Tuesday, September 27, 2011

White Castle: what I crave

A way off-topic rant that has no business being on this particular food blog. Apologies. We will return to our regularly scheduled Italo food-focused programming just as soon as the new meds kick in.*

The blue in the upper right corner of the photo is a garment. Blue jeans, actually. They are mine and I am wearing them. The white foreground, a flimsy paper napkin, is held in place by the index finger — also mine — visible at the top left.

The setting is Atlantic Avenue, at the corner of Shepherd, in the borough of Brooklyn, New York, in the summer of 2011. It is the interior of my automobile, the driver's seat, which I am occupying.

A car or a truck's cabin is the ideal place to consume the main subject of this frame: the White Castle hamburger. I enjoyed six of the tasty burgers this day, but many times I have eaten far, far more than that.

Where I come from, "Buy'em by the sack" isn't a slogan, it's a mandate.

I grew up just around the corner from a White Castle, in fact the very one that I visited this summer. Well, not the very one. As with many of the restaurant chain's older stores, this one was rebuilt from the asphalt up some years back, to better accommodate traffic flow for the oh-so-crucial drive-thru trade.

White Castle has always been the most convenient of places to fall into and satisfy your craving, no matter when it might strike. For as long as I can remember the restaurants have been open 24 hours a day, including holidays (yes, the Thanksgiving stuffing is good; I've had it). The only day that the stores are not open is Christmas.

Of course, it's only convenient if you happen to live near one of the 400 or so White Castle restaurants in the U.S., which I no longer do. I have to travel through five states before reaching a store. The nearest locations to my current home are in New York and New Jersey, more than 300 miles away.

This seems to me an unnecessarily cruel and unusual siting strategy for a restaurant company that I have been so loyal to and for so long.

Doesn't it?

I mean, would it kill these jokers to throw a store up someplace in the New England states? We have electricity up here, you know. Indoor plumbing too.

The way I figure, they owe me at least that much. I haven't just spent sacks full of money in their restaurants over the years. What about the ways in which I have fiercely defended their product against those who are so quick to malign it. Doesn't that count for something?

It takes courage to be a White Castle enthusiast, you know. Never has a fast food been more ridiculed than this one has. "Belly bomber" is the most common term used to denigrate the two-bite-and-you're-done little square hamburgers. "Greasers" is another. "Sliders," a term embraced by the company itself, is yet another, however it appears not to carry with it an air of negativity or shame.

That's right, I said shame. You should see the way some people look at me when they find out that I eat at White Castle. You would think that I had just swallowed whole their little darling child's adorable pet golden hamster, Freckles.

You know what, I really don't give a crap what anybody thinks. I'd put a White Castle (the plain single is the only one I eat, by the way) up against any hamburger, any one at all. Yeah, that's right, even those Five Guys characters that everybody is so all hopped up over these days, the ones who are growing like weeds in the gutter.

Get a grip, would you. The burger isn't that good.

As for so many other bastions of burger blandness, the clown's place or the king's or any number of other mediocre restaurant "concepts," as they are known? Hell, Freckles probably tastes better than most of them. (Sorry. The new meds*, remember?)

White Castles are anything but bland. Considering the way they are cooked, how could they be? First the hot grill is covered in finely chopped soft onions and water, which are then topped with little square hamburgers, each with five holes punched into them. (The holes allow steam to pass through the burger; this ensures quick cooking without flipping the patty.) On top of the patty goes the bun, which becomes infused with the steam coming from the onions and the beef as they cook. A dab of ketchup, slice of pickle, and you've got yourself one soft, moist, flavor-rich handful of tasty goddamn goodness — for around 75 cents!

Served in the blue, white and (lately) orange box that I love so very much.

If only the company's knuckleheaded siting team would allow me to love them just a bit closer to home.

[*Shyster Jersey lawyer friend insists that I state publicly that "the new meds" are a literary device only, a fiction designed to justify this unusually out-of-place story's appearance on this particular blog. I am not now, nor have I been treated with prescription pharmaceuticals of a mood-enhancing nature. Not yet anyway.]

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pairing wines with meatballs

I would much prefer to be boiled in hot oil or eaten by hungry lions than to disagree with my dear uncle Dominic, but I am forced to admit that Gallo Hearty Burgundy is not the only wine worth drinking alongside a good meatball.

Sorry, Unc.

Don't get me wrong. I have enjoyed many a bottle of the Gallo with my uncle. Hearty Burgundy is the only wine that you will find in Dominic's home. Like his son, John, I gave up bringing other bottles for my uncle to sample long ago.

"That's crap," I once heard Dominic say about a more-than-respectable Barolo that my cousin had cracked open for his father's enjoyment. "What do you want to drink that for when this (the HB now in his hand) is so much better?"

I respect a man with strong opinions, don't you?

I hope so. Because you are about to become acquainted with just such a man. He is a friend of mine. Goes by a number of aliases (that's him on the left), but Scott Tyree is the name that would likely appear on an official document; a denied parole request, for instance, or perhaps a bench warrant.

Scott knows his wine. He'd better. The guy's a sommelier ferchrissakes. A James Beard Award-nominated sommelier, thank you very much. He lives just a bottle's roll away from me these days, but last he was seen as the wine dude-in-chief at such notable Chicago dining establishments as Tru and Sepia. (He claims not to have fled that town in a high-speed motorcycle chase involving a somewhat agitated band of dockworkers, and out of respect I will accept my friend's story without further comment or review.)

The point here is that, a) the dude is a bona fide wine professional, and b) he likes my meatballs. So I decided to put the arm on him (people from Chicago are used to being manhandled) and get him to tell us all about matching the right wine with the right meatball.

Actually, he is matching the wine with my meatball. Therefore, it is possible that this exercise will only be of benefit to you personally should you prepare my meatball recipe and, for that matter, the Sunday Gravy that they were cooked in. Alternatively you could invite Mr. Tyree, if he still calls himself that, to pair wines with your own recipes, but that is entirely between you and the sommelier.

I ain't running no social network here, you know.

Anyway, so here is how it all was designed to go down: Me and the sommelier would get together over (what turned out to be a liquid) lunch and map out a few reasonable parameters for a (first ever?) meatball-and-wine tasting. As we both pine for the bustle and noise of a big city we grabbed an outdoor table at a restaurant here in town where the traffic comes so close that you could share a pork bun with the passenger of any vehicle that goes by.

My own view of the task at hand was quite simple: I make the meatballs and supply the wines, he writes about the wines once we have completed our little experiment. I explained this formula to my friend while gulping down the first cold beer of the warm late-August afternoon, then motioned to our waitress that it would be splendid if she might please go ahead and collect me another.

The sommelier, who had barely touched his own frosty beverage, quickly displayed a far more complex understanding of our mission. I became hip to this when he brought out a crisp pad of paper, a pen and a pair of what I would describe as handsome yet rather stern-looking reading glasses. This must have rattled me more than I was aware because as our waitress delivered my newly opened beer I instructed her to please go ahead and bring me another at her earliest convenience.

For the next hour I sat and I drank, but mostly I answered my friend Scott's many questions about what exact flavor profiles he was being asked to pair the wines with: "You use carrots in your sauce; that's interesting, but why?" "How much anchovy did you say is in there?" "So, then, it's mostly veal and a little beef; there's no pork in the meatballs, none at all?" "Butter and pork fat, really?" "Can you taste the heat of the pepper?" "Are you sure there isn't anything else in these recipes that you haven't told me about; I've got all the ingredients, every one, listed here?"

I studied his copious notes and assured my friend that, yes, he had all the necessary information to move forward. "You should be all set, yeah," I said grabbing the check before he could put his filthy paws on it. "Sure you're not gonna finish that beer?"

The meatball-and-wine-pairing event was held two days later, at a lovely spot overlooking Casco Bay that Scott shares with his partner, the insane South African hot yoga practitioner (though otherwise quite level-headed chap) Giovani.

And an event it was. Look at this place setting, would you? My meatballs hadn't been given this kind of high-class treatment since... okay, they've never gotten it. We're talking white linens and fine china, freshly cut flowers and enough Riedel wine glasses to cater an event for 30-plus people (we were only four in our party). There were even printouts at each place setting, containing a numbered list of all the wines we would be sampling and ample white space to scribble our impressions. Hell, we even got our own Sharpie!


Before I hand things over to Scott, just a couple of things. First, I want to thank him for taking the time to do this. I don't know what I was expecting when I showed up at his door with a big pot of meatballs, loaves of bread, and the associate who had dreamed up the event in the first place (thanks, associate), but I got way more than I had bargained for. This was a professional-grade wine tasting, folks. And even though I was already familiar with many of the wines, I learned things from Scott that I had not known before. If you're ever in the market for a wine consultant, trust me, this is your man.

Second, never trust a wine geek to do things the way you want. I had delivered fifteen wines to my friend the day before the tasting, plus offered several more, specifically a few Barolos I thought might be fun to try. And how many wound up on the sheet? Just eight. Oh, plus the gallon of Carlo Rossi Burgundy (no HB to be found here in Maine) that the crazy South African had picked up on his way home from the torture chamber he frequents, the chamber that he naively refers to as a yoga studio.

No wine event can ever top sipping the Gallo with my uncle Dominic while sitting beneath his grapevine on a late-summer afternoon.

Still, this Tyree fellow hosted one hell of a party, and so, without further ado, I give you the man himself. (He's the one in the green t-shirt, but keep that to yourself, would you. Should a member of particular band of Chicago dockworkers happen upon this blog post, well, things could become rather ugly here in our little corner of paradise. And in a hurry.)

Scott Tyree:
On wine and balls
They were delivered to the house on a cool Sunday morning in spring by a courier riding a gleaming red and black Moto Guzzi. Plump, silky and perfectly golfball sized, the juicy veal and beef nuggets were accompanied by a generous portion of rich, tomatoey sauce (carrots in the sauce?!) and crusty country bread from a local bakery. G had the sauce, balls and pasta simmering on the stove faster than you can say spaghetti alla chitarra. After a few silent minutes at the table, we declared Mister Meatball's personally delivered meatballs the most delicious we had ever tasted.  

So, when MM suggested that we do this meatball-and-wine-pairing experiment, I responded enthusiastically and without hesitation. "Screw the wine," I secretly said to myself. "Any excuse to enjoy copious amounts of the succulent meatballs and flavorful sauce again is fine by me!"

We had rules for this wine tasting. All the wines must be of Italian origin (che sopresa!) covering the country from north to south, including Sicily. All colors and styles of wine should be included: white, pink, red, still and sparkling; dry, off-dry, youthful and mature. A rendezvous with MM to purchase the wines yielded, as he has mentioned, a great number of bottles. I am indeed guilty of editing this selection, and for this I make no apologies. Even a Meatball must succumb to reason occasionally. If we had tasted all fifteen wines, we surely would have ended up rolling on the floor covered in tomato sauce. (Besides, the event took place in my house, not his. Our friend Meatball may be highly opinionated, but he is also adept at social interaction and I was fairly certain he would not make too much of a scene upon spying my eight-wine final list.) 

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon we ladled up sauce, balls and pasta and commenced with the down and dirty work of finding the perfect wine for the perfect meatball. We found that there was consensus about most of the wines, which I find common in these settings; it is very much worth trying at home, especially with like-minded friends. Speaking of which, my impressions of our own group are as such: I found MM's associate to be inquisitive, direct and focused. Giovani was somewhat poetic (though he does mutter naughty things when he is drunk). The Meatball was just a wiseass, as usual.

All in all, a successful tasting. Here is what we discovered.

