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Friday
Jan212011

Pane Cotto for Aunt Emily



This past Christmas while we were all gathered 'round the dinner table staring in disbelief at the remains of our feast, Aunt Emily began to reminisce about her younger years. Aunt Emily is 96 years old, so those younger years were quite a while ago. While Aunt Emily claims that she has a lot of "happy memories" her strolls down memory lane often leave you searching for a pack of Zoloft or at least another drink.

For those of you unfamiliar, Aunt Emily is The Box's aunt – so a great aunt to John and me. She was married to my dad's Uncle Harry. While they both had their fun-loving moments, their relative amounts of persnickety-ness combined to form a mightily cantankerous duo. They both boycotted Easter one year to protest a phone conversation with my dad that they disliked. They honestly believed this was a punishment for us.



With food, Aunt Emily is equally....particular. I mentioned at Thanksgiving that Marmo must cook her a special dinner as she refuses to eat turkey. She also refuses to go to particular restaurants, eat after 5pm, and claims she has a seafood allergy (even though I have seen her eat shrimp). Consequently, Aunt Emily will only go to one restaurant – Casa Bella in Denville, NJ – which she happens to like, although you would never know it because when we take her there she complains loudly that:

1. She liked the old owner better and she misses him.

2. They don't make her martinis properly (on one occasion the waiter brought her the gin and vermouth and told her to mix her own drink).

These episodes usually leave John wanting to dive under the table from embarrassment, and I admit to staring forlornly at my dinner plate.

However, even though Aunt Emily has strong opinions about food (and just about everything else), she isn't a cook. Her self-admitted culinary claim to fame is being able to open a can of soup.

Yet this past Christmas she began talking about the foods her mother used to make for her. Back when life was simpler. She mentioned something specific: Pane Cotto. I had never heard of it before, being more familiar with the cooked custard dessert Panna Cotta. She even gave me some loosey-goosey cooking instructions involving bread, lard, cheese and water.

Later in the evening, I asked Marmo if she knew what the h%^& Aunt Emily was talking about. "I don't know," Marmo replied, "I'm not sure she was operating on all cylinders."

Fair point. However, in the interest of family history, kitchen experimentation, and just plain ol' curiosity, I decided to look into it a bit.

Turns out, Aunt Emily was operating on all cylinders when she remembered Pane Cotto, as it's a real thing. My initial Google searches turned up a slew of recipes. What follows is my recipe, with inspiration from a few sources and based on the availability of ingredients in my fridge at the time. Here you go, Aunt Emily, here's your Pane Cotto:

What You Need:
Makes 2 servings
1 large bunch of kale - rinsed, stems removed and chopped
1 small onion, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
2 tbsps. olive oil
4 chunky slices of day old Italian bread - I used the Jim Lahey Bread from Wednesday's post
2 - 3 cups of chicken broth
Red pepper (to taste)
Salt and black pepper to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese

What To Do:
Heat up a large stock or cast iron pot. Add the olive oil and saute the onion, celery and kale until soft. About 10 minutes.

Add the chicken broth and red pepper to the pot. Bring to boil and reduce to a simmer, let simmer for 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper as desired. Pour into a baking dish. Place your bread slices over the top, making sure they sop up the chicken broth mixture. Cover the bread slices with grated Parmesan and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees.

You want the tops of the bread with the cheese to get a little brown and toasty. It's surprisingly good.

I also made some Kale, Sage and Butternut Squash muffins to go with it. Here's how:



What You Need:
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium butternut squash, roasted, skin removed and cut into chunks.
Salt and pepper
A couple of handfuls of kale, washed and chopped
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup semi-soft cheese, cut into tiny cubes
2 tsp. of whole grain mustard (like a dijon)
2 eggs
¾ cup milk
2 cups regular flour
4 tsp. baking powder
4 leaves of fresh sage, chopped

What To Do:
Heat your oven to 4ooF.

Grease a muffin tin well with oil or butter.  In a large mixing bowl, stir together about two-thirds of the squash, the kale and the semi-soft cheese.  In a small bowl, beat together the milk, eggs, and mustard until well combined.  Pour this into the bowl with the squash and kale.  Sprinkle the flour, baking powder, and 1 tsp. salt onto the squash and wet ingredients mixture.  Stir it all together until just combined.  Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin pan.  Sprinkle the tops with Parmesan cheese.

Bake for 20 minutes, until the muffins are golden and a toothpick inserted into one comes out clean. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for about 5 minutes, then dive in!  You can also freeze these bad-boys for later use.



