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.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Leftover panettone pudding

It takes a while for the holidays to become a memory around here. But this "pudding" might finally have done the trick.

How many boxes of panettone came my way this Christmas I really can't say, but I know that this is the last one because I repurposed it last night by turning it into a dessert. I can't take credit for the idea, only the execution. My Associate devised the notion of panettone bread pudding one Christmas a few years back, and a fine idea it was. If you have a panettone laying around, I'd suggest you give this pudding a try. It's even worth going out and buying one expressly for this purpose.

Any panettone will do, though this is the classic version, with raisins and candied fruit. Just start ripping away at it and you're on your way.

Break up the panettone entirely, layer it onto a baking sheet and let it toast in the oven for 10 or 15 minutes.

Like so.

I'm afraid you're on your own regarding exact measurements; after all, we're just hacking around here, and the amount of panettone you use will determine what needs to be added to it. But the basic idea is this: mix together some eggs (two here), a combination of heavy cream and milk (I don't know, maybe a cup and a half total in this batch, maybe more), some vanilla extract, cinnamon, and a touch of nutmeg. Or anything else you want to add, come to think of it; playing around is highly encouraged.

Once the eggs and cream mix is fully blended then just add in the toasted panettone until fully incorporated. The bread should completely absorb the liquid, and if the mix seems dry then add more milk or cream because it should be moist not dry.

That's the completed mixture right there.

My spring-form pans were too large for this batch and so I buttered the hell out of this number, and floured it too, in order to make sure it'd slide out easily after cooking. Then it went into the oven, preheated to 350 degrees F, and around 45 minutes later it was done.

It slid out of the pan just fine, by the way. And there's only one piece left, so if you're interested I'd suggest you hurry over here right away.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Olive oil orange cake

I liked this cake way before ever tasting it. But then I'm big on subtle (often citrus-based) endings to a meal, especially a big old multi-courser. Which, as it happens, is the kind of meal that I was asked to provide an ending to on this occasion.

The recipe isn't mine. It's from a woman named Deborah Mele, who authors the blog Italian Food Forever (yes, Joe, it had to be Italian!). I don't know the woman, but anybody who'd put together a cake like this chewy orange beauty is okay by me.

The whole recipe is reprinted below but basically you start by lopping off the end pieces of two seedless oranges.

Chop both oranges up into small hunks — yes, the peel and all — and then quickly pulse in a food processor. Add 1/3 cup olive oil and process some more, but don't let it get too smooth. You want there to be texture; to me, that's what makes this cake so good. I mean, it'd taste the same if the oranges were completely smooth, but without the chewiness of the pulp and peel, well, let's just say that I'd be a lot less interested.

As I said, the exact recipe is below, but here you've got your processed oranges, flour mixture, and also your eggs-and-sugar combo.

Fold everything together gently, and gradually (not all at once), until thoroughly combined.

Pour the mix into a buttered and floured 9-inch spring-form pan and place in the oven, preheated to 350 degrees F.

The recipe called for 50 to 60 minutes cooking time, and this took exactly 50 minutes. Go figure.

Allow the cake to cool, dust with powdered sugar and have at it.

Oh, and make sure to save a slice or two. It tastes even better the next day.

Olive Oil Orange Cake
Original recipe: Italian Food Forever

2 small seedless oranges
1/3 cup olive oil (Despite instructions not to do so I used extra virgin)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Dash of salt
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar (I only used a cup)

To garnish:
Powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and lightly grease a 9 inch spring-form pan.
Cut off a small slice of the thicker top and bottom parts of each orange, discard these pieces, and then cut the rest of the oranges (flesh and peel) into chunks.
Place them in a food processor and puree until blended but with some texture left.
Add the oil to the oranges and pulse until blended.
Mix together the flour, baking powder and soda and salt in a large bowl.
In a separate bowl beat the eggs until they are light and fluffy and then slowly add in the sugar.
Begin to add the egg mixture in three parts alternating with the orange mixture just stirring until combined. (Be careful not to over mix which will deflate the eggs and create a dense cake.)
Pour the cake batter into your prepared pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes or just until a cake tester comes out clean.
Cool before slicing.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Almost 100-layer lasagne

Don't bother counting. There are 70 layers here, not the 100 that were planned. That's what my friend Tom tells me anyway. And he was in charge of keeping track. Of course, he was drinking at the time.

We certainly had fun trying to recreate the 100-layer lasagne from Del Posto restaurant in New York. Eating it wasn't such a hardship either, but that's another story.

We need to get something out of the way before moving on. The hundred-layer lasagne isn't made with 100 pasta sheets. It's made with 50 "layers" of pasta and another 50 of sauce. I know. Sounds like cheating to me too.

