Wednesday, September 5, 2007

"Winterized" Tomato Sauce

In what's sure to become a tradition for years to come, we spent Labor Day weekend making pureed tomato sauce for freezing. Did it last year, and it was a resounding success, basically made us survive the winter without hardly purchasing any canned tomatoes. And, well, September is "Eat Local" month, and the theme's been put about that we should be focusing on conserving summer produce for winter months. Tomatoes are clearly the place to start for us.

Claudia's on the record as being wild about the stuff, and she sets a tough standard - her grandfather's pomarola. Yet, there is nothing too fancy about this. It's very easy - a bit harder perhaps when you are doing it with 20 pounds of tomatoes ... but straightforward to execute otherwise. Like with many traditional Italian recipes, time's the most important ingredient you will need.

I use a very large pan of some kind - big dutch over would work. I break the process into three phases for the twenty pounds (hence the weekend), so you could basically buy 6/7 pounds of so-called Roma tomatoes of some kind (Early Girls work, though I do prefer San Marzano). For that many, I start with one very large onion,maybe one and a half, and three or four cloves of garlic. Not too much, as you can use this in many ways, like in recipes where you might want to add additional onion/garlic. On pasta, it works just wonderfully with this quantity.

I start to saute the onion, coarsely chopped, on low/medium heat in a pretty good amount of olive oil, almost covering the bottom of the dutch over with the pour. I then add the roughly crushed/chopped garlic after about 10 minutes. No point in bothering with technique here, it'll all go in the blender eventually. While this is happening, I start to slice the San Marzano tomatoes, which I have rinsed, and shaken. As the garlic's cooked about two minutes I have about a third to a half of the tomatoes sliced, so I dump them in. I don't peel them, I don't do anything to them, just dump the lot in, sliced.

More slicing, more dumping ... the whole think takes about a half hour to do. Once you're through with the tomatoes, cover the dutch oven and cook for about twenty minutes (time is not essential here), to get the water out in the open, so to speak. Then remove the cover, and simmer for a long time. Like up to two hours, or maybe more. Stir occasionally - I put a timer on for twenty to thirty minutes. It's never enough until your sauce starts sticking. The first time I did the sauce I was working at home and forgot, and the sauce was really close to burning through.

By the end, basically, the level of your sauce will have reduced by two thirds and it will start to require some scraping as opposed to plain stirring. There'll be no more visible water, just pulp, skin, and occasional puddles of oil. If there's a bit of burnt sauce there, no worries, the blender will take care of that one, too.

Now ... scoop out into a blender, and puree thoroughly. You can let it rest for a while to cool, probably a good idea if you're going to store this stuff in plastic containers. At this stage the tomato is very very concentrated, and somewhat acid. If you were going to dress pasta with it, it would need thinning out. I do a couple of things. I puree some of the stuff as-is, and label it JT/Just Tomato on its containers. I will use this as tomato puree for things like Fagioli all'Uccelletto, or Chicken Cacciatora. The rest, I puree with some milk added. Makes it a bit more creamy, cuts the acidity down a bit, and we use this on pasta. Just add some pasta cooking water to thin out the sauce and it will be perfect.

In the containers I freeze the stuff in I add some basil leaves, to taste. To the sauce I use immediately, I add a bit of chopped basil after blending. When I picked up the tomatoes last week, my supplier was kind enough to gift me a bunch of wonderful Genovese basil, so we were all set there!

I also add a little bit of thyme in the sauce while it cooks, a nod to Provencal tomato sauces. It's doubtful that this makes a substantial difference. Bottom line, you can experiment widely with this; the point of it is the technique of cooking until bone dry, the quality of the tomatoes in the first place, and the fact that blending this you can just slice and cook the tomatoes, instead of having to peel them, which makes the prep very easy. If you're not inclined to make this in industrial quantities, just get a pound and a half to two pounds of tomatoes, and cut onion/garlic down to taste.

You can decide for yourself whether you believe this, but there's lots of stuff about how peel is good for you. Why throw it away? The blended sauce will show no trace of peel or anything, so there are no side effects from that standpoint. It's just great, wonderful tomato sauce.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The beauty of cannellini beans

My home town's known for large consumption of two vegetables ... artichokes and beans. Well, when I started this and posted a couple of things we'd done for 4th of July, my wife berated me (rightly so) for not adding her own creation for that day. It's basically a bruschetta topping, if you like, made with beans, tuna and cherry tomatoes. It is, simply, delicious. So today I'm going to write up how to make that, and also how to use beans in a similar way as a side dish.

