April 26, 2008
Raviolis à la brousse et aux épinards

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Since Little Brother arrived, I have had less time for the organic market than when his brother was on baby food. With two munchkins in the house, I do my shopping when I can fit it in the schedule of daily life, and that is rarely on a Saturday morning for some reason. Perhaps it's that the Critic is working again and so our weekend time is more precious. Whatever the reason, last Saturday was the first time in a few months that I had been to the market. I met up with a new friend and enjoyed thoroughly introducing her to my favorite stalls: the woman selling organic vegetables from a farm out near Disney in Marne-la-Vallée, the man who sold me the 4.2 kg duck and the chipper cheese fellows who make their own goat's and ewe's cheeses. At the latter stall, I noticed a little plastic container of wet crumbly cheese labelled "La Brousse". It looked a lot like cottage cheese and I have yet to find a satisfactory cottage cheese in France, so I bought a container and took it home.

For your information, la brousse is not cottage cheese. It's a provençal cheese and actually seems much closer to ricotta in taste, texture and uses. I'll have to stick with the mediocre imported cottage cheese that can sometimes be found at my local supermarket. But I still had a full tub (minus one taste) of provençal cheese. And so I decided to treat it like ricotta and stuff it into some nice fresh ravioli. It was time to introduce Big Brother to the fun of making pasta.

I don't make fresh pasta very often. It has more to do with the usual chaotic state of my kitchen than the difficulty or mess of the pasta making process itself. You need a lot clean counter space when you make your own. Space to knead dough, space to install the pasta machine, space to lay out your strips of pasta as you go and to dry them. But every time I make pasta I am amazed anew at how dead easy it is. A three year old can do it! (Note: he will, most likely, get bored with turning the crank after about ten minutes and you will have to do the rest of the pasta on your own, while he scrapes flour off the counter and eats it - if he's anything like my three year old, that is.)

Raviolis à la brousse et aux épinards (serves 4)

For the pasta:
2 large eggs
4-5 cups flour

For the filling:
100 g brousse or ricotta cheese
75 g grated Parmesan
1 egg
3 large handfuls of fresh spinach
freshly ground nutmeg
salt, pepper to taste

To prepare the filling, wash the spinach well to remove dirt and grit and trim any tough ends of the stalks. Toss the still wet leaves in a deep pan, cover, and put on a medium heat for 4-5 minutes, until the leaves have all wilted and collapsed in the pan. Squeeze the spinach to release its water and drain it. Put the spinach in a food processor with the rest of the ingredients aside from the egg and whizz it in the machine. Taste for seasoning and then add the egg and process again. The mixture should have the consistency of wet sand or mashed potatoes.

I use Marcella Hazan's recipe for the proportions of ingredients in my pasta but I have long abandoned her method. Perhaps the technique of beating the flour slowly into the egg with a fork is the most authentic way to make pasta. It is surely the most time consuming and painful. Instead of breaking the eggs into a well in the flour and beating with a fork, I toss the eggs in my mixer on medium high. Slowly add the flour until the dough comes together in a firm ball. Turn off the machine, flour the (clean) counter, turn out the dough onto the counter and scrape out any bits of dough that remain on the beater or the bowl. Flour your hands, add a generous dusting of flour to the dough and knead for 5-7 minutes, until the dough is no longer wet and elastic, but firm and smooth. You may need to add as much as another half cup of flour. Allow the dough to rest for about ten minutes, while you get out your pasta machine.

Shape the dough in a fairly neat, symmetrical oval shape. Divid the dough into eight lumps about the size of eggs by cutting it first in half and then dividing each half into quarters. Set the pasta machine on the widest setting (on mine it's number 1). Run the first piece of dough through the machine, then fold each end of the dough over the middle and put it through the machine again. Repeat with each lump of dough. Set the machine to 2 and run each piece of dough through the machine. Continue with each piece of dough, gradually making thinner and thinner pieces, until you have a thickness of 6 or 7.

Dust one side of a strip of pasta with flour and place it, floured side down, on a ravioli mold. Push the dough into each of the wells and fill them each with about a rounded teaspoon of dough. Wet your finger and trace a wet line along the edges of each of the ravioli wells. Cover with another piece of dough and push each of the pockets to eliminate any air. Use a rolling pin to roll the top half of the dough firmly onto the bottom. Most ravioli molds have a sharp edge around the ravioli to help you cut the individual pieces; roll particularly hard on these edges. Carefully remove the ravioli to a floured towel, not allowing the pieces to overlap or touch. Repeat until you have used up all the dough or all the filling. Allow the ravioli to dry for 15-20 minutes and then set your water to boil. (Do not try to dry pasta next to a boiling pot of water, because it just won't work.)

