Gimme a Beet! Last Night’s Easy-Peezy Beet Salad

20 May

On my way out to hang with my Dad yesterday–a strong, sunny dazzler of an afternoon in this most bizarre of spring seasons–I swung by Sang Lee Farms, a great organically-farmed produce and plant purveyor on the North Fork of eastern Long Island. Owned by second-generation farmer, Fred Lee, this little-farm-that-could started out in the 1940s in Melville as a supplier to Chinatown vendors and eateries. Today, Fred, his wife, Karen, and their three children work their land now located in Peconic, supplying produce to some of the best restaurants on Long Island and NYC from a bounty of over 100 varieties of organic and, sometimes, heirloom veggies. It’s a special little spot, and one where I know I’m guaranteed to find side options of the bright and inspiring kind.

Dad and I had planned on ravioli for dinner later, and while walking past the pretty baskets filled with greens and tubers and carrots, the come-hither hue of a bunch of multi-colored beets caught my eye. Sold. To that, I added to my stash a container of Catapano chevre (a goat farm and cheesemaker just down the road), paid, and hit the road.

“Beets?!” my pops said incredulously when I walked in the door with their leafy locks peeked from the bag. “I hate beets!”

Hmmm.

“The only ones I ever liked were at the East Rockaway Point House. Joseph, the maitre’d, used to give your mother and I little plate of them, pickled, with our cocktails.”

Okay, so, tangy was the order of the day. I boiled them, ran them under cold water, and chilled them down. I knew his mint was up in the backyard, so I clipped a healthy looking sprig and cut that chiffonade-style. Once chilled, I tossed them together with a mustardy-dressing, the mint, and the chevre, and served it as a salad with dinner. He liked it.

Score one for the formerly blasphemed little beet.

Minty, Tangy Beet Salad
(serves 2-3)
1 bunch multi-colored beets (or, you know, whatever beets you want to use – the multi are just super pretty)
1 small bunch fresh mint leaves, washed, dried, and cut chiffonade
2 TBSP goat cheese
2 TBSP olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp honey
sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Boil beets until fork-tender, about 10 minutes. Rinse, peel, and chill in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, whisk together the olive oil, mustard, lemon juice, honey, and salt and pepper to taste.  Cut beets to desired size (I cut mine in bite-sized eighths), toss with dressing and crumbled chevre. Adjust salt and pepper as needed.

A Short Conversation with My Dad About Knives

17 May

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“Dad, how do you pick out a knife?”

“How?”

“Yeah, how. Like, if I didn’t own a single knife and I needed to go get one, what can you tell me about knives.”

I’ve been pressing my dad–an 84-year-old retired butcher–with questions like this for the past couple of years. After growing up working in his shop and spending a lifetime as a butcher’s daughter, I realized there were a lot questions I’d never asked, millions of hours wasted not paying attention, and far too many things I hadn’t learned. And that the fault of this rested on my own shoulders. A sort of clock-ticking panic has set in.

So now I ask. I ask a lot, often with a notebook and pen in hand, scribbling away to his bemused consternation–everything from family stories to practical cutting and cooking questions. He’s proud of his life’s work, but Mike Zavatto is not a guy who likes being interviewed, so this has to be done in small doses and with great care. How do I cut up a chicken? Can you teach me how to make sausage? What cut of  beef should I buy for a pot roast? A roast-roast? All these questions, meted out slowly, carefully. And then sometimes impatiently. There never seems to be enough time.

I brought him all of my blades to sharpen for me one recent weekend, plied him with a roast beef sandwich, and followed up with a few questions about about knives. Tthis is what he had to say:

Type of knife he prefers: “I always like a carbon steel, but now they’re a carbon-stainless mix.”

What’s the difference? “Carbon steel doesn’t keep the shine, but it’s the best steel. It’s harder to keep it clean. It dulls, turns like a grayish tone, and it’ll tend to rust if you don’t keep it clean or put a little mineral oil on it. Should do that every time you wash them. Carbon steel holds an edge better than the mix.”

And the mix?The mix is not as good. Problem is, you can’t keep [the 100% carbon] shiny like the mix. They will be more sanitary because they stay cleaner. If you look at the knives I have in the drawer, they’re carbon steel and they look dark. And there are knives in there mixed [that are] shiny. Those are the carbon steel mixed with stainless.”

