Saturday, August 30, 2008

Fixing Things and Empanadas

Can you fix things? Like if something around the house breaks? For example, a garage door opener? Mine broke this week. It goes down but when its time to head up, it just makes this clicking noise. I want to fix it. I walk into the garage and stare at it but apparently that’s not enough. Wiping the cobwebs away from the mechanical box thingy didn’t seem to do it either. I can’t fix things. I have to say that I have passed that skill on to my kids as well. One time, my teenagers left the car keys engaged without the engine running and when the battery died, my son thought to replace the battery. Jump starting never entered his mind. Now it’s not his fault. I gave him this skill (or lack of). I am going to have to call someone to come and look at the garage door opener.

Now that I’ve established my area of weakness, I’ll play more to my strength. I am pretty good in the kitchen and Olivia loves helping me in there. She has a great affinity for the messier jobs too. Cracking eggs and kneading dough seems to be tops. We’ve formed a pretty good team. If I can’t teach her to remodel a bathroom, perhaps I can pass on some kitchen skills. With a four-year-old’s unending list of questions combined with my love to talk about food, the fun is non stop. And no matter where she is in the house, she seems to sense the flour coming out of the pantry. Dutifully, she grabs her chair and heads to the work surface. We’re about to get busy.

I hope everyone cooks with their kids. If you don’t have any, I suggest you get some. And if that’s too much trouble, just borrow one. Olivia would love to come to your house and help you with the flour. On our agenda this time: Empanadas. I made some not too long ago and Lisa just loved them. This batch came out even better. Empanadas are a Latin pastry that can be filled with just about anything; pork, beef, chicken, cheese etc. Because every Latin culture has a variation of Empanadas, what one country calls an Empanada may be very different in another. The dough recipe I chose was this one. The cooking method is also variable. Ours were fried in peanut oil but baking is another way (more common actually and certainly healthier). I also chose frying because it’s much more forgiving if the dough is not perfect. Whatever your choice for dough, stick closely to the recipe because you’re now dealing with the science of bread. Failure here is complete failure. As a non-baker, I have no pearls of wisdom other than, I fried the damned dough; fool proof. Olivia finds the popping on the stove more entertaining too.

The filling here was quite a star for me. I slow roasted a sirloin the day before with vegetables for an extra lean pot roast. I find sirloin to be quite beefy in taste. It’s not typically highly marbled, so it not as buttery all by itself as say a Rib-eye or Tenderloin, but yet it packs a ton of that flavor that makes me maintain my carnivorous nature. It’s perfect for braising or slow roasting. It also holds up well in stew and, while not traditional, makes a mean braccioli (pronounced brajole). Today the plan is to use the fall apart characteristics from the 6 hour roasting to get the shredded beef effect found in Latin dished.

With some common ingredients found in Mexican and Latin American cooking, I made a filling worthy of the near perfect dough that Olivia had expertly rolled out and helped cut into 6 in rounds. Together we packed each Empanada and fried them to a light honey colored gold. The texture was remarkable. Each bite of the shell had a slight crispiness to the outside but the 1/8th inch thickness was perfectly chewy beneath. The filling had a surprising smokiness that made one think they were eating this on a cool desert night beneath a saguaro cactus with an open fire. Onion, Garlic, Cumin and Smoked Paprika combine to give this tender beef an over the top flavor that is simple and rustic with a definite air of sophistication.

A pedestrian street food in many places but a gourmet addition in mine and Olivia’s kitchen. We stuff ourselves on these decadent savory pastries while I contemplate that damned garage door. I have to remember to call someone.

Beef Filled Empanadas

For the roasted Sirloin (1 day before)

3-4 lb Sirloin Roast
1 yellow onion, quartered
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
3 carrots, roughly chopped
2 stalks Celery, roughly chopped
2 tbsp whole black peppercorns
1 ½ cup red wine
Salt to taste but I use about 2 tbsp

Combine all ingredients in a crock pot and cook over low to medium low heat (200-250 degrees Fahrenheit) for about 6 hours. Remove the meat and rest on cutting board until cool (up to an hour). Meat should fall apart into strands very readily. If it does not continue to cook until it does. Pull meat apart using two forks and working away from each other. Cover in container and refrigerate overnight.

