Spaghetti

Dining date: 4/16/11

Scarpetta’s spaghetti is one of the best pastas I’ve ever had; for $24 per serving, it probably should be. I first got an in-depth look into how this pasta is made on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, where chef Scott Conant demonstrated how he prepares it. It’s quite simple really, only involving a few ingredients.

Using a few modifications (adjusting to what I had on-hand), I set out to re-create this pasta at home (at only a fraction of the restaurant price).

Conant’s recipe on Serious Eats:

Ingredients:

Tomato sauce
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
8 ripe plum tomatoes
1/4 of a can San Marzano tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of red chili flakes
Pinch of kosher salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, whole
2 stems of basil, leaves on
Pinch of red chili flakes

Pasta
3 ounces spaghetti, high-quality dried or fresh
6 ounces tomato sauce (recipe above)
4 large leaves of basil
1/2 tablespoon butter, unsalted
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Recipe:

Tomato sauce

1. Place a pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil. Prepare an ice bath by placing ice in a bowl and filling with cold water. Core tomatoes with a paring knife, and discard cores. Score the bottom of each tomato with an “X.” When water has come to a boil, place tomatoes in water and leave for 15 seconds, until skin begins to split away. Transfer to ice bath. When cool, peel with paring knife.

2. Cut tomatoes in half lengthwise. Remove seeds with your thumb, and set seeded tomatoes aside. Reserve seeds and excess juices. If using canned tomatoes, seed in the same way.

3. In a new pot, place 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot, carefully transfer tomatoes to the pot. Add a pinch of salt and chili flakes.

4. Allow the tomatoes to cook for a few minutes until they begin to soften, then smash them with a potato masher. If the consistency is particularly thick, strain excess tomato juices for seeds and add to pot. Allow tomatoes to cook 30 to 45 minutes over medium heat, smashing and stirring occasionally.

5. While the tomatoes are cooking, prepare the basil-garlic oil. Take a small saucepan and place the remaining 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil in the pan. Add garlic cloves, basil, and chili flakes. Slowly heat to allow the flavors to transfer to the oil. When the garlic is lightly browned, remove from the heat. Allow to cool for 5 minutes. Strain the oil and combine with the tomato mixture.

6. Remove the sauce from the heat and adjust the seasoning with additional salt, as needed.

Cooking the pasta

1. Place a large pot of water on the stove. Heavily season with salt, until it tastes as salty as a broth would. Bring to a boil.

2. Roll basil leaves into a cylinder and thinly cut lengthwise into a chiffonade. Set aside.

3. Cook the spaghetti in the water and remove when it is just shy of al dente—depending on the pasta, 3 minutes for fresh, 10 minutes for dried.

4. While the pasta is cooking, place the sauce into a sauté pan and heat slowly. Allow the sauce to reduce slightly. Add the pasta to the sauté pan along with a bit of pasta water, to add starch and seasoning.

5. Add the pasta to the sauce, and allow to finish cooking, over medium high heat. The sauce should coat the pasta and look cohesive. When you shake the pan, the sauce and pasta should move together.

6. Remove from the heat and add the basil, cheese, butter, and extra virgin olive oil. Toss until well incorporated.

7. Adjust the seasoning and serve immediately.

I followed this recipe pretty closely, with exceptions being the 100% use of canned San Marzano tomatoes (instead of a mix of fresh and canned), omitting the cheese, and using linguini fini instead of spaghetti (I totally thought I had some in the pantry, but I didn’t).

My pasta turned out decently. Frankly, it was a little disappointing and it was probably me more than the recipe. The tomatoes were kind of sour and acidic; I added a little sugar to combat that but it wasn’t quite enough. I also wanted this to be a bit saucier. I kind of felt I had chunks of tomatoes on one hand, and the infused olive oil on the other. They didn’t really come together.

I liked the addition of the butter at the end, adding a nice richness and creaminess. However, I was missing some of the bright, vibrant flavors I was looking for. I’m going to have to retrace my steps and try again. Simplicity isn’t always easy.

