Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Bencotto and Monello Pastas Go Organic

Okay, let's just establish that whatever I say about the new, improved house-made pasta at Little Italy's Bencotto and Monello, the pasta dishes they've been serving all these years have been superb. But even superb can be improved--and this is something that owners Guido Nestri and Valentina Di Pietro and executive chef and co-founder Fabrizio Cavallini have been mulling for awhile.

The decision to go organic with the semolina flour they use to make their pasta entailed several variables. Cost was one. The difference in price between the flour they were using and what they wanted to use was the difference between $40 and $75 per 25 kilo bag--almost double. And even if the cost proved to be worth it, there was the question of reliable delivery at the quantities they need. And even if those two factors could be addressed, the reality is that organic wheat flour of the quality they were considering is very difficult to work with. "Durum" means hard after all--and softer, cheaper flour is so much easier to form into pasta.

Between the two restaurants, Fabrizio's kitchen produces 120,000 portions of pasta a year, so this was a pretty significant decision. In their pasta lab on Bencotto's second floor, he and his crew began experimenting with different wheats and recipes to perfect this new pasta and once happy with the results, began quietly serving the new pasta to customers, as well as new organic dried pasta from Italy. Eventually they found a reliable flour distributor and the change over was on. And, no, the menu prices haven't changed.

With their production perfected, the restaurants just officially announced the switch over and I stopped in to both try the pasta and have Fabrizio teach me how he makes it.

Non-organic pasta (l) and new organic pasta (r)
So let's start with why this has made a difference. The flour they use now is a combination of organic wheat semolina from Parma--which is organic and less refined and from a higher quality of grain--and doppio zero, or 00, extra fine wheat flour at a ratio of 90/10. Previously, the ratio was 65/35 using extra fancy semolina from General Mills. As Fabrizio explained, the 00 flour adds structure to the pasta that semolina lacks. He also noted that this new organic flour needs more liquid--a hallmark of a high-quality semolina--and creates a better quality of gluten. Like wine, terroir plays a factor in flavor, so this new flour also benefits from the wheat being grown and milled in Parma--and ultimately reveals itself in the pasta.

And I also must mention that Fabrizio is now using organic, cage-free eggs in the pasta. He maintains that this higher quality egg makes a difference in the final product, creating a silkier, more pliable pasta that better absorbs sauce.

Well, does it?

Guido and I sat at Bencotto's bar as Fabrizio brought out pastas. First we attacked a plate of plain, naked tagliatelli. Even visually it was pretty easy to see the difference. On the left is the old school pasta. It was very good, but suffered somewhat by comparison after tasting the pasta on the right, feeling rather thick and chewy compared with the organic tagliatelli. That pasta was softer and lighter--more delicate, although it still had a bite.

We moved on to add olive oil and the flavor was rapturous, clinging to the pasta, adding herbaceous notes and making the pasta silky.

We did the same with the fusilli, although Fabrizio only gave us the new, organic version. I shouldn't have, but pretty much cleaned the plate.

Then Fabrizio came out with the tagliatelli bathed in a splendid, rich lamb sauce. There's no question that the organic pasta melded beautifully with the sauce. In any case, we demolished both versions. Like I said, the previous version was really good. It's just that this new organic version is sublime.

So, how do you make this pasta? Fabrizio showed me in about 15 minutes. And, he told me that home cooks can purchase organic semolina as well as 00 flour at Mona Lisa, down the street.

Here's how he does it:

Hand-made Italian Pasta
Fabrizio Cavallini
(printable recipe)
Serves 8

2 1/2 pounds extra fancy semolina
1/2 pound 00 flour
12 large eggs

Combine the two flours and make a large well.

Break the eggs into the center of the well.

Use a fork or your fingers (Fabriazio uses a fork, like his mom and grandmother) to mix together the eggs and flour, gradually pulling in flour from the inside edge of the well.

Once the eggs and flour have been mixed, pull the mixture together to start kneading.

Knead the dough for about 10 minutes. It will become smooth and elastic.

Shape the dough into a ball and cover with olive oil. Then wrap the ball in plastic wrap and let it rest at least half an hour. Fabrizio suggests letting it sit overnight in the refrigerator for better pasta.

Then shape and cut into the pasta of your choice.

