Grand Central Terminal: a one stop mini vacation and grocery store

Let’s just say you have a four year old, and let’s just say that this particular four year old has an amazing amount of energy, more than I would have thought possible to contain in such a small body, but for reasons unknown to me, within minutes, and sometimes less, after leaving our front door, he cannot walk any further and claims exhaustion has overwhelmed his feet and they are no longer functioning.
You might have to shorten a trip, consolidate, and make the possibility of carrying someone on your back who is half your size and with big shoes, not as threatening. I can get to Grand Central Station in 4 minutes. It is one stop from my house. You can’t believe what is available at this place. I can get dinner to make from scratch, or dinner ready to put in the oven, or dinner to eat on the way home without leaving the four walls of the station. Grand Central Terminal is located on 42nd Streeet and Lexington Avenue, and is accessible by the 7, 4, 5, or 6 trains. It has been beautifully restored, and as soon as you walk into the main terminal any little kid is amazed by the massive stretch of blue above, sparkling with constellations. If you log onto grandcentralterminal.com, click on guided tours, and you can sign yourself up for a great way to sneak in a little history lesson. Don’t forget that the $10.00 suggested donation, is just a suggestion. On the ground floor, there is a European food market full of fresh fish, meat, fruit, vegetables, spices, cheese, baked goods, chocolate and I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Very easy to puruse, since you just have to go down one aisle, with everyone wide open to you. Bless them for not making me go into individual stores with my child.
Downstairs if you would rather sit, there is the infamous Oyster Bar, open as long as the terminal itself, or Junior’s, a Brooklyn institution that makes the best cheesecake ever and a whole lot more NY classics (don’t leave without a black and white cookie), there’s Two Boots pizza and a pretty good Mexican place. On the upper level you have the oh so very classy places (not for four year olds) but nice if you get a minute on your own. There is Charlie Palmers, Cipriani, and Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse. If I had the chance for a date with my husband, I would skip all of these and go right for a drink at the classic Campell’s Apartment. The crazy businessman Campbell in the 1920′s, decided he was going to transform his office into a the likes of a 13th century Florentine palace. It is now exactly as it was when he finished, and I would just call myself contessa and soak it all up with a martini.
I’m going to buy a piece of salmon and in the New York spirit, make a recipe from the NYT Dining Section (2/2006, because it takes a mom awhile to get to the clippings from last year). Stir together 1/2 cup of Coleman’s mustard powder, 1/2 cup of water and 1/2 cup of sugar. Set aside. Sear four separate center-cut fillets in a hot and heavy pan coated with olive oil, over medium to high heat, without disturbing, until the underside begins to look pink around the edges. Flip and sear on the other side. Brush with a little olive oil, and then your mustard mixture. Set the oven, preheated to 300 degrees, and let the fish roast in there until just done in the center, about 10 -15 minutes. Do not overcook.
For a side, I this sounds crazy, but give it a try, peel the outside leaves off of 8 little heads of bibb lettuce. Rinse and dry, without removing anymore leaves. Rub the bottom and sides of a heavy casserole (with a lid), with butter. Then line the pan, bottom and sides, with the leaves you pulled off. Set the heads of lettuce in there, and dot them with butter. Season them with salt and pepper, and then put the lid on. Set the pan over a low heat, and cook for about an hour, pushing the heads around a bit with a spoon everyonce in a while to let the butter ease down to the bottom. Serve with mashed potato.

Cheese!

A long, long time ago, I used to think that there was happiness to be found in skinny and tight. Candy bars would last a month or more in the refrigerator, and I would take a bite only every so often when the need would overwhelm me. I kept bread in the freezer, and would eat it with a no sugar jam and always before noon. Did it make me happy? Lord, no. In the end, I gave up on skinny and tight, which gave me nothing but dry skin, and moved on to cheese. I love cheese. I even just like saying “Tomme de savoi”. I speak French as well as a table leg, but put a glass of fine wine in your hand, light a candle, say “pass the Tomme de Savoi” and France steps up to introduce itself. The color of Tomme de Savoie is a rich mustardy yellow, from the cows eating daffodils mixed in with the grass, and has a taste that is lost on factory spin offs. It costs about $8.99, a fair price for a little France without even leaving town. One from Wisconsin, called Uplands Dairy Pleasant Ridge Reserve was a whole lot more at $22.36 a pound, but takes you to an above and beyond worth paying for. The man makes only one kind of cheese, somewhere in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, and whatever he is doing, I like it.
Have cheese with fresh fruit and bread and salume, or if you want to something hot, get out the old fondue pot and melt dinner tonight.
Rub the inside of the pot with a cut clove of fresh garlic. Bring 1 1/2 cups of dry white wine to a simmer. Toss 1/2 pound of grated gruyere, half a pound of grated fontina, and a small chunk of grated parmesan with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Gradually add the cheese to the wine, stirring slowly. When it is fully incorporated, grate in a pinch of nutmeg.

