This is some serious full circle sh*t. It all started with food in movies. My original pitch to Zach and Vince for the first-ever Uproxx Cooking Battle, which I lost handily, was based on my fervent love for the “World’s Greatest Sandwich” from the movie Spanglish. That modified BLT inspired me to try a series about three home chefs riffing on themed recipes (also, I really like BLTs), but it wasn’t until the 11th-hour decision to start teasing one another’s cooking that the series fully came to life.
Three years later, the boys and I are hustling to spin the series into a TV show, it’s given us the chance to get shredded by Padma Lakshmi, and — most importantly — we’ve developed a base of fans who write microfictions and elaborate burns, mocking us mercilessly.
To celebrate our 25th entry in the series (though only 24 are counted in the standings), we decided to chase internet-food singularity by asking Andrew Rea to do the roasting. The second we saw Rea’s show, Binging with Babish, we knew he had lightning in a bottle. We interviewed him early on and we’ve been fans ever since. Few people in the food space are as aligned with Zach, Vince, and my shared mantra of “make food conversation fun” as Rea. In just a few short years, he’s become a luminary in the field, even getting featured in Netflix’s The Chef Show.
So read on as we battle over food from movies and TV. Then dive into the comments and tear us to pieces. Because we all brought our A+ games to this one and a lot of pride is on the line. Especially with Rea, the unarguable mayor of food in pop culture, overseeing our efforts.
BLT Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Mac & Cheese Showdown — 1) Vince 2) (tie) Zach, Steve
Taco Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Winter Stew Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Date Night Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Pasta Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Hot Beef Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Shellfish Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
BBQ Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Pumpkin Spice Showdown — 1) (tie) Vince, Zach 2) Steve
Thanksgiving Side Dish Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach
Christmas Dessert Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Vince 3) Zach
Chili Cook-off Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Nacho Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach
Burger Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Breakfast Burrito Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Fried Noodle Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Fried Chicken Sandwich Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach
Christmas Dessert Showdown Rematch: 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Italian Comfort Food Showdown: 1) Steve 2) (tie) Zach & Vince
Date Night Showdown Part II: 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Party Food Showdown: 1) Steve 2) Vince 3) Zach*
Grilling Showdown: 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince*
*A tweak to the scoring to make reader votes = in-person votes changed both of these outcomes.
We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. As it stands, the score is:
VINCE’S SQUID INK FETTUCCINE WITH MUSSELS AND BACON — INSPIRED BY THE SOPRANOS
Yes, there are famous and memorable food scenes from The Godfather, Goodfellas, Chef, Crazy Rich Asians, Always Be My Maybe, …etc. But for me, there was one obvious and correct choice here, and that was The Sopranos. For one thing, I host and produce a Sopranos podcast (4.8 stars on iTunes, debuted in the top 100, had El-P from Run The Jewels on as a guest… nbd). For another, The Sopranos features heavily in my journey to internet chef and food enthusiast.
I got The Sopranos Cookbook at some point in college, just when I was starting to cook for myself. Aside from being surprisingly funny and entertaining, the recipes in it are mostly simplified versions of food I’d grown up on and eaten and in some cases cooked with my family. Which is to say, easy, and not too intimidating. I actually got a lot out of it.
Now, if we’re talking Sopranos food, there’s a lot to choose from. Livia’s ziti (“Aw, no fuckin’ ziti?” -AJ, in episode one), Carmella’s lasagna with the layer of basil under the cheese, Artie Bucco’s arancini, and all manner of mutza del, gabba gool, bragiole — va fongool!
But for me, one of the all-time most memorable episodes is where the boys go to Sicily. Paulie Walnuts, easily the funniest character, has been dreaming of this his whole life. He desperately wants to do and eat all the things from the old country that he’s been hearing about his entire life. The picture of Italy he has in his head is probably more real for him than many of our actual memories. So after all these years he finally gets to go, and he gets there only to discover… Well, when Carmella asks Tony “how’s the food, is it amazing?” Tony pauses and says “…it’s a lot of fish.”
For me the standout scene is when the boys go to a big fancy dinner with their Italian counterparts, and Pauly has a heaping plate of what looks like squid ink pasta with mussels in front of him. He looks at it like, examining it with his fork, clearly wondering “what the fuck is this weird-ass food?”
All his life he’s been waiting to eat some glorified version of mama’s meatballs, only to find this intimidating seafood shit. He even asks the waiter, “Jeez, don’t you have any macaroni and gravy?”
At which point the Italian sitting across from Paulie says to his buddy, in Italian, which Pauly doesn’t understand…
It’s one of the greatest scenes in the history of television. The guy in the spread collar and gold chain talking about the relative sophistication of non-Italians… it’s all just *chef’s kiss*. The button is when Paulie gets home from this thoroughly disappointing vacation and tells Big Pussy, “Oh it was amazing, Puss. Every Italian should go.”
