Monday, November 24, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!


The people that I care about most, and who care about me, know that I am thinking of them. They make my life full, help me to be a better man. How could my thoughts not be with them on a holiday such as this?

But there are others who have helped to shape me — at critical stages in my life — without even knowing it. I've been thinking about these people a lot this year. They deserve mention.

"Rudy Tie My Shoes." I know that sometimes us kids would make fun of you, Rudy, and I'm sorry about that. Even back then I knew that you were just a guy who'd drawn a bad hand, that you were only trying to make the best of a lousy situation, and that the deformity that caused both of your wrists to curve up so badly had to be a hell of thing to have to live with. I don't know how many times you stopped me on the street and asked me to tie your shoes for you, probably hundreds. I want to thank you for that. Kneeling down on the sidewalk in front of a man who others might consider "less than" taught me about compassion and humility at a young age. Thank you.

Mister C. This is gonna be one of them what you call backward compliments, but here goes: Thanks for being such an asshole. You taught me something about how powerful people can abuse their authority, and I'm grateful for that. Really, I am. I learned something valuable, something that I have carried with me and benefitted from my entire life, and I appreciate it. But we were kids. You were our principal. C'mon. (By the way, that heavy college ring that you used to whack us on the head with all the time? The one you "lost" when you were eating your eggplant parm sandwich in my mother's store? I snatched it off the counter and tossed it in the sewer. So screw you.)

Senor Alfonso. Two years of high school Spanish classes with you and all I'm able to do is say hello to a woman named Isabel, then ask her how she's doing. This only happened to me once. And the Isabel that I ran into didn't even speak Spanish. But you were a class act, Senor, and you taught me something really important about being a gentleman: When wearing dress pants, or a suit of course, socks must go over the calf. No exceptions. Gracias!

Those two undercover cops who tried to buy a kilo of weed from me when I was 19. Thanks for not being as smart as me. The day after you guys showed up asking for me I knew things had gotten too hot. The very next day I closed up shop. For good. If not for you guys scaring me onto the path of the straight and narrow, there's no telling how things might have turned out. So thanks. Very much.


Jeff K. You were a respected television journalist in New York. I was a junior in college studying to be a photographer. I took your writing class because it fit into my schedule and because I'd seen you on TV so many times I figured it'd be cool to meet you. The first time you told me that I was a "natural writer" I didn't think much of it. The next couple times I thought about it some but not a lot. But on that last day of the semester, you asked me to hang after class for a few minutes. That's when you said that if I didn't get off my ass and become a writer you were gonna track me down and beat me to death with a shovel. Thanks for that, Jeff. Wherever you are. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Orange ricotta torte


The Lemon Ricotta Torte recipe that I use all the time just couldn't be any simpler.

But I may have just made it better. By switching to orange instead.


Finely chop 1/2 cup of candied orange rind.


In a large bowl mix together 3 pounds of ricotta, 3 extra large eggs, 1 cup of sugar, the orange rind, the zest of one orange, and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract.


Butter and flour a 9-inch spring form pan and fill it with the ricotta mixture.


Smooth the top as best you can, then place the pan in an oven that's been preheated to 400 degrees F. In about an hour check to see if the top has browned a bit and that the torte has stiffened. If it's still very jiggly and hasn't browned yet keep checking for doneness every 10 minutes or so.


This torte took around 80 minutes to cook. Once it cooled thoroughly I let it sit in the fridge for three or four hours before taking it out and allowing it to come up to room temperature before serving.

And in about 20 minutes I watched eight people polish off the whole thing.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Pork Bolognese sauce


When it comes to Red Sauce I am a very patient man. Nine times out of ten I don't serve the sauce on the day that I make it; I serve it the next day, after the flavors have had time to knit together some. My friend Fred has on occasion given me grief over this practice, wonders if I am a tad overzealous.

I do not invite my friend Fred over for Red Sauce anymore.

I did invite my friends Marc and Beth over for some last Saturday, but it was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. I'd planned on making a Bolognese sauce that afternoon, only it was supposed to be for Sunday dinner. I use veal in Bolognese, but since we'd be eating that same day I switched gears and decided to use pork instead. My reasoning was thus: pork has more flavor than veal, and so it'd make a much tastier same-day sauce.

As it happens, this reasoning turned out to be pretty sound. I'd not used pork in Bolognese sauce before, but I absolutely plan to again.


Finely chop two large carrots, two celery stalks, one small onion, three garlic cloves and some hot pepper (optional, though I used a whole fresh cayenne here) and saute in olive oil under medium heat until softened.


