Monday, November 29, 2010

Something to be Thankful for.

Don't hate me because my lattice work is beautiful.
This year we were in Abu Dhabi for Thanksgiving and we had the good fortune of being invited to a fellow American's house to celebrate, along with some Kiwi friends who were very much looking forward to their first Thanksgiving ever.  We had Native American headbands for the kids, Turkey coloring sheets and an abundant buffet line-up.  The dinner went off without a hitch and even though we celebrated on a Friday, there was no football, and we rounded off the evening with one child projectile vomiting all over her dad and half the table, there was still enough good cheer to watch a couple of rounds of hilarious SNL skits and gorge on delicious desserts.

I made the Turkey, stuffing and gravy, as well as corn pudding and a cherry pie (Matt's favorite).  Luckily there were no huge train wrecks in my food offering, and in fact everything turned out great.  As if wonderful friends and family weren't a good enough reason to be grateful, that definitely is. The cherry pie filling sold here is different from the one we like in the US (and fresh cherries are prohibitively expensive from what I can see), but the pie was still good and I am really proud of my crust and lattice work which is the best I've ever done, generally ending up with a wonky, anorexic looking version of Martha Stewart creations when I make pies.

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving.  We are headed to the states shortly but there is a forthcoming post on the culinary and aesthetic pleasures of Italy, I promise...
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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Frankie's Revisited: Abu Dhabi-Style

Eroticus Ramazzotti, in a choice moment of musical passion.
And yes, that is
a keyboard resting on the piano.

Remember when Matt took me to Frankie's for Mother's Day in London this past May and I became a devotee of Proscuitto and Avocado platters?  That was almost as great as when we went back to Frankie's the other night, here in Abu Dhabi (as if I needed anymore reasons to obsess over Italy!).  Yes, the Marco Pierre White empire does extend into the Middle East!  He has two restaurants here in AD, both in the swankified uber-modern hotel called The Fairmont Bab Al Bahr.

As hotels go, The Fairmont is somewhat extraordinary, even in the overbuilt, over-hyped world of luxury hotels that is the Middle East.  So far in Abu Dhabi I have not seen anything like it; nothing even close, to be completely honest, and I've done my fair amount of due diligence when it comes to luxury hotels because in the Middle East that's where all the best (read: alcohol-serving) restaurants are.

What makes the Fairmont unique?  Its innovative design.  Its tasteful, somewhat minimalist decor.  Its great view.  Its mini-Corniche.  And its fab restaurants.  Well, I know at least one of them is good: Frankie's Italian Restaurant & Bar.

In a shameless throw back to my original Frankie's post, here is the top 5 reasons to visit Frankie's at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, in list form.

* * *

Top 5 Reasons to Go to Frankie's Abu Dhabi
despite there being no pork on the menu
(sacrilege, I know)

5. The Unabashed Swank.

the dining room
The decor at Frankie's in Abu Dhabi is significantly posher than that of the Putney locale, and the setting, it almost goes without saying, on a completely different level of swank.  You won't find white and red checkered table cloths or disco-balls here.  You get velvety upholstered lounge-chairs and fine, white linens.  You've barely taken a bite of your gourmet breadstick before the porcelain bread-basket and tray of tri-colore dips (tomato, pesto and olive tapenade) is replaced with a new one.  There are semi-private booths and round table rooms lining the medium-sized dining area, and an open-kitchen to watch mostly-Asian chefs at work.  There is also an outdoor patio area which is enclosed by 3-stone walls which are also full-size navy blue waterfalls, giving the entire room an ethereal but really pleasant feel.
In the end Matt and I both agreed that the more informal setting in London was preferable, especially if you're going to have an adjoining borderline 80's style bar and live jazz / karaoke pianist.  But more on that later.  It is swanky, and if you're looking to feel special in that waiter-at-your-beck-and-call sort of way, it works.

4. Shockingly Enough: Kid Friendly.
We went on a Thursday night (the equivalent to Friday night in the Western world) at 8pm and the place was about half-full.  By 9pm the place was entirely buzzing and every table was being used both in the restaurant and at the bar.  When we left at near 10pm, I counted at least four families with more than one child eating at the restaurant.  

Not all of them were teenagers either - I even ran into a little boy (2 years) who goes to nursery with Roman, dancing to the pianist's version of "I'm Pround to Be an American!"  Long story.  Anyway, I'm still a little weirded out by that, but on the other hand, having the kids around brought levity (one boy and his nanny came in carrying a bunch of 15 helium balloons to his table for him to play with) and it was nice to know that if we were ever in a babysitting pinch, Roman would be more than welcome (and eat for free!).

3. Eroticus Ramazzoti.
I had suggested to a friend of mine that we go to Frankie's a couple of times in the past and she always declined, commenting that the "karaoke" was so loud they could barely talk to each other at the table.  Imagine my surprise when we arrive to the sound of a live jazz pianist, gently but confidently crooning Frank Sinatra classics to the sophisticated clinking of silver ware and sautee pans.  I suppose that's not everyone's cup of tea, but I have to admit I was a little shocked at how contrasting the description I had been given was to the apparent truth.
Fast forward to an hour and a half later - I'm on my second glass of wine (which these days is the equivalent of everyone else's fourth), and I'm tapping my foot and singing along to a gusty rendition of "Volare" by the Gypsy Kings along with what revealed itself to be the most bizarre bar performer and set I have witnessed in a long time, and no he wasn't a midget.  Not technically.  But he was highly Leprechaun-esque.

