Sage Advice

Here’s the advice: make this dish, because it may be the best thing I’ve ever eaten. The dish in question, “Sweet Potato Agnolotti with Sage Cream, Brown Butter and Prosciutto” – is from the The French Laundry Cookbook, and while it is insanely calorific, it’s also cheap and – relative to the rest of that book, anyway – easy. I’ll admit up front to leaving out one element of the dish – the brown butter – for reasons that will become apparent by the end of this post.

The pasta follows more or less the same procedure I described in my last post, but the formula is quite different: for 8oz of all-purpose flour, you use 6 egg yolks, one whole egg, a tablespoon of water, and 1.5 tbsp olive oil. This makes for a very silky dough that’s perfect for the thin sheets you need for texturally light, filled pastas.

I made the pasta up to the resting-in-the-fridge stage the day before. I also baked two sweet potatoes, wrapped in foil with a couple of tablespoons of butter, for about 2 hours, until they were tender. Contrary to the recipe, which tells us to run the sweet potatoes through a ricer while they’re hot, I did this the next day and I can’t imagine that it made a difference.

The filling consists of said sweet potato mash (about 1.5 lbs), 2 slices of excellent quality bacon, fried and crumbled, 4 tbsp butter, salt and pepper, and – since we lacked Keller’s “squab spice” – a dash of allspice and a few microplane-shavings of nutmeg. Warm this mixture up enough to soften the butter so you can stir it evenly into the mixture, and spoon it into a piping bag (for me, that’s always a Ziploc with a corner cut off).

Start the assembly process by cutting off 1/4 of your dough (cover the rest tightly with plastic so it doesn’t dry out), and rolling it out to the thinnest setting on your pasta machine.

Pipe the filling out in a series of fat, inch-long blorts running the length of the pasta sheet. (We tried one batch Keller’s way: piping out a single, long snake of filling, folding the other half of the pasta sheet on top of the filling, and using a flattened index finger to separated the filling into individual fill-ettes. Our way is better… okay, our way is easier!)

Fold the pasta over onto itself so the fold meets one long side of the filling:

Then, gently but firmly press down on the pasta on either side of the filling. Work from the filling outward, to minimize air pockets. Only then should you seal the end opposite the fold.

Trim the packets with a bench scraper, pastry wheel, knife, pizza cutter, or electric razor, and you’ll have something that looks… nothing like agnolotti, but a lot like ravioli. Whatevs. As you make them, set them aside on a sheet pan that’s covered with fine cornmeal or semolina. You can also use this to separate layers, but that’s risky (a few of ours tore upon separation).

While the pasta water is boiling (or really, anytime within an hour before serving), you can begin putting together the sage cream sauce. Here’s the mise en place: 8oz butter, 1 cup crème fraîche (no, you can’t use sour cream – it will separate on you because the fat content isn’t high enough and it’s usually full of gelatin and stabilizers), and sage leaves: 1/3 cup of big ones, relatively tightly packed, and some tiny ones to use as a garnish.

The first step is to blanch the large sage leaves in boiling water for 2 minutes…

…and to shock them in a bath of ice water. This will preserve their bright green colour once they’re in the sauce.

Drain them, dry them off, and set them aside.

Next, heat some canola oil to about 275’F, and fry the tiny sage leaves for maybe 15 or 20 seconds. They should crisp up, but not colour.

They’re super-fragile once fried, and you do want them to remain intact, so exercise care when removing them from the boiling oil onto paper towels to drain. (For that matter, exercise care around boiling oil. Certainly don’t deep-fry sage leaves after a few glasses of excellent sauvignon blanc. Do as I say, not as I do.)

This next part… when I learned about this, maybe a year ago, I was floored. This is kitchen alchemy. It’s called beurre monté, and it’s almost as easy as boiling water. In fact, that’s how it starts: take a small pan, and bring a tablespoon of water to a boil.

Reduce the heat to medium-low, and whisk in your butter a tablespoon at a time. You don’t have to whisk vigourously – just gently mix the two together. Then the magic happens: as long as you keep this at a gentle simmer, you can add as much butter as you want, and it will keep on turning into a creamy, yellow sauce:

One tablespoon of boiling water + infinite butter = happy butter sauce.

By now, your salty pasta water should be at a good boil. Time to finish the sauce. Throw the blanched sage into your blender. Add the 1 C of crème fraîche, and blend it up a bit. With the blender running, drizzle in the beurre monté very slowly. This is like making mayonnaise: if you add the fat too quickly, you’ll end up with a broken sauce. And that’s what happened to me. Here’s how I rescued it: I let the mixture settle in the blender jar, poured off as much of the top layer of oil as I could, started the blender, and added the oil back in much more slowly. Perfect. And a good argument for not starting to cook the pasta until you have a known-functional sauce.

Pour the sauce into a skillet large enough to hold it and the agnolotti/ravioli in a single layer. Now would be a good time to heat up another frying pan; you’ll use this to quickly crisp up some very thinly sliced prosciutto. Around the same time, you can slide the pasta into the boiling water. Gently boil it for maybe 2 minutes, drain it, and introduce it to the sauce. Heat the sauce and the pasta together for a minute or so, gently shaking the pan to ensure good coverage.

Plate the sauced pasta, and top it with some crumbled prosciutto and fried sage leaves.

