Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Yes, Chef

Book groups are great. You read books you might never have chosen yourself. You discuss them and hopefully learn a lot of new things about life, about love, about what makes people do the things they do. 

My book group is all that and more. Because we're a "foodie friends book group" we talk about the book while eating food we prepared, based on the theme of that month's book.

Our latest selection was "Yes, Chef," a memoir by Marcus Samuelsson. It's a heartfelt book that speaks not just about the tenacity and hard work it takes to make it to the top of the ladder in the culinary world, but also to loyalty, friendship, and love of family.

Many of you readers know that Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and adopted and raised by a Swedish couple. He eventually catapulted to culinary fame as executive chef at New York City's Aquavit, and was honored with a coveted James Beard award. He now owns and runs Red Rooster in Harlem, a restaurant that celebrates the roots of American food, while fusing Swedish cuisine and flavors from Ethiopia. 

In short, there were a diverse set of interesting recipes on his website we could choose from in putting together our menu for the evening. I've written out only one recipe at the end of this post, but click on any of the underlined words next to the photos below for the others.

We started out with appetizers -- cheese and crackers brought by Lolly, a member of our group. I made Samuelsson's recipe for deviled eggs, similar to the one I've used for years, but with an extra "kick" from a generous dose of cayenne pepper. Flowers are optional, but if it's Springtime, I can't resist decorating with the sweet look of edible pansies. 

Smoked salmon is de rigeur when discussing a Swedish-born chef and Polly brought along this inviting platter to go with the gin and tonics.

Our hostess Rosalie outdid herself with her beautiful table settings, the perfect wines and these Szechuan-roasted Cornish hens.

I couldn't stop eating these flavorful marinated eggplant made by Claire.

 I also rounded out the side dishes with this  green bean salad, again given some extra heat with chili peppers (and a decorative touch with chive blossoms). 

Desserts are never left out with this group either. Lee contributed this delightful meyer lemon tart.

And though the photo isn't exactly cover-worthy (the drawback of using only iPhone photos for this blog entry), this chocolate rum cake that Emilia made was delicious. Add a little whipped cream too, to gild the lily.

Want to start your own foodie book group, or just looking for more suggestions of food-related books? Click here on a "Books for Foodies" post I wrote a long while back. I'm due to update it but if you haven't read any of these, it's a good place to get you started.

And if you're a writer (or wanna-be writer) who has a good story to tell all your own, but need help in crafting it, please sign up for our writing retreat in beautiful Lake Como, Italy. Writing in the morning in this dreamy locale, followed by afternoon excursions and time to relax and do whatever you want. Registration will be closing in a couple of weeks, so hurry and sign up now for Italy, In Other Words.

Vegan Green Bean Salad 

printable recipe here

by Aine Carlin

From Marcus Samuelsson's website

(Note - I found that the lemon and olive oil wasn't nearly enough to dress the beans, so added triple the amount of lemon juice and olive oil.)

1 pack organic green beans
4 spring onions/scallions
1/2 red chilli
(I used a red cherry pepper)
2/3 cloves garlic
1 tbsp chopped capers
1 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
zest of 1/2 lemon
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp olive oil
sea salt and cracked black pepper


  1. Bring a pan of water to the boil. Wash and trim the green beans. Blanch the green beans for a few minutes until just tender – careful not to overcook as they’ll lose their color and go horribly floppy. Immediately drain and place in a pan of iced water or alternatively run under a very cold tap for a minute or two.

  2. Finely slice the garlic and chili (don’t bother to remove seeds). Set aside. Chop the scallions into medium to thick pieces.

  3. Heat the olive oil in a small frying pan/skillet and add the spring onions, chili and garlic and lightly fry for about a minute to two minutes. Season, take off the heat and allow to cool.

  4. Halve the green beans by slicing diagonally and transfer to a large bowl, season and grate over lemon zest.

  5. Roughly chop the capers and finely chop the flat leaf parsley and add to bowl along with the spring onion mix ensuring to pour over any remaining oil.

  6. Squeeze over lemon juice, season and lightly toss until all the greens are coated.

  7. Refrigerate for later or eat immediately. Would make a beautiful accompaniment to most meals but also delightful on its own.

