Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sometimes we cry



Things are finally getting back to normal around here. For a while I wondered if they would.

It was chaos from the latter part of May through the middle portion of June. Two, sometimes three times a day I would find myself sobbing like a two-year-old. The reasons might not have been always apparent—but on reflection they always were good.

I blame a handful of people for disrupting my life in this manner, five to be precise, and I am willing to name names. There is Giovani Twigge, Scott Tyree, Joe Brancatelli, Joel Ann Rea, and lastly but by no means leastly a woman whose official station around here is My Associate but whose legal tender documents point to one Joan M. Lang.

I hope they're all very happy with themselves.

What happened, you see, is I had a birthday, a notable one, if you must know, though by no means a welcome one, at least not by me. In order to celebrate the occasion these five individuals conspired—for nearly a year, mind you, and behind my back—to substantially inconvenience their own very busy lives for the purpose of (gasp!) demonstrating their affection for me.

They did this by organizing a secret 15-day food- and wine-intense journey to Italy. All I was told was to pack a bag and to carry a passport.

I was informed of this by Ms. Lang alone. The trip was a gift from her to me and, like the majority of our vacations, we would be traveling alone. I simply didn't know where to.

And so you can imagine my surprise when, not 24 hours after landing in Milan, and in the middle of a romantic outdoor lunch of burrata and coppa and risotto and vitello tonnato and a fine bottle of Roero Arneis, two of the aforementioned conspirators—Messrs. Twigge and Tyree in this case—sat themselves down at our table unannounced and demanded to be fed. (It's worth mention that they arrived bearing gifts from two other dear friends, Jimmy and Mary, some swell bubbly to be precise.)

Overwhelmed does not in the slightest give this magical moment its due. It required more than two long minutes for me to get a word out.

The tears came a lot faster than that, of course.

And they hung around for the several days that our foursome was together. Not only was I treated to a night at the world's most famous opera house, La Scala in Milan, a bucket list item I felt sure would never be crossed off...



But the next morning we loaded a couple cars and headed to one of the world's most prized wine regions, the Piedmont, where we ate and drank and explored in ways that stay with you for a lifetime. I mean, what could be better than drinking a fine Barolo at lunch—in Barolo!

About a week later Ms. Lang and I were alone again, this time enjoying an afternoon snack at an outdoor cafe in Genoa. We were missing our dear friends Scott and Giovani, who had gone off to Venice. I was just in the  middle of explaining how I could never repay them for their generosity and love (did I mention the surprise birthday lunch at a 3-star Michelin in Alba?) when...

"Is this seat taken?" asked my friend Joe as his wife Joel navigated around another side of our table.



Now, you should know something about these very dear friends of ours. Joel's father Ev is in his 90s and has been living with Joe and Joel for a few years now. He's a good guy, Ev, but his health isn't so good and it's important that he have around-the-clock care. Because of this Joe and Joel don't get to travel together these days.

To make this trip to Italy happen they needed to hire not one but two home healthcare workers. As if that weren't enough they also asked their goddaughter Julia to move into their house so that Ev would have a familiar family member around to keep him company.

The few days we spent discovering Genoa together is among the most memorable experiences I've had. But it pales in comparison to what I know these two wonderful people had to go through just in order to show up.

Talk about owing people.



While we're on the subject...

May I present to you the capo di tutt'i capi of astoundingly well executed, extraordinarily generous, completely unforgettable birthday travel.

This woman I can never repay, not for as long as I stand upright, and for reasons too great in number to explore.

Dammit. Here comes that two-year-old again.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The way you wear your hat



My father was not big on wearing hats, at least not after I came along. This may have had something to do with president Kennedy. In 1961, just four years after my birth, JFK broke tradition by not wearing a hat to his inauguration, the first U.S. president to do so. This bold choice freed American males like my father to henceforth go topless anywhere and anytime they wished, and so many of them did.

Dad was the kind of man who might have benefitted from hat wearing. He had the looks for it, certainly. But he also had no hair. This photograph of him with his dark (and yet thinning) hair is rare. Soon after most of the man's top went completely uncovered.

I only became a hat wearer a few years ago. This was not born of necessity. Unlike dad I still have a full head of hair, actually a very full head of hair, like my mother. I'm lucky that way.

Yet, on days like today, I find myself wishing that I wasn't so lucky. It'd be swell, I often imagine, to look in the mirror and see a bit more of my father looking back.

This still could happen one day, I suppose. But at this age, which is more advanced than his when he died, I'm not optimistic that it ever will.