Take a skillet, well heated, pour olive oil to taste, and a bunch of cherry tomatoes, halved. Cook the cherry tomatoes for a short while, until they begin to wilt. At that point, add a can of tuna, packed in olive oil if possible. Salt, and heat the tuna through. I'd go until it starts to almost stick to the skillet. At this point, add 12/14oz or a jar of cooked cannellini beans, as small a variety as you can find - the Annalisa brand has a kind called Tondini, which are perfect, if you cook them yourself ask your purveyor for a small bean. Make sure they are pretty well drained, though a bit of the bean liquid won't go amiss. Cook until the beans are softened and heated through. Place in a serving dish, and provide abundant crusty bread, either toasted or fresh.

Beans are great poured in a dish where stuff is sticking, they deglaze the dish, pick up all sorts of goodness, and either blend with the content of the dish, or if you've removed the original content, serve as a great side dish. It is one way you can make salsiccie e fagioli; more on an original approach to this in a later post, but we also made a simpler version a couple of weeks ago, basically had some chicken sausage pan fried with a bit of oil, some herbs (thyme, rosemary or sage would all work here), removed the meat, added the beans, with liquid and some salt/pepper to taste, deglazed the pan and heated the beans fully, then threw the sausage back in for a couple of minutes. The whole thing takes no more than 15/20 minutes to make, and is just great if you like beans. I could see it work with any meat you would normally saute, easily. With sausages it was especially good as they are usually well seasoned, in any variety, which really will add to the flavor of the finished good.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Treatise on Carbonara

Been a while now since I posted ... well, I've been out of the country for some time, mostly working, but also getting some eats. I managed to make it to St John in London again, which I love a lot more every time I go back. This time it was Eaton Mess. Dear, oh dear.

Anyway, working in Prague, where it must be said the quality of beer far outstrips that of any food you might happen to eat, I found myself once again debating the merits of various carbonara recipes with a couple of my local friends. It is remarkable how this happens. Every time. It's like a favorite sport in italian cooking, how to make carbonara.

I did manage to record my version down once, so I'm going to post it, and sort of try to figure out where the most common changes happen to be. First, my approximate recipe.

One onion (if making for more than 6 people, might want to consider a very big one, or one and a half, if for two, only half an onion)
One slice of your favorite bacon-type meat (I've used pepper-cured bacon, smoked bacon, rolled italian pancetta, straight cut italian pancetta, or Rigatino as it is known in Tuscany, all work well) per person, medium thickness if possible. Needs to be almost a cube. If you get pancetta, you can ask them to slice it as you like, with bacon it's normally pre-sliced even in the nicer shops, so you'll have to do with what you get. Fatted Calf in the Bay Area is now selling a straight cut pancetta that will make the best meat for it, if you can get it in a thick slice ...
Olive oil
Half-to-one egg per person. , I sometimes use all the egg, plus maybe one egg yolk, in which case count one egg for two people. More typical is to use the egg yolk only, in which case you are looking at one yolk per person. I like both, myself.
Your favorite italian grated cheese, either hard pecorino (the original cheese, usually romano here), or any parmesan/grana cheese.
Since this is a maremma recipe, the original cheese is pecorino, but you would normally have looked for tuscan hard pecorino, which is less salty than romano. Romano is sometimes overwhelming, and my wife definitely prefers Parmesan/Grana to it. I am less rigid about it, but probably would use a Grana Padano for this.

Now ....
You cube the pancetta, and start frying it slowly; when the fat starts to become transparent, add the chopped onion, with some olive oil if you like, and fry more or less forever, at low heat. The onion should be brown, almost burned. The fat should be crispy. How much oil you add really
depends on how fatty the meat is. If you get bacon or pancetta that has little pepper, you may depending on your tastes want to add some black grated pepper. Salt is delicate: if you use pancetta, it tends to be salty enough, if you use bacon, add to taste.

