Tuesday, October 18, 2016

QUICK BITE: Greek Salad

Greek salad: the term conjures up many things to many people. For some, it's a mainstay at U.S. Greek diners, usually pretty drab, or maybe huge with mediocre produce and too much over-salted supermarket feta cheese. But to others, it's a revelation, a composed salad, often lettuce-free, comprised of juicy, ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced red onions, slivers of crisp green pepper, and fresh cucumber slices, doused in delicious Greek olive oil and a splash of vinegar, topped with authentic sheep's milk feta cheese and dusted with fresh oregano. The really good ones include briny capers. These are the Greek salads of which I rhapsodize today.

In Greece, and particularly the islands of the Cyclades from which I write now, I often order these salads (or some version thereof) twice a day. When the tomatoes are grown in the rocky soil of Naxos or the volcanic soil of Santorini, their flavor is concentrated and they're unbelievably sweet, their thick skins pushed to bursting under the pressure of their turgid flesh. The cucumbers are firm and heavy with water, their aromatic melon-musty goodness pairing with the bite of the red onion. And there is crisp vegetal tang of the green pepper, the salty feta from the milk of locally-roaming sheep and the capers that taste of the sea itself...

There's not much about a Greek salad that's complicated, but like most simple Mediterranean food, the dish is only as good as the quality of its components. Luckily for the Greeks (and all who eat there), farming still accounts for a nice chunk of the country's economy, and they're still growing things they've grown in this rich soil for millennia. The tomatoes we enjoyed in Koufonissi (at right), in the small Cyclades, came from the island of Naxos nearby, where a lot of farming for the surrounding smaller islands is done.
They were some of the best tomatoes I've had in recent memory -- which is saying a lot, coming from a Jersey girl who lived in Italy for nearly a decade! The local cheese in Koufonissi, which was often used in place of feta, is called mithizra, and it's fluffy and fresh, what you'd get if a tangy Greek feta and a creamy ricotta had a cheese baby! This was also used on a variation of a Greek salad with Cretan roots -- chopped tomatoes and red onions with the cheese and lots of capers served over hardened pieces of Cretan dark grain bread, moistened with a liberal dousing of local olive oil. It's topped off with plenty of dried oregano. And it's delicious. Again, simple with top-quality primary ingredients. It's the way that people in this corner of the world have been living long, healthy lives for thousands of years. And the gorgeous view doesn't hurt, either.


Friday, September 2, 2016

RECIPE: L'Amatriciana, In Honor of Amatrice

Italy is dealing with a natural disaster of grave proportions right now. Again. The earthquake that struck central Italy in the areas of Rieti and Amatrice has devastated several beautiful and charming hill towns (of which there seem to be countless iterations peppered throughout Lazio, Umbria, Abruzzo, and Le Marche). These are the core of Italy's charming and historic central regions that span from the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west to the Adriatic on the east coast. In a country obscenely rich in tourist attractions of every variety, these smaller towns often get overlooked by many travelers -- often to the delight of local residents. These hill towns, somewhat unfortunately, are nestled in the Apennine mountains, which are essentially the geological spine of Italy, and run along a fault line where Eurasian and African tectonic plates meet. So, as we saw seven years ago in L'Aquila, activity along these fault lines can be disastrous, and deadly. The images of Amatrice before and after, for example, are sad and humbling.

I've spent plenty of time in these central regions of Italy, as friends have houses in the countryside from Lazio to Umbria, from southern-central Tuscany over to Ascoli-Piceno in Le Marche. I've attended countless sagre (food and wine festivals) in these parts, traveled through mountainous, winding roads, often in search of a great little restaurant off the beaten path.
My memories of these parts, and the people here, are numerous, and fond. So it was heartbreaking last week that I was receiving play-by-play texts from friends a little too close for comfort to the epicenter of the earthquake, experiencing very scary after-shocks. And what saddened me to no end is the reality that last weekend was supposed to be the 50th annual sagra (festival) of Amatrice's most famous (namesake) dish, pasta all'amatriciana. I know many restaurants, both in Italy and in America, are helping out victims and towns that suffered heavy damages in the earthquake by donating a portion of their sales of pasta all'amatriciana to Italy's red cross. And that's great, but I don't have a restaurant and all I can do is encourage others to donate as much and as often as possible. And as comfort, I can instruct and share my recipe for my favorite Roman pasta dish. It's one that I turn to time and again, and it happens to be best at this time of year, when tomatoes are at their sweetest and most flavorful. 

A little note: guanciale is THE meat of choice in Roman pasta dishes. It may not always be possible to find it, but I promise you the search for authentic ingredients will always pay off. Pancetta (unsmoked bacon) can be used in a pinch, but guanciale is cured pork jowl, and the flavor is much more unctuous and distinctive. It does, in fact, go a long way towards making a good amatriciana into a great amatriciana. And so, without further delay, my trusted recipe for this Roman classic...


