Monday, July 02, 2007


Our garden gets a little more ambitious every year.

Last summer, we had three cherry tomato plants, a bunch of cucumbers, hot peppers that weren't even close to being hot, lots of herbs, and a crop of long beans that yielded a serving for Margy and me about three times.

This time around, we've got one grape tomato and one beefsteak tomato plant, more cukes, jalapeños that might actually hold a little heat (if they'd just mature already), oodles of pole beans (green, yellow, and purple), arugula and mixed baby greens (wonderful but now succumbing to the burgeoning summer sizzle), and again many different herbs.

And beets. Some of which are now ready. The leaves and stalks have been gorgeous -- that deep red-purple color that there's no point in calling anything else but beet red. Once the bulbs poked out of the soil and showed themselves as relatively plump and ready to be eaten, it was time to go.

Of course, one of these plants (we have three) offers only a few small beets, so that's all I had to work with today. Using a recipe from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, I cubed the beets and roasted them with olive oil and salt and pepper until they just began to caramelize. As I removed them from the oven, I popped a piece in my mouth. Sweet and earthy. Ready to become a salad. I dressed them with oil, vinegar, and fennel seeds and let them steep awhile.

Margy shaved some farmers'-market fennel ("What do you do with the tops?" said the woman who sold me the fennel, just as I was wondering myself) on the mandoline, almost shaving her palm along with it. What is it about that device? Me, I basically refuse to touch it, even though I'd love to put it to use. It terrifies me.

Bottom line: Beets plus fennel in three forms -- bulb, fronds, seeds -- equals deliciousness. Just be sure to eat a sweet salad like this along with something salty or sour, or else you'll think you've skipped dinner and gone right for (an admittedly very healthy) dessert.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Crab Month Ends on a High Note

I really should have called my dad.

Earlier, as I set out for ShopRite, I told Margy: If they still have soft-shell crabs, I'm getting some. It's the end of June; time is running out.

And what do you know, there they were, languishing in short stacks behind the glass. "Are they alive?" I asked.

"Some of them," said the fish guy, rooting around the crab bin. "But they're fresh -- they just came in today. Oh, look, that one's alive."

"I'll take four."

He knows that if something isn't up to par, then I don't need it that day. He found me four good plumpies.

Now I had to think about frying. For what was surely our last fling of SSC season, it was fry or bust. The first three times, I went with the grill, which was great, but I've regretted not breaking out the peanut oil. Sputter and pop all you want, crabs -- you're taking a hot bath.

In a way, frying was only the beginning, because my overarching scheme was to make soft-shell crab po' boys. I'd never had one, though an oyster po' boy I ate once at a place that used to be on 1st Street at 1st Avenue in NYC was until today my favorite sandwich ever.

The idea of a soft-shell crab po' boy just seemed too good to be true. It reminded me of reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a kid and poring over passages that mentioned the delectable-seeming but hopelessly exotic Turkish delight. This is just a fantasy food, I'd think while I drooled on my OshKosh dungarees.

But somehow I knew soft-shell crab po' boys existed, and I knew how I wanted to make my version. (And I'm still traumatized by the fact that real Turkish delight isn't as good as C.S. Lewis made it sound, though the deconstructed version at Zaytinya in Washington, DC, might be even better.)

While Margy broke out the mandoline to julienne carrot, zucchini, and apple for a slaw, I started with a recent Mark Bittman recipe from the Times for the basic frying method, which was fantastic. I dipped the crabs in a mixture of egg and milk, then dredged them in a 50-50 blend of flour and cornmeal and slipped them into a hot quarter-inch of oil. Good things started to happen.

To make the sandwiches, I broiled split foot-long rolls (coming just a second within having mine go up in flames) and layered them with chipotle mayo, baby red leaf from our garden, sliced pickles, and slivered red onion. On each roll went a crab and a half. That meant there was even a whole crispy, golden-brown crustacean left over for Pops, had I had the foresight to tip him off. What a lousy son.

After Margy wisely decided that one enormous sandwich was enough for her, I ate the fourth crab with a knife and fork and my fingers, drizzling it now and then with lemon juice. I saved a crunchy claw for last.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Greatest Sunday

Our farmers' market is open.

Nothing against ShopRite, but from now until mid-November we're pretty much all about the Jersey produce, grown locally, bought locally, eaten as soon as possible. And it's amazing to see what a difference a few thousand miles makes. Right now, supermarket berries are pretty good. But the ones at the farmers' market? Amazing. Margy and I bought a box of some of the juiciest strawberries we've ever had, and we found blueberries that taste exactly like... blueberries! It's the best.

I also picked up a big box of fava beans, which I had never dealt with before. I got home and read up on the ingredient, and suddenly the big box of beans seemed a lot smaller. First, you shell the beans. Then you blanch and peel them (unless they're very young and tiny, which mine weren't). The usable portion is minuscule. So I drove back to the market.

"Didn't you just get some of these?" said the guy at the stand as I grabbed a second helping. I'm guessing he's never cooked with fava beans.

A while after I got home and went to work on, oh, a hundred pods or so, I stood back from my kitchen table to see a craggy green mountain of empty casings casting a shadow over a small bowl of beans. A while after that, once I'd dropped the beans into boiling water, rinsed them, and slid off their skins, I could fit the foundation of our dinner in the cupped palms of my hands. I allowed myself to eat a single fava bean. It was ultrafresh and delicious.

I boiled about four-fifths of the beans in chicken broth along with more farmers'-market bounty -- garlic scapes and sweet summer onions -- plus oregano and parsley from our garden. Then I puréed this glorious stew and warmed it up on the stove with the rest of the whole beans and served it over spaghetti, garnished with fried garlic and the sliced green tops of the onions.

Summer really is here, and having access to ingredients like these makes those stifling, sticky days a lot easier to handle, and a lot more tasty.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Crab Month Marches (Sideways) On

Another plate of grilled crabs, even simpler still this time. All they had was a dusting of kosher salt and cracked white and black pepper. I also made soy-honey salmon.

I'm starting to feel like I'm torturing my father every time I mention my crabby exploits. He loves dear, sweet, crunchy-meaty soft-shells as much as I do, but my mom, who's the sole cook in their house, claims to be allergic. It's not hard to do the math: Pops hasn't had a crab all year. I keep telling my mom that even supermarkets sell the things now -- she says she's willing to feed my dad as many crabs as he wants, if only she could find some -- but apparently my parents have moved too far away from civilization to have access to such exotic creatures. I gotta have Dad over for dinner.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Crab Month Continues

For this week's installment, I kept the crabs simple but surrounded them with a few little goodies.

Goodie No. 1 is invisible to the eye, but it made its presence known. My parents recently traveled to Italy, the lucky ducks, and, in Amalfi (my ancestral hometown -- one of them, at least), my mom bought Margy and me a big ol' bottle of our beloved limoncello. Of course, Italian flight officials callously snatched it from her before she boarded a plane to Rome. They were supposedly invoking the no-liquids rule, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that the limoncello was not screened for explosive material -- beyond grain alcohol, that is... and we all know what that screening process is like.

So, Mom gave me the next best thing: actual Italian lemons. Big, fat, knobby lemons whose juice is sweet as candy but still carries a lovely tartness. Seems she had offered yummy cookies to their chambermaid and in return was presented with these fresh Amalfitano delights. Five lemons made it home, and I got two of them. The pressure to use them well was enormous.

With the juice of one, I made a poached shrimp dish from a recipe by Marcella Hazan. I boiled unpeeled shrimp in water perfumed with vegetables and a drop of vinegar, then peeled the cooked shrimp and marinated them, still warm, in a two-to-one mixture of good olive oil and (great) lemon juice. I used the same oil-lemon potion to dress purple baby artichokes, which I'd steamed and grilled briefly.

I also grilled the soft-shell crabs, brushed with chive butter that included zest from the Italian lemon. Those legs got nice and crispy!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Crab Month Begins

Yeah, I still cook every now and then.

Especially in May, when soft-shell crab season arrives with a great big crunch and a tasty spurt of crab mustard. Sure, I stopped by the fish counter in late April, just in case, but I was sent away with everything but soft-shells. Then I had no choice but to wait as patiently as I could.

