As someone who is intensely interested in both cooking and writing, I have immense respect for Gabrielle Hamilton. I’m tempted to say I’m resentful of her seemingly effortless ability to construct either a dish or a page of prose—but it’s more admiration than resentment.
I devoured her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, over the course of a long car ride and fell in love with it, not just because of the precision with which she writes about her fascinating hardscrabble story, but because of the enthralling way she thinks about and discusses food.
I’d excuse you for rolling your eyes at my ineloquent way of essentially saying, “this chef writes good about stuff we eat.” And had I not read this book, I’d be rolling along with you.
But where other chef memoirs might wax poetic about food in a way that seemed gratuitous, pandering, or dare I say hipster, her prose strikes a sincere note. Food isn’t featured here in a masturbatory or gaudy way.
Instead, it’s often used as allegory for the people that are vital to her story. Her father is embodied by his annual lamb roast in the field outside their rural home, with dozens of guests, beer chilling in the stream, and the gaggle of kids falling asleep in the grass. Her French mother is the abused enameled Le Crueset, simmering the cheap cuts on the back burner to inexpensively feed a family of seven. Her husband is the precisely composed but ultimately blandly-filled ravioli he offers as a courtship ritual. Her Italian mother-in-law, Alda, is the simplicity of her well-boiled vegetables served with her own olive oil.
You’ll notice in those examples that she doesn’t traffic in precious or pretentious food. The food in the text, like the food she serves in her East Village restaurant, Prune, is simultaneously humble, sturdy, simple, but also elegant and cosmopolitan.
That last sentence makes me sound like a regular, though of course I’ve only had the pleasure of experiencing her food first-hand once. After finishing the book, I resolved that I would be undeterred from dining there upon my next New York City visit, which ended up being a frigid weekend back in January.
Because my NYC excursions consist solely of floating from one eating or drinking establishment to the next, I am loathe to admit I wasn’t very hungry when I arrived and snagged a seat at the quaint bar; that damned city has an embarrassment of edible riches and I’d eaten what amounted to two lunches about four hours prior. But even in that satiated state, choosing just a single dish was a challenge.
In retrospect, I wonder if I subconsciously chose my menu item precisely because it embodies the type of unpretentious but spirit-nourishing dish that Hamilton reveres in her book: a pasta kerchief filled with a poached egg and brown butter. A dish that is simultaneously charmingly rustic—instead of precision-cut ribbons of pasta, a single folded sheet will suffice—is also composed with finesse and balance, as the sweet nuttiness of the brown butter and the egg yolk is weighted against the tangy, umami bite of the balsamic and the thin slice of ham.
I lustily consumed the entire plate with ease, in spite of my relative lack of appetite, and knew immediately that I wanted to attempt a home-recreation of the dish
This recreation proved to be a tall order. Not because the dish is intimidating or difficult to make (sure, my pasta skills are still in their infancy and I over-poach my eggs from time to time, but I knew if I gave it a couple tries, I'd be able to accomplish something reasonably comparable), but because any attempt to write about it afterward would seem paltry in comparison to memoir that I’d be referencing.
Though it may be a over-reaching, it's tempting to think of this continual exercise of cooking and writing as tiny incremental steps toward a legacy that looks something like what Hamilton has accomplished with Blood, Bones, and Butter: a documentation of life and work over the course of time for posterity-serving purposes. Similarly, the goal is to assemble something greater than the sum of it's parts, building a larger, more detailed character sketch, entry by entry, using food as an emblem for the virtues I hold dear.
Pasta kerchief with poached egg and brown butter
Adapted from The New York Times
I will admit from the outset that this is probably more of a pasta envelope than a pasta kerchief. Undoubtedly, the Prune dish is made with a pasta maker that rolls out long sheets that are at the very least 6 or 8 inches wide and many feet long, so their kerchief is folder over the top in elegant billows. My hand-rolled ovals seemed to lend themselves more to a folded envelop than that sort of loose billowy fold, so I went with it. It’s probably less photogenic, but form follows function, amiright?
I will also readily admit that this dish benefits from the inclusion of French ham, the way Prune serves it, but I attempted to omit the meat in my quest to eat less of it. The upshot, really, is if you want to forgo the ham, you’ll have to up the quantity of salt one way or another to balance the sweetness, which might be most easily accomplished by hitting it with lots of shaved parm. You may also want a good extra tablespoon of really nice balsamic to add some richness.
Making the pasta:
- Process flour in a food processor, adding yolks and egg one at a time through feed tube.
- Transfer to a large mixing bowl and add salt and olive oil; mix with your hands, squeezing dough through your fingers. Add cold water a little at a time, until a smooth dough forms. Knead 5-10 minutes and let rest, dusted with flour and covered with an overturned bowl, for 2 hours.
- Roll out dough using a pasta machine or by hand. If rolling by hand, cut pasta dough ball into four pieces. Using a rolling pin, roll into round sheets, approximately 16 inches in diameter.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
- Meanwhile, in a separate pan, bring about 2 inches of water and a dash of vinegar to a simmer. Gently crack eggs into it, and poach until whites are just set. Using a slotted spoon, remove to a plate, and set aside in a warm place.
- Discard egg cooking water; add butter to same pan. Cook over medium heat until it begins to smell nutty and turn brown. Set aside.
- Add pasta sheets to boiling water, and cook for about 90 seconds. Using tongs, gently transfer each to a serving plate.
- Using tongs, dip a bundle of arugula in boiling pasta water for 2 or 3 seconds. Shake off excess water, and place on top of pasta. Repeat with remaining greens.
- Place an egg on top of each, and fold pasta over. Pour a little brown butter over each package of pasta. Sprinkle with shavings of cheese, pine nuts and a little balsamic vinegar and serve.
For the pasta:
- 1 2/3 cups plus 1/4 cup bread flour
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 egg
- 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
For the rest:
- 1 teaspoon vinegar
- 4 eggs
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 4 handfuls arugula
- 1/4 cup inch-long shavings Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- a few tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
- Best quality balsamic vinegar, for sprinkling
- Salt and pepper