Monday, November 24, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

The people that I care about most, and who care about me, know that I am thinking of them. They make my life full, help me to be a better man. How could my thoughts not be with them on a holiday such as this?

But there are others who have helped to shape me — at critical stages in my life — without even knowing it. I've been thinking about these people a lot this year. They deserve mention.

"Rudy Tie My Shoes." I know that sometimes us kids would make fun of you, Rudy, and I'm sorry about that. Even back then I knew that you were just a guy who'd drawn a bad hand, that you were only trying to make the best of a lousy situation, and that the deformity that caused both of your wrists to curve up so badly had to be a hell of thing to have to live with. I don't know how many times you stopped me on the street and asked me to tie your shoes for you, probably hundreds. I want to thank you for that. Kneeling down on the sidewalk in front of a man who others might consider "less than" taught me about compassion and humility at a young age. Thank you.

Mister C. This is gonna be one of them what you call backward compliments, but here goes: Thanks for being such an asshole. You taught me something about how powerful people can abuse their authority, and I'm grateful for that. Really, I am. I learned something valuable, something that I have carried with me and benefitted from my entire life, and I appreciate it. But we were kids. You were our principal. C'mon. (By the way, that heavy college ring that you used to whack us on the head with all the time? The one you "lost" when you were eating your eggplant parm sandwich in my mother's store? I snatched it off the counter and tossed it in the sewer. So screw you.)

Senor Alfonso. Two years of high school Spanish classes with you and all I'm able to do is say hello to a woman named Isabel, then ask her how she's doing. This only happened to me once. And the Isabel that I ran into didn't even speak Spanish. But you were a class act, Senor, and you taught me something really important about being a gentleman: When wearing dress pants, or a suit of course, socks must go over the calf. No exceptions. Gracias!

Those two undercover cops who tried to buy a kilo of weed from me when I was 19. Thanks for not being as smart as me. The day after you guys showed up asking for me I knew things had gotten too hot. The very next day I closed up shop. For good. If not for you guys scaring me onto the path of the straight and narrow, there's no telling how things might have turned out. So thanks. Very much.

Jeff K. You were a respected television journalist in New York. I was a junior in college studying to be a photographer. I took your writing class because it fit into my schedule and because I'd seen you on TV so many times I figured it'd be cool to meet you. The first time you told me that I was a "natural writer" I didn't think much of it. The next couple times I thought about it some but not a lot. But on that last day of the semester, you asked me to hang after class for a few minutes. That's when you said that if I didn't get off my ass and become a writer you were gonna track me down and beat me to death with a shovel. Thanks for that, Jeff. Wherever you are. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Orange ricotta torte

The Lemon Ricotta Torte recipe that I use all the time just couldn't be any simpler.

But I may have just made it better. By switching to orange instead.

Finely chop 1/2 cup of candied orange rind.

In a large bowl mix together 3 pounds of ricotta, 3 extra large eggs, 1 cup of sugar, the orange rind, the zest of one orange, and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract.

Butter and flour a 9-inch spring form pan and fill it with the ricotta mixture.

Smooth the top as best you can, then place the pan in an oven that's been preheated to 400 degrees F. In about an hour check to see if the top has browned a bit and that the torte has stiffened. If it's still very jiggly and hasn't browned yet keep checking for doneness every 10 minutes or so.

This torte took around 80 minutes to cook. Once it cooled thoroughly I let it sit in the fridge for three or four hours before taking it out and allowing it to come up to room temperature before serving.

And in about 20 minutes I watched eight people polish off the whole thing.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Pork Bolognese sauce

When it comes to Red Sauce I am a very patient man. Nine times out of ten I don't serve the sauce on the day that I make it; I serve it the next day, after the flavors have had time to knit together some. My friend Fred has on occasion given me grief over this practice, wonders if I am a tad overzealous.

I do not invite my friend Fred over for Red Sauce anymore.

