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Monday, June 29, 2009

Cooking Village - Stone Cold Soup

How I loved watching Land of the Lost when I was a kid back in the 70’s. The morning after a sleepover, seems my cousin and I couldn’t wait to glue ourselves to the t.v. on a Saturday and linger in our pajamas, watching the Sid and Marty Krofft Show. Now that LOTL has made it to the big screen after all these years with a movie version starring Will Ferrell, I was curious as to how the Styrofoam caves and stop-time dinosaurs in the original series could possibly stand up to the CGI technology of today. Well, before I could make any judgments, I revisited the series on DVD and suddenly I found myself less interested in any special effects and rather more charmed by its simplicity, particularly an episode where Dr. Rick Marshall and his children, Will and Holly, were at odds as to what to have for dinner, rations being somewhat scarce. Who can’t appreciate that these days? The good Dr. set out to make Stone Soup by soaking a rock in a pot of brimming water. His churlish children, lacking imagination, balked that the soup only tasted like hot water: it’s so often easier to complain than to help, isn’t it? But before long Will and Holly rallied, venturing out to find some onions and potatoes to add to the pot and wrestling with some Sleestaks in the bargain for some cakes of salt to round it all off.

This got me thinking of another page from my childhood: the classic story Stone Soup by Marcia Brown, which I also grew up loving, where a troop of soldiers made the dish with few ingredients for a village during an apparent wartime in an unnamed town. This resulted in a shared conviviality that made a wonderfully imaginative meal for the villagers as well as a lasting impression on me. I recently discovered there is an actual recipe for Stone Soup, not wrought from a writer’s imagination, but from Portugal’s Ribatejo province. There are no stones in it however, just a lot of smoked sausage, kidney beans and cabbage in a good amount of chicken stock with some carrots, turnips, onions, garlic and leeks thrown in.

So what of all this sharing and helping each other out today? As we are in the midst of summer, I’ve turned fruit-forward in my thinking and in turn, thought of a communal Summer Stone Soup! As you decide which guests to phone or text, remove any remaining seeds from a gigantic, seedless ripe watermelon and puree the pure essence of summer in a blender. Invite a friend who will bring a crisp white wine, and add a few tablespoons into the mix. Ask a neighbor delighted to add some juice of a lemon and yet another to toss in some hulled strawberries for a thicker puree. Now, pulse until a pleasant consistency is achieved. Chill while sharing the remaining wine and when serving the soup, make sure someone else has also brought some fresh mint for a chopped garnish.

Almost any ingredient that summer allows will do, and when shared with friends—what a wild way to go from soup—to nuts!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Little Lasagna Lunch

None of us could decide where to meet up before going to an early evening concert over the weekend on the far side of town (although I won't tell you what concert it was, I will admit that it was a regrettable, crashing bore), so Baby and I suggested our friends come over to the apartment first, while we served drinks and made a late, little lasagna lunch! How were we to know that we should have all just stayed in, snacked on more lasagnette, found more wine and played a rousing game of Philadelphia Rummy?

I had been itching to make the gorgeous Little Lasagnas with Tomato, Burrata and Pesto that graced the cover of the June issue of the fantastic La Cucina Italiana magazine, which I always pick up at Buon Italia (a fine purveyor of the best, imported Italian foodstuffs) in the nearby Chelsea Market.

Baby and I hit the Market before noon, intending to plunder Buon Italia of their meats and cheeses, but the rest of Chelsea and beyond had beat us to much of it! We had never intended to make our own pasta as we often rely on the easier, fresh sheets of it that we can cut to our liking--but they were sold out. After some rooting around, I did find frozen sheets that managed to work out quite well. The extraordinary burrata had also vanished, the beasts! Circling burrata buzzards probably descend as soon as the doors open. But that's not so surprising: after trying this mozzarella cheese with an oozing buttery cream and mozzarella interior just once, there's no turning back. We purchased stracciatella instead to sub for our burrata; we felt its similarly creamy consistency could pinch-hit.

