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!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

One Chickie in the Pot...

I know, I know...I still owe you a description of the St. Patrick's Day menu. I'll get there soon I promise but in the meantime this latest inspiration has me so excited I just had to share it with you!

A few weeks ago I was in the Farmer's Market up in my hood of Inwood and happened to stop at one of the farm stands advertising free range organic chicken. On an impulse I picked one up - but having no time to cook it (or enough days in a row where I would be home to consume an entire chicken) I stuck it in the freezer waiting for opportunity to present itself.

Meanwhile I had been reading up on cooking whole chickens in the crock pot and after looking at a few different methods I came up with my own. I didn't want soup and I was hoping for something that would give me in essence a roasted chicken dinner that I could come home to at the end of a work day.

Step 1: Defrost the chicken. (Yeah I might have forgotten this part....). My chicken was barely defrosted when I stuck it in the pot. I did manage to wrestle the bag of frozen giblets out but it certainly did put up a fight.

Step 2: Get out your crock pot. This should be easy right? Yeah - I have a tendency to cram a lot into my kitchen cabinets so...first empty cabinet, then take out crock pot, then shove everything back in cabinet (first making sure it's cleared out of curious cats), then find counter space for crock pot that is close enough to the outlet.

Step 3: Peel and slice two carrots in half, one stalk of celery and slice half an onion. This part really was easy - unless you've taken up all your counter space with making room for the crock pot. Then you need to do some finagling...or putting things away. Whichever floats your boat.

Step 4: Line the bottom of the pot with the vegetables like your making a bed for the chicken. Season the chicken to your liking (I used kosher salt, fresh cracked pepper, garlic powder and a touch of smoked Spanish paprika) and place the chicken on top of the vegetables. Don't ask me for measurements. I don't measure at 7am.

Step 5: Put the lid on the pot. Realize that you've made the bed of vegetables too high, remove the chicken adjust the vegetables and try again. This may take 2, 3 or 4 tries depending on how good your hand-eye coordination is in the morning.  The chicken, being still partly frozen is also heavy and slippery. Be warned...

Step 6: Set the crock pot for 10 hours on low (8 if you're a smarty pants who remembered to defrost your chicken. If you are go get yourself a medal or a chest to pin it on...your choice).  Wash your hands, counter tops, sink and anything else that may have come in contact with the partially defrosted chicken. Or just call in a Hazmat team to do it for you.

After a 12 hour workday I came home and the entire lobby of my building smelled of roasting chicken.  When I opened my apartment door I was clobbered by the scent and I practically dove into the pot head first. But instead I first took a picture (see above) and then carefully removed the chicken. Having added no liquid or fat, the chicken had produced it's own rich jus that was a beautiful deep dark brown. I left the vegetables and jus in the pot and then removed a leg and thigh for myself for dinner. After dinner the saga continued...

Step 7: Remove all the meat from the bones. This will be easier if you live in a pet free household. It increases exponentially if you have pets that haven't been fed since you left for work that morning and are now saying "to heck with that canned crap - give us the CHICKEN!".

Step 8: Place the bones (and skin, cartilage etc...) back into the pot with the vegetables and jus, and add four cups of water.

Step 9: Cover and set the crock pot to cook on low for 8 hours. Attempt to go to sleep as the apartment fills with the incredible heady scent of chicken stock simmering away.

Step 10: When you wake up in the morning and after your moment of "OMG I CAN'T BELIEVE IT'S 7:40 AND I DIDN'T SET THE ALARM!!!!" and then you look at the cats who are staring at you from the edge of the bed and yell "WHY DIDN'T YOU WAKE ME UP?" - then proceed to the kitchen and find your strainer and a big bowl and strain all the liquid from the pot into the bowl.  Press the solids with the back of a heavy spoon to extract any extra flavor that is hidden in those carrots celery and onions.

Step 11: Place the gorgeous brown stock in the fridge to allow the fat to rise and solidify for easy removal.  The stock will keep for about a week in the fridge and several months in the freezer. I freeze mine is small containers so I can use it in recipes as needed.

And voila! You now have roasted chicken to use for all kinds of meals (I made a curried chicken salad for lunch today and I think there may be chicken fried rice for dinner tonight....) and a gorgeous chicken stock that you can store in your freezer and use as needed.