For the liquid remaining in the crock pot, strain and discard the solids and use the liquid in any recipe that calls for beef broth. We need about ¾ cup for the empanada filling. It can be frozen in an airtight container for at least a month or 2 (perhaps longer but that’s as long as I ever have).

For the filling

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion
1 tbsp salt
4 cloves garlic
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional or to taste)
1 tbsp chili powder
2 tsp cumin
2 tsp smoked Paprika
1 ¼ cup beef broth
Pulled beef from day before

In a large sauce pan over medium heat add the oil and onions and salt and begin to sweat. Do not brown. Once soft and just becoming translucent (about 4-5 minutes) add the next 6 ingredients. After the tomato paste and spices combine and become aromatic (3-4 minutes) add the broth and pulled beef. Simmer over low heat until the broth is reduced and the mixture is thickened (about 10 minutes). Add broth if needed to desired consistency. Remove from heat and let cool an hour before making the empanadas.

Put these empanadas together

Empanada dough (such as this one)
Beef filling
Chopped green olives with pimento (enough for a few slices per empanada)
Enough Peanut oil to fill a large pot or deep fryer about 1/3 full (about 8 cups for me)
2 cups sour cream
3 green onions, thinly sliced
½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper

The recipe I used made dough for about 15 empanadas. I had meat for about another 15 so I suggest doubling the dough recipe I used.

Roll the dough out to about 1/8th inch thick. Cut into about 6 inch rounds (don’t get hung up on exactly 6 inches; I used a stainless steel bowl that I guessed was about 6 inches in diameter but I could be off a bit). Using a floured surface to keep from sticking, add about 2 tablespoons of the beef mix to the center of each dough circle as well as a few slices of olive. Fold into a half moon shape. The edges should be crimped down with a fork using a rocking motion on the work surface. This will give you greater control so as not to penetrate the dough. This is both aesthetic and functional. It seals the half circle and makes for an attractive presentation.

Bring a pot of oil to 360-370 degrees Fahrenheit (If you don’t have a candy thermometer, get one –they are super cheap and oil temperature is crucial in most frying recipes). Add the empanadas in batches (only add as many as can float freely in the size vessel you are cooking in) and cook for 3-4 minutes. Remove to paper towel lined plate and lightly salt immediately. Continue to work in batches until finished. Empanadas can be kept warm in a 200 degree oven while waiting for the rest to finish.

Combine the sour cream, green onion, salt and pepper in a bowl and reserve as dip for empanadas.

I serve these family style on a platter with the Scallion sour cream on the side.

Depending on the exact size of your rounds, you should get 25-35 individual empanadas.
Our next project was home made potato gnocchi. I can’t wait to tell you about that. Till next time….

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lots of Rain and Eggs

What an interesting week. Wet. Very wet. For those of you that watch the evening news, I’m really sorry us Floridians have taken so much attention. We don’t mean to be high maintenance, really. Unfortunately, tropical storm Fay had another plan. The radar silhouette seen here is what it’s looked like all week directly over my house.

And here was the scene from the back porch.

And the bird bath.

For the past two days the sun has been creeping its way back into the mix but oh so slowly. Still it is welcome. This was our sunrise this morning.

So to celebrate our liberation from constant drippiness, Olivia and I set out into the fray for a bit of exploring yesterday. 1st stop, breakfast. We headed off to one of my favorite places to enjoy the early meal of the day. Now I have to be honest, The Lucky Dill deli, at the Palm Harbor corner of Alderman Rd. and Alt-US 19, gets mixed reviews on the various websites I have scanned. But if a hearty NY style breakfast is what you’re after and you don’t live in Manhattan, this place should be on your short list. My simple opinion is this: if a breakfast place offers homemade corned beef hash, it’s probably a good place to grab breakfast. Their hash is not only spectacular with that slightly grilled crunch, but they top it with some thin shavings of the corned beef itself. Each forkful is perfectly designed for dipping into the rich egg yolk. As yummilicious as this is, I’m sure my blood moved considerably slower for at least an hour. A risk worth taking.

Before you even order, you are treated with this loaf that is dark and spicy; half bread-half cake. Tasting of cinnamon and clove, this warm starter is spectacular with the soft butter served right beside.

