By S. Irene Virbila
Los Angeles Times
January 12, 2013
I'm not one to make a gazillion New Year's resolutions. I've faltered too many times. Exercise every day? Up at 5:30 every morning to write or swim? Less time in front of the computer? Probably not going to happen. But it always takes a while for reality to kick in.
The resolutions I do keep tend to be things I really long to do more than those I'd give anything to avoid. So, once a year, I'll sit down and muse about where I'd like to go, culinarily speaking, in the new year. It's thrilling to learn some new dishes, techniques or a new cuisine.
In the last couple of months, I've been enthralled with wontons. I love the rhythm of folding the wrapper, sealing the edges with a slick of ginger-scented water and lining up the completed little bundles in closely packed rows on a baking sheet. So this year I resolve to explore different regional variations of filling and shapes. I want to finally tease that gyoza recipe from a Japanese friend and have her show me how she pleats the wrappers so beautifully around the pork and cabbage filling.
Obsessing about wontons leads me back to agnolotti and tortellini. New Year's Eve at La Terza, Gino Angelini used to make tortellini in brodo as part of the feast, and I found myself dwelling on that memory this year, wishing I'd gotten it together to make some for our New Year's Eve supper. I recalled the time, years ago, I spent a few days with some women at a small handmade pasta workshop on a back street in Bologna. Four or five of them, their fingers nimble and quick, worked around a giant wooden table, making tortellini, some of the smallest I've ever seen, as they talked and gossiped.
I've sadly let my fresh pasta skills lapse, but now that I have a table where I can clamp the pasta machine, I'd like to get them back. Last summer, when I visited a friend on Lummi Island off Washington, he made the most gorgeous deep yellow pappardelle with wild mushrooms. That inspired me. Once I get the noodles down with practice, I'll attempt agnolotti again with the help of the pasta cutting wheel that the late, great Lidia Alciati of Guido da Costigliole d'Asti gave me when she taught me how to make the Piedmontese specialty. I'll try to conjure up her ineffably light touch and re-create her savory filling of roasted pork, veal and rabbit laced with greens and Parmesan. Small as postage stamps, agnolotti al plin have a characteristic vertical pinch (or "plin"), and she served them simply tossed in butter and the roasts' juices.
Another: I just re-found a book I've treasured for years, the catalog from a folk art exhibit of exquisite Sardinian flatbreads cut like snowflakes. They're so beautiful and festive, I'd like to try making some. And maybe work my way through Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's book "Flatbreads & Flavors," focusing on chapters on the Eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia with recipes for Afghan snowshoe nan, sesame bread rings and, from China, Sichuan pepper bread. The only Sardinian flatbread, though, is carasau, the parchment-like semolina bread shepherds carried with them up into the hills. It's wonderful warmed, drizzled with gold-green olive oil and sprinkled with rosemary or oregano.
Last year, I cooked my way through Yotam Ottolenghi's book "Jerusalem: A Cookbook." And now I've got the itch to do more Middle Eastern cooking. A meal at Ana Sortun's restaurant Oleana in Boston nudged me in the direction of Turkey. I've been looking through the books I've already got in my cookbook library: Sortun's wonderful "Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean" and "Turquoise" from Australian-Lebanese chef Greg Malouf and his wife, Lucy. But this resolution will prompt me to buy a few more classic Turkish cookbooks.
As I'm typing this, my husband just gave me a taste of green mango chutney for the vegetable pakora he's making from Niloufer Ichaporia King's book "My Bombay Kitchen." On the basis of that one bite, I just may have to extend my studies to India (a huge subject, I know). But I can always invite friends to participate. In my 20s, friends and I would have big dinner parties based on one cuisine — Thai or Oaxacan or Sicilian — and everyone would bring a dish, an easy way to distribute the work. I just may bring back that idea in this new year.
I think if I'm going to be cooking like this, I'll have to revisit that exercise-every-day resolution too. But this time I'll have even more persuasive reasons to get out on the track.