22 December 2008

A Single Fragrant Korean Pear

Like most New Yorkers, my apartment building is bare-bones. Thus, I enjoy the luxury of having someone else take care of my dirty laundry (which sounds like a metaphor, but it's not). A friendly Korean family runs my cleaners, and today the manager presented me with the perfect Christmas present: a Korean pear. It weighs about 2 pounds and is a little larger than a softball. Juicy yet unfailingly crisp in texture, its sweetness tastes most like a sweet rice bun sold in Chinatown. It has an entirely different fructose taste than American or European varieties, bringing to mind a light Asian pastry. What a delicacy!

26 November 2008

Panamanian Fiesta

Cooking lessons from Panamanian matriarchs:

1. Only deep fry in vegetable oil. Canola tastes too heavy, and olive oil is too dangerous!
2. Deep fried plantain chips should always be made while still green and need no other seasoning than love.
3. Time is the real secret ingredient, so wherever you can, marinate for days, braise for hours, and allow ingredients to reduce over heat until they have been distilled to their essential goodness.
4. Fried pork is perhaps the naughtiest appetizer invented
5. Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, onion, garlic, salt, and season-all can and should be applied in all meat situations.
6. Flan should be drunker than the cook: steeped in rum for a week
7. Dried-out beef slow cooked in tomatoes and Panamanian spices is a treat from meat heaven.
8. Always save your cooking oil from frying plantains and pork to flavor rice or any other dish.
9. Never underestimate the deliciousness of rice and beans.
10. Beauty is possible well into one's eighth decade with enough good food, alcohol, and company.

Thank you Maria and Tia Venus for your fabulous cooking and hospitality!

25 November 2008

At long last the Frontier!

Angela Williams, a UNM grad, took us to a favorite student hangout called Frontier. This large diner has remained largely untouched for the past several decades (except for a new electronic system that calls out filled orders), and that's the way Albuquerque likes it.

Their breakfast burritos are superb primarily because of the fresh, handmade tortilla. It's filled with a scrambled egg, shredded cheddar cheese, hash browns, and green chili. Meats ranging from carne adovada to bacon can be added, but I had mine classic.

Fresh squeezed orange juice is a cheap citrus fix. Cinnamon rolls are dangerously good when drowned in hot, sweet, and spicy butter.

24 November 2008

Red or Green?

Dispatch from Albuquerque, NM:

Sadies on a Monday night was packed. Frank's parents said we were lucky to get a table so quickly. Since we had been fasting in preparation of a week of New Mexican, Panamanian, and Texan feasting, the complimentary chips served with a surprisingly hot red salsa (every last seed in those peppers was added) were gobbled up, as was an order of guacamole, which was interesting for its very clean flavors. It tasted as though it was made only with avocado, a bit of lime, salt, and tomato - not even any cilantro or jalepeño.

Sadie's salsa is so popular that they sell it across the country. A variety of other New Mexican foods are sold on their website, including chili sauce, enchilada sauce, and sopapilla mix.

For main courses I had enchiladas (as Sadies was once rated to have the best enchiladas in NM), filled with their specialty of carne adovada. The waiter asked if I wanted them flat or rolled, and the perennial NM question of red or green chili? Rolled, both.

It came on a magnificently large platter, the heaps of food allowing no plate to peek through. There are two enchiladas to an order, smothered in cheddar cheese, swimming in its sauces and frijoles (beans). The carne adovada filling the corn tortillas turned out to be slow-cooked chunks of pork in a mild adobo sauce. It melted in my mouth.

The only slight disappointment was the thoroughly plain "Special House" margarita; I should have upgraded to a better tequila, and they should have used fresh lime juice.

More updates to follow: now we're heading out for Breakfast Burritos...

22 November 2008

Turkish Feast

I promised a Turkish friend to write a column devoted to the cuisine of his country after we both bemoaned its relative obscurity in New York. Turkish food is too good to remain unknown! If you are lucky enough to have a specialty shop nearby like I do (92nd and 1st Avenue for any of you who live on the UES), then you can buy actual Turkish bread with sesame seeds baked in, Turkish feta (which is creamier and less salty than most other styles), and the Turkish yufka pastry (which is a bit drier and thicker than typical Greek-style phyllo pastry). However, pita bread, Greek-style phyllo, and any kind of feta will work in a pinch, so there can be no excuses for not trying this heart-warming meal.

The cigar bureks are best when eaten right away, and the meatballs are well served with both the tomato and yoghurt sauce inside a sandwich of Turkish bread, garnished with chopped, long green Italian peppers (which are close to a popular kind of Turkish pepper), with lemon wedges squeezed over everything.


Cigar Bureks (Sigara böreği)
- 1 package of yufka pastry (or phyllo pastry), defrosted and stored in the fridge
- 1 ½ cups feta cheese (Turkish feta if you can find it)
- 1 bunch parsley, chopped finely
- 1 egg
- ½ tsp. ground black pepper
- enough vegetable oil for shallow frying in a heavy pan
- Lemon wedges for serving

• Mix the feta, parsley, egg, and black pepper in a bowl
• Using defrosted pastry, carefully peel off only one sheet per burek. Have a cup of water handy for later when you roll it.
• If you’re using yufka, the sheets are cut in rounded triangles, while phyllo comes in retangles. The goal is the same: fold them up so that no filling can escape, in the shape of cigars (like egg rolls, but thinner):
• Spread about 2 Tb. of the filling into a parallel line 2 inches from the bottom of the round edge on the yufka, or the shorter edge of the phyllo
• First fold the left and right edges over to hold in the filling on the sides
• Fold the bottom edge around the filling tightly, rolling it over and over to the end of the sheet.
• Seal the end of the roll with a bit of water on your finger
• Repeat until you run out of filling.
• Heat vegetable oil in a big, heavy pan so that it is less than an inch deep. (about 350˚F if you have a cooking thermometer). Be careful when doing this! Use tongs.
• Fry each burek until golden-brown on the outside, without crowding the pan
• When done, transfer the bureks to a plate covered in paper towels to blot the excess oil
• Eat while still warm, with lots of lemon juice squeezed on top.

Tomato Meatballs (Izmir kôftesi)
For the Meatballs:

- 1 lb. lean ground beef
- 1 onion, grated
- 1 handful of breadcrumbs
- 2 eggs
- 1 bunch parsley, chopped finely
- 1 tsp. paprika
- 1 tsp. red chili flakes
- generous salt and pepper, to taste

• Preheat oven to 350˚F
• Combine all ingredients in a bowl, mixing well.
• Form large balls, and place on a lightly oiled baking sheet
• Bake in the oven for 40 minutes, turning the meatballs at the 20 minute mark.