It also hit close to home for me, from discovering how intimidating real Italian food is to the casual dismissal of Germans as an entire nation full of ignorant boors who eat food not fit for pigs (not my thoughts, I actually love German food and Germans, it’s just generally what most Italian-Americans are raised to believe).
So, yeah, I could’ve made Carm’s lasagna or another variation on Sunday gravy I’ve made umpteen times before, but I feel like the theme of this challenge is… well… the challenge. I’ve had to push myself, to research and test so many recipes I would’ve never attempted or maybe even thought of if bragging rights hadn’t been on the line.
Honestly, everyone should do a challenge like this with your friends. It will make you a better cook.
(*flying past in biplane with long scarf trailing*)
All I could tell about what Pauly was actually eating from the episode was that it was squid ink pasta with mussels. I took a few liberties, but not too many.
PART I — The Dough
My normal pasta dough (double-yolked, because daddy likes it rich and fatty) is: two cups flour, three eggs, three yolks. For this version, I just subtracted one yolk and replaced it with about two teaspoons of squid ink (which I got in a jar at the fish market). So…
- 2 cups 00 flour
- 3 whole eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 teaspoons squid ink
I mixed it all together in my food processor (yes I’ve used the well method before, not really worth the elbow grease if you ask me…) and finished kneading on a well-floured work table. That made a big dough ball that I covered with plastic wrap and let rest for about 30 minutes.
I actually didn’t have my pasta maker and noodle cutter attachment, so I had to do it by hand. Which actually isn’t that hard. I just cut the dough ball into quarters, then rolled each quarter out as thin as I could with a rolling pin, floured it well on both sides, then rolled it into a little log and cut it in pasta-width columns. Then I just grabbed the end of each and unrolled them into a big pile of noodles.
Through this process, I discovered I actually like hand-cut noodles better than machine cut ones. They get little imperfections in them which creates a kinkier noodle, which sort of aerates the noodles and gives more nooks and crannies for the sauce to get into.
Plus the fettuccine attachment to a pasta machine doesn’t save all that much time.
PART II — The Sauce
To me, one of the biggest benefits of cooking with shellfish like clams and mussels (other than the fact that they’re cheap and one of the most environmentally-friendly proteins) is that they kind of make their own sauce. That’s why I don’t like putting them in a heavy tomato sauce or an arrabbiata. Kind of defeats the purpose, if you ask me. So I kept this pretty basic (yes, I added bacon — store didn’t have pancetta, wasn’t that important of a difference — because it goes great with clams and mussels).
- 1 pound live mussels (washed, debearded, and with the dead ones discarded)
- 1 head (or so) of garlic (smashed with the flat side of a knife and lightly chopped, if necessary)
- 2 strips thick-cut, applewood-smoked bacon, cut into small cubes
- About a teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1 handful ripe cherry tomatoes, cut in half
- 3/4ths cup dry white wine
- Honk of butter
- A handful of tarragon, finely chopped, to garnish.
Ingredients are simple, though the order is somewhat important. The bacon goes in the pan first with some olive and the red pepper, to cook until brown and rendered.
Once the bacon is brown, turn the pan down to low and add the garlic. Cook slowly until the garlic turns golden. Once the garlic is cooked, add the tomatoes and turn up to medium. Add the wine and mussels and cover.
Let that cook covered, for about five minutes or so, or just until the mussels pop open. Once the mussels are open, take them out and put them on a plate.
Finally, add your knob of butter to the mussel sauce.
With the sauce done, I cook the noodles in salty water for a couple of minutes (fresh pasta doesn’t take long), then scoop it out with a strainer scoop and put it right in the pan with the sauce. I let that sit for a minute, then add the mussels back in and toss. Then I plate and garnish with a healthy sprinkling of chopped tarragon. And some grated parmesan if you nasty.
Oh, and the bread! Can’t have mussels without some nice toasted bread, I always say. To make that, I make a compound butter out of some soft butter, chives, a couple smashed/chopped garlic cloves, and salt. Mix it all together, spread on a baguette, little grated parmesan on top, jam it in the oven for a few, buppa da buppa da bah, garlic toast.
The obvious danger here, which I accepted going in, is that you guys are going to react to squid ink and mussels just like Pauly did. All I can say is that the squid ink mostly just gives the pasta a very mild oceany flavor. If you hate mussels I can’t tell you your tastebuds are wrong, but, for me, that combination of bacon and mussels is just fantastic. In this dish you get briny mussels, silky pasta, smoky/ fatty bacon, rich butter, and egg yolks, acidic sweet tomatoes to cut the fat, and that herbaceous dusting of tarragon at the end.
This is the kind of dish I cook for you and, on the off chance you don’t finish it all, scrape from your plate onto mine. I think you’ll like it though. Unless you’re some kind of German.
Zach on Vince’s Dish:
I think Vince made this specifically because he knows I ride hard for all things seafood as both Indigenous and from the Great Pacific Northwest. I love mussels. I love all things squid. And, he knows I have a soft spot for Italian-American cuisine. God damn it, Vince! You got me.
