Thursday, March 16, 2017

Last Exit to Queens



Sometimes it isn't all about the food, you know.

Take this pile of lightly fried calamari and shrimp that's been generously doused in a medium-hot red sauce. It's my and my brother Joe's go-to order when we're craving down-and-dirty Italian on those occasions when I visit him for a few days. The dish's origin is a not in the least memorable restaurant called Vincent's in Queens, New York, hard by JFK International Airport in an area known as Howard Beach.

Joe and I have enjoyed Vincent's calamari and shrimp together countless times through the years. Largely we do this when it's just the two of us on hand. We may stop by the restaurant after a day at the racetrack, or order takeout for watching a ballgame on TV. It's one of our little rituals. You know, the kind that bonds you to another, no matter the time or circumstance. 

Last week marked the last time my brother and I would share this particular intimacy, though. I'm saddened by this; so is he, I'd imagine.

But it was time.

You see, just up the road and to the north of Howard Beach and Vincent's is a place called Ozone Park. It's the neighborhood where Joe has been living for around three decades. He moved there from our childhood home in Brooklyn after his two older brothers had gone off on their own, only Joe took our aging mother along with him so as not to leave her unattended. This is not how young men are supposed to build a life for themselves; nonetheless, Joe shouldered mom's dependence on him admirably, if against his own interests, until the day that she died.

He's a good man, my brother. Honor and loyalty flow through him freely—and he's got the devotion of many good people around him to prove it.

Joe finally left his old life in Ozone Park last week, determined to start a new and better life elsewhere, one that is unencumbered by the past. I went down to New York and spent several days helping him with the move. The night before the movers came the subject of where we would be eating came up.

"Vincent's?" said my brother, more a statement than a question.

We'd decided this last time would be a takeout run and so I waited in the car while Joe went inside. I could see that "The Fat Man" was at his usual place behind the cash register next to the door, and that he greeted my brother enthusiastically, which often is not at all the case. 

"Did you say goodbye to him?" I asked when Joe returned with our food.

"Nah," said my brother. "Fat Man was in such a good mood tonight I figured why ruin it for him."

If I'd had any doubt about Joe's commitment to boldly turning a well-worn page in his life it was dispelled when he opened his takeout container.

"The hell is that?" I grunted, opening the last beer from an almost-empty refrigerator. "They give you the wrong order?"

Joe's container held not our usual shrimp and calamari, as mine, but rather cheese ravioli and meatballs.

"Nope, that's what I ordered," he said. "Time to move on."


Good luck, my brother. And much love.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Chestnut & ricotta tortellini



I almost forgot about these. They're from the holidays, a time when good Italian chestnuts are available in abundance, even here in Maine.

It's a pretty simple equation, really. I see nice chestnuts, I buy nice chestnuts. I worry about how to use them later on.



And so one morning, as our holiday houseguests were still sleeping in their beds, I roasted a couple pounds of chestnuts (here's how) and got to thinking, naturally, about filled pasta.

Big surprise.



Crumble the chestnuts (this is a pound's worth shelled) by hand and saute in a stick of butter. After a few minutes pour into a food processor and run it until the chestnuts take on a granular quality.



You can see that this isn't completely smooth. That's the way I like it, as it gives the filling some texture, but if you prefer it smoother just process the chestnuts longer, possibly adding a bit of cream.



To complete the filling just mix in ricotta (1/2 pound would be the minimum, a full pound max), some grated nutmeg and a touch of lemon zest. If the filling is on the stiff side add cream or milk as needed, but that's really all there is to it.



The rest is Tortellini Making 101. Roll out your pasta sheet and spoon out the filling like so, leaving a good couple inches in between each dollop.



Cut the individual squares.



Fold diagonally in half.



And press down along the edges to seal. (If your dough is on the dry side you may need to brush the edges with egg wash before folding over.)



Then simply bring the two top edges together and press so that they join.



Cover a tray or work surface with course semolina and rest the tortellini on top until you're ready to cook them.



You can serve these a lot of different ways (brown butter comes to mind), but I went with a simple en brodo, which means that I boiled and served the tortellini in a fresh homemade chicken stock and then topped things off with parsley and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Like I said, this all happened around a month ago now. But if memory serves no complaints were filed—and the houseguests have already scheduled their return.

Phew!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Anna's rice pudding



Our story begins, as so many of them do, at a not-altogether chance encounter with a family member on the afternoon of Christmas Eve last.

