Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Home-cured olives

Back in 2007, prompted by an article in the Times (, my compatriots (that would be Strenk, Meyers, and of course Lang) and I set out to cure ourselves a mess of olives. Being a last-minute kind of thing we were forced to have a box shipped to Maine from California. The shipping cost more than the olives, but we were determined.

Of the four I was the only one who had prior experience in olive curing. If you want to call it that.

Once every couple years my mother and aunts used to whip up a batch. They'd direct me towards the giant grape arbor out back of my grandfather's two apartment buildings (six railroad flats, six families, all of them headed by one of his children). Under the grapevine would be several crates of olives, a couple large wooden tables, and (here's where I came in) one of Uncle Joe's ( hammers. One by one, I'd have to smash each and every olive so that the skin would crack, in order to accommodate the family's curing method. Decades later and my fingers still hurt.

Thing is, my job began and ended under that grapevine. Which is to say I had no prior olive-curing experience whatsoever.

Long story short, the batch we made in '07 was just okay. Way too heavy on the lemon was the consensus. And the scary lava-like action when some of the jars were opened after the required six-month wait was unsettling, leading to a few jars' worth getting tossed. And so last fall, unaided by my usual crew, I set out to try again, this time hauling a box of olives back from Brooklyn, where all is wonderful and good.

I used the same recipe (reprinted below) but with some adjustments, the main one being that instead of using lemon juice I just used more of the brine. Other adjustments were similar to what we did three years ago: instead of using just celery, we went with celery in some jars, fennel in others; and we used oranges as well as lemons.

Other than that, here's the recipe and some of the shots taken along the way. (Apologies for the lack of true step-by-step pics, as this blog did not exist last fall and so who knew I'd need to document everything?)

The raw product.

And now, I will make an egg float.

The part I could've used some help with.

Nice, huh?

Seven months later.

Not the prettiest olives you ever saw, but tasty. Much better without the lemon juice. And, so far at least, no jars seem to need tossing.

Here's the recipe from the Times article. If anybody's up for making a batch, I can haul a few crates up to Maine come fall.

Nonno's Olives
Adapted from Marco Smouha


1 egg

3 1/2 pounds fresh green olives, washed

2 lemons, scrubbed and cut into quarters

4 stalks celery, cut into 2-inch lengths

1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled

1 handful fresh hot chili peppers, such as jalapeƱo, serrano or cubanelle

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup lemon juice (fresh or bottled)

Vegetable oil.

1. Make a brine: Add about 1/2 cup salt to 2 quarts water, mixing to dissolve. Place whole egg in brine. If egg floats, water is salty enough for curing; if egg sinks, add salt and mix gently, repeating until egg floats to surface. Remove egg.

2. Place a third of the olives in a gallon jar with a wide mouth and a tight lid. Add roughly a third of the lemon pieces, a third of the celery, a third of the garlic and a third of the chili peppers. Repeat twice with remaining ingredients, pressing down to pack layers tightly into jar. Top off with a layer of celery pieces.

3. Pour brine into jar until it comes halfway up. Add vinegar and lemon juice. If needed, pour in more brine until jar is almost full. Gently pour a thin layer of oil over surface. Close jar and store at cool room temperature for at least six months. Jar may leak slightly from top as mixture ferments, so store on a tray.

4. Serve plain, or with a tangy cheese such as kashkaval, kasseri or Manchego. Everything can be eaten, and lemon pieces can be used in recipes calling for preserved lemons.

5. Refrigerate after opening. As olives and vegetables are removed, keep remainder covered with brine or oil. If olives become too strong-tasting as they sit, drain brine and pour in olive oil to cover.

Yield: 1 gallon.

Note: Top layer of vegetables may turn black during curing, because of air exposure. (A little bit of air is necessary to cure olives safely, so just screw the top firmly shut and do not attempt to boil or vacuum-seal the jar as for canning.) Blackened parts should be discarded but remainder is fine to eat. If contents become moldy, discard them.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The moth hour

There is no good reason for this picture to appear on a blog called Mister Meatball. It's a moth ferchrissakes. A moth that does not have a mouth, and so cannot eat.