We never found out his name - and maybe that's a good thing -  but our jazz pianist gave such a convincing performance of "Se Bastasse una Bella Canzone" (please go watch that video) that we decided to call him Eroticus Ramazzoti (because Eros just wouldn't be enough).  Besides playing the aforementioned patriotic American songs, he also did an unforgettable rendition of Happy Birthday that involved prolonged and somewhat disturbing animalistic guttural noises at certain traditional pause-moments in the tune.  I also joined in on those, against my better judgment and to Matt's horror.  His voice was karaoke quality, in all truth.  He was a good imitator but no Pavarotti, and I suddenly understood my friend's aversion to the whole thing, and yet, I couldn't help but revel in this one-man-show and the absurdity of it being allowed in a pricey, swanky restaurant like Frankie's.

Then again, it is an Italian restaurant.  And where else do you get that inseparable combination of swank and cheesiness like you do in Italy?  When we asked the manager where he was from, the answer came swiftly and pointedly, almost like an accusation: "He's Roman."  Of course he is.

2. Because You're a High-Roller.
Or at least feeling like one.

One thing I loved about Frankie's in London was the Pris Fixe lunch.  There was nothing overpriced or pretentious about that restaurant, and that sat well with me in a city of overpriced, pretentious eating establishments. 

Here, on the other hand, where good restaurants are shockingly affordable and the quality of food relatively high, Matt was shuddering as he handed his credit card over with the bill.  Granted, wine is a lot more expensive in these parts (ah to be in Italy!), and I always end up ordering seafood which is naturally costly, but we both agreed there was a built-in glam factor to the prices. 

People in the UAE love to splash out money.  Here, it's just as much about how much you spend as what you get for the money, if not more.  So for those of us who are more practically-minded and less economically-frivolous, that can suck.  But I have to say, despite the high-dosh-to-food  ratio, I'd go back in a New York minute, dragging Matt behind me.

1. The Tagliolini with Langoustines.
The first time I ate at Frankie's in London, I had the Spaghettini with Lobster.  This time I decided to order the homemade Tagliolini (think thinner, finer linguini) with Langoustines.  It was cooked in a light white-wine sauce dotted with garlic, onion, parsley and cherry tomatoes and with a nice kick of pepperoncino.  The only thing missing was a splash of lemon juice, but that was quickly remedied by yours truly.  

Not very adventurous am I?  I don't care.  This pasta was orgasmic.  I highly, highly recommend it.  And I'm 99.9% sure I will order it again the next time we go back.  And believe me, we'll be back.

beef carpaccio
NB: There's No Pork on the Menu.
Pork is, for obvious reasons, not allowed at most restaurants in the UAE.  This doesn't bother me on a philosophical level (I'm all for respecting other peoples' religions), but it does bother me on a culinary level, and especially at Italian restaurants.  I can't help but feel that an Italian restaurants' soul is heavily intertwined with the quality of pork products it serves: good prosciutto, good salami, good pancetta.  What kind of pathetic antipasto platter could you have without pork?!  But, happily, Frankie's of Abu Dhabi does an excellent job of making you feel like you're not missing much without the pork.  
Instead of Prosciutto and Avocado platters, they served a truly magnificent beef carpaccio with arugula, fresh parmesan and
Frankie's dressing (which was creamy horseradish).  Again, the only thing missing was a heavy splash of lemon juice, quickly remedied by yours truly. :)

* * *

And now, a pictorial journey through our night at Frankie's and 
(mostly) the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

(un po') Brutti Ma (molto) Buoni: Italian Pistachio Biscotti

Biscotti al Pistacchio: Brutti Ma Molto Buoni
 I have this great biscotti recipe that I make every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It's my thing.  I've been doing it for years and it has sentimental value to me, both because of its familiarity and the recipe's sentimental provenance (yet another Payard favorite).  But as far as biscotti go, that is where I get off the train.  I'm not into "dry" cookies.  Plain cookies suck, as far as I'm concerned.  Give me chunks and chocolate and nuts or go home  - right?  Any self-respecting American would hold this philosophy on a pedestal because American cookies are generally pretty involved affairs.  Even the plainer ones can't compete with the simplicity of Scottish shortbread or Italian biscotti.  That razzle-dazzle style is what non-Americans have come to love about "cookies" versus "biscuits."

But then there's this place I have to try in Rome - recommended by no less than David Lebovitz and Heidi of 101 Cookbooks via Lebovitz - Innocenti Biscottificio Artigiano.  It's a biscuit bakery in Trastevere and it's run by an Italian family.  And all they make is biscotti.  Doesn't exactly sound like my typical cup of tea and yet the idea of these freshly made biscotti and their scent wafting down beautifully uneven cobblestone streets has had me enraptured since I first read about this place.  And despite the plethora of choices I'm sure they'll have, I am especially interested in the "brutti ma buoni" (ugly but good) biscotti which Lebovitz specifically recommended.  I am a strong believer that good food does not have to look pretty - and that, in fact, a certain rusticity and lack of manipulation in a dish is an aesthetic that is pleasing unto itself.  These "brutti ma buoni" could be just the "plain cookies" for me.

