March 30, 2010

Week 6: Broccolini Pizza, Contigo style

For our new dish this week, I made a pizza inspired by a coca that we had at Contigo. The ingredients on their flatbreads vary from day to day, but they usually have caramelized onions (or another allium) and seasonal vegetables on them. I had remembered a broccolini and manchego one that we particularly liked, but after reviewing their menus I discovered that it actually had broccoli rabe on it.

Broccolini is kind of like broccoli, but with long, thin stalks and small florets. We first had it on a tomato-sauced pizza at Beretta. It was nicely caramelized and complemented the rest of the pizza well.

For the onion compote, I sliced two onions along the grain and very slowly cooked them with a little salt, butter, and a pinch of sugar. After 1–2 hours when they were nicely caramelized, I deglazed with a little vermouth (I didn't have a white wine open) and set it aside.

For the pizza, I used my standard pizza dough, a scaled down Jamie Oliver recipe. I topped it with the compote, some slices of manchego cheese, and some broccolini that I had blanched in salted water.

The result was really good, particularly the parts with thinner crust. I made it again the next weekend, rolling out the pizza thinner, to give it a nice crispy crust, and putting slightly less color on the onions.

March 27, 2010

Week 5: Sheep's Milk Ravioli with Brown Butter and Almonds

This week I made ravioli stuffed with sheep ricotta, parmesan, and orange zest, served with brown butter, almonds, orange juice, and parsley. I mostly followed the recipe from Michael Symon's new book Live to Cook. This recipe is particularly notable because it is a vegetarian recipe from a pork-etarian chef. (There are also some good-looking salads in that book.)

It's been far too long since I've made my own pasta. I think the last time was two years ago when I made butternut squash agnolotti. I've been meaning to give it another go; I even picked up some semolina flour a few months ago. Although I used some of the flour in polenta (per Michael Chiarello), I never got around to making pasta with it.

So this time I made the pasta dough with straight semolina flour and egg yolks. I whizzed it in the food processor to combine and then took it out to knead by hand. Immediately, I discovered that the dough was extremely hard to knead. I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be that way or not, so I just carried on. I managed to slowly knead it to a decent texture, but I had to throw my entire weight into it. The next day, my abs were sore. (Perhaps I should make pasta more often.)

I wrapped it in plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator to rest – a step that was left out of Symon's book. I figured I had enough time to start over with AP flour if it didn't work out, but the pasta turned out fine. I rolled it down to setting five (I may give six a try next time), added the filling, folded it over, and cut it with one of the nested circle cutters that I got for my birthday.

The brown butter sauce turned out well, and the almonds added a nice crunch to the dish. I'm glad we found out that Emily can eat them. We'll definitely give this another try, maybe with meyer lemon instead of orange. I don't know if it will be the next pasta I make, as I also want to try my hand at Keller's sweet potato agnolotti.

March 20, 2010

Week 4: Grilled Calamari with Beans and Chorizo

Up this week is yet another Contigo-inspired dish. One of many great dishes we had during my birthday dinner was calamari cooked a la planxa (on a flat top) with red tolosa beans, chorizo, and allioli. It was one of our favorite dishes that night (along with the scallop and black rice dish).

For our version, I used San Franciscano beans from Rancho Gordo. I hadn't tried them before, but I was told they were similar to Rio Zape beans, which would pair well with chorizo.

After a quick soak, I simmered the beans for a few hours with some onions that had been cooked in a little lard (recovered from Boccalone pancetta). Then I seared some diced Spanish chorizo and used the oil to cook some minced onion, celery, and red bell pepper. After returning the chorizo to the pan with a splash of beer, I added the mixture to the bean pot and let the beans finish cooking for about an hour, reducing the broth to a nice sauce.

When I need squid, I usually go to Sun Fat for fresh, local squid. It tastes better than the frozen squid, and I can do a more careful job of cleaning it than the commercial stuff. (BTW, squid is dirt cheap. I often feel bad walking out of there having only spent a few bucks.) Unfortunately, they'd run out of it on Saturday, so I had to use frozen squid instead. The squid got a quick marinade in some olive oil, lemon zest, and paprika before hitting the grill pan. Despite being previously frozen, I managed to get a little bit of caramelization and a nice hint of the paprika.

