Posts tagged dinners

Artichokes for the Choke

When a fruit or vegetable is in season in Italy, you know it. It takes center stage in every type of dish, from the simplest antipasto to the richest, boldest entree. Depending on the time of year, I could be talking about zucchini, tomatoes, or mushrooms. I just happened to get lucky last week. I was visiting Florence during artichoke season.

chokes

Can you believe it? I couldn’t. The sun was shining, the air smelled of springtime, and my favorite vegetable—carciofo in Italian—was absolutely everywhere. From fried artichoke hearts to whole globes stuffed with breadcrumbs, I have never encountered one I didn’t adore.

I started noticing the ubiquitous choke at my hotel’s restaurant. As I perused the menu on the first night, I realized that almost every other dish contained some sort of artichoke option. Among the appetizers were listed both an artichoke tart and grilled octopus with artichokes and citrus fruit. The secondi included a beef tagliata with an artichoke salad, and sea bass with artichokes, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes. Although they all sounded amazing, I felt like having pasta. I turned to the primi and chose the spaghetti al “macco” di carciofi, which translates to spaghetti with a sort of pureed artichoke sauce.

macco_adjusted

A perfectly cooked mound of al dente pasta coated with a creamy, smooth sauce of concentrated artichoke delight was placed in front of me. Rich yet light at the same time, this was possibly the best dish I encountered during my trip. I ate it two nights in a row before I forced myself to consider other items on the menu.

risotto_adjusted

At lunch one day I was confronted with another choke-based meal, this time in a risotto. For a few moments I wondered if I was going too crazy for carciofi, but I couldn’t resist them. Whole, tender artichoke hearts cooked with firm Arborio rice created a simple and satisfying mid-day treat. It wasn’t perfect—in fact, it was slightly too salty—but the creamy chokes still did themselves proud.

tagliata_adjusted

For my last meal in Florence I seriously considered getting that amazing spaghetti for the third time. In the end I decided to branch out to the secondi and try the beef tagliata with the artichoke salad. This time, the chokes were served raw and dressed simply with vinegar, acting as a crisp, refreshing accent to the rather rare fillet of beef that I received. 

I’m still thinking back to the intense artichoke-related joy I experienced last week. As has been said before and seen here, Italians know the true meaning of eating locally and seasonally. It’s kind of ironic that I had to fly to Italy to experience it, but I was more than up to the task. For my carciofi I’d do almost anything.

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On My Own for Dinner

lentil-salad

This past week was insane, with Jim out of town for business and me working like crazy. My dear husband finally staggered back home yesterday on the red-eye, just in time for me to leave for Italy today. I’m bleary-eyed, run-down, and can’t remember anything beyond what I ate for dinner during the past few days, so this will be a quick post before the blog goes on hiatus for a week. 

When Jim’s away I usually indulge in some of my favorite quick comfort foods for dinner. Spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, hot pepper flakes, and copious amounts of grated parmesan is a must. So is steamed broccoli, drizzled with freshly squeezed lemon juice and sprinkled lightly with salt. I try to cook dishes that involve a minimum of effort, using ingredients that Jim wouldn’t normally eat (unless I force him to, of course). 

During this past week on my own I focused on two of his least favorite foods: lentils and brussels sprouts. While lentils have been a staple in my pantry for years, I’m a recent convert to the wonders of brussels sprouts. I finally bought into the hype about a year ago, when my friends were eating them all the time and certain restaurants were earning raves for their treatments of this vegetable.

On Tuesday I cooked some green lentils with carrots, celery, onion, and garlic. Then I threw in some sautéed brussels sprouts leaves and raw cherry tomatoes for a warm winter salad. Lentils are so versatile; I love tossing them with a jumble of cooked and raw vegetables, just to see if the contrast of textures and flavors will work. This one wasn’t perfect—next time I’ll forgo cooking the lentils with vegetables and use plain water as I usually do—but I thoroughly enjoyed it on two nights this week. A few days later I halved the remaining brussels sprouts and roasted them in the oven, pairing them with some brown rice for a simple and comforting dinner for one. 

