The Whole Foods by my girlfriend’s apartment used to sell Sukhi’s Naanwiches, or at least, the kind she liked – the kind with spinach and potato and tofu.  She’d keep them in her fridge, and hurl one into the oven for dinner if the mood struck her.  I had one, once, and liked it.  I developed this copycat recipe back in February 2011; we made a bunch of homemade naanwiches and brought them to a Super Bowl party, where, despite the preponderance of popcorn, dips, and peanut M&Ms, they disappeared off the platter at Warp 9.

And then I forgot about it.  Completely.  Until Carolyn’s Whole Foods stopped selling the spinach Naanwiches.  “Remember when you made those?” she said.

“Sort of,” I said.

“I think that would make a great blog post,” she said, coyly.  I know what you were after, Girlfriend.  You mercenary.  She was in it for the naanwiches, America!

So, using the naan recipe I’ve previously detailed on this site, and the following recipe for saag paneer, I recreated the magic.  Except I did it a little differently; instead of just making a folded piece of dough like I had previously, enfolding the filling in a sort of folded pita configuration, this time I crimped the dough into little hand pies, so that they most resembled empanadas, or, more accurately, spanakopita – Greek spinach pies.  (Or Lebanese fatayer.  Or calzones!)

My cultural depredations lead me from India to the Levant to the Greek Isles* to, as you shall shortly see, Mexico.  I shall never rest.  I shall never stop bastardizing the cuisines of nations – not until I have trod on every page of Larousse Gastronomique.

I’d call this a samosa, except it isn’t, really.  It’s too large, and it’s baked, not fried.  I’m sure there aren’t exactly hard lines on nomenclature, but it feels like I’d be calling a knackwurst a cocktail wiener.  But yet, it’s not a spanakopita, either; it’s not made with phyllo dough, and it’s also a little bit too large.  If anything, it’s like a pasty, but it’s made with the wrong sort of dough.  It’s its own classification.  Naanwich or Naanakopita will do, although I prefer the second, for its quality of sheer phonemic bewilderment.

Now, palak paneer is a classic Indian dish, which I shall further insult by describing as being “essentially creamed spinach with fried cubes of fresh Indian cheese in it.”  It is very easy to make your own paneer.  I was going to advocate that you do it for this recipe.  In fact, I nearly did it myself, figuring there wasn’t any place within walking distance of me that sold paneer cheese.

But guess what?  There is.  Paneer is a fresh farmer’s cheese – it’s firm, kinda squeaky, and somewhat bland.  It doesn’t melt like other cheeses  would– it just gets nice and brown and crisp when you cook it in a non-stick skillet.  It is, in fact, identical to Mexican panela.  Identical.  There is nothing in the production of those two cheeses that would set them apart – you heat some milk; you add some lemon juice, you drain it, you press it, you salt it.  The end.  Cheese.

It looks like this!

Now, if you’re an American, and you live near a large city, there is undoubtedly a sizeable Mexican population in your community, and the grocery stores in your neighborhood undoubtedly stock Mexican goods.  You’re going to want to march right up to the deli counter and order several inches of cheese – don’t get it in slices, get it in a big ol’  chunk.  This stuff is delicious.

So.  If you can get paneer, excellent!  Good for you; it’s not so terribly difficult to come by in the first place.  And you could always make your own.  But I like the firmness of store-bought stuff.  It’s made with more patience, weight, and industry than I could ever muster.

* Which reminds me of a story my classmate Molly told, once.  She had pledged a college sorority, and her father, upon hearing this, exclaimed, “Excellent!  I’m so pleased you are Greek, now; did they bid you drink from the brackish waters of the Aegean Sea?”  Molly’s father is, evidently, awesome.

Naanakopita
A tasty pocket of spinach and cheese!

The Setup

You will need:

  • One full recipe of naan dough
  • a 10-ounce bag of fresh spinach, or, failing that, a thawed and drained package of frozen spinach
  • 1 cup of paneer/panela, cubed
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk (feel free to use 1/4 cup of milk with a teaspoon of vinegar – just let it sit for ten minutes)
  • 1/4 cup yogurt
  • 1 onion
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 teaspoons of ginger
  • 2-3 tsp curry powder
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • salt, to taste

The Heist

1.  First, make the dough, following the instructions in my entry.  Set the oven to 400 degrees F.

2.  Fill the sink with water, if you’re using fresh spinach, and soak the spinach in the basin, shaking it around to get rid of any sand or dirt.

3.  Dice the onion, mince the ginger, and mince the garlic, too.  Set it aside.  Cut the paneer or panela into smallish, 1/2-inch cubes.

4.  In a medium-sized nonstick pan, heat a few teaspoons of oil and begin cooking the cheese, not doing much to them.  Make sure they don’t stick (use a rubber or silicone spatula), but other than that, let them cook at medium heat, turning every four minutes or so, until they’re brown on a few sides.  Reserve the cooked pieces of cheese on a plate or in a bowl.  Keep the pan on the stove.

What a fantastic smell this is.

5.  Meanwhile, in a large skillet or pot, heat a little oil, and wilt the spinach in it – use a tongs to squeeze all the water out of it as it cooks down, and plop it into a bowl.  It should take about two to four minutes to wilt all the spinach.  I grow weary of having to blanch spinach in a big pot of water, only to have to squeeze all the water out of it endlessly.  I think this way is a little easier.

And there's fewer pots and bowls to clean, too.  The more surface area you have, incidentally, the faster this'll go.