For the Tomato Sauce:

- 28 oz. can of tomatoes
- 1 tsp. red chili flakes
- Salt and pepper to taste

• Mix all ingredients in a medium pot, crushing the tomatoes if they are whole
• Simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes, so that it is ready in time if you make it right after the meatballs.

Garlic Yogurt Sauce
- ½ pint plain thick yogurt
- ½ lemon’s juice
- 5 garlic cloves, crushed and minced into a fine pulp

• Mix all ingredients together either directly in the yogurt carton or a pretty bowl. That’s it!

14 November 2008

Exclusive Interview with Rachael Ray!


Wednesday, 12 November 2008
222 E. 44th St., around 2pm.

*this is a rough approximation of a transcript since audience members are not allowed recording devices*

CB: Hi Rachael, my name's Christie.
RR: Hi Christie, welcome to the show!
CB: Thanks! My question to you is, what's your favorite cocktail?
RR: (smiles) I'm not picky! (pauses to consider it a little longer) My friend Nick makes a gorgeous cocktail called Sage Advice. I love them. I have no idea what's in them, although it definitely uses the herb sage; but he has his own cocktail recipe book, and it's probably in there. Nick Mautone. His book is called Raising the Bar. Of course, when I go out, I usually just order a vodka soda - it gets the job done! (broadest smile yet)

Rachael Ray then recounted some stories from her days as a bartender (many years ago), when she bartended on a boat on Lake George. I simply can't do them justice: from winging Slippery nipples and Long Island Ice Teas for the drunks who don't know any better, to licking the ice cubes of mean Canadian tourists who skimp on tip... RR in person is not relegated to the same PG rating as is her host persona on the daytime show; after all, she's now been in FHM twice (according to the Boyfriend who regrets not having bought those issues).

13 November 2008

Eating Middle America


It started out so well.

We arrived at the Sunrise Inn at about 9pm on Halloween (the Friday before elections), ravenous after an interminable road trip from Manhattan, NY to Warren, OH. Marcus (in the blue stripes) and Frank (in the green) had especially craved this food, the down-home taste of campaigns past. Just look at those pictures! Marcus with Sunrise's specialty, Garlic Chicken, and Frank contemplating a sausage hoagie twice the size of his head. Erin and I remain unphoto-ed at this point because we were too busy stuffing ourselves silly with crab cakes and cheeseburgers, respectively. Sunrise Inn epitomizes everything a simple American restaurant should aspire to be: diner-style with booths in the back, every dish cooked to order, several beers on tap. Their menu is gigantic, drawing on cuisines as diverse as Greek and Chinese, showing absolutely no shame in bastardizing culinary traditions in order to smother everything with a bit more cheese, a bit more sauce, making it all that much more comforting. For lunch the next day, we ordered their deep dish pizza, which was twice the depth of a quiche, and filled with as much meats (sausage, pepperoni, and meatball) as with tomato and cheese! I am only a little ashamed to say how much I liked it. It is food that gets the job done: filling and warming you. It is outgoing, friendly, and generous, just like Americans.

Then the problems began.

Restaurants outside of NYC close before 10 on weeknights! Election night, after much breathless watching of the results rolling in, we (spoiled New Yorkers that we are) were stunned to discover that no amount of money could rouse our beloved Sunrisers to bring us take away. With no food left in the house, our only option was Pizza Hut. It was so bad that I didn't even bother to photograph the depressing mounds of food we ordered. The crust on the pizza tasted of fake butter, the macaroni and cheese of something more plastic than Velveeta. Cheese sticks turned out to be the same awful pizza dough with a meagre sprinkle of fake Parmesan. Chicken wings were suspicious, and its dipping sauce tasted like a sewer of chemicals. Do places like this keep in business only because they capitalize on stranded late night eaters?

On our ride back from Ohio, the most palatable option was McDonald's - a pretty swank one actually with free wi-fi and cappuccinos. Yet the sadness imbued by the fried silly putty molds of food they served was best expressed by Erin's downcast gaze as she contemplated her french fries. (Never mind Marcus' gusto - he'll eat anything when hungry - both a chicken sandwich and Big Mac in this case). It's been at least a year since my last meal at the Golden Arches, and my bite into a Big Mac surprised me: the flavor formula remains just as addictive as I remembered. McDonald's is an incredibly successful business, having fed billions of meals to Americans over the years. It does it by being incredibly convenient, cheap, and ruthless in its addition of addictive fats, salts, and sugars in every item sold.

Having spent my childhood abroad, I remember the McDonald's in Rome my parents would take us to after church if we had behaved. It was at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, and the interior looked like a grotto with waterfalls trickling down glittering black marble walls. The succulent chicken sandwiches came as full breasts, slathered in beautifully flavored mayonnaise. Big Macs came in substantial sesame buns, and the meat was not so mysterious. My point is that higher quality food is possible even for the mass market - and that the Italian model is a great model when considering a new food policy for America. In Italian public schools, sub-par ingredients are banned. If children will be fed Parmesan, it must be the real deal: Parmigiano Reggiano; fewer fresh ingredients are bought more frequently; and quality pasta is used instead of limp macaroni. This means with a little loving preparation, every cafeteria can be proud of its food. I still remember the food from my elementary school in Rome as something I looked forward to, and how we were taken on a field trip in second grade to see how buffalo mozzarella is made.

It does take more money to cook better food, but a shift in attitudes is even more important. It's as simple as remembering that quality ingredients make good meals. Americans spend the smallest portion of their budgets on food of any other country, which shows how little we value our food. But good food has the power to raise our quality of life enormously! How can we expect to be nourished bodily, socially, and spiritually, when the major restaurant brands that rule the way our country eats put in minimal effort as to the food, but spends millions on elaborate advertising campaigns? It seems that much like tobacco companies, giant American food producers care more for finding the most addictive formula than for the consumer's welfare. The point of a business to to make money, after all. However, with the interest shown in more recent years for organic foods and celebrity chefs, I wonder if American tastes are turning for the better, and if the power of a new, educated consumer will win a higher standard of food in all venues?

12 November 2008

Cooking on the Campaign


I was granted the honor of designated Comfort Captain for the Get Out the Vote (GOTV) operation in Warren, Ohio. Although it may sound a little dirty, it actually entailed the dual responsibilities of baking and cooking dinners for our team campaigning to turn Ohio blue - what a dream job! One Katie Lyle (the extraordinary volunteer lead organizer of GOTV in Warren) had the premonition for putting me on that task even before she met me or knew my culinary proclivities; those kind of instincts make her a natural leader.

