Potato Gnocchi with Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

I made gnocchi with Marcella Hazan's tomato Sauce with onion and butter.

It has become habit to say in these posts what I didn't do. I didn't make gnocchi. I bought dry, packaged gnocchi from the store and boiled them. Marcella Hazan's recipe calls for either fresh tomatoes or whole canned tomatoes, cut up, in their juice. I apparently bought the wrong kind of canned tomatoes, because they didn't have juice. They had tomato puree. I do not understand why this is a product. I did not chop up the tomatoes very small (although Hazan does not specify how small they should be chopped), and I only remembered to chop them at all halfway through simmering. I sliced them with a chef knife while they were in the saucepan, holding them in place with a large fork. In any case, you can decide if that matters. It was still tomatoes simmered with butter and an onion.

It was good. Sniffing the air, my brother asked what was in it. Butter. Lots of it. Actually less than was called for: The recipe called for two cups of tomatoes, and five tablespoons of butter. I used the whole can of tomatoes, which was about three cups. I didn't have enough butter to account for this change. I only had six tablespoons.

Hazan says it's "an unsurpassed sauce for Potato Gnocchi." I was excited about this. I definitely wanted to make gnocchi with this sauce. Making gnocchi from scratch is a pain. Preserved, store-bought gnocchi has a strange after-taste. I forgot to get gnocchi or ingredients to make gnocchi when I was in the store buying ingredients for the sauce. I made the sauce anyway, planning to get gnocchi from the store later. I did, but only after I ate the sauce with Costco tri-color bow-tie pasta because I was hungry and because I did not have a car with which to go to the store to buy gnocchi. The sauce, covered in parmesan, was good. It was quite salty. Hazan suggests salting sauces beyond what tastes right on their own, because the sauce has to cover not very salty pasta (or gnocchi). This seems like good advice. What I am not convinced of is that this sauce is unsurpassed for gnocchi. Butter on gnocchi is good, and this has lots of butter. The sauce on its own is good. Was it perfect for the gnocchi? I don't know. I am used to just butter and parmesan, or just butter, or butter and cream. In fact eating these reminds me that when I was much younger my mother used to buy packaged gnocchi (the kind one refridgerates), and I loved to eat them with (salted) butter. Nothing but butter, I think.

Some other bloggers have raved about this sauce. One called it a revelation. It is good. It is elegant. It is edifying: One does not need tons of herbs, or any at all, to make good tomato sauce. One of my friends goes so far as to say herbs mess up tomato sauce, which I am hesitant to agree with. Herbs have their place. But perhaps, like Hazan says of garlic, they should be used with intention in particular circumstances, not by default.

Maybe next will be bolognese. I tried making pseudo-bolognese the other week. I used a great deal of red wine, which curdled the cream. At least I think it did. It was difficult to tell.

27 September 2011

Pasta

Back in the day, we used to make fresh pasta. Making foods whose production was showy was a thing we did. Before I became a part of that adolescent social economy, they made crepes. Not only was making crepes a show, but it could be made into group activity. One might make the batter, another pour it, and the last, the one who got all the glory, babied and flipped them. This particular person liked to burn himself by using his fingers to flip the crepes. He (of course it would be he) was known back in those days as The Devil. God bless him. (No, really. His cooking sensibilities have definitely become a part of mine, and his enthusiasm and adventurousness were indispensable in such endeavors.)

The Devil and I made pasta a lot. We made it at both of our houses. We made it at gatherings. We even made pasta in Germany, where we convinced ourselves it was Spaetzel. We made it always in the same way (except in Germany, where we could not find semolina flour). I have no idea where we came upon this way of making it, and I don't remember ever reading a recipe. The Devil suggested it authoritatively, and off we went. At no point was there any textual reference, but now I will have to make one. This is what we did:

In a mixing bowl we put some semolina flour. We made a little crater in the flour into which we cracked as many eggs as were necessary to make the dough just cohere, a little olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt. We mixed this together, eventually using our hands to form the dough into a ball and knead it. We kneaded it quite a lot. It was as if we were making a material for construction rather than pasta.

We divided this into fist-sized (my fists, or smaller) balls, and we rolled (sometimes with a rolling pin, often, because we thought it was cool, with a wine bottle) each ball into a thin, skin-like strip. We would either run these through the pasta maker (a birthday gift, I think) or cut it into triangular shapes with a chef knife. We would always make fettuccine with the former, and the latter we liked to call Spaetzel. The fettuccine we would lay across a chair to dry. Apparently, the pasta is supposed to dry before you plop it into boiling water. I don't think we ever bothered to dry the Spaetzel.

This of course wouldn't take long to cook. It just needed to be boiled briefly, perhaps a minute or two. It was always delicious, but a bit stiff. I always wondered about that, sometimes chocking it up to that simply being the way that fresh pasta tastes. I may have made passive-aggressive comments to The Devil to the effect that perhaps we shouldn't have been making the dough so stiff. We continued making it in the same way, and on my own I too would make it in this way. There was something aesthetic about the process and the ingredients. It was a very yellow pasta. Every ingredient was in some way yellow: semolina, eggs, olive oil. We felt (or at least I felt) that there was a wholesome purity in this combination. This was substantial, dense stuff. Who needed anything but this pasta? I wanted to invest all my gustatory faith in the one, which invariably was something involving flour.

