October 27, 2009

Ricotta Tart

This is one of those wonderfully adaptable recipes. It works for any season too! This one is made with black seedless grapes, but if strawberries are in season, use them. If you love plums, slice them thinly and use them, raspberries, blueberries, etc.

Makes 1 10x10 tart

Puff Pastry (if you can find ‘Dufour’ brand, that’s best. If not Pepperidge Farm makes a very decent product)**
8 oz. ricotta cheese
1 egg
¼ cup superfine sugar (regular can be substituted, but just make sure there are no lumps)
¼ Tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup (might be a bit more or less depending on the size of the grapes) of cleaned, halved grapes, (if using grapes or strawberries, cut them in half. If using a stone fruit, slice thinly. Other berries you can leave whole)

-Preheat oven to 350 degrees, defrost the pastry as per factory directions
-Line a baking sheet with Silpat or parchment paper, and place a 10x10” (roughly, don’t worry if it’s a little smaller or larger) square of pastry on the sheet
-With the back of knife, being careful not to cut the pastry, you just want to score it, create a 1” border
-With a fork, press into the inside of the tart (not the border), all over. Again, just try to indent the pastry, not pierce it. This allows the border (which is untouched) to puff up, while the center will remain flat
-Mix the ricotta, egg, vanilla, and sugar together
-Using a spoon, or offset spatula, spread the mixture onto the center of the tart, try to get all the corners filled. Make sure the mixture is evenly spread
-Place grapes on pastry in rows
-Place tart in oven and cook for approx 30 minutes. Puff pastry cooks quickly and depending on the oven unevenly. If you see one side browning and puffing quicker than another, turn the baking sheet
-Tart is done when pastry is puffed a golden brown
-Let cool, cut and serve

If you’d like, you can glaze the fruit with a thin layer of apricot jam. See “Rustic Apple Tart” for directions.

**You can make it from scratch and while it’s not difficult, it’s a process. If you’re feeling adventurous, I recommend trying Martha Stewart’s recipe here.

Cabonara for the Grand Duke

Into every life some indulgence must fall.

My Father wanted a cheat day in the worst way. His request: Cabonara. As he says, the true evil of Cabonara is its simplicity. It’s just too damn easy to make and too damn good to resist. I served this with homemade garlic bread (made with garlic paste, a favorite ‘dirty little secret’), a salad, and a ricotta tart. By the way, don’t be shocked by the amount of bacon, if you’re going to clog those arteries, you might as well do it with gusto!

1 lb (1 box) of spaghetti (unless its fresh I really think Barilla makes the best dry pasta)
1/2 cup room temperature Half & Half
3/4 cup grated parmesan
1 pack bacon**
3 room temperature eggs
1/2 Tsp fresh cracked pepper
Large pinch of salt (remember, the pasta is salted, and there’s bacon and cheese)

-Cut up bacon into ¾” – 1” pieces.
-While water is boiling, fry up the bacon, drain, set aside.
-While pasta is cooking, whisk together, parm, eggs, half & half, salt and pepper.
-Add bacon and mix.
-When pasta is done, don’t drain it completely, the hot water will help make the sauce.
-Add pasta to mixture and mix very well.
-Serve immediately.

Technically, this should serve 4, but people gobble this stuff up so happily, it’s more like 3.

**Dirty little secret from my husband. Unless you’re getting freshly sliced bacon from the butcher, the cheaper… the better. Brand names like Boars Head and Oscar Meyer don’t fry up nearly as well as the cheaper brands, and they even tend to have less flavor. If you can find a no-name brand, or even a store brand, that’s the best.

October 22, 2009


I’m sitting at my desk, in my office, thinking about the big tree, in front of the white house, down the block from our apartment. Come autumn, its leaves turn brilliant saffron orange, fade to a banana yellow, then fall to the street to make an urban blanket. We love that house. It’s huge, with a wrap around porch, a long driveway, and a green roof. The owners, “the hippies” as we’ve come to label them, are very rarely seen. They seem to occupy the top floor exclusively, and the amount of times we’ve seen them in the flesh can be counted on our hands.

We’ve come up with all sorts of scenarios to explain away their reclusive tendencies. In the beginning, we called them ghosts, because for almost the entire first year we lived on the block, we never saw them; only the light from the top floor could be seen from behind the blinds. Then, I saw the husband (I assume they’re married, but having decided they’re hippies, they could very well just be partners, lovers, or like totally attached man). He’s a small skinny guy with a mop of messy gray hair, who seems to always be wearing shorts, sandals, and a band t-shirt. He screams American Lit. Professor to me.

