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Dinner Fabuloso

Planned for 10 April 2010.

As with the last Big Meal I prepared, I cooked this one out of Marcella Hazan’s classic book. We have so many cookbooks, and I have a mildly psychologically defective completist obsession with cooking my way through at least one of them—preferably, all of them. Yes, this is an impossible goal, at least without sacrificing other, more worthy goals. It’s not like food science and human taste buds are changing at an accelerating rate in this modern era, but somehow the embargo against new culinary ideas does not hold. We keep adding to our impossible library.

I was extremely happy with how everything turned out, and I don’t believe that can be entirely attributed to the wine, beer and spirits clouding my judgment and palate. I always want to capture useful lessons and observations, and always lack the discipline to do so. As in all things, to become disciplined merely requires practice.

One mild innovation I came up with in this meal was to serve myself first, making a plate of antipasto in the expected manner, so that everybody else could see what the intended preparation was. By leaving the plate visible for a few minutes others were able to serve themselves without trying to guess what I was thinking. I know other people would solve this problem by talking but that is not my style.

  • Antipasti:

    • Bruschetta ‘ncapriata (with cannellini bean spread and greens), Cucina Rustica, p. 42

      I burned the first few slices of bread I toasted on the grill for this one. It had been a while since I’d used the grill and my technique was a little off (inattention being mostly regrettable cooking technique). Those slices came in handy for the soup, so not all was lost.

      We couldn’t find reasonably priced dried cannellini beans for this, so I used one 16 oz. can from Trader Joe’s, drained and rinsed well. I was surprised at how expensive the dried beans were, so I may invest in bean futures.

      To make this, you do nothing more than sauté finely diced onion and garlic together, add cooked (or canned) white beans for 15 minutes, and purée. The book advises using a blender, but following Hazan’s advice from the soup recipe, I used a food mill, to prepare a chunkier, more textured spread, instead of the smooth, airy, homogenous whipped creation of a high-speed industrial process. It seems more appealing to be able to see the rounded fragment of an incompletely crushed bean and a few too-large bits of onion, even if it doesn’t spread as easily as butter or canned bean dip. I don’t think it should! I may try just mashing everything together with a fork next time—and there will be next time, as this recipe is as easy to commit to memory as it is to make.

      It was served accompanied by sautéed greens, although good enough to stand on its own. The greens (white chard in our case) complemented the mild flavor well, although I wish I hadn’t strictly followed the book’s instructions to shred the leaves lengthwise after rolling them up. They should have been cut in halves or quarters after shredding to prevent accidentally unspooling the whole mound of piled up garnish onto your plate with your first bite. I do want to try this with mustard greens, the book’s recommendation to accompany this particular recipe.

    • Roasted eggplant and cucumber spread, Essential of Italian Cooking, p. 55

      This spread, also intended for the bruschetta, was also easy to put together, but the preparation of the ingredients is substantially more involved than the white bean spread because of the need to roast whole eggplants, and then peel, drain, and chop them. Eggplant recipes always require a lot of work to transform this weird fruit into something worthwhile. This spread is indeed worthwhile for the contrast of smokey eggplant flavor with fresh cucumber, sweet peppers and lemon juice.

      I inadvertently stumbled upon an eggplant roasting technique that will require some follow up. Previously I had roasted over direct heat, which often resulted in large patches of blackened skin which could not be easily separated from the flesh. The fire I built was initially much too hot so I decided to try cooking over indirect heat. After about 25 minutes I checked and I could tell that the eggplant was not going to get over-blackened this way, but neither was it going to get sufficiently blackened. The skin has to get black in order to facilitate peeling it (and I’m sure it also contributes many necessary flavors and delicious carcinogens). So I moved the two eggplants over the fire, for a total of 20 minutes (turned once after ten minutes, so two sides exposed to direct heat). This provided exactly the right level of exterior blackening and interior cooking, and the result was delicious.

