Shiftwork Bites: Lagniappe Edition

So I lied. Kind of. My recent post really was the last actual Shiftwork Bites. It did, however, provide me with just enough material and inspiration to eke out one more piece, and for that, I'm grateful.

One of my favorite things about eating at restaurants and preparing other cooks' dishes is the inspiration it often provides for my own cooking. My three-course French Laundry/Alinea dinner for Shiftwork Bites did this in a number of ways. First and foremost, it proved to me that I can cook that food. I didn't say this before, but that was my first effort cooking from either book.

I'd had The French Laundry Cookbook for several years. I'd take it down every once in a while, flip through it, and plan a menu. Then, I'd start to have doubts. "It's too complex," I'd think, or "I don't have the time required to pull that off." Alinea? Fuggedaboutit.

I couldn't have been more wrong about either book. The recipes are involved, and require some skill and a lot of attention to detail, but they're also very doable. If you have either book and have been hesitant, I'm here to tell you that you shouldn't be. If I can cook this food in an office kitchenette, you can cook it at home. Do it. This weekend.

Of more immediate importance, though, is the issue of leftovers. The recipes in the Alinea cookbook are scaled for eight servings. I only needed five. There was no way I was going to throw it all out, so I began planning for what to do with the components. Since the dinner, itself, had been a collaboration, of sorts, between Keller's and Achatz's recipes, I decided that it would be fun to do the same with the leftovers.

I flipped through The French Laundry Cookbook, looking for inspiration, and stopped on the essay on agnolotti. I'd never made homemade pasta before, but Keller's passion for the subject was infectious. It also seemed like a good vehicle for the ham, peas and other elements left over from my Alinea dish.

I grabbed my largest cutting board, eggs and flour, and set about making pasta dough. It really is about as easy, and as enjoyable, as Keller indicated. There were a few moments when I was certain that the eggs would breach the flour walls, sending a cascade of pasty yolk running all over my kitchen table, but it never happened. A bit of care and patience, and I had a shiny, silky dough in about 30 minutes, including kneading time. I set it aside, wrapped in plastic wrap to rest, and turned my attention to the filling.

I took the leftover ham and pea ragout and divided it into two bowls. One bowl, I set aside to be gently re-warmed in beurre monte and ham nage. I had my daughter help me separate the other bowl into two piles, one of diced ham and another of peas. I puréed the peas, passing them several times through a tamis and chinois to refine the texture, and set the purée aside. I did the same with the ham, combining it with a small amount of ham nage, white pepper, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. By then, the dough had rested for its requisite 30 minutes to an hour, and I began rolling it into long, thin, wide sheets for agnolotti.

In his instructions, Keller recommends either following your manufacturer's specifications for rolling out the dough to a proper thickness, or else rolling it to the second-thinnest setting on your machine. He advises that it should be very thin, so thin that you can see your fingers through the dough. I followed the instructions for rolling the dough at the widest setting, folding and turning it, then rolling it again. No problem. I followed the instructions for taking the dough through consecutive passes at increasingly thinner settings. I got to the third-to-the-thinnest setting, looked at the dough, and thought "I can see my fingers. This is very thin. It looks ready." I should have listened to myself. Instead, I held fast to Keller's statement regarding the second thinnest setting, ignoring his admonition that the dough is ready when you can see your fingers through it.

I cranked it through one more time, and it began to tear and shred. It was too thin. I tried folding it over and running it through again, hoping to laminate it back together. No dice. Flustered, I grabbed another piece of dough (I'd split it into thirds before rolling it out) and ran it through the process. This time, it looked done at the fourth-to-thinnest setting. I should have stopped. I knew I should have stopped. I didn't stop. It tore, again. Cursing commenced. Dough was flung.

I left the kitchen, sat down at the dining room table, and drank a glass of whiskey, trying to force myself to withdraw the red haze from in front of my eyes. I took my third and final piece of dough, and ran it through the machine. I stopped when I could see my fingers through it. It was perfect. I trimmed it, cut it into two long sheets, and piped a line of pea purée down one, ham mousse down the other. I tried pinching them like Keller advises for agnolotti, but ended up shruggingly cutting them into ravioli.

I put the reserved ham and pea ragout into a sauté pan with a bit of beurre monte and ham nage and put the ravioli into boiling, heavily salted water. A few minutes later, I extracted the ravioli and finished them in the pan. To plate, a spoonful of ragout went down, topped by a few ravioli, and then some foamed nage.

It was delicious and, at least to me, a perfect use for the leftover ingredients. I also enjoyed the marriage of the two chefs' sensibilities in one dish. While Shiftwork Bites may be no longer whinnying with us, its impact will continue to influence my cooking for a long time to come. The same can be said of these two books. Now that Shiftwork Bites has gotten me to open them, I'm sure they won't be closed for a long time.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall