Food improvisation

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I attended a charity event recently and received a gift bag full of health-conscious swag upon leaving. In among the certificates good for yoga classes and massages was a package of par-baked flatbread. Interesting choice. While I would rather have made my own or at least use some fresh bread from a bakery I decided to give this flatbread a try. Why not? It was free and it was here. So on my walk home from work I stopped by the store and grabbed a few ingredients to throw together. On a side note, I’m a maker of lists. When I plan a trip to the store I always make a list. It definitely helps me to remember what it is I actually need when I am so easily distracted by all of the glorious rows and displays of food. But on this day I had a moment of food improvisation. It reminded me of trips to the farmer’s market. Oh how I do miss going to the farmer’s market. It’s so darn cold here that the markets don’t open until May. On market days I bring my empty bags and fill them with whatever catches my eye. No agenda, no plan. Just beautiful, fresh fruits and veggies beckoning me to take them home and prepare them.

In honor of the temporary warm, very spring-like weather I was inspired to make something fresh and tasty. What I came away with was a container of ricotta cheese, prosciutto, arugula and perfectly ripe pears. This would have been delicious with some plump and velvety figs but it’s too early for figs and there weren’t any at the store. There really isn’t a recipe to this dish. I threw the flatbread in the oven to crisp it up a bit and then topped it with a delicate pillow of creamy ricotta, followed by thin slices of perfectly salty prosciutto. Then back into the oven to slightly soften the cheese and let the prosciutto get a tad bit crispy. While that was happening I made a quick balsamic vinegar reduction on the stove. After the bread came out of the oven I finished it off by throwing on some peppery arugula to add a great texture and then the fragrant slices of pear. A drizzle of the balsamic reduction and a few grinds of fresh black pepper and the flatbread was ready to eat. It took less than 8 minutes. Not too bad for a quick and satisfying spring dinner. I’m not mentioning the flatbread brand because, to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t that great. It made do for what I wanted but I wouldn’t recommend it or buy it again.

Ricotta and Pear Topped Flatbread

2 pieces flatbread of your choice

8 oz whole milk ricotta

4 oz thinly sliced prosciutto

2 c arugula

1 pear, thinly sliced

1/2 c balsamic vinegar

fresh ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place flatbread on a baking sheet and heat in the oven 3-4 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan over medium heat until it’s reduced by half. Remove from oven and spread 4 oz of ricotta onto each flatbread. Top with the slices of prosciutto and return to the oven for another 3-4 minutes. Then top with the arugula and pears, drizzle the balsamic vinegar over, and sprinkle with black pepper. That’s it!

Pillowy pasta perfection

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I’m back! I know it’s been far too long since I posted. Sometimes life happens and you just have to live it, you know? But I’m here now and I have many food moments to report. First off, it seems spring has finally sprung in Chicago! It’s been a couple of gorgeous days in a row now and tomorrow is looking even better. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me and my fellow Chicagoans. It was a brutal, I mean BRUTAL, winter and we’ve earned some sunshine and warm air. Bring it on, Mother Nature! And if I ever complain about the heat in future posts, by all means, slap me. My second bit of good news is that I finally managed to make a winning homemade pasta. The first time I attempted pasta from scratch was over a year ago and it came out so chewy and not very flavorful. When I set out to make some last week I vowed to make it work. The previews two times (yes, I failed miserably twice before) I had purchased dried pasta as a back up, just in case. Needless to say, I trashed my doughy mess and opened the pasta box. This time I didn’t give myself the option of dried pasta. I was going to get this right.

I had recently seen an episode of Secrets of a Restaurant Chef where Anne Burrell made a delicious looking Pappardelle with Wild Boar Ragu. I saw this as a challenge to myself to finally perfect a pasta dough. Despite the long list of ingredients the ragu is incredibly simple to put together. Instead of buying hard to find wild boar I used a pork shoulder instead. I’m pretty sure it’s a comparable substitute. I put the pot on and got my pork all prepped and let it braise. That part was all well and good. Then I grabbed my flour and eggs, rolled my sleeves up and turned my attention to the pasta. I have to say I was a bit nervous since I didn’t have any backup dried pasta. I also realized at this point that I don’t make a lot of pasta dishes anymore. I used to have a stocked pantry of ready to use pasta but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. I suppose that’s a good thing. I’ve been branching out and using more grains lately. I guess we all go through food phases.

So anyway, I used the correct ingredients and technique and the damn dough was dry and shaggy and ticking me off. I Googled photos of pasta dough in it’s various stages and mine didn’t look like any of them. In a state of frustration I grabbed another egg and cracked it right on top of my doughy mess not knowing what else to do. I started working that egg into the dough while silently reaffirming my abilities to do anything correct when lo and behold the dough became soft and cohesive and, like a Christmas miracle, I had a ball of pillowy pasta perfection! I could have cried but I didn’t want to over salt the dough. The secret all along had been to add an extra egg. I’m thinking it’s something to do with altitude and/or humidity and adjusting for your climate. After letting it sit for an hour it was ready to be rolled into ribbons of beautiful pappardelle. I was finally able to use my pasta maker attachment for my Kitchenaid which had been sitting dormant in the darkness of the cabinet for far too long. Looking at the tray of pasta that I had created from scratch made me so proud and was definitely a good food moment for me. It was also a point of no return. You know why some of those pasta dishes you have at a really quality restaurant are so amazing? It’s the homemade pasta. It’s like nothing else. Pasta from scratch isn’t necessary for every pasta dish, though. I know for a fact that actual Italians use boxed pasta all of the time. But whenever I plan to make ravioli or lasagna from this time forward I will always make my own pasta for it.

