Pack it up

A friend of mine just posted a picture of 10 meals that she made for her family, labeled, dated, ziploc bagged and ready to be assembled.
When I leave my family–which is part of my job–I kiss them, I hug them and I wish them luck.
You would think I would do it because I’m a cook. I would think I would do it because I’m a cook.
I’ll tell you something. If I made ahead meals for everyday that I was away, I would show up at the airport looking like a shoe in for the Emperor’s New Clothes.
It wouldn’t be pretty for anybody.
In a pretend world: I would make crespelle

In one bag: thin delicate crepes. In another bag: sauteed spinach, garlic and mushrooms. In another bag: red sauce w/fresh basil In another bag: fresh mozzarella and in the fridge: a container of fresh ricotta and a triangle of Parmigiano Reggiano

On the bag: “Mix the spinach w/ricotta, moz and parm. Put a few tablespoonfuls at the edge of each crespelle and roll. Smooth some sauce onto a lasagna pan. Nestle the stuffed crespelle in there so they’re touching like grandma’s biscuits. Spoon sauce over the top. Make a white sauce yourself (it doesn’t freeze well.) Give it a few spoons of that. Sprinkle on more moz and parm without patting down. Bake covered for about a forty minutes. Uncover and let it go until it looks good. If you’re overwhelmed, wait for me. love, Mom”

for the recipe in its entirety: Crespelle

Dinner for 25

It’s not hard to cook when the crowd loves to eat. On the job yesterday for 25. On the menu: Comfort. Braised shrimp w/a silky beurre blanc, roast pork on the bone, stuffed w/fresh sage, rosemary, garlic, lemon zest and parsley (the trick is saute the herb mix before stuffing the pork) with a garnish of wild mushrooms, seared chicken marinated with olive oil, fresh herbs, lemon zest and garlic cloves, on roasted potatoes, fennel, carrots and shallots, a big bowl of broken broccoli (boil it grandma style until it’s about to breathe it’s last breath, then mix with slivered sauteed garlic, a few red pepper flakes and flat leaf parsley and the best olive oil you can get your hands on), and a salad of sauteed asparagus, fresh mint, arugula leaves, nicoise olives and parmesan shavings.
Before they ate: an old fashioned relish tray with all the fixings, mixed salted nuts, crostini w/a flaky on the outside, creamy on the inside bucheron, and another with caponata, and my favorite: piglets au duvet! Tiny all beef doggies wrapped in all butter puff pastry w/a sweet and spicy mustard to dip in. With a crowd of 25 coming in the door, you want to have something on offer the minute you can hear their shoes in the hall.
On the way I home, I walked through the magic that is New York City at night.

Stuff it

It’s normal to be nervous when people are coming over. What if they don’t like butter? What if they don’t drink wine or water? What if they hate my plates? All possible. But you know what? Most people are just happy to see you and the food. If they don’t want to eat shrimp, they’ll find their way to the dressed lettuce or maybe start a happy sort of liquid diet.
An easy answer is to make one irresistible focus and branch out from there. On our first night in Orlando we went with piadina. Originally from Le Marche in the center of Italy, piadina are traditionally made with rendered lard. You can either slowly melt lard from around the kidneys and munch on the cracklings that float to the surface before dripping the fat over your pile of salted flour, or do what we did: make a batch of organic bacon use the fat from that. Add a little warm water to make the dough together, knead til smooth, let it rest and then roll out. Either make the fillings yourself, or ask your guests to bring them.

Broccoli rabe sauteed w/ garlic, beautiful olive oil and red pepper flakes and slabs of fresh moz
Prosciutto w/mascarpone
Roasted red peppers, red onions and potatoes w/green olives (I have never seen this, but I think it would be good)
Mushrooms and sweet gorgonzola w/raw arugula leaves

Serve all or any of that with a bowl of brined shrimp and a great big salad and bottles of whatever you have and somebody and probably everybody is going to be happy. Click on this link and scroll down to the bottom for the recipe word for word. If you need to, use a wine bottle to roll them out.

