28 February 2010

Wide pasta with fresh tomato sauce

Tonight's pasta left me wanting more.  As I was making the dough I added another egg because it felt too stiff and dry, but adding an egg made a sticky mess of the whole thing and it took ten minutes to really incorporate it into the mass of already-formed dough.  There is nothing like the feel of well-kneaded pasta dough; it's softer than silk, pliable, fragrant, and almost cool to the touch.
I made sauce while the dough rested.  A carrot, two stalks of celery, an onion, and half a yellow pepper in a big glug of olive oil.  Salt, pepper, and a more-than-generous three-finger pinch of marjoram.  For the past six months I've been using lots of marjoram; it adds a sweet, floral brightness that I can't seem to get enough of. Then a large ziploc bag of plain, frozen tomatoes, quickly cooked last fall to make it easier to put them into gallon-sized freezer bags.  We lay them flat and stack them on the freezer shelves.  Uffda, they were acidic, though, so I added a tablespoon of sugar and let everything simmer for a half hour or so. 
My pasta machine's rollers go from 7 - the widest setting, to 1 - the narrowest, and the narrower the opening the thinner the pasta.  I usually roll my pasta dough to a 2 or 3, making it thin but still with some body and heft.  The dough was rolling out nice, and some of the pieces were extremely long, so long I had to cut them into thirds to fit on the table. I decided to hand cut the noodles tonight, and it's easy if a little flour is sprinkled on the sheets of dry-to-the-touch-but still-pliable dough.  I rolled it up and cut it into 1/2 - 1 inch widths - I wanted a big, wide pasta this evening.
I've been having a little trouble lately with fresh pasta cooling and clumping up after it's cooked, so I decided to take the pasta right from the water and mix it immediately with the sauce.  It cooked quickly - two minutes or so, and I used a pasta scoop to retrieve the long, wide noodles.  With water still streaming off the noodles, I transferred them to the sauce pan, and then stirred them gently to coat them in sauce.  From there the pasta went into oven-warmed bowls, and into the dining room.
What was it that made it so good tonight?   The yellow pepper added sweetness to the sauce, and the summer tomatoes were bursting with flavor.  The bite of fresh pasta can't be beat, especially when it's coated with just-cooked memories of last summer.  Spring doesn't seem all that far off now.

25 February 2010

Duck Fat Frittata

I started this frittata with a few tablespoons of duck fat in the enameled cast-iron frying pan. A low flame softened the fat slowly, and as it melted it turned clear and pooled on the bottom of the pan. A sliced onion came first, followed by four or five small potatoes, also thinly sliced. I let them soften in the low heat while I fished a few rabbit hearts and kidneys from the bowl of many-times-used-for-confit duck fat, memories of poaching them in the fat many months ago a fading memory. I sliced the meat pieces and scattered them around the frying pan, letting the clinging fat melt into the whole. A generous sprinkle of tarragon followed by a little thyme, and then I shook a heavy dose of black pepper over the whole thing.

I broke five fresh eggs into a bowl and beat them with a fork, and then tasted the onion-potato mixture to see if any additional salt was needed. Turning the heat down very low, I poured the eggs into the pan and grated parmesan cheese over the whole thing. My eight-year old daughter and I read a reader’s theater version of Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter for twenty minutes or so while the frittata cooked, and when the whole thing was firm except for an egg-y liquid that moved just underneath a now-forming crust, I put it under the broiler for a minute or two. I let it rest briefly, but my daughter and I were hungry and no one else was home, so we each ate a pie-shaped piece of frittata along with a big salad. We speared lettuce on the tines of our forks, and had a contest to see how much lettuce we could retrieve with a single poke into the salad bowl. The frittata was delicious, but we remembered the Spanish omelette we ate at the beginning of winter at a friend’s house, on a baguette, and wished we had one. And for dessert, a bowl of applesauce with a deep dusting of Vietnamese cinnamon on top.


