Friday, December 25, 2009

Making gnocchi: a pictorial

Well, good news. My husband bought me a camera for Christmas. He claims it's a good one. Which is fortunate, because not only am I not a good photographer, I am not interested in learning how to become a good photographer. I'm about as interested in the workings of a camera as I am in learning how to do my own taxes.

These pictures are with the old camera. From here on in, we can use them as a benchmark. We'll look at the new pictures, then at these, and marvel at just how great the new pictures are.

Step one (see top picture). For manhandling the dough, I used one of my favorite kitchen tools, a plastic bench scraper. I got it at a cool, old French cookware store in Paris called Dehillerin. If you're ever looking for old, crotchety French guys in aprons, Dehillerin is a good place to look.

It's a good thing I have a tall husband. He took this overhead shot of my sticky fingers.

The action shots. In real time, it took me about 15 minutes to form all the gnocchi. My sister-in-law got me that great apron from a trip to some Scandinavian country - I can't remember which one.

The gigantic gnocchi, resting comfortably. I think they should have been half that size.

The finished dish. This is where a good camera might come in handy - like when something needs to look appetizing. They were actually pretty good for a first timer. My son deemed them, "Good enough to eat," and then cleaned his plate. Next time, we downsize.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Things I learned while making gnocchi

First. Gnocchi making and hot sex do not necessarily go together.

I say this with some regret, since I fondly remember the scene in Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather III where Andy Garcia and Coppola's real-life daughter Sofia do the deed over a batch of floury gnocchi. At the time, I thought Andy Garcia was the cat's pajamas (today's verdict: too hairy), and the whole of the scene - sex between cousins, marinara simmering on the stove, the rolling of the gnocchi - was almost too much to bear. Gnocchi took on a whole new meaning for me, an exalted pairing of food and eroticism.

(For the record, there was no hot sex, or any other kind of gnocchi sex, today.)

Second. Chefs lie.

I'd like to think there are some chefs I can trust. Like Mario Batali. He seems like a straight shooter. He doesn't try to look good for the cameras. Plus, he's an eater. Turn the cameras off, and he's still stuffing his face. This is the mark of a real cook, one you can trust.

Today, I used his recipe. Ricotta gnocchi with Italian sausage from his fabulous restaurant, Lupa, in Greenwich Village. I've had the gnocchi twice there, and both times, a revelation. I didn't know you could have the same revelation twice. But I did.

I've used the term "pleasure bomb" before, but nowhere is it more apt than here. Ricotta gnocchi are different from potato gnocchi because a) they're cheesy, and b) they're slightly chewy. Served with a fennel-laced Italian sausage marinara, they become arguably the perfect food. Salty, tangy, spicy, both chewy and tender, and just a little bit sweet from the carrots (Mario's secret ingredient in the sauce). My only complaint: too few on the plate. Come on, Mario, when you concoct something this great, give the people more of what they want.

But back to the lie. So, I'm about to form the gnocchi. Mario says to take about 2 Tbs. of dough and roll it into balls. So, like a good soldier, I do just that. I then drop the little balls into boiling water (as instructed), only to watch them inflate like balloons.

What were supposed to be little nuggets of cheesy pleasure are now swollen knobs of cheesy pleasure, grotesque in their elephantine size. Due to this development, I have decided to put on a second pot of water for tortellini because I know my kids will not eat something that is apparently made for Andre the Giant.

Did Mario lie? Did he not want me to have yet a third revelation? Sometimes I think chefs leave out the most important steps in their recipes because they can't bear to share the wealth. It's an ego thing. No one - not one person on this whole planet - can make this _______ as well as me.

As for the gnocchi, I'll post a picture of the finished dish and you can have a good chuckle over your holiday roast beast. As a friend of mine might say, it's gotta be 'roids.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Fried pork rinds and the lure of sockless gentlemen

We finally went to The Publican the other night, that super hip temple of pork and shellfish that is probably the traifest place I've ever come across. Right this minute, my kosher-keeping grandmother is rolling around in her grave at the thought of all the ham I ate, the mussels and clams I sucked down, and the gluttony with which I ate all of it.

Gastronomy aside, the Publican is probably too hip for me. For one thing, I did not at all understand the booths for four. They're enclosed on all sides with wood - like veal pens, my husband noted - and to get in, the waiter swings a door open, the patron slides in, and the door is closed behind him. There's probably some historical significance to this set-up. Perhaps the English noblemen sat in the enclosed booths for privacy while the commoners stood at the bar once upon a time ago. But once I envisioned the veal pen, there was no going back. Fortunately, we sat a two top.