Working up a sweat for a vegetable

I used to take this acting class and in that acting class there were about 10 guys and one guy that was cute if you squinted. The rest of them were not so cute.
It was a perfect opportunity for the lecture that my acting teacher loved to deliver. “Listen” he’d say “there is nothing happening here. I’m feeling nothing and if I’m feeling nothing, I can guarantee you’re not feeling anything.”
I know for a fact that my acting partner felt the same way about me. I was an empty bag of chips on the subway tracks; you look at it because there is nothing else to look at.
“You have to find something that you can’t resist in that boy. Does he smell good? Does he have nice ankles? Can he cha cha? FIND IT!” And we’d start again.
It’s amazing what you can see when you’re really looking. This kind of thinking is what helps when it comes to vegetables. A leaf of spinach is never going to put in a sweat. You have to find it’s potential. You have to work it. And if you don’t believe you love it, I can tell you what, the child sitting next to you is not going to believe it either.
To put you in the mood:

Creamy potato leek soup with the tiniest drizzle of cream and a grating of nutmeg is a beautiful thing . It’s what nursery dinners were made of. If add tender baby spinach leaves at the end of simmering and puree the whole thing to a brilliant green with your immersion blender it only gets better. If shorty likes cheese, even better. Top it with a grating of the real thing.

Homemade ravioli. I know you don’t have time to make homemade pasta on a weekday–use wonton wrappers. Throw broccoli rabe (cima di rapa)in a boiling water with olive oil and salt for about 5-7 minutes until tender but still green. Drain well. Sliver up some garlic and saute til just golden over a low flame in beautiful olive oil. Add the rabe. Stir up the best ricotta you can get your hands on. You may have to add a drizzle of cream or mascarpone. Add a little lemon zest, salt, pepper, chili pepper if you baby likes it spicy and a bit of chopped flat leaf parsley. Chop the rabe and add it to the ricotta. Put a dab on wonton wrappers (kids can help here), dip your finger in water and drag it around the edge; top with another wonton wrapper. (or same with pasta sheets cut into squares.) Drop into simmering water. Cook til just cooked, drizzle with olive oil, and dust w/ parm.

Once you have worked up a sweat and life feels good again, get out the cornmeal. Make a polenta using one part cornmeal to 3 parts water. You want to bring the water to a boil, add enough salt to make it taste seasoned, and then in a thin stream, as if you were making a vinaigrette, start adding the cornmeal. Whisk constantly, until it’s all in. Turn the heat down to a simmer and switch to a wooden spoon. Now here’s the thing about cornmeal. For about a dollar more, you can buy the best and you should. It will take longer to cook and it’s the difference between strawberry shortcake flavored cheap ice cream and eating ripe red strawberries that you picked on a hot day, layered between the top and bottom of a biscuit fresh from the oven with a little heavy cream whipped just enough to thicken it.
When the cornmeal starts to pull away from the sides of the pan, it’s ready. Turn off the heat. No more stirring. Now you are going to fold in about 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter, salt to taste, and a small handful of parmesan. Taste for salt and pepper. Pour it onto a wooden platter. While the cornmeal has been cooking: saute an onion w/a little chopped pancetta and a few parsley leaves until the pancetta begins to crisp. Add broccoli or string beans or tiny cubes of butternut squash–substitute sage leaves if you use the squash and braise the veg first if you want it to go quicker.) Saute to blend and pour over the polenta.

Don’t let the beef get you down

Beef stew meat always looks so ready and rosy when you’re pushing past with your grocery cart, but then you “Whoa, mama. I’m not standing over a stove for 2 and a half hours with that, I don’t care how cute it is.”
Fair enough.
But listen. Don’t tell me you don’t multi task. On a night when you’re making an omelet or pale little cutlet, take out another skillet and heat it up. In the time it takes to get hot, you can tear open the meat, throw some salt on there and a dusting of flour. Give the skillet a pour of your best olive oil (the flavor of a bad oil gets into the beginning of a stew, the same way it gets into the end.) and a dab of butter. Sear the meat on at least two sides. Get it out of the pan. Cut up an onion, and push it around with a bay leaf for ten minutes while you’re setting the table and yelling at the children to come and help. While you’re eating, put the beef back in with the onion and add a piece of celery, a piece of leek, thyme sprigs and parsley sprigs. Give it a glass of your red wine and some water. Let it go on a simmer until about a half hour before you go to bed. Put a lid on the pan and stick it in the fridge or get a child to swear on the food they will be eating for the next week, to do it.
Dinner the next night: pull out your pan, and add more wine or water to come nearly to the top, along with peeled, cubed potatoes. Encourage family salad making on the side. Remember how much I love you.