"Open your mouth, Meatball, I made Anna's rice pudding," commanded Cousin Jennifer, pointing a half-filled spoon at my person and approaching from a distance of seven or so feet. "It's not any good but I want your opinion anyway. I've been waiting for you to show up."

I have never known Jennifer, daughter to Cousins John and Susie, to be the bossy type and so her aggression was unanticipated. Even Aunt Laura, her grandmother, whom we both were visiting on this holiday and whose diminished health leaves her senses somewhat compromised, looked surprised.

More shocking still is that Jennifer had "made" anything at all. So far as I am aware my cousin's stovetop is little more than overflow storage space in her small apartment-size kitchen. A story circulates that she once cleared off a burner in order to bring a bit of water to a boil, for tea I was told, but no evidence of this exists, and nobody believes the account anyway.

And yet, here we were, in Laura's living room, surrounded by other family, not to mention all the beautiful Christmas cookies and candies lined along a sideboard and available for all to enjoy.

Now, I love my cousin very much; let's be clear on this. Her spirit is generous, her heart full. Being spoon-fed by her hand, if only for a taste or two, was more an intimate familial moment than a culinary one, defined not by the quality of Jennifer's cooking but by her desire to share the experience with, of all the many fine people in her orbit, me.

"Well?" she said watching as the first bit of pudding made its way around the inside of my mouth. "It's terrible, right."

It was nothing of the kind and I said as much.

"Tastes like Anna's rice pudding, all right. You did good, Jen."

Just then a second spoonful arrived at my lips.

"But?" Jennifer challenged as I accepted a second taste of her experiment. "C'mon, just say it."

For someone with so little knowledge of things culinary my cousin proved to know more than I had credited her with. Her rice pudding might have tasted like Aunt Anna's but the texture... Well, it was all wrong—and she knew it.

"Okay, it's maybe just a little bit dense," I offered delicately. "But only a little, can hardly notice."

This was a yellow cream-colored lie, of course. On the density scale Jennifer's pudding was in the eighty percentile whereas our aunt's might sit more in the forty range. She simply had overcooked the pudding, that's all. At least in my view.

"For a first time out you did real good," I said encouragingly. "Maybe just cook it a little less next time, or at a lower flame. More importantly, don't give up. You can do this."



Arriving back home to Maine after the long holidays I received a text from Jennifer about an unrelated topic, which prompted me to scroll through past messages we had shared throughout the year. I stopped cold at this picture of her with Aunt Anna. They were in Anna's kitchen some months ago and had decided to say hello to me by sending this photo. "Wish you were here" was their message.

I am not readily moved to emotion and yet this simple, out-of-focus, poorly lighted, not in the least remarkable picture pretty much left me helpless. Certainly its message did. And so I went to my kitchen and did the one thing that I knew would bring the three of us together again: I called my aunt, got her recipe and made her rice pudding.

What else could I do?

Anna's Rice Pudding
Serves 4-6 people

1 quart whole milk
1/2 cup rice
Pinch of salt
8 ounces heavy cream
3 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup raisins

Add the milk, rice and salt to a saucepan and turn the heat to medium; stir frequently so that the rice doesn't stick to the bottom.

In a bowl beat the egg yolks and incorporate with half of the cream.

When the milk comes to a boil turn the heat to low and allow the rice to cook at a slow simmer for around 40 minutes or so, or until the rice has absorbed most of the milk. (Don't allow the milk to completely evaporate; this will stiffen the rice too much.)

Remove from heat and stir in the sugar and the rest of the cream (the cream that was NOT added to the egg yolks).

Add the egg yolks and cream and incorporate.

Cover the bottom of a serving tray with the raisins and pour the pudding over it.

Allow to cool, sprinkle with cinnamon and serve.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Escarole & polenta pie



It may not look like much but few foods are more comforting to me than this one. I've been eating polenta with escarole since I was a boy and no matter how many times I make it, it always tastes the same. Even when it isn't.

You know how that is.

Anyway, it's New Year's Eve and we've all got lots to do. I'll get right to it then.



As with so many good things, start out by sauteing lots of garlic, anchovy and a little hot pepper in plenty of good olive oil.



After a couple minutes toss in your escarole and cover so that it steams a bit. This is 3 bunches of escarole here, which have been cleaned and chopped.



Making polenta is an inexact science and so go with the way you're most comfortable. In terms of quantities for this dish, I used 1 1/3 cups of polenta and cooked it in around 7 cups of water.



