Pasta alla Chitarra with Venison-Pear Ragu


My brother was kind enough to carry this Chitarra all the way from some small Italian town. Apparently it was quiet a chore to locate a Chitarra even in Italy. So thanks to him and to my cousin (who actually paid for it) I get to make Pasta alla Chitarra. For the dough I went with my usual and traditional recipe using 1 egg for 100 gr of flour. I already knew I was going to serve it with a rich and gamey, albeit not traditional, ragu. With that in mind I mixed the flour a bit and used some semolina and some whole wheat in addition to the all-purpose flour. This gave the noodles a very good texture and flavor.

The dough is rolled a little bit thicker than normal (to setting 5 on the pasta machine). Then the sheets of dough get cut and stretched a bit more on the chitarra’s strings. So we end up with slightly thick perfectly rectangular noodles.

The ragu recipe is straight from Marc Vetri’s “Il Viaggio Di Vetri” book. First I made a sausage with venison and wild hog meat along with a host of spices and thyme. That is then cooked with red wine, water and parmesan rinds for a couple of hours to make a rich ragu. Towards the end of the cooking time, thinly sliced pears are sautéed and added to the sauce. It’s an excellent combination of flavors with the fruit working very well with the rich and slightly funky sausage.

Eggplant Terrine, Panelle, Chocolate Cherry Tomatoes


This eggplant terrine is the very first recipe in Marc Vetri’s book “il Viaggio di Vetri” and it looked so intriguing from the moment I read it. I’ve never really made proper vegetable terrines before, plenty of meat terrines of course, but not a vegetarian layered and molded terrine that holds together beautifully. Vegetarian versions are lots of times held together with an aspic (gelatin) and if done right they could be fantastic. In contrast Vetri’s eggplant slices are held  together with a minimal amount of custard base (egg+milk+parmesan+thyme). I half expected the whole thing to fall apart as soon as I unmolded it honestly and that would’ve been a shame because of all the work that went into it.

First the eggplants are peeled and the peel blanched to be used for laying in the terrine mold in lieu of bacon or back fat in a meat terrine. I sliced the eggplant very thin and salted the slices. After draining for an hour or so they get washed, dried and pressed between paper towels. The eggplant then gets fried and layered in a terrine (I used a small loaf pan since I was only making half the recipe). Between each layer I drizzled a tablespoon or so of the uncooked custard. The pan gets cooked in a bain marie for about an hour. After it is cooked, I weighed the eggplant down in the pan to compress the terrine as it cooled in the fridge overnight.

When ready to serve I unmolded the terrine and sliced it with a very sharp knife. An electric knife is probably very handy here. The funny thing is I actually have one but never seem to use it. Like I said before the eggplant terrine held together perfectly due to the egg mixture of course but also I’m guessing due to the eggplant’s natural “goo”. Is that pectin? Maybe.

Vetri served his version with a few tomatoes, arugula leaves and shavings of parmesan. I made Panelle instead. Panelle are a popular Sicilian street snack made from chickpea flour and fried in olive oil. I figured their earthy flavor and rustic texture will work very well with the eggplant. Afterall, chickpeas and eggplant are a wonderful match. The other flavor component are those little cherry tomatoes from the farmer’s market called chocolate cherry tomatoes. They were quickly blanched, peeled and marinated in olive oil, salt and basil. I love how they look like peeled grapes or poached cherries…The green sauce is made from blanched arugula, basil and parsley. It is thickened with Ultratex-3 and enriched with a little olive oil and lemon juice.

I garnished the dish with basil flowers and basil leaves and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. The terrine was delicious with a full eggplant flavor and a very meaty texture. The chickpea fritters and tomatoes complemented everything perfectly. Instead of half a recipe I will be making the full one next time and will bake it in a proper terrine pan to get a perfect rectangle as well as more terrine for the next few days. The next day we used the leftovers to make the best eggplant sandwiches with some of the green sauce, arugula, ripe tomatoes on home-baked crusty sourdough bread.

