Saturday, May 23, 2009

A battle to end all battles

Last week I attended Dish du Jour Magazine’s 8th Annual “Cuisine of Queens and Beyond” event, held at the stately Astoria World Manor in Astoria, Queens. Inside a grand ballroom, attendees sampled and sipped their way through offerings from over 55 local restaurants, gourmet shops, bakeries, and wine and beer companies. All of the food was delicious, but the crowds were here for one reason and one reason only: to take part in the “Meatball Melee,” a competition in which ten carefully chosen New York City restaurants entered their well-honed meatball recipes for judging, seeking the ultimate title of Best Meatball in the Boroughs. The finalists included Agnanti of Queens; Carmine’s and Bello Giardino of Manhattan; Ignazio’s Pizza of Brooklyn; Pastosa Ravioli of Staten Island; and five others.

All ten restaurants offered up their meatballs for tasting at the event. Many different styles were represented, including delicate, lamb-based, pine nut-studded Greek spheres; heavy, meaty, red-sauce Italian-American-style orbs the size of baseballs; golden-fried specimens and balls that were poached directly in their sauce. After I had tasted all ten, I had a clear winner in mind. But it was up to the celebrity judges--including Michael Psilakis of Anthos and Kefi fame and Frank Pelligrino, actor and co-owner of the venerable Rao’s restaurant in Harlem—to award the title. After tasting and commenting on all ten entries, the judges declared Bello Giardino’s “Nicky’s Famous Meatball” the winner. Here's my sample:

What an upset! This meatball wasn't my favorite. It had an ultrafine texture—the result of using meat that is ground three times—and was tightly packed and then fried crispy in oil. Very tasty (try naming a fried food that isn’t)—but the meatball that won my heart was the offering from Carmine’s. This was a huge, loosely packed meatball chock-full of chopped fresh parsley and an obscene amount of grated Romano cheese. Browned very lightly before being simmered in a rich tomato sauce, it was extremely moist, tender, and flavorful. Check out this luscious tray full of 'em:

Oh well--as with any food, it’s a matter of taste.

Find the recipe for the winning meatball here and the recipe for the underdog—Carmine’s meatball—here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A birthday dinner

On April 15th, my mom turned 60. She threw a big party, and old friends from all over the country flew in to see her. She was heaped with presents, receiving everything from jewelry to decorative plates and vases to cookware--all lovely gifts, to be sure, but for my present I wanted to offer her something homemade. Remember when you were a little kid and you would painstakingly create birthday cards for your parents out of construction paper, glue, and obscene amounts of glitter? They took hours of fierce dedication to complete, and were true measures of your devotion. In a slightly more mature variation on this tried-and-true gift-giving tradition, this year my present to my mother was a three course meal cooked from scratch.

In my humble opinion, a home-cooked meal is one of the finest gifts you can receive. The giver has to plan out the menu in accordance with the recipient's likes and dislikes; they have to shop for the ingredients; and, finally, they must cook and serve the meal. A lot of thought goes into this process, and who in this world doesn't appreciate it when someone else thinks of them? And don't think that the gift-giver doesn't get something out of the deal, too. For someone, like me, who loves to cook, preparing a meal for someone else is great fun. I can't just shoot from the hip, as it were, riffing on the contents of my refrigerator and throwing together something that satisfies my tastes alone. I have to put myself in someone else's shoes, I must imagine what kind of meal someone else likes to sit down to, and that often means using a recipe or technique that I don't often employ on my own. It's good practice, and it's a good time.

There were a number of factors to take into account when planning the menu for my mom's birthday dinner. First and foremost, she is a very healthy eater; she likes to eat whole grains and hearty, nutritious items such as beans, squash, and sweet potatoes. She eats and enjoys red meat, but only infrequently; usually, she prefers lighter proteins such as fish and poultry. Finally--and most importantly--my mother is a chocoholic in the truest sense of the word. It's she who taught me to appreciate the virtues of a dark, bitter piece of chocolate--an item she eats on a daily basis. There was no question that, whatever the meal, the grand finale would have to exalt chocolate.