I only have very minor nitpicks here. Like, why not tie the herbs in the dish to the herbs on the garlic bread? Seems like a nice way to tie the whole room/plate together. I also would lose the cherry tomatoes. They just feel superfluous to me. If you need acid, use citrus, Plus, there’s already plenty of umami from the seafood. I get they add color but I’ve never been a fan of mushy cherry tomatoes in pasta, especially seafood-forward dishes. But, hey, you do you, bro.
I think the biggest mark against you is that you didn’t garnish this dish with a bespoke lemon-tarragon olive oil over the top of the whole thing. That would have taken this to a new level. You really need that acidic oily fresh splash to get a full sploosh from me.
Steve on Vince’s Dish:
I love mussels. I love squid ink pasta. I love briny foods.
So don’t worry, Vince, I’m not going to pull people toward my ultra-accessible dish by subliminally reminding them that somewhere deep in their medulla oblongatas they believe SEAFOOD IS GROOOOOSSSS AND PASTA WITHOUT CHEESE IS A WASTE OF CARBS.
I am going to roast you wherever I see daylight though, and that’s those tomatoes. Rather than just being an unneeded ingredient (my specialty!) or a slight deterrent (you mom’s fav perfume brand!), I think they probably changed the whole dynamic of the dish — because you cooked them long enough to not be raw and not so long that they’re fully stewed and loaded with umami. That middle period is the danger zone of the cherry tomato. The bright, fresh-tasting insides are gone and the skins are still super tart. Having done that to plenty of pastas in my day, I know the effect all too well. It’s distracting.
Other than that complaint, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out a “debearded the mussels” double entendre and wishing I could taste your hand-cut pasta, mussels, and sauce with that lemon-infused olive oil that Zach wrote about, so I think you mostly achieved your goal. Too bad people hate seafood, you should have learned from me getting robbed in the first date-night cookoff.
Andrew on Vince’s Dish:
Alright well, you figured out my ultimate weakness: deep cuts from The Sopranos, the greatest TV show of all time – and this is, indeed, a very deep cut. Vince’s appreciation for the source material also shines through, so even before I see any recipes, you’re head and shoulders above the rest. That being said, I am going to judge this like the most crotchety of Italian grandmothers, given Paulie’s environs and dinner company.
An ultra-yolky pasta dough makes sense with this dish, given its rather mild, seafood-y, broth-y sauce. While I respect the hand-rolling/cutting, I just can’t agree with you on the kinky pasta (not the good kind of kinky) – I feel like it’s what separates homemade pasta from restaurant pasta – and if we’re going for accuracy/recreation, I hate to point out, they’re in a restaurant. Seafood-tomato is a good bet for the sauce, but knowing the particularity of those from the old country, I have a feeling that the mere mention of bacon would get you jeered at in Italian, not unlike Paulie’s dinner companions. Bacon goes great with shellfish, sure, but you guys chose to recreate foods from fiction – and if we’re talking a legit ristorante di Napoli, they most certainly wouldn’t use bacon. I’m sorry they were all out at the market, but I’ve traveled to Sheepshead Bay for durian that I wasn’t even sure was in the recipe — I think you can check another Whole Foods for pancetta.
I hope you dumped the wine in immediately after taking that picture, because otherwise, that garlic is burnt. Anything past a summery blonde, you’re just begging for acrid flavors at the base of your sauce. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that’s what you did; same with the butter, hoping you killed the heat before adding it so as to emulsify it into the sauce, instead of ending up with a separated greasy layer atop the tomato-wine base.
All-in-all, I’m reaching for roasts here — the dish looks delicious, well-executed, and I’d certainly induct it into the clean plate club. Really your biggest issues lie in accuracy, which in a recreation competition, cannot go overlooked!
ZACH’S TIMPANO FROM BIG NIGHT
I could go into a big long introduction about how much I love Big Night. I could go on and on about my travels around Italy, yet again. But I won’t. Not this time.
Yep, I love that movie and yep, I’ve taken a lot of cooking classes in Italy and eaten so, so much in every region. But, dear reader, this is a long AF recipe and we need to dive right in. (Plus, I’m sure Steve will have a 1,000-word preamble about skateboarding to a movie theatre in Portland in 1992 while wearing puka shells and we need to save room for that.)
Part I — Ingredients
There’s an almost shocking number of ingredients in this dish. Deeeeeep breath:
- 2 pounds of 00 flour
- Half-a-pound of semolina flour
- 18 eggs
- Olive oil
- Fresh Basil
- Fresh Bordeaux Basil
- Fresh Oregano
- A massive professional size can of Mutti Pelati stewed tomatoes
- 2 large yellow onions
- 1 head of garlic
- 3 pounds of ground beef and pork, mixed
- Heaping tablespoons of smoked paprika, allspice, garlic powder
- A teaspoon of chili flakes
- A lot of good Italian sea salt
- Cracked black pepper
- Half-a-cup of oats
- 8 ounces smoked provolone
- 8 ounces of Parmigiano Reggiano
- 16 ounces of low-moisture mozzarella
And… I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. Jesus, I need an oxygen mask for a minute.
