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Italian Dinner for 6

Mixed Mushroom and Gorgonzola Crostini
Arugula and Mint Salad with Watermelon and Feta
Duck Ragù with Potato Gnocchi
Grilled Asparagus and Raddichio
Vanilla Bean Gelato, Chocolate Madeleines and Strawberries

The cookbook that I am currently enamoured with is Nancy Silverton’s The Mozza Cookbook, which brings to the home cook some of the specialties from her popular restaurants in Los Angeles. She writes that she “wanted the recipes to include all the information the reader would need to successfully replicate our food at home”. With this goal in mind, she and her team painstakingly adjusted the recipes so that they work in a home kitchen. Her attention to detail which has contributed to making her such a successful chef, restaurant owner and writer, is reflected throughout the book.

I used this book to guide me in producing an Italian dinner recently, with the duck ragù and potato gnocchi as the centrepiece. This rich and deeply-flavoured main course needed to be balanced with a refreshing and light salad, simply grilled vegetables and a refreshing dessert. The menu is not for cooks who like to prepare a dinner party menu all in one day. Here is how I staged the steps of preparation:

3 days before: I did most of the shopping.
2 days before: I made the tomato sauce, the Soffritto, the salad dressing and started the gelato.
1 day before: I made the madeleine dough, washed the greens and seasoned the duck legs.
There was still a lot to do on the day of the dinner, but it was at least within reach!

Mixed Mushroom and Gorgonzola Crostini

This recipe is based on Mark McEwan’s Gorgonzola Torta and Mushrooms in his book Fabrica. I cut down slightly on the calories by substituting low fat cream cheese for the mascarpone and by omitting the olive oil when making the crostini.

3/4 c. low fat cream cheese, at room temperature
2 oz. gorgonzola, at room temperature
2 c. mixed mushrooms (shitake, oyster, crimini) cleaned, trimmed and cut into chunks
1 T. olive oil
generous pinch of minced rosemary
squeeze of lemon juice
salt and pepper
chopped parsley or chives, for garnish

Mix the cheeses together until smooth. Sauté the mushrooms in the olive oil until wilted. Add the rosemary, deglaze with lemon juice, and season. Spread the cheese on the crostini and top with mushrooms. To make the crostini: Cut a baguette or ciabatta loaf into 1/2″ slices. Put them under the broiler until the top side is lightly browned. Remove from the oven, and when ready to assemble, apply the cheese and mushrooms to the toasted side. Garnish with parsley or chives.

Arugula and Mint Salad with Watermelon and Feta

This salad is based on Ina Garten’s version. I have made a few minor changes to it, namely to use grapeseed oil instead of olive oil which allows the tastes of the other ingredients to shine through, and to increase the amount of mint which I think makes the salad even more refreshing.

1/4 c. freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 c. minced shallots
1 T. honey
1/2 c. grapeseed oil
1 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper
6 c. baby arugula, washed and spun dry
2 c. seedless watermelon, cut in 1″ cubes
12 oz. feta cheese, 1/2″ dice
1/2 c. mint leaves, left whole
1 c. mint leaves, julienned

Whisk together the orange juice, lemon juice, shallots, honey, salt, and pepper. Slowly pour in the oil, whisking constantly, to form an emulsion. If not using within an hour, store the vinaigrette covered in the refrigerator.

Place the arugula, watermelon, feta, and whole mint leaves in a large bowl. Drizzle with enough vinaigrette to coat the greens lightly and toss well. Taste for seasoning, arrange on plates, garnish with julienned mint and serve immediately.

Duck Ragù with Potato Gnocchi

As with all ragùs, the flavour of this dish is enhanced by making it in advance and it also freezes well. The recipe here is basically the same as Silverton’s except that I omitted the duck liver and did not finish the dish with the added 6T. of finishing-quality olive oil that she suggests.

