Sunday, July 31, 2011

Kitchen Challenge: Gnocchi with Garlic, Bacon, and Kale

Necessity is often the mother of invention. When I first moved back from Columbus to Akron in late 2004, I quickly discovered a lack of good gnocchi in local restaurants and supermarkets. Now, that's not to say it didn't exist, but I didn't have the connections or knowledge to successfully seek it out. Having gotten hooked on the gnocchi served at Monte Carlo Italian Restaurant in Columbus during my five year stay, I knew that I couldn't subsist on the heavy, dense, sit-at-the-bottom-of-my-stomach variety that were available in the area. Thus, I decided to teach myself how to make it from scratch.

Homemade pasta scares a LOT of people. And to be honest, I think I was fairly intimidated by it as well. I had seen it made many times on television, and in theory, it looked simple enough. Depending on the type of pasta one was making, the basics were flour, eggs, sometimes oil, sometime water, and salt. One day, fed up with what was available and craving good gnocchi, I searched around the Internet for several recipes. Over the years, I have honed in on a single recipe that has served me well.

Gnocchi, at its most basic, is an Italian potato-based pasta. It isn't like pierogi, which are a pasta-like dough dough filled with potatoes (much like ravioli). Rather, the potato is actually in the dough itself, no filling necessary. Good gnocchi are ethereally light, almost pillow like. Bad gnocchi ... well, I've already described those to you, so I won't belabor the point. I suppose somehow along the way I've learned to channel a little old Italian grandmother inside of me when I am rolling out the dough, cutting the individual gnocchi and rolling them off the back of a fork to create the ribbed texture.

The recipe for gnocchi is almost stupid simple. In fact, let's get that out of the way right now.

Potato Gnocchi
2 pounds Idaho potatoes, peeled, boiled, and mashed
2 cups of All-Purpose flour, plus additional for kneading
1 egg
Salt and pepper to taste

You can really use any starchy potato for gnocchi, but I would avoid waxy potatoes, such as New or Fingerling, as they tend not to give you the creamy texture you are after. Also, I would stick with All-Purpose flour instead of stronger bread flour. You want the gnocchi to be ultra-tender and using bread flour could create a tougher pasta because of the higher protein content. For a single recipe, I generally don't measure the salt too closely, but if I were pressed to give a measurement, it would probably be a tablespoon of kosher (or coarse) salt. That may seem like a lot, but remember, you are making several pounds of pasta. To be fair, if I salt the dough, I tend not to salt the water in which I cook them.

The first step is to prepare the potatoes. For those really green in the kitchen, I will give a quick primer. First, peel the potatoes. Then cut the potatoes into thirds or quarters so that they cook more quickly. Just make sure to cut all of the potatoes into the same size pieces so that they cook evenly. Fill the pot with COLD water to cover the potatoes by at least an inch or two. Then place on stove and turn the burner on high until the water just starts to boil. Turn the stove down so that the potatoes cook in gently boiling water until a sharp knife easily goes in and comes out of the potato wedges. Drain the water in a colander, return the potatoes to the still hot pan and pull out your potato masher. Without adding anything additional (like milk and butter for regular mashed potatoes), mash away until they are smooth.

The great news is that you can do this step ahead of time (up to one day ahead). If you want to store them for later, place them in a container and place a piece of plastic wrap so that it touches the mashed potatoes before placing a lid on the container. This prevents the outer surface from drying out. Refrigerate until about thirty minutes before you need the potatoes. At that point, remove the container from the refrigerator and set it on the counter to take the chill off. Note that while you will start with two pounds of raw, unpeeled potatoes, after peeling, cooking, and mashing, you will end up with closer to a pound-and-a-half of finished potatoes.

To make the pasta, place the flour in a mound on your work surface. Using a fork, lightly scramble the egg in a small bowl. Using your finger, make a circular motion in the very center of the flour to create a well. Dump the egg into this well, along with the salt and the freshly ground pepper. Using the fork, slowly start to mix the flour from the edges of the well into the liquid egg, being careful not to break through the walls of the well. When enough flour gets mixed into the egg, it will thicken considerably and lose its "runniness." At this point, you can set the fork down and pick up the second most handy tool in the kitchen, the bench scraper. This tool is invaluable for making breads and pastas and at only a couple of dollars, is a multi-tasker that is an excellent investment.

The next step is to add the potatoes to the top of the flour/egg mound. I will tell you that at this point, you will be thinking to yourself, "What in the hell kind of a mess is this?" Trust me, it will all come together with a little love and time. Take the potato out of the container in chunks and run it through your fingers to break it up. If the mashed potatoes are freshly made (you did let them come down to room temperature, right?), you won't need to break them up. It will look like a LOT of potatoes compares to the amount of flour, but that is what makes the resulting gnocchi so tender.

