Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pop Goes the Gun

It was hard to believe that at my ripe old age and with my interest in food that I had not been to a pop-up dinner before.   New York is one of the cities where these things happen pretty regularly and if you keep your ear to the ground, it's easy enough to learn about them.   I suppose my listening skills are not what they should be, as I always seem to hear about these things after they happen, and my reaction is usually "Damn! Missed it.  That sounded cool.".

So finally, finally I got in on the ground floor of a pop-up dinner and as suspected, it was indeed pretty cool. I can't recall what Internet rabbit hole I fell down to find out that Gabrielle Corcos was having a pop-up dinner series in a charming section of Brooklyn called Windsor Terrace, but as soon as I did, I snagged a few tickets and set off for Kings County on a quest for a genuine Tuscan meal.

The location was a small cafe on a quiet street lined with row houses, just a few steps from Prospect Park.  The cafe was being sublet by Corcos for a three month series of dinners, with a fixed menu that changed by the month.  The cafe had a just enough room for about 10 small tables and a curved marble bar where a few folks that were willing to pay an additional 125 on top of the base 150 price, could sit and chat with Gabrielle while he worked in the open kitchen.  These seats also included having Gabrielle sit and share a drink and some food with them as well as a copy of the cookbook that he wrote with his wife, actress Debi Mazar, a tee shirt and some other swag. One couple came all the way from Kansas to sit at the bar and they seemed to have a great time gabbing away with him.

Part of the reason that this dinner series has been so popular (it has sold out every month), is Gabrielle himself.  Charming, down to earth and funny, he is possessed of the gift of gab and the ability to make his guests feel welcome.  Whether personally greeting them at the door, addressing the diners to introduce the next course or stopping by each table at the end of the night for pictures and a little conversation, he moves with the ease and grace of a skillful host.  His demeanor is imbued with the confidence that comes from feeding people the food that you love and knowing that you fed them well. And feed us well, he did.

November's menu was a delightful collection of Italian, mostly Tuscan dishes paired with an all Tuscan collection of wines along the route.  The starting course included two bruschetta and a young Pecorino Toscano dabbed with a dot of house made orange and sage marmalade.  We had dispatched with the cheese, which was bursting with the flavor of the Tuscan hillsides before Gabrielle had a chance to introduce the dish.  The two bruschetta, one made with fresh ricotta, so fresh it was still warm, came draped in a puddle of chestnut honey and generous sprinkle of hot pepper flakes, and the cannellini bean version with pancetta and rosemary, were also Tuscan flavor bombs.

The soup course was a rustic lentil soup, cooked with a rind of parmagiano cheese, just like my grandma used to make.  This course, like the cannellini bruschetta was also held aloft on the back of some good, porky pancetta flavor.

Pasta was up next and there were two (yes, two) of them.  First up, Spaghetti Alla Putanesca, which came with a side order of one of the many stories about how the dish got its name, was good and spicy and well studded with cracked black olives.  The second pasta which was my favorite, was Penne with Sausage, Rosemary, Saffron and Wine, and it had me wanting lick my dish clean in the most unladylike way. I resisted, but barely.  I will be making that one at home, for sure.

The main course was a nod to Thanksgiving in its use of Turkey and Pork inside meatballs braised with cabbage and tomatoes.  This dish reminded me of an inside out stuffed cabbage.   It was teamed up with mashed potatoes that had a truffle scented pecorino running through them and a side of sauteed kale.  Sorry, even with the Tuscan Gun to my head, I can't eat kale.  I gave it the old college try though.  A salad of fennel, arugula and orange came behind this as a light palate cleanser and it was fresh and crisp and did its job.

The meal ended with Gelo di Cafe, which was a coffee and chocolate custard served in a charming 1/2 pint Ball jar and capped with a swirl of orange scented whipped cream.   After the many courses, it was just enough to put a sweet finish on things.  And, as is tradition in Italy, an after dinner liquor was offered.  There was a choice between Cynar, an artichoke liquor or Gabrielle's own homemade Limoncello.  I chose the Limoncello as I had made my own from Gabrielle's recipe before and knew that it would be strong and delicious.  It did not disappoint.

Gabrielle worked with a small but highly efficient team who helped to cook, serve, clear and chat up the crowd.  Their friendliness and professionalism helped to keep things moving at an even and comfortable pace throughout the night.  As we spilled out into the streets of Brooklyn after the dinner, we felt warm and comforted and well fed.  I don't know if all pop-up dinners are as intimate and delicious as this one was, but if they are, sign me up for the next one!

Below are some of the pictures that we took of the food and the chef.  It was a night to remember; delicious and loaded with fun.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Home Sweet Rome

Two weeks.  We are two weeks back from Rome and I am still in a blissed out state of relaxation from the memory of all of the amazing meals, cocktails and good times we had.