PART II — The Sauce
First things first, I start my sauce as this needs to simmer away from a while. I diced a large yellow onion and about four cloves of garlic. I get a heavy-bottomed saucepan on the stove with a big glug of olive oil warming up on medium heat.
I add in the onions and garlic and sweat them for a good five minutes with a large pinch of salt until they’re translucent. I pour out the tomatoes into a big mixing bowl and use my hand to mash up all the stewed, whole tomatoes until they’re mostly broken up. They’ll cook down over time.
I add the tomatoes to the pan and bring them up to a slow simmer, kind of like lava gasping for its last breath before it solidifies. I add in fresh sprigs of basil and oregano and plenty of salt, cover, and let simmer.
PART III — The Meatballs
In a large mixing bowl, I combine two eggs plus two yolks, the meat (I had the meat processed at the butcher as I don’t have the means to do that home), oats, half a diced onion, four cloves of minced garlic, chopped handfuls of fresh oregano and basil, the spices listed above with a hint of chili pepper flakes to add a little edge in there, and finally a lot of cranks from the pepper mill and large pinches of salt.
I put on some black gloves and start mixing this by hand until a massive and cohesive meatball forms. Then I start rolling out about inch-and-half meatballs. 24 meatballs later and they’re done.
I get a cast iron skillet nice and piping hot and add some olive oil. I sear off the meatballs in batches, making sure all sides are browned. I then toss the meatballs into the sauce to finish cooking and add wonderful fat, spice, and seasoning to the red sauce.
As the batches come out, more wonderful fat builds up in the skillet. It’s a savory, fried wonderland in my kitchen while I’m doing this.
I run out of room in the red sauce. So I keep about eight meatballs to the side and rotate them in every hour or so. Since all the meatballs need to cool, this really is just a step process that I have to accommodate because I have a tiny kitchen and I’m trying to make a massive dish.
PART IV — The Pasta
Can I have a break yet? No? Time to make a crazy amount of pasta you say? Awesome!
Okay, so I start by taking 10 ounces of the 00 flour and mixing in two eggs plus four egg yolks with a fork in a little flour caldera I made. It’s a little dry so I add in another egg and the whole thing really starts coming together. As soon as I have a smooth pasta dough that doesn’t stick, I wrap it in lightly oiled plastic wrap and put it in the fridge to rest.
The pasta dough above was just for the filling. The pasta dough I’m making now is for the crust.
This time I start with two eggs and four yolks but also add maybe an eighth-cup of olive oil to the mix to help this pasta be more of a crust than a, well, pasta.
Same deal, fork, mix, knead, ball, plastic wrap, fridge. I put an “x” on this one because there’s zero chance I’d remember which is which at this point.
Oh, did I mention I’m drinking Campari-heavy Americanos this whole time? No? Well, I am.
After about 45-minutes in the ol’ fridge, I pull out the first dough ball. I set up my pasta rolling machine and get ready to roll out 80+ pieces of garganelli.
I add a healthy layer of semolina flour to my work surface and cut the dough into eight pieces. Next, I work the sheets through the pasta machine until I get to the two-setting. Thin, but not crazy thin.
I then lay the pasta sheets on a cloth I use for measuring my pasta and cut inch-a-half squares after squaring off the sheet. I preserve the excess from the edges to roll back into the next sheet.
I then use my little pasta roller thingy to roll the garganelli. This is the first time I’ve ever done this. I’m going to be honest, I’m not great at it the first ten or so tries. The garganelli is falling flat before I get the right pressure of the roll and everything dailed in. Finally, during the second sheet of pasta things start to feel right and keep going.
82 garganelli I’m finally done. I take a big swig of Americano, stir my sauce, and sit goddamn down. After I make myself another Americano, I fish the meatballs out of the sauce and give it a good stir. I then remember I haven’t even made the goddamn eggs!
After one more sip of my drink, I get a pot of water boiling and boil eight eggs. I sip Americano while they boil off for eight minutes. I then dunk them into ice water in a bowl to stop the cooking. Okay, crisis averted. Back to the pasta. (No, I didn’t take a photo of boiling eggs. You’re just going to have to trust me.)
I fish the second dough ball from the fridge. I cover my surface with a lot of semolina and start working the dough with a rolling pin. I’m pretty much just working outward, dusting with semolina, flipping, repeating over and over again until I have a sheet of pasta I can see my hand through. Maybe one-eighteenth of an inch thick, I think. I didn’t measure it exactly but it felt right.
