Sunday, April 12, 2015

Whining over Italian wine


I’m not a wine expert. Nobody has ever paid me to write about the stuff, not once, and I have been in this word game a long time. My friend Tom, who makes a living writing about adult beverages, complains about the lack of wine coverage on this blog, specifically Italian wines, which I'll admit to spending many years studying.

“I don’t understand,” my friend will say. “Italian wines are really hard to get your arms around. There are so many different grapes and designations, and the labels are impossible to comprehend. People might actually be interested in learning the things that you know about these wines, you know.”

Okay Tommy, here’s some expert Italian wine advice for you. Read it carefully, because this might just be the only time I give advice like this in public.

Never pay $50 for a bottle of Italian wine when you can get it someplace else for $8 and change. Come to think of it, this probably goes for all wines, not just the Italian ones. But, as I said before, I'm no expert.

How's that for advice?

I can rant all day about this but will simply lay out the facts and be on my way. My Associate and I were in Arizona recently, on a driving trip that spanned a little south of Tucson to a little north of Flagstaff. On two occasions we dined at places whose wine lists had been Wine Spectator-approved. They could not have been more different.

The first was the dining room at Hacienda del Sol in Tucson. The wine list, a book that required true commitment to plow through, included the requisite I-don't-care-what-it-costs-just-bring-me-the-damn-bottle selections (the $4,500 Vosne-Romanée comes to mind). But it was in no way a list crafted to rip you off. I found a really nice Nebbiolo d'Alba for $54—and it was 15 years old! The same bottle in a wine shop (if you could even find it) would cost at least $30, maybe more. Another bottle we cracked open was a 2008 Sagrantino di Montefalco, a little-known Umbrian varietal that I like a whole lot. The retail price on this particular bottle is around $25. It's on the wine list for $59. I'd call that very reasonable, especially given that the restaurant is in a resort.

Days later, at L’Auberge Restaurant on Oak Creek in Sedona, also the kind of place that prefers entire wine books over lists, I found the exact (if misspelled) vintage of Sagrantino di Montefalco, but for $75, not $59. This didn't bother me so much. Okay, it bothered me a little. But what really got me going was this place's entry-level Italian wine.


This is the least expensive bottle on L'Auberge's paltry selection of Italian wines. It's the 2009 Monte Antico, a Tuscan blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The price: $50.

Average retail price: around $10-12. Though I've seen it plenty of times (at the supermarket, for instance, as this is one very high-production label) for less than $9. This is a place where the least expensive dinner option is a three-course prix fixe job at $80. Serving Monte freaking Antico. Seriously.

I don't begrudge a restaurant from getting its markup, even a hefty one. But if you're going to pull a scam at least be smart about it and pick a $9 wine that I never heard of—and that I can't pick up where I buy milk and laundry detergent. 

But what do I know?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fresh Maine sea urchin



It isn't every day you come across these babies, not even here in Maine. Virtually all sea urchins that are harvested in these waters get processed on their way to the sushi bar. Which is fine, because I do love me some uni. But I also enjoy wrestling with nature's creatures from time to time, and so there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to mess with these. Four of them, actually.


In case you're interested, this is what a Maine sea urchin looks like from what I suppose you might call "the business end." The small circular area in the center is its mouth, actually.


I'm not smart enough to figure out a way to cut open and photograph a sea urchin at the same time, and so you'll have to settle for this after shot.


Big surprise, I decided to go with a pasta dish. (I know, who'da thunk?) That's a big hunk of butter, some olive oil, a shallot and a garlic clove.


Once the shallots and garlic softened, I turned off the heat, waited a couple minutes, and then added the urchin (a little lemon zest and/or fresh parsley are recommended at this point too).


The idea here is to not cook the urchin, but rather let the pasta warm it. And so once the spaghetti was cooked I added it and some of the pasta water to the pan and very gently mixed things together.


Definitely one of the richest things I've eaten in quite a while. Which is saying something because, well, you see how I eat. Delicious, though; silky and smooth in a way that few things are.

Go ahead, live a little!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Pasta with chestnuts & bacon


For reasons best left unspoken, I found myself staring into the fridge Sunday evening around seven having no plan whatsoever.

As will happen when a half-pound of thick-slice, locally cured bacon is in reach an idea took shape—aided of course by the vacuum-packed chestnuts I had been eyeing earlier.

And you thought that I spent a lot of time planning the stuff I share with you here.


Dice and saute the bacon by itself for a while, then add a small onion or shallot, three or so garlic cloves and (if you like, which I do) a little hot pepper.