And so, without further ado, here is what I made. To start, we ate Warm Squash Salad with Candied Pepitas, a recipe I adapted from one I found on In this salad, still-warm pieces of roasted butternut squash are piled on top of bitter arugula and topped with shaved parmesan and sweet spiced pumpkin seeds:

For the main dish, I made Stuffed Squid Braised in Aromatic Tomato Sauce. Again, I adapted this recipe from epicurious. This dish is somewhat laborious but really fun to make. First, you finely chop the squid tentacles and saute them in olive oil. Once cooled, they provide the base for the stuffing, which also includes fresh bread crumbs, chopped herbs, grated parmesan and lemon zest. The filling gets spooned into the hollow squid bodies, which are the perfect vessels for stuffing. They're then browned in olive oil and finally allowed to braise in a bright, simple tomato sauce until the filling has expanded and they're perfectly tender. I served them over orzo:

The insides of these guys looked really cool flecked with green from the herbs and purple from the tentacles. Here's a cross-section:

I might be calling the squid the main course, but for my mother the main event was dessert. I made her a deep, rich, crisp-on-the-outside-gooey-on-the-inside chocolate torte--regally named the Queen of Sheba--from a wonderful cookbook called Bittersweet written by a wonderful author named Alice Medrich. The torte consists, basically, of chocolate, butter, eggs and sugar; a scant two tablespoons of flour provide some solidity to this souffle-like confection:

I served the slices with a little bit of barely-sweetened whipped cream:

Happy birthday, Mom!

Warm Squash Salad with Candied Pepitas
Adapted from
Serves 4


1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. paprika
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup raw green (hulled) pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
1 tbsp. cranberry juice cocktail
2 tsp. Sherry vinegar
1 tbsp. minced shallot
4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 lbs. butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2" thick slices
1 small piece Parmesan cheese
1 bunch arugula, trimmed, washed, and dried


1. Roast the squash: preheat the oven to 450°. Toss squash with 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt and pepper to taste in a shallow baking pan and arrange slices in 1 layer. Roast in the middle of the oven until just tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven, then cover with tin foil to keep warm.
2. Make the candied pepitas: melt butter in a heavy saucepan over moderate heat. Stir in the sugar, cumin, cinnamon, paprika, cayenne, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, then cook, without stirring, until caramelized. Add the pumpkin seeds and cook, stirring occasionally, until seeds are puffed and golden. Transfer to a plate to cool. When seeds have hardened, break up any clumps with your fingers.
3. Make the dressing: whisk together the cranberry juice, vinegar, and shallot and let stand 5 minutes. Whisk in 3 tablespoons oil, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste.
4. Assemble the salad: shave 12 strips from the cheese with a vegetable peeler. Place a large handful of arugula on each of 4 salad plates, then top with a few pieces of squash. Divide dressing evenly among 4 plates. Top each salad with 3 cheese shavings and a generous sprinkling of pumpkin seeds.

Stuffed Squid Braised in Aromatic Tomato Sauce
Adapted from
Serves 4


2 lbs. cleaned squid with tentacles, rinsed
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 (14- to 15-oz) cans diced tomatoes, puréed in a blender or food processor until smooth
5 fresh basil leaves
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 cup finely grated aged Pecorino or Parmesan cheese
1 cup finely ground fresh bread crumbs (from an Italian loaf)
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 garlic cloves, minced
Zest of one lemon
2 large eggs, lightly beaten


1. In a food processor, finely chop tentacles. Heat 3 tbsp. oil in a wide 5- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat and sauté tentacles, stirring, until just cooked through, about 1 minute. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a bowl and cool.
2. Stir tomatoes into oil in pot along with basil, salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes. While sauce simmers, stir together Pecorino, bread crumbs, parsley, garlic, lemon zest, eggs, sautéed tentacles, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Gently stuff each squid body with a slightly rounded tablespoon of filling and pat squid to distribute filling evenly. Weave a wooden pick horizontally across wide opening of each squid to seal. (During cooking, stuffing will expand and squid will shrink, forming a rounded, well-stuffed squid. Do not overstuff!)
3. Heat remaining 3 tbsp. oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat and sauté squid, turning over once, until browned and any liquid given off is evaporated, about 6 minutes total. Add squid to tomato sauce and simmer, covered, until squid is tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Discard picks and serve squid, about 4 per person, with sauce over cooked orzo. Garnish with chopped parsley.

