Monday, April 20, 2009

Mamma Mia!: A Pasta Tasting

Don't worry, no ABBA here. But plenty of happy food...

Over the weekend we did a pasta tasting for ten at the elegant home of Ms. Five-and-a-Half and Mr. Thirteen. Inspired somewhat by the experiences my Dad and I had in a very sociable evening at Babbo's in New York, we decided to feature five different styles from all over Italy, including casunziei from the Veneto, fregola from Sardinia, spaghettini nero di seppia (popular in coastal regions like the Amalfi coast), homemade pappardelle, and ravioli di zucca which are often found in the Lombardy region.

Here's what I love about these dinners (and we've done so many of them over the years with Mr. Thirteen and Ms. Five-and-a-Half)--everyone is into it.

It's always such a pleasure to cook for creative people. No one asks us why anyone would go to so much trouble to fit the food into a theme like "The Elements" or "Wilderness" or "Summer," no one objects to strange ingredients and unusual flavors. On the contrary, the guests who've come to these dinners enthusiastically add in their own creative touches. The table above, for instance, is another of Ms. Five-and-a-Half's wonderful concoctions, inspired by Italian trattorias. She also called in the help of our Renaissance Man,who had so kindly lent his Faberge candlesticks to our Ah Wilderness efforts. He brought the dramatic candelabra in the center of the table and made the elegant Venetian plaster placecards.

Everyone knows that we make fancy menus for each dinner, and for our "Mamma Mia" theme, all of our guests--including The Cowgirls and Ms. Jersey Girl, who was there for our very first fancy dinner-- obliged me (or maybe humored me) by sending me reminiscences about cooking with Mom. Even The Garden King, a writer for the SF Chronicle sent along a dry, one line contribution about trying to forget the times his mother cooked, which sparked a great story at dinner.

I'm always afraid I've pushed people to far in trying to involve everyone in our themes, but when I joking mentioned another idea I'd had for an "Alice in Wonderland" dinner to the Garden King, he immediately said, "Well, you must have everyone come in costume!"

Really, I asked? Do you think people would do it?

"They must," he replied simply. Well... after all, I thought, Mr. Loving Green came dressed in a green ensemble that was in perfect harmony with this dinner's theme.

Incidentally, Mr. Green also immediately identified the artist whose work graced the cover of this event's menu, Giuseppe Arcimboldo. In case you haven't seen this one, it's called the Vegetable Gardener, and if you turn it around, the bowl of vegetables become a portrait.

I love Arcimboldo's work, maybe for the same reasons of whimsy that I like themes for our dinners... I've also only just noticed that when you invert my Omnivore's placecard you get the same letters as my initials.

But back to cooking...

Our intrepid hosts have recently added to their well-stocked kitchen a set of pasta rolling attachments for their KitchenAid and we decided that this was the perfect opportunity to christen it.

In my flurry of pre-prepping all the food and raviolis, I hadn't had a chance to make the dough for the pappardelle, which we intended to make fresh and cut by hand. Plus my long-suffering Omnivore was still down and out with a cold --and heavily lamenting the fact that he wasn't able to do anything but hold our rickety table steady while I rolled out the raviolis.

But since Mr. Thirteen hasn't made pasta dough before, this seemed like a good chance for him to both step in to cover and get some hands on experience, so he gamely tied on an apron and got to work. Perhaps it did help that we handed him a glass of wine too.

And the KitchenAid? It's a dream. You have no idea. I flail with our sturdy and very nice Imperia. It's a great, serviceable pasta machine, but we have nothing in the entire house that we can firmly clamp it to, so rolling out dough is a chore of unimaginable frustration.

The KitchenAid, on the other hand, just sits there as nice as you please, with its roller humming along. One person can roll out the dough one handed if need be!

Plus, Ms. Five-and-Half and Mr. Thirteen also have a perfect pasta drying rack AND the space to set it up.

As usual, getting ready for the Pasta extravaganza was a project of several days' duration. Though it was certainly a lot less trouble than the Ah, Wilderness dinner back in January, we still had our obstacles to overcome. Where do you get squid ink pasta, for instance and how do you match wine to things that may have balsamic vinegar and maple smoke flavors?

For wine, our go-to gal is Ceri at Biondivino, and if you love Italian wine, you must check out her store. No matter what crazy schemes we're cooking up, she always is game for the challenges. This time, I handed her one of the menus and amazingly she was able to recommend a terrific Mattei Barbera as well as the refreshingly fizzy Fallegro, a white that has its own natural, appealing effervescence. Not pictured below is the Perticaia Umbrian Rosso, a mostly Sangiovese, part Colorino, part Merlot blend that, as promised, worked well throughout the whole night. (Added into the mix were some fab Italian treats from The Garden King, courtesy of a previous wine tasting.)

Mamma Mia! Pasta Tasting Menu

Chevre & Ricotta Beet Ravioli with Poppy Seed Butter

with Maple Smoked Scallops

Spaghettini Nero di Seppia
with Parsnips & Pancetta

Handmade Pappardelle
with Ragu Bolognese and Herbed Ricotta

Ravioli di Zucca
Sweet Potato Ravioli with Arugula & Caramelized Anjou Pears in Brown Butter

Gorgonzola Piccante from Cowgirl Creamery
with Honey, Walnuts and Balsamic Marinated Cranberries

Cappuccino Mousse
in Chocolate Cups with Fresh Raspberries and Ladyfinger

* * *

First course was Casunziei (Casunzei? Casunzie?... Beet ravioli). I first saw this at Mario Batali's place, and strictly speaking, they are ravioli filled with beets and potato, but I had already decided that wanted something a little different. I've always been obsessed with how beautiful the color of beet pasta dough is, so we decided to change things up a little and make beet ravioli stuffed with chevre and ricotta, but still garnished with poppy seeds and parsley like traditional casunziei. Oddly enough the beet flavor really came out with the added greenery and the crunch of the poppy seeds made a huge difference between a nice dish and a really elegant unusual one.


