Saturday, January 7, 2017

Re-Stock for the New Year

Happy New Year! Apologies that this post took a bit longer to get up. 2016 took longer to get over then initially expected but man - for so many reasons am I glad to see that year end!

New Year's Eve was a quiet night at home this year and I saw New Year's Day as the perfect opportunity to start reclaiming some control after the haphazard eating of the last few months. The combination of the holidays along with some extended hospital stays for my husband led to a lot of carb loading and "feeling eating" during November and December.(PS My feelings are delicious and usually come with a side of chocolate or cheese...) I can't remember the last time I had seen a green vegetable and my version of 'cooking' had devolved into cereal with milk or a slice of cheese on an English muffin that sometimes might not have made it to the toaster. Things were pretty grim for a while.

It was definitely time to start taking life in hand and the best way to do that is to go back to basics and start with the building blocks of food and flavor - stock! I love the way the house smells when there's a pot of stock bubbling away on the stove top and its even better with two.

A good stock is pretty easy to throw together. It's really just a combination of bones, aromatic vegetables, herbs/spices and water.

The water is actually the tricky part for me - too little and you end up with not enough at the end. Too much and all you get is some tinted water with little flavor. It took me a few tries over the years to get the ratios right, but now I think I 'mostly' have it right. The trick is to keep the bones in your pot covered - don't fill your giant pot to the top unless you've got enough bones and vegetables to keep that flavor going.

For my chicken stock, I used a whole chicken this time - though I've been known to just hang onto carcases in my freezer (backs, wings and necks especially) and when I have enough, I'll roast them in the oven before turning them into stock. In this case, I didn't have anything in the freezer so I went with a whole chicken. I rinsed and cleaned the chicken and it went into a large stock pot with carrots (unpeeled), celery and a large onion - all cut up into large chunks. I covered the chicken and vegetables with cold water and turned the heat up to medium high. I added a small handful of black pepper corns but because we're watching our sodium, left the salt out. You can either add a teaspoon or two at this point, or, you can wait to season whatever magic you end up seasoning with your stock. If I would have remembered at the market, I would have also added some springs of fresh thyme and parsley - but I wasn't that forward thinking so I left it out.

For the beef stock - I roasted the bones in a 400 degree oven before adding them to the pot with the same veggies as the chicken stock plus two whole, peeled garlic cloves and a cup of red wine. Sometimes I'll add a little bit of tomato paste or other tomato product to my beef stock but for this round I kept it simple and just went with a straight brown stock.

The trick to a good stock - whether chicken, veggie or beef - is to skim the 'scum' that comes up to the top of the pot as it begins to cook. This is the gray, foamy looking stuff that begins to rise to the surface. I'd show you but I forgot to take a picture of it. I always forget the helpful stuff but look - pretty pictures of ingredients! Anyway - skim this off the best you can to get a really clear stock base. This is especially important if you are going to turn your chicken stock into an elegant consomme but as this isn't 1972 and my husband's boss isn't coming for dinner, we can skip that part.

After you've skimmed off most of the scummy foamy stuff, let your pot (not that kind...stop giggling) come up to a boil - then reduce to a simmer and let it cook, covered for as long as you can stand it. I cook my stock for a minimum of two hours - this time I went longer - about 3 hours for the chicken stock and 4 hours for the beef. Check the liquid levels and if you notice your liquid is decreasing keep some hot water on hand to keep those vegetables and bones covered. Don't get too heavy handed here or you'll end up copying my dirty looking flavored water which I got the first few times I tried to make stock.

I strain my stock through a fine mesh strainer, gently pressing on the solids with the back of a spoon to extract the most flavor from them. Usually, I cool it down on the counter but sometimes it's late and I'm tired and I just want to get it in the fridge so I throw caution to the wind and put the hot stock in the cold fridge. The stock police haven't arrested me yet so I think I'm good. After an overnight chill, the fat will solidify and rise to the top of the stock and you can easily skim it off. I skim off most - not all because fat equals flavor so we want to keep a bit of it in there. I store in tupperware containers in the freezer in various sizes - though if you want to be like one of my favorite  aunts - you can store it in a ziploc freezer bag. No seriously - she used to pull out bags of soup before the holidays! It was our favorite thing - and actually makes a lot of sense because you can freeze them flat and they take up much less room in your freezer. The problem is you need the room in your freezer to let them freeze flat and I had too much in and didn't feel like cleaning it out on this round so tupperware it was!

We ended up with three quarts of chicken stock and just shy of three quarts of beef. I used one quart of the beef stock in a slow cooker beef stew that we ate all week and the chicken stock is probably going into a pot pie for this snowy winter day.  My goal is to keep our supplies full this winter without having to pick up anything pre-made but we'll see how far I get. For now, I'm going to indulge in the luxury of a full freezer!  If you haven't made your own stock before, I highly recommend it. The best part is how amazing your home will smell while it's perking!

Speaking of good smells - time to make use of this snowy Saturday and put up a pot of pumpkin chili! Good thing I've got more chicken stock at the ready!

Chicken Stock
1 4-5 lb. whole chicken (or 4-5 lbs of chicken parts)
4 large carrots, large dice (peel them if you want or if they need it)
3 large ribs of celery, large dice
1 large onion - large dice
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
5 sprigs of fresh thyme (optional)
5 stems of fresh parsley (optional)
2-3 quarts of cold water

Place all ingredients in a pot and add the water to cover the ingredients. You might not need the whole three quarts. Slowly, bring the mixture up to a boil - skimming off the yucky gray foam and scum that rises to the surface.