Rome for me is a centering place, a place that puts my internal compass in balance.  Maybe this is simply because when I am there, I am on vacation and the stresses and worries of work, home and life are dulled for the moment.  Or, maybe there is more to it, something deeper, like a spiritual, almost karmic connection.

Not one to pay attention to things spiritual or signs, I felt an unusual ease and comfort on my very first trip to Rome. With not a word of Italian in my vocabulary and nothing to guide me but a few streetviews on Google Maps, I stepped into the cobblestone lined streets of Rome as confidently as I did the street I live on at home. I had no fear and that alone was telling to me.

That first trip, which included a stay in a Tuscan villa, was a watershed moment for me.  I feel like I have spent the ensuing years since in an endless quest for the next trip to Italy.  In the years since that first visit, we have been to Florence, Sorrento, Naples and Capri, all of which were soul soothing and wonderful in their own right. But every trip has also included Rome.  It had to or I would feel the emptiness of an opportunity missed.  To be teased with the closeness of Rome and skip a visit would cause a longing that I would feel physically, an actual pain.  I know this because I felt it at the very suggestion that we maybe skip Rome this time.

This most recent trip was special because it was about the sweet pursuit of nothing but to bask in the essence of the city itself.  To sit in a piazza for hours doing nothing but drinking wine and people watching.  To be Roman, if only for a moment and to dream of a future where sitting in a piazza could be our primary job in life.  A job that I feel I was born to do.

Cornetto and Cappuccino - aka Breakfast.
 Veggies at Campo de Fiori - always beautiful enough to make me want to eat vegetables (no small feat).

 A closer look at Chariots in the Sky.

A closer look at the Colosseum.

Ingredients for a cooking class. Ingredients like this kind of stack the deck in your favor for success.

The city is full of dogs, which is awesome.

This was the meat sweats waiting to happen but worth every bead on my brow.

 Drinking by the Pantheon by day...

... and night

A beautiful day in Piazza del Popolo.

 Porchetta sandwich and beer from The Angry Pig (consumed at 11 am, so technically the breakfast of champions).

The Tiber by night...

...and day.

And just to spice things up, a day trip to Orvieto.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

An International Cocktail Fail

Behold the classic cocktail, The Negroni.  It is a stunning looking drink with an amber-red hue and bright slice of orange rising out of it like a gorgeous sunrise over the Tiber River. A model of Italian simplicity and respect for ingredients, it's simply one third gin, one third sweet vermouth and one third Campari, a liquor prized by Italians for its bitter, herbal bite.  And it tastes. . . like ass.

There's an old saying that says "the road to hell is paved with good intentions".   I don't believe that's true.  In my reality, the road to hell is paved with Negronis.

I have tried to love this drink, tried very hard actually and when that failed like a Liz Taylor marriage, I tried to at least like it, a little.  But no matter what I tried, I never met a Negroni that didn't leave me with that "I just ate an elementary school hot dog and publicly vomited in the cafeteria" taste in my mouth.

You may wonder what lengths I've gone to in my efforts to tame the wild Negroni.  Well, aside from trying it in many wonderful bars here in New York and purchasing all the ingredients and making it myself at home, I tried it in  Rome.  My thought was that if I tried the Negroni in Italy, with Italian ingredients mixed by an Italian bartender and poured over Italian ice, it would, like everything else you eat or drink in Italy, simply taste better.  Sadly, it still tasted like punishment.

Perhaps my reasons for wanting to like the Negroni so badly are not as pure as they should be.  They all stem from this fantasy that I have in my head;  I picture myself sitting at a curbside cafe in Rome, near a bustling piazza, wearing impossibly stylish sunglasses in defense against the late afternoon light.  As I sit there watching the sun fade behind the the buildings I am sipping a perfectly made Negroni.  Nearby, children laugh and kick a soccer ball as elegant Romans walk by in a parade of designer clothing.  It's like a scene out of an Italian movie.

But this is not to be. And while it is perfectly acceptable to sip a glass of wine in the same setting, wearing the same sunglasses, it is somehow not as chic, not a as uniquely Italian, and certainly not as cool.

So on my next trip to Italy, it will be a Negroni-free zone, leaving me to have to find another way to look cool.  Maybe I can score an invite to the George Clooney wedding and be cool by proximity.  Or maybe I should just accept that I will never be cool enough to drink a Negroni and find some other shimmering cocktail that looks like a glassful of sunset to love.  Or maybe, I should stop trying to look cool.  Perhaps that is the ultimate lost cause.

Heavy sigh. I tried Negroni.  I really tried...

