Saturday, December 31, 2011

Agnolotti of Leeks, Kale and Magic Nuts

I have a modest kitchen. Since it's just Heather and me eating, I don't need to cook large quantities of anything, so I don't need a large pantry for staples, I get by with a normal civilian range and oven, and I don't like gadgets so I don't need storage for a crap like a duck press, egg slicer and cherry stoning machine. In a normal week's cooking I'll literally only need one knife, one skillet, one pasta pot and one rice pan. Occasionally I'll break out the dutch oven if I need to braise something or bake bread, but that's about it. I sometimes use a food processor, but they seem a little bit too fiddly for most chores and they're annoying to clean. We don't have a dish washer, and Heather, bless her heart, has never washed a dish in her life, so the less I have to clean, the better. I own a KitchenAid mixer but I haven't used it in years, and I don't have any attachments for it. I'm solidly against attachments, because they require attaching, detaching, cleaning and other things that aren't cooking. I'm pretty sure the KitchenAid is in the cupboard under the toaster but I'm not sure. I suppose I'll find out when we move.

About the only gadget I don't mind is the pasta machine. If you're going to make pasta, you either need a giant work surface and long pin for rolling it out by hand, which I don't have, or a pasta machine and a nine-inch square spot on the counter. That's my jam right there, the nine-inch one.*

I make cut pasta sometimes, but that requires an attachment**, so I'm more likely to cut sheets of pasta with a knife, or just use dry pasta from the store. Usually if I'm making fresh pasta it's for ravioli of some kind. I don't have any ravioli molds, so usually I just fold the pasta over the middles into little agnolotti or sometimes use a glass to cut circles for mezzalune.

Tonight's pasta was a way to use up the remaining kale from a massive kale indulgence brought on by some particularly nice bunches at the fruit stand. I had some endive, kale and a leek, and made a plan to stuff ravioli with the mixed greens and serve with some browned butter. I cut some bacon into 1/2-inch cubes and started them rendering in the skillet with a little olive oil, then added the leek to get it wilted. I like almonds with greens, so as an experiment I added a bunch of chopped cashews and almonds to the skillet. More about them later, they did magic. While all that was underway I stripped the green kale leaf web off the stems and chopped it into ribbons.

When the leek was tender I added the kale and salted everything. The kale goes in before the other leaves because it takes more time to cook. If I were using collards I'd put them in first, same with beet, turnip or mustard greens. Softer greens like escarole, frisee, spinach, celery leaf, herbs -- basically anything you might eat uncooked -- take much less time to cook, and can disintegrate if cooked too long. I'm always charmed by how much the volume of fresh greens cooks down. You start with an afro and end up with a burr. I chopped up the curly endive, and once the kale had wilted I added the endive and a handful of both celery and mint leaves, which have the effect of brightening any cooked greens..

Sometimes greens can have a slightly dank, musty undertaste, so when everything was tender, I took it off the fire and added a splash of rice vinegar to keep the muddiness at bay. I didn't want to make a puree out of it while it was still hot, because the bowl of the processor is plastic and I seldom feel comfortable about putting hot things in plastic, not just because I might distort the plastic, but because maybe some mutagen chemical could cook out of it and I'd get face cancer or grow a dick out of each armpit. I tasted a bit of the greens and liked them, but doubted the wisdom of adding nuts because they didn't seem to be doing anything. How little I knew then.

I turned my attention to the pasta, which was the same simple recipe I've used forever. I put enough flour on the counter (I guess it's about a cup and a half), then crack an egg into the middle of it, making a little well, add an additional egg yolk, some salt and a spoonful of olive oil, then start stirring the egg with a fork, gradually incorporating more flour into it until it becomes a mass of dough, then grab the whole pile and knead it with the remaining flour until it comes together as pasta. I used semolina this time, but the same basic technique works with almost any kind of flour. It seems like the flour will bind with the eggs until satisfied, then no more flour joins the party, so you basically can't fuck it up. I'm all for things I can't fuck up.

I kneaded the pasta for a while to develop the gluten and make it elastic enough to stretch around the middle of the agnolotti, which I expected to be lumpy from the nuts,*** then put it aside to rest for a few minutes. If you let fresh pasta rest before you roll it, it doesn't retract after rolling as much and rolls down to thickness easier.

Then the magic happened. I put the greens in the basket of the food processor and pulsed them. When I stopped to check the consistency, I grabbed a pinch and tasted it, and was surprised to find that the nuts had given up some of their fat **** and emulsified the greens into a creamy mousse. It was both richer and nicer to eat than the greens straight out of the skillet. I suddenly felt like a goddamn genius and like I invented something and started hollering for the patent attorneys again. I couldn't wait to get the pasta ready.

I rolled the pasta out in a scorched panic, laid it out on the table in yard-long strips and filled it with the greens like I was trying to win a medal in it. Only then did I realize I had no water boiling yet. I sorted that out, and while the water was coming up I ran out into the alley and grabbed a couple of big fuzzy leaves off Old Man Sage. It's incredible, Old Man Sage is still happy out there in his bucket in the dead of winter, laughing, pimping, dancing on the graves of all the other herbs. When I got back indoors, the water had come up to boil, so I salted it and tossed in the agnolotti, and while they boiled I browned the sage in the skillet with some butter and garlic.

 The sage butter was ready precisely when the agnolotti were, so I strained them into the skillet and tossed them until the butter and the residual pasta water emulsified into a light sauce. I plated the agnolotti, dusted them by grating the last of the homemade cheese and decorated them with finely sliced scallions and black pepper.

The nut transformation was evident even inside the pasta, making the greens rich and smooth, and the toasted flavor of the nuts made the agnolotti more complex, which married nicely with the butter sauce. Made it worth breaking out two gadgets for one meal.

* Said the Bishop to the Actress
** Said the salesman in the sex shop
*** Said the Bishop to nobody in particular. Maybe an actress.
**** Bishop again.