Monday, December 19, 2016

Channeling my Inner Nonna

You ever have one of those days where everything aches for no reason and you walk slow, deliberate and a little like you have a poop in your pants?  Think Fred Sanford, but less elegant.  No? Just me?

OK, whatever.

When I have those kind of days, I think of it as coming down with a case of "The Grandmas".  When you get a case of The Grandmas, everything aches, it takes forever to walk from one side of the house to the other and you forget how to use all your electronic devices.

But sometimes, instead of a case of The Grandmas, you get a case of "The Nonnas".  When you get a case of The Nonnas, you become an elderly superwoman.  You put on your housecoat, cook all day and all night, wash and fold 40 loads of laundry and pick vegetables from your beautiful backyard garden (even if you have neither a back yard or a vegetable garden, when you get The Nonna's they magically appear).

Last weekend, I got a wicked case of The Christmas Nonnas.  I was posessed by the impulse to make Struffoli.  For those of you that don't know what Struffoli are, they are little round balls of fried dough, soaked in a honey syrup and covered with non-pareils.  If you grew up with at least one Italian grandmother, you know what they are and you have warm memories of being shooed away from pots of hot oil, being covered in honey from head to toe and not being able to put anything down after you pick it up because everything sticks to your fingers.

My Nonna did not leave me a recipe for these delightful treats and honestly, I have not ever wanted to make them before because I hate frying.  I hate the smell it leaves in the house, I hate the mess and I hate spatter burns.  But, when the spirit of Christmas mixes with the spirit of Nonna, the compulsion for struffoli can outrun my more neurotic, Felix Unger-type tendencies. Being that I did not have a recipe from my own Nonna, I did what any red blooded Italian Grandmother would do...I used the Internet.

What I found is that there are no shortage of recipes for Struffoli.  Everyone who calls themself an Italian cook has a version - Giada DeLarentiis, Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali.  They all look pretty good and the recipes are similar...flour, eggs, a splash of alcohol, honey, etc.  But since I was overcome with the spirit of Nonna, I went to the source, Cooking with Nonna.

If you have not seen this adorable series, a young Italian American woman, Rossella Rago, cooks traditional Italian and Italian American recipes with grandmothers.  Yours, hers, any Italian nonna that will sit still long enough to teach her a recipe.  It's quite charming and sweet and it spreads the joy of having an Italian grandmother to everyone.  The recipe that I used, along with a "how to" video can be found here.  Enjoy and Buon Natale!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Chicken Walks into a Butcher Shop...

I'll admit it, I get a little intimidated when I go into the butcher shop.  If there is one thing that I know absolutely nothing about, it's meat butchery.  On the very few times that I tried to joint up chicken wings or separate a thigh from a drumstick, it has been nothing shy of disastrous.  I end up with flesh that is shredded at the edges like Christmas tinsel.  I can take apart and dice a bell pepper with the best of them, but when it comes to knife skills in the meat world, I get a failing grade every time.

Everything about the process of the butcher shop is about mastery,  from the confident way they handle the different cuts to the understanding of which cut to use for what purpose to the blindingly fast use of a knife. So, like the puffer fish of the deep, I puff up my chest and stride in with a Dirty Harry swagger, as to not tip the professionals off to my lack of understanding or skill.  Think Billy Crystal in Analyze This, but with meat.

I confidently approach the counter and tell the butcher that I would like a pound and a half of ground sirloin and a pound of ground chuck.  I am sure the butcher is scratching his head over this odd ratio, but he is kind enough not to ask.  I don't want to have to tell him that I do this out of laziness because if I use all chuck in my chili, it takes too long to skim the extra fat off the top, so I mix in something leaner.

"Anything else?" he asks.  I momentarily seize up as I had not thought past the pot of chili.  "Yes", I blurt out trying to mask the hesitation brought about by my utter lack of preparedness, "I will take a whole organic chicken, cut up". It was the first thing I could think of and I believe that I have managed to convince him that I had planned all along to make chicken.  I laugh on the inside, believing that I have not tipped my hand (clearly a pair of twos) and exposed the fact that I had no clue what else I wanted, that is until he decides to throw math into the conversation.  If I have one Achilles Heel weaker than my knowledge of butchery, it's my knowledge of math.

