Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Love stinks



They don't call radio the "intimate medium" for nothing. 

Unlike television or movies or even (gasp!) social media, listening to the radio provides the most personal gratification of any other form of entertainment. (If you don't believe me just look it up. Study after study has reached the same conclusion.)

There's a downside to this intimacy, of course. Just ask the thousands of people who have come to know and genuinely love a man named Kenneth Green of Kearny, New Jersey. Radio intimates often refer to him by his "professional" name, X.Ray Burns.

That's him in the holiday photograph above, in the Santa Clown outfit he was so fond of wearing and in the loving embrace of his lifelong friend and devoted companion Glen Jones, also a son of Kearny. For the better part of 30 years the pair has hosted a three-hour Sunday afternoon radio show on the excellent non-commercial WFMU-FM out of Jersey City, New Jersey. The show is titled, aptly, The Glen Jones Radio Programme Featuring X.Ray Burns

Or so it has been.

Last Sunday, during the pair's regular weekly air slot as fate would have it, Kenneth Green died in a hospice facility not 30 miles from the WFMU studios, as his friend hosted their show alone. He was just 57 years old.

I used to live in Jersey City. It's where I became aware of these enormously talented radio men. Since moving to Maine in the mid-1990s the Internet has allowed me to keep up with their weekly show. I religiously download each and every one of the three-hour broadcasts and listen to them during my morning walks. I have hundreds of their shows stored away in MP3 files. I suspect it will be some time before I can summon the courage to listen to any of them again.

Several years back, and through a series of unlikely and somewhat mysterious encounters, X.Ray and I became friends. The friendship started, as many modern ones do, on Facebook, but very quickly moved beyond that. A proud Scot (he once schooled me on where and how to purchase a kilt), X.Ray was too a great lover of Italian food and often peppered me with questions about my recipes and the foods that I love best. Ever sensitive and intelligent, the man devoured my stories about family and traditions, never missing an opportunity to respond to me in some way—and almost always sharing my writings with his thousands of listeners.

I can honestly—and very proudly—say that no other individual has been a greater champion of this personal blog than Kenneth Green of Kearny, New Jersey. 

And that includes me.

Back in November it became apparent that something might be terribly wrong. More and more often Glen hosted the show without his friend. Over time the music he played, always themed to his mood or circumstances surrounding us all, grew darker and more brooding, yearning even. When Ken and I exchanged our usual Thanksgiving greeting, it was loving, yes, but all too brief. Then somewhere around Christmastime he'd stopped communicating at all.

As is my custom, I was not listening to last Sunday's broadcast live and so I did not hear Glen announce to the brotherhood of WFMU listeners that his best and dearest friend had slipped away. The MP3 file of the show now sits in my iPhone. I see it but cannot click and press play. 

I don't know that I ever will.



Godspeed my beautiful friend. 

You were—and are—loved by many. 

The loss of you won't soon be overcome.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

8-hour pork belly



I am a patient man.

When my friend Fredo announced one recent morning that he would be driving from New York to my home in Maine later in the day, I decided that there are worse things than having the oven working all day on a low-and-slow roast to feed him for dinner.



This is just under 5 pounds of pork belly, skin off. I've liberally seasoned the meat side with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, then added chopped garlic, thyme and rosemary.



Layer the bottom of a fairly deep roasting pan with large hunks of celery, carrots and fennel, along with plenty of crushed garlic cloves and sprigs of thyme and rosemary.



Roll and tie the pork belly, place it over the vegetables and herbs, then add a generous amount of white wine and/or broth (I used nearly a bottle of chenin blanc and homemade chicken stock).

Cover with aluminum foil and place in the oven pre-heated to 225 degrees F.



Every so often make sure to baste the belly. I did every half hour or so.

At around the 6-hour mark I removed the aluminum foil and turned the heat up to around 350 degrees F.



And after another couple hours (that's 8 total, if you're counting) this is what I wound up with.

Fredo had just arrived from his journey and so we enjoyed cocktails and then a first course while the pork belly rested a bit.

