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Thursday, January 31, 2013


Less is more.

I make a lot of fresh pasta. While purchased dried pasta is fantastic,  fresh made pasta feels richer, softer, and more delicate to me. That being said, whenever I do make fresh pasta, I typically kill it with a heavy handed overwrought sauce.  I can't help myself. I'm a saucy guy. I love sauces. The last time I rolled out gorgeous feathery strands of fresh angel hair pasta, I smothered them with a thick tomato sauce weighed down with dense meatballs. Although I didn't mind, I watched Michael push the meatballs to the side while trying to tug a few fragile strands from the apparent gravy graveyard.  "I want to taste your pasta", he said. Point taken. A point I've never forgotten.

It should always be about the pasta.
Clinging to that mantra,  I battled my inner sauce demons and gave it a shot with a relatively simple and unconventional  multi-layered lasagna.  Lasagna can be a quirky beast.  It can be extremely easy or incredibly  ridiculous to throw together. Or somewhere in between. I happily wallowed in between.

I sifted 2 1/2 cups of Weisenberger Mill unbleached white flour (made from soft red winter wheat) into a food processor with a pinch of salt, 2 whole eggs, and 3 egg yolks. I pulsed the mix until it formed  a ball, adding a few drops of cold water to help bring it together.  After flouring a large wooden cutting board, I kneaded the sticky dough ball 10 to 15 times  before covering it with a bowl for an hour to relax the glutens.

After an hour, I cut the pasta dough into fourths. Working with each section at a time, I floured the dough, folded it in half, and passed it through the lowest setting of a pasta roller several times.  When the dough felt pliable, I started passing it through  each consecutive smaller setting until I reached the next to last setting. I didn't want to risk tears or splits, so I stopped when the pasta sheets were paper thin, cut them in half, and placed them on floured waxed paper sheets strewn across every square inch of the kitchen. After rolling out every crumb of pasta dough, I cut the sheets into 7 inch lengths and let them air dry.  The amount of pasta was staggering. Ridiculous, even. Michael came into the kitchen for a snack, laughed, and fled. Smart move.

Or the un-sauce. Because I wanted something simple, pure, and deliciously transparent, Marcella Hazan's iconic and sexy 3 ingredient "Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter" felt like the perfect fit. I hand crushed a 28 ounce can of whole San Marzano tomatoes into a heavy sauce pan before adding 5 tablespoons of butter  , a sliced onion, and a pinch of kosher salt. After simmering the sauce for 45 minutes, I discarded the onion, swirled the butter fat throughout the sauce, and pulled it from the heat. Luscious. Sweet. Buttery. Simple.

I brought a huge pot of water to a rolling boil, showered it with a generous handful of kosher salt, and cooked the lasagna sheets in batches for 3 minutes (just shy of al denta) before plunging them into salted ice cold water to stop the cooking process and resting them on dish towels to absorb the excess moisture.

I buttered a loaf pan, shredded my homemade fresh mozzarella cheese, and grated a block of parmigiano reggiano.

After brushing the bottom of a loaf pan with a layer of the tomato sauce, I nestled a lasagna sheet over the sauce before building thin haphazard alternating  layers of pasta, parmigiano cheese, mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, and minced fresh parsley. I layered and layered and layered until I simply ran out of stuff. I topped the final layer with  tomato sauce and a scattering of mozzarella before sliding the monstrous 22 layer lasagna into a 350 degree oven to bake (covered)  for an hour, removing the cover during the final 15 minutes to brown the top. 22 layers. Think about it.

While it baked, the lasagna buckled and plumped from the heat. It seemed to beg release from its corseted snare. Nope.  I let it rip for the full hour before pulling it from the oven to rest for 20 minutes.

After slicing the lasagna into wedges, I carefully wobbled them onto pools of tomato sauce before tumbling bright bitter baby arugula  salads to the side.

Mangled and twisted, it wasn't pretty or perfect. While the lasagna appeared dense, it wasn't. The undulating  layers had just enough separation to suspend the paper thin pasta sheets between the cheeses and the sauce.

Peppered with restrained whispers of soft fresh mozzarella, nutty parmigiano, and buttery sweet sauce, the lasagna was uncannily delicate, light, airy, and utterly decadent.

Finally, it was all about the pasta.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


I've had a lot of time on my hands.

