Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My “Worst Cooks” evening in the kitchen

I had this great idea when I was at work yesterday.  Red bell pepper pasta with a spinach parmesan sauce, and portabella mushroom caps stuffed with Italian-seasoned ground sirloin with some melted mozzarella on top.  In my head, it was beautiful and delicious.

In reality – well, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either.  Lesson of the day – don’t try to do something new without writing a recipe guideline down first and don’t try to take shortcuts to save time.  Oh yeah, and don’t try to do something involving this much work on a night when I didn’t get home from work until 6pm.

It was definitely a lesson in humility.  But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t post the failures as well as the successes, so here we go.

The pasta

The idea here was that I would use the juicer and run a red bell pepper through it so I could use the pulp and some of the juice in the pasta dough.  Still a good idea, I think.   My favorite book to help me learn to make pasta (because I’m still in the baby step stages) is Pasta Tecnica by Bruno Pasquale.  It’s seriously old, but a great resource.

So, I juiced a bell pepper, put 1 ½ cups of flour in a bowl with a generous pinch of garlic salt, 2 eggs and the pulp.  I got about ½ a cup of juice from the pepper, and put ¼ cup in the pasta dough and started beating the eggs into the flour.  As expected, it got a bit too sticky so I just added flour a spoonful at a time until the dough “felt right”, then rolled it out a little and let it rest while I got the mushrooms going.  So far, no mistakes really.

With the mushrooms in the oven and the dishes in the sink, I started rolling out the pasta dough after putting the water on to boil.  I have a Villaware Pasta Machine that clamps to my kitchen counter and is easy to work with.  Mistake #3 – not making the roommate help me.  With a manual pasta machine, you really need more than one set of hands.  Because I was alternately trying to feed dough into the machine and catch the resulting sheet of dough with my left hand while my right hand turned the crank, let’s just say it wasn’t nice smooth rectangles of dough.  I got impatient because it was taking too long.  If you’ve never done this, you start rolling the dough at the widest setting (7) and gradually make it thinner as you feed the dough through again.  Mistake #4 – I didn’t make the dough thin enough, I stopped at setting 3 and I should have gone down to 2.  Then I started feeding the thinned dough through the fettucine cutters.  Not bad, only a few strands broke off and hit the floor.  Mistake #5 – I didn’t get the pasta drying rack out.  I wound up draping the strands of noodle dough creatively on a bowl.  Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to dust with some more flour so the noodles wouldn’t stick to each other.  After getting half the dough noodled, I realized I hadn’t started the sauce and I was running out of time.  Mistake #6 – trying to make a creamy cheese sauce with spinach without even thinking about how.  I threw some olive oil in a nonstick pan while I finished rolling the other half of the dough out and turning it into noodles.

Frozen chopped spinach went into the olive oil when the noodles went into the boiling water.
  Then I realized I was out of fresh garlic – I had to use the garlic in the jar in the fridge.  Urgh.   Here are my thought processes at this point: 

“ What goes in the sauce again?  Oh heck, I have some red bell pepper juice left, what could it hurt to toss that in?  Hey, milk would make it creamy, right?  Now where’s that fresh grated Parmesan.  Oh crap, it’s in the freezer.  Well, it’ll melt, I’m sure.  Um, it’s kind of orange and the noodles are already starting to float.  Why do some of the noodles look like octopus tentacles?  I’d better stir.  Hmm, there might not be enough water in the pot.  I’ll push them down in the water to drown them.  OK, cheese melted with the spinach, turning the heat down… wait, why do I have clumps of spinach?  The mushrooms are done and floating in liquid in there.  Well, that’s totally ugly gray in there, hopefully sprinkling mozzarella on top will help.  Oh no, I have mozzarella cheese sprinkles on the inside of the oven door now.  Got to get this pulled together.  Maybe the roommate isn’t hungry.  OK, looks like the pasta is done, the color got lighter and the noodles are all floating, to heck with it, it’s going in the nonexistent sauce and I’ll just add more parmesan…”

The mushrooms

I had 2 portabella mushroom caps and ½ a pound of ground sirloin.  The idea was that with the right mix of Italian seasonings I could simulate the flavor of sausage without all the fat that goes with it, and have some mozzarella on top.

I grabbed my new spice grinder, put in a pinch or two of red pepper flakes for heat, some fennel seeds, some dried basil and oregano and then let the grinder go nuts.
  It wasn’t quite powdered, but it was smaller pieces.  Mistake #1 – not measuring, so I couldn’t tell you how much of what I used.  I dumped the meat in a bowl, and the spices on top and smelled fennel overwhelmingly.  Oops.  Then I used the garlic press to squeeze 2 cloves of garlic on top, some garlic salt and black pepper and stirred it all together.  All I could smell was fennel, and I knew I was in trouble.  Luckily, I had a jar of prepared pesto in the fridge, so two spoonfuls of that and ¼ cup of parmesan cheese mixed into the meat and I’d managed to save it.   Scooped the gills out of the mushroom caps because there wasn’t enough room for stuffing otherwise, then stuffed them with the meat mixture and put them in a 350 oven.  Mistake #2 – forgetting that the meat and mushrooms would be giving off juices.  Luckily, they were on a jelly roll pan that had sides so the liquid didn’t get all over the bottom of the oven.  I had brushed the top of the caps with garlic butter so they wouldn’t stick to the pan, and I think that added to the flavor.  Set the time for 20 minutes and then back to the pasta.

The final outcome

So, by the time everything was done, I had a pan full of light orange noodles with clumps of cheesy spinach, and some gray blobs of mushroom underneath some melted mozzarella.   We ate it anyway, and I was thinking a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was going to be the last resort.

In spite of the mistakes, including the ones I probably forgot to document, it wasn’t half bad.  Some of the noodles were cooked perfectly, some were still undercooked and doughy, and while the sauce was nonexistent there was lots of flavor.  With the leftover noodles (I made twice as much as we needed), I’m determined to get that spinach sauce right and make it work.

The mushrooms – well, the first bite was pretty amazingly flavorful and delicious.
  The subsequent bites tasted mostly like ground beef, and I’m not sure why.

Would I try doing something like this again?
  You bet.  I think the idea is still sound, my execution and planning just needs a lot of work.  The roommate was pretty happy with it, I personally gave it a B- overall.