6.  Give the person next to you a high five.  You’re making naanwiches!

7.  In the pan you used to cook the cheese, which should still have some oil in it, add the aromatics (the onion, the garlic, and the ginger), and cook them, with a touch of salt, the curry powder, the coriander, and an optional pinch of hot red pepper flakes, until the onion is soft and yellow, about 5 minutes.  I believe it was around this time that I said, “Maybe this is too much onion.”  Carolyn almost slapped me.  She was right.  It cooks down.  And there’s no much thing as too much onion.

Just like there's no such thing as too much garlic.  And just like there's no such thing as Toledo.

8.  When the onions are soft, add the spinach in – stir until the spinach is evenly distributed , then add the yogurt and the buttermilk.  Stir, taste for seasonings, and cook until the mixture is still a little wet, but not drippy.  We don’t want too much buttermilk leakage in the naanakopita.  Stir in the cubes of paneer and kill the heat.

You could totally stop here, too, if you wanted, and just serve the saag paneer as is.  We had a lot of trouble not eating it all out of the pan.  Just sayin’.

 

Still not too many onions!

9.  Line a baking sheet with tin foil, and spray it with cooking spray.  Roll out your dough into six-inch rounds – just like you would for the naan recipe, but thinner – you might be able to get eight to ten of these, depending on how thin you go.  Place these rounds on the greased tin foil on the baking sheet.

All rolled out.  I made mine into half-moons, just 'cause.

 

10.   Plop a 1/4 to a 1/2 cup of saag paneer into the middle of them.

10 deposit

11.  Fold them in half, and crimp up the edges.  There’s no need to seal them super well, because if they leak, they won’t leak so terribly much – the filling shouldn’t be all that wet.

Crimp my ride.  Yo, Carolyn - we heard you liked Indian food, so we put Indian food inside your Indian food so you could, I dunno.  Eat both at once.  Look, don't blame me.  I know I wasn't Xibiting proper judgment at the time.

 

12.  Bake the naanakopita at 400 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes, depending on how crispy and brown you want them to be.  Let them rest for at least 10 minutes before serving, because they will be insanely hot on the inside.

The one on top is upside-down.  You may want to flip them during cooking, if you want each side to be evenly browned, but I didn't mind.  It's still delicious.

These reheat spendidly. but they also freeze, uncooked, exceptionally well: cook them, straight out of the freezer, for 25 minutes at 425 degrees F – spray them with a little cooking spray first, though.  But pop ‘ em in, hot ’em up, take ’em out.  And that’s sort of the entire point of these – while they certainly make an excellent sit-down meal, I’ve designed these with long-term frozen storage in mind, so you can say, “Oh, dang.  It’s 5:45, and I want to eat something at 7, but I don’t want to make anything.  And I don’t want to get takeout.”  This is me, reaching out across the ether, preventing you from tearing the lid on another loathsome Lean Cuisine.

Why would you want to, honestly?

This is the first entry in The Clone Platter, a new feature in which I will attempt to clone an existing commercial product or piece of restaurant food, or generate a home-cooked equivalent.  If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments!  As a warning, I probably won’t take on anything that requires a deep-fryer – so I probably won’t take on the suggestion of “David, clone McDonald’s french fries!”, because, first of all, fried, and second of all, there’s an immense supply chain with a very specialized cultivar of potato (Oh sure, their website says they use regular old Russet Burbanks, but I’m convinced they’re the ones who buy up all the fancy Kennebec potatoes).  So there.  Lots of caveats, but request away.  If the product in question is available in my area, I’ll buy it, dissect it, and eat it, and then try to recreate it!  Otherwise, you’ll need to describe the hell out of it, and maybe take a photo.

Happy cooking!

Advertisements

The Taste of Disillusionment

September 18, 2011

or
An advanced lecture in alienating your audience.

I’m in Iowa. I won’t be by the time I post this, but, for now, as I write this, I’m in Iowa. Cedar Rapids, to be precise – the second-largest city in the state. It’s about four hours west of Chicago, and my cousin Beth invited me out to stay with her and her husband Matt, so that she and I could go see Alton Brown give a lecture at Theatre Cedar Rapids, which is a gorgeous theatre.

A little background: Alton was there for a program called Inside-Out, which the Cedar Rapids Public Library has inaugurated to draw more patrons to the library and its services. See, the library was pretty much annihilated in the 2008 flood, and the collection, too, was destroyed. The city’s plans to rebuild a fabulous new library and make it enormous and wonderful are inspiring, although Beth says their choice of location was a little suspect, and perhaps overexpensive. So this was a library benefit event. That’s background factoid number one.

Background factoid number two: I have always loved and idolized Alton Brown.  (As of this writing) I am twenty-three years old.  I’ve been watching Good Eats since I was a pre-teen – the show, now in its fourteenth and final season, has aired for the last twelve years.  Half my life.  For the duration of that period, Alton was one of my great food heroes – always explaining, illustrating, and above all, democratizing food in such a way that I could understand it.  I hold only Jacques Pépin in higher esteem, and that was because my father owned signed copies (!) of Pépin’s La Technique and La Méthode, magnificent instructional tomes which my parents bought for me in a consolidated edition shortly after I left for college.

Beth and I were pumped to see Alton, needless to say.  Hell, I drove 234 miles so we could see him together.  I’m not going to say I drove the entire time with his book in my lap, bouncing in my seat as I sped down I-88, because I didn’t.  But I’d like you to imagine that I did, so that the next sentence hits you in the gut like a sack of bricks.

Alton Brown is a jerk.