When the bacon is cooked and everything else is softened add at least 1/2 cup of chopped chestnuts, more if you like, and stir.


Add some chopped parsley.


Then add your cooked pasta (a half-pound here, and boiled about a minute less than to doneness), grate some Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino over it, and add maybe a ladle full of the (well-salted) pasta water to moisten.


Turn the heat up to high and incorporate, allow some of the pasta water to be absorbed and evaporate, then turn off the heat and quickly serve.


Next time I make this stuff it'll be on purpose, I swear.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The 90-second pasta

If you measure your life not in hours or days or years but in mere moments, well, have I got a pasta for you!

Just last year the Italian pasta maker Rustichella d’Abruzzo came out with a spaghetti that actually cooks in just 90 seconds. The pasta is aptly named “Rapida” and, as you might expect, there was just no way that I could not take it for a test boil.

The spaghetti is made in Italy using a special bronze plate that creates a grooved and hollowed-out shape. The thinking here is that the boiling water can penetrate this pasta’s gluten and starch much faster than with other spaghetti. And there’s nothing unusual about the pasta’s makeup; all it’s made from is semolina and water.


Rustichella is a very fine Italian pasta maker, but I was not expecting very much to come of its new and, in my mind, unnecessarily speedy approach to cooking.

But they surprised me. Not only did the Rapida cook in under two minutes but it tasted the way a good pasta is supposed to taste. I tried it plain and with tomato sauce, and enjoyed the flavor both ways.

The only thing I’d caution about is using the Rapida in dishes where pasta water is an ingredient, or where finishing off in a hot pan is crucial. The pasta isn’t in the water long enough to infuse it with any flavor, and additional heat from cooking in the pan is apt to quickly overcook the spaghetti.

If minutes are that important to you, I'd say give the stuff a try.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Beet ravioli with poppy seeds

Don’t let the crappy picture fool you. These were some of the best ravioli I’ve had in a while. The reason the picture sucks is, well, I made the things on Valentine’s Day, see. Lots of great wines were sampled prior to eating time and so I was not, shall we say, in a mood to responsibly handle a camera. I managed to freeze a few ravioli and shoot the following day, but during boiling they did not hold up so well.

What are you gonna do!

Casunziei, as these ravioli are known, are normally made in a half-moon shape, but as you can see I went in another direction. The beet and ricotta filling is a nice combo, but it’s really the butter sauce and poppy seeds that make this dish really special. The first time I had casunziei was many years ago, at Al Di La in Brooklyn. It’s their signature dish. If you’re ever around you must give it a try (their Trippa alla Toscana too, but that’s another story entirely).

Anyhow, other than the part about making your own pasta dough, and of course being comfortable filling and shaping ravioli, these casunziei are super easy.


It all starts with the beets, and I scored one large enough to handle the whole pasta course. Roast it in aluminum foil until done; when cooled peel off the skin.


There's a lot of moisture inside a beet, and it's best to get rid of it. Most recipes call for running the beets lightly through a food processor but I just used my hands over a colander.


I even used a paper towel to make sure the beets wouldn't be wet.


This turned out to be around a cup's worth of beets. In a bowl I added the beets, 1/2 pound of ricotta, a scant 1/4 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and salt and pepper to taste. Most recipes call for the addition of eggs here, but I went without.


Then just mix it up, like so.


If you're a pasta maker then you know the drill. If you aren't, just do it. It's not as difficult as it looks.


What's the worst that could happen?


They could wind up looking like this, or maybe they won't. You'll never know unless you try.

Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid. — Goethe


Saucing these things could not be simpler. Just melt a lot of butter in a large pan that can accommodate the ravioli you're making. When the ravioli are done boiling scoop them out of the water and add them to the pan, along with enough (well-salted) pasta water to keep things moist. Grate some more Reggiano over the ravioli and sprinkle a good amount of poppy seeds over them too. You can add a little more cheese and poppy seeds once you've plated.

And that is that.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Toni's baccala


I’m in love with a woman who is not my wife. We met at a friend’s beach house in Rhode Island last summer, and within minutes I knew that I was hooked. We cooked and ate good food together, sat by the sea and watched fishing boats go by, sipped wine outside in the evening near the roaring fire pit and talked easily and without pretense.

My wife knows about all of this. Says she can understand how a man like me could fall so hard and so deeply for a woman like Toni. I married well. If the tables were turned I’m not so certain I could be so understanding.

