Mortadella de Tartuffo Carbonara

2014-02-02 19.18.41Those of us who live in Boston know (or, rather, should know) the gastronomic mecca that is our North End.  And not just for eating — no, the SHOPPING there is epic.  My favorite store, which my dear loyal readers know, is the Salumeria Italiana.  NYC has Eataly, a massive shopping extravaganza where you can select from hundreds of varieties of olive oils and pastas and other delectables, all at varying price points.  But I don’t have that kind of time or money, which is where the Salumeria steps in; their wizened old owner, a clever fella often found wearing his three-piece suit and fedora, wandering his small shop kissing pretty ladies on the cheek, hand-picks only the best products for the shelves on his tiny store, and his handsome chefs will woo you with samples and information enough to know what to buy and how to make it.  They have never steered me wrong.  This past weekend, I sidled up to a group of people all tasting bits of something meaty offered to them from a piece of butcher paper in the hands of one of their incredible staffers, but was leered at by them when I reached for a piece for myself; apparently, they were on a paid tour, and I wasn’t one of them.  (The chef felt bad, and he slipped me a piece when they weren’t looking.  It’s good to be a regular.)  The speckled black slice of pink thin meat I placed on my tongue burst into my consciousness with earthy unctuousness; it was an unusual mortadella: porky, mildly spicy, and — this is the best part — laden with BLACK TRUFFLE.  I immediately ordered half a pound, purchased some pasta, and ran home to figure out how to best to showcase the umame meat-loaf waiting to be eaten in my bag.  I believe simple is best, and this bastard carbonara proved my point.  It was creamy, rich, fragrant, filling, and delicious.  And super easy – which made it all that much better.

Mortadella de Tartuffo Carbonara

1/2lb of Mortadella with black truffle
1/2 onion, finely diced
1 tbsp butter
1 cup half and half
1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano
2 egg yolks
crushed black pepper
1/2lb of egg pasta

2014-02-02 18.02.38These two ingredients made the meal.  First: the mortadella…

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Mortadella is a type of bologna, but this ain’t your mamma’s Oscar Meyer.  It has the same soft texture, but instead of the traditional pistachios, this lovely cured meat is studded with ample black truffle.  AMPLE.  After 15 minutes in my refrigerator, *everything* smelled like truffle.  There are worse things in this world…

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I rolled it up into a cigar and sliced it thinly – aka: chiffonade.  Then I diced my onion very finely.

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In many ways, it was this brand of pasta that really elevated this meal experience to something truly special.  I was at first daunted by the price – I mean, $9 is a lot to pay for a box of pasta – but after making it, I was converted.  I may never make spaghetti with any other brand again.  It comes in halves, each one nestled in its own paper folder.  Charming.  These noodles only needed 1 1/2 minutes to reach the perfect al dente texture, so I get some salted water boiling on a back burner and wait until the sauce is almost finished before cooking off the pasta.

2014-02-02 18.59.34I first saute the onions in my butter with a healthy dash of black pepper.

2014-02-02 19.00.20Once the onions are just translucent, I add the mortadella ribbons.  I cook this very well, stirring constantly; I don’t want to onions to brown, but I do want the mortadella to leech off all its fats, which will enrich the sauce.

2014-02-02 18.46.03I freshly grate my cheese…

2014-02-02 19.10.06… then add it, and my cream, to the pan, stirring well over medium heat, until the sauce thickens and the cheese is melted.  At this point, I add my drained pasta, and stir well so it can absorb some of the sauce — which this tagliolini does like a champ.

2014-02-02 18.58.11This isn’t a true carbonara, but the egg yolks in the sauce do make it something of a relative.  But it’s easy to screw up an egg sauce by adding the yolks to a too hot pan — they’ll scramble before they can be incorporated into the dish.  So, I remove my pan – with the sauce and the pasta – from the heat, and make a little well in the middle of the noodles.  I wait a few moments for the heat to dissipate ever so slightly before adding my whisked yolks to the pasta with a splash of cold cream (this is called “tempering” the egg, more or less).  I stir this very well, making sure the golden goodness of the yolks blend with the creamy sauce – then I put the pan back on the burner for a few moments (stirring constantly) to reheat through.

