Monday, September 18, 2006

game day the italian way

Strange to see how a good dinner
and feasting reconciles everybody.
-Samuel Pepys

Fall has fallen and football season e' arrivata finalmente! Last weekend was notable in the world of college football, with several good matchups and even an upset or two. Even if your company is cheering for the other team, these recipies are sure to bring everyone together, because everybody knows, watching football on an empty stomach is almost impossible! Here's what we tried out last weekend, as a good alternative to the standard hot wings and onion dip:

  • Susan's Epic Parmesan-Artichoke Spread
    Yum. That's about all I have to say about this one. Try it, you'll see. This recipe came to me last week from Susan Morris (contributor Sarah Morris' mother.) Thanks, from the bottom of my belly!
  • Spicy Turkey Mini-Meatballs
    These are so great for game day--they are spicy like hot wings but much less greasy and far more tasty. As a bonus, if you have leftovers (you won't) you could make a yummy meatball sub!
  • Antipasto Salad
    One variation on a classic Italian recipe. I prefer to eat "Antipasti" in a salad, like this one. It's great to have to much on instead of chips--and as long as you've got ingredients with good flavors, it's tough to mess this one up.

Susan's Epic Parmesan-Artichoke Spread:
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Yield: +/- 2 pints (yes, a lot) of spread
This gem of a recipe cries "game-day" -- the classy way. It's sure to be a crowd-pleaser, just be sure to save room for the other things!

The original recipe calls for:
2 packages cream cheese or neufchatel (softened)
A very large dollop of mayonnaise
Another very large dollop of sour cream
1/2 container fresh grated parmesan
2 cans drained artichokes, chopped
A couple of slices of swiss cheese
Season with dried onions, cracked black pepper, some garlic powder
Mix these ingredients together and place in 350 oven for 20-30 minutes until bubbly on top. Sarah advises that crab meat may also be added to this for an upgrade from game-day to cocktail party.

I improvised some, here's the recipe I used:
1 package neufchatel cheese (softened)
1 8 oz. container sour cream
1 1/4 C. fresh grated parmesan
2 containers artichoke hearts, chopped
2 slices provolone cheese (on top)
2 tablespoons (a lot) of cracked black pepper.
I mixed these together on the stovetop, low heat, then baked in the saucepan for about 30 minutes before transferring to a serving bowl. I used a bit more laziness than the original recipe calls for, but after all, it is game day.

You can put this spread on:
Tortilla Chips
Cracked Pepper Water Crackers
Pita Chips
Bagel Chips
(Anything with some substance, but probably wouldn't work well with regular potato chips).

Spicy Turkey Mini-Meatballs:
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: Up to 1 hour
Yield: +/- 20 small meatballs

You'll need:
1 lb ground turkey breast
1 cup breadcrumbs (plain work best)
1/2 onion, chopped very fine
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
About 4 tbs. Olive Oil
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
Salt & Pepper
1 jar prepared red pepper pasta sauce**

** (Or you can make your own sauce, see recipe for Penne Al'Arrabiata recipe on my post, "Among Friends").

Mix together the onion, breadcrumbs, turkey, parmesan, and olive oil using your hands. Season with the cayenne, salt and pepper, then mix those in. After everything is blended completely, put a frying pan on low heat and begin to make your meatballs, by taking small amounts of the turkey mixture and rolling between your palms to make a meatball that is slightly smaller than a ping-pong ball. Sautee these in a frying pan on low heat for about 10-15 minutes, until they are a little brown. Pour the jar of pasta sauce over the meatballs, sprinkle with additional cayenne pepper, then cover. Let the meatballs simmer in the red sauce for 30 minutes or so.

This is the perfect replacement for hot wings! Your guests won't be disappointed (but be sure not to tell them how much healthier these meatballs are in place of hot wings). Serve with toothpicks or in a bowl with a fork. Don't forget to sprinkle with fresh grated parmesan just before eating...Buon appetito!