That was around the time that my friend shocked and delighted me by revealing the true nature of his visit. He had overheard me bemoaning the lack of my favorite morning baked good in the place that I live, and made it his duty to lend an assist.



These are some very fine New York bialys, and the very excellent friend who delivered them to me.

Grazie Fredo!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Toni's Portuguese sweet bread



I wish that I had baked this bread before Toni passed. 

She would have gotten a big kick out of it.

Truth is, I have never baked Toni's massa sovada. The Portuguese sweet bread that you see here was a gift from Toni's daughter, Theresa. She surprised me with it last weekend in New Bedford, Massachussetts, after dinner at a fine Portuguese restaurant where a group of friends gather once a year.



I'm trying to figure out a way to sufficiently thank Theresa for her thoughtful gift. But keep coming up woefully short on commensurate ideas.

Though available in Portuguese communities year round massa sovada is often associated with religious holidays, particularly Christmas and Easter. The bread is not unlike the sweet breads that we Italians prepare around the holidays. In fact, they are nearly identical.

Toni had sent me her recipe some time ago, hoping that I might try making the sweet bread for myself. She'd once mailed me her recipe for salt cod with cauliflower & potatoes and when I prepared it — and even put the recipe on the blog — Theresa told me that her mother was completely thrilled to have been acknowledged in so public a fashion.

I'm certain that Toni was hoping for a similar experience when she sent me her massa recipe, and had reason to be hopeful based on our past experiences together.

But I am not a bread baker. The idea of tackling Toni's massa recipe thoroughly intimidated me, and so this very sweet old lady's hand-written correspondence stayed tucked away where I could at once access and ignore it at the same time.

When I heard that she had died last year, Toni's letter and bread recipe were only feet away in a pile of papers atop my desk. I quickly thumbed through the stack and read through Toni's letter again, with a mix of sadness and guilt for having let her down. I kept the letter where I could see it for a week or two, but then it disappeared into the pile again, neglected as in the past.

Until now.



I'm sorry that I wasn't man enough to try your massa recipe, Toni.

But somebody out there is going to give it a go now that you'e shared it with them. 

I just know it.

Toni's massa sovada
(Not being a baker I found this recipe a bit confusing. But as it was written in Toni's hand I am reluctant to amend it. Perhaps those with more experience will find greater clarity in Toni's instructions. She would have liked that, I am sure.)

5 lbs. all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
3 cups sugar
3 yeast cakes
12 extra large eggs, well beaten
1 cup lukewarm water
2 cups lukewarm milk

Dissolve yeast in water and set aside
Mix the sugar and eggs together and then add to the milk; mix until sugar is dissolved
Add the mixture to the flour and yeast and incorporate
Lastly, add melted butter (approx. two sticks) and incorporate
Cover and let rise until doubled
Divide into 5 greased bread pans and let rise 2 to 3 hours
Bake at 350 degrees F for 35-40 minutes

Thursday, January 3, 2019

How to make mortadella



I've waited a long time for this.

Every year that the entire crew gathers together at my house, for a weeklong visit between Christmas and New Year's, I say the same thing.

"How about we make us some mortadella this year?"

And, well... You are familiar with the expression "crickets," yes?

Tom always finds this an ideal time to shut his eyes and pretend to be asleep (even when standing upright and carrying a drink in his hand). Beth Queen of Bakers often rushes to check what's cooking in the oven, despite the oven's not even being in use. Scott and Giovani's iPhones suddenly turn silent and out of text range. My (long-suffering) Associate, ever the practical member of the group, simply ignores me altogether.

Not this time.

Weeks before our annual gathering this year I circulated the following missive:

Per my repeated (and, to date, scorned) appeals to enlist your assistance in the manufacture and distribution of an authentic Mortadella di Bologna, you are hereby informed that:

Your aid in this project is considered mandatory and non-negotiable.  

In other words, this is no longer a democracy. 

Deal with it.

Ever the consensus builder I provided my friends an authentic recipe with which to familiarize themselves, as well as a video based on that recipe.

