The Summer of Lamb (Ribs)

August 26, 2013 § 6 Comments

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Double-glazed and ready to eat.

Every summer, for me, has its culinary victory. One year it was gelato. Another: jam. There was the summer when the takeaway, clearly, was old fashioned American pie. This year, as the days get shorter and the occasional tree begins to turn color, the one thing that is obvious to me is that this summer was all about lamb and if you forced me to get specific, I’d say it was about lamb ribs.

Lamb as a victory and a theme for my summer has everything to do with the fact that I was collaborating on a MEAT book with Pat LaFrieda, New York City’s paint balling, turkey hunting, Prada shoe-wearing, scimitar wielding celebrity artisan butcher. Before that, I wouldn’t have known there was such a thing as lamb ribs. I mean I knew lambs had ribs. I have ribs. My dog has ribs. But who knew you could or that anybody did eat lamb ribs? Lamb being fatty, lamb ribs are also fatty, in the best way, and lamb being exceptionally flavorful, lamb ribs… don’t even get me started.

I recently brought several racks of lamb ribs with me to Lake Placid, where I visited the Tennesse-born, North Carolina-living cook, Sara Foster. Sara knows a thing or five about pig ribs, so we applied these things to the ribs of the beautiful, all-American lamb that Pat deals in. Sara and I added a hint of mint to the formula–I mean it is lamb, right? And what we came up with were fall-off-the-bone, succulent, glazed and caramelized riblets that are about the most delicious thing anyone we served them to had, up to that point, ever eaten. When we piled them high and put them out as an appetizer to our party of 12, guests started yelling–and I mean screaming. (It was that kind of party, they were those kinds of guests.) “What are these things?” One yelled from the patio, while another guest, known to subside off of Coors Lite alone, was spotted in the kitchen quietly tearing into not one rib but one after another. “These are the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten!” another guest exclaimed. And “Lamb ribs? Who knew lambs had ribs?”

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Stealing ribs in the kitchen.

Lambs do have ribs. And you can eat them. And you should eat them. Here’s how.

Double Glazed Lamb Ribs with Mint Pepper Jelly

I used Foster’s Market Seven Pepper Jelly to make this, since I made them with Sara Foster, who invented that jelly. (Plus it’s the best pepper jelly you’l ever eat. It has seven peppers!) Use whatever pepper jelly you want. You could serve these as a main course, but they are rich and sticky and perfect for cocktail time. You can also make these with pork spare ribs (aka St. Louis ribs), which are easier to find and also less expensive than lamb. If you are cooking pork ribs, lose the mint; if you’re dying to include a fresh herb, make it thyme.

Serves 6 or 8 as an appetizer

2 lamb Denver (spare) rib racks (about 1 1/2 pounds each; or pork St. Louis/spare ribs

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 (12-ounce) beer

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves (or fresh thyme if you are cooking pork)

1/2 cup pepper jelly

Maldon sea salt

First, get the lamb. Getting your hands on lamb ribs may be the most difficult part of your journey. Your friendly butcher, such as the nice guys at Huntington Meats in Los Angeles and at Ottomanelli in New York will order lamb Denver ribs for you with one or two days notice. Whole Foods will, too.

Now that you’ve got your lamb, preheat your oven to 325°F.

Season the lamb racks with salt and pepper on both sides.  Put the onion slices and beer in a large baking pan. Lay the lamb on top of the onions and cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Put the lamb in the oven and bake the ribs for 1 hour. (If you’re cooking pork, make that 2 hours instead of one. Lamb is more naturally tender than pork, and it’s also smaller, thus the time difference.) This step is what gives you the juicy, tender, fall-off-the-bone meat. From here you’ll take the lamb, which at this point is a not appetizing shade of gray, glaze it with pepper jelly, and throw it on the grill, where you get the beautiful charred meat. You can prepare the lamb up to this point up to a day or two in advance. Let them cool and keep them in the braising liquid until you’re ready to grill them.

When you’re ready to grill and serve your lamb ribs, preheat a gas or charcoal grill.

Stir the mint into the pepper jelly. Remove the ribs from the braising liquid and onions and brush the racks on both sides with the pepper jelly. Throw them on the grill until the glaze is gooey and the ribs are charred in places.

The first glazing.

The first glazing.

Take the lamb off the grill and brush another layer of jelly on the ribs. Do this while the ribs are still hot so the glaze melts into the ribs.

Glazed for the second time.

Glazed for the second time.

Cut the rack into individual ribs but cutting between each bone. Sprinkle them with Maldon if you want and serve them piping hot with lots of napkins.

Let Us All Eat Lentils

February 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m not superstitious, but I do appreciate when certain superstitions give me an excuse to do something I want to do anyway. In Italy, lentils, called lenticchie (pronounced “len-TEA-ki-yay”) are traditionally eaten for New Year because they are supposed to bring prosperity to the eater. The reasoning being that the little legumes are vaguely reminiscent of teeny tiny coins so by eating them, you will be showered with money. (Makes perfect sense, if you like lentils.) Which is why, when 2012 rolled around, thinking my friends and I could use a little prosperity ourselves, I invited a few over on a sunny January first, and decided to give the experiment a go.

