Archive for April, 2010

Lunches by Melissa

There are many reasons why I admire my younger sister Melissa. Whenever she enters a room, her infectious laughter immediately brightens the mood. Extremely ambitious and capable, she has succeeded in her dream of working in the fashion business. She is intensely loyal and loving, and has always supported me in every endeavor I’ve pursued.

There’s one more seemingly small but very important reason why I am in awe of Melissa: No matter how busy or tired she is, she makes homemade lunches for herself and her husband Nedim to bring to work every day. Sometimes it’s leftover pasta, sometimes just a simple green salad. She’s also been known to cook a whole second meal after dinner for their lunches, just so she and Nedim don’t have to waste money on food during the workday.

What, you might say? Does packing lunch every day really deserve such admiration and praise? Absolutely, especially on afternoons when I’ve endured another mediocre serving of pad thai or overcooked pasta from a nondescript restaurant near my Midtown Manhattan office. For some reason, I cannot get my act together to bring my lunch to work on a consistent basis. And when I think about the waste of money and unnecessary plastic packaging involved with buying my lunch every day, I feel very upset and guilty about the food I am putting into my body. Plus, whatever I buy rarely tastes very good, and I know that I could make something ten times better at home.

Some weeks are certainly better than others; like Melissa, I’ll pour some extra pasta into the pot when I’m cooking dinner and bring the leftovers to the office the following day. On another night I’ll add an extra half-cup of brown rice to our dinner, transforming the leftovers into a mean and healthy salad. But rarely do I have the energy to make myself a separate meal for the following day’s lunch. That lovely pearl barley salad up there, filled with crunchy apples and electric pomegranate seeds, was an anomaly, a rare instance when I prepared a healthy meal specifically for my lunch. I need a system. Or maybe I just need my sister to make me lunch every day.

So for the second time in a week, I turn to you again, readers. Do you bring your lunch to work? What are your favorite, easy-to-prepare, lunch dishes?

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Finally. . .Ramps!

I’m not sure if you remember, but last spring I wrote a rather pathetic post about my futile search for ramps. I had never tasted these coveted spring onions before, and visits to both my neighborhood and Union Square farmers’ markets were busts. Reading other bloggers rave on and on about ramps without knowing what was so special about them spun me into a ramp-related tizzy, and I remained so for the rest of 2009.

Well, I can finally relax. Over the weekend Jim came home with a bag of these slender greens from one of our local fruit and vegetable stands. With the help of this recipe, we took some whole-wheat dough out of the freezer and layered the ramps into a quick pizza bianca. With just olive oil, mozzarella, and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese acting as the base of the pie, Jim and I were able to revel in the pure, onion-like flavors of spring’s first sprouts.

While I’m happy to declare the end of my ramp-infused innocence, I’m not sure I understand the frenzy that begins when ramps hit the farmers’ market every year. Sure, they are only available for a few short weeks in early spring. And I understand that by the time ramps arrive everyone is sick of winter root vegetables and any sign of fresh spring vegetables is a welcome relief. But the fetishization of ramps seems to have reached a fever pitch in the past few years; David Kamp, the author of The United States of Arugula, agrees. He recently declared ramps the new arugula, in the way this formerly little known food product was once over celebrated and scrutinized back in the eighties. Last week Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post went further and said ramps are simply overrated. Of course, these are just a few dissenting voices in a sea of ramp enthusiasts, so I suppose I should keep my griping to a minimum.

What do you think, readers? Do ramps deserve the hype? Am I just a grump? Don’t answer that last question…

Recipe for Pizza with Ramps (adapted from The Kitchen Sink Recipes)

  • 1 ball of your favorite pizza dough, white or whole-wheat
  • salt
  • 1 bunch of ramps, washed, with the bottoms trimmed
  • cornmeal
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • 8 oz. mozzarella cheese, grated
  • a small amount of grated parmesan cheese (less than 1/4 cup)
  • freshly ground black pepper

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. (I use a pizza stone, so I am basing this recipe on this method.) Place your pizza stone in the oven so it can preheat.

While your pizza stone heats, put a medium size pot of salted water on the stove to boil. While you wait for the water to boil, roll out your pizza dough into a circle on a floured surface.

