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Sotto Voce

1 Apr

What is there to say about Italy that hasn’t been said before?

Roma

Let’s be honest. Not much. Italy is a beautiful cliché. But, since saying, “I have nothing to say because it’s all been said before,” makes me a lazy writer, I’m going to give it a go.

The Forum

Italy is gorgeous. No, really it is. It takes your breath away. The sky. The earth. The trees. The buildings. The rocks and stones. The vegetables. The flowers. The puddles. The birds. The rain. The sun. The doorknobs. The ceilings. All of them. Breathtaking.

Assisi

The Italians sure know how to celebrate Easter. We were in Florence, where they detonated an oxen cart packed full of fireworks in front of the Duomo. The detonations went off for 15 minutes, ricocheting and echoing off all the stone, until we felt like we were in a WWII battle. By the end our faces were covered in ash. It was very cool.

The Duomo, Florence

That said, never fly into Rome on Palm Sunday. You have been warned.

Absurd

Italian cars are gorgeous and Italian drivers are insane. We rented a Smart ForFour. I loved it. It’s teeny tiny on the outside, but feels like a normal-sized car when you’re in it. Isaac said it handled well, it got great gas mileage and had pretty good giddyup. Regardless, it was no contest for nearly everything else on the Autostrade. Some of the cars that passed us were going so fast they produced doppler effects. They were usually Audis for some reason.

Roma

Archaeological sites are more interesting to the archaeologists. I studied Etruscan archeology in college. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since my sophomore year; I’ve forgotten almost everything I once knew. This makes walking around an old Etruscan city little more than walking around and looking at a pile of rocks. But, stalking wild asparagus while glancing at those old rocks is really fun! So is stumbling on gaudy green lizards and breathtaking views of the sea while worrying about being charged by a wild boar and peeking into old graves cut into solid rock. I’m sure you will agree that it was all very Indiana Jones.

Run Away!

Pizza. The pizza I remember from my trip to Italy 15 or so years ago doesn’t seem to exist anymore. It was thick and doughy with a schmear of intense tomato sauce and a sprinkling of crispy cheese. I loved it. I could buy it on every street corner and I was happy. Alas, it has been supplanted by wurstel carts and paper thin, hyper-crispy pies.

Central Market, Florence

The absolute best I had was in San Gemini, the speck of a hill town in Umbria where we spent our first week. I can’t tell you the name of the place (I don’t think it had one), but I can tell you it wasn’t Happy Pizza and that it’s on the main drag. Seriously, it’s worth stopping if you have to drive past the town. It was extraordinary. The plain slice was covered in the thinnest whisper of milky fresh mozzarella and delicious sauce. Remembering the mushroom slice, with specks of sausage and a flurry of pecorino is enough to bring tears to my eyes.

Assisi

Also worth mentioning: a slice Isaac got at the Antico Forno dei Serpenti, a bread and pastry shop near the intersection of the Via dei Serpenti and the Via Panisperna. The slice, a sliver of focaccia topped with olive oil, fresh basil and prefect, oozing, hopefully dioxin-free fresh buffalo mozzarella, was perfection. The one bite I got made me sing and hum with happiness. All pizza should do that.

Art, Florence

I found eating in Italy more difficult than I would have imagined; there are so many rules and different classes of restaurants, and it’s so easy to be duped by a nasty, tourist-trap trattoria masquerading as an honest, delicious, seasonally-driven neighborhood osteria, and it soon became obvious that I’m not quite as familiar with Italian food terms as I had thought I was. But, don’t cry for me just yet. Because despite all these roadblocks, we managed to eat very well.

Flower

In Umbria, my step-dad decided to hire the cook offered with the house so there would be no arguing about where to go for dinner or who should cook each night. This was a very wise choice. Daniella’s cooking is extraordinary. I’ve never eaten so well, so consistently, in my entire life (sorry Mom!). On fresh cheese crostini arugula leaves were pushed into the cheese like the design on a filigree brooch. It was beautiful and tasty, as was the lamb stew with olives, gnocchi con salvia e burro, fresh local catfish in puttanesca sauce, fried squash blossoms, local cheese with truffle honey and oh, the homemade tiramisu. All of them, delicious.

