Thursday, December 31, 2009

Here Comes Another One, Just Like The Other One

Times Square New Year's Eve ball
A few years ago, after one failed attempt after another, my crew and I decided to stop trying so hard to have fun on New Year's Eve. That first subsequent party consisted of six of us, rotisserie chicken and veggie wraps bought at Safeway, about 6000 cds, playing cards, cigars, and a mixed case of really excellent champagne. We stayed up until dawn blasting the stereo and playing røvhul. No one could remember a better New Year's Eve, hangovers be damned. The bar was set pretty high that night, but subsequent gatherings have always managed to exceed expectations. You can thumb through old posts here and read about last year's soirée and menu. I'm hoping for another memorable fête this year with my east coast fan club. Again, there will be six of us out in posh Southampton (hopefully nobody's checking credentials at the city limits), plenty of "Bolli", and I'm doing all the cooking, ably assisted by Jean 9. It'll be such a fine group that, if we manage not to force the frivolity, it ought to be another banner celebration.
New Year's Eve 2009 Menu
Candied Jalapeño Dip
Grilled Prawns with Zesty Lemon-Caper Sauce
Ceviche in Lime Cups
Chebeague Crab Satchels
Bruschetta Alla Romana
Martha Stewart's Cranberry Compote with Mascarpone and Cookies*
If I'm not at the market looking for flat-leaf parsley or hothouse tomatoes, I'll be strapped to an apron and away from the computer for the duration. You'll have to read about the aftermath in the coming year.
Until then, the very Happiest of New Year's and a healthy, prosperous Two Thousand Ten.
Champagne bottle sizes
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food
*I know... I know.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What, This Old Thing? It's Just Something I Threw On

Italian Country Villas promo photo
It ain't all fun and games out here in Blogtown. While tantalizing your eye and whetting your appetite with my photos and prose, a blogger's still gotta eat. Thus tonight's dinner ended up here on You Gonna Finish That? Having plenty of source material for the next few days, I wasn't even looking for a topic, but merely something to stave off the hunger pangs. Being otherwise occupied on my computer, I threw some things into a pot, set it and forget it. I didn't even think to document the process until I tasted my meal. Then I knew I was on to something. Every once in awhile, I surprise even myself.
Sweet Italian Sausage and Farfalle - A Blog O. Food original
  • 1½ lbs sweet Italian sausages, sliced thick
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • ¼ cup pignoli
  • 1½ cups chicken stock
  • 1½ cups dry red wine
  • 1 large can (28 oz) whole, peeled tomatoes
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 lb farfalle pasta
Lightly brown Italian sausage in olive oil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed stock pot. Remove pork from pot, and brown onions, garlic and pine nuts. Return sausage to the pot, add chicken stock, red wine, tomatoes and spices, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer slowly for 2 hours or more. If you need to enrich the sauce, add the tomato paste, otherwise, omit. Increase the heat to medium and add the dry pasta to the sauce. Add more chicken stock, if necessary, to just cover the pasta. Stir very gently periodically until the noodles are al dente. Spoon into pretty bowls and top with grated Grana Padano cheese and finely chopped parsley.
Sweet Italian sausage & farfalle pasta
Here was a one-pot meal that's all about the sauce. This one was rich and thick and tomato-y. Il mio amico, Matty O. Food, is the king of sauces in my neck of the woods. Just ask him, he'll be the first to tell you. But as I stated earlier, the dish came as much of a surprise to me as anyone. So I guess my sauce skills are madder than I was led to suspect. But don't repeat that outside these doors.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thoroughly Mexican? Not So Much.

