Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Italian Potato Pancakes

I'm ten years old and standing by the stove, while mom takes a spoon and drops some of the batter into the hot oil. After a few minutes, the sizzling sound and the intense aroma of fried potato pancakes makes me ever more impatient for mom to pluck the crispy golden treats out of the hot fat and plunk them onto the paper towel-lined plate nearby. I nibble on the crunchy exterior and burn my tongue, but that doesn't stop me from blowing on the fried treat and biting into it again, releasing another gush of steam as I pop  the spongy, pillowy interior into my mouth.

They're Italian potato pancakes, they're deliciously addictive, and they're part of my childhood food memories. My mother was from Northern Italy, and arrived in the U.S. as a young war bride with few recipes in her repertoire. As a result, so much of the cooking I grew up with was Southern Italian food, reflective of the Calabrian household my mother married into.  These potato pancakes are just one example.

If you've got any leftover mashed potatoes still lying around from Thanksgiving, put them to work in this recipe. Maybe they'll even become part of your family's food memories too.

Italian Potato Pancakes

printable recipe here

1 cup leftover mashed potatoes

1 cup flour

3 t. baking powder

a few sprigs of parsley, minced

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

2 eggs, slightly beaten

salt, pepper to taste

oil for deep frying

Mix all ingredients (except oil) in a bowl with a wooden spoon. The batter should be stiff, liked mashed potatoes. Heat the oil until very hot, and drop a spoonful of the batter into the oil. Fry until golden brown on both sides, turning once.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011


If there's one chef in England whose name keeps springing up on food blogs, it's Yoram Ottolenghi. A Jew who was born and raised in Jerusalem to a German mother and an Italian father, his food bears a decidedly middle Eastern influence, and a broader Mediterranean one as well.  He moved to London in 1997, ostensibly to study for a doctorate degree, but got sidelined along the way to study at Le Cordon Bleu instead.  A business partnership with Sami Tamini, a Palestinian also raised in Jerusalem,  led to the opening of four shops in London, one of which I had to check out on my recent visit. My friend Mariana and I went to the Islington location, the only one of the Ottolenghi shops that has an area where diners can actually be seated.

Still, we decided to choose take-out from the bountiful offerings available and transport our booty home to eat in the comfort of Mariana and Carlo's living room  -- much easier than keeping four little ones happy in hard plastic chairs in a cramped seating area.

We got something to please all appetites - the children's less adventuresome palates were happy with the tender beef filet and potatoes, while the adults marveled at the range of flavors in the vegetarian dishes - winter slaw, eggplants with turmeric yogurt, cauliflower and lentil salads, and a melange of snow peas, asparagus and water cress -- oh and foccaccia too, plus a delicious selection of desserts I forgot to photograph in the frenzy of eating.

Having flipped through his two cookbooks, Ottolenghi and Plenty, and now eaten his food, it's apparent that Ottolenghi loves to give herbs and spices a starring role, including ones that may be unfamiliar to most Americans, like zatar and sumac. Back at home, I knew I had to try to cook some of the bold and flavorful dishes I had eaten. Italian food is my first love, but I do step out to other cuisines too. I chose to recreate a hybrid version between the eggplant dish I had eaten from the restaurant, and an eggplant recipe in one of his cookbooks. Although I tucked a small jar of that sumac in my suitcase, you won't need any esoteric spices for this recipe, but what you'll still achieve is a new and fresh flavor sensation that's a far cry (at least for me) from the food I've been eating all my life.

Ottolenghi-inspired Eggplant 

2 medium to large eggplants
olive oil to brush on the eggplant
1 small container (6 oz) Greek yogurt
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. mustard seeds
1/4 tsp. coriander seeds
salt, pepper to taste
toasted pine nuts
pomegranate seeds
cilantro leaves

I peel eggplant "stripes" leaving on some of the skin. Cut into 1/4 inch slices and grill, brushing each slice of eggplant with some olive oil. If you don't have a grill, place the eggplant slices on a cookie sheet that's been greased with olive oil. Brush the top side of the eggplant slices with oil. Roast in a 400 degree oven until cooked through and golden, flipping once.

Let the eggplant slices cool, and arrange on a platter. To make the sauce, grind the seeds in a mortar and pestle - or if you have a small electric coffee grinder, use that. Mix all ingredients together except the last three. Spread the sauce over the eggplant, then sprinkle on pine nuts that you've toasted a little to give some color, and some pomegranate seeds. Top with some cilantro leaves. Serve at room temperature.
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Sunday, November 13, 2011

How To Brine And Roast A Turkey

It's almost that time folks. Are you ready to roast that big bird or are you running from the task quicker than you can say turkey trot?  To all of you with trepidation in your soul at the thought of tackling this job, fear not -- I have one word to help you achieve success -- and it rhymes with fine. No, it's not wine -- although a glass of chardonnay or pinot noir for the cook never hurts. The word folks is brine. Since the first time I brined a turkey years ago, I have never looked back. It's a fail-proof way to ensure a moist, flavorful turkey, even if you forget to baste it and even if you roast it a little longer than required.  
Mix salt, sugar, herbs and spices with water and bring to a boil.
Dump the brining mixture over the turkey and add ice cubes (unless you have a refrigerator large enough to contain the large bucket). Let it sit overnight.
Roast the turkey over a bed of celery, carrots and onions and with some whole heads of garlic strewn all around the pan. Baste occasionally.
I leave the carving to my dad, but it's the same way you would carve a chicken. Remove the legs, thighs and wings, then remove each half of the breast in its entirety from the carcass.
Cut the breast in slices and place all the meat on a serving platter surrounded with the whole roasted heads of garlic.
gobble, gobble!

