The Weekend List 03/30/13

What a week. Snow. Wind. Stay off dairy for 2 weeks (what???). Busy life. Not much time to cook. What is going on with the universe? At least I have you, blog, my nifty friend. Almost immediately after we ringed in the New Year, I made myself a promise: Chiara, get your blogging duties under control and re-start The Weekend List for crying out loud. So, here we are.

I love reading about food as I do cooking it. I have a running list of my favorite articles, profiles, recipe books and chef biographies that I have yet to share. But I will.
Let’s start with what captured my eye and brain this week.

1) Mary Roach‘s brilliant study of the mechanics of eating. ( The Marvels in Your Mouth in the New York Times. Roach is the author of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.) Have you ever thought about how your mouth chews the food your ingest? She does just that, focusing on a study of the “human food processor” (your mouth) and how the chewing action or how you use your mouth tells something deeper about you. She writes:

Think of a peanut between two molars, about to be crushed. At the precise millisecond the nut succumbs, the jaw muscles sense the yielding and reflexively let up. Without that reflex, the molars would continue to hurtle recklessly toward one another, now with no intact nut between.

To keep your he-man jaw muscles from smashing your precious teeth, the only set you have, the body evolved an automated braking system faster and more sophisticated than anything on a Lexus. The jaw knows its own strength. The faster and more recklessly you close your mouth, the less force the muscles are willing to apply. Without your giving it a conscious thought.

I certainly have never given this much thought. Do you?

2) Richmond’s Style Weekly has turned the tables of a customers and interviewed chefs about what makes them tic (Cuts Both Ways). The results are not really surprising, but they certainly made me do an attitude check. Chefs apparently really dislike coupons and actually consider them “devaluing” their work. For one chef, free Wi-fi has become a “money killer”: customers come in, buy the least expensive items and plop their lovely behinds at a table and won’t move for hours. It’s not a coffee shop. It’s a casual eatery, and when you take up space the staff could be using differently…well, he has a point there.

My favorite quote: “Be a little more open-minded when ordering,” Doetzer also suggests. “That’s the only way Richmond can make any real progress. We’re not going to get anywhere serving crab cakes, but people expect them.” Completely agree – and not just about Richmond, everywhere.

3) This is a sore subject. I heart Trader Joe’s, but I have asked myself the same question. Where does Trader Joe’s Food Come From? As the Chow.com article points out, there are no TJ factories where the company could be producing food. And they are uber secretive about their product and marketing – I found out the hard way when I worked at an alternative weekly and rumors ran wild that a J was coming. They didn’t judge. Back to the article, this is chilling:

Those private-label products are made for it, in factories owned and operated by what is essentially TJ’s competition: name brands that can be purchased in other grocery chains.

I am heartbroken. Is it really true? Some of the examples on their list are uncanny. Food for thought?

4) Completely unrelated to food. I have often tried to pick up running regularly, but I stopped at the first hurdle. I have joined a running training program, I subscribed to running magazines, but nothing worked. The winter in Central Virginia is just too bloody cold for me to strap on any type of athletic gear. But this article caught my attention. The Barkley Marathon: A 100-mile foot race with unmarked trails and runners cannot use a GPS device or cellphone.

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Image: The New York Times

 

It’s still snowing: Braised Beef with Polenta

It’s the end of March. It should not be snowing. Central Virginia was covered with a soft blanket of snow yesterday and as much as I love snow, snow days, snow cones, I cannot. take. it. anymore. I had all these plans of actually getting stuff done in the garden, which currently looks like an abandoned field with twigs and dead leaves everywhere. It’s a mess. I am embarrassed. I was supposed to fix that. But no, I had to postponed my plans until the weather clears up and warmth decides to pay us a visit.

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But what do you do when you can’t go anywhere, when it’s cold and all you want to do is curl up in bed with a hot chocolate, surrounded by your kitty cats? (wow, that would have been awesome!) We cooked.
A few weeks ago, we bought two pieces of great-looking beef chuck roast with the intention of braising them in red wine. I found a delicious recipe (Emeril Lagasse) while browsing the web. I tweaked it, made it more to my taste, added a little, eliminated a few ingredients.

Beef Braised in red wine
(Recipe adapted from Emeril Lagasse, 2004)

2 pounds of beef chuck roast
4 carrots
3 stems of celery
2 cups of onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 Tablespoons of tomato paste
1 bottle of Nero d’Avola red wine
2 cups of chicken stock
Sage
Rosemary
Thyme
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

We finally got to use our spanking new Le Creuset dutch oven – and that my friends, is reason enough to celebrate. But I digress. Coat the bottom of the dutch over with a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil. Turn on the heat and let it warm up. Add the beef (cut in small pieces) and let it brown on all sides. We didn’t season the meat before browning, because we added salt and pepper to the stew a little later. Once the beef is browned, remove it from the heat and keep it covered. To the beef fat in the dutch oven, add onions, celery and carrots, minced, and cook until tender (about 10 minutes). Add the garlic, minced as well, and cook it until brown.

Return the meat to the pot, add the chicken stock, the entire bottle of Nero d’Avola (gulp!), the tomato paste, the rosemary, sage and thyme. Season with salt and pepper – but don’t worry about the exact quantity. You will be able to taste the broth and balance out the seasoning once the cooking gets underway. Bring the stew to a boil, covered, and lower the heat to medium and cook for 3 hours.

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If after 3 hours the stew is too liquidy, uncover it and let it cook for 20 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. The result is a velvety and deeply flavorful sauce that coats the beef chucks completely. Serve immediately.

After tasting the braised beef, we felt invincible. We decided to make polenta as a side and the result was incredible. These two were almost meant to be served together. Soul and tummy were satisfied.