When his wife (again, could be just be common law by now), made an appearance, her long straggly once-black hair, band shirt, and black peasant skirt, solidified the hippy status to us. She too could easily be the adjunct Women’s Studies Professor at Columbia, but she never leaves the house. Oh wait! Not true. Mrs. Women’s Studies lets the cat out every now and again. Magically, this big, fat, white Brooklyn cat always finds his way back home.

We covet that damn house. It has a garage, and a wicker archway leading the backyard, and it’s just perfect. It kills me that they only ever use the top floor. I have no idea what the interior is like, but it my mind it’s all original wood floors, and archways - crown molding and tall ceilings. There’s a large gracious kitchen and dining room that seat 20.

That tree in front of their house calls to me. I love fall, it’s my favorite time of the year. Fall in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn means the stunning trees around us become animated with colors, the two Italian-American families across the street battle it out for Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations (and later Christmas), and I can break out the cast iron cookware.

I find very little use for my Le Creuset in spring and summer, and nothing makes me happier than something bubbling away on the stove in my Le Creuset. I can smell something with wine, herbs, and butter right now. I can see the table set, a trivet in the middle ready for the now hot pot. Bottles of open Malbec, fresh mini-lamb sausage and Pecorino Romano cheese chips on the table for nibbling from our butcher, Frank & Eddie’s.

People will come in, take off their shoes, hang their coats, and sit on our bright orange couch. They’ll look out our curtain-free and blind-less windows to the decoration competition below, and exhale. Our neighborhood does that to people. The exhaling I mean. Of course you know you’re still in New York, but the quiet streets, tall strong trees, and lack of honking, music, and trucks rumbling by, somehow make you slide a little deeper into your seat… come in, sit, get comfy.

The kindly old gentleman who I see almost every morning on my way to work, he’s been here since forever. He remembers when the building he lived in had bellhops, a pool, and children’s day care center on the ground floor. He walks with two canes, but never fails to stop, tip his hat, say hello, tell me to stay healthy and be careful, and then finishes with a “goodbye dear.”

The Super’s wife has put up the Halloween décor in the lobby. Spider webs, ghosts and ghouls hanging from the ceiling, and a kooky decapitated head in a crystal ball that laughs and cackles anytime someone passes. By this time next month, there will be garlands of fake orange and red leaves, a huge stuffed black chicken on the table (yes, a chicken, NOT a turkey), and orange lights blinking happily.

The polish Restaurant around the corner not to be outdone by the Super’s wife I assume, has already put up their blinking orange lights and hung their fake leaves. The diner on 3rd Avenue (who still make all their ice cream from scratch, the cinnamon milkshake is not to be believed by the way), is in on the decorating game as well. I wonder where they all get their blinking orange lights anyway?

This weekend my parents will be coming by to take it all in. My Father, the Grand Duke himself, has requested a carb-fest since he’s decided to go off his diet. So, I’ll oblige. I’ll go to Cangiano’s to get some fresh baked Italian bread, and pick up two fresh mozzarella’s still warm from the water they pulled it out of a few minutes ago. The rest of the meal is immaterial since we all know he’s coming for the fresh cheese and warm bread. I’ll set the table with my vintage turquoise plates that my husband hates but I just can’t let go of, and we’ll sit and eat and breathe in the crisp air.

The New York City Marathon comes through our ‘hood. The Verrazano Bridge is only blocks away, and we are lucky enough to see the runners as they start their brave journey, full of energy and hope. Bay Ridge comes out en force to cheer them on. We hoop and holler and slap people’s hands as they rush past. It’s a Billy Joel, “New York State of Mind” moment.

I’m thinking about dried cranberries and pears. I’m thinking that it’s almost cold enough for Bread Pudding and Brandy-spiked Hot Chocolate. I’m thinking I’m hungry and thankfully, it’s lunchtime. I’m thinking I can’t wait to walk down 3rd Avenue and see who else has put up their orange blinking lights. I wonder what new witch or tombstone our neighbors have put in their front yards. I’m thinking I’m glad the leaves have turned saffron.

October 18, 2009

Food Crisis

As most of you know, there is a growing food crisis not only Internationally, but in our own backyards as well. As a self described "foodie" this is hard to understand -- I can go to the store and get whatever I want, and make something wonderful from it, and so can you. However, the crisis is such that people around the world can no longer even afford rice or flour, and other basics. The scope of this can be overwhelming and cause one to feel helpless and not know what to do. I for one, tend to feel that I can't do very much when there are so many in need. But I feel the need to do something now, even if it's seemingly insignificant, even if it only helps one other person... one is a big number these days. I've listed a few links below, some are places to drop off goods (remember besides food, baby formula is always in need), some are links for money donations, and one is free - we can all afford free. Also, check with your local Post Office, many are holding food drives.