Should I buy carbon steel? “If you can find them–there are none around unless you buy second hand. Probably more expensive, too. Nobody wants to sell them. Those that have them, keep them. They hold a better edge. [The material] trues the edge and stays sharper than the fancy mix.”

How do I buy a knife? “I go by brand, usually.”

Which do you like? “Swibo, they’re Swedish, I believe. Forschner, I don’t know what the hell they are. I’m talking now knives we used in my trade. A lot of times a chef will use a different brand. For a U.S.-made knife, very practical and inexpensive, I like Chicago Cutlery. Excellent knife for the price. Did you see how when I sharpened yours it took the edge fast? It’s good steel. It cuts well.”

Which is the best? “You don’t know you like it until you use it. Some are fancy but don’t hold an edge. Just because it costs a lot of money doesn’t mean it’s a good knife.”

Any others? “Japanese [knives] are very good–Santoku, I like. The indentations make it easier to cut. It’s a good all-purpose knife. Lets you eliminate having a serrated for bread–it takes the place of two or three.”

If I had no knives, what are the bare-minimum of knives I need in my kitchen? “You would need a paring knife. You would need what I call a 6-inch boning knife. And one of those Japanese Santokus–that’s good for carving, bread, chopping. It came out five or ten years ago. It’s not an old knife; it’s a new design.”

Cook with Books: Zuni Cafe Cookbook

15 May

[Note: Cook with Books will be an ongoing, cookbook-reviewing, musing, hands-on, pots-hot section of this blog–hopefully weekly, possibly less or more, depending on what in heaven’s name is going on in a given 7-ways-to-Sunday period.]

Judy had me at chicken.

It was just about 10 years ago when my husband, Dan, and I went to dinner at Judy Rodgers’s Zuni Café. I’d never been to San Fran and was already pretty excited about the food scene. Add to that the notion that we were there for a book project I’d just co-written on wine and food pairing, and I was feeling pretty fa-lee-da dazzled. And I hadn’t even had the chicken yet.

I’d read about the famous Rodgers chicken with bread salad, and ordered it before our waiter even got to the specials. It was all it had been built up to be — crispy, a little salty, dribbly juicy with this crunchy/soft tuft of torn peasant bread, at once tangy, sweet, nutty, savory, bitter, and bright. It stayed in my sense memory long after licking the last crumb of the salad from an index finger.

Rodgers’s Zuni Café Cookbook was published that same year, and when I got back to NY I bought it, and still faithfully roast my bird the Rodgers’s way: fast and hot. But this book is no one-fowl flash in the pan. It’s deceivingly packed with great recipes. I say deceivingly because of the way it’s written–at once rambling and practical. Sort of the way my sisters and I talk to each other when phoning up to ask for or explain a recipe. Which is another thing I love about it; how personal it seems. Instead of playing to the masses, Rodgers’s classic (I’m hauling out the C word, I am!) is kind of intimate. After years of splattering it with myriad juices and dribbles and bits and bubble-overs, I feel like I could walk into her kitchen and know exactly what I’d find in it.

And I learned a week or so ago, with no real surprise, that I’m not alone in my Zuni swoon. I was at a wine dinner with a group of other writers, and somehow Zuni came up. Two seats away from me, the eyes of writer Andrew Dornenburg (whose own recent tome, The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine, written with wife Karen Page just got a Beard nod) lit up. “Oh, I love that book!” And within seconds our end of the table were confessing undying love for this 10-year-old compilation of recipes. Written by a woman who, to my general knowledge, isn’t slinging hash on TV, or selling chicken stock with her face on a Tetra-pack box, or opening up Zuni chains in airports. But this is a semi-snarky digression and getting away from the point.

Being it’s not just the bread salad — it’s pretty much everything in its beautiful, quirky pages. There hasn’t been a single recipe that disappoints. And even though it’s hard to pull yourself away from favorites (those short ribs!), it’s inevitably rewarding when you do. Which brings us to tonight’s asparagus and rice soup with pancetta and black pepper.

This time of year, it’s impossible not to get a little asparagus-happy, and it so happened I had a bunch in my fridge that I bought at my local greenmarket this past weekend. I wanted to use them tonight but not as a side; I was craving something a little more communal. Like soup. After flipping glumly through a few other books packed with empty promises, I turned to tried-and-true Judy, and there it was. It lets the asparagus be asparagus, chopped instead of pureed, to really get their texture along with the bright green color and spring flavor. Add to that a genius bit of Arborio rice, bits of pancetta, sweet onions, and black pepper and you have that trademark Rodgers savory quality that will keep you coming back for seconds and thirds — simple yet surprising.