Use what you have

Ferdinand loves company. We were lucky enough to have two little girls for breakfast and the whole family for dinner. I made a big bowl of pasta, tossed string beans w/fried garlic and parsley and set the table with the only glasses we have enough of–jelly.

How to: Prime Rib

Buying prime rib can make you pause. It’s $30 a pound. If you have a 6 people coming for dinner that’s 1 rib per 2 people; each rib is about 2 pounds; that’s $180 before you even walk yourself over to the potatoes.
This year’s rage of throwing it in an oven hot enough to start a house fire and then turning it down and waiting for two hours with a strict instructions of not opening the oven door doesn’t work for me.
A) The oven has to have a proper seal or it’s not going to hold the temperature once you turn the oven down. B) The oven has to be the kind of clean it was before you started using it, or it’s going to smoke.
C) Who has the kind of nerves that can put $180 in an oven and hope for the best?
Not me.

The menu for my job:

Tiny crab cakes with lump crab on herb cuttings and a side of (more) crab on bruschetta.
Prime rib w/lemon, rosemary and beautiful olive oil, mashed potatoes, roasted tomatoes, onion confit and garlicky spinach
Fresh ricotta stuffed artichoke on arugula leaves
Chocolate flourless cake w/candied peanuts and cream

I love crab. When I eat it I want to eat it straight. I put only enough egg in the mix to hold it together along with the tiniest dice of shallot, a dot of dijon, a tablespoon of mayo per pound of crab and some thyme leaves. I form them into 1 inch plugs, dust them in flour and refrigerate until about 5 minutes before I need them for a quick saute in butter. Their cousin king crab is on the plate, because how am I going to resist buying big red crab legs when they’re sitting right next to the containers of lump? They don’t need anything but lemon zest, parsley, a few crushed fennel seeds, olive oil and just before serving, a squeeze of lemon juice.

The prime rib: Buy it or slice it into single ribs. Marinate in garlic cloves, your best olive oil, rosemary and lemon zest for as long as you have time for (about an hour is good.) Season w/sea salt on all sides. Sear each rib on both sides. To win you friends and lovers: stand the rib on its narrow fat layer side until it is a deep golden crusty brown. Set the oven to 425 degrees and roast for about 15 minutes. When you stick a small sharp knife into the thickest part, it should be about the same temperature as your lip. Let the ribs rest for 10 minutes before slicing into them.

Roast the tomatoes ahead of time, make the onion confit ahead of time, make the mashed potatoes ahead of time (I use yukon gold) and keep them hot in a covered bowl set over a bagna maria. Give the spinach a quick saute until almost done, but not quite. Mince the garlic and slowly, slowly saute in olive oil with a pepperoncino. When you’re ready all you have to do is toss the two together in a pan.

Braise the artichoke til nearly tender, and then stuff it w/ricotta, herbs, garlic, and lemon zest and set it under the broiler to heat the cheese and crisp the edges of the choke.

Bake the cake until it’s nearly done and then get it out of the oven. Toss peanuts with salt, sugar and butter in a pan until the sugar starts to caramelize. It will harden when it cools.


