Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Homemade fregula

Have you been to Sardinia? It's the second-largest island in the Mediterranean, you know. Sicily is the largest. But that is all I have to say on that painful matter, as a (good?) friend has decided to travel to Sicily this very April, on an eight-day wine tour no less, without the slightest thought of inviting along... Like I said, it's painful.

This person's email arrived just as I was getting ready to show you all the very nice batch of arancini (a Sicilian specialty) I had prepared. "And on the 8th day," read the Subject line. "P.S. I'll have a couple arancini for you," is how the email ended.

All a man can betray is his conscience.
— Joseph Conrad

Needless to say, the arancini has been put on hold until further notice.

And so we move to Sardinia. And to a food item that is very much associated with the island that my friend will not be traveling to weeks from now.

Fregula (or fregola) is sort of an Italian couscous. It's a pasta, made with semolina flour and water, though often saffron is added. It can be used like a pasta, of course, or a risotto. It is often added to soups, and cold fregula salads are popular as well.

It is a pretty rustic pasta, this fregula, irregularly shaped when made by hand. It is a toasted pasta, and so the color can vary quite a lot.

The really great thing about fregula is that you don't need to be a skilled pasta maker in order to prepare it. And it takes hardly any time at all to make a very nice fregula from scratch.

Place 2 cups of fine semolina flour into a wooden tray or shallow bowl, then gradually pour around two-thirds cups of water (I've added a little saffron to the water here) into that as you begin working the mixture by hand.

Simply rub the dough with your fingers so that small nuggets start to form.

After the nuggets have formed like so, keep breaking them up by rubbing them even more, so that the nuggets become smaller still.

Then place the entire batch on a baking sheet and put that in the oven (preheated to 200 F). As the fregula is toasting, stir it around from time to time so that it toasts evenly.

After about an hour you've got yourself a nicely toasted pasta that can be used right away or cooled and stored in an airtight container for several weeks.

After reading the email about Sicily I needed something comforting to ease the pain a bit. And so I boiled up a little fregula (12 to 15 minutes it takes to cook) and mixed that with caramelized onions and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

And I forgot all about the arancini — and the trip to Sicily — that might have been.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Diamonds are not forever

I'm starting a new diet next week. I don't recommend it. It will begin on Friday, April 1, and end on Wednesday, September 28. This roughly coincides with the regular 2011 Major League Baseball season, and so weather may alter the dates somewhat.

If I lose weight that will be fine, but it is not my intention. This isn't about shedding pounds, it's about taking a stand.

I'm a Mets fan, you see.

If you hadn't heard, our team is a national disgrace. It is run by a hapless family named Wilpon, a family that has no business owning a team that is supported by honest working people and their wages. The Wilpons have been horrific stewards of the franchise, particularly of late. You have heard of Bernie Madoff, yes? They're in deep with that guy. The family is now known, in some circles at least, as "The Wilponzis."

Well, I'm finally fed up with the incompetence and the lies. I won't go to a single event at Citi Field this season, and I won't subscribe to the $200-a-season cable TV package that broadcasts the team's games either. I'm done with these clowns.

Unfortunately, my decision to boycott the Wilpons economically will impact upon the innocent as well. Most crucially the foodservice business, which will lose a mighty sum of baseball-related scratch due to my self-imposed seasonal blackout.

This is a most uneasy moment. I have history with this team, the roots of which are planted deep inside the picture that's above. On the right is one George Thomas (Tom "The Franchise") Seaver, the greatest pitcher ever to put on a New York Metropolitans uniform. With him is teammate Jerry Koosman, who is best remembered for pitching, moments before this frame was captured on film, the complete game victory that won the "Miracle Mets" the 1969 World Series title against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles.

If you lived in New York at the time, as I did, you know what these two young men, and their teammates, meant to a city that seemed in crisis on all fronts but for that diamond-shaped turf out in Queens. They certainly meant a great deal to my father, a Mets fan of extraordinary fidelity, if not longevity. It was the last World Series he would see.

And so next Friday night, when the team's 2011 season officially begins, I will likely feel a bit hollow of stomach. I tend to share these six-month-long affairs with my brother Joe, whose home turf just happens to be the same as the team's. I will drive down and spend a few days here and there, and if we do not go to a game we will at least catch two or three of them on TV. Together.

It's what brothers who had fathers who were Mets fans at an important age do.