Too bad. A father's reflection belongs in a son's life.

Happy Father's Day everybody.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Just don't call it Bolognese



There isn't a tomato in sight here. Those reddish/orangeish spots you see? Carrots. Not tomatoes. Like I said.

Aside from that single omission, what we have here is your basic (and very tasty) Bolognese sauce, or, more properly, ragu.

Except that this isn't a Bolognese ragu at all. Because a Bolognese must include at least a little bit of tomato. You can call it a Bolognese if it doesn't have tomato, as many people do. But you—and they—would be wrong to do so.

You want a true Bolognese? Then click right here and I'll show you one. Otherwise bear with me while we prepare what most people call a "White Bolognese." Most people, that is, except for the ones in Bologna, Italy, home to the classic ragu. And me, of course.



This is pretty simple stuff. Two large carrots, three celery stalks, a medium-size onion and around 1/4 pound of pancetta, all diced pretty fine.



In a dutch oven slowly brown the pancetta in olive oil at a low heat.



When the pancetta has lightly browned (not too crispy) add the vegetables and 1/2 cup of dry white wine or vermouth and cook at medium to high heat until the wine has evaporated.



Here I've finely diced 1 pound of beef (boneless short rib here) and around 1/4 pound of pork (boneless rib). Feel free to use just a pound of beef (even ground), as I was just playing around by adding a little pork. Hell, I'd planned on throwing in a couple chicken livers but forgot that I'd bought them and so they stayed in the fridge. Dammit!



Once the wine evaporates add the meat and allow it to brown lightly.



The add around two cups of homemade stock (I used chicken stock, but only because I didn't have any beef stock left in the freezer).



As the sauce is simmering (at medium-low heat) keep a small pot filled with a quart of whole milk on extremely low heat. Every 15 minutes or so stir in a little milk until it's used up. In around two hours the sauce will be done.



Even though I wasn't making a Bolognese I thought it'd be nice to use one of the brass pasta cutters we picked up in Bologna last year. But you go ahead and use any pasta you like.



This is a shot of the unadulterated end result, but I highly recommend topping the pasta with some Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Oh, and if you're not in a hurry, prepare the sauce a day in advance, not the day you want to eat it. This is definitely the kind of thing that improves overnight.

No matter what you call it.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Chestnut Carbonara



I'm the last guy to mess with tradition. Ask anybody who has eaten in my home when I am working the line and all will tell you the same thing: The guy leans heavily towards perfecting the classics, not merely approximating or (gasp!) reinventing them.

Take Spaghetti alla Carbonara. It took me years to get this seemingly simple Roman classic right—a lot of them. When I did finally manage it ("The Best Spaghetti Carbonara") I never looked back.

Until last night, that is. For reasons that cannot be explained I spent the entire day pondering how the addition of chestnuts—yes, chestnuts—might impact a classic carbonara.

Scratch that, actually. I spent the entire day convinced that the addition of chestnuts would make an absolutely terrific addition to this classic. So what if a Web search around midday discovered virtually no evidence that anybody else in the culinary universe had come to the same conclusion.

Whaddyagonnado?



So, this is around one-third pound of my homemade pancetta. It's what I begin every carbonara with. You can use pancetta, or guanciale, or even thick-cut bacon.



Chop the meat into small, thick chunks, like so. (Of course, this is also a good time to get your pasta water going, as this won't take very much time at all.)



This is around a quarter pound of cooked-and-peeled chestnuts, which should also be chopped, like so.



This is three large eggs, one egg yolk, and 1/2 cup of grated and mixed Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses.



Mix the egg and cheese together and then add a good dose of freshly grated black pepper.



In a large skillet cook the pancetta in olive oil, slowly and at a low flame, until lightly browned. Stir in the chestnuts and saute for another minute, then turn off the heat and wait for three minutes before proceeding further.



After the pan with the pancetta and chestnuts has cooled for three minutes add the egg and cheese mixture and let it stand until your pasta is cooked.



When your pasta is al dente add it to the pan and quickly incorporate. The hot pasta and slightly warmed egg and cheese mixure should provide ample heat to cook the egg to proper carbonara consistency. If not, and the egg remains very wet, carefully apply just a little flame to finish things off—but be very careful, as too much heat will scramble the eggs.



All that's left to do now is plate the pasta (I used bucatini here, which works well with carbonara), grate some cheese over it, and serve.

