Monday, April 23, 2012

Mom's stuffed mushrooms

There are some things you just don't mess with. If you've got any sense in your head at all, that is.

I wouldn't screw around with My Sainted Mother's stuffed mushroom recipe if God him-or-herself commanded it.

They're perfect. Whatever would be the point?

An associate who once sampled the stuffed mushrooms in my mother's kitchen years ago recently whispered to me (indelicately, I thought) that my mushrooms are actually better. Trust me, they aren't.

How could they be? I often must buy mushrooms packed in blue foam containers, from a soulless supermarket the size of a giant aircraft hangar. Mom bought hers from a man named Vinny, in a store no bigger than my living room. The mushrooms were packed in wooden boxes with iron handles, and the boxes always sat next to big metal cans filled with fresh, creamy ricotta that Vinny would scoop out in whatever quantity you needed.

Vinny's shop was across the street from our apartment and so Sunday mornings I'd invariably be sent there for one thing or another.

"If he's got mushrooms get a box," mom would say, even though she didn't need to, I already knew. "But tell Vinny that I don't want them if they're not white, white."

Vinny and I played out this weekly ritual throughout most of my childhood. I don't ever remember him giving me mushrooms that didn't meet my mother's standards. And I can't ever recall not loving what mom did to the white, white mushrooms once I'd brought them home to her.

So, anyway, about that recipe. You clean the mushrooms under cool running water and then dry them in a kitchen towel.

Gently remove the stems and chop finely for use in the stuffing. (The full recipe is below, but there's really nothing to it at all.)

Pack the mushrooms with the stuffing, like so.

And make sure to drizzle olive oil over every single one of them before baking.

Around 40 minutes later and you've got yourself some very fine funghi indeed.

If I were you I wouldn't change a thing.

Mom's stuffed mushrooms

1 lb. whole mushrooms
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. parsley, finely chopped
3 Tbsp. grated Pecorino Romano cheese
3 Tbsp. breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Wash the mushrooms and then dry thoroughly in a kitchen towel.
Remove the stems and chop finely.
Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the stems, onion and garlic. Saute for about five minutes.
Remove from heat and empty into a mixing bowl. Add the breadcrumbs, parsley, cheese, salt and pepper, and mix well.
Stuff the mushroom caps and place on a baking sheet. Sprinkle olive oil over all the mushrooms, then place in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes.
Allow to rest a few minutes before serving. (Mom always served Vinny's mushrooms at room temperature, which is the way I still like to eat them.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The best zeppole recipe

Soon my friend Gloede will open a pizzeria in a lightly traveled, tightly knit corner of coastal Maine. Gloede has never run a pizzeria before. And he isn't from Maine, he's from New Jersey.

Lately my friend has been refining the recipes for his menu, a process that I am occasionally called upon to observe. Last Saturday is when he finalized his zeppole recipe, and as luck would have it I happened to be loitering in his kitchen at the time.

Zeppole (or sfinge if you prefer) are fried dough balls that are either filled with cream or simply sprinkled with powdered sugar. You can find the latter version at any Italian-American street fair, but it isn't often that somebody will make them for you in their home.

I will always be grateful that Gloede decided to perfect his zeppole recipe when I was within chewing distance. They're the best zepps I have ever had. Absolutely killer.

Not only that, but he decided to share.

This is like no zeppole batter I have ever seen. The full recipe is below but get this: it's got ricotta and mascarpone cheese. The zeppole I grew up with weren't made with any cheese at all, so I knew right away that these would be very different.

The mixture is warmed in a saucepan to help all the ingredients meld together and form a dough.

And then you start dropping spoonfuls into hot oil.

It only takes a couple minutes to cook the zepps.

And then they're ready to drain a bit on paper towels before sprinkling sugar and cinnamon on top.

You're gonna want to eat a whole bunch of these zeppole, trust me. But take my advice and go easy with them, okay. They're pretty rich.

I'll let you know when Gloede's place opens. You can see for yourself.

Gloede's Zeppole

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup ricotta
1/2 cup mascarpone
3 tbs sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1-2 tsp vanilla extract (to taste)
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
2 oz. cold water
Confectioners sugar and cinnamon for dusting

Preheat to 300 degrees F an ample amount of cooking oil in a deep fryer or large pan.

In a separate saucepan combine and mix all ingredients (except confectioners sugar and cinnamon) while warming on stove until smooth.

Use teaspoon to form balls of dough, then drop into oil at 300 degrees F. (Zeps will flip when one side is done; shake basket to ensure.)

When done, drain on paper towels then transfer to a bowl and sift confectioners sugar and cinnamon over top. (You could also place the zeppole in a paper bag, add the sugar and cinnamon and shake.)

Serve warm.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Thanks, I needed that

Mister Meatball was just named Best Food Blog by the Portland Phoenix. It's the second year in a row that this has happened. Naturally, I'm honored. Not to mention thrilled.

