Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Making it great again



This wine was not born in the best of times.

Soon after its grapes were harvested and crushed, in the Piedmont, Italy's finest wine region, a United States Naval pilot had to parachute to safety when a missile took down his fighter jet over North Vietnam. The serviceman, John McCain, would remain imprisoned, frequently tortured, for the next five and a half long years.

Days after McCain's capture Lyndon Johnson held a secret meeting with his top political advisers. The agenda: Devise a plan to mislead the American people into thinking more enthusiastically about the war in Southeast Asia. "The Wise Men," as the group was known, concluded that the president should feed his constituents a steady diet of optimistic pablum aimed at advancing the falsehood that America was winning, not losing, an unpopular war in which hundreds of thousands had already died.

Earlier that year, as Italy's rich vineyards lay dormant, three Apollo 1 astronauts were incinerated aboard their spacecraft as it idled on the launchpad at Cape Kennedy in Florida. Race riots—159 of them—erupted across the country in what came to be known as "The Long, Hot Summer." Albert DeSalvo (aka the Boston Strangler) was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 13 women, and a vile segregationist named Lester Maddox, who'd refused to serve blacks at his Atlanta restaurant, was sworn in as Georgia's 75th governor.

Oh, and my poor father's beloved New York Mets ended the 1967 season with a record of 61 wins and 101 losses, 40 1/2 games in the National League standings behind the first-place St. Louis Cardinals.

Like I said, not the best of times.

Me, I was a 10-year-old street kid living in a poor corner of eastern Brooklyn, on the border of Queens. Crime and racial tensions ruled here. The only places to buy cheap wine were crappy liquor stores where the inventory and the shopkeepers hid behind thick bullet-proof glass. Blocks away from the apartment house where my family and I lived was the 75th Precinct House. The 75th was often the busiest and most violent police precinct in the entire country. It still is.

All I can remember being concerned about the year that Aldo Coterno produced this very fine Barolo from his family's legendary nebbiolo vines was getting through the days without getting hurt or even killed.

All of us in the neighborhood fretted over the same thing, I reckon.

My fourth-grade teacher, a nun named Sister Janita, was a big help to me that tumultuous year. Only not for any of the reasons you might imagine.

Sister Janita had grown too old to be in a classroom educating impressionable young minds. She wasn't a woman who dispensed advice or wisdom to her students, either, at least not at this time in her career. But she was sweet and kind and functional, and so her superiors allowed the nun to keep her position later in life than was probably prudent.

She was also—how to say this delicately?—a loon.

The good sister had a pet pigeon named Lulu that lived in her second-floor classroom. Lulu had full run of the place, flying freely as she pleased. Many times the bird would land on your desk and coo coo coo until you'd share a bit of sandwich bread or some other morsel with her. Once Lulu landed right on my head and cooed until her mistress came around to collect her.

Sister Janita conversed far more with Lulu than with any of her students. Always kindly, always lovingly, always enthusiastically. But most of all, always kookily.

Considering the state of the world outside her classroom in 1967 I count myself lucky to have spent a good chunk of the year well-protected inside the sister's benign, good-natured little cocoon.

After all, for several long hours a day that entire school year the biggest fear I had wasn't getting caught up in a riot or a gang fight; it was getting shit on by a crazy old nun's pet pigeon as it flew by.

We should all have so little to be troubled about today.

My home now is a lovely little town on the coast of Maine. The free local paper's "Police Blotter" lists items about dogs found wandering without tags or teenagers caught "borrowing" a stranger's canoe to go out fishing. The town's only fire truck is new and spiffy, but it doesn't get out of the garage much.

And yet all of a sudden I live in a very dangerous place again. We all do.

Let's face it, the year that this bottle of Aldo Coterno's 1967 Barolo Riserva Speciale got opened wasn't much better than the year he produced it. You could argue that it was a lot worse. From election night in November 2016 through, well, just through, it's been one self-inflicted national disaster after another.

Cracking open a 50-year-old Barolo at this time wasn't my doing. That would be the work of my dear friend Scott, who surprised a small group of friends with it at a dinner celebration just before Christmas. Scott is a sommelier by trade. He's also a swell guy to have as a friend.

He knew full well that everybody who'd gathered that evening had suffered, often silently, the entire year. And so, in his small and yet extraordinarily generous way, Scott decided to temporarily wrap us all up in a warm blanket made of joy and friendship and, like Sister Janita's classroom in 1967, even a bit of fantasy.