The ingredients were awaiting their arrival. I allowed them a good night's sleep, but in the morning it was time to go to work.



Mortadella is, to put it simply, a giant cured pork sausage. Its main ingredients are lean pork (here we have two boneless pork loin roasts weighing in at a little over 3 1/2 pounds combined); 1 pound of pork belly; and 1/2 pound of pork back fat. (The complete list of ingredients is printed at the end.)



Grinding meat is always easier when it's ice cold, or even frozen. Cut all the meat into slices and place in the freezer for a good couple hours. At the same time start getting your grinding equipment as cold as possible. (I put the whole grinding attachment to our KitchenAid mixer in the freezer.)



Mix together 1/2 cup of red wine and 1/2 cup of water and place in the freezer as well.



When the lean pork and pork belly are nearly frozen remove them from the freezer, cut them into cubes and mix together. DO NOT add the back fat at this time; it will be cut into cubes later on but it will not ever be ground.



While the meat is still ice cold run it through a large grinding plate for a coursely ground mixture and return the ground meat to the freezer. Put the grinding attachment back in the freezer too, as well as the smallest size grinding plate you've got, as you'll be needing it soon.

While the meat and grinder are chilling you can put together your spice mix. You'll need 3 tablespoons salt; 1 teaspoon Insta Cure No. 1 (pink curing salt); 2 teaspoons white pepper; 1/2 teaspoon coriander; 1 teaspoon garlic powder; 1 teaspoon anise; 1 teaspoon mace; and 1/2 teaspoon ground caraway. Make the spice mix as fine as possible. I ground everything together into a fine powder, using a spice grinder.



When the meat is nice and cold add the salt and spice mix and thorougly incorporate. (This being our first time making mortadella we fried up a tiny bit to taste and make sure that the seasoning was okay. It was perfect.)



Grind the meat again, using your smallest grinding plate this time.



At this point you'll need a food processor. Place the ground meat in the processor and add the semi-frozen wine/water mixture. Process the mixture until smooth. (You may need to do this in a couple batches; that's what we did.)



Here's where the half pound of back fat that's been chilling in the freezer comes into play. Cube it up like so.



Then quickly blanch it by pouring a little boiling water over it.



Also run boiling water over 1/2 cup pistachios and 3 teaspoons of whole black peppercorns.



Add the blanched fat cubes, pistachios and peppercorns to the meat.



And thoroughly mix with your hands.



Get yourself an 8" x 11" plastic bag that's suitable for boiling and tie the sealed end with a cable tie; this will allow for a rounded shape to form.



Then stuff the bag with the meat mixture. (I did this by hand because the extruder attachment on the KitchenAid wasn't up to the task.)



Close the bag's open end with cable ties as well, then wrap the bag in buther's twine (this helps keep the shape intact while cooking). Put the whole thing in the fridge and let it rest for several hours or even overnight, as we did.



The traditional way to cook mortadella is slowly and in a water bath, with the oven set at around 170 degrees F. This is the method most people continue to use today. It will take around 7 or 8 hours before the mortadella reaches an internal temperature of 158 degrees F, the point at which it is fully cooked.

Due to the quick thinking of My Associate, we decided to take another path. A sous vide cooker resides in our kitchen, you see, and we couldn't think of a reason why we shouldn't use it. Set at 170 degrees F it took less than 5 hours to cook the mortadella this way.



No matter which cooking method you use, once the internal temperature reaches around 158 degrees F, remove the mortadella from the heat source and plunge it into ice-cold water to quickly cool it down.

Then comes the really hard part: Toss the still-wrapped mortadella in the fridge and forget about it for a couple days. I know how hard that'll be, but the flavors will develop over that time.

Since this was our first attempt we cut into the mortadella right away in order to test it, but then it went into the fridge for two days before we tasted it again. The difference was clearly noticeable.



Here's an outside view.



And the inside.

The flavor was spot on; everybody in the house was in agreement on this.

More important, the next time I suggest making mortadella to the crew, I won't be hearing any of those crickets again.

Of that I am pretty sure.