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Labor of Love

I grew San Marzano Tomatoes.

I grew them from seed.

I lost a lot to blossom end rot.

I still managed to harvest a healthy colander full.

I washed them lovingly.

I sliced them in half and put them on a sheet tray.

I sprinkled them with salt, pepper and a generous slurp of extra virgin olive oil.

I gave them just the tiniest kiss of sugar, some herbs and a crushed garlic clove.

I roasted them in a low oven until their juices ran and their skins loosened.

I ran them through a fine strainer to get the most blazingly red and deliciously sweet puree.

I put the puree in a pot and cooked it with vinegar, sugar, celery salt, clove, onion powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper.

I cooked it for an hour, all the time tasting, seasoning and re-seasoning.

When it tasted perfect, I put it in a bowl to cool.

The result?  A scant quarter cup of homemade ketchup.

Not exactly bountiful.

Was it worth it? Yup.

Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Sunday Musings of Lasagna Bolognese

Although I am quick to characterize my self as an Italophile and absolutely love the Italian lifestyle, there are some things about Italian culture that I am less than ready to adopt.  Oh sure, I'd move to Rome tomorrow if circumstances permitted, but there is a regional pride and rigidity about food that does not fit my American melting pot mentality.

One trip across Italy and you come to realize that food is a highly regional thing and family pride in a recipe or a product runs deeper than my American brain can possibly comprehend.  While I understand that the regions of Italy (Tuscany, Emiglia Romana, Abruzzo, etc.) produce specific things that foot to their unique climate and terrain (not unlike Texas beef or Idaho potatoes), there is a microcosm that further divides that from village to village, even from family to family.  The bottom line is every body's nonna makes it best.

Where I struggle as an American recreating Italian food stateside is the concept of right, wrong and "never".  It is difficult for me to put aside freedom of choice and personal taste for the sake of purist pursuits.  Although, perhaps if I lived in Italy, where every ingredient is of the most spectacular taste and quality, I could follow a more purist path.  But that rigidity feels like it stifles creativity, which for an American with the typical "special snowflake" mentality feels like the man, harshing my mellow.  

Which brings me to today's recipe and the concept of wrong and never.  Some say that Bolognese sauce should not have garlic in it.  Some say that Lasagna Bolognese should never have mozzarella in it, only Besciamella, Bolognese sauce and Parmesan.  There are a million variations and each one probably has roots in the kitchen of someone's grandma. 

Mario Batali is the king of regional Italian cooking and a walking encyclopedia of the same. His Bolognese sauce includes tomato paste not canned tomatoes, white rather than red wine and no herbs of any kind.  If I had to guess, his is the more traditional Bolognese sauce of all the (American written) recipes out there.  If you are a purist and want to go with what is strictly authentic and true, then I would look to his recipe for guidance.

My "style" of cooking, if I may be bold enough to even suggest that I have one, is more about reading a lot of recipes, taking what I like from each and adapting to my taste.  Through trial and error, this is what works for me. Here are some pics of what I put in the Bolognese sauce that will become the base of my Lasagne Bolognese.  Which will, for the record, include some mozzarella cheese BUT  no ricotta, because THAT would be sacriliedge.

First, it must be stated that the creation of this sauce was preceded by a bowl of Corn Pops. Although Jules Winnfield declares hamburgers to be "the cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast.", I am team Corn Pops.

OK, the veg scenario.  The usual suspects, plus garlic.  Mario allows one clove in his recipe, I went with three, because I'm sassy like that.

Totally non-traditional on the meat here.  I generally don't like ground pork, so I got me two gorgeous pork chops, cut the meat off and cubed it and browned it with the lovely bones.  The whole lot went in the pot. YES, I PUT BONES IN MY BOLOGNESE.  You wanna make something of it?

Beef. Ground. Just over a pound. Traditional 'cause rebelling 24X7 is not a sustainable model.

Vino. I went white.  Why? Because it was Italian and it was open. 'Nuff said.
About 3/4 of a cup, simmered down to a nice reduction.

Tomatoes are a controversial ingredient, as is basil.  Some recipes call for a little paste others for large cans of crushed.  Being that I had Dani Coop's courtesy of a recent trip to Eataly, I used them. One 14 ounce can, whizzed in the mini-chop.  The fresh tomatoes and basil were grown by me, aka. the worst thing to happen to gardening since locusts.  Am I going to use them?  You're damn right I am.

Not my fave ingredient in a Bolognese.  Only a half cup and simmered down well. 

I was light on the paste.  You can see the toothpaste tube fold at the bottom.  I squeezed out every last bit.  Maybe two tablespoons, if I was lucky.  Good thing I had the other tomatoes.