After a breakfast that left me quite pleased, Olivia and I went to see Winter. Winter is a dolphin missing her tail. She’s cared for at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Olivia just loves this animal. There’s no way for me to do justice to this inspiring story so I suggest you check it out here. If you get through the entire little movie without feeling at least a small lump in your throat, I suggest you entertain a career in seal clubbing. Seriously.

Our little trip to the deli made me reflect that breakfast is one of my favorite meals to be creative with and I enjoy the egg as the typical star. Sure, pancakes and the likes can be special and I even blogged about some breakfast crepes not too long ago, but the egg really is one of the most perfect foods. Its one of those foods that when I’m out of it, I need to go to the store. I might be able to get by without other ingredients but I depend on my eggs for so much.

Now this posting isn’t intended to really dazzle you with an egg recipe. Instead, I want to share with you a couple of tricks for a perfect egg. In this case the perfect scrambled egg. I know what you’re thinking. You say, “Listen crazy man, I’ve been making scrambled eggs ever since I was in the 1st grade. When I got up for school, mom was already on her 3rd glass of Gin and dad wasn’t home yet and those were the best damned scrambled eggs you could ever….” Oh wait, perhaps I’m projecting a bit. The point is, of course you can make scrambled eggs and I’m sure they are quite tasty. I’d eat them if you served them to me. Really I would.

But for the perfectly moist and luscious scramble there are a few simple things to do. You may already know all or some of these little tricks. If you do, I bet you love your scrambled eggs:

Salt the uncooked eggs. This is a tip I took from Cook’s Magazine a while back and it causes the salt to blend smoothly throughout the egg. Subtle.
Use a medium high heat and babysit the stove. Unlike most cooking where walking away and letting things develop in the pan is a good thing, scrambled eggs should be attended to. I use a fork or wisk and the eggs finish less than one minute. Keeping the eggs moving will keep them fluffy and cloud-like.
Scrambled eggs will continue to cook a bit after coming off the stove. That means don’t let them dry in the pan. They should be considerably moist when they come out.
If you want yummy treats in your scrambled eggs (like ham or green peppers), add them after you cook the eggs. The eggs cook really fast and there’s no real time for flavors to develop when combined so let each ingredient be its own star. And I am not above ketchup on my eggs but not usually.

Here’s a version I made this morning in less than 10 minutes from the second I entered the kitchen to the second I was eating. These were just perfect. Little yellow clouds of egg with the flecks of goat cheese and cold crispness of the freshly chopped green onions. Now this can’t possibly be an original recipe. Someone out there has done this or something very similar, but serve this at a brunch and you will be a hit. I only made this to serve 1 but if you are making a couple of items this would be perfect for 2.

Scrambled Eggs with Goat Cheese and Green Onion

2 slices of a good whole grain or artisan bread
1 ½ tbsp (divided to spread on toast leaving about ¾ tsp for pan)
2 extra large eggs
½ tsp salt (or to taste)
1 Green Onion (or scallion)
2 tbsp goat cheese
Fresh ground pepper to taste

Toast and butter the bread and put on plate. Wisk the eggs and the salt together and put into preheated sauté pan over medium high heat. Continue wisking until eggs just come together and are no longer runny, about 1 minute or less. Pour eggs over toast and add goat cheese crumbles and scallion. A touch of fresh ground pepper is welcome as well. Serve immediately.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Wouldn’t it be cool to leave a legacy that would be remembered for the ages? Do you think those people who invented all that stuff that we use today knew how important they’d become. People like Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Fred K. Schmidt and the list goes on and on… sorry, what?… who?... Fred K. Schmidt? You’ve never heard of him? Well, let me catch you up.

Back in the early part of the last century, Fred Schmidt of Louisville, KY, was trying to expand the late night menu at the Brown Hotel. He and the other chefs settled on several creations. Particularly, two new sandwiches landed on the menu. One was called a Cold Brown that consisted of sliced chicken or turkey, boiled egg, lettuce, tomato and Thousand Island dressing served open faced on rye bread. Now that sounds a bit yummy to me but it wasn’t the hit a creative chef might search for. Fortunately, Fred was not a one trick pony (a little Derby humor, very subtle).