The World Food Programme is a United Nations Organization that delivers food Internationally. Here you can donate to the WFP's entire cause, or make a donation to a specific area. The donations can be a one time gift, or ongoing.  

The New York Food Bank supplies food for Families and Individuals in need on a daily basis. Recently their supplies have been dwindling and you can help by donating money or food. (Most states have some kind of Food Bank or Food Outreach Program all easily researched online).  

The Free Rice Game is fun and free! Simply play along, and for every correct answer given, grains of rice are donated. So far enough rice has been donated to feed 1 million people for 1 day. It's a great start.

Dirty Little Secret: Garlic Paste

I am a serious garlic lover.

I can demolish a baked garlic spread on some crusty bread in a matter of minutes. The more garlicky... the better. That being said, even I can admit that peeling and chopping garlic can be a pain. People have manufactured gadgets galore to ease said pain. There are rubber tube thingys that take off the garlic skin (by the way, if you have one or want to get one, make sure you keep it in a ziploc bag when not in use, it will infuse your entire tool drawer with garlic very quickly), there are choppers, smashers, presses, and the old standby: a knife. Regardless of the tool, there’s washing and making sure garlic's essential oils haven't lingered longer than invited.

So here's my dirty little secret: garlic paste. Garlic paste usually comes in tubes, and is NOT to be confused with bottled chopped garlic which is always miserable and tasteless. Depending on the brand, some can be are saltier than others, and you may have adjust your seasoning, so make sure to taste before you use. Regardless though, all garlic paste is a “good thing” (thank you, Martha). You can use it exactly the same way you would fresh garlic. Heat some in oil and sauté with it. It’s wonderful in sauces, and you can make a really good rubs for meat, fish, and poultry.

I introduced my Mother to the wonders of garlic paste this summer, and she hasn't looked back since. Of course this isn't some grand new discovery, but most people either forget it exists, only use it for salad dressings, or have never even thought about using it at all. I'm not going to tell you to that I always use garlic paste, or to replace it with fresh garlic completely, but its a quick solution and a really tasty one. So next time you’re at the market, grab a tube and experiment, you might just fall in love.

October 16, 2009

Rustic Apple Tart

2 small apples: halved, peeled, and cored (personally I like using Gala for this)
Juice of 1 small lemon
1 teaspoon Cinnamon
1/6 cup sugar (or just less than 1/4 cup), plus more for sprinkling
2 heaping tablespoons apple butter
2 teaspoons unsalted, room temp butter
1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted
3 tablespoons apricot or apple jam
Pate Brisee (recipe follows)
1 egg beaten with 1 tbs of water (egg wash)

-Preheat oven to 400, and line a baking sheet with Silpat or parchment paper
-Cut the apple halves into 1/4 inch thick slices
-Combine apples, sugar, lemon, and cinnamon in a bowl, set aside.
-Roll out the dough into two rounds roughly the size of a salad plate or 8.5" - 9" inches wide, and less than a ¼” inch thick
-Place rounds on baking sheet, and spread 1 heaping tbs of apple butter on each round, leaving a 1" border
-Arrange apples on the dough, making sure to keep within clear of the 1"
-Fold the extra dough over the apples, creating the "crust" to the tart
-Brush dough with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar.
-Dot each tart with 1 tsp butter, (only the apples, not on the dough)
-Bake for 30-40 minutes or until dough is golden brown
-While tarts are cooling, melt the jam with 1 tbs of water over high heat. While glaze is still warm and melted, glaze the apples, and lightly glaze the crust. Sprinkle with the toasted almonds and serve.

*This is wonderful with ice cream, whipped cream, or my favorite, a dollop of crème fraiche.

Pate Brisee
(Personally, I like doing this all by hand, but if you'd rather use a food processor you can, right up to the kneading.)

2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 sticks (8 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1/4 cup cold water

-Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl
-Add butter and using your fingers, combine everything until it looks like parmesan cheese
-Slowly add the water until it just comes together
-Knead on a lightly floured surface until uniform and smooth (don't over knead though! You'll have tough thick overly elastic dough)
-Make two discs and wrap each in plastic wrap.
-Refrigerate to rest for at least an hour. (You can freeze the dough for up to two weeks as long as it’s really well wrapped in both wax or freezer paper and plastic wrap)

*Dirty little secret. If you can't be bothered to, or the thought of making dough from scratch makes you nervous (nothing to be ashamed of by the way), I HIGHLY recommend Pillsbury's Pie Crust. They come two to a box, individually wrapped, and already rolled into circles so all you have to do is defrost, unroll and bake. I promise you they taste wonderful, not at all like frozen pie crust. You can usually find them in the refrigerated section of the market, near the biscuits and butter.


