Monday, February 11, 2013

Homemade fresh Pappardelle with Veal Ragu




A much anticipated wintry weekend has finally come to pass. I love this weather, I really do. Snow has a wondrous affect of making the dirty streets appear clean and new.

Starting on the Thursday evening, we endured almost two days of grey-skied winter gales and heavy snow fall. The howling wind finally died down, and by Saturday morning, the sun rose in defiant glory, casting pink and blue shadows on the unsullied snow drifts like fondant on a wedding cake. The air is as crisp and brittle as kindling and the reassuring sight of frosty breath gives one the deep impression that all is health and vigor.  

Not being one to hibernate, and as warm as the flannel sheets are, I was up from bed early and out with the kids conquering the hills with our sleds first thing in the morning. Such a winter day gives me an excuse to light a warming fire in the hearth. Especially after many hours of tobogganing with the kids, coming into the house, wet, rosy cheeked and tuckered out, there's nothing like a snapping and popping little fire to gladden the heart. Hot chocolate for the kids is a no brainer, and given the ease with which to make it, I think our little ones probably sucked back a gallon of the stuff in one day. (And to give credit where it's due, Emily from the Lifastudy blog introduced me to dark chocolate-flavoured Silk almond milk - found in most grocery stores - simply warm it up and it is the best hot chocolate you'll ever have while being slightly lighter than dairy-based drinks)

In any event, this is the kind of weather in which I love to cook. The oven warmth is welcome, and I find that the pleasurable busy-ness of puttering about in the kitchen with a glass of wine leaves me about as content as I could ever be. So I took on a few tasks this weekend. On Saturday, I roasted a duck, a small luxury that was provided to me by my mother-in-law. My hopes of significant leftovers were dashed (the winter weather makes for large appetites), so on Sunday I decided to go the pasta route. I spent the first half of my cooking session prepping some gnudi à la April Bloomfield. They need at least three days to set, so I'll keep you apprised of that later in the week. The second event was making pasta from scratch.

Homemade pasta is one of those things that seems very daunting and out of reach to the home cook, but it's actually really simple to make - that is, if you have a pasta machine. Now, if you don't have a pasta machine, like me, it is still simple to make, but requires some elbow grease. A lot of elbow grease, actually (I'm still feeling the burn 24 hours later). Anyway, I accompanied this homemade pasta with a ragu of veal, porchini mushrooms and olives. I suppose some readers may find it odd that I would even touch veal, given the reputation that this meat has garnered over the last few years. Fret not, for veal is simply a very misunderstood meat with a very bad history.

Allow me to explain.

Veal has not always been eaten because of it inherent qualities of tenderness and flavour, but like mutton, is the byproduct of another industry, namely, dairy production. Cows only make milk when there is a calf to drink said milk. Therefore, once every year or two, she is required to produce offspring so that she can continue to provide milk. If the offspring is a female cow, the dairy farmer has a new animal that can produce milk. If the offspring is a male, this calf will obviously not grow up to provide milk. These male calves are then turned into a meat product. If we continue to drink milk, eat cheese, yogurt and everything else, this situation is unavoidable; veal is not going to go away. However, the old ways of producing veal, sometimes called the 'Dutch crate' method are certainly falling out of favour. This method had the calf kept in a pen, with little exercise or movement and basically fed milk all day (sometimes forcefully). This was done to keep the meat light coloured. The lack of movement promised tender, fatty meat. Changes in veal farming and animal treatment is relatively recent. I have a ten-year-old edition of the French Culinary Institute text book that describes the 'crated' veal as the superior product to work with. Times have changed.

Ontario 'white meat' veal producers no longer use crates, but instead use so-called group pens. These really aren't much better, so 'milk-fed' veal still does exist, and in my opinion, is something we should still avoid. However, you will notice products called 'grain-fed veal' in grocery stores. This is an animal that is allowed to have some non-milk feed and allowed to grow somewhat larger than the exclusively milk-fed veal (exclusive liquid diets is very unhealthy to the animal). This will also produce meat that is darker and more on par with adult beef.

