Creating a Cookbook -September/October 2009

The story behind “Pasta Sfoglia”

by: Susan Simon

photography by: Ben Fink

“I need coffee,” was Ron Suhanosky’s customary way of greeting me when he arrived at my apartment on the mornings that we worked on “Pasta Sfoglia,” the cookbook he and his wife Colleen authored with me. Ron usually arrived around 10:30, more or less the beginning of my day. Ron, however, had already put in a considerable amount of time on his day that started when he walked his dog (the late, great Alba), accompanied his youngest daughter Marcella to school on a New York City bus, checked in with the upper east side branch of the Suhanoskys’ Sfoglia restaurant to make sure all orders had been made, that the staff was well on its way into the day’s preparations, picked up all the ingredients needed to test that day’s recipes and then took a subway ride about 90 blocks south, straight down the east side, to my place. Whew! Is it any wonder that he needed coffee right away?

Our excellent adventure had begun about seven years earlier when I went to their Nantucket restaurant on Pleasant Street across from the Stop & Shop. I waited outside on the porch for my table to be ready under what seemed to be the restaurant’s sign “Trattoria,” although I knew it was actually called Sfoglia. When Ron came out with a glass of my favorite sparkling wine, Prosecco, to greet me for the first time, he pointed to the smaller sign that did say Sfoglia.

I entered the restaurant, sat down, ordered and ate. It was, to use a cliché – love at first bite. Wow. The Suhanoskys got it! They were turning local ingredients into simple, creative, interesting and extremely tasty dishes. I was led to the restaurant in the first place – aside from my attraction to all things Italian – because of duck eggs. Yes, duck eggs. It seems that Ron and Colleen had been hunting for duck eggs since they arrived on the island to add to their fresh pasta to enrich its flavor and brighten its color. The word had reached my sister Laura and her husband Jim Gross, who had a modest flock of about seven ducks. When the connection was finally made, a trade of eggs for bread began, and I became aware of Sfoglia.

When they decided to open a New York City branch of their restaurant I was overjoyed to have it in my “back yard,” and helped out where I could. Ron slept on an air mattress in my living room while he searched for just the right restaurant space and home for his family. It’s no secret that Sfoglia NYC opened its doors and never looked back. The food-jaded citizens of Gotham were as impressed with the Suhanoskys’ cucina as I was when I first tasted Sfoglia’s chick peas and calamari antipasto on Nantucket.

The cookbook author in me knew that a Sfoglia cookbook was a no-brainer. Their food needed to be shared with a larger audience. In January 2007, Ron and Colleen agreed that a Sfoglia cookbook was a good idea – my agent at the time agreed, and so we began to write a proposal – an overview, an outline of what the book would contain. Our first proposal was for a general cookbook that included chapters on all the courses that the restaurant served from antipasti to dolci – desserts. Our agent found a publisher who was intrigued by the restaurant’s food but said that she’d like to narrow the focus of the book to just the pasta dishes. Could we work up another proposal for a pasta book? Yes, we could – and did. “Pasta Sfoglia” would include master recipes for fresh pasta, ingredients such as the fresh goat’s-milk cheese that goes into so many of the filled pasta dishes, recipes made with traditional fresh and dry pasta shapes, gnocchi and other dishes made with grains such as risotto, polenta and farro. By the end of August 2007, we had a deal with John Wiley and Sons to publish “Pasta Sfoglia” with the Suhanoskys as the authors and I as the writer.

A month later Ron and I hit the ground running, testing as many as five dishes a day, two days a week. As Ron moved from the sink to cutting boards to the oven and stovetop – rinsing, chopping, roasting, braising, steaming and boiling – I sat on a stool furiously taking notes of his measurements, methods and comments, and waited to taste the first dish – which more often than not was our breakfast – making the egg and guanciale-filled spaghetti alla carbonara, our favorite first dish. And then we tasted – and tasted. First, we had a silent, mouth-full-of-food conversation with raised eyebrows, rolled eyes, wrinkled noses and smiles. Then came the discussion. What did the dish need? More salt, less salt – cooked more, cooked less – more acid, more spice, or less? Or, was it good as tested? Many times the recipe was just right on the first try. When it was wrong, it was revised two or three more times. When recipes couldn’t make it by the fourth try they were eliminated from the list. For example, chick pea gnocchi alla Romana didn’t make the cut. The measurements just couldn’t be adjusted from restaurant proportions to home-cook size. And, there was the problem of the chick pea flour used in the recipe. Would it be easy for the reader to find the correct flour: Italian, not Indian? This was a recipe wrought with problems.

After Ron left, I would let friends and neighbors know that there were leftovers at my place for the taking. They came with their containers, bowls and platters. By day’s end everything had disappeared.