This whole chicken ordeal has me reminded of one of my favorite Muppet skits involving the Swedish Chef, a chicken and a basket.  I leave you all with this glorious piece of muppetry and wish you continued happy kitchen adventures!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Gettin baked...

I've been in the kitchen a LOT this past week and while I don't have time to regale you all with stories of childhood and family kitchen fun I did want to at least give you something to drool over.

The week started out with playing around with the faux Hostess cupcake recipe from the NY Times. I tweaked the recipe a bit by adding about 1 cup of Momofuku Milk Bar's Chocolate Crumb for a more intense chocolate flavor, a teaspoon of vanilla and a few tablespoons of milk to keep the batter smooth. I followed the filling and ganache recipes exactly although I probably did add just a bit more vanilla to the filling than called for. My piping still needs work but overall I'd say these were pretty darn good and now I'm significantly less concerned if Hostess does go out of business. 
 Then, later in the week I embraced the approach of St. Patrick's Day with an Irish soda bread. I found my basic recipe and then added caraway seeds, whiskey soaked raisins and a little whiskey just for good measure (for both the bread and me). This came slightly softer than I wanted it but the flavor was great especially when spread with some soft butter (ok a LOT of soft butter on top). Next time I think a bit more flour and bake a little longer to ensure a dry crumb.

And finally, in full on celebration of St. Patrick's Day I used Chloe's recipe for Vegan Chocolate Stout Cupcakes with an Irish Whiskey Buttercream. I love Chloe's recipes because even though I'm the farthest thing from a vegan as humanly possible (last night's indulgence in grilled pork belly, cow heart skewers and pulled pork kimchi tacos from local watering hole Buddha Beer Bar affirms that) I never feel like I'm missing something. I left off the caramel drizzle because I was running short on time and used a little colored sugar instead but I bet the caramel would be delicious!
And, as usual there is no rest for the weary. Tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day and in order to avoid going out on amateur night I've been brining an 8 pound brisket in my fridge for about two weeks now. Stay tuned for pictures and tales from how my first corned beef and cabbage dinner goes and in the comments please let me know your favorite St. Patrick's Day indulgence!

Erin Go Bragh!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Dinner Party Dreamin...

Yesterday I woke up with the urge to throw a dinner party and thankfully I have friends who are willing to indulge me these impromptu whims.  Earlier in the week I had been having a fun debate with a friend about a New York Times article that mentioned making your own Hostess style treats (find the article here). He insisted I keep up with my newly implemented workout routine and skip the cupcakes.  I countered by asking if I said I was making something more of what he liked (namely, a good steak or a beautiful piece of white fish) would he change his response.  The answer, was, of course. And so - a dinner party was born.

I gathered just a few friends as I had a feeling this was going to be an expensive style menu (although at the time I wasn't sure just how expensive!)  and sketched out a menu.  I wanted to do a seared scallop for a first course, a surf and turf option for a main and homemade ice cream for dessert.  So after spending the morning rearranging my living room and fixing up the dining room a bit (which doubles as a second bedroom when I have out of town guests...) I grabbed my green bags, my credit card and hopped on the subway to head down to Chelsea Market where I knew the seafood selection would be the absolute best. 

Upon entering Chelsea Market, I made the plan to head to the back and start with produce and then work my way forward.  The produce market there is one of my favorites. It has a huge selection and is generally very reasonably priced.  At this point I decided that the main was going to be two simply prepared proteins that could both be topped with a chimichurri sauce so straight to the fresh herbs I went.  Cilantro, parsley, oregano and a head of garlic into the basket. Followed by mustard and turnip greens for a side dish, and then I spotted sunchokes and decided a puree of sunchoke would be the perfect base for the seared scallop.

Next stop was the Italian market just because no stop to Chelsea Market is complete without it. I kept myself reigned in and just purchased a small block of robiola, olives and some whole wheat tarali (small donut shaped savory crackers).  Next stop - the Lobster Place for the fish.  First over to the scallops where I purchased four perfect jumbo scallops.  The man behind the counter must have hated me because I wanted to look at each scallop to ensure it's perfection.  And then over to the halibut.  At $27 per pound I wanted the perfect piece that I could cut into four equal portions. The first two didn't measure up - the third was the one. And then I made my fatal flaw - I decided to look into Dickson's Farm Stand Meats for the turf option.  Right in front of me are these gorgeous bone in ribeyes.  Thick, beautifully marbled and bright bright red I couldn't resist. At $29 per pound I probably should have resisted.  But I didn't.