The time finally came, and to kick off this year's soft-shell series I tried grilled teriyaki crabs, along with my stalwart teriyaki bearers, shrimp and salmon. (The stuff is great left over, though the crabs, at least, would never make it beyond this evening.) I didn't want to marinate the crabs and soften their legs and claws, so I just seasoned them with salt and pepper and began brushing on the sauce after they'd crisped up a bit on the grill.

After having my anticipation reach a fever pitch, I admit I felt more relief than joy as Margy, now home safely from Beijing and ready for everything but Americanized Chinese food, and I tucked into our first crabs of '07. But this was just an hors d'oeuvre -- there are many more soft-shells to come before the Fourth of July.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Margy's Beijing Journal: A Spicy Farewell

For the last meal of her trip, Margy, along with her hosts/culinary tour guides, ate at a place called the Middle-8th, which serves "refined Hunan food."

"Refined" is not how I'd describe that indecent-looking mound of hot peppers; "thrilling" is more like it. Of course, the peppers aren't meant to be eaten. Rather, they're there to produce heat by association, lending just a steady glow rather than outright flames to the fried heads-on shrimp they surround. Margy was generally dazzled by the chile effect in Beijing, saying that the spicy dishes carried the perfect level of heat, a mellow yet persistent tingle that was dialed only one step down from euphoric.

Adding to the pleasant feelings was a refreshing house-made rice wine that Margy described as looking like lemonade. It was served in tall, handleless bamboo pitchers and drunk from glass Mason jars, and Margy just said "I wish I had some now." Me, I'll settle for about 25 of those shrimp.

So there you have it, Margy's Beijing Journal. I hope I get to join her one day should she ever return, but for now I'll just be glad to have her back and to have someone besides myself to cook for.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Margy's Beijing Journal: Korean Detour

After you hit a donkey restaurant, how do you follow that?

In Margy's case, the answer was going to a Korean hole in the wall for some delicious bi bim bob, shredded beef and vegetables mixed into rice. Margy's gang sat at a table that was fitted with an exhaust hose for Korean barbecue, and they had kimchi and a giant scallion pancake before the main course arrived.

That's the server who's mixing the bi bim bob for Margy. How fresh and tasty it looks. One bite... just give me one bite!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Margy's Beijing Journal: What Have We Here?

Tonight, as Margy was finishing up her workday, her friends/hosts asked a familiar question in a most unfamiliar way. Instead of the usual "What would you like to eat tonight?" or "What are you in the mood for now?" they asked, "Would you like to eat some donkey?"

"Sure..." Margy said, not a little timidly. "Is it good?"

Next thing she knew she was whisked off to what seemed like the outskirts of town, where she and her posse drove down a dirt road and arrived at a building that was hopping with activity and aglow from the neon sign out front (Margy says she saw lots of neon on her trip). The sign was translated for her: "Beijing's #1 Donkey Restaurant."

Now that I think of it, I neglected to ask how many other donkey restaurants there are in Beijing.

The place offered its signature ingredient in an array of preparations, and Margy's party chose donkey patties (top right). She said they were quite good, covered with sesame seeds and filled with juicy red meat. (The big pot holds a mountain of tofu, which was eaten with the sauces, presumably nondonkey all, in front of the pot.) I think she understood that her hang-ups -- if, in fact, she had any; I'm not quite sure -- were purely cultural and that hey, this is where you eat donkey, so gimme some. When I got her text message about this swashbuckling dinner, I said to myself, I married the right girl. Of course, then I said to myself, Wait, I've never eaten donkey.

So send me to China and bring me to Beijing's #1 Donkey Restaurant, and I'll do my part. But you know what they say about donkey: It goes straight to your ass!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Margy's Beijing Journal: Chou Dofu

...or, as it is more commonly known, "stinky tofu" -- tofu that's been marinated in a brine of fermented vegetables.

It's the yummy-looking fried stuff on the plate at left. How innocent it seems -- golden cubes of crispy deep-fried food. Fried anything is good -- how strange could this be?

According to Margy, pretty strange.

A few days ago, after correctly pegging Margy as an adventurous eater, one of her hosts started chatting her up about stinky tofu, asking whether she'd ever had it and beginning to prime her for the experience. Was this a test? After all, Margy had two hosts, and the other one didn't want to have anything to do with the stuff. But Margy was game.

She said she took two bites and knew that fermented tofu wasn't the dish of her dreams (okay, she knew this after the first bite, but she wanted to be sure). The smell and flavor were superstrong and a bit too jarring to be enjoyable. The other American at the table plugged ahead a little longer than Margy before he too gave up.

Luckily there were other, more familiar foods going around, like a whole fish with chili sauce. Margy had lots of whole fish in Beijing, and what could be better? Anyway, the only real reason to object to eating whole fish is that dealing with bones can be a drag, and in general Chinese don't mind dealing with bones. Margy's companions used their chopsticks to make quick work of the task.

While the Beijing gang sipped plum wine and noshed on stinky tofu, I was at Rudy's on 9th Avenue having "rehearsal" with my band, which consisted of drinking beer and eating a lousy but free hot dog, which, now that I think of it, might have also been fermented...

Monday, April 30, 2007

Margy's Beijing Journal: Hot Pot

Tonight was Margy's introduction to Mongolian hot pot. (I don't think it counts that we've visited the dreadful J.P. Lee's in Millburn, NJ, a Mongolian barbecue place that's like a less fun version of a hibachi restaurant.) The joint was hip and classy, and parties could seal themselves off from the throng by closing what Margy described as a shower curtain around their table.

Legend has it, Margy says, that Kubla Khan brought hot pot to Beijing from Mongolia, though tonight I believe someone else delivered it to Margy's table. A big pot of broth was set over a burner in front of the diners, and Margy and her companions used chopsticks to grab a slice of meat from a tray and then swirl it around the broth for a scant minute until it was cooked. After the meat came a plate of dumplings, which were bathed in the broth in the same way. To the left of the broth is a bowl of tripe.

Me, I had Vietnamese food on Baxter Street in NYC -- not bad, but hardly a trip to the Forbidden City followed by a hot-pot feast.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Margy Goes to China!

Please forgive my absence. I've been eating bad takeout in New Jersey while Margy's been off frolicking in Beijing.

Okay, I exaggerate. She wasn't only frolicking; she was working very hard too. Alas, it just wouldn't have been practical for me to join her on this tightly packed business trip, so I held things down at home and wished for her quick return.

Margy's first taste of Beijing's many culinary delights was in the courtyard of the Huajia Yiyuan Restaurant, after she'd endured a full day of traveling and didn't know which end was up. (Though conveniently, with Beijing being twelve hours ahead, she didn't have to change her watch.)

But if Margy's body and mind had no idea what was going on, her appetite knew exactly what to do, and she had a great first meal, which was ordered by her two gracious and knowledgeable hosts and washed down with Chinese beer. Just look at those greens! As I imagine what they tasted like, I kind of feel like a fool for not finding a way to share this exotic trip with my beloved world traveler. Sigh. In the foreground is a plate of tofu on top of mushrooms, and at right is another assortment of mushrooms (or so Margy guesses). She loved it all, and then came the Peking duck. Sigh.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Choke Char

I am something of a suggestible shopper. Place Reese's Peanut Butter Cups in my path, and I'm bringing them home. And, somebody, please stop putting Kinder displays right next to the register. They're working too well.

Luckily, my willingness to depart from my list doesn't apply only to candy. The other day, ShopRite had a big display of baby artichokes set prominently in the vegetable section: rows of shrink-wrapped packages, each holding nine neatly arranged little artichokes. I was powerless to resist.

I'm hardly an expert choke wrangler. I'd worked with full-size artichokes a few times, but it had been years. Margy, who's known to make an awesome whole fish with artichokes, has had a little more experience. But let's just say my purchase meant this was a special occasion -- we had spiky green guests in the house, and I was on my best behavior.