Scarpetta’s version:

Braised Beef Brisket

Dining date: 3/20/11

I often wander into my local supermarket not knowing what I’m going to get. Many times, I know exactly what I want to eat and make a bee-line directly towards my desired meat and produce. Other times, I use the market for inspiration and develop a menu on the spot, depending on what looks good/piques my interest.

On this day, the beef brisket looked particularly good. I really like this cut of beef – it’s reasonably priced, and when cooked low and slow for hours, yields tender flavorful meat. I’d have loved to be able to BBQ this, but I don’t have an outdoor smoker. Instead, I decided to braise it in a French style. Buying a few pounds of it, I’m able to make a dinner from it, as well as a couple of workweek lunches.

My braising formula was pretty standard. I browned the meat, then sauteed a mirepoix of onions, carrots and celery. After adding some garlic, rosemary and a few crushed tomatoes, I deglazed with a red wine (Cabernet was what I had on-hand). Finally, I tossed in some bay leaves with a mixture of chicken broth and beef broth and just let it sit in a 300 degree oven until fork-tender. I expected this to take about 3 hours, but I ended up braising for about five. Not sure why – but it just wasn’t “fork-tender” until about that time.

While my meat rested, I reduced the braising liquid significantly – by about one-half. This resulted in a really rich sauce/gravy, so I chopped up some fresh scallions to top the meat off. Not only would it be a nice garnish, but I thought the fresh ‘bite’ from the scallions would complement the rich meat and sauce well.

I was happy with the meat. It took a while to prepare, but it was pretty tasty.

Roasted Chicken

Dining date: 2/26/11

It’s been a while since I posted some home cooked food. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I haven’t been cooking (I still cook maybe four times a week),  it’s just that I’ve had a lot of restaurant posts to catch up with. Anyway, this past weekend, I felt like roasting a chicken for some reason. I think part of it was the cold winter weather, and part of it was my ongoing effort to develop and perfect a recipe that I like.

Everyone seems to have their own roasted chicken recipe. I consulted a number of recipes including Cook’s Illustrated, Thomas Keller and Ludovic Lefebvre. I kind of just combined certain characteristics from all three of them into mine.

I started a few days in advance by starting my brine. I find that brining a chicken, while a little time-consuming, really pays off by ensuring a juicy result. Always looking for ways to add flavor, I added fresh thyme and rosemary, as well as garlic and a bay leaf to the salt and sugar brine.

I let the chicken sit in this brine overnight, then rinsed well, patted dry, and let sit in my refrigerator for another day to dry the skin even more. This is something I especially like to do with steaks, as it ensures the exterior is completely dry to maximize browning.

Finally, I was ready to start cooking. I removed the wishbone with a paring knife (another step that’s more work upfront, but paid dividends later), which would help carving and the presentation once cooked. I stuffed the cavity with garlic, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper. I also put a ton of soft butter on the top, something I took from Ludo’s recipe.

I was ready to put the chicken in the oven – I had an onion on-hand, so I figured I’d roast them as well. In the end, they didnt really add anything.

I roasted at 450 degrees until the drumstick/thigh reached 160 degrees (about 50 minutes) and let it rest. The browning wasn’t quite as even as I would’ve liked; I’m not sure if this was just the oven or me.

While letting the chicken rest, I finished some fingerling potatoes that I had parboiled earlier. I sauteed them in a skillet, crushing them slightly, with salt, pepper and fresh rosemary.

While cutting into the chicken, there was no shortage of juices on the cutting board (yay the brine worked!)

The resulting chicken was pretty moist and flavorful and I was happy about it. While the browning wasn’t perfect, the skin was still pretty crispy. I ended up smashing the potatoes a little more than I should have, but it still tasted good.

I’m still debating what to do with the chicken stock I just made from the resulting bones.

Christmas 2010 – 12/25/10

Christmas seemed to come up pretty fast this year. Maybe I’m just getting older. But maybe it’s because I didn’t have any days off between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Either way, the past month really flew by and Christmas was here before I knew it.

