Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Broccoli rabe with potatoes

One night when I was a boy I rolled out of bed in the middle of the night and crushed the back of my skull on the sharp corner of a massive cast iron radiator. We're talking actual trauma here, folks. The dent that it left on the back of my head is still there. 

I tell you this because it is perhaps the only way to explain why I never put these two vegetables together before today. 

Seems my brother Joe has been right all these years. I really did get a lot less smart after that head cracking.

And so I'll thank one Julia della Croce for setting me straight in this vegetative matter. In her very nice cookbook, Italian Home Cooking, there is a recipe called "Viola Buitoni's Sauteed Broccoli Rapini with Potatoes." 

The only thing that kept me from smacking myself upside the head when I came upon this brilliant joining of two vegetables was the fear of doing any more damage than already has been done. 

This is simple stuff we're talking about. You boil a couple of potatoes and peel them after they've cooled. Just don't let them get soft, because you'll be cutting them into pieces for frying later.

Take a mess of whole garlic cloves and saute them nice and slow in olive oil, then set aside. While you're doing this, take a bunch of broccoli rabe, chop it into 3-inch pieces, cook in salted water for about 5 minutes and drain.

Fry the potatoes until golden. Then add in the rabe and garlic to the pan, season with salt and pepper, and mix together thoroughly.

Are we talking head-smacking material here or what?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Homemade espresso soda

If I drink more than a six-pack of soft drinks in a year, that's a lot. Odd considering that I grew up mixing all kinds of sodas in my family's fountain service store in East New York.

But when my friend Dante shipped me a really swell beverage carbonator a few weeks back, for the purpose of trying my hand at carbonated cocktails, all I was able to think about was making some soda.

And not just any soda. It had to be this one: Manhattan Special.

Not exactly a household name, I know. But they've been making this stuff since 1895. The company that produces it is still family owned, and the manufacturing plant is where it has always been: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Here's a story the Times did a while back.

I used to drink a ton of Manhattan Special (we just called it "coffee soda") when I was a kid, but now only treat myself to a taste occasionally. 

Dante's very cool gift seemed the right occasion. (Sorry, man, but I don't do cocktails. I'm a straight-up kinda guy when it comes to my whiskey.)

So, here you've got the contraption. It's called Twist 'n Sparkle.

It's a snap to use. All you do is insert a CO2 cartridge into this wand here, then drop the wand into the plastic bottle.

When you screw the wand into the bottle the gas is automatically released from the cartridge. To make my coffee soda I brewed about three and a half cups of espresso in a regular coffee maker and added 6 tablespoons of sugar. The sugar part was a little hard to cope with, as I never use it in my coffee. Oh, and the whole thing needed to be chilled before carbonating.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I wound up with a drink that really was very close to the original. I think that if I played around with the coffee-to-sugar ratio a bit more I might even get it precisely right.

Or, I could just head on over to Williamsburg and get the real thing. 

Tough call.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

There will be blood

You can blame my cousin John for this.

I do.

The guy just had to go and tell me about the "pig's blood cookies" that our grandfather used to like so damned much.

I love my family, I do. But sometimes...

I'm not gonna torture you here, okay. I used real pig's blood in this dessert. There are pictures that I took along the way, but I'm not going to show them to you. (Hey, I put a lot of effort into attracting readers, not begging them to stay the hell away from me.)

What we'll do here is just stick to the facts and move along.

First of all, my cousin John's memory may not be entirely reliable. It's more likely that our grandfather enjoyed not a "blood cookie" but a blood pudding served with cookies. That's the way our Aunt Anna remembers it. And much as I respect my cousin, he would have been just a child at the time.

Tradition also supports my aunt's theory. A dessert known as sanguinaccio dolce (basically a blood pudding that's made to be sweet) goes back generations in Italian culture. And it is often served with some type of crisp cookie.

My version of sanguinaccio dolce is anything but traditional, in method or spirit. In my grandfather's day the blood used to make the pudding would have come from freshly slaughtered pigs, because it was considered wrong to waste any part of an animal killed for food. I got my pig's blood out of the freezer case at a local Asian market; it came from New Jersey. My motives weren't so honorable either: An unusual-sounding food became known to me (thanks to my rotten cousin) and so I simply had to try it.