So home I came to start dinner.  Immediately I made a quick custard for my ice cream.  I had originally planned on doing a chili spiked chocolate but I realized I had run out of cocoa after some recent Momofuku Milk Bar Cook Book experiments so I switched to vanilla. 5 egg yolks, 2/3 of a cup of sugar whipped and combined with scaled half and half and the scrapings of a vanilla bean.  Then cook till thick and into the fridge to cool

Next - sunchoke puree. Peel the sunchokes and boil in salted water till soft. Meanwhile I tossed a few garlic cloves (unpeeled) into the toaster oven at 400 and let them roast up. When the sunchokes were soft I combined them, the soft gooey roasted garlic, a couple of tablespoons of butter, a splash of cream, salt and pepper and blended with my stick blender (all fingers intact for those who knew me when....).  The result? A gorgeous smooth earthy puree.

Next step - assemble the chimmichurri.  Oregano (3 sprigs), parsley  (1 packed cup) and cilantro leaves (about 1/4 packed cup), cleaned and picked over and dumped into a food processor with olive oil, a few cloves of garlic, salt, red pepper flakes and some acid - in this case I used a combination of meyer lemon juice and red wine vinegar.  Pulse until smooth and pourable and then into the fridge to let the flavors marry. 

I wanted to do a coconut rice with the main course so I combined one can of coconut milk (full fat) and one can of water with two cups of jasmine rice and cooked in the usual method of bringing it to a boil and then reducing to a simmer. Just before the rice is done I turn off the gas, place a kitchen towel over the top, cover again and let it steam for about 10 minutes. I don't know where I read this - but it is a technique that yields perfect fluffy rice almost every time. 

At this point the doorbell started ringing and of course I was nowhere near ready but thankfully my friends know me well and there was the cheese and olives to nibble on. While they chatted and snacked I set to searing the scallops. First I made sure they were completely dry so they would be able to get a perfect sear. A little salt and pepper and then into a screaming hot pan for just over a minute on each side.  Each scallop was set on a pool of the sunchoke puree and topped with a small pea shoot salad dressed simply in meyer lemon juice, olive oil and salt. The result? YUM!

ribeye and each person had a serving a fish, a portion of steak, topped with the chimuchurri, along with some rice and greens.

After dinner, we retired from my rickety table into the living room while I churned the ice cream.  And churned....and churned. It got cold and semi-soft but never quite seemed to get all the way to ice cream.  It might have been because I only chilled my ice cream bowl for 8 hours instead of the recommended 12, or maybe I should have cooked the custard a bit more. Either way we had delicious bowls of chilled vanilla soup. But since nearly all of us as children enjoyed stirring our ice cream into a soup-like consistency this was a-ok with us.

In near food comas my friends trudged out with those half feeble offers at dish doing and feeling bad for leaving such a mess. When I looked in the kitchen and realized I had used nearly every saute pan and prep bowl I owned which was now piled high in my sink I thought for a moment about sending them in there to clean. But one look at their sleepy eyes told me it was a lost battle.  When it was just me and the cats, I packaged up the leftovers for the fridge, soaked a few things, tossed a few others and then turned out the lights.  The dishes aren't going anywhere - and frankly neither is my urge to continue to throw dinner parties.

Now if you'll excuse me I have to go tackle that mess in the kitchen and get it all sparkly I can make a new mess of course!

Oh - sorry about that last picture. At that point I was more concerned about getting the food into my belly rather than making it picture worthy :-)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Making friends with the Boyardee Family

For my birthday back in November, a dear friend got me a gift that really made me question our friendship. It's Anna Boiardi's cookbook, Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family.  Now it is very well known amongst those who know me well (and not so well) that I abhor Chef Boyardee. The mushy pasta, the brownish tinted sauce, the crumbly meat that reminds you of the mystery meat you probably had in camp or a school cafeteria.... It just doesn't do it for me.

