Contrasted to the din and bustle of a restaurant, a home cook’s status is positively monastic–solitary, filled with not-entirely-quiet contemplation. So it was with eagerness and a bit of apprehension that I teamed up with my friend Noah (aka Mr. Pushpush) to cook our wives an Italian-slanted four-star restaurant-grade meal on the night before Valentine’s Day. It was a success, but not without its fair share of “oh shit” moments.
The meal plan–and indeed the meal prep itself–was driven largely by Noah, who is more of an artistically minded cook than me. I mostly think in grease and goo, the rudimentary science of cooking. I get ideas in my head like “I think I’ll make mayonnaise,” not because I have anything to put it on, but because that seems like something worth learning how to do. Noah contemplates restaurant preparation and presentation. The finished product, plated and ready, is what he has in mind. If it has mayo, then by God, we better make some mayo. Our palates are similar, though, and neither of us is an ego headcase, so the end result of our collaboration was peaceful and productive, with moments of genuine symbiosis. (OK, I’ll admit it, Noah did most of the work.)
As I was saying, Noah steered the meal plan. We agreed on a mildly Italian-colored modern menu, drawing from the greats–Mario Batali, Ina Garten, Thomas Keller, etc.–plus a little help from the fundamentals-themed tomes: Practical Japanese Cooking, the Silver Spoon cookbook (I know what you’re thinking this is notRicky Shroeder’s celebrity recipe volume; it’s essentially the Italian Joy of Cooking) and of course Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Since it was the last week that I had the SousVide Supreme out on loan, we knew we had to make good use of it. After a few days of emailing back and forth, the destined lineup revealed itself:
• Gruyere and Parmesan Gougères
• Fritto Misto of Radicchio & Fennel with Homemade Aioli
• Ravioli Carbonara with Fonduta di Parmigiano
• Pork Belly with Romano, Swiss Chard and Balsamic Glaze
• Rack of Lamb & Cherry Mint Relish with Cauliflower Gratin and Sous Vide Carrots, Parsnips and Snap Peas
• Panna Cotta with Caramel and Blueberry Compote
Here I’ll run through every dish as thoroughly as possible, with copious notes from Noah, and astounding pictures–a veritable food pornucopia–mostly taken by Noah’s wife, Molly, who stole my camera early on and wouldn’t give it back.
Gruyere and Parmesan Gougères
I referenced Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris, Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and Alain Ducasse’s Food and Wine recipe for these cheese puffs.
The basic premise is the same in all recipes and the proportions don’t vary much. Heat liquid + butter + seasonings (but not pepper) to just boiling. Reduce heat to medium and mix in flour. A big dough ball will form and it smells sort of like a roux. Cook this ball for about two minutes. TK says this is to get rid of some excess moisture.
Transfer the dough to a mixer. Run for a couple minutes to diffuse some heat. Start adding eggs one at a time until the dough is more of a sticky goop. TK says that that when you lift the paddle out of the mix that it should form a peak that droops back on itself. If the goop is too stiff then add more egg. Again TK is particular here… he says to add first an egg white and then the yolk if it is too stiff. My guess is that this depends on a few factors such as how moist your dough is pre-eggs, how much water is in your butter, how big your eggs are and how much gluten is in your flour.
Once your goop is right then you mix in your cheese. I used mostly Gruyere and a little raw milk Parm. Push the mix through a pastry bag into about 2Tbs-sized globs onto your baking sheet (a recipe makes 3-4 dozen depending on how big your globs are). I followed TK’s baking instructions: Bake at 425ºF for 7-8 minutes (until the puffs start to hold their shape) and then drop temp to 350º for 20-25 minutes.
I used mini ball cake pans instead of a baking sheet. In my test run, I found that my gougères baked on sheets were flatter than I wanted so I thought that a round cooking surface would help them puff up more ball-like. The pans worked and I was very pleased with the shape of the puffs, but I discovered that because the puffs sit in the bottom of the cake bowl that the puff cooked faster; this has to be because the sides of the rounded cooking surface get hot. The puffs were good, but with TK’s cooking times plus the mini ball cake pans they were slightly overcooked. Next time I need to reduce the cooking time if I use the ball pans. I did have another problem with these mini ball cake pans: They are pretty poorly made and are not coated. Despite a ton of butter, the gougères had a tendency to stick to the pans and had to be popped out with a butter knife. I can’t imagine that getting cakes out of those things would be easy.