I started with Umbrian Lentils, which grow in and around a town called Castelluccio, in Umbria. Lenticchie di Castelluccio, like the more widely known French Lentils du Puy, are granted IGT (protected geographical indication) status, which means in order to bear the name Castelluccio, they have to be grown in that particular region. Smaller than traditional brown lentils, Umbrian lentils come in various shades of brown and are known for their tender skin and rich, slightly sweet flavor. I bought my Umbrian lentils at Mozzza2Go. I’ve also seen them at the Cheese Shop in Beverly Hills and online. They’re never less than $10 a pound, and they are also not real, actual Castellucio area-protected lentils. Those sold here are all from the nearby area of Colfiorito, which means “flowering” for the way that the hillsides flower in the springtime when the lentils are in bloom. As far as I can tell they are the same lentil, minus the pedigree. I spent $40 on three pounds of rogue Umbrian lentils, or roughly eight times what I would have spent had I started with regular brown lentils from the grocery store. The lentil-prosperity project, like so many good things in life, was going to be a story in patience and faith.

This is the “town,” where lentils are grown. It’s full of tourists, mostly Italian, many of them on motorcycles, who come for the beautiful drive and a bowl of rich, sausagey lentils while they’re there. I visited this little crater of the world two summers ago. It’s a long winding drive to the top of the Apennine Mountains, nestled at the crest of the mountains that separate Umbria from a region I’d never even heard of until I got within a stone’s throw of it: The Marche.

No sunflowers here, kids. It looks more like Tibet, minus the prayer flags, or the moon, minus whatever is on the moon, than Umbria.

Forty-three days into the new year, I’ve determined that part of the reason for the prosperity brought by the lentils, presuming you didn’t spend $40 on yours, must be that you end up eating lentils for the next hundred days. Okay, so I exaggerate. I ate my last bowl of New Year’s lentils just today. I drizzled them with olive oil so good that it, too, could interfere with my prosperity. But certainly not my quality of life. Which is why, as I write this, I have another enormous batch of lentils simmering on the stove, and still more Umbrian lentils in the cupboard waiting for a poor and rainy day. As far as I’m concerned, it’s like money in the bank.

Prosperity Lentils, Umbrian Style

Extra-virgin olive oil

2 Spanish onions, diced

Kosher salt

1/4 pound prosciutto (if you are not a vegetarian), pancetta, or bacon; ground in a mini food processor until it’s a paste

2-3 celery stalks, sliced about 1/4-inch thick

4-10 carrots (knock your socks off if you like carrots!), sliced about 1/4-inch thick

1-2 tablespoons tomato paste (preferably double concentrated)

4-6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 pound lentils (preferably Umbrian)

2 to 3 quarts chicken stock

Pour enough olive oil into a soup pot to cover the bottom pretty generously. Add the onions and season them with salt. Cook them for about 10 minutes over medium-high heat, stirring often so they don’t get color on them. Add whatever ground pork you are using, if you are using it, and cook it for 3 to 4 minutes to render the fat. Add the celery and carrots. (You could also add some leeks if you happen to have them, which I did today.) Season the vegetables with salt and cook them for about 10 minutes to soften them, adding more olive oil if the pan seems dry.  (The more olive oil you add, the better your lentils will taste. Period.)  Add the tomato paste (preferably the Italian stuff, which comes in a tube, not the canned stuff, which tastes cloying and weird), making sure the paste lands on the pan, not in the vegetables, and cook for 1 or 2 minutes to get rid of the raw tomato flavor. Add the garlic and saute for 1 or 2 minutes. Add the lentils and enough chicken stock or water to cover them by an inch. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer the lentils, adding more stock or water (or a combination) as needed, until they are tender. This takes about an hour, and you will probably use 2 to 3 quarts of total liquid.

Serve the lentils with good olive oil drizzled on top. If you want, you can also add crumbled Italian sausage. According to Italian tradition, you’re supposed to eat them with cotecchino, a weird meat product that comes in a box, unrefrigerated, lasts for generations, and that Italians love almost as much as they love their mothers. I never found one that doesn’t taste like Spam to me, so were I to want a super meaty, one pot lentil meal, I’d go the Italian sausage route. Here’s to your wealth.

The Annual All-American Mash Up

February 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

In honor of National Snack Food Day tomorrow, I decided to once again repost my famous guacamole recipe. As many of you know, I was once a guacamole purist, willing to go to insane lengths to grind every last bit of loose gravel from a lava molcajete, which as it turns out is just plain not possible. But last Labor Day, when Nancy asked me to bring enough guac for 40 to contribute to the burger feast at her house, well, let’s just say I gave in.

Here, you can see, I started with a molcajete, and all the best intentions.

But it soon became apparent that my avocados were bigger than my molcajete. And I don’t mean that metaphorically.

