17 April 2009

Farrah Olivia

Zach's dad and J- have been in town for the weekend and took us out to dinner at Farrah Olivia, one of the top restaurants in the DC area. Zach and I had been there for restaurant week last year and, as it was the most delicious meal I ever had, I was very excited to go back. I put on my new black dress with new emerald green heels adn we were off.

The dining room of Farrah Olivia is serene, with huge windows on two sides and a faint African feel to the decorations as a nod to Chef Morou Outtara's heritage. We sat down and the hostess handed us thick, mint green menus which I could have read all night without eating a thing and still gone home happy. Through some coordination, we finally all decided what to get an ordered and then the fun began.

First came a bread basket and small plate with four toppings: horseradish cottage cheese, curry butter, bok choy pesto and tomato paste. I went back and forth between the four but finally decided the curry butter was my favorite. It's golden yellow color and distinctive curry flavor that tasted just like my favorite curries from Denmark won me over. The bok choy pesto came in a close second though with the clean Asian flavors reminding me of summer and our CSA.

Next came a tiny amouse bouche on a straw skewer. Mushroom cornbread with a bacon creme and slice of grilled shrimp. It was a perfect bit with the earthy mushrooms setting off the sweet shrimp and the creamy sauce balancing the cornbread.

Highlights of the first course; my ying and yang hot and cold pea and carrot soup, J-'s salad served in a crisp cone with shockingly yellow dressing on the side and Zach's deconstructed escolar sushi with soy pearls and wasabi powder.

The main event, as with all the courses, came with narration as the servers explained all of the intricacies of the dish. My braised beef rib was perfection. The meat was so tender that it fell apart as the merest touch of a fork and the mushroom puree and bbq essence made the dish taste like my grandma's pot roast times 50, comforting but intense at the same time. Zach's pork tenderloin was juicy but even though the mole perfectly balanced the chocolate, cumin and spice, I was reminded that I just don't like mole. He does though, and loved it.

Farrah Olivia really does save the best for last. Dessert was fantastic. Zach and I had a bit of negotiation but settled (meaning I prevailed) on the mango soup. The dish came out in a shallow bowl. It held a layer of bright orange mango soup with a perfectly shaped quenelle of coconut sorbet with flecks of golden toasted coconut on top. Circling the soup were little jewels of mango and lychee. When I say that this dessert was a triumph of the chef's, I am not exaggerating. We were all well and truly speechless.

At the very end the kitchen sent out a little plate of sweets with a tiny truffle, pineapple jelly and pine nut cookie for each of us. I didn't really need anything more after the mango soup but of course I had to try each. The pineapple jelly sweet but covered in a sour sugar; a very grown up sour patch kid. The pine-nut cookies were crisp chewy and delicious and reminded me yet again of a cookie my grandma used to make, only better (I feel rather guilty typing that one out).

All in all it was a perfect dining experience. Not exactly for the faint of wallet but if you'll be in DC for a few days and want to splurge on one nice dinner, Farrah Olivia is the place to do it.

Farrah Olivia
Alexandria VA

04 April 2009

Our Future Veggies

A few weeks ago our CSA farm, Bull Run Mountain Farm, had an open house. Zach and I decided to go at the very last minute and hopped in the car and drove out to The Plains, about 40 miles outside of DC. I hate to say it, but I don't often get beyond the beltway and didn't regret doing so as we got off 66 and drove past a few miles of McMansions on the way to the farm. As we turned off the main road though, things began to look up.

We wound our way along a two lane road with old farmhouses and, as we started up a hill and into the trees, turned off on the dirt track to the farm. We bumped along for a mile or two, all the while headed up through the forest as I thought, "how the heck can anyone farm here?" We never made it out to the farm last year so even though it's called Bull Run Mountain Farm, I never realized it's actually on the top of a mountain. As Leigh, the farmer, explained, it's the farmland for poor people, as the wealthy had their farms in more fertile valleys (and have long since sold out to developers).

Leigh took us on a tour and we saw the greenhouse where 70,000 seedlings are kept warm with a wood stove, the fields and the chicken coop, where we got to collect fresh eggs. The two crop fields are on a flattish part of the mountain but still have a definite downward slope and were much smaller than I thought they'd be. It's amazing how much Leigh can grow in such tight quarters.

Now that we've been out to the farm once, I hope we'll make it again so I may have some more farm updates for you as summer unfolds.

03 April 2009

Homemade Lasagna, Daring Bakers Style

I'm back from the longest holiday Real Good Taste has ever had with the DB challenge I made on time but didn't post.  Thank you all for your patience.  New posts will be up shortly and you will see me on your blogs soon.