While I always prefer to eat dinner with Jim, I bet he’s happy he missed my week of lentils and brussels sprouts. I wonder what foods he’ll enjoy while I’m gone this week. (Actually, maybe I’m better off not knowing.) What are some of your favorite comfort foods, things you cook only when you’re on your own? 

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Valentine’s Day Hits and Misses

Poor Jim. February deals him a double whammy each year: First comes my birthday on the 9th, then Valentine’s Day less than a week later. To take some pressure off this celebratory one-two punch, instead of going out we cook dinner at home on Valentine’s Day. Some meals turn out wonderfully, like last year’s rack of lamb and chocolate pots-de-crème. This year was, well…okay. Let’s start with not-so-great and save the best for last:

lambshanks

The Miss: Greek-Style Braised Lambs Shanks
I knew I wanted to make some sort of braised meat for the main course. Doesn’t a slow-cooked, rich piece of red meat sound like the perfect foundation for a romantic meal? (Sorry, vegetarians.) I stubbornly thought so. Lamb shank, a tough cut that responds well to braising, had been on my to-cook list for a long time. I sent Jim off to the butcher with a wave and a smile while I looked for a recipe.

To my surprise, my cookbooks were no help, providing not a single recipe for my desired meal. I turned to the trusty Internet and came across these Greek-style braised lamb shanks. (I still don’t really understand what is so Greek about this recipe; there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly Greek about the dish apart from the lamb. Whatever, I’m not here to argue with Epicurious.)

I’ll cut to the chase: I halved the recipe from 6 shanks to 3, and in a dumb move I decided to reduce the braising liquid without reducing the cooking time. So, after 2 hours in the oven, my extravagant, Merlot-based sauce reduced down to almost nothing, resulting more in a roasted lamb shank dinner instead of the braised-meat-falling-off-the-bone-and-swimming-in-a-deep-romantic-sauce type meal I was hoping for.

Now I am also wondering if there was a mistake in the recipe, which instructed me to cook the shanks in the oven uncovered. Aren’t most braised dishes cooked with the cover firmly in place in order to prevent evaporation of the cooking liquid? The shanks tasted fine, but I have learned my braising lesson. Oh, we also made some lemon orzo and a spinach salad on the side. sorbet2Meh.

The Hit: Blood Orange Sorbet
Jim gave me a copy of Jack Bishop’s Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook for my birthday, and we decided to break it in with the recipe for blood orange sorbet. Making this frosty treat gave me the opportunity to try yet another birthday gift I received, this time from my sister: the ice cream maker attachment for my KitchenAid mixer.

As always, simple recipes yield the best results. After squeezing the juice from several crimson blood oranges, we mixed it with some (a lot of) sugar and threw the entire mixture in the fridge to cool. About half an hour later we put the ice cream attachment to work on the mixer. We didn’t have to lift a finger. The KitchenAid simply twirled away for about 20 minutes, and suddenly our fresh, sparkling dessert was ready. We placed it in the freezer for the end of our meal. 

And as I mentioned above, we truly saved the best for last. Cool, sweet, and simply pretty to look at, this refreshing sorbet cheered me up after my braising adventure gone bad. I can’t wait to see what other kind of sorbets and ice creams we come up with. Maybe I should start planning for next year. Jim, are you ready yet?

Recipe for Blood Orange Sorbet (adapted from Jack Bishop’s Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook)

  • 6 medium blood oranges
  • 1 regular medium orange
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • fresh mint, for garnish

Wash 1 or 2 of the blood oranges and grate 2 tablespoons of zest from them. Halve and juice all of the oranges, discarding any seeds that fall in along the way. This will leave you with about 1 cup of juice. Put the orange juice and the zest in medium bowl. Add the sugar and lemon juice. Stir until the sugar has dissolved.