The ragu came out tasting so rich and delicious and when combined with the noodles that take only a minute to cook it was heavenly. Silky, smooth, hearty and flavorful…words to eat by.

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PAPPARDELLE WITH WILD BOAR RAGU

Ingredients

4 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped

2 carrots, coarsely chopped

2 celery ribs, coarsely chopped

2 onions, coarsely chopped

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 boneless wild boar shoulder, cut into1/2-inch chunks (about 3 pounds)

Kosher salt

1 cup tomato paste

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

8 juniper berries, finely chopped

2 cups red wine

5 bay leaves

1 bundle fresh thyme

1 recipe Chef Anne’s Pappardelle, recipe follows

Grated Parmigiano, for sprinkling

Big fat finishing olive oil

 

Chef Anne’s Pappardelle:

1 pound all-purpose flour

4 whole eggs, plus 1 yolk

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Directions

In a food processor, puree the garlic, carrots, celery and onions into a coarse paste. Reserve.

Coat a large, wide pot with olive oil and bring to a high heat. Sprinkle the boar generously with salt and add to the hot pan. Cook the boar until it is VERY brown on all sides. Remove the boar from the pan and reserve.

Ditch the excess oil in the pan. Add a few drops of new oil and add the pureed veggies to the pan. Season them with salt, and brown them until crud forms on the bottom of the pan. Scrape the crud off the bottom of the pan (don’t let the crud burn- it adds A LOT of flavor).

Return the browned boar to the pan and add the tomato paste and cocoa powder. Stir to combine and cook the tomato paste for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Toss in the chopped juniper berries.

Add the wine and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and let the wine reduce by half.

Add water to the pan so it covers the boar by about 1-inch. Toss in the bay leaves and thyme bundle. Taste the liquid and season with salt if needed (it will). Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce to a simmer and let cook for 3 hours, adding water as the liquid level reduces. Taste frequently and re-season as needed.

During the last 30 minutes of cooking time, let the cooking liquid reduce and the sauce get thick.

Also during the last 30 minutes of cooking, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat to cook the pappardelle. Pasta water should ALWAYS be well salted. Salty as the ocean! TASTE IT! If your pasta water is under seasoned, it doesn’t matter how good your sauce is, your complete dish will always taste under seasoned. When the water is at a rolling boil add the pappardelle and cook until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.

While the pasta is cooking, remove 1/2 of the ragu from the pot and reserve.

Drain the pasta and add to the pot with the remaining ragu. Stir or toss the pasta to coat with the sauce. Add some of the reserved sauce if needed to make it about an even ratio between pasta and sauce. Add the reserved pasta cooking water and cook the pasta and sauce together over a medium heat until the water has reduced. Turn off the heat and give a generous drizzle of the big fat finishing olive oil. Toss or stir vigorously. Divide the pasta and sauce into serving bowls or one big pasta bowl. Top with grated Parmigiano. Serve immediately.

Chef Anne’s Pappardelle:

Place the flour on a clean, dry work surface. Make a hole (this is also called a well) in the center of the flour pile that is about 8 inches wide (bigger is definitely better here). Crack all of the eggs and the yolk into the hole and add the olive oil, salt and 1 to 2 tablespoons water.

Using a fork, beat the eggs together with the olive oil, water (or more if needed) and salt. Using the fork, begin to incorporate the flour into the egg mixture, be careful not to break the sides of the well or the egg mixture will run all over your board and you will have a big mess! Also, don’t worry about the lumps. When enough flour has incorporated into the egg mixture that it will not run all over the place when the sides of the well are broken, begin to use your hands to really get everything well combined. If the mixture is tight and dry, wet your hands and begin kneading with wet hands. When the mixture has really come together to a homogeneous mixture, THEN you can start kneading.

When kneading it is VERY important to put your body weight into it, get on top of the dough to really stretch it and not to tear the dough. Using the heels of your palms, roll the dough to create a very smooooooth, supple dough. When done, the dough should look VERY smooth and feel almost velvety. Kneading will usually take from 8 to 10 minutes for an experienced kneader and 10 to 15 for an inexperienced kneader. Put your body weight into it, you need to knead! This is where the perfect, toothsome texture of your pasta is formed. Get in there and have fun!

When the pasta has been kneaded to the perfect consistency, wrap it in plastic and let rest for at least 1 hour. If using immediately, do not refrigerate.

To roll the pasta: Cut off 1/3 of the pasta dough, reserve the rest and keep it covered.

Squash the pasta with the heels of your hands to facilitate it going through the pasta roller. Dust with flour. Put the pasta through the roller set on number one. Roll the dough through 2 times, dusting it with flour if it feels sticky or tacky.

Fold the pasta into thirds and put it through the machine on number one again.

Change the setting on the pasta roller to number two and run the pasta through. Continue to roll the pasta through the machine, changing the setting each time to a larger number (this will make the opening on the pasta machine smaller). When you get to the desired thin-ness (I recommend number six), cut the pasta into 10-inch lengths. Flour the dough generously and stack them in a pile. Cover the stack with plastic or a clean tea towel and proceed rolling the rest of the pasta.

When the pasta is all rolled, take 3 sheets of pasta and fold both ends of the pasta over each other until they meet in the middle.

Using a sharp knife, cut the pasta rolls into 1-inch widths. Unroll the pasta “ribbons” and dust with semolina and reserve on sheet trays.