Cappellacci di Zucca – Pumpkin Pasta with Sage, Pumpkin Butter, Pine Nuts

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This is cheat post. It’s a cheat post because I’ve posted about similar dishes before. Well, so what. We love this dish and its ilk and I try making it every fall a few times. I really love making fresh pasta and filled pasta as well so why not post about it (spoiler warning: the next post is also a filled pasta dish).

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It is a dish I make relatively often but honestly I never make it the exact same way twice, especially with the filling. This time I think is one of the favorites. The small sugar pumpkin I used was delicious on its own and I decided not to mask it with a ton of other flavors. In Mario Batali’s first book (my favorite of his really), Simple Italian Food: Recipes from My Two Villages,  has a recipe for this dish and his filling is very simple. It’s nothing more than the pumpkin, an egg, some Parmesan and a grating of nutmeg. I went with that and it was perfect. Usually I would use butternut squash for something like this, but I really am glad I gave the small “pie”pumpkin a try this time. The flesh was dry and had great flavor and sweetness.

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Sage with this dish is classic and so is butter. Both are here but with a couple of extra layers of flavor. I put all the pumpkin seeds and pulp into a pot with a bunch of butter and let that gently melt and simmer. After draining I had a nice half cup or so of golden delicious pumpkin butter.

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I boiled the pasta while I got butter browning in a pan and then tossed in sage leaves. For another texture and layer of flavor I threw in a handful of excellent quality pine nuts. These are great pine nuts that I picked up from Lebanon wen I was there a couple of months ago. After the nuts got a good color on them and the sage leaves were a bit crispy I tossed the dumplings into the pan and added a few spoons of the pumpkin butter. Served with a handful of Parmesan and anointed with more pumpkin butter it was lovely.

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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.

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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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Butternut Squash, Prosciutto, Toasted Butter Crumbs

It really is a challenge executing a “cheffy” dish with several components that I’ve developed. It’s especially tricky when I usually have one shot at it because, well, it is dinner and I do not normally get to try, re-try and refine before I have a final plated dish. Truth of the matter is that no matter how good I THINK something might taste and look, sometimes it just does not work out at all or works half-way. This dish is a good example of the latter. Most of the flavors and textures worked very well, but it did not look as good or as refined as I had imagined and sketched.

The least successful part of the dish was probably the cured butternut squash. I had seen a preparation like this first on the Ideas in Food blog and it stuck with me. A chunk of winter squash (they used Fairytale squash) is cured as if it was a piece of meat and then thinly sliced. I cured mine with a combination of smoked paprika, sage, sugar salt and pepper. I packed it all together in a FoodSaver bag and let it sit in the fridge for 48 hours. To serve it, I just sliced it as thinly as possible. The taste and texture of the raw squash was just odd, like a weird pickle. Now, it is possible that if I had a proper chamber vacuum machine (to fully push the seasoning into the squash and compress it) and a real meat slicer (to shave it very thinly) that this component would’ve worked.

The central part of this dish were the ravioli and these worked very well. The filling is a basic combination of roasted butternut squash, parmesan ans a dew seasonings like balsamic vinegar and nutmeg. The dough is also a classic recipe that uses nothing more than egg and flour.

The seared butternut squash pieces were first cooked sous vide. So, I bagged them with butter and a little salt and cooked them at 85 C until they were perfectly tender. Right before plating I seared them in a very hot pan to add some nice flavor and texture variation.

For the dehydrated prosciutto, I rolled several slices together into a cylinder shape and froze it. When fully solid I used my Microplane grater to make fine shreds of delicious frozen ham. Lastly I spread them on a pan and allowed them to dry in a very low oven. The almost-fully dry ham shreds now have a very concentrated prosciutto flavor and work great as a topping or base for all kinds of dishes.

Sage is a classic with pumpkin ravioli, so I made sage cream to go with this dish. It’s pretty much the recipe from The French Laundry’s agnolotti dish that I made here. The last garnish is more of those toasted butter solids that I talked about in the end of this post. They work exceptionally well here echoing the traditional brown butter that pumpkin filled pasta is usually tossed in.

Alinea: BOAR, Shallot, Cider, Burning Oak Leaves

Fall is finally here -more or less I suppose- and changing the way I cook is natural. Even if I can find tomatoes and peppers well into November and December I still prefer to cook more “orange” and “brown” stuff. It makes me and Diana happy to pick up some winter squashes or sweet potatoes and start cooking with them. This dish has neither but it just smells and tastes like fall.

The biggest pain in the neck in this dish was finding a suitable oak twig. It’s supposed to be fall leaves, nice and orange-brown. Well in Houston you can typically only find green or dead brown. So I had to settle for somewhere in between. So I got a few twigs from one of the oaks that line a street close to work, the leaves are half brown half green, but overall not too bad. The recipe is pretty simple, a cube of meat (in the book he uses pheasant), a cube of apple cider gel and a piece of roasted shallot are skewered together on the sharpened oak twig. These are then dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried.

The cider gel is made with granny smith apples, some sugar and apple cider all cooked together with agar and pureed. It’s basically apple sauce until it is poured in a pan and allowed to cool. Then the agar turns it into a firm block. I cut it up into cubes and stored them in the fridge. The shallot confit is just shallots roasted with grape seed oil, salt and pepper. Then the shallots are peeled and cut into rough cubes. Last piece is the meat. I do not currently have pheasant, but I do have some wild boar still. So, I used a small loin. I cooked it sous vide bagged with butter and thyme. This was also cut up into cubes until serving time.

For the batter I deviated from the recipe and used the procedure from Modernist Cuisine. It’s the same process I used before to make Heston Blumenthal’s extra crispy fish and chips. The Blumenthal batter is a mixture of rice flour, all-purpose flour and vodka. You put that in an iSi whipping siphon and charge it with CO2. Right before using it to coat the meat, you dispense some batter into a small bowl and dip the meat in it. The batter will have so much air bubbles that it makes for an extra crispy-crunchy product. It’s important to point out here that frying the boar-cider-shallot skewer without dropping the whole twig in the hot oil is also tricky. I basically could only fry two at a time since I had to hold the oak twigs while the stuff on its tip fried. I wrapped the leaf end with aluminum foil to make them easier to handle while frying and to catch the splatter and this batter sure does splatter!

Last challenge in this “simple” recipe was plating. At Alinea they use a piece called the “octopus” to plate items like this one that has no base and need to stand upright. You can see it here in Allen’s Alinea book blog (he’s very dedicated and it sure shows). I was not going to buy or make anything like that. So, I made a thick sauce for the food thinking it will help it stay upright. It was a mixture of pickled mustard seeds, mayonnaise, mustard and maple vinegar. The sauce with the crunchy bite of food worked very well, but I cannot say that it made the plating that much easier.

Pork Chop

I’ve been so enjoying Yonder Way Farm’s pork chops that I had to post something about it. All the pork from them is delicious, but these prime thick cuts are just heavenly and worth every penny. I’ve taken to salting/flavoring them 24 hours before cooking them. I usually use a mixture of thyme, sage and pepper to flavor them along with kosher salt. I then cook them sous vide to an internal temperature of about 140F. Right before serving I sear them in a blazing hot cast iron skillet filmed with a little grapeseed oil (making sure the fat edge gets some pan-time) until they develop a browned crust – maybe 2 minutes total. The result is one of the most delicious juicy chops anywhere. This one here is served alongside roasted sweet potatoes and drizzled with a little maple vinegar.