February 2009 Valtellina Dinner

Meg's pasta

Menu:
Antipasto:  Spicy salami and Pecorino cheese with rosemary crackers

First Course:  Homemade egg fettucine with porcini mushroom and speck cream sauce

Second Course: Braised rabbit with rosemary (a la Marcella Hazan), turnip gratin, braised carrots with parsley

Salad: Escarole with olive oil, lemon, and salt

Dessert: Poached pear and cornmeal tart

Gastronomeg:

The menu for our Valtellina dinner evolved from several themes and memories working together.  On the wine angle was a recent memory of the great bottle of Valtellina we drank with part of my husband Jason’s family on Christmas last year.  This was part of a gala dinner at our apartment with Jason’s dad Marcus and his sister Charmayne and her husband Roberto.  I cooked up a storm (with some assists from Charmayne and Roberto) and we all enjoyed a leisurely dinner that unfolded over the course of an entire evening.
The wine for the final savory course (roast pheasant with sausage stuffing) was a Valtellina that we’d received as a wedding gift from Jason’s cousin Bill. Rummaging through the wine cellar in search of something to go with roasted pheasant, a 2003 Valtellina seemed like it would be the perfect wine – earthy, but light and fresh at the same time.  It was indeed a perfect match, although (alas! And atypically!) we neglected
to write down the name of the producer. (A classic case of thinking we’d done so already and not checking before we recycled the bottle; let this be a lesson to you…).

At any rate, with a Valtellina dinner in the works, it seemed natural to invite Charmayne and Roberto to join in again. And with family coming to the dinner, homemade pasta became a natural choice for the first course. My father, who has had an abiding love of all things Italian since his year-abroad-in-college days, would make pasta for dinner parties
and family occasions throughout my childhood. The pasta-making became, and remains to this day, a collective affair, with all the kids pitching in to help knead and roll out the dough. The final work of cutting and cooking the pasta and making the sauce falls to the chef, of course – but the rolling and drying were always a full-on family affair.  And so, carrying on the family tradition, Charmayne and Roberto came over early to help roll out
the pasta. We are happy to report to Roberto’s Italian family that Charmayne is a natural and jumped right in on the project (we have pictures to prove how quickly he has successfully turned his American wife into a proper Italian matron!).

For the sauce, a wintery combination of dried mushrooms and speck would make a wonderful echo of the salty and earthy notes in that make Valtellina such a special expression of Nebbiolo, and I always love a touch of cream with the rich flavor of fresh homemade egg noodles.

dinner tableimg_1729

turnip gratin

turnip gratin

The second course of braised rabbit was a return to a dish I’d worked on several years ago, as well as a matter of convenience – I was going to be at the NY Botanical Garden for class on the day before the dinner, and NYBG is ever-so convenient to the Italian neighborhood of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.  Inside the big covered market on Arthur Avenue is one of the best butcher shops in New York, Peter’s Meat Market. Here you can
always get fresh rabbit (in any size you want) as well as legs of lamb and goat that will be boned and cut any way you want. If you order ground veal, they grind it to order, and they have many cuts of meat you won’t find anywhere else because they order (and sell) the entire animal from nose to tail. I can stand for hours admiring the precision and speed with which the butchers behind that counter work on a busy Saturday – these guys have
real skills!

At any rate, Valtellina is a light but flavorful wine that requires similar light but flavorful meat. The pheasant we did for Christmas (with a sage and sausage stuffing and barded with smoked bacon) worked well; veal osso bucco might have been another good choice.  But since rabbit is hard to find (except at Arthur Avenue), I decided that rabbit was the way to go.

For the preparation, I experimented with doing Marcella Hazan’s version from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. In the past, I’d stuck to the more French version where the meat is floured and browned then braised in stock and white wine. But for an Italian dinner, it seemed better to try the Hazan version, where the rabbit is not browned but simply braised in its own juices for several hourse. White wine, herbs, and tomato paste are added to the juices at the end and reduced to a rich sauce.   This technique
renders a very tender and flavorful dish – the rabbit gives a lot of juice (it will be covered by the end of 2 hours!) and this, when reduced, makes a nice meaty sauce. Cooked this way, rabbit is ideal with a light and slightly earthy red wine like Valtellina  (whereas the French method is best with white wine).  It’s a less elegant-looking preparation, but worked wonderfully with the wine.

