If you don’t know what a Chinese hairless crested is, it’s this. Or as I like to call it, “the dog that should not be.”
You may wonder why they are in the title. I will to esplain: these are Lidia Bastianich recipes, and she’s relatively hairless. And Chinese hairless crested are dogs, so they’d be pretty shitty at writing coherent recipes, and so is Lidia Bastianich. Combine all this, and we’re lucky dinner got to the table at all, although thank god it did, because it was good.: Swiss chard cakes crusted with Asiago and tiny, adorable little braciole filled with parsley butter, from Lidia’s Italy, a book I highly recommend for people who like cookbooks with vivid descriptions of other parts of the world, delicious sounding dishes, and recipes and explanations that sound like they were run through computerized Italian-to-Chinese and Chinese-to-English translators.
Why did I call this website “Thursday Night Smackdown”? I really like 30 Rock. I guess it’s a little to late to change it to “Some Night of the Week Smackdown.”
I started on the chard first because it has to boil for 20 minutes before you even get to the cake-making part. I have a stubborn yet unconscious refusal to learn about how greens cook down. One bunch of Swiss chard? Doesn’t get you very far. In fact, it makes exactly the amount I can hold in the palm of my hand as I fail to completely squeeze all the water out of the cooked chard.
Keep this in mind for later.
At the moment, things were still going well. The drained, cooled, I-thought-I-squeezed-dry chard went into a pan with some sauteed onion and butter and cooked “until the chard is relatively dry.” Which is hard to gage when the chard is COVERED IN BUTTER. God knows I do NOT, as a general rule complain about foods covered in butter*, but this was a little tough. So I cooked it until I was dry-ish and spread it in a bowl, adding black pepper and leaving it to cool. I’m not sure why you can’t add the pepper while it’s cooking, but with Lidia I also try to hew as closely as possible to the instructions because, as we well know, she can kill you with her mind.
*There are probably some Paula Deen recipes that would create exceptions to this rule.
While I worked on the chard mixture, Brian beat the meat.
You are FILTHY FILTHY people. Do you kiss your mothers with those mouths?
Seriously, we had a hunk of top round that had to be cut and then pounded thin. Lidia recommended using one of those spiky meat tenderizers to first tenderize and the flatten the meat. We would never stoop so low, and were able to accomplish the task easily by (1) poking the meat with a fork and (2) pounding it flat with an empty beer bottle.
See? You, too, can experience this same level of elegance in your very own home! Other devices which have been used in the past to adequately pound various foods thin: empty wine bottles, full wine bottles, rolling pins, bottles of red wine vinegar, poorly closed bottles of club soda*, and ball peen hammers (only if you want it really thin or riddled with holes, which may or not be desired**).
*NOTE: VERY BAD IDEA.
**Though as we learned tonight, a beer bottle used to whack meat at an improper angle can also cause it to be riddled with holes. The meat, not the beer bottle. It’s top round, not diamonds.
There was a lot of symmetry between Lidia Bastianich and Julia Child in these recipes, mainly in the form of butter and the liberal use thereof.
Once the meat was pounded – braciole is normally a much larger piece of meat, these were little 5ish-inch oval-like shapes – I smeared them with some compound butter and rolled them up.
It sounds much more impressive when you way “compound butter” than when you say “butter with some chopped parsley mixed it.” Like, instead of calling Brian “that dopey guy I live with, I call him “my beloved.”* In each case they refer to the same thing, you just get to sound more refined and not like the fucking pottymouth junkie that you are.
*I don’t. I’m just making a point here. Actually, I usually call him “fat man,” which is an inside joke with our dogs, for whom we have created voices and with whom we sometimes have conversations. Just so you know: all of this happened before I was diagnosed with a mental illness. Also, other people with dogs TOTALLY KNOW WHAT I MEAN and are just too ashamed to admit it. Weaklings.
I love chard, but I love it more when it’s crusted with cheese.