With my schedule quickly filling up, I stepped back and took a whopping 9 day vacation. Boom. In the middle of January. A vacation. Other than celebrating Michael's birthday with a short jaunt out of town, I had nothing planned. Nada. Nothing. I wore pajamas every day and puttered around the kitchen. The fun kind of puttering. Relaxed. No agenda. No one to please. No costing, pricing, ordering, prepping, or cooking for big crowds. Just puttering.

A while back, Michael gave me a cheese making packet for my birthday. While I've already gone down the simple homemade ricotta cheese route, I haven't tried other cheeses because I knew they required stuff. Stuff I probably wouldn't understand. As it turned out, the process was fairly straightforward.

Armed with my handy dandy Urban Cheesecrafter brown paper packets,  I spent a fabulous day making homemade mozzarella cheese. Aside from a couple of missteps, I had a blast.

**The Urban Cheesecrafter Kit included easy and precise instructions. Easy? Check. Precise? My fail. Apparently, precision and attention to detail should have been the order of the day. Who knew? Unfortunately, I've never been much of a rule follower.  I didn't use chlorine-free water to proof the vegetable-based rennet and citric acid.  I used tap water. I thought I had enough whole milk. I didn't. My first batch of  "cheese" left me with a huge pot of crap. A chemistry experiment gone terribly wrong. I was terrified to pour the gurgling non-cheese down the drain, so I ladled the festering mess into bags and buried them in the trash.


I shook up a very strong Bloody Mary, poured it over shaved ice,  and started over.

Before getting started, I dissolved 1/4 rennet tablet in 1/2 cup chlorine-free water and 1 1/2 teaspoons citric acid in 1 cup chlorine free water.

After adding the dissolved citric acid to a  gallon of farm direct whole pasteurized Chaney's milk, I warmed the milk over low heat. When the milk reached 90 degrees, I pulled it from the  heat and carefully added the rennet.

The reaction was almost immediate. I placed the pot back over the flame and  (without stirring) gently moved the tiny curds around with an up and down motion until they started to thicken and coagulate. Within seconds, the curds separated from the whey and pulled away from the sides of the pot. When they reached 105 degrees, I ladled the curds into a cheesecloth-lined colander to drain.

I dumped the curds into a large microwavable bowl and heated them in the microwave for 1 minute. After folding them over several times to evenly distribute the heat, I drained off some additional whey and microwaved the curds for 30 seconds more. As I folded them over again, the curds started to feel like mozzarella cheese.

Using an instant read thermometer, I checked to make sure the cheese was 135 degrees before adding the cheese salt (fine kosher salt). After stretching and folding the cheese to incorporate the salt, I formed the hot cheese into a ball and dropped it into a bowl of ice water to chill.

Soft. Light. Fresh. Fabulous.

We snacked on a small hunk of the mozzarella before I wrapped up  the remaining cheese and slid it into the refrigerator to rest for another day.

I had big plans for that cheese ball...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Which Came First?

Frau Olga could crank out platters of wiener schnitzel  in her sleep.  Because we didn't eat them often, we never knew when schnitzels would pop up on our supper table. Frau Olga spent most of her days filling our house with the intoxicating aromas of her long braised Bavarian, Austrian, and Czechoslovakian fare. Occasionally, she'd effortlessly sneak wiener schnitzels into the rotation without explanation or apology. Dictated by her daily schedule, they must have been her quick and easy Viennese take on our American sloppy joes. It didn't matter. I adored them.

Schnitzel variations can be prepared with thin cutlets of chicken, pork, or veal. Frau Olga stayed true to the classic Austrian version. She fried breaded veal cutlets in butter until they were golden brown. Topped with fresh parsley, she served them with lemon wedges and boiled potatoes.  Old school. Classic. Fabulous.

I strayed from her version by tipping my hat to my German heritage with a play on Schnitzel Holstein. Originating in Berlin, schnitzel holstein is a pan-fried breaded cutlet topped with a fried egg, capers, and anchovies. Basic. Quick and easy.

I butterflied a large boneless chicken breast, placed it between plastic wrap, and pounded the crap out of it until the breast was about 1/4 inch thick. I sliced the breast into two flat lobes and trimmed the edges before running each half through a breading station (flour, egg wash, and dried bread crumbs). After shaking the excess breading from the schnitzels, I slid them into the refrigerator to chill and set up for 30 minutes.