Once the potatoes are on top of the flour, start using the bench scraper to lift and fold the mound onto itself over and over again, pressing down as you fold it over, compacting the dough. Every now and again, you can use the bench scraper to separate the dough from the work surface and simply rotate it or flip it over entirely. Continue doing this for a good five minutes or so, resisting the urge during this time to add more water or flour. The flour is being hydrated during this period and needs a few minutes of adjustment time before you can accurately tell how much adjustment it will need.

Once the dough is holding together (even if there are still visible areas of potato), switch to the best tool in the kitchen: your hands. Begin kneading the dough, using the bench scraper to separate the dough from the work surface as necessary. It is at this stage of the process that you will need to make the judgement call of adding either more flour or a little bit of water. The finished dough should be tacky, but not sticky. In the end, from start to end, it probably takes about ten minutes to make the pasta dough.

Once the dough looks and feels right, you will need to give it time for the gluten that has been activated in the flour to rest and relax. If you are going to roll out the gnocchi right away, mound the dough into a round and cover it with a damp towel or a piece of plastic and let it sit for at least twenty minutes. You could also put the dough into a covered container and refrigerate it overnight. Just make sure that if you refrigerate it, take it out about thirty minutes before you want to roll it to take the chill off the dough.

So, gentle reader, now we've made the dough. Let's take it one step further and make gnocchi.

Using your bench scraper, cut off a hunk of the dough, maybe about 1/2-3/4" thick. Have bench flour available for your work surface in case the dough is still a little sticky, but remember, the less flour used, the more tender the pasta will be, so it's always a balancing act. With the hunk of dough, use your fingertips to roll the dough into a long snake. The length of the snake will depend on how big your hunk of dough started at, but you generally want the cylinder (the snake) to be a thicker than a Tootsie Roll.

With your snake rolled out, use a small knife or the bench scraper (man that thing's gettin' a lot of use, no?) to begin moving from one end to the other cutting out the individual gnocchi, maybe 1/2-3/4" wide. You generally want the width to be less than the width of a fork. Once you've cut the entire snake, the final step is to give each pasta piece their characteristic ridges. Using the backside of a fork, take a single gnocchi and using the thumb of your non-fork-wielding hand, press and roll the dough against the fork. Do this for every dough piece that you cut.

Place the finished gnocchi on a parchment-lined 1/2 sheet pan (or cookie tray), making sure that the gnocchi don't touch each other. Now, simply cut another hunk of pasta dough from the mound and repeat the process until you've run out of dough. Typically, one batch of gnocchi dough will fill about 1 1/2 sheet pans (of the 1/2 sheet variety). If you are going to use the finished gnocchi immediately, now would be a good time to put a large pot of water on the stove to boil. Your other option is to freeze the gnocchi on the sheet pan. Once they are rock hard, scrape the gnocchi off the parchment and put them into a freezer bag. They'll keep in the freezer for quite some time, although they've never been in my freezer for more than a month.

Once the water has come to a boil, if you salted the dough, do not salt the water, too. If you didn't salt the dough, add a couple of tablespoons of kosher salt (or half as much table salt). Working quickly, add about half of the gnocchi to the pot of water and stir gently to make sure they aren't sticking to the bottom or each other. If you have previously frozen the gnocchi, add them straight from the freezer; do not defrost first. When the gnocchi start floating to the top of the pot, you know they are very close to being done. Fresh gnocchi will take just a few minutes to float and add another minute or two if you are boiling them from frozen.

One note about boiling the pasta. While it's okay to bring the water to a hard boil before adding the pasta, once the pasta is added and comes back to the boil, adjust the heat level so that it cooks the gnocchi on a gentle boil. Continued hard boiling of the pasta can cause it to break up. Also, make sure to gently stir the gnocchi while they are cooking.

Once the gnocchi is cooked, use a slotted spoon or a strainer to remove them from the boiling water. Depending on how you will be serving them, you can add them straight to a pan of sauce or you can place them into a bowl with just a touch (and I do mean just a touch) of oil to coat them so that they won't stick together. If you have additional gnocchi to cook, continue to do so in batches until they are all finished.

While I love gnocchi that have been finished in a bit of brown butter and sage, you could also do a simple tomato sauce, a spicier puttanesca sauce, or do what I did today at the market demonstration today, and finish the gnocchi in a saute pan with some freshly chopped garlic, pre-rendered bacon, and a tender green of some kind, like spinach, Swiss chard, or kale.

