It’s not easy being me

Last night we made a risotto with Amarone della Valpolicella, a salad of fresh fennel and parmesan, osso bucco with the classic soffritto of carrot, celery and onion that I first caramelized and flavored with a squeeze of tomato paste toasted in the pan, and for dessert we had apple tarts. Not because they are Italian, but because I love apple tarts.
As much as I wish that everything would turn out exactly as I wished it, it doesn’t always happen. I could wish harder I supppose, or I could cover the osso bucco with a little more foil than what I had to stretch across from side to side. If the pan isn’t covered tightly with just a slit cut with a sharp knife to let the steam escape, then the liquid escapes too quickly from bottom of the pan. The meat begins to dry itself like a hide left out in the desert sun and all hope for tenderness is lost.
I’m always trying to tell Ferdinand that the winner is the one who can make the most and even more from his mistakes, so I took the opportunity to stress a life lesson not be missed. Try, try again.
The truth is, I hate trying to be resourceful when my meat is parched. I would much rather hurl the dish and all its contents into the trash, down the remaining Amarone to drown my troubles and curse the flimsy no good aluminum foil this country has to offer.

Don’t ever run out of onions

I forgot to buy the onions. Can you believe it? And do you think there is a chance of getting an onion around here on a Sunday? No way. I had one onion last night, and in a mind numbing panic, I decided to use it for the beans, and sacrifice the meat sauce that I have to make today. Of course this morning I woke up thinking, what am I crazy? I can’t make a sauce without an onion. That’s like telling somebody you can give them a ride to the airport, but you have no car.
I know there is a garden somewhere near the house, and I’m just going to have to pray that no one is guarding it with life threatening weapons, and go digging.
This morning (before I dig) I am going to make French toast with caramelized apples and coffee in four little moka pots and hot milk in a massive heavy pan that I can barely lift, but it keeps the milk warm for ages, even after I have to steal the warming burner.
While I’m theiving, the ladies are off to Cortona today for cream filled meringues that the bakery on Via Nazionale makes only on a Sunday morning.

Keep talking

Whenever I have too much to do and it won’t fit neatly in my head, and it’s sliding off the pages of my calendar, I panic that I’m going to forget to put my clothes on before I leave the house or forget my English, which is a problem, because I don’t really have much of a command over any other language. The challenge here–and it is the same with cooking–if you are wondering where I’m going with this, is to decide before hand what can take the hit. This is especially true when you have 12 people coming for dinner who have traveled across a major body of water to get to you in Italy, and you have the compulsive need to have them taste nearly everything there is available to eat in this food crazy country, on the first night; or, when the big Thursday rolls around and you can’t do without the 21 traditional dishes that your family has collected over three generations, or maybe the 37 dishes an evil food magazine lures you into with pretty pictures of their family happily cooking and eating, all with nice teeth.
The thing is, if you don’t decide before hand that you can do without the pickled onions, without even thinking about it, you could be driving back to the grocery store at God knows what time because you forgot to the get the onions in the first go round and then back again because you messed them up and boiled them without the liquid, and then before you know it–somewhere on the highway to some grocery store way way far away because the first one has no more tiny onions–you remember that the turkey has not gone in the oven and the people are arriving somewhere in the next ten to fifteen minutes.
Before you start to cook, make a reasonable list of what you are going to make, and then make red marks with a big magic marker next to anything not show stopping critical.
Because I tend to freak on the first night that my group comes I make the simplest menu possible. If I forget any part of it, or the proscuitto takes flight out the car window on the way to the house, there is always something else to eat.
We are having cannellini with soffritto (white beans with slowly caramelized onions, carrots, celery and garlic), paper thin slices of prosciutto, finochiona, and mortadella, a few different pecorni, a tossed green salad, and an apple cake from the bakery. If something has to go, it will be the beans, the only thing I have to cook. And you never know, it may get down to that, but I’m going to try to keep the faith, keep my clothes on, and keep talking so that I have no time to forget.

I’m here

Every Thursday in Mercatale di Cortona, Trabalza, the best butcher as far as the crow can fly, roasts a pig stuffed with fennel and garlic, rosemary and sage, ever so slowly on a spit. The skin is crisped and the meat is as tender as soft butter. It is served on a hard unsalted roll and there is nothing like it. I could have eaten ten of them, but I fell asleep as I was crunching down on the last bite. Thank goodness I was close enough to my bed to inch over to it after my head banged down on the table. Italy is as always, ready to deliver. I have already bought the wine from the local tap, and tomorrow, the day my students arrive, I will buy the rest. We are on top of a mountain this time, so I’m just hoping that everybody finds me. Once they are there though, that’s good enough. The veiws are spectacular, and I’ll keep the food coming.

Do you know what you want, what you really, really want?