Asparagus and Rice Soup with Pancetta and Black Pepper
– makes about 4 cups –
(adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, W.W. Norton and Co. )

6 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
2 cups yellow onions (about 1 large)
Pinch of kosher or sea salt
1/4 cup dry white rice (Arborio if you’ve got it–otherwise, use what you’ve got)
3 1/2 cups chicken stock, give or take (next time, I’ll use a little more, and maybe some more rice, too)
1/2 cup water
8 or so oz. asparagus, woody ends cut off, stalks sliced diagonally about an 1/8-inch thick (don’t worry about being perfect; really–it’s just soup and it’ll still taste great)
3 to 4 oz. pancetta, finely chopped (I like mine a little bit chunkier than that, and got (2) 1/4-inch slices and diced them about a 1/4 inch)
Fresh black pepper

Heat 3/4 of the olive oil in a 4-quart saucepan or soup pot over medium-low heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt, stirring while cooking until they start to sweat. Add the rice, stock, and water and simmer. Cover and cook about 15 to 20 minutes until rice is tender. Turn off the heat.

While the rice cooks, heat the rest of the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Toss in pancetta and asparagus, stir to coat and then allow to cook for a few minutes, turn; repeat until pancetta starts to brown and everything gets tender.

Transfer to broth-rice mixture, bring to a boil for a minute. Add pepper. Serve right away with a nice hunk o’ bread.

Consider the Humble Can of Tuna…

27 Apr

I like paper. I still read one, along with a slew of magazines and books with pages to dog-ear. This is probably wasteful. I know this. But old habits die hard and, well, you don’t even know the half of it.

In this paper-clipped world to which I cling, there’s a lot of recipe clipping that occurs on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, many of these wind up stuffed between pages on my cookbook shelf, piled up on the desk, or, for the lucky ones, stick-pinned to a corkboard near the sink in the kitchen. And it’s from there that I rescued this one from the January 2012 Bon Appetit: Linguine with Crab, Lemon, Chile, and Mint.

The first time I made it, I followed the recipe exactly – ingredient by ingredient – shopping for the fresh crab, linguine, chilies, and mint so that it would be all that I’d hoped. And it was. The sweetness of the crab, the heat of the peppers, the brightness of the mint and citrus. Dan and I ate in total silence, looking up only once from our bowls. I raised eyebrows to beckon confirmation, and he gave it with mouth full: “So good!”

Fast-forward to a bleary-eyed worknight when I walked through the door, starving and tired, and a text came from Dan saying he was close on my heels and in exactly the same crazed, empty-stomached state. But there was nothing! Bare fridge. Random ingredients. Confused mind from the disorienting clang of hunger pangs. And then I looked up and saw that recipe, stick-pinned back in its spot on the board, and had a thought: “You know, you could probably make that with tuna and dried red pepper…”

Most of the simple cupboard ingredients – pasta, can o’ tuna, dried red pepper – were there. I had a lemon and a couple of shallots and some garlic. No mint, but we’d survive. And so Thursday Night Tuna with Pasta was born.

The thing about this is, just like I subbed out crab for tuna, you can mess around and try other swimmy, crawly sea dwellers, too. Anchovies might be a bit too strong here without a sweet element to balance them out, but if you want to work in more sustainable terms, blue fish (yes, I said it!) or possibly even sardines could be a good alternative.  Point being: You can do this in a half hour with, in all likelihood, stuff you’ve got on-hand. Dig it! With a fork.

Linguini with Tuna, Lemon, Red Pepper, & Mint (*adapted/altered from Bon App’s Linguine with Crab, Lemon, Chile, & Mint)
(serves 2 with a little bit leftover)

1/2 lb linguini
Sea salt
4 TBSP unsalted butter (unless you have salted–then just use that, for pete’s sake)
2-3 TBSP olive oil (I start it with my standard; finish it with the better stuff)
1/4 cup minced shallots
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp dried hot red pepper
1 lemon, zested and juiced
Pinch white pepper
1 5-oz can Italian light tuna in olive oil
2 TBSP mint, if you’ve got it (mine, dormant in pots from last summer, is back in action–sweet!)