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Toothsome, perfectly individualized flat spaghetti noodles drip with thick, aromatic, earthy cream sauce and are entangled with tender morsels of sweet pork perfection.  The onions add texture to the sauce, a dash of black pepper adds a mild heat, and a final sprinkling of cheese takes the place of salt.  This isn’t for dieters or the lactose intolerant, but luckily I am neither of those things – so I dug into my plate with abandon, twirling pasta on my fork before shoving mouthfuls into my gullet.  This can be made with regular mortadella, or even a good quality bologna if that’s all you have, but believe me when I say that with truffle, everything is better.

Spinach Lasagne alla Bolognese

As much as I love it, and as often as I’ve made it, I am inconsistent when I make a traditional lasagna.  It’s either too runny and wet, or the top layer of noodles is too browned, or it’s too slippery and slidey, and it falls apart when pulled out of the pan, and all the insides squish out when touched by a fork.  I was actually kind of surprised to see that I’ve only blogged this dish once before, my Luscious Lobster Lasagna (which I’d forgotten entirely about: hence – why I keep this digital diary of my digestibles), a lovely white lasagna crafted almost exclusively outdoors on Little Red, our faithful electric Meco grill.   But its success is misleading; I’ve made dozens of lasagnas and have more often than not been dissatisfied with the results. So today I determined to try again, using the sublime image of Stefan’s Lasagne alla Bolognese as my inspiration.  Although I altered the recipe somewhat, his basic principles were very practical, and the top picture — the one that caught my attention — gave me some ideas.  I’d always brought all my fillings straight out to the edge of the pan – what if I didn’t?  I’d never used bechamel – why not?  And what if I made my sauce as “dry” as possible?  The result: a rich tomato meat filling studded with both creamy and stretchy cheese, layered with tender spinach pasta, covered with a fluffy baked pillow topping.  Wow.

Spinach Lasagne alla Bolognese

1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
2 thick slices of bacon, roughly chopped
1 can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
1 tbs tomato puree
1/4 cup marsala wine
1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1/2 cup minced onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig rosemary
fresh sheets of spinach pasta
10 oz ricotta cheese
6oz fresh mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 tbs butter
2 tbs flour
2 cups milk
fresh ground nutmeg, sea salt, crushed black pepper, granulated garlic, EVOO

A bolognese sauce is basically a meat sauce, traditionally made with carrot, onion, veal, pancetta, and broth, to which was later added tomato and cream.  Today’s versions are as myriad as pasta shapes, but the ragu’s basic component is still meat.  Starting with chopped bacon, fried to barely crisp on the edges, I add my mirepoix and minced garlic, along with my sprig of rosemary to scent the dish.  I sauté everything over medium-high heat until just sweated but not yet browned.

I’ve seasoned my ground meats with salt and pepper, and have very roughly pulled them apart, handling it as loosely and little as possible.  I want large bites of meat in my sauce – not a grainy, uniform sludge – and little meat-wads are just the trick.  I let the meat sear completely on one side before I turn it over to sear on the other side.  This released the least amount of liquid, allowing the meat to brown and not steam.  Thanks, Stefan – this was a simple but good trick.

I already see far less liquid in this pan than I usually do at this point, which is perfect.  When the meat is nicely browned on both sides, I add my splash of marsala (I had no other red wine in the house — THE HORROR!! — but this substitution prevented me from having to add any sugar to the sauce, so it worked very well), which I let evaporate into the meat before…

… I add my tomato puree, which I blend well with everything and let simmer for a moment.

Finally, I add my crushed tomatoes, removing my stem of rosemary (which has done its job flavoring the sauce already), and I set this over low heat to simmer for the next 30-45 minutes, or until I’m ready to assemble the lasagna.  During this time, the sauce thickens beautifully, so much so that dragging a spoon through parts its seas for several moments before it oozes back together again.  In fact, when the husbandman came by to taste, I had to admonish him to redistribute the sauce to cover the whole base of the pan, so it wouldn’t burn anyway by virtue of too thin a coating.  I’m thinking this “drier” sauce will prevent my lasagna’s innards from leaching out when pressed by a fork.

Living in Boston means shopping in the North End, our Little Italy. I’ve enjoyed DePasquale’s fresh pasta before, as we did again in this dish.  This time I had a little trouble teasing the sheets apart, but that’s because the package defrosted in a plastic bag on my way home on the train, so it got a little – er – sweaty. Still, it was worth the effort.

