Pasta Perfect

What to do when your signature dish is upstaged by a toque-wearing kitchen god

Look back through the soup cans and frozen Trader Joe's pot stickers of your life and there's always "the dish" -- the one that started it all, the one that began in obscurity, rose to enjoy a brief period of celebrity, and then disappeared as quickly as it had come, either because your repertoire expanded, or because you discovered that tuna/veggie burgers were not the revelatory gourmet creation you once believed they were.

But the fact is that everyone -- even your lame-ass college roommate who ate at Top Dog three nights a week and who thought the lemon zester was some kind of paint-scraping tool -- comes up with an eponymous dish at some point. Necessity (or an unlucky spin at the house-chores wheel) is invariably the mother of convection, and thus were born such masterpieces as chicken-rice casserole with mushroom soup and cornflakes, pasta with tofu-Gorgonzola sauce, and the ambitious, but decidedly less successful, peanut-butter-and-jelly omelet.

All this is by way of saying that signature dishes are not the exclusive domain of toque-wearing kitchen gods. I am no exception. I received good notices during my coq au vin period, my couscous-stuffed chicken era, my roasted-garlic mashed potato binge. My balsamic vinaigrette is legendary in some circles (and by circle, I mean two people holding hands).

Currently, in a quasi-personal protest over the Atkins Diet craze, I'm in a pasta phase -- with a particular penchant for orecchiette with broccoli rabe and fennel sausage, a classic southern Italian dish that blends bitter greens with sweet meaty goodness for a comfort-food sensation bar none. I've made this dish dozens of times now, and almost always to great acclaim (albeit from a captive audience consisting of a starving husband who'd eat grilled shoe if it meant dining before 8 o'clock, and a 3-year-old to whom pasta ranks just under Popsicles in the popularity polls).

But then, at a recent dinner at the Last Supper Club (1199 Valencia, 695-1199), my culinary shortcomings were once again made glaringly apparent. Chef/owner Joe Jack's orecchiette ("little ears") makes mine taste like three-day-old Stouffer's -- which frosts my ass. How can two people starting with more or less the same ingredients end up with one dish that's above average and one that puts three extra s's in benisssssimo?

"It's a fairly simple dish," says Jack, with no hint of condescension. "In Italy, I fell in love with this dish in its traditional form, cime di rape, which is made with turnip tops and bread crumbs, but no meat or cheese. The Italians cook the hell out of their vegetables, essentially making a sauce out of them, which is what I try to do."

Jack has tried several variations of this dish over the years (one with broccoli rabe and clams was on the first Luna Park menu, but orders kept getting sent back, so he decided to ax it); the current rendition has become something of a cult hit at the Last Supper Club.

It begins by blanching the broccoli rabe in salty water, and combining the vegetable in a pan with rendered hot Italian sausage. The broccoli then cooks slowly in the sausage fat, to which the pasta and a small amount of pasta water are added (and absolutely no fat is drained from the pan -- one of my mistakes).

"You finish the dish essentially like risotto, letting the pasta, broccoli, and sausage cook in the broth; the longer the better," says Jack.

At the end, it's tossed with pecorino cheese and a squeeze of lemon and delivered to your table oozing "Joe Jack" from every little aural cavity.

Balsamic vinaigrette, anyone?

 
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