I also learned that this pudding often is associated with Carnevale. And so today being the final day of the annual celebration ("Fat Tuesday" as it's know in the U.S.) I decided to make a batch of sanguinaccio dolce and get this whole matter behind me once and for all. I searched far and wide for a recipe but wound up winging it a little, just so that I could make as small a batch as I could.

I don't expect a single one of you to try making this. I doubt that I will again. Not because it doesn't taste good. It does. In fact, the taste is very rich, maybe even a bit too rich.

It's just that even the modern Italians have largely moved away from this ancient preparation, and I can't see a good reason why I would want to hold fast to it.

I'm not so sure my grandfather would have either.

Sanguinaccio Dolce

1 cup pig's blood
1 cup milk
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup almonds, chopped fine
1/4 cup hazelnuts, chopped fine
1/2 cup dark chocolate
1/2 cup milk chocolate
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves

Run the blood through a sieve and then add it to the milk in a double boiler over medium heat.
Stir in the spices and sugar.
Add the nuts and the chocolate and stir.
When the pudding is the consistency of heavy cream remove it from the stovetop, pour into a bowl and refrigerate until cold.
Serve in bowls with crisp cookies of your choice.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Carmellini's 'best' osso bucco

This year I hosted not one but two ladies on Valentine's Day. Shyster Jersey Lawyer Friend came by the casa, see, and I had been earlier made wise to the fact that she was desirous of some meat. (Pasta is what the woman normally seeks, preferably the homemade variety, so as to require the maximum amount of effort on my part.)

Shyster's desires provided an opportunity to try a recipe that I had been eyeing for some time: "The Best Veal Osso Bucco," from Andrew Carmellini's cookbook, "Urban Italian."

I know. Where does he get off, right?

Except that the only other recipe in the chef's book that receives such a designation is "The Best Gnocchi." I've made it. And he's right. I told him so just recently, outside the men's at his newest restaurant in New York, The Dutch. I'll show the gnocchi to you here sometime, you'll see. They're fantastic.

If you enjoy osso bucco and are in the market for an interesting way to prepare it, this recipe certainly is that. The liquid that the veal is cooked in is two parts chicken stock, one part freshly squeezed orange juice. There's only one diced tomato to be found, something you wouldn't guess from looking at the final outcome. (Hint: strands of saffron were seen in the vicinity while I was cooking and pounding back a Booker's.)

Anyway, the full recipe is reprinted below. Here are just some of the steps along the way.

First, the well-seasoned veal is seared on both sides in a dutch oven over high heat, then removed.

Then the carrots, celery, onion, garlic and such get to work. And also the tomato and a little flour.

There's white wine in here too, and once it evaporates some, it's time to bring back the veal.

Some more herbs, and lemon peel are added at this point, and then the stock and the orange juice. Next stop is the oven.

Two hours later and this is what you've got. (Actually, two hours and a full day later is when it was eaten. This kind of dish always tastes better after it has sat in the fridge overnight, and so I made this the day before V-Day.)

Is it the best osso bucco I've ever had? No. But it's definitely among the top five.

The ladies liked it a whole lot. Which is what mattered.

The Best Veal Osso Bucco
Adapted from "Urban Italian," by Andrew Carmellini and Gwen Hyman

4 pieces veal osso bucco (about 3lbs total)
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp course-ground black pepper
2 tbsp plus 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 small carrot, chopped (1/2 cup)
1 medium onion, chopped (1 cup)
1 stalk celery, chopped (1/2 cup)
2 garlic cloves, whole
1 large tomato, chopped (1 cup)
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 1/2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white wine
a pinch of saffron (about 10 threads)
juice of 3 oranges (about 1 cup)
2 dried bay leaves
1 sprig fresh thyme (or 1/2 tsp dried)
1 sprig fresh rosemary (or 1/2 tsp dried)
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp whole fennel seed
2 cups chicken broth
3 to 4 curls lemon peel

