Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Casual Affair with Spinach

        I am having an affair with spinach. It started off casually like most vegetable run ins. It would spot me in aisle two of kings; catch me staring and then looking away at the fresh Brussels sprout, sensing my uneasiness. Although I play it off and gravitate toward cans of carrots, I cannot stray for too long. I inevitably find myself returning to spinach and its elegant leaves and palatable texture. I am not picky when we break bread together. Swooning over thawed spinach or spinach that’s been boiled, spinach I can bake or pan fry, I like my spinach tossed with balsamic or teeming with oil and garlic. A good green tastes neither soggy nor stale.
            Tonight’s topic is born of my recent resurrection of one recipe in particular involving of all things, Pillsbury crescent rolls, pepperoni, a host of cheese. This tiny delight has no formal name.  It is a hand-me-down of dinner sorts and I whip it up whenever my apartment feels oversized or like me, famished. Rich in antioxidants and iron, this leafy lettuce head fills me without leaving me stuffed and I truly cannot say enough about the warmth of this dish. Like a good bowl of soup, my little “spinach things” serve as a starter or a worthy main squeeze.

Spinach things”
§  Boil Fresh Spinach, or thaw frozen spinach
(If boiled, sauté spinach in oil and garlic) and dry thoroughly
Note: If the spinach is left too soggy, it will leave the dough soggy and undesirable.
§  Add salt, pepper to taste.
§  Mix the spinach with Ricotta and graded mozzarella (to your liking) and (shredded) pepperoni.
Note: amount of pepperoni should be relative to intended amount of “spinach things” desired.
§  Bake at 400 at most for ten minutes OR until “golden brown’ after rolling in Pillsbury crescent rolls.  

Monday, January 17, 2011

Surf's Up, Crab

            In apartment ten, dinner for one is served. I need the night off from cutlets and marinara so I settle on a Rachael Ray adaptation of Surf and Turf. Sadly, I serve this dish with steak and a token green but no crab to greet the turf. I have not exactly made amends with crab in apartment ten in my grey and metallic blue backsplash kitchen; not since last summer, when I encountered a brave crustacean ensconced in his ethereal exoskeleton behind an icebox at Di Bruno Bros. in Philly.
            I am not a vegetarian or a vegan or an animal rights activist. Surely, I disagree with animal cruelty, but I am the first person to crave a pan-seared tilapia or to marinate and grill up a petite filet mignon. I did however lock eyes with a little crab and my sympathies went to him; particularly because of a scene in the Little Mermaid in which Arielle’s pal, Sebastian, managed to circumvent a crazed French chef. Fortunately, dinner was salvaged in the film because Arielle brought a fork to dinner to comb her hair with. I digress.
            I still make fish for dinner weekly. Seldom will I compromise the possibility of whipping up a fresh salsa to garnish a tuna steak with because of my crab blues, but these days after reaching for a package of prepared shrimp or a nice cut of Salmon, I’ll saunter to the check out counter feeling horribly guilty for leaving behind Sebastian to fend for himself in the glass-enclosed case resembling a cold-cut counter with the man wearing a butcher smock.
            Regardless, I successfully adapted Rachael Ray’s surf and turf suggestion from her Big Orange Cookbook for my own enjoyment just the other night. Being an Italian, a recipe that calls for ¼ cup of red wine means very little. The kind of wine included in the sauce will dramatically alter the sauce’s taste. I went with a Cabernet. Its mint and eucalyptus undertones offset the sweet finish of the flour and scallions, which create a savory paste to couple with the steak. I imbued the spinach leaves with the leftover garlic and butter I cook the shrimp with, adding nutmeg and a pinch of cinnamon as dictated by the recipe. High five Rachael.
            For a night off from Ditalini, this DIY dinner comes together nicely, requiring minimal preparation and clean up. I also slept better because I made it with shrimp. Your call, though.

Tenderloin with Red Wine Gravy and Cracked Garlic Shrimp
·      1 in. thick tenderloin
·      2 tbsp butter
·      1 shallot, finely chopped
·      ¼ tbsp flour
·      1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
·      ¼ cup dry wine
·      ¼ cup of beef stock
·      2 garlic cloves
·      Shrimp (amount is to your liking)
·      Fresh thyme
·      1 tsp hot sauce (I skipped this ingredient)
·      ½ lemon
·      Nutmeg
·      Spinach leaves

      When you remove the meat from its package, sprinkle it with salt and pepper and begin heating a skillet with olive oil Transfer the meat to the pan and let it cook for two min on each side before placing it on a baking sheet and letting it cook in the oven for 5min at 400F for medium rare. Add a bit more oil and butter and cook the shallots for 1 to 2 min. Add flour and allow it to melt before including the Worcestershire sauce and red wine. Whisk in the stock and season with salt and pepper.   

While the meat cooks in the oven, add oil and butter to a skillet to melt. Add garlic and soon after the shrimp and thyme for 3min. Douse the shrimp with lemon and remove from the pan. Heat the spinach leaves in the leftover juice from the shrimp. Allow the spinach leaves to wilt slightly.  Dinner is served.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Sauce by any other Name would be Blasphemous, would be Gravy

I am consistently floored by the amount of ingredients and sheer preparation cookbooks tout when including a recipe for marinara. Made from fresh essentials like garlic and basil, marinara does not require the same kind of attention needed in piecing together gravy used in Shepherd’s pie or smothers a turkey dinner. Marinara is after all, a sauce.

I know Italians who take their marinara very seriously. They swoon and they fill their gravy bowls with well, gravy – real Bolognese Ragu chock full of stock and one to two glasses of wine and/or milk. The very essence of this gravy suggests that it lingers happily between the fibers of tagliatelle or pappardelle, which is usually layered in pieces of lamb. Gravy in and of itself serves a purpose only if paired with something equally hearty.