For excellent campaign coverage including details of our victory in Warren and across Ohio, turn to Marcus Roberts' blog, Vom Politik. Though as Scot, Marcus has packed up his bags and campaigned in Warren for the '00, '04, and now the '08 presidential elections; he knows the terrain like few other people. This was my first time accompanying him, and I was primarily struck by the huge disparity of wealth evident even in this factory town. From trailor parks to McMansions (many of them which were under foreclosure), we spent five long and grueling days knocking on doors and getting people to the polls. The long haitus in my blogging since October can be explained by the extreme physical exhaustion that follows such work, a numbing crash resulting from running on adrenaline for so many consecutive days.

I have ministered Marcus back to health after many similar endeavors (such as after the DNC convention), and so had many ideas to implement straight away in my Comfort Captain role, including a policy of primarily home-cooked meals incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables wherever possible without sacrificing the comfort factor. A sample of the menus:

Dinners:

1) Meatball and roast vegetable hoagies, toasted in the oven with melted mozarella.
2) Pasta Alio lio: my mother's recipe of spaghetti in a garlic and olive oil sauce, heated up with red chili flakes, and brightened with lots of chopped fresh parsley on top - no anchovies for this crowd.
3) Meat and bechemel, roast vegetable, and tomato and mozarella lasagnas, homemade down to the tomato sauce (since I'm picky about that sort of thing).

Snacks:

1) The required morale-boosters of brownies and chocolate cookies (both of which, I must admit, tasted better from a mix than from a recipe of my own devices. I especially recommend Ghiradelli for the brownies!)
2) Banana bread & muffins - the sleeper hit despite my limited baking skills!
3) Crisp apples (an item that I enjoyed even though they were snubbed by most in favor of snacks 1 & 2...)
4) Bagels with cream cheese and peanut butter
5) Lots of granola bars

We supplemented this with a dinner out at the Sunrise Inn (which was great) and some take out from Pizza Hut and McDonalds (not so great): experiences of readily-available American food which spoke volumes as to the advantages and disadvantages, trial and error of trying to eat well in this country. It also led to a revelation mid-way through Pennsylvania on our drive back to New York that there should be a Federal Restaurant Czar to set standards for acceptable ingredients and recipes in the chain restaurants that dot our country alongside the highways. No wonder America is obese when all the food readily available enough to fit into our busy lives leaves a sickly sweet aftertaste of overprocessing. It's a plastic coating that covers your tongue, leaving dead taste buds in its wake that confuse sugar withdrawals for hunger pains.

Not to end on a negative note, however, I need to give my many thanks to the gracious and interesting people we met and imposed ourselves upon during our stay in Ohio: especially to Katie and her new husband, Adam, who were saints when it came to having so many people invade their home (and kitchen)! You both are fabulous - congratulations on electing Obama as our 44th president!

30 October 2008

Autumn in Provence with Bruno Ungaro


With the encroachment of cold weather upon us, I have become fascinated by slow cooking meat into tender, savory stews. In this post I shall treat my wonderful, loyal readers to the best meal of my Provençal cooking course with renowned Chef de Cuisine Bruno Ungaro. Ungaro has been featured on Rachel Ray's TV show's feature on Provence, and he hosts a weekly cooking show by radio in addition to running his famous and magnificent restaurant in downtown Aix-en-Provence, L'Amphytrion. Most importantly, as my Manhattan kitchen has many shortcomings when it comes to space, no special equipment is necessary in the preparation of this feast. The only requirement is to consider dinner a few hours earlier than normal, and the results are well worth the effort!

The meal is presented in the order in which you will need to cook it. It took our class a little under 3 hours (with wine-tasting breaks) to put it all together, but the timing is so well planned that as soon as the appetizer is ready, you can simply eat and forget about rushing back to fidget in the kitchen. This meal is about leisure: a Provençal way of life.

Provençal Lamb Stew
(with apologies to Matthew Knouse for being so slow about it)

Instructions as to the meat:
- go to a reputable butcher
- look for a fatty, cheap cut of meat, cut off the bone for this preparation
- 1/2 pound per person should suffice

Unfortunately, I forget what cut of lamb Bruno used, but something from the leg or the shoulder should do well.

For 2-3 pounds of meat:
  • Trim off most of the excess, hard layer of fat on the meat (if any)
  • Cube into large, bite-size chunks
  • Chop 3 carrots, 1 large onion, and one head of garlic, not too finely.
  • Add the vegetables first to a large pot, cooking it over medium heat with olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste, until the onions have gone transluscent and the carrots have begun to soften
  • Add the pieces of lamb to the pot, turning the heat up to high, so that the pieces sear on all sides
  • Turn the heat right back down to low, and add an entire bottle of red wine (something from the Côtes du Rhône or Provence obviously compliment this recipe the best). Stir in a heaping tablespoon of black tapenade, and if necessary, add water so that the meat is completely covered with liquid.
  • Cover the pot with a lid, turn the heat down to as low as it goes, and cook it "slowly and gently" (Bruno says, "lentement et doucement") for 2-3 hours.
By the time it's ready the kitchen will be filled with the intoxicating smell of wine-braised meat. Eat with a warm baguette to sop up all the juices.

To turn this into a 3-course meal, like we did during Bruno's class, as soon as the stew has been set to simmer, prepare the dessert, which will need to be chilled for at least an hour:

For dessert we had the most fabulous Mousse au Chocolat:
  • In a heat-proof mixing bowl over a pot of boiling water, melt 250 grams of a dark chocolate bar.
  • Incorporate 100g. of unsalted butter with a spatula
  • Taking the mixture off the stove, and mix in 3 egg yolks.
  • In a separate bowl, beat 6 egg whites with 50g. of icing sugar until the egg whites stiffen (it's much easier if you do this with a hand mixer)
  • Delicately, incorporate the egg white mixture into the melted chocolate
  • "Perfume" the mixture - that is, add a few drops - of Grand Marnier liqueur
  • Fill small mugs or tea cups with the mixture, and let it chill for at least an hour in the fridge.
With the meat now simmering away to tender bliss, and the chocolate mousse chilling into a frozen dream cloud, now focus on the appetizer, which will be ready to eat enjoy just as the smells of the Lamb Provençal start to drive you mad with desire:

Chèvre Tartine
  • In a small bowl, combine 2 minced cloves of garlic, 1 log of chèvre (goat's cheese), and a small pot of crème fraiche
  • Cut a loaf of rustic peasant bread into large slices, and smother each one generously with the chèvre mixture
  • Decorate each slice with a whole sprig of rosemary (which looks festively like a Christmas tree on a white, snow-like background)
  • Place the slices of bread into a pre-heated oven at 375˚F for about 15 minutes, or until the chevre starts to bubble and turn golden brown.
  • Serve the tartine with a salad of thinly sliced endive and a homemade vinegrette of balsamic vinegar (whisk together 3 Tb. balsamic vinegar, 1/4 C. olive oil, salt and pepper to taste)
Now you start eating! With careful planning, this meal can now look after itself. Once you've finished your appetizer, the main should be ready to go, and the mousse should be perfectly chilled after a leisurely feast topped off a red wine from the Côtes du Rhône.