As usual for this occasion, Christmas is a two-round affair; lunch with my mother’s side in Alameda and dinner with my father’s side in San Francisco. The menu for Christmas is usually pretty similar to Thanksgiving with some variations.

Breakfast Sliders (my aunt called them Breakfast Jacks) with chicken-apple sausage, scrambled egg, cheddar on a biscuit

Shrimp Toasts – always one of the most popular items

Pork Lumpia

Crab Rangoon

Fried Wontons

Stir-Fried Shrimp

Chow Mein

Chinese Sticky Rice

BBQ Pork Ribs – cooked low and slow then basted with sauce

Chicken Pot Pie Pockets

Mini Chili Pot Pies

Pork Potstickers – one of my personal favorites

Salad

Lasagna

A variety of desserts were served as well.

Coffee Crunch Cake (semi-homemade)

Passion Fruit Mousse Cake – love the decoration on this one

My cousin, who has her own baking company (Baked Vanilla), wrapped up some homemade treats to take home. Clockwise from top left: gingerbread men and snowflakes, vanilla marshmallows, smores, and pecan sandies.

After lunch, we went into San Francisco for dinner. The menu here is definitely more meat-centric, as just about everyone on my dad’s side is a meat eater.

Starting with some of the sides:

Mashed Potatoes

Gravy

Mixed Vegetables

Chinese Sticky Rice

Stuffing – bread, ground beef, onions, shallots, mushrooms, spinach and chicken stock

The most anticipated dish has to be this large beef roast, prepared medium rare.

New York Strip Loin Roast

The other souce of meat is this large turkey. Nice golden brown exterior.

Turkey

We finished with this one dessert – my parents’ favorite “Dream Cake” from Sweet Stop in San Francisco.

So ended another Christmas. The food is always something to look forward to, but it’s especially important to spend it with friends and family.

Thanksgiving 2010 – 11/25/10

For Thanksgiving and Christmas, it’s been customary for my family to do two meals: lunch at my aunt’s (mom’s side) and dinner at my grandmother’s (dad’s side). This year was no exception. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to prepare anything myself since I flew up to the Bay Area in the morning. Regardless, there was more than enough food; almost all of it homemade.

First, a buffet-style lunch:

Turkey

BBQ Pork Ribs

Chinese Sticky Rice

Chow Mein

Country-Style Potatoes

Egg Rolls

Fried Wontons

There were also a variety of desserts.

Mango Pudding

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Pumpkin Pie

Here we had a cake from LA-based SusieCakes (which opened a San Francisco location this year).

Coconut Cake

I try to pace myself during lunch, which is very difficult. It’s easy to continue snacking on foods throughout the day. After lunch, we went to dinner at my grandmother’s house.

Turkey

While turkey is a mainstay in our Thanksgiving meals for obvious reasons, arguably the main meat highlight is the New York roast.

Roast New York Strip Loin

Chinese Bean Curd Soup

Asparagus

Chinese Sticky Rice

Yams

Mashed Potatoes

Gravy

Stuffing

Chocolate Fudge Pie

Next we had a cake from Sweet Stop, where my parents purchase virtually all of their cakes from. They’re most famous for their Coffee Crunch cake, but we opted for this vanilla-chocolate layered cake.

Dream Cake

And so ended a…dare I say “fulfilling” Thanksgiving. We didn’t take home too much in leftovers, which I like. I don’t like having an overwhelming amount of leftovers, even from Thanksgiving. Plus, I had a lineup of restaurants to try during my stay in San Francisco.

Pork Belly Confit – 11/3/10

This was my first time cooking pork belly, and also my first time cooking anything confit. I found myself with a four-pound slab of pork belly and a dizzying array of options in how to cook it. Looking through a number of recipes, I finally decided on Thomas Keller’s pork belly confit recipe in Ad Hoc at Home. It would take a long time from start to finish (over 36 hours, see below), but his pictures and description of crispy, yet tender pieces of pork were enough inspiration to give it a try.

