Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Basic Tomato Sauce: Version 2.0; Ricotta Gnocchi: Why Gnot?

This is V2.0 for several reasons: the tomatoes are fresh, a blender or puree process is included, tomato paste has been added for richness, and a splash of red wine has been added. The formula is quick and rustic, with no exact science to the chopping or amount of ingredients. Let your tastes and application for the sauce guide you. I was inspired to post this by a dear and lovely friend of know who you are! You better get to cookin' this sauce!

You can easily leave the sauce chunky, but I find that the skins on fresh tomatoes are a bit tough. To get around this (and in my book, an excuse to roughly chop) I blend my sauce either pre-simmer with a blender, or use my immersion blender mid-simmer. You could easily use, as I describe below, a mashing tool for a more chunky sauce.

 If using canned tomatoes, the tough-skin dilemma does not exist. I typically use either whole crushed or diced tomatoes. If you can find the San Marzano variety from Italy, splurge and purchase them for a more authentically Italian flavor. Fresh herbs or dried work here, just suit to the season and your tastes. I like to use a combination of dried and fresh in mine, and I love to put in a hefty amount of fresh basil when it is in season. Parsley, being a more hearty herb, can be purchased during any season at a dirt-cheap price, so I recommend that you include fresh parsley regardless.

Gorgeous tomatoes! These are from my Dad's garden, and the basil is from my farmer's market.
A well executed tomato sauce is a basic kitchen staple, and everyone must have their own "formula". A good tomato sauce recipe will grow with you, and can be adapted according to your mood and what the season gives you (i.e. I recommend using canned tomatoes in the dead of winter as opposed to the flavor-less orbs of red in your grocery! At least we have comfort knowing that our processors adhered to the strict guidelines of the Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter 1, Subchapter B, Title 21, Part 113. Although this is for low-acid foods, it is still a good reference. I suggest any foodie get acquainted with what our Government declares as a-OK to put in our food here, if you dare.
although not the first choice, of course, the packing plant did process the fruit at the peak of freshness during the harvest...or that is what I tell myself!).

The sauce can be used fresh, or frozen for future uses (it will last about 1 week in the fridge, or up to 3 months in a well sealed container in the freezer). You can use it for pasta, or try adding some cream and vodka for a quick penne alla vodka. Use it for pizza, calzones, or for dipping your favorite bread. Really, the options are endless with a decent sauce. Thin it out with redwine or stock, or make it thicker with more simmering or additional tomato paste. This stuff is very flexible! Let your imagination run wild...

If you have some time, I recommend making some gnocchi or pasta to taste your creation...and for fun, I have included a ricotta gnocchi recipe as well. Delicioso!

Note: the recipe below can easily be scaled up. Making a larger batch and freezing it is ideal! I based the measurements on 1 large (approximately 32 ounces) can of whole crushed or diced tomatoes, or equal volume (4 cups, or 32 ounces) of fresh chopped tomatoes.

Tomato Sauce
Makes enough sauce (approximately 4 cups) for one recipe of gnocchi below, which could easily feed 4 hungry people.

1 part fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped to equal about 4 cups
OR, 1 32 ounce can of whole crushed or diced tomatoes
2-4 cloves garlic, smashed or roughly chopped
1/3 cup onion, roughly chopped
1 large pinch (about 1 TB) dried herbs of any combination (I always use oregano, basil, fennel seeds)
2 TB tomato paste
1 cup liquid, such as red wine or vegetable stock
1 TB, or a generous drizzle, of extra virgin olive oil or a pat of butter
1 large handful, or about 1/2 cup roughly torn or chopped parsley and/or fresh basil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Medium sized sauce pot (or larger if scaling recipe up) with a heavy bottom and NOT non-stick
Cutting board and knife
Blender, Immersion Blender (the hand-held kind) OR
Mashing device: potato masher, pastry cutter, fork

For the blender method, if you are feeling rushed or lazy: in the blender vessel, throw in the tomatoes, whole garlic cloves, chopped onion, tomato paste, olive oil, fresh and/or dried herbs, salt and pepper. Pulse to blend to desired consistency-although I find that it is difficult to not puree it all with this method.

