Cookbook Bench

Let’s Cook

MJ wanted a bookstand for our cookbooks that can be moved around in the kitchen, so I dove into my scrap pile and came up with some goodies. My total cost for new components for this stand was 9 1/2 cents.

Most people make these out of plywood, but I had some 1/4″ thick poplar boards in the scrap pile, along with some cherry pieces parts, and I made just a very few saw cuts. The molding on the front is actually some crown molding, which I grooved with an old Stanley 45 combination plane. I used the same plane to cut the bead at the top.

My contribution to the design was to drill eight holes in the base, and use handmade French nails as a means of keeping the books open. There are actually sixteen possible arrangements for the nails, to accommodate different sized books.

Because there are three different varieties of wood used, I finished it with a dark amber shellac, which was also made by yours truly. I did have some help from the lac bugs, which is where shellac comes from. It is also used in making candy like Raisinettes and Jelly Beans, so there is another food connection. I doubt that people who eat those even know that they are eating bug parts.

That’s it in action with one of my favorite cookbooks. You have to like a book that has both a cow and chicken on the cover.

Investing in Pepper Futures

Uncle Samuel decided to remit us some of the tens of thousands of dollars that we have unwillingly sent him over the years. It truly is a paltry sum, but I have decided to invest some of it in pepper futures. It’s a better use than sending money to defense contractors, or bailing out giant banks.

The amount I chose to invest was a total of $8.05. That gets me seventy five pepper seeds, more or less. My rate of return is likely to be enormous, as a small bag of fresh peppers at the Festhalle usually goes for around three bucks. At any rate, these are the three heirlooms I bought.

 Piment d’Espelette

Another of the official peppers of the Basque region of Spain. Mildly hot, it has only been around since 1523. Strangely enough, that was the year when I was born.

 Sigaretta De Bergamo

Let’s go to the Lombardi region of Italia, virus or no virus. A long sweet pepper, which surprisingly is the diameter of a cigarette. Try and find these at your local market.

Fushimi

Time to go to Nippon! That would be Japan. Another slim sweet pepper, and I can’t wait to try this one.

Moral of this story: grow your own, grow your own.

I am now at sixteen different peppers. Life is good. Thank you to the Federales for floating me eight bucks for pepper seeds. I threw in the nickel.

Pickled Elephant Garlic Scapes in Oil

Elephant Garlic is really a Variety of Leek

Though people have been pickling garlic scapes (blooms and stems) for centuries, I may be the first to try the traditional Italian method of doing so with so-called Elephant Garlic. It’s really a type of leek, but it was renamed Elephant Garlic by the person who rediscovered it, the owner of the Nichol’s Nursery, out in Oregon. They also reintroduced it to the commercial market.

It has naturalized itself in my semi-abandoned veg garden, which was left dormant after two record breaking droughts. Now three alliums are taking over, including softneck garlic and Rakkyo, the famous Japanese delicacy. We are gradually bringing back other crops, and have a nice patch of potatoes coming on. But to keep the place from being overrun with Elephant Garlic, I have begun harvesting some of the scapes. The recipe is very simple.

Ingredients

Elephant Garlic (or Garlic) Scapes

Vinegar

Salt

Olive Oil

Cook the scapes for five minutes or so, in the salted vinegar. Then bottle them in olive oil and let age a day on the counter, and a week in the fridge. Be aware that they have a short shelf life, so eat them in a week or so.

The taste of Elephant Garlic is intermediate between Garlic and a Leek. It is a plant that requires eternal vigilance, to keep it from overtaking your property.

Last Night I Dreamed About Tomato Sauce

I Really Did.

To quote my man Will Shakespeare, this is the “The stuff that dreams are made of,” as adapted by Bogey and John Huston in The Maltese Falcon. I woke up at six in the morning with the taste of tomato sauce in my mouth. It was then that I realized that I had been dreaming about it, possibly all night long..

It was a classic example of one part of what Dr. Freud said that dreams are made of, and this is not a particularly good translation, but it is the standard one: “the day’s residues.” For lunch the previous day I had a slice of leftover brick oven pizza, and it was still superb warmed up. It had Vidalia onion slices, Italian mozzarella, and a crust made from Caputo 00 flour from Italy. The star was still Melanie Jane’s tomato sauce. That’s what I dreamed about. Here’s her recipe, which will sauce two pizzas.

