Monday, January 18, 2016

Wine Club -- Dinner at Rick's Cafe Americain

Casablanca is my favorite movie.  I can still remember being introduced to the movie in college.  I was a second-year college student who elected to take a cinema class as part of my general education requirements.  The class was taught by Professor Turaj.  On the first day of the class, the Professor told his students (including me) that he could show the movies that other professors used in their courses.  However, he found many of them boring.  Instead, he was going to show movies that he liked ... and that we would like.  So, we got to see movies like High Noon, Deer Hunter, and, of course, Casablanca.  

The iconic movie's plot unfolds at the fictitious Rick's Cafe Americain.  The cafe with a view of the airport, which was a perfect spot for anyone trying to escape the Nazis and the Vichy collaborators.  Walk through the doors and one enters a large restaurant, with its white walls and round arches, crammed with tables of anxious people.  Their collective anxiety focuses on the requisite papers needed for the flight to Lisbon and then on to America.   The multitude of tables surround a pianist playing tunes, such as Knock on Wood, to lift the guests' spirits.  Waiters, such as Carl, wind their way around the restaurant, serving drinks and food....

But wait, the one thing missing is the food.  Having watched the movie more times than I can count, I can recall only one reference to food.  To set the scene: Captain Louis Renault just sat down at a table with Major Heinrich Strasser and his aide Colonel Heinz.  Major Strasser orders a bottle of champaign and a tin of caviar.  Captain Renault suggests a bottle of Veuve Cliquot 26.  That's it.  

Not every guest could have ordered caviar.  After all, many did not have enough to pay for the exit visas needed to get to Lisbon.  This leaves the question of what would they have eaten.  This question leads to an even more basic one: what would Ricks Cafe Americain have had on its menu.  The cafe's menu is the one aspect of the restaurant that the writers and directors did not explore, probably because it did not have any meaningful relationship to the telling of the story.  

So, for the January Wine Club, we are going to explore what could have been the menu at Rick's Cafe Americain.  One of my friends gave me, The Casablanca Cookbook, which has recipes for wining and dining at Ricks.  These recipes loosely draw from Moroccan-inspired recipes, with character's names, like Ugarte's Tangy Chicken Wings and Emil Chickpea Fritters.  This book provides a great start, but we need to delve a little further to create the menu.

Coriander Shrimp Kebabs and Ground Lamb Kebabs
Served over Coucous Morocain

Kebabs are a significant part of many Mediterranean cuisines.  Morocco is no exception, with kebabs reaching the Moroccan area during the height of the Ottoman Empire.  For our first course, everyone will have a choice of two skewers of Coriander Shrimp Kebabs or Ground Lamb Kebabs (or a combination of both).  The kebabs will be served over Moroccan style couscous.

Chicken Tangine with Preserved Lemons and Olives, 
Served with Carrots with Cumin and Garlic

The tangine is the emblematic dish of North African cuisine.  When it comes to Moroccan cuisine in particular, one of the most popular dishes is Tangine Djaj Bi Zaytoun Wal Hamid.  This dish features bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs that are marinated with spices and then cooked until very tender.  The chicken is then served with preserved lemons and green olives.  If you don't like olives (and I know a couple of you do not), don't worry -- I will add the olives at the end, thereby enabling me to omit them from your serving.  This tangine will be served with a side of Carrots with Cumin and Garlic. 

Apricot Pistachio Cake

Agriculture in Morocco encompasses a wide variety of ingredients.  For the final course, we will serve a cake that combines two fairly prominent ingredients -- apricots and pistachios.  Morocco is 7th in the world when it comes to producing of pistachios and 11th when it comes to apricots.  