The final component of the dish was the allioli, which didn't quite work out for me. According to Wikipedia, it is the Catalan version of aioli that uses only garlic, olive oil, and salt. Via some mortar and pestle magic, you're supposed to be able to emulsify garlic in oil without using any egg yolk. I found a video of it being done, but I didn't quite pull it off. I started out with the mortar and pestle but was having trouble getting it to work right. So I gave up on the mortar and pestle and switched to my Cuisinart mini-prep. That didn't work because the portion was too small to get the garlic into the blades. At this point, I knew I was pretty much screwed, so I tried the blender. The blender looked like it was working, but the resulting sauce didn't have the right texture and quickly separated. I did end up with a nicely garlic-flavored olive oil, which I spooned on top. After a subsequent visit, I think Contigo is using a little egg yolk to help the emulsification (and possibly a little lemon juice to balance flavors), so I'll probably do that next time to get the texture I want.

Overall the dish was quite good. We'll definitely make it again, probably with some chorizo-laced black rice instead of beans, so I can make it on a weeknight. The beans did turn out really well, though. I will be making them again too.

March 11, 2010

Week 3.5: Duck Redux - Spice-crusted duck breasts with bacon bonbons and arugula

On Wednesday I cooked the rest of of the duck from last weekend. In the process I managed to kill two birds with one stone. (Pun intended.) Since we had this mid-week, I wasn't sure if we'd count this as the week four dish or not. It turns out that we made another new dish on Sunday, so I think I'll call it week 3.5, keeping with the duck theme of last week.

I combined two dishes that Emily has been asking me to make. The first is pan-roasted duck breasts with prunes, inspired by the Contigo dish, "Seared Duck Breast with tea-steeped prunes, toasted almonds, cardoons, and arugula."  And the second dish is the a take on the bacon bonbons that we order every time we go to Gitane. We've been talking about making them ever since we first had them a year ago. They stood in for the prunes in the original Contigo dish, and I used the port sauce on both the duck and the bonbons.

The Gitane menu describes the bacon bonbons as "sautéed prunes stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped in smoked bacon, anise and cinnamon port sauce." A little research turned up a similar a British bar food called Devils on Horseback and hints of a similar a french appetizer. In the Gitane version, the bacon, prunes, and cheese are a perfect combination and the rich sauce, melding savory and sweet, ties everything together well.

I found the duck breast recipe in One Spice, Two Spice, a book by an Indian chef who does Indian / western fusion dishes. He uses a star-anise and allspice rub, which I thought would match well with the prunes and sauce. He also adds some ginger, rosemary, and garlic at the end for basting. I served the duck with a simple salad of arugula, goat cheese, and a balsamic vinaigrette (with good balsamic). The goat cheese is not pictured, because I decided to add after we tasted the dish. In the future, I'd also add some almonds to the salad.

For the bacon bonbons, I consulted a few recipes for Devils on Horseback on the web, but I had to guess on the sauce. I decided to use some duck stock and port wine in a 3:1 ratio, reducing the port before adding the stock. I added a little of the spice rub I used for the duck and let the prunes simmer in the sauce as it reduced. I then strained off the sauce. When the prunes cooled, I stuffed them with cheese and wrapped with bacon. I arranged them on a silpat, with the overlapping bacon side down, and stuck it in a 400 degree oven for 20-25 minutes until the bacon was crisp.

Or at least, that was the plan – halfway through the cooking process, the bacon shrunk and most of the bonbons came unwrapped. So I pulled them from the oven, skewered them back together with toothpicks, and stuck them back in to finish cooking.

The one big problem with the meal was that I'd over-salted the duck. The recipe had called for putting the rub on the duck (containing salt) and then salting it again when you put it on the pan. It sounded like a bit too much salt, but did it anyway. Aside from being too salty (which was distracting), the duck was quite good. The spices went well with the duck, and the salad complemented it nicely. The bonbons also went well with everything. I don't think Emily will let me get away with making this dish again without them.