When in Nome

There are times when the the soul of me gets stuck like a Russian tanker making its way to Nome. They get frustrated up there in Nome and they get frustrated right here in River City. I’m no picnic. I can understand when Ferdinand huffs and puffs at a mother with the patience and humor of a gnat.
It’s not so bad that it can’t be fixed. That’s what breathing is for. And gnocchi.
If you peel the potatoes (3 med), chop them into big chunks and simmer them with salt and just enough enough water to cover til tender, you can make the white sauce at the same time. For the two of us I use a knob of butter, about equal amounts of flour and whisk that up with a sprig of thyme and a whole clove of uncut garlic until the flour has lost its rawness and is on its way to butter cookie. Turn off the heat and give it a spill of whole milk. Whisk til smooth. Add another spill and do the same. Now give it a little flame, and enough milk to equal about a cup. Simmer and whisk until it coats the back of a spoon. Taste for salt and pepper. Strain and then put it back in the same pot off the flame. Same with the potatoes: strain the potatoes and put them back in the same pot, but give them a low flame for a minute to dry them out. Immediately smash with a fork and season with a little salt and pepper. Now go breathe–walking really fast helps a lot if you’re self conscious about doing nothing but breathing.
When you come back, add a beaten egg to the potatoes along with about a cup of flour, or enough to make a soft dough. Mix only as much as you have to. Divide the dough into small sections, and roll each section into a log shape, about the width of a sharpie pen. Coat a sheet pan with cornmeal, or your counter if it’s big enough, and cut the logs into one inch gnocchi. You don’t have to crimp them with a fork if you don’t feel like it.
Bring a pot of water to the boil and add the gnocchi, about 10 to 15 at a time, and as soon as they rise to the surface, scoop them out with a slotted spoon onto a sieve covered w/paper towel. Butter a platter, and let them rest on there until you’re done with the rest. Now heat the bechamel back up slowly and when it’s barely at a simmer, add chunks of gorgonzola, whisking as you go, and then a good handful of parmesan. Taste to tell when it has enough cheese for you. Add a glimmer of freshly grated nutmeg. I’m serving it with asparagus on the side.

I’ll do anything

it takes to get a job done.
Yesterday I was called in to fill in for a friend of mine who cooks breakfast and lunch for 45. I know I can do it, because I’ve done it before.
I spend one hour:
filling four coffee machines, stocking the drinks fridges, clearing up last night’s dishes, unloading two dishwashers, frying bacon, making eggs, and grating apples for muesli and stirring it into yogurt, honey and oats. Yesterday I forgot that I needed a pass key to get in. Normally I get in at 7, and because I’m a freak, I get there 20 minutes early. You never know.
Without the key I couldn’t start until 8. That left me three and a half hours for lunch.
No more than running in shoes with loose laces, except the menu wasn’t mine and the oven was like nothing I’d seen. A Hindenburg in stainless steel. You can tell me there are another twenty people coming or that there are no potatoes, but trying to make somebody else’s food and firing up new equipment on a tight schedule is like dropping me in Hindi class–I don’t know the alphabet.
I drank a Dr. Pepper and ate 3 mini Krackles.
The menu on the board:
frozen pre cooked shrimp with cocktail sauce, grilled chicken cutlets, steamed broccoli and bow ties. I hate precooked anything. Poor guy was trying to make it easy on me. I put a braising water on with shallots, thyme, parsley, and olive oil that wasn’t mine, coriander, lemon zest and a piece of tomato. I figured after a good half hour I could throw the shrimp in and they would pick up flavor. I put the pasta water on to boil.
I grilled chicken–one side of the grill was the temperature of Mt. Etna. The other was just past tepid shower water.
What I wanted to do: pound the cutlets flat, dip them into flour, egg and homemade crumb. What I had time for: season them with salt.
I made chocolate chip cookies just in case nothing worked. I live by Amelia Bedialia. I roasted the broccoli at 250 degrees to “seared forest” in ten minutes.
The oven had no ozone layer.
I sauteed red peppers in one pan and onions in another and then tossed them with the barely breathing broccoli. I added lemon, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper and parsley. The truth is I don’t like broccoli and it doesn’t like me. No explanation, just the truth. I tasted it six times and never liked it.
A lot of cooks are like that, secret ingredients that they hate like a date that clings. I plated it anyway, and hoped for forgiveness.
For the pasta I sauteed slivers of garlic with fresh basil and lemon zest. It was beautiful until I burned it. In that precious moment before service, when the pasta is about to be strained and the chicken is grilled and waiting for it’s browned butter with lemon and capers and the shrimp is treading water in it’s braising bath that I didn’t have to use in the first place, I turned the burner up under the sauce for the pasta to jet propulsion. I forgot about it for exactly the 14 seconds it took to blacken the bottom half of everything in the pan. I added ricotta and fresh arugula to the bow ties and hoped it would blunt the impact of the carbon in the front seat.
The salad was a salad. Greens, cherry tomato and fresh fennel. An elbow, a polyester slip.
I got the job done. I made lunch–but I didn’t like it. I put everything away, cleaned up, put my coat on, threw my bag over my shoulder and sat in the dark of St. Bartholomew’s for ten minutes before taking the subway home.