Refrigerate the mixture until it is very cold, around 40 degrees. Add the mixture to the ice-cream churner or machine. Churn the mixture until it starts crystallizing, about 15 to 30 minutes. You can stop churning it once it has reached your desired consistency. Transfer the sorbet to an airtight container and place it in the freezer until firm. When ready, scoop the sorbet into 2 bowls and garnish with fresh mint. (The sorbet can be stored in the freezer for 2 days.) Serves 2. Enjoy!

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Dinner at Tarry Lodge

On Saturday night Jim and I hopped in the car and headed out to Port Chester for dinner. What made us break our usual weekend pattern and leave Brooklyn for Port Chester? Well, a few months ago Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich—of Babbo, Esca, and Del Posto fame, to name a few of their many restaurants—brought their formidable talents to the suburbs and opened a casual Italian eatery called Tarry Lodge. We were celebrating my birthday, and knowing what a fan I am of Mario Batali’s cuisine, Jim had surprised me with the reservation.

We arrived at 6 pm for our 6:30 reservation. Tarry Lodge has been around for over 100 years in various incarnations, at one point even operating as a speakeasy. Each room of the massive, sub-divided space was already packed from wall to wall and from one end of the beautifully restored bar to the other. Although we were early, we were quickly seated in a warmly decorated room near the kitchen on the second floor.

appetizers

We made our selections from the traditional offerings of antipasti, pizza, pasta, and secondi, and noted signature Batali ingredients such as fennel pollen, chiles, and guanciale on the menu. To our disconcerted surprise, the appetizers arrived about three minutes after we placed our order. I turned first towards the marinated calamari, always one of my favorite dishes ($8). Mixed with small, pearl-shaped pasta, capers, tomatoes, and garlic, the squid exuded a refreshing lightness of flavor and texture. Soft chunks of fennel soaked in blood oranges were accompanied by briny olives and pomegranate seeds that popped with each bite ($5). Although obviously pre-made, both of these Mediterranean-infused dishes had me reaching for more. I looked for our waitress, as I wanted to ask her about the pasta used in the calamari salad. “Excuse me…” I began, as she rushed passed the table. A few minutes later she walked by again. “Excuse me…”

linguine

Jim and I both decided to go with pasta for our main course. I settled on the linguine with clams, chiles, and pancetta ($17). To be fair, our waitress had warned me that the dish would be salty, but I was overwhelmed with its saltiness from the first bite. A brown broth mixed with the pasta was obviously contributing to the effect. As my waitress drew near, I loudly said, “Excuse me, I was wondering about this broth…” I almost felt the wind on my face as she breezed by without a second look.

Jim enjoyed his black fettuccine with lobster and chiles ($24), and a quick taste confirmed that it was a more gentle and luxurious pasta than mine. As I neared the end of my bowl, I suddenly realized that our artichokes with mint had never made it to the table ($7). Somehow we got our waitress’s attention and the artichokes arrived a few minutes later. From the first choke we could tell that they had been hurriedly thrown on the stove and then onto our table; they had absolutely no flavor whatsoever.

artichokes1

By the time we ordered dessert—a decent if unremarkable chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream ($8)—it was obvious to both Jim and me that we were being rushed out of the restaurant. This was more than confirmed when our waitress took our check and ran to process it, not noticing that she had flung our credit card across the room in her haste. I scrambled after it and asked someone else to return it to our waitress. As expected, she was long gone.

I’m sure you can tell that at Tarry Lodge I was let down by both my meal and the service. I felt that the food was prepared in the simplest manner possible for maximum efficiency. Every effort seemed directed towards getting me out the door quickly so that the tables could turn over. Perhaps my expectations were too high: In this interview Joseph Bastianich states that Tarry Lodge is meant to be a spot for casual, trattoria-style dining in Westchester. If that’s indeed the goal, then the restaurant is fine and solid. But there are plenty of other Italian restaurants in Westchester filling a similar purpose. To me it seems like a lost opportunity that could have brought a special destination Italian restaurant—perhaps on the level of Blue Hill at Stone Barns—to the area. In any case, I expected more from one of my favorite chefs. I’ve never written a negative restaurant review on this blog before, and I’m sorry to do so now. I didn’t come close to sampling half the dishes on the menu, and I don’t think I ever will. I’ll return to Babbo one day, but for now, Tarry Lodge is off my list.