I grabbed a 28-oz can of chopped Valle tomatoes for the sauce, since we were limited on time, and as I'm always loathe to blanche, peel and chop vine-ripened tomatoes anyway. Italy's vibrant San Marzano tomatoes always work out to my taste. We found some walnuts, pine nuts and Parmigiano-Reggiano for our pesto, ordered a quarter pound of speck (smoked proscuitto) from the meat counter, and picked up a package of grissini (elegant, elongated bread straws) for appetizers. We paid and high-tailed it out of the bustling Buon Italia!

Manhattan Fruit Exchange in the Market usually has great produce, but the basil was lacking this trip, with brown spots, although it was good and fragrant enough to use in the pesto that our recipe required. Onions and garlic were for our tomato sauce.

As we had fresh pasta, we found ourselves with extra time and made the pesto first, as it needs an hour to chill. I'd made pesto before many times but the interesting inclusion of a little effervescent club soda was good news to me.
We found more time by using our can of San Marzano tomatoes, already chopped. It was added to the mix of oil, butter, onion and garlic with double concentrated tomato paste (available at Whole Foods) and a few basil leaves. I also added a little sugar, which I find sweetly perks up any tomato sauce.

The sheets of frozen pasta thawed on the countertop as we busied ourselves with the filling of pesto, sauce, stracchiatella and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Cutting the pasta sheets in half, they were larger than the 4 " x 4" serving that the recipe suggests--but the edges crisped just the same in the oven and there was that much more to enjoy!

When our guests arrived, we had already juiced a yellow watermelon for cocktails with Leblon cachaca, a natural sugar cane liquor, muddled with mint, limes and sugar. Once we sat down to eat, we put a slightly chilled, fine bottle of Pepperwood Grove Pinot Noir on the table.
A simple salad of shredded red and green leaf lettuces was tossed tableside with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, finely ground Darling Buds sea salt perfumed with rose petals, and freshly cracked pepper. As we'd brought back a glut of chocolate from our recent trip to Switzerland, for dessert we unwrapped a Frey bar with the most fascinating crystalized chocolate filled with boozy Poire William pear liquor.
After such a nice lunch, no wonder the concert we slogged our way to in the rain was disappointing!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Scrambled Eggs

The first thing I ever learned to cook when I was a kid was scrambled eggs. My old cousin (well, she seemed old even then) taught me. If I had to guess, if anybody had such an influence on me growing up, in the kitchen or otherwise, it was Annie. I don't know what creates memories in the minds of children; what causes memory to linger there, or why, nor do I know why influences stemming from memory set up residence alongside any of it. I only suppose it's a random, errant spark cast from a flame that leaps forward and somehow catches.

I know Annie was unmarried, and already well into her 50s when I was born. She resided in the other side of our house, a symmetrical three-floor duplex built by my ancestors during a time in history when nobody thought the ways of the world would ever change and family members would always just live together in the same house.
Annie was a Home Economics teacher at the local junior high, spoke in a voice that sounded like her tongue was caught in a fan and would tear down hell on me should she find occasion. Whenever I tried to help out with any chore as simple as putting a book back into a shelf, I'd be reprimanded, "That doesn't go there!" or "Why can't you just figure it out?" As a result, I thought I was a frustrating nuisance, of little use to anyone. I was probably about only 5 or 6 years old. She moved me in profound and scarring, hurtful ways when I was so young, and made me feel incompetent, a word I didn't know at the time. Glimpsing upon that grand old mirror of reflection, I don't think she liked men very much at all: I guess I was just a male, such as any other and as the male sex never appeared to be of much use to her, why should I be any different or she be of any fault for that matter? Nonetheless, to me as a child, she was a bitch of the first water.

As memory fits over years such as sheets that I could never properly tuck into the beds on her side of the house, this is what is also true: Annie crafted cookies from scratch, baked buttery pork chops with crushed Ritz crackers, sauteed kielbasa with an orange sauce from Hickory Farms, made grilled cheeses in a new-fangled sandwich press, slathered molasses pantry cookies with cream cheese and in my hometown of Dover, NH, introduced me to the simple wonder of bagels and scones.

Annie also made scrambled eggs, the best scrambled eggs, as I stood on tip-toe to the stove top, to observe. She cracked the eggs into a bowl with abandon, adding butter, salt, pepper and milk, rapidly mixing the ingredients all together with a fork before they were poured into a bubbling, buttered skillet and formed into large curds that created scrambled eggs. Pepperidge Farm white bread was already in the toaster, and popped out, ready to be buttered, just when the eggs were done, to make the perfect sandwich.