I tore open the package and dumped the little guys on the table. They rolled around a bit, orbiting out in random directions. I collected them and began to whittle. A few long minutes later I was looking at a huge pile of stiff green leaves and nine puny yellow-green cylinders. These were obviously not so-young-you-barely-have-to-peel-them baby artichokes, but among the wreckage I had enough to make an ample side dish to go with grilled sausages.

I steamed the suckers for about ten minutes, let them cool, and tossed them in a few tablespoons of lemon vinaigrette (lemon juice, olive oil, Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper). Then they followed the sausages on the grill, to take on a bit of char. When they were done I dressed them in more vinaigrette. They were fun to eat, pleasantly al dente, with their natural tanginess highlighted by the lemony dressing. Given all the work they required -- the peeling, the slicing, the steaming -- I think baby artichokes will remain infrequent guests, but we'll definitely look forward to their next visit.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Happy Easter

Ah, Easter at my parents'. One of the only feasts that could possibly follow a Peking duck pilgrimage with any real success.

The troops fell in -- Margy and me, my three sisters plus entourage, and my folks -- and Mom kicked things off, and nearly ruined my appetite for anything else, with her beloved meat pie. Its literal name is pizza piena, or stuffed pizza, but the glories of dialect and Italian-American bastardization have basically rendered it "pizza keen" (or "pizza gain"; pick your fave). Eggs, cheeses, meats and sausages, and brown, flaky crust: It's pretty much the perfect food. I swore I'd only have two slices. I had four.

Mom ran the show, as is everyone's preference (including Mom's). She made the gorgeous ham, the roasted potatoes, the artichokes, the broccolini. But the rest of us pitched in. Sister #2, who brought along a vegetarian friend (he's a great guy so we forgive him), made quinoa and black bean cakes with chipotle mayo, which I nominate as an Easter staple from now on. I made Indian tamarind sauce to go with the ham, at my mom's request. The sauce was a little spicy for certain more timid tastes, but at least I could count on my brother-in-law to slurp it up, hot peppers being his drug of choice. Kudos to my mother -- she was right that the sweet-tangy-spicy condiment would work well with ham. And sister #1 joined the dessert fray with a great-looking chocolate cream pie that sat beside my mom's Italian cheesecake.


Wait a second. I'm counting here and coming up short. Sister #3, didn't you bring anything to the Easter table? No, leftover Peking duck doesn't count! And neither does a hearty appetite! You're a baker for heaven's sake! Next year you're making me a chocolate lamb.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Peking Duck (in da) House

Such a lovely day, such a lovely duck.

My sister was in town from Vermont for Easter, and at the last minute we decided to give her a Manhattan dream day, or at least a fun trip to the city with the promise of Peking duck as the climax. We kicked things off in the East Village with a quick visit to an organic vegan restaurant, Angelica Kitchen. Not to eat, silly, but to say hello to one of my sister's VT-transplant friends. And then I took Sis on a subjective culinary tour of the neighborhood.

We strolled by Una Pizza Napoletana and considered ordering an "appetizer." (We wimped out.) We walked past Hearth, Rai Rai Ken, and the old site of Iso, where Margy and I had our true sushi awakening years ago. This sister doesn't do sushi, but her pastry-chef ears perked up when I told her we were right near the famous bakery Veniero's. (I also told her how disappointing I've found its pastries, though it's been awhile.)

To this point our "food walk" had found us taking nary a bite of anything, so we dropped in for a few cookies or a sfogliatella. Wouldn't you know there was a line that snaked clear through the bakery and all the way down the hall of the dining room. Obviously Easter is a good time for Veniero's. We moved on, our minds filled with sustaining thoughts of duck.

Next we tooled around the West Village for an hour or two, and then it was time to meet Margy in Chinatown. We found our third parking spot of the day -- at this point I really felt like I was pushing my luck -- not too far from Mott Street and the Peking Duck House.

I should mention that this whole thing was a bit of a quest for my sister. When we were planning the trip and I asked her where she'd like to eat, she didn't hesitate. She'd heard about the incredible pie at Una Pizza. I'd told her all about the steamed pork buns at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. She wanted the duck.

I'm happy to say she got her fill. I figured one bird would go pretty far among three people, but I wasn't certain. Anyway, we went all out with our appetizer round and ordered both pork dumplings and pork buns, so we weren't about to go hungry. We also balanced things out -- yeah, right -- with some sautéed Chinese cabbage, which was delicious and still held a bit of crunch.

But again, this was all about the duck. Even the absurdly loud and out-of-place techno music pulsating from the speakers couldn't dampen our enthusiasm for the magical meat on the platter in front of us. (I could swear they were playing lite-FM on our last visit, and I'll take robotic techno every time over the dreaded "American Pie.")

Peking Duck House is hardly the snazziest or the most interesting restaurant in New York City, but it bears remembering that the place does indeed get into some pretty important details, even beyond the duck itself. Take the pancakes. They're thin but soft, a little stretchy -- a far cry from the dry, dusty, easily torn wraps that accompany moo shu dishes at inferior joints. And the hoisin sauce is more delicate in flavor and less sweet than most, which makes a huge difference.

It's what the duck demands, par for the course for a bird this good. We sat right near the carving station and watched the "duck guy" deftly run his knife into each dark-roasted specimen until its flesh was set onto a plate in a swirl of perfect slices. Finally, it was our turn, and we asked for the bones, which as presented are really just the leg bones. But that would suffice.

We rolled our own pancakes, with hoisin, scallions, and cucumbers, and at last my sister's quest was coming to fruition. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she made numerous yummy sounds. Margy ate quietly, smiling and sipping her Tsingtao. Me, I just repeated "Wow" a few dozen times. We hadn't made a trip to the racetrack, yet we'd hit the richest trifecta of all: delicious meat, crispy skin, and luscious fat. My sister had picked a winner.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Pasta and Pastry

A reliably good Italian restaurant is a wonderful thing, especially if it isn't far away. Basilico in Millburn is just such a place, a BYO with great food and an atmosphere that looks Manhattan-style trendy, with dark red tones, wood floors, big windows out front, and high ceilings. The staff is friendly, the prices are reasonable -- if I weren't obsessed with cooking, it's the kind of place where I'd want to eat every couple weeks.

Tonight we were packing a gift certificate from my parents, so we went all out. We had a trio of ceviches and a stuffed artichoke to start, then Margy had porcini ravioli with truffle sauce and I had a special of seafood ravioli with vodka sauce, asparagus, and mushrooms. Everything was delicious, especially the ravioli. The homemade pasta was just the right thickness -- we could almost but not quite see the filling smiling through each tasty little package -- and it had been expertly cooked. We wiped our plates clean with fluffy focaccia.

But we saved room for dessert, which is essential here. Though Margy's banana tart was excellent, the apricot strudel (pictured) took first prize. I can't decide how I feel about the presentation -- gorgeous? clumsy? overwrought? -- but we didn't look at it for long. The strudel was warm, the filling was hot, the ice cream was cold. It was over before we knew it.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Don't Try This at Home?

One of the coolest places in all of New Jersey is the Mitsuwa Japanese Marketplace in Edgewater. I'm trying to think of something you can't get there, and I'm coming up blank. There's an amazing produce section that offers nothing but prime specimens and includes enough imported fruits and vegetables to set my heart aflutter. There are shelves packed with all kinds of rice, condiments, tea, seaweed, and other dry good(ie)s, plus a vast sake section (which really should come with a person to help us neophytes make sense of all the choices). There are huge cases of fresh, vibrant-looking meats. There are even more cases of sashimi-grade seafood, from familiar varieties (salmon, tuna) to more esoteric choices (salted herring roe) to the just plain decadent (a big box of sea urchin that I wanted to scoop into my mouth as I shopped). And then there's the food court, which boasts a ramen house, a gyoza stand, a sushi bar, a cream puff shop, a tonkatsu counter, and a pasta station.

A pasta station? Hey, we're still in Jersey.

I had been to Mitsuwa once before, solo, but this was Margy's maiden voyage. Her eyes grew wide as we entered. It was a bustling Sunday afternoon, so rubbing elbows with everyone else was unavoidable, but we didn't mind. All the activity simply added to the impression that we had actually arrived in Tokyo.