In between Ron’s visits I turned the testing notes into workable recipes, and Ron’s observations into the bones of what would become the head notes: the information that precedes the recipe. Every now and then Ron and I would have a “clean” day – no kitchen work – just words. We’d talk about what I had written – Ron made suggestions and answered my queries – then we’d schedule our next testing days.

In what seemed to be no time, a cookbook took shape. We had a delivery date, March 31, 2008. Seven months from start – when the Suhanoskys and Wiley agreed to a contract – to finish. We managed not only to make that delivery date, to the day, but we each took Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks from the book, and Ron ran two restaurants on two different islands at the same time. We felt satisfied that we had made an interesting and useful book. Then things got a bit, shall we say, uncomfortable. The book had reached the publisher and then languished for eight months before we saw copy-edited pages. Yes, publishing is slow – but this was ridiculous. Some time in the fall of the same year work began on the photographs for the book. I wasn’t involved in the process. Almost all of the pictures were taken by the renowned food photographer Ben Fink and styled by the legendary cookbook guru Roy Finamore, at the New York Sfoglia restaurant. Some of the candid shots of Ron cooking and eating with his family were taken in my apartment.

Still, we waited for the edited manuscript. By this time we had been given so many different dates for the edited pages that we didn’t know what to believe anymore. By now the winter holidays were approaching, so we pleaded with our editor not to give us the pages after Thanksgiving, as we both were very busy during December. Editors usually ask authors to check the edits and turn around the pages in a few weeks time. We felt panic-stricken that we’d have to drop what we were doing and concentrate on the manuscript. She assured us that we’d have the pages by the first week of November – we got them the Monday after Thanksgiving.

Publishing a book is not always the glamorous endeavor that you might imagine. It’s exciting at the beginning when the proposal sells – ah, affirmation – and it’s exciting when it’s published with all the attendant parties, publicity events and reviews – ah, affirmation. In between the affirmation bookends, a book is work, hurry up and wait, hurry up, deal with editors, copy editors who try to change your voice to theirs, production editors, various publishing assistants and, fit in your own life.

“Pasta Sfoglia” is a labor of Ron and Colleen’s love for the signature food of their restaurants – pasta. Sfoglia is an uncut sheet of pasta.

I asked Ron to select some appropriate recipes for this article. He chose the following six because he feels they are representative of the variety of recipes in the book and have just the right ingredients to enjoy during the early fall months.

Susan Simon is the author of many cookbooks. She writes occasionally for Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

 

RICOTTA CAVATELLI, BROCCOLI RABE, WALNUT PESTO

When I was a kid I remember my grandmother used to make these cavatelli and serve them with broccoli rabe, garlic and red pepper flakes. This is my interpretation of her recipe. I’ve made the addition of walnut pesto to counter the bitterness of the broccoli rabe and also to incorporate some texture. I like to boil the broccoli rabe before I sauté it in order to take out some of the bitter taste and tenderize it.
Grazie nonna.

1 recipe ricotta cavatelli (see “Pasta Sfoglia,” page 17)
1 cup walnuts
3⁄4 pound broccoli rabe (1 bunch)
11⁄2 garlic cloves
1⁄2 cup extra virgin olive oil plus 1 tablespoon
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 cup pasta water
Grated Pecorino Romano to garnish

  1. Make the cavatelli. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Place the walnuts on a baking sheet and cook until golden, about 10 minutes
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Separate the leaves from the stalks of the broccoli rabe. Peel away the tough skin from the stalks. Add the leaves and stalks to the boiling water and cook for 6 or 7 minutes. Drain. Bring another large pot of salted water to a boil for the cavatelli.
  3. Add the walnuts, 1⁄2 garlic clove, salt and extra virgin olive oil to the jar of a blender. Process until just before finely blended. You may want to see a few pieces of walnut.
  4. Coarsely chop the cooked broccoli rabe. Add 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and a thinly-sliced garlic clove to a room-temperature 10-inch skillet. Turn the heat to high. When you see the edges of the garlic turn golden, in about 1 minute, add the broccoli rabe and sauté for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat. Use a rubber spatula to remove all of the walnut pesto from the blender jar. Drizzle it over the cooked broccoli rabe.
  5. Add the cavatelli to the boiling water. After they float to the top, cook for another minute. Use a wire-mesh skimmer to remove the cavatelli from the pot and place them directly into the skillet. Stir together to combine.

Serve immediately with a garnish of grated Pecorino Romano.
Serves 4-6.

