Italian

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JasperEating with Chef Jasper Mirabile

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen me mentioning a meal I recently had at Jasper’s in Kansas City, MO.  Some of you may have even gotten the chance to see the picture I took of some of the amazing food Chef Jasper made for us.  Others probably saw the repeated comments that at any moment, I was sure I was going to burst.  Despite the worries about my own mortality, that meal was sooooo worth it.

Jasper – The Tradition

To set the stage for this meal, I should let you know that the Mirabile family has been serving up outstanding Italian food to hungry Kansas Citians for over fifty years.  It all began in 1954 when Leonard Mirabile opened Jasper’s with his son Jasper.  According to their website, back then you could get a three course meal for seventy-nine cents.  (I can only imagine how fat I’d be if I could still get Chef Jasper to cook for me for seventy-nine cents…  Yikes.)

Since 1954, Jasper’s has seen a lot of change.  For instance, they moved from their original location on Wornall to Watt’s Mill on 103rd and State Line.  They have also gone from a neighborhood restaurant to one of the most decorated restaurants in the country, earning a Mobil Four Stars for dining excellence, the AAA Four Diamonds and DIRONA award (among others).  The restaurant has also seen a third generation of Mirabile, Jasper’s sons Leonard and Jasper, Jr., enter the restaurant business.

Chef Jasper – The Culinary Icon

However, Jasper’s is more than a restaurant.  If there is a food event in Kansas City, Chef Jasper is probably there.  He teaches numerous classes all over the Kansas City area, on such varied topics as making mozzarella to teaching kids the joy of cooking.  He has cookbooks.  He has a radio show on AM 710.  His smiling face can be found in any Hen House market.  He works with cheese producers to evangelize good, artisan cheeses.  He helps local food producers.  He knows everyone.

In other words, there may be no single name more synonymous with food in Kansas City (which is saying a lot, since Kansas City is starting to establish itself on the culinary map.)

Jasper’s – The Menu

And there I was with Mrs. WellDone at Chef Jasper’s invitation eating the best (and by several pounds of food the largest) meal I have ever eaten.

For reference, here’s the menu:

  1. Lobster cappuccino with pancetta and foam
  2. Shrimp Scampi alla Livornese Over Polenta
  3. An “Appetizer” of Eggplant Othello and Lobster Ravioli
  4. Half a loaf of good Italian bread
  5. Caprese Salad with Mozzarella Made Tableside, Heirloom Tomatos Chef’s Wife Grew, Basil, and a Homemade Balsamic Reduction
  6. A Pasta “Tasting” Consisting Of
    • Pasta Nanni with Prosciutto, peas, romano, mushrooms, and tomato sauce
    • Gagootsa sauce (Italian gourd) sauce over ditali pasta
    • Rigatoni with a Melon cream sauce
  7. For our entrees:
    • Five hour slow roasted pork shank
    • Chicken Saltimbucco
  8. For dessert:
    • Peach Napolean with Chef’s mama’s pastry cream
    • Death by Chocolate
  9. After Dinner Drink:
    • Homemade Amaretto
    • Homemade Limoncello
    • Homemade Anisette
  10. House Wine

With a menu like that, I don’t even know where to start describing everything.  It was all amazing.  However, in the interest of space, I will limit this article to the two times in the meal when the food was so good I lost the ability to speak English.  (Later, I’ll talk about more of the food and maybe sniff out a recipe or two.)
 

Pasta Nanni – The First Moment of Silence

The first time I lost the ability to speak was when I took the first bite of the pasta nanni.  It came served on a long plate with three individual sections, one for each of the pastas on the tasting menu.  I didn’t know what it was, and frankly, I was far more excited about the gagootsa sauce.  However, I think the nanni was closest to me, so I started with it.

Mere words defy the flavor of the pasta.  I can tell you there was salty Prosciutto, earthy tomato, sweet peas, savory mushrooms, and rich cream.  But those are just words.  They cannot convey how perfectly those ingredients worked together.  The saltiness of the Prosciutto was perhaps the lead flavor, but the tomato sauce and the peas wouldn’t let that flavor dominate.  Then there was the touch of cream, giving the dish just enough richness to take it from great pasta to something magical.

As a side note, I have two regrets from the evening at Jasper’s.  The first was that I shared any of that pasta with my wife and the second was that I saved some it for later.  See, our entrees arrived with the pasta course, so there was other pasta, pork osso buco and my wife’s chicken to eat.  All the while, the pasta nanni got cold and while it was good when I got back to it, it was nothing compared to when they first brought it out.  Plus, I think my wife ate all the Prosciutto.  Which is a crime in some places I think.

To this day, I still want more.  I will not consider my life complete unless I can go back to Jasper’s and eat that pasta again. 

