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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Classic

Since sharing the find of the year with you, I've been doing more thinking about 'the basics'.  Those reliable, go-to dishes that never fail to comfort, revive and bring a happy smile to your loved ones' faces.

If I were to make a list of my favorite basics, it would go something like this:

Chicken soup -- of course.  And if you know me, you know I border on fanatical in my devotion to this Cook's Illustrated method which yields a rich, golden broth that puts other chicken stocks to shame.

Cacio e pepe -- no doubt one of the all-time, most comforting pastas.  But as my friend K. points out...make sure your kitchen sponge is due for a change-out, because the pan clean up on this one is a destroyer.

Frittata -- my favorite weekday supper.  You just can't go wrong with eggs for dinner.

Meatloaf -- good meatloaf can make your day.  I have not blogged about this because in our house my husband is the meatloaf chef and he swears by an old Martha Stewart recipe that is absolute perfection. 

The Perfect Roast Chicken -- now you may think you have a good roast chicken recipe, but unless you are making the legendary Zuni Cafe roast chicken, you are most likely mistaken.  There is no better way to roast a chicken.  Period.  Lucky for you, that recipe is here.  Now go get a chicken!

An egg salad sandwich -- sigh...  on pumpernickel bread or a good rye.  Nothing better...or easier.  I've made some tweaks in my recipe since I posted on this, courtesy of one of my favorite local chefs, Tyler Florence, and his mother-in-law's potato salad recipe.  I now grate the hard-boiled eggs on a box grater, and the resulting egg salad's texture is absolutely heavenly.

and, last but not least, a decent Bolognese sauce.

I've spent years searching for a sublime, satisfying ragu, and not to get too many things in life, the search is an ongoing journey with many side roads, detours and failures.  My mother's attempts to pass off skillet-browned ground beef mixed with 'sloppy joe' seasoning (!) from a packet, mixed with a can of tomato sauce launched me on my journey...and dissatisfaction with what was often served up in restaurants in the guise of a Bolognese sauce just fueled the fire. 

I had a period of slavish devotion to Marcella Hazan's version.  There were brief flirtations with Gourmet magazine recipes and various restaurant cookbook takes on 'Sunday sauce'.   One thing is for sure...everybody has their own idea of what Bolognese sauce should be...and with so many variations  everybody is right. 

My own taste leans toward the region of Emilia-Romagna and the traditional Bolognese there...distinguished by the use of milk or cream.  Something about the long-simmered sauce becomes over-the-top luxurious when you add a bit of cream.  For several years, I've been very pleased with a Bolognese I found in a cookbook by Englishman (shocker, I know!) Nigel Slater. I've tweaked it a bit to add some character with dried porcini (truly, the 'secret ingredient'), and despite the 'at-least-three-hours-of-simmering' prescribed by most Italian nonnas (Nigel says one and a half hours) I usually go about two hours. 

Perfect for a winter Sunday afternoon when there are newspapers to be read and napping to be done.  The sauce is hearty and beefy and yet suave with its touch of cream.  (To my taste it becomes even more amazing as next day's you've got that going for you.)  Serve it over a fat, tube pasta like rigatoni or some fresh fettucini and add a generous grating of fresh Parmesan.  It's so perfect that for me, all searching for a Bolognese sauce has come to a halt.

Now, if I could just settle down with a good chocolate cake recipe...

Spaghetti Bolognese
adapted from Nigel Slater's the kitchen diaries

serves 4

2 tablespoons butter
chunk of pancetta, approx. 1/2 inch wide, diced into small cubes
a medium onion, finely chopped
2 fat cloves of garlic, minced
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in boiling water for 10 minutes--reserving the soaking liquid
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 29 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 cup dry, red wine
3/4 cup low-sodium chicken stock
a few grindings of fresh nutmeg
1/2 cup (or less, to taste) heavy cream

To serve:
1 pound rigatoni
grated Parmesan

The Pot -- I like to use my large, enameled cast-iron dutch oven for this -- it seems to hold heat well and control the simmer to a bare minimum which is important.  If you have a stainless stockpot you may have trouble keeping the simmer low enough, so in that case you should use a 'flame tamer' disk over your burner (available at hardware stores).

About the nutmeg...I actually do have whole nutmeg and I give it a few swipes along a microplane grater for this recipe.  The difference between freshly grated nutmeg and the stuff in a jar you've had for three years in your spice cabinet is HUGE.  Give it a go with whole nutmeg -- it really does add something magical.

1.  Set the dried porcini in a heatproof bowl and bring some water to a boil.  Pour the water over the mushrooms and let them steep while you cook the pancetta. 

2.  Melt the butter in a heavy pot over medium heat, then stir in the cubed pancetta and let it cook for 4-5 minutes -- you don't want it to color too much.

3.  Stir in/add finely chopped onion, celery, carrot and garlic to the pot with the pancetta.

4.  Drain the porcini mushrooms through a fine strainer  (I reserve the liquid and add a couple tablespoons to the pot with the wine, later.) and give them a rough chop.  Add to the vegetable/pancetta mixture in the pot.

5.  Tuck in the bay leaves and let the whole thing cook for ten minutes or so, stirring frequently.

6.  Turn up the heat to high and add the ground beef, breaking it up well with a fork or edge of a wooden spoon.  Let it cook for three to four minutes without stirring -- you want it to start browning.  When it starts to brown give it a good stir to turn the pieces and let it continue to color so there is no pink left.

