As we enjoy the next two days we have all come to recognize as the “weekend,” I thought by sharing Friday night’s dinner menu, which we enjoyed with friends, and some of the recipes, it might inspire a few of you to prepare something different for a change.
The menu consisted of:
A crostini to start, followed by a bowl of Pappa al Pomodoro. The main course was seared Hawaiian Ahi tuna accompanied by a sauté of baby bok choy and a fall squash sformato. We concluded with Mexican chocolate ice cream along with apricot and fresh ginger biscotti.
The crostini consisted of toasted artisan bread that we discovered at the Standard Baking Co. on a recent trip to Portland, Maine. Worth a second visit in the future time. The toast was first topped with a layer of gorgonzola piccante (aged variety), then a dollop of long, slow-cooked sweet onions drizzled with balsamic syrup and topped with a split fresh fig which was first roasted and then sprinkled with smoked black pepper and minced parsley.
The Pappa al Pomodoro, popular in Tuscany as well as other parts of southern Italy, is essentially a thick tomato and bread soup. My version consisted of a soffritto base which included onion, garlic, fennel stalks with fronds, celery ribs, a carrot, and parsley stems (optional).
Since there are not many tomatoes remaining from the summer season, I instead used two 28 oz cans of whole plum tomatoes, 2 cups of the tomato water separated from the canned tomatoes, 1 cup of water, 1 cup of either wine or vermouth (red, white, or both), parmesan cheese rinds and basil wrapped and tied in a cheesecloth sachet, 4 cups of day-old bread cut into 1/2-inch cubes, and garnished with basil, grated cheese (a pecorino, or grana padano, or parmesan) and a drizzle of olive oil.
The onion is diced by hand while the other elements of the soffritto are finely minced in a food processor. The tomatoes are crushed by hand while the remaining ingredients are gathered to make assembly of the soup come together easily.
Start by sautéing the onion in olive oil so it begins to soften and start to lightly color. Next add the remaining minced soffritto vegetables, mix to combine, and continue the sauté until the soffritto darkens but not burns, stirring frequently.
Next, add the crushed tomatoes and whatever remaining water has accumulated, but not the two cups of tomato water set aside. Salt and pepper to taste and stir the tomatoes into the soffritto mixture until combined. Cook for about 5 minutes over moderate heat until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Next add the liquids to the pot: the tomato water, water, and the wine or vermouth along with the sachet of the rinds and basil. Cover, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook for about 20 minutes stirring occasionally.
Finally, fold in the bread cubes and allow them to bloom, absorbing much of the liquid, forming a thick dense soup.
Additional water can be added if the soup appears to be too dense. Allow to rest over very low heat for all the flavors to meld with the bread.
Serve in warm soup bowls, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with the grated cheese and some torn basil leaves.
The tuna was sourced from the Honolulu Fish Co. (www.honolulufish.com). They shipped a fresh, not frozen, 3-lb piece of Hawaiian Ahi Senaka (highest quality Akami), cut from the top back section of the tuna. Akami is the most common sushi tuna—lean and deep red in color.
To achieve the finished results, a 2 to 2-1/2-inch thick by 15-inch somewhat triangular-shaped piece was trimmed away from the main 3-lb piece. The remainder, enough for another meal, was carefully wrapped and frozen.
The 15-inch piece was rubbed with olive oil, rolled in a mix of finely minced herbs to cover and then sprinkled with smoked black pepper. It was then wrapped in clear wrap and allowed to flavor before cooking.
Olive oil was heated but not smoking, in a large sauté pan long enough to hold the piece of tuna. The tuna was seared on all sides until a nice crust formed on the outside and about 1/4 inch of the flesh began to turn a pale color while the center section was left rare. You can determine the doneness of the tuna by looking at the end to see how much of the center section remains rare.
The cooked fish was left to rest off the heat for a few minutes and then cut across with a serrated knife yielding 20 pieces enough to serve four main courses.
The sliced tuna was accompanied by a sauté of baby bok choy. I had the good fortune to be given a food and grocery tour of Philadelphia’s Chinatown district by two friends who know the area well and have both dined and shopped there for years. On that tour I purchased a large bag of baby bok choy.
After removing any damaged leaves and cutting a thin slice off the stem end, the bok choy was washed and then steamed until fork tender. It was then sautéed using olive oil, along with finely minced fresh garlic and ginger root.
Along with the greens, a sformato of roasted fall squash was prepared in individual ramekins so diners had their own small portion.
A sformato is a baked puree of a vegetable, along with some form of cream, cheese, and eggs to bind. It falls somewhere between a soufflé although not as airy, or a flan but not as custard-like.
This recipe was quick since the squash was already on hand. For those of you who read the post entitled “From the Pumpkin Patch . . .”, you should recall fall squash was roasted seasoned with Hawaij (Hawayej or Hawayij), a spice mix used extensively in Israeli cooking as well as some other Middle Eastern nations. The leftover squash was frozen and once thawed, it was repurposed for this dish.
Using a food mill, puree the leftover squash into a large work bowl yielding about 2 cups. Add two eggs, 1/2 cup grated parmesan, pecorino, or grana padano, 2 tablespoons of sour cream or mascarpone, 1/2 cup of Half & Half, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix to thoroughly combine and spoon the mixture into buttered ovenproof ramekins, leaving some room at the top for expansion.
Place the ramekins in a roasting pan with water approximately halfway up their sides, cover with foil and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 40 to 60 minutes or until the mixture is set and cooked through. Test with a toothpick, remove from the water bath, let rest a minute or two and carefully unfold onto the plate.
The meal ended with some house-made Mexican chocolate ice cream which had been punctuated with a dram of single malt scotch, and a just-made batch of apricot and fresh ginger biscotti. In future posts I will share the master recipe for the house ice cream as well as the master biscotti recipe where there no limits to your imagination. Try to come up with new and interesting flavor combinations.
A friend just sent a thank-you card following a recent visit. The card read: “Good Cooks Never Lack Friends!” Something to consider.