Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Guest Blogger! A story of Fresh Pasta, Eggplant Involtini and Braised Chicken Thighs

My good friend, Shantanu, is an excellent chef. Last Friday, he invited us over for dinner because he "felt like making fresh pasta." I was super excited about this and I readily agreed to come over and help. We made:
  • Fresh Pasta
  • Eggplant Involtini
  • Braised Chicken Thighs was a lovely meal and although it wasn't ready for 2 hours, it was a super fun night with some great friends and amazing food. So, without further ado, here is Shantanu:

Full disclosure: I’m the reason we didn’t have dinner ready until 9:30 last Friday, but to be fair, it was a weeknight, dinner was delicious, and I had a food craving to take care of.

Food cravings are definitely a thing, one that I experience way too often. Usually, it’s something that’s full of grease and flour, of minimal nutritional value, and almost always involve fried chicken. This time though, while being a bit heavy on the carbs, the food I was craving was just indulgent enough to be worth all the extra calories. And then after a long week of the chicago cold, nothing really warms you up like a bowl of fresh, homemade pasta.

Fresh pasta is one of those foods that’s incredibly simple, it’s four ingredients including the water to boil it in and some salt for seasoning, and yet so eye opening. How making a giant mess with flour and eggs leads to flowing, delicate strands, with just the right amount of bounce to each bite is almost magical (although really, it’s more science, but I’m done with work for the week and don’t have to do any more science until Monday).

While I very well could have just sauteed some shallots, garlic, red chili flakes, and tomatoes in olive oil and tossed in batch after boiled batch of freshly cut spaghetti, cracked open a beer and called it a night, pasta is more fun to share with friends. Especially friend’s that I’d planned to make dinner for but haven’t gotten around to it. Double-especially when one’s a vegetarian and you have the perfect reason to make a vegetarian meal.

As often as I cook for friends, I rarely have to cook for vegetarians. I’d always felt a bit of pity for Brian, often times the vegetarian part is merely a collection of side dishes, or is presented as the “option” while meat is the focus of the dish. Therefore, I decided to make this meal a vegetarian meal, that happens to have a meat option, because if you don’t some of your non vegetarian friends will text you asking if they can bring a steak for you to make for them. To be fair, I was flattered, because I can make a pretty mean steak.

If there was a vegetable equivalent of flank steak, I’d say it’s the eggplant. It responds well to being heavily salted, can be grilled, or rolled and stuffed, and has a nice meaty quality to it. I’d also say both are equally nutritious, although a bavette might be more nutrition for your soul whilst eggplant is actually nutritious. One of my favorite ways to prepare eggplant that goes well with pasta, while avoiding breading and frying it, is to make eggplant involtini.

Since I did have to have a meat option, I went with the foolproof chicken thighs. Because I planned to cook them sous vide, I started preparing those first. I was hoping to get them into the water bath before everyone arrived, but sadly Brian had to witness me deboning, stuffing the thighs with rosemary and basil, and folding them tightly in the skin. 

Once vacuum sealed, they still look pretty unappetizing; if he had any doubts about being vegetarian, I think they were gone at that point.

Once that was started, I could focus on the next longest item to prepare, the pasta dough. Preparing the dough itself is quite quick, however I could use time productively to drink wine and eat some cheese, which has the side benefit of letting the dough relax and develop some gluten. To make the dough, I heavily flour my counter (and my floor, and my apron) and pour about two cups of flour in a mound, making a crater in the middle large enough for four egg yolks and two whole eggs. Swirling the yolks and whites around brings the eggs together, and slowly pulls in more and more flour. The swirling goes on until the liquid resembles more of a batter, at which point flour can be added in a bit more aggresively, and once it comes together, the kneading can begin. I’m not much of a baker, but to knead my dough I do a simple fold, push, and quarter-turn. Fold, push, quarter-turn; fold, push, quarter-turn. This goes on, until the dough feels like the sticky part of a post-it, at this stage it’s almost done, so I let Jodie handle the kneading while I went off to make some tomato sauce. Incorporate a bit more flour until the dough is just tacky, and put aside. To store the dough, I wrap in plastic wrap and set on the cleanest part of the counter

With the dough done, I got the guests going to make the filling. Some lemon zest, ricotta cheese, and fresh basil all came together in what could make a pretty decent dip on it’s own. But then after I fried up the eggplants a little to soften them, they got stuffed with the cheese and placed in a pan with the tomato sauce, with some more drizzled on top and fresh mozzarella slices to melt all over them, and got tossed into a hot oven.

Meanwhile, I consumed enough wine and cheese for a bit so it was time to roll out the pasta. Again, flour absolutely everything and cut the dough into quarters. I slowly run it through the machine at the widest setting, tri fold, rotate, and pass through again. I do this a few times, helping knead the dough, developing it a bit before stretching it out. As the rollers get closer, the pasta gets longer, eventually ready to be cut into linguine. Arrange in little nests after it’s cut, and then toss them into boiling water.

While getting the water boiling, I sauteed some garlic and red chili flakes in olive oil, keeping it warm. Once the pasta is cooked, taking only a few minutes, I toss it into the pan with a nice ladleful of starchy pasta water, helping to bind the now flavored oil to the noodles.

Last thing to be finished off is the chicken, which I pulled out of the vacuum bags, perfectly cooked, and quickly seared it off, with a bit of help from the searzall. True fact: almost everything is improved by a blast with the searzall.

And at that point, I think we were all had enough wine and were hungry enough to not give much of a damn about plating, and just dove in. It came out pretty great, hopefully the rest of the crew thought so as well! And if it wasn’t, I don’t think Jodie will ever let me post on this blog again. (Jodie here...this is totally untrue :))



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