1. Preheat the oven to 375F.
2. Season both sides of the osso bucco with the salt and pepper.
3. Heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a large pot over high heat. Add the osso bucco and brown on both sides, about 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Remove the osso bucco from the pot and reserve it. Leave the pot on the stove over high heat.
5. Add the remaining olive oil to the pot, and then add the the carrot, onion, and celery. Stir well and allow the vegetables to soften and caramelize, about 4 minutes. Be sure to scrape the brown bits from the bottom and sides of the pot as you go.
6. Add garlic, tomato and tomato paste. Mix and cook until the tomato softens, about 1 minute.
7. Add the flour and stir until ingredients are well combined, about 1 minute.
8. Add the wine and allow it to evaporate just until the mixture becomes a loose paste, 1 to 2 minutes.
9. Stir in the saffron and orange juice. Return the osso bucco to the pot and turn the heat to low. Coat the meat in the sauce.
10. Tie the bay leaves, tyme and rosemary together with butcher's string (so that it can be removed easily before serving) and add to the pot; then add the red pepper flakes, fennel seed, broth and lemon peel.
11. Cover the pot and bring the liquid to a low boil, then put the pot in the oven and cook at a lazy bubble for about 2 hours. Flip the meat over at the halfway point. It is done and ready to serve when fork tender. But the flavors will enhance if left in the fridge overnight and reheated the next day, so consider making this dish a day in advance.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

How to make panettone

My friend Tom has spent much of his professional life learning and writing about food. Several times a week he attends elaborate dinners at some of the country's best restaurants and hotels. The food he is accustomed to sampling at these events is prepared by some very talented chefs.

And so it might surprise you to learn that, in some matters culinary, my friend can be a real pinhead.

He won't eat Asian food of any type because his mommy used to feed him crappy Chinese takeout when he was really really little. Nor will he eat seafood except under duress, also something he blames on his poor mother.

But it is on the matter of panettone where my friend and I have often come close to blows. Tom's position has always been that he never met a box of the Italian sweet bread that he has liked. And that because of this one does not exist.

"Why not just eat the cardboard box that it comes in?" he has said to me many times when we visit over the holidays. "It's just as dry and doesn't have the calories."

Except that this past holiday season Tom showed up at my doorstep one afternoon with a grin on his ugly kisser and a half-eaten panettone tumbling out from his backpack.

"I don't know why you say this stuff is so dry," he teased while releasing the fragrant bread from its plastic wrap. "This is delicious. And moist!

"Hell, Meatball, I might even bake it for you one of these days."

Turns out that he did. And he didn't.

Yesterday I received not a box of bread from Tom but an email with photographs. Of the panettone that he had made for... Who the hell cares, it wasn't for me.

I had to settle for the instructions on how to make one of my favorite breads. And so will you.

Just one thing about the recipe, in case you ever think about trying it yourself. Tom used the King Arthur Flour Panettone Recipe but fiddled with it some. He tells me he'd feel a lot better if people went with the King's recipe, and I'd have to admit that I would too.

This is the biga, a starter of flour, water and a small amount of yeast, which fermented for about 14 hours.

The biga is added to a mixture containing flour, eggs, butter, flavorings, yeast, sugar and grated nutmeg. This gets kneaded in a machine with a dough hook for five minutes and then finished by hand for another two minutes. The dough should be silky, not sticky.

After the dough rests for an hour, flatten into a rectangle and add golden raisins and candied orange peel.

Knead the fruit into the dough.

Tom doesn't have a panettone pan, so he used the pot that he uses for his morning oatmeal. The pan was buttered and lined with parchment so that it could rise above the pan's height. The dough doubled in size.

Here's the finished loaf after peeling away the parchment. Looks just like it came out of a fancy box from Milano, no?

The crust, says my friend, was crisp and buttery, the crumb dense but well textured. The flavor? Spot on. Unique in the way that only panettone can be.

Not bad for a pinhead, I guess.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

D. Coluccio & Sons, Brooklyn

I never met Dominic Coluccio, but I know that I would have liked him. A lot.

The business he founded more than half a century ago is among my favorite specialty food shops on the planet: D. Coluccio & Sons, on 60th St. at 12th Ave., in Brooklyn, New York.

It's where I buy many of my most crucial staples: Italian cheeses and pasta flours and tomatoes and olives and figs and chickpea flour and salted fish and dried beans and anchovies and polenta and candies and a lot of other things. Virtually all of it comes from Italy. Coluccio's isn't just a food store; in fact, it's largely an importer and a wholesaler.