When the water is boiling, add the ramps. Let them boil for a minute or two, then drain and set aside.

Remove your pizza stone from the oven and sprinkle it with cornmeal. Place your circle of dough on a pizza peal. Brush it with olive oil. Sprinkle it with the mozzarella cheese. Place the ramps on top of the cheese so that they radiate out from the center of the pie. Sprinkle the pie with parmesan cheese. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil across the top of the pie. Season with black pepper. Carefully transfer the pie to your pizza stone.

Bake the pizza for about 10-15 minutes. Remove it from the oven when ready and top with another tablespoon of olive oil. Let it cool for about 5 minutes before cutting. Serves 3 to 4 people. Enjoy!

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Homemade Orecchiette

Three years ago, my inaugural post on this blog was about making fresh pasta. Jim and I had pulled our never-used pasta machine out from storage, mixed together an egg-based dough, and cranked out an overwhelming quantity of linguine for the first time. Despite this successful experience—and apart from two other tiring experiments with homemade ravioli and ricotta gnocchi—making fresh pasta never became a habit for us. But on Sunday I was feeling adventurous and energized, and decided to try my hand at it again, this time with orecchiette.

Orecchiette means “little ears” in Italian. Small and circular with an indented center (hence the name), they are typical of the Southern region of Puglia, the area where my mother is from. Puglia’s flat landscape and arid temperatures are ideal for wheat production, making pasta and bread the most substantial elements of the region’s cuisine.

One of the interesting things about orecchiette and other traditional pastas from Southern Italy (such as cavatelli and strozzapreti) is that the dough is often made without eggs—flour, water, and salt are the main ingredients. A mixture of semolina and white flour forms the base of what becomes a chewy, dense pasta that can stand up to the most aggressive sauces. I have to say, this is one of the easiest doughs I have ever worked with. The absence of eggs creates an elastic dough that is quickly kneaded into a smooth ball, ready for shaping.

The rest of the steps on Sunday were decidedly un-exhausting. I divided the dough into 8 equal pieces, rolling each one into a long rope. After cutting them into compact squares, I pushed my thumb in the middle of each piece and gently dragged them a short way across my pasta board, creating a series of concave disks. I’ll admit, my first few attempts looked more like Fritos corn chips than perfectly circular orecchiette, but these are supposed to be rustic, right? Eventually I got the hang of it, and before I knew it, two cookie sheets were full of orecchiette waiting to be cooked.

In order to keep with the Puglian theme, I used my homemade “ears” in one of the region’s iconic dishes: orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe. Because of their cup-like shape, orecchiette are rarely paired with smooth tomato- or cream-based sauces; chunkier sauces with meat or vegetables work better with this particular pasta. While the orecchiette cooked, I combined some blanched broccoli rabe with olive oil, garlic, and our favorite fennel sausage from our local pork store. Once tossed with these ingredients, the orecchiette formed a neutral, sturdy base for the bitter greens and strongly spiced meat, a classic combination that works every time. Now that I know how easy it is to make orecchiette, I see many more Puglian Sundays in our future. Cavatelli, here we come!

Recipe for Homemade Orecchiette with Fennel Sausage and Broccoli Rabe

For the pasta dough (recipe adapted from Michele Scicolone’s A Fresh Taste of Italy):

  • 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup semolina flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup warm water

Combine the all-purpose and semolina flours and the salt in a food processor. With the machine running, slowly add the water, until a stiff ball of dough forms. Remove the dough from the processor and place it on a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, about a minute or two.

Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces. Take one piece and keep the remaining pieces covered with the inverted food processor bowl or another bowl. Taking the dough between your hands, roll it into a long rope about 1/2-inch thick. Cut the rope into 1/2-inch pieces. With your thumb parallel to the long side of each piece, push it into the center of the dough and slightly drag the piece backwards. It will curl around your thumb, creating a concave disk. Set aside and repeat with the next piece of dough. When finished with all the dough, place the orecchiette on cookie sheets lined with napkins and a light dusting of flour. Cook right away or freeze. You should wind up with about a pound of pasta.

