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Food Network fans might know chef Scott Conant best as a tough judge on the cooking competition show “Chopped.” But he’s also the creator of “Scarpetta,” the Italian restaurant that now has locations in New York, Miami, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and Toronto.
For those who want to try cooking his restaurant fare at home, Conant has published “The Scarpetta Cookbook: 125 Recipes From the Acclaimed Restaurant.” The book includes his take on spaghetti with tomato sauce, as well as a recipe for Mushroom Fricassee with Creamy Polenta that, as Conant tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson, “my wife always gets annoyed with me when I say this, but when I was single, that dish — you know, I would be able to get dates with that dish.”
Conant shares two multi-part recipes:
Reprinted from the book “The Scarpetta Cookbook” by Scott Conant, Copyright 2013, with permission from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Scott’s Note: This spaghetti is among the first recipes of mine that got a lot of attention, and I love that fact because it exemplifies everything I believe in as a chef: treating ingredients with respect, paying attention to detail, and elevating simplicity.
Which wine? A red wine with low acidity will counter the intense tomato sauce. Barbera or Dolcetto should work well. Choose a classic with medium body and dark red fruits, like Enaudi or Marcarini.
Scarpetta Tomato Sauce (recipe follows)
1 pound Fresh Spaghetti (recipe follows)
½ cup freshly grated
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
16 whole fresh basil leaves, cut into chiffonade
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil.
Meanwhile, put the tomato sauce in a large sauté pan and cook over medium heat to further concentrate the sauce’s flavors.
Cook the spaghetti until just shy of tender. Reserve some of the pasta cooking water and gently drain the spaghetti. Add the spaghetti and a little of the pasta cooking water to the pan with the sauce; the starch and salt in that water will help the sauce adhere to the pasta. Give the pan a good shake, increase the heat to medium-high, and let the pasta finish cooking in the sauce. The sauce should coat the pasta and look cohesive, and when you shake the pan, the sauce and pasta should move together.
Divide the pasta among serving bowls. Finish with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and serve.
Scott’s Note: I know it seems crazy that this sauce, which paired with fresh spaghetti is a signature dish at Scarpetta, is in the pantry chapter of the book. But this is also what we use in every recipe that calls for tomato sauce, whether it’s by the tablespoon or the cup. The infused oil is the secret that makes this sauce so great. Not only does it give the sauce a supple texture, but it also reinforces the flavors of the basil and the crushed red pepper while introducing just a hint of garlic. And it’s about as easy to make as a cup of tea; you simply let the ingredients steep in the hot oil. For the best consistency, use a potato masher to break up the tomatoes as they cook. It’s a trick I learned from watching tomato sauce preparation in my Italian household.
Makes 3 cups
Extra-virgin olive oil
12 plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded, plus any juices from peeling and seeding, strained and reserved *
10 cloves garlic
3 sprigs fresh basil (about 24 leaves plus stems)
1 to 1 ½ teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
* If your tomatoes are not ripe, bright, and juicy, reduce the number of fresh tomatoes to 8 and add 4 whole canned San Marzano
In a wide saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes; be careful, as the oil may spurt. Add 1 ½ teaspoons salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes soften, 2 to 3 minutes. Lower the heat to medium and, using a potato masher, smash the tomatoes, really working the masher to break them up. If the consistency is thick, add the reserved tomato juice to the pan. Cook, occasionally mashing and stirring, for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, basil, and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring occasionally to wilt the basil, until the garlic is golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove the oil from the heat and let the ingredients steep for 5 minutes.
Strain about half of the oil into the cooked tomatoes. (Strain and reserve the rest of the flavorful oil; it’s a great bread-dipping oil.) Stir to combine. Remove the sauce from the heat. Taste and add additional salt, if needed. The sauce may taste spicy on its own, but it gets balanced when used with other ingredients, especially the pasta, butter, and cheese in the Scarpetta Spaghetti.
The sauce will keep, covered and refrigerated, for 2 days. Reheat gently before serving.
Makes about 3 pounds
3 cups “00” flour, plus more as needed
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
11 large egg yolks
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
In a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the flour and salt on low speed. Add the egg yolks, eggs, and olive oil and continue to mix on low speed. Once the flour is incorporated, increase the speed to medium-low and mix/knead the dough for 5 minutes.