Mostly, though, I'm astonishingly grateful to the people who made this happen.

Relax, I'm not about to get all gooey on you here. Besides, this will only take a second, I promise.

But facts are facts and here's a big fat one that means a lot to me: This could not have happened without the extraordinary individuals who support this blog—and therefore me—by reading it, commenting on it, telling their friends about it, or just plain "getting" what it's about. They're the ones who voted the blog into the "Best" spot, not me. And no matter how hard I try I won't ever be able to express fully the enormous amount of gratitude and affection that I feel for every one of them.

I mean it.

Thank you all. Very very much.

Okay, I'm done now. If that was too gooey for you, I apologize.

It won't happen again.

I don't think.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

How to make ricotta

No matter how many times I make this stuff, and I make it all the time, somebody in the crowd always winds up gazing at me dreamily as though I were a wizard. Or a pork chop.

"You made it?" they'll ask breathlessly. "Really? You made your own ricotta?"

Which is often the time that I find myself being offered a wide variety of interesting courtesies should I arrive at their doorstep some evening to deliver a private lesson, presumably in cheese making.

All well and good, flattering surely. But let's get real here, people, okay.

I ain't no wizard.

Making ricotta is stupid simple. All you need is milk, a little vinegar and a pot. Oh, and a spoon.

So much for that interesting courtesy you might have considered offering, yes?

Here is the milk that I used to make fresh ricotta last week. There's a gallon of it. This particular gallon of unpasteurized milk came from a nearby farm, but any old whole milk will do just fine.

The milk goes into a non-reactive pot (I always use enamel-lined). For a full gallon you need to add in six tablespoons of distilled white vinegar. Now turn on the heat, but at a very low setting. It will take some time for things to come up to temperature, but it's better that it happens gradually.

I like a fairly loose ricotta and so when the temperature gets to around 185 degrees F or so I'm figuring we're pretty much done. If you prefer your ricotta a bit stiffer then just allow the temperature to rise to around 200 degrees F.

This is how things are going to look at the 185 degree point. Now is when you take a slotted spoon and start to scoop out what's now your very own homemade ricotta cheese.

Transferring into a colander lined with cheesecloth allows for further draining. As the ricotta is warm, now is a good time to add salt to taste. And that, my friends, is pretty much that.

Last week's batch had initially been allocated to making fresh ravioli, but plans abruptly changed and so I got to use the ricotta for one of my favorite appetizers. Basically you stir in a little milk to the ricotta so that it gets nice and loose. Add herbs, a little sea salt and cracked pepper, and then drizzle in a nice extra virgin olive oil. 

It's a great spread on top of some toasted crusty bread. And, like making your own ricotta, stupid simple.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"H" marks the spot

If you have never followed this sign in search of a bite to eat, then you have not been in the company of my uncle Dominic around lunchtime.

Dom likes hospital food. A lot.

Just why he likes hospital food so much is, in my view, one of the great mysteries of our time. Like the pyramids. Or maybe the Kardashians. 

My uncle, you see, knows about good food. His favorite restaurant is my favorite restaurant; his go-to dishes closely mirror my own. Laura, Dominic's devoted wife of 67 years, is a damn fine cook, I'll have you know. So are a lot of the people who surround my uncle on a daily basis.

Nobody in the family has been able to get to the bottom of Dom's peculiar affinity for this dreadful cuisine. Believe me, we've tried. Plenty.

For many years, usually as we sat together in one drab hospital canteen or another, I would ask my uncle the origin of this preposterous preference of his. But I stopped asking him about it a very long time ago. Because nothing the man ever said made the slightest bit of sense to me whatever.

Which should explain my utter lack of surprise when, on an unexpected visit last week, I offered to take Dom to lunch and he chose not one of the many restaurants minutes from his home in Queens but, rather, the below-ground cafeteria in Building 3 at the North Shore University Hospital, many miles away on Long Island.

It is true that we were scheduled to be at the hospital later that day, for what can only be described as some very unpleasant and sad business. But that isn't why my uncle chose to have lunch there. Convenience had nothing to do with it, trust me. He wanted to have lunch in the cafeteria at North Shore because he actually likes the food at every single hospital he has ever stepped foot inside.

"Are you sure you don't want to go to La Villa for some pizza?" I asked as gently as I could manage without appearing to judge. "Or Don Peppe even? You haven't been there in a while, I'll bet. We've got plenty of time, you know. Hours, actually."

Dom thought it over, but only for around eight and a half seconds.

"I think I'd rather see what they're serving over there today," he said, meaning North Shore. "They have very good food there, you know. You'll like it, I'm pretty sure."

And so later on that afternoon Dominic and I sat together and ate pot roast and mashed potatoes, surrounded by hundreds of young hospital staffers who barely noticed the strange culinary visitors in their midst.

When I asked Dominic whether he was enjoying his lunch he pointed to the pot roast and said that it was about as good as any he had ever had.

Which is always and forever good enough for me.