Sunday, January 29, 2012

How to make chocolate salami

This is not something I dreamed up, okay.

Salame di cioccolato, or chocolate salami, is a traditional sweet in Tuscany. Whatever possessed me to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon producing such a thing, I do not know.

Nor would I encourage any of you to guess.

You can make this with any combination of ingredients. The traditional Tuscan way is to simply use plain dry cookies as a filling, but I went in another direction: In addition to the chocolate, milk and cookies I added rum, almonds, dried figs and my homemade candied orange peel.

Melt the chocolate and the milk in a double boiler.

Add everything else at the same time.

Mix it all together.

Divide in quarters and roll each salami in parchment paper.

Then toss all four into the fridge to set.

To get the full salami visual effect simply apply a light layer of confectioners sugar to the outside before serving.

Simplest dessert I have ever made.

Chocolate salami

24 oz. dark chocolate
14 oz. can of non-fat sweetened condensed milk
4 oz. dried figs, chopped
4 oz. almonds, chopped
4 oz. plain cookies, broken
2 oz. candied orange peel, chopped
Good splash of rum
Confectioners sugar for coating salami.

In a double boiler melt the chocolate and condensed milk.
Add in all the other ingredients (except the sugar), mix thoroughly and allow to cool for several minutes.
Divide into quarters and transfer each batch to its own piece of parchment paper.
Shape into 10- to 12-inch logs, roll, then refrigerate until hardened.
Remove from the fridge, apply a light coating of confectioners sugar, slice and serve.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

North China on the Hudson

If you "like" my Facebook page then you may be familiar with the Meatball News Network. MNN was founded in Rome on January 3rd, not by me but by Joe and Fred. These friends of mine were traveling together, you see, and decided it might be fun to share the trip with others by shipping to me the photos and videos of their favorite Roman restaurants and meals.

It was a lot of fun, actually. But by January 12th, MNN had gone black, the result of its only two correspondents returning to their respective homes in New York.

When the idea was floated that we get together and swap stories of the trip, I suggested what to me seemed an appropriate venue: Maialino, the Roman-style restaurant in Manhattan's Gramercy Park Hotel.

My friends had an entirely different idea. Turns out they had had quite enough cacio e pepe and gnocchi and fried artichokes and Roman-style pizza, at least for a while.

And so on Sunday I found myself at a place called Palace Dumpling, not in the city but about 70 miles to the north, in Wappingers Falls, NY, along the Hudson River. The MNN team was not alone, either. Seated at the six or eight tables which had been joined together were 20 people who, like me, had traveled some distance for the occasion, it being to celebrate Chinese New Year: the Year of the Dragon.

Joe and his lovely wife Joel had got together with Chef Jenny at the Palace Dumpling to plan an elaborate banquet, the likes of which I had not seen before. In all, the chef prepared more than 22 different dishes for our group, virtually none of them found on the menu.

It was an amazing thing to witness, really. Chinese cuisine may not be the subject of this blog, but I'm betting you'd like to see what went on, and so here are just some of the highlights.

Cold meat platters of ham, chicken and sausage started things off nice and slow.

Lamb and scallion dumplings, one of four kinds we sampled. They don't call this place Palace Dumpling for nothing. Amazing.

Cold cellophane noodle "salad" with carrots, cucumbers, pressed tofu and a light sesame dressing.

Five-spice braised beef with hardboiled eggs.

Fresh noodles with meat sauce.

Braised fatty pork. I done died and gone to China!

Tender squid with garlic chives.

Stir-fried vegetables including eggplant, peppers and potatoes.

Stewed fish in red chili oil. Zounds!

Salt-fried shrimp, served in the shell.

Spicy pepper pork.

Caramelized sweet potatoes with peanuts. A real standout.

Whole fried fish in sweet and spicy sauce.

Puffy fried sweet dough, for dessert.

Joe even found a Chinese Riesling — with a dragon on the label no less.

And what Chinese banquet is complete without an Italian liquer?

Oranges for good luck and little windup dragons.

Chef Jenny.

And the (now defunct?) Meatball News Network team.

Never did hear much about the Rome trip, so I'm hoping another MNN "reunion" is in the works.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Candied orange peel

The holidays do strange things to me. One morning between Christmas and New Year's I decided that I must — MUST — whip up a batch of orange biscotti before house guests Tom and Beth arose. It was 5 a.m. and the worthless slugs don't stir much before nine, so timing would not be a problem.

The problem was the candied orange peel that I needed in order to make the biscotti. There wasn't any. Somehow it had disappeared from the cupboard. I'm not accusing anybody here, okay. I'm just saying.