Over 30 years later the memories filter through me. I still question what on earth was I to make of her aching, finicky and elegant net, just out of reach, cast over my childhood, stretching only as far as the state lines, perhaps as far as Boston. But as I sat in my apartment on a recent Chelsea morning in New York eating my eggy sandwich on perfectly toasted Pepperidge Farm bread, with way too much butter and thoughts of other mornings, brightly lit, sitting in a childhood nook for breakfast, I couldn't help but feel Annie around me, perhaps even looking down, although I didn't picture her smiling. Despite whatever she tried or didn't try to do, she taught me how to make scrambled eggs.

P.S. Somewhere back in the 90's Annie gave me her Reader's Digest Secrets of Better Cooking cookbook, and I'm still not sure why, other than she had heard I had finally learned to cook, maybe. I absolutely cherish it. Her personal recipe (and God knows our family's favorite) for Disappearing Marshmallow Brownies is tucked in the pages, handwritten in spidery script on lined yellow paper. I don't think anybody really knows where it came from. I've made the brownies many times, only once or twice really successfully, the way she used to make them. But before she died a few years ago, she tried a batch that I had made. She chewed carefully and from her chair, glassy-eyed and unfocused, said she'd give it a "B".

That was one of the last things she said to me, if not the final thing, apart from goodbye, that day, if ever.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Next Magazine - Baby's Sangria

My fella makes a mean Sangria, whether it’s red or white. While I love them all (my fella and either of the Sangrias), I really like to slake my thirst with his White Sangria, perfect to fill up a large container and plunge into an ice-filled carry-all cooler, before off to the Park or the Piers! Shopping, or the movies!

Baby’s Sangria

Serves 6-8, for a time

½ bottle Champagne or white wine
1 cup brandy
½ cup Grand Marnier or Cointreau
1 cup tequila (Jose Cuervo Gold is good, but you needn’t be proud)
Any variety of light colored juices, such as white cranberry or the mixed fruit juices (or both) in an equal amount to the Champagne or white wine
1 bag frozen fruit, such as peaches or mixed berries

Combine the first five ingredients together and shake well. Pour in a smart, summery glass loaded with ice and add some of the frozen fruit, which will also help to keep the drink cold.

Feel free to play fast and loose with the ingredients according to taste, but most importantly, enjoy whatever variation of this Sangria you make with every sip of summer. Cheers darling!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Praise The Pearl - The Chopin CEO Martini

Well, dear readers, I just about dropped to the floor when I saw Chopin vodka's advertisement in the recent issue of Wine Spectator featuring the CEO Martini. Far more interesting than some high-powered executive, this acronym stands for Chopin Extra Olives. Yes, behold what we have here: over a pool of Polish potato vodka, from out of three plump olives skewered with what appears to be a sterling silver cocktail pick, an ample supply of caviar in coral, gold and green colors seem poised to jettison forth into our eager gobs!

How long has this been going on? Since 2007 I discovered, after a little investigation, when Wine Spectator and Food Arts announced a nationwide competition in which contestants would submit the "best-stuffed" olive to best complement the Chopin CEO Martini.
I just love the whole briny, cocktail concept and from what I can figure, the beauteous olives are specifically stuffed with tobiko caviar (flying fish roe) in a variety of red, yellow (perhaps flavored with the sweet yuzu fruit) and green wasabi caviars. I think it's an absolutely inspiring idea, and certainly stunning. The tricky part will be filling the olives with the goods: using a pastry bag with a tiny tip or a plastic sandwich bag with a small corner snipped out should work. These caviars are relatively cheap but recently I tasted delectable black Paddlefish caviar (about $20/oz.), farmed from the South; I believe it's even cheaper and an amiably chic contender, evocative of an elegant Black Tie affair.
Well-orchestrated, Chopin--and cheers!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Cooking Village - Feasts of Burden

Although my childhood is long over, the horror of my family’s Saturday night dinners lingers on. I grew up in New England, where we ate what we were told, thank you very much, and many of the meals my mother made during the week were certainly good, such as the CorningWare crock of mac n’ cheese (that I still request when home), spaghetti, hamburgers, creamed ham on toast (much better than it sounds) or La Choy Chop Suey—and yes, the occasional Maine lobster with a bunch of steamed clams, dripping with butter.

