Monday, October 11, 2010

Italian Dinner

A big thanks to all who voted for me in Round 2 of PFB. Unfortunately I did not make it through, but I'm so grateful and happy to have been included in the competition. And since they told us to plan ahead, I already had all the ingredients for a fancy schmancy dinner party! What, did you think I would cancel it? Not a chance.
My cooking usually leans toward Mexican and Asian influences, but I'm a lover of Italian food as well. I have dabbled in making my own pasta, and I love Bolognese sauce. Italian is something I really enjoy but don’t cook often enough. I figured this was a good opportunity to cook outside my comfort zone, and the flavors I was hoping to obtain paired well with the fall. So it was time to roll up my sleeves, drink a few beers, and get to work.

I decided to have a pseudo-Italian themed dinner, with the goal of feeding myself, my wife, and two good friends on a budget. Four courses, $40 budget. There is some discrepancy as to what my actual budget would be since I have food on hand at the house, but the main goal was not to buy $80 in groceries just for the meal. I ended up spending $21, though if you count the bottle of wine we had, let's call it $30. Sweet! More than anything, I wanted to enjoy the food, to keep it (somewhat) simple, and also to cut my prep time down once guests arrived.
I did my research in a few cookbooks and selected some complementing recipes (thanks Ted Allen and ATK!), and then I chose dessert. Is chocolate cake traditionally Italian? No, but if someone put a moist chocolate cake in front of you at an Italian dinner I'm willing to bet you wouldn’t turn it down.

Our Menu (recipes at end of post)

1st- Tuscan white bean crostinis with sea salt and olive oil
2nd- Wilted green salad with apples, blue cheese, and an orange vinaigrette
3rd- Kale and ricotta ravioli with tomato sauce
4th- Chocolate blackout cake

My biggest undertaking was making my own pasta. Kneading the dough (I cheated and used my food processor to mix), making the filling, stuffing and crimping the ravioli take a looooooooong time. It’s totally worth it, and I’m sure the time gets cut down if I’m more focused (sheepdogs are fun) and make it more often.

Matt and Sarah arrived Saturday evening and were promptly mauled by my sheepdog Molly. She loves them a lot, and since she doesn’t have a tail, her butt wiggles for about 20 minutes after someone fun shows up.
I started everyone off with crostinis topped with a Tuscan white beanspread. It's similar to a Ted Allen recipe, and is really a cheap alternative to hummus. That's not to say it's not delicious, because it is, but it's also really simple and I always have the ingredients on hand.
After that (and watching the end of the Michigan game), we moved to the table where we had set some super fancy place settings. I love our dining room table, but usually it houses stuff rather than food. That's just how it goes. The salad was wilted greens with some toasted walnuts and bleu cheese. We all gobbled it down, because next up was the pasta!
The ravioli, I mean, oh my goodness, it was so good. The tomato sauce was the same I made a month ago when I had lots of tomatoes from the garden. My freezer is packed full of frozen blueberries, tomato sauce, and soon my pantry will be full of apple sauce. Making food like this saves money! Takes a bit of effort, but when making dinner it’s a life saver.
Back to the ravioli. The pictures speak for themselves :)
Dessert was accompanied by Doctor Who. Oh yeah, the other main reason we had Matt and Sarah over. Converting them to loving the Doctor. The cake was a chocolate blackout cake, which was just amazing, especially the pudding! I could have eating just a bowl of that.
We all had such a great night, and I made some of best food I have ever made. My philosophy has always been “food makes people happy”, and this one didn’t even break the bank. Hope you all enjoy.

White Bean Crostini (adapted from Ted Allen)

1-15oz can white cannellini beans, rinsed
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon hot sauce
2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage
salt and pepper
1 baguette or French loaf, sliced into 1/2-1 inch slices
finishing salt (optional)
chopped parsley (optional)

In a food processor add beans, garlic, lemon juice, hot sauce, sage, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper.  Process until combined and drizzle in 5 tablespoons olive oil, process until smooth.  Season to taste, but if using finishing salt, ease up on the salt.

Toast the baguette under the broiler and spread the bean puree over the bread slices.  Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the bread slices and garnish with parsley or finishing salt if desired.

Wilted Green Salad with Pecans, Blue Cheese, and Apples (Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen)

1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 3-inch strip orange zest
1 shallot minced
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
10 ounces fresh spinach, stems removed
1/2 apple (golden delicious are nice), cored and chopped
3 tablespoons chopped pecans, toasted

In a Dutch oven or pot heat oil, orange zest, shallot and sugar over medium low heat until shallot is soft.  Remove pot from heat, discard zest.  Stir in vinegar and juice with a bit of salt and pepper, add spinach and cover, letting spinach steam for about 30 seconds.  Transfer to bowls and garnish with the apples, pecans, and blue cheese.  Serves 4.

Fresh Pasta (adapted from Marcella Hazan)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups flour (all-purpose or low protein)
1 tablespoon milk

In a bowl, combine eggs and milk. Slowly incorporate the flour into the egg mixture (here's where you can use the food processor) until you achieve a slightly dry dough. Marcella says "When you think the dough is right (i.e. does not need any more flour), wash your hands, dry them completely, and plunge your thumb into the dough. If it comes out clean, with no sticky matter on it, no more flour is needed." You may need to add more flour as you knead. Turn out dough onto lightly floured surface. Knead, stretching the dough lightly and folding it back in on itself for about 8 minutes.  It should take on a slightly shiny look and be very smooth.  Wrap in plastic wrap and store for up to 2 hours.

Kale and Ricotta Ravioli

1 recipe fresh pasta dough (makes about 1 pound)
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch kale (about 1/2-3/4 pound), chopped and stems removed
1 cup ricotta cheese (not whole milk)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon chopped basil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 cups red sauce (meat or tomato)

Heat olive oil in skillet over medium heat.  Add onion and cook until soft, about 3-5 minutes.  Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds.  Add kale and stir frequently until wilted and cooked.  Season with salt and pepper.

Process the kale mixture, ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, egg yolk, basil, salt, and pepper in a food processor until mostly smooth.

I would write in here exactly how to make the ravioli, but I suggest you seek out something with more pictures, such as a cook book or video to better get an idea.

Heat sauce over medium heat until simmering, cook ravioli and sauce lightly with red sauce.  Serve immediately.

Chocolate Blackout Cake (Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen)

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup whole milk
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate , chopped
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), plus extra for greasing pans
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour , plus extra for dusting pans
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 cup brewed coffee
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. For the pudding: Whisk sugar, cornstarch, salt, half-and-half, and milk in large saucepan. Set pan over medium heat. Add chocolate and whisk constantly until chocolate melts and mixture begins to bubble, 2 to 4 minutes. Stir in vanilla and transfer pudding to large bowl. Place plastic wrap directly on surface of pudding and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours or up to 1 day.
2. For the cake layers: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour two 8-inch cake pans. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in bowl.
3. Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in cocoa and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Off heat, whisk in coffee, buttermilk, and sugars until dissolved. Whisk in eggs and vanilla, then slowly whisk in flour mixture.
4. Divide batter evenly between prepared pans and bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool layers in pans 15 minutes, then invert onto wire rack. Cool to room temperature, at least 1 hour.
5. To assemble the cake: Cut each cake in half horizontally. Crumble one cake layer into medium crumbs and set aside. Place one cake layer on serving platter or cardboard round. Spread 1 cup pudding over cake layer and top with another layer. Repeat with 1 cup pudding and last cake layer. Spread remaining pudding evenly over top and sides of cake. Sprinkle cake crumbs evenly over top and sides of cake, pressing lightly to adhere crumbs. Serve. (Cake can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.)