To freeze the pasta, place the filled cookie sheets in the freezer. Freeze until they are solid (about an hour or two) and then transfer the orecchiette to freezer-safe bags. They can be frozen for up to one month. When you are ready to use them, don’t defrost them. Add them directly to boiling, salted water and cook as usual.

For the Sauce:

  • sea salt
  • 1 bunch of broccoli rabe, washed with ends trimmed
  • 4 links of high quality fennel sausage
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • salt
  • pepper
  • pecorino romano or parmesan cheese

Preheat the broiler. Bring a large pot of water (big enough to hold the pasta) to a boil. Season with sea salt. Add the broccoli rabe and blanch for about 3 to 5 minutes. Using tongs, remove the rabe from the water and set aside. Chop roughly into smaller pieces. Do not drain the boiling water.

While the broccoli rabe is cooking, cook the sausages under the broiler for about 6 minutes, turning them after 3 minutes. Remove from the broiler and slice into 1/2-inch pieces. The pieces will probably still be a little pink in the middle.

Add the pasta to the boiling broccoli rabe water, and cook until al dente, about 10 to 13 minutes. While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the garlic and sauté until soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Do not let it brown. Add the sausage and the broccoli rabe to the pan, cooking until done, about 5 to 7 minutes. Drain the pasta when ready.

Toss the broccoli rabe and sausage with the cooked pasta. Add a glug of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Spoon into bowls and sprinkle with pecorino romano or parmesan cheese. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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Brunch at Morandi

Weekend holidays tend to disorient me for the rest of the week, and Easter Sunday was no different. So this post is going to be short and to the point, because I also can’t let another day go by without describing the fantastic brunch I had at Morandi in the West Village a few weeks ago with my dear friend Cheryl.

When Morandi first opened in 2007, it received pretty mediocre reviews, a first for the Keith McNally empire that includes favorites such as Balthazar, Pastis, and Minetta Tavern. But before anyone could try a second plate of spaghetti at this stylishly rustic Italian restaurant, chef Jody Williams was fired and Tony Liu took her place. Now, since I hadn’t eaten at Morandi until a few weeks ago, I can’t talk about whether it’s better or worse than before. All I can say is that Cheryl and I had the best brunch ever when we ate there.

Of course we started with the carciofi alla giudea, or fried artichokes ($12). Lightly dressed with lemon juice, they were light and crisp, the delicate leaves protecting the soft center choke. They were also surprisingly un-greasy for a fried dish, and Cheryl and I ate them all in just a few minutes.

Everything on the menu from the egg-based dishes to the salads sounded amazing, and it took me forever to choose my main dish. I finally went with the fazzoletti di ricotta, warm buttery crepes filled with lemon ricotta and topped with strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries ($13). Think of them as the Italian equivalent of the much-loved blintz. The crepes were thick and doughy, the lemon ricotta light and airy. Combined with a dusting of powdered sugar and fresh fruit, this was the perfect breakfast dish.

Cheryl had an equally difficult time choosing her meal, but finally went with the classic spaghetti carbonara ($15). Morandi’s was one of the best versions of this dish I have ever tasted. The pasta was cooked perfectly, and the egg was just slightly cooked from its heat. Small chunks of pancetta hid between the egg-coated spaghetti strands, but believe me, none went to waste. Did I mention yet that Cheryl let me eat the last bite? If that doesn’t prove our friendship, nothing does.

We considered ending our feast after our main dishes, but then quickly requested the dessert menu. The crespelle di cioccolato, or chocolate crepes, could not be denied ($9). Topped with chestnut gelato and a sweet citrus-based sauce, they were delicate and decadent at the same time. As Cheryl and I lingered over our coffees, we saw so many dishes pass by our table that we wanted to try; we almost ordered a second meal then and there. But the tempting focaccia “occhio di bue” (cracker-thin focaccia topped with a sunny-side egg, pancetta, and pecorino, served on a gorgeous wood serving tray) will just have to wait until another visit—which will be sooner rather than later. We’re already looking forward to our next shot at the best brunch ever.

Morandi, 211 Waverly Place at 7th Avenue in the West Village, Manhattan. T: 212-627-7575

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