Sunday, April 13, 2014

Patsy's lemon ricotta torte

I remember exactly the time that I first made this torte. It was December 2011, when a few friends and I decided to celebrate Sinatra's birthday by preparing a dinner consisting of many of his favorite foods. (In case you missed the dinner, here's the link to it). The recipe for the torte, like all the other ones from that evening, is old school. They were based on recipes from the "Patsy's Cookbook," the reason for which is made abundantly clear in that birthday dinner link I just mentioned.

I have made this simple, old world torte a couple of times since then, largely because it's so preposterously simple. This one was in the oven at 6:30 in the morning the other day — before I'd even finished brewing a pot of coffee.

In a large bowl, mix together 3 pounds of ricotta, 3 extra large eggs, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, the zest from one lemon, and one cup of sugar (the Patsy's recipe calls for 1 2/3 cups of sugar, but I think that's too much).

Butter and flour a nine-inch spring form pan.

Pour the ricotta mixture into the pan and smooth the top evenly, then place into an oven that's been preheated to 400 degrees F., for 55 minutes.

This torte took around 65 minutes to bake. At the 55-minute mark the top had not browned at all and the entire cake was jiggling pretty good. It was still loose when I took it out of the oven ten minutes later, but it firmed up nicely while cooling. Once cooled, I covered the torte while it was still in the pan and refrigerated it for a few hours, then took it out of the fridge, removed it from the pan, and let the torte come to room temperature again.

All that's left now is to sprinkle with some confectioners sugar and serve.

I said it was easy, didn't I. Pretty delicious too.

I can see why Frank liked it so much.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Giovani's toast

All of us have friends who, for one reason or another, we worry about. I have a few of these people in my life at the moment, but none of them is more worrisome to me than Giovani.

The man is unhealthily obsessed with toasted bread. Not just any toasted bread, mind you. But perfectly toasted and served bread. Done in a manner that is, above all, proper. He actually thinks about this stuff, you know. A lot.

To prove that I'm not overstating, get a load of this picture. It was taken just this morning by my friend, at a luxurious vacation retreat, on an island where he and his husband Scott are supposed to be enjoying some much-needed together time. Giovani texted the toast photo to me, with the following message: "I'm a very happy man."

I don't know about you, but were I the "happy" guy texting a vacation picture to a pal thousands of miles away, you can be sure that it would not be the least bit similar to this photo.

Still not convinced that I have reason to be concerned about my friend's obsessive behavior? Then try this one on for size. A while back Scott and Giovani were over the house for a dinner party. An hors d'oeuvre we were serving required a bit of toasted bread, and so Giovani was naturally put in charge of its manufacture. As mine is not the type of house that is equipped with a specialized toast server (see vacation photo of said device above), Giovani was forced to improvise.

I call it Breadhenge.

The idea here is to keep the toast slices vertical and separated. Stacking slices of warm toast, even for an instant, promotes unwanted humidity, which, according to my poor, tormented friend, "ruins everything!"

And you think you have problems.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Family portraits

I spent a lot of time last winter working in the chaotic kitchen of an ornery recluse who hides himself — and his business, if you can believe it — from public view. To get to this man required traveling four hours roundtrip from my home, often in the same day and frequently late at night and in severe weather. Our meetings, around a dozen over two months, lasted as little as one hour, or as many as eight. 

I was to write a magazine article about the mysterious man, a restaurant owner I am acquainted with in Rockland, Maine, named John Conte. I was also to help arrange a photo session, provided that my subject would cooperate, a detail that I knew to be anything but a certainty.
"Can't we just talk to each other?" he told me, more a statement than a question. "Why's it so important that people see me?

"Besides, what's wrong with you? I see you taking pictures around here all the time. Why can't you do it?"

I reminded the man that photography is my hobby, not profession. Besides, I assured him, the magazine that had wanted to purchase the article about him was unlikely to agree to such an arrangement.
Conte scurried off to attend to an order of pasta that had been boiling, in a deep fryer he fills with water instead of oil. I positioned myself near the dishwashing station, well out of the man's way, and snapped a few more photos. 
John Conte clearly conducts entire conversations with himself as he goes about his work. Which should not be at all surprising for a man who spends so much of his time in seclusion. I guessed, correctly as it happens, that the talk he was having at the pasta station had to do with me and my request to allow a photographer into his very private space.
"I think it's gotta be you who takes the pictures, nobody else," he said calmly. "Otherwise, let's just forget about it." 