Bencotto and Monello are located at 750 Fir St. in Little Italy.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Watermelon Salad "Pizza"

Several months ago I came across a little piece online somewhere that showed a watermelon pizza. It immediately caught my eye, but I was disappointed because it was really just a fruit salad on a slice of watermelon. Interesting, but it was fruit salad. But the concept stuck with me and what I realized was that I wanted it to be a savory watermelon pizza.

Watermelon salad is one of my favorite dishes this time of year as the temps start to climb. One of my all time most enjoyable versions is Matt Gordon's at Urban Solace. Every bite is different, filled with cherry tomatoes and arugula, feta and currants, toasted pine nuts and cucumbers. And it's tossed with a sweet vinaigrette.

So, I've been waiting for the seasons to change so that I could translate this concept in my head to a dish and today I finally did it. I gathered a baby watermelon, cherry tomatoes, a hot house cucumber (Japanese or Persian--all with no seeds--will do as well), an onion, pine nuts, kalamata olives, arugula, currants, and goat cheese.

I also went out to my little garden and nabbed some a couple of stems of my treasured mojito mint (it's a little less astringent than peppermint or spearmint) and basil. This is a "pesto perpetuo" variety of basil, which grows as a perennial.

With these herbs, along with white wine vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper, I made a vinaigrette.

Basil Mint Vinaigrette

1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced
1 tablespoon fresh mint, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
pinch of freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Whisk together all the ingredients except the olive oil. Then slowly whisk in the oil until all the ingredients are blended together and the dressing emulsifies.

With that done, I sliced what needed slicing and put the "pizza" together.

Slice the watermelon about an inch thick and place on a flat surface, then start layering.

First add slices of cucumber.

Then come the tomatoes. If you can find heirloom cherry tomatoes you'll get even more color--and flavor.

Next come sliced kalamata olives and onion. I like a sweet white onion, like this, or red onion.

Goat cheese can be difficult to work with, so I use a small melon baller.

Finally, I scatter the top with currants and toasted pine nuts. Make a bed with the arugula and drizzle with the vinaigrette. Then quarter the slice.

You can serve quarters as an appetizer or a whole slice as a lunch, accompanied with some crusty bread or biscuits.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Tomato Cheese Toast

I love this time of year--tomatoes are finally coming into season! My sweet 100 plant is heavy with fruit and already I'm starting to enjoy the harvest. Because they're like eating candy, the fruit often doesn't make it into the house; while hand watering I heedlessly nibble.

But with a little self control I can collect enough to make one of my favorite breakfasts: sourdough toasted topped with olive oil, grated parmesan romano, and tomatoes. On a weekend morning, I'll also include a fried egg.

A couple of weeks ago Justin Park of Baja Olive stopped by with a half dozen samples of oil for me to try. So, what better way to start than with my toast?

I slathered a slice of cracked wheat sourdough from Trader Joe's (one of my favorites) with Baja Olive's garlic-flavored oil, which is made by crushing the garlic cloves with the olives during processing. Then I sprinkled the bread with the grated cheese and toasted it in my toaster oven for close to five minutes (on a dark toast setting).

In the meantime I halved about a dozen cherry tomatoes. This week I needed to buy a basket since most of my tomatoes are still ripenening. These are organic heirlooms. But I also included several from my garden.

When the first toasting was done, I placed the tomatoes on the bread, sliced side up. Then I sprinkled the tomatoes with sea salt and red chile flakes before covering them up with more grated cheese. Back into the toaster oven it went for another five minutes.

In the meantime I fried up an egg with a splash of the unflavored Baja Olive oil until the white was set but the yolk nice and runny.

I topped the toast with the egg and blissed out on breakfast with a frothy cup of cappuccino. The toast was crisp and lightly flavored with garlic and olive, which complemented the sweet and salty combination of roasted tomatoes and cheese. And there's little a fresh runny egg can't improve with both that unctuous texture and silky flavor. My weekend was off to a great start!

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Seared Day Boat Scallops with Grilled Peaches, Candied Bacon, and Micro Salad

I still can't figure out how Kitchen 4140, now it its fifth year, so completely sat under my radar until recently. Chef/owner Kurt Metzger opened the restaurant in November 2010 with a vision for a farm-to-table experience. Literally. As in creating his own farm on the premises. And the premises are in one of the most mundane locations possible--tucked into a sweep of shops along Morena Blvd. near Costco. Until recently, when a new, large sign was installed, you wouldn't be faulted for completely missing it while speeding along at 50 mph, hidden as it is among rug and furniture shops of this design row.