Margy did hone in pretty quickly on the one thing Mitsuwa seems to lack: a gift shop. But I'm not sure we turned every stone -- there may be one back there someplace. Plus apparently there's an ordinance in the area about selling certain goods on Sunday, so the aisles and aisles of rice cookers and other fun-looking appliances were kept under wraps. We'll be back, and we'll find the gift shop. Anyway, there was an enormous sweets counter that held every imaginable variety of candy and cake, many of which looked too precious and ornate to eat (and some of which, I'm sure, would be too shocking to the western palate to enjoy, as has been my experience with Japanese desserts). That stuff would make great gifts, depending on the recipient.

The first thing we did was eat lunch -- gyoza and fried rice with a tiny cup of broth and a small daikon-and-seaweed salad. This good-sized meal was $6.95 (Margy and I ordered the same thing), and it was delicious and had been made to order. After lunch we took a walk by the river, and it sometimes seemed like we could toss a pebble and hit the west side of Manhattan.

When our stroll was complete, we returned to Mitsuwa to shop.

It wasn't easy to stop. I felt an electric current of adrenaline as I picked through things I'd never seen before, never even heard of. I grabbed some new stuff, some of the usual, some "eureka!" favorites, some things I had no idea what to do with. We bought two tiny yuzu fruits. We bought Japanese tofu. We longed for a knobby root of fresh wasabi, but it was $99.99 a pound and we put it back. We agreed that tonight we'd have sashimi at home, at our kitchen table, which we'd never even considered before.

Back at the ranch, the buzz of discovery continued into the evening. Among our purchases were four kinds of produce that were new to our kitchen: yuzu (citrus fruit), myoga (a mild gingerlike bulb), mitsuba (an herb that sort of falls between parsley and celery), and mizuna (a slender salad green). What the hell was I going to do with these things?

First I made some sashimi dipping sauces, including a riff on ponzu that used the zest and juice of the yuzu plus soy sauce and grated ginger. I'll tell you, those little fruits are stingy, with a yuzu about the size of a small plum yielding maybe two teaspoons of juice. But this juice was transporting -- it was a familiar flavor, but it was exotic at the same time, possessing a sharpness and a bitterness that distinguished it from other citruses. For a bit of our beloved heat, I mixed up some wasabi from a powder that my sister had given me, and I used Sriracha sauce to make a chile-ginger dip. I used the other produce in a salad and whipped up a sesame-yuzu dressing. (I was going to squeeze every last drop from those four-dollar fruits.)

Meanwhile, I had a second course in mind to follow the sashimi: the famous black cod with miso. If I'm not mistaken, Margy and I had eaten this dish only once, during our sole visit to Nobu, and it vaulted right to legendary status in our food memories. Sweet, salty, fatty, with a bit of crispy skin -- it was a perfect food, great fun to eat. A few years ago I tried making a version with salmon -- I got the recipe from Nobu's cookbook -- and we both found it a little sweet. This, after marinating, and obsessing over, it for two days. In the years since, I've noticed black cod with miso on just about every Japanese menu, but I believe it's still considered Nobu's signature dish. Today, since I'd found actual black cod at Mitsuwa, I tried a "quick version" recipe from the wonderful Washoku by Elizabeth Andoh, which calls for -- guess what? -- yuzu peel. The cod was marinating as I got the sashimi ready.

Now, I have tried my best over the years to cultivate a certain kitchen fearlessness, with "Why not?" as my motto. Can an Italian-American punk from Jersey make a real Indian curry? Why not? Can he steam a chicken the Chinese way? Why not! But suddenly, in the simple act of slicing raw fish, I was losing my nerve, feeling like I somehow had no right to do what I was doing. All because of tradition.

It's a dream of mine to be a sushi chef. And sushi chefs in training don't get to make sushi for years. For the first, say, 24 months or so, they scrub the wooden bar. Once they've gained proper respect for their surroundings, they begin learning to make rice, which takes a long time to master. Only after they've perfected the rice, way down the line, do they get to begin to use a knife. And so it goes, give or take -- and now here I am, catapulting myself light years ahead to the fish-slicing part, and I haven't even washed the table. I felt like I was intruding.

But I wasn't about to stop, so I even dared to try to arrange our sashimi platter with a little bit of clumsy flair. I laid out little piles of sweet shrimp (amaebi), with rows of tuna and yellowtail, plus thin rings of Japanese cucumber and stacks of julienned myoga. The yellowtail was particularly uncooperative and fell apart a bit, but it made it to the plate successfully.

And then, next thing we knew, we were eating sashimi in our kitchen. All of the fish were of top-notch freshness. The shrimp were creamy and melted in our mouth, the tuna was tender and clear tasting, and the yellowtail was firm and briny. The ponzu sauce definitely represented a step up in complexity as opposed to plain soy sauce. I look forward to benefiting from the skills of a real sushi chef in the near future, but this experience was aces in terms of kitchen empowerment. Plus it was downright delicious, not to mention wildly entertaining. And the black cod came out beautifully -- thanks to an amazing piece of fish, a shriveled but powerful citrus fruit, and a wise Japanese chef and teacher.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Meats and Things

Last time Margy made pizza, there were many mouths to feed, so she whipped up an unusually large batch of dough. I asked her to freeze a little of it, for two reasons:

1. I didn't want either of us to have to spend an entire evening slaving over a hot baking stone.

2. I wanted to keep trying to make Those Things.

Fast-forward to this morning, when I woke up thinking, Steak. Those Things. Steak. Those Things. Steak, AND Those Things! I became bewitched by the idea of beef and anchovies (the latter being a vital ingredient in Those Things) making sweet music together on our dinner plates. I could not get the idea out of my head. And Margy was all for it.

At the market, I couldn't find a single steak that was large enough to feed both of us, so I augmented a little porterhouse with a few lamb chops. (Lamb. Anchovies. Lamb, AND anchovies!) And I decided to try my hand at creamed spinach, which I love but had never made.

We let the dough defrost for a while in the fridge, and then we took it out so it could rise. Later on, I stretched it, sprinkled it with sweet paprika and hot pepper flakes, dumped a can of anchovies on top, oil included (this is of paramount importance), and rolled and sliced it. I'm still nowhere near achieving the crisp-and-chewy wonder of my aunt's (or my grandmother's) efforts -- remember, she uses supermarket dough, which may somehow be key -- but having even second-rate Those Things is cause for celebration. And I can tell you this: They go great with a mixed grill. And so does creamed spinach.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Health Food

After a recent steady diet of meats and tomatoey Italian dishes, we felt like we needed something a little lighter. So I whipped up some shrimp. With lots of bacon. I served them over grits. With tons of cheddar cheese.

Well, so much for that "lighter" thing. On the other hand, we didn't really eat lunch...

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Of Sauces and Florets

I like to serve fish pretty simply, but I've also been experimenting with quick sauces to enhance the flavors.

Tonight, as I pan-fried pieces of steelhead trout, I whisked together a little potion on the next burner. I made the tiniest roux possible, with just a bit of butter and flour, since I wanted to bind the sauce without making it thick. I added an anchovy and broke it up, and then I poured in some white wine and shrimp stock. A dab of tomato paste for color, a few strokes of the whisk, and it was ready. Could I have made more of this tasty liquid? Sure. But I was going for just a small pool of flavor, not a full bath, and so the fish-to-sauce ratio seemed right. The trout received just a dash of pick-me-up on its way home.

Meanwhile, I roasted cauliflower with olive oil and pancetta. Per my mom's instructions, I cooked it nice and hot -- 475 -- and turned it with tongs along the way, until it had the proper char. Even without pancetta (bite my tongue!), this is something I could eat just about every day. Roasted cauliflower, you've officially entered our heavy rotation.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Paella Pretender

Ever since I got that great Spanish chorizo for Margy's empanadas, I've been looking for ways to slip the remainder of the sausage into our meals. A bastardized paella had been taking shape in my mind for weeks.