Lightly flour your work surface. Dump the dough onto the surface and continue to knead for a few more minutes. At this point, the dough may look a little dry, which is fine. Wrap the dough well in plastic wrap and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour before rolling it. This rest allows the flour to be fully absorbed by the wet ingredients for a smooth, tender dough. (You can make the dough up to 1 day ahead of rolling it; keep it refrigerated.)
To roll and shape the dough, set the pasta machine on its widest setting. Cut the pasta dough into 4 pieces. Work with one piece at a time and wrap the others in plastic wrap to prevent them from drying out. Very lightly flour the dough and run it through the pasta machine twice. Fold it in half and run it through again. Do that a couple more times; this serves as a final kneading. Set the machine to the next level of thickness and run the piece of dough through again. Keep running the dough through the machine, adjusting the rollers to a thinner setting each time, until the sheet is the thickness you want or the recipe directs.
Lightly flour the dough throughout the process if it is sticking; the additional flour added at this point will not make it tough. (If the finished sheets of pasta have a lot of flour on them, brush it off using a brush with dark bristles so you can see any stray bristles should they come off on the pasta.)
For fettuccine and linguine: Lightly flour a rimmed baking sheet. Roll the dough into sheets about ¹⁄16 inch thick. Cut the sheets of pasta with the pasta roller designated for that shape. Gather the strands into nests by wrapping portions around your hand. Dust the nests with a little more flour, place on the baking sheet, and freeze until hard. (Once the pasta is rock-hard, it can be transferred to a freezer bag or other airtight container and kept frozen for up to 1 month.)
For pappardelle: Lightly flour a rimmed baking sheet. Roll the dough into sheets about ¹⁄16 inch thick. Use a plain or fluted ravioli cutter or a sharp chef’s knife to cut long, ½-inch-wide strips of pasta. Gather the strands into nests by wrapping portions around your hand. Dust the nests with a little more flour, place on the baking sheet, and freeze until hard. (Once the pappardelle is rock-hard, it can be transferred to a freezer bag or other airtight container and kept frozen for up to 1 month.)
Scott’s Note: This is a quintessential Scarpetta dish that has not lost its popularity over the years. At the restaurant, waiters bring these mushrooms to the table in tiny saucepans. The lid to the pan is ceremoniously lifted, and you first experience the dish with what I call “the breathe,” that initial aromatic hit that puts the dish right in your head. The mushrooms and their cooking juices are then spooned over a waiting bowl of our creamy polenta.
Which wine? This rich dish needs a wine with intensity and weight to match the richness of the polenta and the woody nature of the mushrooms. A red from Umbria, like Caprai Montefalco Riserva or Sagrantino from Fattoria Scacciadiavoli, would fit the bill.
6 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 medium shallots, halved and thinly sliced lengthwise
10 ounces mixed domestic and wild mushrooms, sliced or cut into bite-size pieces (about 4 cups)
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cups Chicken Reduction (recipe follows), plus more as needed
1 tablespoon preserved black truffles
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
Pinch of crushed red pepper
3 cups Creamy Polenta (recipe follows)
In a medium saucepan, heat the 6 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots, season lightly with salt, and cook, stirring, until the shallots just begin to color, about 4 minutes. Add the mushrooms, thyme, and the remaining 1 teaspoon olive oil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms release their liquid, about 2 minutes. Add the Chicken Reduction, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is reduced by half and has a saucy consistency, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the preserved truffles. If the mixture thickens too much—you want the mushrooms to be swimming in the sauce but there should be a mushroom in every bite—add 2 tablespoons of the Chicken Reduction to thin it out a bit. Stir in the chives and crushed red pepper.
Divide the Creamy Polenta among serving bowls. Top with the mushrooms and their cooking liquid and serve immediately.
Serves 8 to 10
4 cups heavy cream
4 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 cup coarse polenta
4 tablespoons (2 ounces) unsalted butter
⅓ cup freshly grated
In a large, heavy-based saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the cream and milk until warm, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the salt and keep whisking until the liquid is very frothy (like a cappuccino) and hot. While still whisking, slowly rain the polenta into the pot. Continue to whisk until the granules swell, about 8 minutes. At this point, switch to a wooden spoon to stir the polenta. (It will get too thick for the whisk.) Keep stirring until the polenta has begun to thicken, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium and cook until it evenly begins to bubble. Reduce the heat to low, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and cook, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes, until cooked through and the liquid has reduced, about 1½ hours. The polenta might look “done” sooner, but it does continue to soften, so be patient. During this time, a skin might form on the bottom of the pan, which is fine.