PART V — Assemble and Bake
Finally, I’m almost there and not remotely tipsy. That’s the funny thing about drinking low-alcohol booze while working, you don’t get drunk but you stay happy. I digress…
I get my timpano pan ready. I found this heavy, oven-safe pan at a pro-kitchen shop in Berlin and it was about one-third the price of a fancy-smancy dutch oven and, hey, it does the same damn thing.
I generously coat the inside with olive oil and ever-so-gingerly place my pasta sheet down into the timpano pan.
Next, I get a large pot of water boiling with a good punch of salt. I also get a large saucepan warming on the side with a good few dollops of the red sauce simmering away in it.
I drop the fresh garganelli and boil them for about one to two minutes or until they just float. I then quickly transfer them to the red sauce. Toss, repeat until all the pasta is in the sauce. I turn off the heat and let it sit. I then slide in a spoon of unsalted butter and give the pan a couple more tosses. This makes it awesome! I could legit just eat this pasta in red sauce.
I then set up my station. I halve the eggs and the meatballs, shred some of the mozzarella, and get ready to put this mother-f*cking thing together.
I layer like this:
Layer one is garganelli, meatballs, eggs, sauce, mozzarella, Bordeaux basil leaves.
Layer two is garganelli, meatballs, eggs, sauce, smoked provolone, parm, basil.
Layer three is garganelli, meatballs, eggs, sauce, basil, mozzarella, more sauce, the rest of the smoked provolone, parm.
I have maybe four meatballs leftover and a good serving of sauce but the timpano is full. So I very gingerly start folding over the pasta. I put the lid on the pot and am so happy it’s almost over. I’m tired at this point and I don’t do a great job of making the top look pretty. Sorry. I don’t care. I also realize at this point I completely forgot the salami for the last layer. The die has been cast. I move on.
I pop this into a pre-heated oven at 375F for two hours and go sit down and blank out for almost all those two hours.
After about an hour, my house starts to smell like Italian food heaven. The cheese is baking into the sauce and pasta and meats and, wow, does it smell amazing. After another hour, I pull out the timpano and let it rest for an hour. The anticipation is astounding. I get all my energy back!
PART VI — Serve
This is the moment of truth, fam. I use my big wooden cutting board to flip the timpano. I jiggle the pan and I feel it pop loose. I gently raise of the pan and … HOLY SHIT, IT WORKED!
I cut about a one-eighth section out and it’s exactly as it should be: Layered, cheesy, stable.
I plate it with a good ladle of red sauce (I learned this the hard way with the 50-layer lasagna). I grate fresh parmesan over the top and add a small crank from the nutmeg mill as a final garnish.
You better believe this made the clean plate club! It was really surprisingly delicious. The eggs add such a funky but tasty element. The flavors were full-on and the little bit of spice from the meatballs was a nice touch.
Also, it lasted and held it’s shape really well for storage and reheating for leftovers which was another nice surprise.
Vince on Zach’s Dish:
Did my mouth water a little while I was reading this, absolutely. Would I even attempt something this preposterously labor intensive? Probably not (Making all the pasta dough without a mixer or processor? You’re a mad man! Work smarter not harder!) Of course, the trouble with a dish that has this many (incredibly labor-intensive) elements, is that there are lots of things to quibble with, and God knows I live to quibble. (Side note: isn’t a timpano basically the Italian version of a deep-dish pizza? Discuss.).
So I guess my main quibble is that… despite all that work, this seems… maybe a little dry? Like maybe you could’ve worked some fresh mozz in there with the stringy stuff? Or swap that smoked provolone with some ricotta? And the eggs — why fully boil them before they’re going to go in the oven for two hours? I know how much you love that sous vide you have that Steve hates, and this seemed like the perfect time to get a nice soft boil going with the sous vide and then let the eggs finish in the sauce. I love to dip-a my huevos in-a da sawce.
My other issue, and I haven’t rewatched Big Night recently so I don’t know if this is canon… why not work some yeast into that outer dough so that it’s more like a thin pizza crust? Or throw some butter/fat in there for a biscuity/deep dish dough effect? I admit I don’t have a frame of reference for this, but a crispy baked pasta dough that thicc just sounds hard to eat, or dry. Baking pasta dough like bread… does that even work?? It sounds like it would just turn into dry macaroni, albeit red sauce flavored. Mama! Why Guiseppe he donna cook-a the macaroni?
Steve on Zach’s Dish:
I like the “Steve is longwinded” dig up top, Zach. Somehow the guy who tells stories of sojourns in the hills of Pakistan every time he makes a fucking pot of rice and preps his lasagna with 50 freaking layers is also the one who espouses brevity and simplicity in cooking. Very Gob Bluth voice: C’MON!
Okay, this is an amazing dish. A culinary marvel. A feast for the ages. The proof of a cook’s mettle.
But I remember when I saw that scene in Big Night, I wondered the same thing I’m wondering now: So… like lasagna, but with eggs and no ricotta? And also so dry you have to add liquid before enjoying (the jokes write themselves!)? Um… Cool?