My friend and neighbor Doug shared this wonderful Pannukakku recipe because he, too, raises chickens and has an abundance of eggs; our family is quickly adopting his family's tradition of eating it weekly! Pannukakku is, besides being a wonderful word, a Finnish pancake that is more popover than pancake. The simple batter rests for a half hour before being baked, and the pan is coated with ½ stick butter. What I like so much about it is that it tastes so buttery; I think it’s because no butter is added to the batter, and the butter in the pan eventually pools on the top of the pannukakku, bubbling right on the surface and making it taste more buttery than it actually is. We still have many pounds of blueberries in the freezer, so lightly whipped cream is a great accompaniment to blueberries heated in a pan for a few minutes – it takes the chill out of them. A few years ago we went through a “Waffle Friday” faze, eating a wide assortment of waffles and toppings for Friday night dinner, so it’s nice to circle back with a new variant. I’ve seen pictures where the edges of pannukakku rise dramatically, like the wings of a spotted eagle ray gliding through the Caribbean.

1-1/2 C flour (I use 1/2 C whole wheat)
1-1/2 C milk
6 eggs
1 T sugar
1 t salt
1/4 C butter for the baking pan

heavy cream for whipping

In a bowl, whisk together first 5 ingredients until no lumps remain. Let stand 30 minutes. Preheat over to 450. Melt butter in a 9x13 pan by placing it in the preheating oven. (Remove pan when butter is melted to avoid scorching.) Brush entire pan with melted butter before pouring in the pancake batter. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, until edges are puffed high and golden. Top with whipped cream and fresh fruit (or thawed frozen blueberries.) Can also be served with a squeeze of lemon and powdered sugar. Serves 4 - 6.

19 February 2010

1981 Chateau Haut Brion

Three friends, sitting around a table with a beautiful bottle of wine.  Dan, our host and generous provider of this 1st Growth Bordeaux, was a boy when the grapes in this bottle were growing.  I took my first trip to Ireland and France in 1981; I washed dishes for months in a Greek diner in Buffalo to pay for it.  I was in Ireland for about four months before my already-meager savings were gone, so I took a ferry to France and ended up near Carcassonne, picking tomatoes with Moroccans and eating my first brain tagine.
So here we were, decades later, marveling at the time that had passed since the wine was bottled.  We were encouraged by the very small ullage, and excited when we removed the capsule and saw a cork in great condition.
From the first pour, this wine unfolded with strength, suppleness, and incredible elegance. Mature Bordeaux is such a joy to drink!  Pencil shavings and moist tobacco, followed by deep green peppers and lavender.  Joel pulled out its peaty earthiness, and we continually inhaled the ripe aromas of an old forest floor.  We played with words and were repaid with a finish so long I could taste it when I went to work the next morning.  Really.  It is so enjoyable to give a great wine its due.
I think a wine like this is a contemplative balm; there isn't a barrage of berries or fruit to pull us into a talky streak; no, this wine sang to our northern, winter brains.  As we drank the wine, each of us using all of our senses, our memories, our feelings, to embrace this wine and understand it, it was clear that whether someone's tasting notes contained "leather" or not was irrelevant.  We can use all our words to name something but we won't be able to taste it unless (or until) we let the wine speak for itself.  A wine like this really has its own personality, and it's completely different than a young wine, so much so that if we were looking for something familiar we'd miss the powerful, nuanced depth of the bottle.  It's funny how we kept coming back to anthropomorphic descriptors to understand the wine, maybe because we've all known people much older than ourselves who puzzle, delight, mystify, and inspire us - all at the same time. 
We couldn't hope for a better bottle of wine.  The centuries of craftsmanship and vinicultural stewardship that have made Haut Brion a great estate were in abundance in this bottle, and all three of us were grateful for the opportunity to drink this wine, plucked from the procession of time.

15 February 2010


It's easy to think about food when we have so much of it.  It’s easy to indulge our interests when we’re encouraged to do so.  Food is, after all, central to our existence.  Although we’re emotionally removed from the burden of finding our food, we still spend huge amounts of our time surviving.  But we never think of it that way.  It’s just stopping at the coffee shop before work, having a doughnut with co-workers, bringing leftovers to work, thinking about lunch, eating and digesting it, wondering what to have for a snack, talking about dinner plans, stopping at the grocery store for milk and fruit, shopping, canning, freezing, gardening, and everything else that makes up a significant amount of our day, yet we never think of food as a survival issue.  Just like how we drive 75 miles an hour on the highway and never think about crashing until we see one, and we instinctively slow down: we’re hurtling along in a box of steel and plastic and it’s dangerous!  And food is still needed for survival, even when we dress it up in a restaurant and pay insane prices for a bellyful of nutrition.  So even though we don’t think about it in terms of survival, we’re still fulfilling that function every time we eat.  We’re mammals wandering the face of the earth, hoping not to starve, willing to do almost anything to survive.