I line an 8×8″ pan with this special foil-on-one-side/parchment-paper-on-the-other, which I must say worked like a charm.  I assemble my cheeses, and cut my pasta sheets to shape so they’ll fit the pan just so.

To make the lasagna, I start with some sauce, a few dollops of ricotta cheese, a few pieces of fresh mozzarella, and some shredded parmesan.  Note how I’m not bringing the ingredients all the way out to the edge of the pan – which I usually do.  My thought is that the casserole will hold together more effectively if I give the ingredients some room to spread out on their own.  (Spoiler alert: I was right!)  I lay a sheet of pasta on top, then repeat the process 4 times, ending with a top layer of pasta.  This is the point to which this picture of Stefan’s was taken – which is why it looks so clean (and so damn delicious!)

The final “ingredient” is a bechamel sauce, which is essentially milk, flour and butter.  Stefan’s recipe did not call for ricotta or mozzarella, but instead for bechamel on each layer; I had the cheeses, and very little milk in the house, so I split the difference by cheesing up the inner layers and making just enough bechamel to cover the top of my dish.

Start by melting the butter, then adding the flour and whisking/cooking until it thickens and turns a golden tan color — about 3 minutes.

Finish by whisking in the milk gradually, allowing it to thicken with the roux.  I also add some salt, pepper,  garlic powder, and some of my parmesan cheese (which, technically, transforms this bechamel into a mornay sauce, just FYI).  When the sauce is uniformly thick and fluffy…

… I pour it over the top layer of pasta on my lasagna, covering it completely.  The final joy is adding the last of my grated parm over the top, before throwing the dish into a 350 degree oven for 35-45 minutes, or until bubbling at the edges and nicely browned on top…

Like so.  As hard as it is to do, I wait 15 minutes before cutting into this beauty, which allows everything to coalesce.  I kill the time by whipping up a quick garlic bread.

Sheer perfection! My lasagna cuts easily, holding its shape, showing off its perfect, tender layers of pasta sandwiching a hearty, rich meat sauce and gooey, creamy cheese.

I don’t usually take pictures with my mouth full, but I had to show off how the structure of this deliciousness held together.  Leaving a wee margin of unadorned pasta along each side of the dish,  using a very thick, non-runny sauce, and adding the adhesive properties of the bechamel were the right tricks to make this lasagna a true delight!  Each bite was meaty and cheese in equal measure; the pasta was perfectly al dente and redolent of spinach, and the snappiness of a few sprigs of green onion for garnish added just the right brightness to the meal.  Lolita has finally conquered lasanga!  Yay for me!

Rainy Day Macaroni and Cheese

Oh my, but today was a wet, cold, gloomy, and miserable day.  It wasn’t stormy or anything – no driving rain – no whipping winds — but those things at least make a rainy day exciting.  Instead, it was just miserable.  Not my mood, mind you, which was fine – but the grey chilly day didn’t make walking around in it enjoyable at all.  What better on a crappy cold day than a steaming hot bowl of homemade macaroni and cheese?  Why, nothing.  Nothing at all…

Rainy Day Macaroni & Cheese

2/3 cup elbow noodles (cooked in boiling, salted water for 2 minutes less than the package directions suggest)
3 oz sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup milk, plus more as needed
1 tsp flour
2 tbs butter
garlic powder, paprika, sea salt, black pepper
1 slice white bread

This is the most basic homemade mac & cheese I make.  OK – scratch that: it’s more basic when I just use pre-made breadcrumbs, like the Panko I found right after I finished making my own.  No matter — making these breadcrumbs was essentially like making the same piece of toast twice.  I chuck a dry piece of bread right on the rack in my oven set on 400°.  I flip it a couple times until it’s nice and toasted – like 4 minutes total.

Like so.

Using my box grater, I pulverize my toast into rough crumbs.

Then I toss them with 1 tablespoon melted butter, and a dash each of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika.

Then I spread them out on a lined cookie sheet, and put them back in the oven for another 4 minutes.  I give them a good stir before setting them aside while I finish the macaroni (the noodles for which I’ve already cooked…).

After I drain the pasta from the pot, I return it to the heat (set on medium), melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in it until frothy, and add my flour.

I whisk this together until well incorporated, and bring it to a golden foam – thereby making a roux.