Rather than do the sensible thing and bake something else instead I became obsessed with replenishing the (purloined?) supply of orange peel. Immediately. Later that day, after it became apparent that there was no candied orange peel to be had locally, I decided (without discussion or debate) to put the house guests to work and make some.

No, I had never candied an orange peel before. (Do I look like a confectioner to you? Well, do I?) Neither had anybody else in our group. A quick consult with Mister Google netted a variety of approaches to the task, this one appearing to be the simplest. Since I had a few extra hands around to do the painstaking knife work on the oranges, I doubled the recipe so as to secure an ample supply.

Hey, I fed these people for six days. They can cut a few oranges for me, am I right?

The first thing to do is peel the orange and cut the rind into manageable pieces that you can work with. Then, using a sharp knife, cut away as much of the pith as you can.

You could leave more pith on the rind than this, or clean it even further. Either way is fine.

Slice the rind into 1/2-inch pieces.

We used 8 large organic oranges and so we filled a pot with 8 1/2 cups of water and 5 cups of sugar. Stir that together and bring to a boil over medium heat, then add the rind and turn the heat down to low. We allowed this to simmer for around 3 hours (without any stirring, per the instructions).

When the liquid has reduced to the point where it's just covering the rind, turn off the heat and allow to cool.

Once cool remove the rind with a slotted spoon and place in a colander to drain.

We saved the liquid, which is basically an orange-flavored syrup.

Tom used some of the syrup to make cocktails one night, but I didn't try any of them. He hates the idea that I don't drink cocktails and thinks I'm a Luddite for sticking with straight whiskey, wine or beer. For the record, I don't care much what he thinks.

After the rind has cooled toss a bunch of sugar in a bowl and then, in small batches, roll the rind around until well coated.

At this point all they need to do is dry. We went the oven-dried route, lining them on parchment and baking at a low temperature (no more than 200 degrees F) for an hour or so. But you can also just leave them out on a counter to dry overnight.

Once dry all that's left to do is rub off some of the excess sugar. How much you remove is up to you; the more sugar left on the sweeter the rind will be.

On the left is the rind with plenty of sugar left on it; the rind on the right has been pretty well cleaned up.

Candied orange peel will keep for some time stored in an airtight container. However, since we made so much of the stuff, I wrapped it up tight and tossed it in the freezer (behind the tripe and the pigskin and the sweetbreads) for safe keeping.

I would appreciate your keeping the whereabout of my orange peel supply to yourself, by the way. I think it best if certain (unnamed) persons do not know its location.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dominic's famous scones

Some time ago, decades actually, my uncle Dominic did an uncharacteristic thing. He tore a free-offer coupon from one of his wife Laura's collectible supermarket cookbooks, scribbled his name and address in the appropriate areas, and mailed it off to the company whose promotion so captured his attention.

Weeks later The Quaker Oats Wholegrain Cookbook arrived in the mail. Just 64 pages long, a pamphlet really, it was crammed with all sorts of recipes employing both original and quick-cook Quaker Oats. Some of the recipes seemed innocent enough — Honey Oatmeal Muffins, Toasty Oat Pie Crust — while others may have stretched things just a bit too far — Corn and Frank Chowder, Mexicali Meat Loaves... Saucy Meatballs?

Of the 68 recipes printed between the covers of the little pamphlet, this is the one that caught my uncle's eye. It is found on page 20 and takes up barely half of the 5-by-8-inch space. So far as I know it is the only recipe my uncle showed any interest in. I have asked him many times about his cookbook and its Scottish Oat Scones — his Scottish Oat Scones — but I can't say that I have ever gotten to the bottom of Dominic's fascination with either.

My uncle has made these scones perhaps hundreds of times. Last year I went to visit him the day after a grueling session of chemotherapy had left him quite weakened, and there on the kitchen table was a pile of his freshly made scones. He had baked them at 2 a.m. because he was unable to sleep. And because, I would imagine, doing so made him feel more like himself than his sickness.

"It was free," he has said of the pamphlet he mailed away for, possibly as far back as 1979, when it was published. "What can I tell you. For some reason it interested me."

And the scones?

"They looked so simple to make," he tells me every time I probe the deeper meaning of the mysterious "Scottish" baked good that my Italian-American uncle decided to master. "I'm sorry, me lad. I wish I could be more help to you."

I love it when he calls me me lad.

Lately Dominic has not been feeling so well. We're all quite concerned about him. Just before the holidays he spent time in the hospital, and when he came out it was clear that he had weakened. The day before I drove down to visit I decided to try and whip up a batch of his scones and bring them to my uncle. I had never baked a scone before in my entire life and yet the idea of making them for the master did not concern me in the least.

