Thursday, October 28, 2010

There is no joy at 30,000 feet

Some years back I had occasion to spend a morning with the head chef of a major airline caterer. This was in Dallas, if memory serves.

We toured a hangar-sized kitchen, inspected meals being prepared, rode around in a golf cart observing food deliveries to various aircraft; just your average shift for a guy responsible to feed tens of thousands of (largely dissatisfied) customers every day.

I do not recall much of our conversation, but will never in my life forget that poor man's face when I joked about a particularly heinous dish we happened to be tasting.

"You have heard of garlic," I said forcing down a limp, pale (egg?) noodle in a sauce that only an airline or a Third World penal facility could fathom. "Right, chef?"

I smiled broadly, to reinforce the innocent nature of my jest.

The chef did not smile. Not at all.

"No, no, garlic is not good," he cried loudly and in a stern Eastern European manner that could chill a peperoncino. "Cauliflower also is not good. To me the two are the same. Exactly the same. No difference whatsoever. Not to me."

Just then a younger man in his employ approached and the two chefs stepped away, possibly to plan their escape from the half-witted visitor who was unaware that garlic and cauliflower grew from the same seed.

I sweated over this, strategized as to how I might undo the offense, but when Chef returned moments later he had, mercifully, recovered from his agitated state.

"Where were we... oh yes, the garlic," he began. "It smells. Many people do not care for its odor. Same is true with cauliflower."

He smiled in a way that suggested we were pals once more.

"Remember that my dining room is a pressurized cabin into which the huddled masses march," he went on, pointing to the dozen or so aircraft in our sight.

"The food must be for everyone, you see. And so, it is for noone."

A European philosopher trapped inside an airport kitchen in Texas.


I thought about Chef the other evening. I was explaining to a friend (let's just call her Afflicted Person 1, shall we) my method of calculating the amount of garlic that I use when working from a recipe that is not my own. It's a formula actually, though I'll admit it isn't scientific. It's pretty hard to describe, too, now that I think about it, let alone follow.

Hell, it isn't a formula at all, okay. All I do is double, triple or quadruple the garlic, depending on the recipe and what I determine to be its author's culinary sensibility. I've probably used more garlic than that even — further proof, if you needed any, that my whole formula idea is just a load of crap.

I like the stuff, okay. And feel sympathy for people who either don't like it, or (I can barely say it) choose not to make very much use of it. (That means you, AP1.)

Perhaps more than any single food item, garlic gives me the most joy. Counting the heads that have passed through my hands would be like trying to determine how many meatballs I've eaten. Don't waste your time. I already have tried, and it nearly drove me to madness.

But the main reason old Chef blew into my brain that night was the dish I was preparing. He would not have approved of the recipe. Not in his mile-high dining room, he wouldn't have. Just no possible way.

I present to you the spaghetti nero di seppia con aglio e cavolfiore (squid ink spaghetti with both garlic AND cauliflower).

I'm guessing the huddled masses won't be marching through my dining room anytime soon.

Spaghetti with garlic and cauliflower
4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
8-10 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 small hot pepper, chopped fine
4 anchovy fillets (Chef would not approve of this either)
1 small cauliflower
1/2 lb. pasta (I used the squid ink but any kind will do)
Parmigiano-Reggiano for grating

In a pot suitable to boil the pasta, cook the cauliflower in well-salted water until done to your liking. Remove the cauliflower but keep the water boiling; start cooking the pasta in the same water.
In a pan large enough to accommodate the cauliflower and pasta, saute the garlic, pepper and anchovies in the oil for a couple minutes, then add the cauliflower and incorporate.
When the pasta is a minute away from being done add it to the pan on high heat (but be sure not to toss away all the pasta water).
Add a ladle or two of the water to the pan, depending on how moist you like your pasta, and quickly mix everything together.
Plate and top with grated cheese to taste.

Pasta and Cauliflower Recipe - on Foodista

Monday, October 25, 2010

Focaccia quickie

This focaccia was a last-minute kind of deal. Thing is, it was stunningly good, and so probably worth a quick mention.

It's topped with chopped kalamata olives, sun dried tomatoes, feta cheese, extra virgin olive oil and whatever spices happened to be within reach.

It cooked in an olive oil-soaked baking pan for about fifteen minutes at 500 degrees, give or take. The bottom crust was perfect: crisp and a little bit oily, the way I like.

Here's how it looked before getting sliced up.

I can get used to this bread-baking thing.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The lunatic is in the hall

I indulge my friends far too much.