Tarry Lodge, 18 Mill Street, Port Chester, New York. T: 914-939-3111. Reservations are recommended but not required. 

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Too Many Meatballs

meatballs2

A few years ago, restaurants in New York City couldn’t open without meatballs. From the Little Owl’s adorable sliders and Apizz’s ricotta-enhanced monsters in Manhattan, to over the Brooklyn Bridge for Sicilian-style spheres at Frankie’s 457 Spuntino, the city’s restaurants were offering all meatballs, all the time.

A look through my own recipe archive shows that I’ve also done some experimenting with the little guys. For our annual holiday party I’ve made both the pork-and-veal and beef-and-pork versions of Mark Bittman’s polpetti, otherwise known as tiny meatballs. They were so popular they disappeared as soon as they hit the table. And I never told you about Mario Batali’s turkey meatballs, which I made last year: The rosemary was so overpowering that I couldn’t bring myself to write about them. (Actually, I just looked for the recipe online. In contrast to the page I originally printed out, the current version online is completely different and does not mention rosemary at all. Hmm, very suspicious.) So far, my go-to meatball recipe is from Cook’s Illustrated’s America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook. It combines both ground beef and pork with breadcrumbs, parmesan, egg, and a touch of yogurt, creating rich, soft versions of this favorite comfort food.

But last week I tried another recipe, this one inspired by Luisa over at the Wednesday Chef. She had written a post about some marvelous pork and ricotta meatballs that she tried at a restaurant called A16 in San Francisco. (I guess that meatball trend also stretched out to the West Coast.) After reading about Luisa’s desire to replicate the meatballs at home, I decided I needed to try them too and searched for the recipe published in a recent issue of Food & Wine.

This recipe calls for ground pork, plus pancetta, ricotta, and other traditional elements such as parsley, breadcrumbs, and oregano. The meatballs are baked, not fried, in sea of crushed peeled tomatoes for 2 hours. When they finally emerged from the oven they weren’t as browned as we expected, but oh were they cushiony and rich, bursting with pork flavors from both the ground pork and pancetta. Light and soft, swimming in a thick sauce, they were the perfect food for yet another snowy evening at home.

Jim and I didn’t adjust the recipe at all, meaning that we wound up with enough meatballs for a family of six. We ate some leftovers with spaghetti later in the week and froze the rest for a weekend lunch in the near future. But it wasn’t a problem. I think most people, whether eating at home or in a restaurant, would agree: You can never have too many meatballs.

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My Lentil Soup

soup

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (or, if this is your first visit, welcome!), you may have noticed that I don’t always publish a recipe when I cook a new dish and report the results. When I follow the instructions of someone else’s recipe, I’m more comfortable providing a link or a reference to the original. I just don’t feel like it’s my recipe to post unless I’ve significantly changed at least one of the steps or ingredients.

But of course I often cook from my personal recipe collection. I have a few old standards, dishes that I’ve made so often and tailored to my tastes that I fully claim them as my own. One of these is my lentil soup.

I adapted my recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks, which also happens to be the first cookbook I ever bought for myself: A Fresh Taste of Italy by Michele Scicolone. Almost all of the pages are curled and dog-eared, splattered with various sauces and dusted with flour or cornmeal. During my first years out of college I basically learned how to cook from this book, and I still turn to it for advice when roasting a chicken or making pizza dough.

My lentil soup is a basic recipe, really, using brown or green lentils simmered with carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and tomatoes. Over the years I’ve added more tomatoes than called for in Scicolone’s original recipe. And instead of finishing the soup with escarole I add spinach, cooking it for a few minutes until it is just wilted. When I lived alone I made this soup at least twice a month during the winter, tinkering with it and memorizing the steps until it truly became my own. It comforts me in a way that no other dish does, perhaps because it’s attached to those early years of independence and culinary experimentation.