So I resorted to this: one of the most beloved and used gadgets in my kitchen: the Cuisinart Mini Prep, AKA: the Modern Man’s Molcajete. (It comes in lots of colors. I personally own one that is chrome and another that is royal blue. Don’t ask me why I own two, but it has to do with having had my car shipped from Bridgehampton to Los Angeles unexpectedly at the end of last summer and my New York-based mini having been in the trunk at the time. So now you don’t even need to ask.) I chose this particular color to post here, a color I refer to as Tijuana Green (if you’ve been there, you know why), because it is the color of the house we lived in in Tijuana until I was three, where I must have eaten my first ever guacamole in its natural habitat.

To make guacamole in the mini prep, the key is to grind the ingredients–that is, the onion, serrano, cilantro, and salt (recipe is reposted below)–only until it is paste. Stop. That’s enough! Trust me. Better to have the rogue bit of serrano than a bowlful of juice.

Dump the paste into a big bowl. Add the avocados, season them with salt, and smash the avocados into the paste until they are integrated but the guac still has texture.

Here you can see how much guac 20 avocados made. (Otherwise known as two quarts or “a f#$king lot of guacamole.) It was all eaten.

While you have your mini plugged in, I recommend you also make this charred smoky tomato salsa, which may be the best tomato salsa I’ve ever eaten if I do say so myself. Even though this time of year, tomatoes tend to taste less like tomatoes than geraniums, it doesn’t matter, because in the ancient culinary traditions of my people, the flavor here is all about the char. Olé. And may the best team win, whatever the options happen to be.

 

Smoky Tomato Salsa

Makes 2 cups

1 pound roma tomatoes, charred on a hot grill or in a searing hot dry (as in not oiled) skillet until they are black in places and collapsed

1 yellow onion, sliced, oiled, and charred on the grill  or in the skillet until they are black in places

4 garlic cloves, browned in their skins on that grill or in that skillet

1 tablespoon plus 1 to 2 teaspoons canned chipotles in adobe, pureed

1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder (if you don’t have this or can’t find it easily, skip it. Your salsa will still rock)

2 to 3 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon sugar

Puree the charred tomatoes (including any juices that have collected in whatever vessel you’ve put them on), onion, and garlic in a food processor until they are coarsely pureed. Add the chipotle puree, chipotle power, salt, and sugar and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning and add more of whatever you want. Serve with your guacamole and homemade chips and everyone within reach of them will love you.

 

Guacamole Made in a Food Processor (Ay Ay Ay.)

4 serrano chiles, halved and seeds removed (Why anyone would ever eat a jalapeño pepper after tasting one of these is beyond me. Probably because, like my very own self before preparing for competition, they never actually tasted one in any deliberate way. Once you do, you’ll realize that jalapeños are sort of bitter and disgusting tasting and, given the choice, you should always reach for the smaller, slimmer, and infinitely tastier serrano).

About 1/8 of a white (by which I do not mean yellow) onion, roughly chopped

A small handful of cilantro leaves (This wasn’t in my original recipe–what can I say: people evolve. I sometimes use it, sometimes don’t. What I never do is add the leaves as I want it to flavor the guacamole, not stick to someone’s front tooth.)

4 4ipe Hass avocados, halved, pitted, and scooped out of the peel

1 or 2 Mexican (aka key) limes

Maldon sea salt or Fleur de sel

Throw the onion, serranos, and cilantro, into the bowl of your Modern Man’s Molcajete. Season with salt. Pulse the machine until you have a fairly smooth paste but nothing even resembling juice. You may want to stop and scrape down the sides of your food processor from time to time so that you don’t juice some ingredients while the others wait on the side of the bowl.

Dump the paste out into a bowl large enough to hold your avocados. Add the avocados and smash them with a fork or potato masher until they are 1) smashed. and 2) integrated with the paste. Add a bit of lime juice, taste, and add more lime or salt if necessary. Taste it again, adjust it again, and just when you think that your guacamole is perfect, add some more salt, and serve with homemade tortilla chips. Okay, here you go.

 

Home Made Chips

This is recycled from last year’s blog post.

Pour some frying oil (corn, canola, or vegetable) and heat it to frying temperature, which is 375, over high heat. If you don’t have a deep-fry thermometer, heat the oil until a pinch of salt sizzles madly when you drop it into the oil. Then turn the heat down a bit, otherwise the oil will keep heating and get too hot. If it starts smoking, it’s too hot. In a perfect world you should probably dump the oil at this point and start over, but that’s entirely up to you. Now, take a stack of corn tortillas–maybe 3 or 4–not so tall that you can’t cut through them. For this, you want regular grocery store tortillas. Homemade tortillas are too thick for chips so don’t go trying to get fancy. Now take a big knife and cut through the stack, like a pie, to make chip-shaped wedges (One tortilla makes either six or eight chips.) Do this wedge-cutting with all of your tortillas, and if you’re wondering how many to make, don’t worry about it because no matter how many you do make, you will run out. So  make what you want. While the oil is heating, make a nice, comfortable bed for the chips with paper towels, have your kosher salt handy, and find something you can use to drag chips out of oil. (The Joyce Chen stainless-steel strainer is my favorite tool for the job, but if you don’t happy to have o ne, even a slotted spoon or spatula will do.) Now that you’re all set up and your oil is hot, drop some tortilla wedges–but not so many that you crowd the pan–in the oil. Fry them until they are golden brown and look like something you’re dying to eat. Lift the chips out of the oil and onto the paper towels and before you do anything else, sprinkle them with more salt than you actually want to. Health-conscious freaks note: Most of the salt will fall off anyway, and besides, it’s Super Bowl Sunday. At least you’re not eating a fried Twinkie! Fry the rest of the tortilla wedges in the same way, adding more oil to the pot as the oil level starts to drop and letting it get nice and hot before putting more chips in. Now… If you want a real treat, fry flour tortillas (buy the smaller, corn tortilla size ones) in the same way.