For a man who so willfully hides himself and his restaurant from public view — Conte never shows his face in the dining room or elsewhere during business hours and the restaurant doesn't even have a sign out front announcing that it's there — the man's reticence to be photographed by a complete stranger, though problematic for my assignment, seemed perfectly reasonable.
After all, Conte may be the least social person that I have ever known. He spends nearly every waking hour inside the walls of his restaurant, an Italian seafood place known as Conte's 1894. And when I say every hour I mean every. Conte works alone in his kitchen, and he is open 365 days a year. He orders, preps and cooks all the food, cleans the dishes, even mops the floors. The man hasn't had a single day off in an awful lot of years — and hasn't dined in anybody else's restaurant in a quarter century. Actual sitings of Conte outside of his establishment are, I can assure you, quite rare.

I let a little time pass before revisiting the topic.

"So, John," I said, helping him to lift a gigantic loaf of homemade bread from the oven, "you think any more about that magazine thing? The photographer coming, I mean? I don't think they'll want to run the story without them, if that matters to you at all."

The two of us carried the bread to a cooling rack. He'd earlier poured us both a glass of wine and each of us took a sip.

"You're the only person I want in my kitchen, so that's that, I guess," he said, without a hint of remorse. "Besides, what do I need to be in a magazine for anyway?"

I should mention that I consider it a great honor that, to this day, John Conte welcomes me into his kitchen freely and at all times. We talk easily with one another, laugh a lot too. As the man lives his entire life in his restaurant, basically he has welcomed me into his home. 

As family. 

I'm proud to now call him friend.
By the way, Conte wound up getting his wish. The story, accompanied by photos that I had taken over time, was published last summer, and can be accessed by clicking on this link right here.
Only a couple of my portraits of John appeared, however. I was looking over the bunch of them the other night and thought you might like to have a look at some of the rest. Which I suppose you just did.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

How to make lardo

Lardo may not be the most widely known salumi (it is nothing but pork back fat, after all), but it could be the easiest to make for yourself at home. The recipe itself is a snap; you just need to allow at least a month from start to finish is all.

I'm not an expert, but those who are strenuously argue that lardo should only be attempted if you are able to source the fat from a very high-quality, naturally raised hog, from as small a farm as possible.

This piece of back fat is from a hog that was raised less than 10 miles from my home (a Yorkshire-Duroc cross breed), and weighs in at just under 2 pounds. In a separate bowl I mixed together 1/4 pound of Kosher salt, 2.5 teaspoons of pink salt, and 10 teaspoons of sugar. I then coated a baking dish with some of the mixture and placed the slab of fat on top of it.

The remaining salt-and-sugar mix then gets spread atop the fat. At this point you add whatever herb mixture you like. I went with rosemary sprigs, bay leaves and black peppercorns.

Cover the fat with plastic wrap, but make sure to use enough wrap so that it hugs the fat along all four sides and all the way down to the bottom of the dish.

Wrap the entire dish in aluminum foil; this is very important because light will discolor lardo, and should be kept to a minimum at all times. Then weight it down with several pounds. I've got a 5-pound bag of flour and 4 pounds of coffee here, or 9 pounds total. Place this in the refrigerator for at least 10 days, perhaps up to two weeks. Every two or three days you'll need to uncover the fat, turn it, and redistribute the dry mix. You'll know that the fat is sufficiently cured when it feels tight and stiff throughout the entire piece. This slab was in the fridge for 11 days.

After curing in the fridge, clean off all the dry mix and herbs. Don't just brush it off; run cold water over the fat to make certain it's entirely clean, then dry completely using paper towels.

Wrap the fat in cheesecloth, tie a cord around the cloth, and hang in a cool, dark place for around 3 weeks.

By cool we're talking in the 60-degree range. I used a separate, unheated room in the basement that I was able to keep around 55 degrees. And I covered over the one window so that the room stayed dark the entire time. Remember: light will discolor the lardo.

This piece hung in the basement for 24 days total.

I sliced off a few paper-thin pieces, just to taste it plain (nice!).

Then wrapped it in foil (lardo should always be stored in a light-proof container), and put it in the fridge, where it will last for quite some time.

Oh yeah. I gave a hunk to my pals Tom and Beth, who immediately went home and made a pizza. That I didn't get an opportunity to taste. A snub I shall surely remember the next time I'm in a salumi-making mood.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Risotto with red wine

Were I a rich man, the headline above would read quite differently. "Risotto al Barolo" it would properly state, meaning that I (or maybe my private chef) had closely followed tradition by cracking open a bottle of perhaps Italy's most prestigious wine, poured it into a hot pan, and then watched it all evaporate!

I appreciate traditional cooking methods as much, if not more, than the next guy. But sorry, not gonna happen.

For this more modest version of the classic dish of the Piedmont region, I did use the proper grape, however: a Nebbiolo, which is the grape that is used to make Barolo. The bottle still set me back better than $20, but I'm cool with that. Cooking a $125 Barolo? Not so much.

