Monday, May 31, 2010

Italian baked asparagus with Spanish fried eggs

What's my favorite dish? Who's my favorite child? It's an unfair question.

But, if pressed, for both my wife and I, our favorite dinner may be baked asparagus with fried eggs. It is a very popular Italian dish (it may have been the first think I ever ate in Italy, arriving in Milan around lunchtime in April 1982) and can be found in most Italian cookbooks. We make a few changes when we make it, which I think partly simplify and partly improve the dish. Rather than steaming or boiling the asparagus, and then baking it with Parmesan cheese, we just bake it. It is certainly easier, and if anything, better, since the roasting concentrates the flavor of the vegetable, while steaming or boiling can dissipate it. Also, rather than serving it with conventional sunny side up eggs cooked in butter, which you can get better in any diner, we shallow fry them in olive oil, following the method in Penelope Casas' The Foods and Wines of Spain. These eggs can stand on their own and if you have never had them, it is a transformative experience -- crisp rather than slightly rubbery. With the asparagus, especially with locally grown asparagus available in the NY area for a few more weeks, it is a marriage made in heaven.

  • Asparagus -one hefty bunch or two small ones makes a meal for two
  • Butter
  • Parmesan cheese (the good stuff)
  • Eggs (one or two per person)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Snap off the woody bottoms of the asparagus.
  3. Butter a large baking dish, and put in the asparagus, ideally in one layer but no more than two. Dot with a little butter (about a tablespoon total), season lightly with salt and more generously with freshly ground black pepper, and sprinkle with a good handful of freshly grated Parmesan.
  4. Bake about 15 minutes until the asparagus is as tender as you like (it should not be really crisp). It may take longer if the asparagus is thick or the pan is crowded.
  5. When the asparagus is done heat at least 1/4 inch of olive oil in an 8 or 9 inch skillet, ideally cast iron. Nonstick doesn't work well here. (1/2 inch or more of oil is better but this often freaks people out the first time they do this.
  6. Put the asparagus on 2 serving plates.
  7. Break one egg into a cup and if this is important to you, check for blood spots.
  8. When the oil is shimmering and almost smoking, slip in the egg. Leave it for about 15 seconds, and if the oil is hot enough, the white will start to form bubbles. Baste the top by spooning some hot oil over it (the easier safer way), or my tilting the pan around so oil slips over the top. The white will blister and brown, and the yolk should stay soft. The whole think takes a minute or less.
  9. Remove the egg with a slotted spatula, let the oil drip off, put the egg on the asparagus on one plate, sprinkle the egg with coarse salt, and repeat with another egg.
  10. Serve with good crusty bread, dipping the bread and the asparagus in the egg yolk.
Serves 2.

Cooking fat: Don't use super expensive condiment quality olive oil here. The intense heat will take away much of the aroma. Use your every day olive oil, which you can even cut with a little vegetable oil if expense is a concern. The olive oil should dominate, and more oil is better than less to get the right result with the eggs.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Stringy pasta (this is a good thing)

I haven't been posting for a while, and have been realizing that I either tend to cook other people's recipes, or my own favorites over and over. So I thought that I would post something quick and easy. The job market seems to be easing up, so I hope that I have considerably less time for this blog in the near future, and I want to take advantage of the time while I had it.

Now that Amy is on a low-carb diet (she looks great), it seems that whenever she is out, we have pasta for dinner. We occasionally serve it as a main or side when she is home, but try not too, since the temptation seems unfair. One of my favorite, super-easy, vegetarian and completely artery-clogging pasta dishes is something I call stringy pasta. If you love how mozzarella gets stringy when it melts, you will love this dish.

Basically, you make a garlicy, spicy tomato sauce, melt in as much fresh mozzarella as you can, and then serve it over pasta. I forget where the recipe originally came from, but it is almost easy enough not to require one. Given that it is local asparagus season for the next few weeks, I would preferred to have made an asparagus and anchovy riff on carbonara last night (maybe I will try and post this next week), but living with a vegetarian and an anchovyophobe, not to mention an anti-carbotarian, I have been making lots of stringy pasta. Believe me, it is no sacrifice. Here is the recipe:

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 10 cloves garlic, chopped, more if you want; there is really no upper limit here
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes (more or less depending on the level of heat that you want; I use them straight from the jar, but you can crumble a dried red pepper if you are fussy)
  • 8-10 grinds of the pepper mill
  • 1 28 oz. can chopped tomatoes (by now readers of this blog should know that I like del Valle chopped cherry tomatoes)
  • salt
  • 10 ounces to 1 pound fresh, salted mozzarella, grated coarse (it grates easier after a brief turn in the freezer)
  • 1 pound twisty pasta -- I like rotini , fusilli, gemelli or cavatappi; anything to trap the sauce

  1. Bring to boil 4-6 quarts of water in a large pot. Salt generously.
  2. Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet or pot.
  3. Add garlic and cook until soft but not brown.
  4. Add red pepper flakes and black pepper and stir.
  5. Add tomatoes, and cook on high for about 10 minutes until the oil begins to separate and the sauce is done. Taste for salt and keep warm on low heat.
  6. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until very al dente (see below).
  7. When the pasta is almost done, begin adding the mozzarella to the sauce, turning up the heat if necessary. Add as much as the sauce will take and your conscience will allow. 12 ounces of a bit more should be about right. It will become something of a stringy mess.
  8. Drain the pasta and immediately add to the sauce, tossing and coating it well in the hot sauce for a few minutes so that the sauce and stringy cheese gets into the nooks and crannies.
  9. Serve (ideally on warmed plates) with more red and black pepper, red pepper oil, and parmesean cheese for those who want it. It goes nice with a lightly chilled simple cheapish red -- we had a Malbec, though a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo would be great as well.
The skillet: use a nonstick skillet or pot for the tomato and cheese sauce, if you ever want to have any hope of getting it clean. A generous hand with the oil helps also.