Porcini Pheasant, Creamed Corn, Carrot-Orange Sauce

I have cooked pheasant a couple of times before and was always underwhelmed. I hear wild pheasant is a different animal and is delicious, but this farm-raised, store-bought bird is always ho-hum. The legs are tough and stringy with numerous little tendons/bones and the breast meat seems to dry out very fast even though it does have a deeper flavor than a run-of-the-mill chicken. This time I treated the breasts and legs very differently. For the legs I removed the thigh bone and painstakingly removed every string, tendon and skinny bone from the drumstick (but left the main femur there) while keeping the whole quarter in one piece. A pain in the ass that was. Then I seasoned the leg quarters with salt, cayenne, pepper, thyme and bay. I placed them in a bowl of buttermilk and let them cure overnight. the next day we had them fried after a quick dredge in flour. These were pretty good with an eggplant puree. Unfortunately, my camera settings were all screwed up and I have no decent pictures. On to the breasts.

I seasoned those with salt, pepper and thyme and let them sit overnight as well. Thanks to the very nice folks at Ajinomoto (really friendly, helpful and excellent customer service) I have a good bit of Activa RM (Transglutaminase), aka meat glue. This is an enzyme that binds specific types of proteins together, effectively gluing them. Ever wonder how a certain type of turkey at the deli counter looks like it is in one large uniformly shaped piece? Transglutaminase. I dusted the surface of the meat with a bit of Activa, no more than 8 grams or so, and then rolled it into a tight log using plastic wrap. The pheasant log went back to the fridge for the Activa to set, about 6 hours. To cook it, I sealed it in a FoodSaver bag and cooked it en sous vide for about 2 hours at  146 F.

The pheasant was cooked just in time to be plated. To finish it I borrowed an idea from Marc Vetri in his book “Il Viaggio di Vetri” and coated the cooked pheasant with a mixture of olive oil and dried porcini powder. He uses this method to cook halibut and serves it with a blueberry sauce. Then I gently pan cooked the meat for a few minutes over medium heat. The smell was amazing and the porcini really gave the seasoned pheasant a wonderful flavor kick. The enzyme bound the two breast halves perfectly and the slices were neat and efficient. More importantly the meat was cooked perfectly and was not dry. I did not want to throw away the pheasant  skin, so I had it seasoned just like the breasts and for the same amount of time. Then I baked the skin at 400 F sandwiched between parchment lined baking sheets until it got golden and crispy.

The pheasant was good, but the component that I cannot wait to make again here is the creamed corn. The recipe for that is straight from “The French Laundry” cookbook and it is utterly delicious. Too often is creamed corn made the butt end of jokes. It can be soupy, mushy, loaded with salt and cream. Here is how to elevate this humble dish to pure sweet corn heaven. All that is needed is fresh corn, a little butter and salt. No cream included at all, yet the end result is smooth, creamy and full of corn flavor. The secret is using corn juice. More than half of the fresh corn kernels was pureed in a blender and then strained to yield corn juice. The remaining kernels were blanched in boiling water and cooled. To finish the dish, the corn juice gets heated and because of its starch content it thickens to the consistency of whipping cream. The last step is to add the corn kernels, butter and seasoning. That’s it for the best and most addictive creamed corn.

The sauce is based on a recipe from Michel Richard’s book “Happy in the Kitchen” where he uses it in a squab dish. It consists of fresh carrot juice, orange juice, ginger and cut up peach. I used a very flavorful nectarine that I had on hand instead of the peach. I also decided the sauce was a bit too sharp for the rest of the dish and rounded it out with a couple of tablespoons of butter that I whisked in right before plating.

I wanted to garnish the finished dish with clusters of Enoki mushrooms but as luck would have it I could not find any Enoki that day and went with asparagus. I blanched the spears in salted water and quickly cooled them in ice water. I only wanted the top two inches here, so I trimmed that off the stalks (used the stalks for an excellent risotto the next day). Right before service, I finished cooking the asparagus tips in a warm butter emulsion (beurre monte). The other garnish was the crispy and delicious pheasant crackling.