Making Pasta Alla Carne Di Cervo

Last night I finally cooked up the venison that Russell brought to our apartment. I toyed with the idea of making venison burgers, but ultimately took the advice of some experienced venison chefs, who recommended spaghetti as a good, and safe, introduction to the world of cooking deer meat. I decided that some pasta alla carne di cervo (“cervo” being the Italian word for venison) sounded pretty good for a Friday night.

I began by browning the ground meat in my smaller cast iron skillet. I followed some on-line cooking site advice, which noted that venison is very lean meat and can dry out if overcooked, and made sure to slowly brown the meat with a lot of butter to keep it juicy and maintain the flavor. There was a lot of meat in the packet that Russell brought, and it basically filled the skillet. I liberally flavored it with some garlic and paprika, and a bit of salt.

Unlike hamburger meat, which would have been spitting all over the stove top as it browned, the venison cooked very easily and cleanly and, as predicted, didn’t produce much fat run off. (Those deer obviously stay in pretty good shape.) I kept a close eye on it to make sure the meat stayed tender. Because there wasn’t a lot of fat, the cooking meat didn’t reduce in the same way hamburger would, and the skillet stayed full. And here’s another nice feature of cooking venison–because the meat is leaner, you don’t have the greasy clean-up challenge that you get with browning hamburger.

By the time the meat was cooked there was so much browned meat I had to use two jars of tomato sauce to make sure there would be plenty of sauce to cover the pasta. Between the two jars of sauce and the venison, the sauce pretty much filled a three-quart pot. I slow-cooked the sauce, too, and added a bit more garlic and a healthy dose of parmesan cheese, and then let the sauce simmer while I prepared the pasta.

The sauce smelled great, and by the time the pasta was cooked I was starving. (The opportunity to really build and sharpen your appetite is one of the advantages of a slow cooking approach, in my humble opinion.) When everything was done I got out a big dish, drained the pasta, and prepared a sizeable portion that my grandmother would have said was “big enough for a truck driver.” I added some more parmesan cheese on the top, because I am a big parmesan lover. The dish definitely passed the visual appeal test.

With everything done, I sat down to sample my efforts and took a tentative first bite, wondering how the venison would affect the taste of this very familiar dish. I am happy to report that the spaghetti was, in a word, excellent. The venison was both lean and flavorful and went very well with the tomato sauce and cheese. I ate every bit, relishing the meaty sauce, and was grateful that I made a lot of it, because I’ll look forward to having another serving of pasta alla carne di cervo tonight.

I enjoyed my first foray into cooking venison, and will definitely try it again. It makes me wonder about potentially trying other types of meats, just to see what I’ve been missing.

Cooking Class

Yesterday morning our group took a cooking class. Our instructor was the head chef at the Barone di Villagrande vineyard, shown above, who proved to be a deft, encouraging, and effective instructor. Thanks to him, I now know how to fill a cannoli (you need to start from the middle and make sure you fill the shell completely) and I learned other skills, too.

We began with an immaculate work station, but it didn’t stay that was for long. Our first task was to take a pounded bit of beef, fill it with a mixture of goodies and cheese, roll it up while tucking in the sides so that it was in the same shape as an egg roll, dip it liberally in olive oil, and then dredge it in panko breading. Each of us marked our effort with a toothpick and note so we could eat our own handiwork. You can see my finished, fully cooked product below.

Then it was on to the pasta. We each got a precisely measured amount of flour and an egg in a bowl. You whisk the egg with a fork, make a kind of volcano shape with the flour, then gradually add the beaten egg into the crater of the flour volcano and begin to knead the mixture into dough. I was a little too quick with the pouring of the egg mixture, which collapsed part of the volcano and required some rapid egg damming and general triage. Fortunately, we had some more adept pasta hands in our group who knew what they were doing. (This did not include the Sicilian CEO, whose dough was so dry the chef had to discard it with a sad shake of his head.)

I ended up with a reasonable approximation of pasta dough and learned how to make gnocchi pasta using just a fork, shown at right in the photo above. I then cut the pasta at left into circles and made cannoli-shaped pasta using the handle of a table knife for shaping. The chef stopped by to demonstrate both techniques, and watching him gently but firmly shape the dough into different shapes was like watching Leonardo da Vinci at his easel.

