Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A Tour of the Monte Testaccio in Rome

When my husband texted me in November and said that he wanted me to earmark time off at work in December for a trip to Italy, I did not question him.  His job has been giving him a sustained level of grief that would have killed me by now.  This was clearly an escape, a way to let the air out of an over-inflated balloon about to pop. I knew he needed the break.

He wanted to start the trip with a quick spin through London.  Long on my bucket list, I was thrilled with the idea of a visit to London.  It turned out to be another Rome to me; a place where I felt immediately at home and where the tug to return began the minute the wheels were up on the plane as we left.  But the bulk of the trip was about Italy.  We would follow our brief London visit with 4 days in Sorrento and 5 days in Rome.  The itinerary?  Find a seat at a cafe near something beautiful and drink wine.  That was it.  Relax, people watch and consume great wine and food. 
What's cuter than a red Mini Cooper?

This was our first time to Italy by ourselves. Each trip before had been with friends or family and we were always playing tour guide and working hard to keep the masses happy.  With the luxury of time and no agenda whatsoever, I spent a little time thinking of things that I had wanted to do in visits past, but did not follow through on, either because of group dynamics or lack of time. And then it dawned on me, I realized that I could take a private tour with Elizabeth Minchilli. 


As a long time follower of Elizabeth Minchilli's blog, it was somewhat astonishing that I hadn't booked a tour with her before this visit. I had been on a couple of tours before - The Vatican, The Colusseum, the Forum.  But what I wanted from this tour was to know the city and to learn what it was like to be a resident of Rome.  Elizabeth was the right person to go to for an inside look at the Roman way of life. 

Elizabeth had several styles of tours available; group, individual, day long, week long, all centered around the food and lifestyle of various areas of Rome. We were looking for a slice of Roman life, which lead us to the Insider's Tour of Testaccio, a real Roman neighborhood, just outside of the central tourist belt.

This private tour started in the Piazza Testaccio and took us through the cafes, storefronts, market and abandoned meat processing plant that are built in, on and around the Monte Testaccio. The hill and it's surrounding neighborhood are unique and interesting and Elizabeth peppered us with fascinating information about how it came to be and it's very long and distinctive history.
Beautiful and fragrant oranges
Romanesco
Artichokes that made me green with envy at their quality.




Amazing fried artichokes
 It would be very accurate to say that we ate our way through the neighborhood, making stops for coffee, wine, snacks, a fabulous lunch and ending with some delicious gelato. 

We ate lunch at Flavio Velavevodetto, a restaurant literally built into the Monte Testaccio. The food was otherworldly delicious. We enjoyed Caccio e Pepe, pillowy, herb and cheese stuffed ravioli and yes, even some "quinto quarto" favorites like lungs, liver and tripe. Elizabeth can claim accomplishment of being the first person to get me to eat tripe. Not just one bite, but two! This is a bigger accomplishment than she will ever know.
Gorgeous handmade pasta
Cacio e Pepe

This ravioli is what angels use for pillows.

Pizza Bianca with Mortadella

Gelato. A sweet ending.




After our tour ended, we walked along the Tiber as the sun came down behind the buildings along its bank. We reflected on our fabulous day, all that we learned and the stunning beauty and distinctive charm of Rome. We felt closer to it than ever before and had a warm and comforting feeling in our hearts and in our bellies. Elizabeth helped to further cement our love for Rome and fuel our desire to return and learn more.  Arrivederci Roma.  Until we meet again...





Sunday, February 28, 2016

Anatomy of an Unintentional NYC Wine Crawl

As we age, the ability to entertain my husband and I has narrowed to a scant sliver.  Throw in the fact that we want to be in Italy every day of the year and aren't and you get two generally cranky and irritable people that need a lot of wine to be tolerable. This was the reason behind my husband's Christmas gift this year.  My gift to him was a wine and cheese tasting at Murray's Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village and a night at the Marriot Marquis in Times Square.