Tonight I gave it a shot. I cooked Arborio rice with chorizo, tiny pork spare ribs from the Asian market, shrimp, clams, peas, shrimp stock (didn't have any chicken stock), aromatics, saffron, and herbs. I definitely wouldn't call it paella, but I would call it dinner. The only bummer was the clams, which were rubbery, but at least they lent the dish a bit of briny sea essence, so they weren't a total washout. The highlights were the smoky, spicy chorizo and the tiny ribs, which were short on meat but long on porkaliciousness.

I should probably backtrack and attempt a traditional paella -- with that great crust on the bottom and all -- but for now this was a fun start. It was a little runny when compared to the real deal, so I'll just call it Spanish risotto and leave it at that.

Sticking with Sardines

Tonight, only sardines would do. Call it the need for oily fish.

Sardines aren't easy. Cheap, yes. Delicious, absolutely. But those little tiny bones, they can become a concern. Even the highly skilled guys at our Asian market's fish counter throw up their hands when you ask them to clean 'em. ("Only gut," is a common refrain.) So when I buy sardines, I feel the same way I do when I buy heads-on shrimp: excited, but a little guilty that I'm about to make Margy labor for her dinner.

Thing is, the bones are so small, in fact, that I'm pretty sure you can just eat them. The thinner, brittler ones, anyway. The pattern for me is always the same: I treat sardine #1 with kid gloves, gingerly excising each translucent little bone with the focus of a surgeon. I work hard for every omega-3-packed morsel I throw in my mouth. Then, somewhere, somehow, a bone or two gets through and I realize it's not the end of the world (as long as I make sure to chew). By sardine #2 I'm throwing caution to the wind.

Luckily, you can get in a rhythm of filleting the sardines and removing the majority of the skeleton in one motion, greatly cutting back on the bone crunching. And it's worth it -- there's nothing like a nice stack of freshly cooked sardines. Their flavor is related to that of their canned counterparts (which, let's be honest, have their share of little bones as well), but the fish are meatier, tastier, more succulent.

Tonight I cooked the sardines in hot oil for a minute and then poured in teriyaki sauce, which got nice and sticky and almost burnt in spots as it cooked along with the fish. Its potent salty sweetness was a good match for the strong-flavored sardines.

I adapted the side dish from the Crispy Vegetables that accompany Lemongrass-Crusted Skate (sounds good) in Dominique's Fresh Flavors. Margy, the mandoline expert, julienned daikon, carrot, broccoli stems, and celery root, and we tossed them in sesame oil with a little soy sauce and Sriracha hot sauce. Whenever we grew weary from the precision demanded by eating sardines, we could just tear into the rice and veggies with flagrant disregard for any consequences.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Murray's Cheese and an Italian Tortilla

Every month, Enzo and his wife receive a pound and a half of cheese from Murray's Cheese Shop. Whenever possible, they share the wealth. For example, when the band did our annual Vermont gigs in January, along came that month's fromage. The Gorgonzola was eaten heartily; the one nicknamed "Old Stinker" didn't have to be unwrapped to reveal its undesirability and spent the weekend shivering on the porch, only to be tossed altogether once it made it back to New York City. (I understand the latter variety to be an aberration. Apparently Murray's tends to ship edible cheeses much more often than "I dare you"-type selections.)

Tonight Margy and I attended one of Enzo's cheese parties. On the invitation email, he referred modestly to "light fare," but he and his wife presented quite the impressive spread -- three excellent cheeses of the month (Gouda and two softer Brie types), bread and crackers, fruit and crudités, olives, quince jam, assorted salumi, proscuitto-wrapped asparagus, and Enzo's terrific Spanish tortilla (pictured). Everything was tasty, as was the wine, which flowed freely and included guests' selections as well as bottles from our hosts' carefully chosen private stock. A little later on, someone brought baked Brie in a bread bowl, and Enzo made sliced-steak crostini. Long after our other bandmates had switched to Budweiser, it was kielbasa time. No one went home hungry... or sober.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Shank Shack

We hadn't seen my parents for a while, so we booked them for a Sunday dinner at our place.

And so began the discussions of what to cook. Mom -- easy. Anything but soft-shell crabs and Brussels sprouts. (Weird, I know. In my heart I still believe I'll find a way to get her to like Brussels sprouts.) Virtually any nationality is fair game. Dad, though -- tough. He claims he likes just about everything, but I say there's a shade of distinction between eating everything and actually liking everything.

"I love Indian food," he'll say. "But only the best." First of all, it's hard to love Indian food if you can't stand cumin. Secondly, the idea of "the best" -- somehow, improbably, an objective standard in my father's mind -- can get pretty muddy outside the largely European concept of fine dining, where more stars often mean higher prices and more reliable quality. Is "the best" Indian food found in the most opulent restaurants? Not in my experience. Even after all these years it's hard for me to follow my dad's reasoning when he goes down this path. To his credit, it probably harks back to the time when there were only a handful of decent Chinese restaurants in New York City ("decent," I can work with). He hunted for them, and he found them, while all I have to do is open a Zagat's.

Anyway, Dad is actually pretty open-minded. He really will eat anything, which I greatly admire. It's just that when you're his son and daughter-in-law and you have him over for dinner, you're wise to stick pretty close to Italy and France. And if you make a salad, you should probably skip the balsamic.

Since we don't really do much French food around here, and since a visit from the food-savvy parentals is hardly the time to experiment, we settled on Italian, which led quickly and easily to the idea of osso buco. After all, I needed something that isn't in my mom's bag of tricks (not much to choose from there), and I don't remember her ever making osso buco, while I'm pretty comfortable with it. It's not hard to be comfortable with something that doesn't need much coaxing to melt itself into the most rich and velvety and tender and delicious substance known to humankind.

So yesterday morning I headed over to my favorite butcher to get the meat. I was a bit worried, because sometimes they're out of osso buco, and I didn't want to have to get it at the supermarket, where it's not as pristine. I tried to drag myself out as early as I could.

I walked through the door and made a beeline to the pork/veal/lamb case. Standing right there, holding an overflowing basket of assorted meats, was my mother.

We laughed, and hugged, and she said to the guy who was buying short ribs, "My son!" He remarked that the resemblance was clear.

"I'm shopping for you," I said to my mom, who of course protested. Wait till she sees what I have in mind, I thought. There was no point in hiding it. I told her, just as the guy in front of me said to the butcher, "I'll take those last three osso buco."

I nearly fainted. Then I saw another whole shank sitting in the case. Phew.

I asked for four pieces, and the butcher went to cut them for me. They were absolutely beautiful, and even he couldn't help but admire his fine product. He weighed them -- at $13.99 a pound, the quartet came to $52.75. Yikes. My mom had to be standing right there, didn't she? "You're worth it," I insisted.

We walked together to the register, and Mom, with her lamb chops, sausages, chicken, and roast turkey -- and probably a few other things I missed -- rang up around $40. She asked if she could pay for the osso buco. "Please, Mom, don't worry about it. We want to make you guys a nice dinner!" I was concerned that she would overcompensate by bringing a case of wine instead of the bottle or two we'd asked them to pick out.

Then I walked her to her car and said see you tomorrow.

This morning, Margy got to work on her incredible raspberry bars while I chopped vegetables and patiently browned the osso buco, which I first dredged in a little flour. Okay, not so patiently. But it's a crucial step, and I saw it through, all 40 minutes or so of it (I had to do it in two batches). Once those two things were out of the way, I was basically home free. I splashed some white wine in the Dutch oven I was using, and I scraped up the precious remnants of the browning process.

Then I added a bit more olive oil to the pot, threw in finely chopped onion, carrot, and celery, and let the vegetables soften. A few minutes later I added a minced clove of garlic and a minced chile, and I let that go for a minute. Then came the braising liquid -- white wine, chicken stock, and canned tomato, plus salt and pepper. In went the meat, and I adjusted the liquid so it came up about halfway around the shanks. I brought the stew to a boil, turned off the heat, and put the covered pot in a 375-degree oven for two hours.