"Queen of Sheba" Chocolate Torte
Adapted from Bittersweet by Alice Medrich
Makes one 9" cake


6 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
10 tbsp. (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3 tbsp. brandy or whiskey
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup unblanched (skin on) whole almonds
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
Very lightly sweetened whipped cream


1. Position rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat to 375°. Prepare a 9" round springform pan by placing a round of wax paper on the bottom.
2. Place the chocolate and butter in a medium heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir occasionally until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in brandy, vanilla and salt. Set aside.
3. Meanwhile, pulse the flour and the almonds in a food processor until finely ground. Set aside.
4. In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with 1/2 cup sugar until thick and well blended. Stir in the chocolate mixture a little at a time.
5. In a clean dry bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar at medium speed until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar and beat at high speed until the peaks are stiff and glossy but not dry. Scoop one quarter of the egg whites and all of the nut mixture on top of the chocolate batter and carefully fold them in using a large rubber spatula. Fold in the remaining egg whites. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spreading it level if necessary.
6. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the edge comes out dry but a toothpick inserted in the center comes out moist and gooey. Set the pan on a rack to cool.
7. To serve, slide a slim knife around the inside of the pan to loosen cake. Remove the pan sides and invert the cake onto a plate, remove the wax paper, and invert again onto a platter or cake stand. Cut cake into wedges and serve each slice with a little whipped cream on top.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

More on the Mayan feast

Last week I provided a link to a short blog post that I authored for Food & Wine's blog Mouthing Off about a Mayan feast that I was able to attend courtesy of the magazine. As promised, below is a more fully elaborated version of that post, complete with professional photos taken by photographer Mike Shane. Thanks to Marzi Alavi, the event's publicist, for providing the photos!

My position as the magazine’s food intern comes with a lot of perks. These include: daily visits to the Test Kitchen to partake of the unfailingly delicious results of our chefs’ recipe testing; the duty of requesting (and, subsequently, sampling) all manner of delicious new food offerings from purveyors all over the country; the occasional free bottle of wine left over from our wine editors’ rigorous taste tests; and the privilege of attending fancy food media events such as F&W’s recent Best New Chefs Gala at City Winery. On Tuesday night, I was a guest at the Archaeological Institute of America’s 130th Anniversary Gala held at the grand Chinatown event space Capitale. The dinner honored Harrison Ford, whose famous role in the Indiana Jones movie franchise, archaeologists at the event explained, inspired countless young men and women to join the field. Taking his inspiration from the exotic locales shown in the films, Capitale’s executive chef Jason Munger created a Mayan feast to celebrate the AIA, consulting with Maya food archeologist Patricio Balona in order to ensure the meal’s authenticity. As someone who has traveled extensively through Mexico and thoroughly savored all that I ate there, I was excited to get a taste of the ancient foods that are the foundation for the country’s modern-day eats.

And what, exactly, would those foods be? When I mentioned to friends that I would be attending a Mayan feast, a lot of them joked that I would be eating corn, corn, and more corn. I shrugged off what I assumed was a fairly myopic stereotype, but, as it turns out, my buddies’ assumptions weren’t that far off from the truth. In fact, corn was central to Mayan religion, accounting, even, for the creation of man. Mayans believed in maize gods who shed their blood and mixed it with corn flour to make humans. In light of this information, it doesn’t come as a surprise that corn figures largely in traditional Mayan cuisine. The first course served at the AIA gala, a seared corn cake topped with sweet potato puree, roasted duck and tomatillo salsa, paid tribute to the holy grain:

The other Mayan delicacies that I enjoyed included roasted feral pork with a poblano tomatillo sauce and jicama, yucca and calabasa:

And, for a sweet ending, a Mayan banana split. This south-of-the-border reworking of the classic featured soft, sweet fried plantains topped with three different sorbets--creamy coconut, spiced pumpkin and lush avocado--and was finished with crispy plantain chips:

Heaven-sent treats, to be sure.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A discussion of fashion, fueled by frittata

Last week marked the third installment of my semi-regular dinners with my friends Willy and Patrick, whereby, in exchange for my home cooking, the two provide some type of refreshing alcoholic beverage and a dessert of some kind (preferably a selection of 35¢ Big Boy ice cream sandwiches). Being that Patrick is a vegetarian, these dinners challenge my creativity in the kitchen (which, for me, is great fun). Although I often cook and enjoy meat-free meals for myself, I feel that the ante is upped when I prepare them for a bona fide vegetarian: it's on me to make a filling and well-rounded plate that will satisfy someone who has eaten all manner of vegetarian creations, and knows what's good and what's not.

I can't speak for vegetarians, but as someone who cooks, I truly feel that eggs are the saving grace when it comes to meat-free meals. As I mentally ran through a variety of menu options for my dinner with the guys, I kept settling on things like pasta (which I had made for both of the other dinners: first with roasted vegetables and then with potatoes and pesto), some sort of Asian rice or noodle dish, or dishes founded on potatoes (something like, for example, colcannon ). I was thinking about starch, not about protein. And then suddenly I remembered that I had a nearly-full carton of eggs in my fridge that needed to be used up. I felt immensely relieved: yes, that will be tasty! Yes, that will be filling!