When we were kids, my Mother made dinner every almost every night.  Even once she went back to work when I was about 7, she still came home every day and cooked for us. The exception to this rule was in June, during her extremely busy season preparing for graduation (she worked in a public high school in Brooklyn) we found ourselves eating a LOT of takeout. Chinese, Pizza, Roll N' Roaster (I still dream about those roast beef & cheez sandwiches....) and on occasion, if we were trying to go healthy - there would be some sort of rotisserie chicken (anyone remember when there was a Kenny Roger's Roasters in Sheepshead Bay?). Ah, June was a fun month!

But going back to Mom cooking - my Mother was shopping the exterior of the supermarkets long before it became the fashionable and healthy thing to do. Even if the meal was simple, it was almost always made from natural wholesome ingredients with a protein (roasted chicken, lamb chops, london broil), vegetable and starch of some sort. With the exception of Rice-a-Roni and the deluxe macaroni and cheese (packet of cheese sauce - not the powder...I think somehow the sauce seemed more 'natural' to her) Mom made it all. Frozen TV dinners were almost never allowed in the house, stove top stuffing was unheard of,  and the little Italian man in the hat was NEVER allowed into our shopping carts - ever!

And frankly - why would he be? I've blogged before about the joys of my Mom's Sunday dinners. Gravy simmering slowly on the stove loaded with sausages, meatballs and bracioles. Macaroni cooked to a perfect al dente mixed with just the right amount of gravy (never swimming in it!). Ravioli purchased from Dairy Maid or Pastosa that were both rich and creamy while still feeling light.  Stuffed shells with Mom's homemade filling, Lasagna oozing with meat, ricotta and mozzarella.... Why on earth would anyone eat that stuff that came out of a can? That wasn't Italian food! It was the equivalent of overcooked spaghetti topped with ketchup as far as I was concerned!

But then - there was that one time. Mom and Dad were out and my brother and I went to the grocery store unsupervised. And as we passed through the canned goods aisle we saw that smiling little Chef staring out at us. This was TOTAL contraband and completely disallowed. But what Mom and Dad don't know wouldn't hurt them. I was old enough by that point, probably about 12 or 13 to realize that Mom wasn't always right (just most of the you Mommy....) so maybe she was wrong about this. So many of our friends ate it - and by that point we'd discovered the joys of frozen french bread pizzas, hot pockets and other pre-made delights so maybe this was good too? We slipped a can into our shopping cart, paid for our groceries and raced home.  I stood guard by the door making sure our parents weren't getting home early and my brother heated it up in the microwave. While it was heating I couldn't help but think that it really didn't smell so good...but it was the taste that mattered! We stood, forks in hand, over the steaming bowl of mush...and each stabbed a ravioli and placed it in our mouths and chewed...sort of...because you kinda don't need to chew. And then we both spit it out, dumped the bowl's contents into the trash, got rid of the can and silently vowed never to speak of this again. (There was also one time last summer, when fueled by a rather large amount of vodka, sun and beach that I gave in again and shared a bowl with a friend. That time I don't think I hated it quite so much - but I think at that point it was the sharing with a good friend whose enthusiasm was catching as he waxed nostalgic about his youth, and quite possibly the vodka combined with a near sunstroke that temporarily blocked my gag reflex...).

So fast forward about 20 years to getting this cookbook! I smiled, laughed, took photos and then figured it'd end up on the bottom of my pile - maybe I'd use it to balance a table leg or something. But then I started reading some of the stories about how it all came together. And while I still had that bad ravioli experience in my head I was starting to get into some of the recipes. Many of them are basic and I'd say its a great book for beginner cooks or those new to Italian food. But one recipe stood out to me - the recipe for lasagna. The Boiardi family is from Piacenza in the Emilia Romagnia region of Italy - so the lasagna from there is not the heavy dish I'm used to loaded with ricotta, mozzarella, mini meatballs and sliced sausages and stacked with thick dried noodles parboiled into al dente sublimation and then slavered with a homemade gravy.  The entire tray should weigh no less than 20 lbs. and getting it into and out of the oven requires olympian style strength. This was made with a slow cooked beef bolognese, a creamy bechamel and homemade egg noodles rolled so thin you can practically see through them.