We served these with a bottle of Oregon bubbly: Argyle Extended Tirage Willamette Valley 1999 (WS 95 #18 in WS 2009 Top 100).
I have nothing to add except that they were the best Cheesy Poofs I ever tasted, and Noah was kind enough to let me take home the leftovers, which I shared (begrudgingly) with people who were equally impressed, a day later.
Fritto Misto of Radicchio & Fennel with Homemade Aioli
I first espied batter-fried radicchio in the Silver Spoon cookbook, but when I brought it up to Noah, he immediately hit upon the biggest problem element: Radicchio is bitter as a mofo. Noah recommended we counter the radicchio with something a bit sweeter, fennel. I was always planning to whip up some kind of a dip–I call it mayonnaise but for the purposes of our Italic lineup, we went with aioli.
The night before our dinner, at like 1am or so, I got good and drunk and decided it was time to make some mayonnaise. I whipped out Julia’s Mastering the Art, read through her mayo lecture twice, scratched my head, pulled out the Kitchen-Aid, and proceeded to do my best to screw up her recipe.
Basically, mayo is egg yolks primed with an acid, some salt and some mustard in order to accept large amounts of oil. It is a miraculous process, though it sounds a lot like the force-feeding of foie gras geese: Once you can get the yolks to take a little oil–a dribble at a time with your mixer relatively cranked–you can then start pouring it in wholesale. I highly recommend you try this, because as long as you have a mixer it’s almost impossible to screw up, despite Julia’s repeated warning of an impending “crisis.”
Sadly, my mayo–which I made with equal parts white-wine vinegar and lemon juice–did turn out on the bitter side though. I assumed it was that my EVOO was a bit turned, and that the mayo was highlighting the spoilage. I made mayo again the next day at Noah’s. (Like I said, really friggin’ easy.) But though I had a fresh bottle of EVOO, the same thing happened. Bitterness. (I made mayo a third time, a week later. I used regular vegetable oil and only fresh lemon juice. It was slightly less bitter.) In the end, I realized that I was concentrating too much on the taste of the mayo by itself. I roasted a little garlic to stir in, salted a bit more to taste, and let’s face it, the stuff became a fine thing to dip fried veggies into.
Truth be told, I didn’t think about the fried veggies again until five minutes before we made them. I had left the Silver Spoon cookbook at home, but I knew that I wanted a tempura batter. Fortunately, Noah loves Japanese cooking as much as I do, and had a wonderful resource on hand, Practical Japanese Cooking by Shizuo Tsuji and Koichiro Hata. I believe their tempura batter was 1 egg, 1 cup ice water and 1 cup flour. Ridiculously simple, like so much of great Japanese cuisine.
Noah and I both have deep fryers, and you’d really be a fool to try this without one. We filled his with (slightly used) peanut oil, and I dipped the wedge-cut fennel and radicchio into the batter and fried them up in there at 375º. They came out wonderfully: Crispy outside, cooked tender inside.
Noah, sensing both the need for a more color-balanced presentation and the need for his wife Molly to have a salad that was not completely batter-fried to a crisp, whipped up a quick greens-in-vinaigrette garnish.
Ravioli Carbonara with Fonduta di Parmigiano
This is one of Noah’s most masterful creations, so I am not going to say anything, just let him tell it like it is. Follow these instructions, people, if you want the greatest raviol’ in the history of non-traditional Italian cooking:
This dish I made from scratch and winged a fair bit of it, but I’ll recount what I can.
For the Pasta:
1 Cup All Purpose Flour
1 Cup semolina flour; extra for dusting work surfaces
3 large eggs
½ Tsp salt (optional)
1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil (optional)
Ice cold water (not used this time, but on hand if the dough was too dry)
I make my pasta using the Kitchen Aid. I also use their roller attachment. I can do it the traditional way by making a flour well, but I have twins and time is always of the essence so I cut corners here… sue me.
• Mix flour and salt in the bowl and stir with the Mixer paddle or whisk
• Add one egg at a time until the dough comes together
• Add the oil after the eggs or mid egg. I do mid egg myself, but if your house is humid or your eggs are larger than you expect then the oil might be too much liquid for your pasta. Just add a little extra flour if your dough is too sticky.
• If the dough is still sandy after the eggs and oil then I add one tblspn of ice water at a time until it comes together. If I go too far then I balance with more flour.