But with that in mind, and to continue my Italian-inspired blog rampage - I decided to try out a biscotti recipe recently posted on 101 Cookbooks.  I am intrigued by Heidi's obsession with "itty bitty cookies" as I have recently discovered that if I make cookies smaller I tend to eat the same amount and actually consume less calories. :)  But in additon to this, I am also hosting a play-date cum Mom's Coffee hour at my house with some of my new Abu Dhabi friends and thought this would make a great accompaniment to the hot beverages we will theoretically be consuming.

While these biscotti aren't actually completey brutti (ugly), the batter kind of is.  It's made entirely of ground pistachios, egg whites, sugar, honey and vanilla.  Wow.  I don't know exactly what it is about that magical combination of nuts and honey, but it serves Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine time and time again, and while I used to not be a huge fan (again with the chocolate dessert obsession) I am slowly growing to truly love it.  The ground up pistachios give the batter for these biscotti the appearance of a green whole-grain mustard (not exactly cookie-ish).  But once they are rolled in icing sugar and golden-baked, the green center is a beautifully pleasant and semi-chewy surprise.  Molto buoni.

Anyway, these biscotti are simplicity itself.  And for this, among other things, I love them.  Don't judge a book by it's cover; don't judge biscotti by their batter.  It's an easy, healthy way to live.
If you want the recipe, check out this post on 101 Cookbooks.  My only cooks' notes are:

1. Make the cookies 1 tsp size, and use spoons to roll them in the icing sugar (or it will get molto brutto and molto messy).

2. Cook them the entire recommended time (15-18 minutes) even if you make them "itty bitty" or they will be a soggy mess.  At least that's true with my oven.  Maybe just check on them after 10 minutes (Heidi's modified itty bitty baking time).

* * *

And now, a pictorial journey through making these biscotti. 

Innocenti Biscottificio Artigiano
Via della Luce, 21, Trastevere
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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Flashback: Best Italian Restaurants Ever. Period.

 The stuff Italian Meals are made of.  In a dreamy kind of way.

 Just before we left London this past summer, I went back to one of our favorite eating establishments with Matt - a place I've written of before: The Fat Italian.  In a last-ditch effort to do and eat everything we hadn't done and eaten in the 3 1/2 years we spent in London, we started shamelessly dishing out on posh lunches and London Eye tickets.  Most of the stuff we had was hit and miss and some of it was downright boring and overpriced, and so in the end we decided maybe just revisiting our favorite places was a good way to make our big exit in "good taste" if you'll allow me the lame pun.  What we ate there was a simple but unforgettable lunch - one lacking in pretention and price but weighty on taste and even health.

The Last Lunch
Fat Italian Style
Pasta all'Amatriciana accompanied by a simple tomato salad
and soybeans tossed with semi-sun-dried tomatoes and carciofi in olive oil
Prosciutto and Avocado accompanied by a Caprese salad
Sliced Ciabatta and Aqua Gassata
Two Caffe Macchiati with Biscottini di Mandorla

Aesthetically pleasing and delicious.  We also ate at a local family-run Putney haunt worth mentioning called Valentina.  It was literally our last dinner in London, and I'm glad we went with good, simple  Italian for it.

As you read in my last post, and have probably already gathered from this one: I've got Italy on the Brain.  I have been shamelessly blabbing about our upcoming trip to anyone that will listen (despite having planned very little of it yet - yikes.).  And last night I was further plunged into a pool of Italic nostalgia when I decided to go out with some girlfriends for dinner and left Matt a no-need-to-reheat-or-cook dinner that I thought he would enjoy.  The menu went a little something like this:

Matt's Awesome Bachelor-Night Dinner
*small flare of trumpetiness*
Vinegar-cured Greek Kalamata Olives: black and green mix
Buffalo Mozarella Caprese Salad with garlic, basil and balsamic vinaigrette dressing
Prosciutto and Avocado Platter dressed with black pepper, EVOO and lemon juice
Freshly sliced Oregano Ciabatta
A Cherry Danish for dessert

I admitted to my friends once we arrived at the Indian restaurant we chose that I had left home a little envious of his meal.  And despite thoroughly enjoying my dinner at Ushna, this morning I woke up and made myself a platter of prosciutto and avocado for breakfast.   Yes, that is generally how I roll.

Since first encountering prosciutto and avocado - an obvious yet under-used combination - at Frankie's in Putney, I have been a devotee.  It's the easiest and simplest thing in the world to make, provided you have good quality, fresh ingredients (what's new, right?). It is as pleasing to the eye as to the palate and just wreaks of sophistication, which always sits well with me. :) 

Well, anyway, all of this prosciutto-y delirium inspired me to make a quick list of my favorite spots for the best Italian food in all the places I've lived so far.  It's an undertaking, but one that I found immensely satisfying as, in writing it, I re-lived some of my favorite meals to date.

