Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Garlic, vinegar, cheese, oh my!

I'm headed out for the first bike trip of the season. (In the rain, yeah. Don't ask.)

While I'm out there dodging the raindrops and the text-while-you-drive idiots and the 80 mph trucks that forever conspire to ruin me, here is a dish you might find comforting in the days ahead.

It is one of my faves, this bowl of pasta. As soon as I laid eyes on the recipe, a dozen or so years ago now, I knew it was for me. The book in which it resides, Lynne Rossetto Kasper's "The Splendid Table," is worth having on the shelf. All the recipes are from Italy's Emilia-Romagna region and there isn't a clunker in the lot. The pasta recipes alone, 56 in all, are worth the price of admission.

Anyhow, I need to get going. Have a good Memorial Day weekend. And be happy that you are in the comfort of your home, smelling the lovely garlic braising on the stovetop, instead of slogging through the slick New England highways and backroads with a meatball like me.

Pasta with Braised Garlic and Balsamic Vinegar
Recipe adapted from "The Splendid Table," by Lynne Rossetto Kasper

3 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
8 large cloves garlic, cut into 1/4-inch dice
6 quarts salted water
1 pound pasta
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 to 1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
8 to 10 tsps artisan-made or high-quality commercial balsamic vinegar (if using commercial, blend in 1 teaspoon brown sugar) [NOTE: If you're not willing to spend big bucks on super high quality balsamic, or take Kasper's advice about the brown sugar, don't bother making this. —MM] 

Working Ahead: The garlic can be braised up to 8 hours ahead. Set it aside, covered, at room temperature. The dish is best finished and eaten right away.

Braising the Garlic: In a large heavy skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons oil over medium-low heat. Add the garlic, and lower the heat to the lowest possible setting. Cook, covered, 5 minutes. Uncover and continue cooking over the lowest possible heat 8 minutes, or until the garlic is barely colored to pale blond and very tender. Stir it frequently with a wooden spatula. Do not let the garlic turn medium to dark brown, as it will be bitter.

Cooking the Pasta: Warm a serving bowl and shallow soup dishes in a low oven. As the garlic braises, bring the salted water to a fierce boil, and drop in the pasta. Stir occasionally. Cook only a few moments for fresh pasta, and up to 10 minutes for dried pasta. Taste for doneness, making sure the pasta is tender but still firm to the bite. Spoon about 3 tablespoons of the cooking water into the cooked garlic just before draining the pasta. Drain in a colander.

Finishing and Serving: Remove the garlic from the heat and add the hot drained pasta. Toss with two wooden spatulas. Season with salt and pepper. Now toss with all of the cheese. Turn into the heated serving bowl. As you serve the pasta, sprinkle each plateful with a teaspoon or two of the vinegar.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Portland's Best Eats

The emails are just starting to come in. It happens around this time of year, as Maine's spring/summer visitors begin to make their plans. "Coming your way... where to eat?" is a common heading in the subject line. So is "Hungry, need advice," and the ever popular and always appreciated, "Help? Dinner's on us!" (Sometimes people actually make good on the claim.)

Normally I answer requests for dining ideas individually, but this year I've decided to be smart and put everything all in one place. A couple things to know up front, though: I've confined these suggestions almost exclusively to downtown Portland locations. This isn't a complete listing either. Some fine restaurants (Hugo'sBrescaBack Bay GrillEmilitsa) are absent, but only because I haven't been to them in awhile and prefer not to pretend that I have. By all means, look them up.

Bottom line? These are the places where I bring my own visitors when they come to Portland. No matter who's picking up the tab.

Best new restaurant
Petite Jacqueline is a French bistro that's owned by the people at the very popular Five Fifty-Five. I much prefer this new place, though I have to admit that I never understood the fuss over 555 in the first place. Jacqueline's food is a lot more honest. It's pretty traditional bistro fare set in equally traditional (casual) surroundings. And the prices ain't bad either. The very nice steak frites is $20, both at lunch and dinner. And the same twenty bucks will buy a full liter-sized carafe of perfectly serviceable house wine (if house wine's your thing, that is). The confit de langue d'agneau (lamb's tongue served over lentils) appetizer is fab, as is the housemade charcuterie (get the pig trotter terrine, it's terrific). The salade lyonnaise may be the best salad in town. And I'm told that the bistro burger ($9) at lunch is quite good.

