Monday, May 30, 2011

Tortino di Pasta

I had to do a bit of research to see what I should name my creation, but I think I've settled on tortino di pasta.  At first I was going to call it a timballetto (a little timballo, or a little kettle-drum), but it's not too 'kettle-drummy.' Then again, depending on where you eat a timballetto, as with so many other Italian dishes, how it looks and tastes can vary greatly. A quick trip to the wiki-cloud informs us that the dish in Emilia-Romagna (where it's known as a bomba) "is filled with game bird, peas, cheese and a base of dried pasta or rice.  In Abruzzo, they use crepes as a base,  and other regions use ravioli or gnocchi." 

Whatever you call it and however you slice it, the inspiration for my little lasagna pie was most certainly this famous dish, known as "timpano": 

I must say a few things about this movie and what it represents.  I had been working in an Italian restaurant in Santa Cruz for some three years before one of my customers told me to see Big Night.  I had never even heard of it at the time, but it has become one of my favorite movies. The scene where the customer wants a side of pasta for her risotto, and Stanley Tucci has to explain why that doesn't jive with la cucina Italiana.  I lived this scene everyday I worked at Cafe Mare!  In case you haven't seen the movie, Tucci eventually gives in to the ubiquitous and almighty power of the pushy, paying American customer and has to ask his brother the chef, played by Tony Shalhoub, to make a side of pasta for her risotto.  Shalhoub, as many Italian chefs would, refuses to do so!  Until, that is, Tucci holds open the door that leads into the dining room where the ugly American is staring impatiently back into the kitchen.  Tucci says to his brother "you don't-ah make-ah di pasta...ah-fine!  You go tell her."  "O.K." Shalhoub pulls back, "I make-ah di pasta."  You don't know how many times I wanted to march the chef out to my tables.

In the end, though, I respect the integrity of these stubborn Italian chefs.  It's not limited to the chefs either.  Italians in general tend to be quite sure of what is acceptable (and when it is acceptable) to eat and drink.  In the morning, for example, a proper cappuccino is standard fare.  After 10:30, a cappuccino??!! Absolutely not.   You want parmigiano cheese on your seafood pasta??!!  I am sorry, I will not do that.  Now being an American, I don't typically like to abide by rules or follow tradition (other than the tradition to not follow rules, of course) so sometimes I butt heads with these rigid guidelines.  But these "food laws" aren't usually put into place just 'cause.  They often make sense!  If you pile a bunch of cheese on your seafood, all you're going to taste is cheese.

Italians, like so many other peoples around the world, take their cuisine seriously.  When executed properly, it is elevated to artistic masterpiece.  That's what the timpano ends up being in Big Night, a culinary masterpiece.  But I shall digress.  On to my tortino di pasta.

I'm not sure that my tortino reached piece de resistence status, but it did come out pretty darn good.  The ingredients I used were identical to many a lasagna recipe; onions, garlic, ground beef, tomato sauce, spinich, ricotta, pecorino, lasagna noodles.  The only difference really is the layering; layer of noodles, layer of meat/spinach, layer of cheese, layer of meat/spinach, layer or noodles, done.  All of this takes place in a pie dish, by the way.  The simplest savory tortino di pasta ever.  I oiled the top layer of noodles and covered it with foil.  I baked it at 350° for 30 minutes, turned it out onto a plate, and let it rest for 5 minutes or so.  Slice, serve, smile. Come sei bello il mio tortino.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Thai Fish Suace with Hot Chiles--Prik Nam Pla

This is the easiest condiment you will ever make.  I got the recipe from my favorite Southeast Asian cookbook, Hot Sour Salty Sweet, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.  The authors of this fabulous coffee-table book, which reads part cookbook part travel memoir part photo-journal, describe Prik Nam Pla as "brassy and forward and altogether unapologetic." As for how often they grab for it, it's "[their] everyday condiment, almost as important in [their] house as salt...Drizzle a little on fried rice or plain rice, or Thai or Lao food, or whatever you please, mouthful by mouthful."