One of the things I always try to shove in between knife skills and how to roast chestnuts to drink with vino novello is, know what you want. Not what your kids want, or your husband or your wife or your best friend, but you. And it can be very unsettling to talk about, so I just give it a quick mention and then start pouring the wine and stirring the sauce.
I say start with what you eat. Everytime you eat a meal dream about exactly what you want to eat, and at least every once in while be sure to get it. You have to be careful though, because it tends to rub off onto the rest of your life and you find yourself boarding planes to Italy to cook for fabulous groups of people that have an amazing zest for life.
I’m leaving tonight, so I’m too nervous to cook. I’m going to wilt some spinach with garlic and salt and olive oil, set it over a colander to drain, and then give it a squeeze. I’m going to pour a little more olive oil into the pan, get it hot, and then fry a few eggplant slices, and sprinkle them with salt and a grind of pepper. Then I’m going to thinly slice some surprisingly good looking tomatoes I have (from sitting around so long), dress them with olive oil and salt and drop of the best balsamic, so good you could drink it, but only a drop, slice my fresh mozzarella di bufala, and put the whole thing on the best piecs of focaccia known to NYC from Sullivan Street Bakery.
That’s what I’m dreaming of.

It’s a slippery slope

Ferdinand doesn’t want to wear his new winter coat. He finally agreed, and the tears were running down his cheeks, and he was doing his best to keep his little lower lip from quivering, but how could I let him be that sad over a coat? There are times when it’s worth it to win the battle, even though it feels like you are losing years off your life in decades, but there are times when you don’t need to make a kid wear a coat or even make dinner. I’m buying him a down vest and a fleece and we’re having pancakes and bacon tonight with chocolate milk.

a very little dinner

Now listen to me, if you buy something you would never normally buy at the grocery store, and you never use it, and it sits in your fridge until you have to throw it out, that does not count as trying something new. That just counts as buying something new.
And I know that it takes three times as long to make dinner when you are looking at an alien on your counter. You have to drag out the cookbooks and call your friends, call your mother and get way more involved than you need to on a weekday at 6 o’clock when you have no time for all of that.
The idea is important though. It’s like walking down a different block to get to the subway or parting your hair on the other side to see what else there is to see and see what it feels like.
I always buy cheddar, fresh mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano. Sometimes I buy gorgonzola. But last week I had to get more of something that I tried for the first time only a few weeks ago, because it was so good. It’s called Miticrema Spreadable Sheepas. Who knew? It is like falling down in a field of clover and the little lambs are munching the grass around you, and the sky is all around. It’s delicious. It transports. And you could make it into spinach pies or you could just make a very little dinner and spread it on a rye cracker with baby arugula leaves, avocado and pepitas. (buy pepitas toasted and salted–they’re pumpkin seeds). Drizzle with lemon and olive oil, and season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.

I’m leaving for Italy on Wednesday, so I can only eat very little dinners; my heart is breaking at the thought of being that far away from my Ferdinand for even a minute.

Two little pumpkins

Nothing is safe in my house when I am looking for an inspiration for dinner. When you buy pumpkins, go for tiny. The big pumpkins are good for cutting up and scaring small people, but once they have a candle melting in them and they have been on your stoop for a few days, why would you want to eat that?
Wash about two or three little pumpkins, cut them into quarters, toss them with olive oil, some red pepper flakes, salt and whole garlic cloves, and roast them on a sheet pan. When the pumpkin is soft, remove from the oven. Dice up a quarter pound of pancetta. Pour a bit of olive oil into a heavy saute pan. Throw in two whole cloves of garlic. Add the pancetta and cook the pancetta until it is beginning to crisp, then add the onion. Try to get the onion into as fine a dice as you can. Continue to cook until the oninon is completely softened. Add a few red pepper flakes, a half teaspoon of crushed coriander, a sprig of thyme, and give it a stir. Taste for salt. You won’t need to add much since the pancetta is already salty. When all this is delicious, remove the pumpkin from it’s skin and add it to the pan with a little stock, or the juice from a can of San Marzano tomatoes. Let it simmer for a minute. Taste again for salt, and adjust the liquid. You can add a little hot water if you need it. It should have just a bit of extra liquid, but it shouldn’t be super soupy.
Make your croutons by slicing a ciabatta or baguette on the diagonal, toasting them, and then rubbing a garlic clove over them very lightly, and giving them a drizzle of olive oil. Set one in a soup bowl. Ladle the pumpkin on top. Give it a dallop of fresh ricotta cheese, and an extra drizzle of olive oil. This is also good topped with parsley chopped super fine with a bit of fresh lemon zest, (no pith), a teeny bit of smashed and minced raw garlic, and some olive oil.
Serve with oven roasted red peppers and a salad of bitter greens, or a salad of thinly sliced fennel and thinly sliced apple dressed with lemon, olive oil and salt.
Roast pork is also delicious with this with a fruity glass of red wine.
If you do use the last of your little pumpkins for this, you are going to have to go out and buy more if they did originally belong to the shorter set. It’s not right taking other people’s stuff.