Just before serving, raise the heat to medium-high, stir in the butter and the cheese, and cook, stirring, until the butter is melted, then take the pot off the heat. If the polenta looks thin, don’t worry, as it will thicken as it cools.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
And it's the Monday after Thanksgiving, so why not shift our focus from turkey to Italian food? To do that, we've got Scott Conant with us. You may know him from the Food Network competition show "Chopped" where he is a judge.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHOPPED")
SCOTT CONANT: Chef, we liked some of the flavors that you brought for us today.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Right.
CONANT: But in the second round, you gave almost exactly the same plate as you gave us in the first round...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Right.
CONANT: ...and undercooked lentils, which never should have made it on the plate.
HOBSON: Nothing worse than undercooked lentils. Well, Scott Conant is also a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and the driving force behind Scarpetta, a line of hugely successful Italian restaurants. He's just published "The Scarpetta Cookbook: 125 Recipes from the Acclaimed Restaurant." He's with us now from Miami. Scott, welcome.
CONANT: Thank you for having me.
HOBSON: You started Scarpetta back in 2008. You now have five restaurants: New York, Miami, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and Toronto. What is different about your style of Italian cooking than other great chefs in this country?
CONANT: The one big differential that I'll say that I try to focus on is the end result. And the name Scarpetta itself - Italians say (Foreign language spoken), which is to grab a piece of bread and kind of sop up what's on the plate. I try to bridge the gap between alta cucina, cucina rustica; the two schools of thought in Italian cooking. Rustic food and higher-end, more modern-style food, Aristocratic cuisine, if you will. So it's almost like urban Milan meets rustic Tuscany, and then we try to localize each restaurant for the market that it's in.
HOBSON: Well, give me an example of that. What would you be pulling from the old and pulling from the new and putting together?
CONANT: So I have a dish in the menus, which comes in and out of season. It's a baby goat, moist roasted capretto. Capretto is really a signature of the south of Italy. So what I try to do is I'll use the basic cooking technique of moist roasting that baby goat. And maybe I'll bring in a signature dish maybe from the very north of Italy, (unintelligible) which is potatoes and some kind of bacon or (unintelligible), and all these beautiful ingredients, bring them together with caramelized onions and then add that with the baby goat.
Maybe I'll add broccoli rabe or fava beans depending on the season. So I'll try to bring those things together in a very elegant manner, but also the flavors that are deep, more rustic in style. And it really - it tends to resonate with people.
HOBSON: Now, a lot of the recipes in your book are things that perhaps people could cook on their own at home without too much trouble. But there are a lot of them that look like they would be pretty difficult. Let me see here: Short rib and bone marrow agnolotti. Is that how you say that?
CONANT: Agnolotti. You know...
HOBSON: Agnolotti with horseradish, brown butter and herbed bread crumbs.
CONANT: It sounds really difficult. But believe me, if I can do it, anyone can do it.
CONANT: It's one of those dishes that it - we utilize a lot of the end parts of the short ribs, which are a different dish in the book - braised short ribs with vegetables and farro risotto - and utilizing all those scraps and kind of adding more depth and a little bit more flavor, adding a touch of bone marrow.
It sounds very difficult, but believe me, we - I really intended and focused on stripping away a lot of the professional nuances of the food and really focusing on what's going to make sense for the home cook and also for professionals, how to execute these dishes at a pretty high level.
HOBSON: What would you say is the biggest misconception that people have about cooking pasta and what they need to know in order to do it?
CONANT: The most surprising for me is whether or not to salt the water that the pasta is being cooked in. You know, as I always say, put enough salt in the water for it to taste like broth.
HOBSON: Before you put the pasta in or after?
CONANT: Absolutely before the past goes in. That way, the pasta really absorbs that beautiful flavor of the salt and of the water that it's being cooked in.
HOBSON: The one that I keep seeing the picture of in your book that is making me really hungry is ricotta and truffle ravioli with parmigiano-reggiano froth.
CONANT: You have good taste.
CONANT: Expensive taste.
HOBSON: It looks really good. Anything with truffle on the top of it, I'm happy with.