19 October 2008

Dirty Martinis: A Review of Dirty Sue

You are looking at a professional dirty martini drinker. I was intrigued when Eric Tecosky, cofounder of Dirty Sue, offered to send me a bottle of his premium blend olive brine, promising to change my mixology method forever. His website features testimonials of celebrities praising this product for filling a void in the bartending market. While I do not think Dirty Sue replaces olive brine altogether, it is an interesting and valuable addition to any bartender’s liquor cabinet.

A dirty martini tasting party was promptly organized with a panel of like-minded friends in order to gain the broadest spectrum of tastes and opinions. I gamely tried both gin and vodka varieties, using Plymouth Gin and Stolichnaya Vodka. Plymouth is said to be the style of gin called for in the original recipe for a martini; it uses fewer botanical flavors than its cousin, London Dry Gin. Real olive brine from pitted green olives purchased at a gourmet pickle and olive store at 86th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan stood as the challenger to Dirty Sue. Some drops of Martini-brand dry vermouth were swirled around in each glass to give our martinis’ dirtiness the veneer of the classic’s respectability. Once the formalities were dispensed with, the real order of business for the evening began:

GIN & OLIVE BRINE

Tasted soapy, as the salty astringency of brine drowned out the subtle flavors of gin. No requests for a second round.

GIN & DIRTY SUE

For a true gin martini-lover, this is a way to make things dirty. The botanicals in the gin came through, with Dirty Sue adding a light complementary flavor of salt and olive. Truly an aficionado’s drink.

VODKA & OLIVE BRINE

The typical recipe for a dirty martini, it is a drink with heft that quenches an appetite, although drinking it on an empty stomach is not recommended. A silver bullet for salt cravings.

VODKA & DIRTY SUE

Very clean and subtle. It lacks the meatiness of regular olive brine, but the olive flavor does emerge triumphant. As Dirty Sue is twice distilled, the martini appears crystalline, without the characteristic cloudiness of a dirty martini.

IN CONCLUSION

Dirty Sue has the potential to make a very sophisticated drink, squeezing into niches where olive brine otherwise would be too brutal on the palate. It will not replace olive brine in my usual Stoli dirty martini because it lacks the satisfaction of brawn and meat; I order a dirty martini when I crave a liquid meal, a hunger that Dirty Sue does not quite gratify. Notably however, with Dirty Sue gin-lovers can enjoy their martinis dirty too – and I can’t wait to add it to a Bloody Mary. When choosing between olive brine and Dirty Sue, the difference lies in the desired type of drink: whether full-bodied or refined, both have their place and time. I will look for Dirty Sue in specialty, higher-end bars, where I hope that its flexibility to add saltiness to unexpected drinks will be explored and enjoyed.

13 October 2008

Per Se Countdown



Marcus surprised me today with a reservation to Per Se! We will be celebrating both my own birthday and his, as we're only 4 days apart. We have been once before, in July 2007, and it was without question the best meal of our lives. I am especially excited to try one of their winter menus, with its promise of lots of red meat and hearty flavors.

06 October 2008

Inspiration for Autumnal Aphrodisiacs


Apples are back in season!

I'm looking forward to:

Apple cider
Baked apples
Apple pie
Apple cocktails
Apple rakija
Latkes with applesauce

The Honeycrisp variety are my favorite this year as they are tart yet sweet, and always as crisp as biting into a frozen popsicle.

Yellow Grape Tomatoes



This time in Provence last year...

Autumnal Aphrodisiacs

There’s nothing quite as welcoming as a well-conceived cocktail after a long day. As the weather turns crisp, the warming effect of alcohol becomes especially comforting. Invite friends and take an evening to unwind with a reinvented happy hour.

Apple Crisp
Serves 4


- 1 tart, crisp apple, like Granny Smith

- Gin (Tanqueray has subdued floral and fruity notes that fit this drink perfectly)

- 1 small bottle of St. Germain liqueur (relatively new on market - flavors of apple, citrus, and even lychee!)

- 1 pint apple cider

- 4 large tumblers or “rocks” glasses


• Wash and cut the apple into 8 wedges

• Place two wedges of apple in a glass, fill rest of the way with ice cubes

• Fill the glass a quarter to a third full of gin, depending on desired strength

• Add 2 splashes of St. Germain, about 2 teaspoons

• Fill with apple cider, and mix with the end of a teaspoon or chopstick


After consuming the drink, the slices of apple at the bottom of the glass become frozen, intoxicating snacks. Serve with a cheese platter (Roquefort, sharp cheddar, brie), more slices of apple, and French baguette warmed in the oven.

As guests linger after savoring their drinks, consider making supper together by repeating many of the flavors from the cocktail. This recipe is for the world’s most tender pork chops, finished with a homemade applesauce. Serve alongside wild and long-grained rice simmered in chicken broth instead of plain water for a complete meal.

Pork Chops with Pan Apple Sauce
(with thanks to Tyler Florence, but my tweaks make it even better!)
Serves 4

Pork Chops:
- 4 extra-thick, bone-in pork chops (about 1 pound each)
- 1 bunch of thyme
- 1 can of apple concentrate, thawed
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 2 tsp. whole black peppercorns
- 1 cup Kosher salt
- 2 Tb. olive oil

Spiced Apple Sauce:
- 3 tart, crisp apples, like Granny Smith
- ¼ cup red currants
- 2 tsp. brown sugar
- ½ tsp. whole cloves
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1 lemon
- 2 Tb. butter

To make the pork:
• Preheat oven to 350˚F
• For unbelievably tender and flavorful meat, make a brine by filling a large mixing bowl with a gallon of water, ½ cup brown sugar, black peppercorns, 4 sprigs of thyme, apple concentrate, and 1 cup of Kosher salt. Add the pork chops, cover with plastic wrap, and let it sit in the fridge for anywhere from 30 minutes up to 2 hours
• When ready, take the pork out of the brine and pat dry with paper towels
• In a large frying pan with a drizzle of olive oil over medium-high heat, brown the chops on each side for 4 minutes
• Lay the pork in a baking pan, and cover each with a sprig of thyme from the brine
• Bake in the oven for 30 minutes
• Let the meat sit for 10 minutes
• Serve 1 pork chop smothered in applesauce per person, with rice on the side as a perfect accompaniment

To Make the Sauce:
• Start the sauce 5 minutes before the meat comes out of the oven
• Core, deseed, and cut the apples into 8 wedges
• Using the same pan as for the meat, melt butter over medium heat. Add the apple, currants, cloves, mustard, cinnamon, 2 tsp. of brown sugar, and juice of one lemon to make the accompanying applesauce
• Simmer for 10 minutes, until the apples begin to break down. Before serving the sauce, discard the whole cloves


02 October 2008

In Honor of Janet Adam Smith

Janet Adam Smith: mountaineer, comic versifier, literary critic, and Marcus' granny. Also, a legendary hostess who understood the value of the civilizing institution of cocktail hour. Tonight I raise my glass to her memory as I enjoy her favorite: Canada Dry Ginger Ale and whiskey, ice cold. Without the benefit of her wit to give the drink a name, I have dubbed it Ginger Whiskey. It is delicious; heathens may like to add a lime to it, but I think it superfluous.





