Menus for a week in Italy (with the girls)

It’s not that it’s always all girls, but this time around, I have 50 coming over 5 weeks. That’s a lot of girls, and it’s a fine balance, figuring out what they will want to learn how to make, what they will want to eat, and what’s exciting to watch me cook. It has to be a mix of the familiar and the possibly unfamiliar.

Day 1- Meat sauce with seared pork chops, sausage, chicken legs and neck bones. (I know this sounds like a humdinger, but the idea is that this is how traditional sauce is made, and everybody should know a classic.) We’ll have it with homemade gnocchi, a warm roasted red pepper salad with croutons, capers, orange zest and balsamic, and batter coated fried zucchini, tossed with fresh lemon juice and torn basil leaves. (frying at the right temperature in an olive oil for the gods, is a must on the learn to do it list.) We may have to make tiramisu for dessert.

Day 2- Arrista (pork loin, and ours will be gorgeous and fresh and on the bone, stuffed with fresh crumbs, rosemary, garlic, lemon zest, parsley and sage. At the end of the roasting, we’ll finish it with a little chianti and a teeny spill of cream. Served with a soft buttery polenta, a warm green bean salad in a mustard vinaigrette, and a fennel gratinata. For the first course, a risotto with chicken stock (everybody needs to know how to make chicken stock–a cook without stock knowledge is like a painter without paint), soffritto of caramelized carrot, garlic, onion and celery and tiny cubes of potato with thyme and finished with parmigiano reggiano and the seasons new olive oil. For dessert, poached pears in white wine, peppercorn and lemon zest on bruschetta.

Day 3- Roast chicken wrapped in fresh pancetta with rosemary, sage, braised leeks garnished with gorgonzola, smashed potato and smashed potatoes with parmeggaino reggiano. To start we’ll have a pumpkin and onion soup. For dessert, crepes suzette, nothing Italian about them, except I’ll use Vin Santo to finish them instead of Gran Manier.

Day 4- Lamb shank (except in Italy it has to be the whole leg, because that’s the way they cut it) with carrot, celery, onion and garlic, stirred around in the pot after the shank has been browned, until they pick up some color, then all set on top of the stove with the lid ajar, until the meat falls from the bone. We’ll be having this with some lovely homemade tagliatelle to soak up the sauce, and a spicy salad of bitter greens, finely sliced lemons, capers, thyme, orange, and olive oil. For dessert: chocolate jonty.

Our fifth class is at the sublime Pasticceria Bonci in Montevarchi, or right at home with the loved-throughout-the-Liciano Valley–Melchiore, a Sardinian chef who makes fabulous pecorino.

When the going gets rough, bunny salad.

Day 1:
Faye (with Ferd): (to crossing guard) Excuse me, would you do me a favor? When I’m crossing the street with my kid and I see you in the middle of the intersection, I assume, and I could be wrong, that you are going to take over the traffic. If you walk away to talk to somebody when we’re halfway through, I’m worried that a car could get the wrong idea.

Crossing Guard: (to the guy she’s talking to) What did she say?

Day 2:
Faye (with Ferd and friend of Ferd; to crossing guard; going for the I-know-we-have-issues-but-maybe-we-can-still-be-friendly-approach) Hi, how are you?

Ferd: (to crossing guard) You shouldn’t chat!

Crossing guard: (to Ferd) Excuse me? what did you say?

Faye: (to Ferd) what did you say?

Ferd: (to mom) I told her not to chat.

Crossing Guard (I’m not sure to whom) I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

It didn’t get any better. I’m mad at the crossing guard and she’s mad at me. I was just going to pretend I had no feelings about the whole thing (when upset, repress is best) but she called me over this morning when I was walking the dog. She said that I should be aware that crossing people is not her only responsibility, that she has no responsibility for children walking with their parents (fair enough) and that her other responsibilites include looking out for child abusers and drug abusers. She said my son had no right to tell her how to do her job and that she can have people arrested for harassment.
I said, “he’s five years old. I told him not to say it.” And then I said, “look, I understand if you have to look out for all kinds of human abuse, but it seems like at 8 o’clock in the morning, on a four way intersection, with no stop signs, in one of the safest neighborhoods in NYC, the most pressing thing to look out for is traffic.”

Then I said “have a nice day” and she said “you have a great day” and I came home, sat down, and thought to myself,
“I am not cut out for kindergarten.”