The Pantheon

One night she also made me artichokes in the Roman-Jewish style, because, yes, that’s right, March is carciofi season in Italy. I ate as many of them as I could everywhere we went. I had them raw, sliced paper-thin over a salad of arugula and parmigiano cheese at a wonderful neighborhood trattoria in the Oltrarno in Florence, where I also had them tossed with a delicious, flaky white fish and farfalle. I had them poached and served with a tangy, zippy salsa verde with tarragon at Florence’s central market from the trippa stand. I had them on pizza and as an antipasti more time than I can count. In short, I ate so many carciofi in 12 days that I think I may be turning a little bit green. It was heaven.

Vegetale

I didn’t have any in Rome though. Rome was the toughest city to eat in. We couldn’t find any restaurants with daily specials (this is my new rule of thumb to ensure that the restaurant is buying produce based on the season), but we did stumble upon a Sardinian ristorante who’s menu had a notation that I wish every restaurant in the world should be forced to adopt. They used an asterisk to let you know which proteins were being cooked from the freezer. For example: Scampi* ai Ferri o a Piacare? *Frozen. Scallopine al Vino o al Limone? Not frozen (and in case you were wondering, crazy delicious).

The Coliseum

The restaurant also happened to be next door to the only place in Italy where we got good bread, Panella. Wait, what? Bad bread? In Italy? Oh yes my friends. I always thought that Italian bread would be amazing, but at least in the parts of Umbria and Tuscany that we travelled through, the bread is not so bene. Apparently some folk way back in the 15th century got into a fight with a Pope about salt taxes, and ever since, no salt goes into the bread.

Central Market, Florence

Can you imagine? 600 years of unsalted bread? One of our guidebooks tried to make the claim that the lack of salt makes the bread bland and unassuming, the perfect foil to all of the regions’ spectacular culinary specialties; the cured meats, the cheeses, the truffles, the olive oils! Good try guys, but no salt in bread just makes it boring with bad crust. I’m all for traditions, but people, you’re only hurting yourselves!

Tuckered, Orvieto

And finally, walking. We did a lot of this. Going to the hilltowns of Italy with a man obsessed with climbing hills is an amazing way to lose five pounds while eating every ort of each multi-course dinner for 12 nights. We climbed every damn hill we could set foot on. We climbed to the top of Assisi, and Perugia, and Orte, and Narni (yes, it used to be named Narnia), and Orvieto, and San Gemini, and Montelpuciano, and Piombino, and Populonia, and Florence, and Rome.

Rainbow, Tuscany

Assisi and Narni were the most difficult, and therefore most rewarding, but it was our first day in Rome that nearly broke me. I’m pretty good at getting a bead on a city, but Rome still eludes me. Rome felt very much to me like New York must feel to thousands of people; dazzling, dizzying, confusing, loud, dirty, grey, cold, exhilarating, spectacular and heavenly all at once. Two days were not enough. We saw all the greatest hits, but kept getting lost (in a bad way) which made it difficult to really get a feel for the town. I must go back.

Angel

Since I’ve been back, everyone I know has asked, rather logically, “So, how was Italy?” It seems like a simple question with a predictable answer, but I can tell from the way their faces fall that there’s something amiss when I answer, “Not bad.”

Me

I’m torn about our trip to Italy. Obviously, I loved it, I mean, I’ve already prattled on for over 1,400 words about it, but at the same time, I didn’t come back as relaxed and annoyingly enthusiastic as I did from our trip to Croatia. I’d go back in a heartbeat, of course, but like so many others before me, I didn’t leave my heart there.

My heart’s still on Hvar.

SOS*

10 Jul

The dog days of summer are upon us.

Bay Ridge Sunset

Sirius and the sun are rising in conjunction.