Place the eggs in a bowl, with a good deal of grated cheese, enough to mix together to form a "cream", not too liquid, not too solid.
Cook your favorite pasta (usually spaghetti, normally best not to use penne as the sauce won't get inside, but you could use fusilli or farfalle). Drain, adding a little bit of the water to the egg/cheese mix to temper the egg. Place the pasta in the bowl, add the onion/meat mix and toss until the pasta is well coated.
If some folks are averse to eating eggs that are not fully cooked, you can prepare the onion/meat mix in a big saute pan, mix the egg & cheese in a small bowl, then throw pasta and egg mixture into the pan with the meat, and mix in there, perhaps over very low heat.
If you do it this way, the texture of the egg will resemble scrambled eggs, as opposed to a creamier consistency.

Unless you mix in some cream, which I am guessing is why lots of people add cream. This is one of the big debates with Carbonara - to add cream or not. Growing up, carbonara was always a very spicy dish. Not hot, but spicy. Rigatino in Tuscany is buried in salt and pepper; lots of it sticks to the meat, and is not shaken off when you cube it and throw it in the pan. So, its standard taste is not for the faint of heart. If you use bacon or even rolled pancetta, there will be little pepper on it, and the taste of the dish will be more delicate. For my money, adding cream to this dish when full of pepper doesn't work too well. But if you're using bacon, you can get away with it. I am also certain that few restaurants would want to serve uncooked eggs to their customers, and then you just can't get anything like the right texture for the dish if you don't add some cream.

Yet, the cream debate is through by now ... cream in carbonara is not the done thing. The real tweaks are around the other stuff. Much discussion over whether to add the whole egg or the yolks alone. Yolks will give you an impressively yellow color. And a stronger taste - which if you did happen to use real rigatino, would probably be required. Do try the different cheeses, you will be surprised at the variation. I'd love to try making this with some good pastrami, too, though I'd saute the onion and add the pastrami at the end, since it is nowhere near as fatty as pancetta.

The dish encourages variation, no question about it. It and Tiramisu, and that's going to be subject for another post.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Everybody's doing it ... clafouti, that is

Well, clafouti recipes are popping up all over this time of the year, because of all the fresh fruit. Clafouti's a very french dessert, but I'm not picky. This one's turned out to be a particular hit; I got the main ideas for it from some TV show, I think. One of the main differences with many recipes around for this is that I use cream, where most call for some blend of half-and-half and milk, with sometimes a little cream. I'm not sure it makes a huge difference, but it stands to reason that it would make some. The other is the fruit I use.

Sometimes I remember to butter and sugar my Pyrex dish, sometimes I don't. Doesn't seem to make a huge amount of difference with the fruit I currently use. Now, the fruit ...

The recipe is traditionally made with cherries. I like to eat fresh cherries, but I've never been overly fond of them cooked. not sure why .... I started making this clafouti dish the current summer, when I was looking for an alternative to crumble. So far I've mostly gone with strawberries, rhubarb and blueberries. I like the mix of sweet and sour here, a lot. For the quantities below, I do about one to one and a half punnets of strawberries, just washed and halved, the bigger ones., a small container of blueberries (approx half a pound), and two thirds of a pound of rhubarb - also approximately. The strawberries and blueberries I just throw in. The rhubarb I wash and chop without shaking off too much moisture, toss in a bowl with sugar to taste (any sugar you like, won't make a difference) and nuke in the microwave for three to five minutes, depending on quantity. It needs to start falling apart, or at least be soft. You really can't cook it too much, but if you're not careful it will explode in the microwave ......

I take a normal-sized pyrex dish and maybe remember to butter it, and sprinkle some sugar in it, or maybe not ...... you can go with the extra large one by upping the strawberries to two containers, and the rhubarb to one pound or a little more, and upping the dose of the paste ingredients below by one third-ish. I then throw the fresh fruit in it, and take my nuked rhubarb and spread it on top.

I then turn the over on at 375. Now, the batter ... clafouti is basically a form of sweet crepe batter. Here's what I use, more or less

1/3 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs (or 3 extra large), at room temperature - I mostly find large eggs at the market
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups cream (I do a little less if I have four large eggs as opposed to 3XL)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
some grated lemon zest (half, to 2 lemons, depending on your taste)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons of your liqueur of choice (tried Grand Marnier, and Vin Santo, both worked really well)

I beat the eggs and sugar until fluffy - easy to do this with a stand mixer at med-high speed and the paddle attachment. With a whisk it might be a bit of a strain, but I'd say go at it for three or four minutes. Add everything else, and mix thoroughly, at low speed in the stand mixer. That is it. pour it in, and dump it in the preheated over for about 35 minutes, maybe a little more. You want it to brown a bit on top.