Biscuit rounds and salmon can cutter
At some point during any stay with Pops O'Food, usually on one's last morning, you will be treated to the sound of bacon sizzling in a skillet and the smell of biscuits baking in the oven. You are in store for an original: POF's biscuits and gravy. After just one bite, folks cease their search for The Best. They've found them right in my father's kitchen. I stopped ordering them off of menus years ago. The experience was always a major disappointment. As I recall, the last straw was at a Waffle House somewhere in North Carolina. The waitress there plopped something in front of me so disgusting and so obviously NOT biscuits and gravy, that the plate sat untouched. I've never looked back.
Pops has been making perfect B&G since he was a boy. Back then, eggs, potatoes, sausage, ham, bacon, biscuits and gravy from the pan drippings were a staple served every morning. Who knew about cholesterol back then? Would it have mattered? These were poor country folk living off the land with plow and rifle, and a hearty breakfast kept them going until suppertime.
These days, knowing what to expect, I sit back in eager anticipation of the reaction people new to Pop's biscuits and gravy express. The looks on some of their faces are classic. The scales drop from their eyes. They are moved to poetry and singing. I smilingly nod in meaningful agreement.
Buttermilk Biscuits and Pan Gravy - a recipe by Pops O'Food
  • 2 cups self-rising flour, plus extra for rolling out dough
  • 1 cup buttermilk, plus or minus for stiff batter
  • 2 Tbsp peanut oil
In a large mixing bowl, stir in just enough buttermilk into the flour to form a stiff dough. Sprinkle extra flour onto the dough and on a cutting board or other clean, flat surface and roll out dough to about ½ inch. Using an empty, cleaned large Alaskan salmon can (Pops O'Food is very particular about his cutter), or another round dough cutter, cut out biscuits. Dredge both sides through peanut oil in a cast iron skillet or baking sheet and crowd together. Bake in a 395° pre-heated oven until golden brown, about 18 minutes. (Check the bottom of your biscuits a few minutes early.)
Pan Drippings Gravy:
  • ½ lb bacon or sausage links
  • 3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1½ cups 2% milk
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
Brown bacon or sausage until crisp and fat is rendered. Remove meat from skillet, reserving grease. Add enough all-purpose flour for a 1:1 ratio of fat to flour and cook over medium-high heat for several minutes. You're looking for a brownish hue to your roux. Pour in milk, add sugar and stir frequently until gravy thickens and small bubbles start to rise from the bottom of the skillet. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Split golden buttermilk biscuits and smother in hot gravy.
Pops O'Food buttermilk biscuitsPops O'Food biscuits and gravy with eggs, bacon and hashbrowns
This is nothing short of authentic, down home cookin' Grandma used to make. Genuine. Unpretentious. The real deal. This is the kind of food that makes me so appreciative of my roots, especially proud to call Pops O'Food my father.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Monday, December 28, 2009

Mexican Through and Through

Mexican tile birdbath (detail) - Wendy Smith and Becky Holcomb, Mosaic Art
For all you infrequent readers out there (and you know who you are), visits with Pops O'Food revolve around twin suns: food, obviously, and golf. Pops has a regular group of local and snow bird cronies who accompany him on the course several times a week. I am permitted to join them whenever I'm in town. The only reason I took up the game in the first place was to have something to do with my father besides stuffing my face. It has turned out to be a minor passion, especially when my swing is going well. Between bouts of Mexican peasant food were some very good rounds of golf this year. One course in particular took my breath away, Emerald Canyon Golf Course on the Colorado River just outside Parker, AZ. This La Paz County course is an oasis. Impeccably tended fairways and velvety smooth greens, built into the ravines and washes that feed into the river. I have never played a finer course in the country. Even on those idyllic links however, my thoughts frequently turned to what our next meal would be.
Emerald Canyon Golf Course - Hole 7Emerald Canyon Golf Course - Hole 16
Not that it was ever really a worry at Casa de Pops. He had a treasure trove of recipes to offer up.
Simmering Mexican-style hominy
Pork & Hominy Stew - A recipe by Pops O'Food
  • 1 large can (29 oz) Mexican-style hominy
  • 2 lbs pork loin chops, boned and diced
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 3½ cups chicken stock
  • 1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes
  • 1½ cups homemade salsa*
Diced pork loinBrowning diced pork loin
Brown the pork bones as wellSweat the onion and garlic in the olive oil
Return pork to the pot, add stock, tomatoes and hominyBring stew to a boil, then simmer for 90 minutes
Drain hominy, and put to a simmer in a small saucepan. Meanwhile, brown pork, including bones, on all sides with dried spices in olive oil over medium-high heat in a large heavy-bottomed stock pot. Brown in batches if need be. Remove pork from pot and sweat onions and garlic over medium heat until just soft, but not brown. Return the meat and bones to the pan, add the chicken stock, tomatoes, salsa and hominy. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 90 minutes.
Pork & hominy stew with Mexican rice and refried beans
Holy crap, that guy POF knows a thing or two about food! Browning the bones and including them in the stew red-lined the flavor meter. Just remember to separate them from the dish before serving. The slow, long simmer softened all the tough connective tissue in the meat. It practically fell apart on the fork. Pops served Mexican rice and refried beans, and piping hot flour tortillas for sopping up the juices.
We all have dishes that remind us of childhood or other memorable occasions. I was transported that night. This is a meal I'll cook again when I'm homesick or just plain nostalgic. I hope this post prompts you to dust off delicious recipes of your own. Relive old memories or make new ones tonight.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food
  • 3 lbs Ortega and yellow chilies, roasted, skinned and chopped
  • 10 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 2 large white onions, diced
  • ½ cup cilantro, chopped
  • 1 cup, green onions, diced
Toss all ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Store in clean mason jars. Flavor will intensify over time. Will keep for about two weeks.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Feliz Navidad

