Wednesday, February 23, 2011

You Break the Mold Blue Cheese

I get the blues like every other foodie, it comes in waves; sometimes I crave a just warmed mozzarella sprinkled with some roasted red peppers, oil and tomato. Sometimes I want to dig my fork into a beautifully prepared beet salad garnished with pecans and warm goat cheese – perhaps a garlic toast poking out. It is a mood and a consistency thing really. I never feel this way about blue cheese though. When it comes to blue cheese, I have yet to encounter Roquefort I did not want to devour.   

Admittedly, my first encounter with the potent stank of this blue-gray mold involves blue cheese as a kind of sidekick, served with an order of wings. Funny that Sundays still revolve around football and good eats in my house but when I was sixteen and my best friends were teenage boys, we weren’t scooping servings of my Nona’s meatballs and marina onto fine china, the cheese a centerpiece of Italian cuisine, instead we were sinking our teeth into a heaping Styrofoam container of honey BBQ wings and blue cheese dressing to complement those delicious celery sticks. It is and was love at first crunch.

Even now after my aunt serves a beautiful dish of home style chicken noodle soup, whipped up with tri color tortellini and a side of broccoli rabbe and cannellini beans my Uncle insists on putting the baby blue mold on a plate surrounding an array of oranges, pears, and plums – a dreamboat Italian dessert for a man who passes regularly on the tiramisu. Needless to say, I eat well when I visit my father’s family.

That’s what blue cheese embodies for me – a favorite pastime I remember of bodies hovering over freshly laid plates and too warm to touch dishes in dining rooms and kitchens on weekends when my family came together before adolescence and aging crept up on all of us. I remember blue cheese the topping, the stuffing, feeling stuffed because this “stinky cheese” had done it again – had taunted my eyes until they were bigger than my belly and I could only surrender to the Maytag’s saltier serendipity.

This is sounding more and more like an ode to blue cheese or it may resemble more of a celebration of Madame Fromage’s forget-me-not friend, Mr. Blue. In honor of March’s own cheese madness, I am preparing two ground (but lean) beef patties to be stuffed with none other than the man of the hour, gorgonzola blue – a nifty little combo I stumbled across in Hoboken’s own Garden of Eden produce haven. Smooth and inviting, the consistency calls for a cracker or a bed of spinach leaves, a perfect pairing to dress up or dress down a meal. Personally, I like to stuff my burgers with cheese as opposed to caustically dropping the cheese atop and hoping for the best (albeit sloppy) melted results. Cannot say enough about drizzling the finished product with some honey Dijon and mushrooms, terrible cinematography listed below.

Grazie Madame Fromage for including Tavola in this worthwhile project.  


Wednesday, February 16, 2011


They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Funny since I cannot recall mornings spent hovering over a countertop clanking around a bowl of milk sodden Rice Krispies. I do however remember Sunday mornings waking up from a slumber party and trudging down a friend’s stairs, the scent of homemade pancakes or eggs wafting; a real treat. My family does not brunch on weekends. Some of us sleep in and others catch a morning run and devour a yogurt chock full of fruit on the bottom – not too intense a meal for a lactose laden lass like myself. My parents do not believe in brunch.

Bobby Flay does though. He even hosted a French toast throw down with restaurateur Omar Giner of La Isla not too long ago. The topic? Omar’s sinful cereal and almond battered stuffed French toast. Allegedly, folks skip Church just for a bite of his cream cheese and guava imbued creation. I salivate just thinking about freshly diced strawberries finding a home on the same plate as butter soaked bread. And then I flashback to weekend mornings in forgotten middle school kitchens eating perfectly poached eggs and left too long bacon and I crave a leather booth at the local diner because I cannot even begin to imagine how to recreate a brunch masterpiece when I was never raised to prepare it myself.

Well, almost never…

There is the time my dad made eggs, a basic enough meal. While meeting in the kitchen to pour our coffee and plan our day, my dad suggested he cook breakfast. I looked at him with this surly grin. Dad wanted to forego the diner, our little tradition and whip something up. I was admittedly reluctant. The man wasn’t exactly known for his waffle making skills. Truthfully I’d only ever really seen him toast an English muffin come breakfast time. Nevertheless, he made for the pantry and I the stool to watch.