Once the escarole has softened remove the lid, add some chopped kalamata olives and pine nuts, and saute another couple minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. (I've also had this with raisins instead of olives, which is more Sicilian style, and it's great too. And it works without the pine nuts too.)



Assembling is a piece of cake. Just put down a layer of the polenta in a baking dish that's been lightly coated with olive oil, so that the bottom of the pan is completely covered.



Then add the escarole, but make sure not to use very much of the liquid that's left in the pan it sauteed in. I just scoop out the escarole with a slotted spoon.



All that's left to do now is put down another layer of polenta, at which point cover the pan with aluminum foil and place in an oven preheated to 375 degrees F. After 30 minutes remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes or so. The edges of the polenta should start to brown slightly. Think of it as if it's lasagne; that'll help figure out when it's done.



This was in the oven close to an hour. It's best not to cut into it immediately; let it rest at least a few minutes or more and then have at it.



I really do love this stuff.

Happy New Year everybody!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Almond cookies



If these specimens remind you of traditional pignoli (pine nut) cookies, there's a good reason: They are exactly the same cookies, just with almond slices outside instead of pine nuts.

There's also a reason that I bothered to do this, though how good a reason I'm not entirely certain. See, I get a lot of emails around the holidays asking about my pignoli cookie recipe. Some ask why I use a little flour (I think it improves the texture and makes the cookies easier to make); others bemoan the fact that they can't find almond paste in their part of the world. 

This year I've been approached by several people who've complained that pine nuts mess with their taste buds. The specific charge is that some pignolis leave a bitter or even metallic taste in their mouths. And not just for a few moments, but possibly as long as days. 

I poked around some and, sure enough, found that there is something called "pine nut syndrome." It's a mystery what this is exactly. But it's a real thing. Even the Food and Drug Administration is onto it, noting that for certain people eating pine nuts "decreases appetite and enjoyment of food."

We cannot have any of that around here, of course. Certainly not around the holidays. And so allow me to present a new holiday tradtion to the pine nut-afflicted among us: The pignoli-less pignoli cookies, made not with pine nuts but with almonds instead.

Hey, we're all about inclusion here.



First of all, the only kind of almond paste you can use is the kind that comes out of a can like this. I get a lot of emails asking if it's okay to use the paste that comes out of a tube or a box. It isn't okay. I realize that some people have trouble finding canned paste where they live, but it's what you need if you want to make these cookies.



Break up the paste and put it in a food processor with 1/4 cup sugar, 1/2 cup confectioners sugar, and 3 tablespoons of all-purpose flour (the complete ingredient list is below). Process until fine.



Here's what it'll look like, and getting to this point won't take very long at all, less than a minute I'd say. At this point add one egg white and process until a dough forms,



Again, this won't take long at all.



Here's the completed dough. It's not a lot, fits in the plam of my hand.



Empty 6 to 8 ounces of sliced raw almonds into a plate or bowl (or any work surface you prefer). Sliced almonds come in different forms; use whatever type you like.



Have a bowl of water on hand. Dip your fingers in the water, take a small piece of dough, then roll it in the almonds until completely covered. Don't bother being delicate with the dough, just work things until the almonds adhere.



Like so.



Line the cookies on a parchment-lined baking sheet and place in the oven preheated to 300 degrees F. After 10 minutes rotate the sheet. After another 10 minutes check to see if the cookies have gotten golden brown. If they haven't rotate the tray again in 5-minute intervals until the cookies are done, at which point place them on a rack to cool.



This batch wound up taking just under 30 minutes, and they tasted totally swell.

The pignoli-less pignoli cookie tradition might actually have some legs.


Almond Cookies
Recipe
Makes around sixteen cookies

1 8-oz can almond paste (do NOT use the tubes; the texture is different)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 extra large egg white
6-8 oz raw sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F
In a food processor, crumble the almond paste, then add the sugars and flour and mix until fine
Add the egg white and mix until dough forms
Empty the almonds into a plate or bowl
Scoop out small amounts of the dough (wet hands help and so I keep a bowl filled with water on hand), then roll in the almonds until coated
Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for 10 minutes
Rotate the sheet and bake another 10 minutes. If cookies are not golden rotate pan in 5-minute intervals until they are
Allow to cool on a rack, give a light dusting of confectioners sugar, and serve

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Ragu alla Bolognese


Pay attention because this is important: It only looks like a pasta course you have seen me prepare here a couple hundred times before.

But it isn't. Until a few weeks ago I didn't even know such a thing as this existed. I swear.