My father, Pops O'Food, is a prodigious cook. Usually, and without heed to any pleas for moderation, the output from his kitchen will resemble something akin to Ford's Detroit production line. Every year, I invariably gain five pounds and have a reputation around town as being - shall we say - an ambitious eater. But it's only because he keeps putting food in front of me! So before traveling to Arizona to spend part of the Holidays with Pops this year, I emailed him with firm instructions not to cook a thing until I got there. All was for naught. He came back with the notion of Mexican food for the week. I know a lost cause when I see one, and acceded to his plans with alacrity.
Mexican food unfailingly reminds me of when my stepmother Anita was alive. God, she could cook. Like me, she absorbed her skills at the feet of her parents. Growing up, I was dependably at her elbow whenever she was in the kitchen. One memory immediately leaps to mind reflecting on those times, her Mexican rice "secret". After toasting her rice and adding the liquid to the saucepan, she would deftly dip an index finger into the broth, claiming it added sweetness. My naive eight-year old mind accepted that like some kind of golden nugget. It brings a smile to my face just thinking about it. Anita also had a real fondness for albondigas soup, so when Pops suggested a Mexican holiday menu, I insisted on us taking a stab at one of her favorite dishes.
Pops perused the Internet for recipes and we used a couple of those as a launching point for our own effort. I think Anita would have been pleased with the result. There were certainly no complaints from my father and me between slurps.
Albondigas soup ingredients
Albondigas Soup - A recipe inspired by Anita Roberts
  • ½ lb ground beef
  • ½ lb ground pork
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ cup cooked brown rice
  • 1 cup chopped yellow onion
  • ½ tsp dried thyme
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • ¼ cup peanut oil
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 tomato, seeded and chopped
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 4 cloves garlic, roasted
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
  • Salt & pepper to taste
In a large mixing bowl, combine ground meat, egg, brown rice, spices, and half the onions, form into ping pong-sized balls. Heat peanut oil in a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot and brown meatballs in batches on all sides, about 10 minutes. Add chicken stock, tomato, chili powder, roasted garlic and remaining onions, and simmer for 45 minutes. Add vegetables and simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Serve hot with crispy fried corn tortilla strips. Makes 6 servings.
Combine meat, egg, rice and onion Form into small balls Albondigas meatballs
Brown meatballs in peanut oil All stock, tomato, and spices After 45 minutes, add vegitables
Remember last year's visit to Lake Havasu? Pops allowed me in the kitchen for a couple of dinners and spent the rest of the time bragging to all his golfing buddies about what a good cook I was. I don't know how he managed it, but this year I was bucked back down to KP duty. What I really suspect is that my father gets as much joy out of cooking for others as I do. In any event, he's always looking for ways to wait on me, as I am by nature a most independent fellow.
What a time we had. Anita's name came up several times, usually at the table. I treasure every loving repast shared with my father. I'm already aching for the next one.
Albondigas Soup
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Thursday, December 10, 2009