I did invite my friends Marc and Beth over for some last Saturday, but it was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. I'd planned on making a Bolognese sauce that afternoon, only it was supposed to be for Sunday dinner. I use veal in Bolognese, but since we'd be eating that same day I switched gears and decided to use pork instead. My reasoning was thus: pork has more flavor than veal, and so it'd make a much tastier same-day sauce.

As it happens, this reasoning turned out to be pretty sound. I'd not used pork in Bolognese sauce before, but I absolutely plan to again.

Finely chop two large carrots, two celery stalks, one small onion, three garlic cloves and some hot pepper (optional, though I used a whole fresh cayenne here) and saute in olive oil under medium heat until softened.

Add 1 1/2 pounds of ground pork, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, incorporate and cook until browned.

Add one cup of dry white wine, increase the heat to high and reduce until the wine has evaporated.

Add 1/2 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg and one cup of whole milk. Cook until the milk has evaporated.

Add one 35-ounce can of tomatoes, turn the heat down to low and allow the sauce to simmer very gently for around three hours. (If the heat is on too high and the sauce reduces too much you can always add some more milk.)

This sauce cooked for around four hours, actually.

And Marc and Beth and My Associate and myself ate the whole thing!

Sorry, Fred.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Roman Classic: Cacio e Pepe

A few years back, in the dead of an interminable Maine winter no less, my friend Joe began to email enticing food photos from Rome, where he and his wife Joel were holed up for a month. There was the Carciofi alla Giuda (fried artichokes, Jewish style), the Trippa alla Romana (tripe in tomato sauce with cheese and mint), the Puntarelle in Salsa d'Acciughe (chicory salad with anchovy dressing) and of course Una Grande Varietà di Pizza (lots and lots of pizza).

But the one type of photo that wound up most frequently in my inbox was of Spaghetti a Cacio e Pepe, literally with nothing but cheese and black pepper.

Joe and I are alike in this way. We enjoy the simplest things best.

I can't tell you how many times I've decided not to share a recipe for cacio e pepe with you here. After all, do you really need me to tell you to dump some grated cheese over a pile of spaghetti? But the bigger reason is this: I find it difficult to make a really good cacio e pepe. A traditional one anyway, where the only ingredients are the cheese and the pepper, plus pasta and a little bit of, well, water.

Start adapting the dish by adding things like olive oil or butter or even a little cream and your chances of success are far greater. (I had a fine, if a bit modernized, cacio e pepe just the other evening at my go-to local spot, Enio's.) But go the old-school Roman route, as I do, and, well, you take your chances. Technique becomes way more critical, I think. Failure isn't only an option, it's a distinct probability. Joe, for instance, tells me that he has "never gotten it right — not once!"

I know. I should just shut up already and cook. Fine, have it your way.

Just don't come crying to me if things don't work out for you the first time you try this. Or even the second, come to think of it.

First of all, I'm only working with 1/2 lb. of pasta here, so double the ingredients if you're making a full pound. This is around a cup of grated cheese and a heaping teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. We're all friends here and so I'll be straight with you. I used a combination of two different cheeses this time, Pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano (see the color variation?). But I'd suggest using all Pecorino instead. The saltier cheese makes for a better cacio e pepe, I think; plus, it's more traditional to use Pecorino. And don't skimp on the pepper either. It's important.

Mix the cheese and pepper thoroughly.

Boil your pasta (spaghetti alla chitarra here) in well-salted water. When the pasta is done reserve some of the water before draining (1/2 cup should be enough for a full pound of pasta).

Return the drained pasta to the pot that you cooked it in, but make sure the heat is off. Add some of the pasta water (1/4 cup per half pound of pasta is a good guide) and stir so that the pasta is evenly moistened.

This is the tricky part. And I won't lie to you either: I only get it right maybe half the time. You've got to very gradually stir in the cheese — and then pray that it doesn't clump up rather than coat the pasta evenly. My best advice is to go slowly — and practice, practice, practice. (There's a reason I've only used 1/2 lb. of pasta here, you know.) Either that or use another recipe. I won't mind.

Believe me, there are way more fool-proof methods of making cacio e pepe than this hardcore traditional one.

Just ask Joe, he'll tell you.