Thursday, July 24, 2014

Almost Willie's Lemon Ice


I got an email from my brother Mike in Ohio the other day:

"You probably hate people telling you what to do on your blog," it correctly stated. "But since I AM your brother ..." 

Older brother, actually. Which might hold sway in some sibling relationships, but, and perhaps to Mike's chagrin, never has in ours. 

Until now.

"Since it is summer," Mike went on, "how about a recipe for Willie's Lemon Ice? I'm sure you remember those hot summer days in the school yard when we were kids, and all those trips around the corner to spend a nickel or a dime for a cup at Willie's. Right?"


Right. This, in fact, is the type of cup that my brother recalls. It is still used by Italian ice stands, only the stuff that fills it hasn't cost a nickel in a while. Lemon, which was occasionally joined by cherry or chocolate as a flavor choice back in Willie's day, is but one of possibly thousands today. I was standing on line at an ice stand in Queens recently and watched people order flavors such as Cookie Dough and Holi Cannoli, even Vanilla Peanut Butter with Chocolate Covered Pretzels. Not one of the people ahead of me ordered a lemon ice, which, by the way, was dubbed Lick Me Lemon.

Willie's Lemon Ice, now long gone, was located on the eastbound side of Atlantic Avenue, between Essex and Linwood Streets, in the East New York section of Brooklyn. The stand was open only in the summer months. Barely more than a formica counter measuring around four feet wide and as many feet high, Willie's was tightly wedged between two other commercial ventures, Sal's Tire Shop (run by the Albanese family) and Barney's candy store (the Samartanos).

Nobody, and I mean nobody, didn't crave Willie's lemon ice. It was sweet and tart and slushy and, well, about as thirst-quenching and satisfying as a thing could possibly be on a hot summer's day in the city. To anybody who grew up at the same time and place as Mike and I did, Willie's is the standard by which all Italian ices are judged. It's no wonder my brother and his wife Marie, who grew up two blocks away from Willie's, or twice as far as Mike and I did, attempt to recreate the ice every summer.

"We've been making it in our manual ice cream maker for years," Mike wrote in his email. "It's simple and really tastes like the original Willie's. I can send you the recipe.

"It's as close to Willie's as you can get," Mike assured me. "I only wish that I had the paper cups to serve it in." 

Almost Willie's Lemon Ice
Recipe
Serves 4 to 6


3 cups very cold water
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup lemon juice
2 teaspoons lemon zest

Mix all the ingredients together to dissolve the sugar and refrigerate (the colder the mixture is to start, the better it will freeze).

Place the mix into any 1- to 1 1/2-quart ice cream maker until frozen to a soft fluffy consistency. Half the recipe can also be made for 2-3 people and it does freeze better in small quantities.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

How to make black ink pasta


When life gives you cuttlefish ink ... Or squid ink, for that matter ...


Fresh eggs make the best pasta, and so these came from a farm just down the road from where I live.


The cuttlefish ink had to travel a little farther. It's from Spain. Squid ink works just as well, and is probably more readily available, so use that instead if you like.


This is 3 1/4 cups of flour. I use a mixture of "OO" and super fine semolina to make my pasta, but all-purpose flour works great as well. After creating a well in the center, add 3 eggs, 3 egg yolks, 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt, and 2 or 3 tablespoons of the ink.


Mix thoroughly.


And then, with either a fork or your fingers, slowly start to incorporate the flour into the egg mix.


After the dough is formed, begin to knead. Pasta dough can't be overworked, so don't worry about kneading too much.


Just get it to a point where the dough looks and feels good (it should neither be very moist nor dry). Wrap in plastic and allow the dough to rest for at least a couple of hours before rolling it out for your pasta. I usually make pasta dough a day in advance, leave it in the fridge overnight, then bring it to room temperature before rolling it out. I find that this makes for a smoother, silkier dough.


Oh, and this is a lobster lasagne that I made with some of the pasta dough. I'm surveying the dinner guests who I served it to the other night to determine whether to include its recipe here on a later post.

After all, we are a democracy, yes?

Friday, July 11, 2014

John-John and me


It was the only time that we met. If you call it a "meeting." We shared the same wine. Only separately.

What the man wished would happen was that he could breeze into the Manhattan wine shop where I was shopping, make a selection, and disappear into the bright afternoon sunshine unnoticed.

And yet there I was, in the French section, a bottle of 1993 Ch√Ęteau de Beaucastel Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape in hand and calculating the total price minus the case discount. John Kennedy Jr., or John-John to anybody who was alive when his father was president, wore a black wool hat, pulled halfway down his forehead. Dark aviator-style sunglasses hid his handsome eyes. Standard celebrity-in-hiding wear for cruising the city.

I knew him right away. First from around 20 feet, then 10, until he stood next to me, studying the Rhones before arriving at the very bottle that I myself had settled on.

I've never been one to intrude on celebrities' lives, and yet, in this instance, I was moved to speak.