Tijuana’s Salad Days are Back!

February 2, 2012 § 5 Comments

My father tossing a Caesar salad at either the Caesar Hotel or Jai Alai. He was a waiter & “ensaladero” at both places before opening his own joint.

I just finished reading the story in The New Yorker about the Tijuana restaurateur and pioneer, Javier Placencia, and I couldn’t be more proud. Proud of Javier Placencia and what he and his family are doing, proud of Tijuana itself, and proud of the fact that I am from Tijuana. I was born there, at the end of that town’s heyday, a period that would fall at the top of page 52 of the story, somewhere between the line that quotes a French epicurean claiming the Caesar salad to be “the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in fifty years!” and the next line: “Over time, Revolución devolved into a depressing string of curio shops and…” my father’s restaurant.

El Bodegón de Guillermo, said to have been the most famous in Tijuana during that time, was located just off Tijuana’s main drag, Revolución, two blocks up from the Caesar Hotel. It was my father, Guillermo’s, own sort of Rick’s Cafe during the era between those lines, where, when he wasn’t mingling among the Spanish bullfighters and the politicians and movie stars from both sides of the border, he was tossing Caesar salads table side in a flurry of lettuce leaves and showmanship that would make the women giggle and invariably call him back for a little more of the “secret ingredient” he kept in a shaker in his coat pocket. (My sister and I, little girls then, knew the secret: it was salt.) On this side of the border, the Caesar salad at Zuni Cafe is widely considered to be the best, but to me, none has ever compared to those I remember eating as a child in my dad’s place. It could be nostalgia, but I think it’s the acid.

The original salad, according to me, myself, and Javier Placencia (oh, yes, and the Mexican food authority Diana Kennedy, who sent me the recipe about a dozen years ago that she claims to have gotten directly from Caesar Cardini), was made not with lemons, but limes–the little ones that we refer to as key limes or Mexican limes, but that in Mexico are simply called “limes.” The problem, as I see it, is that the word in Spanish for lime is “limón,” (pronounced “lee-MON”), which of course sounds an awful lot like “lemon.” See where I’m going with this…? (Even the famously fact-checked New Yorker printed that the salad is made with lemons and, with all due respect, I think they’re wrong!) Mexicans don’t traditionally eat lemons. As Jimmy Shaw, a Mexico City-born Los Angeles restaurateur (he owns the wonderful Loteria Grill) and Mexican food authority, says: “To a Mexican, the taste of a lemon is one of the weirdest, most off-putting things you can think of. I freaked out the first time I tasted a lemon.”

Besides the correct ingredients, the one thing you need to make a good Caesar Salad is a wide mouth wooden bowl. Those they used in TJ were always those super-thin kind with the checkered pattern. Looked like wood, but no idea what they were made of.  They certainly do the trick, but that doesn’t stop me from coveting these beautiful hand-turned bowls by Spencer Peterman, in maple, cherry, or walnut. (In Los Angeles, you can buy them at the very special clothing store, Noodle Stories.) They’re not cheap, but you can save money on the tongs. Unless you are standing in front of a dazzled crowd in a waiter’s tuxedo, I recommend you toss the salad with your hands.

Javier Placencia’s Caesar Salad

Javier Placencia gave me this recipe before his family bought the Caesar Hotel; this is how they make it at Villa Saverio’s. Itals are mine.

Tijuana, B.C. Mexico

Makes 1 salad, for two people

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 anchovy fillets

¼ cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh Mexican (aka key) lime juice

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 egg yolk, sitting in hot water

Dash of Worcestershire Sauce

Dash of Maggi Sauce (this is a liquid sauce, not a seasoning; I think I’d read the back for MSG, but he uses it, so I put it here)

Freshly cracked black pepper to taste (use lots! And it must be fresh.)

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 whole hearts of romaine lettuce, leaves separated, cleaned and trimmed of dark green ends

Baguette croutons (for croutons, torn are the best kind; more surface area for crunchy bits. officially the garlic and anchovy go on the crouton, not in the salad, but it has evolved.)

