Make Mine Short-Order

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I’m always looking for quick recipes. Sometimes I start a quick recipe and then realize — hey, this ain’t as quick as I thought. But I plod on — usually so absorbed and fascinated by each step that it doesn’t matter how quick it is. 

I like to cook my meals because — I like to cook. But also, because I like to know what’s IN THEM. I love choosing each ingredient — knowing how I’m treating that ingredient, and leaving myself no mysteries. The mystery is usually a magic not entirely my own. Just the sheer alchemy of cooking. Molecules, ions, nuclei shuffling together in heat ….wow, a little bit of stardust in the food.

Which brings me (and how could it not) to the joy of watching a fast order cook at work. Talk about magic. Talk about seeing every ingredient go right into the recipe. Talk about deftness of hand aerobatics. Talk about concentration, follow-thru, and thoroughness.

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Okay, let’s talk about it. Growing up in NY, and being of an everyday-food persuasion, I have, for a long time, found myself in diners. I have trouble trumping diners with high-fancy restaurant fare (excuse that word over there). I just love diners. 

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In the old days, diners were everywhere in NYC. You either went around the corner. Or you decided to walk five blocks to another, because you liked the decor better. Or because you were meeting a friend who lived five blocks away. Or — who knows, maybe you needed a walk. Because there wasn’t much difference in the food from diner to diner. They ALL knew how to make that menu shine and it always shined. My faves: scrambled eggs soft, with home fries, and whole wheat toast. Diners in NYC include tea or coffee in the price of the breakfast (I’ve learned that’s not true everywhere).

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Or get a grilled cheese with tomato (with maybe bacon?)

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Or venture further for a club sandwich, a meat loaf dinner, some Greek specialties like: spanakopita, or shish kebabs. Most diners in NYC are run by Greeks. There are Lobster Tails (the seafood, not the pastry) and Fettuccine Alfredo and NY Strip Steak on the menu, too. Okay— I probably wouldn’t order those things… I like the traditional diner fare. But people do order those dishes. I’ve seen them go by on the way to another table. Riveting.

Wandering around NYC streets, you sometimes get hungry while you’re neighborhoods away from home….you can always be saved by a diner. Looking to kill 20 minutes before your appointment? Siddle up to the counter and have a hot tea and a toasted English muffin. Or maybe a corn muffin (you don’t see corn muffins in the South…cornbread, yes, but not the muffin). I used to LOVE the diner corn muffin. They’d cut it in half, toast it on the griddle and serve with butter on the side. Groan. Yum.

But my favorite part is getting the seat at the counter just behind the short-order cook. It’s the kind of show that could entertain me for days. 

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Here’s where you will find some differences from diner to diner. Not in the competence of the cook or the menu, but in how the cook arranges things. What side of the grill is the bacon? How often does he scrape off the excess oil? Are the eggs all broken into a gallon-sized pitcher, ready for use? Or does he crack them as he uses them? Have the home fries just arrived to the griddle or have they been there for hours? (And hours.) Does he wear a baseball cap, a do-rag (du-rag?), a hairnet, or just hat-less, loose and free?

Doesn’t matter. The show must go on. The pressure of orders coming in fast keep the action of the story moving. WITHOUT a hitch.

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It’s even more fun when he’s cooking YOUR order. Watch closely — you’ll almost feel like you’re cooking it yourself. You can see every second and every morsel and every technique going into your plateful. Then it’s delivered. Live. In front of you on the counter, steam wafting, aromas poking your nose. Your fork poised, your diminutive diner napkin on your lap, your taste buds rushing forward, ready for sensations.

Time to EAT!

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(Dessert? No other place has so many choices.)

How They Make Parmigiano in Parma

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parmigiano reggiano

On my recent trip to Parma, Italy — with a wonderful group of food enthusiast travelers — we got to see up close and first-hand how true parmigiano reggiano is made.

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my group at the parmigiano reggiano factory

Parmesan is not parmigiano reggiano. Only the cheese made in the region of Emilia, in Parma, from very special cows, and stamped parmigiano reggiano is the real thing.

We witnessed the new milk, delivered that morning, swirling in huge heated copper vats.

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After rennet is added, just a couple of hours later, the workmen pull a 200-lb. ball of cheese from the whey.

They cut that huge wad of goodness in two. And each of those halves (100 lbs. each) becomes a wheel of parmigiano.

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At first it sits in a plastic form, with a band surrounding it to imprint (like brail) the name parmigiano reggiano, and the number representing this particular facility/manufacturer.

Then it goes into a curved form, gets submerged in brined water for some days. And then left to dry and age for no less than 12 months.

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parmigiano reggiano

At the end of the tour, we tasted the 12-month, 24-month, and 30-month cheese. Of course, we bought some to bring home. Prices from this manufacturer were so modest. After all, we were right there– right there where they made the cheese. In the beautiful countryside of Parma.

