Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lobster lasagne

Earlier this summer my friend Giovani volunteered me to prepare "a really simple pasta dish" for pals of his who were visiting Maine from the midwest. He provided no guidance as to the type of pasta, but did insist that I not put myself out "too very much."

Translation: Hey Meatball, these are really special friends we're talking about here. So get on the stick and come up with something special. Capeesh?

And so I got myself about a pound of super fresh lobster meat.

And cut it into small pieces.

This is a lot of chopped garlic, 10 cloves at least, that I sauteed in olive oil until softened but not browned. I've also got some hot pepper and anchovy in there, but you can do without those if you prefer.

Add the lobster meat to the pan and stir things around until everything is incorporated, then turn off the heat and set aside.

I figured that another moist element might be needed in this dish and settled on a bunch of rainbow chard. After steaming until tender allow the greens to cool, then chop finely.

In a bowl mix together the chard, a pound of fresh ricotta, a little grated cheese, some nutmeg, salt and pepper. Mix and adjust seasonings to taste.

This is a very nice Bechamel sauce that My Associate was kind enough to prepare. (Thank you, My Associate.)

Butter a lasagne pan, then lay down your first layer of pasta sheets. I went with black ink pasta but only because of the dramatic effect it might have on my guests (and Giovani); any type of pasta sheets will do.

A layer of bechamel.

Some of the ricotta and chard mixture.

A sprinkle of the lobster meat and garlic.

Another sheet of pasta and then repeat the layers until the pan is filled.

Like so.

Bake at 350-375 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes, then allow to rest for at least 15 minutes before cutting into the lasagne and serving.

"A really simple pasta dish" that won't put you out "too very much."

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Zucchini in olive oil

If your summers play out anything like mine do then odds are good you have some of this stuff in the fridge already.

After all, how many of these have you come across in the past couple months? I'm down to only two zucchini plants in the garden this year, but each has already thrown off a couple dozen specimens. And they're still producing. One of my favorite things to do with zucchini is roast or grill them and then preserve them in olive oil.

Just slice them up.

Lay on a baking sheet that's been coated in olive oil and season with salt and pepper (you can also do this outside on the grill), then place in an oven preheated to 375 degrees F. Using a spatula, turn occasionally so that the slices brown on both sides.

The time it takes to cook the zucchini varies, but this is about how things should look when it's done.

All that's left to do now is layer the zucchini, along with garlic slices and crushed hot pepper, in a container of some sort.

Then cover the whole thing in extra virgin olive oil and put it in the fridge. It's best to wait at least a couple days before tasting; that way the flavors can meld together. As long as the zucchini are covered in the oil they should last in the fridge for a couple weeks or so.

I use slices of the zucchini on sandwiches (mint leaves are a nice way to top them when serving), but my favorite way to eat it has always been as an antipasti.

With bread to sop up the oil, of course.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Fish poached in olive oil

My friend Fred will be all over this one. The man spends more time chasing fish than anyone I know, and is always searching for new ways to prepare the swimmers that take his lure.

Like me, Fred tries to keep things simple. I liked that about him when we first met each other, more than a couple decades back. He was editing a technology magazine and I was a newly hired gun brought in to do the things that hired guns do. My first assignment was to edit a cover story whose author and assigning editor (both trusted staffers) had determined required 11,000 words or so to tell. "Do what you think it needs," were my only instructions.

The next day, after I'd turned in a much-simplified 3,500-word piece for all parties to review, Fred was the only one not demanding that I be made acquainted with the exit, or perhaps a higher-floor open window. A two-month assignment grew into a yearlong gig, and a friendship that has lasted much longer.

Long enough to know that, when fishing season on Long Island commences this fall, Fred will be giving this olive oil-poached fish fillet preparation a serious going over. It's luxurious, for sure. But it couldn't possibly be simpler.

You can oil poach a lot of different types of fish, but this whole bluefish fillet had my name written all over it.

All you need to do is season the fillet with salt and freshly ground black pepper. (By the way, make sure to allow the fish to come up to room temperature before working with it. It should not be cold when you begin cooking it.)