=======>>>



To Janet: may your influence on our drinking as well as our reading (she discovered T.S. Eliot) continue forever more.

01 October 2008

The Perfect Bar


Simone Martini Bar has it all. Its merits are multifaceted, as witnessed by my visual aids: to the left, the outdoor kafana (multipurpose café, a watering hole for talking politics and gossip). To the right, the trendy NYC bar scene that brings out the fabulous glittering side in everyone (this one's for you, Cinnamon Jones!).

1) They consistently have best dirty martinis in Manhattan. Only word of caution: as in any bar, placing a martini order with a waiter rather than a bartender is always a risky business. For best results, go up and make a friend behind the bar.

2) They label themselves as a "martini and espresso bar", which means that the bar is good at any time of day, whether you want coffee, a drink, a meal, or all three!

3) A manageable noise level and unobtrusive music means that you will always be able to have a conversation as you sip that martini.

Atmosphere, better booze, camaraderie: the ABCs of the perfect bar.

28 September 2008

Overheard at the Farmers' Market


"I can't wait for the first frost to hit and kill all the damn tomatoes"

Fall has officially arrived, and I noticed definite fatigue from my friendly farmers at the Sunday market at 91st and 1st Avenue. The quote above came from a woman at the first stall, gripping a a perfectly plump, red specimen dangerously hard. Eighty hours of tomato picking a week can do that to even the best of us.

26 September 2008

Babbo, like you've never read it before

Last night Marcus and I celebrated our anniversary at Mario Batali's famed restaurant, Babbo. In case you didn't know, Batali is the darling of the restaurant world, and particularly in New York, his food is considered to be extraordinary - both crowd pleasing and culinarily innovative. Most critics and fans consider Babbo to be his flagship, the ultimate incarnation of the Batali brand.

Here is the bottom line: Babbo does not live up to its hype. I expected to discover another level to ethereal Italian cooking, and was let down to discover the food was hit-or-miss.

I am getting ahead of myself, however, as Babbo did get some points very right. The atmosphere was polished without being formal, and the service very well trained (although the discipline instilled in the staff was perhaps a little too stiff). Our waiter was friendly and helpful in navigating the menu, even if he pushed the wine on us a bit too fast. The wine list was comprehensive in both price points and varieties; I was particularly impressed by their two whole pages of Super Tuscans. We were both very pleased with our starters: the salumi platter with dense soppressata and aromatic lamb prociutto (although it tasted strong enough to have come from a mutton), and divine carciofi alla romana where the artichoke hearts were actually outshone by the spicy and garlicy outer leaves.

On the other hand, our main courses did not live up to the legend. My "chianti stained pappardelle with wild boar ragu" was disappointing: the shaved pecorino cheese on top, not the sauce, provided its punch of flavor. It was a recipe without finesse: the soffritto was too coarsely chopped and under seasoned so that the flavors (the holy trinity: carrot, onion, celery) did not melt together and intensify. The wild boar was not succulent enough to fall apart meltingly into the sauce, as it should. The tomato did not coat each strand of pappardelle sufficiently, so that as soon as it began to grow cold, the noodles molded together in an unpleasant block. Although the sauce of Marcus' linguini with cockles, salami, and chili was much tastier, I again found the the preparation sloppy: one of my cockles was full of grit. And why would they import them from New Zealand right when shellfish season is beginning for North America?

Worst of all, I awoke in the night with a mild case of food poisoning lasting all day; I believe the long-traveled cockles to be at fault. An update will follow as to whether and how the general manager returns my phone call... I wouldn't mind a token for dinner at another of Batali's restaurant, Casa Mono. With the facts of this little Catalan tapas joint surpassing his Italian flagship, and his recent and well-publicized tour around Spain with Gwenyth Paltrow I wonder if Batali's allegience has changed from Italiano to Español.

14 September 2008

Pleasure Shared is Pleasure Multiplied

I've received a surprising amount of flak in recent months for keeping a blog. At first I found it simply surprising that others would care that much, but then grew perturbed by the closed mindset of these critics. Having grown up in Poland at various points during the 1980s and 1990s, my mother describes the political environment as epitomized by how even the cookbooks lied. Blogs tend to keep people truthful, and allow for the circulation of new ideas that would probably not get space or time in traditional media.

Particularly on such a creative subject as food and drink, nothing is more worthwhile than gathering information across as many sources as possible to keep inspiration flowing as fluidly as a zesty Zinfandel at a cocktail party.

This weekend, for example, I had a ball of a time bartending at a private party in Park Slope. The couple were celebrating their combined 100th birthday, and dozens of close friends had congregated in their gorgeous Brooklyn brownstone to celebrate. These people lived luxuriously and took their hors d'oeuvres and alcohols seriously. A friend of an editor at Food & Wine magazine described a gorgeous vodka and latke party: he hollowed out red new potatoes to serve as shot glasses for the Belvedere. The vodka soaked through, which made the vessels pleasant to munch on afterwards.

Our host proved a conoisseur of single malt Scotch. He broke out some excellent bottles from his collection at the party, my favorite of which was an 18-year-old Bowman. It tasted very smooth and full of peat; like a hand rolled cigarette with excellent tobacco. Back in Eastern Europe, where cigarette fumes are like incense as opposed to bigger air pollution problems, I grew to be very fond of tobacco. I found a peaty single malt gave me the flavor of cigarettes I like, without the congested lungs associated with the latter. Nice. Behind that was an 18-year-old Caol Ila. It was also nicely peaty, but it had the astringency of vodka. Not nearly as smooth. This wonderful man paid me to tend his bar, then sat down and chatted for over the course of an hour about the east versus west coast of Scotland, accompanied by this tasting.