The Cold Brown had a fraternal twin. Schmidt took sliced turkey, typically reserved for holidays at the time, placed it open faced on a sandwich and covered it in Mornay sauce (a creamy white cheese sauce with a Béchamel base). Then he baked or broiled it until a bubbly gooey yumfest formed. Once topped with chopped pimento and bacon strips the Hot Brown was born. It is said that there was a time where 95% of all of the menu orders at the hotel restaurant were for the new Hot Brown hit. Today, the Hot Brown is a Kentucky tradition that has spread successfully through the south and beyond. So you never know where you might be when the perfect rendition of Chef Schmidt’s creation turns up.

This past week I visited Nashville Tennessee on business. At 4th and Broadway stands an old Nashville establishment called Merchants Restaurant. This place has a history of its own dating back to the 1870’s. Located in the heart of music row, the three story structure was nearly torn down in the 80’s but with a renaissance of the downtown district, this building survived. We lucked upon it on our way to pub crawl through this musical row. We stopped in to grab a quick bite and move on. It was not intended to be one of my culinary adventures but lucky for me it was. Originally a hotel, it held many businesses over the years including a soda shop and pharmacy. The downstairs bar has the original marble countertop and tile floors. The actual history is best summed up from their website:

“With the start of the Grand Ol’ Opry across the street at the Ryman in 1925, some notable folks started staying at the hotel: Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Porter Waggoner, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Roy Acuff. Other notables included Will Rogers, Wild Bill Hickock and the James Boys (they shot someone on Broadway). As the years went by the quality of the hotel began to decline. In the Roaring Twenties it became a “speakeasy” and was affiliated with Al Capone. In the 1940’s it was a brothel. In the 70’s it became a honky-tonk and “dive” bar. By the 1980’s it was ready for the wrecking ball, but Ed Stolman and the Nashville Arts Commission saved it by having it listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”

Being in Tennessee, I wasn’t expecting to cross paths with a traditional and perfectly prepared Hot Brown but I was about to be pleasantly surprised. Even though the menu was quite eclectic my eyes seemed drawn to Mr. Schmidt’s creation. Soon I had before me the sinfully luscious sandwich. It looked exactly like a Hot Brown should. It was easy to tell this came straight from the oven because the little volcanic bubbles in the cheese sauce were prominent. There has been some evolution from the original Brown Hotel offering and to the best of my knowledge, there are only two requirements for most places to label their inspired creations Hot Browns. The sandwich needs to be served open faced and with a cheese sauce of sorts. This one followed the Louisville tradition pretty closely with the addition of sliced tomato that I’ve had in all the other Hot Browns I’ve had.

This sandwich is just delicious. The turkey meat is a perfect choice because it has no significant power in flavor. Instead it absorbs the richness of the sauce and acts as the canvas holding all of the elements together. The thick cut bacon lies atop the creamy Mornay bringing that great American flavor to this already wonderfully rich dish.

Perfectly satisfied, our night was just beginning. We enjoyed a few hours of live music in the bars of Broadway. I think I counted 5 bands. The all lady band had an original song worth noting. Singing about a poker game where she was working on a Royal Flush, the songs title reflects that she was so close but just One Jack Off. Another of the bands had a 14 year old lead guitarist who looked as though he was born with that guitar. He was phenomenal. Then there was the one with the blue grass feel complete with upright bass player and fiddle player rounding out the talented and yodeling quintet. I have to admit, if you asked me to accompany you to bars with this description, I would politely decline. It sounds rather unappealing to me. But any time your around folks having such a wonderful time, it rubs off. Plus the southern charm warms the environment nicely (the beer helps too).

If you are ever headed to the south, let their hospitality and welcoming nature lure you in. Being lost in kindness is never a bad thing. And look for that Louisville Hot Brown. Fred K. Schmidt’s legacy will live on.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Do we ever tire of the backyard cookout? No is the answer I say. Think about it, have you ever seen a photograph of men standing around a smoking grill? OK, now were any of them frowning? Of course not. There are no grumpy people at cookouts. Even if couples argue on the way to the cookout, they just check their “grumpy” at the door. All is well. Lisa and I have been meaning to have a cookout. So we did.