That’s the highest level of excoriation I can bring myself to type right now, as more than a decade’s worth of adulation, self-effacing Midwestern modesty, and the feeling of holy-crap-I’m-putting-my-name-to-this-I’d-better-not-invite-room-for-Brown’s-attorneys prevent me from saying anything harsher.  But let me elucidate.  There were a few things that happened during Brown’s chat that began to sour me on the guy – Beth, too.  Let’s get to ‘em:

The Setup

1. Alton began the chat with a gift of books to the library, which we cheered wildly!  The reason he’d been asked to come to Inside-Out was because many patrons of the Cedar Rapids library had checked out cookbooks – particularly his.  So he began with a gift of a complete set of his cookbooks, which he pulled out of a box with appealing fake surprise.  “Oh, what’s this?  Another one?”

But when he was finished with his own books, I had sort of expected him to stop with the jokes and give some other books to the library – essential cookbooks that had guided him to the place of knowledge where he is now.  But, nah – he gave the library The Story of Vinegar and White Trash Cooking – which, okay, looks pretty interesting.   But he held up one of the books and said, “So, okay – this book’s from the South, where I’m from, and it’s got a few things in it that might be kind of foreign and exotic to you Iowans.”  He turned the page.  “Look!  A real live Negro!”

Silence.

He muttered, “Okay.  Remind me not to make African-American  jokes in Iowa.”*

It’s totally within reason to make fun of the near-complete racial homogeneity of Iowa, which is upwards of 95% white, as of 2005.  I mean, it pretty much invites it.  But there was just something about the way he said the word negro, or even that he said it at all, that elicited a sudden lump in my throat.  “Really?” I mouthed at Beth.  At best, let us say it was a joke made in very poor taste.

2.  Alton had come to give a talk, of course, and he had a big ol’ Powerpoint up on the projector behind him: Ten Things I’m Pretty Sure I’m Sure About Food.  He won me back as  he began his talk by going on about how chickens don’t have fingers, and if children continue to ask for chicken fingers, they should be given chicken feet (which I have enjoyed on occasion, but never successfully cooked myself).  And as for the matter of children refusing to eat what is given them, Alton said, “Never negotiate with terrorists.”  Children ought to eat what their parents make for dinner, and parents ought not to make special, separate meals for their children (barring any allergies or sensitivities, but in that case why not make the whole meal child-safe anyhow?)

He then proceeded to look around the audience for kids, to ask them whether or not their parents were feeding them properly.   He singled out an 8-year-old girl in the audience, who was given a microphone.

“Do you eat well?” he asked her.

“I think so!” she said.

“I don’t trust you,” Alton said, to laughter.  “Where’s your dad?”

The girl passed her microphone to the man next to her.  “Sure, she eats well!” he said.

Alton nodded.  Then he said, “No, I don’t trust you either, Dad.  Where’s the girl’s mother?”  Again, laughter.

Alton couldn’t find the girl’s mom.  About ten awkward forever-seconds went by.

“Man,” said Alton to the girl, “If that guy next to you is your other daddy, I’m in the wrong state.”

Again the crowd went really quiet, but up in the balcony, I’m pretty sure Beth and I gasped.

Gay marriage is legal in Iowa, Mr. Brown.  Did you think that joke would work here?  Did you think that joke would work in Iowa’s second-largest city?  In a congressional district with a comfortably-reelected Democratic representative?

It was then that I realized he thought this was Ames, not Cedar Rapids – that we were an Iowa Republican Straw Poll state fair crowd, in Representative Bachmann’s tent, that we weren’t at a benefit for a library.  Do you think the sort of people that are going to come out for a library benefit, conservative, liberal or otherwise, are going to respond well to a joke about gay marriage?

Again, it was a joke in really poor taste.  The book I’d brought sat across my lap and started to feel a little heavier.  “I’m not sure I want him to sign this now,” I said.

3.  At some point during the talk, Alton said, “Restaurants aren’t churches.”  When you go into a restaurant, you, the consumer, are in charge.  You should be able to order off the menu.  You should be able to order anything off the menu.  I think this is true, up to a point: if they sell omelettes and fried eggs at a breakfast joint, you should be able to order scrambled eggs.  If they make grilled cheese sandwiches and scrambled eggs, you should be able to order a grilled cheese sandwich with a scrambled egg in it.  Fine.  That’s fair.

But Alton went on to tell a story about how he and his wife were in North Carolina, and they were at a seaside restaurant that had recently revamped its menu such that it no longer included hush puppies.  “And my baby wanted hush puppies,” Alton said.  So he ordered some.

“I’m sorry, sir; those aren’t on the menu,” said the server.

”They are so on the menu,” Alton (said that he) said.  “Your catfish, here, is rolled in cornmeal.  Your fried chicken is soaked in buttermilk.  Your french fries are made in a deep-fat fryer.  Combine the cornmeal and the buttermilk, make them in to balls, fry them, and serve them to my wife.”

“I’ll have to go speak to the manager,” said the waiter.

Alton said he didn’t get what he wanted until he scrawled “I’m comin’ back there!”  on a coaster and had it delivered to the cook.  And he recommended that we all give this a try.

“Oh, sure, because we all have name recognition and contracts with the Food Network,” I muttered to my cousin.

“And there’s no way that restaurant would kick us out,” she said.

Here’s the thing.  I knew Alton was a Republican, and that never bothered me in the slightest.  It still doesn’t bother me.  I understand and respect his desire for individualism and self-determination.  What bothers me is that he didn’t think this out fully, and I had conceived of him as being a deep thinker.  Individual freedom also means that a business owner has rights, too: if a patron’s being an asshole, I have the right to eject him from my restaurant.  It’s not some kind of snootified us-versus-those-fancy-restaurateur scenario – it’s “you don’t get to treat my waitstaff that way and expect to get served”.

The rest of the evening proceeded to illuminate his I’ve Got Mine, I Don’t Care If You’ve Got Yours philosophy.