After it boils, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for at least two hours - preferably three or four. Remove the chicken, crank the heat up to high and let the stock boil uncovered for about five minutes. Let it cool for a bit, then strain out the solids. You can either put it directly into your storage containers at this point or, put the whole bowl into the fridge, let the fat rise to the top overnight and then skim off the fat in the morning before you store. It's up to you!

Beef Stock
4-5 lbs. beef neck bones
3 large carrots, large dice (peel them if you want or if they need it)
2 large ribs of celery, large dice
1 large onion, large dice
2 cloves of garlic - peeled and lightly crushed
1 cup red wine
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
5 sprigs fresh thyme (optional)
5 stems fresh parsley (optional)

Roast the bones in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes.

Place the bones into a large stock pot with the vegetables, wine and herbs - add water to cover the meat and vegetables. Slowly bring to a boil and skim off any scum or foam that rises to the top.

After it boils, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for three to four hours on a low flame. Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes, then pour through a fine mesh strainer. Press the solids with a back of a spoon to extract maximum flavor. Either place it in your storage containers at this point or, place the whole bowl into the fridge and allow the fat to solidify and rise to the top over night. Skim off as much or as little fat as you like, then store in sealed containers.

Both stocks will store for about a week in the refrigerator or up to six months in the freezer. I think...I've never had one in there longer than that!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Netflix and (Pumpkin) Chili?

Hi! It’s been a while! Sorry I’ve been gone so long – it’s hard to find time to blog these days but now that the cooler months are upon us and the urge to get back into the kitchen is strong, I promise to try and be better about it.

If you follow my Instagram (@Mitsy4400) you’ll see pictures of everything I’ve been making lately. Nothing has garnered quite as much attention or requests for a recipe as my recent pumpkin chili experiment. Not wanting to disappoint my adoring fans (Hi Mom!), I decided I'd blog the recipe! 

I have to say – I can’t take full credit for it. Last week at work, during one of our G-chat sessions to help the workday pass quickly, my BFF mentioned that she had a pumpkin chili going in her crock pot. She sent me the recipe  and I was intrigued. But it somehow didn’t seem like enough – you know me – even if it was enough when can I ever leave well enough alone? Plus, my husband has been going through a bit of a rough patch lately while we wait for the factory to send him a new part, so we have to be super careful about his diet. Low sodium is key but we have to balance a whole bunch of other factors including getting him enough protein and ensuring he gets all the nutrients he needs on a regular basis. Bulking up the chili with extra veggies is great for both of us. It gives him the nutrients he needs and makes it healthier for me too.  

A few notes before you go forth and have a Netflix and Chili night:
  •  I used homemade pumpkin puree that I had in my freezer since last autumn. It’s not nearly as thick as the stuff you buy in the can so if you use canned, you may need to add more stock to get the consistency you want. All depends on if you want a thicker or thinner chili.
  • To crush the whole peeled tomatoes with your hands, dump the can into a large bowl and squish away. It’s messy as all hell (don’t put your face too close to the bowl b/c you can’t always control the eruptions and could take a hit of tomato juice in your eye) but it’s SO. MUCH. FUN. to cook this way. Just make sure your hands are clean first – or if they’re not – don’t tell anyone!
  •  I used a homemade, no salt added chicken stock. If you’ve got it great – if not, boxed or canned is fine. I like the no salt added b/c I can control the sodium but if you’re husband isn’t awaiting a part and you don’t have high blood pressure go ahead and use whichever stock you like!

·         Don’t hold me too fast to the measurements of the spices. I don’t measure when I cook. Use what you like – if you want more cumin, add it. If you think coriander has a place in your chili, then go for it – this is just a rough estimate of what I ‘thought’ I used.
·         If ground beef isn’t your thing, you can easily substitute ground turkey or chicken here. Or – if you want to go fully vegetarian, substitute Textured Vegetable Protein or a mix of your favorite beans! This can work so many different ways so have fun and get cooking!

Pumpkin Spice Chili
Carrot – 1 large – cut into small dice
Celery – 2 stalks – cut into small dice
Onions – 2 medium – cut into small dice (I used one yellow and one red)
Garlic – 6-8 cloves, rough chop
Red Bell Pepper – 2 – cut into small dice
Zucchini - 2 medium - cut into small dice
Olive Oil – 2 tablespoons

Lean Ground Beef – 2 pounds
Pumpkin Puree – 2 cups (NOT Pumpkin Pie Filling!)
Whole Peeled Plum Tomatoes – 1 28 oz. can – crushed with your hands
Stock (chicken, beef or veggie) – 1 cup

Chili Powder – 2 tablespoons
Cumin – 2 tablespoon
Dried Oregano – 1 tablespoon
Ground Tumeric – 1 tablespoon
Cinnamon – 1-2 teaspoons to taste
Bay Leaves – 2
Cayenne Pepper – ¼ teaspoon (more if you like it hot – leave it out if you don’t want heat)
Salt & Freshly Ground Black Pepper to taste

