The idea for doing a pasta challenge this month was simple: “Some people” keep doing pasta anyway, so we might as well hit the nail right on the head. As the smack-talk on Slack commenced, we realized that we were all making stuffed pastas. Zach even taunted us with early photos of his dish, which is suspect from a strategy standpoint but certainly raised the bar.
There were a few funny jokes at first, but then Vince and Zach had spiraled off into some idiotic/ pedantic dispute about pasta water.
I instantly muted the conversation, but one thing was crystal clear: We all sincerely think we created the best pasta, which makes this month’s challenge an extra fun one.
As always, your shares, Tweets, and comments are much appreciated.
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*
We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round, so as it stands, the score is:
ZACH: UOVO RAVIOLI IN BROWNED WHITE TRUFFLE BUTTER WITH A ROMAN ARTICHOKE
Going up against two guys with surnames like Mancini and Bramucci in an Italian pasta making challenge may be a fool’s errand. Especially since Vince really likes making (ahem) pasta. But, I ain’t scared.
Ristorante San Domenico — about 30 minutes from Bologna — offers a quintessential Italian dining experience. One of the restaurant’s many claims to fame is its Uovo ravioli. That’s a ravioli with a ricotta filling and an egg yolk that’s been gently boiled and then finished in butter.
I’ve made it my own over the years, with little tweaks here and there. But, at the end of the day, my recipe is partially San Domenico’s and partially Nancy Silverton’s Osteria Mozza version.
Basically there is no wrong recipe for pasta. It’s Type 00 wheat flour, a few eggs and egg yolks, a little sea salt, a dash of olive oil, maybe some semolina for flouring the sheets. I know that’s super vague. So for this recipe I used about one cup of flour and two eggs, plus one egg yolk with maybe ten cranks off the salt mill.
I add in a quick glug of extra virgin olive oil, but you don’t have to.
I scramble the eggs in the little hollow and stir in the flour with a fork. I slowly work the flour into the egg mixture until a very, very loose dough forms. I dump everything out on my countertop and start slowly kneading the dough and adding dustings of flour as needed. Personally, I love kneading dough by hand. It’s a great way to clear your head and get out a little extra energy. Anyway, I knead the dough for about ten minutes and put the dough ball on a floured plate with a kitchen cloth over it to let it rest for about 20 minutes.
While the dough is resting, I make the filling for the ravioli. This is a combination of the following:
- 6 ounces of fresh ricotta
- Two slices of Prosciutto di Parma
- A small bunch of Wild Garlic (Ramsons)
- One fresh sprig of Oregano
- 6 ounces grated 48-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano
- Pinch of sea salt
- A few grinds off the nutmeg mill
Finely dice the prosciutto, wild garlic, and oregano then add it to the ricotta, parmesan, salt, and nutmeg. Mix well together until you have a nice blend. Cover in plastic wrap and put in the fridge to let the flavors blend for a spell.
So I use semolina to dust the pasta as I roll it out. Basically I roll out sheets and cut them into long rectangles, adding the semolina flour as need to keep it from sticking. I end on the second-to-last thin setting on my pasta machine. I end up with sheets that are about eight inches by four inches, give or take.
I put the pasta sheets on grease proof paper. Then I take a circular metal form and spoon in the ravioli filling and make an indentation in each ravioli filling for the egg yolk.
Next, I separate the eggs and save the whites for later. I do this one at a time. and set the yolk in a spoon to easily put it on the ravioli filling safely.
Once the egg yolks are all in, I use a brush to apply the egg whites around the edges of the pasta sheet. I gently fold over the sheet to make the ravioli pocket. I use my thumbs to press down around the ravioli filling to seal it. I use a pizza cutter to remove excess pasta on the edges. A clean cut seems appropriate here.
Let these set for at least 15 minutes in the fridge under a kitchen cloth.
I get a shallow pan filled with Italian spring water up to a boil with a pinch of sea salt (always add the salt after the water boils). And, yes, to mimic the perfection of an Italian dish, you need to use their water. The best Italian restaurants in America do this by the way, that’s what makes them stand out. The mineral contents and pH are lower in Italian spring water making it a very soft water, so it’s not as aggressive on whatever you’re boiling in the water (it’s the same concept as using a distilled water that’s free of any minerals). Also, it’s a f*cking badass chemistry-based trick of the trade.