'Cause Baby, It's Cold Outside

It's not officially winter yet, nor really, really cold, but the temps have dropped appreciably (or unappreciated-ly) over the last week. It's dark when I wake up in the morning and dark when I walk home from work in the afternoon, and Blog O. Food's nesting instincts are kicking in. That means fewer trips into Manhattan, wooly socks and sweat pants for lounging around the apartment at night, and comfort food. Belly-warmin', spectacle-steamin', hot-off-off-the-stove comfort food.
This dish is a take-off on a springtime recipe when peas are in season and you can get 'em fresh off the vine. I could have made split pea soup, but I like the puréed texture of the whole peas better. Plus, buried deep somewhere, are repressed memories of split pea soup from my elementary school days. We'll let those sleeping dogs lie, eh?
Pea Soup
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 cups peas
  • 1½ cups sourdough bread, crust removed and cubed
  • 1½ Tbsp dried herbs: thyme, basil, tarragon, etc
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • Salt & pepper to taste
Start by tossing cubed sourdough bread with olive oil and dried herbs. Season with salt and pepper and spread out on a baking sheet. Toast croutons in a 375° pre-heated oven until just browned, about 12 minutes. Keep an eye on them as they will turn from golden to burnt toast with alarming speed. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
Meanwhile, melt butter in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Add onions, salt & pepper and sweat over medium heat, stirring often. When soft, but not browned, add stock and bring to a boil. Add peas and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring periodically, until the peas are tender, about 5-6 minutes. Purée the soup in batches in a blender or food processor. Taste to adjust the seasonings. Pour back into the pot and heat just to warm through. Serve in rustic ceramic bowls - bartered from a local Duchess County pilgrim - garnished with croutons.
Even with frozen peas, there was a brightness to this simple soup, and just a hint of saltiness. Missing was that gummy consistency and bitterness you can get from split pea soup. Feeling fat deprived? Plop a generous dollop of sour cream into the soup before adding the croutons!
Sometimes, I'll brown off some cubed pancetta, drain really well on paper towels then add to the purée. If you do that, do not salt the soup until you've added the pork and heated it back up, then adjust your seasonings.
That ought to keep you warm 'til bedtime!
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sorry, but THAT'S a Spicy Meatball!

Scoville scale
Every family has its own traditions around the holidays. Some folks open presents on Christmas Eve, some fly off to the capitals of Europe for the duration, yet others have restaurant wait staffs serve them their turkey and stuffing. Everybody is different in that respect, and that's okay. Where I come from chili was always the de facto meal the night before Christmas or Thanksgiving, Secretary's Day Administrative Assistant's Day, whenever! But this year, at The Very Brady Thanksgiving, Mama Jean slaved two nights and days over Italian sauce and meatballs and I am ever so grateful that she did.
"I wish I had a real recipe to offer but I essentially just throw things in a pot and the ingredients are the usual suspects that go in everyone's sauce." ~ Mama Jean
Don't let that modesty fool you, Jean is a serious cook, and like all masters she has an intuitive feel for what works. It may have been Aunt Janie's house, but it was Mama Jean's kitchen. And if we were gonna have Italian the night before Thanksgiving, well it was gonna be done right, damn it.
AntipastaSesame bread sticks
Thanksgiving Eve Menu
  • Honey cherry peppers stuffed with goat cheese and pecan
  • Pickled cherry peppers stuffed with bleu cheese
  • Kalamata olives
  • Roasted red bell peppers
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • Prosciutto
  • Peppered ham
  • Sesame bread sticks
Il Primo
  • Cheese-stuffed manicotti
Il Secondo
  • Hand-made beef, pork & veal meatballs
  • Sweet and hot Italian sausages
  • Homemade tomato sauce
Cheese manicottiItalian sausages and meatballs
Mama Jean's Meatballs and Tomato Sauce
"I brown sausage (and I usually also brown some country spare ribs...nothing like pork fat for flavor...but the stores were so crazy I didn't realize I didn't have them until I started cooking) in the pot I am using for the sauce. I put a small amount of [extra virgin olive oil] in [the] bottom just to keep everything lubed until the sausage/meat starts giving off juice/fat. You can remove the meat or just push to the side and add onion and garlic scraping the fond off the bottom of the pan. Then I add the tomatoes, red wine, fresh parsley, basil and oregano (dried if not available), and I usually add some grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Stir this all together and bring it to a fairly high temp (add back the browned pork if it has been removed) and then lower to a simmer before adding the meatballs."
THE MEATBALLS: "I used beef, pork and veal for the meatballs but any combo or beef alone works, too. I add salt and fresh pepper, fresh parsley, (sometimes some very finely minced garlic), grated Parmigiano Reggiano, bread (Italian, Wonder, whatever) that's been soaked in milk (bread crumbs if I don't have any bread around), and usually two eggs and shape into medium sized meat balls... I put a lid on the pot and let it simmer a little while. Check fairly often in the beginning that the bottom is not sticking being very gentle so as to not break up the meatballs. Then you can let it go for as long as you like. I generally put it on very low and just let it go for a few hours... Towards the end, I let it cook without a lid to let it thicken naturally if it needs that. IF I taste it and the tomatoes didn't have a rich enough flavor, I might add tomato paste, the tube type is best. You can also add some more fresh herbs to brighten at the end if necessary. I love this because it's good right away, later that day, the next day, or even from the freezer.
As in all things good ingredients yield good results.
The woman has banished the word "shortcut" from her vocabulary. You can throw away that cherished index card in your little tin file box. Jean's sauce had a richness that I'd never experienced before, and I live in an Italian neighborhood! I loved the extra grated cheese she included while cooking. It added another pleasant layer of complexity. Wisely, she served rustic Italian bread on the side for sopping up the leftover sauce on the plate. Can you imagine a homemade sauce without bread on the side? I don't want to live in that world.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Thursday, December 3, 2009