    1. Heat olive oil in the bottom of a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add carrots, celery, onion and saute until softened about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, bell pepper and zucchini and continue to cook for another 3-5 minutes until all of the vegetables are soft and translucent.
    2. Add the ground beef to the pan (with the vegetables) and break it up as it cooks. Continue cooking until the meat is completely browned and no pink spots remain.
    3. Lower the heat to medium and stir in your pumpkin puree. Allow to cook for one minute. Then add tomatoes (with their juice) and stock and stir.
    4. Add your spices and stir. Bring the whole pot to a boil and then lower it to a gentle simmer. Simmer on the stove over low heat, covered for an hour to an hour and a half (I like to let my chili go as long as possible). Then for the last 30 minutes, take the lid off – if your chili is too thin, this will help reduce some of the liquid and thicken it. If your chili is too thick, add a bit more stock at this point to thin it out.
    5. When the chili is done, remove the bay leaves and serve topped with a dollop of sour cream or Greek yogurt, shredded cheese and lots of fresh cilantro.  It makes a lot and freezes beautifully for those soon to be here chilly evenings!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Indian Inspirations

One random night last week, as we do most nights,  the fiancé and I were watching the Food Network. It was an old episode of Guy Fieri’s – I knew it was old because it was his original set with the pool table rather than in his fancy outdoor home kitchen. He was making an Indian dish – sort of a modified Butter Chicken. His recipe though intriguing, sounded too heavy for me with lots of butter and cream. I didn’t even watch the whole episode but somehow the initial sweating of onion, ginger and garlic in a sauté pan was enough to spark my interest and I wondered how to incorporate those flavors in something that I wouldn't wear on my hips for the next three weeks. Actually, come to think of it, I didn’t think of much else for quite a few days. My brain can get like that – I’ll get an idea about food and it just stays there until I finally do something with it.

For a few days, I played around with ingredients in my head trying to figure out exactly what I was looking for. Something warm, homey, but not overly heavy. The main items that were flopping around in all the open space of my noggin included chicken thighs, onions, ginger, garlic, and garam masala. 

Garam Masala is an Indian spice blend that literally translate to hot mixture. Recipes for it vary from household to household but it generally includes cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cumin, dried chile peppers or peppercorns, coriander, and whatever else you can think of to warm up your insides. It's one of my favorite spices but it can be overpowering so you need to find a blend you like and then figure out the right amount to not blow your palette.  

Ok, back to the recipe. Eventually I threw coconut milk and tomato paste into the mix. After consulting with an Indian friend, she recommended kicking up the warm spice factor so my brain went with chili powder, cardamom and cloves. We needed a vegetable element so I originally thought of spinach and mushrooms but ended up leaving out the spinach (mainly because I forgot it at the grocery store…). So here's what we ended up with after a trip to the market. And yes, I'm listening to Serial while I cook - I'm a little behind the times but am completely addicted (and also completely convinced that Adnan did do it, and that he didn't, and that Jay did it and that Asia McClain is kinda of weirdo....).

I sketched out a quick map of what I wanted to do, the order of the ingredients and for a change – took my time getting everything prepped and organized. Here's what my thought process looks like when I'm working out a new recipe. You can see that there's a lot of changing of ingredients - this one wasn't nearly as crazy as some other recipe development I've had. 

I started by removing the excess fat and skin from the chicken thighs. Don’t get me wrong – I like a nice crispy chicken skin, but in a braise it can make it super greasy so to avoid that I removed it. Bone in thighs are important here because the bone gives you a lot more flavor! You can substitute breasts if you want but you have to really be careful with the cooking time as they can dry out (yes, even when braised in all that liquid).  I placed the thighs in a pot with a lot of salt and cold water and let them soak. This is an old trick from my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother and probably a bunch of great grandmothers before that. The salt does double duty – it seasons the chicken but it also helps to kill off bacteria (or at least that's what my maternal heritage has passed down for generations and none of them have ever had salmonella so we're going with that...). After about 10 minutes of soaking, I let cold water into the pot for another 10 minutes, flushing out the salted water and rinsing the chicken. By the time this is done, the chicken bones and fat and skin have lost that yellow tinge and look brighter and whiter. Pat the chicken dry, season it with salt and pepper and brown in a large pan with some melted coconut oil.

Let’s talk about coconut oil for a second. I have a lot of friends that swear by the stuff. I like it – for certain things. But to me it does give off a strong coconut flavor so I don’t use it in everything I cook (meatballs sauteed in coconut oil doesn't work for me). However, for this dish, it worked beautifully. For when I want to use high heat without the extra flavor I’ll use either lard (home rendered preferred), avocado oil or clarified butter (you can make or buy this). Olive oil is great for sautéing but it’s not the best for super high heat cooking and can turn bitter if it gets too dark. Stick with these other methods for a hard sear on meats and you’ll get great flavor every time.

OK, back to the task at hand. While the chicken was brown, I diced up a large yellow onion, a good size chunk of ginger and six garlic gloves. When the chicken was browned, I removed it to a plate, lowered the heat and added the onions and ginger. You don’t want to really brown the onions, just sweat them a bit so keep your heat fairly low. When the onion became translucent, I added the garlic and let it cook for a few minutes.

Once the apartment began to smell like what I had been dreaming of, I added one tablespoon of chili powder, two tablespoons of garam masala (mine is from Fairway, you can buy or make it if that’s your thing), 4 cracked cardamom pods (just crack them with your knife like you were crushing a garlic clove) and 3 cloves. I mixed the spices in with the aromatics and let them toast a bit, then added in two tablespoons of tomato paste and let it caramelize for about two more minutes.  Mix this all together and imagine your neighbors drooling with jealousy as they walk passed your door. 

