Thursday, February 25, 2010

Meatball of My Youth

The last really good meatball I remember eating was at the home of my Italian American neighbor Angela Vita when I was about 15 years old.  I've made meatballs since, all of them dense, heavy disappointments, no matter how hard I tried mixing with a "light hand."  This time, when the craving for meatballs hit, I remembered recipes I've seen lately that incorporate ricotta cheese right into the meatball.  These ricotta balls were made with pork, veal, or a combination of both.  Would it work with beef? 


It did!  The meat mixture with the fresh ricotta folded in was so light it was almost mousselike, yet, after baking, the meatballs held together remarkably well.  The finished balls were incredibly light and juicy, rich and flavorful.  Served in a quick tomato sauce, with some extra ricotta dolloped on top, they were almost as good as Angela's. 

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Manhattan Vacation

Question: Name the most densely populated city in the United States, the one that boasts over 40 million visitors annually, about a third of them from other countries?  Answer: Manhattan.  Just 22 miles from my home, and I never go.  Well, on the last day of a pretty underwhelming Presidents week off from work (Sunday doesn't count), I hopped on the LIRR with the idea of taking a mini-vacation to Manhattan. 

First stop was the Hell's Kitchen Flea Market, where fashion models apparently converge to try on vintage furs and hand-me-down boots.  Then I was off to Chelsea Market, a paradise for food-lovers.  I had cappuccino at Ninth Street Espresso with half a Chocolate Sourdough Bread Twist from Amy's Bread...'s the other half.

Then I shopped until I was hungry again, and refreshed myself with a cup of scallop and bacon chowder at The Lobster Place.  On my way out I bought some smoked peppered mackerel for an at-home treat. 

I can't seem to get enough of those oily fish.

My feet were seriously killing me at this point, but I wasn't ready to call it day.  Plus, believe it or not, I was actually getting hungry again!  I left Chelsea Market and happily stumbled into Cafe Riazor.  The awning boasted tapas, so I took a seat at the bar and ordered a glass of rioja and croquetas de jamon.  The friendly barmaid was softly singing along to Spanish music emanating from the jukebox, the wine was warming, and the croquettes, served piping hot in a cast iron skillet, were the perfect combination of crusty and creamy.  I kept one eye on the Women's Ski Jumping on the television, and the other on passing tourists outside, and I felt like I was a million miles from home.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Something New


I owned a bamboo steamer for ten years and never once got around to using it.  When I finally decided to break it out the other day, it was full of spiderwebs and smelled faintly of mildew--one too many years in the basement, I guess.  So I treated myself to a new one--at $9.95, I figured I couldn't go wrong.  I had bookmarked the Steamed Cod with Caramelized Onion, Ginger and Scallions from Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges.  It's a book I've had in my Amazon "saved items" queue ever since I discovered it at the library.  One day my finger will slip and it will end up in my "shopping cart items--to buy now" queue, but until then, I'll keep trying not to splatter up the pages of the library copy. 


I'm not sure if I rigged this up correctly, but it seemed to work just fine.  I lined the baskets with parchment paper--if you have lettuce leaves, use those.  I set the steamer in my cast iron pan, filled it halfway with water, brought the water to a boil, then steamed for 10 minutes or so, adding water when necessary to keep the level up. 

The finished dish, served with a stir-fry of baby zucchini, shitake mushrooms, and snow peas, was clean and light, the fish was exceptionally moist, and the flavors were surprisingly nuanced despite the few ingredients and ease of preparation--this is by far the easiest recipe in this cookbook.  I'll be using this steamer again in the very near future.

Steamed Cod with Caramelized Onion, Ginger and Scallions
From Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges
1/4 c. plus 2 T peanut oil (or any neutral flavored oil)
2 medium onions, sliced
One 1-inch piece fresh ginger, julienned
Four 6-ounce thick cod fillets (or any white-fleshed fish)
Cayenne pepper
2 T sesame oil
1/4 c. slivered scallions
1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro
Soy sauce

1.  Heat 1/4 c. of the peanut oil in a large skillet over medium high heat until almost smoking.  Add the onions and brown, but do not cook through, about 2 minutes.  Toss in the ginger and remove from the heat.
2.  Prepare a steamer.  Season cod with salt and cayenne pepper, then top each piece with the onion-and-ginger mixture.  Steam until a thin-bladed knife pierces through the flesh easily, about 10 minutes.
3.  Meanwhile, heat the sesame oil and remaining 2 T peanut oil in the same skillet in which you cooked the onions, until the oil smokes (watch this one--I burned my first batch of oil).  Transfer the cod from the steamer to serving plates.  Top each piece with some scallions, then pour on the hot sesame-peanut oil mixture.  Top the fish with cilantro, season to taste with soy, and serve.