Antipasto Salad:
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 0 minutes (may be refrigerated up to overnight).
Yield: A great big salad for 6 people, a regular-sized salad for 10.

You'll need:
1 bag of lettuce (I like "Hearts of Romaine")
2-3 vine-ripened tomatoes, chopped (or, one package of cherry tomatoes, walshed and halved)
2-3 roasted red peppers, cut into strips
1/4 lb. provolone cheese (I like to get this from the deli, it is a little sharper than the packaged kind), sliced into strips
1/4 lb. genoa salami, sliced into strips
1/4 lb. sopressata or capicola, sliced into strips
6 oz. olives, drained (Try to find a nice assortment from an olive bar, I try for the ones which have the pits removed--if you can't an olive medely in a jar is also nice).
4 oz. artichoke hearts, drained, halved
1 container fresh mozzarella (I like the small balls of fresh mozzarella, but you could also cut the larger balls into smaller pieces)
3-4 pepperoncini (hot green peppers) sliced
Season with: Extra virgin Olive Oil (~5 T.), and a couple dashes of balsamic vinegar. Salt & Pepper to taste.

Mix these in a big bowl, cover, and refrigerate until you're ready to serve it! Facile!

Friday, September 08, 2006

among friends

"The most indespensable ingredient in all good home cooking:
love, for those you are cooking for."
-Sofia Loren

Recipe for a dinner party:
Prep time: Optional
Cook time: As long as you want

  • Friends
  • Wine
  • Good food
Instructions: Mix well, let sit, and enjoy! Here are a few suggestions to get things started:
  • Pepperoni Ripieni (stuffed peppers)
    This is a very casual and tasty dish. It's easy and just a little bit showy.
  • Penne Al'Arrabiata (spicy pasta)
    An Italian Staple. Pasta purists will insist that this recipe should have no more than 5 ingredients (pasta, olive oil, garlic, crushed tomatoes, red pepper). This is just as easy as making spaghetti, for the bachelors and bachelorettes, but a little more impressive!
  • Fagioli Verdi col'Aglio (green beans with garlic)
    What's not to like?
These are some tried and true recipies I learned while I was living in Italy, altered by my own memory and imagination. This was a great, very comfortable, dinner combination -- the food was satisfying without being too heavy. There seem to be a lot of instructions for making all this food - but once you do it once, you won't need a recipe anymore! I promise! You should feel comfortable to just file these away in your mental recipe box...

Pepperoni Ripieni, also known as Stuffed Peppers (for 4-5 peppers):
Prep time: 15 minutes
Bake time: 45 min to 1 hour
  • 4 or 5 large, intact, bell peppers
  • 1.5 lbs ground turkey
  • 1 vidalia onion, grated
  • 1 cup plain bread crumbs
  • 1 cup grated cheese (I like pecorino)
  • Marinara sauce or crushed tomatoes (if desired)
  • Season with: oregano, salt, and pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Aluminum foil
  1. Wash the peppers, then cut off the tops (so the pepper becomes kind of a cup). You may need to rinse out the inside to remove any extra seeds.
  2. Cut as many squares of aluminum foil as you have peppers.
  3. Rub the outsides of the peppers with olive oil (so they don't dry up), then put them in the tinfoil, using the foil like you would use a cupcake wrapper, i.e. leave the tops open. (This helps the peppers to roast, and not just bake.)
  4. Now, use your hands to mix the turkey, the onion, cheese, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, and oregano together. (Be sure the onion is grated and not chopped, it makes a big difference! Last night, I added some crushed tomatoes to the mix, to see what happened. It was good!)
  5. Fill each pepper with the ground turkey mixture, then top with marinara sauce, and finally, some more grated cheese.
  6. Place each stuffed pepper (in the tinfoil) upright in a baking dish. Bake in a 350 to 400 degree oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Penne Al'Arrabiata (Spicy Pasta), serves 6
Prep time: As long as it takes for your water to boil
Cook time: 15 minutes

