Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Pasta with kale & beans



If not for the anchovy this could have made it to the Vegetarian Recipe Index.

Oh well, at least it's reasonably healthy. My doctor would approve, I think. He's the one who keeps yammering on about how awesome swell his "plant-based diet" has been treating him.

Yeah, whatever.

Beans and pasta is good winter dish. It won't kill me to toss something green in every once in a while, right? And this kale stuff's got a ton of Vitamin K, or at least that's what the doc tells me. What Vitamin K's good for I couldn't tell you, but the leafy green makes for a nice addition to this pasta and that's good enough for me.

Did I mention how easy-peasy this dish is? No? Well, it is.



In a large pot of well-salted water blanch the kale for several minutes, until tender. Remove the kale from the water with tongs or a slotted spoon. Don't throw away the water because we'll use it to cook the pasta. After the kale is cool enough to work with chop it into pieces around an inch wide.



In a large pan saute four or so garlic cloves, some hot pepper to taste and a few anchovy filets.



After two or three minutes stir in the kale.



Then add a can of cannellini beans (drained of the liquid) and saute at medium heat.



Cook whatever pasta shape you like in the salted water that you cooked the kale in. I went with strozzapreti ("priest-strangler" in Italian), and this is around a half pound.



When your pasta is al dente add it to the pan with the kale and beans and incorporate, using some of the pasta water to moisten.



Plate and top with some grated cheese.

Oh, and if you run into my doctor give him an earful about how good I've been eating lately, okay.

Just don't mention the porterhouse that I scored for tonight.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Making it great again



This wine was not born in the best of times.

Soon after its grapes were harvested and crushed, in the Piedmont, Italy's finest wine region, a United States Naval pilot had to parachute to safety when a missile took down his fighter jet over North Vietnam. The serviceman, John McCain, would remain imprisoned, frequently tortured, for the next five and a half long years.

Days after McCain's capture Lyndon Johnson held a secret meeting with his top political advisers. The agenda: Devise a plan to mislead the American people into thinking more enthusiastically about the war in Southeast Asia. "The Wise Men," as the group was known, concluded that the president should feed his constituents a steady diet of optimistic pablum aimed at advancing the falsehood that America was winning, not losing, an unpopular war in which hundreds of thousands had already died.

Earlier that year, as Italy's rich vineyards lay dormant, three Apollo 1 astronauts were incinerated aboard their spacecraft as it idled on the launchpad at Cape Kennedy in Florida. Race riots—159 of them—erupted across the country in what came to be known as "The Long, Hot Summer." Albert DeSalvo (aka the Boston Strangler) was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 13 women, and a vile segregationist named Lester Maddox, who'd refused to serve blacks at his Atlanta restaurant, was sworn in as Georgia's 75th governor.

Oh, and my poor father's beloved New York Mets ended the 1967 season with a record of 61 wins and 101 losses, 40 1/2 games in the National League standings behind the first-place St. Louis Cardinals.

Like I said, not the best of times.

Me, I was a 10-year-old street kid living in a poor corner of eastern Brooklyn, on the border of Queens. Crime and racial tensions ruled here. The only places to buy cheap wine were crappy liquor stores where the inventory and the shopkeepers hid behind thick bullet-proof glass. Blocks away from the apartment house where my family and I lived was the 75th Precinct House. The 75th was often the busiest and most violent police precinct in the entire country. It still is.

All I can remember being concerned about the year that Aldo Conterno produced this very fine Barolo from his family's legendary nebbiolo vines was getting through the days without getting hurt or even killed.

All of us in the neighborhood fretted over the same thing, I reckon.

My fourth-grade teacher, a nun named Sister Janita, was a big help to me that tumultuous year. Only not for any of the reasons you might imagine.

Sister Janita had grown too old to be in a classroom educating impressionable young minds. She wasn't a woman who dispensed advice or wisdom to her students, either, at least not at this time in her career. But she was sweet and kind and functional, and so her superiors allowed the nun to keep her position later in life than was probably prudent.

She was also—how to say this delicately?—a loon.

The good sister had a pet pigeon named Lulu that lived in her second-floor classroom. Lulu had full run of the place, flying freely as she pleased. Many times the bird would land on your desk and coo coo coo until you'd share a bit of sandwich bread or some other morsel with her. Once Lulu landed right on my head and cooed until her mistress came around to collect her.

Sister Janita conversed far more with Lulu than with any of her students. Always kindly, always lovingly, always enthusiastically. But most of all, always kookily.

Considering the state of the world outside her classroom in 1967 I count myself lucky to have spent a good chunk of the year well-protected inside the sister's benign, good-natured little cocoon.

After all, for several long hours a day that entire school year the biggest fear I had wasn't getting caught up in a riot or a gang fight; it was getting shit on by a crazy old nun's pet pigeon as it flew by.

We should all have so little to be troubled about today.