Best high end meal on the cheap
If you appreciate the finer things but are on a budget, here's how to score a meal session at one of Portland's top two or three restaurants for not much more than going to Applebee's. You head on over to Fore Street and grab a seat at the bar. Then order yourself a platter of the wood oven-roasted mussels prepared with almonds and butter. They've been on the menu since Day One, cost $10, and are terrific. Plus, you'll get a basket of excellent crusty bread from Standard Baking Co. downstairs, which you'll need to sop up the sauce. With a glass of wine or a beer this can actually be a very nice light meal. I've made a night of it myself this way many times.

Best all-day dining spot
The Front Room, in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood, is very hard to beat here. Sure, it's one of only a few places in town that's even open for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. But it's also got good food at very reasonable prices. Some of the things I like here: The potato gnocchi with bacon, spinach, two poached eggs and holandaise ($8) is very good. So are any of the $7 to $9 sandwiches (the BLT is a fave). At dinner, the spaghetti carbonara ($13) isn't always spot on but it can be very good. 

Best ethnic restaurant
Korea House is a family run place in the heart of the "arts district," such as it is, and is well worth a try if you like authentic Korean food. The dolsot bi bim bop ($15.95) is great, but so are most things on the menu. Try the seafood pancake ($15.95) as a shared appetizer, and I always get one of the simply grilled fish, like the mackerel ($13.95). The only downside is that the owners pay little attention to atmosphere, what people in the restaurant trade might refer to as "the concept's packaging." Korea House is strictly a space that has tables and chairs where people eat. If you're looking for high energy or a bar or a venue where things tend to happen, this isn't it. It's at 630 Congress St. (207-771-2000). Runner up: Tu Casa, Portland's only Salvadoran restaurant. I go for the menudo (tripe soup) on Sundays. I don't expect you will, but for good, honest ethnic food, Tu Casa is worth a visit.

Best places to get a banh mi
Whoever it is that runs the PR machine behind this Vietnamese sandwich needs to get a big fat raise. Seems the country is just lousy with banh mi. Portland now has its share of the sandwiches too. We locals rely mostly on two places: Kim's is a takeout joint at 261 Saint John St. (207-774-7165); get the barbecue beef. Saigon is a full-service restaurant, a good one, at 795 Forest Ave. (207-874-6666); I'm partial to their steamed meat banh mi, but the others are also good. Sandwiches at either place will only set you back around $3. Or, for an Americanized version, Nosh Kitchen Bar has a banh mi, with porchetta, for $9.

Best seafood restaurant
First-time visitors imagine Portland as a great seafood town, but the truth is that it isn't even close to being one. Street and Co. is the only seafood place I can even imagine suggesting here. It's been around forever, has gone through some ups and downs, but anybody who thinks there's better seafood in this town isn't paying attention. A sizzling pan of shrimp with butter and garlic over linguine ($21.95) is about as simple as it gets. Some would call that boring, but I call it one of the best dishes in town.

Best place for a brew
If you're an aficionado of fine beer, Novare Res is a must stop when in Portland. The 25 taps are rotating, which keeps the selection ever changing, and the bottle list is 300-plus labels long. The meat and cheese plates are good accompaniments to the brews, and an outdoor deck is secluded and great for hanging out in warm weather. Just one thing: Hours aren't nearly as accommodating as other places in town, usually beginning after the lunch hour or much later even. Check before planning your day around it.

Best burger
I'm gonna give it a tie for now. The bacon cheeseburger ($12) at District comes on a buttered bun, and both the bacon and the fries that come with it are top notch. Over at The Grill Room the burger ($13) is served on focaccia with tomato tapanade, roasted red onion and an absolute mountain of very good fries.

Best big city knockoff
Maine's attempt at mimicking David Chang's astonishingly successful Momofuku comes by way of one of Portland's most innovative chefs, Masa Miyake. Pai Men Miyake is the chef's second restaurant here, and though it's not nearly as interesting as Momofuku menu-wise, it's the closest you're gonna get to such things up this way. At the very least grab a beer at the bar and order the pork buns ($9) as a snack. Miyake's other restaurant, the very fine Miyake Food Factory, is moving to new digs this summer.

Best place to eat breakfast outside
While most other visitors stand in line for just-okay grub at Becky's Diner, you will discover far better food and atmosphere at Porthole. In good weather, the very large outdoor deck on the water makes for a swell morning hangout. And they have a bar.

Best pizza
When my cousins visit from New York they always want to make a stop at Micucci Grocery for a "Sicilian Slab" or two. The pizza oven is up a few steps from the wine department, way in the back of the store. It's mostly for takeout, though there are two tables where you can eat if you'd prefer. I've never had a single complaint on this suggestion. Never. And my people know their pizza.

Best $1.85 you'll spend in this town
Standard Baking Co.'s morning bun has been a staple around these parts for a long time. There's a reason things become staples, you know. It's at 75 Commercial St., 207-773-2112.