We took the day off work on Friday and got an early start into Manhattan.  We live about 60 miles away from NYC, so the trip is about an hour, depending on traffic.  During this trip, my husband was on the phone with work for the duration. Somehow he manages to keep his call going inside the midtown tunnel, amazingly he kept yacking away, red-faced with stress and frustration.  When he finally got off the phone, I turned to him and said in my best (terrible) Nicholson impression "You need a lot of drinks...to kill the bug that you have up your ass." He didn't disagree.

After checking in to the hotel, we grabbed an Uber and went further west of 45th st and Broadway toward 9th and 44th. We would have walked but it was bitterly cold and windy.  Problem was that at 4PM on a Friday on the West side of Manhattan, everyone and their Aunt Sadie is trying to get the hell out of there.  The tunnel based mass exodus makes the traffic on the West side an absolute crawl. Once the driver had us sufficiently West of the Times Square area, we jumped out and hoofed if for two blocks to get to an adorable place called Gallo Nero, a pint sized Italian wine bar in Hell's Kitchen.

This is what I look for in a wine bar.  An espresso machine. Helps keep up the stamina while the wine does its level best to put me to sleep.

Sustenance is key to a long bar crawl.  If you try to make it on an empty stomach, you won't be vertical past 8PM.  For starters, I like a sled of meat with a chaser of good bread and olive oil.  Our wine selection - Me: Pinot Bianco  Him: Cabernet Sauvignon
MmmmmMortadella
 Our next location was Murray's Cheese Bar.  Murray's is a wine and cheese bar in the west village, two doors down from the Murray's retail cheese shop location, where our class was being held.  In advance of a wine and cheese tasting, what do you order to nibble on? Cheese of course. But not just any cheese Buratta mmmmmmmm (Sorry, I can't say burrata or mortadella without making a yummy noise).
Me: Sauvignon Blanc  Him: Nero De Avola
We sat for a long time waiting for our Burrata, long enough to polish off our wine.  When the waiter came by we mentioned our missing cheese and they kindly enough, gave us another glass of wine on the house.  The burrata came shortly after.  By 6:20 we needed to giddyup to the Wine and Cheese tasting.  On to Murray's Cheese Shop, where we were greeted by this:

I cannot name a single wine or cheese that we tried.  I did not take notes as I had a glass in my writing hand at all times.


The thing about having wine before you have wine is that it takes away all inhibitions.  So when the instructor asked us what we smelled in the second white that we tried, my preposterous answer was "European Petrol" which turned out to be both accurate and "astute" (I would say buzzed or tipsy, but to each his own).

Class wrapped up around 8:00 PM so we grabbed another Uber and went east to Via Della Pace on 7th street near 2nd Ave.  This is our regular spot in NYC.  We spent a couple of hours here. I may have had a glass of wine.  I definitely had an espresso (and burnt my gullet because I didn't wait for it to cool) and a shot of limoncello.  My husband told me that I had Lasagna Bolognese.   I am going to have to believe him. 
An icy shot of Limoncello is the traditional parting gift at VDP.  Love the Italian hospitality.
We ended up here.  It was at this point that I started drinking seltzer like my life depended on it.  Not my husband though.  He went on to have some Sake.  Might be why he thought "Jesus of Suburbia" was a good choice for Karaoke.  It's a looooooooong freakin song, but the bar was packed with a crazy cross section of people that made it fun and interesting and a great way to end the evening.  

By the time we got back to the hotel it was after 2:00 am. We got out of the cab and my husband took off toward Times Square.  I assumed he was off for a cheesy selfie amidst the glittering lights, but I was wrong.  He returned back with some street meat on a stick and a couple of bottled waters.  I refused his offer to share the mystery meat, but happily took the water.  It was an epic night out and as I tucked in for a much needed sleep, I was thankful that we make it a point to take advantage of our proximity to NY.  By this point, "Jesus of Suburbia" was already asleep.