This risotto is one of my favorites, actually. If you haven't yet tried it, I highly recommend giving it a go. With whatever decent red wine you're comfortable with evaporating.

Melt 3 to 4 tablespoons of butter in a heavy-bottomed saute pan.

Add one very finely chopped large onion (or an equivalent amount of shallots) and saute under medium heat until softened but not browned.

Stir in 2.5 cups of Vialone Nano rice (or Carnaroli, Arborio, Baldo, or another risotto rice if you prefer) and allow the rice to warm all the way through. It's all right to "toast" the rice as well, meaning allow it to brown just a bit.

Stir in 3/4 cups of a good-quality red wine. As I said before, I used a Nebbiolo, but any good dry red should be fine.

On days that I know I'll be making risotto I always make sure to prepare plenty of homemade chicken stock (go with vegetable stock to keep this vegetarian). I keep a pot of simmering stock on the stovetop as I'm making the risotto; that way it's already at a high temperature when it's added to the rice. After the wine has evaporated, add a ladleful or two of your hot stock. In all, you'll probably need around 8-10 cups of stock to make the risotto, so make sure to have more than that on hand. I never use a store-bought stock to make risotto, either. It's better this way, and you can freeze whatever homemade stock that you don't use. Besides, having a stock going makes the house smell good for hours and hours, so why deprive yourself of such pleasure?

Stir the mixture occasionally, and each time the stock has evaporated add another ladleful. At around the 12-minute mark start to pull back on how much stock you add, because you don't want the risotto to be soupy. (If the risotto isn't looking as colorful as you'd like, you can add more wine with the stock.) After around 15 minutes, check to see if the rice is nearly cooked; it ought to be. Stop adding more stock and allow whatever liquid that remains to gradually evaporate. The rice should be al dente, not soft.

This cooked for around 17 minutes total, from the time the first couple ladles of stock were added. As you can see, the risotto is moist but not dry.

Turn down the heat to low and add around 5 tablespoons of cold butter that's been cut into small cubes. Stir the butter into the rice very quickly.

Once the butter has melted add around a cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and stir. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve the risotto immediately, topped with a little more grated cheese.

Oh, and if there does happen to be a nice bottle of Barolo in the vicinity, well, now might be a good time to crack it open. It's gotta get drunk sometime, right?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Almond & tomato pesto

Not all pesto is green, you know.

This Pesto Trapanese, from the town of Trapani in Sicily, is adapted from the recipe in Giorgio Locatelli's "Made in Sicily." I was tasked with doing the pasta course for a dinner a few evenings ago, and this wound up being a pretty big hit.

It doesn't get much easier than this, either. All we're talking about is almonds, fresh tomatoes, garlic and mint (yes, mint, not basil). The only thing that's cooked is the pasta.

Lightly toast around 1/2 cup of almonds in a 350 degree F oven for several minutes, then chop.

Mix the chopped almonds with four garlic cloves and either pound together using a mortar and pestle or run through a food processor. I did a little of both here, and made sure not to make the mixture too fine. If you prefer things smoother, even completely smooth, that's okay too; just run it through the food processor longer.

In a mixing bowl place the almond/garlic mix, 1/2 cup of finely chopped fresh mint (Locatelli's recipe calls for three times that amount of mint), around 1 pound of skinned and diced fresh tomatoes, and a good hit of salt and freshly ground pepper.

Incorporate all the ingredients and then stir in around 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Be sure to use a good quality oil. Since the pesto isn't cooked the flavor of the oil is important.

Mix the pesto with your pasta of choice (this is homemade fettuccine). And don't discard all of your (well-salted) pasta water, because you may need to add some of it to the pasta if it's a little too dry. After plating top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano and serve.

FOR MORE RECIPES: Click here for my Pasta Recipe Index; click here for the Vegetarian Recipe Index.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Vegetarian Recipe Index

Below are all of the vegetarian recipes that appear on this blog. Just click on a link and you'll be taken to the recipe you're after. Every time a new vegetarian recipe is added to the blog it will be added to this list, which appears at the right of the homepage under "Search Vegetarian Recipes." Please note that in some instances I may have used anchovy as an ingredient; it may be easily eliminated in order to meet vegetarian requirements.


Corn soup

Chickpea & cabbage soup



Tomato risotto

Grilled radicchio & mozzarella

Stuffed artichokes

Stuffed mushrooms

Eggs poached in tomato sauce

Zucchini fritters

Roasted eggplant parmigiana

Old school eggplant parmigiana

Potatoes & eggs

Onions & eggs

Peppers & eggs