31 August 2006

Almost Pasta YiaYia

bucatini with feta, cinnamon, browned butter and browned garlic

I think I know what a man feels like when he picks up his mail-order bride at the post-office and she turns out to be ugly. Oh, the disappointment.

Last month I ordered some bucatini pasta from Italy and gleefully awaited its delivery for at least a week. Much like a young man eagerly expecting his mail-order bride, I dreamt of the many days we would share together, my bucatini and me.
I prepared my home for my new bride by clearing away a cozy spot in the kitchen cabinet and buying her pretty things would make her happy in her new home. I even purchased an isight camera so that she could keep in touch with her family back in Naples.

I had it all planned out. The first of our many special moments together was going to be Pasta YiaYia, a dish on which I have gorged myself countless times at Lula Cafe. Drenched in browned butter, strewn with crumbled feta and crispy browned garlic, then sprinkled with cinnamon, Pasta YiaYia is an uncommon yet magnificent combination of ingredients.

The bucatini at Lula Café is delicate and willowy, its light, hollow strands softly bending across each other, loosely gathering the feta and the garlic in their folds. I was so anxious for my package to arrive so I could make this beautiful pasta! Alas, my giggles of anticipatory delight were stifled when I opened up the delivery box. My bucatini was neither willowy nor delicate, but instead stocky and sturdy. It was nothing but glorified spaghetti. Glorified, fat, hollow spaghetti.

mail-order bucatini that is unfortunately less lovely than the bucatini at Lula Café

I disgustedly cast the lackluster bucatini aside and moped for days (not to be confused with mopped for days). Was I being superficial by not graciously accepting this pasta into my life based on its appearance alone? Probably I was, so I decided to try to make Pasta YiaYia and see if this un-glamorous bucatini could possibly live up to my expectations.

Turns out I’m not superficial and I actually am a good judge of character based on appearance alone. My mail-order bucatini did not compare to the bucatini at Lula Café. The flavors were indeed magnificent, but the shape and texture of the bucatini did not resemble the fragile tangle of pasta presented at Lula's.

Perhaps the imported pasta of which I still have 2 pounds left is the real bucatini, and Lula Café’s bucatini is only a variant. Perhaps the next time I am dining at Lula I shall sneak into the kitchen and determine their source. And if they make their own bucatini, perhaps I shall ask the manager if I could prettyplease purchase a small quantity of such lovely pasta. My pursuit of Pasta YiaYia remains unfinished.

Does anyone want 2 pounds of bucatini from Naples?

Pasta YiaYia
~adapted from Lula Cafe.

¾ lb. bucatini
6 tablespoons butter
1 head garlic, each clove sliced very thinly crosswise (slices will be petal-shaped)
4-6 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
½ teaspoon cinnamon (Café Lula uses Moroccan cinnamon, I only had regular cinnamon)

Boil pasta in salted water until al dente.
While pasta is cooking, heat butter over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Just as the butter turns to turn golden-brown, add the garlic slices. Continue to cook the garlic and the butter until the butter is browned and the garlic turns dark golden-brown and crispy. Remove from heat. Do not overcook the garlic or it will taste bitter.
With a slotted spoon, remove the garlic slices and set aside.
Drain the pasta and add to the butter.
Add the cinnamon to the noodles. Stir until noodles are coated with butter and cinnamon.
Plate the pasta on individual plates.
Divide the feta and the garlic slices evenly between the plates.
Sprinkle with additional cinnamon, if desired.

22 August 2006

My Perfect Dream Date

Guess my perfect dream date.

Nope, you’re wrong, it’s not the Kitchen Table Seating at Charlie Trotter's. Stupid foie gras ban. I am so angry with you right now, Charlie Trotter.
Guess again.

No, it’s not Thai take-out and Project Runway. That is definitely my second choice.
Guess again.

Gross! I am insulted that you think I would accept a date from John Stamos. I would only consider going on a dream date with John Stamos if the awesome music on his website was looped continuously on a soundtrack throughout our date.

Actually, I am not really amused when people ask me to guess ridiculous facts about themselves, so I apologize for putting you through that. I will just go ahead and tell you what my perfect date is so you don't have to be annoyed anymore, if you were annoyed at all. My perfect date is stuffed with parmesan and wrapped in bacon, and then baked in the oven for fifteen minutes at 450 degrees.

First, the sizzling smokiness of the carmelized bacon. Then, the juicy sweetness of the date. And finally, just when your tastebuds are joyfully content and not hoping for anything else, ever, the parmesan breaks through and you can taste salty cheese! Yeah, salty cheese!