Sunday we invited some friends over for this pot luck style get together. I figured we’d throw some coals on the grill, our friends could bring what they wanted to throw on and we’d have a dish or 2 to share. It was also an opportunity for our friends to see our new house. So the plan was for us all to gather around lunch time, eat, and then spend the rest of the day boating (more on that in a minute). As usual, I begin the day at the grocery store with some rudimentary plan. By the time I walk out, my mental menu is quite set and I know where we’re going with these groceries. For me the meat was just some burgers and dogs but I also made my hummus, cold cucumber and yoghurt soup, and a new potato salad creation that I must share. Now I know I have a flair for the drama at times, but this may be the best potato salad ever –as in the whole history of potato salads. I loved it so much. I guess it depends on your tastes.

There were a couple of keys to this I think. As the creator of several potato salad flops over the years, I feel quite qualified to exalt a certain potato salad wisdom. This way, you don’t have to fall flat on your fanny like I did. 1st of all, skin ON!! I must admit this practice was born of my lazy nature. I hate peeling. I always tend to compare the unpeeled food pile to the peeled food pile and I just am never as far along as I think I should be. Well I was tickled to hear that potato skins were actually edible and yummy. Now they add texture and depth to almost all my potato dishes. 2nd tip is to buy the right potato for the right job. I like the Yukon Gold for this because they have a milder starchiness and they soak up the surrounding flavors better. Baking potatoes have such a great meatiness for baking and the starchy innards of the little new potatoes blend harmoniously with butter and herbs. I could drone on but I think you get the idea. Next, cut the potatoes into the right size pieces. I like them quite small. No more than an inch cubes. This serves a couple of great purposes. The surface area of the potato gets more exposure the dressing AND they are way more convenient to eat. I never enjoyed the requisite bowl of potato salad at family gatherings where each bite was one forth of the potato. If you’re counting we’re on tip #4. Doneness. Now here’s the real secret to this salad hit. I roasted the potatoes at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes. This gave the outside of each morsel a beautiful golden texture that still allowed that luscious, creamy dressing flavors to permeate. Right up there with huge potato chunk grossness is the soupy, soggy potato salad from over boiled potatoes. Blechhh! Make no mistake, I’ll boil a potato with the best of them, but the line between perfect doneness and mush is very thin indeed (and I have crossed it a few times -not pretty). On to tip number 8 (CAUGHT YOU!!!! It’s really only number 5). Mix everything together while the potatoes are hot. As I mentioned in a previous potato salad post, this allows the dressing to get into the starch before they cool and seal up. Also mix carefully not to break up the potatoes. If you really want a mashed potato recipe, I’ve got a few of those too. And finally (what tip number is this?), don’t over dress. I used to add my solid ingredients first then add the wet a bit at a time until the consistency was right. Since the potatoes are still hot, they will absorb the velvety dressing over a couple of minutes and you may need another tablespoon or so. Remember, you can always add but you cannot take away.

Wow, with all of those tips, it must sound like making potato salad is just a disaster waiting to happen. Well, there is a slight Zen to it but I had fun over the years getting to this place and if you follow these tips and this recipe you will be rewarded with a tasty side dish.

Well, it was just about the most perfect afternoon. I can’t imagine anything detracting from the children’s laughter. After eating, we put the kids in their lifejackets and were headed out to the center of the lake. Just the night before Lisa, Olivia and I had a fantastic ride under a moonlit sky returning from the dockside restaurant at the north end of Lake Tarpon. With all ready to go, I went back into the house to get the keys. They were not in the drawer. Well OK. I just had them last night. They’re around somewhere. About 3 hours later, I came to the conclusion that they were not around somewhere. I would like to say that we looked everywhere, but we obviously did not look wherever the keys were. I felt like a heel. I invited friends boating and lost the keys.

Fortunately, since we just had a cookout, no one could be grumpy. The kids didn’t seem upset. They had as much fun just playing on the boat as they could have had doing anything else. Adults put the kids in the inner tube and pushed it out into the canal then drug it back with the rope. They loved it. Olivia even fell in. I was a bit nervous about that because there is a gator that polices our canal in the evenings. I even saw him later that night as if taunting me to jump in now.