To this mixture, I added one can of coconut milk, half a can of water, stirred it all up and brought it to a simmer.  The thighs went back in along with any juices collected and the whole mixture got stirred up. I also added 8 oz of mushrooms that I had cleaned and quartered. Then, I let the mixture simmer on low for about two hours. Actual time will depend on the size of your thighs. They are ready when they are tender enough to cut with a fork but you don’t want it to shred apart when touched (or maybe you do if that’s your thing. Just don’t overcook them!)

You can serve this over cauliflower rice (a full blog on the wonders of cauliflower will be coming soon but in the meantime you can find recipes for it here, here or here), steamed basmati, long grain white rice or bake up some hot Indian naan to soak up all that sauce. I really like this one if you’re ambitious enough to make it at home.

Though this was a pretty far departure from my normal Italian comfort food, it was exactly what I was looking for! It was light enough to not feel heavy on my belly but also flavorful enough to keep me warm and satisfied on a cold winter night.  This will definitely be entering the rounds of weeknight dinners!  It also inspired me, and I hope it inspires you too to get out there and experiment. If something sounds good - give it a shot. All cooking is good cooking if it comes from the heart!

Happy experimenting! 

PS I know I've been gone for a while. Life sort of got in the way there for a while but I'm back and cooking more than ever and am so excited to share it all again (with all six of you that read this...Hi Mom! And Stacie! And Auntie Judy! and those three people from Ukraine that seem to log on all the time....)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Back To Basics...

My colleagues and I spend a tremendous amount of time talking about food. Granted, it's kind of what we do being an emergency food provider - but we also just love to talk about recipes and ingredients.  Recently, a group of us were sitting around the conference table stuffing a mass mailing and the subject of sauces came up. We were originally talking about the mother sauces - the five basic sauces from which all other sauces are born (bechamel, veloute, espagnole, hollandaise and tomato). The conversation than turned to pasta dressings. And then, one of my colleagues said that word...that horrible word that makes my skin crawl and my stomach turn..

She said that sauce to her was Ragu. And not the hearty meat based Italian sauce. No - she meant Ragu as in that awful stuff that comes in a jar.  I've had Ragu once in my life while visiting a relative in Florida. I'll protect this person's anonymity and not reveal their name - but suffice it to say it was the one black mark in an otherwise perfect person. As you can imagine, her revelation left me gasping for air and sputtering for words.  I understand that not everyone will spend hours slaving over a stove for a perfect slow cooked sauce. But ... but... ragu??? Really? 

A simple marinara sauce is one of my greatest pleasures. It's a few ingredients, a quick simmer and poof. A perfect, simple sauce that is pasta's best friend. Or pour it over a grilled chicken breast. Or pour it over some gently baked fish. You can use it in so many recipes I can't even begin to list them.  I've given this recipe out so many times over the years I'm shocked that I haven't blogged about it before. It was one of the first things I learned to cook from my mother and I bet one of the first things she started cooking too.

The recipe is simple and the ingredient list short. Extra virgin olive oil, garlic, good crushed tomatoes (save time and buy them already crushed), red wine and basil (fresh is best but dried will work). 

So the next time you feel like a quick pasta for dinner I hope you'll ignore that jar of ragu (or Prego, or Francesco Rinaldi) that's sitting on your shelf and cook up a quick marinara and think of me. Or better yet, cook up a double or triple recipe and freeze it for later use!  

Maryanne's Marinara
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 32 oz. can crushed tomatoes (San Marzano are great. I use Tutto Rosso when I"m on a budget.)
A big splash of red wine
1 tablespoon fresh basil or 1/2 teaspoon dried

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute just until fragrant and just starting to turn golden. Be careful because your garlic can very quickly go from brown to black. If it's black you're whole sauce will be ruined so throw it out and start again. 

Add the crushed tomatoes and red wine to the pot and stir to combine. Allow the sauce to come to a boil and then reduce the heat to low. Add the basil and stir. Let the sauce gently simmer for about 20 minutes and voila! 

To serve: Ladle a few spoonfuls over al dente pasta, top with grated pecorino romano cheese and a sprinkling of fresh basil.

Enjoy! And for heaven sake - toss the ragu! (and by toss I mean donate it to your local food pantry!)

Monday, May 20, 2013

In Memoriam

I met Gregory Zuroski in February, 2004 interviewing for a Development Associate job at the Brooklyn Children's Museum. During the interview I was asked standard questions about my work experience, my computer skills and my career goals. And then the interview took a turn. Greg, then the Vice President for External Affairs had been mostly quiet during the interview. When all the basic questions were answered, he turned his twinkling blue eyes to me and asked "What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any pets? Tell me about you outside of the office!" I promptly told him about my passion for cooking and baking, and also that I had five cats at the time whose names were Tony, Carmela, Paulie, Bobby and Meadow (Carmela's kitten of course....). He laughed, everyone laughed and I got the job. I'm not quite sure if it was my experience or my cats that did it for me.