Question: Is it even possible for this dish to be mind-blowing and not have every other dish on the menu be equally mind-blowing? It’s pretty basic inside, right? All stuff that would already be pre-made in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant.
Having written this little bit of Italian sacrilege, let me clarify: there are all sorts of timpano (or timballo) made throughout Italy. It’s a dish that goes beyond a single region and, as such, is full of regional ingredients. In Emilia-Romagna, it’s often more of a Northern European quail pie, sorta like you’d find in a British pub. In the far south, it can have seafood. In some regions, it’s very cheese focused. There are places where they put whole sausages inside. Or gnocchi. Point being, the dish itself has a history as diverse as the Italian food scene (it transports well, as Zach noted, so the fact that it crosses foodways makes sense).
So forgive me if I say: That seems like a longggggggg asssssssss timmmeeeeeeee to make pasta with meatballs. Oh, and eggs.
Obviously, I’d eat the hell out of this. A million times over. But if I was hanging with Zach and he offered to cook me dinner, would I ask him to re-create this dish? Never ever. I’d have his pasta and gravy and we’d have time to surf, watch a movie, and drink a bottle of tequila. If he insisted on making timpano, I’d ask him to play a little with the insides. So much fonduta that the whole thing oozes? Bison to reference his heritage? A show-stealing basil layer like Carmella’s lasagna? I’m in!
Andrew on Zach’s Dish:
Zach is my boy, but I’m going to set (his) feelings aside and judge his timpano…judiciously. First, you made something you know I’ve made on my show, so that took balls. Meatballs. Second, big ups for making everything from scratch — that’s how the brothers did it, that’s how I did it, and that’s how you should do it. Timpano is a massive, day-long labor of love, and any shortcuts are tantamount to treasonous sloth. Third, sick Steve burn. But the compliments end there.
The fuck are oats doing in your meatballs my dude? I’d almost understand if you were gluten-free, but the mountains of pasta you made would suggest otherwise. Speak of the devil, your pasta is looking crazy soft — either it’s way over-hydrated or it’s way under-worked because it’s rolling out and filling your timpano vessel the way fondant icing would. This is further evidenced by how they positively pancaked in your finished timpano — however, this becomes a moot point, as the brothers’ pasta performed similarly in Big Night. So, kudos for accuracy I guess.
Dunno about those Bordeaux basil leaves — aren’t those closer to Thai basil in flavor? I’ll let it slide because…I don’t actually know. Other than that, construction looks relatively sound, until it finally emerges from the oven, when it becomes abundantly clear that you’ve had a major leak. Either you blew a hole in the side when folding it up, or the sloppy fold job on top couldn’t hold in the liquid, but either way, your dough didn’t rise to the occasion. Don’t worry, it happens to lots of guys, *back-pat*. Lastly, there’s the plating — I know you were tired after working your precious digits to the bone all day, but that’s no excuse for the piss-poor squishy slice presentation. It’s very rare that food looks better in Tupperware, but you pulled it off.
Timpano is crazy challenging, not only for its 12-ish hours total prep time, but for its final presentation hedging on every single step going just right. I admit, I’m reaching for roasts again — for the most part, you pulled off a dish that most ‘seasoned’ (heh) kitchen veterans wouldn’t dare touch. The final presentation was sloppy, but that happens when you’ve been making sauce/meatballs/pasta dough/timpano all day. “You did the best you could” takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to timpano, so when it turns out this solid, you can take that as a compliment.
STEVE’S BIG KAHUNA BURGER FROM PULP FICTION
I’m a Tarantino fan. His work is filmmaking as play, art, and homage all at once. Moreover, in the self-conscious internet era, I believe his movies — each loaded to the gills with personal tics — are a breath of fresh air. Plus, I like dorking out over his references, in-jokes, and backstories.
In the Tarantino-verse, nothing is incidental. Certainly not the Big Kahuna burger.
My case for why my Big Kahuna burger is the Big Kahuna burger, vs. Babish’s for instance, all comes down to a single scene. Not the actual scene the burger is featured in, but a scene between Vincent and Jules at the diner, near the end of the movie. Vincent asks Jules why he doesn’t order bacon and Jules answers smoothly, “I just don’t dig on swine, that’s all.”
A little classic Tarantino repartee follows and, finally, Vincent makes the most salient point to make whenever a meat eater talks bad about pig: “Pork chops taste goooood. Bacon tastes goooooood.”
Facts, Mr. Vega, facts.
I believe this is a “call forward.” Not a call back to be re-referenced later, but a joke made for the fanboys like me who would laugh in a second viewing. Why? Because in the backstory I’ve invented, but which seems to hold some water, the burger Jules eats in the first scene features pork. Heavily.