The room feels like a nicotine-stained common house where sweaty men congregate after work under giant globe lamps to consume their ale and, with any luck, get shnockered. We came for the beer list, too, but mostly we came for the food. Paul Kahan, the chef, is one of those guys that may have a PR machine running at hyper speed, but truly puts delicious food on the plate in spite of it.

His menu is one of parts. There's veal heart, head cheese, sweetbreads, spicy fried pork rinds (a must-have, I hear), and even a little pig's ear in a salad. For queasy eaters like me, there's plenty of seafood, too, and his vegetable dishes are as intriguing as everything else.

Appropriately, we over-ordered. We got a tasting of three hams with goat butter and rustic bread, roasted woodland mushrooms with hazelnuts and burrata (a melty by-product of mozzarella making), a huge iron pot of the best mussels I've had in a long time with a loaf of crusty bread, and an even bigger iron pot of Basque seafood stew - a take on Bouillabaisse, with spicy rouille and yes, more crusty bread.

This last course was brought to us by an older sockless gentleman who might have been an aging rock star in a different life. His skinny black suit was a size too small, his hair was punky and gray, but it was his bony bare ankles that gave me just a little tingle. Every time he walked by, I found myself gazing at those ankles. They were not at all attractive, not sexy, not masculine and maybe even a little bit femmy, but they were also titillating and forbidden like only an aging rock star's ankles could be. So now, when I think about the Publican - a restaurant of parts - I think ankles.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.

And since I'm Jewish, there is no prior confession. But if it's guilt you want, I'm swimming in it. Yesterday, I went to the new Whole Foods in Lincoln Park. You know the one. It looks like a monolithic battleship and has a food court that's almost as big as the Mall of America.

And this wasn't my first time.

The first time, I just went shopping. I swear. And I hardly bought anything - just a loaf of sugar-dusted pumpkin bread with candied San Joaquin Valley walnuts and some organic ginger ale.

The second time, I broke down and entered the food court. It was a modern-day Garden of Eden, a bubbling cauldron of temptations of the flesh. There were handmade pastas with sustainable pesto flown in from Liguria, real Asian people making udon, organic ham sandwiches made with silky meat from some farm in the nether regions of the Blue Ridge mountains where the pigs sleep on fluffy pillows and eat certifiably organic slop.

I opted for the fish tacos for $6.99. A guy named Pedro prepared them the "authentic" way, with organic cabbage leaves that were so delicate, they brought in a tiny Mexican child named Pepita to pluck them with her lilliputian hands.

After the gluttonous meal (I can honestly say I hated myself at that point), I walked over to the packaged meat department and fondled the charcuterie.

From there, I went over to the Bins of Abundance. Cashews roasted six different ways, texturized vegetable protein in powdered and granulated forms, enough couscous to feed the school children of Marrakesh for a year. And then there was the Wall of Salt. Smoked, gray, truffled, coarse, medium coarse, medium, Hawaiian, Britton. It went on and on.

I started to feel the way I had felt in 8th grade, when my best friend and I took out the family car and crashed it into a judge's Cadillac. This was somehow wrong.

So I quickly finished up my shopping: tomatoes from San Marzano, where the volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius acts like a super fertilizer, French lemonade (is there any other kind?), bar soap made out of Sicilian pistachios and mountain goat milk, and $17 lentils. I paid for it all with my children's college fund. And I was on my way.

On a brighter, I-might-not-be-going-to-hell-afterall note: unlike that Lexus LX10, I did not park in the spot reserved for "alternate fuel vehicles only." That guy is definitely going to hell.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

As if plain butter wasn't great enough

I thought I'd write a bit about browned butter, seeing that it's one of my favorite substances in the whole wide world, along with diet coke, cocktail sauce, and the gravy in the shrimp chow mein at Joy Yee Noodle. I make it as often as possible, most recently, this morning in browned butter pancakes (recipe to follow).

My introduction to browned butter was one of those my-dessert-life-is-about-to-change-forever affairs, and I thank my former boss at the pastry shop for showing me the way. She made a tart filling called browned butter custard, and it was light and chewy, almost cakey, with a depth of flavor that was about as mind-blowing as Meredith Baxter declaring she now likes gals. Whenever there was an extra finger tart filled with the stuff, I would secretly put it in my mouth, chewing as unobtrusively as possible as I went about my daily tasks. I believe the term "pleasure bomb" would not be an overstatement.