• Knead the dough for 2 minutes or so
• Rest the dough on a lightly floured surface for at least 15 minutes and up to a couple of hours
• Lightly over the dough with plastic wrap while it is resting
• Cut the dough into 4-5 balls and roll until desired thickness.
• I find that for me the dough can become a bit unmanageable past 6 on the dial of the Kitchen Aid roller. This could be because of the extra oil, the amount of protein or the way I mix my dough. I don’t go past 6 and kind of prefer the thickness of 5 on the dial. The ravioli this time were made with pasta rolled at 6.
For the Filling:
4 oz slab bacon or pancetta
1.5 medium onions; minced
2-4 cloves of garlic; minced
¼ to ½ Tsp red pepper flakes
¾ cup Parmigiano
½ cup Ricotta
Parsley (probably ¼ cup finely chopped)
¼ cup Heavy Cream
3 Tbs cooked spinach (w/onions, garlic, nutmeg, bacon and cream) – OPTIONAL
Salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg all to taste
• Fry the bacon, chop and reserve
• Remove all but 2 Tbs of bacon fat
• Saute the onions until they are pretty soft and starting to brown (7-8 minutes)
• Add garlic and red pepper flakes; cook until fragrant (1 minute)
• Add bacon back to pan and toss with onions and garlic; then take off heat and set aside
• Mix cheeses and cream in food processor
• Add onion mixture and pulse until well mixed
• If adding spinach mixture then add it here and pulse until well blended (you don’t want any stringy spinach in the ravioli)
• Add parsley and pulse 1-3 times to break down the parsley
• Remove to bowl and season to taste
• Add egg and thoroughly mix
• Set aside, can be refrigerated overnight
Assembling the Ravioli
(There has to be a better, more efficient, less wasteful way to do this.)
1-2 eggs per person plus 1 egg mixed with 1 Tsp of water for an egg wash
½ recipe of pasta should be more than enough for 4 people
1/3 recipe of filling should be enough for 4 people
• Separate eggs; you need enough yolks for 1-2 per person. I placed my yolks in individual small prep bowls.
• Lay out 1 sheet of pasta; call it 12”-18” long
• Place 1-2 Tbs of filling evenly spaced apart down the center of the pasta sheet
• Make a well in each dollop of filling
• Gently nestle 1 yolk in each well
• Brush the egg wash around the outside of each filling mound
• Gently layer a second sheet of pasta over the filling
• Very gently begin pressing the pasta together around the mound of filling. Your goal is to press all of the air out of the ravioli.
• Cut the ravioli using a ravioli crimper. Here is what I used. It isn’t a very sturdy tool, but it did the job.
• Cook the ravioli in gently boiling salted water for 3 minutes
For the Fonduta di Parmigiano (aka the sauce)
This sauce I pilfered/modified from a Batali recipe, but I didn’t add the yolks to the sauce because I figured that the yolk from the ravioli would mix with the cream/parm mixture.
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup parmigiano
¼ tspn freshly grated nutmeg
• Heat the cream to just boiling. Remove from the heat and add the cheese and nutmeg. Seems really similar to a Mornay sauce without the roux.
• In a small sauce pan poach 4 cloves of peeled and trimmed garlic over low low heat in clarified butter (30 minutes). The butter should almost cover the garlic. Be careful not to burn.
• Press garlic into butter and mix.
• Transfer mixture to a larger sauté pan.
• Fry 1-2 slices of bacon or pancetta per person and reserve; Cut the bacon so that you have 4 evenly sized pieces per person. We used the Mangalitsa Pig Jowl Bacon.
• Assemble the whole thing.
• Heat garlic butter mixture in sauté pan.
• Boil the ravioli for 3 minutes and gently remove from pan.
• Transfer ravioli to sauté pan with butter and garlic. Quickly sauté the ravioli (you do not want to overcook your yolk here) and baste with the butter-garlic mixture in the pan.
• In a pasta bowl place pieces of bacon at the compass points of the bowl or whatever way suits you best.
• Place 1-2 ravioli in each bowl
• Spoon 2 Tbs of Fonduta over each serving
• Lightly sprinkle with breadcrumbs, parsley and grated parm. Crank some black pepper over each dish and serve.
• The filling was made the night before.
• The pasta and ravioli were assembled the morning of.
• Sauce and cooking happened right before service.