As always, the menu is subject to change.  If there are any food preferences or dietary restrictions that we have overlooked, please let us know.  We look forward to seeing everyone!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Tagliatelle alla Bolognese

If someone were to ask me what pasta dish would I order at an Italian restaurant, I would reply "the Bolognese."  A "Bolognese," which is also referred to as a "ragu," is a sauce of chopped meat and vegetables cooked in a liquid, such as water or wine.  The sauce is perhaps the most familiar dish from the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna.  And, if it is done right, the Bolognese is perhaps one of the best pasta sauces ever created, not only in Italy, but perhaps the entire world (at least in my humble opinion).  

Speaking of origins, the earliest documented recipe for a Bolognese dates back to the late 1700s.   Lynn Rossetto Kasper writes in her book, The Splendid Table, that Alberto Alvisi, a cook to the Cardinal of Imola, made a sauce that he called "ragu for maccheroni."  The first published recipe was written by Pellegrino Artusi in his 1891 cookbook, La Scienza in Cucina e L'Arte di Mangiare Bene ("The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well").  The recipe called for veal fillets, butter, onions and carrots.  The ingredients were to be minced finely, cooked in the butter, and then covered with a broth.   Artusi also suggested adding mushrooms to improve the taste, as well as cream to make a smoother sauce.  

A lot of time has passed since Artusi published his recipe.  With time, comes change.  At some point over the years, decades and centuries, cooks began to use other proteins, such as beef and pork.   They also substituted water or wine for the broth.  The changes went beyond mere substitutions. Cooks decided to add other ingredients, such as tomato paste.  Many of these changes were probably brought about by necessity, such as the availability of cost of beef.  Other changes were probably made to alter the taste, such as the use of wine over broth.  In the end, these changes produced a sauce made with minced meat, onions, carrots, celery and tomato paste, all of which are cooked in a liquid of the cook's choice.  

One final note about this recipe.  Traditionally, a Bolognese is served with Tagliatelle pasta, which is the traditional type of pasta in Emilia-Romagna.  Tagliatelle is a long, flat pasta.  The flatness of the pasta is the key.  You want a surface that can serve as a canvas for the sauce.  Tagliatelle can be a little hard to find, especially if you do not have an Italian store near you.  If you can't find that pasta, you can use Fettuccine or even Pappardelle.  Just avoid the dried pasta.  A Bolognese should only grace fresh pasta.   It definitely costs more to buy fresh pasta.  However, trust me.  It is definitely worth the cost.  

Recipe from Oscar Farinetti, How to Eataly at pg. 56
Serves 4

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, minced
1 small carrot, minced
1 rib celery, minced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
4 ounces ground veal
4 ounces ground pork
4 ounces ground beef
Fine sea salt, to taste
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup tomato paste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup chicken or beef stock
Coarse sea salt for pasta cooking water
Fresh tagliatelle
Grated grana cheese, for serving

1.  In a heavy Dutch oven or large heavy bottomed pot over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil.  Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the carrot, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and fragrant, about 2 minutes more.

2.  Crumble the veal, pork and beef into the pot.  Season with fine sea salt.  Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, until the meat has rendered most of its fat and is just beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.  Spoon out and discard some of the rendered fat, but leave enough to cover the bottom of the pan.  (This will depend upon the meat that you are using - there may not be an excessive amount of fat.)

3.  Add the wine and increase the heat to medium.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the wine has evaporated, about 6 minutes.

4.  Decrease the heat to low, add the tomato paste, stir to combine and cook, stirring frequently, for 20 minutes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Add the stock and adjust the heat if necessary to reach a gentle simmer.  Simmer until the stock has reduced but the sauce is still moist, about 45 minutes longer.  Taste the sauce, adjust the seasoning if necessary and remove from the heat.

5.  Bring a large pot of water to boil for pasta.  When the water is boiling, salt it with coarse salt and add the pasta.  Cook until the pasta rises to the surface of the water.  

6.  Smear a small amount of the sauce on the bottom of a warmed pasta serving bowl. 

7.  When the pasta is cooked, drain it in a colander, then transfer it immediately to the serving bowl.  Top with the remaining sauce and toss vigorously to combine.  Serve immediately with grated cheese on the table.