Everybody in the pool.  Basil is just bruised and thrown in whole.

Parsley also not common. Again, I grew it without killing it. I am therefore contractually obligated to use it. Chopped up and chucked in.

Milk.  Very important.  Added a half cup. 

I should probably note that I seasoned at every step with salt and pepper and at the end I threw in about a 1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper.  I re-taste and adjust seasoning throughout the cooking process.

This sauce was used for a Lasagna Bolognese that I eat to have the sense memory of Florence in the Summer of 2012, where I first had it at Osteria Il Gatto E la Volpe.  That was where my Pedestrian Palate learned that there was a difference between the lasagna that I had eaten all my life and Lasagna Bolognese.  I fell in love at first bite.

Ain't she purty?

The bottom line is - do your thing in the kitchen.  After all, you're the one that's going to eat it.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Italy Haunts my NY Soul

I have tweeted it, Facebooked it, emailed it and proclaimed out loud; "Italy, I wish I knew how to quit you." And much like when a confused and thoroughly addicted Ennis said it to Jack Twist, it is a hollow wish that is in direct contradiction to what is in his heart and soul.  It's more of a lament about not being able to have what you truly want, all the time.  For me, that desire is Italy.

These days, my desire for Italy has escalated to a level that has me questioning whether I have crossed the line from interest to obsession.  Have I made the leap from fan to stalker? Is this a pathological interest?  When I can't make it through the Italian Grocery store without ripping open a box of Kleenex to dry my tears.  Or when I sit at the bar of one of my favorite NYC restaurants in a trance, listening to the bartender yell directions to the busboys in Italian.  Or when I have an almost complete breakdown at a cooking class  given by a famous Italian chef, I start to wonder, are these the warning signals letting me know that that my train is about to jump the track?

All of those examples really happened.  What is even more disconcerting is that they happen often.  The most recent of them happened just this past Thursday night.

I had made a reservation at Eataly for a cooking demonstration/dinner with Chef Cesare Casella as an anniversary present for my husband.  After 23 years of marriage, you start to run out of ideas for gifts and as my husband also loves all things Italian and had enjoyed the black and white Rome episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, where Chef Casella made an appearance, I thought he would enjoy this.

The menu was pure Tuscany and Eataly delivered on its promise to match wines with all of the dishes that Chef Casella prepared.  The dinner included :

Pappa al Pomodoro:  A tomato and bread soup, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a generous grating of Parmesan.  They paired this with an Italian Chardonay (did not know such a thing even existed).
Risotto: Prepared with pear, scamorza and walnuts.  Again, liberally dosed with Parmigiano Reggiano and paired with a lovely Rosato.
Chingale alla Cacciatora - Hunter style boar stew, marinated in red wine and cooked with rosemary, tomatoes and vegetables, which they matched with a Tuscan Chianti.

Every bite of the meal was delicious and Chef Casella spoke with passion and pride about his upbringing in Italy, his life in the restaurant business and the Italian food principal of simple, local and fresh.  I listened in rapt attention to his tips about when to use a white vs a red onion, why you should use and not discard the stems of the parsley, how if the rosemary is young, you can chop and use the whole thing, but if it's old and the stalk is woody, pluck the leaves and leave the stalk behind.   Every detail was consumed. Not a crumb of food or information was left behind. There is nothing unusual about that, I suppose.  What was unusual though, was that on at least three separate occasions during the course of the demonstration, I burst into tears.  Not sobs, mind you, but bouts of teariness that had me running for the ladies room to compose myself.

The first and most significant wellage came when the introductions of the sommelier, sous chef and star chef himself were being made.  I got hit with a thunderbolt of jealousy and that I wasn't the sous chef that got to stir the risotto next to the chef.  I have certainly never felt that way about anybody or anything EVER before.  I was quite taken aback by it.  As the night progressed and the stories of Italy continued on, I was overcome with emotion over my desire to be in Italy and to use the amazing ingredients that chef spoke about with so much love and joy.

As a "woman of a certain age" I am definitely suspicious of any emotional dis regulation.  I suppose I could short circuit at any time and if I were crying over cat food commercials and information security training that I took at work, I would definitely go the hormonal route.  Such is not the case however.  I am, I believe, truly and deeply Romesick.   A condition cured only by my first glass of wine in front of the Pantheon or a slice of prosciutto from Roscioli or by witnessing a sunset from Isola Tiberina.

The pictures which follow are from the class at Eataly, which I highly recommend and some of my favorites from Rome.  I offer them as an excuse,  for my emotionally charged and possibly irrational behavior.  Or maybe, they are more of an explanation and my behavior makes sense.  Total and complete sense.

 "It's difficult to be simple." #truth