I transform my roux into the bechamel, a mother sauce, by adding my milk, which I whisk in nicely and bring to a gentle thickening simmer.  Finally, I transform the bechamel into mornay sauce by adding most of my cheddar cheese (reserving a tiny bit for garnish) and blending well until melted.

I add my noodles back to the pan, and stir everything well, setting it on low and cooking it through for a few minutes until steaming warm.

With a crunchy breadcrumb topping, a sharp cheddar cheese sauce, and tender toothsome pasta, this is the perfect quick and simple macaroni and cheese after a long day trudging through cold damp fog banks and spitting rain.  I dig into my bowl with gusto, and finally feel the chill in my bones being chased away…

Pollo alla Parmigiana

When I get sick, I get sick with a vengeance.  I mean, *everything* goes wrong at the same time.  I catch the flu, develop an infection, do something to my back, can’t shake a cough, and suffer from everything short of a flesh-eating disease over the span of 2 or 3 successive weeks – and my doctors just shrug and intimate hypochondria.  Whatevs.  My molting period seems to be over finally, and I walked back into Whole Foods this morning with a feeling of purpose.  I asked the husbandman what he wanted, and – true to self – he said “pasta”. I stewed that idea in the brain for a few minutes, until I remembered something friend Steph L said she’d be enjoying for her dinner last night: chicken parm.  There is nothing like a good chicken parmesan, and nothing harder to find IMHO.  So, Lolita that I be, I decided to reinvent it my way.  Witness: a semi-deconstructed chicken parmesan — pounded thin pan-crunchy cutlets, layered with prosciutto and provolone and homemade chunky pasta sauce, served with aglio alio al dente angel hair pasta.  Unctuous, cheesy, vegetal, tender, and rich – just what I needed to re-enrich my healing self.

Pollo alla Parmigiana

1 large can crushed tomatoes
2 tbs tomato paste
1 carrot
1 small onion
2 stalks celery
1 carrot
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
6 tablespoons butter, divided
3/4 lb chicken breast
6 slices prosciutto americano
8 slices provolone cheese
parmigianno reggiano
angel hair pasta
6 cloves garlic
butter
flour, panko breadcrumbs, garlic powder, dried oregano, dried parsley, sea salt, black pepper, EVOO

Start by making a nice mirepoix: diced carrot, celery, onion…

… and chopped garlic.

Saute the veg in EVOO in a large pan until translucent, then add your crushed tomatoes and tomato puree.  Stir well, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer , cover, and cook for at least 45 minutes — but longer is good, too.  I think mine went for almost 90 minutes; I was cooking casually.

I was a little disappointed by Whole Foods’s so-called chicken cutlets.  I paid at least $.50 more a pound based on the sign, assuming I’d get properly thinly sliced chicken breast.  Instead, I received a few sloppily butterflied chicken breasts, which I could have done myself.  Next time, I’ll go to Reliable Market, where they thin slice their poultry and meats partially frozen, into true super-thin cutlets, which require no pounding.  These I had to pound.

And here’s how I do it: after cutting the butterflied portion off the main breast, I tenderized and flattened each piece of chicken  by laying three at a time into a large gallon zipper back, which I then set inside a folded dishcloth.  Using my sharpening steel, and turning the bag 90° every few whacks, I smack the crap out of my protein until it’s as flat as I can get it.  The next three pictures illustrate the trifecta of pan-searing.

Egg, beaten with milk.

Pulverized panko  breadcrumbs.

Panko cut with flour dressed with black pepper, garlic powder, and dried oregano.   Dip each cutlet into eggmilk, and dredge thoroughly until dry with pankoflour.

In a large non-stick skillet, melt 2 tbs  butter and a glug of EVOO over high heat until foaming.

Without crowding the pan, saute all the dredged cutlets in shifts ( I was able to do 2 at a time) for about 3-4 minutes on each side, or until a perfect golden brown.  Set aside on some foil in a single layer and keep warm.

Layer each cutlet with a slice of prosciutto.

Then layer each slice of prosciutto with a slice of provolone cheese.

Then, in an ovenproof casserole dish,  top each chickenporkcheese stack with a spoonful of sauce, and top that with another chickenporkcheese stack and another spoonful of sauce.

Finally, top each stack with a few slices of provolone cheese, then throw under the oven’s broiler for 8 minutes until the chicken is hot and the cheese is brown and bubbling.