If your perfect dream date could be described as interesting, thought-provoking, sweet, cheesy, and a little bit greasy, then this is the ideal date for you. I propose that you abandon all longings for human companionship and instead go on a bacon-wrapped parmesan-stuffed date, and play John Stamos’ website music while you eat.

Bacon-wrapped Dates Stuffed with Parmesan
serves 7-8 as appetizers

1 lb. bacon, each strip cut in half crosswise
20 pitted dates, also cut in half
1/4 lb. block of parmesan, preferably imported

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Cut parmesan into small sticks.
Stuff each half-date with the parmesan.
Wrap each date with one of the halved bacon pieces.
Lay dates on a baking sheet about one inch apart.
Bake dates in oven for 10 minutes, or until the underside of the bacon turns brown. Using tongs, flip dates over.
Bake for another 5-7 minutes, until the bacon is brown and crispy on all sides.
Drain on a paper towel and serve immediately.
These little guys are so ugly that you might want to lay a few flowers on the platter to break up the monochromatic color scheme.

06 August 2006

Coconut Glee!

I have at least 100 pages left in my book before our Book Club meeting today. Do you think I am feverishly speed-reading my book and recklessly attempting to cultivate a stimulating discussion question? No. Instead am sticking a plastic cat figurine into a coconut cupcake and taking pictures of it. Good stuff.

If you seek a fluffy, cloud-like cupcake that will make people say, “This is the best cupcake I have ever eaten!” or “I don’t even like cupcakes but these are delicious!” then make Ina Garten's coconut cupcakes. If you seek a cupcake that will make you wish you were less than one inch tall so that you could dive in and out of the billowy frosting, then I say again, make these cupcakes.

The cream cheese icing, unexpected on a cupcake, is quite delicious, although it unfortunately overwhelms the coconut flavor. So if you crave a strong coconut presence in your cupcakes, I would bookmark Ina’s recipe for another day and instead look up the coconut layer cake recipe at America’s Test Kitchen. I’m sure you can stick figurines into that cake, too.

By the way, this recipe makes 30 CUPCAKES. Ina says it makes 20, but I counted 30 (not counting the batter that I ate, which probably amounts to one cupcake), and I still have enough leftover icing to frost a carrot cake. If you don’t want to spend $7.50 on butter, divide the recipe in half and you will still have 15 cupcakes.

Ina Garten's Coconut Cupcakes:

For the Cupcakes:
¾ pound unsalted butter at room temperature
2 cups sugar
5 extra-large eggs at room temperature
1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 ½ teaspoons pure almond extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
14 oz. sweetened, shredding coconut

For the Cream Cheese Icing:
1 pound cream cheese at room temperatre
¾ pound butter
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon pure almond extract
1 ½ confectioner’s sugar, sifted

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar for 5 minutes – until light and fluffy. With the mixer running on low, add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and mix well.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In three parts, alternately add the ingredients and the buttermilk to the batter, beginning and ending with the dry. Mix until just combined. Fold in 7 ounces of coconut.
Lin a muffin pan with paper liners. Fill each cup to the top with batter. Bake for 20 to 35 minutes, until the tops are brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Remove to a baking rack and cool completely.
While cupcakes are cooling, make the icing. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, blend together the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla and almond extracts. Add the confectioner’s sugar and mix until smooth.
Frost the cupcakes with cream cheese icing and sprinkle with the remaining coconut.

03 August 2006

I am happy that I am not a sausage.

At times, I have noted to myself that I wouldn’t mind being a tad more photogenic, but then when I think of how un-photogenic a sausage is, I feel rather stunning in comparison. A few days ago, as I attempted to photograph some leftover sausages and plums braised in red wine, I felt a refreshing sense of gratitude that I was born a human being and not a sausage. It’s not just the unsightliness of sausages that causes these feelings of thankfulness and joy. There exist many other reasons, including (but not limited to): sausages are made of ground meat and I’m not, sausages are usually 1 inch x 1 inch x 4 inches and I’m not, sausages are encased in pig instestines and I'm not, and sausages can’t read and I can. Those are my main reasons that I am happy I am not a sausage.

Have you ever tried to photograph leftover sausages? I would imagine that the number of people in the world who have tried to do this is 43, plus or minus 16, and the number of people who have successfully tried to do this is 7, plus or minus 7.

Hence, the photo shoot did not last very long. I fired my models, and then I ate them. They were not beautiful, no they weren’t, but they were delicious.

Sausages and Plums Braised in Red Wine…not the prettiest dish. Some may say that about me, but whatevs, I’m already married so I don’t need to be hot. (Right, my love?)

A photo of a photo by Gentl & Hyers. The photographer of this dish was more
succesful than I in capturing the mouth-watering essence of
Sausages and Plums Braised in Red Wine.
That's why you get to see the photo in the cookbook and not my photo.