There were four “stages” to this process: brining the pork, cooking it in its fat, resting the pork in the refrigerator, and reheating the pork in smaller pieces. It was fun to see that each stage had its own purpose. The brine imparted flavor and kept the meat juicy, the long confit process slowly broke the meat down, and the rest in the fridge helped remove much of the excess fat. Finally, pan-frying the individual pieces gave the meat a crispy exterior. Since it was my first time confiting anything, I tried to stay true to the original recipe without taking shortcuts.

pork belly2

pork belly3

pork belly4

The results really surprised me. I was worried, given all the steps, that my pork wouldn’t come close to TK’s version, but it actually ended up being a pretty good replica. The exterior was nice and crispy, and the meat was really tender and flavorful. Yay!

Recipe in its entirety (from Ad Hoc at Home, Thomas Keller):

Ingredients
For the confit:
Pork Brine (recipe follows), cold
One 2 1/2-pound slab pork belly, with skin
About 6 cups (3 pounds) lard

For serving:
Canola oil
Gray salt or coarse sea salt

Directions
Confit the pork belly
1. Pour the brine into a container large enough to hold the pork belly and add the pork. Refrigerate for 10 hours (no longer, or the pork may become too salty).

2. Remove the pork belly (discard the brine) and rinse under cold water. Pat it dry with paper towels or let air dry.

3. Preheat the oven to 200°F. Choose an ovenproof pot that is only slightly larger than the pork belly and has a lid, such as a 12-quart Dutch oven. Place the belly in the pot and cover with the lard. The lard should cover the pork by 1/2 to 3/4 inch.

4. Heat the pot over low heat until the lard registers 190°F. Cover, transfer to the oven, and cook until the pork belly is meltingly tender. This will probably take 5 1/2 to 6 hours, but start checking after 4 hours. As the belly cooks, it will lose fat and shrink. It is best to transfer the pork and fat to a smaller pot, always keeping the belly covered by fat. Remove the pot from the oven and let the pork belly cool to room temperature.

5. The pork belly can simply be refrigerated in its fat for up to 1 week. We prefer to first press it to compress the internal layers to force out some of the excess fat. This results in a better texture and appearance. To press the pork belly, transfer it to a baking dish and pour just enough lard into the dish to barely cover it. Cover the pork belly loosely with plastic wrap, place a smaller baking dish on top of it and weight it with a brick, a large can, a cast-iron skillet, or something of similar weight. Refrigerate for at least 12 hours. Cover and refrigerate the reserved lard. After it’s been pressed, the pork belly can be covered with some of the reserved lard and refrigerated for up to 1 week.

Serve the pork belly
1. Remove the pot from the refrigerator and let it sit in a warm spot for 2 to 3 hours. You want the lard to soften enough so you can scrape it from the pork belly and the pork to remain as cold as possible so it will be easier to slice.

2. Remove the pork belly from the lard, and wipe off any lard that clings to the meat. The lard can be reused to cook additional pork belly as long as it does not taste too salty. (To reserve the lard, pour it into a pot and heat gently to liquefy, then strain through a fine-mesh conical strainer into a storage container. Refrigerate for up to 2 months or freeze for up to 6 months.)

3. Using a sharp knife, remove the skin from the pork belly. Score the fat on the pork belly in a crosshatch pattern. Slice the pork belly or cut it into squares (actually, the belly can be cut into any shape) and let sit at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes.

4. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

5. Heat some canola oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat just until smoking. Put the pieces of pork belly, fat-side-down, in the skillet. Do not crowd the pan. (You may need to work in batches.) Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the excess fat is rendered and the fatty side is browned, about 18 minutes. You will need to pour off any excess fat about halfway through cooking. When the pork is browned, transfer the skillet to the oven until the pork belly is heated through, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with the gray salt, and serve.

Pork Brine Ingredients
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons honey
12 bay leaves
3 large rosemary sprigs
1/2 bunch thyme
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup garlic cloves, crushed, skin left on
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 cup (5 ounces) kosher salt, preferably Diamond Crystal
8 cups water

Directions
1. Combine all of the ingredients in a large pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Heat for 1 minute, stirring to dissolve the salt. Remove from the heat and cool completely. Chill before using. The brine can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.

Related: Sous Vide Pork Belly Confit