This is one of a few quintessential Roman pasta dishes. You’ll find as many different versions as there are trattorie in Rome: some prefer the guanciale soft, some crispy; some prefer a thin sauce, some a more chunky, hearty tomato sauce; some use any short pasta, others insist on the thick hollow spaghetti known as bucatini. Here is the version I prefer after years and years of trial, revision, and much animated discussion among my Roman friends. But 2 things are a must for the integrity of the dish: 1.) the meat must be guanciale, cured pork jowl and not any old pancetta, and 2.) the cheese must be the sharp, salty pecorino romano, not the more common parmigiano reggiano.

3-4 TBS. extra-virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, finely diced
¼ lb. Thickly sliced guanciale, cut into small strips
3 cups canned San Marzano tomatoes, or equal amount of fresh plum tomatoes
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Salt & pepper to taste
1 lb. bucatini (or pasta of choice)
1/2 cup grated pecorino romano cheese

-Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

-Heat a large skillet over medium heat, and add the guanciale or pancetta, cooking until crisp. Remove from pan and set aside.

-Add the olive oil to the rendered pork fat and once heated, add the onion and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes.

-Add the tomato and season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.

-Cook, uncovered, over medium heat for 7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally.

-Add a generous toss of salt to the boiling water, and cook the bucatini until tender but firm, al dente.

-Remove pasta from the water with tongs, or drain in a colander and add it to the pan.

-Return cooked guanciale or pancetta to saucepan.

-Turn pasta to coat, add the pecorino, and turn to mix thoroughly.Add a glug of olive oil if needed. There should be a sheen to the pasta.

-Serve at once.

To donate to the italian red cross, start here:

Friday, August 5, 2016


Is there a fruit happier than the bright red cherry? It decorates flirty dresses and bags, tops sundaes, plops in fizzy drinks like the Shirley Temple. And at the same time, is there a fruit more luscious and seemingly forbidden, aching to be popped off of its stem and into your mouth, leaving a wine-dark juicy stain in its wake? I won't get into the cherry as euphemism, but suffice it to say cherries are a beloved fruit, versatile in both sweet and savory preparations, and an absolutely delicious seasonal food. And, bonus: cherries happen to be great for you.

First, a little history. Cherries and cherry trees as we know them are native to the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, with several species in the U.S., a handful in Europe, and the remainder in Asia. The cultivated cherry (as well as fellow stone fruit, the apricot), is recorded as having been brought to Rome by Lucius Licinius Lucullus from northeastern Anatolia (also known as the Pontus region, or Asia Minor) -- most of modern day Turkey's Asian land, in 72 BC. Today, Turkey is still the number one producer of cherries in the world, with the U.S. as number two, followed by Iran, Italy, and Spain in 3rd, 4th, and 5th positions worldwide. In America, sweet cherries (prunus avium) are grown mostly in the western part of the country -- Washington, Oregon, and California. Tart cherries (prunus cerasus) are grown mostly in Michigan, Utah, and again Washington state. (Anyone who has bought cherries in supermarkets in the U.S. has seen the widespread domination of Washington state cherries -- and rightly so. They're delicious!)

As for nutritional value and benefits, sweet cherries are rich in beta carotene, potassium (a blood pressure reducer), and vitamin C. One serving of sweet cherries (about 1 cup) contains 90 calories and 3 grams of fiber. The catechins and flavanals in cherries contribute to the fruit's healthfulness as well.
Cherries are rich in anthocyanins and quercetin, bioactive compounds which studies indicate may work in synergy to combat cancer. This power pairing may also prevent some genetic mutations that can lead to cancer, and keep cancerous cells in check -- particularly breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancers. They are also anti-inflammatory, and provide cardiovascular benefits as well as mild fat-burning capabilities. (Note: tart cherries contain these elements but sweet cherries contain three times as many, found in the cherry's skin). And, the riper the better, as darker, ripened cherries contain more antioxidants.

Cherries also help with gout, a form of arthritis caused by an excess of uric acid in the blood which causes inflammation and swelling. Growing research shows that consuming cherries (both sweet and tart), and drinking tart cherry juice, lowers uric acid and inflammation. In the same way, cherries' anti-inflammatory properties ease joint pain as well as muscle soreness. Good news for those watching their sugar intake: cherries have among the lowest glycemic index (22) and glycemic load (3) values of all fruit. And, since tart cherries are rich in melatonin, a compound that regulates the body's natural sleep-wake patterns, the fruit and its juice act as natural sleep aids and improve the quality of that sleep.