On that note, how about a bunny salad? Peel a pear, cut it in half and core. Squeeze some lemon juice over the whole thing. Set it on a plate, flat side down. Stick two currants into the narrow end for eyes. Use the skinny inside leaves of an endive for ears, and a little spoonful of cottage cheese for a tail.

Gnocchi with roasted pumpkin, pancetta or sage

blogff0002.JPGThat was my second idea. My first idea is in the picture, and I was so sure it was going to work, I would have risked serving it to people I didn’t know and wanted to know better. Mistake #1. Never be sure until you try it. In the picture is a dish of homemade gnocchi with pan roasted yellow beets, and baby yellow onion, fresh thyme, fresh parsley, a wee bit of fresh mozzarella cubed small and a tiny squeeze of orange. Beets and potatoes have a long and happy history of showing up on the same table, in the same soup, on the same plate; the problem is that the little pillow of a gnocchi goes nowhere with the bit resitance that a beet holds onto. Gnocchi don’t like anything stiff.
So I decided I could either forget the gnocchi and roast the beets, potatoes and onions together, all chopped to the same small size, tossed in olive oil and salt, with even some whole garlic cloves and when they come out of the oven, a dusting of fresh parsley, tiny bits of fresh chive and your squeeze of orange, served along side a beautiful ball of fresh mozarella, OR if you have the gnocchi already to go, try a guaranteed to be good.
Roast a little pumpkin or butternut squash instead by peeling it first, cubing it up, and tossing with oliveo oil and salt, then letting it go on a sheet pan at 400 degrees until it is tender. In a separate and heavy saute pan, add cubed pieces of uncured pancetta, maybe a 1/4 pound, with half an onion, and a whole, topped and tailed garlic clove. Let these brown together, and then add about 3 or 4 fresh sage leaves. When all is delicious and done, toss with the butternut squash or pumpkin. If you can’t find decent pancetta, you can always use a sweet sausage cut into bite size pieces. Cook your gnocchi as you should (I’ll explain), toss with your pumpkin mixture and then add a tablespoon full or 2 of the gnocchi cooking liquid if you need moisture, a tab of butter, and a handful of parmesan. If you like it really saucy, you could add a small can of plum tomatoes, drained of their liquid and squished in a bowl, before adding to the pancetta.
This is delicious.
(For gnocchi boil 3 unpeeled baking potatoes in salted water. When completely soft, remove from the water, spill the water out, and put the potatoes back into the pan, over medium heat for a minute, just to dry them out. Peel and mash immediately or put through a ricer (even better) until smooth; add salt to taste. Make a well in the potatoes. Add one lightly beaten egg. Dump in about 1 cup all purpose flour, starting with 3/4 cup, just in case you started with smallish potatoes. Fold the flour in with your hand, no squeezing the dough through your fingers, until you have a nice, not so sticky dough. Cut into 4 pieces, and roll each into a 1/2 snake. Cut off pieces with sharp knife, about 1/2 inch to an 1 inch long, but all the same. Rest them on a sheet pan that has been dusted with cornmeal. When all the gnocchi are done, cook about 15 to 20 at a time in a big pot of boiling water. As soon as they rise to the top, remove them to a sieve, and then into a warm ceramic bowl that has a few tablespoons of room temperature butter in it. Cover the bowl with a cloth to keep the gnocchi warm.

