Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Little boxes


This package arrived via overnight express the other day. Wrapped inside the white and brown plastic bag were two very hefty, not to mention delicious, deli sandwiches. I was expecting the package's arrival because one of my oldest friends, a man that I have known and loved since kindergarden, had alerted me both to its contents and whereabouts.

"Enjoy, my brother," Louis had texted from Manhattan's Lower East Side. "Nobody does pastrami the way Katz's does.

"Wish you were HERE!"

Like many wonderful people in my life Louis knows about and takes enormous pleasure in good food. Eating is an important part of the pleasure, but it isn't the biggest part. Sharing is. It's everything, actually.

Lou's carefully packed two-pound box of deli meats (half pastrami, half corned beef) was one old friend's way of showing another how fond of him he is. Katz's Delicatessen holds a special place in Lou's life. Always has. Eating there makes him enormously happy, joyous even. Being 300 miles away from each other on the afternoon he'd gone in for lunch, Lou decided that the next best thing to breaking (rye) bread together was to rush representative samples of his midday meal to my door.

And his plan worked. Splendidly. From the moment I accepted the FedEx package until my very last bite of thickly cut Katz's pastrami late that evening Lou was right there beside me.

He still is. And it's been days.

Boxes like this one are not entirely new to me, as the family and friends that surround me are of a similarly generous mind.


Cousin Josephine, a woman as close to me as any sister would be, has brightened many of my days with surprise packages of her extraordinary baked goods and confections. (Jo's homemade torrone immediately comes to mind. Awesome!)


Only recently a parcel meant to bring me back to my youth turned up in the mailbox. It was a package of Brooklyn chewing gum sent by my very dear cousin John and I still smile—widely—whenever I recall it.

Some 20 years ago now, only weeks after moving from my hometown New York to Maine, a package arrived early one Saturday morning. The box had been shipped from Alleva, a cheese shop in Little Italy that I know well. It was lined with thick hard foam, lots of dry ice—and around ten pounds of fresh mozzarella!


My friend Joe had arranged for the delivery after hearing me bitterly complain of the lack of decent food in my new home. It had been less than a month and already I was heartsick. What had I done? Could I liberate myself from the job I'd accepted and return home to New York where I belonged?

"I don't know how people can live this way," I told my friend when he called to check in on me one afternoon. "If I stay here I'll just wither and die."

Joe's package that Saturday—like Lou's and Josephine's and John's and so many others through the years—lifted me. High. Two decades later and just thinking about it still does.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Zucchini pie


To a gardener there's no better way to use up summer zucchini than having a couple of house guests show up for a few days. And so the day that Lou and Deb arrived from Florida I got to work on some zucchini pies. The idea here is that the pies could hold up in the fridge throughout their four-day visit and be gone to whenever the mood struck, mostly as a snack or for breakfast.


I'm really glad they showed up when they did. My zucchini plants have been so prolific the past few years that I finally decided to cut back to only one of them this year. And yet even with just this single plant I can't seem to keep up. Every other day I harvest another couple of these babies.

I'm guessing that many of you know somebody like me, so I suggest getting your hands on some of their zukes and commencing with the pie-making pronto.


Shred the zucchini like so.


Just one very large zucchini netted six cups' worth of the shredded stuff. This would be just enough to make two pies, and so half all the proportions here to make only one pie. To the shredded zucchini add one large chopped onion, 2 chopped garlic cloves, 1/3 cup chopped fresh basil, 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, five to six large eggs, 1/2 cup grated Romano cheese, and salt and pepper.


After thoroughly mixing the ingredients add 2 cups all-purpose flour and 2 teaspoons baking powder, then thoroughly mix again.


Coat two 9-inch pie pans with olive oil (or butter if you prefer) and evenly distribute the mixture into each pan. Place in an oven that's been preheated to 350 degrees F for around 45 minutes.


This batch of pies baked for just a little over 45 minutes.


And, I am told, turned out pretty good.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Lamb & Pine Nut Bolognese


Shyster Jersey Lawyer Friend's birthday, surely a day of meaning and reflection to her, basically boils down to just one thing to me: I've got to cook the woman some lamb.

This is not a negotiable point. Lamb is my friend's very favorite food. She has told me this on many occasions, most frequently around those times that her birth date draws near.

Demanding as she is, the woman highly values experimentation. And so when the thought occurred to me to meld lamb and pine nuts into a pasta sauce, not once did I concern myself about disappointed her.

Or all of you.


Finely chop three carrots, three celery stalks, one medium red onion, one leek, six garlic cloves and some hot pepper (optional), then saute in olive oil under medium heat until softened.


Add 2 pounds of ground lamb and 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, incorporate and cook until browned.


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


Add one cup of milk. Cook until the milk has evaporated.


Add two 28-ounce cans of tomatoes and 1/2 cup loosely packed chopped fresh mint leaves, turn the heat down to low and allow the sauce to simmer very gently for around two hours. (If the sauce reduces too much or becomes too thick you can always add some more milk or even water.)


When the sauce is done cooking add another handful of chopped fresh mint, stir and simmer for a minute or two.


And then serve with the pasta of your choice.

This sauce, like so many others, tastes even better the next day. And so I made sure to send my friend home not only with a big hunk of birthday cake but also a container of what turned out to be a really nice sauce.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Pasta with fresh herbs


I'm not so sure this counts as a real recipe, what with how simple it is. But, hey, it's summer. Things are supposed to be easy.