He stood cracking eggs carefully over a broken-in skillet in plaid pajamas. He used a wooden spoon and asked me to cut tomatoes while he rummaged in the fridge, the eggs cooking on a mild flame. I chopped. He scoured, eventually returning to the stove with a small Tupperware containing just made spaghetti sauce.  Without explanation, my father began to pour the fresh tomatoes and sauce into the pan. I was dumbfounded. The man had managed to find a way to convert eggs into Italian-American yolks. Unbelievable. They tasted unbelievable. It was absurd that what had started out as a dollop of Extra Virgin Oil could see a metamorphosis into a culinary creation.

When Bobby Flay visited Hoboken, he transformed mascarpone cheese and pumpkin into a Challah Bread concoction of epic proportion, all the while the crowd hooted and high fived him. When my dad tossed some red stuff into a black pot with a handle, he became my hero all over again. It dawned on me while writing this that it doesn’t matter that I do not have a special relationship with brunch the way my friends do and did when we were younger. I have my dad and a special family recipe that only we can find truly rewarding while the neighbors slap some Aunt Jemima on their Pillsbury crescent rolls. I say Mangia!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

There is more than One Way to Stack an Eggplant

The weekend I moved to Hoboken, I had no food in the refrigerator and only condiments in the cabinet. My mom and I had spent the better part of the day concerned with finding the right angle to complement the picture of poppies I wanted centered over my bed, rearranging furniture; hell bent on squeezing my couch through the narrow third floor landing. By dinnertime, we had certainly worked up an appetite. It occurred to us while standing barefoot in my apartment on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend with a shower rod in our hands that we’d worried over the wrong things – what would we eat?

We agreed on one thing – neither of us was volunteering to sort through the ten or so odd unopened bins that were scattered throughout the living room. Neither of us could be bothered with washing dishes. We simply wanted something savory and something fast and we didn’t want to have to go looking for a parking spot to bring it home. 

After drawing straws, I reached for my shoes and turned left at the corner of 11th. There was a plan. Walk one block in either direction and pick something. I chose an Italian Pizzeria whose menu boasted delicious Eggplant Parmesan and crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t disappoint.

Eggplant never disappointed in the hands of my grandmother and aunt – it never tasted soggy or saturated or overcooked. This eggplant from Napoli’s was a Russian roulette. Craving something hearty and familiar, mom and I took our chances.

This weekend while visiting Pine Bush NY, I found myself in familiar territory. Once again I’d stumbled upon a smaller town with no real sense of the local eateries before my arrival. A true foodie, I knew better than to eat in the town’s famous Japanese restaurant that Zagat gave a fabulous rating. I could have Hibachi on any given night. I was in rural New York surrounded by snow covered winding roads and general store like establishments – the locals definitely got their eat on, I simply needed to take a chance again and turn left.

Like Napoli’s in Hoboken, Culinary Creations brought eggplant to life. An extraordinary little eatery off of Pine Bush’s Main Street, Creations prepared eggplant that was to-die for. A stacked Napoleon as opposed to more traditional square-like lasagna, Culinary Creation’s eggplant sat atop a bed of artichokes and fennel ragout. Lighter than chicken but more so on the heavier side with its mangled forest of mozzarella cheese, eggplant generally tastes like a vegetable floating in a sea of sauce and cheese. This eggplant however reminded me of a perfectly erected hamburger with all the fixings. Spinach leaves and red peppers coated the balsamic drizzled delight. It dawned on me in the dining room of the tiny café that I’d never even considered that eggplant could be prepared anyway but the way I knew – the way my grandmother and aunt and chef around the corner prepared it; that it could have an identity separate from the life of a plateful of skinny eggplant cut like cucumbers fried and garnished across a white dish.

I returned to Culinary Creations the next night too. It wasn’t because I didn’t think the Japanese was really as good as the reviewers said or because I didn’t think there wasn’t a better eggplant, I didn’t order the Napoleon the second time around. I went back because I’d dined in a restaurant that challenged the way I thought about food pairings. Chicken didn’t have to be breaded or baked only, it could be pan seared before popping it in the oven. Similarly, vegetables needn’t be doused in extra virgin olive oil before lightly salted and stirred onto a plate. They could be seasoned or nuked in the microwave and eaten bland or drizzled with soy sauce. I’d gone to a café and ordered what I conceived formerly to be an Italian dish and yet, I’d never tasted a better version of eggplant to-date before I’d visited Pine Bush.

I’d gone to a rural part of New York expecting to find the town itself charming but the food mediocre at best. Instead, Pine Bush served me one hell of an eggplant and a dose of humility. 

I wish I could say that I managed to steal the recipe during my visit but I didn't, so get creative!