To a heated saute pan, add a bit of oil (I use grapeseed oil, but you could also use a neutral oil like Canola or light olive) and, if you remembered to keep it while cooking the bacon, some of the rendered bacon fat. When the oil is hot, add about a tablespoon of chopped garlic and cook for a minute or so until you smell the garlic and it gets just a hint of color to it. Add your gnocchi to the saute pan and stir (or flip the contents if you know how) to coat the gnocchi in the garlic and oil. In addition to adding flavor to the gnocchi, sauteeing it for a few minutes allows you to add some crispy outer texture to it as well.

If you prefer a little bit of spice to your dish, add just a smidgeon of crushed red pepper to the pan. Not so much that it makes the dish spicy, but just enough so that it gives character to the finished dish. Next, add some of the crumbled bacon. Stir/toss to combine. Finally, add a large handful of fresh greens, and about 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water to the pan. Quickly cover the pan with the lid and allow the greens to steam for about forty-five seconds. Remove the lid and toss the pasta one final time before tasting it to make sure it has enough salt and pepper. Adjust accordingly.

To serve, either plate on a family-style platter or in individual servings in a bowl. Sprinkle freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese on top and serve. This recipe would probably make 8-10 servings as an appetizer, or 4-5 servings as the pasta course.

While I will be the first to admit that making homemade gnocchi can be a time-consuming task, because you can break it down into bite-sized pieces (please pardon the expression), you can make it when you have time and freeze it and when you are ready to serve it for dinner, you need to do no more work than walk to your freezer and retrieve it. At the Howe Meadow Farmers Market where I made this exact dish yesterday for market goers, I made two batches of dough (though to be fair, I made the mashed potatoes the night before) and cooked it in three batches for tasters in roughly two hours. That included mixing the dough, rolling it, cutting it, cooking it and serving it.

And, in one of the best compliments I received all day during my demo, when I told a woman who had approached my tent what I was making, she looked apprehensive and said that while she has tried gnocchi many times, none had ever come close to her Italian Nonna. She watched as I finished the boiled gnocchi in the saute pan and spooned a portion into the small paper cup that the market had provided for me. I handed it to her and watched her expression as she tasted one and then a second of the small hot potato dumplings.

"In all the years I've been eating gnocchi, none has ever lived up to my Nonna's until now. Yours is as good as hers."

High praise, indeed! I hope you give this recipe a try for yourself. Once you learn the basics, it is quite easy to do and the results are really worth it. Even cooked from frozen, this gnocchi blows away anything you could purchase in a local supermarket.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Opening Day At The Rail

I first heard that Mike Mariola, owner of two highly praised restaurants in Wooster, Ohio, was thinking of opening a burger bar in the Fairlawn area all the way back in August/September of last year when I had the opportunity to review his flagship restaurant, South Market Bistro. At the time, he had left the bistro in the more-or-less capable hands of Chef Eric running the back of the house with wife Liz ran the front while he proceeded to open up and run The City Square Steakhouse across the street.

Noting that Mr. Mariola was absent at South Market Bistro that evening, I figured he must have been working across the street at the sister restaurant. My server surmised that he was more than likely out on the prowl looking for real estate for his new burger joint to join the burgeoning gourmet burger scene that has taken hold of Americans over the last several years. Putting himself in direct competition with other similar restauranteurs such as Michael Symon with his B Spot franchises and Sean Monday with his Hudson Flip Side restaurant, this new venture was sure to draw comparisons to more established eateries.

I learned that The Rail was opening for lunch yesterday and decided to give them an inaugural visit to see how high the bar had been set. The Rail was located at Summit Mall, nestled in between First Watch and PF Chang's with an entrance facing outward into the parking lot. For those with GPS requirements, the actual address was 3265 West Market Street, Akron, OH 44333 and they can be reached at 330-864-7245. While Facebook and Twitter accounts are no doubt in the works, the only Internet presence they have at the moment is their website.

After parking my car in the vast mall parking lot, I approached the front of the restaurant:

Storefront for The Rail at Summit Mall
While seating was available outside, not-so-oddly since it was a hot day, no one partook of it. Here was a closer shot of the outdoor sign:

Outside Signage Close-up
Once inside, I was pleasantly surprised to see that while the place was fairly busy on opening day, it was by no means packed. Visual comparisons to Flip Side and B Spot began immediately and while the three restaurants were not exact analogues of one another, they were eerily similar with their concrete flooring, rather Spartan wooden tables, and interesting hanging light fixtures. The Rail differentiated itself by providing a long communal table, which while empty when I arrived, had a fair share of guests sitting at it when I got up to leave.

