Saturday, May 2, 2009

Italian Feast

We recently had our neighbors Don and Mary Lee over for talk about travel, and lots of Italian food and wine. It was a fun night, one in which we all ate too much and loved every minute of it!

I've already discussed the fact that I'm not ready to divulge the recipe for my red sauce, but I'll tell you everything else we did, and you can substitute your own favorite red sauce in the meal.

Also, the Chez Charles Survey is still open. I'd love your feedback to make my blog better. It's short and sweet - one minute tops. Thank you!

Cheese and Olives
Green Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing
Tuscan-Style Grilled Bread
Rigatoni with Red Sauce
Italian Sausage
Black Cherry Gelato & Chocolate-Cherry-Heath Bar-Oatmeal Cookies

Cheese and Olives
assorted cured olives (Olive Bar at Byerly's)
three cheeses:
truffled sheep's milk cheese
Pecorino Toscana fresca
Asiago Lagorai
crisps (I LOVE Lavasch crisp flatbread, sold at Byerly's and not expensive)

This is the simplest of first courses. Put everything out, stick cheese knives in the cheese, pour the beverages, and enjoy. With it, we drank a peppery zinfandel and also beer - Surly Furious, which is hoppy and spiked with coriander.

Green Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing
Simple green leaf lettuce salad with tomato wedges and a little red onion. For extra crisp, super-fresh tasting greens, rinse them 2-3 hours before dinner, layer them in a dish towel, roll them up and put them in the fridge. Just before serving, unroll them and tear them into pieces for the salad. I also chill plates for salads.

For the Dressing:
1 small clove garlic, minced
pinch of dry mustard
1/4 tsp. (scant) onion powder (I keep onion flakes from Pensey's in my pantry, and crush a few in a mortar with a pestle when I need powder)
pinch of white pepper
4 tsps. red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. Worchestershire sauce
dash of tobasco
1/3 c. sour cream
1 c. mayonnaise (I only use Hellman's)
1-2 oz. buttermilk or half-and-half
3 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
3 oz. blue cheese, small chunks

Dissolve spices into vinegar along with garlic, Worchestershire, and tabasco. Combine with sour cream and mayonnaise. Thin dressing with buttermilk. Add blue cheese. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours for flavors to develop. This dressing is best 1-2 days after you make it, and will keep for a week or more covered tightly in the fridge.

This is, hands-down, the best blue cheese dressing I've ever eaten. Maytag Blue is my favorite cheese to use, but I also use Pete's Select, or a good Gorgonzola when I'm doing Italian. When I was given this recipe, I was told it's from Kincaid's restaurant.

Tuscan-Style Grilled Bread
See my April 20th posting for this recipe. In short: Slice a baguette diagonally into 1/2"-thick slices. Brush each side lightly with olive oil. Grill carefully over low heat until browned on both sides. While still warm, rub each side with sliced raw garlic. Store leftovers in a plastic bag - keeps pretty well for a couple days.

Rigatoni with Red Sauce
(serves 4)
Boil 1 lb. of your favorite dried pasta (I use Barilla brand) in a large pot of lightly-salted water to desired texture. Drain, transfer to a large serving bowl, and cover with piping-hot red sauce. Toss briefly, and serve family style. Put out a bowl of extra sauce on the side, if you like. Serve with red pepper flakes and freshly-grated Parmesiano-Reggiano, if you like.

Italian Sausage
Buy your favorite mild or spicy Italian sausages. For extra fun, go to a good local meat market, such as Clancy's Meats on 38th & Cedar in Minneapolis, and buy their house sausage. You can also get fantastic sausage, cheese and other products at Cosetta's in St. Paul on 7th Street. I've had great results with national brands such as Johnsonville as well.

Slow-cook the sausages on a low grill, turning often, until deeply-browned all over but still juicy, about 15 minutes (depending, of course, on the heat of the grill). Let rest on a cutting board for 5 minutes, then slice into 1-2" lengths. Place in serving bowl, toss with a little of the red sauce, and serve. You can also add them directly to the pasta bowl and toss with the pasta as well.