Brining and Writing

I don’t want to get anybody all worked up into a frenzy, but I have two pieces of news for you. FAYEFOOD, the cookbook is having its test run at the printers today and Thanksgiving is next month. If anyone is thinking of either writing a book or cooking Thanksgiving dinner, I want to you to locate the Tylenol in your home, and start sleeping now, because there is no kicking back to watch the game once either one of them are in the oven. Both are entirely worth it. What is better than getting all the love you can muster and everything that means the most to you and putting it into words or a turkey? (or a child, or a job; it’s a long list)

I can’t pretend I know how to write a book yet, but you can count your blessings that you found me when it comes to making turkey, because I have it figured out.
Start small to practice. Buy a turkey breast with the skin on and the bones in. Alfred Portale is a food genius and I think his brine recipe gives a lot of boost to a part of the bird that otherwise should only be photographed, and never eaten. Brining breaks down the fibers of the meat and helps to tenderize it, giving you a very juicy result. Add little bits of flavoring to the brine water and little bits to the roasting pan, and everything is going to be all right.
Soak the breast in 2 quarts of water with 3 tablespoons of salt and 3 tablespoons of sugar. Add a few bay leaves, a pepper corn or two and some sprigs of fresh thyme. Let this sit overnight or for at least six hours and up to 24. Keep it in the fridge while you wait.
Wipe the breast with paper towel to dry completely. Do not add any more salt. Heat up a heavy saute pan, add a little olive oil, and set the breast in there skin side down over medium heat. Don’t move it or lift it until you see the edges beginning to whiten a bit and the bottom caramelizing. When it is a lovely brown, turn off the heat and transfer the breast to a baking pan, unless the saute pan can go directly into the oven. Cut a head of garlic in half crosswise, and stick that under the breast with some rosemary and sage springs. Grind on a little pepper, drizzle it with olive oil, and roast for 350 degrees, basting with the pan juices every fifteen or twenty minutes.
The juices should be no longer pink. It should take about an hour and a half, but it depends on the size of the breast.
This is delicious with pasta with fresh porcini, roasted butternut squash with crostini, and wilted dark greens. Make a french apple tart for dessert.

Still going and the sugar helps

I have been married ten years today. Ten years ago, I made a tiny little white cake filled with caramelized pears and pastry cream and covered with penuche frosting, packed a bottle of chamgagne, and went down to city hall. For me there is no celebrating without sugar. I didn’t need the wedding part, but there was not going to be any kind of getting married to anybody, without a cake.
For the best white cake I ever had you have to try Rose Levy Barenbaum’s version from the Cake Bible. It is alchemy at it’s best. Otherwise, soften 1/2 cup of butter. It is critical to have the butter soft, but not runny. Gradually mix in 1 1/2 cups of sugar, creaming little bits of sugar into the butter until with each addition, it is completely smooth. Sift together 3 cups of sifted flour (sift before measuring) and 1 tablespoon of baking powder. Add this alternately with 1 cup of milk. Beat 4 egg whites until they are just beginning to set with soft peaks. If you beat them too much, they will have given up all the oomph they’ve got before they make it to the oven. Think of a balloon. At a certain point, if you keep blowing up the balloon, it is going to pop. Bake in 2 greased and floured (or sugared) 9 inch pans at 350 degrees until the top springs back when touched.

Peel, core and slice two pears. Toss with sugar to coat. Melt two tablespoons of butter in a heavy frying pan, and when it stops sizzling, add the pears. Don’t move them in the pan until they have a gorgeous caramelization around the edges. Toss and cook a bit more until slightly softened. Cool.

For the pastry cream, there are a lot of fantastic pastry creams out there, but I love the good old pudding recipe made with two egg yolks instead of the one egg that you would normally use. Bring 2 cups of whole milk to a simmer with a vanilla bean that you have sliced down the middle and scraped into the milk. In another bowl, beat the egg yolks with 1/2 a cup of sugar that has been mixed with 1/3 cup of flour.
Be sure to add the sugar and flour mixture very gradually to the egg yolks so that they don’t granulate. No big deal, it’s just like making vinaigrette.
Add a little hot milk to this drop by drop to temper the egg. When you have about a quarter cup of the hot milk in there, you can go ahead and whisk in the rest all at once. Bring back to a simmer, stirring constantly. Add a pinch of salt. Taste. It should make you feel all lovey-dovey. Cool.

Fill the layers with the pears and the cream. Frost the whole thing with penuche.
Melt 4 tablespoons of butter. Add 1/4 cup of dark brown sugar. Add 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract. When it is completely cool, beat in 2 cups of confectioners’ sugar.