’ve never been particularly religious. Despite three years of living a stone’s throw from the Vatican I don’t see that changing anytime soon. If anything, living this close to the pope, I’m bound in the other direction.
That said, I have found a book that speaks to me, one that connects things in a way I had never thought of before. Its message is changing my life — at least in the kitchen.
That book is “The Flavor Bible.”
The authors, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, are a gastronomic literary couple who live in New York City. The book, which gets considerable input from great chefs across the globe, was published in 2009.
The first two chapters lay the groundwork for the bulk of the book and discuss flavor. They present how we perceive flavor and how great cooking maximizes it by connecting it to the mind, body, heart and spirit.
While I’ve read the opening chapters at least three or four times each, it’s chapter three, entitled “Flavor Matchmaking: The Charts,” that’s the meat of the book. It is essentially 350 pages of lists.
They range from specific ingredients (white sesame seeds) to kinds of cooking (Asian cuisine) to broader, more suggestive categories (Autumn). Under each list is its key aspect and recommended cooking techniques. These are followed by ingredient pairings. Here’s an example based on the entry for pancetta, Italian bacon:
Pancetta Taste: salty; Weight: medium; Volume: moderate; Techniques: fry
Cheese: Fontina, Parmesan
Bold face in capital letters suggests the best pairings; bold alone designates frequently recommended pairings. Normal font means recommended pairings.
Using this list you could come up with a wide array of pancetta-based dishes. A safe choice would be following the boldface suggestion, pasta and sauce, which would get you amatriciana. Or you could choose meats: maybe pancetta-wrapped beef medallions. If you wanted to be more adventurous, the suggestions might yield blackened chicken breasts sprinkled with crispy pancetta bits and coarsely chopped pistachios.
Since I got this book at Christmas, I’ve been playing with recipes and ingredients. To date, the best creation was a Northern Italian-inspired stuffed pasta dish. Crema di noci, a walnut cream sauce, is relatively common in the winter, but a friend had heard of a slight variation, crema di nocciole, a hazelnut cream sauce. We were both intrigued.
To the bible we went.
Under hazelnuts we found chocolate and vanilla as the most highly recommended, they were followed by cheese (ricotta), coffee, cream, figs, honey, orange (juice, zest), pumpkin and sugar (along with about forty other ideas). I’d just eaten dried Calabrian figs that my roommate brought from home, so they jumped off the page.
We settled on figs and hazelnuts as a base. What do with them? Fresh figs are not in season so we’d have to use the dried kind, not problem since I like the enhanced sweetness they bring to the table.
Combining figs in the crema di nocciole would be difficult, but what about separating the two? This led us to ravioli. The buttery flavor of the hazelnuts would be a nice savory contrast to the little burst of sweetness in the fig filling.
Back to the bible, this time under dried figs. We found honey, orange; walnuts and red wine were the best pairings, with cheese (ricotta, Parmesan) cinnamon, honey, pistachios and raisins also highly recommended. We decided to play with wine, ricotta and a dash of orange.
The recipe below is what we came up with.
Fig fazzoletti in a hazelnut cream sauce (serves 6-8)
For the pasta
- 250 g flour (tipo 00).
- 1 full egg and 5 egg yolks.
For the fazzoletti filling
- 12 dried figs.
- 1 cup red wine (on the fruity side).
- 1/2 cup water.
- 100 g fresh ricotta di mucca (cow ricotta).
- Salt and pepper.
For the sauce
- 150 g toasted hazelnuts.
- 100 g butter.
- 250 g heavy cream.
- 100 g milk.
- Fresh vanilla bean or dash of vanilla extract.
To top it all off
- Grated parmiggiano.
- 3 dried figs, chopped.
- Make the pasta dough by combining the flour and egg and kneading just to the point that it is a homogenous consistency.
- With rolling pin or pasta machine roll into strips 3-4 inches wide, flour well and set aside.
- Toss figs in large skillet on med-high heat for one minute and then add liquids. Cook until figs have regained some moisture and the wine is almost entirely reduced. Set aside to cool.
- Once cool, chop figs and combined with ricotta. Mix well and add salt and black pepper to taste.
- Cut pasta dough into large squares, place a small spoonful of fig and ricotta mixture in the middle and fold over into triangles (fazzoletti literally means tissue paper), about 3-4 pieces per person.
- In food processor or hand blender coarsely chop hazelnuts so there are still some good sized chunks, these chunks add a nice texture in the final dish.
- Toss them in a large pan on medium heat for 1-2 minutes just to brown them a little bit. Add butter, stir for another minute until most of the butter is soaked up. Turn heat to low and add cream and vanilla. Simmer for five minutes (give or take) making sure to stir regularly.
- In a large pot of well-salted water cook the fazzoletti> until they float to the surface. When they’re ready, transfer them directly to the cream sauce.
- Simmer in sauce for 2-3 minutes and then serve immediately with a sprinkling of parmiggiano and chopped figs for a little bit of color.