Saturday nights, however, were an entirely different matter. It began around 5 p.m. with my brothers hogging the TV, watching the Wide World of Sports until our parents called us to dinner. The slow, careful walk to the table filled me with dread. Unforgivable carrot and raisin salad in a river of vinegar led the nauseating parade, with bubbly, gloppy baked beans and sour sauerkraut in tow. Damp B&M Brown Bread actually came in a can, filled with more shriveled raisins. To me, it tasted like dirt and molasses, dank as a cellar. After the lid was opened, the spongy bread product was expelled from the can, heated up and served with the lovely ringed can indentations still intact. The only thing I could stomach was the hot dogs. The rest went into my napkin. My brothers didn’t seem to mind and wolfed everything down so they could get back to the TV.

Frankly, before I was born, my brothers had it worse. They still vividly recount the eels my father had fished from the river and how the black shiny creatures writhed around in the cast iron skillet (which, by the way, he still faithfully uses). The stench that filled the house was apparently unbearable.

A few years ago, I summoned the nerve to try Brown Bread again. Curiously enough, I loved its warm, molasses flavor. And I actually make baked beans nowadays myself and always put sauerkraut on my hot dogs. My brothers will never go near eels again though, but gratefully we’re all adult enough now that if we don’t care for something, we can just say “no, thank you.”

Friday, June 12, 2009

Pink Soup

In preparation for our Eastern European Dinner, Baby and I hauled ourselves to Greenpoint, Brooklyn to fetch a few of the ingredients that were required. We planned the meal around the Polish dish Bigos, which translates to "Hunter's Stew" and I thought a good way to start the meal would be with a cool, savory beet borscht and to finish with meggyleves, a chilled Hungarian sweetly sour cherry concoction--two greatly varying kinds of pink soup!

Two pounds of Vavel sauerkraut was first on our list, from West Nassau Meat on Manhattan Avenue, just north of Greenpoint Avenue. What an incredible scene that was! The line twisted around the little shop and out the door as everyone waited to order their cured and smoked Polish meats. We switched a vowel around or something at the counter and almost ordered blood sausage for our Bigos which would have been disastrous, as we were told from several of the thickly-accented customers in line with us. It was krajana sausage that we wanted, not what we had mistakenly pronounced to the meat man, but it was also a must to include podwawelska sausage as well to make a true Bigos. Thank goodness our sudden friends alerted us. Krajana is absolutely delicious, and can be eaten just as it is, cold, right out of the paper wrapping! Although it is tempting to eat it right away, boczek (much like a raw slab bacon) does need to be cooked first. We also picked up a pack of dried Polish mushrooms for our Bigos, and a few jars of morello cherries for our sweetly sour soup.

Monday: purchased and browned the veal and beef stew meats, and pork shoulder (leaving the sausage and boczek alone for the moment). The meats came out of the pan, onions and sauerkraut went in, reconsituted mushrooms followed with their liquid and two vegetable bullion cubes. All of the meat was then put in and simmered for about two hours. After adding a cup of red wine (I chose a soft Beaulieu Vineyard merlot--you want more of a gentle excitement here, nothing too headstrong), and a heavy tablespoon of tomato paste, on a low heat, it sat for another three hours. The apartment was filled with an incredible fragrance redolent of the smoked meats, tangy sauerkraut, pungent mushrooms, and divinity. We had to try some. Loved! Our Bigos cooled and was put in the fridge overnight.

Tuesday: heated the Bigos for another two hours or so, adding water to keep it ensconced in a nice liquid. It took on a darker quality, and yes you bet, it was still really good.

Wednesday: got the ingredients for an unusual, simpler borscht (beets, both light and full fat sour cream, Maille Dijon mustard, bread crumbs, red wine vinegar and cucumbers) and marinated the combination in the fridge overnight. Also got what we needed for Baby's potato pancakes and the stuffed cabbage. The Bigos chilled out in the fridge, to be heated up for two hours before being served on Thursday.