My home now is a lovely little town on the coast of Maine. The free local paper's "Police Blotter" lists items about dogs found wandering without tags or teenagers caught "borrowing" a stranger's canoe to go out fishing. The town's only fire truck is new and spiffy, but it doesn't get out of the garage much.

And yet all of a sudden I live in a very dangerous place again. We all do.

Let's face it, the year that this bottle of Aldo Conterno's 1967 Barolo Riserva Speciale got opened wasn't much better than the year he produced it. You could argue that it was a lot worse. From election night in November 2016 through, well, just through, it's been one self-inflicted national disaster after another.

Cracking open a 50-year-old Barolo at this time wasn't my doing. That would be the work of my dear friend Scott, who surprised a small group of friends with it at a dinner celebration just before Christmas. Scott is a sommelier by trade. He's also a swell guy to have as a friend.

He knew full well that everybody who'd gathered that evening had suffered, often silently, the entire year. And so, in his small and yet extraordinarily generous way, Scott decided to temporarily wrap us all up in a warm blanket made of joy and friendship and, like Sister Janita's classroom in 1967, even a bit of fantasy.

For a few moments my friends and I could put aside our fears about the next three or even seven long years and escape to a place where good people who love and respect and care for each other can still get to quietly share a common appreciation of something honest and beautiful...

And, yes, even GREAT!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Italian wedding soup



Every New Year's Eve the same group of friends gather together at my home for an epic food and drinkfest that begins sometime around 6 pm and lasts all the way past midnight. It's a tradition that began more than a quarter century ago, when My Associate and I were still living in New York. We've moved a few times since then, as far away as Maine some years ago, and not a single year has this annual gathering been shelved.

This last time saw a new twist; a theme, actually. For reasons having nothing to do with me (I swear!) it was decided by the other members of our group that each of the many courses needed to feature a "ball" of some type. Scott and Giovani arrived carrying an orange-colored Le Creuset pan filled with fried codfish balls to get the festivities started, while My Associate was putting the finishing touches on the veal meatballs that would follow much later in the evening. Tom and Beth had only moments earlier removed a second batch of fluffy yellow cream puff shells from the oven, as they had been charged with providing the all-important dessert course hours later.

You get the idea.

All things round-shaped the whole night through.

My contribution to Ballfest '17-18 was Italian Wedding Soup. I found this a fitting way to end the dreadfully divisive year we've all endured, as few traditional foods are as comforting and life-affirming as this one is.
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The first thing you'll need is 12 or so cups of chicken stock. A lot of people will tell you that a good packaged or canned stock is just fine but I'm not one of those people. Homemade stock is the only way to go and so that's what you're looking at here. (In case you're interested this stock went like so: I sautéed an onion, a carrot, some celery and a little garlic in olive oil with a couple anchovy filets, then added six large bone-in chicken thighs. After the thighs browned a little I added around 16 cups of water, salt, a few peppercorns, and a good sized chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind and then slow-simmered the stock for around four hours. Once at room temperature I strained out all the ingredients, leaving a tasty clear broth.)



To make the meatballs mix 1/2 pound of ground beef (around 80% lean) with 1/2 pound of ground pork. On a flat work surface form a ring with the meat and then fill the center with wet bread that's been torn into small pieces.



On top of the bread add around 1/2 cup or more of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, an egg and some chopped parsley, then very gently mix everything together with your hands. It's important not to be aggressive with your mixing, as that will make the meatballs tough.



This is how things should look after mixing. As you can see, it's still possible to see pieces of bread. That's a good thing. You don't want a mix that looks perfectly ground and mixed together.



Always test the meat mixture for flavor and texture before rolling the entire batch into balls. In this case pop one meatball into the slow-simmering broth and cook for maybe five minutes. After tasting this meatball I added a little more cheese to the mix and also around 1/4 cup of whole milk to moisten things a bit more. This made for a good tasting — and very moist — meatball in the end.



I wound up with nearly 35 little meatballs, around an inch or so in diameter. (Again, you can see how lightly mixed the meat is; see the pieces of bread in some spots?)
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After you've formed all the meatballs add 1/2 cup of orzo to the broth and raise the heat to a rolling boil.



Then add an entire head of escarole that's been chopped into small pieces. (If you can't find escarole another green will do.)



After seven minutes or so lower the heat to a simmer and gently add all the meatballs. (It's very important that you not cook the meatballs at high heat, as this will toughen them.)



While the meatballs are simmering mix two eggs and around 1/2 cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano in a bowl.



After the meatballs have simmered for around five minutes slowly stir the egg and cheese into the soup (again, at a slow simmer, not a rolling boil).



The egg and cheese will cook immediately, so turn off the heat right after they have been fully incorporated, like so. That's all there is to it; the soup is ready to serve right away.



Except that topping off each bowl of soup with a little extra grated cheese is totally the way to go and so I strongly urge you to do so.

Happy New Year everybody!

I hope.
 
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