Transfer to the sauce pot, and turn on the heat to medium-high.  Add the liquid in the form of red wine or stock. Now, cover, bring to a good simmer. Once a simmer is reached, turn the heat to low, partially un-cover or remove the lid fully to allow the sauce to reduce. Taste as it thickens, adjusting the seasonings and consistency as you see fit.

I love the pink-color that the sauce takes on when it is blended; the air bubbles created when blending lightens up the color, but as the bubbles settle out, the sauce will be the typical deep-red.
For the immersion blender or mashing method: place the sauce pot on medium heat, and add the drizzle of oil. Toss in the smashed garlic cloves and onion, heat until fragrant and soft. Then add the remaining ingredients. Cover, bring to a good simmer over medium-high heat. Then, turn the heat to low, and remove or partially remove the lid to allow the ingredients to soften, about 30 minutes. Then, remove the pot from the heat, and mash with your mashing tool. Or, use an immersion blender, and blend to desired consistency. Return the sauce to low heat, either partially covered or un-covered, and allow to reduce. Taste as the sauce cooks, adjusting seasoning as you go. Note: if using the mashing tool, you will have a more rustic sauce with larger chunks of onion and garlic.

Once the sauce is done, you can cool to room temperature and package for freezer. Or, you can use it right away for some delicious gnocchi.....:

Ricotta Gnocchi
Makes enough for 4 generous servings, or 6 as a side

14 ounces (about 1 1/2 cups) ricotta or ricotta con latte (whole milk if using the con latte type*)
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose, un-bleached flour
Additional flour for rolling and storing
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon sea salt (or, 1/2 teaspoon regular table salt)
3 TB butter (optional, for browning)

*Ricotta means "re-cooked" in Italian. The reasoning is this: ricotta cheese is made from the whey that is left over from cooking or making other cheese from the curd. Ricotta is possible due to the heat and acid (pH) sensitive albumin proteins that are abundant in whey. Hooray! Many "ricotta" products that we have access to are typically not traditional ricotta (i.e. the product is made form milk or has milk added, hence the "con latte" verbiage).

large bowl
wooden spoon
measuring cups and spoons
fork, box grater, microplane or cheese/zest grater of some sort
knife or bench scraper
tea towel
baking sheet
parchment paper, wax paper or aluminum foil
large pot
large, heavy bottomed pan, such as cast iron
slotted spoon

First, prepare a landing-pad for the dumplings: line a baking sheet with your lining of choice, and sprinkle generously with flour.

Now, in the large bowl, scoop the ricotta and mix a bit until loosened. Add the yolks and salt, mix thoroughly. Add the flour, and mix until a semi-stiff dough forms. This will take a few minutes, however, be sure to not over-mix. If you do, it is not a deal-breaker: your dumplings may be a bit tougher, but fear not, they will still be delicious.

Flour a clean work surface, and scoop out the dough. Sprinkle a light coating of flour on the dough and your hands...

form the dough into a roughish-ball shape, picking up the dough to make sure it is not sticking to the work surface. Add some more flour under the dough if you need to. Now, cover with a towel or some plastic wrap and let sit for 30 minutes. Or, wrap it more securely, and refrigerate up to 24 hours.

After the dough has rested, it is time to form and "mark" the gnocchi. If refrigerated, take the dough  come up to room temperature to aid in forming. However, a slightly cool dough makes rolling a bit easier. Divide the dough into 4 pieces, then roll each on a floured surface into a 1" diameter log. It may help to also flour your hands a bit! Using a bench scraper or sharp knife, cut 1/2" dumplings.

Now, you will "mark" your dumplings. This process is entirely optional, but it helps sauce cling. Using a fork, or a tool noted above in "equipment", gently roll each dumpling across grooves or tines (see below). I really do not think there is an exact "science" behind this process, and it does not need to be perfect.
Aren't they cute?
Toss the finished gnocchi onto your prepared sheet tray, and allow to rest for a few minutes. Or, you could also refrigerate up to overnight, just wrap the tray securely to prevent drying. Give the sheet a shake to help coat each dumpling with flour to prevent sticking.

