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NORTH DAKOTA CHEESE BUTTONS (KÄSE KNÖPFEN OR KASE KNOEPFLA)

The State of North Dakota has only one official food. That’s the official fruit: choke cherry, used for jams jellies, and of course home-made wine. Many believe that cheese buttons should be the official food. As far as I have been able to learn, they are absolutely unique to the state. My step-grandmother made them often as a celebratory dish when I was growing up. I loved them, but I have never eaten them since she stopped making them many years ago. She came from a large German family who farmed on the prairies of eastern North Dakota. No doubt they were part of the immigrant wave of German farmers who came to the Dakotas at the end of the nineteenth century. The immigrants actually came from Russia where they had originally moved with the urging of Catherine the Great. There they were successful wheat farmers, so successful in fact that the native Russians grew increasingly hostile and drove them out. Apparently, North Dakota has many similarities with that part of Russia, so it was only natural that the immigrant Germans again became successful wheat farmers.

My step-grandmother cooked meals for an itinerant threshing crew headed by my grandfather. He had two little boys in tow after their mother had died in the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Both my grandfather and my step-grandmother thought the little boys needed a mother, and so they married. The little boys and their offspring grew up eating a lot of German food including sauerkraut and cheese buttons. There are many variant spellings of the local name of the dish. Perhaps the most common is kase knoepla, but the literal German translation is Käse knõpfen, so I’ll go with that.

Cheese buttons have some amazing similarities with Italian ricotta ravioli. The recipe for the noodle dough is exactly the same as a common recipe for pasta, and the recipe for the farm cheese is similar to at least one version of ricotta. You will note that the dish is remarkably deficient of any green vegetable. Instead it is heavy on bread and flour from the wheat as well as eggs, milk,  and butter from the barn yard. That should serve as a warning that this is not a dish for you if you are worried about your cholesterol. But if you like butter, it is hard to think of a better dish. It goes without saying that you cannot substitute margarine or oil.

RECIPES

Farm Cheese

Ingredients

  • 2 quarts whole milk
  • ½ cup white vinegar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • pepper to taste

Method

  1. Pour the milk into a large, heavy bottomed pot and heat slowly over a medium-low flame, stirring occasionally to avoid scorching on the bottom. When the milk has reached 150°F, stir in the vinegar, remove from the heat, and cover. Stir occasionally as the mixture cools, and the curds form, about 45 minutes.
  2. Line a large colander with fine-mesh cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel. Pour the curds and whey into the towel and allow them to drain. The curds should form a ball in the bottom of the cheesecloth. Twist the cloth gently between your hands and over the sink to squeeze out any remaining whey.
  3. Transfer the cheese to a bowl and combine with the eggs and salt.  Add pepper to taste and set aside.

Cheese Buttons

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour + more for kneading and rolling
  • 3 large eggs
  • 5-9 tablespoons water + more to seal the edges of the buttons

Method

  1. Pour the flour in a mound in the middle of a large, clean, flat work surface. Make a deep well in the center of the mound
  2. Break the three eggs into the well, and using a table fork, beat the eggs gently. Stir in 3 tablespoons of water and then begin to draw the flour in from the edge of the well, stirring and mixing as you go. Continue to draw in the flour, adding 1 more tablespoon of water. Avoid adding too much water, or the dough will get sticky. When the flour is completely incorporated, form the dough into a ball and knead for a 5 to 10 minutes until it is glistening and forms a smooth ball.  Cover loosely with a kitchen towel and let rest for 20 minutes.
  3. When you are ready to roll out the dough, flour the work surface lightly. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Roll out one piece with a rolling pin, covering the remaining pieces in plastic while you work. Roll each piece into a round about 16 inches in diameter. Dust the dough lightly with flour if it is too sticky.
  4. Cut the dough into 2 inch squares. Place a scant teaspoon of the cheese mixture in the center of each square. Moisten the edges of the squares with water and fold over into triangles and/or rectangles (Your choice!). Gently squeeze the edges between your fingers until they are well sealed.
  5. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. In batches, add the cheese buttons to the boiling water. They will sink to the bottom but eventually float. Let the buttons continue to cook for a few minutes after they have floated. Transfer to a bowl with a slotted spoon and keep warm in the oven until all of the buttons have been cooked.
  6. Cut any extra noodle dough into thin strips, boil for 4 -5 minutes, drain, and add to the buttons.