Meanwhile, my angel hair pasta has been roiling in salted water and 4 tablespoons of butter has been heated to foaming with a tablespoon of minced garlic.

I strain the pasta of water, strain the butter of toasted garlic solids, and toss the two together in a warm bowl with shaved parmesan cheese and cracked black pepper.

Layers of tender chicken, unctuous prosciutto, thick rich tomato sauce, and stretchy provolone cheese, served alongside a nest of garlicky buttered pasta: perfection on a plate.  The dull edge of my fork effortlessly glides through my tower of poultry parmesan, and I deftly spin a shroud of spaghetti and chunky saucy on its tine before I lift it, licking lips, to my anticipating mouth.  The meal is both filling and light, and in both ways absolutely satisfying.  This may be the best chicken parm I’ve ever made – or ever ate.  And now that I’ve codified the recipe, I can look forward to enjoying — and maybe improving upon it – in the future…

Hand-cut Pappardelle with Garlic Cream and Lobster

This marks my second lobster recipe in a row, although I was surprised it wasn’t more, considering that it’s lobster-season and I’ve been practically swallowing them whole for a few weeks now.  I could Benjamin Buford Blue you (lobster salad, lobster tacos, lobster lasagna, lobster risotto, lobster fritters, lobster cerviche, etc….), but suffice to say I’ve been experimenting with these sea-bugs and have loved every bite.  Today’s offering is a delicious pasta dish, made with hand-crafted and cut spinach noodles, a garlic and parmigiano infused cream, and succulent, tender, juicy, sweet lobster meat.

Hand-cut Pappardelle with Garlic Cream and Lobster

2 1lb fresh, live lobsters
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 cloves crushed garlic
4 tbs butter
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano cheese
3 sheets hand-rolled, fresh spinach pasta
sea salt, cracked black pepper, snipped chives for garnish

Tough lobster is shameful, and adding lobster meat to a pasta can over-cook it lickety split, so one must par-cook fresh lobsters to get properly prepared meat for any dish that requires further cooking it in a sauce or something.  I’ve par-cooked lobsters a few times before, but here’s the skinny: throw your alive and kicking lobsters in a large, empty pot, and bring a gallon or so of water with some vinegar to a heady boil.  Pour the boiled water over the lobsters, comfort them with words of sympathy until they stop moving (read: die), and let them soak for about 5 minutes. (For another, more detailed description, check out one of my past postings.) Remove the lobsters from the water, then cut the meat out of the tail, claws, and knuckles while they’re still hot.

Viola!  Perfectly par-boiled lobster meat.  I leave the knuckle meat and claws whole, and I split the tail right up the middle (removing the vein). I put this in the fridge to chill down and stop cooking.

Living in Boston means shopping for fine groceries in the North End, and I ain’t one to fly in the face of that sort of foodie imperative.  The sheer multitude of fine Italian restaurants and shops is dizzying, although until relatively recently there were no real fresh pasta makers selling to the retail market.  Enter DePasquale’s Handmade Pasta, a perfect little shop right on Congress Street – facing the Haymarket through the Rose Kennedy Parkway – that sells fine cheeses, charcuterie, some imported grocery items and, of course, their own pasta.  I was in the mood for a lasagna the other day, and although the pictures didn’t turn out as good as the meal did (which is why I didn’t post it), I had several sheets of their absolutely delicious spinach pasta left, which I decided to cut into thick strips, called pappardelle – AKA wide fettucini noodles.

This is a pretty simple recipe: what keeps it from being a Weeknight Wondermeal is that most people can’t get their hands on lobster and fresh pasta as easily as we city-dwellers can.  But, as you can see from the list of ingredients, it’s not too complicated.  The sauce starts easily: 2 or 3 tablespoons of freshly minced garlic (do *not* use that crap suspended in oil purchased at the grocery store – it’s horrible!) and lotsa butter.

I melt the butter and, when it’s frothy, I add the minced garlic and simmer gently on low heat until fragrant but NOT browned.

I strain the garlic and butter solids from the pan, leaving only lovely clarified garlic-infused deliciousness.

Into this I whisk my heavy cream, which I bring to a roiling boil over medium heat.

