Monday, June 25, 2012

Haddock alla puttanesca

Whenever I need a good dose of old school Italian-style seafood I go to see John Conte. His restaurant, Conte's 1894, is a couple hours away from my home, true, but I make the trip gladly and as frequently as I am able. (Click this link and you'll see why I love his place so much.)

When I cannot make the trip but still have a craving I do what any self-respecting meatball would do: Imitate the master as best I can.

The haddock fillets that you see here were initially sentenced to a bleak end in a diet-friendly, excruciatingly boring oven broil. Then I stepped in and decreed (unilaterally and without debate) that we would offer the poor things the respect that they deserve and give them "The Full Conte." Which is to say pan cook them quickly in a nice red sauce and serve them over pasta. The way John would.

I decided on a puttanesca sauce for a couple of reasons. One, the flavor intensity is a nice contrast to the mild fish; and two, it's an easy sauce to make, half hour tops. (Hell, it took longer than that to wrest control of the evening's menu from the "responsible" adult in attendance.)

Saute some garlic, hot pepper and anchovy in extra virgin olive oil to get started.

Add in a can of crushed tomatoes, some Kalamata olives and capers.

Let it simmer, under medium heat, for maybe 15 minutes.

Lay the haddock fillets right on top of the sauce and turn up the heat.

Resist the urge to move around or turn over the fillets. Just allow the haddock to cook from the bottom up, while spooning some of the hot sauce on the topside.

Minutes later and you've got yourself a fine specimen of old school pan-cooked seafood.

It won't put Conte's out of business, but why in hell would I want to do that? Like I said, I don't mind the drive.

Haddock alla Puttanesca

3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 dried hot pepper, crushed
4 anchovy fillets
2 Tbsp capers, rinsed
3/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 lb. haddock fillet
1/2 lb. cooked spaghetti

In a saucepan saute the olive oil, garlic and hot pepper for around two minutes, then add the anchovies and stir until the fillets are broken up.
Add the tomatoes, olives, capers and salt, stir and allow to simmer at medium heat for about 15 minutes.
Add the haddock fillet to the saucepan and turn the heat up to high. As the haddock is cooking spoon the hot sauce over the fillet so that it becomes covered in sauce. Cook for around 8 minutes or until the haddock is done.
Serve over the spaghetti, or another pasta of your choosing.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Pasta aglio olio e peperoncino

These are two of my favorite ingredients to cook with. And, as luck would have it, they add up to one excellent pasta recipe.

It does not get any simpler than this, folks. Except for olive oil and a little (optional) parsley, you are looking at the full ingredient list right here.

Aglio olio simply means garlic and oil. Alone they make for a very fine pasta sauce, but the addition of peperoncino (hot pepper) adds a nice kick.

Not that you need instruction, but here's how to make it.

Pasta aglio olio e peperonico
(Pasta with garlic, oil and hot pepper)

2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 dried hot pepper, crushed
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. fresh parsley
1/2 lb. pasta (spaghetti works well)
Pasta water as needed

Begin cooking the pasta in a well-salted pot of water. (Reserve about a cup of the water after the pasta is cooked.)
In a saucepan saute the garlic and pepper in the olive oil at low to medium heat until golden but not hard.
Add the cooked pasta and half a cup of pasta water to the saucepan and mix thoroughly at high heat until melded. (Add more water if needed, but it should not be watery.) Toss in the parsley and mix some more.
Serve with or without grated cheese.

I said it was simple, didn't I?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The dad days

This is my father. I don't know a lot about him, frankly. He was an orphan for a time, but the details on this are sparse and a bit murky. He was a cook in the army. I know this not because he told me exciting stories about his time in the war, but because his United States War Department cookbook is right here beside me.

My father has been gone since before I made it out of grade school. Between that and never becoming a dad myself (sorry, Otis, dogs don't actually count on these human holidays), Father's Day has been off of my radar for a very, very long time.

Then this old photograph turned up in the inbox the other day. It was sent to me by my brother Joe and it is the most perfect shot of our dad that I could imagine. He is standing behind the counter of our fountain service store in Brooklyn. It too shut down long ago, but the store is the archive of all the important memories of our father that we have. It is where he spent virtually every day after settling down to start a family. And so it is the one place where my brothers and I got to see him for extended periods. (The first exhilarating seconds that I pedaled a bicycle solo elapsed on the uneven sidewalk in front of the store, left to my own devices by dad's hand during a brief lull at the counter.)

By the look of things in this frame, it is summer. Dad is stationed at the Snow Cone machine, syrup bottles at the ready. To his left, the ice cream cone displays (two sizes of wafer, one sugar) are fully stocked for use. The sleeves of dad's always-white button-down shirt are elbow rolled for comfort.

Not visible in the picture, but surely present, are the wonderful people my mother relied upon to look after her husband should he falter. Somewhere in the store, I guarantee, is an aunt or an uncle, a niece or a nephew, a cousin perhaps, possibly a neighbor or a family friend who is prepared to step behind the counter and lend assistance if called upon.