Before you drift off to dreamland, though, let's discuss the fun stuff: that is, all the ways in which delicious cherries can be consumed!
We all know and love cherry pie, which just may be second only to apple as the most American of pies. (The George Washington-cherry tree legend also reinforces the fruit's American appeal). There are many forms of desserts, pies and pastries that are excellent with cherries, including tarts and crostate, cherry clafoutis, black forest cake, and cherries jubilee. But cherries also work wonderfully in savory dishes, sauces, and even cocktails. From the oxblood bing cherries to the yellow-blush Ranier cherries, look for a firm skin without blemishes, and a green stem as a sign of freshness.

Cherries happen to pair well with meats, and make a wonderful sauce for duck breast, seen here with a cherry port sauce. Cherries add a fruity note to a barbeque sauce in place of the tomato base found in many bbq sauces. Pitted diced cherries also make an interesting base for a salsa. I like to make one with red onions, chopped pistachios, fresh mint and basil, which I pair with grilled meats and sausages in the summertime. 
I also make an interesting savory pasta dish with cherries: first I prepare a veal ragu in bianco, meaning there are no tomatoes in this ragu, simply onions/celery/carrots. I cook the the veal ragu for a coupe of hours over low heat, and at the end, while I'm cooking the pasta, I toss in some chopped cherries along with some freshly chopped sage or rosemary, parsley and chives. It may sound strange, but it's one of the best pasta dishes in my repertoire

Of course, cherries are great as a plain old fruit, and as a part of fruit salads and plates. Served cold, they pair really well with melons. As for drinks, I love a sour cherry spritzer, because not only are they refreshing, but they're also helpful in regulating my sleep patterns. I love cherries with mint, so they're a natural in a summery mojito. 
And they also work well with dark liquors, so using cherry syrup or fresh dark cherries smashed with some bourbon or whiskey topped with club soda and a lime is good when you're in the mood for something with a real kick. Kirsch is a cherry liqueur delicious on its own and as a part of many mixed drinks. And of course, the original cocktail fruit was the maraschino cherry, an integral part in many classic cocktails recipes. Finally, let's not forget the beloved chocolate covered cherry. The classic is a cherry set inside a chocolate shell, and when you bite into it, the syrup in which it sets oozes out. I love a good cherry-chocolate pairing, but my preference is for a rich, baked chocolate mousse cake. In my version, a mousse-like chocolate cake batter is baked and then topped with an almond-scented whipped cream, and finished off with dark chocolate-dipped fresh sweet cherries. It's decadent, and dark, and perfectly sinful: just how I like my desserts.

Monday, July 25, 2016

QUICK BITE: The Milanese

Back in the days when I was toiling away in the kitchen at San Domenico NY, we used to have some regular VIP clients who would come in and order "off menu" as it's called -- requesting favorite dishes that were neither daily specials, nor a part of the restaurant's written menu. These items are usually part of the culinary canon that the restaurant represents. In the case of San Domenico, it was Italian classics, mostly hailing from the north of Italy, like our executive chef. Our most (in)famous VIP client to order off-menu was one Signor Bulgari, of the world-renowned, Rome-based Bulgari jewelry house.

Bulgari holds a special place in the hearts of Romans, in particular. The brand is known for its impressive jewels and even more impressive price tags. I've heard, on any number of occasions, Romans referring to something that was shockingly expensive as being Bulgari: as in, "so I picked up these little Sicilian tomatoes and a bag of organic arugula da Bulgari..." It is Roman slang for saying that the precious gem of an item you purchased was paid for through the nose...but probably worth the indulgence. So, the irony of cooking for Signor Bulgari, off-menu, making his favorite dishes -- a big plate of sliced San Daniele prosciutto, a dish of Maria's famous caponata, and a platter-sized, paper-thin pounded veal Milanese topped with the aforementioned gorgeous cherry tomatoes and arugula -- was not lost on me. The fact that he would boorishly push open the swinging doors to the kitchen from the dining room, asking where his food was after having to wait an entire ten minute stretch, post-order, and that he'd fight the waiter on the bill claiming overcharge on most visits, is just the icing on the torta: the man whose surname is synonymous with pricey didn't like to pay our prices on his special orders. Ha. But luckily, we always knew when he was coming. Forewarned is forearmed. And after a perfectly-prepared Milanese, all is right with the world. Even with Signor Bulgari.

The Milanese is a go-to meal of mine at home, as well. It's comfort food in cooler months, just on its own with some hearty side dishes, but it's at its best now: as in, during the summer months when the tomatoes are bursting with sweetness and taste of the sun, and the peppery bite of the arugula is matched by that of the olive oil drizzled atop this salad, which is then cut with some real balsamic vinegar from Modena. That's the stuff, right there. The veal (or chicken, or turkey) is pounded extra thin, dusted with flour and dipped in organic eggs, and the breading -- this is key -- is a mix of bread crumbs, panko, herbs, and grated parmigiano cheese, which forms a thin, molded crust and keeps the meat juicy within. You need to cut this with a steak knife because it deserves precision. This should not be torn or shredded, but treated with reverence. Because it's deceptively simple, and when prepared well, like most Italian classics, the Milanese is a thing of beauty.