Sunday, January 31, 2016

Turning an Ugly Duckling into a Ugly Swan

I love to bake.  I love to bake cakes and pies in particular.  There is something so homey and satisfying about home baked things.  But let me be clear about something, I am no cake decorator.  As a matter of fact, I am a cake decorating dropout.

A few years back, my sister-in-law and I signed up for classes in the Wilton method of cake decorating.  After the teacher told us she used a hatpin to retrieve stray hairs that fell on her cake while she was decorating, we looked at each other and knew that we would not be returning.  We were too germ-o-phobic to consider such things ( reality though they may be).

As a result of my decoratus interruptus, I am a lousy cake decorator.  If you throw in a particularly crumby and fragile cake, there can be all manner of ugliness in my decorating.  Case in point, my Uncle's birthday cake this weekend.

His favorite cake from days gone by was the Entenmann's Marshmallow Iced Devil's Food cake (non-New Yorkers see this for reference), so I knew I wanted a rich, moist chocolate cake, with a fluffy vanilla buttercream.  With a little web research, I found a NY Times recipe for chocolate "Dump It" cake  (huh, huh, you said dump).  The icing recipe that went with the cake was a sour cream ganache, which was not vanilla and  I had made before and did not like it, so I used my own stand-by buttercream recipe.

The recipe warned that the cake was prone to sticking to the pan due to its intense moistness, so I prepared the pans as instructed, adding a parchment paper liner for extra insurance. This approach worked as the cakes came out of the pans without incident, but I could tell by the crumbs that fell during the removal process, that there would be crumb/frosting infiltration. Generally speaking, this is nothing that a crumb coat and second layer of icing could not address, but this was not the usual crumb containment issue, this was crumbageddon.

After the first round of frosting, I knew I was in deep doo doo. The cake as utterly un-presentable.  I knew I was going to have to MacGuyver that shit.  Here is a little photo essay on the rescue mission that ensued:


 It all started off with a creamy, white frosting that contracted a pox when applied to the cake.

I tried to chill the cake to seal the crumb coat.
And yes, I always have that much vodka in my freezer. 
Don't judge.


Alas, no amount of chilling would seal the disaster sufficiently to keep the frosting clean.
My hero to the rescue.


 I turned the white icing brown to hide the crumb laden disaster beneath the surface.

And voila! A cake that is neither pretty, nor impressive...but also not a total disaster and VERY tasty.  And you wonder why my freezer is filled with vodka?






The real trickery came when I put it on the table.  Pretty glasses and linens distract from lumpy cakes Ooh, look! Shiny object!


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Kitchen Tool Giveaway- Entries Closed.-Winner Selected

I am in no way, shape or form an old fashioned girl.  I work full time, drink like a fish, swear like a sailor and fully embrace technology... except when it comes to kitchen tools.

For me, there is nothing like the feeling of a knife in your hand when it comes to chopping and when I make mashed potatoes, I am all about smashing the hell out of them, by hand, with one of these -


...and there had better be lumps.  You heard me. I want the lumps that prove I did the job by hand.  Besides, everything I cook is rustic and home-style and if I happen to be upping my game for a fancy dinner party, I'll smooth my taters out with one of these -


So, when I received an electric tool that exists for the purpose of mashing potatoes I thought of two things:

1) If I use this, I will no longer have a way to get out my hostility toward my coworkers in a healthy fashion.

2) I am too much of an impulsive bull in a china shop to use this tool.  It is meant for one with a far more measured and delicate touch.  I would likely create glue.

So, for those reasons (but mostly number 1), I am giving away a tool called the Dash Masher.  It is brand new in the box and ready for a cook who has far less aggression to resolve than I do.  I have family members that use this and swear by it, but I know it is the wrong tool for me.

