NEW YEARS EVE DINNER
Salad of Watercress, Green Olive, Feta and Grapes
Braised Shoulder of Veal
Sauteed Wild Mushrooms
Pappardelle with Parmiggiano and Butter
I was introduced to this dish by my eighty-nine year-old neighbor, Beppi, who always makes it for his son and grandchildren when they visit. I was invited to join them for this meal and the main course was so meltingly tender and flavorful that I asked Beppi for therecipe and I made it for my New Year’s Eve dinner for six.
This is a perfect dish to make for entertaining because it can (and must, in my opinion) be made at least one day before serving. It can even be made weeks ahead, frozen, then thawed and heated in its braising liquid (as Beppi did).
Because it’s a braised dish, there is a liquid medium in which it can be easily and flawlessly reheated. Because the shoulder is a cut of meat with a lot of connective tissue, it’s made for stewing and braising and therefore very forgiving if it’s cooked too long or even reheated more than once.
The braising liquid is a simple combination of chicken broth and white wine. I made my own broth with chicken leg/thighs and a couple of ribs of celery and two small onions cut in four. Simply combine all the ingredients, cover with cold water and simmer for about an hour-and-a-half. Don’t boil too hard or it will turn cloudy (not the end of the world), and skim it occasionally if there’s a lot of froth forming on top. Salt it well but don’t over-salt (Beppi uses a bouillon cube in place of some salt—it adds a nice rounded flavor).
Since the main course was made ahead, I could concentrate on the salad and side dishes on the day of the dinner. I picked a combination of flavors that I knew would work well on the plate and on the palette.
First we began with a salad of watercress, green olives, feta, and red grapes. This is a great winter salad and a great appetite-opener because it has a nice balance of sweet and acidic (depending on how fresh your olives are). I like bright green Cerignola olives when I can find them (the longer they sit in their brine, the more olive-y green they become; when they’re freshly brined, they’re bright green and nice and light and vegetal-tasting. The feta must not be too salty, either—I’ve found French Feta to be nice and mildly salty.
Watercress is an under-served salad green and is always a welcome bright flavor in the middle of winter. It’s simple to clean—I just chop off an inch or so off the bottoms and take out any extra-woody stems. Put in a large deep bowl of cold water and let the sand fall to the bottom, then spin in salad spinner. Unlike arugula and other greens, it’s never too sandy and doesn’t require more than one soak in water.
For the main course, I committed a sacrilege in the eyes of most Italians—I didn’t serve the pasta as a separate course by itself, but rather alongside the veal (noodles, American-style). I thought long and hard about this and the reason was that the veal, with it’s light juicy sauce, really cried out for something bland and starchy on the same plate—pappardelle with butter and parmiggiano (who can resist that, whether it’s on its own plate or not).
My criterion for the other accompaniments was their compatibility with the veal jus. Sauteed spinach and sautéed wild mushroom not only speak to the season, but are also irresistible with meat as well as pasta.
A word on the spinach. For years, I’ve been somewhat dissatisfied with my sautéed spinach. I’ve made it with olive oil, butter, cream, béchamel (always good, but very heavy). My spinach was never as good as my gold standard for sautéed spinach—“Bar Pitti” in Manhattan. For years I’ve been ordering the sautéed spinach at Bar Pitti and it’s always perfect—salty, moist and without a trace of that iron-y aftertaste that often accompanies spinach.
I’ve tried more oil (too rich), more squeezing (you can’t really over-squeeze spinach but then it’s bone-dry), longer pre-boiling before sautéing (too mushy), longer sautéing (scorched flavor). Instead of blanching before sautéing, I’ve tried simmering the raw spinach in a skillet with only the water that remains on the leaves from washing (too much irony flavor remains in the leaves).
Nothing gave me that “Bar Pitti” spinach. Until . . . I tried a very simple technique. After boiling the spinach in salted water, shocking it and squeezing it dry, I sauté it in a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil (with a split garlic clove that’s been browned in the oil). After sautéing for about a minute (in a very broad skillet on very high heat), I added some chicken broth to the skillet and sauté for another minute or so. It’s a common thing that chefs do without even thinking about it—splash some chicken stock into a dish for a little added flavor and moisture. It replaced all the moisture that the spinach needed (since it had been squeezed dry of all it’s iron-y liquid), without having to add ridiculous amounts of oil. It also added a bit more salt and that certain rounded flavor that restaurants give us and that seems to elude us at home. (Having cooked in restaurants, I should have figured it out long ago).
Another word on the mushrooms. I used three varieties of wild mushrooms that looked beautiful at the market—shiitakes, chanterelles, and cremini. These each have different amounts of soil on them. I know that the soil that clings to mushrooms is not harmful if eaten, but who wants a bite of soil? There are cooks that wash mushrooms and those who consider it a sin. I’m somewhere in the middle. I try to only wipe mushrooms with a damp cloth unless they have too many crevices and a lot of visible dirt—in that case, I rinse them and immediately dry them. The chanterelles needed a rinse and I must admit they did become a little water-logged but I simply sautéed them a bit longer (very high heat in a very broad skillet) to get that golden color on them before splashing them with sherry (another tip from Beppi).
The last bit of technique and maybe the most valuable thing I can share with you is how to put it all on the table in perfect condition and perfectly hot. . . Working with Mario gave me all the tools needed to prepare almost any meal for guests. Restaurant technique involves assembling (prepping) dishes ahead, then “holding”them until you’re ready to put them on the table, then “finishing” them (and putting them on the table) very quickly without sacrificing any quality or texture.
For this meal, I assembled the meal in the following way: the veal was, of course, done the day before. To serve it, I put some of the braising liquid (which will have turned to gelatin when refrigerated) into a large skillet, then added the ½” thick slices of cold veal (slicing meat straight out of the fridge will give you nice clean slices, rather than the stringy slices you get when you slice it hot—another reason to make it the day before).
