Friday, February 27, 2009

how peter rabbit met his untimely end, or why adele will never be a children's book author

(With sincerest apologies to Beatrix Potter.)

One fine autumn morning, some weeks after Peter's narrow escape from Mr. MacGregor's garden, old Mrs. Rabbit once again left Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter at home alone.

Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, boring and well-behaved rabbits that they were, fetched baskets and went down the lane to gather the wild raspberries that had just begun to ripen.

But Peter was an incorrigible rabbit. Once again, he ran to Mr. MacGregor's garden, and squeezed under the gate.

The lettuces, French beans, and radishes were no longer in season, but Peter found tender leaves of spinach and sweet young carrots to feast upon. He even came across an apple tree in a previously-unexplored corner, and gorged himself on its small green apples.

And then, feeling rather sick, he went to look for some peppermint. After nibbling on a few cool, fresh leaves, and wanting to avoid another episode of hiding in the watering can, Peter decided it was time to return home.

Peter, in his attempt to reach the gate, took a shortcut across the patch from which Mr. MacGregor was harvesting potatoes. Mr. MacGregor let out a shout and ran after Peter, waving his garden fork and calling out "Stop, thief!"

Peter ran for the gate in leaps and bounds with Mr. MacGregor right on his heels. Mr. MacGregor made a grab for Peter's tail, but Peter ducked just in time, and dived underneath the gate.

Unfortunately, all the spinach and carrots and apples that Peter had gorged upon had made him far too fat to squeeze back underneath the gate. Peter was trapped, unable to move forwards, and unable to turn back.

Mr. MacGregor let out a low chuckle of delight, and seized Peter by his hind legs. Peter kicked and struggled to no avail as Mr. MacGregor placed him in a sturdy cage with a solid lock and left him outside the kitchen door for Mrs. MacGregor to handle.

Mrs. MacGregor was delighted. Although she was famous for her rabbit pie, she had recently received a volume on French cuisine from her fashionable cousin in London, and it contained a whole section on the preparation of game.

That afternoon, Mrs. MacGregor baked an apple tart. She roasted potatoes with fresh herbs. She cooked tender young spinach and baby carrots. And she braised Peter Rabbit to serve in a sauce of mustard cream.

The MacGregors dined very well that night.

Braised Rabbit in Mustard Cream Sauce

For this recipe, you'll need a plump whole rabbit weighing about three pounds, with liver intact. (From a butcher, please. No traumatizing your ex a la Fatal Attraction, and no Craigslist. Even if the bunny is going to find a good home in your stomach. You are, however, free to name it if your sense of humor resembles mine.) If you're handy with a cleaver, you can cut it into small pieces yourself, but it's easier to ask the butcher to cut it into small pieces for you.

(This technically can serve one, but you'll have a ton of leftovers to freeze. Probably better to round up a few friends to make Peter Rabbit jokes with you.)

Preheat the oven to 300F.

Rinse your rabbit pieces (but not the liver, keep that in the fridge for now) and pat dry.

Put a heavy ovenproof pot with lid on the stove. Heat a little olive oil, and brown the rabbit pieces in batches. Transfer the pieces to a bowl and set aside.

Add one finely chopped large onion, two minced cloves of garlic, and several sprigs of fresh thyme to the pot. Cook until the onion is soft, then pour in two cups of cheap white wine. Stir, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom, and simmer until you no longer smell alcohol when you stick your head over the pot.

Put the rabbit pieces back in the pot, and cover with the lid. Move the pot to the oven, and braise for an hour and a half, or until the meat can be easily pierced with a fork.

Meanwhile, take the liver and cut it into small cubes. Saute in a pan over low heat until the liver is mostly cooked, but still pink inside.

Transfer to a food processor (mortar and pestle also works) and blend the liver to a paste. Stir in a third of a cup of crème fraîche to produce a thick, creamy, pinkish goo.

Remove the rabbit pieces from the pot. Bring the liquid in the pot to a boil, and reduce until you have roughly a cup remaining.