It’s too hot to run, too hot to sleep, too hot to do anything, really, but go to work and bask in the free air conditioning.

The arrival of the dog days when I was a kid meant that my mom’s garden was about to go bonkers. The tomatoes, which for so long had hung on their plants looking hard and acidly green, would suddenly soften, swell and turn luridly, enticingly bright.

The arrival of the dog days signaled endless weeks of tomato sandwiches and tomato salads, tomato snacks and long, hot hours standing over vats of bubbling tomato sauce for putting up in our un-air conditioned kitchen.

Caprese

I’ve got a “thing” for tomatoes (some would call it an obsession), so I looked forward to this. What I didn’t look forward to, however, was the other relentless, unavoidable companion of Sirius.

Squash.

Verrazano Narrows Bridge

I hated squash. I hated their moist, uninspiring, spongy texture when raw, their slick, flavorless, flacid texture when cooked.

But all that’s changed. I now look forward to the Squash Days of Summer.

First the flowers arrive.

Then the tiny baby zukes and squashes arrive. Long and stripey, short and round, banded and UFO-shaped the babies can be used anywhichway one pleases.

Finally, the big honkers come onto the stage. You know, the zucchinis so large they need their own carseat? This was the time of year when my mom would begin to panic. We’d load up my Red Flyer wagon with squashes and then I would set off on a forced march around the neighborhood. I’d stop at each house imploring people to take some zucchini so I could go home and my mom would stop panicking.

I’d bring them into school to give away to the teachers and staff. She’d send them into work with my father.

She’d put them in baskets at the end of the road with a sign saying, “Free!” in the hopes that some day-tripping yuppies would see them and take them back to New York City with them. When I went away to college, she would send me boxes of them, despite the fact that I didn’t even have a kitchen.

All these efforts, and yet, it barely made a dent. We still ate them for dinner almost every night.

Stuffed Squashes

It’s taken years for me to come back around to squashes, but I’ve now gotten to a place where I can again appreciate that squash are a culinarily gregarious sort. They love to get pickled; live for grilling; will give their flowers to a bunch of carrots and truly appreciate a long bath in a pan of hot oil.

They also love to get stuffed and grated.

Queso Oaxaqueno

A few weekends ago the Boy decided we were going to explore the world of Mexican cheeses. When I stopped for a puffy taco he ducked his head inside the bodega and was entranced by their display of queso. He wanted to know more, to dig deeper, to fully get to know the soul of Cotija, to unravel the mystery of Oaxaqueno. And so I relented. I’m too smart to stand between a man and his cheese “thing.”

He bought the cheeses, but then it was up to me to figure out how to use them. My first thought was to buy some squash blossoms and to use the cheeses to stuff them, and then to fry them. I’ve always found this method to be very intimidating however, so I turned to the grande dame of Mexican cooking, Diana Kennedy, and she didn’t disappoint. I settled on her recipe for Calabacitas Rellenas de Flor or squash stuffed with their blossoms. There was just one problem, I had only bought 6 blossoms and her recipe called for one pound. Who can afford an entire pound of blossoms?

So I bent and adapted her recipe to use as many squashes as possible, creating a squash and blossom salmagundi to fill yet more squashes. I used baby summer squash and zucchini, but you certainly could use the full sized monsters for this recipe as well. Just expand the ratio of ingredients and parboil the squash before baking. This is a truly delicious dish with just the faintest whiff of Mexico. I cannot wait to make it again.

Stuffed Squashes

But that wasn’t enough. We had to take the squash/queso exploration further.

We picked up some bigger squash at our new neighborhood Greenmarket. I had no concrete plans for them, and while poking around in some boxes that I still haven’t unpacked (yes, it’s been 7 months since we moved in) I found a recipe the Boy had printed out in the hopes that he could convince me to overcome my hatred of vegetable pancakes.

I decided it looked simple enough, and since you can eat squash raw it avoided my biggest complaint with potato pancakes (seriously, is there nothing more disgusting than biting into a golden crusty latke only to find the inside raw and crunchy? The thought of it makes my skin crawl).