4.  He had just finished inveighing against the USDA and the FDA.  “They’ll never be able to catch any of those diseases with more regulation – that’s BS.  It just makes things more expensive for the producers of American food.  Government should get out of the marketplace!  Leave my lettuce alone and go back to making missiles!”

And then he went on to inveigh against Walmart, for destroying small businesses as well as its own suppliers, just so that the American public can enjoy a can of Chinese-made chili for 39 cents.  He displayed an image of the can’s contents, which was a gelatinous goo full of pale beans and a few dried chiles.

“Is this what you want, America?” Alton said.  “Is this worth 39 cents to you?  Chili doesn’t come from China!  It comes from Texas!  We shouldn’t be trusting the Chinese to make us cut-rate chili!  Who knows what they put in it?” 

Now.  Maybe I’m misinterpreting the protectionist sentiment, here, but what’s wrong with Chinese canned goods?  Is it just that they’re making chili incorrectly?  Or is it because it’s marginally unsafe to eat food from mainland China?

I mean, China, after all, is the land of plastic-infused baby formula, scavenged oil, and phosphorescent pork.  A land of very little industrial regulation.

You can’t have it both ways, Mr. Brown, and perhaps I’ve cross-wired your America Firstism with my own worries about imported Chinese goods, but if I’m right, you’re a hypocrite.

The Heist

Beth and I left without getting my copy of I’m Just Here For The Food signed.  I was intensely disappointed.  In the parlance of our times, we “hugged it out” on the walk to her car, and I let my shoulders slump.

I don’t want this to be a “I’m a liberal and my hero’s a conservative; ergo he is no longer my hero” entry.  Please, God no – don’t let that be the takeaway.  It was more that my hero turned out to be a jackass, a bit of a bigot, and a hypocrite, and I wanted to share my disapprobation.  Hell – some of my favorite thinkers are conservatives.

It’s that I’m just disillusioned.  I told Dave, my old roomie, about it, and he said, “There’s a simple lesson here: never meet your heroes.”

I think he might be right.

What I failed to do here, and what I’ll be doing in the future with Alton, is separate the televised persona from the man himself – I had expected Real Life Alton to be as genial and friendly as Television Alton.  He’s not – he’s a good deal more cynical and curmudgeonly.

I don’t know what I should have expected – it’s like I expected Stephen Colbert to actually be the Bill O’Reilly caricature he inhabits on the air.  I blame myself, really.  But when I was in Cedar Rapids, I bought Jacques Pépin’s memoir, The Apprentice.  It’s excellent so far, but if he turns out to have been a collaborator under Maréchal Pétain, I’ll be fresh out of heroes.  Probably that won’t be the case, since he was a little kid during WWII – but if he turns out to be an asshole, I don’t know what I’ll do with myself.  I’m resolved to never find out, because I think I’d like never to meet Pepin now – not because of any ill will I bear him, but for the opposite reason: the real man might not bear up against the narrative I’ve constructed for him.

Well, that was depressing.  You know what’s awesome?  MEAT.

I’d heard on The Splendid Table (okay, there’s another hero!  Lynn Rosetto Kasper.  Ha! I’ve already forgotten you, AB.) that Iowa and Indiana hosted a particularly American delicacy – the pork tenderloin sandwich.  Now, I’ve eaten pork tenderloin, and I think I had a completely different image in my head when I first heard about these things.  I was imagining slices of pork tenderloin laid on a bun – this is a false image.

In Iowa, a pork tenderloin sandwich is made by taking a piece of tenderloin, pounding it to an absurd thinness (1/8th of an inch or so), then breading it as one would a piece of wiener schnitzel.  And then deep-frying it.  And then serving it on a comically-tiny bun.  We’re talking hilariously teensy, here.  The bun may take up as little as 1/3 of the area of the fried slab of pork.  Although the sandwich is dressed with pickles, onions, and maybe mayo and mustard, the predominant flavor isn’t pork, but fried.

When you look up Pork Tenderloin Sandwich in the encyclopedia, the image that comes up is from Joensy’s, an Iowa restaurant that’s famous for serving the “Biggest and best” pork tenderloin sandwiches in the state.  I got a sandwich at the original Joensy’s in Solon, Iowa, on my way back to Chicago.  I don’t know about best – it was pretty crispy on the outside and tender on the inside – but it certainly was friggin’ enormous.

There she blows to our leeward side, Starbuck!  The great white whale himself!  Seriously that thing is huge.

If I may utter some out-of-state blasphemy, I think the sandwich is ill-served by being pounded so thin, and therefore so large.  More than an immense plane of fried, I think I wanted to taste the meat itself.  I think I would have been satisfied by a slightly thicker patty of similar weight.  I know it’s kinda fun to have the pork exceed the bounds of the sandwich, but by god does it make it difficult to eat.

They put some onions on the sandwich, but I think it's mostly to taunt you.

And when you’ve finished eating around the bun, you still have an entire sandwich to go.

As well as another 300 miles to drive.  Urp.

I wish they’d given me more cole slaw.  That stuff was excellent, and I got maybe a quarter-cup of it.  You’d think that a restaurant that gave me a square foot of deep-fried pig would have been less stinting on the slaw.

My takeaway: it’s legendary for a reason, but I think it falls into the sort of state fair food that I only need to eat once every five years.  For now, it’s zucchini and kale until the meat sweats stop.

Speaking of better living through veggibles, here’s a little stalk of tomato vine, with some of my 5-Star Grapes maturin’ on it:

Summer came late, so the growing period continues apace.  I expect to get another five pounds at least out of my plants before first frost.

So.  Everything grows; everything progresses.  I’ll not abjure my love of Good Eats, but I won’t be in a hurry to see Alton’s next program, I’ll tell you that much.