Thursday: the day of the dinner party! In the morning, I pureed the borscht in a blender and was nervous about it, at first: it tasted like mustard soup but was duly remedied by some more heavy cream, sour cream, red wine vinegar and beet juice. I also made the sour cherry soup, which couldn't have been easier and provided more obvious, satisfying results. In the afternoon, I mixed my ground turkey and chicken with peppers and sauteed onions, garlic, for the galumpkies, our stuffed cabbage.

Everyone arrived right on time, even though we had barely set the dining table but it didn't matter though, we situated ourselves around it to chat just the same. The Sisters M brought an incredibly gorgeous towering bouquet of puffy chrysanthemums whose fragrance filled the room. They also brought oceans of wine, as did Slushy, Bink and Chloe Rossa, which was a fine starting point. Baby and I made a toast to our guests with shots of a freezing Debowa Polska vodka enriched by oak and followed with the best potato pancakes that Baby made, and some applesauce. We had the borscht appetizer in little cups, which was (thankfully) a success. My tinkering worked out. And before we even brought out the proper napkins to sit around the table a little more formerly for the main courses, we just used a roll of paper towels with our appetizers.

Although proud is not a word I would generally use to describe a dinner made from the heart, I am proud of all of it, such an excursion into unfamiliar terrain. The Bigos was extraordinary and worth all the invested time as we watched the dish evolve. Bigos utterly hinges on the dried Polish mushrooms that deliver such an elusive flavor--and just as important, find the best authentic sausages available.

What a group effort it was: our friends from the Polish deli in Greenpoint who helped us select the right meat; the friend whose family galumpkie recipe I used and altered with crisp green apples and a few slivers of orange rind, as insisted on by yet another friend; our guests who really rallied round to bring wines perfect for every course; and of course everything from Baby, his unerring taste, his riveting potato pancakes, and cheese blintzes to finish with the cherry soup.

I think it's fair to say we were all tickled a perfect shade of pink!

Soundtrack: Henry Mancini, Martinis with Mancini; The Mike Flowers Pops, A groovy place.; Kombo, cookin' out; Sergio Mendes, Foursider; The Ramsey Lewis Trio, The In Crowd.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Next Magazine Review - Harbour

290 Hudson St (btwn Spring/Dominick Sts)

Ahoy matey! In a rugged sea of choices when it comes to dining out in Manhattan, the water’s just fine at Harbour. Chef Partner Joe Isidori evenly balances his mainly seafood menu with invention and shrewd restraint. He’s also to be lauded for his blue initiative (yes, blue is the new green), purchasing only sustainable fish that isn’t overused or prematurely pulled from the ocean.

We set a course for adventure with a Bridgehampton ($14) house cocktail with Grey Goose, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, rose water and a fizzy splash of Veuve-Clicquot rosé. The Hamptons are further charmingly referenced with drinks such as the tempting Hampton Bay ($12) house Mai Tai with a coconut twist.

Having navigated the menu, Beau Soleil Oysters ($9) came out first with Meyer lemon and wonderful parsley foam! The whitefish Shima Aji Sashimi ($16) was a naughty little bite with green apple and a slightly fiery chili-sesame sauce. We absolutely loved the Clam Chowder ($9) with a creamy seafood velouté, which reminded us of a sherried bisque, with market vegetables and top neck clams. Lobster Salad ($19) featured a host of garden delights such as golden beets, radishes, pickled onions and a filigree of delicate baby greens dressed in lime vinaigrette. The laid-back Dr. Frank Dry Riesling ($13/glass) was an effervescent, fruity accompaniment.

Tilefish ($25) was a special of the night with yellow curry (on the side, thank you!), crispy garlic, shu mai, and lop chum (tasty pork and beef sausage). Soft Shell Crab ($20) was okay, but we loved the crisp, luscious Alma Rosa Chardonnay ($14) pairing. I just thought the crab needed more char, less batter--but I did enjoy the ribbons of celery root tangled up like a forkful of fettucine, the red and yellow pepper piperade with a refreshing burst of cilantro, and the soft poached egg for dipping. Our sides were Napa Cabbage & Bacon ($6) and Cauliflower Gratin ($6) with plumped raisins, which made good sense once we tasted it.