But thus began one of the most cherished friendships of my life.  Greg was the type of boss that you can only dream about. He was supportive, allowed us to stretch our creative wings and his version of a reprimand was taking us out for coffee or ice cream so that the reprimand had something sweet to make it go down easier. I think once there might have even been a lecture over a liquid lunch. Greg never said no to anything but encouraged all of us who worked under him to try new things, to not be afraid and to live life to the fullest extent possible. 

After 2 1/2 years at the museum, I was ready to move on and Greg, as always, was ever supportive. I was fortunate to get a Development position with the American Academy in Rome - an organization that gave fellowships in the arts and humanities for one year of study at the Academy's grounds high on the Janiculum Hill. During my first year there, I was lucky enough to travel to Rome and immediately fell in love with the city and it's food. Greg and I had often talked of preparing a meal together and this seemed the perfect opportunity. Upon my return, we picked a date, invited friends over to his home and planned our menu (see photo below). We cooked up a storm. I think we probably had about 10 people total that were eating, but I'm sure we cooked enough to feed a small army..

That was the weekend I took my first trip to Arthur Avenue. I grew up in Brooklyn so my little Italy was the neighborhoods near where I grew up. Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Sheepshead Bay - and the occasional trip with Dad to the (West) Village. Arthur Avenue was too far away for us to venture. So imagine my surprise and delight the first time we walked into the indoor bazaar and Biancardi's meat market and the fish store and the fresh pasta place and stopping for a slice of pizza. It was all such an amazing experience and getting to share it with Greg was extra special. We deferred to each other's expertise but he always reminded me that I was the executive chef of this meal. The next day we did the cooking with assistance from his friend Harvey up at his place and had more fun putting this meal together than I think I've ever had in the kitchen either before or since then.  We talked, laughed and drank way too much wine and I remember cutting my finger fairly badly while cleaning calamari (Greg said it was silly to buy it cleaned when we could do it ourselves). A quick rinse, a bandage and a wine refill and it was right back to work.  We always said we wanted to do it again but scheduling something was hard and time passed too quickly. 

That weekend was one of the happiest memories I have. Greg had this silent way of making you feel like there wasn't anything you couldn't do. That there wasn't a mountain you couldn't climb and if you had any instances of self doubt he took them away. But he did all of this in a quiet, mild mannered way so that you didn't even realize it was happening. You might start out wavering in your confidence but after talking to Greg, suddenly the impossible became possible. 

Only a few months ago, I contacted Greg to ask if he would be a reference for me for the Development Director position with West Side Campaign Against Hunger. At the time, I hadn't realized how sick he was and when I found out that there was difficulty reaching him, I began to realize the gravity of the situation. But, ever a champion to those around him, Greg managed to get in touch and provided what I think was probably the reference that clinched the job for me. A few weeks later, I wrote to thank him for his support and to see how he was doing. He never once complained or seemed unhappy. He spoke of a desire to get together and cook again, and reminded me to join the Association of Fundraising Professionals for the support it would offer me in my career path.  That was Greg, always thinking of others and never of himself. 

When I heard the news of his passing, I was and still am overwhelmed by the number of things I won't get to share with him. He was a huge supporter of my blog and my writing, always encouraging me to tell my story. We won't have another trip to Arthur Avenue together, we won't be able to exchange emails about old Italian American recipes that no one else seems to know about and he won't be there to remind me to not be afraid of my challenges, but to meet them head on. But I am so grateful for the time that I had with him. I will consider myself forever lucky to have known this kind, gentle, supportive soul and I am forever changed because I knew him. 

I'm not sure what happens beyond this life. But if there is a heaven, I've always wanted it to be a big dining room table, with all of the wonderful people who've passed through my life sitting around it and telling stories. Never ending stories around an ever abundant table. That's how I picture Greg now - sitting at the table, with his blue eyes twinkling, telling stories of food, friends and family. 

Thank you Greg. You made such an impact on so many people, and my world feels darker and smaller without you in it. To honor your memory I will continue to cook and continue to write and always will have you in my thoughts, especially when I'm wandering the shops on Arthur Avenue. Maybe one day I'll get that cookbook written and if I do - you'll get a huge part of the credit. 

Rest in peace my dear friend. Someday I hope to see you, at the dining table again. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

(Meat)Balls Does Cabaret....

This past Tuesday evening, (Meat)Balls on the Run had the amazing opportunity to cater the reception after the opening night performance of the fabulous Stacie Perlman's "The Story Underneath", her debut cabaret at the Metropolitan Room in New York City. Now, Stacie and I have been friends since we were about 15 years old and I've been watching her perform over the years in various venues, shows, styles etc... This was an amazing chance to see her up there, doing something she's talked about for years and doing it phenomenally well! (Seriously! Go see it! Here - you can even leave the blog for a minute and go here to buy tickets to either the July 31 or August 13 performances. )

OK, now that you're back ... did come back didn't you? Oh, OK whew. So after the show ended to rousing rounds of applause and a seriously fun encore, everyone schlepped downstairs to the small reception area for cocktails, snacks and schmoozing.