Chef Jasper’s Chicken – Pure Bliss

The second moment of bliss so intense words failed me was when I ate my wife’s chicken dish.  When she ordered chicken Saltimbocco, I laughed. 

When I saw it on the menu, I didn’t think it was anything special.  It’s a Roman dish of chicken breast, ham, a little cheese, and some tomato sauce.  Traditionally, it’s rolled, but Chef Jasper says that it dries out the chicken too much so he left it unrolled.  There’s also a sauce made from lemon, stock, white wine, butter, and sage.  But still, when I saw it on the menu, I wasn’t excited.  I came for the big, the fancy, and the impressive dishes with hard names to say (ie osso bucco.) 

Don’t get me wrong, the pork was fantastic, but the chicken Saltimbocco was unreal.  It just worked.  The chicken was moist and the ham was perfect for adding a bit of salt, a bit of pork fat, and a bit of flavor.  The tomato sauce was gently nestled on to the chicken and added a nice bit of earthy tomato taste.  Then there was just enough cheese to top the dish to add a bit of extra saltiness and keep the dish together. 

Then there was the sauce.  That slightly citrusy, slightly tangy, slightly sagey butter-lemon-sage sauce.  To be honest, I shouldn’t like the sauce.  Citrus and wine together are about my least favorite sauce pairings, but there was I soaking it up with a piece of bread.

More than the ingredients, that dish worked because of the artistry.  You can probably find a frozen dinner with the same ingredients as that chicken Saltimbocco, but you probably can’t find a hundred chefs in the world who could make them absolutely sing like Chef Jasper.  I just can’t get over how there should be nothing special about an unrolled rolled chicken dish, but in a master’s hands, it was simply sublime.

Like the pasta, I would say that I wouldn’t consider my life complete unless I went back and had that dish it again, but I took care of it already.  So that part of my life is complete.  Though I am kinda jonsing for it again.

Chef Jasper Mentioned Melon Pasta Special

Also, I should mention the Rigatoni melon, which was the completely odd, but absolutely fantastic pasta dish with a sauce of melon, parmesan cream, and a little bacon.  If that sounds familiar, you might have seen Rachel Ray make it in her magazine, though Chef Jasper assures me his was the better version because of the bacon.  I refuse to argue against either Chef Jasper or bacon.

What amazed me was that dish its utter potential for chaos.  When you mix sour/salty parmesan cream with sweet melon and salty/fatty bacon, you should have a mess on your hands.  However, in the hands of a master, that combination was something both my wife and I loved.

And so that just part my meal with Chef Jasper.  I plan to talk about so many other parts of that dish and everything I learned from talking with him.  But for now, I need to go.  I hear some pasta nanni calling my name.

The logo was taken from Jasper’s website.

Creamy Tofu-Enhanced Tomato SauceSo my friend @Nightblooms and I got on the subject of tofu one fine night on Twitter when she told me about this amazing tofu/tomato sauce she made for her family.

Never one to pass down the opportunity to let others do my work for me, I begged her to do a guest post on BlogWellDone.com.  She graciously accepted with the vaguest promise of a post from me in the near future (more on that later.)  But without further ado…

Creamy Tofu-Enhanced Tomato Sauce

Contributed by Marie Oliver

Food as medicine is a practice that is easily taken for granted growing up with restaurateur parents.  Living away from home for the first time as a young adult was when the ingrained habit revealed itself. I found myself grocery shopping for sometimes obscure foods and spices that supposedly improved health when consumed as a beverage or used as an ingredient in foods.

There is nothing obscure about the tomato, but did you know it was once considered poisonous?  The tomato is among a wide range of plants that are a part of the deadly nightshade family, avoided due to their toxicity.  Eggplant, peppers and potatoes are among the nightshade plants we relish as dietary staples.

The health  benefits of tomatoes are numerous, whether eaten raw or cooked.  There was a fascinating study initiated by a couple of Harvard scientists over 20 years ago that examined the effects of tomato products on prostate cancer in about 48,000 participants. Data was gathered and reviewed over a 12 year timeframe.  Although they claimed the study to be inconclusive, in the same breath it was asserted that there was a definitive reduction in the risk of prostate cancer in men who consumed tomatoes – about 45%.

The red pigment found in tomatoes is lycopene, an antioxidant or cell damage neutralizer.   Lycopene has also been said to inhibit growth of breast, lung and endometrial cancer cells.  However, for some who are allergic, tomatoes may be a health hazard.  If you suffer from hives, headaches or asthma symptoms after consuming tomato products, then step away from the fruit. Tomatoes also contain the chemical salicylate, which is an active ingredient in aspirin. So, if you have an aspirin allergy, talk with your physician about whether you should avoid food salicylates as well.