08 September 2008

Food for Thought

"And it became clear to me that things which are subject to corruption are good" (Augustine's Confessions, Book VII, Chapter 12)

Put another way, if things are capable of going bad, they must have been good at some point before. Truly this is the same with food.

Right now in my fridge lurks a container of Duncan Hines Creamy Home-Style Dark Chocolate Fudge icing that I'm sure will long outlive me if I just gave it a chance. This is an example of very bad food, as its ingredient list long with various preservatives testifies. It certainly has already outlasted 3 trips to the farmer's markets and all the produce purchased, all the while lurking in the back of the fridge and intimidating a fresh bunch of radishes into shriveling. I worry slightly whenever I get a craving for this chocolate bad boy in a tub, and I am on the lookout for an easy recipe for chocolate icing to whip up in its place - a recipe preferably that includes a whole lot of perishable food items...

06 September 2008

A Tale of Two Dinners

Manna from Heaven or colossal bomb: two restaurant reviews in and around New York City. Both restaurants had been rated 4 out of 4 stars by the New York Times and topped the Zagat charts, yet only one lived up to its billing. It made me wish restaurant reviewers were more anonymous in this town...

Per Se: Subjective Memories of an Objectively Perfect Supper

After a year of stashing away our change inside an old Glenmorangie scotch box, my boyfriend Marcus and I took our savings to the most expensive restaurant in town, Per Se. Zagat’s concise review, “you’re worth it”, definitely piqued our interest. Their tasting menus were to be the ultimate indulgence of our enormous and curious appetites, and a peek into the lives of the fabulously wealthy who unlike ourselves, did not need to crack open their piggy bank for their dinner. It was hard not to be intimidated the night of our reservation as we dressed up for the evening. A student and a young professional were about to blow a quite substantial sum of money for one night’s experience, and we feared disappointment. Could it possibly live up to our hopes of unadulterated gastronomic bliss?

We held hands as we walked through Keller’s famous blue door, into a cavernous entryway. A dark, Zen-like interior immediately cooled us down from a sticky summer’s night: a sophisticated décor appealing to men in expensive suits. Marcus immediately loved it. The hostess and wait staff greeted us as if they had been expecting us for a long time – I suppose not so surprising given the mandatory 2 month advance notice on the booking. Our worries started to melt away once seated at our centrally located yet private table on the lower level, offering a panoramic view of the southwest corner of Central Park. To our right sat three generations of a family celebrating with tasting menus and many, many bottles of expensive wine. The elderly gentleman who paid for the evening seemed to enjoy it the most. On our left a table of four regulars flitted in and around, greeting each other and the staff with air kisses and laughter. They seemed to hardly taste their meal.

Marcus and I, on the other hand, were eating it all up. The evening started with a vintage year Rosé champagne served from an old-fashioned, wide-bottomed bottle, followed by their signature hors d’oeuvre that I feel epitomizes Keller’s dining experience: a miniature savory ice cream cone presented on a custom, solid silver tray that held the cone upright, like you might find at an ice cream parlor. Ethereally fresh smoked salmon minced and formed into a tiny scoop rested on whipped crème fraîche encased in a thin and crispy brioche cone. It’s been almost a year since I’ve tasted it, and I forget now whether it was chives he mixed in with the salmon, but I’ll never forget its cool, crisp, and creamy texture and the way it melted and then evaporated in my mouth. Yes, food in a three star Michelin restaurant is highly conceptualized, but it doesn’t have to stop being fun at the same time. There is no way anyone could eat this dish with a knife and fork. Keller was like an indulgent uncle, allowing us dessert before dinner.

Full disclosure before heading onto the next course: my last piece of seafood had been a fish stick at age seven. However, going into this meal I knew that if I was ever to overcome my phobia of seafood, it would only come from one of the most extraordinary kitchens in the world. Thus, although I opted out of the show stopping “Oysters and Pearls” with Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar, I devoured with relish the kitchen’s milder play on another caviar classic. They served me tender slices of the sturgeon itself, wrapped up in tiny, light blinis, accented by the smallest dollop of crème fraîche. I hardly allowed Marcus a taste I enjoyed it so much. In fact, and to my great surprise, by our unanimous vote of two the best dish of our entire four-hour meal was the “Crispy Skin Fillet of Royal Dorade” served with sungold tomatoes, summer squash, cipollini onion and marble potatoes with banyuls vinaigrette. I still dream of it. The flesh flaked off into substantial chunks that simply dissolved after a couple chews. The skin had not an excess drop of grease, with the texture of a very thin potato crisp possessing an innate sea salt flavor. It’s an accomplishment that I even remember the vegetable side, which I attribute to the intensity of its pan-roasted flavor.

We both had the “Peach Melba” Foie Gras, which served with peach jelly, glorified Rice Krispies and Melba toast, transported me back to childhood breakfasts of charred bread slathered with butter and jam. A succulent piece of lobster tail meat poached in butter followed. It was the first time I had ever enjoyed this crustacean, and the counterpoint of barely steamed baby peas and carrots served as the perfect counterpoint to highlight the meat’s inherent sweetness. The next plate of duck breast with slow baked beets, red current, jelly, and bulls blood greens in juniper wood aged balsamic vinegar sunk deep into our bones after this lighter fare. It was a pleasure to have a meat I could chew on as I sank even deeper into my hedonistic trance. Marcus and I went our separate ways on the next course, as I had roast lamb with corn, fava beans, polenta, and a fig and truffle sauce, and he couldn’t resist upgrading to a pan roasted sirloin of Blackmore Ranch’s Wagyu beef. We each insisted that our respective dishes won that round.

The five courses of dessert might have just passed me by, save by the sheer stunning skill of their pastry team. They left us with a goody bag of the most decadent, fudgy brownies of my life, which Marcus and I rationed well enough to last for a whole week of dark chocolate paradise. The evening, the meal, was a stunning leap above even what we had fantasized about the past year, to which my limited word allotment cannot do justice – never to be surpassed, except, perhaps until we go back again.


A Meal from Hell: Sinking my teeth into Xavier’s at Piermont

“This will be the perfect romantic weekend!” Marcus was so hopeful. We both desperately needed a break – him from his job, and I from the confines of the city. He pored through guidebooks, train, and bus schedules, using all of his networks and resources to surprise me with the perfect plan. Eventually he settled on Peter Kelly’s restaurant, Xavier’s at Piermont. We had watched Peter Kelly win on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” reality television competition, and the Zagat review couldn’t have been more complimentary, with a food score higher than Per Se! An extremely rare score of 29 out of 30 for food! Not only was this a sure bet for a candle-lit dinner, but he also had found a cute B&B within walking distance so that we could turn it into an overnight trip. He could hardly believe how both clever and thoughtful he was.