The 53-dollar veal did not let us down. Sticking to tradition -- a most tasty tradition at that -- I served the osso buco with risotto alla Milanese. Broccoli too (no salad). My parents were impressed. But I tried to deflect the credit. Yes, I didn't mess anything up, but really I didn't do anything all that snazzy. It's the shanks themselves. The melting fat has a magical effect on the flavor and texture of the sauce, and who can resist meat that's so tender and juicy that it falls apart? Add the wonderful bonus of the luscious marrow -- spread it on bread, on a forkful of risotto, or, in the ultimate move of meaty audacity, on a piece of the osso buco itself -- and forget it. Osso buco rules. I'm just the middleman.

We all managed to save room for Margy's raspberry bars, which have a shortbread crust and a streusel topping. They're crumbly, chewy, and crunchy all at the same time, and they were the perfect end note to our operatic feast.

Oh, and my parents brought one bottle of wine. And a giant basket of assorted treats from the Italian store -- olive oil, dried beans, imported tomatoes, ladyfingers. Aw, my mother. No way was she coming to an osso buco party empty-handed.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Indian Griddle

One night a few years ago when I couldn't sleep and I'd repeatedly woken Margy with my sheet-shuffling rolling and tumbling, I decided to just get up and watch some 4am TV. (If television isn't the cure for insomnia, I don't know what is.) Jamie Oliver was on, and he was making tasty-looking Technicolor Indian food. One of his dishes was a pancake made with chickpea flour batter and filled with goodies like herbs, vegetables, and chile peppers. Before I finally drifted back into slumber, I took note of this clever little treat. I'm not sure what it would be called in India, if anything, but it seems related to bhaji.

Later, when I came to, I looked around for recipes for Indian pancakes, and I consulted my authority, the cooking-school wiz kid. And then -- once I finally located a reliable source of chickpea flour -- I just played around, going largely on my fuzzy memories of the Naked Chef. I thinned the flour with water and added spices and flavorings, and though some efforts were better than others, the results were usually pretty good. According to my associates, my pancakes were thicker than anything similar would be in India, but since I was experimenting, I didn't mind. And Margy loved these things. Could not get enough.

So this morning when I asked if she had any requests, she responded with two little words: Indian pancakes.

It will be done.

Not long into the process, I remembered my usual pancake pitfalls: getting distracted by other dishes, and having too much batter.

Distraction: Along with a nice chutney or two (in this case, and in most cases, a spicy cilantro-mint chutney recipe from Madhur Jaffrey and an amazing tamarind sauce from the book Mangoes & Curry Leaves), these chickpea pancakes could easily make a meal in themselves. But for some reason I insist on going further. Tonight I made a shrimp curry as the main course, and tending to it took some of my attention away from the pancakes. I need a controlled environment where I'm able to focus on just the one thing, so I can make sure I get it right. I say this every time, but writing it down might help. Next time I make only pancakes. (Well, and chutneys. But I get those out of the way first.)

Too much batter: These things (never to be confused with Those Things) are great reheated in the toaster oven. Add Margy's love of leftovers, and I know I have to make plenty. The problem comes when I set aside too much filling -- slivered onions and chilies, shredded spinach, chopped shrimp -- and then refuse to waste any, which means I have to overstuff that last batch of pancakes, which means they turn out too plump and not crisp enough. Next time I'm using one onion, one chile, four leaves of spinach, and three shrimp, and that's it.

The good news is that I can't lose. The batter is so easy to deal with and cooks up so effortlessly that even imperfect pancakes are still terrific. But, dammit, one of these days I intend to bring forth the pancakes of my, if not necessarily Jamie Oliver's, dreams.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Risotto Life

Whenever someone asks if I have a specialty in the kitchen, I scratch my head and say I guess it's risotto.

If my risotto is any good -- I hate to brag, but it is -- this is because I've paid my dues. I didn't just buy a bag of Arborio rice one day and instantly know how to tame that wild beast. No, no. I had to work at it; I had to domesticate the stuff, show it who's boss. Because, as I've said before, my early efforts had me stirring frantically for what seemed like hours.

But maybe the person who coined the phrase "practice makes perfect" was a cook, since all it really takes to get a dish right is a little familiarity. You can't immerse yourself properly in the details until you've gained some perspective on the general concept and readied yourself to dive deeper. Make risotto ten times, in a reasonably condensed period (so you're able to retain the lessons you learned during the previous run), and I bet you'll have a real handle on the process by No. 5 and will feel like a master by the time you're done.

It's easy.

There are only two kinds of people who should not make risotto:

* Those who are wholly, utterly, hopelessly devoid of patience
* Those who think store-bought broths and stocks are acceptable flavoring agents

I should probably add "Those who do not drink" to the list, since the risottatore's most trusty companion during the stirring process is a bottomless glass of wine -- hey, you've opened a bottle anyway; risotto itself demands a hearty drink of vino in order to cooperate with your spoon -- but that would be coarse of me. Do it dry if you must.

Now, I don't consider myself to have a specialty within my specialty -- that is, I prefer to switch it up. My most common choices are risotto alla pescatore, or "fisherman's" risotto, which I make with shrimp stock, and mushroom risotto, which I make with chicken stock. But the basic process is virtually the same for whatever kind you choose:

You gently cook a soffrito (always onion, sometimes along with other goodies, like leeks, celery, shallots, and anchovies) in butter and olive oil, add the rice and let it toast for a couple minutes, hit it with a splash of wine (see above), begin stirring, add hot stock, keep stirring, add more stock, do more stirring, and then, maybe 20 or 25 minutes down the line, you have the ultimate creamy, steaming, savory, delicious substance in front of you, begging to be devoured. (Some might call it the ideal comfort food, but I hate that term. I find all tasty food -- not just mushy stuff that doesn't require chewing -- to be comforting.) Near the end of the process, you might add precooked or quick-cook ingredients, like sautéed mushrooms. You may also add some cream and/or a bunch of grated Parmesan. I never work from a recipe, but if anybody wants one, I could whip something up.

Tonight it was morel mushroom risotto with leeks and pancetta (and cream and Parmesan at the end). Mmm! For my band's last Secret Santa, Enzo (Sant'Enzo) had given me a nice bag of dried morels from a specialty shop in NYC. I got comfy with them by using just a few in our spinach and mushroom empanadas, but this time I didn't hold back. I did also dispatch the last of the baby bellas that were in the fridge, but the morels dominated, with their pleasantly spongy texture and smoky, nutty flavor. The shrooms and the pancetta really brought out the best in each other. And since the morels had to be reconstituted before being cooked, I got to add their flavorful soaking liquid to the risotto.

I went for a loose texture. I know there is debate on this issue, but I'm pretty easygoing here, and my moods shift. One night I'll make it a little soupy, the next a little tighter. It's like I feel about pizza -- make me a good pie and I don't care how thin or thick it is. It just has to be good. There are so many lousy pizzas, and lousy risottos, out there that I'm not about to moan and groan about one being yummy but not the way I like it. I like it yummy.

Thanks to the morels, and to dicing the pancetta a little larger than usual so it could really be savored (and thanks to the leeks, and the cream, and the cheese...), this risotto leaped onto my personal top ten, and I told Margy so. But I don't think she heard me.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Let Them Eat Pies

It all started a few weeks ago when Margy and I were watching an episode of Good Eats where Alton Brown made a big bunch of sweet and savory pies. His dough was flexible and cooperative, and he noted that the sky's the limit in terms of fillings. Margy and I looked at each other and nodded slowly. Our next project.

I don't think Alton actually used the term empanada (though he did use the term Pop-Tarts, in the final, let's-make-all-natural-junk-food segment). But Margy and I were thinking empanadas all the way. I've always loved the idea of a self-contained meal that includes edible packaging. I was thrown from my course only briefly, when those vile Hot Pockets came along and crept quickly and insidiously into the school, the home, the workplace, and I couldn't look at anything that resembled one. But that didn't last long. My love for empanadas was never in jeopardy.

So it was settled. Saturday, I shopped; Sunday, we cooked.

Margy made the dough. She came up with a recipe online, after we couldn't find Alton's. The ingredients included vinegar, which surprised us. We vetted this with my sister the baker, though, and she said adding a bit of vinegar was a common practice, even if she'd never tried it herself. I think she wanted us to check it out so she could see if it was any good. We agreed.