1/2 cup bird chilies (or serranos), stems removed
1 cup Thai fish sauce

Place the chiles in a food processor and pulse to finely chop (stop before they are a mush). Transfer, seeds and all, to a glass container and add the fish sauce.  Cover and store in the refrigerator.  The sauce will keep indefintely, losing chile heat over time; top with extra chiles or fish sauce when it runs low.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Pan Fried Thin Cut Pork Chops

In case you haven't already noticed, I like pork.  It's flavorful, versatile, and it can be quick.  Lissa and I have been buying these thin cut chops from the butcher lately.  Some salt and pepper, a couple of minutes on each side in a hot skillet, and you're done (if you deglaze the pan with some wine it'll really look like you put in some time).  Truly, 10 minutes and these go from in the paper to on the plate.  They are so thin that they cook in minutes, and so as long as you don't overcook them, they'll stay nice and moist.  Now, you could brine these chops and they would be even more moist, but the beauty of these for me is the ease with which you can get a tasty meal on the plate.

Lissa is usually very patient with me, but my "ready in 20 minutes" sometimes turns into an hour.  Having go-to recipes and cuts like this are indispensable for those weeknights when you can't have 20 minutes turn into an hour.

If I really wanted to streamline the process, I would not have opted for the rice pilaf.  But we had to clean up after our trip to the gym anyway, so I just threw a cup of rice and a handful each of slivered almonds and dried currants in a pot...two cups of water, let boil, cover, simmer for 20 minutes.  By the time we're both showered and the chard is cleaned and sliced, and the chops are fried, the 20 minutes are up, and it's time to drink and dine.  Cupcake chardonnay is the libation of choice for tonight.

I did make a quick pan sauce (I wanted to look fancy) with shallots, white wine, lemon, butter, salt, pepper and a splash of vanilla.  Yes.  I said it.  Vanilla.  I read in a wine-pairing book a long time ago about adding a splash of vanilla to a dish you would serve with an oaked chardonnay in order to bridge the flavors.  A delicious bridge it is.  Add a little squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of lemon zest?! Brilliant.

When you can have a delicious meal, quickly, for little money, it's a good thing.  I want more good things like this.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mediterranean Potato Salad

This recipe has been a standard in my BBQ/potluck repertoire for years now.  Even though I love mayonnaise (especially homemade olive oil mayonnaise! see eclecticrecipes for a great version), tossing potato salad with a vinaigrette instead is a refreshing change.

I start like many potato salad recipes start: quarter potatoes, drop in cold water, bring to boil, drain, chill.  When it comes time to dress though, I like to use capers, sun-dried tomatoes, dijon mustard, parsley, preserved lemon, vinegar and olive oil. I have also used cornichon, pickled onions, basil, tarragon, etc.  I start by making a simple vinaigrette.  The typical vinaigrette is made by slowly whisking 3 parts of oil  to 1 part of vinegar, until it emulsifies. Then I simply fold in all of my other goodies and violà!

It's not like my little twist to potato salad is truly unique, though.  Indeed, there are many a variation on the old spud salad.  According to the ubiquitous wikipedia, general versions of potato salad include:
  • salad made with baby potatoes, cooked in their jackets and left whole (skin on)
  • larger potatoes, cooked in their jackets and then peeled and cut
  • salad with a mayonnaise, Miracle Whip, sour cream or milk dressing
  • salad with vinegar dressing
  • salad with bacon, anchovies, or mustard. 
  • salad with a fresh herb or dill dressing and/or gherkins, capers and other spices.
  • salad with raw onions, cooked onions or pickled onions.
  • salad with tomatoes or green beans. 
  • salad with hard-boiled eggs (a combination of potato salad and egg salad)
  • salad with ham, pickles, corn, hard-boiled egg and tomato (known in France as salade  piemontaise)
  • salad with orange slices, Worcestershire sauce, bacon, and chives.
  • Waldorf salad with potatoes, apples, celery, walnuts, and mayonnaise
I might try going in the direction of that orange, Worcestershire, bacon and chive recipe, or maybe with some anchovies, but I 'll never stray too far from this Mediterranean beauty.  Hope you give it a try sometime.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Prawn and Pomelo Salad--Yam Som Oh