This recipe was based on this version from Five and Spice.



• Please note that Aunt Emily would probably hate both these recipes.
Thursday
Jan202011

Vandaaaaang – A Review of Vandaag on the LES



* Above photo from the Vandaag Website.

I know we just explained that we would be concentrating on Italian/Italian-American/American food. However, every now and again, we are going to slip in a wild card, in the form of a mini-review.

Today's wild card is Vandaag, a restaurant on the Lower East Side that explores the cuisine of Northern Europe, focusing on Denmark and Holland. I felt like this restaurant warranted a mini-review because a good time was had by all. Except for the crustaceans, and I'll get to that later...

John was busy practicing his golf swing in his apartment, so I infiltrated Vandaag with a friend who was also keen to sample the intriguing fare and their featured gin – Bols Genever (check out the amazing type treatment - nice job, designers!).

A very polished decor (Scandinavian design influences noted) greeted us. Imagine a subway platform (tiled walls) that has been power washed (with bleach) and then outfitted by Room + Board with stylish, mod diner booths and tables.



* Above photo from the Vandaag Website.

We ambled up to the bar and were immediately overwhelmed by the selection of mixed gin drinks. What to try first? All of them? Yes! The bartender was a seasoned mixer, so I began with a West of 2nd, a Genever cocktail with mezcal, lime, sugar cane and pomegranate molasses. Excellently well-balanced, this drink was just the right combination of sweet and deep to sip while we awaited our table.

Once seated, we ordered the Bread Bowl. I usually don't approve of being charged for bread, but this bowl is an appetizer in its own right. It included different bread varieties and was served with butter and a hummus. Our favorite bread was the Rye - dark, flavorful, chewy wedges. And did I detect a hint of molasses? I believe I did.



For dinner, I ordered the bowl of Crustaceans, and received just that. The sea critters were fresh, some fried with heads still intact. I wasn't shy about crunching into their tiny noggins, but I was a bit underwhelmed (or overwhelmed?) by a bowl filled entirely with them.

The stand-out of the evening was the Hete Bliksem or Hot Lightening. Crisp fingerling potatoes, apples, bacon and something called "stroop" syrup are served as a side in a tiny cast iron dish. This combination of ingredients demonstrated outstanding texture and flavor: sweet, salty, a touch gooey (in a good way), but also crispy. It left me wondering if, like pork belly, I could buy stock in stroop.



We washed all this wonderfulness down with something called the Little Head Butt – a chilled shot of Bols Genever gin with a beer chaser. Yes, we really did. Readers of this blog know about my affinity for gin. The Bols Genever did not disappoint – smooth with a nice tang.  Served in cordial glasses, we felt positively fancy! Even with the beer chasers.

The dessert menu changes frequently. We treated ourselves to this giant ice cream sandwich. If an ice cream cookie sandwich could be thoughtful and dignified, this one was. The cookie was an oatmeal variety that kept the ice cream in check and didn't break down or crumble. The creamy vanilla filling was accented with a layer of tangy cream that provided a touch of contrast to the mild vanilla. It was also large enough to share - always a plus.



In conclusion there are a few take-away lessons here:

Vandaag: Yes! I will be returning for more Hot Lightening and Head Butts. No necessarily in that order.

Stroop: It's kinda like caramel

Bols Genever: Buy me some.

Overall Movie Experience: Heat - The Edgy Near-Masterpiece
Wednesday
Jan192011

Currently Cooking From...



I adore bread. I even enjoy baking it. You may have noticed that I frequently discuss my escapades related to bread baking. This is because I firmly believe that home made bread is superior to any other kind (except for this loaf which we should really never speak about again). The smell of freshly baking bread is an aroma I would like to follow me around through life. But I settle for it filling my apartment every now and again.

I also have a "thing" for cookbooks. But the problem is, I like the ones that are 15 pound anthologies with full-bleed spreads of mouth-watering, mind-transporting food photography. Those tend to be kind of pricey. Consequently, I don't own many cookbooks. I do own Jim Lahey's My Bread, which has become indispensable for creating round loaves of perfection. Really – flawless. Every time I follow one of his recipes, I get a perfectly-risen, flavorful load of bread. You just need a little time, a cast-iron pot, and you get this:



What follows is Jim Lahey's recipe for a fool-proof loaf of bread. I modified it slightly by using 1 cup of whole wheat flour. Just for fun. Cuz isn't whole wheat fun? The answer is yes.