Monday was another airport day and this time off to Nashville. I was looking forward to exploring the culinary treats of this town but it was more of a pub crawl down Broadway and live music in every bar. I’ll write a bit about this place later because it does deserve its own attention. For now I’ll leave you with a potato salad you can really sink your teeth into. I can’t wait for the next cookout.

Roasted Potato Salad

3 lbs Yukon Gold Potatoes cubed into 1 inch squares
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
¾ cup chopped onion
¾ cup chopped scallion
3 tbsp mayo
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp cider vinegar
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp lemon juice
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Salt an pepper to taste

Mix the diced potatoes with olive oil and generously season with salt. Spread out on a baking sheet in a single layer. Place in a 375 degree pre-heated oven until tender and golden (about 35-40 minutes).
Immediately and while still hot, toss with the rest of the ingredients. And season again with salt and pepper. If desired, the wet ingredients can be added in batches so as not to over coat the potato.

Serves 6-8.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

On Top of Spaghetti

I’m so glad to be home. I missed the family. Now, you can read previous posts to know I wasn’t suffering too badly but still –family comes first. The other meaningful reunion was with my kitchen. It really is magical to me. The cabinet space is unending and there are shelves that roll out in the pantry –magic, I tell you. Nestled on the 3rd shelf are several types of dried pastas. Nothing special about that, I guess. I assume the rest of you have a box or two of pasta on hand. What you may not have though (or perhaps you might) is a copy of my new cookbook, “On Top of Spaghetti.” No, not MY cookbook as in “I wrote it”, but MY cookbook as in “I bought it”.

During my aforementioned and over-documented dining experience at Al Forno in Providence, I picked up a signed copy of their new cookbook. Restaurateurs Johanne Killeen and George Germon title their second cookbook leaving no mystery as to the content. No self respecting Atkins-follower would touch this with a 10 foot pole –but I will. This carbohydrate laden book is packed with so many wonderful pasta recipes, that I want to go out and buy a larger waste size before I even try one. Resisting that notion, I take note of where the sewing kit is (for popped buttons or split seams) and dive into this book head first.

Baked or boiled, fresh or dried, their love story with this simple base of Italian culture is appreciated from the fist page. What stands out to me is how basic their ingredients are for most of their recipes. With only a few exceptions, the ingredient list for any given recipe is only 6 to 8 in length, yet they are thoughtful ingredients indeed. The angel hair with zucchini is a testament to that. And what self respecting cook would use tomato juice in a sauce? Apparently, these two. Also a hit with me. They write about how they come up with their variations. Sometimes they would have loving competitions for their pasta dishes and other times the recipes are born after arriving home late and rummaging through the pantry.

Zucchini bubbling away on the stove

Within a few days of being home, I give two of these recipes a go and WOW!!!! I’m amazed at how deliciously simple this was. Both recipes take about the same amount of time to prepare (from start to finish) as it does to bring the water for the pasta to a boil and make it al dente. It just goes to show that passion and vision can combine magically (like my pantry shelves). I take some liberty when making these creations. For example, I prefer angel hair when I use a more cohesive sauce, such as pesto. So I used that with the zucchini sauce rather than the Rigatoni called for. There is no right or wrong; only delicious variation.

So here are my variations. Making either of these will set you back about 30 minutes.

Fettuccini in a Delicate Tomato Sauce with Capicola (Adapted from “On Top of Spaghetti”)

This has such a wonderful tomato perfume without the heavier acidity found in a more traditional pomodoro sauce. Along with the meatier fettuccine noodles, this light compliment infuses the taste buds as a perfect pairing. I added 2 things. I put some chopped fresh tomatoes in as well as some crisp capicola ham. Now I’m sure this changes the landscape from the original intention but the salty crispness was bright and welcome.

7 or 8 slices of deli capicola, chopped
¼ cup chopped tomato
1 ½ chicken stock (they always use home made but I used a store bought low sodium broth)
½ cup tomato juice
1 stick unsalted room temperature butter
1 lb dried fettuccine
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil for the pasta.

Render the capicola in a very large skillet. Once crisp, after about 2 minutes over medium high heat, remove with slotted spoon and place onto paper towel lined plate to drain. Add the stock, juice and half of the butter to the same skillet. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat and reduce by a quart.

