Archive for April, 2008

Pizza and Freedom, via Di Fara’s

Although Jim and I love strolling around Brooklyn, we recently took another step forward on the path to adulthood and bought a car. I already have several excursions to new restaurants and neighborhoods in mind. In fact, Jim and I didn’t wait long before we made our first one. As soon as we signed the bill of sale on Friday, we fastened our seatbelts, turned the key in the ignition, and drove straight from the car dealership to nearby Di Fara’s in Midwood, Brooklyn.

Di Fara\'s Pizza

Like many New Yorkers, I had read that Di Fara’s serves the best pizza in the city. Its fans are pretty convincing, directing their enthusiastic praise towards the seventyish-year-old Domenico De Marco, who has been making his thin-crust, Neapolitan-style pies in this gritty corner shop for over 40 years. He personally rolls out the dough and assembles the ingredients for each pizza in front of the eternal hungry masses waiting at his counter. 

When Jim and I walked up to the shop on Friday night around 7 pm, I was expecting a line out the door. But the scene was eerily quiet, with only a faithful few stalking the counter while De Marco worked his magic in a white apron and newsboy cap. He started by slowly and deliberately pushing dough for a new pie into a circle. Next he carefully spooned San Marzano tomatoes, three types of grated mozzarella cheese, and parmigiano reggiano onto its surface before drizzling olive oil from a copper kettle on top. When the cooked pie emerged from the massive steel oven, De Marco reached for a plastic container of fresh basil, snipped some fresh leaves with a pair of scissors, and sprinkled them across the pizza’s surface. He also applied a second dose of olive oil across the pie. Once it was boxed up, the cycle began again with a new batch of dough.

Instead of ordering a pie, Jim and I decided to order our own slices with different toppings. We sat in the green-hued, rather grungy room and silently sipped our Cokes with the rest of the eager patrons. My first slice of plain arrived in a few minutes. As soon as I bit into it, I noticed the sharpness of the parmigiano cheese ($4). The crust was thin and light, the sauce sweet and fresh. But if I have to be honest, I enjoyed my slice with artichoke hearts more than the plain, and not just because I love artichokes ($6). It came to me piping hot, with the hearts tender, fresh, and silky.

Artichoke Heart Pizza at Di Fara\'s

I’m already planning my next visit, when I will order a full pie. I’m trying to figure out whether to go with the classic round or the Sicilian-style square. If being an adult with a car means I can get to Di Fara’s anytime I want, then I’ll happily accept it.

Di Fara Pizza, 1424 Avenue J between 14th and 15th Streets, in Midwood, Brooklyn. T: 718-258-1367. You don’t need a car to get there; take the Q train to the Avenue J stop, and the shop is about a block away.

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Mary Lou Sanelli and The Immigrant’s Table

“Mom, tell them about the antipasto,” exclaimed Mary Lou Sanelli, her straight, brown hair grazing her shoulders. I sat with the rest of the audience at the Tenement Museum on New York City’s Lower East Side, waving my paper fan in the hot, stuffy room, trying to keep cool.

“No, I can’t,” said the smiling, wide-faced woman in a strong Italian accent, her hair swept up into a bun. But after a bit more cajoling, Mary Lou Sanelli’s Barese “mamma” (played by actress Jackie Leone) discussed her recipe for pomodori all’olio (tomatoes in oil) with the audience. After this quick cooking lesson, Sanelli paged through her book, The Immigrant’s Table, and dove into a reading of her poem “Antipasto,” described as “a meal in and of itself.” She spoke of mozzarella, olives, pickled eggplants and peppers, procured by her mother after a long drive to the city, and served on approved Roman Catholic holidays.

I first came to know this book of poems and recipes when my cousin in Port Townsend, Washington, sent it to me a few months ago; the author is based in the same town. Sanelli’s poems, with titles such as “Minestrone” and “Finocchio,” illustrate her Italian immigrant family and their cultural struggles, as well as the author’s own coming of age as a first-generation American. Each poem is paired with at least one family recipe, and photographs of Sanelli’s family are scattered throughout the book.