Finally, I add my lobster meat and most of my fresh grated cheese (which I forgot to take a picture of), stirring everything together well until the sauce thickens and the lobster is fully cooked and heated through.

Earlier, I brought my pasta to a boil for 3 minutes in a large pot of salted water.  After the lobster is heated through, I pick it out of the sauce and set it aside, keeping it warm, so I can toss my cooked and drained pappardelle in the cream sauce.  (If I leave the lobster in, it will all sink to the bottom when I try to plate my dish…)

Succulent, buttery, delicate and sweet lobster meat atop a steaming platter of perfectly al dente spinach pasta doused in a rich, flavorful, creamy cheese sauce.  A sprinkle of parmigiano, chives, salt and pepper round out the dish, and a glass of crisp white wine completes the meal.  O, if only lobster season was year ’round!  Thank God it’s not, or else my perpetually-6-months-pregnant profile would probably make it to full term.

Simple Sick Day Kitchen Sink Pork Chop Soup

I’ve recently come to terms with something: I am going to be one of those old ladies that is always complaining about her aches and pains.  Yup.  I know this because I’m already doing it.  And I’m about to set it down in writing.  Here goes: an acute muscle spasm of unknown origin on my right shoulder kept me awake in surprising pain all night Monday. Compensating for that has lead to a flare up of excruciating bursitis that’s frankly immobilized my left shoulder today.  I’m doped up on muscle relaxer and sluggish from hours just sitting, trying not to move.  But yet, dear readers, I had to eat – and nothing delivery would do.  So, I get up, rummage one-handedly through the fridge and my pantry shelves, and I throw together some soup – some warm, bright, savory, light, fresh, healing and wholesome soup.  With a sudden surge of energy, I find myself taking pictures before I even realize I’m doing it.  And now, here I type – with my right hand only, my left can’t reach or hold itself to the keyboard without shooting a searing pain from my shoulder to the tip of my middle finger – because, well, I’m obsessive that way.  If I’m going to be a wimp whose arms just decide to stop working one day, I’m at least going to be a well fed wimp.

Simple Sick Day Kitchen Sink Pork Chop Soup

1 medium onion
1 medium carrot
1 stalk celery
6-8 tbs diced tomatoes
8 cups chicken stock
sea salt, cracked black pepper, oregano
1 smoked pork chop
1 can cannellini beans
4 cups loose fresh spinach leaves
1 cup small pasta
parmigiano reggiano cheese

I call this a kitchen sink soup because I just threw all sorts of scraps and ends and stuff I found in the freezer and fridge – everything I could find, really – to make this.  I had an old bag of celery, from which I was able to harvest a still snappy center stalk, a stray carrot, and a found-in-the-back-of-the-drawer onion — all of these I washed, peeled, and chopped roughly.  Nights like these are why it’s always good to have basic mirepox ingredients like these on hand.

These I very ungracefully chuck into my wok, which is sizzling with a few glugs of EVOO on the surface.  After adding a dash of salt, a generous tablespoon or so of black pepper,  and about two tablespoons of dried oregano, I let everything sweat and soften for a few minutes.

I wasn’t feeding a crowd, and I didn’t want a tomato sauce, so I only add about half the contents of a can of diced tomatoes in juice.  I toss everything well, and let it all simmer for a few moments.

Just enough time to chop up my chop.  This perfectly smoked, perfectly trimmed pork chop is from Blood Farms, and it’s been in my freezer for a few weeks now.  It doesn’t take too long to defrost, and then I…

… cut all the meat off the bone, and then into bite-sized pieces.

Everything gets chucked into the pan – meat and bone (why loose all that beautiful smoked seasoning?).  A quick stir later…

… and I add my chicken stock.  I bring this to a boil, lower to a gentle simmer, and let cook for about 30 minutes.

Oh, right — my beans!  I didn’t think the soup would be hearty enough without beans, so I crack a can of cannellini, which I drain and rinse before I add them to the pot.

While this is simmering, I boil off about a cup of ditalini pasta in salted water.  I don’t cook it in the soup because I don’t want to add all that cloudy starch to my broth.

I made a spinach salad at a party the other day, and I had one bunch left over, just about to start its conversion process into compost.  I salvaged the crispest leaves and threw them in the soup during the last 2 minutes of its simmer.

They melt beautifully into the soup.