  • 1 Box Penne (I like Barilla whole wheat pasta)
  • 1 Can Crushed Tomatoes
  • 1 Clove Garlic, chopped.
  • 1 Tablespoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  • Olive Oil, Salt
  1. Boil water. When the water is boiling, add 2 tablespoons of salt (it's kind of a lot). THEN add pasta. Should take about 8-9 minutes for penne to be al dente.
  2. While the water is boiling, or the pasta is cooking, make the arrabiata sauce (this process is kind of tricky, requires constant attention, but only for about 4 minutes, then you can let it just simmer):
  3. Put about 1/4 cup olive oil in a saucepan, turn on low heat.
  4. After the oil has been on the heat for one minute, put the chopped garlic in--cook the garlic until it gets golden, but not brown.
  5. Add the red pepper flakes (this is important - add the pepper, then the crushed tomatoes, the heat of the pepper will be more effectively transferred throughout the sauce).
  6. Remove the oil and garlic and pepper from the stove for 1 minute to let it cool.
  7. After letting the oil cool off a bit, add the entire can of crushed tomatoes. Stir with a fork to mix the oil in.
  8. Let simmer until water has boiled and pasta is done, or about 15 minutes.
  9. Drain Pasta when it is al dente (al dente = when you bite it, it should be chewy, not hard, or soft).
  10. Mix pasta and sauce together, serve family style.
  11. Top with cheese if you like!
**Crushed tomatoes are the easiest and tastiest way to make your own sauce because virtually nothing has been added to the base. Don't forget to add your own seasoning or the sauce will be pretty blah. My favorite things to add to this sauce: red wine, salt.

Fagioli col'Aglio (or, green beans with garlic):
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
  • 1-2 lbs fresh green beans (there never seem to be enough!)
  • 1 clove garlic, diced
  • Olive oil
  1. Snap off the ends of green beans.
  2. Dice garlic.
  3. Wash beans.
  4. Put diced garlic and still-damp green beans in skillet.
  5. Drizzle olive oil over beans and garlic, place lid on skillet.
  6. Turn on medium heat, keep covered, stir occasionally.
  7. Add salt after about 10 minutes.
  8. Serve hot, enjoy!

Wine suggestions (These are only suggestions!):
Montepulciano D'Abruzzo
Italian, Red
Description: bright, light, very fruity and a little sweet.

Californian/Australian [same grape, different region] Red
Description: dry, earthy, dusty, very yummy

Pinot Noir
Wilamette Valley, Oregon would be best
Description: Pinots can be too light/bright, but the Oregon wines are lovely -- still light but satisfying, a little sweet.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

nyc favorites

"Ponder well on this point: the pleasant hours of our life are all connected
by a more or less tangible link, with some memory of the table."
Charles Pierre Monselet

Ciao ragazzi! I have just returned to the District after an extended holiday weekend in New York City. Here's a list of some of my favorite tables:

(1022 Madison Avenue)

This sunny spot is right next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art - a perfect stop pre- or post-visit. The restaurant has a rustic and distinctly Italian feel to it - with stucco walls, painted yellow, you may as well be dining al fresco in bella Italia! The 1st floor (which is one flight up from street level) offers views of Madison Avenue shoppers, and the 2nd floor, a converted greenhouse, offers a high glass ceiling, and lots of bright sunlight. They have a reputation for being family-friendly--which could put a little damper on a date--but when there aren't loads of bambini running around, this is a pretty chic spot to kick back and enjoy some antipasti.

Their featured menu item is their pizzas, though I've never had one, consistently opting for lighter fare. This time I tried a spinach and goat cheese salad ($12). It was just lovely - offering a honey-balsamic dressing with pine nuts and as promised, warm goat cheese topping three thin slices of baguette. Their presentation is elegantly simple - they do not garnish their plates, rather, they let the food showcase itself.

Other plates to try:
Prosciutto e buffaline ($15): Imported prosciutto sliced to perfection, served with little fior de latte. It may seem a little pricey, but don't forget that imported prosciutto sells for about $25/lb in any given grocery store. The mozzarell' is not to be looked over either - it's so fresh it could fall apart on the plate.