 

* changed to reflect the account of Chad, AKA lilzaphod, and his wife.

A Paean to Pea.

August 12, 2011

It was at Volo in Roscoe Village where Carolyn and I beheld an exceedingly awkward first date: he was a public servant, she was a Tea Party equity manager. He smiled at her blandly, steering the conversation away from politics in an attempt to be civil. She, upon learning that he worked for the government, snarkily retorted, “oh, so you’re part of the problem.” Despite agreeing to meet him at a wine bar, she confessed not just an ignorance of (which would be forgivable), but a disdain for wine. He had traveled to France during Beaujolais season. You can see where my sympathies lay.  Waiting for the check, Carolyn and I completely ignored each other to eavesdrop on this date. I gamely pretended to listen as she gamely pretended to comment on the attractiveness of the hydrangeas. But really, who were we kidding? Carolyn wanted to give the guy a pep talk while the girl was in the bathroom, but she never got the chance. I also think the pep talk would have largely been, “Run for your life, handsome lawyer guy!” Watching their awkward meal was the highlight of ours.

However! The second highlight of the meal was the meal, during which we were served a fabulous flatbread, bursting with verdant power, punch and perspicacity; the perfect pairing for pinot noir. Yes, friends: a springtime flatbread. A flatbread that was a paean to pea. It was a smallish, pizza-like disc of dough, slathered with a dollop of shockingly-green pea puree, slightly buttery peas, pea shoots, garlic, and little curlicues of Manchego. It was as appealing to the eye as it was to the palate. Nibbling a piece, I said to Carolyn. “It can’t be too difficult to make this at home.”

And it is not!

Essence of Springtime Pea-Puree Flatbread
makes four flatbreads, which is a cheery main course for four people, or a pleasant first course for eight.

The Setup
Equipment you will require:

  • one saucepan
  • an oven
  • a food processor
  • baking sheets
  • a spatula

For the flatbread:

  • 1 recipesworth of pizza dough, or enough for two pizzas.
  • 1 lb frozen peas (or, oo! Fresh! If you can get them, and it is springtime, and you are lucky)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 Tbsp butter – one Tbsp out on your work area, the other reserved in the freezer
  • a touch of crushed red pepper flakes
  • a lemon
  • a hunk of hard, fragrant cheese, like Parmesan, Romano, or Manchego
  • a handful of spunky salad greens, like mâche or arugula (or pea shoots!)
  • 5 to 10 mint leaves, depending on your preference and their size (optional)

The Heist

  1. Having made, risen, and rested your dough, form it into four small, equally-proportioned balls and let them sit under a kitchen towel for half an hour while you preheat the oven to 450 and prep everything else.
  2. Cut the top of the bag of peas – I assume you are using shelled frozen peas (get the sweetest kind you can!) for this recipe. Otherwise, y’know – shell, wash, and weigh out a pound of fresh peas, and lucky you for acquiring them! Slice the garlic thinly, and melt the one tablespoon of butter in a saucepan. When it has all melted, add the garlic and cook over medium to gentle heat, stirring continuously, for thirty seconds to a minute.
  3. When the garlic is fragrant, add the peas, frozen or not, straight into the saucepan, and stir until they are A) thawed, B) fragrant, C) soft, D) cooked through, or E) all of the above.
  4. Remove 3/4ths of the peas from the saucepan and put them in the workbowl of your food processor. Puree it finely, and, here’s the fun part – add in that frozen butter! If you want,you can cube it up really small before you freeze it, or after you freeze it, or not at all. This is sort of a takeoff on the traditional monté au beurre. Sort of. Not at all. The idea behind a monté au beurre is that you add a chunk of cold butter to a finished sauce to give it body and sheen, as the butter emulsifies the sauce. The principle is the same here – the cold butter will give the pea puree a little more body and shiny pleasantness.
  5. Season with salt, pepper, and the red pepper flakes, until it is DELICIOUS.
  6. Roll out the dough with a rolling pin, a tiny dowel, or by tossing it in the air like a champ. Lay it on the baking sheet or pizza pan. Now throw the rounds into the oven until they’re lightly browned – about six minutes. Remove the pans from the oven, dose with three or four spoonfuls of the puree, a few spoonfuls of unpureed peas, and a few shavings of cheese. Then throw it back into the oven again for another four or five minutes, until the puree is heated through and the cheese, while not the melting sort, should have begun to perspire a little.
  7. Finish the flatbreads with the greens, and either a little fresh lemon zest, a fairy-dusting of torn mint leaves, or a combination of the two (let it be known that both of these additions were Carolyn’s ideas.  And fine ideas they are). Let them cool, cut them into segments, and serve to a grateful public.
As always, good luck, and happy cooking!  And mysterious public sector lawyer guy, wherever you are, keep up the good work.  We’re rootin’ for you.

While my parents were in DC a few weeks ago, I was tasked with watching Penelope, the familial springer spaniel.  She’s a very cute critter, and last summer she stayed with me for a time at the House in Indiana.  She served as my amanuensis, and even took dogtation.

Penny averages 120 wpm (woofs per minute).  Yes, I've got the leash around my foot.

She’s very smart.

Anyway, I was dog-sitting in the suburbs for a week – my fabulous job (as a game-writer, not a professional tweeter) permits me to work from anywhere with an Internet connection.  My girlfriend, Carolyn, came to stay for the weekend, and that Saturday, we went garage saling, where we found some TREASURE.