However, because technically I am no longer eighteen and because I feel obligated to have actually cooked something for this post (why I bother, I don't know) I have decided to try something new: I used a recipe, and I did not use semolina. Semolina, Marcella Hazan complains, "is often grainy, even when it is sold as pasta flour, and grainy semolina is frustrating to work with." She is my guide today, a wonderfully clear guide, and so I made fresh pasta with unbleached all-purpose flour, because the "talcum-soft white flour," doppio zero, is not readily available to me (although really, this is Ashland, surely either Market of Choice or the Ashland Food Co-op has this imported flour), and because this is what she uses "when outside of Italy."

The trouble is that while I am not eighteen, I am still just as lazy and prone to cut corners. So I did not follow Hazan's homemade pasta routine to the letter. For one thing, I did not knead the dough for eight minutes. Kneading for three minutes was an exercise in confusion: I kept accidentally sliding the cutting board I was kneading on forward in sudden violence, knocking over various glass-bottles over with the force. Happily, they all had lids.

For another thing, I didn't lay the strips of pasta dough on towels or cloths as she suggested, but instead on the vinyl tablecloth, which they stuck to. This is a bad idea. Don't do it. Lastly, I did not dry the strips sufficiently, nor did I lay out the finished pasta in such a way that it would not stick to itself. This meant that my pasta was a knotty, sticky mess before I put it all in the pot to boil, and afterward merely a knotty mess. Obviously you shouldn't do that either. Or do. The subtleties of good cooking are lost on most (certainly not Anthony Bourdain, who is reportedly angered by most food), including, for the most part, myself. Most will be startled enough by the taste of fresh, homemade pasta that the stiffness of pasta stuck together will not faze them.

What the whole process has emphasized to me is that making pasta properly is a pain in the ass. Maybe if I were a more patient person, I would take pleasure in the labor. Leave it to a professional. Unless you are in the mood to be happily distracted by the rigors of precise pastamaking.

I am a hobby practitioner of cooking, not a specialist or a professional, and one whose techniques ossify. Of course, a technique is ossified. But a good one has been molded by a million mistakes until it becomes something crystalline, unassailable as a means to achieve the desired results. If you want to change a good technique, you want to achieve something else.

I don't bring this up without reason (although I do; this is just a justification). Pasta has come out of an elaborate hierarchy of specialization. (Yes, there is a definite sloppiness in my use of "hierarchy" here.)

First there is the growing of wheat. Not that I've done a whit of research into the topic, but I'm guessing you can't really have your own personal wheat field out back and sustain yourself (or your small family) from it. To get the amount of wheat needed to be useful, it must be grown in very large fields, tended by those who do very little but grow wheat.

Then there is the milling of wheat into flour, then shaping the dough into the often intricate shapes of pasta. You get the point, however vague it is. Specialization, agriculture, industry, bla bla bla. Moving on. Hazan insists, like Julia Child does with every complex technique, that with a pasta maker and a bit of practice at getting the consistency of the dough right, it is "extraordinarily simple" to "produce fine, fresh pasta inexpensively, at home." Yeah, I guess.

Although I no longer want one calorically dense food to sustain me entirely (nor do I think that one will), I am still almost as much of a megalomaniac non-specialist as I was then. I want to be able to do many things well, and I want to do so with very little effort. I think this is called "arrogance." But then, cookbooks and guides are for the most part for hobbyists, not professionals. Cooking does not need to be locked up in guilds of professionals, but can be done surprisingly well by bored people with a distaste for cheap, packaged food. You too can make delicious homemade pasta. The problem is there isn't enough time in the world. It's better, really, to look at my photos and drool. Actually don't. Look at someone else's--they're bound to activate your salivary glands far more effectively.

 

 

20 September 2011

Arroz Doce (Sweet Rice)

One of the years I was living in Bar Harbor I had the worst landlord. Well, no, I had two of the worst; it's difficult to say who was worse. But she owned the first place I had ever rented. Every year for Thanksgiving (or was it Christmas?) she cooked the food of a different nation. She complained to me that she had run out of cuisines, and might have to start repeating. I am fairly certain that this list did not include Portuguese cooking. Just like the 1972 edition of The Joy of Cooking doesn't have Eggplant Parmesan, the most recent edition probably doesn't have Portuguese sweet rice. Not that I'm pretending to purvey "authentic" food from the far corners of the Earth. I only mean that so far as I know there is not a Portuguese dish that has become hip and iconic in the U.S., simultaneously symbolizing the nation and being its own thing.

One does not combine milk with lemon, or anything else acidic, unless one is making buttermilk. This doesn't mean lemony creamy things are completely out--there is hollandaise (which uses lemon more for its chemical properties than its flavor) that combines lemon with butter and egg yolks. Egg yolks don't mind. There is lemon-cream sauce, although I have not tried it (I assume that since it takes tomatoes without curdling it can handle lemon, but maybe not). There is lemon curd, of course, which has nothing to do with dairy, and the filling for lemon bars, which is basically lemon curd.