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Passion for Pizza

Not long ago, I received a book to review - "Passion for Pizza." Bloggers frequently receive these types of offers, and I turn down most of them. But when the subject is pizza, it's hard to resist. I mean, who doesn't love pizza? The book more than lived up to my expectations. It's divided into two sections - Italy and the USA, with various chapters on pizzerias in those two countries, and recipes at the end (including one at the bottom of this post.) It covers different types of pizzas, from crispy -crusted Roman style, to deep-dish Chicago style and many others, including my favorite, Neapolitan style. 

I've visited a few of the places mentioned in the book, both here and in Italy, but it's clear that I've got a long road ahead of me if I'm going to make a real dent in the list. With this book as my guide, hopefully I'll get to some of the others in the future.

There are so many great pizza places around the world that it's hard, if not impossible, to include all of them. For instance, a real standout that's not included is La Renella in Rome. They make outstanding bread as well as many varieties of pizza, and like most Roman pizzerias, you order by indicating to the person behind the counter how much of a slice you want them to cut.

Among the places listed in the book is another spot where I've eaten great Roman-style pizza, -  Gabriele Bonci's tribute to pizza, Pizzarium (which recently expanded from its little hole in the wall).

Thankfully, there's a chapter on Naples, the city where pizza Margherita was created more than 100 years ago for Queen Margherita of Savoy and where I've been lucky enough to indulge in pizza on a couple of trips to that great city, including one a few weeks ago.

The ownership of Brandi has changed over the years, but it's still turning out fabulous pizzas from these wood-fired ovens.

Including the famous pizza Margherita, made with simple but high quality ingredients - tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil. It's hard not to dig right in, but if you wait a minute or two, the center won't be as runny as it cools down a bit. 

Despite the criticism New York City Mayor DeBlasio received from Americans when he ate pizza in Naples with a knife and fork, go ahead and follow his example. It's the way Italians do it and Neapolitan pizza can be very floppy and difficult to handle when it's hot from the oven. 

Pizza Margherita is only one of the many types of pizza on Brandi's menu. Another winner I had to try was this one with prosciutto, arugula, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. I'm still dreaming about them both.

 Fortunately, I have some great Neapolitan pizza places not far from where I live in New Jersey, including Nomad Pizza in Hopewell (soon to open another place in Princeton by the end of the year!); Porta in Asbury Park, N.J., and Brigantessa in Philadelphia.

If you want to try your hand at making pizza at home though, "Passion for Pizza" has a plethora of recipes from many of the pizzerias listed in the book.

 It's nearly impossible to get the same kind of dark mottled crust from a typical home kitchen, since the temperatures can't reach the heights of a professional pizza oven. 

But it's still fun to try, and the results, if not the same as your favorite pizzeria, can be delicious anyway.

I recently tried three different pizza recipes from the book, using two different doughs -- the "Neapolitan dough" recipe and the "our favorite dough" recipe. We scarfed down the pizza Margherita:

And we loved the pistacchio e salsiccia pizza recipe from Kesté's in New York (although it could have used a bit of olive oil on top):

 And although mine didn't look as wonderful as this photo from the book, we all loved the pizza with brussels sprouts, mozzarella and ricotta cheese, inspired by Motorino Pizza in New York City. The recipe is below.

 Pizza with Brussels Sprouts

From "Passion for Pizza"

printable recipe here

1 t. sea salt

2 ounces Brussels sprouts

pizza dough (use your favorite or get the recipe from the book for "our favorite dough")

2 ounces fresh mozzarella, shredded

1 ounce fresh ricotta

1 ounce Pecorino Romano, crumbled

1 ounce smoked pancetta, thinly sliced (alternatives:bacon or unsmoked pancetta)

1 clove garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

Parmigiano-Reggiano, for grating

coarsely ground black pepper, to taste

extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

  1. Place a baking stone in the oven, and preheat to 500 degrees F. or higher for one hour.

  2. Bring 1 quart water with sea salt to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan.

  3. While the water is heating, rinse the Brussels sprouts in cold water, and remove any wilted leaves. Place the Brussels sprouts in the boiling water, and cook for 2 minutes.

  4. Remove the Brussels sprouts with a slotted spoon, and place them in a bowl of ice water for a few minutes to cool.  Pour off the water.

  5. Stretch the pizza dough to a diameter of 12 inches.

  6. Distribute the mozzarella, ricotta and Pecorino Romano over the pizza.  Distribute the pancetta and garlic over the pizza.