This recipe is from Molly Stevens’ All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking, the cookbook I got when I mercilessly returned Tyler Florence’s cookbook. Molly Stevens is a wonderful and marvelous cookbook writer. Her introduction moved me to tears (seriously) and her recipes, come braising season, will most likely do the same. Tears of joy. Tears of tasty, braised joy, simmered for hours at low temperatures and tenderized in thier own juices.

Sausages and Plums Braised in Red Wine
by Molly Stevens
(I copied this recipe from her website because her writing is so clear and detailed. I hope I don’t get in trouble. I also hope you try to make these sausages. )

As you’re cutting up the plums for this recipe, taste a piece. If the plums are on the sour side (as some early-season varieties are), add a pinch of sugar to the braise to bring out their sweetness. If plums aren’t in season make the dish with grapes (see the variation that follows). Since there’s no stock in the braising liquid to round out the flavor of the wine, it’s important here to use a wine that really tastes good to you. I particularly like using a lightly fruity but dry Beaujolais—a real Beaujolais, not the raw-tasting Nouveau Beaujolais that shows up every November.
Serve with polenta or sautéed potatoes and a baguette or other crusty bread to sop up every last bit of the gorgeous magenta-hued sauce. It’s too good to leave any behind. Pass a simple tossed arugula or spinach salad at the table.

1 pound ripe purple or red plums, such as Santa Rosa or Italian (or grapes, see variation that follows)
1 3/4 to 2 pounds sweet Italian sausages (with or without fennel seed)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, minced (about 3 scant tablespoons)
1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh sage or 1/2 teaspoon rubbed
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of sugar, if needed
2/3 cup light, fruity dry red wine, such as Beaujolais, Dolcetto, or Pinot Noir

1. The plums: Working over a bowl to collect the juices, cut the plums into 1/2-inch wedges, tasting a piece to judge their sweetness, and letting them drop into the bowl. If the plums are not freestone, you’ll have to cut the flesh away from the pits with a knife. Set aside.

2. Browning the sausages: If the sausages are linked together, separate the links with a sharp paring knife or a pair of scissors. Prick each link in several places with the tip of a sharp knife (this will prevent the sausages from exploding). Heat the oil in a large lidded skillet or shallow braising pan (12-inch is a good choice) over medium-high heat until the oil slides easily across the pan. Add the sausages and fry them, turning frequently with tongs, until a medium brown crust has formed on at least three sides, 10 to 12 minutes total. Using tongs, so as not to pierce the casings further, transfer the sausages to a large plate, without stacking.

3. The aromatics: Depending on how fatty the sausages are, there may or may not be an excess of fat in the pan. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon, return the pan to medium heat, and add the shallot. Stir immediately with a wooden spoon, and sauté just until the shallot begins to brown, about 1 minute. Add the garlic and sage, stir again, and sauté until fragrant, another 30 seconds or so. Add the plums and all of their juices. Season with salt, pepper, and pinch of sugar if the plums tasted tart. Stir and sauté until the juices begin to sizzle, about 2 minutes.

4. The braising liquid: Pour in the wine, increase the heat to medium-high, and stir with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom of the pan to dislodge any precious cooked-on bits that will enrich the flavor of the braising liquid. Simmer for 3 to 4 minutes to meld the flavors some.

5. The braise: Return the sausages to the pan, nestling them down so they are surrounded by the plums. Add any juices that may have accumulated on the plate. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to a very gentle simmer. Check after 5 minutes to make sure that the wine is not simmering too excitedly. If it is, lower the heat or put a heat diffuser beneath the pan. Continue braising gently, turning the sausages after 15 minutes, until the sausages are cooked all the way through, 25 to 30 minutes total. Check for doneness by piercing a sausage with a skewer or meat fork to see if the juices run clear. If you are unsure, nick a sausage with a small knife and peer inside to see that there is no pink left.

6. The finish: Transfer the sausages with tongs to a serving platter. Lift the plums from the pan with a slotted spoon and arrange them around the sausages. Cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Return the braising liquid to the stove. Taste and evaluate the sauce. Depending on how juicy the plums and sausages were, you may or may not need to reduce the sauce: it should be the consistency of a thick vinaigrette. If necessary, bring to a strong simmer over medium-high heat, and simmer for 2 to 4 minutes to thicken and concentrate the flavor. I don’t bother skimming this sauce, since the fat from the sausages is integral in balancing the taste, but it never tastes oily or fatty. Taste for salt and pepper. The sauce is meant to be slightly sharp to offset the rich taste of the pork sausage. Pour the sauce over the sausages and plums, and serve.