* * *

Brenda's All-Time Top Italian Restaurants Ever. Period.
all over the world, in fuzzy-memory form

One is a swanky super-modern Italian restaurant located on the King's road where traditional food is elevated to the palate of London's foodie elite.  The other is a family-run 35+ year old restaurant in Fulham serving rustic home-style Tuscan fare.
 You can't go wrong with either, though admittedly the latter is far cheaper and less likely to snicker at you when you're tempted to drown the carefully pan-fried sea bass in grated Parmesan cheese, even though I might raise an eyebrow. :)

3. New York: Caffe Taci (or Patsy's?)
They look like mere mortals.  They always do.  Opera singers, I mean.  But they're not.  And if you're an opera fan, you know this very much to be true.  Caffe Taci is the only place I know of that is these three unique things at once: a casual opera house, an Italian culinary force in its own right, and home to the best Lobster Fra Diavolo I've ever had in my life (ok except the one I had at Patsy's on the West Side - please go there!).

World renowned singers from the Met Opera come hang out here, have a few drinks, and serenade the innocent bystanders on a make-shift stage with a live octogenarian Russian pianist accompaniment.  The place was in Greenwich Village when I lived in Manhattan but it has moved more times than I can count and last I heard the Opera nights were being held at some placed called Bistro Papillon (kill me now).  But they did have a documentary made about them (Mad About Opera), which at least guarantees my dearly beloved Toreador will not be forgotten anytime soon.

2. Rome: The Centro (or that place by the Pantheon?)
Sorry, as cool as "The Centro" sounds it falls short of any kind of trendy modern Italian restaurant image you might have based on its name.  In fact, it is pretty much as "uncool" of a place to eat as you can imagine, if you function under standards set by modern society at large, that is.  On the other hand, if you're a Wannabe Latin Scholar, a budding Ancient Roman Archeologist, or even an aspiring and wordy Renaissance Art Historian as I once was, it's the best place in Rome, at least as far as nostalgic cravings go, and as long as you don't mind plastic tablecloths.

But in all seriousness, when I did my one-semester study abroad program at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies (as it were), not only did I get a soul mate out of the deal, I was lucky enough to get amazing food.  The cafeteria catered only to the 36 students and 4 professors, and it was run entirely by old Italian ladies who served only traditional home-style Italian food.  Simple, easy to make, and involved fresh seasonal ingredients.  The bread wasn't always amazing, and it was technically BYOW, but hey - pumpkin risotto, Amatriciana, Caprese Salads - every week?!  Awesome.  And they also made a mean carpaccio, but for a truly amazing one you'd have to go to that place directly in front of the Pantheon.  No, not McDonald's.  And no, I don't remember the name. :)

1. Duino: Al Cavalluccio (or the Mickey Mouse Bar?)
When I sit down with Matt and try to list the all-time top five best meals in my life (which I do surprisingly often), a lunch we had in October of 2007 at Al Cavaluccio is always on that list, no matter how hard it is to come up with the rest.  This is particularly notable because in that same weekend we also stayed, ate and drank at the infamous Hotel Cipriani Venice, an experience that left me, well, mostly just chatting about Al Cavaluccio some more. :)

Al Cavaluccio is situated in the small and scenic port of a tiny Italian village called Duino where I lived and studied for two years at the United World College of the Adriatic (brava, I know).  I once found a seahorse (which I still have) right by the restaurant steps, which I take as a supreme sign from above that it's a chosen place.  It's also one of the most scenic, pleasant little restaurants I've ever eaten at with its al fresco area roofed by grape vines and with a full-ocean view.
Photo credit

Duino is noteworthy not only because of its natural beauty - nestled atop dramatic cliffs along the Adriatic sea - but also because of its intellectual / literary past and present.  Rilke was inspired to write his Duino Elegies (some of my favorite poetry) there and even Dante was rumored to have once visited the Castello di Duino and meditated on a rock ("la scoglia di Dante") there.

Al Cavaluccio is where the then-student-poor foodie in me got her kicks on the wages of an unpaid English tutor (apart from Mickey Mouse where I serially ordered the Insalatona and Patatine con Salsa Rosa).  I would go down of a Friday evening and order their seafood soup as my entire meal.  If I was feeling particularly generous I'd get a glass of wine (which let's face it, I generally was).

Anyway, I graduated the UWCAD in 2000.  When I went back to Al Cavaluccio in October 2007 with Matt, the same waiter served me that had served me in my student days - same wild bushy hair, same unbottoned pirate-esque waiter shirt, same wild bushy chest hair.  And get this - he remembered me!  We ate a whole seabass cooked in rock salt (branzino al sale) and garnished with lemon (brought out whole, still under hot salt, to your table where the waiter de-bones and serves it).  We had simply sauteed spinach and roast potatoes to accompany it.  We also splashed out on a bottle of Prosecco that sparkled almost as much as the Adriatic in front of us.  Best. ITALIAN. Meal. EVER.

The sparkling Adriatic.
Duino, Porto

Hurry up, go buy some prosciutto and avocado.  You'll thank me for my insistance.

This post is brought to you by the Opera Nights at Caffe Taci - an intensely nostalgic, deliciously exhilirating affair to remember.
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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Italy on the Brain: Pasta Pecorino Montese

A view of buildings in San Martino
That is a good description of me, these days - the title of this post.  I have Italy on the brain in a true, non-stop way similar only to the way I had Italy on the brain just after I'd had my first taste of it.  And if you've been to Italy, you know what I mean.  

The essence of Italy is beyond their national culinary genius, their unparalleled artistic contribution, their irrepressible and irresistible - innate, even - ability to enjoy and live in pleasure the way few other cultures can or have.  It is, like all intangibles, invisible but all the more present for it.  And it's contagious.  I went there first a llittle over 10 years ago, and I've never looked back since.  And while I hesitate to make this claim because it's just so cliched, I will do it: My name is Brenda, and I am an Italophile.  