For a few moments my friends and I could put aside our fears about the next three or even seven long years and escape to a place where good people who love and respect and care for each other can still get to quietly share a common appreciation of something honest and beautiful...

And, yes, even GREAT!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Italian wedding soup



Every New Year's Eve the same group of friends gather together at my home for an epic food and drinkfest that begins sometime around 6 pm and lasts all the way past midnight. It's a tradition that began more than a quarter century ago, when My Associate and I were still living in New York. We've moved a few times since then, as far away as Maine some years ago, and not a single year has this annual gathering been shelved.

This last time saw a new twist; a theme, actually. For reasons having nothing to do with me (I swear!) it was decided by the other members of our group that each of the many courses needed to feature a "ball" of some type. Scott and Giovani arrived carrying an orange-colored Le Creuset pan filled with fried codfish balls to get the festivities started, while My Associate was putting the finishing touches on the veal meatballs that would follow much later in the evening. Tom and Beth had only moments earlier removed a second batch of fluffy yellow cream puff shells from the oven, as they had been charged with providing the all-important dessert course hours later.

You get the idea.

All things round-shaped the whole night through.

My contribution to Ballfest '17-18 was Italian Wedding Soup. I found this a fitting way to end the dreadfully divisive year we've all endured, as few traditional foods are as comforting and life-affirming as this one is.
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The first thing you'll need is 12 or so cups of chicken stock. A lot of people will tell you that a good packaged or canned stock is just fine but I'm not one of those people. Homemade stock is the only way to go and so that's what you're looking at here. (In case you're interested this stock went like so: I sautéed an onion, a carrot, some celery and a little garlic in olive oil with a couple anchovy filets, then added six large bone-in chicken thighs. After the thighs browned a little I added around 16 cups of water, salt, a few peppercorns, and a good sized chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind and then slow-simmered the stock for around four hours. Once at room temperature I strained out all the ingredients, leaving a tasty clear broth.)



To make the meatballs mix 1/2 pound of ground beef (around 80% lean) with 1/2 pound of ground pork. On a flat work surface form a ring with the meat and then fill the center with wet bread that's been torn into small pieces.



On top of the bread add around 1/2 cup or more of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, an egg and some chopped parsley, then very gently mix everything together with your hands. It's important not to be aggressive with your mixing, as that will make the meatballs tough.



This is how things should look after mixing. As you can see, it's still possible to see pieces of bread. That's a good thing. You don't want a mix that looks perfectly ground and mixed together.



Always test the meat mixture for flavor and texture before rolling the entire batch into balls. In this case pop one meatball into the slow-simmering broth and cook for maybe five minutes. After tasting this meatball I added a little more cheese to the mix and also around 1/4 cup of whole milk to moisten things a bit more. This made for a good tasting — and very moist — meatball in the end.



I wound up with nearly 35 little meatballs, around an inch or so in diameter. (Again, you can see how lightly mixed the meat is; see the pieces of bread in some spots?)
.


After you've formed all the meatballs add 1/2 cup of orzo to the broth and raise the heat to a rolling boil.



Then add an entire head of escarole that's been chopped into small pieces. (If you can't find escarole another green will do.)



After seven minutes or so lower the heat to a simmer and gently add all the meatballs. (It's very important that you not cook the meatballs at high heat, as this will toughen them.)



While the meatballs are simmering mix two eggs and around 1/2 cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano in a bowl.



After the meatballs have simmered for around five minutes slowly stir the egg and cheese into the soup (again, at a slow simmer, not a rolling boil).



The egg and cheese will cook immediately, so turn off the heat right after they have been fully incorporated, like so. That's all there is to it; the soup is ready to serve right away.



Except that topping off each bowl of soup with a little extra grated cheese is totally the way to go and so I strongly urge you to do so.

Happy New Year everybody!

I hope.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Christmas past



You would need to be pressed very hard to find a kinder, more generous, better loved, more widely respected man than Joseph Patrick Giamundo.

Though a general contractor by actual trade, his role in 65 years of life was not to renovate or repair people's homes and properties. Rather, the man's primary duty was to provide guidance, support, comfort and, most importantly, example to a family consisting of more than 30 people.

He had no children of his own. An early and rather horrific tragedy put an end to that.

Yet we were all Uncle Joe's children. And proud of it.