Put the fillet in a baking dish, cover it with olive oil, and add a couple of crushed garlic cloves and whatever fresh herbs you like. Then place the dish in an oven preheated to 200 to 250 degrees F and leave it alone. After around 25 minutes start checking the fish for doneness. As usual, the exact amount of cooking time will depend on a lot of things, the thickness of the fillet among them. This fillet took around 35 minutes at roughly 250 degrees or so.

Plate the fillet, along with some of the olive oil, and allow to rest before serving. I like it at room temperature, but some people prefer eating the fish when it's still warm.

I'm not so sure where Fred stands on this issue. Guess we're not quite as close as I thought.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Pasta with onions & prosciutto

Next to a nice big bowl of pasta & peas, there's nothing quite as comforting to me as this stuff. My mother used to make it for me when I was a boy, usually when we were alone together, which wasn't all that often. With two brothers and around a dozen cousins all living under the same roof, alone time with anybody, let alone mom, was a rare event indeed.

Even today pasta with onions & prosciutto is a private dish for me. I never prepare it for anybody else. The only times I even think about making it is when I've got the house to myself. Hell, it's taken four years to share the recipe, if you can call it that, with you here.

Just saute an onion (a red one here but it doesn't matter what kind) and a little garlic in olive oil.

Once the onion is completely softened (but not browned) add some cut-up slices of prosciutto.

Immediately start to add your cooked pasta to the pan, along with some of the (well-salted) pasta water, turn up the heat and incorporate.

Then turn off the heat, stir in some grated Romano cheese, and serve.

To your well-comforted self, or whomever else you might choose.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Almost Willie's Lemon Ice

I got an email from my brother Mike in Ohio the other day:

"You probably hate people telling you what to do on your blog," it correctly stated. "But since I AM your brother ..." 

Older brother, actually. Which might hold sway in some sibling relationships, but, and perhaps to Mike's chagrin, never has in ours. 

Until now.

"Since it is summer," Mike went on, "how about a recipe for Willie's Lemon Ice? I'm sure you remember those hot summer days in the school yard when we were kids, and all those trips around the corner to spend a nickel or a dime for a cup at Willie's. Right?"

Right. This, in fact, is the type of cup that my brother recalls. It is still used by Italian ice stands, only the stuff that fills it hasn't cost a nickel in a while. Lemon, which was occasionally joined by cherry or chocolate as a flavor choice back in Willie's day, is but one of possibly thousands today. I was standing on line at an ice stand in Queens recently and watched people order flavors such as Cookie Dough and Holi Cannoli, even Vanilla Peanut Butter with Chocolate Covered Pretzels. Not one of the people ahead of me ordered a lemon ice, which, by the way, was dubbed Lick Me Lemon.

Willie's Lemon Ice, now long gone, was located on the eastbound side of Atlantic Avenue, between Essex and Linwood Streets, in the East New York section of Brooklyn. The stand was open only in the summer months. Barely more than a formica counter measuring around four feet wide and as many feet high, Willie's was tightly wedged between two other commercial ventures, Sal's Tire Shop (run by the Albanese family) and Barney's candy store (the Samartanos).

Nobody, and I mean nobody, didn't crave Willie's lemon ice. It was sweet and tart and slushy and, well, about as thirst-quenching and satisfying as a thing could possibly be on a hot summer's day in the city. To anybody who grew up at the same time and place as Mike and I did, Willie's is the standard by which all Italian ices are judged. It's no wonder my brother and his wife Marie, who grew up two blocks away from Willie's, or twice as far as Mike and I did, attempt to recreate the ice every summer.

"We've been making it in our manual ice cream maker for years," Mike wrote in his email. "It's simple and really tastes like the original Willie's. I can send you the recipe.

"It's as close to Willie's as you can get," Mike assured me. "I only wish that I had the paper cups to serve it in." 

Almost Willie's Lemon Ice
Serves 4 to 6

3 cups very cold water
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup lemon juice
2 teaspoons lemon zest

Mix all the ingredients together to dissolve the sugar and refrigerate (the colder the mixture is to start, the better it will freeze).