Turn off the heat, and stir in the liver mixture. Add a quarter-cup of creamy Dijon mustard, and two or three tablespoons of whole-grain Dijon mustard. Depending on your brand of mustard, you may want to add a little salt.

Stir until the mustard has been fully incorporated, then bring the mixture back to a simmer and gently transfer the rabbit pieces back into the pot, spooning the sauce over to cover. Put the lid back on and cook for another five to ten minutes. Turn off the heat. Serve.

Braised bunny goes well with roasted carrots and potatoes on the side, and apple tart to follow.

(I forgot to take photos until dinner was over, so you'll have to make do with the photo I took of next day's lunch.)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

the law student's puff pastry

To make puff pastry, you have to be a little crazy. Not necessarily stark raving mad, but a little loopy. A wee bit batty. Slightly unhinged.

Like meringue, puff pastry, or pâte feuilletée, is one of those culinary curiosities whose invention probably involved something less than perfect sanity.*

The pâtissier who first thought of wrapping a slab of butter in dough, and chilling and rolling and folding and rolling and chilling and folding and rolling to create a slab of dough interspersed with very thin layers of butter that would bake into light, flaky, buttery sheets? Crazy. In a good way, yes, but still crazy.

The sane buy their puff pastry. Or they bribe their slightly crazy friends into making puff pastry for them, which is really the same thing.

Unfortunately, law students, by definition, aren't sane. And some of them go to extreme lengths to avoid their reading. You have to be a little unhinged to make puff pastry according to the directions in a real cookbook. You have to be completely off your rocker to wing it.

The Law Student's Puff Pastry

Real puff pastry is supposed to be a two- or three-day process. The law student's puff pastry abbreviates this process to an afternoon, which is the amount of time it takes to read an Evidence assignment with lengthy breaks for procrastination in between. Apologies to the French pâtissiers, who are probably rolling in their graves.

(Makes enough pastry for two eight-inch tarts.)

Sit down with Evidence casebook and highlighter. Make it through two pages on Rule 608 (character evidence) before deciding that a cup of tea is in order. Head to kitchen to make tea. Open the fridge to get milk. Get distracted by the pound of butter next to the milk. Decide to make puff pastry.

Puff pastry begins with a détrempe, which is a flour and water mixture. Unfortunately, it's been a while since you read the Larousse, and you can't remember if the détrempe for puff pastry should contain butter or not. Decide that the extra butter can't hurt. Make up a détrempe using a basic pastry recipe:

Begin with three cups of flour in a big bowl. Cut a stick of chilled salted butter into bits and rub them into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Pour in one-and-a-half cups ice water, and mix just until a light dough forms. Shape into a neat ball. Wrap this in cling wrap, and put it in the fridge.

Next, prepare the butter:

Lay out a sheet of parchment paper on your counter. Sprinkle it lightly with flour. Lay two sticks of chilled salted butter on it, right next to each other. Sprinkle them lightly with a little more flour. Cover with another sheet of parchment paper. Whale on them with a rolling pin hard enough to send everything in the kitchen rattling, until you have a roughly square-shaped sheet of butter that is about half a centimeter thick. (Three-sixteenths of an inch?) Put the butter back in the fridge.

Pick up where you left off on your Evidence reading. Note that Rule 608 has not improved with time. Do your best to concentrate for half an hour, then give up.

Lay out a sheet of parchment paper, and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Remove the dough from the fridge and set it on the parchment. Sprinkle with flour, and cover with another sheet of parchment. Roll it out into a rough square (if possible) of the same thickness as the butter.

Get the butter out of the fridge. Lay it out on the dough diagonally, so that the corners of the butter touch the edges of the dough. Fold the dough over and pinch gently to seal, creating a dough envelope with butter inside. Wrap in plastic wrap (or the same parchment paper used to roll the dough, if you're feeling lazy), and put it back in the fridge.

Back to the Evidence reading. Rule 608 still isn't any more exciting than it was the last time you looked at it. Give it half an hour before you go to check on the pastry again.

