Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tomato salad on a friselle

Go ahead and be patient if you like. But as soon as the tomato plants went into the ground last week I became mighty restless dreaming about the summer's first fresh tomato salad, which is still a good couple months away.

To make matters worse I had just schlepped home the perfect accompaniment to such a salad, these friselle from an Arthur Avenue baker in the Bronx.

And so I headed over to the store, grabbed the best-looking on-the-vine tomatoes that I could find, chopped them up with a little red onion, balsamic, olive oil, basil, salt and pepper, and had at it.

Patience is an overrated virtue.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Best. Swordfish. Ever.

I don't do all the cooking around here, you know.

Sometimes I get to sit back, blurt out a request, and hope like hell that somebody with better cooking skills than me is within earshot.

This really swell bunch of Sicilian oregano (gotten on a visit to D. Coluccio & Sons) is what started things off just the other day.

Then, moments later, while at Frank & Sal, these beautiful fresh bay leaves sealed the deal for sure.

I have sat back and watched this wonderful Sicilian-style swordfish recipe being expertly prepared many, many times. Right here in my own home.

It's my favorite way to eat sword.

And not because I get the night off when it's on the menu.

Sicilian-style swordfish
Adapted from "La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio"
Prepared (always) by my most valued associate

Serves 4-6

1/4 cup olive oil
2 swordfish steaks, skin on, cut at least 1-inch thick and up to 2 inches thick
12 bay leaves, preferably fresh
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Dried fine bread crumbs, mixed with 1 tablespoon crumbled dried oregano

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
Brush the bottom of a large, shallow baking dish with olive oil. Place the bay leaves in the bottom of the dish and lay the swordfish on top, tucking the bay leaves under the fish.
Pierce the fish deeply with the tines of a fork, making about 10 evenly spaced incisions in each steak. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and then the bread crumbs. Drizzle again with olive oil.
Roast for 15-25 minutes, depending upon the thickness, until done. Remove, let rest for 10 minutes, and serve.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday's stuffed artichoke

Had you been raised in la famiglia di Signor Polpetta (you're smart, figure it out), this would be more than just the familiar sight of a classic Italian-American antipasto.

It would be a small but not unimportant slice of Home. Because Sunday supper, the best family time of all, rarely took place without the stuffed artichokes.

We did not eat ours at the beginning of the multi-course meal, however. For us the artichokes were for later on, after we had started to digest the pasta and the meatballs, the roasted chicken and the veal cutlets, often even after the pastries and the coffee and the finocchio crudo (raw fennel, but you knew that). More often than not, in fact, the artichokes were eaten well after we had left the table and moved on to other things.

They were their own separate thing, these stuffed artichokes, meant for picking at when the mood struck, and so everybody didn't eat them at the same time. They'd be had while on the sofa watching an afternoon ballgame, in the backyard playing cards, even sitting on the front stoop just before nightfall. There were plenty of Sundays where I didn't get around to eating my allotted 'choke until bedtime, standing in the kitchen or in front of the t.v. set or just gazing out the window to see what was happening on the street.

But I always got around to having one.

Stuffed artichokes aren't meant to be eaten hot from the oven, you know. And do not zap them in the microwave either. Room temperature is the way to go here. Make them, leave them out on the kitchen counter, and when the mood strikes go and have at it.

Trust me on this. I've had lots of practice.

Me and the stuffed stuff go way back.

Much as I love the stems, they must be cut from the bottoms so that the artichoke can sit flat in a pan. (I trim the stems and cook them along with the artichokes, then hope like hell that nobody else has their eye on them.)

This next step really does require a sharp knife, so please make sure to use one. Basically you're making a crosscut on the top so that you can get inside the artichoke to fill it with the stuffing.

This is what goes into the stuffing: breadcrumbs, cheese, pignoli (pine nuts), parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. Once you mix them all together you must add olive oil, but only enough to lightly bind it, otherwise it will be too oily.

I guarantee that when you look at the amount of stuffing you've prepared it will seem like way too much for just a couple of large artichokes. Thing is, it takes patience to stuff them properly, and if you are patient you will use up the stuffing mix. One at a time peel back each layer of leaves and begin cramming the stuffing down along the leaves and all the way around, until you've completed all the layers. This is not the time to be delicate, okay. Raw artichokes are tough as nails, so don't worry about hurting them.