Give a little love

Seven days is not so long, but long enough to make friends forever, and so it happens time and time again when I go to Italy to teach. People arrive whom I have never met before and whom I may never see again, but in those seven days, we connect, and I learn from them in those seven days more than I could ever hope to give.
One of my girlfriends here at home is struggling. In a big, big way, and she is not someone whom I know very well, which can put a person in that awkard situation of how do you help? Is it right for me to call and ask if there is anything I can do, when maybe she has had enough phone calls in the day and might not be in the mood to talk to someone she doesn’t know so well, and maybe it would be better if I just left her alone? Except I remembered my girlfriends from the military bases in my cooking class, who are always on the move, never living anywhere long enough to have ancient friends living next door, talking about cooking and caring and taking on somebody else’s kids whom they may have met minutes ago, because that’s what they do. And I thought to myself, how are we over here in my little neighborhood in NYC any different? Are we not all in it together? And so risking bad manners, which are nearly always worth risking anyways, I called and asked if I couldn’t bring her some groceries and when she said yes, I was overjoyed. And because I was there delivering the groceries, she had the opportunity to ask me did I know anyone who might be able to cook for her. I called another friend of mine whom I knew was in the same predicament of not wanting to get in the way, but wanting to do something if she could, and said, “I have found what we can do”. We have worked out between us to deliver a little homemade food four times a week that we will make with the love in our hearts and the hope to make a moment of her day a little brighter as long as she may need it. We are starting today, and I just want to say thank you to all of those girls out there who have taught me so much and given me the courage to give.
I’m starting her on the soup you all know. A little soffritto of carrot (1 lb.), onion (2) and celery (the inside stalks of one head) with a little salt and good pour of olive oil, cooked until it is almost too good not to eat on its own before it makes it to the soup (about 30 minutes). Then 3/4 lb. cannellini soaked overnight and then simmered with another spill of olive oil, a sprig of thyme and salt to taste, until the beans are tender. When the beans are done, smash half and add all to the vegetables with enough liquid to make a thick soup. Pour on a drizzle of your best olive oil and serve with shavings of parmesan. On the side I’ll make escarole, simmered together with slivered garlic that I have made golden. Add a little olive oil at the end and salt and red pepper flakes to taste.

Build your blood cells with something that tastes good

blogff0322.JPGTo protect myself from the deep freeze that calls itself New York City, I put so much lotion all over my entire body, that I run the risk of my clothes slipping off before I get out the door. I eat for the weather as well. Beets are perfect when you are worried about, basically everything. I don’t think it gets much colder than it does in some parts of Russia where there is a good solid history of keeping beets in the pantry, and beets are brain food (full of manganese) which can assist those of us who feel like life has drained us of our brain reserves. If you are eating baked beans full of pork and bacon on alternate days, beets are a blood cleanser. If you are worried about your cells giving up on regeneration, beets are good for that too. They pack in calcium, iron, potassiumm beta carotene and Vitamin C, so if you are sick and tired of spending all that money on supplements that don’t seem to be doing much, beets.
Make yourself some borcht. It takes ten minutes. You saute your onion until it’s softened in olive oil, just beginning to caramelize, and beautiful. Season with salt. You throw in a potato, peeled and chopped, another pinch of salt, and wait until the potato begins to stick to the bottom of the pan. Add a bay leaf and three or four peeled, chopped beets. You want enough water to cover the vegetables (or homemade stock). Cover and simmer until the beets and potatoes are tender. I cut the beets into fairly small peices, smaller than the potatoes, because they take longer to cook. When it’s done, taste for salt and pepper, squeeze in a little lemon juice, swirl in small tab of butter (or olive oil) and ladle into the bowls. Top with a dallop of whole milk yogurt and a sprinkling of fresh chive, mint, parsley, or any combination.
I cut off the greens to make a salad to have on the side. Boil the greens in salted water with a little olive oil until tender. Add them to some rinsed off chic peas and cooked some sting beans or carrots (don’t overcook either, but be sure they are soft). Toss it all together with thinly sliced shallot right at the end, and either a classic dijon French dressing with olive oil, parsley, mustard, lemon and shallot, or just olive oil, a drizzle of vinegar, lemon, salt and pepper. Boil up some eggs (start in cold water and as soon as they come to a boil, turn off the heat and let them rest for five minutes in the water. Take them out and add them to ice water for a minute, then peel. Dress up your sald with these and call yourself ready.