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Okay, so my friend Denise asked if I knew any recipes for a good marinara sauce she could use at an upcoming dinner party.  Of course I do and here it is…

Me and Marinara

The funny thing about me and spaghetti sauce is that I did not grow up in an Italian household.  If I had to point at one nationality for our home, I would said “Kansan” which is a lot like Missourian, but we have better college teams.  Still, despite the lack of an Italian grandmother who could pass on her famous meatballs the she brought over from the old country, in my house we ate A LOT of Italian food: lasagna, spaghetti, linguine, meatballs, and so on…

Still, despite all that, we do not have a tradition of the slow cooked Sunday gravy that made me drool during so many Sopranos episodes.  This is why, as I have come into my culinary own, I have had to strive to figure out to make slow cooked spaghetti sauce like the one to the right.  It took a while (and a few wasted cans of tomatoes) before I finally got it right.

San Marzano Plum Tomatoes

I thank Mario Batali for helping me get to the promised land on this one.  I have watched enough Molto Mario that I now know when it comes time to make marinara, there’s only one place to turn: San Marzano whole tomatoes.  There is nothing wrong with Hunt’s if you cannot find San Marzano, but these premium plum tomatoes that come from Italy have a richer taste and seem to be juicier, which is perfect when making marinara sauce.

Like I said, if you cannot find them (I could not for years until Whole Foods started carrying them and I was not going to pay Dean and Deluca prices for them) go with whole Hunts tomatoes.  I find they are the best non-San Marzano brand.

Okay, anyway, recipe time…

Recipe: Elegant Marinara

You will need: (meat ingredients written in orange)

  • 2 pounds ground chuck or 2 packages faux hamburger
  • 2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 4-6 strips of bacon, cut into rough pieces
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil (you will need 4 if cooking with meat)
  • 1 large white onion, finely diced
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flake
  • 1 teaspoon salt + more to taste
  • 2 teaspoons black pepper + more to taste
  • 2 28 oz cans whole plum tomatoes
  • 3-4 leaves fresh sage, chopped or 1 tablespoon dried
  • 6-8 leaves fresh basil, chopped or 2 tablespoons dried
  • 2 tablespoons dried parsely*

* Please use English (not flat leaf) parsely.  The parsely is only there to make the sauce look pretty.  That’s why I use dried parsely…it brings no flava to the party!  Look at the picture above.  See the green?  That’s parsely…

If you want to make this with meat, preheat a skillet over medium heat.   Add the hamburger, break up with a wooden spoon and add the oregano.  Cook over medium heat, stirring every few minutes until the meat is thoroughly browned.  Wash with water and drain the fat if you are watching your weight.

If you are using faux meat, cook with oregano.

In a good size skillet or pot, heat the olive oil over high heat.  Add the bacon and cook until the fat has run out, usually 4-5 minutes.  Remove the bacon and discard.

Add two tablespoons of olive oil, even if you are cooking with meat.  When the oil is hot, add the onions, garlic, red pepper flake, salt, and pepper.  Cook for 4-5 minutes until the onions start to turn clear.

Add the plum tomatoes and their juice.  Now, you may notice they are still basically perfect little balls.  I highly advise against cooking them that way.  They might explode into little red balls of hot liquid, which means you need to burst them before the heat can.  You can either prick them with a fork or a knife or you can do the Mario Batali (and Chris Perrin) method of reaching in and squeezing them with your hand.  Just beware organic shrapnel!

Once the tomatoes are no longer spheres, bring them and their juice to a boil.  This may take up to 10 minutes.  Cover partially, leaving a hole for steam to escape (see the picture to the left).  Reduce the heat to medium and boil for 15 minutes.

Add the sage, basil and parsely and continue to cook for another 10-15 minutes or until the sauce has reached the required thickness.

If you are cooking with meat, add the hamburger back in and stir until warm.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Enjoy!

Notes:

  1. The resulting sauce is going to be pretty chunky.  There are a couple of ways around this.  First, you can use a potato masher or an immersion blender or a regular blender to break up the tomatoes.  The choice is yours.  Me, I keep things chunky.
  2. If you are a compulsive stirrer like myself (you know, you can’t let the pot sit on the stove without giving it a stir) this is your recipe!  You basically cannot overstir the sauce and frequently stirring will keep the tomatoes and onions from burning on the bottom.
  3. I intentionally kept this sauce a little bland.  It’s a template.  Do with it what you want!  It’s yours now.  Me, I’ll add 2 tablespoons of garlic powder, another 2 teaspoons of red pepper flake, 2 teaspoons of black pepper, and a healthy pinch of salt.