Cook pasta in salted boiling water according to package directions (unless you’ve made your own – then use the Force, Luke).  Drain and reserve about a cup or so of the pasta water.

In a large saute pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Toss in the shallots and cook until they start to soften. Add the garlic and dried red pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, about a minute more.

Add 1 tablespoon lemon juice and a quarter cup of the pasta water and the pinch of white pepper. Cook until liquid starts to reduce; about 1 minute. Add in your cooked pasta and toss to coat (tongs are your friend). Add a little more of the pasta water, toss again, and cook for a minute. Pasta should look shiny. Add the rest of the butter, the lemon juice, the zest, the tuna (fork it into the pan to avoid spilling all the oil from the can in there), and half the mint. I throw in a little sea salt if I think it needs it. If it’s looking dry, add a little more pasta water. Divvy up between bowls, sprinkle the rest of the mint on top, and have at it.

DRINK: I happened to have an open bottle of Terradora Falanghina, and that’s what we drank – which was pretty darned nice.

Eat & Drink, Lost to Found

26 Apr

If you squint at the picture above (sorry about the bizarre cropping), you might be able to make out a sweet, be-capped elderly gentleman proudly showing off what appears to be a bumper crop of…what is that, exactly?

Squash. It’s squash. Growing from a tree. And that’s my grandfather, John Zavatto. A post-WWI immigrant from Calabria, Italy, and the happy grower of said squash, among other things.

Here’s what you should be saying to yourself: “Squash doesn’t grow on trees…” — and you’d be right about that. Until the age of about 11, though, I thought it did.

In truth, it was an old, dead pear tree up which my grandfather trained his vines to grow and wrap and spread, so by the thick of summer they’d drip from the branches as if it were the most natural thing for a tree to sprout squash instead of leaves. I liked believing this, in that way when, as a child, you easily accept all kinds of myth as plain, irrefutable fact. It was a strange, unsettling, slightly disorienting kind of let-down when, several years after he’d died, my Aunt Iris stifled a laugh and let me in on the truth.

In my family, though, this was a little bit of a theme. Half-pieces of information, stories not told, things lost from the Old Country to the New. Calabria wasn’t such a nice place to live when my grandparents and my aunts Iris and Phyllis left it in the early twentieth century. Being an Italian immigrant in America then was none too easy, either. Like many others who came over, my family just wanted to fit in; to feel like they were part of something. That they were home. Born here, my dad and his brother, Frank, don’t speak Italian anymore, at least not fluently. We didn’t do fish on Christmas Eve. We didn’t do Calabrese hot peppers. We didn’t call our aunts “zia” and our uncles “zio.” Whatever few things we did do seem to have died off, year by year, generation by generation, until finally, three generations later, we fit in just perfectly.

My sisters and I grew up on pork-chop casseroles, English-muffin pizzas, Fluffenutter sandwiches, and Hungry Man dinners when dad worked late. When he didn’t, we ate in the style of the best middle American families–prime steak, roasted chicken, loin lamb chops with mint jelly. And even though my dad was a butcher, no organ meats darkened our plates. The most Italian we got was meatballs made by my Irish mother (very good ones, to her credit), crusty bread with every meal, and Good Seasons Italian dressing on the salad.

And then I married my husband.

His parents were off-the-boat Southern Italians whose thick-accented English is all but indiscernable on phone messages. A picture of the Last Supper hung over the large dining table in the kitchen, in as close proximity to the stove as possible. Food was the central nervous system upon which my mother- and father-in-law existed. It’s the thing that seems to helped them hold so tightly to who they were and who they are, sometimes frustratingly so. They have introduced me to things I never ate; never heard of; never knew I should have.

Fun as all this was, it also felt eerily like the squash tree all over again; like I’d been duped, had missed something, been left out. But as the years wore on and I left my old job to become what I am now–a food writer–something changed. It’s made me think that maybe this was how I could find the way back. Like someone handed me a compass that lead me straight into the kitchen.

That’s what this is. Stories of mining the past and the present and hunger and thirst through the portal of a refrigerator, a stove, a garden, a bottle, a pantry, a dinner table. Instead of feeling lost, I’m letting hunger be my map. It won’t always be sappy tales of food remembrances; some days — many days — it’s just about getting food on the table. But every day it’s about discovery — old things, new things, funny things, delicious things. I hope you enjoy coming along for the ride. And so, off we go…

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