"Do you want that chicken cut in eight pieces?" he asked.  The look that came over my face was probably something approximating abject fear and constipation as the thought of meat math was binding up my brain.  I started to do an inventory of chicken parts in my head, which is the meat math equivalent of counting on your fingers "Two breasts plus two wings plus two drums plus two thighs equals eight".  Then as if to provide a haughty "Go ahead, make my day" type response, I tell him, "No, make it ten.  I want to split the breasts across the middle so that all the pieces are the same size, and they cook evenly".

He slowly took two steps back from the counter and I could see the mental math that he was now doing in his head.  He turned to the butcher block and started hacking up the chicken.  And everything was right with the world.  I stood there listening to the solid "thwack, thwack,thwack" of his cleaver against the bird on the board.  I moved toward the register, ready to pay and take the spoils of my chicken victory when he held up the backbone of the bird and asked me if I wanted it.  Shit! How did we end up with an eleventh piece?  Defeated by vertebrae!  I looked down at my shoes and mumbled, "You can keep it" then I paid him and quietly slunk out the door, more Cowardly Lion than Dirty Harry.  Maybe next time I'll make a list.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Divining the Course of a Love Story Through a Pot Roast Recipe

I have a friend who has been crazy about a guy for the longest time.  He is one of those cute, funny, attentive fellows that makes a girl feel special on an almost constant basis. I have never wondered "what's the attraction?" when she talks about him.  I get it.  I totally get it.

That said, their relationship has taken the slowest boat to come to fruition in recorded history.  If patience is a virtue, my friend should be a saint by now.

It's not through any fault of his or hers that their relationship took its snail-like course, it's more the circumstances of life that blew the ship onto it's non-linear path.

When they first started hanging out, he was a very good friend of her husband-to-be.   He was part of the type of large pack of friends that seldom hung together long after high school.  But, here they were, post high school, post college and still together every weekend. When she was introduced to her fiance's friends, there was no delay in getting folded into the group.  They hung out together every weekend, drank at the same watering hole, took group trips together and when it came time to tie the knot, everyone was on hand to celebrate.

Though they had a pack mentality and did everything together, there was always something special about him.  He had a way of standing out amongst all the big personalities in the group.  She felt an ease with him,  a pull to be with him.  But, since she was now married and he always had a girlfriend in tow, the attraction was just that, and nothing more.  But she wondered, does he feel it too?

Years went by, relationships and marriages came and went and through an unexpected encounter, he and she reconnected. Their first phone conversation in twenty years lasted for four hours and ended with a promise to get together.  The type of promise that she suspected might be a hollow and polite ending to a long conversation.  Turns out, it was anything but.

What came next over the ensuing year was a series of epic hangouts that would last for hours and hours, complete with drinks, dinners, shows, and long, deep talks that did nothing but reveal the seemingly endless list of things that they had in common.  What it never did was end in a goodnight kiss.  It looked like a date, it smelled like a date, it walked like a date, but it never ended like a date.

On one of their "dates" she went to his place afterward and he offered to send her home with some of his world famous crock-pot chili.  She declined, but made a mental note that not only did he share her interest in food, that he actually took the time to cook meals for himself.  They later had long conversations about cooking and she found out that he was something of a crock pot genius.  A short time after that discussion, he gave her a recipe.

He did not give her this recipe the way the rest of us might, emailing some snippet from the NY Times food section or texting a link to something on Epicurious.  Instead, he handed her a piece of paper, that contained a hand written recipe, which on inspection was unlike any recipe that anyone had ever given her before.

When she opened up the folded piece of paper, she saw the words "German Pot Roast" centered at the top. The title was written larger than the contents below it.  The contents below the title were lined up in three neat columns of caligraphy-style text.  The first column had the quantities for a small crock pot, the center contained the ingredients and the column  to the right, the quantities for a large crock pot.  The print was immaculate and perfect, the columns in perfect alignment and the footnotes at the bottom, instructing the cook in variations on and additions to the dish, perfectly centered to the title.  He had taken what must have been hours out of his day to lovingly hand-write this recipe.  The signs were clear, he was demonstrating his feelings by way of a recipe.

At least that was what we all thought as we watched what turned out to be a year of intense flirting, long conversations, hugs and hand holding and a tall tower of stacked up similarities and shared interests.  Then one day, he pulled the bottom brick out of the Jenga tower and the whole thing came crashing to the ground.  What started out as what looked like it may have been the great, romantic love story of our generation, ended abuptly with his offer to introduce my friend to his girlfriend.  He revealed that they had been dating for a few months and now that he was sure that she was "the one", he was ready to introduce her to all the important people in his life, including my friend.