Place the mix into any 1- to 1 1/2-quart ice cream maker until frozen to a soft fluffy consistency. Half the recipe can also be made for 2-3 people and it does freeze better in small quantities.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

How to make black ink pasta

When life gives you cuttlefish ink ... Or squid ink, for that matter ...

Fresh eggs make the best pasta, and so these came from a farm just down the road from where I live.

The cuttlefish ink had to travel a little farther. It's from Spain. Squid ink works just as well, and is probably more readily available, so use that instead if you like.

This is 3 1/4 cups of flour. I use a mixture of "OO" and super fine semolina to make my pasta, but all-purpose flour works great as well. After creating a well in the center, add 3 eggs, 3 egg yolks, 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt, and 2 or 3 tablespoons of the ink.

Mix thoroughly.

And then, with either a fork or your fingers, slowly start to incorporate the flour into the egg mix.

After the dough is formed, begin to knead. Pasta dough can't be overworked, so don't worry about kneading too much.

Just get it to a point where the dough looks and feels good (it should neither be very moist nor dry). Wrap in plastic and allow the dough to rest for at least a couple of hours before rolling it out for your pasta. I usually make pasta dough a day in advance, leave it in the fridge overnight, then bring it to room temperature before rolling it out. I find that this makes for a smoother, silkier dough.

Oh, and this is a lobster lasagne that I made with some of the pasta dough. I'm surveying the dinner guests who I served it to the other night to determine whether to include its recipe here on a later post.

After all, we are a democracy, yes?

Friday, July 11, 2014

John-John and me

It was the only time that we met. If you call it a "meeting." We shared the same wine. Only separately.

What the man wished would happen was that he could breeze into the Manhattan wine shop where I was shopping, make a selection, and disappear into the bright afternoon sunshine unnoticed.

And yet there I was, in the French section, a bottle of 1993 Ch√Ęteau de Beaucastel Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape in hand and calculating the total price minus the case discount. John Kennedy Jr., or John-John to anybody who was alive when his father was president, wore a black wool hat, pulled halfway down his forehead. Dark aviator-style sunglasses hid his handsome eyes. Standard celebrity-in-hiding wear for cruising the city.

I knew him right away. First from around 20 feet, then 10, until he stood next to me, studying the Rhones before arriving at the very bottle that I myself had settled on.

I've never been one to intrude on celebrities' lives, and yet, in this instance, I was moved to speak.

"That getup," I whispered softly to my handsome, worldly friend. "It really work?"

John-John raised his head and turned to me. I feared for the worst. "Asshole," he might brand me for this unwanted intrusion.

I had worried needlessly. John-John placed his right index finger on the bridge of his aviators and pushed them down just enough that I could see his eyes. Then he smiled, lifted his shades back into position, grabbed a single bottle of the Beaucastel and moved on.

For 15 years or so every time I grabbed a bottle of this wine from the cellar I thought about John-John. Sometimes I saw the little boy wearing shorts and matching overcoat at his father's funeral, other times a dashing, bare-chested upper classer on a secluded beach, still others a budding magazine editor, his chosen profession before the end.

He was just shy of 3 years old when his father was assassinated in Dallas. I was twice his age and, as I said, did not know the boy a bit. Still, from the moment his image appeared on our black-and-white tv screen, on November 25, 1963 — a day that acted both as his third birthday and the funeral of his father — John Kennedy, Jr. and I were permanently joined. I am not the only one of my generation to lay claim to this affiliation. In an instant this privileged little birthday boy both saluted his father's casket to say goodbye and innocently insinuated his way inside a nation's heart.

On July 16th, 1999, John-John's plane crashed off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, ending his life and the lives of his wife Carolyn and sister-in-law Lauren. As it happens, I am on my way to the island now. It is my first visit to the place that is so closely associated with the Kennedys, and so naturally it has got me thinking about the chance encounter long ago.

Days after the plane crash in '99 I opened two of the Beaucastels for friends who had come over for dinner. I didn't tell them about how John-John and I had met over the wines. I'm not sure why I didn't, though I suspect it was to keep our moment together private. 

As he might have wanted.