I've eaten this cold, with a spoon scraping through the pan. It's that good. But, if you want to top it with something, my favorite is creme fraiche (and a bit of confectioner's sugar). This works fine warm - in fact you probably want it to settle for a half hour or so before you pull it out. Or even room temperature. If you serve it on the warmer side, there's always your favorite ice cream.
Fruit wise, I think you can make this with pretty much everything. Now that the Chico folks selling blueberries at the Ferry building are done for the year, and rhubarb is almost through as well, I'll probably try peaches or nectarines. Pears will be great in winter, and cooked apples would also be a hit, I'd bet. You could match the liqueur to the fruit - peach schnapps, anyone? You could melt some chocolate in a double boiler with a touch of milk, reduce your batter a bit, and pour the chocolate in after the batter, and swirl it around, as suggested in our local paper just this last week.

Bottom line, this is really easy to do, and I can imagine lots of things that would work with it. Have fun ....

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Eggplant pasta, California Style

Pasta with fried eggplant and tomato sauce is a big favorite in the
south of Italy. Traditionally, you will cube, flour and fry the eggplant, then mix with tomato sauce (however you like that made) and mozzarella. It's a wonderful dish, if a bit heavy.

So, when I bought my first eggplant of the summer last Saturday at the market, I though about this dish. For about five minutes. Aside from the fact that it is a bit on the rich side, it does take a bit long to make, especially right now that I am out of my yearly stock of frozen tomato sauce. So I ended up making a quick version of this last night - this is almost a "do it while the water boils and the pasta cooks" recipe.

For a pound/500gr pack
of pasta...

four eggplant of the mediterranean variety, but not huge ones. When I slice them in rounds, from the top, most slices came out in "triangles" at no more than an inch in size. Basically, you're cubing this eggplant into pieces of no more than an inch on any side.
a basket of cherry tomatoes
couple of good size cloves of garlic
olive oil
favorite herbs and spices

well, let's start with that. I put the water on to boil, and heated a 12" nonstick pan on a medium to high flame, poured a generous amount of oil, to cover the bottom of the pan, and placed half of the eggplant in the pan to saute. I did this in two turns, since I want all pieces to come into contact with the pan at any one time. Be careful when putting the eggplant in - I managed to splash some hot oil on my hands, and the usual round of italian (no, tuscan) expletives came into play.

I salted the eggplant, to taste, tossed to coat all the pieces with at least some oil, and it almost immediately got soaked up. I then let it cook, turning regularly, and added some thyme. Meantime I finely minced two cloves of garlic, and cubed the rest of the eggplant. After about ten minutes, the eggplant's looking good, starting to let some of the oil out again, and I added half the garlic in. Cook for another couple of minutes, turn off, remove the eggplant, top up oil as needed and repeat for the second batch of eggplant. By the time both are done, your water will be at a rolling boil, your eggplant all cooked, and we're ready to put the pasta in.

While the pasta is cooking, halve all the cherry tomatoes. About four/five minutes before the end, add more olive oil to the re-heated eggplant pan, medium heat, and throw the cherry tomatoes in for about two minutes. You don't want them to break down completely - just to soften, and release some of their liquid into the oil - good pasta sauce. At this point, you could add some chili powder or peppers, or even some thinly sliced or chopped jalapeno. Whatever you like for heat.

Throw all the eggplant in after a couple of minutes, to reheat it, and proceed to drain the pasta, not too vigorously, you want some of the water to stay with the pasta, it will help build the sauce. Put the pasta in the eggplant pan, and toss, while keeping a very low heat.

Now, you could leave it at this, dust with your favorite hard cheese, and have a pretty good meal. Traditionally, you add mozzarella - you could certainly add a half pound of that if you had it around. My wife rightly pointed out that our buffalo mozzarella would be wasted in this dish, as the mozzarella's a little too delicate to stand up to the flavors, and you know, using buffalo mozzarella for texture's a bit of an extravagance.

So, we went with some fontina (actually, Bra Tenero from our favorite cheese shop), about a quarter of a pound, frozen for about twenty minutes, then grated. Once you've mixed the pasta as above, turn off the heat, add the cheese and mix again. You actually end up with a lot less cheese than in a standard mozzarella recipe, it is less noticeable to the sight (mozzarella would naturally thread itself throughout the dish), but the flavor the cheese imparts is more pronounced and I think overall much better. You can still add some grated cheese if desired. This certainly was a big hit last night, and I predict we'll be eating a lot of eggplant this way all summer.

