Friday, August 15, 2014

Maccharruni con Pesto Trapanese (Sicily)

The wonderful thing about having my daughter visit is that we break out the cookbooks and start planning what we want to cook together within just a few hours of her arrival.  We have been talking about pasta and want to try making ravioli but our first foray together into my new kitchen was to make this Sicilian pesto sauce.  It is an interesting variation on what we know as a standard pesto.

It comes from what is becoming a favorite book, A Mediterranean Feast by Clifford A. Wright.  I find myself drawn to the simplicity of the recipes and how they are presented with the history of each area.  The types of ingredients appeal to me, too, as I love tomatoes, basil, lamb, mint, chicken, and fish.

ISBN 0-688-15305-4
On pages 468 - 469 he describes life in Sicily in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries.  Their cuisine focused on fresh vegetables and seafood, fava beans and chickpeas, eggs and cheese.  Almonds, olives, and bread were available.  Meat, though not common, increased in quantity over those centuries and included beef, castrato (castrated lamb), salt pork, and veal.  Mr. Wright speculates that tomatoes "probably came to Sicily between 1510 and 1540, when Sicily was under Spanish rule."

I have an abundance of basil both inside my kitchen and out on my patio and need to use it up.  The sauce in this recipe caught my attention because it is not your standard basil pesto recipe:  instead of Parmesan or Romano cheese and pine nuts, it uses almonds and fresh tomato puree.

Macaroni with Pesto in the Style of Trapani

1 pound macaroni
4 ounces blanched whole almonds
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 small bunch fresh basil (40 to 50 large leaves), stems discarded
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup fresh tomato puree (not canned), without skins or seeds

And salt
1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly, and add the pasta.  Drain the pasta when al dente.

2. Meanwhile, grind the almonds, garlic, basil leaves, salt, and pepper together in a food processor.  Slowly add the olive oil in a thin stream through the feed tube while the machine is still running and process until smooth.  Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the tomato puree.  Toss the macaroni with the sauce and serve.

My Notes

I felt lazy and did not blanch the almonds.

My four garlic cloves consisted of two big ones and two medium-sized ones while the basil had a lot of small leaves so we used closer to 60 leaves.  I used about 1/2 teaspoon of pepper and less of salt.

The fresh tomatoes were peeled, cut in half length-wise, cored and seeded, then chopped into chunks to make them easier to process.

The puree was a pretty pink and the pesto mixture never got smooth really but the almonds were fine-textured.  Mixing the puree into the pesto lightened the entire mix.


Basil, garlic, almonds, salt, and pepper

With the olive oil added

The final sauce
The Verdict

We were both disappointed in the flavor of the pesto sauce.  It had mostly a garlic bite and we couldn't really get much basil or tomato flavor out of it.  The almonds added body to the whole thing and I liked that very much.

It is a good sauce for macaroni as it sticks to the pasta and coats it well.

I cannot call this a success but I strongly suspect the problem was with my ingredients.  I want to try this again with tomatoes that are mushy ripe, basil that is younger, and less garlic.  I also would add more salt and pepper.  I'm not sure if I would try blanching the almonds or not as I like how robust the unblanched ones made the sauce.

Mr. Wright's notes say, "Traditionally, cheese is not served with this dish."  We found that adding grated Parmesan cheese to our pasta at the table improved the flavor, which we probably would not want to do if the pesto was more flavorful.

One aspect my daughter pointed out was that the dish was visually very dull.  She wanted more color in it.  I wanted to add chunks of fresh, ripe tomatoes, too.

LATER:  While I was eating the leftovers I realized that the flavor was better (the garlic was not as pronounced and the almonds came through more) but what I really wanted with it was olive oil soaked, sun-dried tomatoes.  That would have made it more visually interesting and bumped up the excitement of the flavor.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Potted Beef -- A Very Olde Technique

My new kitchen is nearly complete now.  I was able to use the stove top to cook this post's recipe.  The new oven is installed but needs to be used without food for a while to clean up the manufacturing oils and the like.  At least that is the plan!  My hope is to show off some pictures of the kitchen in the next blog post.

The other day I received a big box of cookbooks from a nice lady who gave them away on Freecycle.  This is a website where people can offer items they no longer want but they must give them for free.  I have used Freecycle for about five years now, often giving and sometimes taking.  I recommend it if you have a group in your area.

One of the books was a 1979 publication called The Epicure's Book of Steak and Beef Dishes by Marguerite Patten, "one of Britain's most highly considered cookery experts."  Many of the recipes look tasty and tempting however the one on page 147 caught my attention.

