26 March 2009

Pasta all'Arrabiata

Angry pasta. Traditional of inexpensive cafés and street vendors in Rome, all'arrabiata relies heavily on the pungency of fresh garlic and red peppers. This is a simple and delicious pasta dish that gratifies both the 'comfort food' and the 'desire food' cravings. It is ready in the time it takes to cook the pasta. An excellent choice for an impromptu mid-week dinner, or a perfect Saturday lunch.

The way I do it:

1 lb. Pasta of choice. (I typically use dried Linguine)
1/4 cup Olive Oil
4 Roma Tomatoes, seeded and diced
4-6 cloves fresh Garlic, minced
6 or to taste Calabrian Peppers, seeded and chopped or
Red Pepper flakes
Fresh Basil leaves, julienned
Sea Salt
Pecorino Romano, freshly shaved

Bring well salted water to a boil and cook pasta al dente. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, heat oil and sauté garlic and peppers over medium-high heat for 1 or 2 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in tomatoes and basil. Toss with pasta and serve, sprinkled with sea salt and shaved Romano.

Romano is salty. I just like the crunch of the sea salt flakes. I don't use too much of either. If you like a lot of cheese on your pasta, omit the salt, if desired. Also, the minty basil adds an intricate contrast to the peppers. Use it only if it's fresh.

I enjoy this with a full fruited Barbera. Cascade Cliffs of Washington (2006 vintage), makes the most plum forward variety I've had. It is immediately approachable and quells the heat of the dish effectively, without diminishing the flavour.

This wine can be found at my neighbourhood wineshop, The Blackbird. Incidentally, I highly recommend their Nebbiolo 2005, as well.

08 March 2009

De Lasanis

A little history.

Macaroni and Cheese, or Macaroni Pudding as it was once called in The States, has a long and somewhat unclear history. Thomas Jefferson is oft times incorrectly accredited with the invention of Mac and Cheese. This is a semi charming American fable that is derived from a trip that he took to Europe, where he was introduced to the dish. He can in all fairness, be given attribute for the fact that he did return to The United States with a pasta machine. And who wouldn't have? There is something quite magical that happens to cheese, when given the proper opportunity to meld with pasta. Macaroni and Cheese, as it was subsequently coined, became an American staple. It was even considered a matter of social station, and common at White House dinner parties. There are even those that claim it is the original American Food.

There have as a result, been as numerous interpretations of the dish, as there are stars above. Naturally, even in its simplicity, recipes are coveted, secret to all but perhaps one lucky family member to carry on the legacy. These closely guarded secrets enrich the cultural integrity of the dish, lending to great story telling.

Sadly, and far more commonly, processed cheese powder in a box has become a household staple; a replacement in war times, for the authentic comfort of the original. This can be blamed on Kraft Foods, whom first packaged it in 1937, and represents the dissolved culture of food, due to mass homogenization and factory processing that began (and forgot to end), during the 30's and 40's.

Thankfully, awareness is on the rise. And Macaroni and Cheese is not to be excluded. In recent years, it has re-gained cult status. It is highly popular with the "Foodie" crowd, and there are restaurants that achieve their bottom line just for having it on their menu. I know of one here in Portland, that would have met its demise years ago, if not for their interpretation, (one very close to the original), and the fact that they stay open late enough to cater to a particular crowd, that craves it as a finish to their imbibing.

The earliest recorded recipe is entitled, 'de lasanis.' It is found in the anonymously authored Italian, "Liber de Coquina," the second half of a text, written in Latin, and preserved in The Bibliothéque, in Paris, France. It was written, along with its French counterpart, "Tractatus," the first half of the text, in the late 13th or early 14th century. This version calls for Lasagne sheets of fermented dough cut in small squares, cooked in water, then tossed with cheese, and layered with powdered spices.

There are a great many paths we could go down here, drilling into the history of Macaroni itself, which is often associated with the Etruscan Era, Ancient China, The Greeks, The Romans, and The Arabians, as early as 800 BC.