I could live on browned butter custard alone, as long as I chased it with a multivitamin to avoid getting scurvy, rickets, anemia or any other malady associated with poor nutrition. BBC, as we came to call it, is all fat and sugar and white flour - a baker's holy trinity - with not even a scoche of good-for-you ingredients.

Browned butter is made by cooking butter until the milk solids turn brown and fall to the bottom of the pan. The remaining clear butter on the top is clarified butter, also known as ghee in Indian cooking. Clarified butter is great for making anything that you don't want to brown - like an omelette - because the part that can brown - the milk solids - have been removed.

But the flavor of browned butter - rich, nutty, intoxicating, devastating - comes from the browned milk solids, so they're left in. I devised a recipe for pancakes using browned butter because hell, I can't think of one thing that can't be improved by the addition of it.

Browned Butter Pancakes

Makes about 12 good size pancakes

1 1/2 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
3 Tbs. sugar
1 1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
pinch kosher salt (1/4 tsp if you want to be exact)
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
Optional: 2 Tbs. flax meal (I add flax to everything, the thinking being it's going to healthfully counteract the ill effects of the butter)

Let the egg and buttermilk sit at room temperature while you make the rest of the recipe.
To brown the butter: put the butter in a small saucepan or skillet, and heat over medium heat. After the butter melts, you will see a white foam rise to the top. These are the milk solids. They will bubble furiously, but as they cook, the bubbling will get slower and eventually stop. The butter will start to turn an amber color, and the milk solids will turn golden and then brown and fall to the bottom of the pan. Turn off the stove. To stop the cooking, transfer the browned butter to a glass dish or measuring cup, being sure to scrape all the brown stuff out of the pan. This is where the flavor is. Now inhale deeply and let cool a bit.

In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and the just warm browned butter. Add the liquid ingredients (and flax meal if you're using it) to the dry ingredients and whisk just until mixed. It will be lumpy. Let it sit for about ten or so minutes before you make the pancakes.

I ate these without syrup, and they were tasty - almost good enough to go nude, but maple syrup is another one of those delicious amber liquids that I can't get enough of. It's your call.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The chef wants to see you

There was a fun little game the staff used to play when I worked in my last restaurant kitchen. It was called "The Chef Wants to See You," and it was a fraternal rite of passage for all the unsuspecting noobies who passed through.

It went like this:

Let's say you're the new guy. The new guy is the guy who walks around scared 99% of the time. The fear is palpable and unrelenting. It causes you to lose sleep. You are an easy target now. Noobie. You are afraid of not being able to poach an egg correctly. Of burning the top of the soupe a l'oignon in the broiler. Of slicing off your finger and then having to stay quiet because only a pussy would complain about losing a finger.

Your eyes are bloodshot from getting four hours a sleep a night. Thanks a lot, unrelenting fear. So when the sous chef tells you in a very stern, you're-in-big-trouble-now-buddy tone that the chef wants to see you, you mentally backtrack on your way down to the locker room. You make a list of all your crimes, the worst being that time you threw away a piece of perfectly good foie gras because you couldn't think of anything creative to do with it. Then you remember the time you served a salad even though you knew there were bugs in the lettuce. Man, you are so fired.

You stop at the door. You knock and then almost puke because you know this guy's a yeller. He's a kicker, too. You once saw him kick a waste basket in full-blown red hot poker anger in the middle of service, and you know he didn't give a rat's ass if the whole dining room heard him. You are dead.

"Come in."

You do. And standing there is the chef. But it's not the chef you're expecting, with his starched white coat and oddly out-of-place casual slacks.

This chef is completely nude. You are looking at head-to-toe skin.

You're confused and have what can only be described as an out-of-body experience. This can't be happening, you think. But before your mind starts going to the darker places - why is he nude? will I come out of this in tact, and not in need of intense psychotherapy? - he cackles. He has a sleep apniac's plegmy cackle. Then he hawks up a loogie.

"Are they fucking with you?" he asks as he puts on his gigantic underpants, but not before he leans over so you get a long, uninvited look at his butt crack. He then finishes getting dressed. As he heads upstairs, you hear him yelling for the sous chef.

You've been had. Only later, when another new guy takes your new guy place are you let in on the secret game. And you dream of one day saying to him in a stern, you-are-so-busted tone, "The chef wants to see you."