Sunday Brunch

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Never before have I ever held a brunch. But there’s a first time for everything, even at 65, and so on Sunday, we had our first one.

The menu was simple and, for the most part, all the dishes were prepared ahead of time.

Appetizers included humus, a selection of olives, savory crackers, nuts, crudités, etc.

Our first course was a 12-egg frittata with peppers, onion, basil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, served at room temperature

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The second course was a turkey meatloaf wrapped in pancetta and was accompanied by peas. The recipe came from Giada De Laurentiis on the Food Network website. Here’s a link to the recipe I used.

In lieu of the sun dried tomatoes that were called for, I substituted raisins remaining true to my Neapolitan-Sicilian heritage. I also added a generous pinch of ground cumin to the seasonings.

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Prosecco was the wine of choice for both the appetizers and the frittata. We served a Rosso Piceno, a Sangiovese form Italy’s Marche region with the meat.

Dessert was a store-bought nut tart and brownies.

Good company and conversation made the brunch a success, but for entertaining, I think I’ll stick with dinners.

Penne Fusion

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On Saturday afternoon, as I was passing a nearby outdoor cafe, I saw a inviting plate of fresh tagliatelle with peas. It looked so good that I thought I would make something like that for dinner.

As I began to think of peas, however, my mind turned to a childhood dish of those little green gems simmered with sautéed onions and pancetta. But then, the thought of savory pancetta brought to mind pasta alla carbonara. By the time I got home, I decided to attempt a fusion of the two dishes for supper.

The following recipe is based on one of my favorites for the classic Roman spaghetti alla carbonara from David Downie’s Cooking the Roman Way. Here’s a link to a good online adaptation that you may also want to try: Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Here’s my recipe:

Penne Fusion
1Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, diced
1 small onion, sliced thin
1 cup frozen petit peas, defrosted
2 large eggs, at room temperature
Salt
Crushed black pepper
1/4 cup Pecorino Romano or more to taste
8 oz penne or spaghetti

  1. Bring a a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta; for 8 oz of penne, I use a 4qt pot.
  2. Chop the pancetta into small dice.
  3. In a 3qt sauté pan or Dutch over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the pancetta and let it render its fat; then add the thinly sliced onion and cook until the onion is soft and the pancetta is lightly crisp. Add the defrosted peas and cook for an additional couple of minutes until the peas are heated through.
  4. Remove from the heat and let the pan cool for a few minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, when the water has reached a full boil, add a small handful of salt. Add the salt slowly so that pot does not boil over. When the water has returned to a boil, add the pasta and stir. Cook uncovered until just before al dente.
  6. While the peas are heating, beat the eggs well with the cheese, a pinch of salt, and a generous grinding of black pepper.
  7. Reserve a cup of the pasta water.
  8. Right before the pasta is cooked to a nice al dente stage, pour the beaten eggs into the sauté pan and stir with the pancetta, onions, and peas. The pan must still be warm enough to heat the egg mixture but not so hot that the eggs will scramble.
  9. Immediately drain the pasta and add it to the sauté pan tossing it with the sauce to coat. If the sauce is too thick, add a tablespoon or so of water to loosen. Cover the pan and let it stand for about a minute.

Serve with additional cheese and black pepper.

The difficult part of this recipe is the timing. As I said before, the sauté pan with the pancetta, onions, and peas cannot be too hot or else the egg mixture will scramble when it is added. On the other hand, it should be just warm enough to heat the egg mixture so that it will coat the pasta.

It’s also important to add the pasta while it is still hot so that its heat will help heat the egg mixture as well.

 

Chicken Paillard

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Yesterday, we had a late lunch at an Italian restaurant that features la vera pizza Napolitana, real Neapolitan pizza. Needless to say, I ate more than my share of these thin-crusted beauties with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, and basil, cooked in a wood-fired over for just a few minutes.

On the way home, we had to stop by our local supermarket for a few things, and I thought maybe I’d pick up something for a later that night just in case we were hungry. Pre-washed Mesclun salad was first and then I saw some thinly cut boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

I must admit that I’m not a fan of this cut. I almost always prefer chicken with its skin on and bones in. But when time, and calories, are the deciding factors, these breasts can be turned into a nice dish.

It was now rather late, and we were both somewhat hungry. Given the time, I wanted über simple and thought I would use the breasts for paillards or cutlets.

Recipes abound for these both in cookbooks and on the internet. Some call for breading, others for rolling and stuffing; some prescribe marinating or applying rubs to the meat. But I wanted simple, straightforward chicken and it was late. So here’s what I did.

