Saturday, January 26, 2008

Spaghetti carbonara

According to Marcella Hazan, author of one of the authorative Italian cookbooks, this receipe was developed during WWII, when American soldiers around Rome would bring a couple of classic American ingredients, bacon and eggs, to local families, who transformed it into this sauce. It can be made a number of ways, and in many restaurants, if you order carbonara, you'll get penne in a cream sauce. This still tastes good, but it's really not a carbonara....from what I gather, Italians are very particular about how you label dishes. Here's my version.

-Salted pork belly**
-Parmessan and pecorino romano cheese.
-White wine
-Salt and pepper

Cut the salted pork or pancetta into lardons (you can sort of see the shape from the picture above...small rectangles), roughly chop up a clove of garlic, and cook together over medium heat. You don't need to add any oil to the pan since the lardons will render plenty of fat. I don't remember the exact portions I used.

Grate equal portions of parmessan and pecorino in a bowl (total about 1/2 cup), add a few turns of coarsely ground pepper and a tablespoon of chopped parsley.

Crack a couple of eggs, preserving the yolks. You'll need one for each serving.

When the lardons begin to crisp up, remove as much fat as possible (do this by removing from heat, scooping the lardons to one side of the pan, keeping in place with your cooking spoon, and pouring all of the fat out). The more fat your remove, the cleaner the finished product will taste. Return the pan to heat and deglaze with a dash (1/8-1/4 cup) of white wine. Let this cook down until the wine is almost completely reduce. Remove from heat.

Boil the pasta in heavily salted water. After a couple of minutes, begin checking. You want the pasta to be perfectly al dente, so you have to check often. It can go from perfect to overcooked in a few seconds. When the pasta is done, drain and toss with the cheese/parsley mixture and lardons in a large bowl. It would be a good idea to warm the bowl in the oven, or just warm it with the boiling pasta water.

Portion out each serving into separate bowls (also warmed), top each serving with an egg yolk, and garnish with parsley and additional cheese and pepper.

To eat, break the yolk and mix in with the pasta. If the pasta is still hot (this is why warming all of the bowls is important), the egg will cook as it's stirred in.

*I prefer the thinner spaghettini. If you can get your hands on a brand called Anastasio, use this. In my opinion, this is the best stuff out there. If you can't find this, go with De Cecco
**If you can't find salted pork belly, use pancetta, but only if you can get it cut thick (about 1/4"). If you can't get pancetta, use really high quality, thick cut bacon. If you can't find that, don't bother making this. It won't be good. Bacon has a really strong, smoky flavor that will overpower the dish, and you want the finished product to exhibit a balance between the pasta, cheese, and pork/pancetta/bacon. Pancetta and salted pork belly have less obtrusive tastes. If using bacon, one option would be to cut back the potion.

Braised short ribs with root vegetable puree

This is a great winter meal that, while time consuming, isn't all that technical.

-short ribs (~2-2.5 lbs)
-chicken broth/stock (~1 cup)
-red wine (~2 cups)
-2-3 carrots
-1 onion
-2-3 sticks celery
-2-3 parsnips
-1 potato
-1 celeriac
-1 large turnip

To make the short ribs, season them with salt and pepper and sear on high heat for a few minutes in a dutch oven or some other really heavy pot. Once a nice crust is formed on the surface, remove them, drain most of the fat, and in the same pot cook a mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery). I also add garlic and parsnips. Cook this for a few minutes (5-10) over medium heat. Add about two tablespoons of flour and, if available, toss in a few scoops of tomato paste. Return the short ribs to the pot, add some chicken broth and red wine in about a 1 to 2 ratio. Add enough liquid so that it comes about half way up the short ribs. It's a braise, not a stew, so you don't want it completely covered. Throw in a bay leaf, cover the pot and turn the heat to low or place it in a 200-250F oven. Let it braise for about 2-3 hours.

For the root vegetable puree, throw in whatever you like. I used a combination of potato, carrot, parsnip, turnip, and celeriac. Peel and quarter everything and place in a large pot of water. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat. A few minutes after the water boils, begin checking the root vegetables. When a knife slides in easily, it's done. You will be able to mash the potatoes, but you'll need a blender or food processor for the other less starchy roots. Mix everything together and add butter, salt, pepper, and thyme to taste. You can keep this warm in the oven if you finish ahead of time.

Once the short ribs are done cooking, set them aside in a separate bowl, strain out all of the braising vegetables, and reduce the braising liquid over high heat. Eventually, the liquid will reduce to a nice thick consistency. At this point, return the short ribs to the pot and turn until covered. Serve over the root vegetable puree with the remaining sauce.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cooking With Craisins

A few weeks ago Frank Bruni, the NYTimes food critic, posted an entry about chicken on his food blog. One of the opening statements of this entry was that you could really tell a the quality of a restaurant by trying it's chicken dishes, sort of like testing a pizza place by ordering the plain cheese pizza. He then went on to describe some of the better places to get chicken in NYC. Chicken is by far the most common source of protein in the American diet (average annual chicken consumption is about 86 lbs/person) and, due to its low fat content, it is really tough to cook correctly. When done right, though, chicken is really really good. In fact, the best meal I've ever had was a roasted chicken with fries that I had in Porto seven years ago. Anyway, after reading Bruni's blog, I had a craving for a good roast chicken.