4 duck legs, skinned, cut apart at the joint, fat removed, rinsed and patted dry
1 1/2 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 c. Soffritto, recipe below
5 T. double concentrated tomato paste (see photo)
2 c. dry red wine
3 c. chicken stock
3 1/2 oz. duck or chicken livers (I omitted these, but I have included what to do with them if you choose to use them)
4 fresh sage leaves

Place the duck legs in a glass dish and season with salt and pepper. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight.

Heat the oil and garlic together over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven or sauté pan and cook the garlic, stirring constantly, until it is softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in the Soffritto and cook it for 1 minute. Move the vegetables to create a bare spot in the pan, add the tomato paste to that spot, and cook for 1 minute, stirring, to caramelize the tomato paste slightly. Add the wine, chicken stock, livers if using, sage, and duck legs and bring liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the duck legs for about 1 1/2 hours, until the duck is tender and falling off the bones. Turn off the heat and let the duck cool to room temperature in the braising liquid.

Transfer the duck and the braising liquid to an airtight container, or cover the pot, and refrigerate until you are ready to make the ragù. You can make the duck to this point up to a day in advance.

Remove the legs from the braising liquid, and pour the liquid into a medium saucepan. Pull the meat off the bones, discarding bones and tendons. Add the meat to the pan with the braising liquid and bring the liquid to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer the meat in the liquid, breaking it up as it cooks, until the liquid is reduced and the sauce has thickened somewhat. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if desired. Use the ragù, or allow it to cool to room temperature, transfer it to an airtight container, and refrigerate for up to 3 days, or freeze it for as long as 3 months. Warm the ragù over medium heat before serving, adding enough water to loosen it to a sauce-like consistency.

In her book, Silverton explains how this combination of vegetables is cooked over a long period of time until it becomes a thick, rich paste and is used to enhance the flavour of ragùs at Mozza. While the duck ragù recipe only calls for 1/2 cup of Soffritto, it is worth making a large batch at once since it can be refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for several months. Here is an example, though, of how it is difficult to translate restaurant cooking practices, with a line of sous chefs to do the chopping and sautéing, to the home kitchen. Further, Silverton writes that while the quantity of olive oil in Soffritto seems like a lot, it is used to start dishes where olive oil is normally used. Having said all this, I cut down the recipe to 1/2 c. olive oil, 1 c. onions, 1/2 c. carrots, and 1/2 c. celery, which was just enough for the duck recipe.

2 c. extra-virgin olive oil
2 lbs. Spanish onions, finely chopped (about 7 cups)
1 lb. carrots, peeled and finely chopped (about 3 1/2 c.)
1 lb. celery, finely chopped (about 3 1/4 c.)

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat until oil is almost smoking, about 2-3 minutes. Add the onions and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until they are tender and translucent. Add the carrots and celery, reduce the heat to medium, and cook the vegetables, stirring often, for about 3 hours, until the Soffritto is a deep caramel colour and the vegetables are almost melted. If the vegetables start to sizzle and stick to the bottom of the pan, reduce the heat to low and continue cooking. Use the Soffritto, or let it cool to room temperature, then transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate or freeze.

Potato Gnocchi
I have tried making potato gnocchi before, with disappointing results. This recipe, with Silverton’s meticulous detail really worked. A few added notes from my experience: I skipped the part of the process for making the ridges on the gnocchi pieces, even though this step is what makes the gnocchi look authentic and helps to capture the sauce. But I find that this is not essential for my cooking standards or for the extra time it takes. Also, I froze some of the extra gnocchi since this recipe made more than I needed for 6 people and they froze very well.