After they've been fully stuffed place the artichokes in a baking dish filled with about an inch of water, drizzle a little olive oil over them, cover with aluminum foil and toss into the oven preheated to 375 degrees F.

Artichokes are funny things, and I find cooking times will often vary wildly. The best thing to do is yank out a leaf after about an hour in the oven and see if it's cooked enough. These large artichokes were ready after 1 hour and 20 minutes in the oven. Then I left them out, still covered in the foil, until they cooled to room temperature. (Doing this allows the flesh to soften a little more too.)

And there you go, a properly stuffed artichoke for you and yours.

No Sunday supper should be without it.

Stuffed Artichokes
Makes 2 large artichokes or 4 small ones

1 cup good breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese (loosely packed)
1/4 cup raw pignoli (pine nuts)
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
Extra virgin olive oil (enough to lightly bind ingredients)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
In a bowl mix together all the ingredients.
Remove stems so that artichokes can lay flat in a pan, then make a crosscut at the artichoke tip to reveal its inner leaves.
Stuff the mixture into as many rows of inner leaves as you can, until all the filling is used up.
Place artichokes in a baking pan with an inch of water, drizzle just a touch of olive oil over each artichoke, cover with aluminum foil and bake for about an hour. Pull out a leaf to test for doneness; more time may be required.
Remove pan from the oven and leave it loosely covered in foil until artichokes come to room temperature and serve.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Cannellini puree with bottarga

You are looking at one top-drawer appetizer here, folks. And easy to make? Please.

It's beans that have been sauteed in garlic.

Pulverized in the blender.

And topped with olive oil and a little freshly grated bottarga.

It's served as a dip with a nice crusty bread.

What more is there to say?

Cannellini Puree with Grated Bottarga
Adapted from "Seafood alla Siciliana" by Toni Lydecker

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove (I used more than that)
2 cups cooked cannellini or chickpeas (add an onion and a bay leaf to the water or stock when cooking, then discard)
1/4 cup reserved bean cooking liquid, plus more as needed
1/2 tsp. sea salt or kosher salt
2 tsp. grated bottarga

Saute the garlic in the olive oil until soft, then add the beans, cooking liquid and salt and heat through.
Transfer to a blender or food processor and puree until smooth, adding more cooking liquid as needed. (Consistency should be a bit thicker than a thick soup.)
Transfer to a bowl, drizzle with olive oil, top with bottarga and serve with bread.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Pepperoni & eggs

It's growing on me.

Until last weekend I had never eaten an egg with pepperoni mixed into it. In fact, I rarely eat anything with pepperoni in it, on it, or even near it.

America's Number One pizza topping just doesn't do it for me. It never did.

But while going through a list of favorite childhood foods that friends helped me to compile recently, this one showed up under a category termed "comfort foods." It was passed along to me by my friend Joe and I must admit to being a little surprised by its inclusion. Joe and I are around the same age, have similar food tastes, and are proud products of the same social condition: Italian-American neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

And yet I had never heard of pepperoni & eggs, let alone tasted it.

"What is it about the combo that works?" Joe pondered in his notes. "Salt and sweet? Smooth and chewy? A mystery of life."

"Haven't had it in a while," my friend added. "Should do something about that."

Long story short, he didn't, but I did. I have prepared pepperoni & eggs twice since Saturday (aka Derby Day, at least this year), once for breakfast and once for lunch. To do this, I needed to go out and buy some pepperoni, which got me wondering whether I had even done such a thing before.

If you are a fan of the pepperoni then this has got to be a must-try. If you are not a fan, it might still be worth a one-off, as it is nothing if not filled with flavor.

Me? There's still enough of the spicy sliced stuff left in the fridge to make two, maybe three more servings. After that I'll decide whether Joe and I are on the same page with this "comfort food" of his.

I'm beginning to lean in that direction, but the morning line still shows even odds.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Ground pork & chocolate ragu

What's an Italoamericano do in order to mark the best-known Mexican heritage celebration observed in these United States, Cinco de Mayo?

Not a thing, usually. Not this Italoamericano anyway.

And so it was quite the coincidence that I was moved to make this pretty-damn-close-to-Mexican mole sauce this weekend.

It is a Sicilian recipe, one that I had run across in a cookbook gifted to me just last week, Arthur Schwartz's "The Southern Italian Table." The Spaniards, Schwartz explains, introduced chocolate and cinnamon to Sicily, via Mexico, centuries ago. And as soon as I laid eyes on his recipe for "Enna's Ground Pork Ragu with Chocolate" I made a beeline for the kitchen so's I could check on my ingredients.