What you'll need
A meat grinder
A food processor
An 8" x 11" plastic bag suitable for boiling
Butcher's twine

The ingredients
3 1/2 pounds lean pork
1 pound pork belly
1/2 pound pork back fat

3 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon Insta Cure No. 1 (pink curing salt)
2 teaspoons white pepper
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon anise
1 teaspoon mace
1/2 teaspoon ground caraway

1/2 cup chilled red wine
1/2 cup ice water

3 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
1/2 cup whole pistachios (unsalted)

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Christmas fig cookies



These ain't my mother's fig cookies.

If they were they would be topped with a thick, sweet white frosting and colorful rainbow non pareils. This would justify the cookies being called cuccidati, the traditional Sicilian Christmas cookie that I and many others like me grew up craving around this time of year.

But here's the thing (and with deep respect and sincerest apologies to Cousin Josephine, Aunt Anna, Aunt Laura and, of course, mom): I have grown to like my fig cookies without the frosting and the sprinkles on top.

There, I said it.

For the past several holiday seasons I have been sneaking around the very fine bakers of my family and quietly acquiring my Christmas fig cookies at a place called Ragtime, in Howard Beach, Queens. In between visits to one family member or another I will park my car in an inconspicuous location, quickly slip into the store's small bakery department, order up a couple pounds of their excellent (non-frosted) fig cookies, and retreat just as fast as I am able, so as to remain undetected.

The cookies remain hidden in the trunk of my car until after the holidays are over and I have safely arrived back home in Maine. Never—and I mean never—is their existence revealed to a single family member back home.

I'm going to Hell. I just know it.

This Christmas will be different, however. After decades in the same location, Ragtime recently closed its doors forever. Those in the tightly knit, largely Italian-American neighborhood lost a food shop of iconic stature.

Me, I lost the source for my favorite (non-frosted) fig cookies.

And so...



For starters, this recipe will make around 5 dozen cookies. Mix together 4 cups all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon baking powder, and 1 teaspoon salt. Add two sticks of cold unsalted butter (cut into small cubes) and work the butter into the flour mixture using your hands.



After a couple minutes the flour and butter will kind of clump together, like so.



Add 2 extra large eggs (beaten), 1/2 cup milk, and 2 tablespoons Anisette. Mix together thoroughly by hand until a dough forms.



The dough will be on the moist side, which is okay, that's what you want. Wrap it in plastic and chill in the fridge for a good couple hours or more before making the cookies. (I actually kept the dough chilling overnight and made the cookies the following day.)



For the filling we've got one ring of dried figs (pinch off the hard ends), 1/4 pound pitted dates, 1/2 cup raisins, 1 cup pecans, 2/3 cup walnuts, 1/2 cup candied orange peel, 1/2 cup honey, 1/3 cup whiskey (I went with Jack Daniel's), 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Put them all together in a food processor and mix into a paste.



Like so.



Cut the dough ball into quarters (put the dough you aren't working with back in the fridge until ready to use, so it keeps cold). On a well-floured surface roll out one of the pieces of dough until it's roughly 4 inches wide by maybe 18 or 20 inches long. The rolled dough should be around 1/8-inch thick, give or take. Take a quarter of the filling and roll it along the center of the dough.



Brush the dough with an egg wash and then roll it from one side to the other.



Make sure to pinch along the seam when you're done rolling.



Making sure that the seam is on the bottom, brush more egg wash along the entire roll.



With a pastry cutter or sharp knife cut the roll into pieces that are around an inch and a half wide. At this point all that's left to do is put them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. The cookies should bake in a 350 degree F oven for around 20 minutes, give or take. At the halfway mark rotate the baking sheet so the cookies cook evenly. Allow to cool thoroughly.



Oh, and here's the most important part: Sprinkle some confectioners sugar on top before serving.

And please don't tell my family.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thanks are owed



To me, the holidays wouldn't be the holidays without these two wonderful women.

That's my Aunt Anna on the left and Aunt Rita on the right. By the look of things I would say that they are taking a well-deserved break from feeding a whole mess of us at some family get together long ago.

