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Wednesday
Jan262011

Dinner with the Megs: Cupcakes and Wine



Due to the past success of Dinner with the Megs: Cheese and Wine night, the Megs and I decided to have another go at it, this time with cupcakes and wine. Pairing drinks with desserts is not a new concept (digestif, anyone?), but it has become a trend in recent years.

We didn’t want to jump on any bandwagons, but we did want to eat cupcakes. And drink wine. At the same time. So, the Megs and I embarked on Pairing Dinner Volume II: Cupcakes and Wine.

The Rules: This time the cupcakes would dictate the wine we chose. We needed:
1 type of Savory cupcake (this was my responsibility)
1 type of Sweet cupcake that was NOT chocolate (Meg L)
1 type of Sweet cupcake that WAS chocolate (Meg H)

You also needed to bring a wine that paired with your chosen cupcake. As an added rule, we decided that the cupcakes could either be homemade or store bought (sometimes it’s hard to work cupcake baking into daily life, try as we might).



For the savory cupcake, I made Butternut Squash, Kale and Sage cupcakes, and topped them with a dollop of cream cheese (as a stand-in for frosting). You can find the recipe here. These cupcakes are a great savory choice, as the butternut squash adds an element of sweetness which contrasts the with saltier ingredients, such as the Parmesan cheese.

The wine that the helpful staff at Bottlerocket on 19th street chose to pair with this cupcake was Zaccagni il Castello (2008), a smooth Italian white that has a hint of bitterness that goes well with the sage in the cupcakes. I should note that this wine was VERY well received by everyone – many thanks to Bottlerocket for the recommendation.



For our Sweet but not Chocolate cupcake, Meg L procured some pastel-frosted Vanilla Buttermilk confections from Magnolia Bakery. The icing on these cakes was something to behold – as well as taste. Swirling mounds of lavender, mint green and pale cream frosting topped off light yellow cake.

For wine, Meg L chose a Blueberry wine from Alba Vineyards in New Jersey, which really did taste like blueberries. Almost purple in color, it presented a strong flavor contrast to its lighter, vanilla counterparts.



Finally…chocolate! Meg H traveled to the Cupcake Stop’s Limelight Marketplace outpost to bring us these chocolate cake/icing beauties. The dark chocolate cake was topped with two dollops of a lighter, creamy frosting, drizzled with a bit of white chocolate.

I think Meg H was unaware, but Brachetto D’Aqui is one of my favorite sweet wines. It takes all my restraint not to just throw a straw in the bottle and sip away. When Meg H unveiled her Pineto Brachetto d’Aqui, I squealed with delight (and started searching my cabinets for straws).
The Brachetto has a nice effervescence that, while still a red, gives it a lighter quality. It doesn’t overwhelm the chocolate cupcakes.





Finally, because we thought this meal might be a touch on the sugary side, we threw in a kale salad. And throw it together we did with the following ingredients and in the following manner:



What You Need:
1 bunch kale, rinsed, stems removed and chopped
2 cups roasted butternut squash (left over from the savory cupcakes)
Handful of sun dried tomatoes, cut into thin strips
1 yellow zucchini, washed, cut into rounds
½ cup pine nuts
Salt and pepper to taste
Balsamic Vinegar and extra virgin olive oil for dressing

What To Do:
Get out a big salad bowl and throw in your washed and chopped kale. Go on, literally THROW it in there. You won’t hurt the kale.
Add in your butternut squash chunks (more gently), the sun dried tomatoes, zucchini (resist the urge to throw these around your kitchen like mini-frisbees), and everything else.

Drizzle with as much balsamic and olive oil as you like and give it a toss to coat evenly.

Then promptly ignore this salad in favor of cupcakes.



No, it’s actually a very good salad. And since kale is essentially spinach with ruffles, it’s just fancy enough for a cupcake and wine party.



Cheers!

Tuesday
Jan252011

It's Brucie, Cousin. (A review of Brucie in Brooklyn)



"As in, Cousin Brucie?" - I cannot tell you how many times I heard this when I told people Elana and I were checking out Cobble Hill's new neighborhood Italian restaurant, Brucie, on 234 Court Street.  I'm pretty sure the iconic radio personality of the 1960's and 70's had little to do with the inspiration behind the restaurant's name, yet one never knows.  After some light research, I did discover that Cousin Brucie was, indeed, born somewhere in Brooklyn.  Hmmm...

Well, if the joint was, in fact, named after Cousin Brucie, the similarities between the two entities are in name only.  As our server told us, the interior and the overall theme of the restaurant were predominantly the chef's ideas.  And, kudos to the chef because the vibe of the restaurant is very well done.  It resembles a country deli, with an injection of cool.  A pleasant equilibrium of detail without overkill, Brucie rewards the design minded patron with copper bar tops, jar enclosed light bulbs, antique restaurant equipment, and derriere contoured bar stools.

The menu is artfully printed on a rectangular piece of stationary, and categorizes their large and small plates under the appropriate and clever headings "Biggie" and "Smalls," respectively.  Big ups to Brucie here.  The menu changes every day from what we were told.



For our "smalls," Elana and I order Rice Balls and Crostini with crimini mushrooms and truffle oil.  The rice ball is stuffed with their own homemade mozzarella and peas.  It has a perfectly crispy breaded crust, and is centrally positioned in a sea of tasty tomato sauce.  The sauce has a thicker than normal consistency to it, providing each bite with optimal conditions to playfully wade in marinara. The Crostini was of sizable portion - Two hefty hunks of bread splattered with a crimini puree, laced with generous amounts truffle oil and flavor (always a plus).