It is, after all, from that Ha-WAI-ian burger joint. And Hawaiians are known lovers of pork. Traditionally, they roast it, sure, but they also eat in in its most processed form — SPAM. How very Tarantino-esque would it be to have Jules’s giant bite of burger at the opening of the movie get a sterling review because it’s got fried SPAM on it, hiding between the patty and the top bun?
CHAPTER I — Homemade SPAM
This recipe is, in essence, sausage, but to give it that classic SPAM pink, it has to be cured. Hence the Tender Quick featured in the picture above.
Here’s my recipe:
- 1.5 lbs ground pork shoulder.
- .5 lbs ham, ground.
- Teaspoon MSG.
- Tablespoon soy sauce.
- Tablespoon fish sauce.
- Five heads of garlic diced (this is getting roasted for so long that they won’t overpower the meat).
- Tablespoon Morton’s Tender Quick.
The SPAM is then roasted in the oven for 3-4 hours on 225, depending on the mold you’ve packed it in. Mine was packed pretty shallowly in a bread pan, so it needed about three. I set the bread pan in a larger pan filled with water and tented the whole thing with tinfoil.
It came out like this.
That photo is a little odd in its focus, but you get the idea. It’s risen a tiny bit and the gelatin and fat are melted. Next, I put it in the fridge with a brick on top to compress it and let the fat reabsorb.
Here it is once I took it from the fridge and sliced it. There was lots of gelatin around the edges and I laid a fair bit of it aside to use as my cooking oil for the buns. Poor non-swine digging Jules!
CHAPTER II — The Teriyaki-Ketchup Sauce & Onions-In-Lardo
I really like teriyaki flavors on a burger. What I don’t like is a full piece of grilled pineapple. It’s not that I don’t love pineapple, I do. It’s just that I think adding a hunk of pineapple makes you change the burger too much. Or if it’s cut too thick, it dominates the flavor.
Plus with too much pineapple, your cheese goes from cheddar, Swiss, or American to something milder like Jack and that I can’t abide.
Here’s my hybrid Teriyaki-Ketchup-BBQ sauce recipe, as you can see it’s done mostly by feel:
- One pinch MSG.
- 1/8 cup organic ketchup.
- 1/2 tablespoon packed brown sugar.
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce.
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce.
- Crushed raw ginger to taste.
- 1/8 cup pineapple, crushed.
- 1/4 cup organic pineapple juice (strained from a can of crushed pineapple).
Cook that until it tightens up and then squeeze a mandarin orange over the top and circulate the sauce again. It’s sweet and tart at once and fulfills any need you had for ketchup.
This is an easy enough sauce to make, so I also prepped some onions cooked in lardo (solidified pork lard) to the point where they had some signs of char but not a ton. You can see them up there by my SPAM.
CHAPTER III: The Patty
My patty is actually pretty straightforward. It’s a 75/25 blend of beef and pork. It’s also thin, like a fast food joint (also, how I prefer my burgers).
Here are the full specifics.
- 1.5 lbs 85-15 ground chuck.
- .5 lbs ground pork shoulder.
- 2 dashes fish sauce.
- 2 dashes Worchestershire sauce.
- 2 dashes MSG.
- 1 tablespoon bread crumbs.
- 2 dashes soy sauce.
- 1 egg.
Mix by hand, refrigerate, press using waxed paper. I don’t own a burger shaper, so I used the top of a Tupperware. The result was big patties that hang out over the edge of the burger, like the one in Pulp Fiction.
Chargrilled with a little of that Teriyaki-Ketchup on them as they cooked.
Then on the flip side, I added the cheese. The burger in Pulp Fiction clearly has American cheese on it, so I did double the cheese — swiss and American, hiding the swiss layer to stay true to the movie. This worked only to a point, as you can see.
CHAPTER IV — The Build
Okay, let’s build this burger. Start with a grill-toasted bun smeared with butter. The bread? King’s Hawaiian, obviously. Did I bake it? No. I just don’t see the two surf bros who run Big Kahuna Burger in my imagination waking up at 4am every day to bake bread. Sorry, but not really.
Next, Kewpie mayo, as per Hawaiian/ Japanese custom. Also, it’s delicious. Then my onions cooked in lard. We’re still pretty basic at this point — remember, I’m trying to stay within the shell of the burger Tarantino used in the movie.
I stayed on the tomato fence for a long time. Ultimately, I decided against it. I just didn’t want to have my burger end up too similar to the fast-food standard.
To get the “bite” of the tomato back in play, I added jalapeno to the top bun along with a thin layer of my sauce. The patty and the SPAM went over the lettuce, with the idea being that the SPAM hides under the bun (so that the camera doesn’t catch it in the movie). I fried the SPAM in its own fat before putting it on the burger. I don’t really know why keeping this true-to-film became so important to me, but it was a fun challenge to secretly write an idea into the Tarantino universe.
Here’s my version of the burger.
Here’s a little saucier iteration, to match the movie better.