While the schnitzels chilled, I peeled and boiled 8 small yukon gold potatoes.  When they were fork tender, I drained the potatoes and tossed them into a small cast iron skillet with 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Working over a medium flame, I sauteed the potatoes until they started to crisp before showering them with minced fresh parsley.

After cranking a larger cast iron skillet over a medium high flame, I added equal parts butter and olive oil, 3 tablespoons each.  When the butter sizzled and bubbled, I sauteed the chicken schnitzels until they were golden brown, about 4 minutes per side.  I slid the schnitzels and potatoes into a warm oven and poured myself a huge glass of wine while Michael carefully fried two large eggs, sunny side up. Sneaky me.

I pulled the chicken from the oven and splashed them with fresh lemon juice before slipping the jiggly eggs over each schnitzel.  After swirling anchovy filets onto the firm egg whites along  with a scattering of tiny capers, I topped the yolks with snipped fresh chives and tumbled the buttered potatoes to the side.

It took every ounce of my weakened willpower to not make a pan sauce from the skillet crud. The good crud. The flavor bombs. The fond. Ha! The schnitzels didn't need a sauce. At. All. When slit, the warm runny yolks oozed over the crisped chicken and mixed with the lemon juice to accidentally create a rich lemony egg sauce.  Instant hollandaise.  While the briny piquancy of the capers balanced the intense pungency of the anchovies, the soft eggs and crisp potatoes calmed the craziness.

The perfect bite? A slab of chicken schnitzel speared with a caper, flecked with an anchovy, and swiped through  silken warm egg yolks. Salty. Tart. Rich. Ridiculous.

Oh sure, the dolled up schnitzel holsteins were a far cry from my childhood version of wiener schnitzel.

Frau Olga would have loved them.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


I was jonesing for a taste of lamb. My mind raced as I thought about bites of  rosy pink frenched lamb chops topped with whispers of decadent bearnaise or thin slices of roasted leg of lamb swiped through  puddles of mint demi glace. Hell,  I probably  would have settled for a cheap food cart lamb gyro saturated with tzatziki sauce.

As much as I adore lamb, I've never prepared it at home for the two of us  because Michael doesn't really care for lamb. Well, I assumed he didn't care for lamb.

When I batted my eyes and sheepishly announced that I was making an early morning trip to the Indoor Winter Market in search of local lamb, Michael didn't flinch. Or shudder. At all. Wow. After all of these years, did I miss something?

A lot of folks might not realize that a few vendors at our downtown Indoor Winter Farmers' Market stock and sell locally raised beef, poultry, and lamb. I wanted lamb shanks, which seemed like a tall order. Although Michael seemed game for lamb, I knew he wouldn't have jumped onto my medium rare lamb chop bandwagon. Period. My first foray into the land of lamb-dom for the two of us  needed to be a cut that could braise very long and slow.

Quales Farm saved the day with behemoth big-boned meaty Katahdin lamb shanks. Yep. Score.

Game on.

I was all over the place when thinking about how to prepare the shanks. I thought about masking their slight gamey funk under the multi-layered spices of  a sultry Moroccan tagine or disguising them in the complex flavors of a pimenton/saffron Spanish stew.   Ultimately, I went with a flavor profile that I hoped would taste both familiar and comforting.

Lamb Shanks Braised in Zinfandel over Rutagaga Puree with Honey-Lime Glazed Rainbow Carrots.

After browning the lamb shanks in a dutch oven over a medium high flame, I removed them to plate before tumbling  2 sliced celery stalks, 3 sliced carrots, and 1 diced onion into the popping  residual fatty lamb oil.  When the vegetables softened, I added 2 minced garlic cloves and 3 oil-packed anchovie filets. Just before the garlic crisped, I deglazed the pot with 2 cups of zinfandel.  When the wine reduced by half, I added  1 1/2 cups beef stock and 4 cups of canned whole San Marzano tomatoes. I brought the braising liquid to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, and seasoned it generously with salt and pepper.

I lowered the shanks into the gently simmering stock before adding  fresh rosemary stems and fresh thyme sprigs, After covering the pot, I slid it into a 350 degree oven to braise for 3 1/2 hours.

Every nook and cranny of our home smelled amazing for the entire day. Our large arched kitchen window steamed over from the heat, dripping with invisible flavor. I could almost lick the air.