Hanging on a wall across from the communal table were two chalkboard signs:

Chalkboard #1
Chalkboard #2
As with other high-end burger joints, The Rail goes out of its way to make sure you understand that the beef is local and from Ohio. In fact, to reinforce the Ohio concept, one look at the menu was all that was required:

The Rail's Menu Front
The Rail's Menu Rear
To be honest, I had thoroughly studied the menu online before ever setting foot inside the door and I pretty much knew what I was going to order. Sadly, when I looked at the "Floats" section on the physical menu, the Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout Ice Cream Float had been replaced by a Guinness Ice Cream Float. However, as a lover of Guinness, I was willing to make the substitution. Unfortunately, I learned that the tap system was only partly in place and even more unfortunately, neither Guinness nor Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout would be available. More than pumped that I could potentially get Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout on draught sooner rather than later, I acquiesced and decided to wait until my next visit to procure this heavenly sounding concoction.

I went ahead and ordered my burger and side and within just a few short minutes, David Drumm, General Manager of The Rail hand delivered my lunch to the table:

7th Heaven with Side of Onion Rings
This was the 7th Heaven burger and a side of their homemade onion rings. When David asked if I needed anything else, I asked for a steak knife so that I could cleanly bisect the burger. He looked at me with a stunned look and replied, "You know, you would think that running a steakhouse would have given us the forethought to purchase steak knives. I'm sorry, we don't have any." Not a deal breaker, mind you, and I certainly used my regular butter knife to satisfactory effect, but as you will see in a photograph or two, a steak knife would have been perfect.

First, let's talk about the 7th Heaven burger:

7th Heaven Burger
The well-seasoned burger patty had been joined by several strips of Nueske bacon, truffled butter, and red onion jam. The burger was perched upon a bun that had been nicely toasted and assembled with a cellophane tipped toothpick to hold it all together. After removing the toothpick, I cut the burger in half.

Here was a shot of my bisected burger, cooked to the perfect medium rare for which I asked:

Side Shot of 7th Heaven Burger
The first thing I noticed when Mr. Drumm set the burger down in front of me was the heady aroma from the black truffle. The second thing I noticed was that there was a lot of black speckled butter in the paper-lined basket. It seemed that the truffle butter had more of less completely melted. I raised the first half to my mouth and took a bite. It was juicy, it was seasoned nicely, and the crisp, thicker cut bacon added some nice textural contrast to the softness of the bun and the meat. The red onion jam definitely added some sweetness, but what I really needed was a bit of acid. Between the truffle butter, the fattiness of the burger and the bacon, something pickled needed to be on that burger to help balance it out. Don't get me wrong, it was good. Some might have even thought it was great. But it wasn't magical.

My largest gripe with the burger, and it's a complaint that I've also levied against B Spot and Flip Side, was that the bottom part of the bun, the heel, was completely sogged out from all of the juice of both the meat and the truffle butter. This made the burger quite difficult to eat without essentially wearing the juice on my fingers, hands, and down my wrists. [Ed. note: To be fair to B Spot, they did fix this issue, which I wrote about in later reviews.]

I next turned my attention to the onion rings:

Homemade Onion Rings
Before ordering these, I had asked my waitress what kind of fat was used in the deep fryer. After checking with the kitchen, she returned to inform me that the chef, Gary McNeely, had told her it was a non-hydrogenated vegetable oil. As she looked fairly green, I didn't want to push her into information overload, so I let it go at that. So, while it certainly wasn't vegetable shortening, it also wasn't something more luxurious, like duck fat or tallow either.

As I bit into my first onion ring (always unsauced for the first one or two), I was rewarded with an onion that was thick enough to have some texture, but not too thick that it was crunchy or had a raw taste. The coating on the outside of the ring was a combination of crispy at first and then just ever-so-slightly moist on the inside. The salt level was fairly good, but could've tolerated just a touch more. The problem with these rings was when I took a bite, the onion on the inside completely detached from the coating and pulled right out. As you can imagine, with rings this size, having a long, hot onion strand hanging out of your mouth was neither pleasant feeling nor pleasant looking.

About two-thirds of the way through my meal, David Drumm again stopped by my table, this time to garner feedback. I still had not identified who I was or why I was there, but David took my feedback with great professionalism and he honestly made me feel as if what I had to say counted. He admitted that he was an aficionado of onion rings, too, and he wasn't 100% happy with them either. As for the sogged out bun, he mentioned that they toast the buns and only put the burger onto the bun at the very last second before sending it out from the kitchen, but clearly some further tweaking will be required to address this issue.