Ingredients

1 quart locally grown home canned Tomatoes–I believe these were Romas

1/2 of a diced Onion

Italian Tomato Paste in a tube–Tuscan, in this case, the brand being Tuscanini. (Aside–I had to buy this, as Toscanini is one of our favorite conductors of classical music, and his daughter married my wife’s favorite pianist, Vladimir Horowitz.)

Italian Pesto in a tube

Italian Garlic Paste in a tube–the secret weapon used by many pros

Oregano and Thyme

Salt and Pepper

This is considerably more complicated than what most Italians would make, but we aren’t Italian, at least the last time I checked. MJ then cooked it down to a concentrated strength, which gave me just enough time to get a roaring fire going in the brick oven.

Did it ever get hot. All I had was oak dead fall pieces, and they created an inferno. I didn’t burn the crust–I actually burned the sauce, as you can see from the little black line on my slice in the picture. I’ve never had that happen before.

It was still delicious. As I always tell people, don’t eat the burned part.

Pickled Spiced Mushrooms

Let the Pickle Begin

This recipe is based on one in the superb book Preserving Italy, by Domenica Marchetti. I tasted one of these after I let them pickle for a day, and I may forsake my usual jar of emergency canned mushrooms for these. There could hardly be anything easier to make. Here’s my take on the project.

Ingredients

1 pound button Mushrooms

1 cup apple cider Vinegar

1/2 cup wine Vinegar

3/4 cup apple Wine, or any white Wine

1/4 cup peanut Oil

1 tablespoon Himalayan Pink Salt

1/2 teaspoon whole Peppercorns

3 whole Cloves

Small piece of a Cinnamon Stick

1 bay Leaf

Good Olive Oil

I didn’t have and/or disliked some of the ingredients in the original, and I didn’t want to wait for my personal corporate overlord Jeff Bezos to have a tiny overpriced bottle of white wine vinegar hand delivered to me in two cardboard boxes, and wrapped in a yard of bubble wrap, so I went full on Italian, and just used what I had, and what I like. The process is straight forward.

Clean the mushrooms, cut off the stems, and cut them into quarters (you can cut the small ones in half). While doing this, bring all the other ingredients to a boil, and remember the definition of non-reactive. Add the mushrooms after the boil starts, and cook for five minutes, and then let them rest. I left mine overnight, as I was up to my butt in alligators (figuratively), and had a dozen other things to do.

Get rid of the bay leaf, and put the final pickle in half pint jars, as a pound made three half pints for me. Pour a little olive oil in each jar after it is packed, which is an Italian trick that I was unaware of, but one which makes perfect sense. Process the fellows in a hot water bath for fifteen minutes.

Bath Time

That’s just a pressure canner with jars filled over the lids with water. Everyone should have one, but for some reason we own two, which is a long story.

Mine all sealed perfectly, and now get to age gracefully for a couple of weeks. After that, they are to be devoured.

Italian Food in a Tube

Pasta, Please

Having received three books on Tuscan cooking for Christmas, I am now even more against processed or imported food than before, and in favor of nothing but local food. However, there is always an exception to every rule, and these Italian ingredients in a tube are mine. The packaging is minimal, the product stays fresh forever, and these will turn any bland dish into something tasty.

The Pesto paste is basil, sunflower and olive oil, salt, pine nuts, and garlic. Having made pesto in the past with sunflower kernels instead of pine nuts, due to the cost of pine nuts, this is a winner. A small amount of this is all that’s needed in most pasta sauces.

The Garlic puree is, well, pureed garlic with oil. I grow garlic, but sometimes a tube snatched out of the fridge is much easier than chopping and smashing. It is also very inexpensive, and there is no jar to clutter up things.

My favorite, however, is the tomato paste in a tube. Even our local supermarket carries one brand of this. The triple concentrated version in the picture is a superb product. I use it to fortify sauces made from our sometimes watery local tomatoes, instead of cooking the sauce down for an inordinate amount of time. The double concentrated paste will work as well, but has less of a punch.