2 t. kosher salt, plus about 1 1/2 c. for baking sheet and for boiling gnocchi
3 1/2 lbs. russet potatoes
1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten
2 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350º F. Spread a layer of salt on a baking sheet. Rinse the potatoes, roll them in the salt, and place them, on the salt-covered baking sheet, in the oven to bake until they’re very soft, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove the potatoes from the oven and use a small knife to remove half of the peel, discarding the peel. Squeeze the potatoes out of the peel into a food mill or potato ricer and discard remaining peel. Pass the potatoes through the mill or ricer into a large bowl. Sprinkle the 2 t. salt over the potatoes and cut the salt in with the tines of a fork, sweeping through the potatoes from side to side with the tips of the tines to avoid compressing the potato.

Drizzle the egg over the potatoes and cut it into the potatoes in the same way. Pass the potato and egg mixture through the food mill again into a large bowl. Sprinkle the potatoes with some of the flour, adding the flour gradually and cutting it in with the fork in the same manner, adding more flour as soon as the flour you have added is integrated and the dough begins to look wet again. Form the dough into a brick about 1″ thick, patting down on the top of the dough to make it square. Turn the brick out onto a baking sheet, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator, and cut the dough brick into 1″ long segments. Lightly flour a flat work surface and roll the segments into 1/2″ thick tubes. Dust the tubes generously with flour and line them up side by side. Cut the tubes into 1″ segments. Dust the work surface again with flour. One at a time, pick up one of the cut segments with one hand and a large dinner fork with the other. Holding the fork so that the tines are resting on the work surface and the convex side is facing out, and using your thumb, roll the gnocchi down the length of the fork to create ridges. Place the ridged gnocchi on the prepared baking sheet and repeat, forming the remaining segments in the same way. Use the gnocchi or cover the baking sheet with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 8 hours.

For finishing and serving the gnocchi:
1 c. tomato sauce (recipe below)
28 oz. gnocchi
1/2 c. thinly sliced Italian parsley leaves
1/2 c. grated Parmesan

To finish the gnocchi, fill a large saucepan with water, add 3T. salt and bring it to the boil over high heat. Meanwhile, combine 2 c. of the ragù with the tomato sauce in a large sauté pan, stirring occasionally and adding some hot pasta water to thin it, if necessary. Lower heat to keep it hot while the gnocchi cooks. Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water and cook until they float to the top, about 2-3 minutes. Turn the heat under the sauce up to high, and lift the gnocchi out of the cooking water with a wire strainer, and add them to the sauce. Cook for about 2 minutes, tossing gently with a rubber spatula to coat the gnocchi with the sauce. Add the parsley and some of the grated Parmesan. Spoon the gnocchi onto plates and adding any remaining sauce from the pan and grate some fresh Parmesan over top.

Tomato Sauce
This is the best tomato sauce and since it makes much more than called for in the duck recipe above, you can keep smaller containers of it in your freezer for other uses. It’s wonderful on pizza.

1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced (about 2 cups)
1 T. kosher salt
1/2 t. pepper, plus more to taste
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
half a medium carrot, peeled and shredded
3 T. thyme leaves
2 28 oz.cans whole peeled plum tomatoes, including their juices (preferably San Marzano)

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, sprinkle with the salt and pepper, and cook the onion, stirring occasionally, until it is tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly so it doesn’t brown. Add the carrot and thyme leaves and cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrot is soft, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes, including their juices: bring the liquid to the boil, reduce the heat, and simmer the sauce stirring often, for about 30 minutes, until it has thickened slightly. When the sauce is done, pass it through a food mill into a large bowl. Taste for seasoning and add more salt or pepper, to taste. Use the sauce or set it aside to cool to room temperature, then transfer it to an air-tight container and refrigerate for up to several days, or freeze up to several months. Makes about 2 quarts.

Vanilla Gelato
In the introduction to another recipe in Nancy Silverton’s book, she explains the difference between gelato and ice cream: that gelato has less butterfat than ice cream, it has less air incorporated in it than does ice cream, and it is kept at a warmer temperature than ice cream, making it smoother and stronger in flavour. She recommends freezing it only a short time before serving it to keep it at the ideal smoothness, but I found that putting it in the microwave for just a few seconds will soften it even after it has been frozen for several hours, or even days.