In a large bowl (preferably wooden) combine the garlic, anchovies, and a few drops of the olive oil and use the back of a soup spoon to press on garlic and anchovies to make a paste. Add the mustard, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, and Maggi sauce, several turns of pepper and stir to combine. Add the egg yolk and continue stirring until it is incorporated and the lumps disappear. Add the remaining olive oil in a thin steady stream, stirring constantly to form a thick dressing. Stir in half of the Parmesan cheese. Add the Romaine leaves and toss to coat the lettuce with the dressing. Add the croutons and toss again gently. Transfer the salad to a platter or individual serving plates, sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan and several turns of black pepper, and serve. Pick a piece up of lettuce and put it in the mouth of someone you love.

Guac Your Heads Off! Or: Would You Like Some Chips to Go with that Touchdown?

February 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

With the Superbowl here ‘n’ all, there are some things we’ve all learned to expect. An extraordinary and appalling rise in domestic violence, really great 60-second commercials, such as the famous 1984 Apple Computers commercial that changed the commercial world–and the world. And a bevy (you gotta love the opportunity to use the word “bevy”) of good ol’ all-American snack foods, guacamole, having been naturalized in this country after we adopted it from our brothers to the south, chief among them.

I happen to think that my World Famous Award-Winning Guacamole recipe is the best there is, so I’m posting it for you here, with two amendments. In the recipe, I added the minced red jalapeño peppers, and while they don’t do any harm to the guacamole, as tomatoes most definitely do, they don’t add much, or anything–except color. I don’t know what I was thinking. All I can say is that it was a competition, and I must have been, to use a tennis expression, pressing. Adding little minced red peppers “just for color” is just the sort of lily-gilding that really annoys me about the way food is moving today (I practically refuse to go to any restaurant that serves an orange slice on the side of my breakfast plate, and let’s not even talk about those pickled apple rings and curly parsley.) So what I”m trying to say is, drop the red jalapeño peppers, people. Do us both a favor and just let them go. The other thing I have to say is that if you don’t have a molcajete, fear not. Since Aztec times, there has been a handy invention called the food processor. Use that to grind—or rather, whirl— your chilies, onions, and salt into an acid green paste. Dump the paste into a bowl, and mash the avocados into the paste with a fork or potato masher.

But what I’m really here for is not the recycling of an old blog posted recipe, but something new, and, like that Apple commercial, possibly life altering, and that is, the homemade tortilla chip. I fried chips for a taco party last summer, and while I was not surprised to see how much the guests loved them or the fact that, fry as I did, I could not keep up with their consumption, I was very surprised to find that guests were astonished to learn that chips could be homemade. They can. They’re made like this:

Pour some frying oil (corn, canola, or vegetable) and heat it to frying temperature, which is 375, over high heat. If you don’t have a deep-fry thermometer, heat the oil until a pinch of salt sizzles madly when you drop it into the oil. Then turn the heat down a bit, otherwise the oil will keep heating and get too hot. If it starts smoking, it’s too hot. In a perfect world you should probably dump the oil at this point and start over, but that’s entirely up to you. Now, take a stack of corn tortillas–maybe 3 or 4–not so tall that you can’t cut through them. For this, you want regular grocery store tortillas. Homemade tortillas are too thick for chips so don’t go trying to get fancy. Now take a big knife and cut through the stack, like a pie, to make chip-shaped wedges (One tortilla makes either six or eight chips.) Do this wedge-cutting with all of your tortillas, and if you’re wondering how many to make, don’t worry about it because no matter how many you do make, you will run out. So  make what you want. While the oil is heating, make a nice, comfortable bed for the chips with paper towels, have your kosher salt handy, and find something you can use to drag chips out of oil. (The Joyce Chen stainless-steel strainer is my favorite tool for the job, but if you don’t happy to have o ne, even a slotted spoon or spatula will do.) Now that you’re all set up and your oil is hot, drop some tortilla wedges–but not so many that you crowd the pan–in the oil. Fry them until they are golden brown and look like something you’re dying to eat. Lift the chips out of the oil and onto the paper towels and before you do anything else, sprinkle them with more salt than you actually want to. Health-conscious freaks note: Most of the salt will fall off anyway, and besides, it’s Super Bowl Sunday! At least you’re not eating a fried Twinkie! Fry the rest of the tortilla wedges in the same way, adding more oil to the pot as the oil level starts to drop and letting it get nice and hot before putting more chips in. Now… If you want a real treat, fry flour tortillas (buy the smaller, corn tortilla size ones) in the same way. You’ll probably want my phone number at this point so you can call to thank me. You’re welcome. Happy cheering, fans. And keep your whips off your wives.

Happy Cream Cheese Day, America!

February 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

Sunday’s Superbowl got me thinking about cream cheese, which got me thinking about tailgating, and that got me thinking about an article I wrote for Saveur several years back, about the tailgating event to end all, the no-cars-allowed extravaganza that takes place every time there is a home game on the grounds of the University of Mississippi–OKA (only known as) Ole Miss. What? Tailgating with no cars? You ask. To which I can only say: Trust me.