These people may not be visible to you, I should say. Like dad, they are as clear as they can be to me, especially on a holiday such as this.

Happy Father's Day, everybody!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Old school eggplant parm

This is the eggplant parmigiana that I was born to make. It is a proper, traditional, and very good eggplant parm.

It just isn't mine.

For reasons that I cannot quite explain, my method has long been to roast the eggplant, not to bread and fry it the way you are supposed to. (Here's my roasted recipe if, like me, you are moved to travel a different path).

I don't know what caused me to break from the elders in this matter. It's painful. We don't talk about. So please don't ask. Let's just get to the recipe, shall we.

To prepare an old school version of "the parm" you will of course need a large, firm eggplant. But having a close relation who has been around long enough to have attended the old school is even more useful. I've got Aunt Anna in my life, and she happens to enjoy cooking for me. Her simple eggplant parm is the best that I know, and so that is the recipe we will be going with here.

The eggplant is skinned and cut into quarter-inch-thick slices, which are dredged in plain breadcrumbs.

This is the (as yet unmixed) egg wash that follows the breading stage. (The cheese and lots of fresh parsley are key to this parm's perfection, I'm pretty sure.)

Dip the breaded slices in the mixed egg wash and into the hot olive oil they go.

Let the golden slices rest on paper towels to drain some of the oil.

Dip the slices in marinara sauce, line them in a baking dish, add a little mozzarella on top of each slice, then repeat the layers until you're out of eggplant.

Top the whole thing off with some more sauce and into the oven it goes.

I don't like my eggplant parm hot out of the oven. I like it at room temperature, and so that is how I enjoyed this one with my aunt.

It's better that way.

If you don't believe me, ask her.

Anna's Eggplant Parmigiana

1 large eggplant, skinned and cut crosswise in 1/4-inch slices
Breadcrumbs for dredging
Olive oil for frying
1/2 lb. mozzarella, cut in thin slices
16 oz. marinara sauce of your choosing

For the egg wash
5 extra large eggs
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
3 Tbsp. grated Romano cheese
Drop of water
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a bowl mix together the eggs, parsley, cheese, salt, pepper and water.
Dredge each eggplant slice in breadcrumbs, then in the egg wash.
Fry the eggplant in the olive oil until golden brown on both sides, then remove to paper towels.
Dip slices one at a time in marinara sauce and arrange in a baking dish until the bottom is covered.
Add a layer of cheese atop the slices, then repeat the layers until the eggplant and the cheese are used up.
Bake 30-45 minutes, allow to cool a bit, and serve.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The best Spaghetti Carbonara

Tell the truth. Have you eaten more very good Spaghetti alla Carbonara in your lifetime, or more so-so?

That's what I figured. If ever a dish proved that simple recipes are the most difficult to prepare, this one is it.

Carbonara is one of my top go-to meals, and so I figure it's about time I shared it here. The recipe is from David Downie's "Cooking the Roman Way." It's a reliable, honest, authentic Roman preparation, and I've been using it for several years now.

Best of all it isn't at all so-so. Give it a shot, you'll see.

You start out with a nice piece of pancetta (this is my homemade stuff), guanciale or even bacon if you prefer.

Dice it all up so's to fry it in olive oil.

Mix together some grated Pecorino Romano cheese, a good hit of freshly ground pepper, three eggs, and an egg yolk.

Here's the part that is most important (the full recipe is below). The egg and cheese mixture is added to the cooked pancetta, but only after the pan has been allowed to cool for three minutes.

You can see that the pan isn't hot enough to cook the eggs, but it does allow for just enough of a head start on the cooking.

As soon as the pasta is cooked it's added to the warm pan with all the other ingredients.

This is when the combination of the hot pasta and the already-warmed ingredients allows things to actually become cooked. (If it remains uncooked after stirring, turn on the heat and keep stirring, but only briefly; otherwise the eggs will scramble.)

Here's how a proper Carbonara should look, as far as I'm concerned anyway.

And I'm concerned an awful lot.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Adapted from "Cooking the Roman Way" by David Downie

4 ounces pancetta, guanciale or bacon (I use a little more)
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 Tbsp freshly grated Pecorino Romano (I use twice that amount)
Freshly ground black pepper
Kosher salt or coarse sea salt (I use regular salt)
1 lb. spaghetti
1 cup freshly grated cheese, half Parmigiano-Reggiano, half Pecorino Romano