 

Fried Bread Sauce

Ingredients

  • ½ to 1 cup (1 or 2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • about 5 ½-inch slices of home-made or good quality white bread, crusts removed and cubed

Method

  1. Melt the butter in a cast iron skillet over medium heat
  2. Stir in the bread cubes and sauté until the bread cubes are lightly browned and crisp.
  3. Pour over the boiled cheese buttons and noodles, stirring gently to mix.
  4. Serve immediately.
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IMPROMPTU PASTA

I’m in San Francisco right now, after the California Chili Cook-Off in Lodi. (More about that in another post.) Last night, Sarah, our chef-daughter, cooked dinner. Originally she planned to go to the grocery store, but ultimately decided to clear out her refrigerator. Needless to say, her made-up dish using leftovers and odds and ends turned out to be better than anything I could have cooked. The dish combines chicken and pork chop (left over from my chili cook-off venture) with pasta in a simple but delicious sauce seasoned with herbs de Santa Fe*. The side dish was a tomato and burrata salad with an herb vinaigrette. It was a delicious dinner with very little fuss.

* Herbs de Santa Fe is a mix of lavender, rosemary, thyme, savory, fennel seed, basil, and marjoram. You could substitute Italian seasoning.

Impromptu pasta

Impromptu pasta

Here’s the impromptu pasta recipe:

RECIPE

Impromptu Pasta

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons schmaltz (rendered chicken fat)
  • 2 pork chops, cubed
  • cooked chicken (breast and thigh), cubed
  • herbs de Santa Fe*
  • 1 pint hard apple cider
  • lemon juice
  • olive oil
  • kale, chopped
  • button mushrooms, sliced
  • red onion, diced
  • pasta cooked al dente, drained
  • salt and pepper
  • Parmesan

Method

  1. Heat the schmaltz in a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the pork and chicken, browning lightly. Stir in the herbs and hard cider and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a very slow boil and cook until the liquid is reduced by half. Add lemon juice to taste.
  2. Meanwhile, in a small sauté pan, heat the olive oil. Add the kale, mushrooms, and red onion. Sauté until  cooked through. Set aside.
  3. When the cider has reduced, stir in the sautéed kale, mushrooms, and red onion. Add enough pasta to suit your taste. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Top with freshly grated Parmesan. Serve immediately.

 

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PESTO

It is basil season. We have harvested the plants in our back yard, and many stalls at the farmers market have big, beautiful bunches of basil picked just that morning. That means it is time for pesto.

Pesto is really one of those things that you can make without a recipe and adjust it to your personal preferences

Pesto is also something that you can keep for a while. For years we made fresh pesto and ate it all, believing that if you didn’t do that it would immediately turn an unappetizing brown. We didn’t even think about freezing it. The truth is, you can do both.

If you want to keep it for a day or two, put it in a container with an air-tight lid, cover it completely with olive oil, seal the lid, and pop it in the refrigerator. If you are going to freeze it, divide it into amounts that fit into the cups of a muffin pan, freeze pan overnight, pop out the pesto “muffins”, and double bag them in zippered freezer bags so you can use the amount you need without having to thaw the whole batch.

RECIPE

Pesto

Ingredients

  • large bunch of freshly-cut basil, enough that the leaves will fit into the beaker of a food processor
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, more if needed to make a sauce-like mixture
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 2 ounces Parmesan, grated
  • ½ cup pine nuts
  • salt and pepper

Method

  1. Wash the fresh basil, cut or pull off the leaves, and dry them in a clean kitchen towel.
  2. Transfer the leaves to the beaker of a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade.
  3. Add the olive oil and process until the basil has been chopped very finely.
  4. Add the garlic and Parmesan. Continue to process for 30 seconds or until thoroughly combined.
  5. Add the pine nuts and pulse until the nuts are well-chopped but not puréed. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Adjust consistency with additional olive oil, if needed.
  6. Serve over cooked pasta with additional grated Parmesan and dry-roasted pine nuts. If desired, store for a day or two in an air-tight container topped with olive oil and refrigerated or freeze and double bag individual portions for later use.

PS: Here’s a little lagniappe from our garden:

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RICH TABLE – VERDICT IN; THE CRITICS APPROVE

Rich Table in the Hayes Valley section of San Francisco has only been open for a little over 2 months, but already the food and service have impressed the local critics. Michael Bauer in the San Francisco Chronicle has said, “It was ironic and symbolic that my first visit to Rich Table was the night of the blue moon, because only once in a blue moon does a restaurant like this come along.” ( 3½ stars, September 30, 2012) In San Francisco magazine, Josh Sens says, “Elements of surprise…Rich Table might sound like every other joint in town, but it’s not.” (3 stars, October, 2012)   7×7 San Francisco has selected Sarah and Evan as the chef representatives in their annual “The Hot 30”. (October, 2012)

With all that publicity, it may not be a surprise that the reservation book is filled for the next three months, but even if you can’t get a reservation, don’t despair. There are a few seats at the communal table deliberately left open for walk-ins. The bar is always humming, so you may need to sit on an outside bench to wait your turn.

