Minnesota, after having thought it was Seattle for the week leading up to and including Christmas (30's-40's and raining) remembered it was Minnesota and cooled off dramatically. When the weather gets cold I, not being a winter sports guy, hibernate. "Cold" is a relative term. For me, up here in the great North, that's somewhere around 20 degrees. That's the temperature at which I start wishing I had an arctic survival suit. For my friends in Arizona and SoCal...like 65 degrees.
I like to cook things that are relatively low effort, have long cooking times, and make the whole house smell good. To that end, I have two things for you...Pasta Milanese (with Mudrica) and Mulled Apple Cider.
Let's hit the drink first - so you can sip on it while cooking,...
Mulled Apple Cider
There are endless variations you can run with and, unless you do something painfully stupid, you'll still have a sweet, savory, vaguely spicy cup of goodness when you're done.
1/2 gallon of fresh, unfiltered apple cider (non-alcoholic)
1 cara-cara orange, thinly sliced (a regular orange will do fine)
15 whole cloves
4 3-inch sticks of cinnamon
15 allspice berries
⅛ teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg
⅓ tsp ground mace
7 pods of cardamom
2 star anise
As for the ingredients, I've played with this a bit over time. Mace adds a nice floral note to it but unless you've got a really good spice store in town, you ain't finding no mace. Cut it out. Put in another 3-4 cardamom pods. You're good. For the orange - I've seen recipes where they only add a couple of big pieces of the orange peel. When I do that, I just don't get enough orange hitting me. I never did until I sliced the whole thing up and threw it in. Thin slices. THIN SLICES...big fat ones don't quite get it done. I'm assuming the thing that makes the difference is to expose as much of the orange flesh as you can. Thus, the more slices, the better you're doing on that front.
The cara-cara orange is generally smaller, has a thinner peel and is less acidic and sweeter than a regular orange. However, Cara-Cara's have a really short window in which they're available...which is, like, NOW. It's a window that's only open for about 6 weeks from end of November to early January. So, any other time of year, use a regular orange or, if you don't want the drink to be super-sweet bypass the cara-cara.
Also, wherever possible, use the whole spice (clove, allspice, cinnamon stick, cardamom, star anise). The measurements get weird when you're using ground and you get a bit of a grit that you can't strain out unless you line your strainer with cheesecloth...which is only kinda effective and a pain in the ass. Still tasty, and the grit doesn't ruin anything...it's just a mild annoyance.
I see alot of recipes that have sugar in various forms. Too much for me. So I don't add any.
So, fill up a cup, take a long sip. Let's get cooking.
Pasta Milanese with Mudrica (or St. Joseph's Sawdust) and a Creole Spice Chaser
This is a John Besh recipe. He's a fantastic New Orleans Chef. He has a more elegant name for the dish. Google him. The link I have for it is no longer working. I've largely kept with his recipe but have made a few minor modifications.
A Word On Mudrica: St. Joseph's Sawdust is an Italian Catholic thing and says something interesting about the culture and about how we as humans try to pay homage to our religious figures. Mudrica is loosely translated to mean "sand". Cool. We found the only thing less appetizing than "sawdust" to associate with food. St. Joseph was a carpenter. Thus, the sawdust thing. St. Joseph is THE Joseph. Husband of Mary. Foster father to Jesus. He is generally believed to be the patron saint of all workers and of a happy death (as it is asserted that he died in the presence of Mary and Jesus and thus was happy and content). Also, he taught Jesus a trade. Which seems like a good foster-dad kinda thing to do. So, I'm all in with the "let's pay my man some homage" concept of the dish.
The problem I run into is that I've tried a number of different recipes for Mudrica and, well, I hate them all. Really. Not just dislike. I think it's idiotic. To me, it ruins every dish it's associated with. Unfortunately, I seem to be alone in this abhorrence. So, I make the friggin' Mudrica. But I serve it separately and you can throw as much or as little,of it on as you want. I top my own plate with some grated Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil and I'm happy.