On a food blog.


Six hours in a full-face helmet yesterday no doubt left me a bit dimwitted.

Still, I'm told that it's a rare enough siting that I should share.

This is one big mother. Six inches long, or close. It was in the same spot outside the garage all day yesterday.

And, yes, I Googled it ( It's a Luna Moth. I won't soon forget it.

Why a living creature that does not eat decided to spend the day at my house will remain a mystery.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Homemade pancetta quickie

Last night was spaghetti alla carbonara night (don't worry, you won't be subjected to yet another pasta pic), for which I almost always use my own pancetta. As I wasn't blogging when the last batch was prepared, I thought I'd at least let you see it.


I said it was a quickie, didn't I.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Roe, roe, roe

Last time I was in Roma a disreputable traveling companion persuaded me to smuggle around five hundred dollars' worth of bottarga back home in an empty... on second thought, you and the Customs people don't really need to know about that.

Point is, I did it.

And I did it because I love the stuff.

Though that haul was long ago consumed, regular trips back home to New York ensure a steady (legal) supply. As long as I'm feeling flush, that is. This stuff ain't cheap; the package above, purchased at Buon Italia at the Chelsea Market, weighs in at 0.310 lbs. So, at $79 a pound, the pack cost $24.49.

They don't call it the poor man's caviar for nothing.

If you're not familiar, bottarga is salted and cured grey mullet roe (bottarga di muggine, to be precise). The roe from tuna and other fish are also used to make bottarga, but mullet roe is the most commonly employed. There is fierce debate over which is better, tuna or mullet, but we will not be engaging in that conflict here.

I use the stuff for one thing, basically: for spaghetti alla bottarga, one of my absolute favorite dishes. And it's so simple to make. All it is really is an Aglio y Olio (garlic and oil) sauce that you add grated bottarga to.

That's it.

How much bottarga you use in a recipe, to my mind anyway, depends on the bottarga you have. This particular package was on the mild-tasting side, and so I wound up using one side of the egg sack for a pound of pasta. (For saltier bottarga I have used much less than this.)

For starters, get the grater out and have at it.

Like so.

Then chop some (okay, more than just some) garlic, and a little hot pepper (from the garden last year, dried hanging in the kitchen all winter).

Saute in extra virgin olive oil, you know the drill.

Locate your favorite spaghetti. (This is mine, but it's a bitch to find, so if anybody's listening, I am now accepting gifts from perfect -- and even not so perfect -- strangers.)

Why must such a mundane photo appear? Two reasons. One, you must set aside some pasta water before draining; it is a crucial element to finishing the dish. Two, stare into the water and repeat after me: I will use plenty of salt in the pasta water. I will use plenty of salt in the pasta water. I will use plenty of salt in the pasta water.

No great mystery from here on in. Toss the pasta in the pan with the garlic and oil, sprinkle several pinches of bottarga on top, add some of the water and stir it all up.

Then plate it, and top each helping with some more of the bottarga.

Probably the most tasty simple dish you ever ate.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The red jars

I'm not an expert in store-bought pasta sauce; fact, I rarely eat it.

My first experience with the stuff didn't go so well. I was but an adolescent meatball, and my mother (sometimes referred to as "my sainted mother" but not always) tried to pawn off a jar on my two brothers and me.

I was on to her in a flash.

"What kinda gravy's this Ma?" (To my people it is gravy, not sauce.)

Nothing. Perhaps she no hear.

"Ma. The gravy. I said..."


"The gravy. It's different. It ain't..."

Oh, no. The second taste nailed it. For sure.

"It ain't yours!"

She was three feet away, and yet my mother could not look at her dearest son. (Not this dearest son anyway; the other two dearest sons she seemed fine with.)




"Oofah! Eat your pizza, would you? It'll get cold."

We were in fact eating my mother's homemade pie, usually so delicious, a real treat. Joseph and Michael were plowing through the blackened round pans, as if nothing were horribly amiss (Joe could be forgiven this, as he was maybe ten; Mike, the eldest, cannot be). My brothers wouldn't look at me either; they were too busy scarfing up slices while I was occupied.