Serves 4

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Feeling Blue

Blue cheese makes me feel like a grown up.  Until very recently, I couldn't even look at a hunk o' blue without surpressing a shudder.  You see, blue cheese is riddled with mold, and I've been phobic of mold ever since I unwittingly popped a piece of pre-cut supermarket canteloupe into my mouth only to find--after I began chewing--that it was covered in four layers of fuzz.  But somewhere, somehow, I recovered from my trauma, my tastebuds matured and I overcame my aversion.  Oh happy day!  Now I lick blue cheese off my fingers like it was frosting.  I'd rather have blue cheese than ice cream.  And this blue cheese dressing satisfies my every craving.

Easy Blue Cheese Dressing
Serves 2

2 T mayonnaise
2 T plain yogurt
1/2 tsp. cider vinegar
few dashes of hot pepper sauce
2 oz. blue cheese, more or less

Whisk together the first four ingredients.  Stir in blue cheese.  Pour liberally over salad greens and sliced tomato.  Crumbled bacon would taste good too.  Sprinkle with additional blue cheese and freshly ground black pepper.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Trio of Tastes

Crostini are one of my dinner party staples, served either as hors d'oeuvres, or as a first course.  Tonight, they were my dinner, and a tasty one, too.  They are: Goat Cheese Crostini with Blood Orange and Black Pepper Marmalade, zucchini and almond crostini (isnpired by the fabulous Red Cat recipe), and roasted garlic and white bean puree with smoked paprika.  The white bean puree was just okay--the splash of sherry vinegar I added in lieu of lemon juice just didn't work.  The zucchini and almonds were begging for shards of pecorino on top--I forgot to pick it up at the market.  But the blood orange marmalade was divine, truly the best thing you will make in ten minutes.  I am already looking forward to having it for breakfast tomorrow on toast.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Beating the Blahs

Every year, right around February, I start wishing I was anywhere but here. I don't even know how I got to work this morning, so lost was I in a fantasy about swapping my apartment for one in Barcelona. Let's see, a stylish, fully equipped and furnished luxury duplex with a sunny, private terrace overlooking Plaza Catalunya for my two bedroom filled with cat hair overlooking a gravel parking lot.  I don't think so.

That's when it's nice to be a cook. I pulled my copy of Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking off the shelf, et voila, I was on my way to Provence. "For decades, this has been the Monday special at La Mere Besson, a traditional family bistro in the sun-drenched city of Cannes," Wells writes about the recipe for Estouffade Provencale, or Provencal Beef Stew. Take me there! Please!

Provided you plan ahead, this is the easiest recipe you will ever make.  For me, it began with a beautiful boneless beef chuck roast from Eight O'Clock Ranch

After cutting it into chunks, add a bottle of red wine--from Provence, of course. Go ahead, squander the
entire bottle on just one recipe.  After an entire month of tedium punctuated by boredom you will feel sort of wanton and extravagant and maybe even a little...French!

The meat, along with some vegetables, fresh thyme and bay leaves, "ripens" in the refrigerator for two days.  After that, you pull the pot out of the fridge, plop it on the burner, and allow it to percolate for 3-4 hours while you try to keep from fishing out chunks of it before its time. The best part is the orange zest you stir in right before serving--it turns this dark, delicious stew into something bright and a little exotic.

When it's finished, help yourself to a warm, satisfying bowl, and be sure to thank God for putting you exactly where you are.

Estouffade Provencale
From Bistro Cooking

2 1/2 lbs. stewing beef, cut into 1 1/2 inch chunks
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 carrot, peeled and cut in rounds
1 celery rib, minced
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 bottle of red wine, preferable Provencal
1 bunch fresh thyme leaves
3 imported bay leaves
1 strip of orange zest, about 2 inches, chopped

1.  Two days before serving the stew, combine all of the ingredients except orange zest in a large enameled casserole.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.
2.  The next day, bring the mixture to a simmer over low heat.  Simmer gently, until the meat is very tender, 3 to 4 hours.
3.  Allow the stew to cool down.  Refrigerate until the fat rises to the top and can be scraped off, about 12 hours.
4.  At serving time, reheat until meat is heated through, 10-15 minutes.  Adjust seasonings.  To serve, remove bay leaves and thyme; stir in orange zest.

Makes 8 servings