So there we have the Italian flag, which is often referred to as basil, garlic, and tomato, because of the colors of three favorite Italian ingredients (sometimes mozzarella is used instead of garlic). All this just makes me crave for a pizza margherita.

Imperia 150 Pasta Machine

Get the Sauce Ready

Thomas Jefferson loved pasta. He and his chef James Hemings are said to have introduced macs and cheese–or at very least, popularized it– to North America, and for years he and his family imported pounds and pounds of pasta every year from Italy. Undoubtedly, the first American recipe for macs and cheese was in one of his relative’s cookbooks, Mary Randolph’s 1824 book, The Virginia Housewife.

Jefferson also owned a pasta machine, which was purchased in Naples. His description of it is as follows:

The best maccaroni in Italy is made with a particular sort of flour called Semola, in Naples: but in almost every shop a different sort of flour is commonly used; for, provided the flour be of a good quality, and not ground extremely fine, it will always do very well. A paste is made with flour, water and less yeast than is used for making bread. This paste is then put, by little at a time, viz. about 5. or 6. lb. each time into a round iron box ABC, the under part of which is perforated with holes, through which the paste, when pressed by the screw DEF, comes out, and forms the Maccaroni g.g.g. which, when sufficiently long, are cut and spread to dry. The screw is turned by a lever inserted into the hole K, of which there are 4. or 6. It is evident that on turning the screw one way, the cylindrical part F. which fits the iron box or mortar perfectly well, must press upon the paste and must force it out of the holes. LLM. is a strong wooden frame, properly fastened to the wall, floor and cieling of the room.

N.O. is a figure, on a larger scale, of some of the holes in the iron plate, where all the black is solid, and the rest open. The real plate has a great many holes, and is screwed to the box or mortar: or rather there is a set of plates which may be changed at will, with holes of different shapes and sizes for the different sorts of Maccaroni.

Papers of Thomas Jefferson

So even back in the day there were machines for making pasta, and the Greeks said that the god Hephaestus/Vulcan himself made the first one. I’ll stick with this Italian made Imperia machine.

Double Cutter

The double cutters are particularly handy, and this one makes both spaghetti and linguini. A large number of single cutters are available also.

Single Cutter

This cutter makes pappardelle, a nice thick pasta for equally thick sauces. The machine itself can make sheet pasta in six different thicknesses.

Parts and Pieces

The machine did not come with an instruction manual (naturally), so I had to jimmy with it to see the options. The dough tray clips to the front, which is the side the sheet pasta comes out of. The front will also hold a single cutter. The back side works best with the double cutter. Or, you could just leave all that stuff off, and make sheet pasta at the thinnest setting, or even dumplings, at the thickest setting.

Lasagna Sheet

Bill Buford wrote that the Italian introduction of the egg into pasta making was their greatest contribution. I nominate this machine for second place.

Tortelli alla Maremmana

A Healthy Plate of Pasta

Having become fascinated with the parallels between Tuscan and Southern cooking, I decided to make a dish that has entire food festivals dedicated to it–tortelli, or tordelli. They are made in a bewildering number of fashions, and with many local fillings, so I ad libbed and made my own version, with some honking big tortelli, with a sauce approximating a Tuscan meat sauce. The result is incredibly rich and tasty.

Meat Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes

This is a typical meat sauce, and the quantities are determined by how many tortelli you need to sauce. I only had four, so I used fewer tomatoes, and piled on the meat. Saute some onion and pepper in olive oil, and then add the fresh tomatoes (I milled mine in a food mill, so they were peeled and seeded at the same time). The Tuscans would use chopped meat in a sauce like this, but I had homemade Italian Sausage, and some hamburger I ground myself, so I browned those in a skillet, and added those to the sauce. My customizing was to add some oregano, and two actual Italian ingredients, both of which come in tubes like toothpaste tubes, which are tomato paste and garlic paste. Naturally, there is also salt and pepper in it.

Fall Greens

The filling for the tortlli is as simple as you want to make it, but I used the traditional greens and ricotta combo. The Tuscans use everything from spinach to thistle, but we had fresh kale at the Festhalle farmer’s market, so I went with that. I wilted it in olive oil, shredded it, and added it to some homemade ricotta.