The menu for the party consisted of a few simple appetizers - all finger foods that could be picked up and eaten in a bite or two plus a sweet. The main focus was that everything needed to be able to be served at room temperature as I wanted to be able to set up the food, go up and see the cabaret and then come down and just uncover it all after it was done. We set up a few stations around the room so people could mix and mingle, pick something up and wander off with their drink. The menu included:

Smokey Spinach & Broccoli Balls
Endive stuffed with Blue Cheese and Candied Spicy Pecans
Dates stuffed with Honeyed Goat Cheese, Toasted Walnuts and Sea Salt
Hummus Trio with Crudites & Assorted Flat breads
Black Bean with Cilantro, White Bean with Rosemary, Traditional Chick Pea
Miniature Lemon Cupcakes with Lemon Curd and Strawberry Mousse Frosting

This menu was really fun for us to put together! The goal was to give a good indication of the types of hors d'oeuvres that I can provide along a range of cheeky (the balls) to classy (the endive) to sweet and playful (the cupcakes).  Everything is pretty easy to assemble and can easily be done for the home cocktail party! I've included a few recipes at the end of this entry for you to play with on your own (or you can contact us at and just get me to do it for you!)

I think the highlight of the night for me was looking out at my longest and best friend singing her heart out - doing what she loved and then getting to go downstairs and put on my own version of a show. It's nice to know that after so many years of hard work our dreams are really starting to come true.  And it's even more special that she let me get in on the act with her! Stacie - you've always been a star in my book. Now the rest of the world will know it too!

Endive with Blue Cheese and Candied Spicy Pecans
For the nuts:
1 stick of butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
16 oz. chopped pecans

Melt butter in a saute pan, add brown and granulated sugar and slowly allow to melt and caramelize. Add the spices cook over low heat for a few minutes until fragrant and a deep golden color. Add the chopped nuts and stir until all the nuts are coated with the mixture. Carefully pour onto a parchment lined baking sheet and spread into a single layer. Allow to cool completely and then break apart into desired sized pieces. For this recipe I like them on the smaller side.

3 heads endive
1 cup good quality blue cheese - crumbled
Slice the root end off of the endive and gently separate the leaves. Remove any that are less than presentable. Place a small amount of blue cheese on the root end of the endive and place on a serving platter. I like to place them in a circle with a bunch of grapes in the middle (see the picture below) with the pretty pointed ends facing out. Once you've filled and placed all the endive, sprinkle the chopped candied nuts all over the cheese. You want enough on there so that if some falls off, there will still be a few nuggets on each one.
Serve at room temperature and enjoy.

Dates with Honeyed Goat Cheese
1 box Medjool Dates - pitted and cut in half length-wise.
4 oz. goat cheese
4-5 tablespoons good quality honey
milk (a few tablespoons just to thin out the consistency a little)
Toasted Chopped Walnuts
Fleur De Sel
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Combine goat cheese with honey and add the milk one tablespoon at a time until a smooth creamy consistency is achieved. I like to put the cheese in a piping bag and pipe it into the dates but a spoon works just as well.

Once all the dates are stuffed, arrange them on your serving platter, then drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle finely chopped toasted walnuts over the top and finish with a touch of sea salt on each date.

Serve at room temperature and be prepared for your guests to ask for more!

Smokey Spinach & Broccoli Balls
1 10 oz. box frozen chopped spinach
1 10 oz. box frozen chopped broccoli
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
5 eggs
10 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups of Panko Breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Defrost spinach and broccoli in a microwave safe bowl and allow to cool. When cool to the touch - squeeze out as much of the excess liquid from the vegetables (discard liquid). Combine all remaining ingredients and mix together to form a very thick paste. With dampened hands, roll the mixture into walnut sized balls (you may need to add more panko if the mixture is a bit too wet to roll).  Place onto a parchment lined baking sheet about 1" apart and bake for 20-25 minutes until the balls are golden and firm to the touch. Don't let them get too brown or they'll toughen up on you.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

**Special thanks to Adam Meredith for the photos of the food (and for his superbly artistic arrangment of my crudites platter :). 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Playing with Pork...

Porchetta! What is it? A suckling pig being deboned, stuffed with aromatics and then slow roasted until delicous perfection that is rumored to have originated in the Lazio region in Italy and quickly spread with the aromatics changing from one region to the next. In Rome you'll find rosemary and garlic, in Umbria they use fennel and in Sardinia fresh myrtle leaves are the flavor of choice. To me, just the word itself sounds delicious and lately I've just been dreaming about it. So hence, the great Porchetta experiment began.

Before the experiment began I had to do some research to figure out my preferred cut of meat, cooking method and seasoning mixture.  To start with - what cut of meat would I use? There were a variety of methods on the internet using everything from a boneless pork loin (sometimes wrapped in a pork belly or bacon) to a bone-in shoulder to an entire pig. And while I admit I have been positively dying to do a pig roast it probably wouldn't be the best option for my smallish New York City kitchen. (umm...anybody with a big backyard dying to let me dig a firepit? Please?) So ultimately, I decided I'd use a bone in shoulder. I really like roasting meat on the bone for added flavor and moistness. Plus the shoulder has that lovely layer of fat and wouldn't require the addition of wrapping it in bacon making it simpler to prepare. The cuts of meat I had were also fairly even in thickness so I didn't have to tie them either. 

So how would I flavor my meat? Almost all recipes I looked at called for a pretty standard mix of garlic, rosemary, thyme and sage. I also added a small amount of chili flakes and a few tablespons of fennel seed that I lightly toasted in a dry pan along with 5 crushed juniper berries. None of this was measured - I guessed at most of the ratios and just let my nose tell me when enough was enough.  Instead of chopping everything I threw it in my food processor with some extra virgin olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper and pulsed it to a coarse paste. I made several short but deep slits around the shoulder stuffing a small amount deep into the meat as well as shoving some of it under the skin as well. The rest got smeared all around the outside of the shoulder. This sat for about 30 minutes before going into the oven.