  • Two unused yoga mats in a carrying case: $7
  • One bamboo jewelry-organizer: $2
  • Some lovely wrist bangles for Carolyn, including a chunky brass one that will be All The Rage next season (so she claims.  I think it makes her look like Wonder Woman.  No complaints there.): $10 or so
  • A lovely green glass vase, which was: $free
  • A never-before-used Krups Butcher Shop, still in its taped-up box: $5

And

LA MACCHINA,

which is what I have taken to calling this gorgeous Marcato Atlas pasta maker, which goes online for €51 (about $73 USD), which Carolyn and I acquired for … yes.  Five dollars.

LOOK AT IT.

CUE HEAVENLY CHORUS

Ah! Che bella macchina!  I behold you and I hear the swelling chorus of a Morricone score.

Carolyn and I looked at each other.  There was no way we couldn’t make pasta for dinner.  I had to know if it was hard to do; I’d tried to make pasta without a machine a few years prior, and I had a hell of a time (using a rolling pin) getting it thin enough without tearing.  It was also obnoxious to cut the pasta into fettucine with a knife, because it wasn’t thin or straight enough, and I didn’t have a food-safe ruler to use as a straight edge.  (And frankly, the idea of rubbing a metal ruler against one of my knives makes me cringe a bit.)

I’m not a food gadgety person.  It’s taken me a long time to embrace Carolyn’s strawberry huller, her cherry pitter, and her totally adorable water-carbonator, but I knew I would love LA MACCHINA immediately.  It had such a handsome shine!  It clipped to the table!  It could roll and cut pasta to even thicknesses and dimensions!  I was in love.  (For the record, it only took me three dates to embrace Carolyn herself, who is cuter than a water-carbonating device.)

But while I do love some gadgets, I’m also frugal (or a skinflint.  you decide), and although a new handcranked pasta machine certainly won’t break the bank, I guarantee you can find an unwanted pasta machine no matter where you are.  A pasta machine is just the sort of thing a couple might receive for their wedding, regardless of whether or not they put it on their registry.  Where there are garage sales, you will find pasta machines at reasonable prices.  And even if you did buy a new one: in the past two weeks, I’ve already created enough pasta to exceed its retail price – three different ravioli dishes, enough to serve four, assuming an average restaurant price of $14 per plate comes to (3 x 4 x 14) $168.  And that’s not counting the other pastas I’ve made.

We decided we would make ravioli, and so I decided to do what I generally do when I’m staying at my parents’ house: mount raids on the freezer, the pantry, and the liquor cabinet.  I found a pound of frozen, uncooked shrimp, a can of tomatoes, and a handle of Stolichnaya vodka.

“Carolyn?” I hollered up the basement stairs, “Do you like vodka sauce?”

I couldn’t find a recipe for shrimp ravioli in my parents’ capacious cookbook library, but I found and tweaked a basic recipe for pasta dough from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian CookingThen I hunted around on the internet, and found this recipe for shrimp ravioli in a vodka sauce, which I have slightly adapted, defatted, and seriously copy-edited.

This recipe has a lot of steps, but isn’t altogether that complicated.  You can make the filling and the sauce well ahead of time, but the dough should probably be made the day you intend to assemble the ravioli.  However, they freeze beautifully, and we’ll get to that later.

Let’s get started!

Ravioli/Tortellini di Gamberi alla Vodka

The Vodka Sauce

The Setup

Ingredients:

  • 1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes in puree
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped roughly
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup vodka
  • 1/4 cup basil, ribbon-cut (chiffonade)

The Heist

  1. Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat, and lightly fry the garlic until fragrant.  Kill the heat.
  2. Add the vodka.  You don’t want to add liquor to a pot over a live flame because there could always be a wayward splash, a sudden flare-up, and then it’s goodbye, eyebrows (and possibly goodbye, face).  Bring the vodka to a bare simmer and let it cook over low to medium heat for about five minutes.
  3. Add in the tomatoes, bring back to a simmer, and cook for 5 minutes.
  4. Add in the cream, bring to the very barest of simmers, and stir.  It should get somewhat thicker after a few minutes.  At this point, add the basil and kill the heat.

What a pleasant color.

Pasta Dough (for Ravioli)

makes enough for about 50 ravioli or so
The Setup

Ingredients:

  • 2 egg
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tsp milk or cream

(So, one half-cup of flour and one teaspoon of milk per egg)

The Heist
Put the flour in a mixing bowl, and make a little well with your fingers, or a fork.

  1. Crack the eggs into the well, and pour in the cream.
    Well, well, well, my pretties.
  2. With a fork, beat the eggs and the cream, first into one another, and then gradually begin introducing the flour into the egg mixture, until it’s fully incorporated.It's the world's tastiest vortex.
  3. Clean off the fork and begin kneading the dough with your hands until it has picked up most of the flour and is relatively unsticky. Pad the dough into a flattish round, and perhaps cut it into thirds or quarters with a knife or dough scraper.  Put another half cup of flour into the mixing bowl, because you’ll be using it later to dust the pasta.
    This might warrant a little more kneading - you can see how it looks a little rough at the right edge; it should be smooth all over.
  4. Cover the dough with a towel and let it hang out while you make…

The Shrimp Filling

The Setup

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb shrimp, defrosted, peeled, and deveined*
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
  • 1/2 cup ricotta
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 tbsp parmesan cheese
  • a generous handful of parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • salt and pepper

* Save those shrimp shells for a shrimp velouté for your SQUIZZA!  Or, if you like, incorporate them into the vodka sauce with the garlic – but be sure to strain out the shells before serving.

The shrimp don’t need to be big, or even that attractive-looking; they’re going to be minced into tiny little pieces anyhow.  Ah-ha-ha-ha.  But seriously, the part of this dish that looks good isn’t the shrimp filling; nobody can see that bit.

