lasagne alla bolognese

“Using clunky, store-bought lasagne may save a little time, but you will be sadly shortchanged by the results.”

Thus saith Marcella Hazan in her lasagne alla bolognese recipe, which I was consequently scared away from making. Having eaten American-style lasagna and real Italian lasagna in Italy, I certainly preferred the Italian variety. It is lighter, without all the gloopy cheese of its American offspring. Because it is not weighted down with cheese, the exquisitely comforting flavor of the meat sauce is allowed to shine. But I had neither a pasta machine nor the budget to go out and get one, so I figured I’d just have to put off creating the best lasagna ever to some unspecified future date.

Recently, I remembered that I live in New York City (close enough anyway, in Jersey City) and that it was probably not impossible to find fresh pasta. A quick Google search, and I discovered that not only were there many places to purchase fresh pasta in the city, but one was quite conveniently located for me. For anyone in the New York area, I highly, highly recommend a trip to Raffetto’s. They have been making fresh pasta since 1906, and will cut the pasta any way you like on a machine that looks like it has been around since 1906. You can get spinach pasta (like I did), saffron pasta, squid ink pasta, and they have all kinds of different filled pastas – ravioli, tortellini, agnolotti – all you have to do is prepare a sauce to go with them, and you have dinner. They also have all kinds of imported Italian goodies and sauces that they make in house, if you are too tired to make your own sauce. I bought a box of pumpkin ravioli and served them with an alfredo sauce.

I’m not being paid by them to sing their praises. As someone who grew up in a place where Olive Garden and Carrabba’s were considered great Italian restaurants, I simply didn’t know that places like this existed. I was helped by some very kind ladies, who explained just how to cook the pasta and wanted to know the size of the pan I was using so that they could cut my pasta to the right size. It was a delightful experience from beginning to end.

I ended up going to six different shops to source all the ingredients for this lasagne – this isn’t necessary, but I wanted to get the best quality ingredients, since it is a pretty epic meal to make. So I went to Raffetto’s, a butcher (Ottomanelli, where they grind the beef fresh – so good), a cheesemonger (Murray’s), the Van Vorst farmer’s market back in Jersey City, Jersey Wine Merchants, and a small local grocer for the few ingredients that couldn’t be found anywhere else. This is how people used to shop for food, before the days of giant supermarkets with their meats in styrofoam packaging and aisles upon aisles of processed food products. I realize not everyone has access to these kinds of small, local shops, but since I do, I feel that I should support them. Collecting my ingredients was a perfect way to spend a cool, cloudy Saturday morning.

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rigatoni bolognese

This bolognese sauce is real comfort food. It cooks down all day (3+ hours) while filling your home with exquisite smells, and is the kind of dinner I want to come home to after trudging through snow in the dead of winter. No, it’s not exactly winter yet, but we’ve been having autumnal weather up here in the Northeast the last few days, and now I am craving fall/apples/apple cider/apple cider donuts (are we sensing a theme here?).

Don’t be scared away by the 3+ hour cooking time – during most of that time, the sauce is slowly simmering with very little attention needed from you. And depending on how many people you are cooking for, this recipe makes a lot of leftovers, so it’s an ideal Sunday afternoon project that will leave you with leftovers to be excited about for the next few days. Next time I make it, I think I’ll do a double batch and freeze half. This is a recipe that I will make again and again, and want my grandchildren to remember me by (er, though I’ll need to get around to producing some children first).  Read the rest of this entry »

pizza with pecorino and fried egg

This is my attempt to recreate Otto’s exquisite Pane Frattau pizza – pizza with tomato sauce, pecorino cheese, and, the part that elicited an “Ew” from my mother when I described it to her, a fried egg. My mother is wrong, by the way – the combination of the egg yolk and the sharp pecorino is perfect in every way.

Otto is Mario Batali’s most affordable NYC restaurant (great for my limited budget!). The last time I was there, as we were waiting to be seated, I was staring off into space (a habit that made my parents worry about me as a small child), and noticed a pair of orange Crocs on a pair of feet – I thought to myself, “Who can have such bad taste to wear Crocs to this nice restaurtant?” and looked up to see Mario himself, who of course is known for his orange Crocs. I guess Mario can wear whatever shoes he likes. If you ever visit Otto (which you should if you find yourself in the area – every pizza I have tried there has been wonderful), I wouldn’t recommend dining in Crocs yourself.

I did a few runs of this pizza before I managed to get it right – I wasn’t sure exactly how much pecorino I should use, but I finally decided to use a whole lot of it (less vague quantity can be found in the recipe below). Pecorino is a strongly flavored cheese – like the more well-recognized parmigiano, it is a hard cheese with a sharp flavor. It should be made from sheep’s milk.