"Why won't you look at me, Ma?"

This time I laughed, and after a moment so did she.

"Madonna mia! You're such a pain in the ass, you know that. I should make you go hungry."

Which is when I got up from the table, went to the trash and did a terrible thing: I embarrassed my poor sainted (the designation is warranted here) mother. A woman who cooked fabulously flavorful meals -- always from scratch and in abundance -- practically every day of her life, and not only for her own family but for others as well. A woman who decided, for some reason this day, to cheat a little -- just this once -- and let somebody else help out for a change.

I can only imagine how hard it must have been, picking a jar off the grocery store shelf. It was a tortuous choice for an Old World woman like Ma. I'm sure of it.

And yet there I was. Calling her out. Picking from the trash her dark red secret, an empty glass jar of (ugh!) Ragu. (Recycling wasn't around back then, so don't have a heart attack, okay.)

To this day I am haunted by my dreadful treatment of that wonderful woman.

Which brings me to the point of why we are (marginally) here. (We are still here, yes?)

See, I was at Micucci grabbing a slice the other day and as usual started poking around the store. There's no good reason for me to do this, of course; I know every inch of the place, likely as well as anybody whose name is Micucci, and so discovering a new item is unlikely. (Note to those who do not live here in Portland: Micucci is a Maine version of an Italian salumeria. It is a well-meaning family-operated establishment; I shall leave it at that.) Anyway, not long ago they introduced their own line of pasta sauces, concocted by "our own celebrity chef and baker, Stephen Lanzalotta." Said chef is one fine baker of breads and pastries, and his pizza is a beacon is our small town. (Were he a pizzaiolo in Brooklyn, land of my people, he would surely be a star; I am sure of this.)

The sauces were merely a curiousity to me, but on this day, ever in search of blog-worthy topics, I picked up a jar of the puttanesca. Oddly making certain that no witnesses were about to see me -- perhaps as Ma did that fateful day so long ago.

There are, it appears, many ways to connect with those we have lost.

Anyways, no sooner was the jar in hand than the notion of a competition rose up (a shameless attempt to boost local readership, no doubt). And so here's what I did: I picked three other sauces, all puttanesca. Since Micucci is local, I chose one other local shop, Pemberton's, out of Gorham. Then I threw in a Massachusetts outfit, the oft-seen Scarpetta. And then, to make things interesting, I added my brother Joe's favorite store-bought sauce, Rao's, of New York.

And this is how it went down.

4th Place. The Pemberton's label states that they "have created a new twist" to puttanesca by using flavorful Calamata olives rather than black olives. The twist is not so new; three of the four sauces did same. The taste seemed kind of murky, but the sauce is loaded with salient ingredients. And the Gorham folks gets extra points for using chick peas in the recipe.

3rd Place. My plastic container of Scarpetta's "fresh pasta sauce" had a freshness date of January 30, 2011, so food manufacturers' interpretation of "fresh" may be different from yours and mine. In any event, you best LOVE capers; otherwise, don't go near this stuff. It's got a bright tomato flavor and lots of chunks of goodness inside; it's just not for me.

2nd Place. I can't look at the Rao's label without getting grumpy over the fact that I will likely never have a meal at the oh-so-exclusive, no-outsiders-allowed original restaurant in New York. Nevertheless, the Rao's sauce was the freshest tasting of the lot, by far, but was a bit lacking in complexity. (Did I just say "lacking in complexity"? What is happening to me?) This one's the best of the bunch if used as a cooking sauce, like over chicken or other meats.

1st Place. Micucci is lucky indeed to have hooked up with Lanzalotta (I know, I sound like I'm in the tank for this guy, but the truth is that I've never actually met the man). This is one very concentrated, complex flavor profile you got here, folks, loaded with good stuff, and plenty of tasty olives. If you're looking for a jar of sauce to pour over pasta that needs no doctoring whatsoever, this is it.

I think Ma might have liked it too.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Tripe porn

So this is what I came home to last night.


With pork.

And ceci beans.

A little tomato.

Nothing left to say.

[I were you I'd click on the pic for a closer view.]