Lots of Filling

The judgement call comes when you decide how big to make the tortelli, and in what shape. I went by the Tuscan saying that tortelli should have a “wide footprint,” so I made mine big enough that just two would cover a plate. I also used a technique that I had never seen before, that was on an Italian website. I started with homemade sheet pasta.

DIY Tortelli

I cut fairly wide strips of this pasta, about twice as long as wide. The next trick is to put a spoon full of filling on one side, and then fold the pasta over itself. This eliminates the fiddly business of cutting the pasta into squares, making the tortelli, and then trimming them yet again with ravioli cutter. I just put water around the bottom edge, and used the back of a fork to form a waterproof seal. Tortelli should be boiled in water as salty as the sea for ten to twelve minutes, strained, plated and topped with sauce. Add some grated parmesan, and have your own festival. We did.

Linguine alla Carbonara

The great Calvin Trillin once joked that the national Thanksgiving dish should be Spaghetti Carbonara, instead of turkey. I decided to make some, because of that, and I hated it. We still have turkey for Thanksgiving.

Then last week, Melanie Jane said we had to use some of the increasing pile of eggs that our chicks produce, and she found a recipe from Lidia Bastianich for Linguine alla Carbonara. I made it, and it was literally one of the best things I have ever eaten.

The difference? Instead of supermarket bacon and eggs, I had local fresh bacon which I had marinated myself, and eggs from our chicks. The dish is very simple to make.

Ingredients

Pasta Water (Water as salty as sea water)

Linguine (dry or fresh)

Two slices of thick Bacon

1/2 of a small Onion, chopped

Chicken Stock

Two Egg Yolks

Grated Parmesan Cheese

This sextet of ingredients will taste like a symphony if cooked properly. Start with the pasta water, and fry the bacon in a brasier/pasta pan (not pot). Here’s ours, but a skillet will work fine as well.

That’s French for Crucible

The ladies who own our local Le Creuset store in Birmingham picked this one out for me, so my addled brain was not taxed. When I told them it was a present for my sweetie, they went through an entire stack of boxes, to find the best one. I left as a happy consumer.

Fry the bacon while the pasta is cooking. Remove the bacon when it is crisp, but keep the fat, and cook the onions in that. Add a little chicken stock, and I mean a little, and add the chopped bacon, and the pasta (strained) once it becomes al dente. Is Al Dente related to Al Fresco?

Stir those together, and then here comes the only tricky part. Turn off the stove and add the raw yolks. Yes, I said raw yolks. If the heat is just right, the hot sauce and pasta will cook the yolks. If too hot, you have scrambled egg pasta. Too cool, and it’s yuck city.

Grate some good Parmesan over the whole thing, and there you have it. I splurged on some real Reggiano. That didn’t hurt any either.

As long as our chicks keep clucking, this is on the permanent menu. I had five eggs from six birds yesterday, and it appears home made mayo is the next project. Or anything else that uses eggs.

Brick Oven: Building and Maintaining a Fire

Fire Walk with Me–Twin Peaks

There actually is a process involved in building and maintaining a fire in a brick oven. Begin with completely dry soft wood, and then add hardwood if you want to build up a bed of hot coals. Here I start with yellow pine, and then go to a pine/oak mixture. We might as well start at the beginning.

More than Fahrenheit 451

Aristotle said a good plot had a beginning, a middle, and an end, in his Poetics; a good brick oven fire begins in the front, is pushed to middle, and then to the back. This is especially true for all applications involving cooking meat or pizza.

TV chefs will bring out something dramatic to light a fire, like a propane blow torch. I use two cardboard egg cartons and one match. The results are the same–fire.

All this with just One Match

Time for a break now that the fire has been pushed to the middle of the oven. This tool keeps me in firewood.

Sometimes Technology is Good

That’s a 24 volt electric chainsaw. I liked it so much I bought a 24 volt weed whacker, and a 60 volt lawnmower to go with it. I charge up the batteries with a solar generator, which is in turn charged by a single 100 watt solar panel. I’m inching toward sustainability, and did I mention the thirty percent tax credit on solar panels and batteries?

Mmmm. Vidalia Onions

Push the fire to the back, and sweep and mop for pizza. A pie with sliced Vidalia onions makes all the work worth it. And I get to play with matches, and a chainsaw.