We left our pasta creations with the chef and the kitchen staff, took a break, then came back later to actually taste the fruits of our labor. The beef roll-up and pasta were good, but the pasta sauce—which we had nothing to do with, incidentally—was exquisite, and probably the best ragu sauce I’ve ever had. We topped off our fine lunch with some great wine and a cannoli, which I am glad to report was fully filled.

My Chopping Block

We’ve all been doing a lot of cooking at home during the last year or so, and I’m no exception. I’ve especially enjoyed making ramen noodle concoctions and stews, and experimenting with different flavors, seasonings, and ingredient combinations. I also like making those dishes because they typically involve some chopping and cutting.

Cutting and chopping are probably my favorite parts of the entire cooking process. For one thing, when it’s time to cut and chop I get to use my handcrafted, now well-scarred cutting board, which makes me feel like a real kitchen professional — even though I’m admittedly not an adroit chopper, and wouldn’t dream of doing the rapid-fire, fingers-at-risk chopping that you see on the cooking shows. For another, it’s just fun to get out a knife and experience the tactile sensations of dicing things up to whatever size you desire, then grandly sweeping them off the board into a simmering pot. Add some good music and you’ve got a nice little cooking experience going.

I particularly like the feel of cutting and chopping onions and potatoes. I’m not sure why, but during this continuing stay-at-home period attacking defenseless plant matter is especially enjoyable.

Seeking Skillet Suggestions

We’ve got a cool new helper in the kitchen.  Dr. Science and the GV Jogger sent us a skillet as a housewarming gift, to help round out our very limited supply of Stonington cooking implements. 

The skillet was hand forged by the skilled blacksmiths and treated by the artisans at the Lockhart Ironworks of Logan, Ohio.  It’s a beautiful piece of work that even came with a cool mini-skillet that we’ve hung in a place of honor on the magnetic strip that runs along one wall of our kitchen.

I’ve always wanted a true skillet, which is one of the most versatile cooking devices you can have.  Skillets also can become kind of heirloom items that get passed down from generation to generation.  So, I want to make sure I treat this skillet with the care and respect it so richly deserves.  The key is to make sure that the skillet becomes properly seasoned and develops a natural non-stick surface.  The Lockhart Ironworks note says that it has already pre-heated the finished skillet and treated it with a layer of coconut oil for seasoning purposes.  It recommends that we apply a thin coat of our “preferred oil” and cook a meat that is rich in fat or oil during the first few uses to help with the seasoning process.  And of course the skillet needs to be carefully dried and oiled after each use to prevent rusting.

So, I’m seeking instruction and guidance from my internet friends.  What should our “preferred oil” be, and what are some good meats to cook to help establish the desired seasoning and achieve the patina that will move this skillet into heirloom territory?  Suggestions would be much appreciated!

The Cooking Impulse

I’ve found that, as the coronavirus shutdown/closed-up period has continued, I’ve become a lot more interested in cooking.

I’ve always liked baking — as any faithful reader of this blog knows — but I’ve not done a lot in the cooking category.  Before the shutdown, I’d head to the office for work, come home after a long day, and as often as not just make myself a plate of meat and cheeses for dinner — often stopping at Katzinger’s Deli on the way home to get some special items.  Kish would offer to whip up something more elaborate, but meat, cheese, and crackers really seemed to hit the right spot.  

Since the shutdown, however, I’ve been working remotely — which means I’m either setting up my laptop on the kitchen island or somewhere near the kitchen.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been in close proximity to the refrigerator and the stove, but I seem to be thinking about cooking more than ever before.  I’ve made a lot of stews using odds and ends from the cupboard, and given our little crock pot a serious work out in preparing briskets, chicken, chili, and other dinners.  More recently, though, my attention has focused on the grill and the stovetop.  On Monday I made a very tasty pasta with smoked mussels, clams, and a variation on Alfredo sauce, and last night I prepared some succulent Panko-crusted chicken breasts.  Tonight, weather permitting, I’ll be grilling out.

As with everything else that has happened during this crazy period, I wonder if this development represents a lasting change, or whether when things get back to normal the cooking impulse will be felt no more.  I can’t say for sure, but I can say this:  as much as I have enjoyed my dalliance with cooking, I’m definitely looking forward to going to a restaurant in the very near future.   