But apparently it's possible to get the scent and flavor of lemon without the acidity. (What do lemons taste like without citric acid? Damned good, but I don't know.) It's called lemon extract, and I had no idea it existed until my girlfriend informed me that it lent the thick, creamy confection I was eating its lemony flavor.

"You use both the juice and the zest, or just juice?'

She gave me a bewildered, somewhat offended look. "Lemon juice? No no, we use lemon extract."

I was not convinced. Surely lemon extract could not duplicate the bright, fresh flavor of lemon zest and juice? I guess. But it would curdle the milk. And it might actually be better than fresh lemons. I do love extracts. More accurately, I love the smell of extracts. Lemon extract, almond extract, rose water. Almond extract makes a pie of grapes taste like cherries, makes sugar cookies amazing, and completes frangipane. Rose water gives lemonade a lovely fragrance and a needed bitterness. Lemon extract makes sweet rice something other than yet another rice pudding. Although the egg yolks already make it thicker (more or less solid) and more yellow than most. The color creates an interesting illusion of lemon. At least, when I tried it I assumed the color was from the lemon I tasted, not egg yolks.

I can't remember the recipe we used from a cookbook. So here is an intentionally confusing approximation:

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E X T R A C T

15 September 2011

Terrorist Fries and Caprese

Tonight, fried potatoes and caprese for everyone! I know, you're thinking what is she feeding her poor family? Has she gone vegetarian and taken them down with her? Dear Husband is as suspicious as you are, and even more suspicious of my excuse of forgetting to buy meat today, but the caprese won him over. (Secretly, though, I have been leaning in the meatless direction. It's so healthy, and good for your heart, and I get tired of meat every day. I don't need to worry about what the DH thinks, he never reads my blog, thank God.) It's a hit all around, so colorful and so Italian! Little freddie hates tomatoes, but after I forced him to eat one bite of caprese--a slice of tomato, a slice of mozzarella, and a basil leaf or two--he couldn't stop eating it. I had to slice up some more tomatoes and pick more basil from our little garden to make us more!

The tomatoes I planted back in early July have finally been putting on fruit and ripening beautifully. Nobody believed me that they'd grow because I'm a black thumb, but I like to think it's getting a bit grey, maybe. Here they are, deep red, sweet, and with that wonderful tomato smell.

DH calls the potatoes I make "terrorist fries." That's not an insult. He loves them, but from day one has called them that. To be honest I've forgotten why. Oh yes, the first time I made them it was during the Bush years, and there was all this anti-French sentiment floating around, which he had to mock by calling them Terrorist instead.

~

Well, as fun as that was, I can't really see the point in making fun of Mormon mothers who blog about cooking for their families. Really it would be much more fun to read them yourself. I cannot possibly match the genius of: "My hubby and I have a new house rule for guarding our waistlines. If you MUST have it, you must MAKE it from scratch!"

And the end, about my imaginary husband's political commentary (actually my brother's), just sounds like me anyway.

There is a problem with fall: that it is fall. I don't really need to spell it out for you, but I will. Summer is ending. The light is lower. It's getting colder. The porch is already getting covered in dead leaves. I've apparently given up trying to write semicoherent posts.

Anyway, I'm surprised that I haven't posted something about "terrorist fries" here before. Maybe it was because I didn't want to share the silly name. Really I'm not sure what else to call them. Chips? What does one call thick-sliced potatoes roasted with lots of olive oil. They taste more or less like french fries, but round, and with a somewhat different texture (in part because the potatoes are never Russet, the variety used for french fries). Like french fries or chips they're good with barbecue sauce, or salt and malt vinegar, or this time I used balsamic because I didn't have any malt vinegar.

There are a limited number of foods I make when I don't really know what to make, and these are one of them. When I need something starchy to go along with odds and ends from the fridge, I often make these. Somehow, throwing them in the oven set to 450 F seems easier than, say, putting on a pot of rice. Their delicacy lies in how thickly they are sliced (about 1cm), which somehow seems less daunting than the subtleties of timing and proportions of water to rice. Sure, I could overbake the potatoes, too, but as long as I check them every couple of minutes, they're very easy to visually assess. When they are browned to your liking, they are done.

They are my brother's creation, although I suppose I increased the oven temperature, at first more out of haste than to create the desired consistency. I don't remember exactly how they came about, but I believe it was when we were having a LAN party. If you know what that is, then I need not say any more, and if you don't, you need not know any more. We were making baked beans and tangelo meringue pie, and, well, maybe we wanted something to go with the baked beans. Maybe we had no potato chips, and one of us suggested (it seems like this would be me) that we make potato chips. I think that was it. I remember us saying to each other that they weren't quite potato chips (they weren't crispy all the way through), they were still really good. Good enough to have stuck, apparently.

6 September 2011

look at that delectable little tidbit, like a tiny Italian flag