Monday, July 11, 2016

RECIPES: Ghanaian-Inspired Yellowtail Snapper

It started with a conversation to alleviate the drudgery of prep work in the kitchen of San Domenico NY many years ago. I was filleting some black bass, methodically removing pin bones, careful not to stick myself with the spiky fins (as I'd done before, which caused my entire hand to blow up to twice its size and sent me to an emergency doctor. Fun!) When doing prep work in the kitchen, I sometimes asked one of the dishwashers to help me, because they were friendly and fun and they were interested in cooking professionally some day. My attitude was always "the more the merrier" when in came to kitchen work. So I started chatting with Mbulli, the Ghanaian dishwasher who was helping me with my task. And we started discussing fishing, and fish preparation. So I asked him how he might prepare a whole fish like the sea bass we were working on that day -- or any fish he might have at home in Ghana -- and he told me, very simply. "I would make it with chilies, and citrus like orange, and cilantro." And that stuck with me. I always thought that idea sounded fantastically refreshing, and I vowed to myself to make that preparation one day.

A decade and a half later, on a recent trip to see my family in south Florida, I was out fishing with my younger brother -- quite an accomplished recreational fisherman -- on his new boat, along with his fishing buddy James. We went out late afternoon in the early summer, as the sun cast a pinkish glow on the water and the humidity broke just enough to make the July air tolerable.  And though the catch wasn't as bountiful as we might have hoped, it did yield us a gaggle of very delicious, fresh fish, including three decent-sized yellowtail snappers -- a local fish I adore. Normally, we'd take the fish home and either make a ceviche or sushi out of it, if the particular fish was best enjoyed raw. Or, we'd cook it either simply fried or pan sauteed with accompanying veggie sides. But on this occasion, I was headed back to New York the following day, and the fish would keep if I carried them back on ice in a cooler...which is exactly what I did. My brother and his friend had been patient with me when seasickness relegated me to a beanbag on board, sniffing mint to quell my nausea: they caught the fish and insisted I take the catch. So I told them that the yellowtail were destined for a preparation about which I'd been daydreaming since that afternoon in the San Domenico kitchen. I would invite some friends over and attempt to make Ghanaian-inspired yellowtail snapper.

Back in my Manhattan kitchen, I set to making a dinner for a hot New York City summer night (perfectly authentic to the climate in which this dish might be consumed)! I paired the fish, roasted whole quite simply with salt and pepper and a little oil, with a sauce I made on the side. The ingredients are simple: orange, jalapeno and scotch bonnet chiles, garlic, shallot, and cilantro. I added a splash of vinegar and lime juice and that's pretty much it. I paired it with coconut rice, and some balsamic-honey roasted carrots, and laid the fish on some watercress. It was spicy, and delicious, and has now officially become a part of my fresh fish repertoire. Thank you, Mbulli!


Serves: 4-6 

Remember to handle the chile peppers with gloves on, to avoid burning face, eyes, mouth, etc.

2-3 small whole yellowtail snappers, approx 3-5 pounds, gutted, scaled, and cleaned
5 oranges, cut into supremed segments
4 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 scotch bonnet chile, seeded and veined, and sliced finely
1 jalapeno pepper (or other mild chile pepper), sliced finely
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 lime: zest and juice
2 TBSP. white balsamic or red wine vinegar

- In a cast iron skillet or on a roasting pan lined with parchment paper -- either one lined with a shmear of canola oil -- place the whole fishes, which have been seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. (You can also stuff the bellies with fresh herbs like parsley and cilantro, as well as slices of citrus, if desired). If cooking in the skillet, sear fish on one side over medium-high heat, for about 5 minutes, and then flip them and place into a 325 degree oven for another 20-25 minutes. If placing directly on a roasting pan, place into that same oven but add 5-10 minutes of cooking time.

- Meanwhile, In a saute pan, place all the remaining ingredients together and simmer over medium-low heat until the flavors begin to meld, about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

- When the fish is done cooking through, you will be able to easily pull out the pelvic fin -- the little bony fin underneath the fish, in front of its belly. You can also try sticking a small, sharp knife into the thickest part of the fish and if the blade comes out warm to the touch, the fish should be done as well. The entire fish should be firm.

- Serve the fish whole on a platter with the orange-cilantro-chile sauce on the side. This pairs nicely with a rice made with coconut milk, roasted vegetables, and a crisp green like watercress.