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