I dropped by Savenor's when I got home from work to pick up a chicken, and then got that started while trying to figure out what else to make. We ended up going with potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Turns out, the brussels sprouts were the highlight of the meal, with Craisins as the ingredient that really pushed them over the top. Who'd have thought? The final menu was a simple roasted chicken, garlic and thyme fried smashed potatoes, and roasted brussels sprouts with craisins and lardons. Here are the recipes. The execution of these dishes is pretty non-technical and it comes together fairly quickly. Try it. Its really good....probably one of the best meals I've made in quite some time.
Start by roasting the chicken. If you plan way ahead, you can brine the chicken, but you want to do that a full day ahead. One way to time things would be to brine over night and in the morning dry the chicken off with paper towels and let it air dry in the fridge all day. To get good, crispy skin - and that, after all, is the best part of roast chicken - you need it to be nice and dry. If you have a good quality free range chicken, you don't need to brine it. You should probably always go free range anyway. It doesn't cost that much more and there is really no comparison in taste. Before prepping the chicken, preheat the oven to 450F and take some potatoes (preferably smaller ones, like new potatoes), put them in a pot of cold water and place on high heat. Rinse the chicken off quickly and pat it dry with a paper towel. Truss the chicken (tuck the wings back and tie the legs together, as pictured) and generously sprinkle it with kosher salt and coarsely ground pepper. If you have a temperature probe, stick it in the chicken breast and set the alarm to go off when the internal temperature is 150F. Once the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in and get to work on the other dishes. Make sure to turn the fan on, since 450F is well above the smoking point for the chicken fat that will render during cooking.

By the time the pot with the potatoes comes to a boil, they should be nearly done. Test by seeing if a knife slides into them easily. Once done, take them out of the water and let them cool. While the potatoes are cooling, begin prepping the sprouts. You just want to rinse them off, cut them in half lengthwise, and cut off the very ends of the stalks to clean them up. Place in a pan with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then roast them in the oven for about 20-30 minutes.
In the mean time, prep all the other ingredients. For the potatoes, you'll need to chop a few cloves of garlic and mince some thyme. For the sprouts, you'll need craisins and salt pork or pancetta (salt pork is preferable, but probably harder to find). Cut the pork or pancetta into cubes and saute in a large frying pan for about a minute. Add the craisins along with about 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup of water. As this cooks down, it will rehydrate the cranberrys and meld all of the flavors. Craisins are really sweet, so this step allows the saltiness of the pork to cut the sweetness from the craisins. Cook this at med-hi until the liquid is reduced to a thick syrup. When the sprouts are done roasting, just toss them in the pan with this mixture.

While the craisin mix is boiling down, start heating a heavy skillet and smash the potatoes on a cutting boared with a big pot or pan. As soon as the chicken is done, start frying up the smashed potatoes. The chicken will need about 10 minutes to rest (during this time the internal temp should rise another 10 degress to 160F), and this is about all the time you need to finish the potatoes. Place them in the skillet with a bunch of chopped garlic and thyme and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until they are nice and crispy on each side.

This meal should take a little over an hour to make.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Kung Pao

Last night I made Kung Pao Chicken for the first time in a long long time. I forgot to take pictures, but thought I would post the recipe since it has everything that you need for a simple weeknight meal. Its simple, tasty, and makes great leftovers.

Start by getting your rice ready. If you don't own a rice cooker, get one. If you're Asian and don't own a rice cooker, shame on you.

Next, put together the sauces you will need:
1. 2T soy/2T water/2t corn starch.
2. 1T soy/1T white or rice vinegar/1T cooking wine/3T water/.5 T sesame oil/1T sugar

If you are making this with chicken, take two chicken breasts and pound them out until they are about 1.5 cm thick. If you don't have a mallet, a heavy jar or small pot works well (be sure to sandwich the chicken between sheets of plastic wrap). Dice the chicken into small squares and marinate in the first sauce. You can substitute extra firm tofu for chicken. It will be great.

Dice three stalks of celery. To do this, make one cut down the middle and then cut across so the celery is cut into a rough dice (about the size of the peanuts).

Dice one-half red bell pepper into similar sized chunks. The dish typically does not include bell pepper, but I like the color it adds. It tastes good too.

Mince about 1/4 inch of ginger.

Slice up about 4 scallions.

Start by cooking the chicken in a very hot wok with the ginger and a couple tablespoons of oil. After a couple of minutes, remove the chicken, drain all but 1T of oil and add a handful of dried red peppers to the wok. Before adding the peppers, break them in half and discard the seeds. How much you use is up to you. I put in about 20 or 30 peppers and it was hottttttt. I would recommend 10. Cook the peppers for a few seconds, then add the celery, red bell pepper, and scallions. Make sure to have the fan on high. Cooking hot peppers can make you cough a lot, so you want to clear out the air as soon as possible. After another couple of minutes, add the second sauce, 1/2 cup of unsalted peanuts, and the chicken. Let the sauce cook down over high heat, stirring often. Once the sauce thickens up, you're done.