This is no "New Brooklyn" yuppie hangout, friends. It's the real deal. Old school. English is a second language here. I'm not kidding. Listen to the shoppers walking the aisles and waiting at the cheese counter; many, if not most, parlano Italiano.

I love this place!

The only thing that I don't get is how far under the radar it flies. I know lifelong New Yorkers who had never heard of Coluccio's until I mentioned it to them. Some even live in Brooklyn. Recently one of my crew had to inform the chef/owner of a very fine (and known) Manhattan restaurant of Coluccio's existence; in a matter of days the chef was an enthusiastic and loyal customer.

Shop there. Don't shop there. Makes no difference to me. Just don't ever say that I didn't try and steer you right. Because I just did.

This is only a portion of the pasta aisle. If you are looking for a particular type or shape of dried pasta and it isn't here, then maybe it only exists in your imagination.

It's rare that I have to buy flours anyplace else. When I make fresh pasta I use a combination of flours, one of them a very fine semolina that I can only find here. The chickpea flour for making farinata? It's right here. So are a few different types of polenta that I like.

Italian chestnuts, along with any other fresh nut you may desire.

Dried beans and lentils. The store has about every type you could ever need.

What did I tell you? Even some of the signage is in Italian. (It's tomato paste, by the way.)

"The Captain" (aka, my favorite cheesemonger) dives into a can of salted fish.

Speaking of which, this is how the front of the store looked around the holidays. Good luck finding a place that stocks more varieties of dry salted fish.

Rarely do I get out of the store without a pound or two of these peppers.

I'd have to say that the cheeses might be the store's biggest draw for me. These are just some of the many hard Italian cheeses Coluccio's carries, and there are plenty of others as well. Want to taste a real burrata — from Italy? That's a very difficult find in the U.S., but  you can get it here sometimes. The Parmigiano-Reggiano at Coluccio's is excellent and very well priced (trust me, I go through a ton of it). And if you have never had a real Romano cheese (like, from Rome, where not much is produced) then you must try a chunk of the Genuino Romano. It's another thing you can't find very often, but you can always get it here.

You don't go to Coluccio's to get sliced meats, you go for whole salami and hunks of prosciutto or pancetta, like that. Hey, what can I tell you? They don't do slices.

This Nutella is different than the kind you see around the country. Because it's in a real glass jar and because it's made in Italy. Coluccio's imports every size jar, even the 11-pound (plastic) monster on the right.

Bakers take note: There's a ridiculous variety of flavorings in stock. I tried to count them all but The Captain had a very important question about my cheese order and so I had to run.

Frozen sfogliatelle and cannoli cream from Cannoli Plus. I hate to break this to you but a lot of pastry shops buy their stuff this way instead of making it themselves.

And so consider this an enthusiastic recommendation to stop by the store should you be in the area.

If you happen to run into Louis Coluccio or his father Luigi, tell them the Meatball sent you. And that I'll be by to see them again real soon.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The colors of coffee

These are my parents. It is their wedding day. Mom wore a blue dress, dad a grey sport jacket. Nothing fancy.

You can see by the classic Neopolitan (flip and drip) espresso pot that their celebration is nearing its completion. It is how a lot of our family gatherings end, even today.

You may not think anything mysterious or unusual here. However, listen to the language and then decide.

"Do you want brown coffee," members of my family will ask at meal's end, "or demitasse?"

This is when first-time guests begin to scour the room, searching for a kindly face who might provide them with a freaking clue.

Literally, you are being asked to choose between a hot American coffee and an empty "half cup," or demitasse. It's a French word. Why my Italian-American family used it so determinedly I cannot say.

Practically, of course, my people would never be so rude as to offer a person, well, nothing. What they are really asking is whether you would like a regular coffee or an espresso that is served in a demitasse.

As time has passed the language has changed somewhat. Rarely is the French term employed, but neither is the proper espresso.

"Brown coffee or black?" became quite commonly used, or the even simpler "Brown or black?" Once it became evident that brown attracted more takers, a simple "Black?" whispered to those who exhibited such tendencies sufficed.

I align myself strongly with the whispered-to crowd. Even my house "brown," sourced from the same small coffee roaster in Brooklyn for many years, is, at my direction, 80 percent espresso beans.

Which, as you might imagine, can make the brown versus black coffee debate a murky topic around my house. 

And don't even get me started again on the whole demitasse thing.