The final ingredient: this lump of leftover parmigiano reggiano cheese – the perfect nutty salty substance to top off all the vegetable and porky goodness swimming in my bowl.

A luscious, steaming broth, made slightly smoky by the bites of chop ladled throughout, enriched by the white beans and tender pasta, and freshened by the carrots and spinach and spice.  It might have been easier to crack a can of Campbell’s soup (if I had one), but then I would have to deal with preservatives and salt and stuff I couldn’t control.  Although my left arm is still no better than a vestigial appendage, and my right lung feels like it can’t take a full breath (this getting old shit has got to stop!), my tummy and soul feel totally satisfied – almost giddy, even.  If chicken soup is for the soul, here’s hoping pork soup is for the shoulder…

Weeknight Wondermeal: Fusilli in Hot Tomato Oil, served with Antipasto Lolita

Clayton and I have always wanted to live in Boston; it was one of those similarities that spelled “kismet” to us when we realized it about each other — that, and our overwhelming desire *not* to breed.  Don’t get me wrong, I love kids – and so does he – but having some of our own was never on the table.  16 years after tying the knot, we’re happy here as d.i.n.ks (double-income, no kids) in Boston, and we’re loving ever minute of it.  But it is a long road from Macon, GA – where we met, and where we lived well off our measly combined income in a 2500 sqft apartment – to Boston, MA, where our income may be 4 times greater, but where our apartment is 7 times more expensive, and only 1/4 the size.  So for us, the path to Beantown from Redneckville was through Syracuse, NY – the closest small city in the Northeast to the dart I threw at that map that day Clayton and I made up our minds to become Yankees.  The economy there was terrible, as was the weather – the perfect place for us to acclimate ourselves to the weather up North and to be close enough to Massachusetts to find a job that would afford us the lifestyle in Boston we wanted.  But the food in central upstate New York was *awesome* – from salt potatoes at the New York State Fair (recreated here and here), to egg and olive sandwiches at The Blue Tusk, to Johnny Angel’s burgers, to the roast beef sandwiches at Clark’s Ale House (now, sadly, closed), to the Garbage Plate at Nick Tahou’s (one of the best messes I’ve ever eaten – I kid you not), to – of course – the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, a joint for which I worked for three of the four years I lived there.  Tonight’s meal was inspired by one of our favorite restaurants in Syracuse, a place we couldn’t afford to eat at often enough while we were there, even though we tried: Pastabilities.  I remember everything on the menu singing to me with siren song, but Clayton’s favorite meal – and one of their most popular offerings – was the hot tomato oil: a red, spicy, chunky, slippery sauce that coated and cradled their thick homemade fettuccine noodles with flavor and fire.  Relying on a combination of my excellent gastronomic memory, and my no-so-fertile mind memory, I cobbled together what Clayton declared was a delightful recreation of this super-simple but overwhelmingly savory plate of pasta – along with an antipasto also inspired by Pastabilities, but given a Lolita treatment.  This dinner is a weeknight wondermeal perfect for any occasion: it’s quick, easy, but oh so freakin’ delicious.

Fusilli in Hot Tomato Oil (see below for the Antipasto Lolita)

good quality extra virgin olive oil (about 2 cups)
1 shallot
1 small onion
4 large cloves garlic
4 tablespoons San Marzano tomato paste
4 whole San Marzano roma tomatoes in puree
crushed red pepper
paprika
sugar
cracked black pepper
asiago cheese (for garnish, if you can’t find locatelli – which I couldn’t)
8 oz fuselli pasta (or other sturdy, thickish noodle)

If I made this for a larger group of people, I could have used a whole can of paste, but since it was only for we two, I was happy to find this tube of San Marzano paste available at Whole Foods.  And I love the box design; it’s so pop art.

I wanted fresh pasta, but Whole Foods selection didn’t wow me, but these super-long Pre-Raphaelite noodle tresses sure did.

The final ingredient should have been locatelli cheese, which is a type of Pecorino Romano, although a bit more rubbery.  I chose this nice aged Asiago instead – it will be shredded generously on top of the pasta right before service.

I start by mincing my garlic and finely chopping my onion and shallot.

Next, I start with my EVOO, which I set into my saucepan over high to get nice and hot.

In go my aromatics, which I let soften in the hot oil, stirring well, for about 5 minutes.