To cook, bring a large pot of water to boil with a large pinch of salt-it should taste like the sea. Add 1/3-ish of the gnocchi at a time. The dumplings will raise to the top of the water, then from this point, cook them for 3-5 minutes, until firm. Taste for texture after 3, and add more time if you want a more firm texture.

With a slotted spoon, transfer to a strainer placed in your sink if near your cook-top, or over a large bowl to catch the excess water. Shake to rid extra water.

To brown (again, completely optional, but worth every minute): in a large pan, preferably cast iron, melt the 3 TB butter over medium-high heat. All foaming should subside before placing gnocchi in the pan; the butter is not hot enough for browning when foam is present. Brown the dumplings in batches, turning as they cook-be sure to not over-crowd or else you will get more of a steaming action than drying/browning. Once browned to your desired color, add them to your homemade sauce (remember, one recipe of the formula above makes enough for 1 recipe of the gnocchi) that has been heated in a medium sized sauce pan. Heat together for a few minutes to blend flavors, then serve with grated parmesan, fresh basil...whatever you want! Mangia Bene!

Friday, October 18, 2013

One Pot Barley Faux-Sotto

It is officially fall in my book despite that we haven't reached the autumnal equinox, or have "fallen back" for daylight savings: the leaves are turning gorgeous colors, reminiscent of apples and squash, and falling from their trees (cue the Mama's and the Papa's song now!). The air is cool and crisp. There are apples, pumpkins, squash replacing the late-summer produce at markets and stores, and school is reaching a plateau for most in terms of exams and homework. This is a time that I am thankful to be done with undergrad, but I know I still have a long road ahead of me with my research.

As an update, "plan B" is being explored. This entails looking at why late lactation goat's milk forms protein aggregates when cooked into caramel sauce, or "cajeta" (dulce de leche's goat-y cousin). So, I will be making cajeta in the very near future, subjecting it to varying levels of baking soda, and tracking pH as I cook it. I will probably perform an informal sensory on the cajeta, and get into a fight with my lab's pH meter.

With the cold, and all that class/work nonesense going on, laziness once home is bound to sink in. Never fear! Here is simple and quick one-pot meal to use up the rest of your late-season tomatoes, and introduce your pallet to the hearty grains of fall and winter. I call this a "faux-sotto" because the finished dish is reminscent of a risotto: pearls of al dente grain suspended in a starchy, cream-like sauce. The obvious difference is that it is not the traditional starchy-rice (typically arborio) dish.

You shall impress yourself, or friends with this oh-so-frickin' easy dish! It will also warm your heart with hearty grains and yummy 'matos!
This recipe has been modified from the original quite a few times, so I am claiming this one as my own. The most finicky part is slicing the onion and garlic in thin slices-but you could be more lazy (rustic!), and slice them in thicker chunks (as I often do...). The flavors will eventually all mellow together, so don't sweat it. However, I have to admit with my trials, I have found that the onions are best when sliced very thin, as they melt together with the starchy sauce, and create a savory background for the toothsome barley. The onion flavor is not pronounced, so even if you hate onions, I encourage you to try this. Or, you could omit the onions all together, and just use garlic. And a note about the semi-pearled barley: you must use "semi-pearled" here, and not just "regular" barley. Semi pearled is a term meaning that some of the outer bran of the grain has been removed (think brown vs. white rice), and will cook a bit faster than the un-pearled variety.

This dish is filling by itself, topped with a sharp and salty cheese and more herbs. Or, serve with green beans, and/or some of your favorite sausages (real meat or veggie sausages will do!).

Barley Faux-Sotto
Makes 4 generous servings, or 6 to 8 sides if served with additional vegetables or sausages

1 cup semi-pearled barley
3 to 4 cups water, or stock of your choice
1 onion
4-6 cloves garlic
4 sprigs fresh thyme, or 1 TB italian seasoning, or 2 teaspoons dried thyme (any earthy-herb will work)
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
red pepper flakes
2 cups (about 9 ounces) tomatoes (small cherry or grape tomatoes are great, but any ripe red or yellow will do)
2 to 4 TB tomato paste (this is entirely optional)
Parmesan or Percorino Romano cheese, or a semi-hard or hard salty, aged cheese
Fresh parsley, basil if you can find it, or additional thyme