When he had made our reservation for Friday evening, he had already requested the nine-course tasting menu with an accompanying wine pairing. We found it strange, then, when we sat down at our table in the tiny dining room, that the waiter and sommelier audibly whispered, debating whether to check our IDs. We should have known better at that point than to leave ourselves in these tactless and incompetent hands, but we were young (an over-21-type young I might add), and naively assumed the wait staff at such a fancy and expensive restaurant would have our best interests at heart.

Turns out they should have checked our liver function instead of our IDs as they increased the pour count on our wine and cognac with each grimace we made at the food. We were incredibly drunk by the end of the meal as glass after glass was pushed on us. Service could not have been more bored and indifferent. Our waiter could not be bothered to pay me any attention. He turned and walked away from our table in the middle a question I was asking him – twice! He showed up only to rush us into each successive course and glass of wine, urging us to gulp down the last dregs of the previous glass so that he could get on with the next. We were slurring our observations on a remarkably disappointing meal when we stumbled our way to the hotel that night. However, as is often the case with suffering through a traumatic event, we learned some valuable, practical lessons on fine dining:

1. When ordering a tasting menu, always specify your tastes and dislikes ahead of time and send back any dishes that do not cut muster.

Both Marcus and I prefer robust, savory flavors that pair well with red wine. After the meal began with 3 relatively interesting fish courses, we were excited to get to the main, hearty elements of the tasting. Yet the dishes grew progressively more forgettable and tasteless. A piece of steamed cod encrusted in plain, black poppy seeds was followed by a blanched chicken breast that had hardly even been seasoned with salt and pepper. I bit my lip to stop from laughing out loud when the waiter proudly announced, “This is the finest Murray chicken!” We buy Murray-brand chicken at our local store because they are the cheapest humanely raised birds available. The idea that his chest would swell with pride while serving me an unimaginative dish I could have cooked better at home was ludicrous and epitomized this failed dinner. At least that taste of my lipgloss temporarily woke up my bored taste buds.

I had previously assumed that I would always follow the kitchen’s lead with a tasting menu, using the opportunity to expand my palate and try dishes I wouldn’t normally. However, after suffering through 5 fish courses even after mentioning that I wasn’t too fond of fish or seafood, I have decided from now on to take a much more active role in deciding my next tasting menu. Any restaurant worth its grey sea salt will welcome feedback to create an unique menu.

2. Read reviews of restaurants outside of the New York metropolitan area with a skeptical eye.

While I am sure that there are some wonderful destination restaurants outside of New York City, I have yet to meet one. I was shocked at the disparity between the several reviews we had read and the reality of our evening at Xavier’s. I have come to realize that the only way to ensure the quality of a restaurant is the presence of vibrant competition. Xavier's would never have gotten away with such a substandard experience in Manhattan. It would have been more recently reviewed, its substandard quality exposed, and pushed out of the market by much more reliable competitors of the same bracket, such as Jean Georges or Gramercy Tavern.

I also have to consider the possibility that Xavier's does live up to its reviews – but only for special guests, including reviewers who must find it hard to be anonymous and drop by for a surprise repeat visit in such a small, out-of-the-way town. I sincerely hope this is not the case, and that Peter Kelly would never intentionally gamble his reputation while swindling a young couple of both their savings and a valuable Friday night.

3. Choose your dinner partner wisely

Peter Kelly’s magnificently underwhelming dinner would have been unbearable had I not had so much fun rolling my eyes, nudging, and whispering to Marcus about the surprising mistakes we endured at the hands of the wait staff and kitchen. The restaurant seemed frayed at the edges with lack of attention to details: no one folded our napkins when we got up to use the restroom, and we were given the wrong cutlery for a course. Since Marcus enjoys the pampering and attention to detail of a fancy restaurant as much as I do, we could marvel at this evening’s incompetencey together, turning it into an extraordinarily funny-if-it-wasn’t-so-expensive joke. We laughed about each different observation as we supported each other all the way to our bed. Dining and food is ultimately a social act, and although I still feel gypped out of a great meal, at least I didn’t waste my time as well.

[These and future restaurant reviews can be found on http://www.at-largemagazine.com/]

03 September 2008

Simple Vegetarian Pleasures

Day 2 of the Detox Diet.

One might imagine that trying to rebalance the body would require a bland palate of steamed vegetables and fish. Not so in this household.

Dinner was thrown together with the treasures of yesterday's market:

ELOTE ASADO - a stolen recipe from our favorite Mexican down the street. Roast the corn inside its husk in a 375˚ oven for 25-30 minutes. After allowing it to cool for a few minutes, peel back the husk into a convenient eating handle, pull off the silk strings at the tip of the ear in one tug. Season with a chili/paprika mix (a fajita powdered mix works really well), and grate cheese (I used parmesan here) over the still-hot cob to melt. Finish with several squeezes of lime.

TURKISH BREAD, AJVAR, FETA, AND TOMATO AND RED ONION SALAD - the Turkish market around the corner is a real find (92nd and 1st Av). Their bread is great, and I've already rhapsodied over ajvar in an earlier post, so I won't repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that simplicity is bliss, and that all this with a squeeze of lemon is even better.

...Today at Gourmet Garage NY Strip Steak was $11/lb on sale, Berkshire pork chops $5/lb... this diet may be over sooner than it began! More later.

01 September 2008

Post-DNC Eats: Vegetables are in again!


The Democratic National Convention inspired many of us to improve both ourselves and our country. To be better citizens. To make our voices heard. To eat better.

Campaigners and conventioners are notorious for both their long hours and poor diets: chips, donuts, and endless cups of coffee with the odd pizza thrown in. I shouldn't have been surprised then to have Marcus coming home craving nothing but raw vegetables. (You can read about his exploits and enjoy photos from his inside-access vantage point on his excellent blog on politics). I quickly hit the farmer's market and we made his recipe:

FEEL-GOOD COUSCOUS
- 1 each red, yellow, and green bell pepper
- 1/2 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half
- 1 small to medium red onion
- 3 cloves garlic
- 8 oz. feta (this recent batch used Turkish feta, which is less briny and more creamy than the Greek or French styles)
- 2 lemons
- 1 bunch cilantro, washed, and chopped
- 2 cups dry couscous

Removing the stems and seeds, chop the bell peppers into small, bite-size, 1/2 inch pieces. Dice the onion into pieces the same size. Mince the garlic cloves roughly. Boil 2 Liters of water (I highly recommend owning an electric kettle). Just before the water's boiled, toast the couscous lightly in a large skillet, then add the water gradually, letting it cook in the skillet, for about 5 minutes or until the couscous grains have plumped up and are tender to bite.