Now I'd been craving fresh pasta for the past week or so. And having once again flipped through the book and landing straight on the lasagna page I figured it was time to tackle it.  So Saturday afternoon I broke out my new Le Creuset dutch oven and made a slow cooked rich bolognese sauce - generally following the outline of Boiardi's recipe but, as always, tailoring it to my own tastes (she makes a point to say they don't use garlic in Piacenza but no way I wasn't including garlic in my gravy). Then on Sunday I broke out my grandfathers hand cranked pasta machine (which by the way, he abhorred much the way I abhor canned pasta products - to him macaroni should be rolled and cut by hand. I, having never been so comfortable with a rolling pin prefer the crank method). I mixed the flour and eggs with a pinch of salt and a dash of water (Anna and I again disagree on the best way to make egg pasta but that's ok...) kneaded till I had a gorgeous small and smooth ball of dough and set it aside to rest. While it rested I made a bechamel and set that aside to thicken.

When it came time to roll out the dough I realized the importance of having a clean kitchen with empty counter tops (which - also having been in the process of experimenting with a couple of Momofuku Milk Bar cookie recipes was most definitely not the case in my kitchen). I managed to finagle open space, lying cleaning kitchen towels anywhere they would fit and began rolling, folding, cutting, rolling again until I had long golden sheets thin enough to see through. I cooked the noodles in a giant pot of salted water and pulled them out after a minute or two, setting them flat on the towels to dry a bit before beginning to layer them in a baking dish with the bolognese, bechamel, grated pecorino and torn fresh basil leaves (Anna doesn't include that but I love the spark of fresh flavor that the bite of basil gives you). I deliberately rolled my pasta longer than the pan so that I wold be able to fold over the tops and get that delightful crispy top that is always my favorite part! One last spread of bechamel, dot with butter, more pecorino cheese and more basil.

I had a friend coming over for dinner that night (no - this wasn't only for me!) so I put it in the oven about 1/2 hour before her arrival and prepared some garlic bread to go with it. The salad I bought stayed in the fridge (leaving more room in our bellies for wine and lasagna consumption). I served each of us a small portion, topped with a little extra bolognese. The verdict? Totally, absolutely worth it. It's certainly not my Mom's lasagna but it definitely has its place in the world! The homemade pasta was light, the bolognese rich and the bechamel delightfully creamy. Over the course of the hour or so that we spent at the table, I noticed that each of us kept going back for just a little bit more thin slice, one more spoon...until nearly half the pan had been consumed. It was so light and yet so comforting and definitely worth the two day process.

If Boyardee family produced THAT in a can I'd have converted long ago. But for now, I'd say we've come to a comfortable truce. I'll stop wrinkling my nose every time someone mentions the Chef keeping their family recipes in mind and realizing that not everyone has my Mother in their family kitchen.  Please feel free to leave your opinions on the Boyardee saga in the comments section below!

Next up: Look out for a detailed account of the Momofuku cookie experiment later this week!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year's Resolving...

This may come as no surprise to you but my family, and all of our traditions are firmly rooted in food.

Food is how we say I love you; I miss you; I'm sorry; you're special; feel better; and congratulations.  It's also how we express our hurt, anger and frustrations.  My mother has taught me that a well placed pickle can show someone just how displeased you are with them.  I've discovered that there's no better solution to a potentially lonely night at home than an invitation for a halibut fillet poached in tomato broth, a hearty bowl of bolognese or a pot of steaming and soothing chicken soup.

Ah - that chicken soup.  I think the most important food lesson I've learned from my mother is that a bowl of homemade chicken soup is the cure for any ailment you may have including (but not limited to) any of the following:  head colds, chest colds, headaches, chills, dizziness, pneumonia, bronchitis, toothache, broken limbs, broken heart, concussions, costochondritis, scoliosis, cancer, stroke, broken ribs, ulcers, diverticulitis, and, if you leave out the noodles, celiac disease.  It's my goal to share more of these tips, tricks and family stories with you over the coming year.

As we begin 2012, my resolutions for the part of my life that focuses on food are similar to the rest of my resolutions.  To be more open to possibility and opportunity; to try new things and not be afraid of them; to throw away the recipe and trust my instincts; to use well prepared gourmet meals to cultivate an army of minions to further my plot for world domination...oh wait...Where was I? Oh yes, to borrow one of my favorite quotes from Wolfgang Puck, my motto for 2012 is to "Laugh, Love and Eat!" 

I wish all of you a joyous, successful and delicious New Year filled with love from your favorite Meatballs!

Maryanne (and Meatball too!)