I cook these one at a time. At the same time I get my truffle butter browning with sage leaves. Basically this is a big nob of butter with real white truffles minced in on a low-medium heat until in melts with five nice sage leaves in it. You just want it to start to simmer then you can skim off all the fat that rises to the surface in clots, making for a fast clarification.
The ravioli needs to cook for about four minutes in the water. The ravioli should float. I make sure to spoon boiling water over the top so the yolk just starts to cook. I take it out and pat it dry. Then I put it in the browned butter for about 90 seconds. Next plate that ravioli up and add the browned butter all around and over it.
It’s a fantastic dish. The egg yolk mixes with the browned butter to create a decadently lush sauce for the ravioli and whatever side you happen to have. I went with a Roman artichoke because it’s springtime and it’s super easy to make. You just need to dress the artichoke, steam it for about 20 minutes with sage and oregano sprigs, then serve with drizzled extra virgin olive oil, Himalayan salt, and red chili pepper flakes. Done. The best thing about this dish, besides the taste, is that it takes about an hour to execute. You don’t have to wait all day for a sauce to cook just for the filling.
STEVE ON ZACH’S DISH:
I’m calling shenanigans on this phantom truffle. I spent a lot of money on a high falutin’ fungus this month, and I will tell you: If you buy a truffle, you’re showing that truffle.
I’ll let this little fib slide and give you love for the technical skill to create such a lovely foodporn fever dream. But isn’t that a lot of butter? I mean, I’ve used browned butter in 3/5 dishes and that still feels like overkill to me. Who among us wouldn’t trade an ounce of that butter for one or two parmesan shavings?
And yet…egg yolk. Nice.
VINCE ON ZACH’S DISH:
Gee, Zach, I’m surprised you didn’t tell us what you were thinking about while you kneaded that dough (Knead Pray Love?), or name drop any additional chefs where you learned this dish. Also, get the f*ck outta here with that “boiled in Italian spring water” bullshit. I don’t know how many times the ol’ “it’s-a the water!” myth needs to be debunked before credulous dorks stop believing it. I’m actually sad that it needs debunking by anything but basic logic, because there is zero god damned chance you’re going to taste the difference between Italian spring water and any other water once it’s filled with salt, olive oil, and pasta flour.
As long as we’re dealing in hocus pocus, I soaked my pasta water overnight with some energy crystals Gwyneth Paltrow recommended from Goop.com. They cost me $300, but you can really taste the mindfulness. Also the dog I lost when I was seven finally came home and my vasectomy spontaneously reversed itself.
Anyway, this is a long string of roasting because I may have to concede this one. It’s pretty hard to beat an egg yolk raviolo, no matter how many unnecessarily precious ingredients you added to it.
VINCE: GRANDMA’S HOLIDAY RAVIOLIS
“Pasta” is so broad a challenge that you can do a million things with it (hell, I’ve already made pasta in two separate past challenges) [actually three – ed]. With that blank a canvas I think my brain just reverted to my oldest pasta memory, the raviolis we’d eat for Christmas/Thanksgiving/etc. I added a few of my own wrinkles to it, but it’s basically still a heavy, old-school Italian-American goombah dish that’s about as refined as a sledgehammer and would almost certainly get you kicked off Top Chef. It’ll probably make you fall asleep on the couch with one hand halfway down your pants.
Anyway, you can call the sauce “Sunday gravy” or “Jersey red sauce” (thanks, Tom Collicchio) or whatever, but the basic idea is that I’m using the meat that flavors the sauce as my ravioli filling — no wasted ingredients here. I love meatballs, but spaghetti and meatballs make it impossible to get a complete bite. Let’s be honest, it’s a bad delivery system. With this, I’m essentially making a meatball wrapped in pasta dough covered in sauce. Same flavors, much better bite.