Carciofi e parmiggiano ($15): I love this idea. This is such a fresh salad (it's chopped artichoke hearts, hearts of romaine, endive, and parmesan) and served with three endive "shells" (I stuffed the salad inside the endive shells to eat this instead of using a fork). They used fresh lemon juice and olive oil for dressing - complimented with curls of parmesan and freshly ground black pepper, this is delighfully fresh combination. The artichoke hearts were less apparent than the menu would have it seem, but still a wonderful salad.

Searafina's cocktails (I've had both a bloody mary, and a bellini) leave something to be desired. At $10 a drink, your best bet is probably a glass of sparkling water with a twist of lemon.

(40 Central Park South, Between 5th and 6th)

A posh brunch spot right next to the Plaza apartments - Sarabeth's was certainly the place to be on Saturday morning in NYC. It looks deceptively tiny from the front, but a hallway leads to the back where there are groups of tables for as far as the eye can see. The service was excellent, and the coffee was rich. A truly decadent experience.

Spinach & Goat Cheese Omelet (sense a theme yet?): Eggs were unbelievably fluffy, the flavors of spinach and goat cheese were delicious in this omelet. The end! Encore!

Farmer's Omelet (with leeks, ham, chunks of potato and gruyere): The fluffy eggs were delightful but the rest of the ingredients left something to be desired. The gruyere and ham must have been smoked, which didn't suit this taster much. I'm not sure that I'd order this again.

I ordered the omelet with an english muffin: Sarabeth's makes their own. I was less impressed with their muffin (which was more like a corn muffin than an english muffin), but it was nice to know that it was fresh and homemade.

Sarabeth's Pickled Bloody Mary: Not so much. This was the alcoholic equivalent of a poodle, with some kind of colorful vegetable confetti sticking out the top - which made this a very difficult cocktail to drink (pieces of it ended up decorating not only my drink, but my face). It wasn't spicy, the flavor was more bitter than anything. It was underwhelming, at best.

With the exception of the bloody mary, this was a really pleasant experience. If you want to brunch to impress--Sarabeth's is your spot!

The Best Halal
(53rd And 6th)

Alright. This has to be one of my favorites. This street vendor goes by the name "Best Halal" for good reason. I don't know how they do it! There are imposters on every corner boasting their Halal, but they can't compare to this place. The Halal I tried was with chicken - I have no idea what they used to season their chicken or their rice, but it was wonderful.

For $5, they give you an aluminum container chock full of fluffy seasoned rice, and perfectly grilled, seasoned, chopped chicken. They serve it with a white sauce (sort of tahini-esque), and a spicy sauce (which I tried because everyone else was eating it) - absolutely wonderful. This has to be one of the best "street meat" experiences around.

The first time I tried this, it was mid-afternoon, and there were only a few people ahead of me in line. I liked it so much, I went back about 12 hours later -- at 2 AM -- and there was an epic line that would've probably taken about 40 minutes to get served there. In my haste at that hour, I went to an adjacent stand where there was no line. The imposter halal vendor definitely appreciated the business, but it was no comparison to the Best Halal. (This rice was dry and underseasoned, where the Best Halal rice was moist and fluffy and salty and spicy and...) Run, don't walk to this corner to check it out!

Maria Pia
(319 West 51st Street)

Hail Mary! Maria Pia is pure romance. This might have been the restaurant where "Lady and the Tramp" dined when they fell in love. Outside dining on one of the last nights of summer with just a hint of fall in the air. Exposed brick walls inside. Low lighting. Wonderful music. The folks at Maria Pia have mastered the candlelit dinner.

2001 Chianti Classico (Tuscany) ($40): Delicious! This 2001 bottle took almost no coaxing to find the sweet, dark, and rich notes that were such a delight that evening. As a point of interest, most wine from Tuscany from 2001 are wonderful, and often they are more affordable than the rest of the list, which can be daunting. Don't miss them on your next menu! Perfecto!