And be ready for groans of unbridled happiness. The filling is so rich and sweet – and don’t forget, it has bacon! – it takes every butternut squash-filled pasta you’ve ever had, and kicks its fibrous, water-logged ass to the curb. The pasta is light and delicate but toothsome. The sage cream… oh lord. Deep, creamy-sour, herbal, mellow bliss. Not of this world. No, really: somewhere in a universe far from here, there are unicorns sipping from brooks that run with this stuff. And the crunchy, salty, meaty/herbal garnishes are what they snack on while watching movies.

My final word of sage advice? Get rid of any excess sauce before going to bed, because you do not want to be confronted the next morning with the congealed evidence of what you ate the night before: a whole whack of butter.

Bon appetit!

Tagliatelle with Dungeness Crab

Midwinter blues = time for a splurge. In our neighbourhood, that often means heading down to Bill’s Lobster in Toronto’s East Chinatown. Today, though, instead of lobsters, I went in search of live Dungeness crabs. A whole whack of cash later, I arrived home with these two lively 2-pound guys (all Dungeness crabs that end up on the dinner plate must, by law, be males) which I named Castor and Pollux.

Castor went first into a 12-quart stockpot mostly full of boiling, salted water. (5 tbsp of salt per gallon of water. If you don’t liberally salt the water, it ends up drawing salt out of the crabs.) Doesn’t Pollux look horrified?

After 7 minutes per pound at a healthy simmer, Castor had developed a rosy glow…

…and decided to go for a cooling swim in a 50% ice-water bath for about 15 minutes.

Note that boy crabs have a rather phallic-looking “apron” on their bottom shell; she-crabs, it follows, have a rounded apron.

Pollux was destined for the next day’s crab cakes (we were a little too… “festive” to photograph that recipe – from Ad Hoc at Home – but trust me, it was really, really good). For Castor, we turned to a new addition to our library, given to us by a dear friend after we tried to steal her copy: Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli. This is a wonderful book, full of wisdom and emotion (memorably, Bertolli transcribes a letter he wrote to his newborn son as the elder Bertolli started to craft a batch of balsamic vinegar that would accompany his son through his adult life).

We settled on Bertolli’s recipe for Crab Tagliolini – thin egg noodle pasta with Dungeness crab in a garlicky, chili-spiked olive oil.

Here’s the mise en place for egg pasta: 10 oz all-purpose flour, and 2 large eggs. Plus a half-ounce of water, not pictured.

Bertolli’s pasta recipe differs in one small but important way from the usual: rather than instructing the cook to begin with a mound of flour dumped onto the kitchen counter, he gives us permission to put it in a damned bowl. This pragmatic bit of advice will be welcome to any novice pasta-maker who has been faced with a mess of beaten egg flowing lava-like down the side of a volcano of flour on the countertop.

You can find pasta making tutorials in a kajillion places. I can’t pretend we’re experts: I’ve made pasta maybe 10 times in my life. But it really is very easy. Put the flour in a bowl. Make a shallow well in the flour. Crack the eggs into the well. Take a fork, and gently beat the eggs. Slowly, in a circular motion, scrape a bit of the flour from the top of the well into the eggs. Continue until it’s all more or less incorporated. Then sprinkle your 1/2 oz. of water over the top. Stir it gently until it begins to clump up.

At that point, switch from a fork to your  hands. Draw the shaggy mass together, squeeze it, push down on it, turn it over, draw it together again, and again. Then, turn it out onto a very lightly floured, non-porous surface. And knead it: push the heels of your hands down and forward onto the dough at about a 45′ angle. Do this a few times, until you reach the far edge of your work surface. Then ball up the dough, bring it back towards you, and do it again. Do this for anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, until the dough feels springy and somewhat silky on the outside – i.e., not shaggy, crumby or brittle. It will still feel very taut and heavy, but not brick-like: there’ll be a definite elasticity.

Once you’ve done that, wrap it up in plastic and let it sit in the fridge for an hour to hydrate and relax. This’d be a good time to pick your crab. We found this video from chef Becky Selengut incredibly helpful:

Alright. Time to turn that lump of dough into pasta. For this – unless you have a rolling pin, an acre of counterspace, a lot of time, and the strength of ten men or one Italian nonna – you’ll need a pasta maker of some sort. This is ours.

Start by rolling your pasta blob into a rectangle about 1/4 inch thick. Unless you’ve made pasta before, you’ll want to divide it into 2 batches, wrapping the second batch in plastic while you work on the first.

Next, run it through the widest setting on your pasta machine.

Fold it over onto itself and run it through the thickest setting once again. From then on, it’s just a matter of running it once through successively thinner settings. For this recipe, we wanted a chunky, toothsome pasta, so we stopped at the second-last setting.

Last step! Cutting the pasta. Attach the cutter (it comes with the pasta machine) atop the roller unit. Feed the sheet of pasta through the cutter, and voila:

Tagliatelle is born. If you have time, curl it up onto some parchment and let it dry for an hour or up to a day.

Time to put the dish together. Are you tired yet? Oh, believe me: this is worth the effort. You’re almost there.

Boil some salty water for the pasta. Warm 1/4 cup of olive oil gently over medium heat, and sprinkle in 1/4 tsp of red pepper flakes. Add 1 or 2 cloves of minced garlic. Don’t let it brown – you just want to perfume the oil. While the pasta is boiling (5 minutes or so) finely chop some parsley.

Add the crab and most of the parsley to the garlic-chile oil…

Finally (!) drain the pasta, toss it in the pan with the hot oil for a few seconds, and serve, sprinkling the remaining parsley on top.

And that, folks, is about as good as it gets. Springy, toothsome pasta… rich, briny-fresh crab… a hint of chili, the garlicky bass note, and the green, herbaceous parsley elevating it all. Mmm.