Buenos Aires – My first, and longest, cooking job was working at The Side Door restaurant in my hometown of Ann Arbor. It was a small, family-run Italian place, where I learned to make dough, sauces, and pizzas. One of the two owners was a Weight Watchers fanatic at the time and every dish that we made, we also had to come up with a version that was dietetic. It was in interesting introduction to both a bit of traditional Italian cooking and its antithesis. At the time, it seemed like something special – it was certainly unique, no one was offering dietetic frozen dinners in the supermarket, and locals who were trying to lose weight (a bit of a regular pass-time in the midwest) flocked to try our diet pizzas, pastas, and desserts. In retrospect, most of what we were offering had little or no flavor and even less resemblance to the original dish. Regardless, the regular versions started me on a lifelong love of Italian food, and although I never cooked at an Italian restaurant again, I’ve always incorporated Italian elements into my cooking.
Yesterday was National Day in Italy, the anniversary of the date when the various Italian provinces voted (and nowhere near unanimously, many voted against) to end the monarchy and create a democratic republic. It seemed as good an excuse as any to pull out a few of my favorite dishes and play with them a bit – especially after my whining over the last few months about things like the quality of pasta, the way its cooked, and especially, the lack of
edible real pesto.
I’m a big fan of risotto, in as many guises as it can possibly be served. Back when I worked for Tom Colicchio at Mondrian, we used to do a dish made with a plain risotto that was chilled, pressed, and cut into rounds which were then sauteed and served, if I recall correctly, as an accompaniment to a quail appetizer. For us, the cooks, we used to fry them off and eat them by the dozen with maple syrup. Back in October 2004 I hosted a dinner in celebration of Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday. One of the dishes I prepared was a dish from the area where he grew up, Risotto alla Salernitana. It gave me the idea for last night’s risotto cake… first here’s the recipe for the Salernitana, which is pretty spectacular…
Risotto alla Salernitana
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup rich veal stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, finely minced
2 cups Arborio rice
½ cup dry white wine
4 ounces prosciutto, coarsely chopped
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, diced
Freshly ground black pepper and salt
2 eggs, beaten with salt and pepper
Warm the stocks together in a small saucepan over low heat. In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the rice and cook for about 2 minutes, until the grains become white and opaque. Add the white wine. Stir and cook until the wine is nearly evaporated. Add a large ladleful of stock. Stir and cook until the stock is nearly absorbed. Repeat with another ladle-ful of stock, and continue until the rice is “al dente”. Stir in the prosciutto and mozzarella. Remove from the heat and stir in the beaten eggs and the parmigiano, stirring well to incorporate. Season to taste with salt and plenty of black pepper. This can be a side dish or a main course.
Now, back to last night, and this week’s demo… Start by finely chopping about a half pound of pancetta, or smoked bacon. Cook it over low heat, rendering out the fat and until the meat just starts to brown. At that point, turn up the heat to medium and add one large onion, also finely chopped. Depending on the amount of fat rendered out of the pancetta, you may need to add a splash or olive oil at this point. Use your judgment, the idea is to make sure the onions saute nicely in the fat/oil, until they, also, are just starting to color.
From this moment on your concentration must be on the risotto – no interruptions for phones or kids or running to the bathroom. Risotto has to be attended to constantly once you add the rice. I used a pound of Carnaroli, which along with Arborio are the two major risotto rices. You pretty much do need to use one of these special rices to make good risotto – regular rice just won’t cook properly – these two types of rice are shorter and fatter than standard grain rice, and they are very high in starch content, which gives the creamy and slightly sticky texture that you want in a good risotto. Continue sauteeing the rice along with the pancetta and onion – note, we haven’t added anything else to the mixture at this point. You want to saute until the rice becomes translucent as it soaks up the oil.
I used beef and herb stock to flavor the rice. The method is simple, but time consuming, and slightly tiring. Using a standard ladle, add one ladleful of the stock to the rice at a time. After each ladle, continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the liquid is completely absorbed. If you don’t keep stirring, the rice will burn on the bottom of the pan, and it also won’t develop the proper consistency. The first few ladles you’ll find the liquid absorbs very quickly as the rice is quite dry – it may be as quick as 30 seconds or so. But with each successive ladle it will take longer – by the time the risotto is nearly done, it may be five minutes or so. Don’t add the next ladleful until the last one is absorbed. Around fifteen to twenty minutes the rice will look like this, a sort of creamy look. Don’t wait until it’s mush. Start tasting a few grains at a time somewhere around fifteen minutes, and after each ladleful. You want a texture that is creamy, but still has some “chew” to it – al dente. You probably want to stop adding liquid one or two ladlefuls before you think you should, unless you’re experienced with risotto – otherwise you’ll end up with a big pot of cream of rice.