To win this item, all you have to do is enter a comment below by 1/24/16, stating that you want the thing and I will add your name to the drawing. I will draw the winner the week of 1/25/16 and will identify the winner in this post. Then, I will instruct you how to get your address to me privately so that I can mail you your Dash Masha.

Good luck!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Getting Crusty

Easy as pie.  I'd like to know who came up with that saying.  In my mind, there is nothing easy about making a good pie crust.  As a matter of fact, I have spent 25 years working on my pie crust and I only recently feel somewhat comfortable with it.

My long relationship with pie crust has been a rocky one.  Part of the reason for this is that I grew up in the shadow of a woman who was famous for her pies.  The family would swoon over my mother's Pumpkin and Lemon Meringue at Thanksgiving and they would oooh and aaah as she trotted out the Chocolate Cream and Apple pies at Christmas.  These delicious pies hinged on one thing - the crust.

My mom had a perfect touch with pie crust.  Every pie was golden and flaky, with the perfect balance of salt .  It was the ideal, unsweet foil to the luscious, sticky fillings inside.

When I started baking, I tried to replicate my mom's all Crisco pie crust with absolutely no success at all.  I then made it my job to find a pie crust recipe that I could execute successfully and that tasted good enough to use as my go-to pie crust recipe.  I wanted to be the pie maker they ooohed and aaahed over.  Let's just say it took many years of "meh" to get to any form of adulation.

What I found on this journey is that there are truisms and key techniques that are critical to the success of a pie crust.  I also learned my likes and dislikes along the way. Here are some of the things that I learned in the process.

Always:
Use cold fat (butter, lard, shortening, whatever, just make it cold)
Cold water (or any other liquid in play)
Mix so that you can see chunks of fat in the dough- they = flaky
Let the completed dough have a little rest in the fridge (as little as 20 min to overnight)

Never:
Over mix once the liquid goes in
Roll or handle more than necessary
Add too much or too little liquid, should be enough to pull it together in a ball that is not overly wet, overly sticky or crumbly to the point of being powdery dry.

Like:
A mix of fats for flavor, browning, flakiness reasons
A decent pinch of salt or else you just taste flour
Hand mixing with a pastry blender (only because the food processor is heavy and a lot to clean and laziness wins)
Occasionally adding a tablespoon of sugar, depending on the filling being used
Glazing a top crust with an egg wash for shine and browning

Dislike:
Tough pie dough (comes from the aforementioned nevers)
Tasteless pie dough. The mix of fats and appropriate salt level helps prevent this.
When the recipe is scant and does not generously cover the pie tin when rolled out

Now, for a little visual, pie crust interlude;  here are some pies that I made throughout the years, after I learned a few do's and don'ts. The failures were never captured on film, but rather made a hasty exit by way of the kitchen garbage can. No shame in that. Failure=learning. #DareToCook

APPLE PIE 


LEMON MERINGUE PIE


APPLE CRUMB PIE
 (I know, that's two apples, but apple is my all time personal favorite)



There are a million pie crust recipes out there and they are all pretty similar.  This is what I have been doing lately and it provides the mix of flaky and tasty that I am looking for.

Recipe for a Single Pie Crust (double recipe for 2 crusts - Sorry, this is me wearing my Captain Obvious hat)
1 and 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 generous pinch of salt
4 Tablespoons cold butter
4 Tablespoons cold Crisco shortening
3 - 6 Tablespoons of Ice Water


Stir flour and salt together in a deep mixing bowl.  Add cold, cubed butter and shortening and mix together with a pastry blender (or pulse in a food processor if you prefer), until the mixture is crumbly and the bits are roughly the size of peas.

Slowly add water, a tablespoon at a time and with a fork, gently fluff the ingredients until they start to come together. The amount of water needed to do this will vary by temperature and weather, so this amount is not consistent.  When the mix holds together in a loose ball, it is ready to go for a rest in the fridge.  Flatten into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap or parchment and allow to relax for as little as 20 minutes up to as long as 1 day.