This dough clearly wasn't as pliable as Alton's, but his seemed unnaturally soft. On TV, it behaved almost like warm, well-worked Play-Doh. Too bad we missed the beginning of the episode, which presumably included a scientifically illuminating explanation of why his dough was so easy to work with. But Margy's no novice, so she kneaded our golden butterball into shape in due time.

Meanwhile, I made the fillings. We were churning out a hefty batch of empanadas, with a good number destined for the freezer, so it seemed three varieties would be about right. Here's what I came up with:

* Shredded chipotle pork (a riff on the braised, vaguely Mexican pork butt I made last month)
* Chorizo, potato, shrimp, and vegetable (a combination that tumbled forth from my brain and somehow just seemed right)
* Spinach and mushroom (because we need our greens!)

It was all lots of fun. And a lot of work. The chorizo and potato empanadas felt particularly inspired, though Margy couldn't resist the pork ones. I bought the chorizo at the little gourmet cheese shop in town, and it made all the difference to have a real serious Spanish sausage rather than a timidly flavored, preservative-packed supermarket brand, which I admit I've tried a few times for convenience's sake. And I'm happy to report that, much like shrimp and bacon, shrimp and chorizo make a pretty cute couple.

This was also the most colorful filling (apologies for not cutting into one for the photo), with red half-moons of chorizo, white cubes of potato, orange circles of carrot, and flashes of pink from the chopped shrimp. Actually, the three varieties were a colorful set -- even the spinach and mushroom ones refused to be upstaged by their porkier counterparts and offered deep mushroom flavor (I used fresh baby bellas as well as dried porcini and morels) along with their deep green color.

Margy felt the dough rolled out a bit thick, but if that was the case it was just slightly thicker than would have been ideal. She handled the stuffing and folding, and she quickly learned to maximize the amount of filling without overstuffing. She pressed the edges of each empanada with the tines of a fork and brushed them all with egg wash (well, only the ones we were going to eat; the others we'd freeze uncooked). I created a system of coded air holes so we could tell which kind was which: three vertical holes for spinach-mushroom, three horizontal holes for chorizo-potato, and five holes for chipotle pork.

The empanadas baked for about 25 minutes in a 375-degree oven, and many hours after we'd begun, we were finally ready to dig in. I'd still like to try Alton's dough for the sake of comparison, but Margy picked a winner. The crust was crisp and flaky -- and tasty. I'm not sure how much impact the vinegar had, but I now consider it a worthy addition to crust for savory pies. Just not for Pop-Tarts.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Pasta with Three Porks

It wasn't part of the plan, yet I couldn't resist.

I had made a trip to the butcher for pork-product replenishment, which meant getting the pancetta and slab bacon that are so crucial to the success of so many of our meals, even when these meats are minced to near invisibility. (Just wait till you try my "vegetable" soup.) While I was at the market, I picked up some hot sausage for tonight's dinner.

As the sausage browned on the stove, I wrapped slices of pancetta and chunks of bacon for the freezer. Suddenly I was seized by the idea of going the extra mile and throwing some pancetta -- not much, just a little -- into the tomato sauce I was making for the sausage. I tore off a little piece and chopped it, then I went back to wrapping.

A minute passed. No, I couldn't, I thought, I shouldn't. And then I did. I chopped a little bit of bacon too. Not much, just a little.

Now, I don't think it's ever strictly necessary to flavor a dish with both pancetta and bacon, but they were right there in front of me and I could easily take just the modest amount I wanted before I froze the rest.

I'd like to believe the sauce possessed an uncommon depth of flavor and that this was due to the presence of pork in so many different forms. That might even be true -- it was certainly great fun to eat, and Margy loved it. I can't say for sure, though. I do know this: That moment early on in the sauce-making process, after I had browned and removed the sausages and then thrown the pancetta and bacon in the pan, was quite a thrill. The aroma was intoxicating. The pig was in the house, times three.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Una Pizza Perfetta

My pizza adventures have been on something of an upswing lately.

First I (mostly) swore off crappy pizza and discovered the excellent pizzeria No. 28 in one fell swoop. And then there's Margy's amazing homemade pizza, which I can pretty much demand at any time of year save the sultry summer months.

But I must say that 2007 really started out with a bang when Enzo, who seems to be my pizza-hunting guardian angel -- or at least my official taster -- finally brought me to Una Pizza Napoletana in the East Village.

I had read about the place for months, years, eons, whatever -- long enough to know that I needed to try it. (It opened in 2004.) The band had an evening gig in Brooklyn, and, earlier in the week, when I mentioned getting together with some or all of the fellas for dinner, Enzo looked at me and said, "UPN, dude." Done.

I did a little more reading in the days leading up to tonight. The user reviews on Citysearch cracked me up. They basically alternate "Best pizza ever" and "What's the big deal?" But, knowing all about Una Pizza's borderline psychotic insistence on using only the best, most classic ingredients and techniques, I had a strong feeling about which side of the fence I'd land on. Still, I couldn't help but notice that every reviewer, regardless of whether his or her comments were positive or negative, moaned and groaned about the price of the pizza. Among other complaints were descriptions of the proprietor, Anthony Mangieri, as the "pizza Nazi," and stuff like, "They make you cut your own pie!" and, "They don't give you free water!"

I'm reading this and thinking, Just show me the pizza.

So Enzo and his wife and I -- my biggest regret would soon be letting Margy skip out on this one -- showed up around 7:30 on this Friday night, and there were a few people on line ahead of us. One thing I was not going to do was get bummed out about waiting, not even while standing outside in winter drizzle. This was a quest, after all -- my ongoing quest to eat decent pizza -- and quests take time. Within a few minutes we were waiting inside, and I could finally see some pies.

Wow, were they small. Yet another feature of the UPN product that Citysearchers couldn't seem to pipe down about. But gosh, were they gorgeous. I caught myself ogling and averted my eyes to that inward place that's always dreaming about pizza. Now and then I'd look over at Mangieri tending the wood-fired brick oven and see him pour olive oil from a copper kettle onto a pie in an artful, well-practiced swirl. The guy had me at hello.

Now, the menu at Una Pizza Napoletana lists four items, all pizzas, all featuring a combination of very basic ingredients (drawn from this list: San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, oregano, fresh garlic, fresh cherry tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, Sicilian sea salt). Want an anchovy? Go someplace else. Feel like some pepperoni? Seek it elsewhere. Heaven forbid you're in the mood for a salad. Waiting on line, I whispered to Enzo, "I wonder if you can get a little hot pepper if you feel like it."

"Probably not," we said in unison.

After a wait of maybe fifteen minutes in the very small, sparsely adorned dining room, a table was ready, and the Italian waitress led us over. Enzo and I immediately began speaking to her in Italian, just to test the waters. She seemed to appreciate that. We ordered three Peroni and three Margheritas (San Marzanos, mozzarella, olive oil, basil, salt). And then, I have to say, I felt a little depressed.

The money thing was getting to me.

Of all the things in this world that we can spend our hard-earned cash on, food is right at the top of the list for me. It just makes sense to seek out certain edible items that might occupy a higher price bracket. This isn't always necessary -- it can even be foolish sometimes -- but very often the best foods, or the best available varieties of certain foods, cost the most. I had already had this conversation with myself before entering the cash-only, four-items-on-the-menu Una Pizza Napoletana, and I had concluded that if the pie is indeed that memorable then it would be worth it to pay whatever it cost.

What a 12-inch pizza costs at UPN is $21. And I really felt the impact once I'd requested one.

But then the pie arrived, and thoughts of dollars and cents receded far enough away that I'd have given Mangieri whatever he wanted from me. After just a quick bite or two, 21 bucks seemed utterly reasonable -- a steal, even. I began to stammer an endless stream of "Wow" and "Unbelievable." Other topics could not enter the conversation, if conversation is the right word for oohs and aahs and incomplete sentences. When we talked, we talked about the pizza.

Two features jumped out at me: harmoniousness and deliciousness.