FUSILLI AL TELEFONO

Number one, I love fusilli. Number two, I love the tangy flavor of buffalo mozzarella. This dish perfectly matches the two ingredients to make a classic pasta dish. The al telefono refers to the string of cheese that drops down from the telephone-cord-shaped fusilli with every forkful that’s lifted out of the plate. I could eat this dish every day.

2 tablespoons grape-seed oil
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 pound good-quality fusilli
2 1-pound, 12-ounce cans peeled San Marzano tomatoes
15 large basil leaves, julienned
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1 pound whole milk mozzarella, preferably buffalo, cut into 1⁄4-inch pieces
Grated Parmesan cheese, optional garnish

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the grape-seed oil and garlic to a room-temperature, 10-inch skillet.
  2. Add the fusilli to the boiling water. Turn the heat to high under the skillet. When the edges of the garlic have turned golden, about 1 minute, add the tomatoes by squeezing each one with your hands. Immediately add the basil, salt and pepper. Bring the sauce to a boil, then lower the heat to medium.
  3. When the pasta is cooked, turn off the sauce. Evenly distribute the mozzarella into the sauce. Remove the cooked pasta from the pot and place it directly into the skillet. Fold the pasta into the sauce. Continue to fold until you see that the mozzarella has melted and attached itself to the fusilli.

Serve immediately with an optional garnish of grated Parmesan cheese.
Serves 4-6.

BUCATINI ALL’AMATRICIANA

The Italians would say that the true name for this dish should be bucatini all’Amatrice – so named for the town of its origin, Amatrice, northeast of Rome. As it traveled further away from the town it took on the name by which most people recognize it now, bucatini all’Amatriciana. Whatever it’s called, I’m devoted to its combination of flavor: the tangy tomato sauce which is given heft with the addition of the salty, peppery guanciale. It makes me very happy to be able to recreate a sauce that tastes just like my memories of eating it in Italy.

1 tablespoon grape-seed oil
3⁄4 pound diced guanciale
1 medium red onion, finely diced
1⁄2 teaspoon hot-pepper flakes
1⁄2 cup red wine vinegar
1 pound good-quality bucatini 
1 1-pound, 12-ounce can peeled San Marzano tomatoes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
Grated Pecorino Romano cheese optional

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the grape-seed oil and guanciale to a room-temperature, 10-inch skillet. Turn the heat to medium-high and cook until the guanciale has rendered its fat, is crispy and deep gold, about 6-8 minutes. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat.
  2. Return skillet to medium-high heat. Add the onions and hot-pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally so that the onions cook evenly. Cook until the onions are translucent and tender, 4-5 minutes. Add the vinegar.
  3. Add the bucatini to the boiling water and cook according to the package directions.
  4. Use your hands to break up the tomatoes and add directly to the skillet. Stir in the salt and pepper.
  5. Use a wire mesh skimmer or tongs to remove the bucatini from the pot and place them directly into the sauce. Stir to combine.

Serve immediately with an optional garnish of grated Pecorino Romano.
Serves 4-6.

FAZZOLETTI, RICOTTA, PRUNES, WALNUTS, VALPOLICELLA SAUCE

This is perhaps the only stuffed pasta where I use straight whole-milk ricotta. I view the neutral flavor of cow’s-milk ricotta as a background for the other ingredients. Neutral flavor is exactly what’s needed in order to emphasize the spirit of the other ingredients in this dish. 
The filling and sauce were inspired by the Valpolicella wine-soaked prunes that were then dipped in chocolate that Colleen and I ate when we were traveling in and around Verona.
1 750 ml bottle Valpolicella wine
1 recipe crespelle 
(see “Pasta Sfoglia,” page 2)
1 cup walnuts
3 cups whole-milk ricotta
1 cup pitted prunes, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1 cup whole milk
3 teaspoons unsalted butter

  1. Place the wine in a non-reactive saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce to 1⁄3 cup – it will have the consistency of maple syrup – about 35 minutes.
  2. Make the crespelle.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Add the walnuts to a baking sheet with sides. Cook until golden brown, 15-20 minutes. Let cool, then coarsely chop. Leave the oven on.
  4. Add the ricotta, prunes, walnuts, salt and pepper to a mixing bowl. Fold the ingredients together.
  5. Make the fazzoletti: On a clean, dry work surface, line up 4 crespelle at a time. Place 1/4 cup ricotta filling in the right-hand corner of each one. Fold in half to make a half-moon shape. Fold in half again to make a wedge shape. Place the fazzoletti at 45-degree angles in 2 rows in a large rectangular baking dish. Place in the 350° F. oven.
  6. While the fazzoletti are baking, add the milk and butter to the reduced wine over medium heat. Cook until the butter melts. After the fazzoletti have cooked for 30 minutes, cover them with the wine sauce and cook for another 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

Makes 16 fazzoletti; Serves 6-8.