Born on the Lower East Side of New York City and then raised on the East Coast, Sanelli eventually moved to the West Coast in attempt to break free from her family’s Old World traditions. But after a period of time, she realized that leaving the past behind was impossible. Instead of trying to escape her history, Sanelli decided to embrace and understand it by exploring her mother’s cherished recipes. She realized that food shaped many of her childhood memories, as seen in the poem “Veal Scaloppine.” Sanelli’s protests against eating meat, framed in a poem about this traditional Italian dish, pitted her directly against her parents and their beliefs, causing true conflict between two distinct generations. 

By exploring her family’s culinary traditions and writing about them, Sanelli gained the understanding about her own identity that she was looking for. This was obvious from the lively and light-hearted reading I witnessed last week between the author and her “mamma” at the Tenement Museum. Throughout the evening, Sanelli added and subtracted from her poems, creating dialogue about the recipes, her memories, and her mother’s own struggles as an immigrant. We were all family for an evening, and it was a wonderful way to experience the book again.

I enjoyed this book for many reasons: The writing is simple and evocative, the format intimate and personal. But I also identified very strongly with the poems themselves, which inspired memories of my own Sicilian grandmother, and our visits to her home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn when I was a child. Our gatherings around her lace-clad dining room table, always surrounded with platters of finocchio, spaghetti, and meatballs, are forever embedded in my mind and my soul. Sanelli’s book reinforced my belief that food, whether it’s gnocchi or manicotti or any other traditional family dish, has the power to shape us all.

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Hummus Wars, Part II: The Winner Is Revealed

Cook\'s Illustrated\'s Ultimate Hummus

As promised, I have completed my hummus recipe smackdown. Last weekend I tested Food & Wine’s recipe for hummus masabacha, and this past Sunday I whipped up Cook’s Illustrated’s Ultimate Hummus. With such a title for its recipe, Cook’s must have been feeling pretty confident in its chickpea prowess. I whirred up the food processor and got ready to determine if the magazine was all bluster and intimidation, or if it really had the hummus goods.

In terms of the actual cooking process and ingredients list, there is little difference between the two recipes. Both start with dried chickpeas that are soaked overnight, although Cook’s doesn’t soak them with baking soda. Instead, Cook’s adds the baking soda while the chickpeas are cooking on the stovetop the next day. Both recipes use lemons, garlic, cooking water, tahini, and cumin, although in slightly different quantities. In the most significant differences between the two, Cook’s Illustrated eschews the lemon tahini sauce utilized by Food & Wine, and purees the cooked chickpeas and dry ingredients on their own before adding the liquid ingredients to the food processor in two separate stages.

Even though the differences in the recipes are slight, Jim and I strongly preferred the hummus from Cook’s Illustrated. It was mild but slightly nuttier in flavor than the Food & Wine batch, and was somehow much creamier as well. Also, the Cook’s recipe creates a more moderate batch of hummus than Food & Wine, perfect for us to share over the next couple of days without fear of wasting it.

So, I hereby declare Cook’s Illustrated the winner of my hummus cook-off. But really, there are no losers here. Both magazines produced perfectly good recipes for one of my favorite Middle Eastern spreads, and both versions are much better than the pre-packaged stuff from my corner bodega. And anyway, since I have been able to eat fresh hummus for a week straight, I think I am the real winner here. That’s all that counts.

(Unfortunately I cannot link directly to the recipes on the Cook’s Illustrated website; you have to be a member of the website to see them.) 

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Court Street Strolls: Fat Cat Wines Coming Soon

Fat Cat Wines Coming Soon to Carroll Gardens

As we strolled down Court Street on Saturday night, Jim and I were surprised by the activity going on at a storefront near West 9th Street. It looks like a new wine shop called Fat Cat Wines will soon open on this sleepy stretch of the block. A closer look this morning revealed sleek wooden wine racks and a counter under construction. I don’t usually post tips such as this, but any new, interesting shop on this quiet end of Court Street is always exciting to me. Hopefully the store will carry some intriguing wines. I’ll keep my eye on it and see if I can find out more information.

Fat Cat Wines, 538 Court Street between West 9th and Huntington Streets in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

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Hummus Wars, Part I

Hummus Masabacha from Food & Wine Magazine

As I paged through the May issue of Food & Wine last week, I came across a hummus recipe in an article about the food of Israel. I had always wanted to make my own version of this Middle Eastern chickpea spread in order to see how it compared to the store-bought stuff, so I flagged the page and started planning my upcoming weekend around this experiment. 