Next decision was the cooking method. Would I start it high and then decrease to low? The reverse? Tent it? Not tent it? Dutch oven? So many options. Again - I went with what was simple. The meat would go on a rimmed sheet pan and dry roast for about two and a half hours at 300 (perfect time for a nap on a Sunday afternoon). After the two hours, I added a cup of red wine and half a cup of water to the pan and  let it roast for another 3 hours. I basted every 30 minutes or so with the juices, occasionally having to add a bit more wine as the liquid evaporated. Then, when the meat was fork tender I increased the temperature to 450 for about 12 minutes to melt the rest of the fat and crisp up the skin. Many recipes that started the porchetta in a super hot oven also had the added note that you'll be cleaning your oven for days afterward. This method produced much less mess - which for me is great as I can't say I enjoy the prospect of 3 days with a can of easy off and brillo. Doesn't matter how good the meal was!

To go with the pork, I did some fairly traditional sides. I blanched a mixture of hearty greens (kale, dandelion and turnip greens) in salted water, then squeezed out the excess liquid.  I heated a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet, 3 cloves of sliced garlic and a good amount of red pepper flakes. When the garlic was just starting to brown and get amazingly fragrant, in went the greens for a minute or two, then I added about a pound of fresh spinach and let that cook down with the rest of the greens (the spinach is much more delicate than kale and dandelion and would have probably disintegrated from the double cook). A bit of salt and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice before serving to brighten the whole thing up.

I also prepared some creamy white beans which are one of my favorite sides with roast meat of any sort. Instead of soaking the dried beans I just brought the water up to a boil and then let them simmer for about two hours (this was for one standard size grocery bag of beans).  When they were mostly soft, I drained them, put them back in the pot with chicken stock, 4 large cloves of garlic, one large sprig of rosemary chopped finely and lots of salt and pepper. As the beans cooked they continued to soak up liquid so I had to continually add chicken stock to get them to the proper consistency. By the time the pork was done, the beans were soft, garlicky and super creamy having produced their own velvety sauce. Actually - there was so much garlic in this meal that if there were a coven of vampires anywhere near Inwood they are most definitely and decidedly gone by now.

The only problem with this meal was that I had no idea how many people to expect.  It could have been 2 or 30. So I ended up with rather a large amount of food and some very overstuffed friends. One shoulder would have been enough - definitely didn't have to go with two. But I sent my guests home with doggie bags and will have plenty for leftovers this week. The fun part is that the meat itself will be pretty versatile - lending itself to leftovers such as chopped bbq pork sandwiches, pork & vegetable stir fry, possibly some fried rice and maybe even enchiladas! If I grow a curly tail by the end of this week you'll know why!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Tackling Thai...

Sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone and try something new. Culinarily speaking, my comfort zone is traditional Italian American food. This could be something ultra heavy like a lasagna or chicken rollatini or cannoli - or - it could be something like light a zuppa di pesce, lemon chicken or zabaglione with fresh fruit. (Ok, maybe zabalgione isn't exactly light but you get my drift...).

But every once in a while, I like to try something different. Last night was one of those nights. I had a friend coming over for dinner and we had decided on fish earlier in the day. Most of the time for this particular friend I'll make a simple grilled or poached halibut with a salad or green vegetable. This time I wanted something different. Part of my CSA share for the week included a good stock of basil and cilantro and the combination just screamed Thai at me.

So I researched a number of fish curries online finding some that were incredibly simple and some that were incredibly complex. I wanted a balance between the two and ended up coming up with something that worked even better than I thought it would! But first I had to gather my ingredients!

One of the major negatives about shopping in New York City is that the price of fish is astoundingly high. I went to one of my favorite mid-priced markets (no Whole Foods this time) and was perusing the counter to see what was fresh but wouldn't bust my wallet. The Chilean sea bass was as gorgeous as it is unsustainable and was a whopping $26.99 per pound (you can visit the Monterrey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch here to learn about the best and worst choices for sustainable seafood). The pacific halibut was $22.99 per pound and wasn't as attractive as it should have been, looking slightly off white and a bit slimy.  And then I saw a big sign for "Boston Cod" for $8.99 per pound that apparently was line caught (at least that's what they told me) which makes it a much better option than fish harvested by trawl methods that are incredibly damaging to the environment.  Having finally made my selection I then proceeded to drive the fish monger crazy to find me a solid one pound piece that was of even thickness. I'm pretty sure he was glad to see me go after that...

I picked up a few other sundries and headed to the northern tip of the world (aka home) to begin my adventures.

I started by throwing about 1/2 cup of cilantro (stems and leaves) and 1/3 cup of basil into the food processor with one small onion, one garlic scape (you could substitute one clove of garlic here) and the rind of a whole lemon. To that mixture, I added 1 tablespoon cumin, 1 tablespoon turmeric and 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne. If I had ginger I would have added that too but unfortunately I had none of either the fresh or dried variety. I processed that, scraping the bowl down a few times until I had a dry paste.