Here’s the story. No, here. It included some very wonderful and delicious ideas for things to do with cream cheese and it would include even more but there wasn’t room. Here is one for Cream Cheese with Chutney. As promised… The recipe, as you’ll see if you haven’t already, contains cream cheese, butter, cheddar cheese, and bacon, which, as far as I’m concerned, deserves a standing ovation–or at least a high five—for flying in the face of everything we’ve been told not to eat in the last however long.

It’s been a few years, and since the story ran, the following has happened.

Eli Manning, a senior playing in the game when I wrote about Ole Miss, is now from what I hear, a major league football star. Since I figure anyone reading about cream cheese already knows more about Eli Manning than I do, I give it to you here in Italian–just to mix things up. Here.

Leigh Anne Tuohy, the daughter of Aunt Jinny, the aunt of my host and the woman who contributed this extremely sweet and delicious caramel cake to the cream cheese-heavy event, was characterized by Sandra Bullock in the film The Blind Side. That’s big. I knew her when…. she brought cream cheese to a tailgate. Though she probably and hopefully still does.

Sara Foster, cousin of above mentioned LAT and of sister of my host, called to tell me, sounding almost proud I thought, that she did not graduate from Ole Miss. She attended Ole Miss and then she moved on to work for a caterer in Lake Placid, where she tasted her first ever roasted red pepper whose deliciousness inspired a move to Connecticut, where she would work with a better caterer, Martha Stewart, which led to a job working for Jonathan Waxman, and eventually a store of her own, Foster’s Market, where she makes and sells the best pepper jelly in the Western World… which, on a Wheat Thin slathered with cream cheese is about the best thing you could ever put in your mouth. But let the record show that she never graduated.

So I know it’s National Heart Health day or something like that but… happy Cream Cheese Day, America! And because I love you, I’m going to give you the link to that life altering pepper jelly again. Do yourself a favor and order a case. Right here. High five.

Making the Most of What You’ve Got (To Eat)

August 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

tomatoes + beansThis was my lunch yesterday. I normally don’t take pictures of what I eat, and I have been pretty clear about this not being a what-I-ate-for-dinner-last-night blog. But this was a particularly delicious melange of things I had lying around, each with its own story. First, there are the lentils. I love stewed beans spooned on tomatoes, something I was introduced to when I did an internship at Chez Panisse, which coincided with the year I lived in a hotel, or rather, a gorgeous country inn called The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, where I had a stove but not an oven, and where I was a stones throw from Chino Farms, which grows both the best tomatoes known to man, and some of the most unusual shell beans on the planet. Yesterday’s substitution of lentils had to do with the fact that they were there: I’d just tested them for the Mozza cookbook. These are Umbrian lentils, a tiny brown variety from a tiny town called Castelluccio, in Umbria, where just about all towns are tiny. At Mozza they are cooked in a style the restaurant calls Castellucciano, that begins with a prosciutto-boosted soffritto and ends with an emulsion of fruity Umbrian olive oil. The parsley leaves were part of my recipe-testing leftovers, the next best thing to arugula, which I didn’t have, or whole baby basil leaves, which I might have chosen if a mite hadn’t eaten up my entire herb garden. The shaved Parm is there because shaved Parm on tomatoes and beans is practically mandatory. (Though last summer in Umbria I made it beans and the more pungent, sheep’s milk cheese, Pecorino, which is made locally and which I rode to the Monday market in the nearby town of Tavarnelle on what I came to think of as “my” Vespa, to purchase.) And then there were the tomatoes themselves. The whole dish was built around the gorgeous heirloom tomatoes: purple cherokees and brandywines that had been delivered to me by my friend Andre, from Chino Farm last week. Andre and I both make the round-trip from LA to San Diego often, and we always ask the other if we need anything. When I asked him if he might stop at Chinos for tomatoes, it was Wednesday, farmers market day. I could have gone to the market and got my hands on some tomatoes that some might believe were either just as good, or close. But the truth is that on this particular day I didn’t need the tomatoes as much as I needed a quick infusion of Chino love. Here it is. Can’t you see it? Right there on the plate, underneath the lentils…

The Sweet and Savory Smell of Success

August 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

Brasato. I stole this picture from a blogger who took a picture of his dinner at Osteria Mozza, but trust me when I tell you that mine looked (and tasted) EXACTLY like this!

Brasato. I stole this picture from a blogger who took a picture of his dinner at Osteria Mozza, but trust me when I tell you that mine looked (and tasted) EXACTLY like this!