Imagine my surprise when Cook’s Illustrated arrived at my door a few days later, also offering a recipe for the best hummus this side of the Atlantic Ocean. There was something in the air last week, and I have to say, it smelled of chickpeas. 

A more intrepid blogger might have spent the weekend testing both recipes, then triumphantly declaring the winner in a decisive post. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I just couldn’t do it. Too much hummus, too little time. So this past weekend I worked on the Food & Wine version, and this coming weekend I’ll try the Cook’s recipe.

On Saturday morning I wandered into Sahadi’s, the Middle Eastern specialty foods store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Even though I only needed dried chickpeas and tahini for my hummus cook-off, I spent some  time browsing the shelves filled with various types of ground flour, couscous, beans, nuts, and olives. After making my purchases I headed next door to the Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop for some homemade pita bread, also indulging myself with their sweet, sticky baklava. I need to find projects that bring me to Atlantic Avenue and its Middle Eastern shops more often.

Upon my return home, I focused on making my hummus. I put 1/2 pound of dried chickpeas and baking soda in water to soak, and by the next morning the chickpeas had expanded and softened. Some cooking time on the stovetop, a few whirs in the food processor with olive oil, lemon juice, and cooking water, and I had my chickpea spread. In Food & Wine’s recipe for hummus masabacha, the hummus is garnished with some whole chickpeas, a few sprinkles of cumin and paprika, and enhanced with a separate lemon-spiked tahini sauce.

The hummus, while creamy and nutty on its own, definitely improved with the lemon tahini, which I had spooned into the center. As I dragged the tahini sauce into the hummus with my pita bread, it infused the spread with a lightness and intense lemon flavor missing from the chickpea mixture. The Food & Wine article explains that authentic Israeli hummus is not as strongly flavored with lemon and garlic as Americans might be used to, and the masabacha variation is a little fancier than what one might order everyday.

I’m interested to see how the Cook’s Illustrated recipe compares. I’m also wondering how much hummus I can eat in a week. I guess I’m about to find out.

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Smitten Kitchen’s Spring Panzanella

Like almost everyone else I know, I am ready for spring. The past few weeks have been so grey and dreary, with the sun peeking out from behind the clouds for just a moment before ducking back behind them again. For whatever reason, spring is not ready to be sprung.

But on this past cold and sleepy Sunday, spring did enter my home for a little while, in the form of Smitten Kitchen’s Spring Panzanella. I had seen the colorful photograph and recipe on their website at the end of last week, and I just knew that I had to make this salad, as soon as possible.

Smitten Kitchen\'s Spring Panzanella

The mixture of asparagus, tangy leeks, white beans, and crispy toasted bits of leftover bread, combined with champagne vinegar, red onion, olive oil, and a bit of Dijon mustard simply proclaimed spring with every bite. The flavors were clean, fresh, and alive, providing me with a burst of positive energy during a day of lethargy. Jim is already looking forward to the next time I prepare it. I need to do a better job cutting the leeks though; I left them a little too thick this time around.

On Monday morning I proceeded to send this recipe to 3 of my friends. I needed to spread the news to my fellow cooks that spring had finally arrived, at least in the form of a recipe. It’s all we’ve got until the sun comes out.

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Lessons from the Dinner Club

Jamie Oliver\'s Stuffed Leg of Lamb

With everyone leading such busy lives, I’ve found that months can go by without seeing certain friends. So, in an effort to maintain our ties to each other, Jim and I and 7 of our close friends decided to meet once a month to enjoy a home-cooked meal together. Jim and I hosted the inaugural dinner club gathering this past Saturday night.

I had never cooked a meal for such a large group of people before. As I expected, I learned many things from the experience. Here’s a rundown of the night:

Appetizers: We started with a loaf of No-Knead Bread, some soft, briny olives, and taleggio cheese, accompanied by fruity olive oil from my mother’s hometown in Italy. Jim’s fizzy Pomegranate-Champagne cocktail helped get the night off to a festive start.

What I learned: People love homemade bread. And fizzy drinks.

First course: Because of our previous success with Cook’s Illustrated’s Ricotta Gnocchi Jim and I thought they would be a perfect first course for the party. We made them a week earlier and froze them. An hour before cooking them, I took the gnocchi out of the freezer to rest at room temperature, as per the recipe. But when I finally added the gnocchi to the boiling water, the delicate squares of cheese disintegrated, their breadcrumbs trickling to the surface of the water.