"That getup," I whispered softly to my handsome, worldly friend. "It really work?"

John-John raised his head and turned to me. I feared for the worst. "Asshole," he might brand me for this unwanted intrusion.

I had worried needlessly. John-John placed his right index finger on the bridge of his aviators and pushed them down just enough that I could see his eyes. Then he smiled, lifted his shades back into position, grabbed a single bottle of the Beaucastel and moved on.



For 15 years or so every time I grabbed a bottle of this wine from the cellar I thought about John-John. Sometimes I saw the little boy wearing shorts and matching overcoat at his father's funeral, other times a dashing, bare-chested upper classer on a secluded beach, still others a budding magazine editor, his chosen profession before the end.

He was just shy of 3 years old when his father was assassinated in Dallas. I was twice his age and, as I said, did not know the boy a bit. Still, from the moment his image appeared on our black-and-white tv screen, on November 25, 1963 — a day that acted both as his third birthday and the funeral of his father — John Kennedy, Jr. and I were permanently joined. I am not the only one of my generation to lay claim to this affiliation. In an instant this privileged little birthday boy both saluted his father's casket to say goodbye and innocently insinuated his way inside a nation's heart.

On July 16th, 1999, John-John's plane crashed off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, ending his life and the lives of his wife Carolyn and sister-in-law Lauren. As it happens, I am on my way to the island now. It is my first visit to the place that is so closely associated with the Kennedys, and so naturally it has got me thinking about the chance encounter long ago.

Days after the plane crash in '99 I opened two of the Beaucastels for friends who had come over for dinner. I didn't tell them about how John-John and I had met over the wines. I'm not sure why I didn't, though I suspect it was to keep our moment together private. 

As he might have wanted.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Aunt Anna's stuffed eggplant


Sometimes a little misunderstanding can be a good thing.

Take these stuffed eggplant. They were quietly simmering on my Aunt Anna's stovetop in Queens the other day, waiting for me to arrive in town for the long holiday weekend.

I just didn't know about it.

"You're coming over, right?" Anna had said when I'd called from the road to check in. "I cooked."

"You cooked?" I asked judiciously, cueing up to pay the toll on the Mass Pike. "I thought we were taking you out to eat."

This was not the first time my mother's sister and I had miscommunicated. (Hint: One of us needs to invest in a hearing aid. I'll be a gentleman and refrain from stating publicly which one.)

"You want to take me out," Anna said, a bit testily I thought. "What for? I just told you that I cooked. Can't you hear?"

With age I have learned that sparring with my dear aunt, however amusing, usually proves fruitless. Besides, I'd pick her cooking over most restaurant chefs' any day.

"What time do you want us over?" I asked. "And what can we bring?"

"You come when you come," Anna told me, ignoring my offer to contribute to the meal. "We're here."

I estimated an arrival time at her apartment, which she and Aunt Rita share, then said goodbye to my aunt. However, before I could hang up the cell she was back.

"I made eggplant," Anna blurted out. "You might not like it, though."

The toll collector handed back change for a five (No, I do not have an E-ZPass, what's it to you!) and I rolled up the window and moved on.

"Why won't I like it, Anna?"

Silence.

"Anna? The eggplant. Why won't I like it?"

"I didn't say you won't like it, I said you might not like it. Maybe you will. How should I know? I have to go."


These are the stuffed eggplant and the fusilli that my aunt served to My Associate and me, and Aunt Rita and cousin Joan that evening.


And this is the first of three — count 'em, three — plates that I plowed through.


Anna is a gifted cook in so many ways, but her eggplant dishes set her apart from anybody I have ever known. These stuffed eggplant, cooked in a simple marinara sauce, were light as air and damned near as good as her  Old School Eggplant Parm. Which is really saying something.

Whatever gave my aunt the idea that I might not enjoy this dish will have to remain a mystery. Because no matter how many times I asked her to explain herself that evening, all she ever said was, "Shut up and eat."

Which I did. Happily.

Anna's Stuffed Eggplant
Recipe

Note from Anna: "Yeah, I know. There are no measurements here. Just eyeball everything, okay. It's very hard to screw up a dish as simple as this. Even my nephew can do it."

Whole eggplant
Eggs
Grated Romano cheese
Breadcrumbs
Parsley
Salt & pepper to taste
Olive oil for frying

Cut eggplant in half lengthwise, remove pulp and dice (do not remove the skin)
Saute the pulp in olive oil until soft
In a bowl, beat eggs and then add the cheese, parsley, salt and pepper
Add the cooked diced eggplant to the egg mix, then add enough breadcrumbs until mixture holds together (do not allow the mix to become overly dry)
Scoop mixture into the eggplant halves
In a frying pan heat olive oil then place eggplant halves skin side down and cook for around 3 minutes; gently flip and cook the other side for the same amount of time
Place the eggplant in a pot of tomato sauce and cook at a gentle simmer for around 45 minutes

Monday, June 30, 2014

Shrimp with prosciutto & hominy


I was tasked with preparing the appetizer portion of a dinner over the weekend and this is what I came up with.