La Frittata with no flipping out

I am in the middle of menu planning for Italy and it’s important that I get it right. Like my friend Ed says, A. I can’t have people showing up for take out and B. food is a major part of coming to a cooking course. I have list and more lists of options and I have to decide–what are the most important things to know how to make, for introducing the familiar and the unfamiliar tastes, or familiar foods paired with the unexpected dish fello or technique to broaden what a person can do in the kitchen, a little history of Italy, and most important of all, getting people excited about eating, even if they are there for Deruta. It has to be a balance of what people already know, what they want to know, of texture, temperature, and taste, and keeping everybody happy.
Planning menus is one my favorite things to do, but at the same time it can take me down by the ankles. It’s like making any other dinner. WHAT AM I GOING TO MAKE AND WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE JUST DO IT FOR ME?!! Then when that passes, I try to bring it back to the basics. Nobody is afraid of an egg say, and on any given day, there is an egg in the fridge of a lot of people. A frittata is one my best tricks. You can fry and dry an egg on a grill that hasn’t seen the light of hope in the back of a fast food chain, or you can, with that same egg, get the white to mix in with the yolk, just until they are nearly but not quite the same (with a teeny pinch of salt for every egg), get a heavy saute pan warmed up with a little butter and a little olive oil, (let’s say a tablespoon and a half total) for 8 eggs. Grind in three turns of black pepper. When the butter stops making noise, and the pan is hot but not smoking, tip in the egg. Don’t go to answer the phone and don’t involve yourself with anyone at this point who needs you to move from the stove. Let the egg set. You will see the outer edges going a pale yellow after about 30 seconds. Your flame should be medium to low. It’s not an omelette (made hot and quick) , just a frittata, so you want to go slowly. With a heat resistant rubber spatula, lift the sides of the egg and let the liquid run underneath. When the top is nearly set, but about 2 tablespoons of soupy egg are still on top, scatter baby arugula leaves over one side. Drizzle with a teeny bit of your absolute best olive oil. Finish with parmigiano reggiano, and if you have it, some tiny cubes of fresh mozzarella, not too many, just 10 1/4 inch cubes. Now with a metal spatula, lift up one half of the frittata and flip over the other for a half moon. This is the way I like it. It’s now traditional. Traditional would be to slide it onto a plate, invert the thing and after about 5 seconds on the other side, even less, slide it back out onto the plate. The most important thing here to not over cook the egg, but to leave it a little runny. You need to decide for yourself, especially if you know what you like and what you don’t like how you think a thing should be done. So I fold mine in half. I like the cooked on either side and runny in the middle. Serve with homemade gnocchi that have no more than butter and lemon as a sauce, and a warm carrot salad where the carrots are tender, but have a memory of crunch, tossed with balsamic, orange, olive oil, currants and toasted pine nuts.
Maybe. Or fry the potatoes and serve with roasted tomatoes. Or a side of roasted pumpkin and tiny grilled pork chops and strips of pancetta. Or on it’s own with warmed bread rubbed with butter and a cup of coffee. The beautiful thing about the egg is, it has a lot of soul mates.

The pasta and red sauce lesson

blogff0001.JPGThis is how it goes:

Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil. Add enough salt so that the water tastes like a well seasoned soup. Salting your pasta at the end is like starting your training for the olympics when the bus drops you off for the meet. Too little too late. Buy the good pasta; it makes a big difference. I like De Cecco, but there are plenty of others.

Finely chop about four cloves of garlic and get it nearly golden in the best olive oil that you have. (If you have someone who is not so crazy about garlic then just slice the garlic in half and remove once it is golden.) Add five fresh whole basil leaves, and stand back because they sputter. Season with a little salt, and off the heat, add a few red pepper flakes (1/4 teaspoon). Squish a 28 ounce can of San Marzano (a variety of plum tomato) in a separate bowl, with your hand, until they are pretty smooth. Yes you do need to use your hand. You need a chance to feel a tomato and get up close and personal with what you are eating. Now, still off the heat, add the tomato. Turn the heat on to a medium flame, and with another pinch of salt, simmer for at least half an hour. Chop up about a quarter pound of fresh mozzarella into 1 inch cubes. Rip up a few more basil leaves. Drop the pasta into the cooking water, about 1/2 a pound. When it is al dente, still a bit of that white line visible when you bite into it, and then drain well.

Taste your sauce. It should be delicious. Think about if the tomato needs a little more salt, not to make it taste like salt, but to taste the tomato. Or you might need another spill of olive oil to calm the acid of the tomato down (if you are using super good olive oil; if not, just add a tab of butter)

Get the pasta back into the dry pan. Add enough sauce to cover it well, and bring to a simmer for a minute, just give the pasta a chance to absorb some of the sauce. Taste again for salt. (can you believe it?) Turn off the flame. Add the ripped basil, the mozzarella cubes, and plenty of parmigiano reggiano.

That’s it. Pour yourself a glass of wine or water and tuck in to some serious noodles.

Bring it on back

I was up last night killing mosquitoes, and whenever I drifted into sleep, I had crazy dreams about me on one side of a barbed wire fence and Ferdinand on the other. I have a great job, planning and writing and writing and planning at my desk in NY and then off to Italy to cook my way through 6 week stints of teaching and laughing and eating and watching the sun melt over purple hills and fields of wheat. But when it’s time to go, leaving my boy behind is like pulling teeth with a string and a doorknob. I look at a can of tomatoes and can’t remember what it’s good for. I may as well be a busdriver with no bus.
For a week I have been standing no more than 6 inches away from anybody who eats my food, waiting to see if it’s good or not good. When I’m about to cross a very big pond to teach people to want to cook, to love to cook, to wake up feeling the happiness of deliciousness running through their bloodstreams, I need to be prepared. I need to wake myself up from the inside out. I need to get the mojo going, get the game on, get the “yea, it’s all right” to a glow in the eyes that says, “I’m not gettin’ up from this table until I finish.” There is a difference, and to get there, sometimes you just have to go back. You have to do nothing too quickly; you have to make something that’s going to take time, to keep you chopping and stirring and smelling and sipping and up close and personal with the food until you know every whimper. And then you have to make something that is going to remind your hands of the language of touch. You need your hands to tell you as much as anything else about the quality of a canned tomato or the readiness of a pasta dough or if your melted chocolate has been folded into the whipped cream or if it hasn’t.