Parchment, flour. You know the drill by now. Get out your pastry-butter envelope and set it on the counter. Cover with more parchment. Roll it out until it's three-sixteenths of an inch thick.

Gently fold the dough into thirds, like a letter:

Flip it over so that the seam is on the underside:

Now roll it out again to three-sixteenths of an inch, and fold and flip again. Every fold-and-flip is called a turn. You've given the dough two turns, so gently press two fingertips into the dough.

Put the dough back in the fridge. Yes, it's back to the reading. This time, try your best to focus on Rule 608 for an hour.

When the hour is up, remove the dough from the fridge and give it two more turns. Press four fingertips into the dough to mark four turns:

Put it back in the fridge. By this point, you might be done with Rule 608, and can move on to Rule 609. Impeachment by evidence of conviction of a crime, yay. Try to stick it out for another hour.

After one hour, pull the dough from the fridge, and give it two final turns. It now needs to rest for many hours, preferably overnight, before you use it.

Yes, this means you have to finish reading about Rule 609. That's okay. Tomorrow, you can bake something with the puff pastry, and procrastinate on your reading for another class. Like Fed Tax.

Coming soon: the law student's Tarte Tatin.

*And alcohol. According to a friend's theory, meringue was the invention of a French pastry chef on a bender.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

competition for the limelight

On February 14th, during the reign of Claudius II, an unfortunate priest by the name of Valentinus was martyred in Rome for aiding Christians in defiance of Roman law. He was beaten with clubs, then lapidated, and as the coup de grace, beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate.

For whatever reason, the better part of the Western world now observes the day of Valentinus' death by decimating fields of roses, putting up heinous displays of pink and red, and consuming what is perhaps the most inexplicable confectionery ever invented - the pastel-colored, Tums-flavored Conversation Heart.*

Now, I'm sure Valentinus would be glad to know that he hasn't been forgotten (then again, he's probably enjoying a wonderful afterlife in heaven, so maybe he doesn't care), but frankly, he's not the only poor bugger to have run up the curtains and joined the choir invisible on February 14th. I think it's time we broke the monopoly he seems to have on this particular date.

Which is why I'm going to suggest that we look to science, and consider Dolly the Sheep.

Dolly, arguably the most famous sheep in the world, was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell. Born July 5th, 1996 at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, Dolly was cloned from a cell taken from a mammary gland, and therefore named in honor of Dolly Parton.

Dolly kicked the bucket on February 14th, 2003. Valentinus has some competition for the limelight.

If you've had enough of Valentinus, Dolly makes for a welcome change. You can celebrate the marvels of modern science, pass on the roses, and avoid the eyewatering displays of red and pink. Best of all, lamb stew beats Conversation Hearts, hands down.

Lamb Stew

More of a method than a set recipe, you can vary the vegetables in this stew to your taste.

(Serves one with leftovers, but if you want to make it a dinner party, there's enough to share with two or three friends.)

Take a pound or pound-and-a-half (exact quantity determined by your carnivorous tendencies) of boneless stewing lamb, and cut it into one-inch chunks if the pieces are on the large side. Dredge the pieces in a few teaspoons of flour and shake off the excess.

Heat a small quantity of olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan with lid. Add the lamb, and cook until browned all over. Add a splash of red wine to the pan, and use a wooden spoon to scrape up the brown bits on the bottom. Once the alcohol has burned off, turn off the heat.

Cut up two or three onions into quarters. Peel three carrots or parsnips and cut them into rough chunks. Add them to the pot with a tablespoon of salt, a bay leaf, and a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Pour in just enough water to cover.

Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn it down to a bare simmer. Put a lid on the pot, and cook for two to three hours, or until the lamb is tender. Fish out the thyme stems and the bay leaves.

If you'd like to add baby artichokes or broad beans to the stew, now would be the time. Cook, with the lid off, until the vegetables are tender. Check for salt; add more if necessary.

Serve over mashed potatoes or buttered noodles.

*If you must consume hearts, they're sweeter when they're made out of red-wine poached pears... and broken.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

the fifth quarter

"Is oxtail what it sounds like?"