What You Need:
2 cups (430g) flour
1½ cups (345g or 12oz) water
¼ teaspoon (1g) yeast
1¼ teaspoon (8g) salt
olive oil (for coating)
extra flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal (for dusting)

Equipment:
Two medium mixing bowls
6 to 8 quart pot with lid (Pyrex glass, Le Creuset cast iron, or ceramic)
Wooden Spoon or spatula (optional)
Plastic wrap
Two or three cotton dish towels (not terrycloth)

What To Do:

Mix all of the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Add water and incorporate by hand or with a wooden spoon or spatula for 30 seconds to 1 minute (I actually used my food processor and that worked nicely). Lightly coat the inside of a second medium bowl with olive oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest 12 hours at room temperature (approx. 65-72°F). It should look something like this when you uncover it - the next day:



Remove the dough from the bowl and fold once or twice. Let the dough rest 15 minutes in the bowl or on the work surface. Next, shape the dough into ball. Generously coat a cotton towel with flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal; place the dough seam side down on the towel and dust with flour. Cover the dough with a cotton towel and let rise 1-2 hours at room temperature, until more than doubled in size. At this point, you will uncover a magnificent blob of flour like this:



Preheat oven to 450-500°F. Place the pot in the oven at least 30 minutes prior to baking to preheat. Once the dough has more than doubled in volume, remove the pot from the oven and place the dough in the pot seam side up. Cover with the lid and bake 30 minutes. Then remove the lid and bake 15-30 minutes uncovered, until the loaf is nicely browned.



A few tips/tricks/antics:

DO: Leave your dough to rise overnight. It does take the full 12 hours (you can leave it for up to 18), so have a nap while the yeast does its thing.

DON'T: Be alarmed when after the first rise your dough is all gooey and hard to manage. It's supposed to be like that. I swear.

DO: Wear oven mitts to handle that hot cast iron pot. Please.

DO: Call me when it's all done so I can come over and help you eat it. I'll bring butter. This kind.

Tuesday
Jan182011

The Garage of Glory (A review of Roberta's in Bushwick, Brooklyn)



Every summer, I tease my father with the possibility of turning our detached shore house garage into a beer hall/fun center...complete with arcade games, flat screen tv's, and a full bar.  In my head, the end result is something worthy of Architectural Digest's attention; where the collection of old fishing rods and surfboards fuse effortlessly with HDTV's and high fives.  A visionary, I purport myself to be.

This last Saturday night, my delusions of garage-themed grandeur were truly humbled when I visited Roberta's; a layout of semi-attached, dissimilar shed-like loft space churning out fun, hey-day rap tunes, and oh yeah, really awesome grub.  The interior is truly outrageous and raw. Coarse cement floors and walls, 70's style wood paneled bathrooms, tatted-up crooked hat hipsters staffing the joint - all contributing to a scene of chaotic, yet innovative beauty.  Our one-hour wait for a table is thankfully shortcut by my super slick pal, Steve, who slides into a bar-top with three vacant stools which, just nanoseconds previously, had been accommodating other patrons.  A group of nearby bystanders appear upset with themselves for the lapse in surveillance.  But it's BK... so no tempers flare.



We all peruse the menu, portions of which contain hilariously named offerings like "Cheeses Christ" and "Crispy Glover" - both are types of pizza, the latter of which... Elana orders.  Perhaps it was her density to do so.  I mean, her destiny.  Prior to ordering the pies, however, the trio orders some lardo, prosciutto and a separate dish of Gala Apples, mixed with honey, fennel and Burrata Cheese.  The lardo and proscuitto are cut to a perfect thickness I find; substantial enough to provide abundant taste and salt levels.  Both meats are, not surprisingly, fatty (the prosciutto is actually the most fatty I've ever had) yet have a delicate, milky quality.  This sensation is complimented by the apples, burrata, honey and fennel which, when altogether on one fork-full, deliver an ice-cream like taste.



Now, what we really came here for... PIZZA!  Roberta's Pizza is produced within a metal, wood burning stove with a crooked, iron chimney sticking out from its top.  It's not an achievement in art or sculpture by any means, like the oven at Keste, but it gets the job done. Very well, actually.  Each of our pies have the mark of a skilled Neapolitan pizzaiola: the outside of the pie has been blistered by the open flame while the inside has remained chewy, soft and elastic.  My margherita pie was a bit cheesier than most of its genre, with noticeable freshness supplied by the tomatoes and basil after one pierces through it's crackling crust.