If you know anything about me and my random wanderings and all the places I've demanded life take me or unknowingly been pushed to, you might question my self-proclaimed Italophile-ness.  But the reality is that no matter how much I denity it - whatever I do, wherever I go, and whatever I love - I always come back to Italy.  I spent two of my most formative adolescent years there, I studied there, I discovered art and philosophy and travel there.  I became an adult and tested independence and questioned God and the Pope there.  I fell in and out of love there.  I met my husband there.  And one day, I always knew, I'd take my son, Roman, there.

Ironically, having just lived in London for 3 1/2 years, in relative proximity to Italy, I only went back once or twice and never to Rome.  At that point in my life, I had no desire to revisit places I'd already seen, feeling that I should take as much advantage of getting to know new countries and cultures rather than rehashing endlessly all things Italian.  It took moving to the Middle East to realize how much I missed it.  Well that and I just finished reading Eat, Pray, Love (go ahead, roll your eyes all your pop-culture haters!), an interesting book which takes part (1/3) in Rome.   

Rome, for me, is the mecca of all things Italian and holds particular importance for me as it's where I first met my Connecticuttian husband 8 years ago.  While I don't wish to give Gilbert's book more credit than it deserves in this instance, this book did make me remember all the wonderful things I'd fallen in love with about Italy.  And that combined with a growing awareness that Roman is soon approaching the dreaded travel-joy-kill that will be his 2nd birthday (read: you have to buy full-price airline tickets for kids over 2), made me go into a frenzied, maniacal, desperate search for a reason, any reason, to go back to Italy as soon as possibly possible.  And no, that was not a typo.
Eid Al Adha hits the UAE right in the middle of November and provides Matt with a full week of vacation, or close enough.  As soon as I'd heard this news I was online looking for flights.  Screw Istanbul, forget Jordan, I'm so over Dubai - I want ITALY.  And a couple of petty arguments over stop-overs, itineraries and possible lay-overs later, I got ITALY in the form of tickets to Roma, Roma, beautiful Roma.

We will also be visiting Matt's distant family in the south of Italy in a small village in the hills / mountains of rustic Campania.  The village called San Martino is about as real-deal Italian village as you can get - free entirely of tourists and occupied by generations that have lived there since before the World Wars.  Let me start by saying that it has a castle and a mill where Matt's grandmother used to grind grains to make bread.  People grow their own everything (fruit, rabbits, lettuce, you name it), the town is accidentally (naturally) landscaped with wild fennel, oregano, and roses.  There is a street named after Matt's family there and the village church is where his grandparents were married.  These Italians live forever because they walk the hills and forage for (delicious, unbelievable) mushrooms, and tin their own tomatoes.  I can't entirely describe the strangely satisfying form of torture we will undergo while there, but suffice it to say that we will be coerced into eating more than anyone should ever eat by families who show love through wildly delicious food and conversation animated the way only Italians can (the way it should be, if you ask me) - and we will like it.

We might take a couple of days to go to the Amalfi coast, but after Rome and San Martino this will probably pale.

So today before I sat down to write this post I was inspired and made a lunch for myself that encapsulates the deliciousness I anticipate for this Italian trip.  It was a "toss the salad with your hands" kind of day in the kitchen, and I did.  I relished getting cheese and olive oil all over everything and I savored the flavor of plain-ish spaghetti.  These are the things I love.  These are the things of Italy.

* * * 

Path to the river, along the Mill
San Martino
Fresh Olive Oil, Sediment Separating
Gathered Nuts
San Martino

Unveiling Homemade Tomato Sauce
The Pride of the Home

A Well-Used Pot Collection
San Martino

* * *

Pasta Pecorino Montese

Serves 1

Hipstamatic Pasta Pecorino Montese

This pasta dish is one that I make myself when I am home alone and want something delicious but easy to make.  It is a perfect fall dish and exemplifies a fusion between Rome and Campania  with its use of Pecorino Romano, Lemons, and mushrooms.

Spaghetti (1 portion)
1 or 2 handfuls of your favorite mushrooms (oyster, porcini or white), roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
small handful fresh marjoram
small handful fresh basil
2 tbsp pecorino romano, grated
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp pepperoncino (crushed red pepper)
1/2 lemon


1. Bring enough water to prepare the spaghetti to a boil.

2. In the meantime, heat 1 -2 tbsp olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat.  Once hot, add the garlic and crushed red pepper.  Sautee until fragrant.  Add the mushrooms and brown.  Do not turn often, letting them caramelize slightly.

3. Meanwhile, cook the pasta.

4.Once the mushrooms are fully cooked, add the fresh herbs and toss.  Turn off the heat, add salt and pepper to taste.

5.  Once the pasta is done, put in a bowl and add the mushroom mixture, grated pecorino, some extra olive oil, and splash with lemon juice.  Mix the pasta quickly and lightly and serve immediately.

Goes great with a simple frisee salad dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar.

Buon Appetito!
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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Amicable Alimentation: DR-Style Spatchcock Chicken with Mojo Criollo

Mosaic at 191st Street Subway Stop; kids heading to school.