Add the pasta to the water. Cook until al dente. Just before draining the pasta, add the rest of the butter to the sauce. Stir until combined. Drain the pasta very well then add to the skillet with the sauce. Turn to coat. Every strand should have the same lovely pinkish red color of the sauce. Top with the capicola.

Serve warm and pass the cheese if you like.

Serves 6-8 as a first course or 4-6 as a main

Angel Hair Pasta with Zucchini Sauce (Adapted from “On Top of Spaghetti”)

I deviate a bit from Johanne and George’s version. They call for onion instead of shallot and no garlic or olive oil. Plus I used angel hair instead of rigatoni. They also called for a touch of Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional) and grated zucchini (optional) to top the dish at the end. I don’t include either of these. I tried the cheese and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) I felt it didn’t work well and even took away from the pureness. Then I simply forgot about the grated zucchini and used all of it in the recipe. Oh well. I fell in love with this emerald green dish anyway and plan on adding it as a staple. Simple ingredients with such pure earthy flavors make this such a unique hit with zucchini being the shining star.

1 stick of butter
2 lbs firm, young zucchini, trimmed and chopped
1 large shallot, chopped
1 clove garlic
1 tsp or more kosher salt
1 cup loosely packed fresh flat leafed parsley
¼ cup olive oil plus a bit for drizzling
1 lb angel hair pasta

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the chopped zucchini. Sauté over medium high until soft. Add salt, shallot and garlic and continue to cook a couple of more minutes. Set aside and cool.
In a food processor and in batches combine the zucchini mixture with the parsley and olive oil. Pulse until coarsely combined. Return to a clean sauté pan and place on low heat.

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add the angel hair. Stir often. This will become al dente in just a couple of minutes because the pasta is so fine. Drain very well and add to the sauté pan with the zucchini sauce. Turn to evenly coat.

Serve warm.

Serves 6-8 as a first course or 4-6 as a main course

Sunday, August 3, 2008

5 Course Dinner Party In About An Hour -Impossible

Buffet style

Food even a vegetarian can eat

I’m quite pigheaded, you know. There are times I just think I know everything. Well, on those rare occasions that I stumble back down to earth, I realize I do not. Instead of following sage advice, I’m one of those guys that just has to learn on his own. This is a bad quality that has hindered me at times but it does breed a skill that I have become quite good at: Thinking on my feet. Now this has helped me both personally and professionally. I’ve actually contemplated writing a book about it but that is a topic for an entirely different conversation.

So how is this related to a food topic, you ask? Well, in the past few weeks I have executed 4 rather successful dinner parties of 10 or so people and up until this past one, much of the planning has occurred in the grocery store a couple of hours before the dinner bell. That’s a bit risky, I think. But that skill of “on your feet” thinking kicked in and I was able to come up with some great dishes. This week, I went down a different road and created an actual Menu. I mean, pen and hotel stationary. I did some internet research for ingredients too. I actually PLANNED!!!!

Rick, another of my brilliant colleagues, offered his kitchen to me this week in exchange for my self honed cooking skills. It really is an “Iron Chef” challenge to put together a meal in someone else’s kitchen in an hour or so but I’m growing quite fond of it. Rick and I emailed back and forth a few times about what to prepare. He challenged a couple of my original thoughts because there was some consensus that 2 previous dishes needed repeating. Finally our menu was settled and we set forth with the plan. Since the challenge is to get numerous “from scratch” dishes prepared in a short time, I create a list (not my strong suit). I gave unprecedented consideration to things like “getting all of the veggies chopped in advance” and “how long will it take to get this done?” long before the 1st burner was turned on. The other huge help was that another colleague, Noel was here to help chop. I’ve decided every kitchen needs a sous-chef. Noel is a vegetarian by the way so that was carefully figured into the plan. Aside form the Swordfish, every other dish was veggie friendly.

