Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Convivio: a Tuscan-Inspired Locavore-ish Dinner

It's been a little while since we continued on our culinary tour of the seasons at the home of Ms. Five-and-a Half and her husband Mr. Thirteen. We first began the tradition back in 2004 with our "Can spring be far behind...?" French-themed dinner and then followed with our autumnal 2005 "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness..." dinner. In 2006, we invaded the Cowgirls' kitchen for the fabulous Northern Italian "If on a winter's night a traveler..."

So here we are at Summer. And for once, it was actually feeling like summer in the Bay Area. Perfect weather for our next food adventure.

When we ran into the Cowgirls down at the Ferry Building, they asked, "So are you preparing another extravaganza...?"

Sensing that some management of expectations (i.e. lowering) might be in order, I replied, "Well, a casual extravaganza..."

She laughed at me.

I suppose it's to be expected since our obsession with food and making seasonal-themed dinners has gotten way out of proportion.

A recent article in the New York Times, "Dinner at the Foodies," sketched out the culinary anxiety of the modern foodie, the frantic search for the perfect ingredient, the manufacturing of every possible aspect of the meal by hand at home, from homemade tortillas to condiments.

Ridiculous, huh? Hahahahaha... oh.

It has come to my attention that we are, perhaps, somewhat obsessive. But I ask you, is that really a bad thing?

Let me give you a scene. My Omnivore picks me up from class at approximately 1 pm (T-minus 4.5 hours to dinner). I settle into the car and then say in a startlingly loud voice, "We have to go to the Ferry Building RIGHT NOW!"

"Wha-at? What for?"

"Lemon verbena! I forgot. We have to get Lemon verbena and the only place in San Francisco that has it is Eatwell in the Farmer's Market."

Yes, I was a little strident. Yes, we had to fight our way across the city and find parking, run into the market, power our way to the Eatwell stand and wave madly at them before they packed up the basket of precious herbs. And no, no one would have died, balked, or even cringed if we hadn't obtained the verbena and made the dish as planned.

But then weigh that against this: We took the most gorgeously sweet and fresh smelling stuff home and made a Lemon Verbena sorbet that was heavenly. Served as a palate cleanser the scent of lemon came breezing across the table and as everyone got a whiff, there was this fantastic look of transported joy, as if memories were floating down over each person's eyes as they took a bite.

I like that.

So, I put it to you that perhaps being "perfect ingredient" obsessed is not such a laughable thing. I mean, if you can make your friends even that much happier by going the extra mile, wouldn't you do it?

Lemon Verbena Sorbet
Adapted from The Herbfarm Cookbook, by Jerry Traunfeld

Makes 1 quart, 8 servings
• 1 cup (gently packed) fresh lemon verbena leaves
• 1 cup superfine sugar
• 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
• 3 cups cold water

Grind the lemon verbena leaves and sugar together in a food processor until the mixture turns into a bright green paste, about 30 seconds; stop to scrape down the sides as necessary. Add the lemon juice and process for 15 seconds longer, then add the water.

Strain the resulting liquid through a fine sieve to remove any bits of leaf. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions.

* * *
On the guest list, the Cowgirls from the Creamery, of course, joined by Madame Baker and her Mr. Firestarter, as well as our friends and fellow gourmands La Divina and Il Divino. And as with the best dinners, the food was good, but the company was even better.

Our thought for this meal was to build the dinner around Tuscan dishes, but to highlight the fabulous local foods and producers we have around the Bay Area.

It wasn't a strict locavore affair -- we slipped in a few things that travelled around the world to get to us, like the miele di castagno or Tuscan chestnut honey, for which I couldn't find a local substitute. We splurged on some farro as well, an Etruscan grain that's not easy to get here, but deliciously nutty. There was also Campari, Prosecco with slices of Frog Hollow Gold Dust peaches, and Vernaccia di San Gimignano, although we drank a local "super Tuscan" from Unti called Segromigno.