  7. Peel the leaves from the Brussels sprouts, and place them on the pizza.

  8. Bake the pizza on the baking stone until the crust is golden and the cheese is bubbling.

  9. Remove the pizza from the oven, and place it on a plate. Top with coarsely ground black pepper and a bit of olive oil, and serve

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Pistachio Gelato

This pistachio gelato has its genesis in Rome, at Nonna Vincenza's, a beautiful bakery and shop that features decadent Sicilian pastries and other sweet treats. 

My favorite are the mini cassata cakes filled with a ricotta mixture and covered in a pistachio and almond paste. 

The shop sells cookies, liqueurs and almond and pistachio pastes too, and two years ago I bought a jar of their pistachio paste. Having only carry-on luggage, though, I was thwarted at check-in, because I had forgotten you can't bring in liquids or gels over a certain weight. It got confiscated, despite my pleas. So last year when I went to Rome, I checked my luggage upon departure for the U.S., just so I could pack a jar of this dreamy paste, made from the best pistachios in the world -- those of Bronte, Sicily. 

 Having come back two weeks ago from another visit to the eternal city, and eaten a fair share of pastries at Nonna Vincenza's, I decided to finally make gelato using the jar that's been sitting in my cupboard for nearly a year. What a revelation! Now I'm kicking myself that I didn't bring in any of this wonderful product from this most recent trip. 

There are other sources of pistachio paste or cream that you can find on the internet, but I can't vouch for any of them since I haven't tried them. If you decide to buy some, please let me know the results.

Even if you leave out the pistachio paste, this recipe makes a delicious vanilla gelato - and would be a great base for other flavorings too. 

I added the pistachio paste at the very end, but you could add anything, including almond paste, crushed strawberries or coconut cream.

 Don't confuse this with that neon green pistachio ice cream you see at commercial ice cream shops. This is not even related in the least to that product. If you've never liked pistachio ice cream, it's understandable if those are all you've tried. Give this a go, topped with a few chopped pistachios, and you'll easily become a convert to the real thing. And if you're in Rome (or Catania, Sicily and now Bologna), don't miss a chance to go to Nonna Vincenza's. Find out more about them here.

Pistachio Gelato

printable recipe here

2 cups whole milk

1 vanilla bean 

4 egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup heavy cream

1 T. vodka

1 cup pistachio cream (I used Nonna Vincenza's, but you can't find it in the U.S., so substitute another brand that you might find here or here.)

Split the vanilla bean in half and add to the milk. Simmer just below the boiling point, then set it aside to infuse for about 15 minutes. Remove the bean. A little "skin" may have formed while it was cooling, so just lift it off and discard. Beat the egg yolks until creamy, then pour a couple of tablespoons of the hot milk into the eggs to slowly raise the temperature so that you don't end up with scrambled eggs. Keep adding the milk a little at a time, then stir in the sugar and place the mixture in a double boiler. Cook over a very low heat, stirring all the while, until the mixture heavily coats the back of a wooden spoon. Be careful not to cook it too long or to let it boil, or you'll end up a with curdled mess.

Remove the mixture from the heat, place the mixture into the refrigerator to cool for a few hours (or overnight), stir in the cream, the vodka and process in an ice cream maker. While it's churning, add the pistachio cream.Place it in the freezer to harden a bit more.

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Friday, May 8, 2015

In Memoriam

Today is my sister Angela's birthday. Only she's not here to celebrate. 

With a heavy heart, I write that she left this world after much suffering due to an illness that ravaged her body and gave her no quarter. She fought courageously, but lost the battle two days ago. She leaves behind a devoted son and daughter and three loving grandsons, as well as a brother, two sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews and a 93 year-old dad.

 I want to remember the carefree days when we were young, she only 17 months older than I, as we played together inseparably.

 I want to remember how our doting mother clothed us in identical fancy dresses whenever we would go into town for a strawberry sundae at Howard Johnson's - a real treat for a family that rarely ate in restaurants.

I'd like to forget the memories of seeing her in pain in the hospital, and want to hold with me instead, carefree summer days of playing at the shore.

I want to remember her dressed in her finest garb, as she was crowned "queen of the maypole" in elementary school and we danced around a ribboned pole, anchored by my brother Frank, who also left this world four years ago.

I'd like to think that she's with all the loved ones who have gone before me, in a state of eternal bliss. The long struggle is over. 

We all love you, and will miss you, Angela. 

May you rest in peace.

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