Take it out and let it sit for 5 min at room temperature before rolling.  Roll dough using a very light dusting of flour to facilitate the process. I like to roll out my dough on parchment paper as this helps ease the transfer process into the pie plate.

Transfer to pie plate and fill or blind bake as per the type of pie being made.









Sunday, January 3, 2016

Full of Beans

December was a whirlwind month for us as we decided to take a trip to London and Italy during the first two weeks of December.  This was a wonderful experience as London, Rome and Sorrento are all towns that take Christmas very seriously, so gorgeous lights and decor ruled the day and the festive feeling was palpable.

This was my husband and my first trip abroad without a large group of family and truth be told, it was incredibly relaxing to not be responsible for the entertainment and sustenance of 18 people.  It was a trip made for relaxing.  Our game plan was basically, find something beautiful sit in the nearest piazza with a view of it and drink wine.   We did this over and over for the entire length of the trip, so objective met.  We came home very relaxed and went back to work the very next day.

Naturally, we were as interested in good food as we were in good wine and beautiful sights, so there were many memorable meals consumed and fabulous local products sampled.  The food alone could provide fodder for a dozen different blog posts, but where to start?  As a means of focusing and finding a place to start, I am going to start at the end...of the trip.

The way that I can tell that I have really enjoyed a dish in a restaurant is if the taste of it makes me want to immediately run home and recreate it.  This happened on the last night of the trip.  On recommendation of Elizabeth Minchilli (whose tour of Testaccio may need at least two posts of its own to capture effectively), we went to an adorable pizza place called Emma.  Emma is tucked away in a side alley just a few steps away from Campo De Fiori and thanks to the amazing streak of 60 degree weather that we had, we were able to comfortably dine outside.

Although they are billed as a pizzeria, Emma is a full service restaurant with salads, pastas, meat dishes, vegetarian options and of course, pizza.  Feeling like a something simple and a little lighter, we decided to skip the pizza and order salads and pastas.  I went with the herbed ravioli and my husband got a steaming bowl of pasta fagioli.

When my husband's soup arrived, it was thick and glistening with a flourish of extra virgin olive oil and a snowy shower of grated Pecorino Romano.  It was filled with irregular rags of torn pasta sheets, floating on a creamy river of thick bean puree.  I impulsively jabbed my spoon into his soup and was overwhelmed by the savory depth of flavor that it had. It was so rich and flavorful that I forgot about the plate of steaming hot ravioli that was rapidly cooling in front of me. This was the very first meal that I cooked when I came home.  Here's my version, but first, a beauty shot of it:


That's some food porn, right there.





Pasta Fagioli

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 ounces of pancetta, diced
1/2 medium sized red onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs of celery, diced
2 garlic clove, diced finely
1 sprig of  fresh rosemary (about the size of your longest finger)
1 dried bay leaf
Salt and Pepper (to taste)
Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 14.5 ounce can of diced tomatoes
2 15.5 ounce cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed well
32 ounces of chicken broth (canned or homemade)
1/2 of a *1 lb box of lasagna noodles, bashed into small pieces with a rolling pin

Grated pecorino romano and extra virgin olive oil for serving (optional)

*Note: you could also use a 1/2 lb of small pasta like ditalini or elbows and bypass the smashing


Heat the olive oil in a large dutch oven over med heat and add the diced pancetta.  Cook until golden brown, then remove the browned pancetta to a plate lined with paper towels. Set aside.

Lower the heat in the pan to med low and add the carrot, celery and onion.  Add a little salt and pepper to the vegetables to help them sweat in the pan.  Cook until the onions are translucent.  Add the rosemary, red pepper flakes (if using) and diced garlic and saute for about 30 seconds (or until you can smell the garlic).  Turn the heat back to medium and add the white wine.  Scrape up any browned bits of pancetta from the bottom of the pan while cooking the wine down and reducing by about half.

