Thursday, November 30, 2017

QUICK BITE: Holiday Comfort Foods: Soup Edition


It's pretty much inevitable. In the run-up to Thanksgiving, which is of course the big food-centric opener to the holiday season, I work too much, cook too much, travel on flying petri dishes otherwise known as airplanes, and my sleep suffers as a result of all of this. Aaaand...boom. Suddenly, I'm getting sick. Under the weather. No bueno. But the good news in all of this? Post-Thanksgiving is the perfect time to make and enjoy soup.


I refuse to toss a turkey carcass in the trash unless it's been fully utilized as a flavor-maker by infusing a rich stock, a deeply soothing broth, and the base of a delicious soup. Of course, these soups are not vegetarian-friendly -- perhaps another time, another post. These soups have a poultry base. Right now we're talking about the fact that it's the bones of the bird that make these stocks enriched with collagen and nutrients, so restorative, so...rectifying. While cooking away, their meaty perfume permeates the kitchen (and indeed, the entire apartment or house) in which they're cooked with the smell of another Thanksgiving, and this can't be bad. There's no real recipe needed; this is an act of recycling, a thoughtful using up of scraps and leftover ingredients, cleaning out the fridge in the process. We chefs love efficiency and economy.



So, here's the deal: use whatever remains of the turkey carcass that's been picked clean. Add the neck and gizzards and whatever you've saved from various turkey parts. This year, for instance, I spatchcocked our family Thanksgiving  turkey, so I added the backbone to the stockpot, which added a real flavor boost, along with the roasted veggies over which I cooked the turkey. Then, throw in some celery, carrots, and onion -- in whatever form you have left over. If you don't, a simple trip to the market and a few dollars will give you what you need. Toss in some garlic or leeks or shallots, if you like. Add some black peppercorns, maybe a touch of thyme or parsley or rosemary (or all three). Fill the pot with cold water and set it on the stove to boil. Once it hits the boiling point, turn it down to a low simmer and just let it slowly cook for hours. I'd say 4 hours is the bare minimum for this stock, but 8 will get you a rich, golden stock you'll remember for years to come. 

What now? Well, it's best to cool the stock for an hour or two and then put it in the fridge overnight. This way you can skim the fat the next day when it's congealed at the top. From there, you can layer flavors however you like. That's the beauty of a good stock. Make sure to salt it at the end. 



I had my white bean and escarole turkey soup for breakfast yesterday morning, as I woke up still feeling under the weather, and I knew I'd have to fly. The restorative broth with a bit of a peperoncino kick was just what the doctor ordered. 
Today I continued with matzo ball soup, a.k.a. Jewish penicillin -- I ordered in from Sarge's deli, as they make a good MBS and they're close by and I don't have to make the soup myself when I'm not feeling up to it. That's part of the beauty of living in Manhattan. 


But I make great soups from turkey (and chicken, and vegetable, and beef, and oxtail) stocks all through the winter. You can simply add a starch -- pasta (long noodles, or small pasta like ditalini or tiny shells or Israeli couscous, or tortellini), or potatoes (regular or sweet potatoes or blue). Add any combination of veggies cut small. Add chile pepper in some form (paste, hot sauce, fresh or dried chiles) for kick, if you like, and an acid (wine or citrus juice or vinegar) to cut the richness of the savory broth. And fresh herbs at the end are always welcome. Spices too, if they work with the kind of soup you're making. It's all up to you. But as with most things, in the kitchen and outside of it, it's most important to start with a great base. The rest is just gravy...errr, soup.

Friday, November 3, 2017

MARKETS: Union Square Market, NYC



I have taken a good spell of time off from this blog. I was busy all spring and summer long with work, with planning my wedding and everything that went along with it, dealing with family issues and illnesses and loss. Never have I experienced such a mix of joy and pain in a six month period. So, my writing took a back seat to other life issues. Then, we were overseas for three weeks in early fall, to host a second Italian wedding, do some work in bell'Italia, and to enjoy our Mediterranean honeymoon. 



But now, I'm back. We're back. And what better way to celebrate autumn (my favorite season), and all things New York City, than with a virtual visit to Manhattan's beloved Union Square Greenmarket? Most produce and food markets seem to hit their peak in late summer, when the abundance of summer fruit and vegetables explodes, rendering the markets lush and colorful. And I do love summer at Union Square, and any market, really. But to me, the best time for a greenmarket in The Big Apple is during the best season in The Big Apple: Autumn in New York, of course! I love exploring the collection of pumpkins and squash varieties, mostly edible but with some decorative gourds thrown in. These are the colors of fall, in food form (see photo at right). I love sipping on cider as I stroll through the market aisles -- either cold, when the weather leans more towards Indian Summer, or hot cider, when the air is crisp and calls for a scarf. Union Square in its autumn glory signals the season for me, and I love it.



