Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner…Life by Missy Robbins. I really looked forward to Bianco by Chris Bianco, but found it disappointing. Probably my unrealistic expectations. But check it out: Bianco might speak to you.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Straw & Hay Gramigna

Leafing through Michael White’s Classico e Moderno (Random House, 2013), I came across a version of Gramigna con salsiccia that caught my attention. In the recipe’s introduction, White writes: “Befitting its name, “little weeds,” gramigna is made both in yellow and green versions, the latter with a spinach dough, often served together.” The idea of a paglia e fieno (“straw and hay”) version of gramigna intrigued me. Authentic? I pulled my copy of Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta (University of California Press, 2009) off the shelf and looked up gramigna. Sure enough, Zanini De Vita covers the straw and hay variation: “The factory-made version varies from small to medium size, in the shape of a tiny worm, and is often found in a paglia e fieno version.” I posted an egg dough version of gramigna (here), but never attempted a green pasta dough for the torchio. No time like the present.

I developed the following green dough recipe using spinach, but nettles, basil, parsley, kale or Swiss chard should also work. In Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Knopf, 1992), Marcella Hazen advocates finely chopping blanched then well-dried spinach “with a knife, but not in a food processor which draws out too much moisture.” Giuliano Bugialli, in his updated The Fine Art of Italian Cooking (Random House, 1989) also makes his green dough with finely chopped spinach. In Cooking by Hand (Potter, 2003), Paul Bertolli makes his green pasta with a purée of spinach or young nettles using either a mortar and pestle or a food processor. I experimented with puréed, finely chopped and pounded spinach. Each type worked just fine. Pasta made with puréed spinach looks uniformly green. Finely chopped spinach produced a slightly lighter, speckled green pasta.

The following recipe make approximately 250 grams of green pasta dough suitable for a torchio pasta press.

60g stemmed spinach leaves
80g Central Milling Organic Type 00 Flour/11.2% protein
80g Central Milling Organic Extra Fancy Durum Flour/15%+ protein
2g fine kosher salt
whole egg, approximately 50g (without shell)
egg yolk, approximately 20g

1. Wash the stemmed spinach leaves—multiple times if necessary—to completely remove any dirt and grit. Bring a sauce pan of salted water to a boil. Cook the spinach for a minute or two. Transfer the spinach into a bowl of cold salted water. Once the spinach cools, remove it and drain well. Squeeze the spinach until it is mostly dry. Purée the blanched spinach with a food processor or immersion blender. Alternatively, finely chop the spinach with a knife. Put aside 17 grams (approximately 1 tablespoon) of puréed spinach to make the pasta dough. Use the remaining spinach in another dish so as not to be wasteful.

2. Sift the flours into the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the salt. Using a paddle attachment, mix together the flours and salt.
3. Place a mixing glass on a scale. Tare the scale and crack a medium-sized egg into the glass. The white and yolk should weigh approximately 50 grams, give or take. Crack another egg and add its yolk to the mixing glass, bringing the weight of the eggs to somewhere around 70 grams or so. Add the 17 grams of spinach purée to the eggs. The goal is to create an egg and spinach solution that weighs 91 grams. If the mixture weighs less than 91 grams, then add water to bring the weight up to 91 grams. If the mixture weighs more than 91 grams, remove the overage and reserve in case you need more liquid to make the dough. Use a hand whisk to beat the egg and spinach mixture.
4. With the stand mixer running on low speed, slowly pour the egg and spinach mixture into the mixing bowl in small batches. After adding all of the egg and spinach mixture, continue to mix the dough for about 2 to 3 minutes. You may need to add a little bit more liquid to create a dough with the proper consistency. The dough should look clumpy (see following photo). The finished dough should hold together when squeezed.

5. Remove the bowl from the mixer and add any dough on the paddle to the mixing bowl. Using your hand, bring the dough together into a large ball in the mixing bowl. Knead the dough in the bowl or on a work surface for approximately 30 seconds. Don’t worry if the dough feels hard and is difficult to knead. The dough will soften as it rests. Form the dough into a log narrow enough to ultimately slide into the torchio’s chamber. Tightly wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, insert the dough into the torchio and crank away! After extruding, let the pasta dry at room temperature for a couple of hours.

A few notes and observations. I use a flour mixture containing 50% extra fancy durum flour in order to add strength to the dough. I worried that the spinach purée might compromise the dough’s plasticity without the benefit of the durum flour’s extra gluten. I like how the 50/50 flour blend performed and tasted.
To make my yellow “straw” pasta, I created another 250 grams of egg dough sans spinach. I used the same 50/50 flour blend adding cream and extra egg whites in place of the spinach purée. Together the green and yellow pasta weighed 500 grams—just over a pound—serving 4 to 6 depending upon appetites.

I tried my paglia e fieno gramigna with a number of different white sauces. I made a cabbage and sausage sauce from a recipe in Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy’s The Geometry of Pasta (Boxtree, 2010). Kenedy braises sausage and cabbage in equal parts chicken stock and milk creating a sauce that tastes rich without being heavy.
My favorite sauce turned out to be a variation of Gramigna al ragù di salsiccia (here) wherein I switched out the tomato purée for a milk/chicken stock mixture. Try it and see what you think.

Feel free to experiment with the green dough using different bronze dies. I made a green rigatoni that worked well in a light cream sauce with pancetta and peas dusted with Parmesan.