The first time I ever had cheese made from sheep’s milk was at a cheese and wine tasting shortly after I had moved to Cambridge (similar to the chocolate tasting I described a few posts ago). The tasting was run by my college’s head of the catering department, who was very enthusiastic indeed (though in an understated British way) about his cheeses. When he got to describing the sheep’s cheese (I can’t remember what kind it was exactly), he informed us, with great gusto in his voice, “You can really taste the animal in this one.” I was a little freaked out by both the content of the statement and the excitement with which it was said. Was I ready to taste the animal? My cheese world until then had largely consisted of American cheese singles, and pre-grated yellow-dyed “cheddar” or mozzerella. I ate only a tiny sliver, and decided that was brave enough.

My cheese-appreciation is more advanced these days (thanks partially to that cheese-tasting), and I enjoy all kinds of sheep’s cheese, including the wonderful manchego, and the pecorino on this pizza. The moral of this story is that you want to be able to taste the animal, as it were, on this pizza – the flavor of that pecorino should be loud and clear.

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pizza basics – dough, sauce, topping ideas

My family used to make pizza at home from time to time when I was growing up, but it generally involved one of those Boboli pre-cooked crusts, and pizza sauce from a jar. Making one’s own crust and sauce seemed incredibly intimidating then, but I am here today to tell you that it is really not. A homemade pizza that is made literally from scratch (starting with just flour, yeast, and water) will make you feel deservedly proud of yourself. Pizza is one of those things (like quiche, for me at least) that looks truly impressive when it comes out of the oven – the finished product looks just that, finished, and nothing like the pile of raw ingredients you started with.

I’ve broken the process down into several steps, and one good thing is that the dough and sauce recipe make enough for several pizzas. So once you get around to making the second pizza, it will feel almost as easy as starting with pre-made crust and sauce, because they will already be made – by you, and not by some food factory that adds lots of weird, unpronounceable ingredients.

The recipes follow below the fold. Got any delicious topping ideas of your own? Feel free to share in the comments! Sometime soon I want to try a white pizza with goat cheese, caramelized onions, and possibly some prosciutto slivers myself…

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penne alla vodka

I don’t think I’d ever had/heard of vodka sauce before moving to the Northeast. For the similarly uninitiated, vodka sauce is a basic tomato sauce, plus vodka, plus some heavy cream, and it is generally served over penne. One can’t really single out the flavor that the vodka contributes, but it adds a certain something that makes the pasta more exciting than just a tomato or tomato-cream sauce.

I was tired and scatterbrained last night as I was preparing this, and started off by nearly burning the pancetta after overheating the pan. Very little of the pancetta actually burned, but somehow this was enough to send billowing smoke all over the apartment, forcing us to open a window to the 15 degree weather outside. I later tried to put all four servings of sauce onto the two servings of pasta we were eating, and had to fish the pasta out of the sauce since I wanted to save some sauce for tonight. But then, still forgetting that I had intended for there to be leftovers, I dumped all the pancetta into the pasta that we ate last night, meaning there will be no pancetta tonight. After that, I made a comically disastrous attempt at whole wheat pitas, which went wrong in too many ways to list. If that had been my first time working with yeast doughs, I’d probably vow never to deal with yeast again. The pitas are more or less edible, although instead of being perfectly round, as the picture from the recipe I used suggested they should look, they are more like weird alien amoebas. Oh well, not every cooking experiment can go smoothly. In any case, despite creating one disaster after another last night, this sauce came out perfect – smooth, flavorful, a little spicy. And, yes, I think your serving size should be a lot bigger than the one shown in the picture. Read the rest of this entry »

pasta puttanesca

Pasta puttanesca means literally something like “the whore’s pasta.” The story goes two ways: either this sauce was whipped up by Italian prostitutes in hopes that its smell would seduce passersby in off the streets (in case the normal attractions of a brothel weren’t enough, I guess), or they made it for themselves for a quick and easy bite to eat when they had a bit of down time.

Who knows if either of these legends is actually true. What is true about this sauce is that it is packed full of flavor: garlic, anchovies, olives, and capers simmer (briefly) with tomatoes to produce a loud, complexly flavored sauce. A healthy dose of red pepper flakes contributes a spicy kick. This is definitely racier stuff than your average tomato sauce. I recommend having some crusty bread to mop up the leftovers, plus a nice glass of red wine (or two).  Read the rest of this entry »

classic caesar salad

Well, I am following up on my determination to make more interesting salads than usual. I had other ideas for things to post this week, but I ended up with a pasta sauce that wasn’t that great, and an ice cream that was downright disappointing. I have another ice cream recipe planned for the near future that should be much better, and a recipe for one of my very favorite meals for the next post, but in the meantime here we are with another salad recipe.

I’ve had bottled Caesar salad dressing before, and plenty of Caesar salads at certain “Italian” chain restaurants, but I’m not sure I’d ever had a super authentic version. When I bit into my first piece of dressing-coated lettuce, though, I knew that this stuff was the real deal – all the watered down Caesars I’d had before pointed in this direction, but here the flavors are much louder and punchier. My first thought on tasting was “Whoa, anchovies,” but it soon became quite addicting, and, for once, salad was the most looked forward to part of my meals for the next few days as I finished off the dressing.  Read the rest of this entry »