Here is the menu that’s going to make it happen:

Day 1 homemade gnocchi with a slow simmered meat sauce, wilted spinach with garlic and chocolate mousse cake.

(Homemade pasta demands that you use your 6th sense to know how much flour you need, and how many times to turn the dough. Trying to use a recipe for this is like trying to tell someone, “if you massage a shoulder for 4 minutes, that shoulder will be yours.” There is no recipe for that. You don’t know how long that is going to take, and you don’t know exactly how long it’s going to take to knead the pasta. You have to allow yourself to have instinct.
The sauce will regnite my red blood cells–I’ll caramelize a soffritto of celery, onion, garlic, and carrot, to get my breathing going, because you can’t resist breathing just a little deeper when you have a mix like that on the stove, filling up the house with all kinds of goodness for 30 minutes, before it’s done. And then I’ll add my chopped meat, with just a little pork, a little beef, then a few sausages, and I’ve gotten word that a lamb chop might take it that much further.
The cake is nothing more than 2 parts heavy cream every so lightly whipped, and not so cold, and 1 part warm melted chocolate (not too warm, but warm enough to incorporate). Fold it together using your hand cupped, as if you were swimming the breast stroke, letting the outside edge of your hand scrape around the sides and then the bottom of the bowl.
Simmer a chianti (1 part sugar to 3 parts wine) with a strip of lemon zest (no pith) until it reduced by half. Serve this in a drizzle around your mousse and feel your cooking self come back to the living.

Thinking outside the box, using what’s in it.

Have you ever opened up your refrigerator and said to all the food in there, “there’s nothing to cook, nothing–not that, not that, not that,” and you start eating jelly and bits of pickle until you give up, and have ice cream for dinner, which at least has more nutritional value than jelly. You just have to get over yourself. You have to psych yourself out and pretend you’re on “ready, set cook”. (I’m clutching at straws here I know, but it worked for me) I had a container of cooked, chopped potatoes that were left over from the pot pie. I had an egg, and I had some baby spinach. I toasted and crushed some coriander, my spice of the moment, and added it to a pan with olive oil, minced garlic and a tablespoon of chopped parsley. I threw in the potato and seasoned it with salt. I pushed it to the side, added another little tiny spill of olive oil, and then a few good handfuls of baby spinach. When the spinach wilted, I tossed everything together with a metal spatula so that I would get all the golden bits of potato and transferred it to a dish. I cracked an egg into the pan and fried it only until it was soft, using the lid to cover the pan so that the white would be cooked through. I lifted that onto my potatoes. If I hadn’t seen the spinach, I was later thinking that roasted tomatoes would have been equally good folded into the potatoes before the egg went on top. Or, I love cream of wheat with brown sugar, butter and milk.