Black Cherry Gelato & Chocolate-Cherry-Heath Bar-Oatmeal Cookies
This pairing for dessert was delicious. The gelato was light, with both brightness and depth contributed by the black cherries. The cookies are very sweet, thin and crisp, a perfect foil to the gelato, and of course the cherries in the cookies marry them to the cherries in the gelato. We drank a 10-year-old Chianti Classico with dessert, and it was lovely.

For the Gelato:
3/4 c. potted black cherries with some of their syrup, placed in a food processor and pulsed briefly to chop into chunks
3/4 c. sugar
3/4 c. cold heavy cream, whipped with a whisk until a bit foamy (be careful not to over-whip, it should be nowhere near the firm stage)
3/4 c. water
1.5 tsp. corn starch

Stir the sugar, corn starch and water together in a small sauce pan. Bring to a boil, stirring often, and boil for 1 minute to dissolve the sugar and corn starch. Remove from heat. Pour into a medium-sized, chilled ceramic bowl. The chilling won't be enough to make the syrup cold, but it will bring down the temp a bit. Stir in the cherries and their juice. Stir in the cream. Mix thoroughly. Refrigerate until completely chilled - at least 3 hours or overnight. Transfer to your favorite ice cream maker and process until beginning to set. Put in a small bowl and freeze until firm, 2-3 hours or more. Serve 2 or 3 small (1.5" scoop) balls per person.

For the Cookies:
(makes 3 dozen)
1 c. salted butter, room temperature
3/4 c. sugar
3/4 c. dark brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. salt
1.5 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1.5 c. oatmeal
1 c. dried whole cherries, cut in half
1 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips (I use Ghirardelli)
1 c. Heath toffee bits

Cream together butter and sugars until fluffy. Beat in eggs. Beat in Vanilla and salt. Thoroughly stir in baking soda and flour, being careful not to get the soda on the sides of the bowl. Stir in all remaining ingredients. Lay out three 2-3'-long sheets of waxed paper. Divide the dough into three parts, and form each into a log on the waxed paper. Wrap up and refrigerate until firm, about 3 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350. Cut parchment paper to fit on a large cookie sheet (or use a silpat). Working with one log at a time, cut into 1/2"-3/4" slices and bake (the dough will spread out so leave room between the cookies) for about 8-10 minutes. Cool and serve.

This dough freezes extremely well. Just wrap some plastic wrap over the wax paper you initially wrapped them in. I've used dough frozen for 6-months and it tasted just like fresh.

These cookies are sinfully delicious. They're very sweet, and though they're crisp, they're also chewy, with a bit of tart from the cherries and a nice robust texture from the oatmeal. This was originally a Martha Stewart recipe. I placed one on each plate with the gelato, and set out a separate plate with a bunch more cookies. They were all eaten. :-)

This meal takes some preparation. Both dessert items require long lead times. I did both in the morning, but you might want to start the the day before your meal. The blue cheese dressing is best if made a day ahead of time as well.

The prep that takes the longest with this meal, though, is shopping! Take a trip to your favorite gourmet cheese shop, butcher shop and bakery. It may take some hunting to find potted black cherries (I found them at Byerly's). Rummage through your local wine shop (or your cellar, if you've stored your own wines) for somet special bottles. Because the preparations are simpe, what really makes this meal special is using high-quality ingredients.

Ice cream making is easy, but getting that perfect texture and flavor balance is harder than you'd think. In his tome, On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee devotes a whole section to sorbets and ice creams. Getting the right balance of sweet and acid, adequate aeration, and freezing speed all influence the final product. Gelato is different from ice cream in two key ways: it has no egg yolk (so it's not custard-based), and typically has less cream by volume. This recipe combines cream, fruit and simple sugar. Nearly every gelato recipe I've seen calls for a little corn starch to help thicken the base. I'm not a big fan of corn starch, but in this case it does contribute a smoothness to the final texture. Whipping the cream lightly adds air (and lightness) which is not possible with ice cream (because the cream is cooked with egg yolks into custard). Finally, the tongue perceives warm foods as sweeter than cold. When you've made the base, taste it for sweetness. It should taste a bit sweeter than you want your final product, because after freezing it will taste less sweet.

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