- 1-2 pounds beef shank
- 2 (really big) hot Italian sausages (pork)
- 2 onions
- 2 boxes chopped tomatoes
- handful of garlic cloves
- 2 cups home made beef bone stock
- Tablespoon-ish of tomato paste
- Tablespoon-ish of summer savory
- 1 cup-ish of red wine (not pictured)
- Salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes (not pictured, but obviously)
Nothing complicated here. Just brown off the shanks, sweat the onions down, add your smashed garlic, cook up the tomato paste and savory, deglaze with your wine, and add in the tomatoes and sausage. Then I let it simmer all day. If the meat isn’t disintegrating when you try to pull it out it’s not done yet. Grandma almost certainly would’ve used country-style pork ribs, but I splurged on some beef shanks.
The idea is the same — lots of connective tissue and marrow to flavor the sauce.
I’ve posted my basic pasta dough recipe here before so I’m not going to put in all the steps, but suffice it to say, two cups 00 flour, teaspoon salt, three eggs, three egg yolks, splash of olive oil. Combine, knead, rest, roll; in that order.
Note on thickness: I’ve made a lot of these f*cking raviolis, so my system is fairly specific. I’m using a metal ravioli press, and traditionally you can either make one long sheet of dough and fold it over, or two separate sheets. I make two separate sheets. I go to a number six on the bottom sheet (which is pretty thin, I think my grandma only ever went to five, but I like ’em softer). The bottom sheet (the one closest to the press) has to be a little thicker because the filling is going to make the dough stretch and balloon out (I use a little pastry ring to remove the air after I flip them over). For the top sheet, I use a number 7, which is basically see-through, because that sheet doesn’t need to stretch to accommodate filling.
I save all those egg whites I separated out to make the dough and use them as egg wash for the raviolis and binder for the filling. That way I don’t waste nothin’.
My grandma or great aunt would always have the sauce simmering all day, and before dinner when everyone was starving they’d always take out the ribs that had been fat-leeching into the sauce all day and give it to one lucky boy to gnaw on before dinner. That was always my favorite part (possibly because I was f*cking starving, waiting for dinner to be served).
I like that taste so much that I figured that instead of wasting it, why not put it back inside the raviolis? (And anyway, there were no lucky boys around my apartment that day). So here I combine the simmered meats with just a few added ingredients for freshness. It should taste like a moist, spicy/beefy meatball.
- Simmered meats from the sauce
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- 1 shallot, chopped and rinsed under cold water
- 1-3 garlic minced cloves
- 1 teaspoon fennel pollen (someone gave me this for Christmas, and I thought the fennelly taste went nice with the fennelly sausage)
- 1 cup grated parmesano reggiano
- 1/2 cup? milk-soaked bread (for creaminess). I think I like it better than ricotta.
- Pinch of salt, lots of black pepper
- A couple spoons of the egg white for binding
Puttem alla together inna you a-food a-processzione. Mamma mia, dat’s-a nice-a meatem-a ball.
Each double-egged, thin-as-I-can-make-them rav has about a tablespoon of meat in it. Could I have ditched the press and made giant ones? Absolutely. In fact, that might’ve been the better play, in retrospect. I was blinded by tradition. You can also deep fry these babies and serve them with the sauce on the side, like dipping sauce. It’s…. reeeeally good. They bubble on the outside, like samosas. But that’s not really pasta so it’s kind of cheating.
Don’t sleep on this part, it’s really important. Get three burners going — boiling water (salted, with a little olive oil) on the front left, a sauce pan with a little butter on the front right, and your sauce behind that. Boil the pasta until just before done, only about 2-3 minutes for fresh pasta this thin. Use a slotted spoon to scoop them into your sauce pan with butter and add a ladel’s worth of pasta water.
This is an extra step, but the pasta water reduction really amplifies the flavor of your pasta dough, and you kind of want that if you just spent an hour making fresh pasta. After that cooks down for a minute or so, drop in a few spoons of your sauce, jostle to coat, and serve. Garnish with grated cheese and fresh parsley. And a piece of crunchy bread to soak up additional sauce.
ZACH ON VINCE’S DISH:
That’s a lot of ravioli. I think I slipped into a coma just looking at the picture. It looks pretty good, though. I’d happily eat it and then pass out watching Goodfellas. For me, there needs to be more pork in the dish to add some flavor. Maybe one beef shank (veal probably would have been better) and a big ol’ piece of pork on the bone for a little more complexity.