I have had my eye on this recipe for a while.  I was only waiting to cross paths with the fabulous Citrus maxima.  The pomelo, also known as Chinese grapefruit, jabong, shaddock, and pompelmous, is a large citrus fruit native to Southeast Asia. Ancestor to the grapefruit, the pomelo has a rich and intriguing history.  Those who know them as "shaddocks" are invoking the name of the mid 17th century English sea captain who brought the fruit from Polynesia to the West Indies.  The word "pomelo" can be traced back to the Malay pumpulmas, which became the Dutch word pompelmoes.  Pomelos still grow wild in their native Malaysia and Indonesia, and there is evidence that they grew in China as early as 100 BCE.  The fruit is part of the Asian family ritual and believed by the Chinese to be a sign of prosperity and good fortune.  So, I'm going to start eating them all the time...I could use some extra prosperity.

In Thailand the pomelo is called som-oh (ส้มโอ), and its inclusion in this northern Thai salad is fantastic.  This recipe comes from "The Food Of Thailand: A Journey For Food Lovers," available through the link at right. As often occurs with "ethnic" recipes, you may need to have a pantry stocked with ingredients that some of your friends have never even heard of.  This one isn't outlandish, but it does require some extra effort, as it calls for a tablespoon of chili jam, which you'll have to make beforehand.  Let's begin there then, shall we?

Chili jam--naam jaew
-oil for frying
-20 Asian shallots, sliced (I substituted French shallots)
-10 garlic cloves, sliced
-3 tablespoons dried shrimp
-7 long dried chilies, chopped
-3 tablespoons tamarind purée
-6 tablespoons palm sugar
-1 teaspoon shrimp paste (I couldn't find shrimp paste, so I omitted it)

Makes 1 cup.

Heat the oil in a wok and fry the shallots and garlic until golden, then transfer to a food processor.  Fry the chillies and shrimp paste for 1 to 2 minutes, then add to the food pro along with the remaining ingredients and as much of the oil as necessary to make a pourable paste when pulsed.  Put the paste back into the clean wok and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer until thick. Be careful not to overcook or you'll end up with a caramelized lump.  Season with salt or fish sauce.  Chili jam is used as a base for recipes, especially stir-fries, as well as a seasoning or accompaniment.  It will keep for several months in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Now for the salad.... 
For the dressing:
-1 tablespoon fish sauce
-1 tablespoon lime juice
-1 teaspoon sugar
-1 tablespoon chili jam
For the salad:
-1 large pomelo
-10 oz. raw medium prawns, peeled and deveined, tails intact
-3 tablespoons shredded coconut, lightly toasted until golden
-3 Asian shallots, finely sliced (again, I substituted French)
-5 bird's eye chilies, bruised (I substituted serranos)
-1 cup mint leaves
-1/3 cup cilantro leaves
-1 tablespoon fried shallots

Boil the shrimp in a large saucepan for 2 minutes.  Drain and set aside to cool.  To peel a pomelo, cut a 3/4 inch disc off of the top then deeply score the skin into quarters.  Peel away the skin, remove any remaining pith, and gently separate each segment (see wikihow for a more detailed description). In a large bowl combine the pomelo, prawns, toasted coconut, shallots, chilies, mint and cilantro.  To make the dressing, combine the fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chili jam in a small bowl and whisk to combine.  Just before serving, add the dressing and toss gently to combine all of the ingredients.  Serve sprinkled with fried shallots.

The flavors, though deep and complex, combine to make a beautiful and surprisingly subtle dish.  I made a very simple veggie pad Thai noodle to accompany the salad.  I also served a sparkling guava cocktail to further elevate the senses and wash everything down.  I look forward to the day when I will once again be eating this salad...IN THAILAND! 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

At the Santa Cruz County Fair with my Phone Camera

This is a photo I took while Lissa and I were riding the ferris wheel at the Santa Cruz County Fair.  I took this photo, as with all of the other photos in this post, with my phone.  So this post is partly a reflection on county fairs, and partly an exposition of phone-camera blogging.

