Italian Sunday

Update (1/22/11): This short rib ragu won Food52‘s contest for Your Best Short Ribs, and will be included in their next cookbook, out later this year!

Maybe it’s the tomato tooth I was born with instead of a sweet tooth, maybe it’s the towering heels I rock when my old bones let me, or maybe it’s only that Marcello Mastroianni was perfection on two legs, but I’ve always wanted to be Italian, just a little bit.


Exhibit A: Photographic evidence of alleged perfection, minus corroborating proof of two legs.

It isn’t that I don’t love a good bowl of shrimp & grits or that I don’t get a nostalgic glow from a breakfast of couche-couche and cane syrup, but polenta has been my go-to corn base of late. And after a long work week, what could be a more welcome sight or more soul-satisfying over cheesy, buttery polenta than a ragu of braised short ribs, I ask you?

It’s a dish that’s nearly impossible to mess up, which I think we all can appreciate in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. With so much else on the mind, it’s nice to throw something into the oven for a few hours and get on with other things. Of course, the initial prep work takes some time — chopping the vegetables, trimming and searing the beef, getting all of the elements in balance before the extended stay in the oven — but your time and patience will be well-rewarded by the outcome.

If you can manage not to devour it right away, let the ribs sit overnight in the refrigerator. This serves two purposes: as we all know, this type of dish is always better on the second day, and you’ll be able to remove some of the ungodly amount of fat the ribs throw off so much easier than if you only skimmed the surface while it was still hot. Of course, chilling the ragu overnight doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a little quality control while it’s still hot, just to put your mind at ease that you have, in fact, made something that will be worth the wait.

Too bad I didn't make more.

But woman cannot live by polenta and short ribs alone. As a nod to the tables of so many of my fellow North Jerseyans, I made a Sunday gravy recently. It’s not something I tackle more than once a year because of the sheer effort and number of calories involved, but man, this makes for a pleasant food coma. I make no claims to authenticity, but I’m not sure too many others can either; it’s one of those dishes that seems to have as many variations as people who make it. The recipes may disagree on specifics, but all are unified in the insistence on Meat And Lots Of It. Me? I only used a paltry four types — pepperoni (not too much of it), sweet Italian sausage, pork butt and beef & pork meatballs. I browned everything but the pepperoni, then simmered it all for hours in tomatoes swimming with garlic until we were going mad (in the best possible way) from the smell.

not perfected yet

My gluten-free adaptation of this polenta cake didn’t quite pass muster, but with a little creme fraiche, it was still a nice way to end the meal. I’ll keep working on it and report back when I’ve found success.

recipe after the jump

Continue reading “Italian Sunday”

On the shoulders of giants

090322_bolognese

You guys know I usually like to wing it in the kitchen, right? It’s certainly not a surprise to poor Gil, who has to deal with my creations. (Btw — sorry for that particularly meh quinoa salad I made for dinner recently, honey!) But sometimes I do the thing up proper-like and follow real recipes from people who know what they’re doing — people like Mario Batali, Patricia Wells and Giuliano Bugialli.

Above, you see the first of two pasta dishes we’ve had in the last couple of weeks. Ground veal and ground pork sang a song of ragu from the freezer, and at their insistence, I did a web search for a real recipe to follow. The first link I clicked featured a video of Mario Batali making a traditional Ragu Bolognese. I’m so happy I followed the video’s instructions instead of the written recipe below; I never, ever, would have thought to cook each stage of the recipe for as long as instructed. But the prolonged cooking added a depth of flavor I’ve never achieved in my years of sauce-making. I might use slightly less wine next time because that flavor was especially strong (and not my favorite thing in the world, to be honest), but diffused with ample amounts of pasta, it was phenomenal.

090330_pasta

A few weeks ago, Gil and I got to spend three whole nights in the city during a pharmaceutical conference he attended for his magazine. I took full advantage of my time there and met up with friends on three consecutive nights for dinner and drinks. The first night I didn’t venture out of my work neighborhood, meeting my friend Scott at Bar Stuzzichini. I went mainly for the small plates (the arancini were disappointing this time, but I plan to recreate the zucchini alla scapece just as soon as my grill comes out for the season — possibly this very weekend), but the pasta dish we shared was the real revelation: macherroni alla chitarra, or pasta with pistachio and lemon cream sauce.

Once we made it home, I started researching recipes in my Italian cookbooks and decided to use a simple lemon-cream sauce adapted from Patricia Wells’ Trattoria and Giuliano Bugialli’s Bugialli On Pasta. I toasted shelled pistachios, cooled and chopped them, the steeped the smaller bits (pistachio dust, really) in lemon juice and cream while I made the pasta with my brand new Kitchenaid Pasta Rollers. (I happened to find them fairly heavily discounted on Amazon, but they’re worth paying an everyday price for.) After cooking the pasta, I tossed it with the cream sauce and grated Parmesan over a low flame until the sauce had thickened. Just before serving, I added more Parmesan, chopped parsley and more chopped pistachios. It was a great success, but not quite as pistachio-infused as the original. I have more experimenting to do before I give you a real recipe, but I’m pretty happy with the results of my first go-round. It’s hard to go wrong when you listen to the experts.

Prudently porky

Well, it’s been quite a couple of weeks, once again. Though work continues to occupy most of my waking thoughts (and many of my sleeping ones), I’ve still managed to keep my pointy-headed geek side fed with election and economic news as well. And I’ve been cooking, turning out lots of comfort food, mostly. It’s the perfect thing for the moment, with the nasty economic downturn, uncertain times ahead for many of us, and winter coming on strong. Comfort food is accessible, imminently affordable, adaptable and delicious to boot.

I’ve really been making an effort to buy quality ingredients and eat locally since reading about the abuse at large-scale farms and slaughterhouses. I just can’t stomach the thought of contributing to that kind of depravity, so when I got an email from the Bobolink folks announcing the sale of their whey-fed pork, I placed an order for some of the nasty bits that are pretty hard to find, anyway — feet, knuckles, and necks.

For my first meal, I made a basic, but delicious pork neck ragu shamlessly ripped off from inspired by Jen‘s post from a few weeks ago. You traditional types out there will be horrified, but my family’s red sauces always started with a roux, so that was my jumping-off point; it really adds a depth of flavor you just can’t get otherwise. I heavily salted the pork necks and browned them very well in the dark roux, moved them from the pan, then sautéed chopped onion, celery, garlic, carrot and a bay leaf in a little extra olive oil added to the roux. Once the vegetables had softened, I added a few tablespoons of tomato paste to a hot spot in the pan, stirring until it caramelized; a few glugs of dry white wine, some fresh thyme springs, and two cups of chicken stock went in next, and once it came to a boil, I nested the pork necks in the sauce. After covering the pan tightly, I put it in a 325-degree oven for about three hours.

I took the necks out of the sauce and pulled the meat from the bones once they were cool enough to handle. Then I simmered the shredded pork in the sauce until much of the liquid had evaporated, set aside 2/3 to freeze for a later meal, and served the rest (loosened with a little pasta water) with penne.

Totally comforting, completely delicious, and didn’t break the bank. I’d call it a success.

And Happy Halloween, everyone! May your evenings be filled with candy and costumes.