Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tuna Noodle Casserole...oh I mean Mezze Maniche al Tonno

America isn't the only country that can do white trash.  I mean, sure, when you say things with pretty accents or in a sexy foreign language everything sounds delicious.  But just because you whipped up some Chien Casserole Chaude doesn't make you fancy.  It's still just a frickin' Hot Dog Casserole. Just because you speak French your food isn't any less trashy than mine. I guess I'm being a little bit sensitive.  Take my sweet Southern belle voice, for example.  No matter what I say, when I talk about food it sounds like I'm talking about Sunday breakfast at The Cracker Barrel.  Okay, maybe not that bad but my secret Southern drawl has been known to override my intelligence on occasion.  People just don't take you seriously when you got twang.

So anyways, I like to take white trash food and elevate it to fancy status. Being raised somewhat in the South and eating at places like Po Folks and Church's Fried Chicken I developed a real appreciation for the finest of deep fried foods. As a a chef, I pretend that I would never eat those kinds of things anymore but the sad fact is that I'll still eat whatever is put in front of me. A chili cheese burger microwaved at the 7-11? Yup, I'd eat it. How about the leftover fried fish crispies (basically greasy flour) at Captain D's? I crave the stuff. That being said, I try to elevate cuisine to higher level when I'm cooking. I don't completely disregard nutrition as an important part of eating. It's not all "strap the feedbag to your face" for me. As much as I have a weakness for terrible fast food I truly appreciate the more refined things in the culinary world. I love lobster and foie gras and truffles. I like it all. Food just excites me and one of my favorite games to play is "White Trash Fancy Food". I love to take the so called lowly, trashy redneck forms of cuisine and make them fancy. Hell, I'll even say it in Italian so you'll eat it.

Mezze Maniche al Tonno. Tuna Noodle Casserole. They are one and the same. Nobody ever said you had to use a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup to make it. It's just easy and these companies prey on the lazy and the stove-top deficient. Too bad it's made from used junkie needles and rat poison. I think I'm just kidding but who knows.  I prefer not to use that kind of stuff because it is just salt and chemicals but it has it place in the history of comfort food.  To me, it's just as easy to rehydrate some dried shiitake mushrooms in half and half with some salt, pepper, and celery.  So much better than the gel from a can.  It's not that comfort food is bad for you, it's the ingredients that tend to be used.  Of course it tastes good, scientists put all the right chemicals in it to trick your brain into thinking it's delicious.  Make it from scratch and use high quality ingredients and these dishes become elevated to a place where you don't need a fancy accent to make them sound delicious.

Mezze Maniche al Tonno

1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 oz dried shiitake mushrooms (about 8-10 large mushrooms)
1/2 cup celery chopped
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1/4 cup Sherry
3 Tbsp cup all-purpose flour
1 cups chicken broth
1 cup whole half and half
1 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 (6-8 oz) can/jar tuna in olive oil, drained (Ortiz is my personal favorite)
1 pb mezze maniche dried pasta
3/4 cup fine bread crumbs
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1 extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt tt
fresh cracked black pepper tt

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 375°F.  Butter a  2-quart baking dish.

In a sauce pot over medium-low heat steep the mushrooms and the half and half for 30 minutes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Remove the mushrooms and roughly chop them.

In a large skillet over med-high heat, saute the onion and celery in 1 tablespoons of butter until softened (about 4-5 minutes. Add soy sauce and continue to sauté adding the sherry, stirring occasionally, until evaporated. Remove from heat.

Melt remaining 3 tablespoons butter in a  saucepan over  med-low heat and whisk in flour, then cook roux, whisking, 3 minutes. Add broth in a stream, whisking, and bring to a boil, whisking. Whisk in mushroom soaked half and half and simmer sauce, whisking occasionally, 5 minutes. Stir in mushrooms  lemon juice, and salt. Flake tuna into sauce and stir gently. Season sauce with salt and pepper.

Cook pasta in a pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain noodles and add to the sauce.  Stir gently to combine. Transfer mixture to baking dish, spreading evenly.

Toss together bread crumbs and cheese in a bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and toss again, then sprinkle evenly over dish. Bake until topping is crisp and sauce is bubbly, About 25 to 30 minutes.

Eat with a couple of Stella Lagers (poured into glasses of course) and pretend you're fancy.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sovereign State #10: Austria

Bockwurst mit Bohnen und Sauerkraut

Weiner Schnitzel

Austria, land of fluffy dumplings, meaty sausages, and chocolate cake toothaches.  Sure, it was once a hotbed for fascist idealism but times have changed.  The Hapsburgs are no longer watching over the country like a creepy, deformed, Bavarian hillbilly cult (sort of like The Hills Have Eyes but wearing lederhosen).  These were dark times especially when the Burgermeister Meisterburger no longer let the children play with toys or celebrate Christmas.  But that's not the Austria of today.  Austria has once again become the lovable cabbage picking nation it was meant to be.  