A large, heavy-bottomed (such as cast iron dutch or french oven) pot
Cutting board
Wood Spoon
Cheese grater or Microplane
Measuring cups (or good eye-balling skillz)
A French oven has a rounded top, whereas a Dutch oven has a flat lid with a lip to help hold coals. Dutch ovens were traditionally used as open-fire vessels, often covered in hot coals or embers to help cook the contents! Hooray!
First, heat your heavy-bottom pot (a french-see the red one above-or dutch oven would work here, or even a cast-iron skillet that has deep sides) on medium heat. Add the 1 cup of barley and 3 cups of liquid. Allow the barley to soak in the warming liquid. Meanwhile, thinly slice (as thinly as you can muster) your onion: chop off ends and peel, then slice in half along the lateral (longer) edge of the onion. With each half, slice half-moons.Then, gently smash to coax the peels off the garlic cloves, and slice. See below!

If using fresh thyme or herbs, de-stem (but some stem is ok if it is not terribly woody), and roughly chop. Add a dash of olive oil to the warm pot, enough to coat the bottom of the heated pan, then add everything, as well as salt, pepper and the crushed red pepper flakes. Halve or quarter (or chunk larger tomatoes into smaller pieces) the tomatoes, and throw them in the pot.

Bring the heat up to medium-high, and let the contents come to a low boil. Meanwhile, prep the fresh herbs and cheese for topping: finely chop fresh parsley and/or thyme. If available, rustic-ly rip some basil, or you could chiffonade by gathering leaves in a stack, rolling, then thinly slicing along the longer length of the leaves with a knife (or scissors!). Grate your salty, delicious cheese (leave the cheese and grater out-you will inevitable fall into the "I need more cheese!" trap once you start gnoshing).

Pecorino for grating, and fresh basil and parsley. Bowls for landing, and additional salt for seasoning. This dish is just way to simple-you will find yourself organized while preparing it. Really...I mean it!

Now, turn the head down to a gentle simmer, give the mix one last stir, put the lid on and walk away. It may be good to set a timer for about 30 minutes. You can, like me, come back and check mid-way to be sure the liquid level is good. If it gets too low, the barley may stick and scotch to the bottom of the pan (less likely to happen with a heavy bottomed pan!). Adjust the liquid to your taste: I find that I need to add about 1/2 to 1 cup additional for my taste. Let your preferences guide you: if you want a more soupy-dish, add more. If you want more of a risotto, add less. It is up to you!

The barley will be done when it still had a slight toothy-hardness to it. You can simmer for longer with more liquid if you want it a bit softer, but it will retain a bit of hardness no matter what. At this point, you can stir in a few tablespoons of tomato paste if you want a deeper tomato flavor (reminicent of a hearty vegetable stew), and some more fresh herbs if you desire. Serve in bowls, sprinkled with the fresh chopped herbs and a generous sprinkle of cheese. Also, this dish makes excellent left-overs, and the flavors as well as textures improve with a rest in the fridge. I find that the barley softens a bit as well!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Basque-ing in the Sun: Basque cake anyone?

This recipe was inspired by one of my favorite places to sit and sip on obnoxiously creative and delicious, cocktails and some of the best desserts I have ever experienced. A few weekends back, I had the pleasure to enjoy some awesome company of friends, amazing cocktails (I tried Campari for the first time-puckeringly refreshing!) and desserts. It was a great way to come back to Madison after my week-long NMR training in Texas.

The dessert was an Basque cake, baked in a ramekin with slivered and toasted almonds on top, then sprinkled with a flurry of confectioners sugar. But wait, there is more: it was filled with one of the traditional fillings, pastry cream, and then served along side a tiny mountain of sweet blueberries tossed in citrus, accompanied by a canelle of bay-laurel gelato.