In goes my black pepper and my red pepper flakes.  Something about living in Syracuse strengthened the lining of my stomach, because there – unlike any other time and place in my life – I was able to eat seriously spicy food.  Since I’ve moved to Boston, tho, I just can’t handle too much capsicum – woe is me.  So I started with only about a teaspoon of red pepper flakes, adding more throughout the entire cooking process until I reached my limit. For you, dear reader, I recommend you hop it up all you like; the recipe is titled, after all, “Hot Tomato Oil” – pansies like me notwithstanding.

It’s time to add the tomato component to my hot tomato oil: I start with a few tablespoons of my condensed paste, which I add to the pan and stir in well.

Next comes the roma tomatoes, which I’ve fished out of the can.  I don’t need the whole 17oz, so I only grab about 4 of them.  These I squish and break into the simmering oniongarlicspicyoil.  Finally, I add a few healthy dashes of paprika, which will promote the lovely red color I want, and about 2 tablespoons of suce, which will both balance and add more complexity to the sauce.

 Setting my heat to low, I now allow this lovely sauce to simmer for the next 15-20 minutes or so,while I prep my pasta.  The sauce will not overcook, but I do recommend stirring it from time to time.

The tomatoes and veg will shrink up into little chunky bits, and although the oil separates — which it should — it will be very tomatoey flavored, with a wonderful sweetness at first taste, and a lasting heat kick at the finish.

One of my favorite stories about my redneck turned metro-sexual husband is about a particular night at Pastabilities, which was one of the first avante-garde restaurants we ever visited together (Macon isn’t known for much beyond Satterfield’s and Mama Louise’s H & H).  Even though we were tight on funds back then, I wanted — no, I NEEDED — more than just a bowl of pasta for my dinner, and the $14 antipasto on the menu sounded promising.  Clayton was skeptical.  “I don’t like luncheon meats on my salad,” he superciliously stated, with an assumed air of culinary confidence, and a parsimoniousness that just stoked my more sophisticated sensibilities into seething sarcasm.  “You don’t like what?  And when have you ever had an antipasto?”  “Oh, I’ve had plenty, at places like Hungry Howie’s – $14 for some slices of baloney and ham on crappy lettuce just doesn’t do it for me.”  I could regale you with the vitriol of my response, but then you might not like me very much any more.  Suffice to say, I ordered the antipasto; it was laden with fine italian cold cuts rolled prettily with sharp provolone cheese, gorgonzola, roasted red peppers, olives and pickled things, all doused in a heavenly house vinaigrette.  It was delicious, and the perfect salad compliment to our simple pasta plates.  Clayton learned many things that night – only one of them being to *not* challenge me when it comes to matters of taste.  Lolita’s recreation started with the meats and cheese shown above: a flavorful salame rosa, a rich, pistachio studded soppressata, some proscuitto di parma, and provolone cheese.  I have Douglas at Whole Foods on River Street here in Cambridge to thank for several of these choices; I told him what I wanted to do, and he made a couple recommendations that really made the plate.
Whole Foods also has a fantastic antipasto bar, and these cool segmented trays into which you can put exactly what you want.  I grabbed items in equal numbers: 6 peppered olives, 12 oil cured black olives, 1 large roasted pepper I could cut later, several gherkins, a couple of caperberries, some marinated artichoke hearts, 2 peperoncini, and one little sweet peppadew, which I eventually quartered and stuffed with goat cheese.

All this savory goodness was layered over some EVOO dressed chopped lettuce and topped with some small fresh mozzarella and balsamic vinegar.  I set this platter on the table between us, so we could dive in together while we enjoyed our pasta.

Speaking of pasta, my long cool corkscrew curled noodles are perfectly cooked – just a little al dente – and ready to be sauced.

Tender tendrils of pasta swim in spicy red oil and rich chunky tomatoes, and are topped with an abundance of shredded asiago cheese.  It’s served alongside my fresh antipasto, a perfect cold accompaniment of meats, cheeses, and sharp vegetables – just right to offset the heat from the peppers and paprika in my pasta sauce.  All in all, this meal took about 40 minutes to prepare – and about 15 minutes to scarf down with total abandon.  A super-satisfying, simple and elegant dinner for any occasion; thanks, Pastabilities, for the inspiration!
Weeknight Wondermeal: Fusilli in Hot Tomato Oil, served with Antipasto Lolita