I was right about this being a swell idea, by the way. But take the recipe out for a spin and let me know what you think.

Chestnut Carbonara
Recipe

1/3 pound pancetta, diced into cubes
1/4 pound cooked chestnuts, roughly chopped
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 large eggs, plus one egg yolk
1/2 cup freshly grated mix of Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. pasta (spaghetti is traditional but here I used bucatini)


Heat the oil in a large pan over low heat. Add the pancetta and sauté until lightly browned, then stir in the chestnuts and sauté another minute. Turn off the heat and let cool for 3 minutes.
Mix 3 large eggs and one egg yolk in a bowl with the grated cheese and a generous dose of black pepper. Pour the mixture into the warm pan and stir.
When the pasta is al dente add it to the pan and stir vigorously until thoroughly coated. Plate, top with grated cheese and serve.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Last Exit to Queens



Sometimes it isn't all about the food, you know.

Take this pile of lightly fried calamari and shrimp that's been generously doused in a medium-hot red sauce. It's my and my brother Joe's go-to order when we're craving down-and-dirty Italian on those occasions when I visit him for a few days. The dish's origin is a not in the least memorable restaurant called Vincent's in Queens, New York, hard by JFK International Airport in an area known as Howard Beach.

Joe and I have enjoyed Vincent's calamari and shrimp together countless times through the years. Largely we do this when it's just the two of us on hand. We may stop by the restaurant after a day at the racetrack, or order takeout for watching a ballgame on TV. It's one of our little rituals. You know, the kind that bonds you to another, no matter the time or circumstance. 

Last week marked the last time my brother and I would share this particular intimacy, though. I'm saddened by this; so is he, I'd imagine.

But it was time.

You see, just up the road and to the north of Howard Beach and Vincent's is a place called Ozone Park. It's the neighborhood where Joe has been living for around three decades. He moved there from our childhood home in Brooklyn after his two older brothers had gone off on their own, only Joe took our aging mother along with him so as not to leave her unattended. This is not how young men are supposed to build a life for themselves; nonetheless, Joe shouldered mom's dependence on him admirably, if against his own interests, until the day that she died.

He's a good man, my brother. Honor and loyalty flow through him freely—and he's got the devotion of many good people around him to prove it.

Joe finally left his old life in Ozone Park last week, determined to start a new and better life elsewhere, one that is unencumbered by the past. I went down to New York and spent several days helping him with the move. The night before the movers came the subject of where we would be eating came up.

"Vincent's?" said my brother, more a statement than a question.

We'd decided this last time would be a takeout run and so I waited in the car while Joe went inside. I could see that "The Fat Man" was at his usual place behind the cash register next to the door, and that he greeted my brother enthusiastically, which often is not at all the case. 

"Did you say goodbye to him?" I asked when Joe returned with our food.

"Nah," said my brother. "Fat Man was in such a good mood tonight I figured why ruin it for him."

If I'd had any doubt about Joe's commitment to boldly turning a well-worn page in his life it was dispelled when he opened his takeout container.

"The hell is that?" I grunted, opening the last beer from an almost-empty refrigerator. "They give you the wrong order?"

Joe's container held not our usual shrimp and calamari, as mine, but rather cheese ravioli and meatballs.

"Nope, that's what I ordered," he said. "Time to move on."


Good luck, my brother. And much love.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Chestnut & ricotta tortellini



I almost forgot about these. They're from the holidays, a time when good Italian chestnuts are available in abundance, even here in Maine.

It's a pretty simple equation, really. I see nice chestnuts, I buy nice chestnuts. I worry about how to use them later on.



And so one morning, as our holiday houseguests were still sleeping in their beds, I roasted a couple pounds of chestnuts (here's how) and got to thinking, naturally, about filled pasta.

Big surprise.



Crumble the chestnuts (this is a pound's worth shelled) by hand and saute in a stick of butter. After a few minutes pour into a food processor and run it until the chestnuts take on a granular quality.



You can see that this isn't completely smooth. That's the way I like it, as it gives the filling some texture, but if you prefer it smoother just process the chestnuts longer, possibly adding a bit of cream.



To complete the filling just mix in ricotta (1/2 pound would be the minimum, a full pound max), some grated nutmeg and a touch of lemon zest. If the filling is on the stiff side add cream or milk as needed, but that's really all there is to it.



The rest is Tortellini Making 101. Roll out your pasta sheet and spoon out the filling like so, leaving a good couple inches in between each dollop.



Cut the individual squares.