1. Zardetto Spumante Rosé NV, Veneto
Pity the poor frizzante wines. So often, they are unjustly relegated to aperitif status and rarely taken seriously as worthy of pairing with food. Happily, this dry and fruity raboso veronese-based sparkler, so surprisingly rich and creamy, proved a worthy partner with the prized meatballs. This simple wine actually elevated the sumptuous meatballs to even dizzier heights. The most pleasant surprise of the tasting.

2. Falanghina dei Feudi di San Gregorio Sannio, Campania 2009
Many of my sommelier colleagues swear that a mythical wine pairing love affair exists between the falanghina grape and tomatoes. Lemming that I am, I chose this delicious savory wine with the fennel-y nose believing that, theoretically, it would provide an interesting herbal counterpoint while taming the acidity of the sauce. Unfortunately, the dish obliterated the wine. No love affair here. Myth busted.

3. Offida Pecorino Villa Angela Velenosi, Marche 2009
Despite the cheese-associated name, pecorino is actually an indigenous grape variety to the Marche region of southern Italy. This particular bottling showed aromas of wet stones, honey and citrus. The palate of bitter almond and ripe tropical fruit was worrisomely low in acid and blessedly oak free. On paper, this wine should have been outmatched by the assertive balls. But this was the most interesting and thought-provoking pairing of the day. With the balls, the mineral streak and aromatic qualities of the wine soared. I've developed a little school boy crush on this wine.

4. Soave Classico Inama, Veneto 2009
Yes, there are oceans of characterless plonk from the Soave wine zone. Thanks to Bolla (the Blue Nun of Soave), quality wines from the superior Soave Classico zone of the Veneto have been maligned by association for years. Here's a really interesting version from an excellent producer called Inama, a winery which has been pushing the garganega grape to greater heights in recent years. Round, ripe and enriched with a little dollop of oaked chardonnay, we were concerned this wine might be too big for an already rich dish. Though perfectly pleasurable for sipping alone, the wine became a bit disjointed when paired with the meatballs. Alcohol burned the palate and all that ripe fruitiness disappeared. Ixnay the Inama.

5. Dolcetto d'Alba Paolo Scavino, Piemonte 2008
Paolo Scavino is a modernist who makes wines in an opulent, sexy style. While much of the Piemonte region often produces dolcetto that can be thin and diluted, this guy consistently gives us weighty, silky wines with great structure and layers of flavor. We all loved the vibrant acidity, rose petal and violet aromas and bright cherry and earth palate. In particular, this wine stood up to the acidic tomatoes better than any other wine in the tasting.

6. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Quattro Mani, Abruzzo 2009
Attilio Pagli's montepulciano has a texture as sleek and smooth as Mister Meatball's red Moto Guzzi. The nose is earthy, dusky and meaty. The palate is a spice rack of savory elements: think blackberries spiked with white pepper and oregano. For me, this pairing elicited the most visceral reaction of any of the others. This was complete wine/meatball symbiosis. These two should just move in with each other and live happily ever after.

7. Colosi Nero d'Avola IGT, Sicilia 2009
Sad. Overly extracted, high in alcohol, lacking in structure, cloying and sweet (no, I'm not talking about Mister Meatball himself). If you're looking for a good wine to spread on your toast in the morning, this is it. I half expected that a nero d'avola might overwhelm the meatballs and clash with the sauce, but none of us were prepared for the train wreck of this pairing. Avoid.

8. Fèlsina Fontalloro, Toscana 1995
For those who find it unfair that we included a mature wine of class and elegance in a tasting of mostly value wines, I agree. But Mister Meatball insisted we open this bottle that he had been cellaring for quite some time. Who am I to argue? The Fontalloro was a classic example of mature sangiovese - all cherry, leather and cocoa powder with fine grained tannins and refreshing acidity. Not only was the wine a pleasure to drink, it elevated the humble meatballs to a thing of shimmering beauty and elegance. Unfair, yes. But at that point, nobody cared.