• From health perspective making the raviolis in advance was OK (at least none of us got sick). I had read from several sources that yolks would keep out of their shell in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. Supposedly there is danger of them absorbing odors from the refrigerator, but since my yolks were sitting on top of ravioli filling made up of cheese, onion, bacon and garlic I wasn’t really worried about other odors penetrating.
• From a finished product perspective there were some challenges. The biggest of which is that the filling is fairly wet especially once you add an egg yolk so after the ravioli sat in the refrigerator for 6 to 7 hours (from 7 AM to 2 PM) some of them had started to get sticky on the bottom and were splitting/seeping. I quick-fixed this problem by liberally re-dusting everything with semolina, but by the time we cooked everything we lost a few ravioli in the water because the pasta structure had been compromised by moisture. I had pre-made 8 raviolis and only 6 survived the boiling. Fortunately this dish is so rich that you really only need 1 per person (at least at the size they were that night). I had done a test run of this dish a couple weeks prior and it was super easy when I made the pasta, assembled the ravioli and cooked the dish all in one go. The ravioli can be made ahead, but I’d recommend assembling and serving right away if possible. This will give you the best texture for your pasta and preserve the fussy work required to make the dish. In future attempts I’d definitely lean towards making and serving. I would also look into quail eggs for the yolks as I’d like to have smaller raviolis and serve two per plate.
Pork Belly with Romano, Swiss Chard and Balsamic Glaze
This was another of Noah’s master strokes, the piggiest (and most decadently succulent) dish of the night. Fortunately if prep for that ravioli scared you away, you’ll be happy to hear that this one is far more doable by the laity:
For the Pork Belly
For the pork belly we followed the recipe from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Meat Cookbook. Again we used the Mangalitsa meat purchased from Wooly Pigs.
• Bake at 425 for 30 minutes until the fat is crackling
• Reduce heat to 375 and continue to bake for another 60 minutes
• I wrapped the cooked pork belly in foil and threw it in a brown paper bag for an hour or so. We reserved the rendered fat.
• At service I removed the ribs and then cut the pork belly into eight even pieces which we sautéed in reserved pork belly fat and shallots.
• I trimmed the meat from the ribs and reserved this as well for inclusion in the chard.
• Plunge the chard into an ice bath to stop the cooking
• Lay the chard flat on cooking sheets and press dry with paper towels
• Set aside until ready to use
• Chop the chard into even squares
• Heat some oil (or use the rendered pig fat like we did)
• Saute some shallots for 3-5 minutes (1-2 shallots. We used minced, but I think I would have preferred thinly sliced rings)
• Saute some garlic for 1 minute
• Add the Chard and the reserve pork from the ribs
• Toss with shallots/garlic
• Liberally douse with black pepper
• Salt to taste
• Splash with red wine vinegar as desired
For the Balsamic Glaze
2 cups cheap balsamic vinegar
½ Tsp instant espresso
½ Tsp unsweetened cocoa
½ Tsp ground star anise
½ Tsp ground ginger
• Reduce the mixture over a super low flame for 2-3 hours. You should have about ½ cup at the end. In reality I got impatient (and tired) so I think I had somewhere between ½ a cup and ¾ of a cup. I will probably further reduce this glaze to thicken it a bit.
For the Assembly
• Saute the pork belly squares in reserved pork belly fat; I believe we threw the rest of the shallots from our prep bowl in the pan for this step
• Make a small dot of balsamic glaze on each plate. (This was a mistake, but since it is what I did I’m writing it down. I wouldn’t do this again.)
• Place a small mound of chard on the balsamic glaze dot (again a mistake by starting with the glaze)
• Shave a couple pieces of pecorino romano over the chard (I used a pecorino that was coated in black pepper in this case)
• Place two pieces of the sautéed pork belly on top of the cheese shavings
• Drizzle with balsamic glaze
• Fresh ground black pepper
• As stated above, the first puddle of balsamic glaze was too much and it overwhelmed the plate. I’d not repeat that step in the future.
• I thought that the pork belly was actually a little over sautéed. If I did this again I think I’d either time things so that the pork belly was served straight out of the oven after roasting (preferred) or I’d sauted the fat side to recrisp and take it easy on the bottom and other 4 sides. I’d take lukewarm over overcooked here. That said, the wooly pig meat was still of such high quality that I personally didn’t think the extra balsamic glaze or the slightly over sautéing ruined the dish. It could have been better and more refined, but not a bad first stab at pork belly. I’ve paid for and eaten much worse at fancier tables than my own dining room.