Cooking At The Kitchen

Last night we had our annual bash with The Mentees (old and new) and their spouses. This year we changed things up and went to The Kitchen, where you help to prepare your meal under the guidance of the friendly and expert staff.

The evening began with noshing on the offerings on a charcuterie board and each of us making our own champagne cocktail. (I used some tasty plum bitters for mine.). Then Kish picked names out of a hat and we teamed up to prepare the different courses, donned our aprons, and got to work. The Red Sox Fan drew the short straw and had to chop, sauté, and stir with me in preparing the sauce for the beef loin, and we also enjoyed a fine winter salad with nuts and apple slices and blue cheese, wild rice, broccolini with pecans, and a terrific gingerbread soufflé for dessert. For the first time in my life, I actually ate some broccolini!

It was a lot of fun from beginning to end, and the food was great. There’s just something about people cooking together in a kitchen that leads to everyone having a good time. I’d recommend The Kitchen to anyone who’s got a group that wants to do something a little bit different.

Tools Of The Kitchen

We inherited a lot of interesting stuff from Kish’s Mom, but my favorites are some wooden kitchen implements we keep in an old wooden bowl on our countertop.  They are worn smooth, with a warm patina burnished by hands of the past, and they have that evocative, somewhat mysterious element you often sense with older things.

I’m not sure exactly how old they are, but I’m guessing they date from the 1800s.  With all-wooden construction and touches like leather straps, there certainly isn’t a whiff of mass production about them.  And their precise use isn’t entirely clear, either.  Sure, there’s a cracked cookie press, and a dough roller that would leave leaf designs on pie crust, but the uses for the three items in the middle are less obvious.  They’re built to pound . . . but pound what?  Bread dough?  Meat?  Or something unsuspected that we now buy, pre-made and pre-packaged, at the neighborhood supermarket?

The three “pounders” conjure up a long-ago kitchen of hard work, sweat equity, and muscle.

Seeking Help On The Grilliousity Front

When we sold our house in New Albany in November 2014, we got rid of our old outdoor grill.  It made sense, because we were moving into a rental place for a few weeks while we were getting our new house ready and our grill was a 20-year-old Weber kettle that had served us well but was starting to show some serious signs of age.

Last summer, we were grill-free.  With everything else that was going on, I just didn’t get around to buying a replacement grill.

544fc96bc51f0_one-touch-original-22This year, though, I have an itch to get a grill and do some outdoor cooking in the backyard that we enjoy so much.  As last year’s interregnum reflects, though, I’m not one of those guys who prides himself on his grilling talents and counts outdoor cooking as one of the core foundational elements of his being.  I enjoy grilling out mostly because I really like the taste of food cooked fresh on a grill and served piping hot.  I like to mess around with sauces of my own devising when Kish and I are the only guinea pigs for my creative efforts, but mostly I stick to basic burgers, hot dogs, brats, chicken and the occasional steak.  And I’ve always gone with actual charcoal, not propane or one of the other options, because I’m admittedly anal about risk and I would always be nervous that I haven’t properly hooked up the gas tank or shut it off properly.

I’ve started to look around for a grill, but there are so many choices on the internet the decision seems almost overwhelming.  I’m leaning toward a new charcoal-fueled Weber kettle, because that’s what I know and it would make the decision a heck of a lot easier.  I’m curious, though, about any recommendations or thoughts on alternatives.

I’m not really interested in one of those huge grilling stations, with fold-back lids and multiple levels and metal tops to each side and hooks where you can hang dozens of grilling implements, because our back yard is small and my grilling efforts aren’t robust enough to justify that kind of investment.  If you’ve got that kind of complex set-up, you need to be doing more than flipping an occasional burger.  I’m thinking of something smaller, and I’m interested in getting some feedback on the charcoal versus gas issue.  Any thoughts that could help to satisfy my grilliousity would be welcome.

Fun With The All-Clad

IMG_0126Recently Kish and I splurged and bought some new cookware.  On the advice of Aunt Corinne and on the basis of some independent research, we bought three All-Clad pieces:  a frying pan, a saute pan, and a saucepan.