It's Monday night, and I'm doing dinner with the law students. I have made good on my warning (the one I issue to all my dinner guests) about mad culinary experiments: we're eating bitter chocolate pasta with oxtail sauce. The law students appear to be nonplussed by the pairing of meat with chocolate, but Tom's question takes me by surprise.

It seems so self-explanatory to me that I'm not sure what to say: oxtail is the tail of an ox.* It takes some gentle prodding on Tom's part to remind me that not all culinary nomenclature is literal - Bombay duck isn't duck, after all, and Welsh rabbit contains no meat whatsoever. For all Tom knows, "oxtail" could refer to something else entirely.

Sometimes, despite all reminders to the contrary, I forget that mainstream American cuisine does not embrace the "weird bits."

Frankly, as far as "weird bits" go, oxtail is fairly tame. If you removed the bones, you'd probably be hard pressed to tell the difference between stewed oxtail and stewed short ribs. But for whatever reason, it's classed as a weird bit, and this is how we get dishes like coda alla vaccinara, and, by extension, my aforementioned mad culinary experiment.

Coda alla vaccinara, literally "oxtail, butcher's style," is a kind of oxtail stew. It belongs to a very particular aspect of Roman cuisine, one that specializes in dishes using the quinto quarto, the "fifth quarter" of the animal. This cuisine comes out of Testaccio, the slaughterhouse district, because the workers were once partly paid in weird bits, and the restaurants in the area would cook them.**

There is no single recipe for coda alla vaccinara. The stew is tomato-based and contains onions and celery. Its seasonings are bay leaf, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. There are countless variations in the other additions, however. Some recipes use candied fruit. Some of them use raisins. Some of them use chocolate. And leftovers are traditionally used to sauce pasta.

Which brings us to my mad culinary experiment: why not skip straight to sauce, and put the chocolate in the pasta instead?

I added cocoa powder to my standard pasta recipe, creating a dark pasta that smelled appealingly of chocolate. I used my standard technique for stewing meat (vegetables, herbs, lots of red wine) to cook the oxtail, and added the seasonings used in coda alla vaccinara.

The resulting dish is subtler than you might expect: the sauce has the familiar flavors of beef and tomato, but it's fragrant with nutmeg and cinnamon, and golden raisins add sweetness. The cocoa in the pasta has a similar effect to chocolate in mole sauce, adding depth to the flavor. Finally, a dusting of cocoa powder on top adds a smoky, bitter note.

For the record, it went over pretty well with the law students once we cleared up the confusion about the exact nature of oxtail. Maybe I'll stick with the quinto quarto for my next mad culinary experiment... anyone for tripe?

Bitter Chocolate Pasta with Oxtail Sauce

This is a two-day recipe. The longer you let the sauce sit, the better it tastes.

(Serves one, with lots of leftovers. The sauce freezes well.)

For the pasta, dump two cups of flour and a quarter-cup of cocoa powder on a clean surface. Make a well in the middle, and crack in four egg yolks. Add two teaspoons of salt, a glug of olive oil, and a little water. Knead until everything comes together. Continue to knead for another ten to fifteen minutes, or until you have a smooth, elastic dough. (If you'd like more detailed instructions for making pasta, go here.) Wrap the dough in plastic. Stick it in the fridge. You can forget about it until tomorrow.

For the sauce, take an onion, a carrot, and four ribs of celery, chop them all finely, and sauté over low heat in a large, heavy-bottomed pan with lid. Throw in a few sprigs of fresh thyme, a bay leaf, and four cloves.

Add one-and-a-half pounds of oxtail pieces. Pour in two cups of cheap red wine, and add a little water if the pieces aren't completely covered. Bring the mixture to a boil, and skim off any scum that forms on the surface. Once the alcohol has burned off, put the lid on the pot.

Let the mixture simmer for three to four hours, or until the meat is falling off the bones. Turn off the heat. Remove the lid and allow the mixture to cool. Stick it in the fridge and forget about it until tomorrow.