Using boiled out meat to make a meatball to put in the ravioli seems like an odd choice — maybe a fatty smoked or braised short rib would have been more interesting than boiled out meat (I mean, I get it if the meat is served in the Sunday sauce). Don’t you have a dog you can feed the boiled meet to so as to not waste it? Also, adding olive oil to your water is completely unnecessary and makes it harder for the butter to do its job later. At the end of the day, it looks like perfect comfort food that’s a couple steps above opening a can of Chef Boyardee, which would have taken waaaaaay less time and probably been less coma inducing.
STEVE ON VINCE’S DISH:
Did you see Zach’s shot about olive oil ^^^? Let me tell you: This battle about pasta water between two food geeks is clearly not finished and there are sure to be more Slack messages for me to mute. Here’s one coming in now!
Anyway, Vince, I had so many great Chef Boyardee jokes to make, but then I read your description and I was like, “Oh shit, I would eat that.”
So here’s what I’ll say instead: Your sweet spot seems to be “comfort food with better ingredients” which is a pretty brilliant sweet spot to have. But this still feels so reminiscent to a meal from a can that you’ve created some sort of uncanny food valley (it’s right over the hill from that “rural farming community” you’re always reminiscing about). The dissonance takes away some of the impact, but yeah, this looks good. Just not best in show good without a lot of home-fan support.
Lastly, something something wrong water.
STEVE: DUCK CONFIT TORTELLINI WITH CHANTERELLE AND PARSLEY OIL
*After being absolutely robbed in the Date Night Challenge, I approached this one with a chip on my shoulder. That’s okay, because just like Michael Jordan I perform better when there’s some totally imagined slight for me to fixate on like a goddamn maniac.
I didn’t go into this month with much of a philosophy other than “I’m the most-Italian of them all, I must honor my father and win this one” but I guess in retrospect, these were my governing principles:
- Keep the ingredient count low.
- Spend waaaay too much money on organic duck, center cut parmesan, and chanterelles.
- Invite Uproxx photographer Baldemar Fierro and his girlfriend over for dinner in exchange for good pictures.
- Eat celebrity chef Scott Conant’s duck agnolotti for inspiration.
Clearly I took this too seriously, but whatever — I’M NOT ON TOP CHEF: UPROXX TO MAKE FRIENDS!
I’m not going to explain the whole science of duck confit, but here are the basics:
If you submerge duck legs (I used the wings too) in fat and stick them in the oven at 185-ish degrees for half a day, all the tendons and connectors completely melt. They straight vanish, leaving behind some absolutely exquisite meat. I mean, the stuff has been curing for a day, then cooking in fat with a few garlic cloves and thyme sprigs so it’s no shocker that it tastes good, but the flavor of duck confit always has an extra gear that manages to surprise me.
Here’s the meat we ended up with from one duck. It literally just falls off the bone.
The curing leaves the duck a little salty and I needed to mellow that out, so I cut it with mascarpone, cracked pepper, and just the tiniest bit of organic black cherry jam. Tiny. Don’t fixate on the jam. Ignore the jam altogether. It’s technically called a “spread” anyway. (Dammit, that dumb jam is going to ruin me, isn’t it?)
The choice to make tortellini was simply about ratios. A raviolo with this duck would have been a gut bomb and even a bunch of smaller ravioli would have been leaden. This was rich filling and needed some pasta and sauce for moderation. I was going to go with agnolotti, but they can look a little sloppy and the last thing I needed was some technical ding from Mario and Luigi.
Also, since each damn tortellini probably cost me five dollars, I wanted my dinner guests to eat slowly.
Pasta is basically just flour and egg. Vince sneaks his recipe into every third article he writes, so I have it pretty much memorized. I use more semolina than him, because my #brand is “refined rustic.” (I literally just made that up, but you could easily win Next Food Network Star on the strength of that phrase.)