Just not this year.

I'm not kidding about the possibility of weight loss. For starters, I will be eating far fewer hot dogs and drinking much less beer between now and the end of September. This drop in consumption will prove dramatic, and will affect operations at the ballpark, at Joe's place and elsewhere. I can feel the pounds melting off of me already.

Danny Meyer won't be selling my brother and me any hamburgers at the Shake Shack he opened at Citi Field. I like Meyer. He's one of the best restaurateurs in the business. But my mind is made up.

This one hurts more than the burger. Leo's Latticini/Mama's of Corona, a family-run outfit which also has a place in the ballpark, makes a monster of a very tasty Italian sandwich. But look at that thing, would you, and tell me it is not a thousand calories at least!

The sausage and pepper stands at the park? Not gonna happen.

Aqueduct Racetrack will not be seeing much of my money either, for fewer trips down to see a game means fewer opportunities to bet badly on the ponies alongside my brother and our uncle Dominic. That means I won't have to wolf down many of the turkey breast sandwiches we usually order when at the track, which is a good thing because the food at Aqueduct pretty much sucks. (Why else would we be ordering turkey breast sandwiches?)

Local businesses in and around my brother's apartment will also feel an impact. For example, Vincent's Clam Bar will need to find some other post-game sucker to straddle a barstool and slurp down a couple dozen cherrystones.

La Villa will have to make due with a few less pies coming out of its wood-burning oven.

And Pastosa's excellent cheese arancini (rice balls) will need to find another adoring fan.

The sushi joint that my brother likes getting takeout from, for watching night games on the 47-inch Sharp, won't be seeing us as much as usual.

Joe's Shanghai's pork soup dumplings will be missed very, very, very much.

And the two White Castles within sniffing distance of Joe's apartment? No can do.

It's what I crave, all right. But I'm just not gonna be in the nabe.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Things are not always as they appear.

For example, and contrary to appearances, I am not a fisherman. In the twenty or so times that I have been fishing in my life, only once has a fish managed to wind up on a lure that was in any way associated with me. You're looking at it. A striped bass, of indeterminate weight and size; a beauty, my fishermen friends assured me at the time.

As you can see, the bass and I are on a lovely little island off the coast of Maine, just outside of a cabin that I used to like going to quite a lot but no longer. You might also have noticed that it is a beautiful summer's day, the kind of day that can shield a Mainer's thoughts from the winter that is coming.

All in all, one very fine afternoon in the northland. Made more so by the merciful end to a long and frustrating run of failed fishing expeditions spanning (literally) decades.

But here is what you do not see.

There is the thrown and broken beer bottle, of course (a full one if memory serves). And the newly reddened blue shirtsleeve, made so by the blood flowed out of my newly mangled right hand. Oh, and let's not forget the writhing-on-the-grass-in-excruciating-pain display that I so generously staged for the local island dwellers. Yes, that was fun.

So far as I know no pictures exist of any of those things. But would you really want to see that poor bass struggling to break free of the hook lodged inside its body so that it could just get back to what it was doing before I came along? Would you like to witness the moment when the fish jerked so quickly that all those dangling hooks not lodged inside it went piercing straight through one side of my hand and back out the other?

It wasn't pretty. I haven't held a fishing rod in my hand since. And, though I probably consume a lot more seafood than the average bear, I haven't eaten a striper either.

So, what are we doing here then?

The plan, you see, was to head over to my local fishmonger, pick out a couple whole stripers, douse them in plenty of extra virgin and a few fresh herbs, and quick roast them at about 650 degrees in the wood oven out back of the house. A simple enough plan, and one that might finally put the whole messy matter of this bass and me to rest. (It wasn't. At rest, I mean.) Hell, I even made it to the fish market and scoped out the talent. Not nearly as big and meaty and beautiful as my striped bass, but nice.

Except that after way too long a time pacing around the store (long enough for a very nice couple from New Jersey to mistake me for a person who worked at the fish market), I decided to not go through with it after all.

I'm not going all soft on you here. Creatures large and small, from land and sea, are no safer from my desires than they were before. It's just the stripers that appear to be. I caught one. It caught me right back. We're even. I'm just not as determined to get back on the winning side as I thought I was.

Maybe it wasn't just the fish hook that got inside me that day.