At's a Spicy Meatball!

Alka Seltzer's "Spicy Meatball" - 1969, courtesy of DDB New York
Sometimes it's hard being a California Irish-Mexican living in a New York Italian neighborhood. California being such a godless land of fruits & nuts, one forgets that the Sabbath is taken seriously in other, more pious parts of the world. So it is that on Sundays I can usually be overheard cursing the Church under my breath when Arthur Avenue virtually shuts down to trade. Granted, the bakery ovens still churn out loaves, and the restaurants are all open, but when lamb and fresh herbs are on the shopping list, I won't be checking off items at the corner deli.
And that is how this became a blog post on pork meatballs.
Quick & Easy Meatballs
  • 1lb pork loin or boneless chops, cubed
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 oz pitted green olives
  • 2 oz sun dried tomatoes
  • 2 oz toasted pin nuts
  • ½ Tbsp basil, chopped
  • ½ Tbsp thyme, chopped
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • ¾ Tbsp olive oil
  • 1lb orzo pasta
  • 2½ cups vegetable stock
  • 2 cup water
Pulse pork, garlic, olives tomatoes, pine nuts, herbs and seasonings in a food processor until finely minced, but not puréed. With clean wet hands, form pork into golf ball-sized portions. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat and fry meatballs until browned on all sides. Add ½ cup of the stock, and simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, set the remaining 2 cups stock and 2 cups water to boil in a large stock pot. Add orzo and cook to al dente. Drain. Pile orzo onto a platter and arrange meatballs on top. Drizzle the sauce over the meat. Garnish, and bring to the table!
My meatballs were every bit as good as what I was hoping for with lamb, as if there was ever any doubt. The pork was just cooked through with no pink color and still lots of tender goodness. This is one of those flexible recipes. Think of what works for you: capers and dill, sautéed mushrooms and black olives, pimento and caramelized shallots. Follow your impulses!
There are so many nutritional plusses with pork, but that's not why I love it. Nope, I eat so much pork because it's flavorful, tender and juicy. It's hard to screw up a good cut of pork. You'd have to really hate cooking or be one of Dick Cheney's henchmen to ruin it. There are two keys to turning out excellent dishes: low & slow cooking for those fall-off-the-bone roasts and shanks, or quick searing, just reaching a safe internal temperature (145° to 160° depending on who you ask), for melt-in-your-mouth leaner cuts. I'm an acolyte in both temples.
By the numbers, it's hard to fault pork. An eight ounce serving has only 11g of fat, 4g of the saturated kind. It's sick with protein (65g) and minerals like potassium and phosphorus (1273g and 726g respectively). The only caveat on a warning label would highlight cholesterol counts: 170g per serving. So this isn't really your breakfast, lunch and dinner protein source. But if it's on the menu once or twice a week, you'll probably live a long, happy, healthy life. Yeah, I think about these things as I'm preparing recipes for you, and dinner for me!
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food