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Recipe selection 101

Try this.

Find yourself a raccoon.

Remember, most of these little rascals are rabid, so it’s best to wear a pair of heavy gloves and knee-length leather boots when you set out to grab one. Even with protective gear, handle the beast with care. Watch your face; they love to attack the face.

Better yet, go online and rent a chimpanzee.

Have the chimp delivered to your home.

Bring the chimp’s cage into your living room, open the cage, then exit the house as quickly as possible, closing the front door behind you before the chimp can follow you out.

Go to your favorite restaurant for a long and leisurely dinner, or take in a movie. A double feature, if possible.

When you return home, open the front door, make some noise to alert the chimp, then give the animal time to find its way out of the house. Don’t worry about the chimp once it leaves your house, chimpanzees are resourceful animals. Call the chimp rental agency and tell them Bosco escaped. They have insurance.

Enter your house.

What do you find? What does your once-tidy living room and kitchen look like?

I can tell you.

It looks like my living room and kitchen after my grandson Banzai has been over for a afternoon visit.

The Bonz enjoys a rip-roaring good time. As in, shredding everything shreddable, removing everything from accessible drawers and cabinets, hauling everything haulable and tipping over everything tippable.

No matter what Kathy and I do to batten down the hatches before we babysit Bonz, the little goofball outwits us; he is a genius when it comes to finding the stuff from which mayhem is made.

When he leaves, we feel like frightened Polish villagers after the Wehrmacht has done its berserk work in town.

One of Bonz’s fave tricks is to hurl magazines around. Nothing beats a flurry of paper if you are one-year-old and you’ve just discovered you can throw things. We have a lot of magazines, thus the litter on the living room and kitchen floors is publication rich.

Most of the magazines deal with food and cooking.

The other night, I realized Dr. Destructo is doing me a favor; he provides a solution to a dilemma.

That dilemma: coming up with new things to cook.

I am one who sticks firmly to the belief that cooking is essentially a matter of mastering techniques. When one is able to perform the basic kitchen operations, one can range far and wide as far as basic recipes go and, then, can extend that range wider yet by deviating from form, experimenting with ingredients, playing with combinations created with attention to the basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, etc.

Sounds almost like I know what I’m talking about, doesn’t it?

But, sometimes, you get stuck in a rut. In a place like Siberia With A View, the ingredient list runs into a brick wall at a point (though the items available here are admirably numerous). You eventually end up running embarrassingly slim regarding variations on themes.

You’re out of ideas.

My pals BFD and GB, and Kathy and I are talking about putting together a cookbook. We entertain each other nearly every Friday, alternating cooks and recipes. We eat, we drink, we rant and rave about a variety of things that irritate and intrigue us, and BFD takes photos of the night’s fare. We have a lot of material compiled, but we need more.

The thing is, every other Friday, when it is my turn to produce the meal, I now labor to conceive of new, hopefully tasty fare.

Bonz has given me the way to deal with this problem. It is a random process – one I could indulge on my own, but it’s more fun watching Bonz expend the energy.

Here’s my new method: I put a stack of publications on the low table next to the sofa. Bonz can get to them easily, and get to them he does … in due time. He has a circuit he follows that takes him first to the kitchen. He then goes back to the dining room where he tears open a large plastic tub filled with toys. Once he hurls the toys around for a minute or two, and throws his ball down the stairs to the basement, he proceeds to one of Kathy’s pianos. He pounds on the keyboard for a few seconds, bouncing rhythmically as he does so, then wends his way back to the kitchen where he opens every floor-level door and drawer, attempts to empty them (with Kathy close behind, clucking and fussing) then he is off to the living room where he punches all the buttons on the sound system, fondles the Boston fern, attempts to pull the cords on the window shades, and, finally, spots the magazines.

Let the selection process begin!

Once Bonz has scattered the magazines in the living room, I walk in and pick up the nearest of the open magazines, keeping it exactly as it was on the floor. Whatever recipe I read on the page is it, given it is an entrée. If my move fails to reveal a recipe for an entrée, I pick up another magazine, and continue the process until I have a candidate.

Bonz was over today, and I have a meal to make next Friday.

The first magazine I pick up is an old Gourmet. A dessert recipe, so down Gourmet goes.

Number two is an issue of Cuisine. There are entrees on the open pages, but they won’t do. One is for grilled ouzo shrimp, a definite risk for us gout sufferers; the second is for lamb souvlaki. While lamb and other baby meats are just fine with me, they are off limits for Kathy.