First, the harmony. Every carefully chosen component of the pie came together in the ultimate "the whole is more than the sum of its parts" way. It helped, of course, that each part had an impressive pedigree, but it was the balance that was so stunning. At another place, I might've wanted a spoonful more sauce. Here, I did not. In a different pizzeria, I might have wanted just a bit more crunch from the crust. Here, that notion would have been a travesty. This crust perfectly toed the line between crisp and chewy, and it was branded beautifully with little char marks from the oven. My friends, UPN veterans, said they'd never had such a well-done pie there, that usually it was cooked a bit less. I found that hard to imagine -- again, what I was eating seemed perfect, and I didn't want to acknowledge that anything less so was possible -- but in my state of rapture I figured that even a less well-done pizza would still be great.

On to the deliciousness. This pie simply tasted better than all but maybe one or two that I've had in my life. I usually judge a pizza by breaking it down -- how's the crust? is the sauce too sweet? does the cheese have any flavor? -- but this one defied my conventions by forcing me to view it as a whole. Harmony again.

Of course, I can try to analyze it. The tomatoes were lovely, a little bit of tang that worked in conjunction with the yeastiness of the dough. The buffalo mozzarella was more assertive than most mozz. Placed on the pie almost in little balls, it melted slightly outward but retained a milky whiteness, and its lush creaminess balanced the acidic tomato. Adding the olive oil, which pooled up just a bit in the center of the pizza (like it does on good pies in Italy), was an important touch -- you could really taste it. And the basil offered color contrast and refreshing herbal flavor.

But the thing that really blew all of us away was the sea salt. If this were a movie review, here's where I might say "beware of spoiler," because I'd want everyone to discover for themselves the little surprises that pop up here and there as you gobble the pie. I didn't know where, I didn't know when -- the large, angular salt crystals were cloaked by the other ingredients -- but now and again I'd get this little crunch followed by saltiness, and it grabbed me every time. The whole experience was thrilling, and it was over too soon.

Before it ended, though, Enzo motioned toward our waitress as she zipped by. "C'è un po' di peperoncino?" he asked. "Is there a bit of hot pepper?" Oh no, I thought, he's gonna ruin everything. But nothing could be ruined -- we had our pizzas, and no one could take them away from us. And it's not as if we were going to order dessert, although in retrospect a white pizza would've been a fine substitute for gelato or biscotti.

Anyway, I could swear that a bit of a smile took a downward turn as our server accelerated past us, answering, "Non c'è la. NON C'È LA!"

"It's not here. IT'S NOT HERE!" You know what? They don't need it.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Icing Says It All

When the band arrived in Vermont for our annual pair of Martin Luther King Weekend gigs, we found that my sister had baked Margy a cake to celebrate her birthday, which was this week.

Band members, and our associates, arrived at different times throughout the day, so we waited until after tonight's gig (good show) to cut the cake. It wasn't exactly planned as such, but we couldn't have asked for a more perfect hour to tuck into a sweet treat than 2am. We stood around the Vermont kitchen singing to Margy and licking our forks.

The rich and tasty delight was a chocolate cake topped with a masterful layer of cinnamon cream and then enrobed in Lindt-chocolate ganache. I expected the whole deal to be too slam-bang chocolaty for me -- I'm a chocolate tenderfoot -- but it was right up my alley... even if I scraped off some of the ganache, as reluctant as I am to admit it.

My sister is a wizard. Some might say that for a given occasion she whips up the dessert that she herself would like to eat most, but the truth is that she's so good that everyone always loves everything she makes. Anyway, in this case, if she were truly baking only for herself, that cake would have been topped with peanut butter rather than cinnamon cream. Aw, she's so selfless.

Happy birthday, Margy!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Come Here, My Deer

When Homey flew in from Iowa, he brought more goodies than just a couple of bass guitars.

He also smuggled in some fresh-kill venison for me. His buddy had shot the deer -- with a permit -- and then had it cleaned, packaged, and delivered to Homey frozen solid. Solid enough to survive the journey from Des Moines to LaGuardia without breaking a sweat. So now Margy and I had two venison round steaks (not the best cut, admittedly, but what's he gonna do, give us the loin?), plus some ground deer to boot. It was exciting to have a little contraband, not to mention a little venison, which I'd never cooked before, in our house.

When I defrosted the steaks, their deep purple color freaked Margy out. But she's a toughie, and she's enjoyed eating venison before. She'd just never seen it raw. Me, I was still humming with the thrill of discovery.

I seasoned the steaks with salt and a mixture of toasted, cracked peppercorns (black, white, Szechuan), then slathered them with chive butter and tossed them on a hot grill. Now, everybody tells you to be careful not to overcook venison, which can happen easily due to its low fat content. I am here to tell you they're right. Our steaks were thin, and I figured I'd cook them for two minutes per side... but I knew that if they were even remotely undercooked I might lose Margy completely. I went to lift them off the grill, and I flinched, thinking I could see a visibly underdone portion. I waited another minute.

Oops. Overdone.

But not badly. Still, I didn't have a second chance -- no one else is bringing me deer meat -- and it was tempting to sink into the depths of despair. Margy, though, who'd been suspicious enough not to mind the lack of perfect pinkness, kept my spirits up by telling me the steak was delicious, which I admit it was, just a little tougher than I'd wanted it. Deep purple hue aside, I could tell by looking at the raw steaks that they were good specimens, and I knew they were about as fresh as frozen meat can be. Once cooked, the venison looked a lot like beef, and it didn't taste wildly different. I did not detect any kind of distinct gaminess, which I doubt I'd have minded anyway, since I love eating things like lamb and game birds. And my consolation was that the part closest to the bone was the right shade of pink.

Next up, venison chili.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Rock & Roll and Cubanos in Union City

Yesterday, Homey Mulebagger flew in from Des Moines to join Mr. Thowmbpsin, Schpilk, and me in rehearsals for the Thowmbpsin/Schpilk album we're recording this weekend in Brooklyn.

We rehearsed at my band's studio in Union City. Our little practice room is nestled in a dank and dingy and practically plumbing-free complex of small spaces with padded walls and double doors, each occupied by a scruffy pack of Jersey misfits -- metal bands, hip-hop acts, an amazing Latin group... Recently we actually heard someone playing a Beatles song, a rare wisp of melody snaking through the rhythm-packed hallway.

Anyhow, my "regular" band usually meets for evening practice, plays, and splits, and we rarely get a chance to sample the local color. These two days, however, were a different story. The recording ensemble of Homey (bass), Thowmbpsin (guitar/vox), Schpilk (vox), and me (drums) -- no name yet for this not-quite-a-band -- was to spend longer hours than ever before in the tiny windowless room. That meant we eventually had to go and prowl for food.

Years ago I had eaten at a great, cheap no-frills Cuban restaurant in Union City, but I never took note of the name. This week I did a little Web research, but in the end we just decided to pound the pavement and see what we could find. Last night, when we couldn't play another note without getting an infusion of pork, we walked up to a busy little neighborhood on and around Bergenline Avenue, and we spotted the Latin American Restaurant, a big, bright place that sent us the right vibe. Our quartet sat down at table 13.

Oh, the dinner we had for forty bucks. I enjoyed a huge, tasty piece of pounded chicken alla plancha with plantains, rice, and salad ($6.95). To satisfy my piggy desires, I made sure to get a few bites of Mr. Thowmbpsin's smoked pork chops, which were tender and delicious and had just the right amount of smoke. The Presidente was cold and refreshing, the café con leche was hot and creamy. We felt like kings.

This afternoon we returned to table 13. At the front of the restaurant there's a nice-looking sandwich counter, and we sent our orders its way. Minutes later the four of us were digging into crisp, warm, satisfying Cubanos, stuffed with perfect lechón asado, or marinated pork roast. We had an avocado salad, and I couldn't resist ordering a thick mango shake. (Mmm!) Again we finished up with excellent coffee. And this time the bill was even less.

Our mission in Union City now complete, we set out for the Brooklyn recording studio with more than just a batch of songs under our belt.

Photo credit: Homey Mulebagger