"Patriarch" falls pretty far short of describing the man's station in our clan. He was just completely and deservedly revered, by his family for sure, but by many others as well.

He still is. And it's been decades since he passed on.



I came across this picture not long ago and made sure to keep it in plain sight so that I could remember to share it with you for the holidays. It's one of Uncle Joe's homemade Nativity scenes, the kind he would throw together using scraps of plywood and two-by-fours leftover from his contracting jobs.

Nothing was so extraordinary about these annually assembled outdoor structures. And yet this one will stick with my entire family forever.

The hand-scribbled sign stapled to the top says it all.

TO THE S.O.B.s THAT STOLE THE FIGURES OUT OF THE MANGER
DROP DEAD

Yep, Uncle Joe's nativity scene figures got heisted.

His mood after discovering the overnight theft was more wounded than angry, at least that's how it seemed to me. The few figures that you see in the picture are extras that Uncle Joe gathered up and hastily placed in the manger after all the originals had disappeared. It was an incomplete set but, well,  at least it was something for us kids to look at and feel excited about during the holidays.

For a good couple days my uncle tried to hide his melancholy. When his sign appeared, especially the DROP DEAD part of it, we were all pretty shaken up. Uncle Joe just never spoke that way to people, no matter how much they deserved it. I remember feeling really badly for him, like something uniquely precious, perhaps even like the child he'd lost, had gotten ripped away from him once again.

On Christmas Eve Uncle Joe awoke to find that his Nativity scene figures had all been returned. His mood, of course, brightened considerably, and so did the rest of the family's. Just before leaving his house to attend the midnight mass at St. Rita's Uncle Joe put up another sign on his manger.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH AND MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU!

I can't find a picture of that sign. But don't really need one either.

Merry Christmas everybody.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

How (not) to make agnolotti

It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. — Mark Twain



I'll be straight with you, okay. If I called this stuff agnolotti in the Piedmont, the region in Italy where the pasta shape is most common, I'd be sent packing like the Brutto Americano that I am. Strictly speaking, agnolotti are filled with roasted meats or vegetables. Add cheese to the mix and, well, you've got yourself some ravioli is what you've got.



I knew this going in. A perfectly acceptable agnolotti filling (three parts roasted parsnips to one part leeks, all nicely caramelized) was resting in the food processor, waiting for me to crack open yet another bottle of vino rosso when...



I just had to notice the one-pound tub of ricotta in the fridge, thereby reaching both for it and a little lemon zest.

Just, y'know, to screw things up.

Why anybody playing with a full deck would further listen to a knucklehead who would act in such a way is a mystery.

And yet here we are.

Might as well have a go at creating the shape of agnolotti.



Take about 3 cups of flour (I use double zero) and create a well in the middle. Mix together three large eggs, three or four egg yolks, one tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and a half teaspoon salt.



Using a fork, slowly incorporate the flour into the egg mix. Don't rush it; just gradually, and in a circular motion, bring the flour into the egg a little at a time until a dough starts to form.



At this stage you're ready to work the dough with your hands.



Pasta dough isn't like pastry dough and so you don't need to worry about being delicate with it. Just keep working it until the egg and flour are fully incorporated.



Whe a nice dough ball forms scrape away any remaining flour from your work surface. On the clean surface keep working the dough until it's nice and smooth. If the dough feels too wet dust the surface with a little flour and incorporate it into the dough ball. The dough shouldn't feel sticky when you touch it, but it shouldn't be dry either. Again, don't worry about being delicate. You could work pasta dough all night long and not mess it up.



When you're through working the dough wrap it in plastic and let it rest. Most people allow the dough to sit at room temperature for a few hours before making their pasta, which is fine. However, I prefer to make my dough a day in advance and let it sit in the fridge overnight. Make sure to allow the dough to come up to room temperature before rolling out sheets of pasta for the agnolotti.



Roll a thin sheet of pasta dough around 4 inches wide and lay down a line of filling along one edge. A pastry bag is ideal but I just put the filling in a plastic bag and cut a small hole in one corner.



Fold the dough over the filling from the edge.



And fold again into a small tube.



Using your fingers press down along the tube in increments of around 1 1/2 inches.



Then use your cutting tool in the indentations you made with your fingers.



And there you have it: Agnolotti.

Or not.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

How to make porchetta



I lost a lot of sleep over this porchetta. Literally.