As for the Carlo Rossi Burgundy, well, let me put it this way: I would much prefer an opportunity to while away an afternoon with Meatball and his sweet uncle under that grapevine of his.

One day, perhaps.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Corn soup with fennel pollen

Blink and you might as well move along. Because you will miss this recipe entirely, I promise you. It's that quick.

Two hours ago I hadn't even thought of making this soup. And though I just referred to "this recipe," that might be a bit of a stretch. Look, I was at a local farm stand and they had some pretty decent-looking corn. Soon there won't be any corn left around here and so I grabbed six ears.

My associate had already prepared a lovely vitello tonnato for dinner, and so I moved fast to get the corn used while it's still fresh.

I steamed the corn until it was pretty soft, then shaved off the kernels while they were still warm.

Pulverized the corn in the Vitamix, along with a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of fennel pollen, and that was the end of that. (Here's a source for the fennel pollen if you don't have one.)

And there you go: corn, salt, fennel pollen, that's it.

Gotta go pick out a wine for tonight's veal. Have a good evening.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pasta fazool

There is music inside this pot of beans.

If only I could play it.

One line of the lyric is all that I can muster: Pasta fazool-a make-a weak-a man-a strong.

It is my mother's voice that I hear, and she is singing a tune that her father would sing to her. I have added the "-a"s for authenticity. My grandfather, an immigrant, spoke with a very heavy accent, and his daughter, when mimicking his singing, did her best to achieve her father's countenance.

Not even Uncle Dominic can remember more of the song than I can, and so you are hereby spared any further comment on this topic. (You're welcome.)

Anyway, about the dish. It is pasta and beans. Its proper name is pasta e fagioli. It is perhaps the easiest thing to prepare this side of warming tap water in a saucepan. And, according to the people in my orbit anyway, it is the most comforting bowlful of goodness that you will ever put a spoon to.

I put a spoon to the stuff just a few days back. It was already cold — and rainy — here in Maine (don't get me started) and I was staring at the cannellini beans just harvested from my garden. What can I say? The pasta fazool song came bursting into my brain, and so here we are.

If you know the dish, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't, well, everybody could use a little music in their lives, right?

Pasta e fagioli (Pasta fazool)
Note: This is a big batch, as I had a lot of cannellini beans this year, so please feel free to halve this recipe. Further, I added sausage meat on this occasion. This is not traditional, and resulted only because there were sausages in the fridge that required cooking.

14 cups water
4 cups fresh or dried beans (I used cannellini but any type will do)
6 garlic cloves, lightly smashed
2 Tbsp rosemary
1 piece of rind from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Salt to taste
3 Italian sausage, meat removed from the casings (optional)
1/2 lb. pasta of your choice (I used shells)
Grated cheese and freshly ground black pepper

In a large pot of boiling water add the beans, garlic, rosemary, cheese rind and salt.
About 20 minutes before the beans are cooked to your liking add the sausage meat (if you're using it).
Just before the beans are fully coked, add the pasta and cook until al dente.
In a bowl top with grated cheese and ground pepper and serve.
Sing — or don't sing — my grandfather's song. Makes no difference to me.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Roasted (green) tomato sauce

Be honest. How many tomatoes do you gardeners wind up with every year that look just like this?

Sure, some of them ripen just fine sitting on the kitchen counter or inside a paper bag. But a lot of them don't, and so they wind up not on a plate but in the compost pile.

I have an intimate knowledge of this topic, believe me. Every year I shepherd two to three dozen tomato plants through the short, confounding Maine summer. And every year I can count on one thing: that I will harvest almost as many tomatoes that look like this as any other.

There's a reason for this, of course. It's too damned cold up here. A proper tomato season is warm and long, and warm and long is something that Maine summers do not do so well. Hell, it's been in the 50s overnight here for a couple weeks already.