Before, we had the kind of hodge podge of mostly hand-me-down cookware that you tend to accumulate over a lifetime — a battered pot from one side of the family, a scarred, Teflon-coated fryer from the other, a pan with a mismatched lid from God knows where — and none of it was of very good quality.  It was kind of embarrassing to even look at the stuff, much less use it, and all of it had seen its better days.  And we didn’t have the sizes of pots and pans that you need if you really want to cook something.  Trying to cook something complicated using a cheap frying pan is like trying to carve a chunk of marble using a rubber band.  You really need the tools.

IMG_0122But the All-Clad . . . well, let’s just say it’s great.  It looks great, and it cooks great.  With their gleaming metal surfaces and their exquisite heft, with their thoughtful, even-heating design and handles that don’t heat up, the All-Clad pieces speak directly to your inner Julia Child.  Pick me up, they say.  Feel that quality!  Use me to try to make something tasty and interesting.  You can do it!  The temptation to answer their call and do some actual creative cooking is irresistible.

I particularly like the saute pan, which I’ve never used before.  It’s a revelation, because the size and volume of it really lets you stretch out and try whatever strikes your fancy.  On Sunday I used it to make us some lemon-garlic chicken with sauteed onions and arugula, and used the sauce pan to prepare some wild rice with walnuts and peas.  It made for a very nice Sunday dinner to stoke us up for the coming work week.

So now as I walk home at night, I think idly about what we might whip up with the All-Clad.  And, big picture, I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, I need to see what other cookware All-Clad has to offer.

The Ramen Way

For us, dinner is the most challenging meal of the day.  If you’re not quite sure when you’ll be getting home from work, and you’re only cooking for two, it can be tough to plan and execute a hot meal without also producing a huge mountain of leftovers.  Fortunately, we’ve got lots of really great restaurant options within walking distance, so eating out is always an option — but sometimes it’s nice to have some home-cooked food, too.

IMG_5137Lately, we’ve been turning to ramen noodles as a dinner staple, and it’s worked out pretty well.  We begin with the square, dehydrated ramen noodle soup packets that are familiar to any cash-strapped college student trying to stretch a buck.  They provide just the right number of noodles for two and serve as a kind of base for our supper creations.  But rather than adding the salty flavoring from the foil packet after the noodles are fully cooked, we take the dish in a different direction.

The nice thing about ramen noodles is their absolute flexibility.  You can add just about anything to them and it will taste good.  Leftover meats, in particular, are well suited to the ramen way, so we’ll chop up that chicken breast that’s been sitting in the baggie on the refrigerator shelf, or the remains of the foil-wrapped pork tenderloin.  Even a can of tuna fish packed in water can serve well as the protein.  And then we’ll add other items depending on our whim — perhaps some chopped walnuts and a broken-up hard-boiled egg, or some peas and whole raw almonds, or maybe all of them at once — as well as some seasonings, like black pepper and paprika.  And a little — or maybe a lot — of Srirachi hot chili sauce adds a very nice kick to the concoction.

The end result is a steaming bowl of nourishing goodness that takes about 15 minutes to prepare from start to finish, smells wonderful and tastes great, and makes us feel like we’re putting our new kitchen to good use.  It’s not gourmet, but it’ll do.

Sunday Morning Pancakes

Today, on a whim, I made pancakes, because pancakes are fun to make.

Get your box of pancake mix, measure the amount you need, and dump it into a bowl.  Deftly crack a few eggs and plop them into the bowl.  Splash some milk in there.  Get out your hand-cranked beater and whale away, seeing if you can create a rooster tail in the mixture — or whether you’ve become a weakling wuss since the last time you made some pancakes.  Ladle big spoonfuls onto a sizzling, butter-coated frying pan and watch for the bubbles to form.  And then, the final test:  get out your spatula and see whether you have the eye-hand coordination needed to flip the pancakes over into the vacated portion of the pan.

When I was a kid, our family used to have big Sunday morning breakfasts after church, and I was in charge of the pancakes.  They may have been the first food item I ever cooked.  I made them on a big electric griddle that allowed you to make about 12 at a time.  Making pancakes was fun then, and it’s still fun now.  Today’s batch tasted pretty good, too.