By Joe Gray, Tribune Newspapers
April 25, 2012
The jewel-toned young vegetables of spring inspire the cook yearning for fresh flavor to banish winter's heavy braises, root vegetables and stews.
Lightly steamed or sauteed with a dab of butter or drizzle of good, grassy olive oil and a sprinkle of fresh herbs, the glowing asparagus, carrots, peas and more restore us, simply. They need no fuss.
Those among us who like to fuss, who like to tinker in the kitchen, will wonder, what more can I do with this? The answers are many, of course, but let's turn to something a little different: sformato.
The Italian dish is like a savory custard or souffle. A cooked and pureed vegetable is bound, usually, with a bechamel sauce, eggs and Parmesan cheese, then poured into a mold (or molds) and baked.
Unmolded onto a serving plate, the sformato, especially when cooked in individual serving-size ramekins, makes an impressive little sculpture that yields easily to your fork and delivers surprisingly intense flavor and creamy texture — the essence of the vegetable, but better.
Sformato (sfohr-MAH-toh) means "unmolded" in Italian — from sformare, to turn out from a mold. Though the word may not be on everyone's lips when they speak of Italian cooking, it is not uncommon. It can, though, be a recipe difficult to find.
Having admired chef John Besh's idea for "anything" recipes in "My Family Table" (Andrews McMeel, $35) — in which he provides a master formula for making dishes (curry, risotto, vegetable soup, etc.) with a changeable roster of ingredients — I thought the idea could be applied to making a sformato, freeing cooks to tackle the dish with whatever vegetable they fancy.
A lot of searching, through dozens of cookbooks new and decades old, turned up variations, some complex, such as Ada Boni's "Italian Regional Cooking" version with artichokes and sweetbreads. Some skip the bechamel sauce, boosting the eggs' binding power with cream instead, as in the classic book "The Silver Spoon." And in the "Great Italian Cooking," by master chef and cookbook author Luigi Carnacina, published in 1968, eggs are separated, the whites whipped, then folded in, resulting in a sformato toward the souffle end of the custard-souffle spectrum.
Carnacina supports my premise, offering sformati variations by changing out the vegetable, but it was with Marcella Hazan, in her "Marcella Cucina," from 1997, that I found a simpler vegetable-bechamel-eggs framework. It performed beautifully with each of the vegetables we tried: carrots, asparagus, peas and cardoons (an Italian favorite with long, wide, celerylike stalks and a taste like artichokes). The formula here breaks down Hazan's recipe into easy-to-follow steps (her recipe for balsamella, the Italian version of bechamel, is adapted here as well). To Hazan's recipe I've added sauteed onions and garlic, for another layer of flavor.
Which points up the changeability of sformati. Hazan's original (for cauliflower) suggests stirring in strips of ham as an option. Take that idea and run with it. Use fresh thyme with carrots. Lemon zest with asparagus. Or sub pecorino Romano for the Parmesan. Garnish with a few reserved pieces or slices of the vegetable, such as a couple lovely asparagus tips.
Endless are the flavorings, just as endless as the vegetable varieties for a sformato. You'll find yourself doing as the Italians do, giving it pride of place as a course by itself.
For a simpler preparation, bake in a single souffle dish instead of individual ramekins. If not all of the sformato comes out during unmolding (as happened to us), use an offset spatula to scoop out what stayed behind and gently reform it onto the unmolded portion. Or avoid the risk by serving directly from the dish.
Along with the vegetables described here, try these: artichokes, broccoli and its kin (cauliflower, broccoli rabe), celery, fennel, wilted greens (spinach, dandelions, kale), roasted bell peppers.
Steam: Cook 2 pounds asparagus (or carrots or peas or ...) over simmering water until tender and cooked through; coarsely chop. You want about 2 cups.
Saute: Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet; add 1/2 cup finely chopped onion and 1 clove garlic, chopped. Cook until beginning to soften, 5 minutes. Add asparagus; season with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Puree in a food processor until smooth.
Mix: Beat 2 eggs lightly in a bowl; stir in the balsamella (see recipe). Add the asparagus puree and 2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Stir to combine.
Bake: Butter six 6-ounce ramekins. Coat with fine bread crumbs. Divide asparagus mixture among ramekins. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons Parmesan. Place ramekins on a baking sheet. Slide into a 400-degree oven. Bake until a light golden crust forms on top and sformati are firm, about 30 minutes.
Unmold: Let settle for several minutes. Place a plate upside down over a ramekin. Holding them snuggly together, invert. Holding the ramekin firmly on the plate, lift up then sharply down to release the sformato. (Listen for it.) Lift off ramekin, garnish with fresh herbs.
1. Heat 1 cup whole milk in a saucepan over medium-low heat until small bubbles form at edges. (Do not allow to boil.)
2. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon unsalted butter in a saucepan over low heat. When the butter has melted, stir in 1 1/2 tablespoons flour all at once with a whisk. Cook, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes.
3. Add the hot milk all at once while stirring continuously. Cook, stirring, until the mixture is smooth. Break up any lumps by pressing them against the sides.
4. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce is as dense as thick cream, about 10 minutes. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and a pinch of ground nutmeg, if you like. Set aside until ready to use, placing plastic wrap on the surface so a film does not form.
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