As soon as the San Marzano start rolling into the market, I'll get to making tomato sauces again and try this
with the sauce instead of the cherry tomatoes. Still, with the cherry tomatoes as good as they are right now, this is a wonderful dinner, and really pretty much doable while you boil and cook the pasta.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Castagnaccio - The original energy bar

A few weeks ago I made Castagnaccio, a classic "cake" from the Tuscany hill/mountain regions. I love the "recipe" for this - it's basically chestnut flour, water, olive oil and a pinch of salt. Castagne are chestnuts in Italian.

Chestnut flour was a real staple in the mountain areas north of Lucca, Garfagnana, and in the hill and mountain regions south of Siena. Boriana, the store in the Ferry building which imports goods from the Montalcino areas in Tuscany, carries both Chestnut flours, Farina di Castagne and Farina di Marroni. They aren't substantially different. I also used to buy it from a deli in San Mateo, Stangelini, which only had it seasonally ... I assumed it was local stuff.

For me castagnaccio was Sunday night dinner in winter. My father would go hunting, south of Siena, and come back every Sunday night with chestnut flour, usually sold in bar/deli places in small towns in the countriside, called "spacci" or "appalti", which would carry some local product along the usual fare one found in these places. He'd come home, throw the flour in a bowl, add a tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt, and start to pour water in and stir. There is no fixed amount ... you just pour until the consistency of the mix starts to get liquid, but still coats the spoon.

You then pour it out into a dish that you have greased and floured, drizzle with olive oil and add a handful of your favourite nuts. You then bake this until it dries out. This preparation is most likely thousands of years old - it makes an excellent snack, and needs no special procedure to conserve it other than observing basic hygiene rules. There's no eggs, dairy or perishable product in this recipe - so I bake it and keep it in the oven for a few days, until we finish it. It really is the original energy bar - allegedly the romans used it as such. Chestnut flour's pretty rich and heavy, too, so this really does fill you up.

In baking, the choice of dish will affect the texture of the result considerably. The outside, if you cook this for a good while, will form a crust and crinkle up. If like me you consider this the best part of the whole thing, you will want a big dish, so you can spread the mix out thinly. If you pour it out thicker, the inside of the castagnaccio will resemble a polenta like consistency - there is no baking going on here. It's basically just a different dish. There is indeed a tradition of making polenta with chestnut flour (known in some places as "pattona").

I got thinking about this dish again last Saturday because at this time of the year we have sheep's milk ricotta at Cowgirl Creamery - and that is the perfect complement to serve with castagnaccio. It's the other staple of mountain life in Garfagnana. My other experience with chestnut flour was of "necci", which are basically the same mix as castagnaccio, but a little denser, prepared as a crepe, and rolled with a sheep's milk ricotta filling. It's the best dessert without sugar I have ever had ....

Making necci is a pain, since the paste is thicker, and gets basically squeezed and cooked/dried out between two cast iron plates (known as "testi") in a process that is a little too complicated for your average Saturday night dessert. So I stick with castagnaccio for now, and top it with ricotta whipped up with a bit of cream and some confectioner's sugar. Approximate proportions might be half a pound of flour to two cups of water to start with, or 250gms flour to half a liter of water. But keep an eye on the water as you pour.

If you like chestnuts this is a wonderful dessert. You can certainly substitute any ricotta for Bellwether's sheep's milk stuff, or indeed top this with anything you like, but ricotta really is the real deal here. enjoy ....

Friday, July 13, 2007

Oh Toro, my Toro

Well, I'm not trying to be a review site here, just post recipes, but the other night I took an Eastern European colleague for dinner at Sakae, in Burlingame - probably my favorite sushi place in the Bay Area. He insisted on ordering this:

This is Oh Toro, high quality fatty tuna belly. It was by far the best single piece of sushi I have ever eaten in my life (in fact, I had already eaten mine!) tho' I'm not sure I would usually pay the price. He insisted ... it's the second time this has happened to me ;)

So I'm saving the picture he sent me, as a reminder. Sushi does not get any better than this. It's creamy, delicate, very tender and not at all fish-like in taste.

It was, basically, dessert.