Stupid Pancakes

Some leftover Independence Day corn went into the mix, as did a few baby carrots. The mixture was so colorful and delicious we decided to save half of it (sans eggs) to toss with pasta later in the week, which turned out to be, in my humble opinion, the best use for this recipe.

The “pancakes” came out so badly. There was nothing “pan” nor “cake” about them. It was more of a hash (which I suppose is apt as that’s what I made of this recipe). While I am happy to say the pasta was delicious, I maintain that there is simply no reason in the world to ruin your wonderful seasonal vegetables by sending them to an ignominious death by pancake. It’s just wrong. (But then again, we just ate the leftover “pancakes” for dinner and they were incredibly delicious, so, I may be wrong on this one).

Squash Pasta

So, if like my mom, you’re about to hit the Curcurbita panic button, don’t. Just breathe, and then pickle, grate, grill, stuff and braise your squash blues away. There’s only a month or so of the Dog (and Squash) Days of Summer left. Lap them up.

*Summer Of Squash? Squash Overload Syndrome? Sticky Overcast Summer?

Head below the jump for the recipes for Squash Stuffed Squash, Squash Pancakes and Squash Pasta.

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Red, White & Blueberry

3 Jul

I was involved in a long conversation yesterday about clichés.

YAY!

We were discussing lazy journalism and it’s reliance on hackneyed phrases, bad puns and, yes, tired clichés.

Food writing, at any level, is especially prone to these journalistic foibles. Writing about food is simply difficult to do with an original voice, eschewing all the literary turns that have come before. As food writers, I feel we must pick our poison. Me? I like bad puns. So for this post, I’m pulling out all the stops!

YAY!

There’s something about The Fourth of July that simply screams out for clichés. Hot dogs! Strawberry shortcake! Jello salads! Beer coozies! Inflatable wading pools! The 1812 Overture (with real canons)! And of course… Fireworks! My favorite Independence Day cliché of all.

The thing is, there shouldn’t be anything cliché about the holiday. It’s a serious one. But, it’s been decreed by the government that we have fun, and so fun we shall have!

Me? I’m planning on going to the Greenmarket to score some sweet corn, maybe some buffalo steaks, a few sausages and definitely tomatoes. Oh, and berries. Lots of them. Whatever’s available. I don’t know how berry season’s been where you are, but here? It’s been ridiculous.

Strawberries

Every time I walk amongst the farmers’ stalls, I’m seduced into impulse purchasing something. Strawberries. Blueberries. Sour cherries. Black cherries. And now the raspberries and blackberries are on their way!

(And just so you know I’m not crazy, yes I do know that cherries are technically not berries but are actually fruit, but in my mind they all belong together in one happy, berry fruity universe).

The problem is, I buy them with the intention of snacking on them at work, but inevitably I’m too lazy to take them to the kitchen for a rinse, and too grossed out by the thought of washing them in the ladies room sink. So they come home with me where the linger in the fridge until I feel guilty and come up with a way to eat them all at once.

Strawberries & Blueberries

That bowl of blueberries and strawberries? That’s not ice cream on top of them. That’s goat’s milk ricotta with a little fresh cracked black pepper and a light glaze of aged balsamic vinegar. That’s how sweet the berries are this year. They need no extra sugar and actually benefit from a bit of acid to draw out their lusciousness.

Strawberries, Blueberries, Goat Ricotta

And that big fluffy pancake looking thing? Oh, that. That’s just my first attempt ever at making a clafouti!

Black & Sour Cherry Clafouti

I was cruising around Tastespotting on Sunday morning when this sour cherry clafouti caught my eye. The ingredients list had too much stuff in it (flax seed & soy milk do not belong in dessert) so I turned to my old pal Roy Andries de Groot. I figured if anyone would have a simple recipe for a seasonal French pastry it would be him. And I was right.