It was the main course for a Labor Day lunch with some friends, you see. And since I'm a big proponent of the "low and slow" method of cooking, that meant getting to work really early.



There are a lot of ways to make porchetta, from the most traditional (a whole roasted pig that's stuffed with garlic and herbs) to the more modern (belly only) variations. I leaned closer to the traditional by using (l. to r.) a pork loin, a belly, and the skin. The loin gets wrapped by the belly which is wrapped by the skin. All told the entire thing weighed in at just under 7 1/2 pounds raw. (A note about the pork: Use the best you can get your hands on. This pork is from a small family farm around half and hour from my home. The hogs are raised naturally and even work the fields, as hogs do.)



There's no one way to season porchetta. I just went out to my garden and grabbed what I could get my hands on, then chopped everything up as finely as I could. There are leaves from my celery plants, fennel fronds, rosemary and thyme, plus an entire head of this year's garlic crop. In addition there's the zest of one large lemon.



Put everything in a bowl and mix in 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil and the juice of half a lemon.



Lay the skin flat (outside down) and lightly cover with some of the herb mixture.



Then lay the belly over the skin.



Cover the belly with more of the herb mixture.



Then lay the loin on the edge of the belly. (My butcher butterflied the loin and also scored it so that the seasoning could be more evenly distributed.)



At this point spread the remaining herb mixture over the loin and start rolling. To roll the porchetta leave the skin laying flat and first roll the belly around the loin, starting from the loin side. Once you've done that then wrap the skin around the entire thing and tie.



Like so.

Once it's all tied up take a sharp knife and score the skin all over. Look closely and you can see all the cuts I've made throughout. You can now either start cooking right away or wait a while. (I let things marinate overnight.) When you are ready to cook place a rack in a deep oven pan and set the porchetta on top. Make sure it comes up to room temp before it goes into the oven.

As for what temperature to cook the thing at, well, "low and slow" is best. That's why I was up at 1:30 in the morning to take the meat out of the fridge, then again at 3:30 to turn on the oven, wait for it to come up to temp, and then put the porchetta in — at 225 degrees F.



Around seven and a half hours later (the last 15 minutes at 500 degrees F just to crisp the skin a little bit more) the porchetta was done. Don't cut it up right away, allow it to cool down. Honestly, I like it at room temp, which is how I served it yesterday.



Removing the skin makes things easier to slice—thin is best, I think—but if you get the skin to the right degree of crispiness it's a treat to eat.

Just one more piece of advice: Make this for dinner, not lunch.

You'll sleep a lot better. Believe me.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Veal & peas



I was in an old-school mood last night.

Veal and peas (spezzatino di vitello con piselli) isn't the kind of thing you see around very much. The last time I saw it on a menu was in Rhode Island, at a crazy place called Mike's that operates out of a VFW hall. (Don't laugh. Mike's has been a seriously good source for old-school Italian food for years. I'd give a lot to have a place like that nearby.)

Anyhow, I'd made a batch of my meatballs over the weekend and had some veal stew meat leftover (I grind the veal to make the meatballs). Next thing you know I see some fresh peas at a farmstand nearby, and, well, there you go.



When the two pounds of fresh peas that I'd gotten (for $14, by the way) only netted out at a cup of peas I decided to add frozen. No matter. Whether you go with fresh or frozen just make sure to have around two cups of peas total.



This is a little over a pound of veal stew meat, trimmed and cut into small pieces. 



In a pan saute one chopped onion, a finely diced carrot and two cloves of garlic in olive oil. Do this at a low to medium flame so that things don't brown too much, if at all.



Once the onions and carrots have softened add around 1/3 cup of dry white wine or vermouth (which is what I used here).



I also added a little fresh thyme at this point.



After the wine has evaporated add around 3/4 cup of chopped tomatoes. These are fresh from the garden but canned is fine too.



Then add in the veal.



Now add enough stock to cover things up (I used around 3/4 quart of homemade chicken stock). Add a little salt and freshly ground pepper and make sure the flame is on low so that the veal can simmer for a while.



The quality and age of the veal will affect how long it needs to cook, but figure on around 90 minutes or so, possible even two hours. I tasted the veal at the 70-minute mark and it was pretty much all there, and so I stirred in the peas and just a little more stock and let things simmer another 10 minutes before turning off the heat.



As I said, old school.

Just how I like it.