Tom especially. The guy's too lazy to start his own blog, see, and figures he can just use mine anytime he wants. Like when he read my Lasagne alla Bolognese post a couple weeks back. He just had to make his own. And then show everybody.

I must put a stop to this, I know. But until the doctors get his meds straightened out I don't want to upset the guy, know what I mean? Just go ahead and click on some other link, let me do this thing so we don't have another "incident" with my friend.

I'll be back next week.

TOM: I swear it's a coincidence. Key Food had a sale on ricotta, a big tub of the stuff, and the best way to use it up is in lasagne. I mean if you don't use bechamel. Thought you might be interested in my non-Italo take.

MM: Lasagne, what a great idea, Tom. Good for you. Glad to see you doing so well.

TOM: Good lasagne starts out with fresh pasta. Note the curly edge; that's difficult to achieve.

MM: Yes, difficult, I can see that. How about we sing a song together, would you like that? "Ronzoni sono buoni. Ronzoni tastes so good." Wasn't that fun?

TOM: Two staples in my version are sweet potatoes (good for you, a superveg) and chorizo (well-known to prep cooks working in the best Italian restaurants in NYC). Si, Senor Meatball.

MM: Are you really supposed to be playing with knives, Tommy? Is Beth around? Let me speak to her for a second.

TOM: Layered in the dish with celery, red pepper, green olives. Lots of color. (Note the traditional Italian seasonings.)

MM: Seasonings, right. Now, I want you to stay away from the Bon Ami next to your pasta maker, okay. It's not for eating.

TOM: No bechamel in this lasagne, just plenty of ricotta spooned straight from the tub. There's some of that rubbery mozzarella in there too, and gratings of real Parmesan from Argentina.

MM: That's great, Tommy. Tell me again, what time do we need to be at that nice doctor's office today?

TOM: The finished dish. Come on, looks good, right? Tasty too. Ask Toby.

MM: Looks wonderful. Can't wait to try some. (Toby, for those who are not aware, is a stuffed bear.)

TOM: Of course I have half a tub of ricotta left. Maybe make a real Italo cheesecake? With sweet potatoes?

MM: Yes, do that.

(No, do not send me the pics.)


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Being Stephen Lanzalotta

I am not a baker.

But, you may be aware, I have this cool new wood-burning oven in the backyard, and I just had to give it a try.

Thing is, the idea was to evaluate the oven's bread-making abilities, not mine. And so rather than bumbling through a dough recipe I'd be unfamiliar with, I headed over to the most gifted bread/pizza maker in town and procured a blob of his dough.

Note to local readers: It's Lanzalotta's, from the bakery out back of Micucci, the same dough used for the Sicilian Slab and the Luna bread.

Note to everybody else: Save the indignation over copping out on the dough prep for somebody who cares. I already know I'm a spaz with the yeasty, floury stuff. Why torture myself?

Soon as I laid eyes on the blob I knew I was in good hands. It smelled swell enough to eat, and felt like a wet cloud of puffy, doughy goodness.

Did I mention the new pizza peels I bought? The wood one's for sliding stuff into The Inferno.

And the metal one's for taking stuff out.

I laughed. I cried.

Then I ate the whole freaking thing.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dante's Excellent Inferno

(A Divine Comedy In a Single Act of Self Indulgence)

Behold, the new toy.

I may go straight to Hell for luring it to my home. An extravagant, ridiculous, totally unnecessary acquisition in times such as these.

More likely I may go directly to cousin Jennifer's. She is a chiropractor. Nearly six hundred pounds this beast weighs. (Yes, I went and picked it up.)

It is a wood-fired oven. And it now lives in the backyard, on the brick patio just outside of the kitchen. It is a good oven, constructed of steel and firebrick and stone. The built-in thermometer monitors temperatures as high as 900 degrees Fahrenheit. I built a very small fire the day after unveiling The Inferno and the temp shot to 600 degrees in the time it took to get Jen on the line and alert her that I might require her healing hands.

This particular oven (the QX-B from Quintessential) might still be 90 miles away, on the showroom floor, if not for a man I have never met (you know, like, in person) but whose influence on me has been profound and, I assume, lasting.

His name? Read the headline, would you? I'm not clever enough to make this stuff up.

Dante, you see, is the brother-in-law of my friend Joe. He owns the same oven, has for about a year. When I mentioned to Joe that I might build a brick-and-mortar oven with my own two (rapidly softening) hands, he hooked me up with Dante, correctly deducing that should a simpler option present itself I might be tempted by it.

