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.