The Heist

1. Heat 1 tbsp butter in a pan, and gently cook the garlic until pleasantly scented, about 30 seconds to a minute.
These shrimp were already somewhat pink just due to their natural color, which was a little alarming to me.
2. Drop the shrimp in, and sauté until the shrimp curl up (which they do because of proteins contracting during cooking.  Shrimp cocktail pro-tip: if you want to prevent shrimp from curling, make little slits on the ventral side of the shrimp; it’ll hamstring that muscle and curtail the curling.

Of course, we don't care whether or not the shrimp curl up, now do we?  We're making a ravioli filling; the shrimp are invisible.

3. Remove from heat, and either mince the shrimp finely, or quickly pulverize in a food processor.  Move the shrimp to a mixing bowl and add the ricotta, the eggs, the cheese, and the parsley.  Season to taste (yes, I know there’s raw egg in there.  It won’t kill you.).

Much.
Making the Ravioli

4.  Pass a chunk of your pasta dough through the machine, on its widest setting.  Fold it into thirds, rotate it 90 degrees, and repeat two or three more times, until the dough is glossy, pliant, and cheerful.Yes, friends, it's The Thin Pasta, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy!

5. Begin passing the dough through the rollers at increasingly thinner settings – just once through on each setting will do.  I tend to stop at the penultimate thinness.

6. High five your significant other, for finding a pasta maker. *

7. Lay out a sheet of dough on your work surface – maybe one foot long by six inches wide (depending on how wide your rollers are).  Lay out another piece with similar dimensions beside it.

8. Take a 1/2 teaspoon measure and dollop out the filling onto one of the sheets, about an inch and a half away from each other, and from the edge.  This means that if your sheet is 6 inches wide, place one dollop at 1.5 inches, the next at 3 inches, and the third at 4.5 inches.

9. Wet a finger or a pastry brush with water or egg wash and brush down every part of the dough that doesn’t have filling on it.  Lay the other piece of dough on top of it, and crimp the dough around the filling.  Then press everything down so that the dough fuses together.  You can see Carolyn and I were doing something slightly differently, and making tortellini andravioli, but mostly because we weren’t sure exactly how to do either, at first.

Who knows!  There's no effin' rules, dude.  I mean, yes there are, but we don't follow them.

10.  Take a knife, or, if you have it, a scalloped pasta roller (I don’t have one yet, but I think I’d like one.  They can’t be hard to find) and cut the ravioli close enough so that you’re not just eating a sheet of dough, but not so close that you expose the filling, either.  Recover the dough, ball it up, and put it aside – you can mix it with the remaining dough to make the rest of the ravioli.

11. Sidenote 1: as you cut each raviolo free, dunk it in flour and shake off the excess; you don’t want them to stick to each other as you prep them for cooking – trying to separate stuck-on ravioli will rip their skins and expose the filling, which will cause you to curse assiduously.

12.  Sidenote 2: if you wish to freeze the ravioli, line a baking pan with parchment or wax paper, and plop the floured ravioli on as you complete them – let them sit in the freezer for at least 40 minutes before removing them from the sheet, putting them in a freezer bag, and throwing them back in cold storage.
These are not quite done!

13.  Bring salted water to a rolling boil and cook the ravioli until they float, and the filling is hot throughout, about 3 to 5 minutes, depending on size, quantity, and thickness of ravioli.  Frozen ravioli take 4 to 6 minutes to cook, on average.

That's what they look like when they float.  And when they're tortellini.

14.  Toss lightly with sauce, and serve.

Tadahhh.

* Just so you know, from now on, Step Six is always going to be “Give the person you’re cooking with a high five.”  I jokingly put in the original step six when I was writing out this recipe to myself in an email, while Carolyn read over my shoulder.  Now, whenever we reach Step 6 in a recipe, we high-five.  We have even gotten to the point where we refer to high-fiving as “step six”.

Sure, it’s ridiculous, but I think it’s also important, in a way: cooking is always more fun with others, and it’s important to acknowledge your co-chef now and again.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Never high-five your co-chef while holding a sharp object.

Contra odii (a note to the haters):

I am aware that the images in the photos above do not depict ravioli, but rather tortellini.  Yes, they are not square.  Yes, they’re somewhat ring-shaped.  I got better at making them; more photos to come.

For additional guidance on making ravioli, I refer you to this video featuring Sergio Maria Teutonica (which is a pretty excellent name) making shrimp ravioli and a ragù di mare (a sauce of the sea – here grape tomatoes, shrimp, pine nuts, and basil).  It is, unsurprisingly, entirely in Italian, which I do not speak, but the technique is pretty self-explanatory.

I’m just starting to get into pasta; we’ll see where this takes us.  Probably weirder places than this – just warning you.  (I see more squid in my future.)

Enjoy, and happy cooking!

All lined up, so pretty and fine

By reading this WEB-LOG POSTING (hereafter referred to as the “post”), the RECEIVING PARTY (hereafter referred to as “you”) shall enter into an AGREEMENT (hereafter referred to as ‘an agreement’) with the DISCLOSING PARTY (hereafter referred to as ‘me’ or ‘I’); the party of the first part agrees to partake of that which the party of the second part deems particularly relevant to this post, namely the post in its entirety.  By reading this paragraph, you agree to participate in the particulars imparted by the party of the second part, and, failing that, to promptly depart.  Still with me?  Let’s party.

NAAN.  The bread of a hundred Indian suppers, that unattainable bread only made in tandoors, by cryptic, grinning breadsmiths, men and women unwilling to offer up the secrets of their clay-oven magic.  Well.  Prepare to be naanplussed, because I’m about to drop some knowledge on you: it’s not impossible to make naan at home.  Matter of fact, it’s quite easy.  We’re gonna do it in a pan over reasonably high heat, because most of the cooking that a piece of naan bread goes through is through contact with a heated surface (what is that, conduction?), rather than the convection of heated air going through the tandoor.