2  Thin cut boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
Salt
Pepper
Cumin
1 Tbs Unsalted butter
1 Tbs Olive Oil
Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Lemon juice, Balsamic vinegar for finishing the chicken and dressing the greens.
Washed mesclun salad greens or arugula

1. Place a thin cut, boneless, skinless chicken breast between two pieces of plastic wrap. With a meat pounder or the side of a cleaver or even a heavy skillet pound the breast until it is about 1/4 inch thick. Season one side with salt, pepper, and a cumin. Repeat this step for each breast.

Note: You must keep hygiene in mind when handling raw chicken. Be sure to keep your hands and work surfaces clean when handling and pounding the chicken.

2. Over medium to medium-high flame, heat a skillet large enough to hold one or two pounded breasts in a single layer and add about a tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter to the pan. When the butter stops sizzling, place the chicken in the pan, seasoned side down. Season the top side of the breast with salt and pepper.

3. Cook for two minutes and then flip with a pair of tongs and cook for an additional two minutes. Juices should be running clear. Cooking times will vary depending both on the heat and the thickness of the chicken. Avoid moving the chicken when it is in the pan; it will release when it’s ready.

4. When done, remove the breasts from the pan and place over a bed of mesclun or other greens that have been lightly dressed with olive oil and some lemon juice. Do not over dress the salad.

5. Drizzle the breasts with some extra virgin olive oil and just a few drops of a thick balsamic vinegar and serve with a lemon wedge to be squeezed on the chicken and the salad.

Wine Pairing: Cotes du Rhone for red; Macon Villages for white.

Grilled Lamb Chops

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Last night’s recipe for lamb chops came from Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes by Giada de Laurentiis. It’s a simple recipe that calls for marinating 3/4 inch lamb chops for several hours in a paste made from extra virgin olive oil, garlic, fresh rosemary, fresh thyme, salt, and cayenne.

I chose to add some ground cumin to the blend for its savory character. Here’s a link to the recipe: Grilled Lamb Chops

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I served the chops with steamed spinach and a couscous cooked in stock with some Marsala-soaked raisins and then finished with a generous touch of za’atar, a Middle-Eastern spice blend.

Wine Pairing: Sangiovese, Merlot, Pinot Noir

Mussels Marinara

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Tuesday is usually a fish day for us. So last night, I prepared Mussels Marinara. I’m not sure how I came up with this recipe, but over the years I’ve been tweaking it. The marinara sauce is based on that of my Neapolitan aunt, who would often prepare it for a weekday dinner’s first-course pasta. The process of steaming the mussels open in the sauce comes from many recipes I’ve used for preparing clams for pasta with olive oil, garlic, and parsley.

This is a relatively easy and quick dish to prepare; perfect for a weekday night.

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2 pounds mussels, rinsed and debearded. (I use farmed mussels, which are easier to clean and require a minimum of debearding.)
2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced about 1/8 inch thick
3 Tbs chopped parsley (1 for the sauce; 2 for finishing)
28 oz can of crushed Italian tomatoes
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 tsp crushed red-pepper flakes (or more to taste)
1 tsp dried oregano (If you opt for more oregano, be careful not to overdo it, as too much oregano can overwhelm the taste of the mussels.)

1. Clean and debeard mussels, discarding any cracked or opened ones. I keep them in a bowl with cold water slowly running over them and then lift them up out of the water with a spider or small sieve.

2. In a large deep, 3 quart, sauté pan, over low heat add oil and garlic. Poach the garlic slowly for about 5 minutes until they become aromatic and before they take on any color.|

3. Add 1 Tbs of the parsley and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes more.

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4. Add tomatoes and bring to simmer.

5. Add red-pepper flakes and oregano. Rub the oregano in your palms to release maximum flavor.

6. Add wine and simmer uncovered over medium low heat for 15 minutes.musstep2small

7. Add mussels to to the pan and stir coating them with the sauce.

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8. Cover the pan tightly. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, occasionally shaking the pan, until the mussels have opened.

9. Transfer to a large bowl with the sauce, discarding any mussels that have not opened. Finish with the remaining parsley and, if desired, a drizzle of olive oil.

Serve, in warmed bowls, with thick slices of grilled or toasted Italian bread to sop up the sauce.

Wine Pairing:  A young Salento Rosso for a red; a Fiano di Avellino for a white.

Steak Salad for Lunch

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I made a quick lunch today from leftover ribeye steak and chickpeas. I dressed the arugula with a touch of good balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and salt. Topped it with lightly salted, thinly sliced leftover steak and a few chickpeas that were also tossed separately with some of the oil and vinegar. Served with a couple of slices of ciabatta.

Pasta all’Amatriciana

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I couldn’t get to the grocery store yesterday, and we both wanted pasta. Therefore, I had to rely on what was on hand: half a red onion, canned plum tomatoes, olive oil, crushed red-pepper flakes, a half pound of rigatoni.