These fresh Gulf shrimp (1.5 pounds if you're keeping score) were a real find, as they hadn't been frozen. That's an unusual siting around these parts and so My Associate and I pounced on the crustaceans — pronto!


The appetizer I was concocting required shelling the shrimp and so I decided to make a stock. This step is optional, as you'll only need a couple ladles full of broth in the recipe. Any chicken or vegetable stock you've got around should be fine.


In a pan that can later be used in the oven (I went with cast iron) saute a few garlic cloves and some hot pepper in olive oil.


Once the garlic is softened but not browned add one can of hominy (drained) and a ladle or two of stock.


Then add the shrimp and place the pan in an oven preheated to 400 degrees F.


When the shrimp are cooked (these took around 10 minutes) add 1/4 pound of diced prosciutto, mix thoroughly, then quickly transfer to a serving plate so that the shrimp don't overcook.


Allow to cool to room temperature before serving — with some nice crusty bread, of course.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Out of the ashes


One night when I was a boy I sat at the kitchen window of our apartment in East New York, Brooklyn, and watched a gigantic red-brick warehouse filled with toys and bicycles and other fun stuff go up in flames. In between the fire and our home were several buildings — mostly other houses but also a Catholic elementary school and a convent where the nuns lived — and so it was unlikely that the fire could spread all the way to where I was sitting.

I'm not sure I understood this that night, though. The whole thing was so awful and terrifying. Even today I can remember the flames and the smoke. Sometimes, when the smell of the burning toys seeps into my memory, as it will do, I get a little queasy. More than 40 years later.

It was only recently that I became conscious of an important role the fire has played in my life: It turned me into a fig tree nut. At least I think it did.

See, the neighborhood where I grew up was just lousy with fig trees. They grew in people's backyards, front yards, side alleys, even surrounded by concrete and tucked into spaces where they probably didn't belong. As a boy I was completely taken by these trees. They were strong and potent living things that held their ground under all conditions. They were survivors, warriors even. Oh, and the fruit they pushed out was pretty awesome.

While the toy warehouse fire burned I became obsessed with the fig trees that might be in its path. The one closest to me, just outside our kitchen window and in the Casillos' backyard, was probably safe, I calculated. But what about all the others? I can remember counting all the trees that I knew about, or had enjoyed figs from, within a couple of square blocks of the fire. There were a lot of them. And I fretted for them all.

I don't know why it's taken me so long to make the connection, but I'm now convinced that that fire is the reason I keep so many fig trees, many of which are projects that need nursing back to health. I don't live in Brooklyn anymore, where fig trees can grow in the ground. I live in Maine, where they must be kept in pots and moved indoors in winter, lest they die. The four trees pictured above aren't all of my fig trees. A couple more are at cousins John and Susie's place, waiting for me to pick them up now that the weather has turned warm. Others I've recently been told about are likely to wind up with me as well.


And then there's this guy. My friend Peter Risbara is the capo di tutti capi of nurturing fig trees to life. The guy kicks out fig trees like nobody I've ever known. His greenhouses have always got a ton of cuttings in the works, and, well, they're always looking for somebody to take them home and watch over them. When my trees get sick I bring them to Pete and they get well. Like me, he needs to take care of them.

One day I'll have to ask him if he ever watched a warehouse go up in flames when he was a boy.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Road trip!

WARNING: The following is an off-topic collection of photographs snapped during a just-completed Nevada-to-Utah road trip. Like the trip itself, these pics haven't a thing to do with food, and so will likely be of no interest whatever to certain readers. Apologies. I'll get cracking on a new recipe ASAP.


Despite the despicable United Airlines' best — and multiple — attempts to thwart our group's plans, we managed to will ourselves to Las Vegas, pick up our vehicles and ride into Arizona.


We call this shot "The Ironic Road Trip of 2014."


The next morning's ride could not have commenced without Gorilla Glue and duct tape.


A couple days in and we arrived at a canyon that is indeed as Grand as they say.


Good thing we were all wearing thick leather boots and clothing with armor.


There is a town in Utah called Mexican Hat. It was a good staging area for our much-anticipated tour of Monument Valley.


And our lodge employed a couple of excellent barkeeps.


The beer wasn't bad either. It's Utah. Get it?


Here's a food shot for you. Steaks cooked outdoors on a swinging grill.


Good advice.


If you have never been to Monument Valley, Utah, you really must think long and hard about altering your status.


It is everything that I anticipated.


Much, much more, actually.


We were all in agreement on this. (The bandanas are for dust protection, so save the snarky remarks.)


Sadly, we ran into forest fires back in Arizona.


And a United Airlines executive too, just before being treated to his company's dreadful "service" from Vegas back home to Maine.