Best sweet indulgence
Gorgeous Gelato is a must stop if you enjoy the Italian frozen sweet. A Milanese couple opened the shop just last year, and I can't stay out of the place. It's the richest, creamiest gelato I've had stateside. It's even better than a lot of gelato I've had in Italy. No lie.

Best place to stop if you get lost
Should you stray outside of the center of town, the Great Lost Bear on Forest Ave. has been a local hangout for burgers and brews for more than 30 years. Like chicken wings? The buffalos ($12.99 for two pounds) are a meal unto themselves. They're good, too. Of course, the big draw at the Bear is the nearly 70 beers on tap, 50 of them from Northeast breweries and plenty from Maine. My favorite local brewer, Allagash, is well represented at the Bear. Give one of their brews a try; you won't be sorry.

Best place to just drop by and see
You may have heard about the restaurant carved out of a defunct (though rather grand) old church? Well, this is it. Grace isn't the best restaurant in town, but it's certainly the most unusual you'll ever see. I'd suggest having a drink at the very impressive-looking bar, then moving along. 

One other thing: If you do happen to be interested in surrounding areas, here's a coastal dining guide I put together last fall. Enjoy your trip.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Laura, Queen of Doughnuts

How far would you travel for a doughnut?

For instance, have you any interest in riding your motorcycle 150 miles roundtrip to Randy's in LA — in the rain? What about hopping in a friend's VW van for an overnight run to Saint Louis, so as to hit The Donut Shop just as its doors open at 4:30 a.m.? Road trip not your style? Fine, there's always the option of cashing in some frequent flyer miles and hopping an Alaska Airlines flight to Portland and to Voodoo Doughnut for a Bacon Maple Bar — then catching the next available flight back home.

I will admit to being acquainted with the (let's face it, guys) lunatics who chose to do such things, but do not count myself among their ilk. For one thing, I don't like doughnuts enough to go so far out of my way to eat them. And about the only doughnut I have any interest in is a plain one — but only if a plain cruller isn't available instead.

There is one exception to my no-drive, no-fly policy. And, yes, it involves another of my dearest family members. You got a problem with that?

I recently was summoned to the Doughnut Queen's home (in Queens, no less; ten minutes from JFK if you're thinking of cashing in miles). She and her trusted assistant Dominic were about to conjure a batch of, well, do I really need to say? And I was offered an opportunity to observe.

This cannot possibly sound like a big deal to any of you. How could it? But were you a member of my family, you would have an altogether different view. You see, of all the clan members (present and past) who have attempted to mimic "Aunt Laura's Doughnuts," not one has reported a satisfactory result. I mean it, not a single one. And I do not hail from a family of hapless kitchen dwellers.

None of us can understand this, least of all the queen herself. "It's flour, it's sugar, it's eggs and it's milk," she has told us all a thousand times. "I don't know what else to tell you." (The royals in my family are prone to using more colorful language than this, Laura especially. I have decided, in this instance, to edit my dear auntie's flowery, albeit immensely descriptive speech. You understand. I only hope she does.)

Anyhow, if my aunt doesn't know what the big mystery is all about with these doughnuts, then what makes you think that I would? I have never made a doughnut in my entire life. And do not plan on ever making one, what with the carnage I have witnessed involving loved ones who have crumbled to tears by their failure to produce a proper bit of, geez, fried dough?

Besides, I don't need to know how to make the damned things. If I want a batch of perfect plain doughnuts I know just where to find them. And so that's what I did.

This is a big old mess of Crisco, scooped from a brand new can of the stuff that was about the size of my head. I asked Laura what she was planning to do with so much shortening, but can't possibly repeat what she told me. Anyway, the shortening is in a frying pan. The heat is on low so that the Crisco can melt while my aunt prepares the dough.

The recipe's below, but it all starts with mixing eggs and sugar together.

Then adding milk and some of the melted Crisco.

Next you mix in some flour and baking powder so that a moist dough forms.

The dough gets turned out onto a floured work surface, kneaded a little, then is cut into four pieces.

You roll out each piece of dough, so that it's about an inch thick, then start cutting the doughnuts.

Like so.

Fry them up until nicely browned on both sides. (The cruller Laura made for me, by mixing together some of the doughnut holes. Thanks, aunt.)

Remove to a colander and allow to cool a little.

Top with confectioners sugar and there you go.

After the demo was completed we sat around the dining room table and visited over a fresh pot of coffee and the newly minted doughnuts. I asked Laura if she had an actual recipe and was quickly provided these index cards. Then, when I asked how long she had been making her doughnuts, Laura looked at Dominic, her devoted husband of sixty-six years, and said, without hesitation, what to members of my family will always be magic words: "Since 753."