The hard part?  Braised lamb shanks taste better if they rest overnight. It solidifies the fat for easy removal and allows the meat to absorb additional flavor from the pan juices. Really? It just felt wrong. Cook and eat, right?  Nope.  I pulled the lamb shanks from the oven, carefully removed them to a platter, and strained the juices through a fine sieve. (I saved the spent vegetables for a late night snack). After returning the strained pan sauce to the dutch oven, I submerged the shanks in the liquid, let them cool completely, and covered them before sliding the quasi lamb confit into the refrigerator to rest overnight.

The following night, I pulled the shanks from the refrigerator and carefully tugged them out of their gelatinous cocoon. After skimming the coagulated fat from the surface, I boiled the sauce until it reduced to a demi glace and plunged the shanks back into the simmering thick jus.

The fun part? After throwing together a simple rutabaga puree and a side dish of honey-lime carrots, I poured myself a huge glass of wine, pulled a stool next to the stove, and basted the lamb shanks with the sauce until they were warmed through and lacquered with a deep mahogany glaze. Oh my.

I nestled the lamb shanks over the velvety rutabaga puree and cradled the carrots to the side before finishing with  a scattering of deep fried carrot fronds.

With hunks of unctuous meat falling from enormous Flintstone bones, the shanks were ridiculously tender, slightly gamey, and incredibly rich.

While the pillowy rutabaga puree added muted cabbage-like undertones, the carrots awakened the sleepy meat with hints of sweet acidity.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Lighter Side

I'm not much of a dieter. I'm more of a full fat, whole milk, cream, and butter kind of guy. That being said, after the onslaught of holiday glazed hams, roasted turkeys, rich gravies, creamy dips, chips, cheese plates, cocktails, candies, and layered cakes ended, Michael and I both were ready to step back and take a little break.

With a work event on the horizon (involving confection ovens, steam pots, old electric burners, limited storage space, ordering, prepping, cooking, and service),  I knew I wanted to keep things uncomplicated here at home.

Simple and light, baked scallop prosciutto cups topped with crab-flecked hollandaise on top of asparagus ribbons were a welcome respite from the rich holiday madness.

Better yet, I barely cooked anything  at all.

After cutting the tough woody ends from 10 asparagus spears, I shaved them into ribbons with a vegetable peeler before tossing them into a bowl with julienned red bell peppers.

Although I adore hollandaise, I'm not a hollandaise snob. Oh sure, I could have used a double boiler and a whisk to conjuer up a classic real hollandaise sauce, but I didn't. Blender hollandaise  was quicker and lowered the odds for producing a broken mangled sauce.

I blended two large egg yolks with 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice. With the motor running,  I streamed 2 1/2 sticks  (1 1/4 cups) of warmed melted unsalted butter into the mix until the sauce emulsified before gently  adding 1/2 cup of flaked  bluefin crabmeat.  A light handed finish of salt, white pepper, and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice sealed the deal.

After preheating the oven to 350 degrees, I draped paper thin sheets of prosciutto into 6 compartments of a non-stick miniature muffin pan, allowing the delicate translucent fatty parts to rim the top edges.  I nudged 6 large dry-packed sea scallops into each prosciutto cup, seasoned them with cracked pepper, and slid them into the oven to bake for 12 minutes.

That was it. Booya!

Just before pulling the scallops from the oven, I tossed the asparagus and julienned peppers with fresh lemon juice, salt, and cracked black pepper.  After swirling the ribbons into large pasta bowls, I nestled the steaming scallop/prosciutto cups around the chilled tangled asparagus.  I suppose I could have drizzled the crabby hollandaise over the scallops. I didn't drizzle. Nope.  I filled them like gilded chalices until the lemony sauce spilled over the crisped cups and dripped down the sides. Drinkable overindulgence. Snipped chives, minced red bell peppers, and course cracked pepper finished them off.

The prosciutto crackled around the tender scallops, searing the sweet flesh with subtle saltiness from the cured ham. While bits of flaked crab streamed through the hollandaise as it pooled and puddled under the crisp delicate asparagus, sharp acidity from the lemon vinaigrette balanced the buttery richness.

Bright asparagus ribbons.
Lemony hollandasie.
Bite-sized  scallop poppers.

Perfect for our brief stroll on the lighter side.