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:

WOOD FIRED SWEET POTATO, PANCETTA AND PARMIGIANO PIZZA
1 275 gram ball of your favorite Neapolitan Style pizza dough -  Forno Bravo's is an excellent choice (here)
SWEET POTATO TOPPING
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)
ADDITIONAL TOPPINGS
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...

Margherita

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.




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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 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.