• Last thought on this is that application of the balsamic glaze would have benefited from a squeeze bottle. For the future, rather than apply the glaze directly to the food I might dot the edge of the plates with the glaze and let the diner dip their bites as they chose.
Rack of Lamb & Cherry Mint Relish with Cauliflower Gratin and Sous Vide Carrots, Parsnips and Snap Peas
During our meal planning, Noah expressed an interest in leg of lamb, but since I had the SousVide Supreme for just one final weekend, I wanted to do rack of lamb: Sous vide is a way to cook tender meats to near perfection; tougher cuts do well in the water bath, especially for several days, but there are plenty of other slow-cook methods that are just as good–or better. We vacuum-sealed our meat with salt, pepper and thyme sprigs, and set the sous vide machine for 135ºF, leaving them in for a few hours.
At the same time, we’d purchased some nice root veggies at the farmer’s market, and wanted to sous vide them with butter. Vegetables need to cook at 183º though, so we couldn’t do them at the same time. This would end up causing a little bit of grief later on, because it meant that a) we had to remove the lamb early, causing it to cool down unnecessarily before we seared it, and b) we didn’t have as long to cook the carrots and parsnips, the latter of which turned out on the chewy side.
We also did up some snap peas, spotted by Noah at the local Whole Foods, cooked sous vide with butter and mint. As Noah puts it, “The butter and mint were a nice subtle addition that I felt worked well with the lamb.”
From Josh Silver chef owner of Syrah Bistro in Santa Rosa (as presented in Wine Spectator Magazine June 30, 2009)
For the Relish:
1 1/2 cups fresh black cherries, pitted (I had to use frozen cherries which was an OK substitute, but not great as the sugar level was too concentrated and they just didn’t tast as fresh. I also didn’t love their texture.)
1 Tsp vin cotto (or equal parts honey and red wine) (I used a bit more of this… maybe double)
1/2 small shallot, peeled and minced
6 to 8 mint leaves, chopped
Pinch of fleur de sel
Few grinds fresh black pepper
• Mix ingredients in a small bowl and let stand for several minutes (or can be refrigerated several hours). Makes 1 1/2 cups.
In the past I’ve made this, but cooked down about half the cherries and all of the shallots. Basically more of a compote than a relish, but I like it more saucy. I didn’t do this here and I think it was a mistake. Another issue with the relish is that it probably should have been brought to room temperature. We served it straight out of the refrigerator. The chilly cherry relish plus the lukewarm lamb was a bit odd when combined with the hot vegetables and the piping hot gratin.
The final component in the entrée course was the cauliflower gratin, which Noah followed as written in Thomas Keller’s Bouchon cookbook. (Luckily for cheap bastards, somebody reprinted it online here.) Noah points out that he used the yellow curry powder blend TK described in Ad Hoc at Home.
Though the gratin took the fall during our meal, being the thing most of us were too stuffed to enjoy, it took starring role in the leftover lineup the following day. God bless this stuff.
Panna Cotta with Caramel and Blueberry Compote
At this point we couldn’t see straight let alone fit anything into our stomachs, but I had attempted panna cotta for the first time and everyone was willing to humor me by giving it a taste. I’m gonna come out and say it now: I messed it up. The flavor was pretty much ideal, but the consistency was as wrong as wrong can be. I skimmed several recipes in the Silver Spoon, choosing one that resembled, at least superficially, what I had done to make creme brulee in the past, so I felt like it would be easy. But somewhere between folding beaten egg whites into the boiled cream (which I doubt I cooled enough), and baking them in a water bath at an all too low temperature (275ºF??? Really?), the custard just did not congeal. Some panna cotta goes with gelatin, and it is my express intention to read up on this approach. The Silver Spoon cookbook is good, but the panna cotta recipe it has that features gelatin was translated too literally from the Italian, instead of being a useful country-to-country transposition, so I had to skip it. Next time, creamy jello or bust.
Oh, to get that nice consistency you see in the gorgeous picture? Frozen. We froze the ramekins when it was clear they weren’t setting properly. So it was panna gelata, but not in a good way.
Noah whipped up a blueberry compote (Josh Silver’s, from the June 30, 2009 Wine Spectator), which he thinks was unnecessary. I loved it, and by this time I was looking for anything that could cover my mistakes, but in a perfect world, sure, it might have been superfluous.