Our other two pies, the Cripsy Glover (featuring guanciale, taleggio cheese, onions and chili peppers) and the Good Girl (Kale and Sausage) were huge hits.  The Glover is wonderfully interesting, supplying a phased approach of satisfaction.  Its initial crunch is quickly overcome by its porky and, ultimately, fruity characteristics...which continue to evolve and intensify as one chews.  A hotboxing of the mouth, so to speak.  Meanwhile, the Good Girl, teams its sausage adorned pie with bitter, shriveled, oil-trapping kale leaves. Folding this all together between the friendly, cushy confines of the dough is a treat for the pizza enthusiast.  It is simply loaded with flavor.  It is difficult to deduce a winner between these three pies.

Roberta's adds an attentive and accommodating wait staff (they were kind enough to call us a cab into Manhattan), a full bar (complete with $3 bud heavies) and perhaps the greatest arsenal of musical accompaniment for a meal I have yet to experience - 90's Dr. Dre, Tribe, Kurtis Blow and the Sugar Hill Gang.  It is not uncommon to observe customers and staff members alike lip synching, foot tapping, or head bobbing.

The bathrooms are two individual, wood paneled stalls, with subway tiled walls, wooden toilet seats and, importantly, locks!  Nothing to complain about here.



The bottom line - Roberta's maintains an incredibly festive, cleverly divey atmosphere while putting out talented, versatile fare.  It's reputation as one of the heavier hitters in the artisan pizza realm is surely deserved, however a dining experience within this Garage of Glory leaves one with the lasting impression that there is way more under the hood at this joint than just pizza.

Overall experience - Heat

Monday
Jan172011

New Year, New Focus.



Each passing day on the ol' blog is a learning experience.  Originally, Elana and I had intended to treat the blog as a smorgasbord for all things food related; reviewing restaurants, posting recipes, and starring in videos - with the only common denominators  being enthusiasm and honesty.  There was not necessarily a real theme or concentration as to what we would feature.  You were just to trust our homegrown taste buds on various food related topics.

Much to our surprise, a decent amount of people actually read this thing.  Well, thanks for peepin' the posts, peeps (hehe).  And, in order to take this blog to the next level, we feel it is appropriate to narrow the focus a bit.  An Italian focus.  I mean, that is the type of food we were raised on, experiment with most frequently, and eat too much of.

So what does this mean?  Well, like many things we do here on the blog, the focus will be an experiment of indefinite duration and potential debate.  But generally it will mean this: most of the restaurants we will review will be Italian or Italian influenced.  Our recipes and videos, will predominantly forward Italian dishes and ideas.  In fact, even the blog, is going to be written in Italian.  Comprende, amigo?



But lovers of food we are above all.  So we will still make occasional room for posts that are outside the scope.  However, according to my father ("The Box") all foods (and generally everything else) on this planet are a derivation of some sort of Italian influence.  So, technically, even if our posts do, in fact, stray from the Boot's roots, perhaps we are not straying at all... naw mean?  No?  Care to debate the topic with this man?



We didn't think so.

Elana here (that was John above, if you hadn't guessed). In keeping with this new focus, we are starting off with a very basic, Italian 101 recipe: bruschetta. I've talked a lot about brushcettas, but I've never offered you the simplest, most basic and potentially most satisfying combination: Tomato and Basil Bruschetta. Here it is:



What You Need:

Tomatoes (4 nice plum ones, or a basket of the cherry variety)
Extra virgin olive oil (as much as you like, but you really only need a drizzle or three)
Sea salt (to taste)
Fresh basil (chopped)
Loaf of Italian bread cut into slices

What To Do:
First, fire up your broiler. Place your bread slices on a cookie sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Place the cookie sheet with bread in the broiler and toast for about 1-2 minutes on each side (don't forget to flip!). Make sure you keep an eye on the toasting process, because that broiler heats things up mighty fast, and I have pulled too many charred bread remains from its fire-y depths because I can't seem to remember that I put them in there in the first place. But you are waaaaaay smarter. Let's hope.

Chop up your tomatoes and put them in a bowl. Drizzle with a healthy dollop of olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt to taste, and decorate with chopped, fresh basil. It really must be fresh. I can't stress that enough.

Once your toasts are toasted, line them up on a nice platter and using a spoon, heap generous amount of the tomato mixture on top of the toast. Serve immediately. Bene?