A brief backgrounder: the Union Square Greenmarket was founded in 1976 with just a handful of farmers selling their goods, but now USQ is the flagship greenmarket in Grow NYC's Greenmarket organization. In the mid-'80s, Danny Meyer's Union Square Cafe helped to revitalize the neighborhood, as the ethos of the groundbreaking restaurant was to lift up the farming community local to the New York metro area. Today, the USQ Greenmarket boasts 140 regional farmers (produce and animal), bakers, and fishmongers selling their wares in peak season. Union Square is one of the city's great public spaces, and roaming around the market -- especially on a Saturday afternoon -- the atmosphere is festive and lively, with as many as 60,000 shoppers passing through the market stalls. There are market tours for students, locals, and tourists alike, and there are always cooking demos and book signings happening with the city's local chefs and food experts. Speaking as a professional chef in this city, I can recommend Union Square greenmarket as THE place to purchase quality food products, herbs, and all kinds of edible goodies.




Farms from New York's Hudson Valley, Long Island, New Jersey, and even eastern Pennsylvania set up shop at the market on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and/or Saturdays. They offer delicious seasonal produce, but also top-quality duck and poultry and game (take it from me: ostrich meatballs are delicious, people! And very sustainable). Blue Oyster Cultivation's specialty is not just in a snappy name, but also mushroom cultivation. Flying Pig Farms offers rare breed and heritage pork products, dairy, and eggs. There's Roaming Acres Ostrich. There's Prospect Hill Orchards and Migliorelli Farm and Samascott Orchards -- amazing this time of year for more varieties of apples, pears, and grapes than you imagined possible.
USQ features the Union Square Grassman, serving up wheatgrass and organic microgreen shoots. There's Hudson Valley Duck, for some great breasts, whole birds and various duck products. There's just-caught fish and seafood from local waters, like Pura Vida fish (fresh and smoked), and delicious dairy products. Case in point: I recently bought some mozzarella di bufala from Riverine Ranch, a water buffalo farm in southern New Jersey (go, Garden State!) with some admitted skepticism. I'd just returned from several weeks in premiere mozzarella territory in Campania, Italy where I'd eaten my weight in caprese salads. So imagine my surprise when I tossed some gorgeous grape tomatoes with a chiffonade of basil, arugula, extra virgin Italian olive oil, and balsamic, and paired it with this New Jersey buffalo milk mozzarella -- and found it to be incredibly delicious! (note: I had tried ricotta di bufala from a Vermont producer in the USQ greenmarket a few years back, and was supremely disappointed with its lack of flavor). My mind has been happily changed.

Some of the artisanal producers include Beth's Farm Kitchen for jams, pickles, and the like. There is Hawthorne Valley Farms, She Wolf Bakery, Francesca's Bakery and Las Delicias for baked goods, including gluten-free items. There's Tremblay Apiaries, taking care of our bees and their honey production. Rosehaven Alpacas sells wool and handcrafts made from alpaca fiber. Martin's Pretzels from Pennsylvania Dutch country are a perennial favorite with an addictive crunch. There's Long Island potato vodka and wines from local vineyards, like Breezy Hill Orchard. There are flower and plants and herb sellers like James Durr Flowers and Fantastic Gardens
And of course there are tons of fruit and vegetable sellers, including, sometimes, Terhune Orchards from Princeton, my beloved hometown orchard. Sellers come from within 100 miles of New York City -- proof positive that New York is more than just a world hub, more than just a restaurant and food nexus, more than just The Big Apple. It's pretty much everything you could want in one part of the country, especially if you love things that are fresh, homemade, local, high quality, and delicious. We knew all along that New Yorkers have great taste!












UNION SQUARE GREENMARKET
Monday - Wednesday - Friday - Saturday
8 a.m. - 6 p.m.
https://www.grownyc.org/greenmarket/manhattan-union-square-sa


Friday, March 3, 2017

RECIPES: Pasta con Cavolfiore, Sultane, Mandorle, e Molliche

The Italians know a thing or two about parsimonious cooking, about making something incredibly delicious and soul-satisfying out of something lowbrow or unexciting. And the further south you go along the Italian peninsula, the stronger that capacity grows. Sicilian cuisine is the shining example of this modo di cucinare.