As Jim and I stared at our melted, soggy gnocchi, we were faced with a Top Chef-like decision: Did we dare serve them? Since Padma wasn’t around to expel us from our own kitchen, we did. We were among friends, after all, and we all shared a laugh over the still-tasty, herb-infused cheese topped with a simple tomato sauce.

What I learned: When you have the oven going at full blast, plus 2 burners aflame on the stovetop, do not defrost ricotta gnocchi at room temperature. The kitchen was too warm to let the little guys rest on the counter, and they were doomed from the start.

Second course: We all know who I turn to in times of food-related need: Jamie Oliver. This time we went with his rustic leg of lamb from Jamie’s Italy, stuffing it with green olives, anchovies, bread, pine nuts, and an amazing amount of fresh herbs. We roasted it over potatoes, sweet parsnips, and fennel for two hours, pausing every so often to baste the meat with red wine. While Jim carved the lamb, I quickly sautéed some fresh brussels sprouts leaves with garlic and olive oil. Far more successful than our ricotta gnocchi, this second course saved the night for us. Jim even hit a home run with the wine pairing, serving a lovely, rich Bandol that we all enjoyed.

What I learned: As I had heard in the past, anchovies don’t taste fishy when mixed with other foodstuffs. They simply add a salty depth that you can’t achieve with regular salt.

Dessert: After a few rousing rounds of Guitar Hero (yes, we’re all in our 30s), we returned to the table for panna cotta with wild berry coulis. Luckily I still had a photograph from the first time I made this sweet, creamy delight of a dish, back during my struggles with homemade ravioli.

What I learned: When 6 of the desserts are served in regular glassware, and 4 in heart-shaped ramekins, everyone wants to know why they didn’t get a heart-shaped ramekin.

A few other things I learned from the evening:

  • If you are hosting a dinner party, don’t plan to take carefully-composed photos of the food. It’s just not going to happen.
  • Meals can indeed be enjoyed while sitting in a rocking chair.
  • I stink at Guitar Hero.
  • If you don’t have a table large enough for 10 people, borrow a portable card table from a friend. Thanks, Diego! If not for you we would have been sitting in a circle on the floor.

So our first dinner party was a total success. We ate, laughed, and relaxed. And I even learned a few culinary lessons. That’s what I call a good night, and I can’t wait until the next meeting of our Dinner Club.

The only recipe I modified from the original was for the panna cotta with wild berry coulis. I doubled the recipe to serve 10, but I’ll provide you with the basic recipe for 6 (generous) servings.

Recipe for Panna Cotta with Wild Berry Coulis (adapted from the Gourmet Cookbook and the America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook):

For the Panna Cotta:

  • 2 3/4 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, scored down the middle, seeds scraped from the pod
  • a drop of vanilla extract

In a small bowl, sprinkle gelatin over the water, and let it stand until it softens, at least 1 minute. Combine cream, half-and-half, and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until all of the sugar is dissolved. Once the cream mixture starts to boil, remove it from heat. Stir 1 cup of the cream mixture into gelatin mixture, then stir the cream and gelatin mixture back into the cream. Stir in the vanilla bean seeds, as well as a small drop of vanilla extract.

Pour an equal amount of the cream mixture into 6 glasses of your choice. Cool to room temperature for 30 minutes. Cover each glass with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before you plan to serve them.

For the Wild Berry Coulis:

  • 10 ounces frozen mixed wild berries (1 bag of frozen fruit)
  • 1/4 cup sugar (adjust according to your preference)
  • 1 squeeze of lemon juice
  • a pinch of salt

While your panna cotta sets in the refrigerator, turn your attention to the wild berry coulis. Place the frozen berries in a saucepan. Cover. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Stir often for 10 to 12 minutes. Add sugar, turn heat to high, and boil for 2 minutes.

Strain berries through a strainer, using a spoon or spatula to push the berries through into a bowl. Discard the berry seeds that are left in the strainer. Add lemon juice and salt. Cover and refrigerate until chilled.

When you are ready to serve your panna cotta, top each one with a generous serving of the berry coulis. Serves 6. Enjoy!

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