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Parma Countryside

Our guide had just recently gained access to this facility. So our tour felt super-exclusive. If you are ever in the area do look up Stefania Bertaccini. She knows all about Parma’s wonderful products, can guide you on tours, and host/teach fabulous cooking classes.

Secret Charming Fountain: Amalfi

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Secret Charming Fountain in Amalfi

Did you say it’s time to go to the Amalfi Coast? Hang on, let me get my hat!

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Amalfi Coast

 

There is NOTHING like the Amalfi Coast. Beautiful towns balancing on dramatic cliffs, food from the sea, abundance of lemons, bougainvillea spilling everywhere, and the welcoming, warm citizens of Campania. NOTHING like it.

The jewel, and title town of the Coast, is Amalfi.

Amalfi street

Amalfi

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Amalfi

It’s a small town, lusciously sprawling down a long, lovely main street, which leads from the beach, past the cathedral, to the teetering white-washed inviting architecture. Every step of the way you find beauty, culture, restaurants, coffee bars, and shops.

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Amalfi

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Amalfi

view from Amalfi Cathedral

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Keep walking deep into the town, toward the end of the main street — till you think: “well, I guess that was the last shop” — that’s when you’ll find the secret charming fountain. It’s originally meant to represent a nativity scene, but over the years, there seems to have been many added figures. Hills & cliffs, with tableaux of shepherds, and sweethearts, craftspeople, working people, and beautiful maidens.

It’s also a drinking fountain open to the public for free refreshment. Take a sip. Hang out and make friends with all the little people (and sheep), read the stories they tell & take home an extraordinary experience.

And then (why not?) stop into a cafe for some prosciutto & melon. (Soooo good!)

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prosciutto & melon in Amalfi

Fresh Fava Bean w Pasta Recipe

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fresh fava beans

I think my first encounter with fava beans was in the 70’s when I went to school in Rome. I was surrounded by Italians — many in love with cooking (but, of course). So I was not only encouraged to eat fava, but to cook them, too. It’s a process I would bring home with me to NYC… and one that I would encounter in quantity while working the prep kitchen at Mario Batali’s Lupa restaurant. There, we were asked to prepare the fava beans with love. And we did.

Favas are not the kind of vegetable you bring home and just sauté, or boil, or roast. There’s a time-intensive, work-intensive ritual before the cooking starts. Don’t be scared away. It’s well worth it!

Favas generally appear in the spring and fall. But with our global transfer of foods, there are places you might be able to buy them all the time. I find them often at international groceries and/or Middle Eastern grocery stores. Italians are not the only culture in love with fava beans.

Here’s a recipe for fava cooked with leeks and pancetta and tossed with pasta. Do (really do) try it. It’s homey, and easy, and full of flavor. And quick!

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pasta w fava beans

First. How to prepare the favas. They grow in thick pods — like peas pods after a workout. Get a lot. I usually half-fill or almost-fill a clear vegetable bag. After shucking the beans you’ll throw away the pods.

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pile of fava pods

Tear open the pods, and pull out the beans inside.

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luscious fava in the pod

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beans out of the pods

But you’re not done with prep yet. First get a medium saucepan of water boiling. Add little salt. Toss in the fava beans and boil for about 1-2 minutes. You’re not really cooking them here, just trying to loosen the shells.

Drain the beans and run them under cool water. Now pinch one end of the shell and push out the deeper green-colored bean inside.

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peeling fava shells

You can throw out the shells. But keep those precious green jewels!

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peeled, blanched fava

NOW start your recipe. Sauté some minced leek (I use 1 leek, just the white part, rinsed well), with about 1/4 lb. diced pancetta in a little olive oil.

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saute leek and pancetta

When the leek has softened and the pancetta cooks through, add the favas. Sauté 3-4 minutes. Then add a splash of dry white wine or dry vermouth. Let that evaporate.

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add vermouth

Then simmer for 4-5 minutes more until the favas are tender to the bite. Season with salt.

Meanwhile, boil a favorite cut pasta in salted boiling water— about 1/2 lb. When almost al dente drain and add to the sauté pan.

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add the pasta

Cook stirring for a few minutes more. Add some pasta water if too dry. Add a few drizzles of olive oil. Season with some more salt if needed.

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pasta w fava beans

Add some torn basil leaves if you’ve got ’em. Mmmmmm! Enjoy.

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pasta w fava beans

Fresh Fava Bean w Pasta Recipe

2 lbs. fava beans in pods

1 leek, trimmed of green, rinsed, & diced

1/4 lb. diced pancetta

olive oil for sautéing plus extra

1/4 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth

1/2 lb. favorite cut pasta

salt to taste

Open the pods and take out the fava beans. Discard pods. Bring a medium saucepan, half full with water, to a boil. Salt water. Drop in fava beans, boil for 1-2 minutes. Drain and rinse in cool water. Pinch the end of each bean shell and push out the bright green beans in side. Discard shells.