Warmed plates??: It was in the 90s yesterday, so we had the air conditioner and the ceiling fan on in the dining room. The fan cooled the pasta too quickly, and it is much better piping hot. Warmed plates would have helped. Maybe it is a winter dish best served in an overheated NYC apartment, but I was in the mood.

Al dente: We were in Southern Italy in 2001, and al dente (litterally, on the tooth) takes on a whole new meaning there. In the first place, they generally serve dried macaroni pasta, rather than egg pasta. And it is cooked much firmer than we have ever had it in the US, especially long pasta like spaghetti, but also the shorter shapes. They are cooked so that they almost snap in your mouth when you chew on them. When you are going to cook the pasta a bit with the sauce, it is really important not to overcook it in the water. Timing is so variable that you have to test it, and there should be some visibly raw in the center.

Garlic: I say that there is no upper limit for the quantity of garlic, but if it reaches the point that the odor starts coming out of your pores and your coworkers ask you the next day if you ate raw garlic for breakfast, you should probably cut it back.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Cuban-style black beans, I think (beware of puerile humor)

I am cursed with an excellent memory for foods that I have cooked and/or eaten. There are some days when it is touch and go whether I remember my kids names, but I can often recall how I made something in 1978. Like this dish.

It was spring of my senior year in college in Chicago, and Henry Chao, who thought that he was something of a social failure, was coming over to our house for dinner before driving overnight to Boston with some people he didn't know. We made this version of black beans and rice, which was delicious. We did, however, cook the beans in the soaking water, which though it does add to the flavor also adds considerably to the amount of gas produced by those who eat it. As my roommates and I suffered through our musical evening, we could only think of how Henry must have felt. I don't recall him talking to any of us the rest of the year.

I think the recipe came from one of the early New York Times international cookbooks, but I haven't been able to find it so at this point I claim it as my own. I think it was called Cuban-style black beans, but I may be wrong. If there was originally meat in it, it has become vegetarian over time. You could always add a hunk of the smoky/fatty/salty animal bit of your choice when you cook the beans, but it really doesn't need it. It is easy and good.

I made this tonight for dinner at my daughter's insistence. She said the weather called for it, and she was right. I didn't have a recipe, but cooked more or less from memory from over 30 years ago. I wish I could remember other things as well. We had it with rice and some ropa vieja leftovers from the freezer.

Cuban-style black beans

  • 1 pound dried black beans
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium or one large onion, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 3-9 cloves of garlic, to taste, peeled
  • coarse salt, about 1 teaspoon
  • 1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns
  • rind of 1 lemon, grated
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • juice of 1/2 lemon

  1. Pick over beans to remove stones and odd looking bits, rinse well, and soak 6-8 hours or overnight. (As I have said before, beans are not phantoms. It is the time and not the time of day that counts.)
  2. Boil water in a kettle. (This should probably be the second or third thing you do every evening when you walk into the house, since you will probably end up using it and it will save lots of time later.)
  3. Drain and rinse beans. (Decreases though does not eliminate negative consequences later).
  4. Place in a 4 quart pot and cover with the boiling water by about 1/2 inch. Add more water if necessary. Bring to a boil, skim the scum if there is much, and simmer until nearly done. If the beans look like they are drying out, add more water. Duh. This can take from 25-40 minutes, but see below for more detail.
  5. Meanwhile, saute the onion in the olive oil on medium heat. When soft but not brown, add the green pepper and saute until soft.
  6. Meanwhile, crush the garlic with the coarse salt and peppercorns until you have a paste. Add the lemon zest, cumin and oregano and crush some more.
  7. Add the garlic and spice mixture to the onions and peppers, and saute a few minutes until fragrant and the garlic loses some of its raw odor.
  8. Add the lemon juice and cook a minute more.
  9. The the beans are almost soft -- the skins of a few will be splitting but most will still have some bite or tooth to them, add the seasonings. Cook on very low heat about 10 minutes more.
  10. Ideally, shut the heat and let the beans sit for 10 minutes to an hour and then reheat. This will allow the beans, which were cooked without salt to absorb it and the other seasonings. If you want the liquid to be thicker, mash some of the beans before you reheat, but reheat very carefully so that you don't burn them.
  11. Serve with rice. Other nice accompaniments, depending on the meal, are olive oil (including garlic or hot pepper seasoned oil), hot sauce, vinegar (balsamic and sherry are especially nice), chopped onion, avocado, cilantro and sour cream.
Canned or dried beans?: In almost all cases, dried beans are superior, and don't contain the sudsy goo that canned beans do. Although it takes a bit more time, it takes almost no effort to cook them, only time. It also saves money. You can also control the texture of the end product. Black beans are one of the only varieties that I have found that are a partial exception to this. Canned black beans tend to be firmer than the others, but you still have to rinse off the goo in the can and you don't get the nice bean broth. If you make this dish with canned beans, you can either add some vegetable or chicken broth, or have drier beans without the liquid. But you should really make it from scratch. The actual time it takes to cook them is hard to predict and depends largely on the age of the beans. I tend to cook them in relatively little water, so there will be some nice broth but it won't be too soupy, and start tasting as early as 20 minutes after they start to cook. Why do it from scratch if you end up with mush?