Enough said! The next morning, I had to investigate this "basque cake" business. Turns out, it is a cake originating from the Basque Region (go figure) that borders both Spain and France. The cake is traditionally made with an egg rich "dough" verging on cake batter that is enriched with almond flour. In my version, I made it a thick, pour-able batter by loosening up the dough with some sour cream and lemon juice. Traditionally, the "dough" is allowed to rest, as some recipes call for yeast, and are very rich like pie pastry. Both versions are included below (however, I only executed the "batter" version)

 The dough or batter is divided into two layers, that are then sandwiched between sour cherry preserves, pastry cream or both. I used my strawberry jam from the summer, and I really loved the blueberry and pastry cream pairing I had at Nostrano, so I think any delicious fruit preserves will do. After assembly, you wash the top down with an egg yolk wash, drag some fork tines through the moisten dough, and bake to reveal a deeply golden brown cake with a fancy-looking embellishment on top. You can serve this plain-it is excellent with coffee-or sprinkled with confectioners sugar, or drizzled with lightly whipped cream, yogurt or sour cream spiked with honey. Really, there is nothing to lose, so put your lonely tart pans and pastry-making tools to good use, and make this cake! I suspect an apple and pastry cream filling would be pretty darn' spectacular for a fall dessert.

Basque Cake with Seasonal Preserves and/or Pastry Cream
Makes one 9" cake

Dough (or batter that is pour-able)
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1/2 cup ground almond flour- or 1/2 cup sliced blanched almonds then processed to powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter- that is one, 4oz stick at room temperature-cubed into small pieces
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract or rum
1/2 tsp almond extract
To make the dough a batter to pour, add in juice of ½ lemon and ½ to ¾ cup sour cream or milk

1 cup good quality sour cherry jam, or other preserves (like strawberry)- just add a dash of lemon juice and rum or liquer like cointreau to purchased jam or preserves if you do not make it yourself. Of course, you can add this to homemade as well!

Or, 1 cup pastry cream (I recommend using Julia Child’s in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. Or, just find a favorite French chef and search for a pastry cream recipe).

Or, you can use both (gasp!).

For egg yolk wash: 1 large egg yolk and 1 tsp milk 

1 9” springform or tart pan (removable sides are needed)
Stand mixer, food processor, hand mixer or a pastry cutter (or, if all else fails, your hands!)
Mixing bowls (one or two; two if you are using a pastry cutter, fork or your hands to incorporate, as the other will be to mix up the preserves if using)
Measuring cups and spoons
Rubber spatula
Optional: Off-set or smaller metal spatula

Prepare a 9” springform or tart pan by coating with butter or oil and flour, tapping out the excess. Preheat the oven to 350F.

Make the dough (or batter): in a food processor with a blade (or a standing mixer with a dough hook), add the flour, almond flour, baking powder, salt and sugar and mix. Then add the butter- make sure it is in cubes and mix well. Alternatively, use a hand-held mixer in a large bowl to prevent spilling. Likewise, use a pastry cutter or a fork to break up the butter into small pieces, to resemble corn meal.

Add the egg, egg yolk, vanilla or rum and almond extracts and mix until the dough comes together as above picture. If you are making the batter to pour, rather than pat into a pan, add the lemon juice and the sour cream (or milk).

For the dough: Divide dough into two pieces, form discs one slightly larger than the other and wrap in plastic wrap, refrigerate 90mins. After the resting period, you are to pat the larger disk into the bottom of the prepared pan. Spread on the preserves and/or pastry cream atop the bottom layer of dough. With the second disk, using a lightly floured surface, roll out with a rolling pin or dowel to make a circle that will cover the top of the preserves. You can gently overlap the bottom layer overhang with the top layer to fully encase the filling.

For the batter: carefully scoop out about half the batter into the prepared pan. Plop on and spread out the preserves in an even layer. Scoop out the remaining batter on top of the preserves, and gently coax the batter to cover the preserves (doesn’t have to be perfect!).
For the egg yolk wash and baking: Whisk the egg yolk and 1 teaspoon milk thoroughly. With a pastry brush or your fingers, wipe an even layer across the top of the cake. With a fork, make diagonals with the tines, or make any design you wish to appear on the cake after baking. 

Bake the cake for about 40 minutes, until the cake is a deep golden brown on top. Allow the cake to cool a bit before un-molding from the pan. 

Slice and serve with sour cream spiked with honey, crème fraiche, yogurt or a custard sauce.