The cooled chard mixture had a little egg mixed into it, and then we were ready to go with the cake-making. Whole Foods didn’t have whatever kind of obscure Emilian (a region of Italy) cheese Lidia demanded, so Brian turned to the power of the internet to find a suitable substitution. We needed a hard grating cheese and ended up with a lovely aged Asiago, which also comes from Emilia. So there.
Here is what you are not seeing: The first, completely and horribly failed batch of cakes; I tried to form the mixture into cakes and coat them with the cheese, but the Little Lord Jesus obviously didn’t want this recipe to work for me. Probably because I’m a bad Italian and don’t like olives.
Let us count the myriad of ways in which they were fucked up, and then you can play along at home and see if you can think of anything else that could have gone wrong:
- Swiss chard not dry enough to begin with.
- Too much egg added to mixture, making it nearly impossible to form cakes.
- Lidia’s inexplicable instruction that we lay the cakes directly into a dry, hot pan with no grease of any sort.
- Potentially, the last-minute cheese substitution.
- A step in the instructions that I completely skipped. I mean, I’m pretty sure I didn’t but it’s not unprecedented.
I mean, I know it could have been worse; I could have flown into a rage and stabbed the annoying kids who hang out on my stoop with a kitchen knife, or thrown the hot pan full of chard goo at a (closed) window. Luckily, I’m a fun drunk, even when I’m not drunk, which I wasn’t.
To make something edible, I was forced to abandon my own rules and figure out a work-around. Bread crumbs in the chard mixture to help it hold together better. Non-stick skillet. Butter in the pan. Result? Crispy cakes, the success of which alleviates any guilt I had at fucking up the actual Lidia recipe.
These are not hot wings, I swear it.
The mini-braciole went through a three-step breading process: flour, an egg wash full of minced garlic, salt and pepper, and a sprinkling of cinnamon and cloves. She tells you to “keep the spices in the sieve,” which first, how the fuck do you keep anything in a sieve because is not the VERY PURPOSE of a sieve to allow things to pass though, and secondly, she mentions the sieve as though you should have been using it all along despite the fact that this is the first mention of this particular utensil.
The floured, egged and dusted bundles went into a pan of, you guessed it, butter. My family is from the south, where we use olive oil like it’s going out of style. Emilia? Not so much with the olive trees, more with the cows. It is the home of prosciutto and parmigiana, and therefore my second favorite region of Italy after my home base in Puglia.
The cinnamon-clove smell was really strong while they were cooking up.
Everyone together: BRACIOLE! Or, since they’re so small, braciolini.
(The polenta was an ad-hoc add-on, because Lidia told me that that’s what Emilians eat with their tiny braciole in the middle of winter. For good measure, I stirred in the little remaining compound butter leftover along with a spoonful of mascarpone. As I’ve always said, “A spoonful of mascarpone helps the grits go down, the grits go down, the grits go do-own.”)*
We’ve had some not-so-stellar Smackdowns and it’s especially disappointing after you’ve spent 2+ hours in the kitchen to sit down to a dinner you don’t really want to eat, because by then it’s too late to order anything but Dominoes and the Cheesy Bread is GOOD but man does it give you the runs. So thank god that everything in this meal was freaking AWESOME.
The best part, honestly, was the chard cakes. I cannot wait for that part of summer where the CSA has chard every week and your neighbors who had the foresight to plant it bring it to you by the armfuls, because I am going to make a version of this cake 10 inches in diameter and eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and second dinner. Any bitterness was boiled out, the onion was a nice punch, and the crisp cheese crust was not too heavy but added just the right amount of salt and texture.
Not that the meat was any slouch in the tastiness department: it was also really fricking good. The spice didn’t overwhelm the beef at all, and the butter melting in the rolls basted the meat and gave it the most wonderful texture. And of course Lidia was right on about the polenta, which I normally like only when chilled and sauteed, but was a perfect pairing here. (The mascarpone did help.)
Final Score: Us 1, Food 0, Lidia Bastianich’s ability to write clear instructions, you have detention for a week.
*I know that you know that I know you know the tune.