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.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Finding love in the back of a car

I don't look forward to summers the way I used to. Not since August 2013.

That's when Cousin John delivered this case of Manhattan Special to me. He'd packed it in the trunk of his car before he and Cousin Susie, his wife of 40-plus years, left their home on Long Island and made their annual summer drive to Maine. John always made a point of bringing something meaningful along on his visits and knew that, to me, a major stash of Manhattan Special surely qualified as that.

The sweet espresso soda has been one of my favorite indulgences since I was five and swiped my first little glass bottle of the stuff from my parents' candy store in Brooklyn. It tastes exactly the same today as it did then. And is still manufactured in Brooklyn, just as it's been since 1895. By the same family no less.

But they don't sell Manhattan Special in Maine. Worse, nobody here has even heard of the stuff, let alone tasted it. In the winter of 2012, I went so far as to prepare (and report on right here) a homemade batch of the soft drink. This desperate attempt did not go unnoticed by my cousin, as the case of real Manhattan Special arrived shortly afterward.

John's delivery in the summer of 2013 was much more than a thoughtful gift from an appreciative (and, let's face it, lobster-loving) houseguest: It was an extraordinary kindness, rooted in history, tradition and, most important of all, love.

Which didn't surprise me in the slightest.

John and I are as close as any cousins I know, and have been since I was in my late teens and he in his latter twenties. Of the many things I regret about moving away from my home and family in New York, 20-odd years ago now, a close proximity to this particular family member ranks high. For many years anticipating John's and Susie's weeklong summer visits went a good ways toward making the harsh Maine winters seem a little more bearable.

But he hasn't been back since. And I fear he won't again.

My cousin hasn't been well. He goes in and out of hospitals and doctors offices and testing facilities the way most of us run errands to the grocery store or the ATM. He's even taken up with mystics and healers hoping that they might have the answers that traditional medicine does not.

Even when John is feeling well he isn't feeling well enough to break the chains of his afflictions. The idea of traveling, to Maine or anyplace else where his known healthcare providers are not within immediate reach, has become, to his mind, just another risk that requires prudent avoidance.

And so we've learned to talk more on the phone and grab a quick lunch or dinner when I'm in New York. We reminisce about how we have missed our summer tradition, and John assures me that the next year will be different, and I tell him that that would be just sweller than swell, hoping that each next year will be different from the last one but not hoping so much as to be too disappointed when it isn't.

Driving my own case of soda from New York to Maine just doesn't cut it.

And it will never, ever feel as good.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Garlic scape aglio e olio

When you have more than 200 head of garlic growing in the garden this is the time of year people start showing up.

"What you doing there?" asked a neighbor I had not seen since early winter. "Those garlic scapes you're cutting?"

The woman left with a bag filled with 20 or so of my scapes. She said that she would make a pesto, which is what many people will do. I said that she ought to try this aglio e olio with a few of the scapes, but I'm pretty certain that she wasn't paying any attention.

Her loss.

A simple aglio e olio using garlic scapes instead of cloves is a great change of pace. And this is the only time of year that we get to do it.

Get yourself around four or five scapes.

Chop them up like so. (Get your pasta going, by the way, because this won't take very long at all.)

Saute at medium heat in plenty of olive oil with three or four anchovy filets and a little chopped hot pepper.

When your pasta is al dente add it to the pan, along with some of the well-salted pasta water, then turn up the heat to high and incorporate.

If only my neighbor had been listening.

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.


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

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.