That lineup could have worked well for a simple marinara. A second look in the fridge, however, yielded a left-over piece of guanciale. When I saw this cured pork made from a pig’s cheek, the die was cast: pasta all’ Amatriciana.

Recipes for this classic Roman pasta dish abound, as do debates over its preparation. The major disagreement seems to be over the use of onion. Many feel that it adulterates the flavor of the original. But I like the sweetness the onion adds to the sauce and, if I have some in the kitchen, will use it.

Another dispute centers on the meat: pancetta or guanciale. Most traditionalists I know call for the latter. However, two of my favorite cookbooks, Marcella Hazan ’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and David Downie’s Cooking the Roman Way call for pancetta. I find pancetta too salty and therefore opt for guanciale, which maintains its silky texture during cooking and makes for a more succulent sauce. But either will do.

Finally, there are differing opinions on the pasta shape. Some purists call for spaghetti; others, for bucatini. I prefer the thicker bucatini, but when I don’t have any available, I’ll use rigatoni or even penne.

So here’s my recipe for a serving for two, based on Marcella Hazan’s.

1 Tbs Olive Oil
1 Tbs Sweet Butter
1/2 Red Onion, diced fine
4 oz of Guanciale, cut into strips about 1/4 inch thick and 1/2 inch long
1 14 oz can Italian crushed tomatoes (I prefer San Marzano if available)
1 tsp crushed red-pepper flakes or to taste (I prefer the hot Calabrian)
Salt
1/2 lb pasta (bucatini, rigatoni, penne)
1 Tbs of Pecorino Romano, grated, plus more for the table

  1. Add the oil, butter, and onion to a sauté pan and cook over medium flame until the onion is soft. Be sure to stir occasionally to avoid burning the onion. About 5 minutes.
  2. When the onions are soft, add the guanciale and cook until the guanciale starts to render its fat. About 3 minutes.
  3. Add the tomatoes, red-pepper flakes, salt to taste, and stir.
  4. Bring to a slow simmer and cook at a simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes. Taste, at the end, for salt and hot pepper.
  5. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. When boiling, add a generous amount of salt to the water. Add the salt slowly to avoid the water boiling over. Add the pasta and bring back to a boil and cook for about a minute or two less than indicated on the package for al dente.
  6. When the pasta is done to a good al dente stage, drain well, saving about a cup of the pasta water.
  7. Add the drained pasta to the sauce in the sauté pan and cook over a low flame, tossing for about a minute. If too dry, add a tablespoon or so of the pasta water.
  8. Turn off the flame, add the cheese, and toss again.
  9. Serve on heated plates accompanied by some additional grated cheese.

Wine Pairing: My go-to wine for this pasta is a chilled Frascati, the wine of Rome. However, for red-wine drinkers a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo would work well.

Steak Night Ribeyes

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After a week of being “good,” I thought we deserved some big beef. Passing by my butcher, I found some irresistible local-grown bone in ribeye steaks.  Living in New York City, many of us don’t have the luxury of an outdoor grill and need to turn to alternative methods of grilling a steak. Many opt for broiling or oven roasting, but I depend on a good grill pan.

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I pat the steaks dry and then season both sides liberally with kosher salt and pepper and rub the fist side to be cooked with a small amount of olive oil.

I then place the steaks on the preheated grill, pressing them down rather firmly to ensure full contact and help obtain the ever elusive grill marks. I sear the steaks on high for 1 minute and the turn the flame down to medium. I cook a 1 to 1.5 inch steak for about 7 minutes a side, cooking each side on high for the first minute.

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When the steaks are done, I place them on heated plates and the let them rest tented for about 5 minutes.

On serving, I drizzle each steak a bit of first quality Tuscan extra virgin olive oil.

Wine Pairing: Pinot Noir, Brunello

Roasted Sea Bass with Chickpea Puree and Parsley Sauce

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For Friday night supper, a Tuscan dish: Roast Sea Bass with Chickpea Puree and Parsley Sauce. Relatively thick fillets are marinated with fresh bay leaves and rosemary in olive oil and hot paprika and then roasted for 12 – 15 minutes. The fish is served on a puree of chickpeas seasoned with the zest and juice of a lemon, garlic, and minced rosemary. The parsley sauce is a puree of fresh parsley and olive oil. Perfect with a white from the coast of Tuscany: Vermentino. I found the recipe in the May issue of “Food and Wine.” Ever notice how many Tuscan dishes are beige?

Pork Chops with Peppadew Peppers

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Pork chops with Peppadew peppers were on last night’s menu. I substituted hot Peppadews, a branded sweet piquant pepper from South Africa, for the traditional vinegar peppers. Another variation on this classic Italian-American dish came from a “Cook’s Illustrated” recipe, which calls for starting the pork cops in a cold pan, making for a juicier chop, and using temperature rather than time to measure doneness.

Wine Pairing: Morellino di Scansano