Kitchen Exhibitionist
The Culinary Quests of a Food Enthusiast Stuck in the Sticks
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Passatelli in Brodo
Passatelli in Brodo

I first learned of Passatelli in Brodo over 15 years ago on the old PBS cooking show, The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Italian, and instantly I knew it was something I would love.

Passatelli are small noodle/dumpling hybrids. If pasta mated with spaetzle, their offspring would be passatelli. Instead of flour, they are made from dry bread crumbs and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and then simmered in a delicate, flavorful broth until tender, and served as a light soup course. Well, I love pasta, I love bread, I love cheese, and I love good broth so I decided this dish was right up my gastronomic alley. This was a “must try”.

Thereafter, every time I dined at an Italian restaurant I searched in vain for Passatelli in Brodo on the menu. Even a trip to southern Italy failed to introduce me to this object of my gastronomic desire. Eventually, I forgot all about Passatelli in Brodo. For some reason it never occurred to me to make it myself.

Then suddenly last fall, during a cooking a lesson in Emilia Romagna, there I was, making Passatelli in Brodo. It seemed a very momentous occasion as we sat down at the table to eat, but after such long anticipation for this dish I feared there could be disappointment.

The broth, about which I’ve previously written, was light and delicate but very flavorful. The passatelli were tender, yet had just enough resistance to the tooth to make them satisfying. Unlike bland pasta or dumplings, these plump little morsels had the nutty robust flavor of Parmigiano Reggiano spiked with the subtle sweet peppery bite of nutmeg. It was even better than my overactive imagination had dreamed!

Like many traditional Italian recipes, this one is fairly simple, made with only a handful of basic ingredients. And like all Italian dishes, the key to success with such simplicity is to use only high quality ingredients. The breadcrumbs must be made from chunks of stale but good Italian bread, which is grated or ground in a food processor to make fine crumbs. The cheese, of course, must be nothing other than real Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated. And the nutmeg is scraped from the whole seed at the last minute.

To form the dough into the appropriate shape we used a passatelli maker, which is a heavy metal plate pierced with holes and framed by two handles. It was pressed onto mounds of the fresh pasta dough and pushed forward on the table surface until little worms were extruded. Back home I used a giant round slotted spoon to press onto the dough, but there are several other options described in the recipe below.

Passatelli in Brodo

1/2 pound fine dry bread crumbs
1/2 pound Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
large pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper
4 eggs
handful of flour
homemade broth

Mix together bread crumbs, cheese, and nutmeg on a flat surface, like a wooden board. Add a pinch each of salt and pepper. Make a well in the middle, drop in the eggs, and mix with a fork and then hands. Knead into a big ball, sprinkling in flour until a soft dough forms.

Pinch off big chunks of dough and press through holes to form passatelli. If you don’t have a passatelli maker, use any kitchen device with holes about the size of small peas. I’ve used a large, round flat slotted spoon to press onto dough, pushing forward until 1 inch long worms are extruded. Some recipes suggest using a potato ricer with the largest holes, or a meat grinder without the blade. The goal is to make 1 – 2 inch long extrusions of dough about ¼ inch in diameter.

Bring the broth to a gentle simmer. Drop in the passatelli and cook gently until they float to the surface, and cook until firm but still tender, which takes just a few minutes. Serve immediately.

Yield: 8 first-course servings

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Recycling Food Scraps – Save the Shrimp Shells
Recycling Food Scraps – Save the Shrimp Shells

As a youth growing up in the land and time of plenty, I had never given much consideration to the food scraps my family tossed away. Bones, egg shells, vegetable peelings, and fat were considered garbage. But during my college years I discovered how food scraps that are often tossed away could be used in delicious and interesting ways.

I was working as a waitress in the dining room of a hotel where a large percentage of the kitchen staff, from sous chefs to prep cooks to dishwashers, came from the West Indies island of Barbados. Walking from the dark-paneled staid dining room filled with elderly Jewish couples, tired businessmen, and over-the-hill call girls, into the bright kitchen resounding with musical Caribbean accents and tinkling laughter was like emerging from a dark musty closet into an island vacation.

The Bajans would often make snacks from the food scraps that would normally be thrown away, and if they liked you, would share. I remember the first time Vanta, a prep cook, held out a sizzling broiler platter containing some tiny bits swimming in garlic butter over which she squeezed a bit of fresh lemon juice.

“Try this,” she offered, handing me a piece of bread to mop up the mysterious fragrant things.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Just try it,” she insisted.

I tasted it and it was good, sort of like shrimp scampi but without the shrimp. The little bits in it turned out to be the intestinal tracts of shrimp that had been removed from the shrimp during the deveining process and recycled into this tasty snack. Yucky, yes, but it really was good.

Another time I was offered a fried fritter. I didn’t ask what it was, not only because I knew it would be good but mostly because I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know its secret ingredient. It turned out to be a mushroom fritter, made from the stems of the mushrooms that were removed from the caps to make stuffed mushrooms for the dining room menu.

From then on I became curious about recycling food scraps and compiled lists of ideas on using meat bones, fat, chicken skin, and cheese rinds and I discovered how these item that were normally tossed away could lead a second life.