Oh, and I stopped by the butcher on the way home from the fish market. The oven was already fired up, and I had promised some people a special meal. I couldn't just come home with a fish story, could I?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Playing my guitar

Not exactly the image that comes to mind when you think about Mardi Gras, is it?

Me neither, but then I didn't get to spend yesterday (aka Fat Tuesday or Carnevale) in Venice or Rio de Janeiro or even New Orleans. I spent it in Maine, a place with little if any affinity for the annual period of pre-Lenten celebration for Catholics the world over. 

As New Orleans was long the home of an important member of my inner circle, it seemed fitting that I do something to mark the occasion. And since Louisiana and music are so tightly woven together, I decided that I might play the guitar for the lady. 

A stretch, I know. But romantic of me, yes?

It's a double-sided number, this instrument of mine. Well over a hundred strings in all. It takes some practice to master, but I can teach you how to play in about ten minutes.

You'll need a rolling pin, not a pick. Because we're making pasta here. And with a chitarra, not a Fender Stratocaster. (This is a food blog, after all.)

Chitarra is Italian for guitar and, considering its design, it is also the term for the pasta tool you see here. It's a very old-style tool, this chitarra, invented around 1800 or thereabouts (in Italy, but of course you knew that). It's made of hardwood and metal; not a single bit of plastic resides anywhere on the thing. The reason it has two sides is to accommodate two different noodle widths. On one side the strings are close together, so as to make spaghetti noodles (hence the term spaghetti alla chitarra); the strings on the other side are further apart, for more of a fettucine type noodle.

Speaking of the strings, they can be loosened or tightened by turning this knob, just as guitar strings might be adjusted, and the strings can also be replaced. (If you're interested in more information, or want to buy a chitarraFante's in Philadelphia is a good place to poke around.)

What the lady had requested on this particular evening was a simple cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) with spaghetti alla chitarra noodles. The sheet of fresh pasta dough you see here? I rolled it out by hand, not by machine.

The idea here is to let the strings cut the noodles. You start by pressing down and moving the rolling pin along the pasta sheet; this scores the individual noodles.

As you go back and forth with the rolling pin the spaghetti strands will start to fall through the strings.

Often you might help the noodles along by running your fingers over the strings as well.

Until they've all been cut and have fallen through.

After working on a few sheets of pasta dough this is what I wound up with for our Fat Tuesday feast.

And the cacio e pepe, a simple dish that actually takes quite a bit of practice to master if I do say, was just what the lady ordered.

I think.

Here is the briefest of clips showing how one man uses a chitarra (mostly using his fingers). The whole thing is under three minutes, but if you want to fast-forward to the actual chitarra demonstration, it begins at about the two-minute mark.

And just so you know, Louie Prima provides the soundtrack, so if you're at work or in church or maybe pretending to be doing important research at the library, you may want to turn off the sound.

Me, I like a little music when I'm playing my chitarra.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Why a chicken?

I was out dining with poet/playwright/shyster lawyer friend the other night, at a pretty decent Indian place out at the airport-mall part of town, when nine words came rolling off of her raita-coated tongue that honest-to-God surprised me.

"I cook things from your blog all the time," she said sipping on a giant bottle of Kingfisher. "Why does that surprise you so much? It is a food blog, you know!"

It is at times such as these that I am reminded why I enjoy the kind and thoughtful poet/playwright side to this friend so much better than the in-your-face, facts-obsessed shyster lawyer from Jersey side.

"Uh," I stammered as if under cross in the Newark courthouse my companion once terrorized. "I guess... I mean... Well... You see..."

"Get a grip, would you," she objected. "I didn't mean to put you under so much pressure. Forget I said anything... Are you going to eat that nan?"

Just as she was reaching for the table's last morsel of bread our waitress delivered the Bengan Bharta (roasted eggplant) that I had suggested we order.

"I just made your eggplant parm the other night, you know," my friend offered. "It was delicious. Might have been better if I hadn't burned the eggplant, but still..."

I wish that I had said right then that her mistake was in waiting for the eggplant slices to brown on the topside instead of on the bottom. But I was too flummoxed. A person (of some accomplishment, mind you) had actually decided to plan and prepare a meal based upon my instructions. I didn't think people did that. Really. I didn't. I figured they only looked at the pictures and moved along.

I decided this would be a multiple-beverage kind of evening and ordered not one but two more Bass Ales to go along with the eggplant and the newly prepared breads being placed on the table.