The mushrooms, I made completely, and held them in a smaller skillet than the one in which I had sautéed them (they shrink). Since they had already been browned, I didn’t need that large a skillet in which to reheat them. They simply sat on the stove off the heat.
The spinach I prepared a few hours before my guests arrived as follows: I boiled, shocked, and squeezed it in little fistfuls and left the dry little green balls in a shallow serving bowl at room temperature. In a broad skillet, I browned the split cloves of garlic in olive oil, then turned the heat off and left the skillet with just garlic and oil on the burner until the last minute.
The only actual cooking I did at the last minute was to boil the pasta, so I had a large pot of salted simmering water ready.
I assembled the salad and we ate our first course (the only heat on the stove was the burner under the pasta water and the empty oven in which to warm the plates).
When we were ready for our main course, I turned the flame on under the skillet of veal and allowed it to come to a simmer quickly; put the pasta in the water to cook; turned the heat on low under the mushrooms, then quickly prepared the spinach as the pasta cooked. By the time the spinach was finished, the pasta was ready to be pulled out of the water, tossed into a skillet of butter (and a little broth) and all was ready to be plated. One last tip—putting the plates in the oven for thirty seconds goes a long way toward getting everything to the table steaming hot.
The rest of the steps in the recipes are self-explanatory.
3 Heads Watercress, Washed, Dried and Cut into Bite-size Sprigs
6 Ounces Feta
1 Cup Red Grapes
1 Tbl Red Wine Vinegar
4 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Teaspoon Agave or Sugar
10 Bright Green Cerignola Olives (or other green olive)
Salt and Pepper
Mix Oil, Vinegar and Agave and add salt and pepper to taste. Depending on the brand of vinegar, it may need more or less vinegar—they vary greatly in acidity and strength.
Remove pits from olives (slice aroung the pit with a sharp knife).
Toss watercress with dressing in large mixing bowl.
Place a pile of watercress in the center of large plate. Scatter grapes, olives and feta on top and around. Dust with additional black pepper.
BRAISED VEAL SHOULDER
6-Lb Shoulder of Veal, tied into a roast
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
6 Tablespoons Butter
2 Onions or 6 Shallots, or a combination of both
3 Sprigs Rosemary
2 Cups White Wine
2 Cups Chicken Stock
Flour for Dredging
Salt and Pepper
Preheat oven to 350
Coat veal heavily with salt and pepper. Heat oil and 3 Tablespoons Butter in heatproof roasting pan or dutch oven. Dredge roast in flour and Sear in oil and butter on high heat—approximately 2 minutes per side or until golden. Set aside.
Discard butter and oil and add 3 Tablespoons of fresh butter to pan. Add onions and rosemary and sauté for about five minutes or until they just begin to color. Add wine and reduce about five minutes. Add broth and bring to simmer. Add veal to the simmering sauce (there should be about an inch or two of liquid surrounding the veal—it should only be partially submerged.
Cover with lid or foil and place in oven for two hours.
Let cool and refrigerate in its sauce, overnight.
Slice the next day right from the fridge—it should be cold when sliced for nice clean slices.
To serve, gently reheat slices in sauce (either on stovetop or in oven).
SAUTEED WILD MUSHROOMS
2 Lbs Assorted Wild Mushrooms* wiped clean with damp cloth and sliced thin
4 Cloves of Garlic, Peeled and Split in Half
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Sprig Thyme
1 ½ Cups Dry Sherry
¼ Cup Chopped Chives
¼ Cup Chopped Parsley
In a broad skillet, brown garlic cloves in oil over low heat until golden (about fifteen minutes). Raise heat to high and add mushrooms and thyme. Saute until they begin to turn golden brown (about ten minutes). Add salt and pepper to taste. Add sherry and continue sautéing until no more liquid is present and mushrooms begin to crackle and become glazed and golden (can take from five to fifteen minutes, depending on the size of the skillet and the strength of the burner).
Sprinkle with chives and parsley and add more salt and pepper if necessary.
*I used chanterelles, shiitakes and cremini, but you can use all cremini or all shiitake. If it seems that there is too much soil on the mushrooms, rinse and dry them quickly, or they’ll become waterlogged instantly and won’t brown as well.
4 10-Oz. Bags of Fresh Spinach
4 Tablespoons Olive Oil
4 Cloves Garlic
¾ Cup Chicken Broth
Wash the spinach (one bag at a time) in a large mixing bowl filled with cold water (let sand fall to bottom of water and gently lift out spinach). Although the label might say it’s washed, it’s still better to rinse in this way because there’s always a bit of sand left in the leaves.
In a pot of boiling, heavily salted water, boil each batch of spinach for about one minute (after the water has returned to the boil). Drain and shock in ice water. Take fist-size bundles of cooked spinach and squeeze them tightly until there is minimal water left and then with fingers, try to pull apart the tight little balls of spinach so that they’re not so compacted.
In a broad skillet over low heat, brown garlic cloves in oil for about fifteen minutes. Turn up heat and add spinach. Saute for a couple of minutes, stirring so as not to burn any leaves. Add chicken broth and heat through another minute.
The chicken broth is essential for re-introducing moisture back into the spinach after it’s been squeezed so dry—it adds a layer of complexity (without richness) to the spinach.
PAPPARDELLE WITH PARMIGGIANO AND BUTTER
1 ½ Lbs Fresh Pappardelle
1 Stick Butter
½ Cup Chicken Broth
1 Cup Grated Parmiggiano
Boil pasta and then toss in large skillet with melted butter and broth and sprinkle with ample Parmiggiano, salt and pepper.