Fear of the unexpected

I read in the paper today that there are people in the thick of the cities growing chickens. They have started web sites to tell you how to build a chicken coop on a high rise terrace and what to do if, once the chickens take up residence at your place, you’re afraid of your own backyard.
I babysat once for a family down the road from us–and we lived in the city–and round about midnight when I was sure the parents may have forgotten to come home all together, I heard a quack. I hit the floor and didn’t move. Eventually, out of respect for my job, I crawled to the phone. I was trying to remember if my mother was afraid of farm life and I thought she might hesitate coming over to look for the poultry. I thought about calling the police. I hate talking to people I don’t know in these situations. I called my mother. “Mom” I said, “I’m pretty sure I heard a duck.” “That’s ridiculous,” she said “go to sleep.” Something triggered the duck and you could plainly hear both the duck and the chicken. I held up the phone for my mother. “Jesus Christ”, she said, “what the hell are people keeping wild animals in the house for.”
My thoughts exactly. There will be no chickens in my backyard. If you need more flavor because you can’t get a chicken that’s lived long enough, there are plenty of other options. I’m making curried meatballs with the same old mix, 1 pound of ground organic chix, half a chopped, sauted onion with thyme and parsley and a minced garlic clove (a piece of lemon grass if you have it), about a 1/3 of a cup of fresh bread crumbs that have soaked in whole milk till mush, and an egg. Season with salt and a little ground pepper. Fry up a little one so that you can taste it for seasoning. Brown in a heavy saute pan and remove. Now for the sauce. Chop up the other half of the onion and fry it in a little butter and olive oil, scraping up the bits of brown from the meatblass. with a two inch piece of fresh ginger, a few chopped green onions, another minced garlic clove and a bay leaf. Toast a 1/2 teaspoon of cumin seed. Grind them up in the mortar and pestle, and add them to the onion mixture with 1/4 teaspoon of turmeric, a teaspoon of garam masala (spice mixture) or curry powder and taste. Add 1/2 cup of water or stock, and let reduce a little bit. Off the heat, swirl in a tablespoon of room temperature butter. Add the meatballs and serve with rice and minted peas.

And the greens win!

I thought since my husband has been working 12 hour days pulling down walls and putting up walls that he deserves a dinner from the old country. Or breakfast from the old country, for dinner. Eggs, thick cut smoked bacon made over in Greenpoint, Brooklyn that people line up around the block for, baked beans, stewed tomatoes (except I am going to roast them) and no blood pudding and no sausage, which is an old country favorite–why have one meat on the plate when you can have three–but collards. No one in the whole of the UK would ever eat collards with their breakfast, but what’s the new world good for, if not for a little shake-and-wake-up.
I’ll make him a peach shortcake with the seasons last peaches, caramelized in just a little sugar and butter and covered with heavy cream, lightly whipped and folded into a bit of creme fraiche and I think with that, the greens will slide right by any and all kinds of celtic criticism. (Of course the truth is that you know I would have never been married to the man this long if he were complaining about the cooking.)

Cheatin’ chicken pot pie

blogff0380.JPGI have a new dog. She came with no name, no records of her past and an instant love for Ferdinand. For dog food, not so much. We went out and got dog food that costs more, portion for portion, than an organic chicken, and she won’t even look at it. I said to her “well what the heck were you eating on the street?” and fair enough it was a stupid question. It wasn’t dried up meat and vegetables in a pellet. She’s not picky about her cooked food. She likes pasta, sausage, a little carrot, and roast chicken was no problem going down. Tonight we are baking the leftovers in a pie. Cheat if you have to: Throw the raw chicken bones that you have been saving up in your freezer into a pot. Bring them to a boil and then ditch the water. Rinse the bones, add new water, a carrot, a celery stalk and an onion. Add a clove of garlic, a bay leaf and a little fresh parsley. Bring this to a simmer, and do what you have to do for an hour. Strain. Throw away the bones and vegetables. Add two potatoes, cut into 1 1/2 inch peices, and simmer until nearly tender with four carrots cut into 1/2 pieces so that they cook in the same time as the potatoes. Get a chopped onion going in a saute pan over medium heat with some olive oil and a little butter, and if you have it, some chopped parsley or thyme sprigs. Season with salt and a grind of black pepper. Check the potatoes and carrots and remove with a slotted spoon from the stock. Set aside. Pull the roast chicken off the bones from last night. Add a few tablespoons of flour to the onion and stir around with another tablespoon of butter on a low flame until the flour is cooked through, about three minutes (it should be total about 3 tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoon of flour). Add spoonfuls of the stock, by the half cup, whisking as you go to smooth out the roux. Keep going until you have about 2 cups of stock in the pan. Bubble to slightly thicken. Turn off the heat. Add the chicken and vegetables. If you like peas, add half a cup of frozen or fresh. If you want to cheat, forget the biscuit top and serve with toasted slices of baguette, drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with a raw garlic clove, or if you have to go by the book, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. BEFORE you add the chicken and veggies to the thickened stock, make a biscuit dough: 2 cups of flour, 2 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder, 2 good pinches of salt, and rubbed into that, 6 tablespoons of cold unsalted butter. Add about 2/3 cup of cold milk and get in there and mix with your hand until it looks like super thick mud. Now get your thickened stock, your veggies and chicken all together in your baking dish, so everything is hot underneath, and drop the batter on top in small bits. Bake until the biscuits are going a bit golden and cooked through, about 20 minutes. (if the liquid underneath isn’t hot, the biscuits won’t bake properly.)