Cotechino, Lentils, Polenta and Salsa Verde

Cotechino-Lentils-Verde

Every year for New Year’s Day I usually have a Cotechino served with lentils on the table for dinner. I posted about this Italian sausage before here. It incorporates a good proportion of pig skin into the meat mixture and ends up with the most amazing unctuous rich texture. It’s all offset by balanced spicing and sharp flavors that accompany it.

Cotechino is great with lentils, potatoes or polenta. I was going back and forth between serving it with the lentils or the polenta. Eventually I decided why not do both while at the same time dress the dish up a bit and sharpen the plating and the flavor. I also tried some new methods to take my pictures this time around going mostly manual as opposed to allowing the camera to pick the settings. There is a lot of room for improvement but I like the end result and am hoping to keep playing with that.

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On prior occasions when I made lentils to accompany the sausage, I primarily relied on a recipe that added tomatoes, stock, rosemary…That was a bit much. The sausage alone has a ton of flavor and does not need a heavy-handed side dish to clash with it. So, this time around I made a basic lentil stew. I used, as always, Puy lentils and just cooked them in sautéed onions, celery and garlic before stewing them gently in water with some fresh thyme thrown in. A final dash of salt and vinegar as well as a helping of salsa verde (more about this in a minute) rounded the lentils out very nicely.

I prepared the polenta in the oven (about 4:1 water to polenta ratio, cooked uncovered at 350 F for about an hour). I allow it to set spread about 1/2 inch thick and then cut it into circles. These get a quick dusting of flour and then pan-fried in olive oil to crisp them up.

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I wanted another layer of flavor to the dish and a salsa verde is it. This is one of my go-to sauces for everything from salmon to steak. It’s not the Mexican one that incorporates tomatillos in it. This Italian salsa verde is a herb sauce composed mostly of parsley. It’s basically chimichurri’s  much better sister (sorry Argentinean sauce lovers!) I try to incorporate some portion of basil in there as well and even a few mint leaves if I have them. These get chopped up (as fine or coarse as you like – I like it on the fine side) with capers, a garlic clove or two, sour pickles and a couple of anchovies. To bring it all together a very healthy dose of olive oil is stirred in along with red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Once you make it a couple of times you’ll get the hang of how you like it and can adjust the quantities of the ingredients accordingly. I first heard of it many years ago in Jamie Oliver’s first book and I still like to prepare it like he does, just start chopping the parsley and add more ingredients to the cutting board…chop chop…add a few more ingredients…chop chop…as you go. It’s a marvelous sauce with great flavors and textures.

I tried a new time and temperature to cook the Cotechino sous vide this time as well. Per a suggestion from Jason Molinari  I reduced the temp to 68.3 C and cooked it for longer, 24 hours. I like the result a lot but I think there is still room for improvement. Dropping the temperature to around 65 or 62 C and cooking it for anywhere between 24 and 36 hours might be even better next time around to preserve more moisture and flavor. I sliced the sausage and topped a few of the slices with grated Parmesan cheese before searing all the slices on both sides. The final dish was exceptionally good. Not too heavy, cloying or greasy at all. The flavors worked great and the green sauce looked awesome and was a spot-on complement to everything.

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Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve – 2013) B-

The film really looks great even though it is set in suburbia. It has a strong cast, some are used better than others but most are very good. It has some excellent intense moments as well. The problem is that all these pieces do not come together to make this the excellent film it could’ve been. What we get instead is a procedural that is trying very hard to be meaningful and important. It neglects to be…smart or to make sense at times. Characters behave in nonsensical ways for no reason. It also goes on for far too long. Prisoners is not bad, it is just a painfully long missed opportunity.

The Trip to Italy (Michael Winterbottom – 2014) A-

Funny impersonations, witty conversation, lovely food and a wonderful locale. Very much like The Trip of course and I like that a lot. Coogan and Brydon play versions of themselves and this time it’s Brydon who seems to be getting more of the acclaim and success while Coogan is connecting with his son. All that really is just another frame or excuse for the basic premise of this film…funny impersonations, witty conversation, lovely food and a wonderful locale.