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What is your comfort food on cold and wintry nights? Drop me a line and share your traditions! Happy…SPRING!!

 

Italian music Fridays – Il venerdi’ musicale

It’s Friday, the weather is less than optimal (I would venture to say it actually sucks) and you find yourself wanting something good, pure…anything – a cupcake, a hug. What I can offer is music, but not any banal music choice, Italian music. My other love, (other than food). So, I thereby announce that every Friday, I will entertain you with a bit of music from my past and culture. Music I grew up to and still gravitate to. And here it goes, il Venerdi’ Musicale.

We have a strong and strange relationship, music and I. It accompanied me through the peculiar time in one’s life called adolescence. I was 15 when my family and I decided to move from Milano in Northern Italy, to Naples, in the south. My childhood friends were still around; we still giggled together in class, we still went for pizza on weekend nights. We were still a whole. When I moved, I left them 700 kilometers (400 miles) behind. But I was still a teenager, moody, solitary and with the intense desire to be a rock star. I remember posing in front of the bathroom mirror screaming at the top of my lungs and waving my hairbrush as a microphone. Ah, good times.

From my dream of rock stardom came my undying love of music. Any genre. Music was therapeutic, it helped calm that inner anxiety that at times took over and made for a colorful co-habitation atmosphere.

Today’s pick is Lorenzo “Jovanotti” Cherubini, Italian singer songwriter, lyricist, author and humanitarian. I have followed Jovanotti since his early days of catchy Italian pop songs with silly lyrics. His evolution is remarkable.

Image via Facebook

Jovanotti played Bonnaroo in 2011 and opened SXSW this year. He has moved my generation to think positively and do good. I hope you enjoy his songs, which I consider poems, as much as I do.

You can follow him on Facebook here and hear more here. Buon ascolto!

 

Homemade Meat Tortellini (with VIDEO)

As it happens after heavy eating, drinking and merry making, the last thing I wanted to do was think about food. But Francesco’s aunt, Liviana, gave me a reason to get up and get going. “Do you want to learn how to make homemade tortellini?” How can I say no to that?

I was a mere spectator at first, attentively observing how Liviana moved in the kitchen; how she prepped a huge wooden board on the table and began pouring the flour on the board. She made a whole in the center of a mountain of flour. She poured the eggs in and began mixing. We were making pasta from scratch, hands deep in the dough. I’ve actually never made pasta without a mixer. By forcefully using my hands, I could feel the texture and consistency of the pasta dough and make slight adjustments to it.

For the next 20 minutes, I wrestled with the dough. Pasta making is a great workout.

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The recipe we used is perfect for a dough that has to be elastic for filling: one egg per every 100 grams of flour (Farina Tipo 00 in Italy, but at home in Central Virginia, I use any organic, unbleached all-purpose flour).
For 3 kilograms of tortellini (about 6.5 pounds), we used 800 grams of flour and 8 eggs.

The filling. The recipe Liviana shared with me is pork-based, but a vegetarian version – spinach and fresh ricotta cheese – is on my to-do, or better, wish list.
Filling: 100 grams of prosciutto crudo (3.5 ounces), 100 grams of mortadella, 100 grams of Parmigiano Reggiano and 300 grams of a mixture of pork loin and one sausage. The beauty of food made at home, by hand, is that you can adjust it to your liking. With this particular recipe, you can add more prosciutto, mortadella, or sausage. Customize away.

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The meats, cold cuts and cheese need to be minced and blended together to the consistency of a sticky paste….think Pâté. Once the mixture is ready, place it in  a bowl and cover it to avoid dryness. The filling needs to retain its moisture for the tortellini to be soft and chewy.

The next step is getting the pasta ready for cutting. Just like when making lasagna, we started with sheets of pasta laid out on the kitchen table. With a tortellini cutter, we cut the sheets into squares of about 1 inch each- that was our desired size for each tortellino.

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Once the squares were ready and separated, we had to act quickly to avoid the pasta getting too dry. We added a dollop of filling onto each square and “closed” the dough to make the tortellino. It took me a few “closures” to get the hang of it, but I finally mastered it: folding the dough in such a way that it prevents the filling to leak even while cooking in boiling water or both. It’s a laborious process, but bloody fun. That’s me below in action. Two hours and change and we had 6.5 pounds of tortellini.

Tip: While you are prepping and cutting the sheets of pasta, keep them covered with plastic wrap or a open ziploc bag. The dough won’t dry as quickly and it will be much easier to fold and seal each tortellino.

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The “closing” of the tortellini is an art, I found…and it takes lots of practice. In the time I was able to successfully make one, Liviana and her daughter, Roberta, made 10 or more. The folding process is easier shown than explained. Check out yours truly in the video below:

The best way to serve tortellini is with homemade chicken broth. The best time to eat it is on a snowy night. I made my own batch of tortellini as soon as Francesco and I got home from Italy. I have to say, they were good. Really good…and they even look decent!

To cook them in broth, bring the liquid to a boil and add the fresh tortellini. Cook them in the boiling broth for about 5 or 6 minutes (I like them a bit al dente) and serve them with some Parmigiano Reggiano. They heal the soul…or achy bones on a winter night. Either way, a slam dunk.

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Tip: Because the process to make tortellini can easily take all afternoon….(it did for me), make a big batch and freeze them. If you are like me, a little forgetful in the kitchen, this little tidbit of information can save you from disaster – don’t place fresh tortellini in a bag ready for the freezer…you run the risk of creating a ball of frozen tortellini that won’t even come undone in boiling broth. So, freeze them as you work: place the filled tortellini on a tray and put the tray in the freezer for a couple of minutes, or until the tortellini are cold enough not to stick together. This saved my life…I am known to make these kinds of disasters.

Buon Appetito!