Black & Sour Cherry Clafouti

It couldn’t have been easier to knock together, and reminded me an awful lot of the Dutch Babies that my mom used to serve us for dinner when I was a kid. Soft and luscious, not too sweet with the surprising bits of candied ginger scattered about, the clafouti was both the perfect finish to an all-American meal of clams and biscuits and the perfect breakfast to bring into work.

Black & Sour Cherry Clafouti

And so I say unto you. Go forth and enjoy your Fourth! May your hot dogs be plump, your beers frosty and your fireworks spectacular. Oh, and don’t forget the berries. They’re berry delicious!

Head below the jump for the recipe for the recipe for Berry Cherry Clafouti.

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People Drop By From Time To Time… Part 4

5 Apr

Why must we constantly ask why?

Do you think old Rover sits there asking himself, “Hmm… I wonder if there’s a surgery that will give me an opposable thumb… If only I had an opposable thumb, I could ask Google.” Is tiny Tweetie actually asking herself “do woodchucks like to eat peanuts yes or no” while she’s fluttering about her cage?

Swoon

No, I don’t think so. The need to know is a purely human trait, which has been made all the more intense since Al Gore invented the Internet. (Oh wait, you mean he didn’t? Oops.)

WordPress, the free service on which this blog runs, just keeps getting better and better, but hands down their best feature is the ability to see the funny phrases that bring people to The Granny Cart.

Lately, there’s been lots of Pickled Beet Egg queries (which makes sense). However, more often than not, I have to wonder about my skills as a writer.

Christmas Dachshund

What phrase did I use that made someone think I would know what a chicken lobster is?

I hope the person that wanted a “recipe containing macaroni and cheese” found one. (It’s right here if you’re still looking, and it’s called Mac & Cheese).

And to the person that searched for “tiny bunnies that don’t grow,” I’m still waiting to hear from you. Please let me know if you’ve found the impossible dream!

And so without further interruption, let the questions begin.

Colorful Brownstones

Just Get Dinner On The Table.

why did they make red beet eggs? (Because they’re crazy delicious!)

pickled beet salad with marshmallows (No. I do not recommend this. Not at all. Bad idea.)

how to butcher buffalo (I’d think this is the sort of thing one would like to know before one has a dead buffalo on one’s hands)

cooking on tugboats (I bet the kitchens are TINY)

if you just had breakfast all the time (I bet you’d get tired of pancakes)

Gramercy Park Giraffes

ELECTRIC CHICKEN TO POACH EGGS (But this would help with eating breakfast all the time)

i like chickens cuz they’are so delicious (Don’t we all… Don’t we all)

chicken vending machine (This would certainly make the guy above happy)

just put the lobster live in the oven (And people think hearing them “scream” is uncomfortable. Can you imagine listening to them scramble about in your oven? *shiver)

paparazzi recipe bean pasta soup (If my one viewing of Dirt taught me anything, it’s that this soup would probably taste like vodka, sweat and cigarettes)

vermont “olive oil” (Completely, and utterly, stumped by this one)

AH LA LA I FIGURED OUT I CAN’T MAKE DESSERT (That’s why god invented pastry shops, dear)

ill be eating dinner watching you die (creepy)

Smokestack

Things That Make You Go, Hmm…

what are german immigrants (Something tells me they’re from Germany)

where did borscht come from? (A magical rose-tinted world)

do giraffes eat juniper? (A more important question; Do they have juniper in Africa?)

morels growing in hair (Yes, that does sound like a problem)

last weekend chick very hot (No location, no name. Good luck with that buddy)

“sandra lee” +fervor (One word. No.)

Coney Island in Winter

“Sandra Lee” evil hatred (One word. Yes.)

ugly pictures of lime juice (Huh?)

Bridesmaid was a chicken (I certainly hope they don’t mean literally)

alliteration in root cellar (Yes, in my root cellar we only store; Parsnips, Pippins, Potatoes and Parsley Roots)

train dog not to eat chickens (I’d suggest something along the lines of a fence)

Ah, Bay Ridge

And finally, I know there’s actually some truth to this query, but it just makes me break into song:

how much is a pony in a cocktail.