The wave of devastation that washed over her was intense.  She cried more than I had ever seen anyone cry before.  And understandably so.  He had carelessly toyed with her feelings, without so much as a shred of self-awareness or empathy.  Or possibly worse, he knew exactly what he was doing and wanted to keep my friend on the line until this other girl showed a vested interest in him.

Initially, when he had given her the pot roast recipe I was impressed because it was what seemed like a loving gesture and was so beautifully hand written.  The other day, I pulled out the copy of the recipe that she had texted to me.  I printed it out and inspected it more closely.  As I read the recipe line by line, I took note of the fact that it used convenience ingredients such as packaged gravy mix and beef bullion cubes.  This was not a recipe for a lovingly prepared pot roast, but rather a 1970's housewife's quick fix slow cooker dinner.  Something where you chucked all the ingredients into a pot, set it and forget it. Which upon reflection of how he treated my friend, seems like just the recipe for him.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Beautiful Delicious Sicily

I posted about my trip to Sicily over here today.  Beautiful food, beautiful people, beautiful country.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Pizza di Patate Dolci

When my husband set out to build a pizza oven, I was filled with nervous trepidation.  Would I be able to make a pizza worthy of the incredible piece of equipment set before me?  There were a hundred ways for me to screw it up and a narrow (90 seconds to be exact) margin for success.

Even though we did not buy a Forno Bravo oven and opted for the rival Chicago Brick Oven model, I did look to Forno Bravo's website for a Neapolitan pizza dough recipe.  I first tried the recipe with regular AP flour, assuming that the pies would essentially be throwaway. Surprisingly, the results were fantastic.  We sacrificed the first dough ball to the oven because that's what they said to do. That one went in un-topped.  We were pleased when it came out of the oven with the hallmark leopard spotting that is so desired in a wood fired pizza.  At that point we were ready to make some real pizza that we could actually eat.  I decided to make the gold standard for a wood fired oven, Pizza Margherita and since I had some rosemary and garlic roasted potatoes left over, I made a potato, onion and parmesean pie with besciamella sauce.

After our first batch of pizza ended up to actually be edible and not complete garbage, I broke out the big guns.  For the next batch, I used Marino Tipo 0 flour that my husband picked up when he was in Italy for work.  I didn't want to use my "good flour" for my maiden voyage.  The second round resulted in the following three pizzas - Marinara (lovingly styled after the spectacular marinara pie at Da Michele in Naples, but nowhere near as skillfully turned), Sweet Potato with Pancetta, Rosemary and Parmesan, and a Sausage and Pepperoni pie.

I am happy to say that these pizzas were all successful.  And while the more traditional pizzas tasted delicious, the oddball sweet potato pizza was killer. So delicious in fact that I am going to share the recipe in case you want to shake up your pizza routine a little.  There is no way to give exact amounts, so amounts given are somewhat approximated.  Pizza is assembled very much assembled by eye, feel and taste. Here are the ingredients:

1 275 gram ball of your favorite Neapolitan Style pizza dough -  Forno Bravo's is an excellent choice (here)
1 Large Sweet Potato
2 Teaspoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 Teaspoon Salt (or to taste)
1/4 Teaspoon of freshly cracked black pepper (or to taste)
1 Teaspoon of finely chopped fresh rosemary
4 Oz pancetta cubed
1 Tablespoon Grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1/4 cup Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
A drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Roast the sweet potato in a 350 degree preheated oven until it is soft.  Slit open and allow to cool slightly before scraping the insides into a bowl. Mash the potato with a pinch of salt and pepper and  2 teaspoons of olive oil. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary.  Set aside in the refrigerator.  The potato topping should be completely cool before topping pizza.

Fry up the pancetta in a small frying pan until rendered and golden.  Drain on paper towels and set aside in the refrigerator.

Stretch the pizza dough and spread a thin layer of the potato mash on the pizza, not so thick as to weigh the pizza down, but not thin enough to see through. Add a light sprinkle of chopped rosemary across the pizza and scatter the pancetta on top.  Add a generous sprinkle of pecorino romano cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.  Top with shaved Parmigiano cheese and fire it up.

Unusual, but really delicious.

Here are some of the others...


Roasted Potato, Parmesean and Carmelized Onions over Besciamella 
Sausage and Pepperoni

For our next batch, I am going to order some Caputo 00 flour and see how the dough works out with that.  I have used it in the past with my Pizza Kettle and it turned out pretty good.  