Of course, there was also that "weather event" a little more than a week ago. One of the most important things that I did to prepare for Hurricane Irene was not boarding up the windows or tying down the lawn ornaments. It was heading over to my garden with lots of heavy canvas bags so that I could harvest the many as-yet-unripe tomatoes that were at risk of being damaged by the storm. Between Irene and the oncoming change of season I think I wound up with thirty pounds of unripe tomatoes last week.

Lucky for me, I have a friend named Joe, whose mission in life is to spread useful knowledge to anybody who will listen to him. Largely this knowledge centers around world travel, as that is Joe's specialty, but my friend is versed in topics far afield as well.

Joe knows tomatoes, for instance. And he knew what to do with the pounds and pounds of unripe tomatoes that I was saddled with. (I don't do fried green tomatoes, okay, so save the suggestion for somebody else.)

I would never in a million years have guessed it, but Joe told me to make a sauce.

Yes, a sauce. With green tomatoes.

Not only did he tell me what to do, he provided me with a recipe, one provided to him by his lovely wife Joel. It is a good recipe. I know this because I tried it. Twice. Joe wanted me to pass along Joel's recipe to all of you, which I am very happy to do.

I am happy because the recipe allows you to take tomatoes that look like this...

...and turn them into a rich-tasting, very satisfying, all-purpose tomato sauce that looks like this.

Late-season tomato picking here in Maine will never again be the same. 

It will be a lot better.

Joel Ann Rea's Roasted Tomato Sauce

4 to 8 pounds of fresh tomatoes, cored and quartered or loosely chopped
1 onion, roughly chopped
3 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled and split (Joel uses 5 to 7, but she and Joe love garlic)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, or enough to coat ingredients
Salt and pepper to taste
Red pepper flakes to taste
10 to 12 basil leaves, chopped (reserve to add after cooking)

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees F.
In heavy Dutch oven, place tomatoes, onion and garlic. Add olive oil and stir. Season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste.
Place in oven and roast for 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours (check and stir when you begin to smell the sauce, then keep roasting until you like the look and feel). 
When sauce reaches desired consistency, remove from oven. Lightly mash tomato mixture with heavy spoon or potato masher, then add basil and stir.
Serve over pasta, to top fish or chicken, or as side dish. Sauce flavor deepens deliciously over 1 to 3 days while refrigerated. Can also be frozen.

Note from Joel: This works well with any variety of tomato and is great with a mixture of types, from fully ripe to green off the vine. Cherry, midget, pear and grape varieties also work well, just add whole.
Note from Meatball: I used a fair number of green tomatoes and found it necessary to add a little sugar to bring things into balance.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Aunt Anna's baked clams

I'm gonna get smacked for this.

Not for sharing my aunt's recipe, but for showing you her picture. My mother's only sister is not the type to bask in the glow of (loving) attention or praise.

But I can't help myself. Anna makes the most amazing baked clams. They are the first thing we eat at the Christmas Eve dinner table and the most-requested food item when the whole family gets together each August.

What am I supposed to do, pretend that these rituals don't exist? Because my aunt's a little shy? 

It's not like she hasn't given me a good head smack before, you know. I can take it.

Besides, I get a lot of requests for my own baked clams recipe. And I'm getting tired of having to explain to people that I don't have one. Come to think of it, I have never baked a clam in my entire life. And if I did decide to bake some, I would just call my aunt and ask her how she makes hers so that I could maybe have a shot at producing the taste that I crave.

These are Anna's clams. Sadly, this August came and went without the annual family weeklong gathering, and so the next chance I will have to enjoy my aunt's baked clams is still another four months away.

I really cannot wait.

Anna's baked clams

2 dozen cherrystone clams, shucked (leave the clams whole)
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 Tbsp grated cheese
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 cup clam juice
2 Tbsp olive oil

In a bowl mix together the bread crumbs, cheese, garlic and parsley.
Place a light layer of the mixture on each clam in the half shell.
In a separate bowl mix together the clam juice and olive oil, then put a scant teaspoon onto each clam. 
Place the clams under the broiler for around 5 minutes, or until the topping is nicely browned.