I swear this is the longest blog ever.  I do have to apologize for my prolonged silence, though.  I feel completely derelict of my duty to write entirely random blog posts on entirely self-interested subjects for a group of entirely selective people who have probably by now entirely given up on this blog being a reliable source of news and amusements regarding my entirely singular little life.  That said, I have been thinking a lot lately about writing on here and coming up with my latest notion - one I've been toying with since I started this blog, actually.

When I was brainstorming for posts last I realized that time after time I relate recipes and food to friends and family.  There are foods I love and eat that I associate inextricably, almost synesthetically, with someone I love.  Thus I am starting my "Amicable Alimentation" segment, which will be random, at best, in its appearance, but nevertheless a piece-meal string of semi-thematic blog posts.

From now on, from time to time, I will as usual be posting recipes and stories regarding some of my favorite foods, but now dedicating each post to a different friend or person who has left some imprint on my life and whose essence I feel is reflected in that particular dish.  (Yet another tantalizing reason to check back here on occasion, I know!)  I suppose it's not much different from my unofficial "flashback" segment which kind of aims to do the same thing but with regards to physical places.  Anyway, there you go - my creative catharsis of the past month. :)

* * *

To My Ex-Students

There is no particular reason I chose to start with DR-Style Spatchcock Chicken with Mojo Criollo other than a severe bout of NYC-sickness I've had lately.  I inevitably go through it every year: a desperate and unrealistic longing for what I still consider to be the most dynamic, amazing, delightful city in the world - New York. 

We only lived there for short of 3 years but I can remember feeling mesmerized from start to finish of every minute.  The food, the people, the boundless culture and class.  The dirty smells of the subway and rotting trash outside the diners.  The hot air of the AC units outside the restaurants as you walk by.  Coffee stands the size of phone booths, hot dog stands of gourmet quality, and art (art everywhere!) like you can never imagine.  Shoebox apartments that you delighted in arranging just-so, with beautiful old rickety fire escapes, run-down elevators and Broadway has-beens living upstairs.  A million threads of ethnicity, life, love and determination, thriving on a small strip of land, bridges stretching out like arms to the rest of the world from every possible end...New York is, to me, almost beyond words.  It is vibrant impressions that never stop.

While in NYC I had the pleasure of working as a teacher of the inner-city persuasion (by default, I guess), a job I started with little thought, zero experience and only the foolish idealism a new college graduate from the suburbs can have.  I was placed as an ESL teacher in a majestic high school - George Washington High School, actually - in northern Manhattan.  And by "northern Manhattan" I don't mean 86th and Lexington.  We're talking 192nd and St. Nicholas Avenue - just shy of the Bronx - a territory avoided like the plague by tourists and never even acknowledged by stupid yuppies ("What? "You go above 96th street?").  The school boasts alum ranging from Maria Callas to Alan Greenspan to Henry Kissinger to Harry Belafonte to Manny Ramirez (and frankly, that pretty much tells the story of the neighborhood in a nutshell).

The neighborhood used to be predominantly Jewish  but now it's a little slice of the Dominican Republic on American soil.  When I got off the subway the first time I was blown away by the smells and sights: dirty streets, "gangsters" (probably future MLB players) on every corner dancing to Reggae-ton blasting from four directions, old men sitting at fold-up tables playing cards and checkers and backgammon on the sidewalk outside a million Dominican eateries, women chatting from their dilapidated fire escapes, and men taking cars apart and putting them back together in front of buildings, intermittently cat-calling at some terrified white woman rushing by, clutching her designer purse.  The grocery stores were suddenly stocked with endless supplies of offal, a dozen varieties of bananas, yucca, and full-lines of Knorr and Goya products.  I almost felt at home, actually. 

The next two years of baptism by fire into two worlds I'd never known (teaching and Dominican-ness) but grew to love with every fiber of my being, were some of the happiest I can remember.  I was being teletransported into different universes courtesy of the MTA at 7am - from the Upper East Side to Washington Heights, and by God, beam me up Scotty!  My colleagues and school were amazing, but it was the students that, in the end, taught me most.  I didn't really know anything about the Dominican Republic when I started teaching them, but being Mexican I assumed we'd have some similarities.  I was, of course, pathetically naive to think so because other than the language being the same, those kids made me feel more like a "gringa" than I ever have in my life.

* * *

Top 5 Things I Lived & Learned at George Washington High School
Or, "My name is Brenda, and I Can't Cook Mangu."
Or, "Hola Melgozita! Como tu ta'?"

George Washington High School:
a surprisingly historic spot in Upper Manhattan.

5. Mangu, Mangu - out the whazoo!
The first day of school I had my students fill out a little "getting to know you" survey, the way a good new teacher always does.  I wanted to know stupid things like their favorite colors, their birthplaces, their favorite food.  You know, get them talking.   In a suburban school - mainstream English or not - you'd get straightforward, semi-varied answers.  You might have a child whose family is hispanic, or black, and there would be the ubiquitous white kids of Anglo or Germanic ancestry but all with nothing but American tendencies.

Imagine my surprise when I start reading through the surveys and realize that not only did half the kids not know how to write their own birthdays (and when asked why they left the year off they just shrugged and said it didn't matter!), but they ALL had the exact same favorite food - a dish I'd never even heard of - Mangu.