Side dishes were also winter-themed, as we are in the height of “root vegetable only” time at the farmer’s market. Braised carrots with butter and parsley would add some color, and turnip gratin is one of my favorite ways to make this humble brassica into
something rich and luxurious (plus I had some leftover garlic breadcrumbs). For the salad, we made a big Escarole salad simply dressed with salt, lemon and olive oil. Escarole is my favorite winter salad when there is nothing local available (sometimes we get to the market early enough to score some green-house-grown bunches of mizuna, sometimes not!). But escarole travels well and makes a definite improvement over the
usual head of wilted and watery California red-leaf; it’s cheaper to boot!

And finally, Carlita’s tart was certainly one of the highlights of the meal – even after all that food, the tart was gobbled down with alacrity! I squirreled away one piece to enjoy with breakfast the next day – I love desserts that aren’t so sweet you can’t sneak a piece in the morning.

As far as the wine tasting, it made me realize that what I love about Valtellina (as well as other northern nebbiolos from the DOC’s of Valle d’Aosta and Carema) is their fragrance, which manages to be ethereal and earthy at the same time. Since I’m now 3 months pregnant, I’m not drinking (beyond the occasional sip) these days.  Confined to just smelling and tasting, I find I am drawn more than ever to wines with nuance and
interest on the nose.  For this I preferred the simple Fay Rosso to the other wines on the table (the more modern and fruit-driven wine from Conti Sertoli Soli and the Cascina Cara Nebbiolo d’Alba). I also appreciate that Valtellina also has a lighter, fresher body than many of the traditional Nebbiolos from Alba – while these can attain 14% alchohol, Valtellina often hovers around 12.5%.  Don’t get me wrong – aged Barolo is one of the
most wonderful things on the planet! But for more everyday drinking and rustic meals, I think a simple Rosso from Valtellina makes a perfect substitute.

Torta di Pere

Carlita:

February’s Valtellina dinner was to be the grand farewell to Gastronomeg’s well-seasoned New York kitchen, as she gets ready to make the big move up to Vermont.  The hallway kitchen in her Harlem digs has served up many scrumptious food and wine get-togethers over the years: from the epic Momofuko take out birthday party (pork butt with all the fixins), to osso bucco and Barolo, and the recent mini Cubano and Christmas cookie party with Cerdon de Bugey.

Not to say I don’t have a file folder full of images of my dream kitchen: the viking oven, storage island, marble pastry slab, wood burning oven…. But after working in many tiny restaurant kitchens I actually find it more efficient to cook in a small space.  I love the ability to easily reach equipment and surfaces and to always be close to the stove to watch, smell and attend to the meal.  Small prep areas are conducive to planning and organizing your tasks and clearing and cleaning as you go. Meg’s hallway has everything she needs, with a hanging pot rack, a fold down prep table and a mini dishwasher (of which I will soon be the lucky recipient). And to score a home dinner invite in New York City, the capital of shoebox kitchens, is always a coveted event indeed.

Gastronomeg’s dinner was an excellent compliment to the Valtellina.  The pasta with mushrooms was perfectly cooked and dressed.  The rabbit was moist and fragrant with rosemary, garlic and a silky sauce from the pan juices.  I especially loved the visual of the rabbit with the carrots on the plate.  The turnip gratin was a hit and I feel it would also stand up well to a roast or grilled meat.

The poached pear cornmeal tart I brought is from Carol Fields, from her book The Italian Baker. Torta di Pere from Piedmont is my standard winter tart and as the cornmeal pastry settles over the red wine poached pears it creates a bumpy craggy surface, something like a Louise Bourgeois sculpture .  The texture of the buttery cornmeal pastry with the smooth juicy pears is a great contrast.

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic about the last dinner in Harlem but stay tuned for a vinartculture party in Meg’s Vermont farmhouse, coming soon.

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