How did a new restaurant get up and running so smoothly in such a short time? Only part of the answer is the talent of the chef-owners, Sarah and Evan Rich. The other part is the professional staff who work together comfortably, more like a family than a restaurant crew.

Maz has taken on responsibility for running the front of the house after working in the wait staff and as beverage manager for years at Coi. He has put together a menu of creative cocktails and an excellent choice of wines and beers that complement the food.

James and Nick have worked as cooks with Sarah and Evan for years, and so watching them in action is like watching a well-practiced athletic team. They have been joined by Bayoni, Miles, and Andrew. How all these folks fit in the tiny open kitchen is a mystery, but without a misstep they work with one another to turn out the orders beautifully composed and on cue.

Michael and Charles left good, long-time positions in high-end restaurants to join the team. Rachel and Jamie, the runner, have also become team members. This makes a first-class, friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable front-of-the-house crew.

We visited San Francisco a few days ago with plans to eat at Rich Table. As parents of one of the chefs, Sarah, we thought that would not be a problem, but in a text message, Sarah gently reminded my wife that we need to let her know our plans , otherwise she could not guarantee a space.

We wound up sitting at the communal table with a party of five from France. They were making the “Great Circle Tour” of the American West. Even with limited English on their part and non-existent French on ours, we enjoyed a chat and wound up sharing some food.  They cleaned their plates and enjoyed the restaurant. I heard  one  say, “Magnifique.”

We spent three hours eating everything that Sarah sent out to us. Here’s what we ate:

SPANISH CAVA WITH BEAU SOLEIL OYSTERS FROM NEW BRUNSWICK, CANADA

Canadian oysters in California! Delicious and ocean salty. Still, the highlight is the crushed squash blossom mignonette. The sauce is beautiful with green and yellow-orange confetti. It is also tasty with an acidic base that complements the salty oysters.

SARDINE CHIPS WITH HORSERADISH ANCHO CRESS

This is rapidly becoming a signature dish of Rich Table. Big, crisp potato chips have a slender sardine fillet woven in the middle raising the question, “How do they do that?” The horseradish sauce is a perfect foil.   CAUTION: you can’t eat just one!

WINTER SQUASH FRITTER WITH PRESERVED LEMON AND ARUGULA SALSA VERDE

Another signature dish, corn fritters, has been transformed for the fall season into winter squash fritters with the sweet, creamy filling, crispy crust, and salty toasted squash seeds as a garnish.

HOUSE-MADE BLACK GARLIC MORTADELLA WITH HOT MUSTARD

This in no way resembles the usual bologna-like mortadella. The sausage is a silky mousse of pork laced with lardons of pork fat and bits of black garlic, a smoked and aged garlic that has a nutty, woodsy flavor.

RAW KING SALMON WITH CUCUMBER AND DOUGLAS FIR TOPPED WITH SALTINE TUILE DOTTED WITH YOGURT AND FORAGED PURSLANE

Almost too beautiful to eat – well, almost! The salmon hides below a paper-thin tuile of saltine decorated with polka dots of yogurt and “bows” of foraged purslane. The decorations are delicious. The salmon and cucumber are superb.

HEIRLOOM TOMATO SALAD WITH BURRATA AND TOASTED SEAWEED

Sort of a sophisticated caprese. The tomatoes multi-hued, each with its own synthesis of sweet and tart. The burrata is creamy and a notch above the usual mozzarella, even the house-made, fresh variety. Seaweed  for basil? So Japanese and so different.

PLANCHA BREAD, RABBIT SAUSAGE, CORN, AND RED FRILL MUSTARD

Toppings for the plancha bread, done on one of the flat-top stoves, change frequently For our visit, rabbit sausage and corn were a perfect balance. Mustard served as both greens and sauce.

GARGANELLI WITH LAMB SAUSAGE AND ARUGULA

This unusual and beautiful pasta originated in Romagna and was rolled on a weaving comb to produce indentations before it was formed into cylinders resembling the breathing tubes of chickens (hence the name). Here it is topped with a light brown sauce faintly seasoned with tomato and the juices from lamb sausage. The sauce is perfect for dipping with bread.