6 extra-large egg yolks
1/4 c. cornstarch
3 c. whole milk
3/4 c. plus 2 T. sugar
1/4 c. nonfat dry milk powder
2 T. light corn syrup
1/2 t. kosher salt
2 whole vanilla beans
2 t. pure vanilla extract
1 c. whipping cream

Fill a large bowl with ice water and set a smaller bowl inside. Set a fine-mesh strainer in the smaller bowl. Whisk the egg yolks and cornstarch together in a medium bowl. Combine the milk, sugar, milk powder, corn syrup, and salt in a medium saucepan and whisk to break up and dissolve the milk powder.

Using a small, sharp knife, split the vanilla beans lengthwise. Use the back of the knife to scrape out the seeds and pulp and add the scrapings and the beans to the pan with the milk. Heat the milk mixture over high heat until it begins to bubble and immediately turn off the heat. Slowly add 1/2 c. of the hot milk mixture to the bowl with the eggs, whisking constantly. Continue to add the milk 1/2 cup at a time, whisking constantly, until you have added about half of the milk, or enough to warm the eggs slightly. Pour the egg and milk mixture into the pot with the milk, return the pot to medium-low heat, and cook, stirring constantly with the whisk or a wooden spoon, taking care not to let the custard boil or the eggs will curdle, until the gelato base thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon. It will look something like this:

Pour the gelato base through the strainer into the bowl set over the ice water and discard the vanilla beans. Stir in the vanilla extract and set aside to cool to room temperature. Transfer the base to an air-tight container and refrigerate for at least several hours and up to 3 days.

Remove the base from the refrigerator, pour it into a bowl, and stir in the cream. Pour the base into the bowl of an ice cream maker and spin it according to the machine instructions. Serve the gelato straight from the maker or transfer it to an airtight container and place in the freezer until you’re ready to serve it.

Chocolate Madeleines

This recipe is courtesy of Chilling the dough overnight or at least a few hours is important to the success of these chocolate treats. The lemon zest, while ‘optional’ in the original version, is what makes these special to me…somehow the small amount of zest brings out the chocolate flavour, while it is probably not even discernible if you don’t already know it’s there. Make sure the butter is very soft before you start.

1/2 c. plus 1 T. all-purpose flour
3 1/2 T. Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1/2 t. baking powder
1/3 c. plus two T.sugar
Pinch of salt
Grated zest of 1/4 lemon
2 large eggs, room temperature
6 1/2 T. unsalted butter, room temperature

Sift together the flour, cocoa and baking powder and set aside. Combine the sugar, salt and lemon zest in another bowl and rub the ingredients together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist, grainy and aromatic.

Using a whisk, beat the eggs with the lemon-sugar mixture until blended. Squish the butter through your fingers and add to the bowl. You will be left with little clumps of butter in the mixture–this is okay. Beat in the butter with the whisk until it is evenly distributed. Whisk in the sifted flour mixture just until the flour is incorporated and mixture is smooth. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the batter and chill overnight. If you can’t wait overnight, chill the batter for at least an hour before baking.

When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat your oven to 425º F. Butter a 12-mold madeleine pan then dust it with flour (even if you are using a nonstick pan) and tap out the excess.

Divide the batter evenly among the madeleine molds–you don’t have to worry about spreading the batter on the molds, the heat will do that for you. Place the pan in the oven and use a wooden spoon to keep the oven door slightly ajar. Immediately turn down the oven temperature to 350º F and bake the cookies for 13 – 15 minutes, or until the cookies are domed and spring back when pressed lightly. Unmold the cookies and transfer them to a rack to cool to room temperature.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. sjm #

    Omigoodness, DKO – this time you’ve intimidated me. I could never aspire to do all of this (although you do make it sound POSSIBLE). I just want to be invited the next time YOU do it!

    July 4, 2012

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