The next day, remove both the pasta dough and the oxtail mixture from the fridge. Set the pasta dough aside. Back to the sauce:

Skim the congealed fat from the surface of the mixture. Put the pot on low heat and bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce until you have less than half an inch of liquid in the pan.

Fish out the bones, the bay leaf, and the cloves, if you can find them. (If you can't find them, keep an eye out for them while you're eating.) Add two to three tablespoons of tomato paste, and stir until incorporated.

Throw in a generous handful of golden raisins, a teaspoon of salt, a sprinkling of ground nutmeg, and a sprinkling of ground cinnamon. Put the lid back on the pot and let it simmer for another hour or so.

While you're waiting for the sauce to finish, set up your pasta machine. Roll and cut the pasta. Put it on a baking sheet and set it aside.

After the sauce has simmered for another hour, remove the lid, and if it looks a little thin, let it reduce further. Check for salt; add a little more if the sauce needs it. Turn off the heat.

To assemble, set a large pot of salted water on the stove. Once it reaches a rolling boil, drop the pasta in (give it a stir to make sure it doesn't clump.) Cook for three to four minutes, drain, and add it to the pan with the sauce. Toss to coat.

This pasta tastes better warm rather than piping hot, so let it cool for a few minutes if necessary, then spoon it onto a plate. Dust with cocoa powder. Serve immediately.

*Strictly speaking, it's not always an ox, but it's bovine.

**If you're going to Rome and feeling adventurous, one of the most famous quinto quarto restaurants in Testaccio is Checchino dal 1887. I am sorry to say that I never ate there myself, but I hear excellent things about the food there.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

cold weather friends

It is snowing again.

This shouldn't be surprising news. It is February in Boston, after all. And yet, after a week or two of milder weather, after we've actually seen the sun for a few hours and the grey piles on the sidewalks have shrunk a little, I am disappointed when I look out the window and see a world of white. Each and every snowfall brings the hope that it will be the season's last.

I am never going to develop anything more than an indifference-hate relationship with New England weather.

At least my relationship with cold weather food is good. I've been getting along beautifully with vegetable soup. I am on excellent terms with pasta in creamy sauce. And risotto and I are the best of friends.

It doesn't take much to become friends with risotto. It's warm and rich and filling, and it lends itself to countless variations. All it asks is low heat and a little patience in return.

This particular variation combines the sweetness of sauteed onions with savory Italian sausage, and uses red wine rather than the standard white. It does come out a rather funny shade of purple, but I think that's a fair trade-off for being able to drink red wine as you cook.

It almost makes up for the snow. Almost.

(No photos. My photography makes the funny shade of purple look positively lurid.)

Red Wine, Onion and Sausage Risotto

I'm fairly sure the original idea for this recipe came from the Tuesday food section of the Sydney Morning Herald, but don't quote me on it. I think the suggested wine was Chianti, but any red wine that goes with Italian sausages will do.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Open a bottle of red wine. Pour yourself a glass.

Pour three or four cups of chicken stock (storebought or homemade) into a small pan. Set the pan on a burner over low heat.

Heat a tiny amount of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over low heat.Remove the casings from two Italian sausages (spicy or sweet, your choice) and break them into small pieces. Drop them in the pot. Cook until the sausage has browned and releases its fat.

Bring the heat up to medium. Add one finely diced white onion and a sprinkling of dried thyme. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent.

Add half a cup of arborio or carnaroli rice. Stir until the rice is well-coated in fat and hot to the touch. Add a generous splash of the red wine you've been drinking to the pot and stir well.

When the alcohol fumes have burned off and the liquid has been absorbed, add a ladleful of chicken stock to the pot. Stir until it has been absorbed by the rice. Repeat, stirring all the while, until you run out of stock. If it looks like you're going to run out of stock before the rice is cooked through, dilute it with hot water.

Once the rice is cooked all the way through, but still has some bite, turn off the heat. Add salt to taste. Allow to stand for five minutes.

Pour yourself another glass of red wine. Dish up a big bowlful of risotto, and if you have a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano somewhere in your cheese drawer, grate a little over the top. Tuck in.