Too big to fit on the scanner!
Ms. Patten put this in the chapter "Wise Economy" because it is perfect for "any really inexpensive cut of beef."  Why did it capture my attention?  She says "This old-fashioned way of preparing beef has been used for centuries and is a forerunner of today's sophisticated pâtés."  I know from my reading that she is right; the potted meat recipe I am most familiar with is potted shrimp.  It is designed to keep the fragile seafood edible for longer than usual without modern refrigeration; the technique is to embed the shrimp in a pot of melted butter then store it in a cool place.  The fat keeps out the air which would spoil the flesh quickly.

Her recipe is very workable with old-fashioned cooking techniques as she specifies using a grinder and then a mortar and pestle.  I, however, hauled out my trusty food processor and completed the heavy labor in a matter of minutes.

"Potted meat is used as a sandwich filling or served as an hors d'oeuvre instead of a pâté."

Potted Beef

1.  Simmer the meat in a minimum of liquid until tender, adding salt and pepper to taste.  The cooking time naturally depends upon the cut of meat you have chosen.

2.  Grind the cooked meat once or twice until very fine, then put into a mixing bowl, add 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) of melted butter to each 1 lb cooked meat, a pinch of powdered mace, 1 tbsp brandy or dry sherry, and any extra salt and pepper to taste.

3.  Pound firmly; the old-fashioned pestle and mortar is ideal for this purpose.

4.  Spoon into several small container and top with a layer of melted butter.

To serve:  With lemon and hot toast, or with a salad garnish.

To freeze:  This freezes well for up to one month.

To vary: Meat from a roast may be used, but it should not be the outer parts which have become slightly firm and maybe a little crisp.

And salt!
My Notes

I used a beef chuck cross rib steak which weighed about one pound.  I chose to use brandy because I know from previous blog posts that brandy and mace or nutmeg are an excellent flavor duo.

The meat was cut into two pieces so it fit nicely in the bottom of a saucepan with just enough water to go up 3/4 of the height of the meat.  The fire was set to the lowest possible setting and I put the lid on the pan.  It took about 60 minutes before I decided the beef was tender enough.  I did not put any salt or pepper in it at this stage.

Once the beef was cooked, I put the pieces in the food processor and pulsed it until the meat was finely chopped.

Then I added the melted 1/4 cup salted butter, 1 tbsp brandy, pinch of mace, and about 1/2 tsp of pepper with 1/8 - 1/4 tsp of salt.  I pulsed it some more and saw the meat get finer in texture but not to the point of mush.  I tasted the mixture then adjusted the amount of salt and pepper slightly until my taste buds danced with joy at the flavors.  Just a little tang of salt and nudge of pepper highlighted the brandy/mace combination.  The meat was a background flavor that tied it all together and the butter made the texture creamy with an excellent mouthfeel.

This quantity fit easily into a two cup glass container.  I felt it was important to pack the mix down.

Packed but I didn't push out all the air bubbles.
I melted the rest of the stick of butter and poured it over the top.  The whole thing went into the refrigerator overnight.

Melted butter on top.

The Verdict

My first taste was when it was right out of the refrigerator:  too cold to spread or get any flavor.  After I let it sit out on the counter for a while, the flavors really came through!  The brandy and mace duo was not as pronounced as before refrigeration and that actually was a good thing -- they blended with meat, butter, salt, and pepper to make a delightful, lightly meaty spread on a whole grain cracker.  Sometimes I got a little dance of pepper on my tongue and other times I got a whiff of brandy.  The variety of tastes with each bite was intriguing.  Success!

The only problem was the potted beef tended to crumble when I spread it.  If it had been processed to more of a smooth paste, I think that would not have been an issue.  Still, that did not stop me from taking more, and more, and more.  This is definitely a make-ahead item perfect for a potluck or appetizer board.  Just plan on letting it come to room temperature before serving.

I liked the butter coating on top (mmmm!  butter!) but consider scraping it off before serving if you think your guests might not want a bite of pure butter on their cracker or with their spread.

Air bubbles not recommended for long term storage.
I found a nice essay on potted meat by Thehistoricfoodie's Blog that explains well the methods and reasonings:  "Potted Meat and Cheese,  Early Convenience Foods".  I think if I needed to store my potted meat results, I would have processed it until it was like a paste so I could push out the air bubbles.  My first impulse would be to add some water to it but that is definitely the wrong tack.  Water allows air and air is what spoils the meat.  I would add more butter if necessary as the fat seals the meat against the air.  Even if some bacteria was still in the meat, the lack of air would keep it from growing quickly.