Anyhow, we went with super-thin pasta sheets, the No. 1 setting on my pasta machine. The sheets are around a 6-inch square. Rather than using a lasagne pan we went with a round Dutch oven, the idea being that we'd need room around the assembled tower to position utensils for lifting it out when it was done. (This reasoning proved horribly flawed but I'll get to that in a minute.)

The sauces are a combination of Bolognese and b├ęchamel.

Everything was going pretty well for a while, I at the pasta machine, Tom at the layering station. I don't know what number of layers we're on at this point, but you can see that things are stacking up nicely.

Except that we're not as smart as we look. As the tower grew larger the weight of it wound up forcing the pasta sheets downward and outward. This might have been avoided by using skewers to keep things in place, but now is not the time to be pondering such things. What's done is done, no?

In the end this is what we wound up with, a round Dutch oven-shaped lasagne that required sculpting to mimic the square version that it was meant to be.

I'm hoping for better luck the next time Tom and I get an idea like this. If there is a next time.

Happy New Year everybody!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Need last-minute gift ideas?

Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Italy: Food & Stories is one of the only cookbooks that I actually read just for enjoyment. You'll learn a lot in these 600-plus pages, too. Check out the chef's exhaustive but never dull manifesto on risotto and you'll see what I mean. My suggestion: Buy one as a gift and another for yourself. You won't be sorry.

Even serious wine geeks complain that the Italians make it hard to understand, let alone buy, their wines; it's just too confusing. Gambero Rosso Italian Wines can help. The annual guide rates around 20,000 Italian wines from a couple thousand or so producers. If you know somebody who loves Italian wine as much as I do then this would make a terrific — not to mention useful — gift.

Cardamaro is in the amari family of bittersweet liqueurs, Fernet Branca perhaps the best known. But this is a whole different thing. Cardamaro tastes more like vermouth than an amaro; in fact, I keep a bottle in the fridge and drink it as an aperitif. Fun fact: it's made from cardoons, hence the name. I really like this stuff. In case you can't find it locally, here's some info on shipping laws around the country.

Got a vegetable gardener on your list? How about a gift certificate (available in $25 increments) from Seeds from Italy. It's the only place I buy seeds anymore. They really are that good. 

This is my chitarra. It's one of the oldest pasta-cutting tools ever made and, in my view, the best at making spaghetti and linguini. It's also a beautiful instrument (chitarra is the Italian word for guitar) that would make quite an impression as a gift. I got mine as a gift around fifteen years ago (Grazie Tom & Beth!), and it's one of my all-time favorites.

I've owned bread knives before, but none comes close to this one: the LamsonSharp 9-inch bread knife. If you do decide to gift it, make sure it's to somebody who can handle a knife. The thing is a real beast. 

They used to call this "the everything pan" and that's exactly what it is. The All-Clad Saucier (3-quart) gets more use than any pot or pan around my house — and there are lots of them here, believe me. (My Associate insists that I mention it's the go-to pan for making risotto.) Every kitchen should have one.

This pan is around 30 years old — and I'd be lost without it. It's what I fry my meatballs in, assemble an untold number of pasta dishes, saute vast quantities of garlic and anchovy and escarole and broccoli rabe and... you get the idea. A lot of my life is in this thing. I haven't been able to find an exact replica but the Calphalon Nonstick Pan (14-inch) looks pretty close. 

This is a big-ticket item, I'll admit. But how could I not include the thing I use to make Sunday Gravy? The Le Creuset Round French Oven (13.2 quart) will last a lifetime too.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Pasta with broccoli

This is such a go-to dish around my house that I'm having a really hard time believing it hasn't made an appearance here before. I searched the Pasta Recipe Index, the Vegetarian Recipe Index too (even though there's anchovy in here). When it didn't show up in either place I went through the entire four years' worth of blog posts, absolutely certain that I had missed it when compiling the indices.

Well, I didn't. Miss it, that is.

Next I'm gonna find out that I never gave you my meatball recipe.


Okay, so in a pot filled with enough well-salted water to cook your pasta (I'm using a half-pound here), boil a couple broccoli crowns until they are soft but still a little firm.

Saute around three garlic cloves, some hot pepper flakes, and a couple anchovy fillets (I used maybe six here, but I like anchovy) until softened but not browned.

When the broccoli is finished cooking remove it from the water using a slotted spoon, add to the saute pan and break up the crowns into small pieces. Turn the heat off, or at most leave it at a very slow simmer. Then cook the pasta in the same water you used for the broccoli. When the pasta is cooked make sure to hang on to around a cup of the water.

Add the cooked pasta to the saute pan, along with enough of the pasta water to moisten things a bit. Turn the heat up to high and incorporate all the ingredients, adding more water as needed.

And that is all there is to it. Some grated cheese on top, of course. But you knew that.

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.