7.  Mix in the the tomatoes, breaking them up a bit with the wooden spoon, red wine, stock, a tablespoon or two of the mushroom soaking liquid, a grating of nutmeg and some salt and pepper. (start with a teaspoon of salt and taste after a couple hours).  Let everything come to a boil and then turn the heat way down to low, so that everything just barely bubbles.  There should be movement, but one that is gentle and not quite a simmer.
Partially cover the pan wiht a lid and let it putter away for at least an hour and a half.  Stir from time to time and check the liquid levels.  You don't want it to be dry.

8.  After a couple hours, pour in the cream, a small amount at a time, stir, and continue cooking for another 20 minutes.  This is when I put the water on for the pasta.

9.  Check the seasoning, you may need a little more salt.  Serve over pasta and add a grating of Parmesan.

Pour a nice glass of red and enjoy.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Back to Basics

Happy New Year! 

It's a relief, isn't it? As the festive food-and-drink-athon known as “The Holidays” winds down and we all stagger to the finish line that is New Year's Day, I find basic, homey foods are what I crave come January. Chicken soup...braised beef...the beautiful winter greens in the markets now...chard, kale, Brussels sprouts etc...and a simple, sunny tomato sauce to perk things up on a cold winter evening. 

The basics.
 For most basic recipes, I have my own personal favorites...tried and true. Tested over time, I rely and go back to the same recipes over and over again. In the case of something as simple as basic tomato sauce for pasta, I use an improvised recipe that involves sauteing some garlic, salt and red pepper flakes in olive oil and then dumping a can of crushed tomatoes and simmering for ten or fifteen minutes. If the sauce is going on pizza I add a pinch of dried Italian seasoning blend and that's it.

Every once in awhile, I take a new recipe for a spin and lo and behold, things change!

The local SF restaurant, Delfina, has long been a favorite of mine and their simple spaghetti pomodoro is the very essence of sunshine-y perfection. The tomatoes, even in the depths of winter, are bright and tasty and the texture is chunky, not liquidy. I order the dish every time I go there and have been in a state of perpetual wonder at how they achieve such perfection with what look, and taste, like the most elemental ingredients. When, oh, when was there going to be a cookbook from this fine establishment that would reveal the secret of this basic tomato sauce?!

Well, I have my answer! One of my Christmas gifts was The Bi-Rite Market cook book, Eat Good Food (delightful, by the'll be seeing more mentions of it here in the future) and wouldn't you know it, they are situated on the same street as Delfina. Chef-owner Craig Stoll kindly shares his recipe in the Bi-Rite book and as soon as I read it, I pretty much ran to the kitchen to try it. The resulting sauce tasted just as lovely as it does at the restaurant and the secret is all in the technique. Ohhh, there's no going back once you've tried Craig's method. This classic Italian technique has you cook the spaghetti half way, and then finish it in the sauce, so it cooks into the pasta. Genius!! 

There's a longer cooking time at the start, to reduce the sauce, but that extra 45 minutes is SO worth it. (I can't recall getting this wound up since I tried the Cook's Illustrated version of chicken soup.) You end up with a beautiful plate of homey, simple spaghetti with sauce that nourishes the soul...
and you can't get more basic than that.

Delfina's Spaghetti
adapted from Bi-Rite Market's Eat Good Food and Craig Stoll of Delfina
2-3 servings, as a main course

1 (28 ounce) can peeled whole plum tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
pinch of chile flakes
14 large basil leaves
8 oz. Dried spaghetti
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for serving
  1. No seeds! Working over the open can of tomatoes, break open each one and scrape the seeds with your fingers back into the can. (I never used to seed the tomatoes, so this was big for me.) Squeeze the seeded tomatoes in your hand to break them up slightly and drop into a separate bowl. Strain the juice from the can into the bowl with the tomatoes and discard the seeds.
  2. Chop the garlic coarsely, sprinkle with a pinch of salt and scrape the two into a mortar and pestle. (or use the knife side to smash and press the garlic into a paste. I've tried both ways and the knife method is challenging.) Put the garlic paste and the olive oil into a medium, heavy skillet, cover and put over medium-low heat. Cook the garlic very slowly until soft and feather-looking but still creamy in color – about 5 minutes. You don't want it to brown, so keep an eye on it and make sure the heat is medium-low for sure.
  3. Add the tomatoes and juice, along with the chile flakes, 1 ½ cups water, ½ teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper. Increase heat to medium-high and bring just to a boil. Lower the heat to a rapid simmer and cook, until the sauce is reduced, about 45-50 minutes. (I went almost a full hour.) Stir occasionally to prevent sticking or burning.
  4. Remove the sauce from the heat. If you have and immersion blender (oh, light of my life!) pulse the sauce to break up some of the larger chunks. Otherwise run about a third in a food processor and return to the pan.) Add the basil leaves to the sauce.
  5. Bring a large pot of lightly salted (about a tablespoon of salt) water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook for 6 minutes. This is important: Dip in and reserve about a cup and a half of the starchy pasta water and set aside before you drain the pasta.
  6. Put the sauce in the same pot you used for the pasta and add the half-cooked spaghetti plus ¾ cup of the cooking water and bring to a rapid simmer. Cook, stirring frequently until the pasta is cooked to al denteal dente.
  7. Taste and season with more salt as needed. Top each serving with Parmigiano and serve right away.
Buon appetito!