Next up is grilled calamari with chorizo and San Franciscano beans. Also Contigo inspired – someday I should put together a post of all my restaurant-inspired dishes.

March 08, 2010

Week 3: Braised duck legs with red wine and prunes

This week I made braised duck legs with red wine and prunes. Emily wanted me to do something with duck breasts and prunes, similar to a dish we had for my birthday at Contigo. Unfortunately, it was the one time we didn't take photos at Contigo.

I've been looking forward to working with duck again. It has been a while since I've used it. A few years ago, I made confit of duck legs and prosciutto out of a duck breast. A little more recently, I made cassoulet and tacos out of duck confit. But I haven't had a lot of practice with fresh duck. It's a little different from chicken, there is a bit of fat to deal with and you need to leave it medium rare to keep from drying it out. (Unless you confit it.)

Since I've never cooked duck breast before, I did a little research to see how it was typically done. (Score the skin, slowly cook, skin side down.) While researching options, I came across a braised duck leg and prune dish in the Zuni Cookbook. It was a completely different dish from the Contigo one, but had similar flavors, so we decided to give it a try.

Sunday morning I went to Drewes Bros to buy a couple of legs for the dish, but I impulsively decided to get a whole duck. I figured I could cook the breasts for dinner later in the week, make some stock out of the bones, and render the fat for potatoes. They offered to break it down for me, but I wanted some practice, so I took it home whole and broke it down myself.

When I went shopping for ingredients I saw some fresh prunes and decided to use them in place of dried ones. The recipe wasn't specific, aside from insisting on the prunes having pits. The other deciding factor was that dried prunes make me a little nervous. They tend to be sold in open bins alongside nuts, and I always assume that little care is taken to prevent cross-contamination. Next time, I think I'll use dried ones both for color and a more concentrated flavor.

The duck was plated on a bed of arugula and the fried bread croutons from the Ad Hoc cookbook, along with the sauce, onions, and prunes. The arugula ended up wilting a bit more than we wanted, so I'd plate the salad next to the duck next time.

Tomorrow we'll have the breasts. I'm using the spice-crusted duck breast recipe from One Spice, Two Spice (allspice and star anise crusted). I'm also going to try to replicate the bacon-wrapped, chèvre-stuffed prunes from Gitane to accompany it. And maybe a simple salad to round out the meal.

March 02, 2010

Week 2: Asparagus and Robiola risotto.

For week 2 of my cooking project, I made an asparagus risotto with a dollop of Robiola cheese in the middle. This dish was inspired by a risotto we had at Beretta. It's been on our to-do list for quite a while, waiting until spring when asparagus would come back in season. Since asparagus has started to show up on menus again, I decided it was time to make it.

Robiola is not something I've seen at the corner stores, so I figured I'd have to do a little hunting for it. Fortunately, they had some at our closest cheese shop, the 24th Street Cheese Company. They're a short walk away and have a good selection of cheeses. The Robiola turned out to be a little more expensive than I expected, but once I got it home and sampled it, I decided it was worth the price. Yes, it smells slightly of gym socks, but it's incredibly rich, creamy, and tangy.

Although I improvised the recipe, I did take a look at one in Boulud's book. He took asparagus risotto in a slightly different direction, inflecting it with lemon and lime juice, but I did follow his suggestion on how to cook and introduce the asparagus to the dish – peeled, blanched, and warmed in butter. My educated guess would have been to blanch them and add them to the risotto for the last 2 minutes of cooking, but you can't go wrong with butter. My changes included shortening the blanching time, because I had skinny asparagus, and cutting the stems on the bias rather than into coins to give them a fun shape. And I'm still wondering if I should have caramelized them in a hot skillet instead just reheating them in butter.

For the risotto itself, I used shallots and arborio, deglazed with dry vermouth, and cooked with court bouillon. I finished it with parmesan and a squeeze of lemon juice. At Emily's suggestion, I also mixed in a little of the Robiola. Then I added the reheated asparagus and plated it with a dollop of Robiola in the middle.

We were very happy with the results, but I think I'd add a bit more asparagus next time. We've got more Robiola, despite my snacking, so we'll be making another batch soon.