This may be a good time for me to mention that none of this has anything to do with the chicken dish you see that I have prepared here.

It's chicken breast. Come on. What possible kind of story might I have woven around that?

Don't get me wrong, it's a really good dish, I like it a lot. Go ahead and try it if you want, you'll probably like it too. The reason it's here, though, is because of this friend that I've been telling you about. "Hey," were her exact words, should you have wondered, "you happen to have a recipe for chicken breasts? A recipe that isn't so boring that I'd rather blow out the right side of my left brain than have to make it, let alone eat it?"

I mentioned that she was a poet, right?

Anyway, I promised that I would get a good recipe off to her pronto, and so here we are at the intersection of Shyster Jersey Lawyer and Oven-Fried Romano Chicken. A circuitous route to a rather simple destination, I'll admit.

But I ask you, had I been yapping all this while about a couple chicken breasts that you stick inside the oven, would you still be here?

Okay, so what you have here is grated Romano cheese, freshly prepared bread crumbs, and seasonings (chopped garlic, rosemary, a hot pepper, salt and black pepper), which gets mixed together.

You take your boring chicken breast and give it a roll in the cheese-and-breadcrumb mix.

Give that a quick dip in egg before it goes back for a second roll in the cheese and breadcrumbs.

Line up the breasts in a roasting pan and into the (preheated to 350 F) oven they go.

About half an hour later you've got yourself a very nice-tasting hunk of white meat that I assure you will not inspire you to raise a firearm to your head.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The bread from Genoa

I think we need a bigger oven.

Because no matter how much of this stuff I make it never is enough.

This stuff is called farinata, a baked good made of chickpea flour. Depending on who is baking it, farinata could resemble a flatbread (dry and crisp) or a focaccia (puffed out and moist) or even a pancake (more dense).

Unless you travel to places such as Italy or France, it is unlikely you have come across farinata. And depending on where you travel, it goes by different names. If you are in Sicily, for instance, and you happen upon a street vendor in Palermo selling slices of panelle from his cart, you have found yourself a fritter made of chickpeas. In Tuscany, look for cecina, and in France, socca.

It is in Italy's Liguria region where farinata is enjoyed. And, believe me, it is enjoyed quite a lot. The first time I tasted farinata ("made of flour" is basically all it means) was in Genoa, on the Ligurian Sea, credited as the place where the bread first appeared. Strolling by myself one afternoon (killing time while a certain companion was having a lie down, no doubt) I noticed a line of people outside a bakeshop and joined them without even knowing what I was waiting for. Fifteen minutes later and I was at the counter, feeling brilliant for having secured a place in line.

The Ligurians use two ingredients in their chickpea flatbread that you will not much find elsewhere: onion and rosemary. They add them into the batter, but I've come up with a slightly different method: I put a layer of onion in the pan, then pour in the batter and sprinkle the rosemary on top. This may not sound like such a big deal, but if you did a side-by-side comparison you'd see that there is a difference, largely because the sizzling-onion layer at the bottom introduces a somewhat sharper flavor.

The traditional method of making  farinata is in a wood-burning oven. As luck would have it, I happen to have one of those on the brick patio out back.

The full recipe is below, but here's the entry into the Inferno. I use a 14-inch, well-seasoned black iron pan, which does a swell job with this dish.

After about ten minutes, at 650 F or so, this one was done.

Slice it up like a pizza and you're ready to roll.

Perhaps you see now why I might require a larger oven?

The recipe

2 cups chickpea flour (garbanzos and chickpeas are the same)
2 tsp salt 
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper 
2 cups lukewarm water
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, sliced thin 
Fresh rosemary
Plenty of olive oil for the pan

Sift the flour and add in the salt, pepper and water
Whisk until smooth, then add the 4 tablespoons of olive oil (consistency should be thin, like heavy cream or half and half, no thicker; when in doubt err on the thinner side)
Cover and set aside (I let it sit a few hours at room temperature, but it's not necessary)
Preheat oven at 500 F (higher if you can; I do it at 600 or better in the wood oven), then preheat the pan long enough for it to come up to oven temperature

When the pan is hot pour in plenty of olive oil (enough to coat the bottom entirely and then some) and the onion and return to the oven
After a minute or so pour in the batter and sprinkle rosemary on top, then return to the oven
Cook until completely firm, then let cool a couple minutes before slicing
Serve warm