When the restaurant did come to my attention, I found a smartly designed eatery embraced by a lush organic garden. It's a little haven from the commercial environment surrounding it. The hydroponic section of the garden pushes out lettuces, basil, kale, thyme, squash, tomatoes, and green onions to satisfy Metzger's sophisticated regional Americana menu.

Looking toward the back of the property, you'll find dwarf lemon and kumquat trees, along with a variety of other edibles. The garden ends with a smoking and grilling area in the back. The garden is relatively self-sustaining. Metzger and his crew are dedicated composters and irrigate using recycled water.

The restaurant itself is divided in two, with a main dining room and bar and next door, a wine room for dinners that celebrate the wineries and winemakers Metzger has come to know.

There are also outdoor tables that place dinners squarely in the garden. It's not unusual for cooks to come outside and harvest what they need for your meal.

"Being able to cook from what we produce is just amazing," says Metzger.

Metzger invited me to stop by recently to teach me how to make a marvelous seafood dish that celebrates summer--Seared Day Boat Scallops with Grilled Peaches, Candied Bacon, and Micro Salad. The dish pops with a multitude of flavors in each bite. The scallops, which are caught in local waters, are light but meaty and marry beautifully with the white peaches marinated in a mixture of balsamic vinegar and brown sugar before being grilled. They're topped with luscious thick pieces of bacon sweetened with brown sugar and maple syrup while crisping up. And all this decadence is embraced by a micro salad comprised of ingredients from the garden that Metzger collected just minutes before assembling the dish.

The dish is easy to make but you need to be organized to get it to come together for the final plating. Make the bacon and marinate the peaches ahead of time. Have your salad ready to assemble. Grill the peaches and set aside, then cook the scallops. Then you can pull it all together for your meal without breaking a sweat.

Seared Day Boat Scallops with Grilled Peaches, Candied Bacon, and Micro Salad
From Kurt Metzger of Kitchen 4140

Serves 4

12 scallops
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup chicken stock
5 teaspoons white wine
1 dollop butter, room temperature
red chile flakes
4 white peaches, sliced in half and pitted
4 pieces bacon
½ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup, plus 2 teaspoons brown sugar for bacon
2 teaspoons maple syrup
2 cups mixed greens like arugula
2 spring onions, whites sliced
4 padron peppers (can substitute jalapeno or other chile), seeds and ribs removed
Fresh herbs and edible flowers
8 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
Truffle oil
Chives, minced
Caviar (optional)
Burrata cheese (optional)

Mix equal parts balsamic vinegar and brown sugar together and place in a dish with high sides and large enough to hold eight peach halves. Spread out the vinegar and sugar mixture in the dish and place peach halves in the mixture cut side down. Let sit for at least an hour and up to seven hours.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil and top with a rack. Place the bacon slices in a single layer on the rack. Cook until they’re about 65 percent done (about 6 or 7 minutes). Brush with maple syrup and 2 teaspoons brown sugar. Return to the oven and remove when crisp and brown. Cut roughly into bite-sized pieces. Set aside.

Pat scallops with paper towels to remove excess moisture. Heat a large pan and add olive oil. Sprinkle scallops with a pinch of salt and add to pan. Cook 4 minutes. Turn and add chicken stock, white wine, and butter. When golden brown, remove from pan. Sprinkle with a little more salt and red chile flakes.

Heat a stovetop or outdoor grill. While the scallops are cooking, remove the peaches from the maple syrup and brown sugar mixture and add the peaches to the grill, sliced side down for about 7 minutes. Flip and let cook a minute, then remove from the heat and set aside.

Mix together the greens, spring onion, cherry tomatoes, and herbs. Drizzle with truffle oil and gently mix together with your hands.

To plate each dish sprinkle the dishes with the greens mixture, then artfully add slices of peppers and edible flowers. On each plate, place three scallops and two peach slices. Top with bacon. Sprinkle with chives. You can also top with caviar and pieces of burrata.

Kitchen 4140 is located at 4140 Morena Blvd.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Easy as Pie at Bake Sale Bakery Class

There's clearly something I find addictive about pie baking. It's not just that I love to make them. It's that I can't stop learning how to make them from the experts. First there was my Nana Tillie, who had me rolling out dough for Thanksgiving apple and pumpkin pies when I was a kid. Much later I took classes at Great News!. Several years ago it got downright crazy--in a good way. Baker Rachel Caygill taught a class that highlighted her butter and lard recipe and technique. Michele Coulon of Michele Coulon Dessertier taught me her strictly butter approach. I got teased with techniques (but no recipe) by my buddy Elizabeth Harris of Betty's Pie Whole. And last summer I took a pie-making class that's part of the culinary degree curriculum pastry chef Tina Luu teaches at the Art Institute of San Diego.