How was I supposed to know that it was Cinco de Mayo? All this particular May 5th meant to me was that a big dinner needed to be prepared for the evening, and that my brother Joe would be texting at some point to see if I had made my Derby pick.

Anyhow, here's the sauce. It's a snap to prepare, and it's good too.

¡Buen provecho!

Enna's Ground Pork Ragu with Chocolate
Adapted from "The Southern Italian Table"
by Arthur Schwartz

Makes 7 cups

1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. ground pork
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 12-oz. can tomato paste
1 quart water
2 1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1 tsp. sugar
Grated cheese for serving

In a 3- to 4-quart saucepan saute the onion in olive oil until wilted.
Add the pork and break up over medium heat until raw color disappears.
Add the wine and simmer for a couple minutes over slightly higher heat.
Add tomato paste and water; stir and bring to a simmer.
Add salt, pepper, cinnamon, chocolate and sugar. Stir until chocolate melts, reduce heat and simmer for around 30 minutes.
Serve over pasta with grated cheese of your choosing.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

How to stuff a squid

I was readying myself mentally to prepare a batch of these stuffed calamari when a much better idea came to mind.

Me: "Anna, it's me. Fine, fine, you? Good. Hey, look, what are you doing Friday night? I'm driving down and wondered if you felt like feeding me."

She: "Of course. What do you want me to make?"

See how simple life can be.

Anna, you may recall from numerous mentions in this space, is a very dear aunt of mine. I grew up in an apartment just below the one she and her daughter Josephine occupied, in one of two buildings that my grandfather had owned for the purpose of housing his entire family.

Anna is my mother's only sister, and is just like a mother to me. Not for a nanosecond did I think that she would answer my query in any way other than how she did. And so by the time I rolled into New York, five and a half hours after leaving my driveway, I was way more than ready for the smell of my aunt's cooking.

Not to mention the pure joy of watching her prepare the stuffed calamari that I have been crazy about my whole life.

The bodies are what get stuffed, of course, and you can buy them cleaned all by themselves if you like. But we like the tentacles a whole lot, and so Anna always makes sure to get the whole squid. For this recipe the tentacles are used as an ingredient in the stuffing, and in the sauce.

What goes on here is that the tentacles get chopped up and added to a mixture of breadcrumbs, eggs and seasonings. If you are not a fan of the tentacles just don't use them. You'll be looking at a simple bread stuffing, which is fine.

After the stuffing mix is ready you take your bodies one at a time and hold open the wide end, like so.

Fill a teaspoon with the mix and lightly stuff the cavity of the squid. Two filled spoons should be about right, as they shouldn't be overstuffed.

With two toothpicks close the end by making a diagonal cross, making sure that the toothpicks pierce through both sides of the squid. This keeps the filling from escaping during cooking.

In a hot pan quickly saute the stuffed calamari in olive oil, but only for about a minute per side.

Then toss into a simple marinara sauce and simmer for around 30 minutes.

A sauce infused with the flavor of calamari is a beautiful thing. We usually serve it with pasta.

My Aunt Anna is a very good cook, and she makes many things that I enjoy a great deal. These stuffed calamari have got to be in her Top 5.

Anna says that I shouldn't show you all her picture, but since she's never used a computer in her life, odds are pretty good that she'll never know. I hope.

Stuffed calamari
Makes about a dozen

4 1/2 lbs. squid, cleaned and including tentacles
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 extra large eggs
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
2 Tbsp. grated Romano cheese
1/2 cup water
Salt and pepper to taste

In a bowl, mix together all the ingredients except the squid. The texture should be paste-like but still pretty loose.
Chop a few of the tentacles and add to the mixture, setting the rest of them aside.
Scoop out a couple spoonfuls of the stuffing and place into the cavity of a squid, then seal the cavity with two toothpicks inserted in a diagonal fashion. Repeat process with the remaining squid.
Very quickly fry the stuffed squid in hot olive oil, but only for a minute per side. As each of the squid are done drop them into a simmering pot of a simple marinara sauce of your choosing and cook for around 30 minutes. (Also add the remaining tentacles to the sauce; and if there are any squid left unfilled, cut them into pieces and add those to the sauce as well.)
Remove the toothpicks and serve.