Fold diagonally in half.



And press down along the edges to seal. (If your dough is on the dry side you may need to brush the edges with egg wash before folding over.)



Then simply bring the two top edges together and press so that they join.



Cover a tray or work surface with course semolina and rest the tortellini on top until you're ready to cook them.



You can serve these a lot of different ways (brown butter comes to mind), but I went with a simple en brodo, which means that I boiled and served the tortellini in a fresh homemade chicken stock and then topped things off with parsley and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Like I said, this all happened around a month ago now. But if memory serves no complaints were filed—and the houseguests have already scheduled their return.

Phew!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Anna's rice pudding



Our story begins, as so many of them do, at a not-altogether chance encounter with a family member on the afternoon of Christmas Eve last.

"Open your mouth, Meatball, I made Anna's rice pudding," commanded Cousin Jennifer, pointing a half-filled spoon at my person and approaching from a distance of seven or so feet. "It's not any good but I want your opinion anyway. I've been waiting for you to show up."

I have never known Jennifer, daughter to Cousins John and Susie, to be the bossy type and so her aggression was unanticipated. Even Aunt Laura, her grandmother, whom we both were visiting on this holiday and whose diminished health leaves her senses somewhat compromised, looked surprised.

More shocking still is that Jennifer had "made" anything at all. So far as I am aware my cousin's stovetop is little more than overflow storage space in her small apartment-size kitchen. A story circulates that she once cleared off a burner in order to bring a bit of water to a boil, for tea I was told, but no evidence of this exists, and nobody believes the account anyway.

And yet, here we were, in Laura's living room, surrounded by other family, not to mention all the beautiful Christmas cookies and candies lined along a sideboard and available for all to enjoy.

Now, I love my cousin very much; let's be clear on this. Her spirit is generous, her heart full. Being spoon-fed by her hand, if only for a taste or two, was more an intimate familial moment than a culinary one, defined not by the quality of Jennifer's cooking but by her desire to share the experience with, of all the many fine people in her orbit, me.

"Well?" she said watching as the first bit of pudding made its way around the inside of my mouth. "It's terrible, right."

It was nothing of the kind and I said as much.

"Tastes like Anna's rice pudding, all right. You did good, Jen."

Just then a second spoonful arrived at my lips.

"But?" Jennifer challenged as I accepted a second taste of her experiment. "C'mon, just say it."

For someone with so little knowledge of things culinary my cousin proved to know more than I had credited her with. Her rice pudding might have tasted like Aunt Anna's but the texture... Well, it was all wrong—and she knew it.

"Okay, it's maybe just a little bit dense," I offered delicately. "But only a little, can hardly notice."

This was a yellow cream-colored lie, of course. On the density scale Jennifer's pudding was in the eighty percentile whereas our aunt's might sit more in the forty range. She simply had overcooked the pudding, that's all. At least in my view.

"For a first time out you did real good," I said encouragingly. "Maybe just cook it a little less next time, or at a lower flame. More importantly, don't give up. You can do this."



Arriving back home to Maine after the long holidays I received a text from Jennifer about an unrelated topic, which prompted me to scroll through past messages we had shared throughout the year. I stopped cold at this picture of her with Aunt Anna. They were in Anna's kitchen some months ago and had decided to say hello to me by sending this photo. "Wish you were here" was their message.

I am not readily moved to emotion and yet this simple, out-of-focus, poorly lighted, not in the least remarkable picture pretty much left me helpless. Certainly its message did. And so I went to my kitchen and did the one thing that I knew would bring the three of us together again: I called my aunt, got her recipe and made her rice pudding.

What else could I do?

Anna's Rice Pudding
Serves 4-6 people

1 quart whole milk
1/2 cup rice
Pinch of salt
8 ounces heavy cream
3 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup raisins

Add the milk, rice and salt to a saucepan and turn the heat to medium; stir frequently so that the rice doesn't stick to the bottom.

In a bowl beat the egg yolks and incorporate with half of the cream.

When the milk comes to a boil turn the heat to low and allow the rice to cook at a slow simmer for around 40 minutes or so, or until the rice has absorbed most of the milk. (Don't allow the milk to completely evaporate; this will stiffen the rice too much.)

Remove from heat and stir in the sugar and the rest of the cream (the cream that was NOT added to the egg yolks).

Add the egg yolks and cream and incorporate.

Cover the bottom of a serving tray with the raisins and pour the pudding over it.

Allow to cool, sprinkle with cinnamon and serve.