Cheers for beers and pizza!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Father's Day Cinnamon Rolls

I love cinnamon rolls.  I particularly love Alton Brown's recipe for overnight cinnamon rolls, because they are fluffy and yeasty and texturally amazing. But sometimes I go out and sometimes when I go out, I get home late.   And sometimes when I get home late, I am very drunk and need to go to bed immediately.  And sometimes when I come home drunk and need to go to bed immediately, I forget to take off my eye makeup and I wake up in the morning looking like some kind of sad, middle aged raccoon-hooker.  Don't judge.

Whatever the reason may be for not making overnight cinnamon rolls, I needed to find a same day cinnamon roll recipe that did not take until lunch time to prepare.  Amazing thing about the internet,  it's like wish-fulfillment.  Simply google and it shall be yours.  This recipe came together quickly and beautifully and the taste?  Delightful.  Pics below.  Recipe here. Highly recommend.  

Now go forth and make cinnamon rolls and have a wonderful Father's Day!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Fry me a River

Sometimes life is about a big glass of Brunello and some amazing Tuscan steak and sometimes it's about down-home chicken and waffles.  And even though we wish that every trip outside of NY was to Italy, that's just not possible (though I do have an aggressive lottery plan in place, which may yield this desired result someday). This weekend's travel outside of NY was about Maryland and Chicken and Waffles and family, which made it a great trip.

Chicken and waffles is awesome because it's chicken and waffles. Even more so because that chicken is fried, and who doesn't love fried chicken?  If I had to declare a relationship status with fried chicken, it would be "complicated". Some might call it "bat shit crazy". Tomato/tomahto. I say it is complicated because I have requirements. There is nothing simple or straight forward about my preparation or consumption of fried chicken.  Let me explain...

I rarely fry chicken at home, but when I do, it's a something of a process.  I marinate the chicken overnight in buttermilk laced with hot sauce and smashed garlic cloves, roll it in seasoned flour and deep fry it until it is GBD.  When it's on the plate, it's a thing of beauty.  But to get to the beauty shot, you have to endure a huge mess and the frying leaves the house kind of stinky for a few days and of course, it requires that I have repeated and prolonged contact with raw chicken, which really wigs me out. So, I don't make it that often. I think it's safe to say that if I make you fried chicken, I really, really love you. No, really.

Also, fried chicken is not the healthiest thing on the menu, so if you are going to have it out somewhere, it needs to be really good.  There is nothing worse than ordering fried chicken and receiving a plate of soggy, tasteless or worse, underdone chicken.  GERMOPHOBE ALERT!  The mere sight of underdone chicken gets me running for the shower and a prophylactic dose of Imodium. No can deal.

We went to Maryland for a 5K run for cancer research for a family member who is fighting the disease.  Now don't get ahead of yourself, I didn't do anything crazy, like run.  I walked.  Mock if you will, but it was about support, not race time (although I think officials that timed the race were a little annoyed when I sauntered through the finish line around dusk).  Whatever.  OK, I exaggerated that slightly. We finished in time for a late breakfast and since I was with other folks that actually ran, a hearty breakfast of chicken and waffles was in order.

Restaurant and bar shopping in this part of Maryland can be a little challenging.  There are lots of chains.  Chains as far as you can see. There is no fun in that.  But we lucked out and found this local joint in Owings Mills, called Granny's.

Granny's bills itself on its website as "good down-home cooking".  Finding that home is slightly daunting, but worth the hunt.  It's kind of buried in a shopping center that is buried inside a corporate office park.  It's not a "blink and you'll miss it" kind of place.  It's more of a squint and go slow until you find it kind of place. But it's totally worth the eye strain.

I went in to Granny's on a mission. And although their menu was full of delicious sounding things, for this visit, I was laser-focused on the chicken and waffles.  I ordered the classic, which came with 5 wings.  They also offered it with chicken tenders, but c'mon, I'm not five.  I want to be wrist deep in chicken grease or it just isn't fried chicken.

Let me tell you, they sling a MEAN waffle; it's fluffy, golden brown and topped with an ice cream scoop of whipped butter. And the chicken is fried properly. They pull it out of the fryer when it is juicy and tender inside and crispy golden outside.  And although I was mildly distracted by the tasty side of fried apples that it came with (kind of like a bowl of apple pie innards), it was all about the sweet and savory combo of chicken and waffles. Heavenly!

I mean, just look at it.  Did you not drool immediately?  If you answered no, get thee to a doctor, have your pulse checked, something is just wrong.  That's what yummy looks like.  It was good enough for me to consider calling Owings Mills MD, a food destination. And that's saying something.