Scallops with Butternut Squash Puree and Quinoa

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Scallops and sweet winter squash are a perfect combo and this quick dish brings them together in a delicious and beautiful plate of food. It was not a planned fancy dinner or anything. I bought the large scallops because Diana loves them and had the butternut squash on hand at home.

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Initially I had thought of just sauteing the pumpkin and serving it with the seared scallops, but then figured that with a little more effort I can make something new, more impressive and at the same time incorporate more flavors and textures. The squash became a loose puree – almost a soup. To make that I baked the halved the squash lengthwise and baked it on an oiled sheet -seeds included- until it is soft. Then I flipped the halves over and baked for an additional 10 minutes or so to get more caramelized flavors and to dry out the squash a bit. The seeds and pulpy bits from the squash get thrown away usually at this point. I decided to toss them in a small pan and gently cook them with butter with the idea to flavor the butter and use later on.

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To finish the pumpkin soup/puree I sauteed onions and a little chopped golden potatoes in butter and added some stock to the mixture. When the potatoes where sufficiently cooked I put in the squash meat and pureed the mixture.

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I brine most of the seafood I cook for a several reasons. It enhances the texture by firming it up a bit, it also removes any impurities on the surface and helps the seafood get a better color when seared. Last but not least it of course seasons the seafood. I first started doing that after reading about it in Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home book and getting great results from it. Since then many other sources recommended brining the fish such as the folks from Ideas in Food and ChefSteps. The key here is to make a high salt solution, 10% salt to be exact and to brine the fish or shellfish for no more than 15-30 minutes depending on the size or else you end up with very salty fish. Scallops only get about a 15 minute dunk in there and then they get patted dry really well.

Scallops

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To cook the scallops I seared half of them “naked” and the other half got a quick roll in a mixture of Wondra flour and finely chopped parsley. I then sliced the scallops into quarters and plated them up. The quinoa was really a late addition. I wanted to make the dish more substantial since it was our dinner but I did not want something too heavy like pasta, rice or potatoes. Quinoa fit the bill nicely. It cooks quick, is light and has a great nutty grassy flavor that paired well with the pumpkin and scallops.

That pumpkin butter I prepared using the seeds and pulp of the squash was a great flavor boost for the garnish. I used it to saute some pumpkin seeds and crisp up a few leaves of fresh sage. I tossed these with a touch of salt and pepper and used them as a topping for the finished dish. A final touch of creme fraiche rounded everything out very nicely and gave the plates a welcome touch of clean white streaks.

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Stand by Me (Rob Reiner – 1986) A+

I love it and love watching it every time. Nathan, my 11 year old, was very surprised that this film was “that old”. It really has a certain timelessness to it even though it is almost 30 years old. It captures the beauty of friendship, the perceptiveness of children and portrays those relationships that we forge early on in life that can just never be duplicated. It’s a perfect little gem this one.

The One I Love (Charlie McDowell – 2014) A-

A couple are having troubles in their marriage. After trying multiple avenues to fix their relationship, their counselor advises them to go to a particular retreat. From that point on, the movie goes places that I completely was blindsided by in the best possible way. It’s a movie that is tough to categorize. The closest that comes to mind is maybe the feel of a Twilight Zone episode. It is much more than that though, it tackles long term relationships from a very interesting angle and poses some challenging ideas. What would one really do if they can fix up their mate and make them perfect? Is that something we should strive for or just love the imperfections that we get as part of the deal? There are only two characters in the film played by Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass and they do tremendous work here in demanding roles. This is one of those small films that might not be perfect but is made with a lot of care and skill. I can spend a long time thinking about why it would not work but I really do not care and would rather just appreciate it for what it does so well.