Mangu? Mangu? What the hell is Mangu?  We spent the better part of the class discussing Dominican food (because pretty much everyone except for one poor little Mexican kid was fiercely Dominican) and what it was.  Nothing like Mexican food, that's for sure.  It seemed to me all these kids liked to eat was chicken, rice, beans and mangu.  And, come to think of it, two years later, I actually still thought the same thing.

Mangu, though, was almost like a sacred cult-food.  Everyone ate it and loved it.  And yet I'd never even seen it much less tasted it.  I went home and looked it up online - there were few recipes - most written in the informal "a pinch of this" or "several of those" type language by people in the DR.  One sad Saturday morning I took out the "platano'" (or Plantains) I'd bought at the locale "Fine Fare" and proceeded to massacre the unofficial National dish of the DR.  My poor brother-in-law happened to be visiting that weekend and to his credit ate his entire plateful.  To this day Matt says it was the worst thing I've ever cooked.  It was awful.  It was mashed up plantains with butter and salt but it was nothing like the Ambrosia I'd heard stories of.

A few weeks later I finally ventured into one of the many Dominican eateries on my lunch break - and I bought some Mangu.  It was buttery and smooth and almost like polenta made of plantains.  Could I eat this three times a day every day for forever?  Hells no.  But could I kinda see why my kids liked it?  Yes.  And you should have seen their faces when I told them about the fiasco and redeeming experience thereafter - totally got me some street cred.

4. Trying to be "All White."  And succeeding.
One of the shocking things I quickly learned about myself through the 32 mirrors staring back at me in the classroom was how white I was, despite not being white.  To my students, deep in the thick of an ethnic neighborhood, I looked white, dressed white and, worst yet, TALKED white.  This, in their world, was not only a sure sign of someone who felt they were vastly superior, it was also nothing short of wearing a "kick me" sign on your head.

I fought in vain for two years to teach my students to pronounce their "s" at the end of words - a losing battle with Dominicans, whose accent drops "s"s in every word.  They used to greet me with "Hola Melgozita! Como tu ta'?" instead of "Como estas."  They called little cakes "patelito'" instead of "pastelitos" and they calld fried plantains "totone'" instead of "tostones."  I used to correct them every time - in both English and Spanish - and hope it would catch on.

Then one day I got on someone's case about the "s" thing again and suddenly someone yelled out: "Miss, why you always talk all White when you ain't White?"  I was really shocked.  I didn't know what to say.  So I asked the only question I could after insisting I wasn't doing it on purpose (hilarious): "What is wrong with acting White?"  Needless to say, the list of consequences was long, but among them the most salient were the fact that you'd probably "get beat up on the street," and the fact that you probably weren't being true to your "pai'" (your "pais" or country).  I think I had a mini-existential crisis after that for a while, in the best possible way. :)

3. The Roach that Broke the Rules.
Also in the first week of school, in the desperate throws of trying to keep my classes under control before they realized I was shaking in my shoes, something truly ridiculous occurred that helped me gain a strong-hold over the minds of what I was starting to believe were a class of feral children.

The first week as a new inner-city teacher there are a lot more "don'ts" then "dos" in your vocab:  Don't chew gum, don't talk without raising your hand first, don't get up from your seat, don't be an annoying pain in the butt because I'll call your mom (even though I know she won't care).  There are also a lot of don'ts for the teacher: Don't Smile (or they'll think you're weak).  Don't laugh (or they'll KNOW you're weak).  Don't give in.  Don't let down your guard and don't be nice.

I was determined to control those kids with every fiber in my being, without coming off as an ice-queen (though I was told this was impossible) but had let a smile slip here and there throughout the first day - and every time that had happened the kids had pointed at me and yelled "SEE!  SEE!  She's SMILING!" as if they'd "gotten" me somehow.

It was my last class of the day and the group was tired and rowdier than the rest had been.  I was going through the getting to know you rigmarole but not very successfully, and I was starting to lose ground to a particularly annoying, loud Senior who was probably 21 years old and had nothing to lose but another credit.
At that moment a gigantic NYC roach scurried across the entire classroom in full visibility and hid under a desk near me.  The entire class erupted in shreaks and screams with several boys and girls jumping on top of desks (as if they'd never seen a roach!).  I took this as a sign from God.

I immediately got them under control, shouting and forcing everyone to sit.  Then I grabbed the trash can, walked over to the roach (who had all but signed a suicide note when it entered my room anyway), and dramatically smashed it as hard and loud as I could with my foot.  The students were horrified.  Screams of "Come on Miss, why you gotta hate?!" filled the room. They all gasped in horror and stared at me.  I picked the carcass up with a tissue and flung it in the trash, then I tossed the trashcan to the side with a devil-may-care look on my face, one eyebrow raised no doubt.

"Do you know why I killed that roach?" I said, trying desperately to keep from laughing.

They looked at me imploringly, "Why?"

"Because it interrupted my class."

I swear to you, I never had trouble with that class again.

2. Getting Egged like a Pro.
One thing I can say with confidence about my experience as a teacher is that my students loved me, almost without exception.  I can't say exactly what it is I did to endear myself to them, though I did work my butt off for them and expect them to succeed rather than fail, but those kids loved me.  When I left I was overwhelmed at the displays of affection, the gifts, and the tears.  And almost always it was the kids I was sure hated me most that were the saddest to see me go.  I still keep in touch with several of them to this day, four years later.