One of the positive side affects of a bar set high is that when you meet it, you feel heart-swellingly good about your self and about life. The weekend before last, I made a lamb ragú, the first of my recipes that Matt declared “Mozza-esque,” and I almost cried. Last weekend I made short ribs, or what is called on the menu Beef Brasato, which means “braised” in Italian (but really I’m just guessing here). When I brought it into the restaurant for Matt to look and and taste, he said it was perfect and told me to take it to Nancy. I brought it to her behind the mozzarella bar where she was just starting Saturday night’s service. “What did Matt say?” she said as she slid her fork into my plate of fork tender beef, glistening with braising juices and topped with a refreshing tangle of celery and parsley leaf salad. I told her he’d said they were perfect. “They are perfect,” she said as she tasted them. “Have you ever made short ribs before?” I told her I had, once, but not like this. I now had a much deeper and more intricate understanding of short ribs. And what sat before me was much more refined than the stewy beef I’d made before, which was still delicious, but certainly not Mozza-esque. “You’re like the girl in that movie,” she said, referring to the Nora Ephron movie, Julia and Julia, which we went to see together. “You’re going to cook your way from one end of this book to the other.” Yeah, I guess I am… And I’m really loving the sense of accomplishment as I take the mystery out of each of these dishes and with my own words, and then my own hands, put it right on the plate. She looked straight at me then and asked: “Aren’t you proud of yourself?” Well, yes, I said, actually, I am really proud of myself. And I was even prouder now knowing that she thought I had something to be proud of.

Sadly I can’t give away recipes (you’ll have to buy the book!) so here I have stolen a page from the book of one of Matt’s mentors, Mario Batali. Mario serves his on pumpkin risotto, but unless you have that recipe–and feel like taking the time to make it, i suggest you serve it over creamy polenta. Borrow a page from Twist of the Wrist and use boxed instant polenta (not to be confused with the play-do stuff in the tubes). And if you have the book, make it Nancy’s way, with milk and Parmesan, and infused with fresh thyme. Mario, we all know, is a great cook, so I trust this is good. That said, I didn’t test this recipe. That”s what they call a disclaimer.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 short ribs (1 pound each)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 carrots, cut up into big pieces
1 large Spanish onion, roughly chopped
1 celery stalk, cut up into big pieces
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 cups red wine
1 cup chicken stock (or more as needed)
10 thyme sprigs
10 oregano sprigs
a few rosemary sprigs

Preheat the oven to 350.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven until it is almost smoking, 2 to 3 minutes. Season the short ribs generously on all sides with salt and pepper. Cook them to brown all sides, about 15 minutes total. Remove the short ribs to a plate and add the carrots, onion, and celery to the pan you cooked the meat in. Cook, stirring often, until the vegetables have softened, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, stirring constantly so it doesn’t brown. Stir in the wine, tomatoes, chicken stock, and herbs and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn off the heat and return the short ribs to the pan, bone side down. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and then the lid, if it has one and place in the oven. Cook until the short ribs are fork tender and literally falling off the bones, 2 to 3 hours.

To make the gremolata, combine the leaves from 1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, the zest of 2 lemons in a bowl. Grate 1/4 pound of fresh horseradish over the salad and toss again gently.

To serve, spoon the polenta (or whatever carb you are serving it on) onto four plates. Place a short rib onto each, drizzle with a spoonful of the pan juices, top with the gremolata, and serve.

World Famous, Award-Winning, Heralded, Celebrated, and Time-Honored Guacamole

June 9, 2009 § 7 Comments

I seriously considered not sharing my guacamole recipe here. I mean really. There is a recession going on and you never know when I might have to open up a guacamole stand or sell my recipe to some big corporation like Kraft Foods or Mario Batali. But in the name of being a good winner, here it is.

First, before i go further, let’s be realistic here. There is only so much you can do to–or with–guacamole. I mean give or take a few cilantro leaves here, a tomato there, there’s not a lot of room to move. What this means is that whatever you do, it better be good. Like God, the secret to guacamole, is all in the details.

Preparing Guac is a Serious Affair

Preparing Guac is a Serious Affair

My Very Famous Award-Winning Guacamole

Getting Started:

1. Buy a  100% lava, authentic Mexican molcajete and . If it has been sold to you as “pre-seasoned,” know that you have been had. There are certain things in life for which there are no shortcuts. One is getting to know, really know, the person that you love. Another is getting a piece of lava (the molcajete) to quit producing sand when you grind it with another piece of lava (the tejolote). Both of these things simply take time. So how to season a molcajete? Throw a handful of rice in the bottom of your primitive mortar and grind until it looks like dried Cream of Wheat. Toss and repeat as many times as it takes until the guacamole you make in your molcajete does not turn out sandy, or roughly 1,000 to 1,200 times.

2. Taste several different types of avocados, paying special attention to texture, mouth feel, and flavor, at the occupational hazard of about 17 pounds, until you finally give in to the fact that you cannot, no matter how clever you try to be, find a rare, secret, little-know, overlooked, or otherwise undiscovered avocado that makes better guacamole than the Hass.

3. Remember that no matter how much salt you’ve added to your guacamole, it probably needs more. Serving your guac with nicely salted corn tortilla chips, still warm from the oil you fried them in, would put you at an unfair advantage in a competition, but would surely win you friends off the playing field.

Now Buy Your Ingredients:

4 serrano chiles, halved and seeds removed (Why anyone would ever eat a jalapeño pepper after tasting one of these is beyond me. Probably because, like my very own self before preparing for competition, they never actually tasted one in any deliberate way. Once you do, you’ll realize that jalapeños are sort of bitter and disgusting tasting and, given the choice, you should always reach for the smaller, slimmer, and infinitely tastier serrano).