Happy Spring everyone!

A Love Story, With Bread & Chicken

15 Feb

My original intention in starting this blog was to celebrate the versatility of the most wonderful of urban convenience foods, the rotisserie chicken. My blog’s name was born out of this intention as well. The first name I came up with was A Chicken In Every Pot, an homage to the famous campaign promise attributed to Hoover, “A chicken in every pot, a car in every garage,” and to my belief that everyone should be able to guiltlessly enjoy roast chicken whether it was roasted at home or not. However upon getting home and springing this idea on The Boy, he suggested A Chicken In Every Granny Cart, to give it more of a feel for the neighborhood. Granny carts are very popular amongst East Village and Lower East Side dwelling hipsters.

Verrazano Narrows Bridge

I discovered rotisserie chickens after a disastrous attempt at roasting my own bird in our tiny LES tenement kitchen. My first post was about how to make a basic soup from the remains of a bird that had already served two for dinner. It soon became clear that this focus was far too narrow and that I had to allow my blog to grow organically and become what it is.

Two Tugs & A Paddlewheel

One day short of one year I can honestly say that I am so happy with my blog, but I am even happier with the little group of “blog friends” that I have made in the past 364 days. And so I wanted to say thank you to you guys, my readers, who propel me to keep cooking and writing. Thank you. You guys inspire and buoy me.

Lower Manhattan From Bay Ridge

In the past year (minus one day) I’ve tackled many recipes and dishes I never would have dreamed I could cook and accomplished some tasks I thought would always remain dreams. I recreated family recipes, overcame my fear of bread baking, discovered buffalo, created a recurring editorial feature, alerted the world to some dangerous fungi, created my own curry, grilled Croatian sausages, poked considerable fun at Sandra Lee, got pickled with a room ful of other food bloggers, traveled to Croatia, launched a photoblog and moved to Brooklyn.

It’s been a damn fine year!

Minerva In Green-Wood

But, there’s one more thing I need to share. Last weekend I hung out with Nigel in our huge new kitchen. No, not actually, but it was close enough, and Nigel helped me overcome two additional fears that have been dogging me for at least two years; he helped me bake a real kneaded loaf of bread, and he helped me roast my own chicken, both in spectacular fashion, and for one meal!

Nigel's Loaf

Both the bread and the chicken were from Appetite, my favorite book of his (although Luisa’s favorite, The Kitchen Diaries, is a close second). The bread was a half recipe of Nigel’s “A Really Good, And Very Easy White Loaf” with some added white whole wheat flour, while the chicken was a variation on his “A Pot-Roast Bird,” replacing two pheasants with one large organic chicken. Nigel loves experimenting and variations on a theme, so I know he’d be pleased with this dinner!

Nigel's Loaf

The bread was so easy, and the kneading was actually therapeutic. It’s a lovely movement. And the chicken was astounding. I mean, jaw droppingly good. The skin actually crackled and kind of shattered when I cut through it to remove the legs, which, in the end, didn’t even require the knife to remove. And the Brussels sprouts and mushrooms I put in the pot along with the chicken had absorbed all of the herbal aromas and sweet wineyness from the roasting process. It was a meal I could never have made in our tiny old kitchen.

Pot-Roasted Chicken

The leftover bread and the succulent chicken have made for some wonderful weeknight dinners while the carcass is wrapped in tinfoil in the freezer waiting for this weekend so I can attempt another culinary task I’ve never tackled; making chicken stock from scratch.

Me On Hvar

And so, 364 days after my first tentative, feeble steps into the blogosphere, I can honestly say, this blog has been a joy. Thanks to one and all that have been along for the journey. Here’s to 366 more days until my next sappy blogaversary post!

Head below the jump for Nigel’s Really Good And Very Easy Bread and A Pot-Roasted Chicken.

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