For the Pasta Milanese
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 bulb fennel, diced
2 onions, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 anchovy fillets
2-14 1/2 oz. cans diced tomatoes
28 oz can of San Marzano tomatoes
1 1/2 tbsp honey
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 teaspoon fennel seed toasted, ground
6 large fresh basil leaves, chiffonade
1/2 teaspoon oregano or (leaves from 2 large sprigs)
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tsp Creole Spice Blend
1 lb bucatini or penne rigate
So...creole spice mix. Either go buy something called Creole Spice Mix at the store, or make your own. Here's what I use...
Creole Spice Blend
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tsp onion powder
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne
Obviously...if you want it hotter, up the cayenne. It's that easy.
Okay...so right off the bat I'm violating tradition with the last thing in the Milanese ingredient list. You usually see this dish with bucatini or spaghetti. Bucatini is essentially spaghetti with a hole in it. It's a tube not a dowel. It's awesome. The sauce gets in there and it's delicious. I find the sauce just slides off the spaghetti and I like it better, if I can't find bucatini, with penne. The ridges grab the sauce nicely. And when I say I like it better with penne when I can't find bucatini, I'm saying I always make it with penne. Unless I want to order it online or go on a safari in whatever city I'm in, I've never just walked into a mainline grocer and found bucatini.
For the Mudrica
1/2 cup white bread crumbs
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
2 tablespoons currants or raisins
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 pinch oregano
Pinch of salt
We're going to get the sauce going and then come back to the Mudrica.
Put a 12" skillet on over medium-high heat. Add the fennel and onions. Hit them with some salt to get them sweating. Let them go for 6-9 minutes until they start to brown and carmelize. Get the garlic minced, the anchovies chopped, the tomato cans opened, and the whole tomatoes broken up. Put about a tbsp of whole fennel seeds in a dry skillet and toast for a couple of minutes. Throw them in a spice grinder and obliterate them. Fill up a pot with water (for the pasta), put it over medium-low heat, salt it, cover it, and let it get to work boiling. Onions and fennel browning up? Cool.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the garlic. Give it about a minute until you start to smell it. Add the anchovies and stir them in really well. They will dissolve and add a great depth of flavor (umami). I know you're thinking to yourself, "screw the anchovies"...get over it. You're missing out if you don't put them in.
Throw the tomatoes in, the honey, the tomato paste, the ground fennel seeds, basil, oregano, creole spices and crushed red pepper. Give it all a good stir. Raise the heat until you get a good simmer going. Reduce heat to medium low and walk away from the sauce for about an hour except to mosey back by to give it a stir and make sure it isn't simmering too enthusiastically.
The fennel is the critical ingredient for both the flavor and the aroma that fills the whole house. You walk in while it's under way and you'll immediately think, "Marinara!..no...wait...what is that?" In a good way. It provides an interesting curveball compared to the always tasty onion, carrot, celery mirepoix boogie.
Keep track of the time and how much time your pasta will take. Make sure you get it going with about ten minutes left in the cooking time for the sauce. If the sauce gets too thick, lower the heat a bit and add a splash of water. You want it really thick...you don't want it congealed.
We might as well get the mudrica going. Sigh. One last note...if you decide, like me, to ignore the mudrica, add about 1/4 tsp of cinnamon to the sauce, stir it in. Grate up some parm and have it ready to top the dish with. It'll be awesome.
So...Mudrica. Happily, it's easy. Take all the ingredients listed above, throw them in a food processor, whiz it up 5-6 times. Put it in a small dry skillet (the same one you toasted the fennel seeds in). Put it over medium low heat. Stir it. DO NOT WALK AWAY. The distance between "not yet toasted" and "holy shit it's on fire" is about equal to the width of a hair. Keep an eye on it and when you see the crumbs starting to brown, pull it off the heat. Let it sit in the skillet for another 30 seconds, then transfer it to a bowl and set it aside. You're done with the Mudrica. This is another reason to try it, even if you conclude you don't like it (and, again, I'm the only one I've encountered who doesn't like it)...it takes almost no effort. So, why not?
When the pasta is ready, reserve a cup or two of the pasta water and then drain it. Put two big ladles of the sauce down in a large pasta serving bowl. Add the pasta...toss well. Then start ladling more and more sauce in. Add a bit of the pasta water to loosen it up (however loose you want it). Serve it up on plates, garnish with mudrica to your liking. I like to throw a couple of slices of warm, freshly baked bread on each plate to soak up the sauce with. But, as always, do you.