Mongrel Cooking (French, Italian, German, American)

pasta 1

Monday:          Spaghetti with Tomato and Walnut Pesto

mushroom soup

Tuesday:          Mushroom Soup, Barberi Bread, Salad

turkey meatloaf

Wednesday:    Turkey Meatloaf, Creamy Polenta and Arugula


Barberi bread posing as Manet’s Olympia

Thursday:        Dunnings


BLT – Sunday Brunch

Friday:             Valozzi’s, Heinz Hall


Saturday:         Pizza

choucroute 1

Sunday:           Brandade de Moreau, Choucroute Garnie (215, Bourdain)

If you’ve been following our weekly posts, you know that we’ve we’ve been cooking French, but not really.  Which is to say that we’ve been using American ingredients -we’ve been a bit light on the duck fat and the unpasteurized cheeses – and we have tried not to adopt the generally superior attitude of French cooks.  (I cite Disney’s “Ratatouille” as my source for this deep insight into the French character.)

Our meals are an amalgam of different national cuisines and, above all, American.  In other words, we’re mutts and our cooking is a sort of mongrelized project.  But are the French or the Italians really so different?  Pasta is huge in Italy and goes all the way back to . . . Marco Polo, who returned with dried noodles from China in 1295.  But, you will say, what would pasta be without tomatoes?  Well the Spaniards discovered tomatoes in South America in the late 16th century, nearly 300 years after the Italians started cooking pasta.  The French are no better and cooking is like that pretty much everywhere.  You cook with what you have and you try to recreate something you liked on your vacation in another country.

Last weekend, continuing our exploration of the French classics, though in partial homage to my grandfather, Howard Albert, of Alsatian ancestry, we cooked a French classic inspired by Germans – Choucroute Garni.  And boy, did we like it.  If we have ever nailed a classic recipe, this was it.  I would put that Choucroute up against the best restaurant in Metz – well, at least it beat our typically wonderful New Year’s day feast of chops, ribs and kielbasa cooked in sauerkraut and served with mashed potatoes, and I thought nothing would ever beat that lifer-restoring pot of pork heaven.  (If you don’t drink, you have no idea how important a substantial, palatable meal is on the day after New Year’s Eve.  Also, I don’t trust you.)

I had the great fortune of sharing this meal with my son Billy and his friend, Emily, and my brother Greg and his son, Mike.  SWMBO was out of town on business, but still presided over the meal in a way, having set the table and laid out the silverware and napkins before leaving.  (Responsibility is her middle name, just after ‘boss’)

We began the meal with a savory Brandade de Moreau, a whipped gratin of cod – the Italians make a similar dish (bacalá mantecato), thereby reinforcing my mongrelization theory.  I would share the brandade with you, but it’s a two day affair and, if you’re already changing your tee-off time to cook the choucroute, that doesn’t seem fair.  I will, however, do you the great favor of sharing the excellent pasta we had on Monday.  Trust me, whatever you think of walnuts, this will become a regular in your pasta repertoire.

choucroute 2

Choucroute Garni
(Adapted from the NYT and from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook)

Note:  This is a meal for weekends, since it takes about 2 hours to cook, longer if you’re not a good chopper and prepper.  But it is not difficult.  To quote Bourdain:  “The hardest part of this dish is the shopping . . . you can almost not screw this dish up.”

Ingredients:                             For 8

3 lb good sauerkraut  (use the refrigerated stuff that comes in plastic pouches – both the Giant Eagle and Whole Foods have good quality versions)

10 boiled medium sized potatoes (Yukon gold work well – Bourdain says only 4 new potatoes and instructs that you should peel them – but 4 is not enough for us Irish, and with the thin skinned potatoes you don’t need to peel)

2 tablespoons of rendered duck fat or pork fat (we used bacon – pork – fat)
2 onions (or 1 ½ of those giants from Giant Eagle), finely chopped
10 juniper berries (you can get these in the bulk foods at Giant Eagle – and they really add to the recipe)
1 small garlic clove, crushed

4 ½ cups dry white wine (Riesling would be fine – and the meal is best eaten with a very dry Riesling.  We used a Sauvignon Blanc for cooking and splurged for a good Riesling to drink at dinner)

2 bay leaves
1 ½ teaspoons coriander seeds
Salt and Pepper

8 slices of salted pork belly (the salt pork in the case at Whole Foods works well here – get two packages and take the time to remove any of the exterior fat that you can – the interior stuff will cook away).  Note:  Bacon will not give you the wonderful little pieces of pork belly – it shrinks as it cooks – that are the special treasures of this dish.