Put a pot of pasta water on to boil.

Add a couple of drizzles of olive oil to a medium sauté pan, heat till hot. Add diced leek and pancetta. Sauté for 1- 2 minutes. Add fava beans, sauté for 1-2 minutes. Add wine or vermouth. Simmer until mostly evaporated, 2-3 minutes more. Cook a couple of minutes more until fava are tender to the bite.

Meanwhile, add salt to boiling water and boil pasta. When almost al dente, drain and add pasta to sauté pan. Stir to coat. Sauté adding some pasta water if too dry, adding some olive oil to coast, adjust seasoning (salt), add some torn fresh basil if you have some.

Serve with grated parmigiano (optional).

Best Cooking Class in Venice

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Piazza San Marco – Venice

Some people shy away from Venice. They say it’s too crowded…too many tourists.

There’s some truth to that.

But there’s more truth here: Venice is like NO OTHER PLACE. It’s a beautiful history captured in space and stopped in time. To go to Venice is to time travel. Back centuries. And centuries-old wonders have all been preserved.

If you want to avoid crowds, it’s easy to steer yourself off the beaten path and feel like the city is all yours. Intriguing and relaxing neighborhoods are everywhere.

 

One of my favorite experiences is cooking with Chef Marika of Acquolina on the Venetian island of Lido. Her cooking classes are hands-on with all local fresh ingredients, and her personality is buoyant and encouraging. If you take the full day class, you start by meeting her in the center of Venice at the famous Rialto market, where dozens of tables and booths are spilling over with produce, seafood, pastas, and spices.

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Chef Marika shopping with students at the Rialto Market

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Here you go shopping with Marika to choose what you will cook. She’ll listen to your requests and also make some knowing suggestions. She knows where to shop, which are the best vendors…her favorite produce, the best fish.

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Chef Marika talking about the artichoke bottoms we’re about to buy

My group from Nashville shopped with her…picking out baby scallops in the shell, small soft-shelled crabs, prawns, and baby squid. We bought fresh whole artichoke hearts (just the bottoms, which we braised and ate like steaks), cherry tomatoes, and fresh peas.

When her rolling shopping cart was completely full, we made a couple of other short stops before boarding a taxi boat to the outer island of Lido. Marika took us to the classic age-old wine bars hidden behind the market. We sipped small glasses of wine and nibbled cichetti — bite-sized appetizers.

 

Then we took the short boat ride to her home on Lido…

 

Marika’s home is just a short walk from the boat stop on Lido.

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Marika’s home on Lido

As soon as we arrived we started cooking!

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Chef Marika showing us how to clean the seafood

We learned to clean baby squid and scallops, how to make a batter for deep-frying small soft-shelled crabs called moleche. We sautéed prawns, and made a fresh tomato sauce for pasta….we prepared all of the wonderful seafood and vegetables.

 

And then sat down to a fabulous feast.

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On our boat ride back to the center of Venice, we were happy, sated, and full of wonderful recipes!

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for info about Chef Marika’s classes, contact:

Chef Marika Contaldo Seguso

Acquolina – Villa Ines
Via Lazzaro Mocenigo 10
30126 Venezia-Lido
Tel/Fax (+39) 041 526 7226
e-mail info@acquolina.com

Antipasto? Make it a salad!

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antipasto salad

I love antipasto ingredients. All the big tastes of the savory best. Olives, cheeses, salumi, artichoke hearts, crusty bread, tomatoes, and…whatever you like.

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extra special tomatoes at Rialto Market in Venice

What do you put together for an antipasto platter? Well, just throw it in a bowl and make it a salad.

I make sure ingredients are cut or torn into bite-sized pieces. I make croutons for that crusty bread presence. And include my favorite brand of artichoke hearts (Trader Joe).

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Trader Joe artichoke hearts

Even if you don’t add greens to your usual antipasto platter, a few green leaves in this salad ups the ante. I use bitter (and lovely for the bitterness) dandelion greens.

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dandelion greens

Slices of endive are nice, too. And maybe some baby arugula. But don’t make it a green salad…think of it as just an accent of green crunch. (A bright lift of some fresh herbs like mint or basil makes it sing even sweeter.)

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mint

Season all with salt & pepper. Add some drizzles of olive oil, and a few shakes of your favorite vinegar. Not only is it tasty…it’s pretty!