Once I had settled on making an egg dish, the rest of my plans fell into place quite naturally. Minimally intensive and maximally satisfying, a frittata fit the bill. Almost anything goes in a frittata--that's what makes it such a perfect food--but I decided to pack mine, this time, with potatoes, red peppers and spinach, three ingredients that I view as natural matches for each other. On the side, I prepared a quick garlic bread (simply a baguette, halved lengthwise, brushed with garlic-infused olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and toasted in the oven) as well as a salad of fresh baby spinach (left over from the frittata-making), peppery arugula, thinly sliced apples and toasted walnuts. Dinner conversation covered a range of topics, from opinions on men wearing V-necks (unanimously opposed), to anyone, man or woman, wearing shorts (Patrick and Willy approved; I demurred), to the greatness of the band the Vaselines and of trips outside of New York City. We didn't really talk about the food, but I think that the empty bread plate, the empty salad bowl, the nearly empty frittata pan (save for two slices) and the three empty ice cream sandwich wrappers spoke to our enjoyment of the dinner.

Potato, Red Pepper and Spinach Fritatta
Makes 8 wedges

1. Wash 3 large or 4 small waxy (new) potatoes. Cut them into bite-size pieces and place them in a small pot. Fill pot with enough cold water to just cover potatoes. Cover the pot and set it over high heat to bring water to a boil, then drop heat to medium and allow potatoes to cook at a low boil until tender, about 6 minutes more. Drain the potatoes.
2. Meanwhile, rinse one large red bell pepper and cut it open to remove seeds and ribs. Slice the pepper into long, thin strips and cook them slowly in about 2 tbsp. of olive oil in a deep, wide pan (preferably a 10" cast-iron skillet) set over medium heat. Season strips with salt and pepper and stir occasionally. The strips are done when they are tender and well-browned, about 15 - 18 minutes.
3. Increase the heat under the skillet of peppers to medium and begin to add handfuls of well-washed baby spinach or regular spinach, torn, to the pan. Season with salt and stir, allowing the spinach to wilt. Add about 5 cups of raw spinach; it will cook down to about 1 1/2 cups.
4. Add diced potatoes to the pan and stir to combine.
5. Meanwhile, beat 8 large eggs in a bowl, seasoning them with salt and pepper. Additionally, grate 1 cup of semifirm mild cheese, like Idiziabal, Manchego or Gruyere, and set aside.
6. Add about 1 tbsp. more olive oil to the pan and tilt to coat the bottom. Set flat and arrange vegetables in an even layer over the bottom of the pan. With the pan over medium heat, pour in the beaten eggs. Stir them only occasionally, so that they begin to set. Using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, pull the outer, set layer of eggs into the middle of the pan, and repeat.
7. When eggs begin to set more firmly, add the cheese, sprinkling it evenly over the eggs and stirring to combine. Preheat your oven's broiler. When it is hot, slide the skillet underneath and cook until the top of the fritatta is set and browned. Watch it closely! This should take about 4 - 6 minutes but may happen more quickly if your broiler is especially hot.
8. Remove the skillet from the oven and slice it into 8 wedges. Serve hot, warm or cold. We enjoyed the fritatta hot when I first made it and it was delicious, but when I ate it cold from the refrigerator the next day it was also great because I could taste the cheese more distinctly.

Spinach and Arugula Salad with Apples and Toasted Walnuts
Serves 4

1. Thoroughly wash and dry 1 large bunch of baby spinach. Pick off large or tough stems and place the spinach in a large bowl.
2. Thoroughly wash and dry 1 large bunch of arugula. Pick off large or tough stems and either tear or slice the arugula into wide ribbons. Place in the bowl.
3. Core 1 tart green apple and cut it into wedges. Slice each wedge into about 8 or 10 very thin slices and add them to the bowl.
4. Toast about 3/4 cup walnuts, either in a small pan over medium heat or in a 300° oven, for about 6 minutes. Let cool completely. Add to bowl.
5. Prepare a simple vinaigrette for the salad. Stir together a mix of red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar (about 1/3 cup total) with salt and pepper. Whisk in about 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil. Pour mixture over salad and toss until evenly coated. Serve at once.