printable recipe here

Turkey Brine

(Makes enough for up to a 24 lb. turkey)

1 cup kosher salt

1/2 cup sugar

1 gallon water

2 T. black peppercorns

1 T. allspice berries

1 onion, sliced

1 large bunch sage

6 bay leaves

ice cubes

The day before (or night before) you want to cook the turkey:

Using a 5-gallon bucket, line it with a plastic bag. Put the salt, sugar, onion, herbs and spices in a pot on the range with only two cups of water taken from the one gallon of water called for in the recipe. Bring to a boil and stir everything to blend the flavors. Remove from the heat and add some ice cubes to cool it off, plus about half of the remaining water. Put the thawed turkey in the plastic bag in the bucket and add the water and herb mixture. If the bucket needs more water to cover the turkey, add it now.

Since I can't fit the bucket into my refrigerator, I always place it outdoors on the deck, adding ice cubes to the water to make sure it stays cool. It's never been a problem here in New Jersey in late November, and sometimes it's gotten so cold that the top layer of water has frozen.  I don't want to take any risks though, so I always add the ice cubes. Twist the top of the bag and secure it closed. To keep squirrels or birds from pecking into the bag during the night or before it goes into the oven, place a flat baking pan on the top and weigh it down with something heavy. Let it sit overnight and soak.

The next day, drain the turkey from the liquid before roasting.  Pat dry, then place your hand between the skin and the breast meat and spread some butter inside with some sage leaves. Alternately, make an herb butter, mixing some softened butter with minced sage, rosemary or other herbs.

Roasting Method

After rubbing butter between the skin and the breast meat, place the turkey in a pan that has a bed of celery sticks, carrots and onion chunks. Take several whole heads of garlic and slice a shallow slice off the top. Spread them in the corners of the pan. If you're not stuffing the turkey, place some onion chunks, fresh herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary or thyme or a combo) and a couple of lemons that have been halved, in the cavity. Rub the outer skin with a stick of butter that's been softened. Roast turkey according to timetable below, basting occasionally. If the breast starts to get overly browned, make a tent with aluminum foil and cover loosely. If wings get overly browned and the rest of the turkey still needs cooking, wrap the wings in aluminum foil. The total roasting time will depend on whether the turkey is stuffed or not.

Here are the roasting times recommended by the USDA. If you're checking with a meat thermometer, the USDA says the turkey is safely cooked once the thickest part of the breast and thigh reach a minimal internal temperature of 165 degrees. Full roasting instructions from the USDA are here.

Timetables for Turkey Roasting

(325 °F oven temperature) 

Use the timetables below to determine how long to cook your turkey. These times are approximate. Always use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of your turkey and stuffing. 

4 to 8 pounds (breast)1½ to 3¼ hours
8 to 12 pounds2¾ to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds3 to 3¾ hours
14 to 18 pounds3¾ to 4¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds4¼ to 4½ hours
20 to 24 pounds4½ to 5 hours

4 to 6 pounds (breast)Not usually applicable
6 to 8 pounds (breast)2½ to 3½ hours
8 to 12 pounds3 to 3½ hours
12 to 14 pounds3½ to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds4 to 4¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds4¼ to 4¾ hours
20 to 24 pounds4¾ to 5¼ hours

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Monday, November 7, 2011

A Writing Workshop In Italy


Need some inspiration to get a kick-start on that memoir, food or travel piece you've been thinking about? Want to learn about traditions of a lesser-traveled region in Italy? Then spend a week in a medieval hilltop village where time moves slower and you can really savor the sights, sounds and flavors of daily life. Come to Santo Stefano di Sessanio, in Abruzzo, a UNESCO world heritage site, and take part in a workshop called "Italy, In Other Words."

I was there as a participant earlier this year and wrote about my experience here and here. Next year, I'm returning, but this time to lend a hand in teaching the cultural portion of the program. Kathryn Abajian, who teaches the writing portion, will return to give her expert guidance once more. 

The workshop will take place from May 26 to June 2, 2012 and you can read the full details and register by clicking here. You won't want to miss it. It's a great opportunity to polish your writing with excellent feedback from a great teacher and other writers in a unique setting.

And you'll have time for eating wonderful meals too, like this homemade spaghetti alla chitarra.

Time to meander the nearby fields and think, renew your spirit and recharge yourself.

Time to walk to a castle along ancient paths where shepherds once trekked with their flocks.

Time to visit a local cheesemaker and savor his pecorino cheese.

Time to explore the village and more -- so what are you waiting for? 

 Don't put off what you've always dreamed of doing. It may be just the opportunity you've been waiting for.

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