Third up is an ancient copy of Gastronomica. The recipe: veal sweetbreads. As I said, the offerings here in Siberia With a View are commendable, but I ain’t finding suitable veal glands in the flesh case at the market.

The fourth magazine I pick up is the latest edition of Bon Appetit.

Bingo.

Bonz has thrashed up a gnocchi recipe.

Gnocchi. I have heard the word pronounced “yahngkee,” “nyohkee,” “nohkee.” Who cares? So what if you are embarrassed when you order at an Italian restaurant, or the prima donna in your crowd corrects your pronunciation with references to a medieval Florentine dialect? You can slaughter the pronunciation, but when you order gnocchi, or when you make it, what you get is a delightful potato-based pasta/dumpling.

There’s a catch, though: any time you mix egg, flour and potato together, you run the risk of creating something pasty and leaden. With its abundance the plebeian ingredients, the mix must be handled delicately.

The recipe in the magazine is for gnocchi with a pork ragu.

I have no intention of following the recipe as printed, but it gives me ideas.

The gnocchi? Simple. In fact, the essence of simplicity.

Bake three russet potatoes until overdone. Remove the flesh and put it through a ricer. Spread the riced potatoes on a baking sheet and cool to room temp.

Flour a surface and mound the cool potatoes. Make a well in the center of the mound, just like you would if you were preparing fresh pasta.

Beat together a large egg (or two egg yolks if you want added richness), a half teaspoon or so of Kosher salt, a bit of pepper and a smidge of ground nutmeg and put the mix in the well. Mix the ingredients gently (this is the trick – all the mixing should be minimal, and gentle). Add a quarter cup or so of grated Parmesan cheese and mix in.

Add about a cup and a half of flour to the potato mixture and knead, gently. Continue to add a bit of flour at a time, if necessary, until the dough is sticky, but not elastic.

Roll the dough into a ball and divide into four parts.

Roll each new ball with the palms of your hands into a rope, approximately one-half inch in diameter, then cut the rope into cylinders about three-quarters of an inch long.

You can roll these babies down the tines of a fork, if you wish. It’s not necessary. Put the gnocchi on a parchment-covered baking sheet. When you are done, they can be refrigerated for while, or they can be cooked.

Cook the gnocchi in a big pot of boiling, salted water, in batches small enough that the cylinders are not crowded. Cook them for a couple minutes after they bob to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon and cut one open. If it is dark, or gluey, cook the batch some more. If the center is firm and white, they’re done. Put the cooked gnocchi in a bowl and give them a light coating of extra-virgin olive oil.

When the whole batch is ready, you can do all sorts of marvelous things with the gnocchi. You can sauce them with a traditional marinara, or any variation on same. You can prepare some brown butter with sage, coat the gnocchi and give them a shower of shaved Parmesan. Wild mushrooms? Sure. You can make a gorgonzola cheese sauce. The sky’s the limit.

Or you can make a ragu. Say, a traditional Bolognese or a version of a pork ragu.

I intend to take hunks of pork shoulder (one- to two-inch chunks, with plenty of fat in them) and use them as a base. I will brown the meat, remove it from the pan, toss in a half pound or so of sweet Italian sausage, crumbled, brown it and remove it. Into the pan will go a mix of finely diced carrot, celery and onion (in equal amounts). I will cook the veggies until they are soft, add four or five cloves of garlic, smushed, then deglaze the pan with white wine. I’ll reduce the wine by two thirds and throw in a cup or so of chicken broth, a can’s worth of diced, fire-roasted tomatoes, a sprinkle of red pepper flakes and whatever seasoning I fancy – oregano, thyme, etc. I will put the meats back in the pan, bring the liquid to a boil, then turn down the heat to low, cover the pan and simmer the mix for a couple hours, adding a bit of broth if necessary, until the pork shoulder is ready to come apart. I will encourage that process by flaking the pork with a fork at the end of the cooking, at the same time moderating the heat to ensure the sauce is at the thickness I desire.

A heap o’gnocchi, a serious slick o’sauce, a shower o’grated cheese.

Yow!

Bonz is now saying “Hi,” “See” and “Daaah,” and making a sound like a monkey (ironic, eh?).

When the kid gains a bit of ground in the vocabulary department, I will teach him to say, “nyohkee.”

Or is that “nohkee?”

Thanks for the help, little guy.