With tip and tax, my lunch today came to around $20, but then again, I ordered the most expensive burger off of the menu at $11.75. Your basic burger starts at just over $5, so you could certainly get away with a check closer to $10 if you selected more inexpensive items off the menu. While The Rail's 7th Heaven burger didn't quite satisfy that carnivorous burger lust that a Red Hot from B Spot seems to do, I do think it was a tasty burger. With a few tweaks, I think they could potentially have a real winner. As for the onion rings, again, they are pretty darn close, but don't quite live up to the gloriousness of either B Spot or of all places, Twig's Diner in Barberton, Ohio.

All said and done, I do recommend that you check them out. Opening days can be a tricky affair for any restaurant and after a month of playing around with the menu to hone the concept, I feel they might just achieve the burger glory for which they are clearly striving. Since they are VERY close to where I currently work, you can expect a follow-up review in the following months to see if things have improved. I certainly hope they do.

The Rail on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Where's Waldo?" And Other News

So, gentle reader, you've probably been wondering where I've been for the last couple of weeks. While I could sit here and hatch some sinister plot about being abducted by aliens, the truth of the matter is far more pedestrian than the fiction. For a long time, I have been able to maintain a queue of finished reviews that were ready for publication at a moment's notice. Thus, if life sent me a whole lot of lemons to process all at once, I could tap this eternal well of ready-to-go prose. Unfortunately, that well ran dry roughly around the end of May.

Simply put, it's been a perfect storm of me splitting my time between work, doing both food and non-food photography (did you know that I created a Flickr account to post my photographs?), and honestly, being outside enjoying the warm (and sometimes too warm) weather with friends and family. It isn't that I've stopped going out to eat, it's just that by the end of the day, I am just too mentally exhausted to write about it. Suffice it to say, however, this is only a temporary condition and there are some exciting things on the horizon in terms of restaurant reviews, farmers market demonstrations, and upcoming charity events.

Speaking of which, I would also like to draw your attention to three upcoming events that you might find of interest.

The first event is the annual Taste of Akron and Arts Expo on Thursday, July 21st from 6 pm until 10 pm at Hardesty Park on West Market Street. I wrote about my adventures there last year and am looking forward to returning once again to sample foods from more than twenty-five different Akron caterers and restaurants. Admission is free and tickets can be purchased with cash or credit card for $2 each outside of the tent. Each vendor will be "selling" their food for one, two, or three tickets ($2, $4, or $6 respectively). While free parking is available in the park, I've always had much better success parking on one of the many side streets within easy walking distance. As in years past, West Point Market will be hosting their annual Finest Cut Steak Cook-Off, in which eight finalists will compete live.

The second event is a special charity dinner for Autism Speaks on Monday, July 25th at 7 pm. This "Fork to Fork" dinner is being hosted by the Covered Bridge Garden farm in Jefferson, OH with food provided by the extremely talented Brian Doyle of SOW Food Catering. Brian will be creating a five course wine-paired dinner from produce both grown on the farm as well as other local vendors. A tour of the farm and dinner with a view of the fields where their dinner was grown will all be part of the experience. Seating for this first of hopefully many events will be limited to only twenty guests and tickets are $95 per person. To get more information or to purchase tickets, call 440-862-1682.

The third and final event I wanted to mention today is a charity event being hosted by the Dinner In The Dark crew on Saturday, August 27th at 6:30 pm at the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, OH. CVI will serve both as the host and its charitable off-shoot, Veggie U, an organization dedicated to educating children about farm-grown vegetables, will be the charity to which funds are donated. I haven't written about the last couple of DITD dinners I attended (and in fact, sadly had to miss the most recent one due to illness), but I am looking forward to an evening of fantastic food prepared by a legion of Cleveland's most accomplished chefs. For those not familiar with the concept, the "dark" in their title refers to the fact that the chefs as well as the menu is completely unknown until the moment it is served. Past events have been a smashing success and I suspect that tickets to this event will sell out quickly. Tickets, purchased through the organization's EventBrite site, are $81.57 and include both tax and gratuity.

While you may not be able to attend all three wonderful events, hopefully you will be able to schedule at least one onto your calendar.

As for my lazy behind, regular blog posting should resume soon, although I may not be able to return to the three (or more) posts per week of blogging past. I hope you've had a great summer so far and I wish you all the best in finding great events, lots of locally grown, tasty seasonal fruits and vegetables, and most importantly, fun in the sun!
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