A delicious Sicilian pasta dish that highlights the culinary transition from everyday-to-divine is one using a "lowly" cruciferous vegetable, often overlooked because of its pale color, and considered (mistakenly) to lack nutritional content: cauliflower. Cauliflower itself is actually very nutritious, as are all cruciferous veggies (like broccoli and cabbage) -- it's full of Vitamin C, Vitamin K, folate, and a slew of antioxidants and anti-carcinogens that make weekly consumption of the vegetable a real boon to anyone's diet. And with a preparation as delicious as this one, it can become a fabulous staple in a nutritious meal plan. As for its use in this dish, it's enhanced by the agrodolce (sweet-sour) combination of the dried sultanas and toasted almonds -- classic Sicilian. And because even grated cheese is a luxury many in the poorer areas of Sicily can't afford, herbed toasted bread crumbs are used in place of cheese. If you need the dish to be wholly vegetarian, you can leave out the anchovy.

Please note: this dish can be prepared without the pasta, served as a side dish to round out a meal. Tossing it with pasta just makes for a satisfying lunch or delicious dinner, and one that's quite wallet-friendly as well. It's perfect for everything from a meatless Monday meal to a dinner party dish. Buon Appetito!

PASTA CON CAVOLFIORE, SULTANE, MANDORLE, E MOLLICHE 
(Serves 3-4)

1/2 to 3/4 head of cauliflower, cut into florets
400 grams pasta (4/5 pound)
1/2 cup olive oil -- good quality Sicilian extra virgin is best 
3 cloves garlic
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced into half moons 
1/4 white wine
1/3 cup dried sultanas or raisins
1/2 cup slivered toasted almonds
2 TBSP. capers
1 anchovy fillet chopped, or 1/2 tsp anchovy paste 
pinch of dried peperoncino flakes
1/2 cup herbed toasted bread crumbs
1/2 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
salt & pepper to taste

- Start by par-cooking the cauliflower in a large pot of boiling water, salted well. Keep the water to cook the pasta in, and remove the cauliflower from the boiling water once cooked until softened, about 5 minutes. Drain in a colander or bowl.

- In a large saute' pan, heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the whole garlic cloves. After 1 minute of heating up, add the anchovy, onion, and peperoncino and cook until the onion turns translucent, about 3 minutes.

- Add the cauliflower to the saute' pan and the white wine, and cook until the wine has burned off a bit, about a minute. Then cook, covered, for about 5-7 minutes, until the caulifower has softened and begins to break down a bit.

- Toss the pasta into the boiling, salted cauliflower water and cook until just barely al dente.

- While the pasta is cooking, add the sultanas and capers to the cauliflower and cook to brown the cauliflower a bit. Add olive oil as needed. Add salt and pepper to taste.

- When the pasta is just shy of al dente, remove from the cooking water and transfer t o the saute pan with the cauliflower. Add the slivered almonds and the parsley, and toss to coat. Cook for an additional 2 minutes in the pan and at the very end, toss the rest of the olive oil and half of the breadcrumbs in with the pasta, toss to coat.

- Serve the pasta in pasta plates and sprinkle with the toasted bread crumbs. Enjoy!

Friday, January 27, 2017

LIBATIONS: Vin Santo

 
Vin Santo. Its name means "saint wine" or "holy wine" and if you enjoy a good dessert wine -- or good wine, period -- this Tuscan specialty is definitely a drink to explore. To me, this is the essence of Florence, the essence of Tuscany. It's traditionally served at the end of a meal alongside a plate of cantucci, the rock-hard almond biscotti made slightly more chewable by dipping them into the vin santo. The flavors blend wonderfully as well. What are more specifics of the sweet wine itself? It's usually made from white grapes like Trebbiano and Malvasia, though sometimes Sangiovese (the chianti grape) can be used to make the rose' style vin santo called occhio di pernice, or "eye of the partridge." The grapes are dried out on either straw mats (hence the term sometimes used to describe vin santo as a "straw wine") or hanging on racks indoors. The finished product usually ranges from 14-17% alcohol, so stronger than traditional whites but not quite as potent as distilled liquors.

The name itself indicates its likely origin, which was use in religious mass. One of the earliest references to the vino was found in Florentine wine merchants' logs in the renaissance era, as the wine was marketed to Rome and environs specifically for religious ceremonies.  Another theory of the origin of its name states that the tradition of fermenting the wine starting around All Saint's Day and bottling it around Easter lent the wine its "holy" appeal.

Eventually this style of wine was produced on the island of Santorini in Greece when it came under Ottoman rule. Their biggest audience was the east: Greek vin santo was widely exported to Russia and became the standard wine used in Russian Orthodox mass.  