GNOCCHI, SWEET RED PEPPER SAUCE, AMARETTI

I met Colleen when we both worked as line cooks at Biba restaurant in Boston. She had just graduated from the C.I.A. – the Culinary Institute of America – and I had just moved to Boston from New York. One of Colleen’s favorite things to make was the Spanish sauce, Romesco. The defining ingredients in a Romesco sauce are red peppers, almonds and bread. I liked the way the ingredients played with each other and wanted to make the taste combination into a pasta sauce. I used amaretti, the cookies made with bitter almonds, and roasted red peppers, to make the sauce. Instead of using bread crumbs for the starch I draped the sauce over potato gnocchi.

2 medium red bell peppers
1⁄4 cup grape-seed oil
2 pounds potato gnocchi (see “Pasta Sfoglia,” page 10)
1⁄4 cup heavy cream
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
6 amaretti cookies, 3 double packages, crushed

  1. Preheat the oven to 400° F. Place the peppers in a glass or ceramic baking dish. Cover with the grape-seed oil. Bake until the skin begins to blister, about 4 minutes. Turn over and cook until the skin has evenly blistered. Remove from oven and let cool.
  2. Make the gnocchi.
  3. Peel and seed the peppers. Add the pulp to the jar of a blender and process until smooth. Add the cream, salt and pepper and blend to combine. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
  4. Add the pepper sauce to a room-temperature, 10-inch skillet. Turn heat to medium. Stir the sauce occasionally to prevent it from sticking to the bottom.
  5. Add the gnocchi to the boiling water. After they float to the top, cook them for another minute. Use a wire mesh skimmer to remove from the pot and place them directly into the skillet. Stir to combine the ingredients.

To serve: Place the gnocchi on a warm serving platter, or on individual warm plates for each person to be served, and garnish with crumbled amaretti.
Serves 4-6.

BUTTERNUT SQUASH FARROTTO, SAUSAGE

My first experience with farro was in Umbria when Colleen and I spent a summer working at Il Poggio di Petti Rossi. I noticed that the grain was used a lot, mostly as part of soups, or, when the grain was speziato or cracked, to thicken them. I became curious. I picked up one of the cookbooks that was part of the kitchen’s collection and started to read about the ancient grain. I learned that in addition to being used in its whole-grain form, and speziato, it is also made into flour, which is used for bread, pastries and pasta. 
The substantial grain is a good complement to autumn and winter ingredients. This method is like the one I use when I make risotto, which, I imagine, is why I call it farrotto.

1 1 3⁄4 - 2-pound butternut squash wrapped in tin foil
3 tablespoons grape-seed oil
1 cup coarsely-chopped onion
1⁄2 cup dry white wine
2 cups farro
8 cups water
3⁄4 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1⁄4 teaspoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
2⁄3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

  1. Preheat the oven to 400° F. Place the squash in the oven and cook until it’s soft enough so that a tester or paring knife easily slips into its thickest part, about 11⁄2 hours. When cool enough to touch, peel and remove the seeds. It yields about 2 cups.
  2. Add 2 tablespoons grape-seed oil and the onions to a room-temperature, heavy-bottom 3-quart sauce pan. Turn the heat to medium and sauté, stirring occasionally until the onion is translucent, about 3-4 minutes. It’s important that the onion doesn’t take on color. Add the farro to the pan. Let it toast – or dry out – about a minute. Agitate the pan to keep the farro from sticking to the bottom. Add the wine and let it evaporate. Begin to add the water 2 cups at a time. Stir continuously in order to keep the farro from sticking to the pan. Add the next 2 cups of water when a wooden spoon dragged through the farro reveals a pathway.
  3. Make the topping while the farro is cooking. Add 1 tablespoon grape-seed oil to a skillet over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the sausage. Use a wooden spoon to break it up into smaller pieces so it can thoroughly render its fat. Cook until the pink has disappeared from the sausage and it has browned, about 4 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons butter and let it brown. Add the oregano and turn off the heat.
  4. Add the squash to the farro along with the last 2 cups of water. Incorporate the squash into the farro, leaving some chunks. When the farrotto is a few minutes from completion – its sauce creamy and the grain plump – add the remaining 4 tablespoons butter, salt and pepper. When the butter has melted, add the cheese. Continue to cook until the cheese has melted and become part of the sauce. Farrotto should be a slightly soupy, wet dish.

To serve, add the farrotto to a warm, shallow bowl. Place the topping in the center and let it sink into the farro. Alternately, make individual plates for each person to be served.
Serves 4-6.






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