Add 1 1/2 pounds of ground pork, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, incorporate and cook until browned.


Add one cup of dry white wine, increase the heat to high and reduce until the wine has evaporated.


Add 1/2 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg and one cup of whole milk. Cook until the milk has evaporated.


Add one 35-ounce can of tomatoes, turn the heat down to low and allow the sauce to simmer very gently for around three hours. (If the heat is on too high and the sauce reduces too much you can always add some more milk.)


This sauce cooked for around four hours, actually.


And Marc and Beth and My Associate and myself ate the whole thing!

Sorry, Fred.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Roman Classic: Cacio e Pepe


A few years back, in the dead of an interminable Maine winter no less, my friend Joe began to email enticing food photos from Rome, where he and his wife Joel were holed up for a month. There was the Carciofi alla Giuda (fried artichokes, Jewish style), the Trippa alla Romana (tripe in tomato sauce with cheese and mint), the Puntarelle in Salsa d'Acciughe (chicory salad with anchovy dressing) and of course Una Grande Varietà di Pizza (lots and lots of pizza).

But the one type of photo that wound up most frequently in my inbox was of Spaghetti a Cacio e Pepe, literally with nothing but cheese and black pepper.

Joe and I are alike in this way. We enjoy the simplest things best.

I can't tell you how many times I've decided not to share a recipe for cacio e pepe with you here. After all, do you really need me to tell you to dump some grated cheese over a pile of spaghetti? But the bigger reason is this: I find it difficult to make a really good cacio e pepe. A traditional one anyway, where the only ingredients are the cheese and the pepper, plus pasta and a little bit of, well, water.

Start adapting the dish by adding things like olive oil or butter or even a little cream and your chances of success are far greater. (I had a fine, if a bit modernized, cacio e pepe just the other evening at my go-to local spot, Enio's.) But go the old-school Roman route, as I do, and, well, you take your chances. Technique becomes way more critical, I think. Failure isn't only an option, it's a distinct probability. Joe, for instance, tells me that he has "never gotten it right — not once!"

I know. I should just shut up already and cook. Fine, have it your way.

Just don't come crying to me if things don't work out for you the first time you try this. Or even the second, come to think of it.


First of all, I'm only working with 1/2 lb. of pasta here, so double the ingredients if you're making a full pound. This is around a cup of grated cheese and a heaping teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. We're all friends here and so I'll be straight with you. I used a combination of two different cheeses this time, Pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano (see the color variation?). But I'd suggest using all Pecorino instead. The saltier cheese makes for a better cacio e pepe, I think; plus, it's more traditional to use Pecorino. And don't skimp on the pepper either. It's important.


Mix the cheese and pepper thoroughly.


Boil your pasta (spaghetti alla chitarra here) in well-salted water. When the pasta is done reserve some of the water before draining (1/2 cup should be enough for a full pound of pasta).


Return the drained pasta to the pot that you cooked it in, but make sure the heat is off. Add some of the pasta water (1/4 cup per half pound of pasta is a good guide) and stir so that the pasta is evenly moistened.


This is the tricky part. And I won't lie to you either: I only get it right maybe half the time. You've got to very gradually stir in the cheese — and then pray that it doesn't clump up rather than coat the pasta evenly. My best advice is to go slowly — and practice, practice, practice. (There's a reason I've only used 1/2 lb. of pasta here, you know.) Either that or use another recipe. I won't mind.


Believe me, there are way more fool-proof methods of making cacio e pepe than this hardcore traditional one.

Just ask Joe, he'll tell you.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Chocolate hazelnut biscotti


Let's begin with the usual warning, shall we: I am not a baker. If you are one then this would be a good time to open your weather app, or maybe check and see how your stocks are making out.

I won't be offended. Promise.

Another thing that I'm not (not normally anyway) is a recipe follower. You'd think that waiving this trait might be a grand idea at a time like this, but no such luck. In baking, as in most things, I usually just wing it.

Whaddya gonna do!
 

This is a little under 1/2 lb. of lightly toasted whole hazelnuts which I placed in a bowl and crushed by hand.


Grab 1/4 lb. of semi-sweet dark chocolate and chop it with a knife on a cutting board. (Feel free to use whatever kind of chocolate you like here; even plain-old chips would be fine.)


In a large bowl first mix together 3 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, and a pinch of sea salt. Then add 1/3 cup of cocoa powder, the zest of an orange, and the chocolate and hazelnuts. Mix thoroughly. (That at least sounded like I know what I'm doing!)