One of the most valuable kitchen scraps, I discovered, are shrimp shells. Never throw away raw shrimp shells! Whenever I cook shrimp for shrimp cocktail or shrimp salad, I utilize the shrimp shells to add an extra layer of shrimp flavor to the shrimp. Here’s how, along with my secret ingredient shrimp salad recipe.

How to Cook Shrimp for Shrimp Cocktail or Shrimp Salad

First, peel and devein the shrimp, leaving on the tail segment if desired. Toss the shells into a saucepan and add water just to cover. Add a spoonful of seafood seasoning, such as Old Bay, a couple of peppercorns, and a spoonful of pickling spices, if you have it. If you don’t have pickling spices, toss in a bay leaf, some mustard seeds, coriander seeds, or whatever flavorful whole spices you have on hand. Add a splash of a light vinegar, white wine, or a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice for some acid.

Simmer the mixture for about 20 minutes to extract the flavor from the shrimp shells and the seasonings into the broth. Strain the broth and return it to a simmer. Add the raw peeled shrimp, cover, and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to rest, covered, for five minutes. Drain shrimp and chill.

These shrimp are plump, juicy, and flavorful and have a great texture. I always use this method to cook shrimp for Shrimp Cocktail. Then if I have leftover shrimp and cocktail sauce, I recycle again to create this special shrimp salad.

Lydia's Recycled Shrimp Salad

cooked peeled shrimp, chopped in big chunks
finely chopped celery
finely chopped scallions

Hellman's or Best Foods Mayonnaise
Cocktail sauce
Old Bay Seasoning to taste
Worcestershire Sauce (just a dash or two)

Combine salad ingredients in a bowl. Mix dressing ingredients in a separate bowl, adding enough cocktail sauce to the mayonnaise so the sauce turns a pale salmon color resembling Thousand Island dressing. Pour sauce over shrimp and toss. Chill.

Serve shrimp salad mounded on bed of mixed greens and garnished with grape tomatoes, cucumber slices, and quarters of hard-cooked eggs.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Confessions of a Shortbread Snob
Confessions of a Shortbread Snob

When it comes to shortbread I’ve always been a purist. Classic shortbread contains only butter, flour, sugar and salt, and when properly prepared in the appropriate proportions is the ultimate perfect butter cookie. With no additional ingredients or other embellishments, like chocolate or nuts, to detract from the wonderful texture and buttery flavor of this simple cookie, shortbread is nothing more and nothing less than pure sweet butter encased in perfectly textured crumbs.

With such prejudices firmly entrenched in my palate, I would snort in derision whenever I would come across a recipe for some sort of glorified version of shortbread, pass it by, and continue to make my perfect classic shortbread cookies each holiday season. In short, I was a shortbread snob.

Then suddenly there I was, once again presented with my thrice-annual challenge to make birthday cakes or cookies for vegetarians who did not consume eggs. Over the years I had gotten pretty good at it, but I don’t like to repeat the same treats so I’m always looking for something new. Shortbread is a good choice, as it is eggless, but I had already made my classic shortbread for this crowd. I was running out of ideas.

I came across a recipe for Italian Shortbread with Almonds and Jam. The word “Italian” in the recipe’s name drew my attention, as I am part Italian and somewhat of an Italophile. On reading the details of the recipe I saw nothing particularly Italian about it, but it sounded very appealing and appeared easy to make. I decided, just this one time, to violate my shortbread standards and give this recipe a try.

Unlike my classic recipe where the dough is carefully mixed by hand (literally with hands), this recipe uses a standing mixer, so it came together quickly. As it baked, the kitchen was filled with the wonderful aromas of butter and toasted almonds.

The first bite revealed the same wonderful crumbly melt-in-the-mouth texture and rich buttery taste as my classic shortbread. The flavor combination of apricot and butter was very special and reminded me of the buttery peach yeast kuchen my German grandfather used to make. The crispy toasted almonds on top added another layer of crunchy texture and nutty flavor.

Thanks to this excellent variation on shortbread, I am now a repented shortbread snob.

Italian Shortbread with Almonds and Jam
Adapted from From Mediterranean Flavors, California Style
by Cindy Mushet

Yield – 6 – 8 servings

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup apricot jam or other not-too-sweet jam
1/3 cup sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and set the rack in the middle of the oven. Have ready a 9-inch ungreased springform pan or a 9 inch pie pan or cake pan.

Beat the butter and sugar on medium speed in a standing mixer for 3 to 4 minutes until very light, scraping down the sides of the bowl and the paddle from time to time. Add the almond extract and beat on medium speed for 30 more seconds to blend.

In a small bowl whisk the flour and salt together. Add to the butter mixture and beat on low speed to combine, just until the dough is thoroughly blended, 30 to 40 seconds. The dough will be stiff. Remove ½ cup of dough and set it on a small plate in a thin layer; place it in the freezer.

Press the remaining dough into the pan evenly – it can be a little higher at the edges, but the center shouldn’t be elevated. Spread the jam evenly over the dough to within an inch of the edge. Retrieve the remaining dough from the freezer and crumble it over the jam. Sprinkle the almonds evenly over the top.

Bake the shortbread for 40 to 50 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a rack. If a springform pan was used, stand the pan on a heavy can to remove the sides (the rim will just fall away). If a cake or pie pan was used, cover it with a flat plate, turn it over to release the shortbread on to the plate, and repeat using a small cutting board so shortbread is face up.

Cut the shortbread into serving sized triangles.

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