Caprese salad ($11): Pure mozzarella and ripe vine tomatoes drizzled with extra virgin olive oil = absolutely heavenly. This is a classic dish that insists on good ingredients, and Maria Pia didn't skimp on the quality.

Ravioli alla Vodka ($14): My favorite combination (spinach and goat cheese) makes an appearance again in my weekend -- this time, in homemade ravioli with a creamy red sauce. These yummy pasta pockets were made to impress. Fresh ingredients in the sauce and the pasta made the difference again with this one.

Tortellini Alla Nonna ($14): This is a variation on a southern Italian classic - spaghetti al carbonara. This combination uses parmesan, peas, and prosciutto in a sauce that won't disappoint. Again, Maria Pia uses homemade stuffed pasta in a fresh cream sauce. I enjoyed this tasty dish immensely - complimented perfectly by the wine - but ultimately preferred the spinach/goat cheese ravioli in the vodka sauce.

(202 East 7th Street, Between Avenues B & C)

This hip, bohemian place has had me daydreaming about it since the first time I tried it. Its dim lighting and intimate atmosphere don't draw the typical monied NYC crowd, instead it's a tuly bohemian grove. I'm not kidding when I say that it's intimate seating -- the whole place might seat 16 people.

They've decorated the place with random Asian curios, and wallpapered with polaroid pictures (presumably, of their loyal customers). I've never seen such a place that is To me, it felt like kind of an organic NYC experience -- organic in the literal sense, that my experience was derived from the surroundings (nobody was putting on a show).

But the real reason to go to Satsko? The dumplings. Are. To die for.

Gyoza ($9): Homemade dumplings stuffed with pork, pan seared and served with some wonderful soy/chive/teriyaki dipping sauce.

Vegetable dumplings ($9): Made and prepared just like their gyoza, but no meat. These are served with a slightly spicy tomato-based sauce.

If you're looking for a cool spot to hang out with a few friends over some dinner and drinks, Satsko's got you covered. They make their own flavored sake, if you like that sort of thing. Their lychee flavor was nice, but a the sweetness of it was overpowering--I'll stick to straight-up sake and gyoza at this spot.

Morning Star Cafe
(949 2nd Avenue)

Classic diner.

Eggs benedict ($6): Top 5 I've tried, less the sliced, packaged ham they included. They didn't skimp on the rich hollandaise here! The eggs were perfectly poached, the english muffin was chewy and nicely toasted. Hearty and no-frills, just good diner food.

Italian Omelet ($8): Sausage, pepper, mushrooms, and mozzarella. Yum. Vegetables and sausages were mixed wtih the eggs, not stuffed inside. Really nice, satisfying breakfast for not too many greenbacks.

Skip: Morningstar's breakfast potatoes, which were largely unseasoned (gross) and mushy (also, gross); the grapefruit juice, which tasted like bitter Kool-Aid.

Friday, September 01, 2006

comfort food

"Bachelor's fare: bread and cheese, and kisses." - Jonathan Swift

One of my all-time favorite comfort foods is the grilled cheese sandwich. Like most comfort foods, it can be served bare-bones (white bread and orange cheese) or it can be dressed up to put on a show.

First, the proper method of making a grilled cheese involves butter, a hot skillet, and whole-fat cheese. Do not compromise the integrity of this classic by using a toaster and a microwave (you'll zap the goodness out of your poor sandwich).

Here are a few combinations I've tried with great success:

The Bachelor:
Pepperidge farm "English Muffin Bread" and Cabot "Seriously Sharp" cheddar cheese.

Staffer Special:
Mild rye bread, American Cheese, and three thin slices of fresh tomato.

The Keeper:
Sourdough bread with Fontina (add tomato for extra tang).

They are ready when they are golden and gooey! Pair this sandwich with your favorite soup (I like creamy tomato) and an ice cold beer, you won't be disappointed.

xo, k