Mama, pass those baked beans and keep them coming!

On a Thursday night when you are waiting for Friday you could just pretend it’s the weekend already and make a great big mess of beans and chicken and cornbread and coleslaw with lemon meringue pie for dessert! If you have feelings of wanting to kick me to the curb for even mentioning that much cooking on a Thursday, then forget that and make an egg and sausage fry up while you’re waiting. You could have it with broccoli rabe and garlic and hot buttered toast on the side and apple crisp for dessert. (But get the beans ready for Friday; don’t miss the beans).
There is nothing easier or tastier than the best baked beans known to woman, man or child, and they are the kind of thing that will remind you what a weekend is meant for (eating). When I was offered these, I was somewhere in Minnesotta and there was coleslaw offered alongside with a barbecue pit out back smoking the meat. I sat and ate until I could eat no more.

For the beans:
1 16 ounce can of lima beans
1 16 ounce can of kidney beans
1 can 31 ounce of pork and bans
1 can of butter beans
3/4 pound of bacon diced and fried
4 onions chopped fine (you can saute these a little with the bacon, but you don’t have to)
Combine everything in a baking dish, add 1/3 cup of cider vinegar, 3/4 cup of brown sugar adn 1 tablespoon of dry mustard. Bake for 2 hours at 325. It’s going to serve 10-12 people, so you could eat it on Friday too, if you wanted.

For the slaw:
mix 1/3 cup of white vinegar with 1 teaspoon dry mustard, a pinch of celery seeds, salt to taste, 1/3 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of oil

For the chicken, you can buy a jar of the best barbecue sauce you know, or just mix some ketchup with dark brown sugar, a little soy sauce, a little dijon mustard, some fresh chopped ginger, a little fresh chopped garlic, a spill of vinegar, a spill of orange juice, spoonful of chili powder and some chopped onions to taste. If it needs something, add it. I like to season the chicken, sear it, then let the chicken roll around in the th sauce , before roasting it off at 375 degrees until it is cooked through.

For the pie, make your favorite crust, bake it in the oven with no filling, just line it with parchment and fill it with raw beans until it is set. Remove the beans and bake another few minutes until golden. Make your filling, and pour it in. Bake til set. Separately, make your meringue on a sheet pan, lined with parchment. When the meringue is done, and pie is done, slip the meringue onto the pie and serve. That way you get no shrinkage.

How much good do you have to have?

Is what’s on the inside as important as what’s on the outside? Good olive oil only gets drizzled on the top, save the good wine for drinking, and how likely is it that I’m going to have some kind of traffic accident, and God forbid be stuck under a car and that the ambulance people are going to have to cut through my clothes to save me and get a glimpse of my underwear? Is it really worth it to buy the good stuff for what nobody sees? I have two words for you: uh-huh.
I never really understood the philosophy that if something is cooked into a dish that starts out tasting horrible, it’s going to get better once the dish is done. Do you have to use the best? That would be crazy unless you had your own olive groves, your own vineyards and your own underpants factory, but there is a whole alphabet between A and Z. Find ingredients that you love. Find ingredients that make you say, “I like it”. Stuff that makes you happy.
For dinner I made Sag aloo, fresh to bursting cloves of garlic (2) minced with ginger (2 inches) looking like it was picked yesterday sauted in my favorite olive oil with a little onion (and salt). And then a teaspoon full of cumin seed and a teaspoonful of fennel seed that I bought from a market that sells enough of it so that it hardly has a minute to sit on the shelf, smashed with my mortar and pestle with a few red pepper flakes. All of that added to the onion mix after the onion is completely softened and a little caramelized. I threw in some peeled and chopped and beautiful yukon potatoes and let them cook until they stuck to the bottom of the pan, then added a bit more salt and enough water to reach just to the top of the potatoes. Covered it and let it simmer. In another pan water with a spill of that same olive oil that I love and a bay leaf, and a pinch salt, I simmered fragrant jasmine rice with a cover, until it was tender. When the rice was done, I threw in a bag of delicate little spinach leaves into the poatoes and just stirred them around with the heat, waiting no more than two minutes for them to wilt. A tiny bit of butter or a drizzle of olive oil at the end. That’s going to taste good.