I don’t always like the serrated look made by a ravioli wheel, but I used one here because I needed to make sure my tight little envelopes would stay shut (*insert mom joke here*). As you can see, I did my pasta a little thicker than Vince’s (about the same thickness as Zach’s) because, again: ratios.
My sauce is easy:
- Browned butter
- Cooked garlic fished out of the confit fat and mashed.
- Duck stock (I butchered the whole duck so I had the bones, neck, liver, and heart on hand)
- Center-cut parmesan
The spice for this are mostly in the stock: white pepper, thyme, cracked pepper, red pepper. For what it’s worth, I always use peas in my alfredo-ish sauces because the very first day I left college to hitchhike around the U.S., a stunning waitress at a San Francisco diner served me alfredo with peas before somehow, mystically, telling me that my meal was on the house. It was a kismet moment and the dish made me fall in love with food.
100% true #backstory. Will it resonate with the judges?
Tortellini are simple to make. I shaped them and let them rest. Then I cooked them in a 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 mix of my rich duck stock, boxed chicken broth, and distilled water from a bottle because the “Dumb Water Debate of 2017” had already taken place and I wanted to be unimpeachable from all sides. I use stock or broth to cook pasta whenever I’m making a white sauce (I find that its one element too many with heavier meat sauces and too dominant with light tomato-based sauces).
This is a chanterelle. Shit cost me $7. Mind you, I’d already bought a whole organic duck and $16 in parmesan, so I wasn’t about to hide this baby inside the tortellini. Instead, I sautéed it with browned butter and garlic. Easy, easy.
While the duck was cooking, I had blended some olive oil and parsley together. After letting it rest for a few hours, I strained it through a cheese cloth and found that it was still pretty grassy tasting. To mellow it out, I simmered it in a pot for 20 minutes. I wanted something bright to cut through the richness of the sauce, but wasn’t trying to conjure lawn clippings.
When the tortellini were 85% done, I finished them in the sauce to really coat them. Then I plated each tortellini individually on a sort of “duck pond” of sauce (shouts to Bottura!), adding tiny shreds of parsley and droplets of parsley oil as “lily pads.” Because that’s how fussy I’m willing to get for your love and affection: Obsessively, insanely, ridiculously fussy.
Cracked pepper over the top and you’ve got a meal. Come @ me.
ZACH ON STEVE’S DISH:
Technically, I can’t find anything wrong. Visually, stunning. And duck confit always gets me a little too excited sexually for me to ever ding you for that. The only thing I question is using cream in your sauce — butter and cheese already make for a fine and very creamy base when emulsified correctly. That being said, please cook this the next time I visit you or I will consider it a slight of epic proportions.
Lastly, to defend myself, I used about a third less browned butter on that dish than Osteria Mozza uses in theirs for the exact reason Steve brings up, too much butter is overwhelming. Other than that, I got nothin’. If Steve doesn’t win this, I’ll be shocked. Shocked, I say! I’m sure Vince will be all offended by Steve using actual quality ingredients or something like that.
VINCE ON STEVE’S DISH:
Steve, let’s be honest, your brand is “trying way too hard” and you stayed meticulously on brand here. You spent so much time telling me how you made parsley oil that I actually forgot what this dish is supposed to taste like. Parsley? Duck confit? Mushrooms? Alfredo sauce? Brown butter? Peas? Parsley? Scott Conant? Hitchhiking?
Anyway, it looks really good and I hope you win because I’m starting to get the sense that your sanity depends on it. Did you spend enough on ingredients? Maybe next time you guys could buy a nice lobster and then dehydrate it and then pound that into a fine powder to create a mist you spray around the dining room to recreate the smell of a lobster roll place where you got a handjob in 1998. It takes an extra 17 hours and $200, sure, but totally worth it for that sense memory of Teresa from Pawtucket.
I don’t want to fight about the water thing anymore (hey, you know what makes soft water hard? adding salt to it. salt is a mineral, remember?). I’m pretty sure there’s a world of difference between beer brewing (a process that takes weeks or months and involves DRINKING the actual solution) and pasta making (boiling dough in the liquid for two minutes and then draining it), but how about we just do some sort of blind taste test instead? These things are easily provable.
Anyway, good luck, your pictures look nice.