Serves 8 as a main course
  • 1-1/2 cups fresh ricotta (about 12 oz.), drained 30 min.
  • 1-1/2 cups goat cheese (about 10 oz.), at room temp.
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Fresh Beet Pasta Dough (see below)
  • Semolina flour or fine cornmeal, for dusting
  • 2 tablespoons coarse salt
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons poppy seeds
  • Parsley, chiffonaded into thin ribbons

Stir together cheeses and herbs; season with salt and pepper.

Using a pasta machine, roll out the pasta to the thinnest setting and then cut the sheets into 4-inch rectangles. Place a scant tablespoon of the beet and ricotta filling on one half of each rectangle, then brush the egg wash as an adhesive around edge, fold them over like a book to enclose the filling and press the edges of each ravioli to seal. Transfer ravioli to sheet, and cover with a kitchen towel. Repeat with remaining pasta dough and filling. (Freeze ravioli in a single layer on a baking sheet, about 15 minutes, and then pack between layers of parchment in an airtight container and store for up to 1 month. Do not thaw before cooking.)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add salt and half of the ravioli. Cook, stirring occasionally to separate, until edges are just tender, about 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a colander to drain. Drizzle with oil, and toss gently to coat. Transfer to a bowl, and loosely cover to keep warm. Repeat with remaining ravioli.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat it is dark golden brown and has a nutty aroma, about 4 minutes. Divide ravioli among plates. Spoon brown butter over ravioli and serve immediately garnished with poppy seeds and a chiffonade of parsley.

Beet Pasta Dough

  • 1 medium beet
  • 4 cups flour
  • 2 medium eggs and 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

Roast beet in a 375F oven for 45 minutes until tender. Peel, puree and beat with 2 eggs and 1 egg yolk.

Mound the flour in the center of a large wooden cutting board or baking sheet. Make a well in the middle of the flour and add the eggs and the olive oil. Using your fingers begin to incorporate the eggs into the flour, starting with the inner rim of the well.

As you expand the well, keep pushing the flour up from the base of the mound to retain the well shape. The dough will come together when half of the flour is incorporated.

Start kneading the dough with both hands, using the palms of your hands. Once you have a cohesive mass, remove the dough from the board and scrape up and discard any leftover bits. Lightly reflour the board and continue kneading for six more minutes. The dough should be elastic and a little sticky. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.

The Scallops and Fregola we've made betfore, but we just loved the maple-smoking flavor, so we included it, even though I usually prefer to do new dishes that we've never done beofre.

This balsamic was the 12 year Elsa, a very nice, sweet balsamic. We did reduce it to a syrupy glaze and though it was the sort of thing that kills wines, it was spectacular with the smoke.

Originally we'd intended to do Tagliatelle with parsnips and pancetta, another Babbo specialty. But since squid ink is hard to come by (and hard to manage), we opted for the pre-made spaghettini nero di seppia. Earthy still and unusual, but a I looked around the room, I could see that folks were slowing down already. Two more pasta courses...

For the Pappardelle with Ragu Bolognese, I started with Marcella Hazan's classic Bolognese as a base. I've read a lot over the years, but oddly this was the first time that I really committed to making this meat based sauce in the time-honored, time-consuming way.

Also, we finally got the new SLOW COOKER!! It's the Hamilton Beach programmable cooker, and I am in love with it. You can cook Bolognese in it for eight hours... True I started out the veggies and meat in the pot on the stove, to get things browned and started, but after getting the wine absorbed into the meat, I transferred everything to the slow cooker and let her rip.

Marcella knows her business, of course. We did add a dash of ground cloves and nutmeg and coriander because I like an aromatic spicy flavor.

Also a goodly dollop of ricotta mixed with chives added a nice creaminess to the finished dish.

Our final pasta dish of the evening (and we were all pretty stuffed by this time), was a reconstruction of the dinner we had when we took Eric's Mom out to the Summit at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs: Sweet Potato Ravioli with Caramelized Anjou Pears in Brown Butter with Fines Herbes. It's an odd and unusual idea, but I liked having the sweet of the ravioli filling with the intensely dark flavor of the caramelized pear.

After that though, we had my favorite course, a nicely spreadable Gorgonzola Piccante with walnuts and cranberries marinated in balsamic.

The Gogonzola is stronger than the usual Gorgonzola Dolce, which has a creamy texture. The bite of this one was perfect for me though. And Ms Cowgirl brought along a little extra treat of dessert wine.

"I've had it for a little while," she confided, "But you have to have at least ten people before you can open up a dessert wine, right?"

Last item? Cappuccino mousse in a chocolate cup from Bissinger's. Frankly I was a little bit at a loss as to what would make a light finish to this meal. I thought I wanted the mousse, but when I saw the chocolate cups in Sur La Table, I knew we had it.

Top it with a raspberry and throw in a homemade ladyfinger cookie and we're good to go.


We're often asked at the fancy do's, whether we eat like this all the time. to which I say, HAHAHAHAHAHA!

Here was dinner last night. That's the beauty of San Francisco -- a fine, fine pizza -- sundried tomatoes, extra garlic and sausage--is only a phone call away.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ugh! I can't believe I forgot to photograph the Perticaia! That was the best wine of the evening! Many people commented on it.