Cook for 3-4 minutes, or until all the pieces of pasta have bobbed back to the top of the boiling water. Serve with butter and mounds of freshly grated parmesan. You could also fry a few leaves of fresh sage in butter for a simple tasty sauce.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 12:11 PM | Comments (3)
April 9, 2008
Le Super Hot Dog

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Many years ago, in our careless child-free days, the Critic and I played a lot of snooker. We even belonged to Paris' only snooker league and this necessitated getting up at what then seemed an ungodly hour on Sunday mornings. (Now, of course, 8 a.m. is considered a pretty good lie-in...how times have changed!) And being young(er) and child-free, we had usually indulged in an alcoholic session the evening before. So once a month would find us at nine a.m. scoffing bitter black coffee and croissants with a slightly jaundiced eye. And by noon we would be ready for something more substantial. There is something about a hangover that begs processed, salty, hot food. And this is how I became intimately acquainted with a phenomenon known as the Super Hot Dog (pronounced Soup-air Ott Dogg). You can find them across France in cheap cafés. It's the one dish that is served at any time of the day and mostly to students and manual workers. Although it would pain most tourists to eat something so "American", it is genuinely a part of the French food landscape. And I became totally addicted. Your basic saucisse frites (sausage and fries) is just that: a plate with a couple of hot dogs, some fries and a basket of bread on the side. But a super hot dog is encased in a crisp baguette, slathered with mustard so hot it makes your eyes water, topped with grated gruyère cheese and placed beneath a grill until the cheese is melted and crispy in places, the hot dog warmed through. It's greasy and salty and crunchy, the perfect fast food.

And then, one day, they were gone.

I'm not saying we quit playing snooker because café at the snooker club stopped serving them. The smoke was getting to us too, in those pre-smoke-free-Paris days. But really, once the Super Hot Dogs were off the menu, my motivation sadly faltered. And then we had children and our lives became full in new ways. I sometimes miss the snooker. But I no longer miss the Super Hot Dogs. Because I now have a boy who likes hot dogs for lunch. And armed with a baguette and a bit of cheese, I can make my own Super Hot Dog. I can even improve it (a little).

My first attempts to reproduce the Super Hot Dog exactly as it's made in cafés was not very successful. The toaster ovens they use are better adapted to holding a baguette at the correct angle so that the cheese is melted and browned before the edges of the baguette start burning. So you can see my compromise in the photo above: instead of piling the cheese directly on the hot dogs, in the slit in the baguette, I place the baguette flat side down on the tray and spread the cheese over the top. It tastes the same, is no more difficult to eat and works better in your basic oven. I also heat up the hot dogs in the microwave before constructing the sandwich because it's very difficult to heat the dog through without burning the outside otherwise. (Your less talented café cook will frequently serve you a cold dog in a hot baguette, a very sad dog indeed.) And my last innovation? Well, being from Chicago, I cannot resist popping a few pickled hot peppers between the dogs. Super-Duper Hot Dog.

To make your own Super Hot Dog, you will need:

2 all pork hot dogs
1 piece of baguette roughly the same length as a hot dog
1 Tbs very hot mustard
1 Tbs ketchup (optional and I know I'm being controversial here. But I like ketchup...)
3-4 pickled hot peppers
a handful of grated gruyère cheese (about 60-70g)

Split open the baguette and slather with the mustard and/or ketchup. Heat the hot dogs in the microwave for 30 seconds and then place them side by side in the baguette. Dot with hot peppers. Press closed and carefully sprinkle the cheese over the top. Place on a baking sheet and slide in the oven under the broiler or grill. Grill for 4-5 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbling and the bread is crisp (but not burnt). Consume with great enthusiasm. The proper accompaniment is either a diet cola or fizzy water. And you'll need napkins...