Meanwhile, I heated my cast iron skillet over medium heat (which is possibly the best gift my parents have ever given me...aside from the gift of life and my KitchenAid Mix Master that is...and of those two the higher value is extremely debatable...). To the skillet, I added about 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. When the oil was hot I added about two rounded tablespoons of the spice paste mixture and let that cook for a minute or two. As the spices hit the hot oil the explosion of aroma in the kitchen was heady and intoxicating. Yes...we were definitely onto something here...

The fish (which I had cut into about 3" pieces) went into the pan and was cooked for about two minutes in just the spices and oil. Then I added 1 cup of lite coconut milk, 1/2 cup of chicken stock (you can also use vegetable stock, fish stock or clam juice here), lowered the heat to a simmer and let the fish cook through - about another 5 minutes or so. After, I removed the fish to a warm plate and added a few glugs of soy sauce and about a teaspoon or so of fish sauce to the liquid in the pan. Cranked the heat up to high and let it all reduce down to a beautiful velvet sauce for about 8 minutes. When the sauce was ready I added the fish back in just to heat through and immediately turned it off.

Servedwith steamed rice (I used brown basmati), fresh cilantro leaves and a wedge of lime for zing!

When we sat down I was admittedly nervous as I can be about trying something new - particularly on a person who...well...can be a bit picky about food to say the least. His clean plate at the end of it told me my worries were for naught! This recipe is definitely a keeper! Hmm...I wonder if I can somehow turn it into a ball? :)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Greens, Greens and Nothing But Greens!

"Greens, greens and nothing but greens" is a line sung by the Wicked Witch in Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods". The first time I heard that line I was a High School freshman sitting in the school auditorium watching our spring production. Who knew that it would end up having some profound impact on my life!

It's now that gorgeous time of year where produce is at it's perfect peak and greens are everywhere! CSA's (Community Supported Agriculture) bring local organic produce to our urban tables. Farmers Markets are overflowing with fruits and vegetables. Fresh herbs are everywhere and practically begging to be brought home! So it's only natural that we can hardly resist the urge to over indulge.

This year, I'm fortunate enough to be participating in a CSA through my office in partnership with Great Performances and Katchkie Farms (which incidentally runs the Sylvia Center - a fabulous nonprofit teaching NYC kids about eating healthy).  I purchased a half share but as my other half is currently out on maternity leave, I start the first few weeks with a full share! Exciting right? Except...that's a lot of veggies. There's only so much I can cook in an evening (even I have my limits folks) so the question arises what's the best way to store your vegetables so they last?

Well the answer depends on the vegetable. Some heartier varieties require little more than tossing them in your vegetable crisper (the turnips we got in this week's shipment for instance). But some require a bit more care. Here are some of my favorite storage methods to help keep your produce at it's peak.

Lettuce/Delicate Greens
I like to leave the leaves attached to the head until I'm ready to use them. But when I get home I give the lettuce a quick shake and a rinse to get rid of any bugs (organic means no pesticide which means pests can sneak in!). Then I wrap the whole head in a damp paper towel and place in a baggie but don't close it all the way. You want to allow it to have some breathing room!

Beets/Turnips and Other Hearty Roots
I find this technique works for anything that has both an edible root portion and leaves.
DON'T wash these items before storing. Remove the root portion leaving about an inch or two of stem. Place in a plastic bag and seal - squeezing out as much air as you can. Store in your crisper drawer and they'll stay good for about 3-4 weeks.  For the leaves - you can wrap these in damp paper towels and store in an open baggie just like the lettuce.

Hearty Greens (kale, cabbage, etc...)
DON'T wash before storing as water will increase spoilage time.  Place the leaves in a baggie (I like to chop mine so they're quicker to prepare and fit better in the baggie) and squeeze out as much air from the bag when sealing. It will keep in the fridge for about 5-7 days.

Delicate Herbs (Cilantro, Dill, Parsley etc...)
The best method for storing herbs that I've found is to wrap them in damp paper towels, place in a baggie and seal almost all the way. As long as they are wrapped in the damp paper they'll keep for the better part of a week!

Basil is one of the hardest herbs to keep fresh. The best method I've found is to place it in a glass of water with a plastic bag over the top and place in the fridge. But even that will only keep it good a day or so. The best way to keep basil if you need it long term is to freeze it.  For this method, you should pick the leaves from the stems, wash and dry them VERY well. Lay them flat on paper towels (i do this in a few layers of paper towel), place into a baggie and make sure it is sealed very very well. Lay the baggie flat in your freezer and remove the leaves as you need them. The color will not stay a vibrant green but the flavor will be nearly as good as fresh!

Surprisingly these vegetables do not keep long! (Well..maybe it's just surprising to me!) The best way to keep them is to wrap them in damp paper towel and place in a perforated baggie. These veggies need air circulation to stay fresh so the perforation is important (or just don't seal the bag).

Zucchini/Summer Squash
Similar to above but you can skip the damp paper towel on these. And be gentle! The flesh on these can bruise pretty easily.

The rule of thumb with fresh berries is don't wash them till you are ready to eat them! Place them on a paper towel in a tightly sealed container but try to consume them pretty quickly! If you need them longer - wash, dry and hull them (remove the green leaves and the inner white portion near the top), toss with a little bit of sugar and place in a baggie. These should be used within 1 year of freezing.

So I think that about covers everything I got in my CSA or at the Farmer's Market this week! Stay tuned throughout the summer for more tips! Happy Veggie Season everybody!