      I was surprised that at the 10 minute mark after placing the eggplant on direct heat that one of them had puffed up and was stretched taut like a balloon. Usually when they cook the steam finds a way to escape and they collapse a bit, as the other one had. When I checked them again this other one had actually split and exploded. It’s guts were stringy though, and they didn’t escape. It still tasted good, and they both peeled easily.

    • Poached tuna and potato roll, Essential of Italian Cooking, p. 70

      I think that this was greeted skeptically by everybody, but I liked it and can easily recommend it, provided you find the right vessel to boil it in before it is time to cook (this recipe was almost frustrated for want of a poacher). The binding mixture (parmigiano and egg) works well to keep the potato and tuna together, and the roll does not fall apart upon cutting, serving or eating. High quality canned tuna (in oil) is essential here, because there is nothing to mask or add to the flavor. Mashing the tuna with a fork into fine bits worked fine, and a food mill was used to prepare the potato. I used a yellow potato for this.

      We also made a batch of mayonnaise, which was surprisingly easy—perhaps this is because the recipe called for only half a batch. It still made for more than necessary. I ought to have been more generous dressing the slices with the mayonnaise, and used a little less lemon in its preparation.

  • Zuppa
    • White Bean Soup, Essential of Italian Cooking, p. 102

      I was worried this would be too similar to the spread, so I used a different white bean in preparing it. Tricky, right? Leftover bruschetta slices (cut in half) were used at the bottom of the bowl in accordance with the book’s serving suggestion. I probably should have let it soak a bit before serving it, as it was tough (and inelegant) to cut with the edge of a spoon. Possibly the soup was too thick for some tastes, but I liked it. The same may be said for the level of salt. I think that if I were going to garnish I would use a very tiny amount of finely chopped rosemary mixed with garlic (more for aroma than flavor), or sage.

  • Primi
    • Eggplant sauce with tomato and red chili pepper, Essential of Italian Cooking, p. 160

      The sauce is straightforward, but I made three exciting discoveries in the frying of eggplant here. I credit a relatively obscure cooking site for the first two, and my paying closer attention to Hazan for the third.

      1. The cutting: Do not cut rounds, cut long slices. This enables the eggplant to hold together for step 2…
      2. The wringing: After sweating the eggplant with salt, you need to press the now salty inner water out. The common suggestion is to pat the rounds dry and press firmly between linen towels to force the water out. Well, if you slice the eggplant the long way, you can hold it under the faucet while running cold water over it and wring it in your fists like a towel. Yes, it will stay together. So much better.
      3. The frying: Don’t bother with olive oil. You can’t get it hot enough to fry properly, and if you fry at too low of a temperature you are going cause the eggplant to absorb too much and become greasy.
    • Chicken alla diavola, Essential of Italian Cooking, p. 336

      We butterflied, pounded and partially deboned a whole chicken for this (the last step was going slightly beyond the recommendation of the cookbook). I was pleased with the lemon and cracked peppercorn marinade—the pepper, after being cooked, did not overwhelm the flavor. I’ll go for even more pepper next time to give it a little more bite. The chicken didn’t come off the grill completely done due to inattention, but some time in the oven fixed it. The presentation was regrettable, but the chicken was well liked.

  • Verdure
    • Asparagus and Prosciutto Bundles, Essential of Italian Cooking, p. 468

      Everything will taste good when wrapped baked with fontina and prosciutto, and asparagus is no exception. I think that this was the biggest hit of the night, excluding the desserts from consideration. I should have held off baking these until the chicken was resting, so that they could accompany the main course.

      This is a nice recipe because you can parboil the asparagus and make the bundles well in advance and time them with your main course.

1 comment

1 kirsten { 04.19.10 at 12:08 am }

Yeah, yeah, the cookbook explosion is all my fault. When you have a limited number of ingredients on hand, it’s good to have a lot of books to look through till you find one recipe you can make. And…..i’m bad.