Time has altered their appearance a bit. Rita will be 90 very soon and Anna isn't too far behind.

Each lost her husband at a young age. For decades now they have lived together, currently in an apartment in Queens that is just above Cousin Joan's and near to several other members of our family.

My aunts are about as close as any two people can be. I know marriages—good ones—that aren't nearly as inspiring.

Anna and Rita are in my heart always, but never moreso than around this time of year.

I am lucky to be a member of the Christmas Eve celebration they host each and every year. It is literally a feast—the Feast of the Seven Fishes to be exact, totally worth clicking on and checking out—and I would no more miss it than I would lop off my right hand, or even that other one.

For a long time I used to wonder when the holidays might finally, inevitably lose their allure. After all, the years have a way of grinding away at the starry-eyed idealism that's required to truly love this time of year.



But I haven't grown at all weary. And in a very large way I owe this to the optimism and love of these two extraordinary women.

I am over-the-moon thankful to them for that.

Happy Holidays everybody.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The best potato gnocchi recipe



I'm not the artist here, just the technician.

The man responsible for these truly awesome gnocchi is the New York chef and restaurateur Andrew Carmellini. It's his recipe that I used, and I have used it ever since first coming across it several years ago. (Here is the link to the original and complete recipe.)

There's a good reason Carmellini titled this recipe "The Best Gnocchi."

When it comes to potato gnocchi that is exactly what they are.

I have never made a lighter, more luxurious potato gnocchi than I have when using this recipe. And so if I am not making my own cheese gnocchi recipe then I am using Carmellini's potato version.

If you enjoy a fine potato gnocchi then I strongly suggest you do the same.



Start with around two pounds of Idaho potatoes. Clean them, put them on a baking sheet, and into the oven they go (425 degrees F should do it), until the flesh is nice and soft. These took a little over an hour.

While the potatoes are baking it's best to get all of your other ingredients together and ready to go. The reason is that you'll want to mix them into the potatoes while they're still warm out of the oven. This is very important. You do NOT want the potatoes to cool down before mixing the gnocchi dough.

What you'll need is 1 beaten egg, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon melted unsalted butter, 2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon course ground black pepper. In addition you'll need around 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour on hand.



When the potatoes are cooked slice them open and scoop out all the flesh while it's still warm.



Run the potato through a ricer (use the smallest die) and into a mixing bowl.



Immediately add all the other ingredients, except for the flour.



And gently incorporate, using your fingers.



Then add 1 cup of the flour and very gently mix all of the ingredients together until a dough forms. The dough should hold together but not be sticky; if it does feel sticky work in a little bit more flour. Note: Do not take the term "gently" lightly. A successful gnocchi dough requires a very light touch. Anything more forceful will make for a heavy, tough gnocchi.

Please. Trust me on this.



Form the dough into a ball and turn it onto a well-floured work surface.



With a pastry cutter (or just a knife) cut an inch-or-so-wide piece of dough from the ball.



And lightly roll it out using your fingers. (You see that I said "lightly," right?)



This is about what you'll wind up with after rolling.



Each strand you roll out then gets cut into inch-wide gnocchi, like so.



Just a note: This recipe will easily feed four people. If you don't want to cook all the gnocchi at once then lay some out on a well-floured baking sheet and put them in the freezer. Once the gnocchi are fully frozen tranfer them to a freezer bag and store.



Here, of course, we have opted for cooking the gnocchi. (In well-salted water, but you knew that.)



It will only take a couple minutes for the gnocchi to cook; as a rule of thumb figure that when they are all floating atop a rolling boil of water the gnocchi are done. Do NOT empty the gnocchi into a colander, as you might with some other pastas. Take them out of the water using a slotted spoon and transfer into a pan with whatever sauce you plan on using. Then gently stir and transfer the gnocchi to individual plates for serving.



Like so.

I promise that if you take your time and use a gentile hand you will thank me for this recipe.

Just as I thanked Chef Carmellini years ago.

 
countercounter