Like other dessert wines, vin santo gets its sweetness from the dessication, or drying process, as mentioned earlier. This concentration of the sugars in the grapes creates its signature sweetness. Sometimes a madre, or mother (starter) is used, taking a bit of previously-produced vin santo and pouring it, with all its wild yeasts, into the new bottling to jump-start the fermentation process.
This is thought to give the wine complexity and a bit of continuity in character from harvest to harvest. The flavor profile of vin santo is heavy on nutty and/or raisin notes, with some cream and honey in the mix as well. Most wine producers in Tuscany tend to produce Chianti for the masses, but they squirrel away a barrel or two of vin santo to enjoy in famiglia (with the family)...Proof again that Italians know a thing or two about keeping the good stuff among loved ones.



Monday, January 16, 2017

LOCAL INGREDIENT: Guanciale

GUANCIALE. Pronounced Gwahn-CHAHHH-lay. People fall in love with the name itself, even before they taste it. Much like its milder sister cut of cured pork, the well-known pancetta, this specialty piggy part called guanciale is named after the location on the pig from which it comes. "Pancia" is the Italian word for belly, hence pancetta = pork belly. "Guancia" means cheek, so guanciale is cured pork jowl. And while pancetta is widely used in dishes up and down the Italian peninsula, guanciale is a distinctly Roman cut of cured meat.

We're all pretty familiar with pork belly. It's a fatty cut that became popular in the aughts on restaurant menus in America and overseas alike, because it's inexpensive and can be manipulated in numerous ways to make it taste delicious. After all, fat IS flavor. Still, the consistency, if not prepared properly, can be a turn-off to many diners. But used as the Italians do -- that is, sparingly and to great effect -- the unsmoked, cured pancetta lends great flavor to otherwise meatless pasta dishes, to bolognese sauce, to soups and salads and stews of all kinds. But the pork cheek, that cured, spiced jowl prepared by the Romans for millennia...well, that's a different pork game altogether. It's dense and unctuous, it's strongly-flavored and unique, peppery and pungent, refusing to just melt into the background of any dish. You can find guanciale all over Rome and the Lazio region, with particularly good versions in Roman salumerie and norcinerie (cured meat specialty shops). I love Norcineria Viola in Campo de' Fiori, as they have a great selection of guanciale and they give samples of all their salumi, upon request, as well. Also great - and for much more than just guanciale - is Volpetti, in Testaccio. The place is legendary for all kinds of Italian alimentary wonders.

Of the four classic Roman pasta dishes, guanciale is a star ingredient in three: Amatriciana, Pasta Alla Gricia, and Carbonara (a true Roman carbonara, anyway). It lends a fatty richness to vignarola, the Roman spring vegetable stew. And crisped up in batons or cubes or slices, it's a great match for eggs in any form...for sturdier salad greens like escarole, kale, spinach, or arugula...it's a great addition to soups and stracotto (meat stew)...and you can even find spicy guanciale to add a kick to everyday pastas, or to produce candied guanciale for a sweet-savory-spicy end product that goes with pretty much everything. on. earth. Did I mention how much I love guanciale? It turns out that over the course of a decade and a half of teaching cooking classes, both in Rome and in the U.S., I've turned a lot of my students onto the fine salume that is guanciale.  

Years ago I taught a Roman cuisine class with a market visit to an American couple, newlyweds honeymooning in Italy. Turns out they lived in New York City, and less than a year after their honeymoon, they got in touch with me wondering if I might be in New York the following month, as I had mentioned to them that I often returned to Manhattan at that time of year. They wanted me to cater a surprise birthday dinner for the husband's father, and they wanted the pasta all'amatriciana that I'd taught them to make, and a whole guanciale to gift the dad! So I smuggled an entire pork jowl, vacuum packed in my luggage, to use in this festive meal. But when I finally left my friends' apartment uptown to head to cater the dinner party, I'd forgotten the guanciale in my (vegetarian) friend's fridge! So my client and his brother ended up going on a "guanciale run" to get it from my friend's place while I cooked the meal. It was an insane series of events, but the look on the father's face when he walked into a dinner party cooked by his kids' "Roman chef" (me) with an entire bonus guanciale, was priceless. There were cheers and chants in guanciale's name, which was hilarious -- but gives you an indication of the pork lust and worshipful devotion this cured pork jowl elicits. "Long live guanciale!" they proclaimed. And I agree, whole hog-heartedly.

Norcineria Viola
Piazza Campoe de' Fiori 43
ROMA  00186
+39 06 6880 6114 

Salumeria Volpetti
Via Marmorata 47
ROMA 00153
+39 06 574 2352
www.volpetti.com