I was really shocked when I saw that this month's Daring Baker's Challenge was a lasagna. I've pretty much only made sweets since I joined the group and even when we had a savory option, like with the lavash crackers, I still added a sweet topping. My purpose in joining the group was to be challenged in the kitchen though, so pretty soon I was thinking how delicious a lasagna with homemade pasta would be, a definite indication of how long it had been since I last made pasta by hand.

As regular readers of Real Good Taste know, I had a huge exam mid-month that kept me out of the kitchen for far too long. I decided my reintroduction to real cooking would be with this lasagna. Nothing looked too hard, but I thought it would be a good idea to split up the cooking and made the béchamel sauce the day before hand. Lasagna day was a beautiful and warm day here so I thought I would take an hour or two to get the meat sauce and pasta done and then go out and help Zach with some yardwork. Well- I started cooking a 11am and ended at 4pm with few breaks in between.

I used Marchella Hazan's recipe for bolognese meat sauce, as it had far fewer ingredients than the DB version, and while it didn't need much prep, I had to be around to add the milk, wine and tomatoes one by one, allowing for full evaporation in between.

Once the bolognese was gently bubbling away, I turned to the pasta. I assembled everything and decided that my floor would thank me if I beat the eggs and spinach together in a bowl, instead of attempted to do in on the narrow counter and ending up with a Niagara Falls of green eggs cascading onto the slate tile that is impossible to clean. I began to work the flour into the egg mixture and everything seemed to be going well except for one tiny problem- the dough was the right consistency but half the flour was left on the counter. Worried that I wouldn't have enough pasta for the lasagna, I added another egg and kept going but still had about a cup of flour left over. Four eggs seemed like going overboard so I wrapped the pasta dough in plastic and let it rest. Then came the real fun.

Since the move I haven't been able to locate some of my favorite kitchen supplies, including my 2 foot long french rolling pin, so I had to work with was a 10in. american pin. What this means it that I had to divide the dough into quarters and go through the three step rolling process 4 times.  By the end of it my arms were burning like they did the time that I did a strength class at the gym with 5lb. weights only to realize at the end of the class they were 5kg.  While I had hoped to be done with the pasta several hours earlier my arms did get a chance to rest before the assembly.

I cooked the pasta briefly in heavily salted boiling water and started on assembly.  Our instructions called for thin layers of béchamel and bolognese but said that we should use the full amounts of both when putting the lasagna together.  I ended up using 4 layers of pasta, which was only half of what I had made.  I would recommend using two eggs for the pasta and just working in as much flour as you can.   That will make plenty of pasta for the recipe.

By the time dinner was finally ready I was dead tired from the day of lasagna making.  The finished product was good, but I'm not sure it was worth all the effort.  That said, Zach loved it and said he'd like to have it again and I could see everything going a lot better with the right rolling pin and amount of dough.  I did like making pasta by hand and would like to experiment with ravioli or other filled pasta.

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna
adapted from from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper
serves 8 as a first course, 4-6 as a main course

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)#1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Bolognese Sauce (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Working Ahead:
The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.

Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:
Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)

Preparation: 45 minutes

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
2 C. (240g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour [I updated this to reflect the right amount of flour for the number of eggs)

Working by Hand:


A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). 

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

#2 Bechamel

Preparation Time: 15 minutes

4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste

Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

# 3 Bolognese Sauce
Recipe from The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

1 T. vegetable oil
3 T. butter
1/2 C. chopped onion
2/3 C. chopped celery
2/3 C. chopped carrot
3/4 lb. (340g) ground beef (it will be tastier if you use 80 or 85% lean)
1 C. whole milk
a little ground nutmeg
1 C. white wine (dry if you have it)
1 & 1/2C. plum tomatoes with the juice

- Add oil, onion and butter to pot. Cook on medium until the onion becomes translucent (3-4 minutes) then add the celery and carrot. Cook for another two minutes and stir to coat them in the butter and oil.

- Add the ground beef, a fat pinch of salt and some pepper. Break up the meat with a spoon and cook till it's not red.

- Add the milk and let it simmer over very low heat until it has completely evaporated. Grate in a little bit of nutmeg (less than 1/8t.) and stir.

- Add wine and let simmer over very low heat until it has completely evaporated. Add the tomatoes and and stir to coat the sauce. Use your spoon to break the tomatoes up into pieces. Cook at a very, very low simmer (just a few bubbles popping up every minute) for 3-4 hours. Stir it every one in a while and if it looks really dry, add a 1/2 C. water. In the end you don't want to have any water or obvious liquid left. The sauce should be very thick, more like pieces of beef and veg slightly coated in tomato. It should smell amazing. Give it a taste for salt and use in the lasagna or on your favorite pasta.