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 6:49 AM | Comments (5)
April 2, 2008
On mortality and nutmeg and Gewurztraminer

When the Critic is away (and he is away a lot these days, working in Fontainebleau) I tend to go almost vegetarian. Bacon or ham frequently creeps into my cooking as an accent, but there is rarely a hunk of protein playing a starring role in the center of my plate. In recent weeks, I've had vegetarian Thai green curry, mammoth spinach salads with a warm vinaigrette, egg salad, a big fat steamed artichoke with lemon butter and even the occasional dinner of cheese and crackers. The one dish I come back to again and again when I'm not cooking for an audience, though, is a kind of a garlicky noodle and mushroom pie that dates back to my college days.

Tonight, as I was making it, I was more thoughtful than usual. Last night a friend of mine called to say that her cousin, one of my oldest friends in Paris, had died unexpectedly. I haven't seen Charles in almost a year. The last time I spoke with him he was on the point of returning to California for a few months to help his sister find a nursing home for their father and help with the move. I have asked mutual friends a few times in the last year if they had any news, but no one did and so I assumed he was still with his family back in California. I was wrong; he was back in Paris and I could have seen him. But now it is too late. And so I was thinking of Charles, and the many meals I have made for him. Back when I was dating his best friend, I had to keep track of his many food allergies and balance them with the best friend's food aversions. Later, he was a regular guest at Easter or Thanksgiving, always showing up with a bag of potato chips as a contribution - a bit like a college student, for all that he was four or five years older than me. Another food memory came to mind - being invited to dinner by Charles' cousin Eileen, whose speciality was a kind of pasta with cheese and nutmeg sauce. So I added some nutmeg to the dish. And when it was done and ready to eat, I thought of another of my oldest friends in Paris, Claire. Claire and Charles and I went on a memorable trip to Oktoberfest some ten years ago and at the end of it I think we were close to strangling Charles. He had many wonderful qualities (for example, he would never drink wine when he went out with us because he knew that our friend Ken would throw the keys at him at some point in the evening and declare "YOU are driving us home") but they didn't come out that weekend in Munich. But we were friends many years ago, even if life had pulled us in different directions of late. So I opened a bottle of Gewurztraminer while I thought of Claire, who spent a year studying in Alsace and sometimes would buy us a nice bottle of sweet wine when we were feeling flush.

All day long, I have been feeling a bit emotional, a bit more inclined to cuddle with my boys as I remember this friend who died alone in a flat in Paris. I guess it's not surprising that making dinner brought back more memories - there isn't much in this world that is more emotionally charged for me than making food. It reminded me that I should call Claire tomorrow and ask how she is. I sent a message to my friend Martin in London. My friend Tom, who shared this simple spaghetti and garlic dish with me more times than I care to remember when we were at university surely deserves a call.

Mushroom and spaghetti noodle pie (serves one nostalgic friend)

I smile when I remember making this dish with my friend Tom, back when we were in our early 20s. I would see him get out the pasta and inquire, "Do you mind if I have some too?" and a pained look would come across his face as he held up the full box of dried spaghetti and said "I only have one pound of pasta..." Tom loves his pasta and back then he could eat a full box (feeds four) at a single sitting and feel like it was - just about - enough.

5-6 mushrooms
5-6 garlic cloves
3-4 Tbs butter
1 egg, beaten with a tablespoon of water
a pinch of salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg (optional)
small handful of freshly grated Parmesan (about 50 g)

175 g spaghetti

Set water to boil in a deep sauce pan. In a thick-bottomed frying pan - preferably one which can be put in the oven - melt the butter. Slice the garlic thinly and add to the butter. While the garlic begins to sizzle, wash and slice the mushrooms. Add them to the butter and garlic and stir. By now, the water should be boiling. Add the pasta and gently push the pasta down into the water as it softens. Stir the garlic and mushrooms. Stir the nutmeg into the beaten egg. Remove the garlic and mushrooms to a plate. When the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the frying pan. Spread the mushroom and garlic over the noodles and then drizzle the egg evenly over the noodles. Cook for a few minutes and then sprinkle the grated cheese over the top. If the pan is oven-safe, place it under a grill for a few minutes. If not, cover and allow to finish cooking to the point where the egg is completely set. Sprinkle with salt and remove to a plate - for example, the one that you used to reserve the mushrooms and garlic.

If you get it right, the noodles on the bottom of the dish will be a bit tough and the ones on the top a little crispy and deliciously cheesy. It's a very satisfying comfort dish. With all that garlic, it's just as well if you make it when your partner is away.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 2:09 PM | Comments (1)
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