6 slices of smoked pork loin (we used 6 thick loin chops – not smoke)

4 frankfurters and 4 boudin blancs or German veal sausages (we used 8 packaged bratwurst)

Grainy Mustard, for garnish

Prep:                Drain the sauerkraut.  Bourdain and the NYT say to rinse it 2 or 3 times.  We like the sourness of the kraut and it helps to cut into the richness of the pork and sausages.  WE DO NOT RINSE OUR SAUERKRAUT

Chop the Onion, Slice the pork belly (salt pork), measure out the spices and wine


Heat the fat in a large pot (you’ll be putting everything but the potatoes and sausages into it) over medium.  When it’s hot, add the onion and cook about 5 minutes – till it begins to lighten up.  Add the sauerkraut, juniper berries, garlic, white wine, bay lead, coriangder see, salt and pepper and cover and bring to a simmer.  At that point, add the pork belly and the pork loin.

Cover the pot again and simmer for 1 ½ hours.

In a separate pot (when you’ve gotten to the 30 minute mark or so, bring a gallon or so of water to a simmer and cook the sausages and frankfurters if using, then add the potatoes and keep everything hot.

Finish and Serve:

Ladle the sauerkraut into the center of a large platter.   Arrange the meats and boiled potatoes around the edges.  Serve with the grainy mustard.  (The mustard is a superb counterpoint to the congealing umami of the pork – Maille makes a great, old-fashioned grainy mustard, French-style)

pasta 2

EXTRA                       –  Spaghetti with Tomato and Walnut Pesto
(adapted from bon appétit – July, 2016

This is a perfect dinnerif you are pressed for time but want to impress someone who likes good food.

Timing:                        20-25 minutes / 11 minutes, if you’ve made the pesto ahead of time

Ingredients                  Serves 4

2/3 cup walnuts
2 pints cheery tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons olive oil plus
Separate 1/3 cup olive oil (more for drizzling)
Kosher salt
6 oil-packed anchovies, coarsely chopped (do not omit these – they add the salt and the deep flavor to the pesto – we used about 8)
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped (we used 1)
1 teaspoon lemon zest (zest of 1 lemon – what is it with the teaspoons of zest?)
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (we used ½ teaspoon)
½ cup grated Parmigiano
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
½ cup packed basil leaves.

Make the Pesto:

Preheat oven to 350 F and toast walnuts on baking sheet, tossing once, until darkened – about 10 minutes.

Toss tomatoes with 2 tablespoons of oil and salt on another baking sheets and roast about 6 minutes (they will blister and release some liquid).

Let tomatoes and walnuts cool for 3 or 4 minutes.

Pulse the anchovies, garlic, lemon zest, red pepper flakes and the parmigiano in a food processor until puréed.  Add the walnuts and just ½ of the tomatoes (you’ll use the other half unprocessed) and then, with the motor running, stream in the 1/3 cup of olive oil and process just until combined (don’t grind for too long or you’ll heat the mixture and degrade the taste).  Season to taste with salt, then transfer to a large bowl and mix in the pepper (you’re going to toss the pasta in this bowl with the pesto).

Cook the pasta, then transfer to the bowl with the pesto (reserve some pasta water).  Add a splsh of pasta cooking liquid.  Toss – adding more cooking liquid as needed – until the sauce coats the pasta.  Add the basil and the remaining tomatoes, toss and serve in bowls, topped with more parmesan and ground pepper.  (I like a drizzle of olive oil as well, Beez does not)