At this point I turned off the heat and added the other ingredients. They don’t even get cooked, they just end up being stirred in. In this particular case, I used about half a cup of freshly grated parmesan and a quarter cup of fresh thyme leaves (picking thyme leaves off the stems is another fun, time consuming activity). Now, you could serve the risotto as is at this point – add some pepper to taste – you probably won’t need more salt with the pancetta and parmesan in it, but that’s your call. I didn’t add pepper, because in this case I knew I was serving the risotto with a sauce that contains a lot of pepper. I had a good sized baking pan, which I lined with a sheet of parchment paper (wax paper is fine as well), and immediately poured the risotto into it and spread it out evenly, it should be roughly ¾” thick, packing it down firmly. That helps stop the cooking, and also lets the risotto become a solid mass. Let it cool until the steam stops coming off, then top with another sheet of parchment paper to create a smooth surface, and put in the refrigerator to chill. You want to let it chill for several hours until its nice and firm.
Once its chilled, use a simple round cutter and cut out rounds, make sure to peel off any parchment that sticks to the bottom. Saute in a mix of olive oil and butter until lightly browned on each side. Again, you could serve these as is, as a side dish to something. In this case, I served them with what is probably the simplest preparation of mussels out there. You’re not going to believe me, but it’s really the way to do this. Clean fresh mussels and remove their beards. Toss them in a large pot. Add a handful of coarsely ground black pepper. A handful. If you need a measurement, figure roughly a tablespoon for every pound of mussels. Put a lid on the pot. Turn the heat on high and cook until the mussels open. Serve the mussels with the broth that forms from their own liquid and the pepper, nothing else added. Usually I serve this over fresh country bread, last night I served the mussels, scooped out of their shells (purely a presentation decision), with a scoopful of broth around them.
Yes, I’m crazy. I made my own pasta last night, fettucini to be more accurate, and made with semolina flour – which you can see slightly drying while hanging over a broomstick. Why? A couple of reasons – first, I love the texture and flavor of fresh pasta more than reconstituted dry pasta; second, although there are numerous fresh pasta places throughout the city, and a particularly good one near to me, they are a bit pricey, and, I have yet to find one that makes semolina pasta. They all seem to make basic white flour pasta. I even asked at my neighborhood one and the guy I usually deal with looked at me like I was nuts – he’d never heard of such a thing. Finding semolina flour turned out to be a chore as well – none of the Italian markets, nor my local supermarkets, had any. I finally had the thought that one of the numerous natural food stores might, they have all sorts of grains. Sure enough. Semolina flour! Oh, and third, a couple of years ago someone gave me a pasta machine, and I know it was feeling neglected, I haven’t used it since moving here.
So, fresh semolina pasta – a simple mix of 2 cups of all purpose flour, 2 cups of semolina flour, a large pinch of salt, 6 eggs, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Knead it until it’s a smooth dough, then let it rest at room temperature for a minimum of half an hour. Then roll it out and cut into the shape you want (or use a machine as I did). I’ve covered making fresh pesto before, so I’m not going to repeat myself. This one was made with basil, walnuts, garlic, and parmesan. I used white pepper instead of black because I’d used so much black pepper in the previous dish.
The main course was based on a dish that Lidia Bastianich and I used in an article for Food & Wine back in 1997. God it doesn’t seem that long ago! You’ll see the recipe at the bottom of that article, Costolette di Maiale Piccanti, or Spicy Pork Chops. I used de-boned carre de cerdo, which are pork loin chops. The other two differences – first, I couldn’t find those wonderful Italian cherry peppers. So a few days in advance I pickled my own peppers, using rocotos, which are about the same level of spiciness. Since I needed to pickle them quickly, I split them open, seeded them, and rather than just leaving them in vinegar to pickle, I brought the vinegar, some peppercorns, and coarse salt to a boil, poured it over the peppers. Then let them cool, then strained the vinegar off into a pan, reheated and repeated. Three times. It gets the vinegar and spices into the peppers much faster. I also used dry rosemary as everyone seemed to be out of fresh – a little strange as it’s an herb that’s usually available during cold weather. I served the chops with a little stewed radicchio, fresh cranberry beans, and shallots on the side.
Let’s face it, Tiramisu is a cliché when it comes to Italian desserts. But we all love it anyway, we just don’t want to admit it. Rather than make it classically, I decided to sort of de- and re-construct it. I made mascarpone gelato. I made chocolate espresso butter cookies – make sure to use a cookie recipe that turns out a soft cookie. Chilled the cookies. Made “ice cream sandwiches” out of them, then dusted the plate with cocoa. Served without utensils – after all, an ice cream sandwich is to be eaten by hand!