In a separate bowl place three extra large eggs, 1/2 cup sugar (more if you like a sweet biscotti, which I don't normally) and 1 tablespoon orange-flavored liqueur (I used Cointreau). Using an electric hand mixer work the egg-and-sugar mixture for 5 minutes at high speed, until thickened, then fold into the dry mix.


Mix in 8 tablespoons (1 stick) of melted sweet butter.


Roll the mixture onto a work surface and knead for a couple minutes.


When the dough has fully formed, like so, wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. During this time preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.


After the dough has chilled separate it in two parts. Form each part into a log that's around 2 or 3 inches wide and 10 or 12 inches in length. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, brush lightly with egg white, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, rotating the baking sheet at the halfway point.


Remove the logs from the oven and allow to cool for 20 minutes. During this time lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees F.


Cut into inch-thick slices, return to baking sheet, then bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, or until crisp. (You'll get maybe two dozen biscotti using this recipe, but it all depends on how you cut the slices.)


After the biscotti are completely cooled, store them in airtight containers. Not only will they last quite a while but the flavor will enhance by waiting a bit before eating.


Or maybe just eat them right away.

After all, whadda I know!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Aunt Rita's fried shrimp


I'm man enough to admit that I've got nothing on this woman.

Just look at her. Eightysomething and still strong enough to carry a load like me.

I can only hope that the family genes are as reliably hearty when or if I get to that age.

You may know Aunt Rita from the occasional reports that I post here from the Christmas Eve dinner table. We celebrate the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes in our family, and the extravagant, multi-course, multi-hour meal is always expertly prepared by Rita, Aunt Anna and Cousin Joanie.

Over the years I have prepared most all of the various holiday recipes in my own home, but never Rita's shrimp. And so when charged with preparing an hors d'oeuvre the other evening I figured why not give it a shot.


These are the original. The photo was taken at the Christmas Eve dinner table. Which year I'm not sure, but it hardly matters. Rita's shrimp always look and taste exactly the same, which is to say perfect! In fact, only two dishes on the holiday table NEVER have leftovers: Anna's Baked Clams and Rita's Shrimp.

Considering how extraordinary my aunt's shrimp are, I was more than a little surprised to finally discover her secret to preparing them. Shocked is more like it.

"I don't need to look it up," Rita said when I called to ask for her recipe the other day. "It's only three ingredients. And I couldn't tell you how much to use of each."

It's not the lack of directions — for a recipe that the woman has prepared every Christmas Eve for decades — that shocked me. The cooks in my family often prepare dishes by feel, even those passed down through generations. I'm the same way. I'll write down ingredients and proportions when I know I want to share the recipe on this blog, but even that isn't an exact science around here. Sorry.

What threw me about Rita's shrimp recipe were the ingredients themselves. They just seemed so ordinary.

"I use Bisquick, beer and breadcrumbs, that's it," my aunt told me. "As for the proportions, what can I say, honey? You're on your own."


So this is two cups of Bisquick and a cup of beer. I arrived at these proportions by following the package directions for making pancakes, just not with the egg. (In hindsight, and having consulted with Rita's daughter Cousin Joanie, I would suggest going a little heavier on the dry mix than I did here, and making the batter a bit thicker.)


A whisk does a much better job than a fork and so I always go with that.


Rita's shrimp are always on the large size and so go with the biggest shrimp you can get your hands on. Dip them in the batter...


... then dredge in breadcrumbs (on both sides of course).


Line the coated shrimp on a wax paper-lined tray and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours. (Both Rita and Joanie insist that this step is critical.)


Then fry very quickly in hot olive oil. The trick here is to not overcook the shrimp. I've never had one of my aunt's shrimp that were hard or tough, in other words overcooked. Remember, shrimp cook extremely quickly. I doubt these cooked for more than a minute or two.


Line a plate with paper towels and allow the cooked shrimp to shed some of the frying oil. At this stage I also sprinkled the hot, just-fried shrimp with Kosher salt.


This step is a big variation, and so let me explain. Every time I eat Rita's fried shrimp they're on a dinner plate that includes Aunt Anna's Fish Salad, a traditional Christmas Eve dish. The thing about having both the shrimp and the salad together on the same plate is that I get to dip Rita's plain fried shrimp into the seasoned oils and garlicky juices of Anna's fish salad. Since my shrimp were being served alone I thought a little extra flavor was needed, and so I caramelized some garlic (in olive oil and with a few anchovy filets).


After plating the shrimp I drizzled the garlic and anchovy over them, a little freshly chopped hot pepper, and some chopped parsley.


These shrimp were delicious, but they weren't my aunt's. For those you'll need to find your way to Queens the night of December 24th.

I wouldn't miss it for anything.

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."