What's more, the dozen or so herb plants that are growing like weeds around the house are in serious need of being utilized.


There's no science to this dish. All I did was take my scizzors (and glass of wine) out in the backyard and start cutting. Best I can recall this is a mixture (and around a handful) of thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary and mint. But use whatever you want.


Chop the herbs and some garlic and that's it, you're ready to go. (Get your pasta going right away because this sauce is only gonna take a couple minutes to prepare.)


Saute the garlic in plenty of olive oil until it's nice and soft.


Then add in the herbs.


Stir it all up quickly.


Immediately start adding your pasta. (If your pasta isn't ready yet then turn off the heat and wait until it is; you don't want the herbs or the garlic to cook more.)


Once all the pasta is in the pan start adding a bit of the (well-salted) pasta water, turn the heat up to high and incorpate.


Serve immediately with a dusting of grated cheese.

Whether or not that's a real recipe I'll let you decide.


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Chickpea & onion ravioli


For me it's all about the pasta.

Sometimes, though, it's really about the filling.

I had been Jonesin for some chickpeas (garbanzos if you prefer the more humorous sounding designation, ceci to those who parlano Italiano). The original dinner plan had called for some kind of homemade noodle, sauce To Be Determined, and so with the dough at the ready I set out to concoct a chickpea filling to stuff inside ravioli.

Following me down this determined—if haphazardly charted—course would not be the worst culinary decision that you could make.


Saute a small onion, two or three garlic cloves and some hot pepper in olive oil.


After the onion has softened add one 15-ounce can of chickpeas (drained of liquid).


Add in the zest of half a lemon and simmer for maybe five minutes.


In a bowl mash the chickpeas by hand. The idea is not to make the filling totally smooth but to keep some texture; otherwise I'd have used a food processor and turned this into more of a puree.


This is about right as far as consistency. Once you've mashed the chickpeas put them in the fridge and allow to cool before filling the ravioli.


The rest is just your basic ravioli making, which starts out like this...


... makes its way here ...


... and winds up a right about in this place. I'd suggest a simple brown butter and sage preparation to sauce these ravioli. In fact, that's what I had prepared myself.


But it just so happens that my friend Laura delivered a bag of zucchini flowers.


And so just for kicks I decided to toss them in with the brown butter and sage.


When the ravioli are boiled to doneness gently remove them from the water using a slotted spoon and add them to the pan with the brown butter. It's okay to let some of the pasta water into the pan; in fact, you'll want some of it to mix with the butter and coat the ravioli. Remove the ravioli to individual plates and serve immediately.


I will be Jonesin for these ravioli again one day. Soon.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Not your grandpa's red sauce


It was a sucker bet that I couldn't expect to win. My friend Peter had given me a taste of a tomato sauce that his grandfather used to be "famous for." The two main ingredients in the sauce, my friend had informed me, are chicken thighs and mint, neither one a staple in your average red sauce. Peter had boasted about his grandfather's creation on several occasions, speaking of how he both craves and prepares it many times a year for himself and his wife Claudia.

"Let me know what you think, Meathead," he said as I backed away from his driveway, a covered plastic container filled with leftover penne alla grandpa occupying the seat next to me. "If you like it maybe I'll even let you have the recipe."

Peter and I have what you might call an adolescent relationship. He did, after all, deliberately bury a rather large chicken bone inside the container of (overcooked) pasta, presumably so that I might choke on it. And so it was no surprise to either of us when I scoffed at his offer.

"Recipe? I don't need no stinkin' recipe," I grunted. "I'll know how to make your precious little sauce just by tasting it. A hundred bucks says mine'll be even better."

My friend, as they say, is careful with his money. At Peter's insistence the stakes were dropped to a tenth of what I had proposed. Claudia would judge my sauce against her husband's. Not the firmest ground that I have ever stood on when making a wager, but it was the only ground that I could manage.

Below is the version of the sauce that I prepared. It might not be Peter's grandfather's sauce but it is well worth preparing.

As for the wager, it was decided that the transfer of capital was to go not from my friend's pocket to mine but from mine to his. This decision was handed down—without explanation or debate, mind you—by the mother of Peter's children and, presumably, co-owner of however many dollars he has amassed.

Like I said, a sucker bet.


Start with a generous amount of olive oil in your favorite saucepot and add a chopped onion, two chopped celery stalks, four or five garlic cloves and a good dose of hot pepper.


Don't tell Peter but I also tossed in a few anchovy fillets. (He didn't even notice but now that he knows I guarantee that I will never stop hearing about it.)


Once the onion and celery have softened add four large bone-in chicken thighs and simmer. (Both my friend and I are adamant about bone-in meats having greater flavor, but go ahead and use boneless if you insist.)


After two or three minutes turn the thighs over.


After another couple minutes add two 28-ounce cans of tomatoes, a big handful of fresh mint leaves (at least twice as many as shown here), and salt and pepper to taste. Set the flame to a low heat and simmer slowly for at least two hours, then remove the fully cooked chicken thighs and allow to cool just enough so that you can handle them with your fingers.


Once the thighs have cooled pull away all the meat and discard the bones and skin.


Add the meat back into the sauce.


Then—and this is something I insist makes the sauce much brighter and more flavorful than my friend's version—add another good handful of fresh mint leaves and simmer for two or three more minutes.


Turn off the heat, stir in around three-quarters of a cup of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and serve over your favorite pasta.


You can bet on this one. Trust me.