You'd think I'd have had my fill--but no. When I learned that Kathleen Shen of Bake Sale Bakery teaches baking classes and that a pie-making class was coming up, well, I signed up, curious to see what more I could learn. And my intent that evening was to do what I often do at cooking classes when I'm going to write about them. Hover and take notes and photos. But Shen is an irresistible instructor and I found myself with a dusty camera by the end of the class because I couldn't keep from participating.

The class is intimate. Six students around a large marble-topped table. What's so brilliant about it is that it's both hands on and demo. Shen and her boss, owner Terryl Gavre, have figured out what concepts--like making the dough and piping meringue--students need to do at that moment and what can be done in advance and simply explained, along with a fulsome recipe. So, we learned technical skills and we learned why we do what we do so that, as Shen explained, we can figure out how to fix things when they go wrong. That's powerful knowledge in the kitchen.

We started out making a basic pie dough, of course. Shen likes the classic blending of butter (for flakiness and flavor) and shortening (for tenderness). She explained the science behind keeping the ingredients cold and why you want to have packets of fat. "You don't want to work all the fat into the flour," she explains. "You want those pieces of fat because they create pockets of steam and thus flakiness. And you want to minimize how much you work the dough to avoid developing gluten. Then the dough gets tough. Instead, it should just hold together."

Through the process of mixing it ourselves we learned how it should feel. Our dough, which we pressed into a disk, went into the fridge to cool. Then, with pre-made dough disks, we learned how to roll it out--always a source of anxiety. Shen's technique worked for me. Brush with flour and let the rolling pin do the work, not my arms. Roll. Turn it a quarter. Roll. Turn. Roll. Turn. You end up with a nice evenly rolled circle that doesn't stick to the surface. (For extra flaky dough, you can also fold your rolled out dough into quarters and roll it out again--like laminating dough for croissants or puff pastry.) Fold the now large circle  gently into quarters and lift it into the pie plate. Unfold. Press into the plate and that's it. Sure made me look good.

She taught us great tips for how to blind bake dough for pies with liquid fillings, like lemon meringue and chocolate cream. She taught us how to effectively add a second, top crust to a fruit pie so the edges would be both pretty and contain the filling. (Fold the top dough over the bottom at the edge, press to close, then crimp.)

Shen also gave us tips for creating novel crusts. Instead of graham cracker crust for our chocolate cream pie, she gave us a primer in making a cookie crust. Make a chocolate chip cookie dough, sans the chips, bake it, run it through the food processor to get the crumbs, and add sugar and butter. Then press into the pie tin and refrigerate until ready to use. Want to add some extra structure to a pie dough for lemon meringue? Instead of rolling the dough out with flour, use graham cracker crumbs.

We then learned techniques for making chocolate cream and lemon curd for our pie fillings. On individual propane burners we each prepared our chocolate cream after Shen demonstrated the technique. We poured the cream into our already prepared cookie crusts. Then she did a demo for the lemon curd and taught us how to make meringue, offering some great tips. (Use a clean bowl and room-temperature egg, add cream of tartar to relax the whites and only add sugar once there's volume in the whites.) Then we each had to each use a pastry bag with a tip to pipe it onto our lemon meringue pies, which then went into the oven.

We did all this in just over two hours. And we got to take everything home with us that we'd made: our chilled unbaked dough, an uncooked but oven-ready strawberry rhubarb pie, our chocolate cream pie just needing whipped cream, and our stunning lemon meringue masterpieces. Plus recipes.

Since lemon meringue pie is my mom's absolute favorite, I took it over to her the next day. She only allowed me a small bite, but it was terrific. Even overnight the crust remained flaky and the meringue stiff. The lemon filling was a perfect melding of tart and sweet. My mom says that she doled out small pieces to herself for a couple of days and even with the last piece the crust remained solid, not mushy. So, we've got splendid recipes and techniques here!

I'm feeling even more confident now.

Bake Sale Bakery holds a variety of pastry classes year round. To find see their schedule, go to http://bakesalesd.com/events/category/classes/.

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