Then there is 'rose' or 'red' veal, otherwise known as pastured veal or often referred to as 'organic' veal. This is veal that has been allowed to not only nurse on its mother's natural milk, but to pasture with the mother cow for one season before being slaughtered.  This produces a fine product and allows the calf to actually live to an age that is not much different than a full-grown pig. However, because the dairy industry has grown substantially, and the demand for veal is so low, in many ways affected by the media coverage of 'dutch crating' and other indignities this animals suffer, there is a massive amount of young male cattle from dairy herds that are being sold into the ugly 'white' veal industry or worse, as dog food. So paradoxically, in order to make the lives of male dairy calves better, you must buy MORE veal, not less. So when you hear someone say, "I don't eat veal, I don't believe they are raised humanely", you're actually producing the opposite effect that your well-intentioned boycott intended.  Consumer demand, and especially an ethically-conscious consumer demand will mean more pastured calves, and less dog food (although I suppose dogs have to eat). Anyway, as always, I intended to write about my dinner and ended up ranting about some vaguely poltical food topic. On to the recipe.

Pappardelle with Veal Ragu

Serves four

For the pasta:

400 g by weight of all purpose flour (double zero flour would be ideal, but Canadian all purpose works in a pinch)
4 eggs
4 pinches of salt


For the ragu:

One and a half pounds of pastured veal, cut into bite size pieces (preferably from the chuck)
1 tin quality tomatoes
An ounce or two of dried porchini mushrooms
A handful of black olives
1 large onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Half a cup of red wine
2 fresh Bay leaves
A couple of sprigs of thyme


To make the pasta, get your food processor and crack in four eggs, then dump in your flour and give one good pinch of salt per egg. Turn it on and whiz it up until you get something that resembles damp bread crumbs. It will start to pull away from the sides and should be reminiscent of a dessert crumble. Then dump it on to a work surface and roll it up into a ball or puck shape. Wrap in cling and refrigerate for about 15 minutes. Then take it out and knead it through a couple of times. This is not like bread flour; it is very dense and will require some muscle. Now, if you have a pasta machine, use it here. I didn't, so I got a little bit of flour down on a surface and started rolling out the pasta with a regular rolling pin. Keep turning it and flipping it and keep rolling. Pasta dough has very strong gluten in it. These molecules are like long tense, springs. You stretch them out and they try to snap back. What you're trying do with all this rolling is to temper the gluten a bit, to 'tame' them if you will. It will be slow going at first, but don't give up. You'll finally start to get a somewhat thinner dough and you'll notice that the harder you work, the less 'snap back' you'll be getting, making it progressively easier to roll. Perhaps real hardcore pasta makers can get the thinness they desire by rolling it this way, but I cannot, so I have a bit of a cheat. After you've rolled it as far as you can go and your arms feel like they're going to fall off, hold up the pasta - if you get a bit of light passing through it, then you can stop. Dust the pasta very lightly on both sides and then roll it up like a carpet. Now using a sharp knife, cut ribbons off of the roll that are about a centimetre wide. If you know what pappardelle looks like, aim to cut it only about half as wide - say taggliatelle width. Now 'unfurl' and separate your noodles into an orderly pile and again using your rolling pin, roll each one individually or in twos. You may have to cut the length in half if it's too long for your work surface. This second rolling squashes the noodles out to the appropriate pappardelle width, gets them longer all whilst getting the pasta nice and thin without further destroying your biceps. Would a real Italian do it this way? Not likely, but the results speak for themselves. Once the pasta is made, I gently shake them out and spread them out in a pan like a giant tangled nest. The pan should be lined with parchment and dusted with polenta before doing this. Toss the noodles in the polenta a bit to prevent them from sticking and then put a slightly damp dish towel over the pan to keep it from drying out too quickly.

Now make your ragu. First get the dried mushrooms in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand for five minutes. Season and brown the veal in some hot oil and then set aside. Now in the same pan, sautee your onions and garlic. Then deglaze with the red wine. Remove your mushrooms from the hot water and chop finely. Then (if you have a pressure cooker),  get your mushrooms , mushroom water (leave the grit behind), the meat, the onions and deglazed cooking liquid along with the tomatoes (crushed by hand), herbs and a half a cup of water into a pressure cooker and cook on high pressure for 35 minutes. If you don't have a pressure cooker, do the same thing except get it into a heavy bottomed vessel with a lid and get into a low oven (say 325-350) for an hour and a half or so. Once done, the chunks of veal should be shreddable with a fork, so go ahead and shred it up a bit - but not too much- you don't want 'pulled pork' texture, we're going for a ragu, so a few whole chunks are a good thing. When the ragu has the texture you like, slice the olives and toss them in too.

To cook the pasta, get a big pot of well-salted water on to a rolling boil. Shake off the polenta and drop you pasta in to the water. It only takes a few minutes to reach el dente. My personal preference for fresh pasta is to cook it till it doesn't have a firm core running through the middle - that's just me. Then drain the pasta, and toss with some olive oil and a bit of salt. Serve with the ragu piled on top with some finishing oil and some grated grana padano.

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