(Dante, by the way, goes by "Dan," but for purposes of this discussion, you have to agree, that just simply will not do. Dan's Inferno? C'mon.)

Neither my friend nor his brother-in-law are the easiest men to track down, as they are more frequently traveling in the air than hoofing it on sea level. And yet, for a few days, the three of us were in almost constant electronic communication — all because of my interest in a wood-fired outdoor oven I neither needed nor had any business owning. (A generous associate of mine could rightly argue the oven's rightful ownership, but that is another story entirely.)

I have no idea how many airports, planes, taxicabs, cities, even sovereign nations may have hosted our three-way culinary gabfests. I don't want to know.

I do know this. My inbox in those days was lousy with many wonderfully enthusiastic, thoughtful emails from my newest friend, Dan. 

There was this one, for instance:

I was sold on this oven when I saw three of them being demo'd side by side. One was at 600 degrees and they were doing a thin-crust pizza. The second was at around 400 and they were roasting a turkey. The third was at about 275 and they were smoking a pork butt.

Or this, after I'd expressed particular interest in the oven's pizza-making prowess:

I actually use the oven more for roasting meat than for pizza. It's a must-have for big, hulking pieces of animal flesh such as beef rib roasts, bone-in pork roasts and turkeys. It does make stellar pizza, depending on the temperature, humidity and how many black handprints my wife wants in the kitchen.

And, finally, this:

Not to oversell the thing, but this oven has changed my life. Best impulsive/expensive food purchase ever!

And so here we are — and here we go. To the first of (hopefully) many wood oven-cooked meals, spaghetti alla chitarra with mahogany clams.

Before The Inferno. (The spaghetti is only partially cooked, then tossed with olive oil, garlic, pepper, clam juice and a little pasta water. Oh, and the clams.)

And after.

If this is what Hell is like...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Two men and a mushroom

The autumn before John left us, he and I devoted an entire day to the funghi. We hiked in the woods much of the morning, the dogs at our sides, and we filled a worn canvas sack with any specimens John believed to be edible.

Occasionally his opinion clashed with that of the Audubon Society's "Field Guide to North American Mushrooms," which we carried with us. And this invariably led to the darkest kind of humor.

"What's it gonna do, kill me?" he'd say of a particularly frightful-looking specimen.

I'd laugh along, of course. Under the circumstances what else was there to do?

The afternoon was devoted to eating what we'd gathered. John fired up the hibachi in his backyard, I went across the street and bought the butter he needed and a couple six-packs of beers I thought he might like to try. When I got back to his place John was standing next to the chicken coop he'd built, a bird in one arm, the Audubon guide in the other.

Why is it that life's best photographs exist only in our memories?

"I'm not sure about all of these," John said of the rinsed mushrooms now sunning themselves on his creaky wood deck. "But I think we'll be okay. We'll see."

"It's your party," I said handing him a bottle I'd opened for him. "Now, tell me again. How many times have you done this exactly?"

"Hm, that's good beer," is all he said.

I had already decided that, no matter what, I would consume every mushroom that my friend consumed — no exceptions — and that is exactly what I did that day. The preparation couldn't have been more rudimentary: a hot grill doused with plenty of butter, throw on a few 'shrooms (eight or ten different types in all, I'd say), a little salt and pepper, that's it. Four or five batches of these we did until the funghi and most of the beers were gone.

I'm not in the business of serious storytelling, and so I'll be brief and allow you to be on your way. I survived John's crazy Festa di Funghi, and am, as you can see, still here to tell of it.

John isn't here anymore, but not because of the mushrooms. I still hike through the woods looking for them and, okay, for him, sometimes. But I don't carry the Audubon guide anymore and I don't pick the mushrooms anymore either. I've tried to, believe me. I just can't bring myself to without my friend.

They are awfully nice to look at, though, and so I just make due with that. And then try to move on.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Lasagne alla Bolognese

Heading out for a few days, to a land where they don't know from wireless, and so here's something for you to eat while I'm gone.

If you're not interested (That so?), or aren't hungry (The hell you doing here then?) do me a favor and toss it in the fridge. I'll have it when I get back.

I made you the pasta. (You're welcome.)

And the Bolognese sauce. (Pleasure.)

Bechamel, of course. (Piece of cake.)

The laying on of the pasta sheets. (A spiritual moment, no?)

Until I ran out of room. (And sauce.)