CONANT: Yeah, me too. Most people feel the same way. That's a dish that we're actually serving now in several of the restaurants because it's truffle season.
HOBSON: Now, some people know you from your restaurants. Some other people, probably more people even around the country, know you from your TV show "Chopped." I want to play a little clip of this because sometimes you do give some of these chefs a little bit of tough love. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHOPPED")
CONANT: I have a real pet peeve with pasta sticking together like that.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK.
CONANT: I have anger towards that. These things require attention. It's like anything. Once you start to nurture something, you can't stop.
HOBSON: So, Scott, wow. I mean, it's tough sometimes to do these things.
CONANT: Thanks for playing that clip. I have to say, my therapist was very proud of me for expressing my anger.
CONANT: You know, it's one of those things that - it's a competition, obviously, and it's very difficult to succeed within the confines of what that competition is. But there's always a way to handle things the proper way, and I think pasta gets such a bad rap. And clearly, I make a living making it, so I have some very strong opinions, clearly.
HOBSON: Well - and for people who haven't seen the show, the chefs have to make an appetizer, an entree and dessert using baskets of mismatched and sometimes very difficult to use ingredients in a limited amount of time. Do you ever, as a judge, find it difficult to eat the things that are made?
CONANT: You know what, it's such a difficult challenge, that it's hard to get food that comes out really well and flavor that's developed in that short of a time. So more often than not, the food isn't great. We have to look at it as being a competition. But when people do a great job, we really applaud them and we, you know, we understand how difficult it is to create something like this.
HOBSON: You get to work with a lot of young chefs. How do you feel about the state of American cooking at this point, based on who you've seen?
CONANT: Well, you know, I'll tell you, there are so many great young chefs coming up right now, which is good for, you know, I'm - somehow along the way, I don't know when it happened, but I became one of the older guys.
CONANT: It's very funny. But that youth and that ambition and that great focus that the young chefs have today and the amazing amount of knowledge that they're coming out of culinary school with, it keeps us all a little bit more relevant and on our toes and focused. And it's great to harness that young energy inside my company and really have them focus on developing flavors and creating great dishes for all of us to grow from.
HOBSON: Scott Conant, if you had to pick one, which is your favorite recipe in your new book?
CONANT: You know, it's tough. You asked me to pick one, but I just - it's impossible to do. There are signature dishes of the restaurant, so I'd have to say the creamy polenta with the a fricassee of truffled mushrooms. My wife always gets annoyed with me when I say this, but when I was single, that dish, you know, I would be able to get dates with that dish. That was one of them.
CONANT: And also, there's a spaghetti, which is my true signature dish of all the restaurants, spaghetti with tomato basil. And it is really, really special.
HOBSON: Very simple but delicious.
CONANT: Very simple, mm-hmm.
HOBSON: One more question. I want you to make a chef somewhere in this country feel very happy right now. What is your favorite restaurant in the U.S. that's not your own?
CONANT: About a year ago, I went to Napa Valley. There was a great food festival in Napa. And there's a restaurant in Saint Helena. It's called Meadowood. And Chris Kostow is the chef there. And I have to tell you, it was emotional. It was delicious. It was inspiring. And I had enough wine that I almost wept. The food was so good.
CONANT: It was amazing. Fabulous, fabulous chef. I think he was the youngest three-star chef in the U.S., three-star Michelin.
HOBSON: I'm just going to ask the producer if we could just book a trip to Napa right away. That would be great right now. Scott Conant is the chef-owner of the Scarpetta restaurants. He's also the author of the new book "The Scarpetta Cookbook," and you may know him from the Food Network show "Chopped." Scott, thanks so much for joining us.
CONANT: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.
ROBIN YOUNG, BYLINE: And, Jeremy, I just have a quick question: Did you say Herb as in Alpert and the Tijuana Brass?
HOBSON: I did. And it sort of just came out. I have an English father. Sometimes I say herbed instead - I guess I could have said herbed.
YOUNG: Yeah. But when you get stuck in the middle, it's eh, can't...
HOBSON: The other day, I was talking to some friends and I said primer, and they said what do you mean primer? It's primer.
YOUNG: Well, I would debate that. The other day, I said homage, and a listener wrote that it's actually homage. Listeners, where do you stand on primer?
HOBSON: I think it could go either way on that.
YOUNG: I do too. But Herb?
YOUNG: That's a guy.
HOBSON: Well, from NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.