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antipasto salad

Antipasto Salad w Olives & Chunk Parmigiano

1 small bunch Italian greens — dandelion or baby escarole, cleaned & chopped to bite-sized

1/2 cup pitted green & black olives

1/2 cup parmigiano, cut into small chunks

1-2 sprigs mint leaves, torn

2-3 baby cucumbers, rinsed, sliced, cut into chunks

1/2 cup cherry toms, sliced in half

1/2 cup salami, cut into chunks

1/2 cup artichoke hearts, cut in half

1/3 cup olive oil

1/4 cup favorite vinegar

salt & pepper to taste

Mix all the salad in gradients in a medium serving bowl. Add the olive oil & vinegar. Toss to coat. Season with salt & pepper. Toss to coat. Serve.

Got Garganelli?

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fresh-made garganelli

I have a lot of favorite pasta shapes…fusilli lunghi, orecchiette, linguine, bucatini…but these days I’m in love with garganelli.

Lots of Italians believe some shapes only go with some sauces and some shapes would never go with other sauces. i.e. orecchiette is great with broccoli rabe and sausage; linguine with a clam sauce; bucatini with the Sicilian “pasta con le sarde” (sardines) sauce.

Garganelli might typically marry with cream and prosciutto, or hang out with a duck ragu, but coat it with a fresh tomato sauce and it’s still says perfect. Originally from the Emilia-Romagna region (where I’m taking my cooking class students this year), it’s a hand-shaped pasta made from an egg pasta dough.

It’s easy to make. But you’ll need a gnocchi board. And a pencil, or not-too-thick dowel. Some gnocchi boards come with a dowel for making this pasta.

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gnocchi boards (and one with a dowel for garganelli)

We made it my class this week and newbies became experts super-quick.

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my class making garganelli

Full recipe below. I pair it with my other new favorite: artichoke & pancetta sauce. But here are some tips for making the garganelli shape.

After you roll out your dough to pretty thin (about a 4 on the pasta machine rollers), cut the dough into 1-1.5-inch squares. Lay the square, turned to look like a diamond, at one end of the gnocchi board.

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rolling the dough

Lay the pencil or dowel at the tip nearest you and roll up the dough along the pencil, pressing it against the groves of the gnocchi board.

If it sticks to the board, add a little flour to the board and/or the dough piece. But not too much — you want the dough ends to stick together.

They’re super-fun to make, and I LOVE the taste. Yes, I do think that different pasta shapes, despite the sauce they’re in, taste differently. Just chewing through a forkful of spaghetti strands makes a different eating experience than a few penne in your mouth.

I hope you’ll try it — and if you do — let me know how it goes!

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garganelli fresh-made

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garganelli w artichoke-pancetta sauce

Fresh Garganelli Pasta w Roman Artichoke & Pancetta Sauce

For the Pasta: 

2 cups flour

¼ teaspoon salt

3 eggs, lightly beaten

For the Sauce:

12 ounces, frozen artichoke hearts, thawed

olive oil for sautéing, plus more for drizzling

1 large shallot, peeled and diced

4 ounces pancetta, diced

1/4 cup heavy cream

salt & pepper to taste

Make the Pasta:

Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl. Create a “well” in the middle of the flour and add the eggs. Using a fork slowly mix the flour into the egg, until the dough comes together and all the flour is mixed in. Gather the dough and knead it on a lightly floured surface. If it’s too sticky add a little flour. Knead for about 5 minutes until smooth. Shape into a ball and cover with plastic wrap. Let rest at room temp for 30 minutes.

Cut the dough into four pieces. Work with one piece at a time and keep the other pieces covered in plastic wrap. Flatten the dough into a rough rectangle, and roll through the pasta machine, changing the numbers from thick to thinner (lower to higher) one at a time until you reach the second to last setting.

Lay the sheet on a table. Using a pizza cutter or knife, cut into 1 inch by 1 inch squares (doesn’t have to be perfect!) Turn square so that you’re looking at a diamond shape. Using a pencil (or other small wooden rod) gently fold the bottom point of the diamond around the pencil. Then lay pencil and dough on a gnocchi board. Roll up the rest of the dough onto the pencil while pressing it on the gnocchi board until you form a tube. Gently slide the tube off the pencil and repeat with the rest of the dough. Place finished garganelli on a floured sheet pan.

Make the Sauce:  Slice the artichokes hearts into 4 or 5 slices per heart. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the shallot and pancetta. Cook until shallot is softened and pancetta is cooked through. Add the sliced artichoke hearts. Add a little more olive oil if too dry. Cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes on medium heat. Season with salt & pepper. Add cream and toss to coat.

When pasta is done, reserve a half cup of pasta water, then drain pasta and add pasta to skillet with artichoke sauce. Stir to coat pasta and cook for 2-3 minutes until flavors combine. Add a little pasta water if it needs moistening. Serve hot. Add some grated cheese to individual servings.