What you have here is the official, government-sanctioned recipe for Ragu alla Bolognese, commonly referred to as Bolognese Sauce. The recipe was "notarized and deposited" in the Chamber of Commerce of the City of Bologna on October 17th, 1982, by "solemn decree" of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina (the Italian Academy of Cuisine).  

Who knew?

Turns out, not many. My friend Biancamaria is from Bologna and she never heard of any "official" Ragu alla Bolognese recipe. Which is saying something because, as she tells me, "when I was a child every Sunday we had ragu." 

I didn't catch up with Bianca on a recent visit to Bologna (she's living in the English countryside now with Massimo and their daughter Delfina) but on at least four occasions I got to sample authentic Ragu alla Bolognese. And it's nothing like many of the so-called Bolognese sauces you'll come across elsewhere. 

For starters, a lot of "Bolognese" sauces are basically tomato sauces that have meat in them. A real Bolognese is a meat sauce that has only a touch of tomato. The earliest examples of Ragu alla Bolognese didn't include any tomato at all. And forget about using pasta shapes like spaghetti; nobody in Bologna would even think of pairing their ancient ragu with anything but a flat, fresh pasta such as tagliatelle. Just ask for tagliatelle at a restaurant in Bologna and watch what you get. Same thing if you ask only for ragu.

Anyway, and as you no doubt have surmised, I just had to give the "notorized" recipe a shot. I've reprinted it in its entirety below, but here is the link as well. Just a note about the ingredients: My quantities are not exactly those shown in the recipe. I have, however, made the necessary adjustments to follow the recipe as closely as possible.



Start out by finely chopping equal amounts of onion, carrot and celery. Here we've got just under 3 ounces of each.



Finely dice around 1/2 lb. of pancetta and then brown in a Dutch oven that's large enough to accommodate all the recipe's ingredients.



Add the onion, carrot and celery to the browned pancetta and saute until the vegetables are nicely softened.



Okay, about the meat. The recipe calls for ground skirt steak, but skirt wasn't available and so I went with tender hanger steak instead. Rather than grind the meat I decided to very finely dice it, as I have seen both approaches taken. This is one pound of beef.



Once the vegetables have softened add the beef and allow it to brown.



Then add 1/2 cup of wine (I went with white but red is also approved) and, here's the tricky part, a small amount of tomato. The recipe calls for either tomato sauce or highly concentrated tomato paste. I made a small quantity of very simple tomato sauce and added around a cup here. I also added a little homemade beef stock, as this is also mentioned in the recipe.



At this point things are supposed to simmer for two hours, at a low flame. But don't expect to make yourself scarce for these couple hours. Because little by little you'll need to stir in very small amounts of whole milk, at fairly regular intervals, until you've gone through one full cup.



Speaking of milk, an "optional but advisable" addition to the sanctioned recipe is panna di cottura. Basically that means whole milk that has been slowly simmered to half its original volume. That's around 1 1/3 quarts of milk you see in the pot there. While the sauce was slowly simmering so was the milk, until it was halved. 


After two hours of simmering (and only a slight addition of salt and pepper to taste) this is what the ragu looked like. But we aren't finished yet.



The next step is to slowly stir in the panna di cottura (the reduced whole milk). Since this step was "advisable" I decided to throw caution to the wind and use up all the milk.



I know, this looks awfully cream sauce-like, doesn't it. I was nervous too.



But it turns out I didn't need to be. This was a damned fine ragu that I'll be working on until it tastes like I'm back in Bologna. 

If that doesn't work, there's always Alitalia.

The Official Ragu alla Bolognese
Reprinted from Accademia Italiana della Cucina. 

Ingredients

300 gr. beef cartella (thin skirt)
150 gr. pancetta, dried
50 gr. carrot
50 gr. celery stalk
50 gr. onion
5 spoons tomato sauce or 20 gr. triple tomato extract
1 cup whole milk
Half cup white or red wine, dry and not frizzante
Salt and pepper, to taste.


Procedure

The pancetta, cut into little cubes and chopped with a mezzaluna chopping knife, is melted in a saucepan; the vegetables, once again well chopped with the mezzaluna, are then added and everything is left to stew softly. Next the ground beef is added and is left on the stovetop, while being stirred constantly, until it sputters. The wine and the tomato cut with a little broth are added and everything left to simmer for around two hours, adding little by little the milk and adjusting the salt and black pepper. Optional but advisable is the addition of the panna di cottura of a litre of whole milk at the end of the cooking.