WILD FENNEL LEVAIN AND HOUSE-CULTURED BUTTER

The perfect bread for dipping – but also for eating by itself or with the house-made cultured butter. There are lots of excellent, famous bakeries in San Francisco – Acme, Grace, and Tartine to name a few – but this house-made bread has become another signature dish. The bread is made with a sourdough starter that has been maintained for years. The scent and subtle taste of foraged wild fennel pollen makes it unique. The butter is made from milk and culture that have been aged together for two days. Then the mix is churned. The butter is pressed and aged for another several days while the pungent buttermilk is saved for other uses. (You’ll see more about that later.)

TAJARIN WITH CUITLACOCHE

The pasta originated in the Italian Piedmont. It is thicker than capellini but thinner than spaghetti. In Alba, a traditional dish is tajarin served with a sauce of black truffles. Thus, it is appropriate with cuitlacoche (corn smut, maize mushroom), a fungus that sometimes develops on ripening ears of corn. In Mexico it is a great delicacy and has been called “Mexican truffle”. Small wonder because it brings a chestnut color to the sauce along with a complex earthy aroma and taste which are clearly reminiscent of fresh truffles at the peak of the season.

RABBIT CANNELLONI, NASTURTIUM, SUNGOLD TOMATOES

An elegant pasta roll filled with tender rabbit and bathed with an herbal, slightly sweet sauce that makes you want more. The nasturtiums with their delicate blossoms and showy tiger stripes look too beautiful to eat, but they’re not. An elegant dish.

KING SALMON, BOK CHOY, TOASTED BUCKWHEAT, YOUNG GINGER

The bok choy and subtle ginger set an Asian note while the crunchy toasted buckwheat kernels offer an interesting contrast to the tender salmon fillets.

SWEET GLAZED PORK DUMPLINGS, BRAISED ESCAROLE, RADICCHIO

Delicate  rolls if pasta stuffed with a fluffy farce of pork augmented with airy egg whites and unctuous pork fat. The sweet glaze is caramelized so that the dish becomes a sophisticated pot sticker.

That’s it – only thirteen savouries, and we finished all of them. Then came dessert.

MUSKMELON GRANITÉ

The dish came to the table resembling a drift of melon-colored snowflakes, and the first spoonfuls added to the image. Then the surprise: buried in the bottom were perfect cubes of ripe melon and a ball of melon-flavored cream made with a siphon.

PANNA COTTA WITH PLUMS AND ALMOND CRUMBLE

So good that Susan started eating before I could take a picture, so here is an image of the fresh peach version from earlier in the season. This has become another signature offering.

PLUM CAKE WITH BUTTERMILK ICE CREAM

The cake oozes moisture and flavor. Not too sweet, but sweet enough with the subtle flavor of seasonal plums and a poached plum on the side along with a quenelle of buttermilk ice cream, tangy and smooth as silk. The buttermilk comes as a by-product of the house-churned butter. Some by-product!

That was it! No more, though no more was needed. Clearly a tour de force of creative American cooking with overtones of French, Italian, and Japanese. Can’t wait to visit again.

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LEFTOVER LAMB SHANKS

The day after our farmers market feast, Sarah went off to the restaurant where she was working. Evan slept in after his last night cooking at the restaurant where he worked. Around noon, he volunteered to make lunch and headed out to the kitchen. There were lots of leftovers from the night before, but when he had finished you would not have recognized at all that they were leftovers.

He whipped up a fragrant pasta dish which included the leftover lamb shanks, a reduction of the cooking liquid,  freshly cooked pasta, mushrooms, and some wilted baby salad greens.

Uncooked campanelle pasta

The pasta he chose was campanelle which  with its bell shape and fluting was a perfect choice to hold the sauce. This unusual pasta shape was listed in a catalog of Sicilian pastas at the end of the nineteenth century. You can read more about it in an interesting book,  Encyclopedia of Pasta, written by Oretta Zanini de Vita and translated by Maureen B. Fant (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009), which describes the history and  making of Italian pasta.

Lamb shanks, campanelle pasta, mushrooms and wilted greens

RECIPE

Ingredients

  • 2 cups leftover lamb braising liquid, strained and de-greased
  • 1 cup campanelle pasta
  • 1 cup leftover lamb shanks, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup mushrooms, trimmed and cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 cup baby salad greens
  • salt and pepper

Method

  • Bring the braising liquid to a boil and add the campanelle. Boil until the pasta is al dente.
  • Add the lamb  and warm over low heat until heated through.
  • While the pasta is boiling, heat the olive oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté for 3 minutes.
  • Stir the mushrooms into the lamb and pasta.
  • Add the salad greens, toss lightly, correct the seasoning and serve immediately.

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