Vienna, the capitol, is actually the heart of Austria and it's cuisine.  Perhaps it's most famous creation is Weiner Schnitzel.   A simple yet tasty dish of pounded out veal fillets (veal is traditional but some Austrians prefer using pork), breaded and fried.  The crispy steak is generally served with parsley and lemon.  That's it.  So good it hurts.  Here's my recipe:

Weiner Schnitzel 
2 pounds veal chops, pounded out to 1/2" thickness
1 cup all-purpose flour, seasoned
3 eggs
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
salt and pepper to taste
4 cups bread crumbs, also seasoned
1/8 cup canola oil for frying
lemon wedges
fresh parsley, chopped

Season the veal with salt and pepper.  Dredge in flour. In a shallow dish, beat the eggs with 1 tablespoon oil, salt and pepper. Coat the veal with egg mixture, then with bread crumbs.   Heat 1/4 cup oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Fry veal until golden brown, about 4-5 minutes on each side. Serve with lemon and parsley.

Luckily enough, here in Seattle we are blessed with the amazing Bavarian Meats shop in Pike Place Market which carry a ton of amazing German and Austrian style meats.  I chatted with the woman behind the counter a little bit and told her I was going to cook an Austrian meal.  She said that I needed to get bockwurst and spicy bratwursts.  I took her advice and added some Bavarian bacon to my bag of meat as well.  As I was leaving, the nice lady offered me some free weiners and I snacked on my cold hotdogs all the way home.  For the wurstknöedel I decided to use the spicy bratwurst for the filling.  Wurstknöedel is a dumpling made of mashed potatoes and flour and stuffed with sausage.  The sausage was sour, and cheesy, and spicy from the specks of jalapeno peppers.  So stinking delicious.  I made the dough and rolled out some into wonton sized rounds.  Added a Tbsp of chopped up filling and sealed them up into little tennis ball sized dumplings.  I think I worked the dough a little too much because the dumplings were a tiny bit gluey but they tasted phenomenal.  I served them with a little roasted chicken gravy and sauerkraut.    

For the tasty bockwurst I simply simmered them in sauerkraut and made some white beans with fresh dill and bacon.  Bockwurst is traditional made from veal and pork and has a slightly sickly look to them.  Sort of an off greyish white color.  Perhaps like the bloated index finger of a tall, dead person.  But don't let that get you down, they are so delicious, kind of like an fat, ugly hotdog on crack.  Creamy and meaty.  Super yummy.  Sometimes they are even made with horse meat but not here in the states so you don'y have to worry if you're an equestrian.  The beans were simply made by cooking chopped Bavarian bacon until crispy.  I removed the bacon to paper towel, and sauteed some garlic, onion, celery, and carrots in the bacon fat until soft.  I then added some drained, canned white beans and simmers for about 5 minutes and finished with fresh dill, parsley, and a squeeze of lemon.  Salt and pepper of course.  It was a blindingly white arrangement of food but it was a great, simple meal and it was inexpensive to boot.  I love Austrian food.  Sour and meaty.  Two of my favorite things.

For more info on this project, read this: 203 Sovereign States

Monday, February 1, 2010

These are pasta sort of days.

The kind of pasta I ate as a kid was generally the kind that came out of a can or the sauce came out of a jar. The first time I had spaghetti cooked al dente I thought someone had mistakenly undercooked it. I never knew that a meatball was so big and meaty. Then my New York/Italian godfather moved to Atlanta near us. All of a sudden we had homemade pizza, and Italian wedding soup, and amazing pasta where the sauce was made from scratch. "Keep strring the pot Violet or the sauce will burn" he would say. Or maybe that was Goodfellas, I get them confused. Either way, from then on in my pasta was slightly undercooked and my sauce didn't taste like sugar. During my younger vegetarian years I made a lot of pasta. It was the perfect meal to have when you had no money and needed to be full. I remember one dish that I would make that was basically free was pasta primavera. I would boil some pasta, add a few veggies, and a packet of Ranch powder (I think it was supposed to make dressing). Presto, you have something that is filling and (at the time) tasted delicious. I'm sure my taste buds have developed a bit more now and my skills are a bit more refined but for barely knowing how to cook back then, creating a dish like this was a pretty amazing feat. I felt awesome, like I could take on Chef Mario Batali in a one on one pasta battle. I deserved 5 Michelin stars for this dish.

So, many years later my love of pasta still remains. Once in a while I even crave pasta primavera. Whenever I pass the Hidden Valley Ranch isle in the grocery store, I get that super sour garlic powdered milk taste in my mouth and I think "You know, I wish I had some delicious homemade pasta to get rid of this nasty taste in my mouth". Especially in the middle of Winter nothing seems as satisfying as a nice warm bowl of pasta. Recently I went down to Delaurentis and picked up a few pounds of assorted pastas. Cavatelli was one of them. It's a cigar shaped pasta made of semolina and flour. It's dense and the little curled up center is perfect for sopping up a tasty sauce. I had some beautiful shitake mushrooms and heavy cream so the sauce was a no brainer. In my teenage years I would have used a packet of mushroom gravy for a quick cream sauce but luckily times have changed.

Cavatelli con Funghi Shiitake

12 ounces cavatelli pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound shitake mushrooms trimmed, cleaned, and thinly sliced
2 Tbsp shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 Tbsp fresh thyme, minced
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated
kosher salt tt
fresh cracked black pepper, tt
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives or scallions

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente (just cooked through) Meanwhile, in a large saute pan over medium-high heat add the olive oil. Add the mushrooms and saute, stirring until soft (3-4 minutes). Add the shallots, garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper, and cook while stirring for 2-3 minutes. Add the cream, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. Add the Parmesan and adjust the seasoning. Add the pasta and stir to coat with the sauce. Add the chives/scallions and serve.