Marinara though, glides across a dish of spaghettini like none other, soaks up a ziti likening it to it a penne on a good night and festoons ravioli with a kind of reprieve. Marinara does a dance all of its own. It sits atop a cutlet without overpowering the cutlet’s breadcrumbs, without diminishing its taste. Marinara would never be caught dead on top of a biscuit. Marinara does not play well with other cuisines.

In my apartment, marinara starts with a cutting board, a knife and ideally, a generous eyeballing of garlic. If you’re anything like me though, you do not garnish your marinara liberally otherwise you will be in serious need of an anti acid like the Pink Stuff; not quite a Limón cello finish to a beautifully rendered dinner.  Indigestion aside, the bear minimum is needed to craft an ambrosial array of tangy and sweet red syrup.

In my humble opinion, marinara should taste like beloved Nona’s famed recipe – it should surprise your palette with the subtle hints of balsamic vinegar and the prevalent presence of delicious tomatoes. It should never be jarred or reheated in a microwave. It should compel you to double dip and find yourself fighting the urge to sip it as though it were a soup.

My love affair with marinara comes full circle once I introduce the sauce to my friend Parmesan. Though somewhat of a gastronomical nightmare amidst my mozzarella and tomato side salad, I suffer in ravenous radiance at my countertop with stools for two every time I serendipitously prepare myself a marinara.

Sauce (the way it was intended)
  •       Olive Oil – personally I recommend investing in a bottle of Colavita
  •       Have Morton Salt nearby and black pepper to spare
  •       Fresh garlic (eyeball it, you typically need less than you think unless you enjoy tasting it the next morning)
  •       Fresh Basil
  •       Tomato paste – any type will do
  •       Crushed tomatoes – San Morino aren’t half bad and sometimes the grocery store carries them. If you live near a specialty food store, stock up on
  •       Parmesan cheese – steer clear of Kraft, it’s imposter
  •       Balsamic Vinegar – only to be added after the crushed tomatoes and only pour about a tbsp into your sauce
  •      Optional: diced yellow onion – again, not to be overdone otherwise it will drastically change the taste of your marinara

Oil needs time to heat the pot before it can marinate the garlic and basil. Do not add the Parmesan or the vinegar without first cooking the paste and tomatoes together for several minutes. The sauce should only be set on medium heat and should be stirred often. Ideally, give the sauce anywhere from half an hour to an hour to blend nicely enough to serve. Bon appétit.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The First Spoonful...

I hope you won’t mind one more hungry stomach eager to sit beside you at your dinner table and relish in your blogosphere. I do not come empty handed though. I bring with me a couple of anecdotes and some recipes that I hope will keep you coming back for more Zucchero.
Given that Christmas Eve is now a thing of the past, I decide tonight to relish in my craving for fish. On colder winter evenings such as this, when I am feeling slightly homesick, I remember watching my mother and grandmother effortlessly pouring over dishes like Zuppa di Pesce throughout my childhood and suddenly, wafts of freshly peeled garlic tickle my taste buds. Soon, I find myself scouring the grocery store for whole grain linguine to help recreate this family favorite. Scampi. Although it can be prepared a multitude of ways, scampi has always been reserved for those special occasions where company was expected or an entire evening could be devoted to the preparation involved in concocting such a gratuitous dish. At home in my kitchen, Rock N’ Roll High School blares through the nearby stereo and I remember my mother and grandmother and I remember…
      ...the smell of sautéing shrimp and garlic the way my mother remembers seeing Joey Ramone for the first time in a rundown bar in Manhattan at age fifteen. The picturesque staple of rock n roll’s riches for an impressionable New Yorker, I admire the sight of a dishrag strewn on a flour covered kitchen counter. At fifteen, Joey Ramone lulls my mother’s teenage inhibitions. At sixteen, I whisk an egg and ask my Joey Ramone of a grandmother how to prevent the breadcrumbs from escaping the uncooked cutlets we prepare at sunset.
Her fingers enchant a skillet the way Joey’s stroke a mic. She too is a crowd pleaser, preparing potatoes in a pool of extra virgin olive oil. Peeled and poised for garnishing with pepper, my Nonna’s hands which age with each knead and stoke, proudly display the remnants of a once live chicken beside a bowl filled with beautifully browned carbohydrates.
No longer sixteen and able to take cues from a woman well versed in peeling garlic, it is my turn to finesse an ordinary package of pasta into a masterful mantra of flavor and forgotten pastimes. I mosey around my third floor kitchen in knitted socks not unlike my Nonna who swore by isotones slippers in the winter, hunger propelling my menacing attention to detail. Even the paprika is measured. The salt tossed in sparingly, it represents the faith all Italian cooks have in boiling water. The pot a host for transformation from otherwise inedible grains to serendipitous scampi.
Tonight represents a resurrection. I unscrew the top to the sherry, squeeze the lemon and welcome the aromas of familiar dry and sweet components coming alive in an iron caste skillet. I bite my lip in anticipation and almost reading my uneasiness, the shrimp winks at me. She stands in the kitchen, hovering over the cutting board and later scrubs each dish by hand. And later I wink at my isotones slippers, the shoes I feebly fill on Monday nights while Maxwell’s around the corner hosts the next Levi wearing Johnny. It is lonely in my kitchen while Dee Dee Ramone is off banging on his drums but somewhere, Nonna stirs up appetites with her wooden spoon in a frying pan in someone else’s domain, acting as the model hostess.   
       … Like the Sunday dinners I learned to appreciate at an early age, this blog is represents my hosting a myopic array of flavors and fiction – memory and memoir. I hope you’ll digest and return for more Zucchero very soon.