A Little Spring/Summer Home Cooking

by Jason Roth on July 2, 2010

Some recent travel has thrown off my writing schedule, so I have a lot of updating to do. This spring’s vacation included a road trip from Paris to Barcelona followed by a stop in Madrid, so there are plenty of food and dining discoveries to write about. In the meantime, there are a few domestic highlights I wanted to mention. Let me know if any of these spark an idea or two.

Soft-shell crab sandwich with a (get ready for it...) non-hot house, American tomato

You wouldn’t know it from the photo, but this soft-shell crab sandwich involved my inaugural soft-shell crab cleaning. I had, passing the buck as usual, asked the guy at the fish store to clean them for me. Upon arriving at home and unwrapping the crabs, I discovered that his and my definition of “cleaning” differed somewhat. (I wondered if maybe he had been using a sponge behind the counter.) It was a fortunate coincidence, though, because it forced me finally to confront the job myself. One quick snip removed the eyes, and then I folded each crab out to the side in order to remove the gills. The whole job only took a few seconds per crab, and they were ready to cook. (Referring to this how-to video helped.)

I dusted the crabs lightly in flour, and sauteed on medium-high heat in just a little corn oil for about 4 minutes per side as Mark Bittman recommends. Since I’ve cooked them before, I knew not to stick my face near them to see how they’re cooking this time. (Yes, they can pop from the internal moisture heating up, so keep your face at a safe distance and/or keep your glasses on.) We love Eric Ripert’s basic vinaigrette (which includes olive and corn oil as well as Dijon mustard), so we made that to drizzle on top. Soft-shells need some sort of acid, and the combination of both vinegar and mustard provide a helpful double-dose. As long as your bread is decent and your tomatoes are ripe, you’re set with a couple average-sized crabs per person. Great dinner, kick-ass lunch.

Drunken spaghetti (with pappardelle)

Now here’s a dish that’s both simple and exotic. We first discovered spaghetti all’umbriaco, otherwise known as “drunken spaghetti”, in Florence while on our trip to Italy last year. Fortunately for us, chef Gina DePalma of Babbo apparently discovered it at the same restaurant, learned the cooking method, and posted a recipe for it. (Hers appears much darker, which I’m not sure why.)

The whole idea behind drunken spaghetti is counter-intuitive, at least to me. Normally when you cook with wine, you plan on cooking off the alcohol. Not so in this case. Basically, the idea is to boil your pasta in a combination of half (well salted) water and half red wine. I sauteed sliced garlic (yes, more than called for in the recipe) in melted butter and olive oil. Before adding the pasta, I added a splash of red wine in with the garlic. And since you want the flavor of that extra wine, I did not cook it until the alcohol evaporated. I added the pasta, mixed, and it’s ready to serve.

Oh, and you might have noticed that I used pappardelle instead of spaghetti. The reason for that is really another reason why this dish is so cool: that if you have dried pasta and a couple bottles of non-expensive red wine around, you can make it. (You do keep garlic at all times, right?) We actually had spaghetti, but the pappardelle was one of those “fancy” imported kinds, so I thought, therefore, I should go for the pappardelle. Wrong. Even though the dish came out great, with that deep, wine flavor and slight tang infused right into the pasta, this was kind of a lesson in why pastas are better than others for various applications. Because the pappardelle has so much surface area, it gained a relatively slight gummy texture, even though it was cooked al dente. So, do like I’m going to do the previous time I made it: stick with good, old spaghetti.

Buffalo mozzarella and the best damn beefsteak tomatoes available (if you're a midget)

Because this was a “cook something interesting but make it easy” night, salad consisted of cut grape tomatoes and sliced buffalo mozzarella, with some chopped parsley and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. I remember how the woman who had showed us around the un-effing believably amazing Bologna food shops had described this particular balsamic as “good for salad”. Later, I realized the extent to which that was the world’s biggest understatement.

And in our neighborhood, the general rule is the smaller the tomato, the better. For now, I can only daydream about the heirloom tomatoes I sampled at the San Francisco farmer’s market. But I’ll take a good cherry or grape tomato over a truck-ripened tomato impostor (or Holland import) any day.

Oops, made too much food last night. We'll just have to eat it today, this time with sausage.

We had some drunken pappardelle left over, so I figured: why wait? The only thing we felt might have been missing was some meat, so I went out and bought some ground pork. This recipe is one of those worth making again, and maybe next time with the actual sausage casing. Seasonings were essentially the opposite of what you get in a standard, store-bought sausage: vibrant and spicy. Without the sausage casing, and more importantly with the lean pork, the sausage was dry. But still a nice addition to some fortunate leftovers.

My secret to not overcooking shrimp: undercooking them.

Think of this dish as the poor man’s Daniel Boulud open faced lobster ravioli with lobster bisque and pea puree. Alternately, think of it as the version of the dish that’ll take you less than 5 hours. I’ve made the dish from the Boulud cookbook twice before. (If you hold the book close enough to your ear, you will hear it laughing at you. Especially the place on the page where the word “appetizer” appears.) The solution/work-around to keeping this dish challenging but testing the bottoms of your Crocs to a lesser degree is: skip the goddamn lobster and lobster bisque.

I bought shrimp instead of lobster, and (hallelujah) I cooked the shrimp properly by intentionally trying to undercook it. I wanted it to be only partly cooked at the final stage when I added it and the ravioli to the pan to soak up the sauce. Hopefully my brain registered the pink color of the shrimp and will recall it the next time I want to fully cook some shrimp.

Ravioli that actually look like ravioli. Someone's wife must have made them.

I made the pasta dough, and rolling it out was a tag-team effort. But, given the regular shapes and straight edges, clearly I had no part in the forming of the ravioli. I did puree the proverbial shit out of the peas, though, thank you, very much.

All that was necessary for the pea puree, incidentally, was to cook the peas as usual in boiling water, and then puree with olive oil. I gradually added the olive oil (and salt and pepper) until I was happy with the texture, which I left thicker than I would if I were serving it outside of a ravioli. Fresh mint would have been an obvious addition, but I wasn’t sure it would work with the tomato, onion, and garlic sauce I intended on adding, so left it out.

Winging it on the ravioli sauce.

Taking the place of Boulud’s recommended lobster bisque for this recipe (or more accurately, taking the lobster bisque out back and smashing a Jack Daniels bottle over its head) was some garlic and onion sauteed in olive oil, and a little briefly cooked fresh, chopped tomatoes.

It's finally been beaten into my head: cook your pasta in the sauce before serving it.

The cooked pasta, along with the, ehem, perfectly cooked shrimp, were added to the pan with the sauce and (as I yell “feet don’t fail me now!”) I immediately dump out the contents so as to quit cooking the shrimp while I was ahead.

Open-faced lobster ravioli with pea puree, except closed and with shrimp.

We must have really been influenced by last year’s trip to Italy, because this “improvised” salad came straight from a memory of something we ate in the Jewish section of Rome (immediately before a plate of fried artichokes, themselves worthy of a separate blog post, if not a feature-length biographical film). For our version, we sliced up pears and Parmigiano-Reggiano in nearly the same size and shape, and threw them in with a bag of mixed lettuce and sliced tomatoes. And yes, some of that freakin’ delicious aforementioned balsamic vinegar from Bruno e Franco – La Salumeria.

Pear and Parmesan salad, taking us back to Rome.

One of these days, I’ll have to do a compilation of our mid-week meals, but for some reason I don’t see the intricacies of take-out sushi and Boston Market to be quite as interesting to an outsider.


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