After all of the prep work, on went the burners and we were cooking. With Rick grilling the Swordfish to absolute perfection and Noel’s expert knife skills helping chop, we plated a fantastic meal in record time. In short order, we were all eating, laughing and enjoying good company and grog under a canopy of pale sunset colors in no time. The final menu:

Grilled Swordfish with Peppers, Fennel and Peppercorn Cream Sauce
Orzo, Fennel and Radish Salad with Dill Pesto (from earlier post and adapted from Bon Apetit)
Kale with Cherry Tomatoes and Parmesan (from earlier post)
Roasted Beet and Avocado Salad
Fresh bread from local bakery

I feel really compelled to share the Pepper, Fennel and Peppercorn Cream Sauce. I must admit, it was a late thought that turned out quite well. It had such a crisp peppery complexity that pared just perfectly with a swordfish canvas that had a caramel grilled crust and meaty inner texture. This sauce is very simple and I imagine could compliment chicken or fish a variety of ways. I might try this again with pink peppercorns for their brighter overtone than their black cousin. Still, a winner all around.

Then there was the real hit of the night. The Beet and Avocado salad was heavenly. A few nights after this dinner party Noel and I were eating at Al Forno in Providence. This is the restaurant where my inspiration for this salad arose. They serve it so perfectly but Noel said he liked our dinner party’s version better. I was blown away. I’m sure he had no idea how powerful that statement was. Al Forno is, without question, in my top 3 restaurants to eat at on this planet (admittedly, I have a few more to check out). And here’s someone telling me my version of one of their dishes competes well. Of course it’s not a competition but I must say I wanted to barge into the kitchen and show the chef how to do it. I mentioned I can be pigheaded.

Roasted Beet and Avocado Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette

So here are the recipes from this night and I must say, you really should consider trying this. Yummy and easy.

Grilled Swordfish with Peppers, Fennel and Peppercorn Cream Sauce

Approximately 3 lb swordfish steaks (6 oz per person)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil plus drizzle for the steaks
½ each red, yellow, green, orange bell peppers, thinly sliced into strips
½ Fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 shallot, thinly sliced
2 tbsp whole black peppercorns
1 tbsp butter
6 oz heavy whipping cream
Salt and pepper to taste

Begin heating a grill. I use charcoal at home. We used gas at Rick’s. I’m sure the flavor would have subtle differences but either would be fine. Season the swordfish with salt and pepper and a dash of olive oil to prevent sticking. Do not put on grill until the sauce is just about done. Overcooking this fish will change what people will say about it, I promise.

In a large sauté pan over medium high heat add the olive oil, peppers, fennel, shallot and peppercorns and liberally season with salt. Sauté until peppers and fennel are soft, about 6-7 minutes. Add the butter and garlic. Cook another 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and add the cream. Allow to cook another 3-4 minutes and turn heat to low.

Cook the fish on the grill for about 3 minutes per side (assuming you have steaks that are approximately ¾ inch thick and the heat is medium). They should be just slightly undercooked. Remove from heat and place on a large serving plate.

Pour the pepper, fennel and peppercorn sauce over fish and serve family style.

Serves 8

Roasted Beet and Avocado Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette

Rick roasted the beets the day before so pulling the final recipe together was simple. The vinaigrette could be made a day ahead as well but I made it on the fly. I’m not sure exactly how Rick did this but I’ll give it a go the way I would.

Beets and corn

2 lbs beets chopped into bite size chunks measuring about an inch
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Whole corn on the cob in the husk

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wrap the corn in aluminum foil and place in the oven. Line beets on an ungreased cookie sheet and drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place in the oven until the beets are soft throughout, about 30-35 minutes. Remove from oven, cool and refrigerate. Remove the corn after about 30 minutes. Shuck and remove the silk completely when cooled. Slice the corn from the cob and place in a container to refrigerate.


Juice of 1 lemon
1 shallot, finely minced
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
½ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Add the lemon, shallot and garlic then slowly drizzle the olive oil in while continuously whisking to emulsify. Season to taste.

Putting it all together

3 cups arugula
1 tbsp olive oil+ ½ tsp salt (optional)
Roasted beets
4 Avocados halved and thinly sliced
Roasted corn
Vinaigrette for drizzling

On a large serving plate for family style presentation, lay out the arugula. I like to add just a tiny bit of oil and salt directly to my arugula for an added layer of seasoning. Toss with your hands. Then lay the beets across on a single layer. With a teaspoon, lightly (very lightly) drizzle a teaspoon or 2 of the vinaigrette to this layer. Top with Avocado slices, then sprinkle with roasted corn. Another teaspoon or so of the vinaigrette, salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Serves 8.