But all the love aside, there were some real buggers at that school.  And whether they loved you or not, there was one day of the year when all bets were off - all was fair: Halloween.  We teachers dreaded it.  Half the kids skipped school anyway that day, and the other half set numerous stink-bombs off at every passing period.  The dress code went straight out the window - in a shockingly Un-Halloweeny way, and even if the kids weren't in school harassing you to give them candy, you could be sure they were still in the area, carton of eggs close at hand. 

Washington Heights is an almost uninterrupted series of 5-6 story apartment buildings made of brick with repetitive windows and fire escapes on every surface available.  One looks exactly like the other and it's almost impossible to see where a voice or person is calling from.  There was a street we had to talk down to get to the subway after school and on Halloween we might as well have been Thanksgiving Turkeys on an open field.  My friend Sarah and I walked out together one year, she a seasoned veteran with the additional benefit of being Irish and therefore far more witty and collected than me, and me being entirely unprepared for what was about to happen next.

The eggs started flying at us almost as soon as we passed the first building.  I stopped in horror, an egg having narrowly missed my head.  But Sarah kept walking, strutting her high heels, red lipstick in perfect order, puffing her cigarette like a Parisian femme fatale, a 10-mile stare in her eyes.  

"Keep walking, Brenda."  

"But, but but....! An egg --"

"I know.  Just keep walking."

Whizz! Whizz! Whizz!  Another three eggs.  And I can't swear to it, but I'm pretty certain one hit my bag.  And I started yelling and shaking my fists in the air and threatening to expel and call parents and uncles and even revoke Athletic privileges.


In life sometimes you are the hunter, and sometimes you are the hunted.  Even in your own species group.

1." Pollo Con Arroz... y Habichuelas"
I can't tell you how many times I heard that phrase in answer to "what did you eat yesterday?" or "what are you eating tonight?"  Besides mangu, chicken with rice and beans is what Dominicans love most.  There are lots of variations on how to make the rice and how to make the beans and how to make the chicken but in its essence that's all it is: chicken, rice, beans.

My students simply couldn't understand why people would eat anything else.  They hated salads and most vegetables, and the only exotic food most had had was take-out Chinese from the local shop.  This drove me insane.  How could they willingly refrain from participating in the vast and varied eating-ground that is New York City?!  Throughout my time as a teacher I made it my mission to introduce these kids to as many different cuisines as I could - and I did succeed to some extent.  We had Ethiopian food, Indian food, real Italian food, and I even made a couple of them sit through my own cooking once.  It helped, but in the end, they always went back to what they knew - kinda like Italians and pasta.  They just never get sick of it.

So one day I decided to see what all the fuss was about.  I headed to the local place to have chicken in Washington Heights.  It is regarded with great respect by any Dominican who knows how to appreciate good chicken, rice and beans.  And it is a favorite with Major League Baseball Players in New York (as many of them are of Caribbean, specifically Domincan, backgrounds and grew up in the area: check out this article).

El Nuevo Caridad is clean and efficient, decorated in baseball memoribilia combined with Dominican kitsch and a million pictures of the owner with various MLB players.  The menu is impossible to figure out if you're not familiar with Caribbean food, and forget about deciphering the accent either - Dominicans speak faster than any other nationality I've met. The specials change every day.  But one thing always stays the same and it's what draws the crowds: grilled, spatchcock chicken with a sauce called "Mojo Criollo."

Believe me when I tell you this is the juiciest most deliciously spiced chicken I've ever had, and the sauce elevates it beyond description.  I have tried several times now to make this chicken but it wasn't until I learned to spatchcock that it really came together.  If you are in NYC, do yourself a favor and check this place out, but don't be surprised if you suddenly feel Whiter than  you ever have in your life, no matter what color you really are.

El Nuevo Caridad
1618 St. Nicholas Avenue
Corner of 191st Street
New York City
(212) 781 5782

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DR-Style SpatchCock Chicken with Mojo Criollo

Serves 2 

1 - 2lb Chicken, spatchcocked

For Mojo Criollo:
1 head of garlic, cloves crushed and minced
1 large onion, chopped finely
2 tbsps ground cumin
3/4 cup lemon or lime juice (or a mix)
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tbsps oregano (preferably dried)
salt & pepper to taste
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup water 
NB: This sauce is meant to be sour, but I like mine especially sour so just increase the OJ if you're not as much of a fan.

1.  Spatchcock the chicken as this method allows the whole, bone-in chicken to cook evenly on a grill all at one time.  Using kitchen shears is the best and easiest way.  Here's a good video:

2. Make the marinade / Mojo by combining all the ingredients in a large bowl EXCEPT THE WATER.  Mix well.  Remove 2-3 tablespoons and reserve in a small container; store in the fridge for use on the cooked chicken.  Then add the water to the rest of the marinade in the large bowl and mix well. 

3. Place the chicken in the marinade bowl and make sure it is smothered in the marinade.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave to marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

4. The next day, prepare the grill, and when it is at medium-high heat, place the chicken on the grill.  Cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until completely cooked, turning halfway through.

Chicken in the Marinade.

5. Service with extra Mojo sauce on the size and rice and beans, of course. :)  Although I also loved it with a good salad!

¡Buen Provecho!
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