The relationship between my phone camera and my Panasonic Lumix camera is a complex one.  The Lumix knows that when push comes to shove, she is the only camera I really need...and she is confident that she is much more capable than the silly little camera in my phone.  But where I used to take Lumix with us on even the most casual of romps, she now stays back, and my little Droid camera slips into my pocket, with me always.  And Lumix is a little jealous.  But having a camera that lives in your phone, that you have on hand at all pretty cool. Especially when you can use it via different apps that offer a multitude of effects. So, even though I love my Lumix, you may be noticing more snaps from my phone here on TGAL. In addition to the built-in camera, I use the f(x)camera, retro camera, and camera360 apps.

Now let's say a couple words about this fair business.  Fairs, or fayres, have been an important part of our history since antiquity.  There are all kinds of fairs, and each one may have it's own unique feel.  Some fairs are, or have been, commercial nerve centers, driving economies and livelihoods.  Others showcase a particular industry or product, such as farming goods and equipment.

It's fun to be able to see things with fresh eyes, so when my friend Ricardo, who is from Spain, went to the fair a few days before we did, I got to hear him describe what the experience was like.  For most of us who grew up with the "typical American county fair," we know what we are getting into: rides, games, food, animals and quilts and bricks of pink popcorn.  I think much of the draw for us is nostalgia.  We've always gone to the fair, so let's go again!   Still, when Lissa and I went, I couldn't help but to imagine what it may have been like for Ricardo to experience his first American-style county fair.

I try to do this quite often actually.  I call it "living like a tourist," as if you are a visitor in your own world.  When I do it right, it's amazing.  The mundane is all of a sudden transformed into a glorious anomoly.  

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Yellow Dal, Spinich Salad with Yogurt Pistachio Dressing, and Marinated Cherry Tomatoes

Indian inspiration is the name of the game tonight.  In order to get my head in the right space, I popped open a Denogginizer India Pale Ale and put on some bhangra music.  That definitely did the trick.  I'll explain the salad and the tomatoes in a moment, but for now let's talk about dal.  Dal (also spelled dahl, daal or dhal) refers to a preparation of pulses (dried lentils, peas or beans) which have been stripped of their outer hulls and split, or also to the thick stew prepared from these.  Dal is a mainstay of Indian, Nepali, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi cuisine as it is a great source of protein for a balanced diet containing little or no meat.  Most dal recipes are simple to prepare. The standard preparation of dal begins with boiling a variety of dal (or a mix) in water with some turmeric and salt, and then adding a tarka towards the end of the cooking process.  Tarka is a technique whereby whole spices (and sometimes other ingredients such as ginger or sugar) are briefly fried in oil or ghee.
In this case I used yellow dal, simmered in salted water with a couple dashes of curry powder (I was out of turmeric).  My tarka consisted of cumin and fennel seed, ginger and garlic.

Rinse 1 cup of dal until the water runs clear, then place in a large saucepan. Add 3 cups of water, 1 tbsp salt and 2 tsp curry and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook until lentils are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Keep warm over low heat.  I wanted a very thick end-product, so I cooked almost all of the water off,  but you can keep the heat very low or add more water if you want a more stew-like consistency.

Next, heat 1/4 C of oil or ghee in a medium skillet over high heat.  Once hot, add the cumin seeds and fennel seeds until they pop, then add the garlic and ginger and saute another minute or so.  Pour mixture over the dal. Taste for salt, and garnish with cilantro.  I used two spoons to make little quenelles.

My marinated tomatoes were extremely simple.  I halved a basket of cherry tomatoes, tossed them in a couple of tablespoons of red chile oil and salt, and let them chill in the fridge until dinner was ready.  They provided some heat and also some acid that really helped balance the meal.

My salad was quite simple as well.  I tossed spinach, thinly sliced red onion, and sliced and seeded cucumber in a lovely pistachio yogurt dressing.  For the dressing, I began by lightly toasting my pistachios on a baking sheet in a 350° oven for 5-10 minutes (making sure to keep an eye and a nose on them so they don't burn).  I then ground them in the food processor with 1 clove of garlic.  I added the juice from 1 lemon, 2 teaspoons of ground coriander, 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar, 1 cup of plain yogurt, and stirred to combine.  I then drizzled in 1/2 C of sunflower oil while the motor was running, added salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and tossed with my salad.  It was a lovely meal, and one that resulted in some fabulous leftovers (post to follow).  Namaste India, for all of your wonderful culinary contributions to our world!