That would be 753 Liberty Avenue, in the East New York section of Brooklyn, the place, along with the adjoining 751, where we all grew up. Together. (We're talking Old World here, people. Two buildings, six apartments, each headed by a child of my maternal grandparents.)

I pressed further still and asked where my aunt had gotten her doughnut recipe, only to hear the dreaded words, "I have no idea."

Then Dominic wondered aloud whether it might have come from "those A&P books," and to test his theory disappeared to another room for around 30 seconds.

When he returned the mystery had been solved. For around 45 years Laura has been making doughnuts from a recipe that appeared in Volume 4 of the "Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery." The 12-volume set was published in 1966, and my aunt, like a lot of women of her day, bought the books, one by one, at the A&P supermarket (on Fulton Street, in this case) for about $2 apiece.

I cannot tell you how amused my aunt was to learn the origin of her doughnuts.

But I'm not gonna repeat the word she used.


2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup whole milk
5 Tbsp melted shortening
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp nutmeg, lemon rind or cinnamon (optional; my aunt doesn't use any of these)
Shortening for frying

In a bowl, beat the eggs, then mix in the sugar.
Stir in the milk and melted shortening, then mix in the flour and baking powder until a moist dough forms.
Empty out onto a floured work surface and knead the dough a minute or two.
Cut the dough into four separate pieces, then roll each to 1/4-inch thickness, then cut the donut shapes.

Heat shortening in a frying pan. There should be enough so that the doughnuts can float.
Test by frying one of the "doughnut holes" before frying the doughnuts.
Fry doughnuts until golden on side in shortening, then flip and fry other side.
Remove to colander or surface lined with paper towels, allow to cool, then sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Mr. Braciole's spaghetti pie

I know a guy lives in... Wait, I ain't supposed to say. So this guy is a... Know what, skip that one too.

Maybe we should just stick with what this person cooked for me the last time I swung by his... What I meant to say was, the last time we saw each other — at a location I am not able to recollect right at the moment or, likely, ever. I remember that the place had a kitchen, but that's it. Could've been anyplace. Anyplace at all.

I know this guy as "Johnny Braciole," but you would not be wrong to question whether this is his given name. I mean, what kind of a person would name their own child after a rolled up piece of beef, am I right?

He's a good cook, this Braciole. Nice enough fella too. I think he has a family, maybe a wife (let's call her Susie, for the sake of argument) and a daughter (oh, I dunno, how about Jennifer, let's say). But, again, I am not at all certain on either of these points, so stop with all the questions already!

The only thing I am sure about is that the spaghetti pie Mr. Johnny Braciole threw together when last we met was one very fine example of the item.

For reasons that I am not at liberty to convey, the man has an aversion to recording devices being used in his presence (he's shy, okay). However, as we have been close for so many years, I did manage to shoot a few frames of the pie-making proceedings.

Wait a minute, did I say we were close? I swear my mind is starting to go. He's an acquaintance, this Braciole. Got that? I would not know how to get in touch with him, for example, should anybody be of a mind to come into contact with the man. For whatever reason.

So you got your eggs and your grated cheese. (You don't see nobody in the reflection there, do you? Me neither. Phew!)

Which gets mixed together with the spaghetti, of course. (What, you were expecting ziti?)

Throw it in a baking dish and top with some more what? Right, cheese. (You've been paying attention.)

And there you go. Johnny Braciole's famous (he calls it that, and I am not of a mind to argue with the man) spaghetti pie.

The Braciole does not look anything like this today (he has undergone some alterations, shall we say). This is an old pic that I do not think he would mind my showing you. Don't ask me what's going on in this frame, please, because I have no idea. Like I said, I'm not that close with the guy and am certainly not privvy to any strange "habits" he might enjoy.

I will say this, though: The lady he's with? Looks a lot like my cousin Vito.

Only my cousin's cuter.

Johnny Braciole's spaghetti pie

1 lb cooked spaghetti (make sure it's al dente)
9 eggs
1 cup grated Italian cheese of your choice
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 F
While the pasta is boiling, beat the eggs in a large bowl, then add in 3/4 cup of the cheese, salt and pepper.
After the pasta is done cooking, let it cool a bit, then add it to the egg and cheese mixture.
Grease a 9- by 12-inch baking dish, add all the ingredients, then top with the remaining cheese
Bake covered in foil for about 20 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned

One more thing. You didn't get this recipe from me, okay. Understand what I'm saying?