And because our immediate survival isn’t usually on our minds when we eat our meat-and-three, it’s not surprising that the tradition of fasting has been abandoned by most Americans.  While it still plays a mostly-symbolic role for a few Americans, fasting is still actively practiced in other parts of the world and by adherents to many faiths.  But why fast?  Why go without food and cause discomfort?  What’s the point of it?  Did fasting arise out of necessity?  Why have people across time and continents willingly denied themselves food?  One could probably stand a short distance from fasting and judge it as an unnecessary and perhaps bizarre ritual.  From my perspective it seems like fasting is still relevant to people, but the farther we go from a sense of kinship – whether literal or spiritual – with poverty, the more remote the idea of fasting seems.  Fasting might seem like an extreme sacrifice to well (or over)-fed people, but a more common exercise or discipline for the spiritually-minded and those for whom hunger isn’t a distant memory. 

By fasting we recognize the primal role that food plays in our lives, that our attention to nourishing or simply filling our bodies is so dominant that we are aware of it only when we temporarily reject it.  And when we do that we can ask what other questions need to be answered.  Maybe fasting makes us more empathetic, more in sympathy with those who suffer the oppression of real hunger.  Fasting can humble us, too, because we quickly feel that very little separates the rich from the poor, the successful from the downtrodden, when the pangs of hunger begin to gnaw.  Fasting can give us strength, too, because we learn that our will, our spirit, our perseverance, can overcome limitations of the body.  Food keeps us from starving, but I think of fasting as something more than mock-hunger.  Are we, as living beings, our bodies alone?  Or is there a part of us that hunger cannot starve, which is nourished in emptiness?

Hunger is something completely different, and its devastating impact is felt by more than 1 billion people worldwide.  That number is so big it’s difficult to comprehend.  How can that many people be hungry?  And what can individuals do about it?  It’s a global issue that is affected by the highest levels of politics, bureaucracy, climate, war, and distribution.  Should we support any of the innumerable organizations that combat hunger, or urge our legislators to address hunger at a macro level?  When we support our local food shelf are we ignoring the larger problems of poverty and public health?  The ubiquity of fast food in the United States is directly related to our obesity epidemic, but it’s harder to sort through all the processed, prepared, and packaged food that sits on every grocery store shelf.  From packaged lasagna to sweetened snack bars, the gap between food that we eat directly from the earth and that which goes through significant processing continues to grow.  We are overrun by Kraft, Pepsico, and all the intermediaries who change our food.  How are we to understand global hunger when we’re overfed and preserved by endless food additives?

With so many hungry people in this world, and with so much food wasted in the United States, should Americans make an effort to better understand hunger?  Should we fast, not only for spiritual reasons, but to better know what hunger feels like?  Maybe if we experience hunger we’ll begin to get an inkling of its corrosive effect on societies around the world.  How many desperate acts begin with hunger?  And how much indifference is exhibited by us with the full stomachs?

07 February 2010

Big ravioli

A cold winter day and with fresh eggs in the fridge I thought about ravioli again.
I chopped up and sauteed spinach, added a fair amount of fresh ginger and green onions, and cooked it a little longer.  I broke up a hunk of blue cheese and almost a cup of ricotta.  An egg, salt and pepper, and the filling was ready to go.
As I rolled the dough out, lengthening and flattening it, I wanted to try something different.  So, instead of putting little teaspoons of filling onto the dough, I decided to make a few large ones, too - huge ones, in fact.  I made a sheet of regular, 2" squares, and then went large.  5"x6" or so, and when I cooked them, one at a time, the edges of the pasta waved like a sting ray gliding through water.  The large squarish shapes held together beautifully when cooking, and I used a slotted spoon to retrieve them.  I swished them around in a little butter and served them whole; we folded them over like crepes and seconds couldn't come quick enough.