Most naan recipes I’ve seen in my time are yeast-risen breads.  Many of them have eggs in them.  Many have at least eight ingredients.  I have never made a recipe easier, faster, or more delicious than this one, however, which has four ingredients (flour, yogurt, salt, and baking powder), and takes about an hour, start to finish.  Naan is a leavened bread, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that needs to be leavened with yeast; that’s what the baking powder is for, and it cuts down the waiting time.  This is a quickbread, something to throw together when you decide, at 4 PM, “I’ve got a half-pound of yogurt in the fridge that expires in four days, a head of cauliflower, and a big ol’ sack of chicken thighs.  I’m gonna make some Indian food!”

Naan

Adapted from this Bon Appétit recipe from 1998 – makes 8 pieces of naan

The Setup

You will need:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1½ to 2 cups yogurt, plus more if needed

The Heist

  1. Mix dry ingredients together in a large bowl. I like to do this with a whisk, or with my fingers.  Or a fork, I guess, if you must.To hell with flour sifters.  This isn't Martha Stewart's kitchen.  It's Alton Brown's.  What can a flour sifter do that a whisk can't?  Spread grass-seed?
  2. Plop in the yogurt, a little at a time, and mix – now, with your hands.  The whisk won’t do you any good, and neither will a fork or a wooden spoon.  Now is the time for brave and wo/manly deeds.  Now is the time for triumph.  Suck it up.  Use your hands.And not your whisk.
  3. Knead in the bowl until the dough ceases to be shredded-cloth/sofa-stuffing consistency, and becomes a smooth, elastic ball.  Add more yogurt, or more flour, as the situation merits (but not much of either).  Set the dough aside and let it sit for half an hour to 45 minutes.  The dough won’t rise (no yeast, remember), but the flour will hydrate, and that’s what you’re looking for.Knead it as much as you can first before considering additional flour or yogurt.  This is true of all dough recipes; get everything incorporated before you start making judgements about flour hydration.  Don't prejudge your hydration situation.  That's a metric that, I feel, has pretty much dominated my system of decision-making for most of my adult life.
  4. After letting the dough rest, divide it into eight pieces, flour a flat surface, and start rolling them out: first make each eighth into a ball, then flatten the ball with the heel of your palm.It helps if you have SUPERSPEED, like me.  But yeah seriously this takes about two minutes for all eight of them.
  5. Making sure each side is lightly floured, roll out the dough into flat rounds, about a quarter to an eighth of an inch in thickness.  Brush the excess flour off and set on a plate, or, if you’re feeling really finicky, between sheets of wax paper.But that level of finickiness is totally unnecessary, and, to be frank, a little off-putting.  Stop looking at me that way.
  6. Once you’ve got everything rolled out, start heating a nonstick pan (or, my favorite, cast-iron), with a little bit of oil in it, over medium-high heat.  A LITTLE BIT of oil.  Not a lot.  Story to follow. A painful, painful story.
  7. Once the oil has heated, gently lay down a round of naan, and let it cook, wiggling the pan occasionally, for five minutes per side, or until a multitude of brown Doneness Freckles™ mark both the obverse and reverse faces of the dough round.Doneness Freckles ™ is a licensed trademark of DavidCorp.  DavidCorp: "By Far,The Most Litigious of the Zaibatsu."
  8. Sometimes, the naan will get puffy!  This is okay!  Just give it a few pokes with a fork, let the steam out.

    Violet!  You're turning violet, Violet!
  9. Keep warm in a 250-degree oven, and serve with delicious things, like Madhur Jaffrey’s curried cauliflower, or these delicious Indian-style mussels (recipe to come).Awwww yeah sucka that's right.  (Apologies to Phil Redman)

On flipping naan, and impressin’ the ladies:

My sophomore year of college, I had a debilitating crush on a fellow film major; we worked on movies together late, late into the night – sometimes calling it quits at 3 or 4 in the morning.  After weeks of working with her, I finally built up the courage to ask her if I could make her dinner, at her place.  She said yes.  I was elated.

I made her an Indian feast: saag paneer, biryani, curried potatoes, and naan, as well as chocolate truffles with rum-vanilla whipped cream and sliced strawberries.  We were in the kitchen together when I was making the naan, and I decided to impress her by flipping the naan without a spatula – just tossing them in the pan like flapjacks.  I made it through three or four naan breads without incident when, finally, on the last one, I used a bit too much oil, and flipped: the bread rotated dully in the air, and came down heavily in a puddle, shooting a stream of hot fat into my face, centimeters below my left eye.  I had a little red mark there for weeks, as though I’d been shot with a bb gun.

Needless to say, I impressed the girl.  I didn’t win her heart, but we’re still very close.  You ain’t gonna make someone love you with this recipe, but you’ll win friends for life.

And, for the love of God, use a spatula, unless you’re sure there’s not too much oil in that pan.  Failing that, wear lab goggles.

Carbonade

August 24, 2010

There is a Belgian dish, which I do not make, called Carbonade Flamande – a Flemish beer stew made with beef (the Wiki tells me that it’s Vlaamse stoofvlees in Flemish).  I make a variation.

If ever there was a meal that qualifies as Emergency Food, this is assuredly it.  The first time I made this meal in college for anyone besides myself and my carnivorous roommate was after a large outdoor concert my alma mater holds called WILD – Walk In, Lie Down.  We had returned from campus as the weather began to get nasty.  We were all going to go our separate ways for dinner when the tornado hit.  The roads were unsafe for walking, much less driving, and most of us had been drinking, and it was raining really hard.  So we decided to take shelter in my apartment.

Read the rest of this entry »