If you knew my uncle you might understand why the thought of possibly botching his "world-famous" scones could not possibly have rattled me. Dominic has never practiced the art of being unkind. He is what was envisioned when the term gentleman was coined. I would be very happy to be half the man that he is. Or to display the tiniest portion of his warmth, generosity or humanity.

Which is a syrupy way of saying that I knew my uncle and I would have a fine laugh over my taking a crack at his scones. No matter how good or how bad they turned out to be.

The first thing Dominic said after laying eyes on the scones was that they looked beautiful, if a bit overdone.

"Aunt Laura won't let me cook them this way," he confided to me. "She doesn't like these dark spots, the crispy edges, you know? The color has to be very light, not dark like these here, otherwise she won't eat them."

Laura is the woman my uncle has slept beside for more than 66 years, and his careful attention to her comfort and pleasure in all matters is inspiring.

Dominic only managed a couple bites of a scone. He assured me that I had done a "very nice job," but that his appetite just wasn't very good. He apologized for not eating more, and I told him not to worry, they would keep for a few days. Still, I wondered if I had erred in forcing them upon him.

No man should be made to apologize for his affliction. Certainly not this man.

Last spring, on a routine visit to see how he was doing, Dominic handed me this note (click the pic to enlarge), accompanied by a 50-year-old gold wristwatch. The watch, a very fine Longines, had a brand new leather band. It was also just out of the shop for a complete cleaning and a minor repair, things my uncle had gotten done specifically in order to present the watch to me.

It was Dominic's own wristwatch. And now it is mine.

Like the man himself, an extraordinary gift that I will carry proudly until I am gone.

Oh, and here's the scone recipe. My uncle is right, they're a snap. 

Just watch out for Aunt Laura's dark spots.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The lightest crepe manicotti

When I offered to make a batch of manicotti for friends (and weeklong house guests) Tom and Beth last week we had what you might call a breakdown in communications.

"Do we need to go out and buy the pasta shells?" Tom wondered. "Or do you have them already?"

Before I could say anything Beth chimed in from behind the cover of The Joy of Cooking she'd been studying all morning.

"I'm betting the pasta machine's coming out," I heard her say. "Isn't that right, Meatball?"

Lately I have been practicing the fine art of social interaction and therefore refrained from blurting out the sort of snide, hurtful barb that at one time may have been expected of me.

"I'm so very sorry, my dear friends, but neither of you is correct," I managed in as measured a tone as I could manage. "I only know how to make manicotti one way. And I do so hope that you enjoy it."

(Note to regular readers: You believe these people? What kind of a knucklehead doesn't know that the best manicotti are made with crepes? And what are they doing in my house? Jeez!)

The truth is that I have never made manicotti using a pasta shell. I'm not even sure if I've eaten one. The crepe method is the only method that I know. And it's so good that it's hard to imagine another being any better.

Thin crepes are the key, the thinner the better. That means the crepe mix has to be super light and so mixing it in a blender works best. To keep it light I pour the mix straight from the blender into the frying pan. That way I can remix a couple times during the crepe-making process, even adding milk if things thicken up along the way.

A super hot omelette pan doused in butter is the way to a great crepe. I keep a bowl of melted butter next to the stovetop and apply it with a bristle brush before pouring the crepe mix into the pan.

To make thin crepes you must barely cover the surface of the pan with the mixture. We're not talking pancakes here, we're talking just-thicker-than-paper type stuff. After the mix is set and drying flip it over with a spatula. If your pan is properly heated this won't take long at all.

Here's what the cooked side should look like. After flipping the crepe it only takes maybe 30 seconds more to finish the other side.

The great thing about these crepes is that they can be piled on top of each other without sticking. And if you aren't making the manicotti right away the crepes can be refrigerated for a couple days.

This is a pretty traditional filling, made with ricotta, fresh mozzarella and such (the recipe is below).

A simple fold from one side and then the other does the trick.

Lay a light dose of tomato sauce in a baking pan, line the manicotti side by side, then add some more sauce on top. Cover in aluminum foil and throw into the oven, preheated to about 375 degrees F. Remove the foil after around 25 minutes and continue baking.

After about 45 minutes the manicotti should be done.

And your friends will stop asking you why you didn't use pasta shells.

Makes about 24

For the crepe
2 cups flour
4 extra large eggs
2 1/4 cups milk (more as needed)
Pinch of salt
Mix together in a blender until fully incorporated. 

For the filling
2 lbs ricotta
1 lb fresh mozzarella
1 extra large egg
1/3 cup grated Romano cheese
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large bowl add the ricotta. With a wide-cut grater grate the mozzarella over the ricotta. Add all the other ingredients and mix thoroughly.