October 14, 2009

Excuse Me While I Gush

There are those of us who love to cook.

We like nothing better than starting with individual ingredients and making something wonderful by adding salt, oil, water, sugar, and bay leaves. For me it’s always been something that connects me to my Mother, who started off my love by making crepes with me every Saturday morning; my Aunt, who I made cookies and chutney with during the holidays. It was the smell of Éclair’s Bakery on West 72nd street on Fridays when we picked up our Challah for Shabbat dinner, or the first time I ate Sushi with my Father. I can still remember his constant "you don't have to like it, but you have to try it."

In culinary school I had a very strong emotional and visceral connection to bread making. Elbow deep in sticky, earthy-smelling raw dough, kneading in a cloud of white flour, I would form the loaf and bake it off. It’s difficult to describe the very basic act of bread making. I had an instant connection to every woman in time that had ever kneaded and baked. Cooking with ghosts, I was suspended in time.

The only serious cooking I did while I was still living with my parents was holiday and party cooking. A 20-pound Turkey, fried Chicken for 4th of July, Lamb for Passover. It wasn't until I left home that I started really cooking. I tried different cuts of meats, new techniques, and different flavors. It was my own private culinary school crash course. There was something else I discovered when I was away from home; I didn't like cooking for myself. I didn't see the need to put much effort into food if it were just for me. Yes, it’s a beautiful piece of seared tuna, but it’s just for me; it somehow felt like a waste.

When friends came over for dinner I went all out. Not that it was lobster and caviar every time, but it was a meal I put love and time into, and they could taste that. I started dating a man in the summer of 2006 - someone who I felt from our very first date was different. There’s no other way to describe it other than: it just felt "right." It still does. We were married in March 2008, just a small gathering of loved ones at the Brooklyn Municipal building. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. In fact, the picture above was our wedding announcement.

The first time I cooked for him was a quiet moment. It was no major event; there were no candles or soft music. He sat at the table with a napkin… I made him a grilled cheese sandwich. Nothing fancy, just some English cheddar and the only bread I had in the apartment, marbled rye. He ate about 4 of them. His yumms and mmmms made me beam.

He had never had a woman cook for him before. I was perfectly happy to remedy that. Now as I said, I never loved cooking for myself, but give me just one other person and I'm in heaven. Give me someone I care for, and I relish every drop of sweat, every cut finger, and every burn. I can't say that the way to his heart was through his stomach (although I'm sure it didn't hurt), but I can say that the every time I cook for him, it makes me smile. Seeing him satisfied, or introduced to something new that I've made, something he now loves, is one of my greatest joys.

Food means so much to us. It means family, holidays, traditions, joy, comfort and a myriad of other memories and emotions. For me, it’s a promise to take care of him, and a promise that he will always have a home to come back to. Some might look cynically upon this. After all, it's not the 1950's anymore. Women are liberated. A home cooked meal for “your man” is no longer a requirement. How backward of you! To those people I would say: I’ve marched on Washington for Women's Rights to choose, am continually politically active, and have read my Gloria Steinem thank you very much.

I'll never be barefoot and pregnant. I'll never put makeup on just because he'll be home in 15 minutes, and I don't have a problem with leaving him alone so I can go out with my friends. However, like a comic gets a high from the audience's laughter, and an athlete prides herself on her finishing time, I get my greatest boosts when he invites people over for a home cooked meal because I make great soup, or when he says "it's really good, Baby." When cooking is my choice and not an expectation, it has nothing to do with the roles of the sexes, and everything to do with love.

Cooking is about connections. Connections to the past, connections to your ingredients, even connections to your body. So it doesn't matter if you’re boiling hot dogs or taking the whole day to make a roast. The underlying message is always the same. Make something for someone; it doesn't matter if it’s burnt or god-awful, it doesn’t matter if the soufflé falls. All that matters is that you made the effort. It’s the effort that speaks to people. The very act of cooking for another says, “You mean enough to me that I’ll risk embarrassment and burns to feed you.”

I'm lucky enough to have found someone who appreciates me. He doesn't take me for granted, and to this day, a home cooked meal is a gift, not an obligation. For his love, for his willingness to try whatever I put in front of him, for his gracious smiles and appreciative head nods, I thank him. And for all that, he gets quiches, roasts, chocolate mousse, and a place to call home.