Bring at least 5 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot.
Roughly chop the pancetta, guanciale or bacon. You should have about 3/4 of a cup. (I use about a cup.)
Heat the oil in a very large, high-sided frying pan over medium. Add the pork and stir, sautéing until crisp. Turn off the heat under the frying pan and let it cool for 3 minutes.
Separate one of the eggs. Put the yolk in a small mixing bowl and save the white for other uses. Crack the remaining 3 eggs into the mixing bowl and beat thoroughly, incorporating 2 heaping tablespoons of Pecorino Romano and an extremely generous pinch of black pepper. Pour the mixture into the warm frying pan and stir.
Add a pinch of salt to the boiling water (I use lots of salt to cook pasta, not just a pinch). Drop the pasta, stir and cover the pot. When the water returns to a boil remove the lid and cook, uncovered, until the pasta is barely al dente.
Drain the pasta and transfer it immediately to the frying pan with the egg mixture. Stir vigorously until thoroughly coated. Cover the frying pan and let stand for 1 minute.
Serve with a peppermill and a bowl of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano on the side.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The (not so) great cocoa caper

I've done a lot of things that I'm not proud of. Some were meanspirited, others unkind, several idiotic, many blatantly unlawful and dangerous.

But how do you explain robbing from the church, in the dead of night, just to get a fix? Worse, being pinched in the act by a nun with good vision, a strong moral compass and a very bad case of insomnia.

What kind of word is there for a thing like that?

The addiction I struggle with is not to drugs or alcohol, but to cocoa. Leave a fine chocolate, particularly a very dark fine chocolate, unattended and don't come crying to me when it vanishes. Well, you could come crying to me, I suppose. Just don't expect me to give a good goddamn.

If it's chocolate, I don't care if you brought it, paid for it, or made it beneath your ancient Tuscan villa using the finest Criollo beans: If I'm anywhere in the vicinity then the chocolate is mine, not yours. So get over it.

Such was also my harsh position on that cold, dark night during my sixteenth year when I and several pals broke into a Catholic elementary school and cleaned it out of thousands of dollars' worth of World's Finest chocolate bars.

Yes, those World's Finest chocolate bars. The ones that schools and churches and community groups and daycare centers and other earnest institutions have long relied upon to raise much needed funds for many worthy causes.

I said I wasn't proud, remember?

It may be worth mentioning that we had not set out to steal anything from anybody, least of all the parish where we ourselves were reared. What's more, there wasn't an awfully bad seed among our group. We were teenagers hanging out in the schoolyard, that's all. But it was cold enough outside that when I accidentally discovered an unlocked door at the school's side entrance we all agreed that warming ourselves inside the furnace room was preferable to making a night of it and going home.

And that's all we had in mind, I swear.

Of course, it wasn't very long before things took another turn. Soon we were inside the storage area where the crates of chocolate were being stored, busy designing an efficient way to extricate them from the premises. Inside an hour my five associates and I had relocated all the chocolates to a new storage facility around a hundred yards away and in the basement of the apartment building of one of our crewmembers, confident that the night's score was very big and the coast, as they say, very clear. To celebrate we cracked open one of the cases, went out onto the sidewalk and started to devour our treasure and calculate the total street value of our haul.

But then, out from the blackness of the fenced-in schoolyard, appeared the all too familiar figure of a woman whose appearance could only mean one thing: We got caught.

Her name was Sister Miriam. She had been the second-grade teacher to many neighborhood people over the years, including me and others in our nighttime crew. A big woman, Miriam was not known to be at all unkind, and in that way she differed from at least a few of her fellow sisters. But 1 a.m. is not the time you want to see the imposing frame of even the most benevolent nun — attired in full habit no less — staring down at you. Certainly not when your mouth is filled with purloined chocolate from the very parish that she herself so devotedly serves.

"Louis," she called out, addressing one of the members of our crew. "Would you come over here, please?"

These were the only words the rest of us heard the nun utter about the evening's events. And I doubt she discussed it with Lou for more than a minute, because no sooner had he walked over to her that she disappeared back into the darkness and he was back telling us what was what.

Turns out that the sister, unable to sleep, had witnessed the entire caper from her convent window. She saw the white cardboard cases being carried out the side entrance, run across the schoolyard, tossed up onto a garage roof in order to exit the fenced-in yard, tossed back down from the roof and into a side alley, and then (this she could not see due to her field of vision, I am sure) shuttled across a couple of backyards and then down into the chosen basement for final storage.

"Why the hell didn't she come out sooner?" I snarled, polishing off what turned out to be my last World's Finest chocolate bar for some time. "She could've saved us all a lot of trouble."

Which, as it turned out, was the sister's point. The deal she struck with my friend Lou was this: We put the chocolate bars back where they belong and nobody ever hears about the matter again. The boxes had to be brought back immediately, though, which made for an awfully long night for us all.

Recently I received a note from my old friend Lou.

"I just visited the actual site this past Memorial Day, and pointed out to my mother and daughter the exact spot where Sr. Miriam stood," Lou wrote. There was no need to clarify which "site" he meant; I knew.

"This was a pivotal moment in my life because I quickly realized a life of crime was not for me," he went on. "And it was the first time I was able to tell my mom about it."

Then Lou reminded me of something that made me about as ashamed of my cocoa addiction as ever I have been.

"Remember, she paid for the chocolate bars that went 'missing.' And never told a soul about it. As far as I know."