Let us instead, discuss Method

To roux or not to roux, that is the question.

My personal odyssey to perfect Macaroni and Cheese, came a few years ago. A friend had purchased a nice and rather expensive 3 lb brick of aged white Cheddar. He was hoping I could reproduce a version similar to his recently estranged girlfriend's, a molten dish of cheese and macaroni, with a crusty, almost leather like top coating of extra cheese. I remembered this version from my Mom's own style, and proceeded to fail miserably. The reason? I am roux inclined. I also thought it would be nice to incorporate a bread crumb topping, completely foiling the point of the craving, entirely. I have since been on the mission of perfecting the dish I then failed to accomplish, and have come to the realization, (and through much experimentation of both schools), that though the molten non-roux version harkens to my memory senses as well, what I was experimenting in was a seminal step in a more gratifying conclusion. Setting sentimentality aside, I continued my course.

The iconoclastic food critic, John Thorne, famously wrote in his description of roux in Macaroni and Cheese as, "a noxious paste of flour thickened milk, that diminishes this dish, flavoured with a tiny grating of cheese."

Sir, I feel you were mistreated; as it is clear to me, you have not had a proper roux, especially in relationship to the genius of a roux-based Macaroni and Cheese. Allow me to amend.

Before I begin to disclose the most valuable recipe in my culinary cache, I feel compelled to discuss the variable elements that I found myself wanting to represent.

For example, Truffles. I love them. They belong in a dish with a lot of cheese. It's elementary though, not for the faint of palate. Now, bacon. Specifically, Pancetta. The fat, the flavour, it is a natural accompaniment. A dairy venerating Vegetarian can omit this, and not feel anything missing, though I just like its presence here.

The warm and gooey that is Macaroni and Cheese manifested, deserves something to give it some contrast. I found this in using Blue Cheese and more importantly, capsicum. It is exactly this combination that sets my recipe apart. Without capsicum, and the bite of the blue cheese, my recipe would be fantastic. With these two elements, used as fundamentals, it is something more. I believe this combination, is what makes this version better. In my ever so humble opinion.

The Recipe

1 lb Ciocciolle or other short, tubular pasta
3 to 4 oz Pancetta, diced
1 T. olive oil
1 small white onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 t. red pepper flakes
1/2 t. white pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 T. flour,
2 T. melted butter, combined
2 cups whole milk,
1 cup heavy cream, combined
3 cups sharp white cheddar
2 cups Rouge Creamery's Oregonzola, or a good gorgonzola available
2 T. white truffle oil
1 oz white truffles, shaved, if available


3 cups fresh bread crumbs or 2 cups Panko
1 cup aged white cheddar
1 cup parmigiano reggiano
1/2 stick (4 T.) butter, melted

If using fresh bread crumbs, bake in a 400 degree F oven for 15 minutes. This dish is baked at 400 degrees, as well, so leave it on or preheat now. Bring salted water to a boil. Cook pasta until par done, about 2 to 3 minutes less than recommended for al dente. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat milk and cream to a simmer, being careful not to boil or scald. In a large pot, heat olive oil and cook Pancetta until just beginning to crisp. Add onions and sauté until translucent. Add garlic, red pepper and continue to sauté for a minute. Add wine, and cook until nearly evaporated. Stir in butter and flour mixture until incorporated and thick. Add milk and cream, whisking in, until flour mixture is combined. Add cheddar, stirring until combined. Add Gorgonzola, and stir in truffle oil and 1/2 of the truffle shavings if using. Stir in white pepper.

Combine with pasta. Place in a deep sided oven proof dish and mix toppings. If using truffles, add remaining 1/2 oz to topping mixture and spread evenly over dish. Bake 20 to 30 minutes, or until sizzling and golden brown on top. Allow to rest 5 or 10 minutes before serving.

Relish in your gluttony. It is the ultimate guilty pleasure food.