November 20, 2008

On the road again...

I have been away from my own kitchen for a week now and having lots of fun. I am being flown around by my family friends to act as interpreter for their Italian relatives on their first ever trip to America.

gianfranco and dora direct from Brescia, Italy to Central Park

We spent four days in NYC and here are just some highlights. I don't have much down time as this is a full-time job and then some. But needless to say, we have been doing some really fun things and eating some really nice food.

Before meeting up with the Italians, I spent a night in Brooklyn with my brother, Greg, a budding cook himself. Here he is with Carlo, a really great guy who cooks at Roberta's in Brooklyn.

greg and carlo with housemade dry aged steak

Located in one of the far reaches of the burrough (261 Moore St., Brooklyn), we pulled up to what looked like a garage or a dive bar. But once inside, the aromas of wood-burning oven pizzas greeted us along with the warm smiles of the local guys who run the place. It was an odd little narrow place with wood paneling on the walls, a sort of country lodge meets urban steak joint. But the food was some of the best Italian food I've tasted outside of Italy.

Carlo treated us to delicacies like fluke (fished off Long Island) crudo, housemade bresaola, a delicious, creamy acorn squash with lardo, pulled pork that melted in our mouths, pappardelle with lamb ragù, and the most delicious steak for two that I've ever tasted. I don't have any photos because I was too busy devouring everything that was put in front of me, plus the lighting was bad. Roberta's may not have been the fanciest place I ate in New York, but it was definitely my favorite.

On our last day in NYC we ate a very nice lunch at the MOMA before taking off to the airport. It was in the restaurant attached to the museum called 'The Modern' (9 W. 53rd Street). The sleek, modern decor matched the location and the clientele were all movers and shakers in suits and ladies lunching in between Bergdorf's and Saks. But the best sighting was author Malcolm Gladwell, having lunch there after a late night appearance on The Colbert Report.

Here are some of the artfully presented and creatively composed dishes that made up our lunch:

steak tartare with quail egg

cavatelli "carbonara" with wild mushrooms and escargots

modern cheesecake

And, one of the culinary highlights of the trip for me so far --risotto "mantovano" white truffles flown in from Piedmont.

This at a beautiful dinner hosted by the family in their Las Vegas home. Chef Tom pulled out all the stops, serving 8 courses each beautifully prepared like this agnello with gnocchi di zucca (lamb with sweet potato gnocchi)

I'll keep eating my way through this whirlwind Italian-American tour and hopefully I'll live to tell more tales...

November 11, 2008

Chard gratin

I think I am going to enter a "gratin" phase. I've never really been a fan, finding the cheesy, potato-y dish too starchy and synonymous with bad potluck dinners. But I found a recipe that fits the comfort-food bill and is healthy at the same time.

Who would have thought you could make a gratin out of greens? It comes from my go-to book when I am at a loss for what to do with veggies: Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. I have gone to her for guidance in my moments of exasperation when I have too much squash or too many parsnips from the farmer and can't bear another pasta dish. This was one of those times. I had used up all the ideas I had for butternut squash and swiss chard and still we kept getting more from our farmer.

So there it was: Chard gratin, in its simplicity calling out to me to be given a chance. I did, however, tweak it to suit my needs and bulk it up a bit. I had half a butternut squash in the fridge that need to get roasted and used. So I put that in the oven on 400 and roasted it until it started to carmelize and become tender, about 45 min.

Then, finding some one or two-day old bread on the counter, I made some fresh bread crumbs. Alice and I agree that using bread crumbs made fresh is always better than the kind you buy in the store. They're more flavorful and just better looking too in their uneven and careless chunkiness. After processing them to a not too finely ground state, I baked them with a couple teaspoons of butter for about 10 min.

Then I cooked my chard alone in salted boiling water for just about 3 min. until it wilted. Drain that and set it aside until you need it.

Then I sautéed onions in some butter until translucent and soft, and added the chard with 2 tbsp of flour, 1/2 cup of milk, some salt and stirred while cooking it to let it thicken. This formed the basis of the dish. After putting that in the buttered baking dish, I scooped the squash out of its skin and layered it on top of the chard.

Then --and this is really what makes something a "gratin" --I sprinkled the bread crumbs on top and added some pats of butter to encourage browning. Temptation got the best of me and I sprinkled some freshly grated parm on top too but that was not in Alice's recipe. She's way too healthy for that.

