Friday, May 22, 2009

Pranzo Allo Zio

This past weekend I went up to the Ithaca area to look at houses with my buddy Nick Roth. It was and exhausting weekend to say the least as we packed our schedule with listings, seeing about six a day in pursuit of the perfect house. My uncle Hitch also lives in the Ithaca area so Valerie and I usually stay with him when we travel upstate. He is a wonderful cook and a fine gourmet with a taste for Italian cuisine and French wine, two passions we hold in common. In addition to his culinary talents Hitch is also a renowned gardener and landscape designer; his garden upstate is not to be believed with over a dozen species of lilacs. This past Saturday Hitch cooked a lovely dinner for us to celebrate our arrival to the area and wish us well on our house hunt. The first course, in Italian fashion, was pasta with ramps and ricotta. These were not just any ramps; the three of us harvested them in the local woods. After I mentioned how much I loved ramp season, Hitch promptly grabbed a shovel and threw Valerie and I into the back of his station wagon. We pulled up outside the local cemetery, sounds weird I will admit, and began trekking into the swampy woods. After about fifteen minutes we stumbled upon a few green shoots and dug up their tasty roots bursting with onion and garlic flavor. We took our wild leeks home and sautéed them in a pan with olive oil, fresh ricotta, parmesan, and nutmeg which we then tossed with penne. It was a scrumptious pasta made special by the fact we had foraged the principal ingredient ourselves.

The second course consisted of pan roasted lamb chops and semi-wild salad. The lamb chops were rubbed with rosemary, thyme, sea salt, and coarse black pepper and sat at room temperature for about a half hour. Hitch cooked them in two cast iron pans over high heat to give them a toothsome crust without jeopardizing the tender pink meat inside. They were cooked medium-rare and served with an intriguing salad. Hitch took me out in the late afternoon sunshine to forage for wild herbs, shoots, and greens. We walked around his property with a large bowl kneeling down to identify and pluck a number of wild plants like
bishops weed, primrose, dandelion, and a little pink flower that tastes of fresh peas to name a few. There were literally ten wild varietals to which we added bagged mache to constitute the “semi” part of the salad. I tossed the greens with a little olive oil and coarse sea salt to highlight each and every leaf’s unique flavor. The dish went excellently with the meat, serving simultaneously as a fibrous vegetable side and green salad.

The final dish, a rhubarb tart, looks a little weird but it was really tasty. Hitch is an accomplished baker in the pie and tart department so I always look forward to dessert when I am invited to his dinners. He painstakingly prepared a demi-feuilletée or half puff pastry with layer upon layer of butter interspersed in the dough, an integral element of French pastry making. The dough makes for a thin and crisp crust or tart shell that can then be used in a host of applications. Hitch went with a custard of rhubarb, sugar, eggs, and cream which he poured into the blind-baked crust and cooked for an additional fifteen minutes until golden brown. It did look a little weird but the tart flavor of the rhubarb and eggy sweet custard matched perfectly with the airy crust of the demi-feuilletée. This was an exceptional meal and I am thrilled by the proposition of moving upstate and eating Hitch’s food at least once a week. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

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