Happy Feet

blogff0321.JPGOne of the perks of working in Italy is working in Italy. Fast food is a slow cooked, spit roasted pork sandwich from the butcher and you can get beautiful shoes for what it might cost to fill up a small gas tank. I will easily give up driving for a pair of good shoes. Some people might save their Prada boots for special occassions, but my boots make me feel so good, I would be happy wearing them to bed. The problem is, I can’t cook in them, and I can’t go jogging in them, so I have to shop. I hate shopping; I shop like a slug, which means I won’t have much time for making dinner when I get back. I’m in NY at the moment, and though there is plenty of fast food here as well, I will make my own one pot Broccoli and pasta.
Use Di Cecco orchiette. Bring a big pot of water to the boil, salt it, and throw in your pasta, about half a box. About 5 minutes after the pasta goes in, throw in the cut broccoli. When the pasta is still al dente, drain the whole thing, reserving a little of the liquid. Dry the pan well. Slice up maybe 4 cloves of garlic super thinly. Heat up your best olive oil and throw them in over low to medium heat until just going golden. Throw in a sprig of rosemary, four or five leaves of basil, or chopped fresh parsely. It’s important to cook the herbe in oil before anything wet goes in; not until the herb is brown, just darker green. Add a few cayenne pepper flakes. Tip in the pasta and broccoli. Add another pour of your gorgeous oil and some salt and freshly ground pepper along with a few tablespoons of the pasta water. Taste for salt. Grate in parmesan on the fine grater. Do some on the rough side as well to sprinkle over the top. Done. (If you like a more intense flavor, break up a few anchovies into the garlic and herb; let them melt before adding the pasta)

Pizza, Pizza

blogff0320.JPGThe first time somebody kissed me, I thought, “I don’t get it. Why in the good Lord’s name, would anyone want anyone to do that?” A smash of lips, near suffocation and then a pat on the shoulder. Then a year later, the goalie of the soccer team took me completely by surprise and kissed me at a Halloween party, and my feelings changed. I understood how a mere kiss can transform, transport and change forever the life that you have been living. The same with pizza. Pizza made with no hope or interest and a rubbery cheese does the job of filling you up. Pizza made with a beautiful flour and a sauce of San Marzano and a little secret this and a little secret that, will burn itself into your memory of love forever.

The good news is, I have figured out some pizza secrets.  The other new is, it’s important not to give up.  It doesn’t always work out  the first time, but if it works out for you the second time, it’s only going to get better.

Start the day before with 3 cups of bread flour, or high gluten flour, 1 cup of wrist temperature water, 1/2 teaspoon of sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of yeast.  Proof (test) the yeast in the warm water with the sugar.  Let it sit for 5 minutes.  Do not use rapid rise yeast.  Add the oil.  Stir the salt into the flour in a large bowl, and then dump in the water mixture.  Mix together with your hands until it all comes together as a dough, and then knead for 5 to 10 minutes.  Let the dough rise for just over an hour, or until double.  Grease the bowl it is rising in, and cover with a damp cloth.  Find a warm place to let it rise.  Press the dough down, give it a couple of kneads, then place it in individual balls on a greased sheet, covered with plastic wrap, and set the sheet pan into the fridge overnight (12-24 hours).  This slow second rise is what gives elasticity to your dough and transforms a nondescript  and spongy crust to a YES!!!  So try it.

For the sauce, strain a can of San Marzano tomatoes and open them up with your hands to strain them of their juice inside as well.  Squish them with your hands.  Color one very thinly sliced clove of garlic to golden in the best olive oil you can find.  Right before it swells to gold, add four or five fresh basil leaves and a few red pepper flakes.  Turn off the heat.  Sprinkle with salt, and add the tomatoes without the juice.  Taste again for salt.

When the dough is ready, roll out the balls to 1/4 inch thickness.  Transfer the dough to your sheet or stone that has been covered with a dusting of cornmeal.  Brush the top of the dough with your beautiful olive oil.  Lightly spread on some sauce, and sprinkle on some fresh mozzarella, but not too much, so that the dough cooks evenly.  Sprinkle on just a tiny bit of kosher salt, another tiny drizzle of olive oil and bake at 475 degrees, preheating a stone or tile if you have one.   Bake with a watchful eye until it is golden around the edges and looks done.  You’ll know.

The recipe for sin

blogff0319.JPGIt is snowing this morning.