Rock salt (I suppose you could use kosher salt but my grandmother Josefina uses rock salt, plus it is just a cool thing to do.)

A lopped off piece of white onion (I’d say for four avocados, this would be about 1/8 of an onion; no idea why but it has to be white; this is the Mexican way.)

4 4ipe Hass avocados, halved, pitted, and scooped out of the peel

1 or 2 Key (Aka Mexican) limes

1 red jalapeño pepper, halved, seeded, and minced

Fleur de sel
Instructions:

Throw the peppers and lopped off bit of onion in your seasoned molcajete. It will be less onion than you think. Trust me on this one. Sprinkle with rock salt and start grinding away, I mean really channeling your inner Aztec and grinding, adding more salt if you feel like this will help your peppers and onion break down, until what you have are not peppers and onion, but an acid-green colored, slimy paste.

Add the avocados and smash them with your tejolote until they are 1) smashed. and 2) integrated with the paste. Stir in the gorgeous minced red jalapeños and the juice of 1 key lime. Taste for seasoning and add more lime juice if necessary. It definitely needs more salt, so add some more of that, too. Taste it again, adjust it again, and just when you think that your guacamole is perfect, add some more salt, and serve.

When Spaghetti Meets the Sea

May 13, 2009 § 4 Comments

For some it’s obvious: New Yorkers have their pizza. Cubans have their coffee. San Franciscans have cioppino. As a Southern Californian (I was born in Tijuana, spent my childhood in San Diego, and now live half the time in Los Angeles, half the time in New York), I have my points of regional culinary pride, too. The list goes like this: fish tacos. Lately they’ve been fetishized but for some of us, the relationship is something deeper, lasting, and sincere. It’s proximity to Mexico. I can’t even begin to tell you the ways–edible and not–that this is beyond cool, and anyone who says that Tijuana isn’t really Mexico (which I’ve been told almost as many times as I’ve told people I was born in Tijuana) is an idiot. And Sea urchins,. Pulled from reefs off the coast of San Diego or Santa Barbara–I think I love them. So when I saw “Spaghetti with Sea Urchin” on the menu at Angelini, where I dined with my mother for her birthday recently, I couldn’t resist.

I was introduced to sea urchin pasta on a trip to Sicily several years ago, where I was writing a cookbook for two Italian ladies. There’s a seaside strip in Palermo called Modello, with one restaurant after another–think Fisherman’s Wharf meets The Godfather III–where men unloaded giant nets of the spiny crustaceans onto the sidewalk. I’d been trapped in the mountains eating nothing but fennel sausage and sheep’s milk ricotta (are you crying for me yet?), so when my captors finally freed me, took me to the seaside, and fed me spaghetti tossed with uncooked, barely warmed sea urchin, I about fell out of my chair.

Below is the entry that I included in the book, headnote and all. The recipe is so whacked I figured it must have been the author’s idea of a joke. So the next day I went back to Angelini and asked for their version, which was just as simple, but just as oddly prepared–and just as delicious. The key, of course, is that you have fresh, delicious sea urchins and that you serve it within seconds of pulling the almost undercooked spaghetti out of the water. From there, you can’t really go wrong.

Spaghetti con i Ricci

From early spring to early fall, it is very popular for Palermitani, those who live in Palermo, to visit the seaside community of Mondello. There you will find outdoor restaurants al along the waterside, every one of which claims to serve the very best spaghetti con ricci. I got this recipe from my friend Paolo, because i knew there was no way that a restaurant would give me their true recipe. To have the full taste of the sea urchin eggs, you must not cook them.

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more to add to the pasta water

2 garlic cloves

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh italian parsley, plus more to sprinkle on the pasta

1 1/3 cups sea urchin roe

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 pound spaghetti

For this pasta, the sea urchin roe is not cooked. It relies on the heat of the spaghetti to warm it, which means you must have the table set and everyone a tavola before you begin to cook the spaghetti.

Pour the oil into a heatproof cup and place it in a pot of hot but not boiling water to heat it without cooking away any of the olive taste.

Crush the garlic very well using a mortar and pestle, or mince it very fine. Scrape it into the bottom of the bowl you will serve the pasta from. Add the parsley, the warm olive oil, and salt and black pepper to taste and stir it all together. add the sea urchin roe and let this rest while you cook the spaghetti.

Bring a big saucepan of water to a boil. Stir in a small fistful of salt and a splash of olive oil. Add the spaghetti and stir. Boil the spaghetti, stirring often to prevent it from sticking together, until it is al dente. Lift the spaghetti out of the water using a spaghetti strainer and place it directly into the bowl with the roe. Don’t worry if a little water comes with teh spaghetti into the serving bowl; the hot pasta water will help the texture of teh condiento. Toss teh spaghetti with the roe, adding more pasta water if necesasary. SPrinkle with more parsley and serve immediately.

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