For our "biggies," Elana selects the housemade tagliatelle with sweet corn, brussels sprouts and tomato butter.  It is topped with their homemade burrata (cut to Elana squealing with glee).  The burrata has a mildly salty taste, with a faintly sour, oozy mid section.  Props, Brucie.  Also, the brussels sprouts have it goin' on.  They have a substantial yet flaky feel to them, being fried.  We love them.  As for the sauce and tagliatelle, the feathery noodles are appreciated, but we are not crazy about the sauce, which feels a bit dominated by tomatoes.

My goats milk ricotta tortelloni with cranberry brown butter is similarly ok. High marks are awarded for the creamy, rich ricotta filling, as well as the homemade tortelloni. But the sauce was not doing much for us.  It's of a wonderful, runny consistency considering its thick ingredients, yet it's a touch bland.  Nonetheless, I still managed to wipe my plate clean.  All of the dishes at Brucie are of very generous portion.



As for the bathrooms, Elana had this to say: "the farmhouse-modern decor of the seating area is echoed in the bathroom with poster art, and light switch and doorknob details. Dueling mirrors above the sink give you a look at both your good sides."

The Verdict - Brucie's environment kills it; a charming, original setting with detail, character, and...a store. Yes, one can even stop into Brucie's to purchase canned San Marzano tomatoes, among other quality goods. The food has promise, yet some (not all) of the dishes we experienced fell short of matching its mouth watering presentation and menu description.

Movie equivalent - Miami Vice
Monday
Jan242011

All My Fellas, Where You At?



GENTS! Do not let the swirly- girly pictures of chocolate and lace fool you – this post is for you. Ladies, this post is also for you, but we'll get to that later.

As you are probably aware, a certain "holiday" is approaching. Valentine's Day. I know...you are not a huge fan of the day. But instead of warming yourself by a bonfire of Hallmark cards or suggesting to Cupid where that pudgy bambino can stick his arrow, we must face reality: Valentine's Day exists and  your significant other/partner in crime will most likely be disappointed if you overlook it.

What's an upstanding gentleman like yourself to do? I'm going to tell you.

Even while working within the confines of traditional Valentine's Day gifts (chocolate and flowers) you can be original. I have done the research for you (you can thank me later) and will be offering you suggestions during the weeks approaching the Grand Lovers' Fest.

Suggestion the First: Chocolates from Cocoa V!



If I see a box of Russell Stover I'm going to have a fit. Cocoa V's chocolates are legit. They are also vegan, if you care about stuff like that, and you might. Consequently, they are all dark chocolate. Dark, rich, intense, with an infusion of flavor...well, I'll get right to it because I taste tested some of them, and have picked a few favorites.

First Up: The Creamy Peanut Butter:



This ain't no Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. A dark chocolate outer shell encompasses a dense truffle center of chocolate and peanut butter whipped together into a frenzy of flavor. Proof of harmonious cohabitation!

The Salted Caramel:



Salted caramel is one of my new favorite flavor combinations. It falls into the "chocolate-covered-pretzel" food group. Sweet aaand salty. The only bittersweet thing about this bon-bon is realizing you ate them all. And it's a work of art too! Look at that fabulous painted purple swirl wrapping around the diamond shape of the truffle.

Pecan Praline:



This rose-dusted, oblong beauty encases a smooth whipped center interspersed with chopped pecans. A hint of salt gives the usual praline flavor a tartness that adds a dimension of taste beyond the expected.

And now a word about flowers. The word is YES. But roses? No. This is just my opinion, but I find roses on Valentine's Day a little....played out. Yeah, I said it. Try something like this instead:

Behold the Gladiolus (or Gladiola, whichever you prefer, Wikipedia seems to like both)! Dramatic, beautiful, colorful....just like your lady friend, yes?



Or perhaps your lady would prefer some Ocimum basilicum also known as Basil.



To me, no flower smells better than a bunch of fresh basil. Any man who brought me a bouquet would know what to expect that night. Pesto, that's what. Yup.

So, my merry band of gentlemen readers (I'm assuming there are a few of you), heed my advice! You can feel free to hate on Valentine's Day, but make the best of it. And Ladies, if you like what you read here, pass it on to your fellow. Maybe he will get the hint (if you drop it like a bowling ball on a concrete floor).


For more information on Cocoa V, check out their website here.
Sunday
Jan232011

At Least Idiots Can Still Get Pastries



It is now 7:21 and I'm supposed to be at the gym. If only it were open.

Today is Sunday. I have a photography class that starts at 9:30. So I figured I would get in a run at the gym beforehand. Only problem is that I didn't check the hours at Chelsea Piers before I went ahead and woke up at 5:30 to get on the Path train, to get to the city, to walk to the gym....etc etc...only to find it CLOSED.

Newsflash: the sports center opens at 8am on weekends.

Oh yeah, and it's pretty cold outside.

I figure I better find a warm place to chill out (nap?) before I have to return so I can at least use their shower.

Enter La Bergamote on 20th and 9th Ave. It's thankfully open and very warm. And they have cappuccino and almond brioche. Which seems like a fair trade for the treadmill.

The almond flavor in the brioche is creamy and not too sweet, and there is a sprinkling of crunchy almonds on the top of the thickly cut toast for a bit of crunch. When I plow into it with my fork, the pastry adheres to it in thick chunks like cake.

I ate the whole thing. What treadmill?

Now if only I could stretch out under the pastry counter and take a nap. But I have to walk back to Chelsea Piers to take a shower.

Happy Sunday, everyone. Go to La Bergamote and have a pastry. The chocolate croissant is pretty awesome too.

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.