Put everything into a big wooden serving bowl. Garnish with crumbled feta, cilantro, and lemon wedges.

Namaste

Today, after weeks of Afghan rice and some kind of meat, I had more of the same- only this time it was Indian! 

There is a little place in Kabul that serves some delicious Indian cuisine. For lunch I had Spinach Mutton. The spinach was pureed and had a lovely, subtle aroma of cardamon and cinnamon that gave the lamb a lovely kick. I mixed in some steamed basmati rice and enjoyed! 

I was very excited about the garlic naan I ordered but it was soggy and too chewy. Ew! 

I forgave them for the naan once I (bravely) drank my sweet lassi from the plastic water bottle they put it in. It was only slightly sweet and was a great, soothing finish to a filling meal. 

The lassi bottling technique reminded me of the brandy Serbian grandfathers make and put in 1.5 liter Coca-Cola bottles. Classy!

Until we meet again,

Cinnamon

31 August 2008

A Disappointing Meal at Cipolla Rossa


Being owned by a genuine Tuscan gentleman with such accolades as catering for the Italian Ambassador to the UN more than 200 times, Cipolla Rossa should have been great - but instead it was another mediocre Italian only distinguished by a more interesting menu than most.

Situated on 1st Avenue between 92nd and 91st, the restaurant has transformed its tiny dining room with a bright and pretty copper ceiling. It has the added bonus of being a BYOB joint - at least for now. I had high expectations for the place because its menu was so specifically Tuscan, with a special emphasis on everything to do with wild boar (boar meatloaf, boar prosciutto, parpadelle with wild boar ragu, wild boar sausage...). It should have been a great night out.

Marcus and I ordered the grilled calamari, and two of their daily specials: double cut wild boar chop, and spaghetti with pancetta, wild boar sausage, and red onion (the restaurant's namesake - "cipolla rossa" is a red onion that grows especially around Tuscany). We felt this gave us a good spectrum of their different dishes. We brought along half a bottle of 2006 Santa Cristina sangiovese we hadn't finished last night with our pasta pomodoro.

The main problem with our meal was that everything was overcooked. The calamari was too charred from the grill and too tough, and the pasta was mushy! I can't forgive an Italian place for overcooked pasta. It's a cardinal sin and the ultimate sign of sloppiness in the kitchen. Marcus's boar chop was nice and rare as he ordered it, but the actually cut was not top quality - a little sinewy. Perplexingly, every dish we ordered was doused in a garnish of dried parsley, which I found detracted from both the flavor and the texture of each dish. Positively, the flavors in the were generally well done - the sauce on the pasta was excellent, and I ended up eating it around the spaghetti.

Cipolla Rossa has unfulfilled potential. The one waiter/host taking care of the small dining room kept on forgetting napkins, but was friendly. I think he and the restaurant are having a shaky start, but if they try a little harder and live up to higher standards in the kitchen, they could do quite well. However, I'm not willing to waste my money in the meantime when I can cook their menu better at home. I recommend Bianca or Falai instead for an authentically Italian meal in NYC.

My No-Fail Meal: Pasta Pomodoro and Green Salad

Every cook has a no-fail meal: comfort food we're really confident cooking anytime. I first started cooking at age 7, while living in Rome. Hence, pasta will always be my comfort zone. My menu is a green leaf and garlic salad with homemade pasta pomodoro. Buon Appettito!

ULTIMATE GREEN SALAD

- 1 head of romaine or red leaf lettuce (washed, dried, torn into bite-size pieces)
- 1 garlic clove
- sea salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 Tb EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil)
- 1/2 C. balsamic vinegar

My mom taught me how to make the ultimate salad, and its greatness rests on the specific way you dress it. She claims to have been instructed by an Italian housewife, who set down in no uncertain terms these mandatory steps:

1. Use a wooden bowl. It is unrivaled for capturing and transferring flavors, particularly garlic. Take a large clove of garlic, and crush it under the handle of your knife. This makes the skin very easy to pull off, and eliminates the need to mince the garlic. Mash the garlic into the bottom of the bowl, swirling its guts all across the wood to allow the bowl to soak up its flavor.

2. Put all your lettuce into the bowl. The two varieties I specified are my favorite, although you can certainly use arugula, baby greens, or any mixture of your favorites.

3. Drizzle the great-quality EVOO over the top, and toss the salad so that every leaf is coated. You may need to add more, based on the size of your salad. Just keep in mind you want it very lightly coated, not drenched.

4. Next add a good few pinches of sea salt, and toss the salad again.

5. Now you drench the salad in balsamic vinegar, and once again toss the entire salad, making sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl to incorporate the pieces of garlic. Finish with some freshly ground black pepper.

I guarantee this is the biggest punch of flavor you will ever taste, especially from a salad! When I have a stuffy nose, I like to add a teaspoon or two of dijon mustard at the end. It clears the sinuses like nothing else.

NO-FAIL PASTA POMODORO

- 1 lb. spaghetti (Barilla's great)
- 42 oz. whole peeled plum tomatoes in a can (look for the Italian "San Marzano" variety)
- 1 small yellow onion, diced very finely
- 3 large cloves garlic
- 4 tiny dried pepperroncino, crushed (or a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes)
- 2 Tb EVOO
- salt & pepper to taste
- a large handful of fresh basil, chopped coarsely
- parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated on top of pasta just before eating.

Put on a very big pot of water to boil. In the meantime, in a 14-inch frying pan, make your soffritto by heating the EVOO and sautéing the onion, garlic, and pepperoncino, seasoned with salt & pepper, over medium-low heat until onion is translucent, and the entire mixture starts to gain a golden color. Only after this point do you add the tomatoes. Turn up the heat to medium, and crush the tomatoes with a potato masher in the pan.

At this point, taste the tomato sauce for seasoning. It usually needs another teaspoon or two of salt and some more pepper. Let the sauce simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes. Only stir periodically.

By this time, the pasta water should be boiling. Salt liberally - it should taste like sea water! Add the spaghetti and boil for 3-4 minutes. Why so little? Because the trick is to finish off the pasta in the sauce! After 4 minutes MAXIMUM, use tongs to transfer the still-very hard pasta to the bubbling tomato sauce. Ladle out about 1/2 c. of the pasta water and add it to the tomato sauce. Keep stirring the pasta around the sauce, letting it finish cooking. As soon as the pasta is al dente (meaning it has a good bite in the texture - not mushy at all), turn off the heat and stir in the basil. When you transfer the pasta to a serving bowl and let it sit for 5 minutes, you will be amazed how the quite liquid sauce congeals into the perfect consistency.

Top each bowl with a bit of basil, parmesan, and black pepper

Perfecto!