I’m on my way to a job uptown. It’s a birthday party for a family of eight. The menu is a classic:

croudite with aoili

wild mushroom risotto

pan seared chicken with tomato confit, roasted potato, garlic string beans

arugula and bib lettuce with toasted walnut, pear, and dolce gorgonzola

flourless chocolate cake

all the beautiful vegetables that I can find, steamed or served raw, tossed with a little olive oil and served with great big fresh shrimp and an aioli (garlic mayonnaise), then a mushroom risotto, then seared chicken breast (frenched, which means to cut the breast into halves, remove the wing tips at the first joint, leaving the rest of the wing intact, and then clean all the messy bits off so that the breast looks like a perfect triangle. Once the breast is seared and roasted, the rib bones are removed, and the meat scraped from the remaining wing bone, so that you have a beautiful piece of chicken that you can slice on the diagonal, with all the flavor of meat cooked on the bone, but no mess of the bone at service.) The chicken is going to be marinated in Dijon mustard, fresh parsley, fresh thyme, whole heads of garlic, great big pieces of lemon zest and olive oil for at least 4 hours. I am going to make a tomato confit to garnish each breast (peeled, blanched, shocked tomates that are arranged on a sheet pan covered with foil, drizzled with olive oil, and then each tomato is topped with a sliver of garlic and more olive oil, then baked for 4 hours at 275 degrees.

I would do mashed potato and string beans with garlic, to serve with the chicken, but the birthday girl doesn’t like cream or butter, so I’ll do roasted potatoes instead. (one point for me)
For the salad course I’m going to do bibb lettuce tossed around with arugula, some lightly toasted walnuts, bartlet pear, and sweet gorgonzola. When I asked the birthday girl about the cheese, she said no one (anywhere) should eat cheese, and I’m going to offer it anyways. (Remove the one point for me). I have no place doing jobs like this, where the idea is to do as someone asks you to do. It’s not my family, I haven’t even met them before, and yet I feel I have the right to serve sweet gorgonzola regardless of the rules. The thing is, what’s a pear salad with walnuts without the cheese? It’s teeth without a jaw. This is where my own ethics get confused with business and why I have never been able to hold a job working for anyone else.

For dessert I’m making a flourless chocolate cake made with over a pound of chocolate and covered with (more) chocolate ganache. Ever so lightly whipped cream on the side. I might candy some rose petals to decorate it. If I have already served cheese for salad, I may as well go all the way down hill and serve sin for dessert.

See the butternut, buy the butternut

blogff0318.JPGThere is no way that a butternut squash is going to make it onto your table unless you bribe someone else to make it for you, or (cheaper) you make it yourself.  Forget simmering it with a little onion and garlic and pancetta and tomato and cayenne and olive oil, to ladle onto a piece of toasted beautiful bread. Forget making it into a pie with a shortbread crust topped with freshly whipped cream and served with a few pieces of candied ginger or even pralines. All you need to think about is roasting. If you roast it, you can mash it with a little of your onion and pancetta, all caramelized and gorgeous and serve it as a side with a pork loin or you can eat it right off the tray, or you can smooth it into a soup and serve it with either string beans and garlic and a good piece of country ham, or a mushroom and mascarpone frittata with parmesan and arugula or (my favorite) broccoli rabe, boiled for just a few minutes in salted and oiled water and then sauted with garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes, and finally tossed with fresh croutons until the croutons are perfectly toasted.
Turn the oven on to 375 degrees. It’s better to buy 2 small squash instead of one huge one, because the big ones tend to be mealy. Cut off the very top and bottom and then cut the whole thing in half. With a flat side on your cutting board, remove all of the skin with your butcher knife. If it’s easier, you may want to cut it into 4 pieces so that you have more control with the knife. Remove the seeds with the spoon. Once you have it peeled and seeded, cut into small cubes. Roll them onto a sheet pan. Toss them with your best olive oil and season with salt. Roast until they are soft and delicious.

Meanwhile, dice a medium onion and cook with a few cloves of garlic and a few red pepper flakes until the onion is soft, about ten minutes. Add a few sprigs of marjoram or thyme or even rosemary. Season with salt. Add three small potatoes that have been peeled and diced. Saute those with the onion until they begin to stick to the pan. Add homemade chicken stock or water to the pan, just until the water covers the potatoes. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cook over a low flame until the potatoes are soft. Add the squash. Puree all of this in the food processor until COMPLETELY SMOOTH. The smoothness is really important to this soup. You are looking for velvet. Get it back into the pan when you are done, and add a little more stock or water to right before the consistency you are looking for. Finish with a spill of heavy cream. The scrubbed rind from an end of Parmigiano Reggiano is great in this, just simmering away with the potatoes while they are cooking to give them flavor. Grate in a little nutmeg, and taste for salt. If you need, you might want to add a little more cayenne, but go sparingly. Serve in dishes with grated parmsan and a tiny spill of olive oil. If you don’t make the broccoli rabe with croutons, serve with a crouton right in the soup.