Love at First Sight

I’m sorry if I’m about to repeat myself here, but I’m going to tell you a little bit about how Chris and I met. I swear I’ve done it already (more than just little snippets), but I’m in no mood to read through every last post to double check. So there.

I’m thinking I used to have a section about it on the “About” page, and when I just went to update it a little (yeah, finally!) I realized it wasn’t there anymore. So maybe some of you don’t know the story.

Anyway, away we go.

I applied for a study abroad trip in Italy in the winter of 2000 after a pretty shitty year (see link #1 above). I got “picked” to go (although I’m sure it wasn’t that hard…), so after pinching myself a few times, asking my parents over and over for money (because I didn’t believe them the first time they said they’d pay for it), and getting all my shit together (vacation from the soap store, finding a place for my cat to live, etc), I was finally set. There were only a couple of “orientation meetings” to attend, and then I’d be on my way to Florence.

Chris would tell you that we met at one of those orientation sessions. He’d also tell you that I was a royal bitch to him when he tried to make small talk from the row behind me; apparently I was annoyed that he didn’t know we’d be 6 hours ahead of North Carolina time and snapped at him, but I swear I don’t remember it. I mean seriously, when do I ever snap at people? And of course, he’d tell you that he noticed all the cornbread I’d eaten, and that he may have fallen in love with me at first sight. Again, I remember none of this.

Chris would also tell you that he found out pretty quickly that I had a super-serious boyfriend at home and that his heart was crushed. There was one drunken night (of many, because it was Italy for cryin’ out loud! that means cheap-ass wine!) that many of us distinctly remember a phrase slurred from Chris’ lips: “My girlfriend! She has a boyfriend!”. Ah, the memories.

Anyways, even though it wasn’t necessarily love at first sight, Chris and I definitely hung out together quite a bit in Italy and in a matter or months (or weeks…) upon returning from said country, we were pretty much walking to each other’s houses every day after class. Three years later we were moving to Chicago together, and two years after that we got hitched. Five years after that, here we are in California. How time flies.

It just so happened that an Italian cooking class was offered as part of our study abroad curriculum. I’d initially enrolled in some nerdy educational something-or-other class, but once I realized the cooking class was offered, I quickly jumped ship and opted for the more ‘leisurely’ course. I may or may not have known that Chris was already taking the cooking class, too ;). As a result, we got to spend even more time together, and while I barely remember what we cooked, I do remember one little detail.

There was rabbit.

Okay, two details. The rabbit was really tasty. I have no idea how we prepared it, but maybe it was something like this? Ragù is Italian-derived, after all.

Either way, it’s a ragù you should certainly make, even if you do have to drive around to all your city’s butcher shops to find a rabbit. Rabbit is lean, totally flavor-filled, and a meat you’ll fall in love with the second you taste the result. It may not be love at first sight, but that doesn’t ever truly happen anyway, does it?

Rabbit Ragù with Soppressata
Adapted from Food & Wine, September 2009; serves 4-6 

time commitment: 2 1/2 hours (more like 1 hour active)

printable version

2 3/4 pounds plum tomatoes (or 3 14.5 oz cans diced tomatoes)
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 whole 2-3 lb rabbit*
salt & pepper
1 onion, medium dice
2 stalks of celery, medium dice
2 carrots, medium dice
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 c hefty red wine (I used a 2004 Syrah)
4 c low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 c red wine vinegar
1 T finely chopped rosemary
4 oz soppressata, finely diced
3/4 lb tagliatelle
1/4 c Parmigiano-Regianno cheese, grated
1 T chopped parsley, for garnish (optional)

*Rabbit is pretty difficult to locate since the demand is relatively low in most places. For those in San Francisco, I found mine at Bi-Rite, but Drewes Bros usually carries a few frozen rabbits and I know the meat shop at the Ferry Bldg carries it. Many butcher shops can order one for you at your request. D’artagnan is an online meat market and they sell it too for reasonable prices. If you buy it locally, you can probably have the butcher butcher it for you.

Butcher your rabbit if the market didn’t do it for you. I cut mine into 8 pieces, sorta following these instructions.

If using fresh tomatoes, you’ll get the best results if you peel your tomatoes. You can leave them peeled and loaded with seeds if you want, though, to save time. If you’re using canned tomatoes, you can obviously skip this step. Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil and fill a bowl with ice water. Score the bottom of each tomato with a shallow X. Plunge the tomatoes into the boiling water for 30 seconds. Transfer the tomatoes to the ice water bath to cool. Peel the tomatoes and cut them in half crosswise. Scoop the seeds and pulp into a strainer set over a bowl. Press the pulp and juice through the strainer and discard the seeds. Coarsely chop the tomatoes and add them to the strained pulp and juice.

Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven. Season the rabbit pieces with salt and pepper. Add them to the Dutch oven and cook over moderately high heat, turning once, until lightly browned all over, about 6 minutes. Transfer the rabbit to a plate.

Toss the onions, celery, and carrots into the Dutch oven and cook over moderate-high heat for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add garlic and cook another minute or two. Add red wine and bring to boil to deglaze (removed browned bits).

Once most of the wine has evaporated, add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Add the tomatoes, red wine vinegar, rosemary and the browned rabbit and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cover partially and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the rabbit is tender, about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Transfer the rabbit to a plate. Boil the sauce until thickened, about 20 minutes.

Pull the rabbit meat from the bones and shred it. Return the rabbit meat to the Dutch oven, add the diced soppressata and simmer for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain the pasta well and divide among shallow bowls. Spoon the rabbit ragù over the pasta, top with cheese and parsley, and serve hot.

One Hit Wonder

I generally consider myself a one-stop shopper. I don’t mind running a couple of errands at a time, but in the same vein, I like for each errand to really pack a punch, so to speak.

I stopped shopping at Dominicks and started buying all my grocery items at Whole Foods for this very reason – I got tired of buying pantry items at one place, and meat/produce at the other, so one day I just sucked it up and decided that my grocery bill would just have to be a little higher each month, but in the end, the time saved would be worth it.

I’m also a huge fan of meals that don’t involve side items – the “one potters”, I think they’re called. Stews, chilis, the shunned casseroles – they all fall into this category. Often times I find myself making a killer chicken dish, or steak, or whatever really, and it’s just that – no side, no soup, no nothing but the one. little. dish.

But that one little dish took a while, and it tasted damn good. So what if there’s no side item? This ain’t no 4-star restaurant, last time I checked.

But in lieu of having a side dish, or a first course, or a dessert, and just having one little item, one’s stomach is usually growling within a couple of hours. I find this most problematic with soup; I love nothing more than a nice bowl of soup on a cold day or night, but I want something to chew on too, aside from the occasional veggie in the pool. If my life depended on it, I still probably couldn’t eat a lone bowl of soup without a cracker or two, a mini-baguette (or two), some croutons tossed in for good measure or, if all is the way I want it to be – a few breadsticks.

They (said breadsticks) typically come in crinkly plastic packages; they’re crunchy and somewhat messy, leaving remnants of sea salt on the tablecloth, not to mention a few crumbs at the mouth and flecks in the soup – stone cold evidence of dunking, which is the best way to eat them, I promise.

But these here, these come not in packages, but by way of a little mixing and a wee bit of kneading, rising, and rolling. Then baking, of course, but they get only a brief stint in the oven. They are perfect for just about any soup or stew and can be modified to your liking – I was in the mood for rosemary and nutty flavor offered by the flour of the whole wheat persuasion, but you could easily go for the all purpose, or swap in another flour or spice.

No matter how you craft your breadsticks, er, grissini, they roll out just the same – and they make those one-hit soups a little more substantial, that’s for sure.

Rosemary Grissini
Adapted from Food & Wine, October 2010; makes 3 dozen

time commitment: 2 hours, half of it active time

printable version

3/4 c water
1 c all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 c whole-wheat flour
1 T honey
1 package active dry yeast
3 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 t dried rosemary, finely chopped
1 T kosher salt

In a large bowl, stir the water with 1/2 cup of the flour (either one), the honey and the yeast. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining 1 1/2 cups of flour, the olive oil, rosemary and salt and knead until a smooth dough forms. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let stand in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Line 3 large baking sheets with parchment paper (if you don’t have three and instead, you’re like me and you have 1, just do this one at a time). Punch down the dough and cut it into 4 equal pieces. On a floured work surface, roll out each piece of dough to a 6-by-10-inch rectangle. Cut the rectangles lengthwise into 1/2-inch-wide strips. Arrange the strips on the prepared sheets. Let stand until puffed, about 15 minutes.

Bake the grissini for about 15 minutes, until golden brown; switch the pans halfway through baking. Let the grissini cool and crisp on the baking sheet before serving.

Grissini can be made in advance by a couple of days and stored in an airtight container. The unbaked dough can also be frozen and thawed when ready for use.