Sips of DRY Lavender Soda ($6) provided a final touch of sweet before we disembarked. Book passage at Harbour straight away!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Surprising Tuna!

When it comes to cooking, there are a number of things that leave me absolutely bewildered. Artichokes for example--love, but haven't got the vaguest what to do when it comes to actually doing anything with them! Some people have tried to show me, such as other instructive types who've foolishly attempted to teach me how to drive a stick shift. I can't properly poach an egg, floating freeform in a boiling pot of water, although I am determined to figure that one out, taking small steps these days with a Calphalon poacher. Thankfully, eggplant and I are okay now.
A nicely prepared tuna sandwich, without a lot of mayo (and with a bag of chips and a crunchy garlic pickle), is one of my favorite things to have for lunch but I always hit a snag when making the tuna salad itself at home, despite a number of recipes I've tried. Recently at a friend's house, with ingredients they had, I floundered through a Lovely Tuna Lunch that I'm very pleased to call my own at last! Serves 4.


-2 cans tuna in olive oil, drained, 1/2 can oil reserved
-1 large chopped shallot
-1 Tb chopped capers
-3/4 lb elbow macaroni, or small pasta shells, or orrechiette pasta
-4 Tb Maille mustard (my favorite, or another strong mustard such as Grey Poupon)
-3 Tb mayonaise, light or otherwise
-lemon, salt, ground pepper

Marinate shallots and capers in the reserved oil with some grinds of pepper while the pasta cooks in salted water, according to the directions on the box. Drain the cooked pasta and toss with shallot mixture. Add mustard and mayo and incorporate the tuna with salt and pepper to taste along with a few assertive sprays of fresh lemon.

Serve with your favorite pickles, chips and chilled glasses of Italian Prosecco for a Lovely Tuna Lunch!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Just For The Halibut

This was totally off the cuff: I just happened upon a Martha Stewart recipe I had printed out in 2007 for Halibut with Grapefruit and Rosemary. I had planned to make dinner for Baby and me and since we already had halibut in the refrigerator courtesy of a fisherman friend, I went out and bought some Del Monte SunFresh red grapefruit segments, Florida's Natural Ruby Red Grapefruit juice and fresh rosemary. Seemed to me to be a pretty good way to welcome in the summer. Ms. Stewart's recipe naturally calls for exacting work, such as trimming the pith from two ruby red grapefruits, etc. but my trimmed down version of the recipe is easier and simply fantastic for a simple evening at home, served with a side of Corn and Shrimp Salsa, which is my own recipe.

Halibut for Two (adapted from

2 cups Ruby Red Grapefruit juice
8 segments from a jar of red grapefruit segments
1 sprig plus 1 tsp chopped rosemary
1 Tb sugar
Salt and black pepper
Olive oil
2 pieces of skinless halibut, sized to your appetite

-Preheat broiler
-Pour juice, rosemary, sugar, 1/4 cup water, 1/4 tsp salt into a small saucepan over medium heat and let boil until reduced to a syrup, about 15 minutes or so. If sauce becomes too thick, simply add a little more juice to thin out
-Brush fish with olive oil, salt and pepper and place on a baking sheet in the oven for about 10 minutes
-When juice mixture has been reduced to a fragrant syrup, toss out the rosemary sprig, and add the grapefruit segments to warm up
-Drizzle over your fabulous fish, each dish topped with the segments, divided between the plates

Corn and Shrimp Salsa

I thought a nice side would be a corn and shrimp salsa as we also had some deveined Black Tiger shrimp in our freezer, which was easily thawed by spraying cold water over them in a colander for two or three minutes. I roasted three ears of corn in a 450 degree oven, coating them with lemon olive oil, extra virgin oil, lime juice and salt and black pepper. Grilled shrimp (about two minutes each side in a Calphalon grill pan) was also done so in both oils and more pepper. I chopped the whites and some of the green ends of two scallions and put them in an accomodating bowl, and covered with the still steaming shrimp, some salt, and lime juice. The roasted corn was easily shaved off the cob once cooled, the kernels falling into the other ingredients of the salsa mixture. Spoon a heaping portion on a plate alongside the halibut.

Halibut and salsa...just for the hell of it!