The dish was baked for about 20-30 min. or until it looked golden on top and was bubbling just a little bit. This is one of those dishes that you bring to a party and everyone wants the recipe. You tell them you made it up with a mental nod to Ms. Waters.

November 5, 2008

Let them eat cake

The election of Barack Obama as President was a moment I'll never forget. It was epic and inspiring and emotional all at once. People cried and celebrated all over the world. It marked a turning point not just for his supporters but for everyone. Most people will tell their children where they were when the first African-American was elected president of the United States.

I, for one, will tell them about my cake. This cake is special for two reasons: one because it marks a personal first for me, as in the first time I've ever felt patriotic enough to make an American flag cake. And two, because my mom always made this cake for the 4th of July and it holds a special place in my family's heart. Mom was very patriotic and loved to bake and throw parties.

I had about 30 people over to watch the election results together. It was a great party. People ate, drank, watched and cheered as the race turned into an electoral landslide. I made lots of food and some people brought food and we went through many bottles of wine and bubbly.

I decorated the house in red, white and blue and had a lot of fun doing it. I made "bombay sliders" (an Indian twist on an American staple, don't ask why) and a warm potato salad with arugula that was a huge hit. The sliders I found in a F&W issue from a long time ago and they have curry and cumin, green onions and cilantro mixed with the beef or ground turkey. Yum. I assembled them on a big platter with heirloom tomatoes (the last from my garden), a piece of lettuce and a curry-mayo sauce.

Other hits included this "mousseline" of three cheeses, pesto and sundried tomatoes in the shape of an egg (something else my mom would have loved), made by our friend Judy Forsythe.

I also made a plate of mascarpone brownies that got eaten in two seconds. But the cake --brought out at the point when Ohio was announced for maximum effect --was the biggest winner other than Obama.

It's just a white sheet cake with cream cheese frosting. The recipe came from the Barefoot Contessa's book and it was a perfect cake recipe--light and moist and very easy to make. This is one I am sure I will make again and again.

The flag is typically made with raspberries or strawberries, and blueberries for the stars. That's fine if it's July and berries are plentiful and cheap. But it's November and they're way out. So I used strawberry jam for the stripes and oh lucky me, I found concord grapes at the market that were perfectly round and blue! They have the tiniest of seeds but the the kind you don't mind eating. I can tell you that nobody minded eating them on this cake.

So when my Election Party 2008 was over and all that remained was the star confetti on the floor, I smiled and went to bed happy and feeling hopeful for the future.

November 1, 2008

farro with chickpeas and butternut squash

This is yet another variation on the squash theme that lately has been a big part of meals at my house. This time I wanted to feature farro, an ancient grain that the Romans ate and the Etruscans before them. It has a nutty flavor that I love. It is said to be closest to spelt here in the U.S. but is really a grain in its own right. They eat a lot of it in Tuscany and Umbria where it was cultivated for thousands of years, sometimes ground into a paste before cooking.

I bought some at the organic farm where we stayed in Tuscany and learned about the special Tuscan heirloom pigs, called Cinta Senese. This beautiful, organic grain--one of the healthiest grains there is --was one of the products they sold at Tenuta di Spannocchia, the rustic, centuries old eco-bed and breakfast near Siena. We toured the organic gardens, watched the huge, striped pigs graze in the open fields, hiked and got lost on the unmarked trails, and ate this amazing farro with butternut squash. I remember it being the best thing we ate there.

So I looked around for recipes trying to recreate this dish and found this one. They make it at The Kitchen, one of my all-time favorite restaurants in Boulder, Colo. It's a simple and straight-forward preparation, like a lot of the classic dishes at The Kitchen, where ingredients sourced locally and seasonally are the focus. It's a recipe that could stand up to endless substiutions and changes. For example, the next time I make it I will leave out the tomatoes. They gave it an acidic quality that it didn't need and masked the delicious flavors of the roasted squash and farro.

Here is the recipe. Take it, tweak it, make it your own. And while you're at it, browse some of The Kitchen's other great recipes for healthy, organic and just plain lovely food.

I wish I was there right now, sitting at the bar, sipping coffee and eating a fresh-baked cannele.