Add the diced tomatoes, drained chickpeas and pancetta to the pan and follow with the chicken broth. Raise the heat and bring to a good boil. Using a slotted spoon, remove about 2 cups the chick peas and set aside.  Once the soup is at a rapid boil, add the pasta and cook to 1 minute under the al dente instructions (ie. if al dente is 12 minutes, cook to 11).

While the pasta is boiling, put the reserved beans in a blender or puree with a stick blender into a smooth paste.  When the pasta reaches its time,  turn off the heat and stir the pureed beans back into the soup.  Cover and set aside for 5-10 minutes before serving (this allows the soup to thicken to a nice consistency).

Taste for seasoning and adjust salt and pepper to taste.  Serve with a sprinkle of romano cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Delicious Sausage Pasta Born out of Confusion

When I invited my in-laws over for dinner, I knew that I would face the challenge of what to make in order to suit all palates.  I don't eat fish, my sister in law doesn't eat beef or anything spicy, my husband hates celery (really, just celery) and my brother in law doesn't express an opinion.  So I began an exhaustive back and forth text chain with my sister in law to determine what foods she and I would enjoy in common (clearly the women are the problem in this particular equation).

What I came up with on the common "yes" list was:
Italian sausage - Yes if not spicy
Cream Sauce - Yes
Nuts - Yes

OK genius, now what?

Here is the recipe that was born of this conundrum:

Fettucine with Sausage and Walnut Cream Sauce

1 Lb Fresh Fettucini (**cooked to the package instructions)
1 Lb Bulk Italian Sweet Sausage
2 Tbs Olive Oil (1 for sauteing sausage, 1 for sauce)
3 Tbs Butter (1 for sauce, 2 for finishing)
1 Medium Shallot (chopped finely)
1 Large Clove of Garlic (unpeeled and smashed)
1/3 cup of Dry White Wine (I used Orvieto Classico)
2 Tablespoons Frangelico Hazlenut Liquer
1 &1/2 Cups Heavy Cream
1/2 Cup Parmesan Cheese
1/2 Cup Finely Chopped Walnuts
Chopped Flat Leaf Parsley (to taste)
Salt
Pepper

In a large saute pan, cook sausage in 1Tbs olive oil over med-high heat, breaking it with a spoon into small pieces as it cooks.  When browned nicely, remove with a slotted spoon to a plate with a few layers of paper towels to drain.

Pour off the sausage grease (leaving the yummy brown sausage bits behind in the pan, of course) and add remaining Tbs of olive oil and 1 Tbs butter. Reduce the heat to medium and  when the butter has melted, add the shallot to the pan.  Cook until the edges start to just brown then drop the smashed garlic clove into the pan.  Saute for a minute or until you can smell the garlic.

Add the white wine and Frangelico and turn the heat up to medium high, scraping any bits of sausage from the bottom of the pan as the wine and liquor reduce. When you have reduced to about a third of the original volume, remove the garlic clove and add the heavy cream.  Continue cooking until the cream starts to thicken a bit, then add the sausage to the pan and throw in about 75% of the walnut pieces, reserving the rest for garnish.  Cook about 2 minutes to heat the nuts and sausage through.
Taste, then *season with salt and pepper.

Add your **cooked pasta to the pan of sauce and toss to coat.  Throw in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, some chopped flat leaf parsley and a handful of Parmesan, again, reserving some of the parsley and cheese for garnish.

Taste for seasoning, adjust if necessary and garnish with remaining cheese, parsley and nuts.

*I season on the conservative side at this step as the pasta and its residual water and the Parmesan will add more salt to the dish when you incorporate it.

**I under cook the pasta by 1 minute as it will cook in the sauce.  I don't strain the pasta, but remove it from the water with tongs, allowing a little of the cooking water to come with it.


This is an original recipe and  is protected under copyright laws.  Please cook and enjoy, but don't publish as your own.