The sweet notes from the pineapple and teriyaki were balanced by the tart flavors in the sauce and the rich, unctuous meat. The SPAM was a game-changer — deepening the dish in a way I really appreciated. The small touches, from the jalapeno spears to the lardo-onions worked together and complemented one another.
The goal was a burger that might briefly sidetrack Jules as he works himself into a murderous rage. I’m no killer, but it definitely distracted me from my guests while I ate. A tasty burger indeed.
Zach on Steve’s Dish:
This burger leaves me slightly offended and, maybe even worse, hungry for an actual Big Kahuna burger.
So, um, that fever dream of an opening about SPAM (an occupation food) and pork is, well, a fever dream. It’s pretty clear that the Big Kahuna burger is just a standard L.A. local chain burger. I think you may have crossed the rubicon into madness, Steve. There’s exactly zero chance a place like Big Kahuna burger is anything more than a couple of G.I.’s who came back from their Navy stint in Hawai’i and opened up a standard burger joint with culturally appropriated Polynesian themes.
That all being said, is this a Big Kahuna burger at all? I’m dubious. I set out to make the timpano FROM Big Night. So I didn’t go off the rails with the ingredients and followed what I saw in the film. This is a burger you can certainly call a Big Kahuna burger but it’s clearly not the burger from the film. Then again, Steve’s major complaint about my dish is that there wasn’t enough bullshit it in to muddle the flavors (he forgets the first rule of Italian cooking: Keep in simple), so I shouldn’t be surprised that his second attempt at a burger is an over-bloated, all-over-the-place, SPAM-laden affair. Oh, and nice addition of that classic Indigenous Hawaiian ingredient, jalapeno. If you wanted heat, why didn’t you just dice it up in your watery teriyaki?
So many questions that I dare not seek the answers to.
Vince on Steve’s Dish:
I’m partly surprised that a Steve dish contained this few ingredients, but then when he started arguing with himself over what ingredients to add to his own dish in his own feature like he was on the verge of mental breakdown, I was like “oh yeah, baby there he is.”
So, I actually think your homemade SPAM sounds pretty good. I always wondered how they got that cubed sliced roasted pork loaf texture in some Vietnamese dishes and this sounds like it’d be something like this. I’ll definitely be stealing that.
Not for a burger though. I just don’t really understand why you need to make this part-pork meatball-esque patty AND put SPAM on top of it. If there’s one thing I know about fast food, it’s that it’s simple, and construction is paramount. Just make the pork-infused patty and be done with it. You put weird-shaped SPAM on top of the burger and now you’re dealing with a house of cards. The final picture even looks unwieldy. That burger reminds me of your mom’s vagina in that I’m convinced something is going to fall out of it.
This isn’t a steakhouse burger where we can tolerate a little messiness. This is the kind of burger I hold over the cardboard box it came in with one hand while the other palms the steering wheel for a four-point turn in my pick-up while I drive across town to pick up the kids from my ex-wife. Know your audience, man.
Andrew on Steve’s Dish:
Oh wow, you’re a Tarantino fan? That’s amazing. You’re such a Tarantino fan, you think you can come at me in my own HOUSE like this?! It’s on, Steve.
You’re totally right. It must be a pork and beef meatball-burger with slices of fried spam on top. That’s why the would-be MacGuffin thieves referred to it as a “hamburger”. That’s why it’s dark brown when visible on-screen, resembling a fast-food beef puck. That’s why, at 10 in the morning, these dumb college kids are eating something that would be inventive by food truck standards in 2019, much less 1994. It’s not a quarter pounder with cheese — it’s a multi-meat Hawaiian-fusion ‘play’ on the traditional American burger with homemade organic teriyaki ketchup. It’s all so obvious now. I mean, you nailed the look.
Okay okay, I’ll lay off your…”interpretation” of the Tarantinoverse burger and focus on the one you made. I totally get the fried SPAM, it actually sounds delicious with the teriyaki ketchup — very Hawaiian (or Filipino?) indeed — but I don’t get the pork in the burger patty. Other than your need to fulfill Tarantino’s supposed porcine premonition, this seems like nothing other than a shitty reason to have to cook your burger past 145F. Its dry, tough texture is probably the only thing it has in common with the burger seen on screen. If you were so deadset on incorporating pork into this burger, couldn’t you just have used…y’know, bacon?
Digging on the Kings Hawaiian roll, the Kewpie mayo, and the jalapeños, all of which sound like they’d be a pretty killer combination. Oh my god, I was starting to be nice but then I read “keeping this true-to-film became so important to me” — my blood pressure just spiked. I don’t know what possessed you to think that this thing is true-to-film — or that jalapeño could somehow stand in for tomato — but if I ignore the fact that you thought you were recreating something from Pulp Fiction, I’ll cede that you very well might have made a tasty burger. Just not the one Jules ate.
If you’re looking to recreate the food from your favorite TV and movies, pre-order Rea’s new Binging With Babish Cookbook!