I received a letter from Toni recently. She told me that she missed seeing me on my last trip down to New Bedford and that she looked forward to the next time we might meet again, perhaps this summer at the shore. In the letter was a recipe that she thought I might like to try preparing, a Portuguese baccala (salt cod) dish that Toni said was among her favorites. It’s made with cauliflower and potatoes and onions, not a way that I have ever had salt cod before. “Let me know if you like it,” she wrote.


I didn’t like it Toni, I loved it.

You too.

See you when the snow melts. I hope.

Toni’s Baccala
Salt Cod with Cauliflower & Potatoes

1 head cauliflower
1 1/2 pounds salt cod (soaked and ready to cook)
1 large onion
2 large potatoes
1-2 quarts chicken stock, as needed

Cut the potatoes into large cubes, partly boil then set aside.
Cut the codfish into cubes around an inch thick.
Break apart the cauliflower head and slice the onion, then saute in olive oil in a large pot for around 10 minutes.
Add 1 quart of stock, the potatoes and the cod. Add more stock as needed.
Simmer for around 30 minutes and serve.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The confession



I'm gonna hate myself for doing this.

Months from now somebody may remind me what I have said here today. I will wonder what could I possibly have been thinking.

And yet here we are.

I was not the greatest son to my mother. An okay one, not a burden or an embarrassment, I don't think. I managed to avoid getting arrested, for instance, or winding up in the ER after a gang brawl—neither an insignificant accomplishment where I grew up.

But nor was I the child that a person might wish for when contemplating a life of parenting. I never applied myself to schooling, failed to excel at sports, refused to participate in most organized social events. More hurtful to my mother, a devout and loving Roman Catholic, I rejected her church outright and generally did all that I could do to live by my own rules, not by hers—which is of course to say by no rules at all.

These are not the things weighing on me currently, however. It's far worse than that. Recently I admitted—aloud and in front of more than one attentive dinner guest—that I believe myself to be a more accomplished cook today than my mother was when she was alive.

And it's eating me up inside.

Go ahead and laugh if you want. Only don't come crying to me when your spiritual crisis comes. A man is not supposed to think such a thing, let alone share it with others.

It's disgraceful. 

I blame two people for driving me to this crisis of character: the woman with whom I share a home (and a kitchen) and, to a lesser but still substantial degree, my friend Joe.

I'll deal with my friend first.

Long before my recent public indiscretion, months ago in fact, Joe made it his business to irritate me—by insisting that I rate my own Sunday Gravy against the one that my mother so lovingly produced for her family thousands of times. We were, as often happens, lounging in his backyard at the time, drinking Sicilian wines and watching boats of varying size and shape sail slowly and soundlessly past his home overlooking the Hudson River.

"Leave me alone," I barked at my friend. "What does it matter whose Gravy is better? Mine's mine and hers was hers, end of story."

Joe was once a fearsome, if perhaps hairless, wild predator beast in some past life, I'm sure of it. Tenacious does not begin to touch upon his manner.

"Of course it matters," he prodded, uncorking one of the Nero d’Avolas that I had brought to him for sampling. "And you know it does.”

One of the great frustrations with being a friend to me, as Joe will no doubt attest, is that when a topic arises that troubles me greatly, my ability to quash its progression fully is unmatched.

“Fine,” I said to my friend, as he refilled both of our glasses, mine a bit moreso than his own. “Debate this with yourself for a while and let me know how things turn out.”

At this point I wandered inside Joe’s house, which he shares with his lovely wife Joel, and downed a couple of beers with Ev, Joel’s father and a man whose company I enjoy quite a lot. Joe and I never discussed my mother’s Sunday Gravy again.

Then the other evening, over—what else?—a meal of ziti and meatballs and sausage and pork skin braciole, which I had prepared for several friends who’d come to dinner, the topic arose yet again.

“I know you would never admit to this,” said the all too familiar voice from the far end of the table, “but your meatballs and gravy really are better than your Sainted Mother’s.

“I loved that woman dearly,” the voice went on, “but at some point you need to own up to the fact that you’ve surpassed her as a cook. It really is okay, you know.”

Here I will argue, however cowardly and unconvincingly, that a man who wishes his feelings to remain private has no business consuming alcohol while in the presence of others. This can only lead to heartache and, I would argue strenuously, woe.

“Yes, mine are better,” I heard myself say, a burst of red rushing to ears and face and neck, I’m told. “Are you happy now?”

I, of course, have not been happy since. And may never be again. I tell myself that the shame will pass, hope that confession will, as mom might say, heal the soul. 

But I don’t believe any of that. I’m just not the man I was before. 

I'll have to learn to live with this.