In the sweet shadow of the lovely leaves
June 16, 2007

Fra’Mani Affettati Misti with Soppressata, Mortadella & Salametto
Della Fattoria Polenta Bread, courtesy of Mistress Baker and Mr. Firestarter
Chicken Liver pate & Tuscan Table Olives from McEvoy Ranch

Swiss Chard & Fava Ravioli with Vegetable Brodo & Chestnut Honey

Sorbet of Lemon Verbena from Eatwell Farm

Secondo e contorni
Pollo alla Diavolo made with chickens from Fulton Valley Farms
Farro with Arugula, Peas & Sweet 100 Tomatoes
Grilled Vegetables
Della Fattoria Rosemary & Meyer Lemon Bread
with olive oil from McEvoy Ranch and Stonehouse Olive Oil.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta & Strawberries

Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery
Pepato sheep's milk cheese
Fourme d'Ambert
with toasted hazelnuts, candied walnuts and fresh figs
Fig conserve from June Taylor
served with a fantastic Currant Walnut bread, again, courtesy of Mistress Baker and Mr. Firestarter.

Expert cheese preparation at the hands of the Cowgirls.

The Chard and Fava Ravioli turned out to be the most complicated dish of the whole evening.

Pasta always presents a severe challenge for us, because there is literally no surface in the apartment to which we can securely clamp a pasta machine. Except the wooden folding tray.

At that point, making ravioli become a two person, four-handed proposition, with the dialogue running something like this:

"Hold it, no hold it steady... [CLUNK, CLUNK, CLUNK] Wait, you're rolling too fast -- more flour, more flour... no slower... Wait, move the cutter... Will you push the cat off the table, please? Well I can't, I have flour on my hands... Okay, now, step it down. [CLUNK, CLUNK, CLUNK] No wait--it's shredding... hold on. Yeah -- NO, NO, NO!"

That they get made at all is really a feat of mammoth proportions. That we had 55 of them in the end was astonishing. Ah, the miracle of ravioli.

Ravioli de Bietola e Fave
con Trucioli di Pecorino al miele di Castagna
From Il Falconiere Relais e Ristorante, Cortona

Serves 6 as a first-course

• 2 Tbsp plus ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
• ½ bunch Swiss chard, ribs removed, leaves chopped (about 2 ½ cups)
• 2 garlic cloves chopped
• 8 oz shelled fresh fava beans
• 1 large egg yolk
• ½ cup ricotta cheese
• ½ cup plus ¾ cup grated pecorino Romano Cheese (4 oz)
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 1/8 tsp ground black pepper
• 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
• 2 lbs Pasta Dough
1 large egg white, beaten to blend
• 1 cup vegetable broth
• Chestnut honey

Heat 2 Tbsp oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add Chard and garlic. Saute until moisture evaporates, about 5 minute. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook fava beans in a heavy medium saucepan of boiling salted water until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and transfer to a food processor.

Add egg yolk and process until well blended. Add ricotta and ½ cup pecorino cheese, salt, pepper, nutmeg and blend well. Add chard mixture and using on off turns, blend until just combined.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out pasta dough in ½ lb. batches, to 1/8 inch thick. Brush the edges with egg white. Place on heaping teaspoon of chard filling at 2 inch intervals along the dough about ½ inch from the bottom edge. Brush more egg white between each round of filling and along the middle of the dough strip. Fold the top half of the dough strip over the bottom half and press along edges and between each round of filling to seal. Using a ravioli or a biscuit cutter, stamp out raviolis. Place them on a baking sheet covered with a damp cloth and chill until ready to use.

In a blender, puree the vegetable stock and ½ cup oil, ¾ cup pecorino cheese until smooth. Transfer to a small saucepan and whisk over a medium heat until heated through.

Working in batches, cook the ravioli in a large pot of boiling salted water until tender, but still firm to the bite (about three minutes) Drain well, return ravioli to the pot, add the sauce and toss to coat. Divide evenly among plates, Drizzle with chestnut honey and serve.

I know, you're wondering if we made the ricotta ourselves. and yes, yes, we did...


Discuss amongst yourselves-- topics for the evening:

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