I made it recently after a long hiatus, during one of those freezing nights we experienced last week. As I spooned the soup into my bowl, I inhaled the familiar aroma of meaty lentils and sweet tomatoes. Hearty and rustic, with bright spots of orange carrots and green spinach swimming in a sea of steaming legumes, it was as satisfying as I remembered. And it was all mine.

Christina’s Lentil Soup (adapted from Michele Scicolone’s recipe for Lentil and Escarole Soup in A Fresh Taste of Italy)

  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 celery rib, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 cup chopped canned Italian tomatoes
  • 1 cup of brown or green lentils
  • 1 head of fresh spinach, washed and chopped
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • Parmesan cheese

Rinse the lentils and set them aside, picking out any small stones. Set them aside.

In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat a few glugs of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and carrot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables begin to soften. This will take about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and cook for another 5 minutes.

Add the lentils to the pot. Add 4 1/2 cups cold water and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 25 to 30 minutes, covered, until the lentils are tender. Season with salt and pepper.

When the lentils are cooked, stir in the spinach. It will look like too much, but spinach cooks down quite a bit. Cook until the spinach is just wilted. If the soup seems a little too thick for your taste, stir in a bit more water. You may want to do this when heating up any leftovers as well.

Serve hot, with grated cheese. Serves 4 hungry people. Enjoy!

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Taking Stock of Chicken Stock

stock

For many years I couldn’t bring myself to make my own chicken stock. I relied on cans of low-sodium broth whenever a recipe called for it, sometimes employing a bouillon cube or two mixed with water instead. Due to fear or laziness—or maybe a bit of both—there was something about saving chicken bones in the freezer and having to “skim the scum” off a simmering pot of stock that made this project intimidating to me. I thought I’d try it someday, but in reality I found any reason I could to delay the project.

Then a year ago I read this post by the author Michael Ruhlman, and felt my cheeks grow hot with shame as he railed against the use of canned broth. I hung my head and vowed to change my ways. Well, in retrospect I must not have felt so badly, because it took me a full year to finally attempt my own stock.

After Jim and I roasted and feasted upon that grass-fed chicken from Grazin’ Angus Acres a few weeks ago, I threw the bones in the freezer and waited for a free afternoon to devote to stock-making. This past windy and rainy Sunday gave me the perfect opportunity to stay indoors and cook. I threw the chicken bones in my Dutch oven with a couple of chopped carrots, celery stalks, half an onion, a bay leaf, parsley, some fennel fronds, salt and pepper, and then covered it all with water. I used a recipe from Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food as my reference, but stocks can be made with all sorts of leftover vegetables; there aren’t many rules. I brought the contents of my pot to a boil, quickly lowered them to a simmer, and kept my eye on the broth for the next two hours.

Other bloggers besides me have stated the truth: Making stock from scratch is easy. After lowering the soup to a simmer, there’s simply not much to do while it cooks. And although I diligently looked for the fatty scum to rise to the top, it never arrived. My broth simmered peacefully, filling my apartment with the comforting perfume of chicken and vegetables. After a couple of hours I carefully strained it from the vegetables and bones and figured out what to do next.

soup

I wound up using most of the stock that day, substituting it for water in a soup of kale, white beans, and crumbled chicken sausage. As I raised spoonful after spoonful of the hearty soup to my mouth, I focused on the broth, trying to see if I could tell the difference between it and the canned stuff. My homemade version was definitely a creamier, richer broth than I was used to; Jim and I both declared it a success. I was proud that I had finally put the effort into making my own stock and conquering my fear of the unknown. But I was also pleased that I knew exactly what ingredients went into my broth. There were no suspicious flecks of unknown herbs, and I was able to control how much salt went into it.

After I made the soup, I was left with about 2 cups of broth. I promptly stored my stock in the freezer, where it will wait for a future risotto or perhaps a pasta dish. I’d love to say that I’ll never use canned broth again, but I imagine I might break that vow one day when I’m in a rush. Just don’t tell Michael Ruhlman. 

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