Posted in GastroReads, Nerd Adventures

Book Review: Di Palo’s Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy

Screenshot 2014-12-10 11.28.26Welcome to pure GastroNerd heaven. In his book, Lou Di Palo takes you on a culinary tour de force of all of Italy’s most prized creations. He provides backgrounds and histories on all the classics from mozzarella cheese to balsamic vinegar. Did you know that most of the mozzarella we eat in the US is really Fior di Latte because it comes from cow’s milk and not buffalo’s?  What I love most about this guide is that he explains how to shop for the different products and how to serve and store them.  Di Palo’s Guide makes you a better consumer. He also sprinkles a few simple recipes throughout the book that are worth trying.  I already made Sal’s tiramisu and it was huge hit.

His book is also successful in making you want to shop more at their store. Live in New York and have NEVER been to Di Palo’s? Well then I have your next GastroAdventure! Di Palo’s is one of (if not the last) true vestige of Little Italy.  They have an incredible selection of Italy’s best products and all at a very reasonable price. And true to his book, everyone behind the counter will talk you through each product, letting you taste whatever you want and explaining where it comes from and how it is made. Naturally this means the wait time to be served is often quite long, so I suggest going at an off hour if possible. Otherwise grab a number and go to their wine shop next door and explore some lesser known Italian wines. O and when you go to Di Palo’s, you must try their speck- it’s the best in the city!

Conclusion: pick up a copy of Di Palo’s Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. It’s a great gift for food lovers and even more perfect paired with a basket of Italian goodies from their store!

Posted in Food Facts, Nerd Adventures

Colatura: Liquid Umami and a Glorious Adventure

A few years ago when I was living and working on an agriturismo in Tuscany, I took a weekend trip to Parma for its big food show Cibus. Thousands of food producers display at Cibus, including the largest Italian companies, but also the small guys who are new to the market. These artisanal producers are what make the show so exciting, well them and getting to see the largest mortadella in the world (it was really big!)

The World's Largest Mortadella
Me & The World’s Largest Mortadella

Among the newcomers, I was impressed by a beautiful glass blown bottle filled with mysterious liquid.

It was colatura, fermented anchovy liquid.  I had heard of colatura before, but had never tried it.  My new buddy Gennaro, the colatura’s producer, invited my friend and me for a quick lunch in his booth.  After serving us each a glass of Prosecco, we were first presented with the most delicious anchovies I had ever tasted.

Gennaro's Colatura
Gennaro’s Colatura

Let me preface this experience by saying, I used to dislike anchovies. This dislike I soon realized was because I had never had great anchovies before. That day changed everything. After the anchovies came a plate of pasta.  While it looked like plain spaghetti, it was anything but. With my first bite came a wave of salt, fish and crazy mouth feel. It was addicting. Gennaro explained, it was simply tossed with a little crushed garlic, olive oil and colatura.

Spaghetti with Colatura
Spaghetti with Colatura

I knew I had to buy a bottle, but at Cibus vendors weren’t allowed to sell their goods. Gennaro apologized and suggested I come to his restaurant in Cetara, on the Amalfi coast and buy a bottle there. So I did.

Two months later, my friend Kathleen and I found ourselves in what we discovered to be the most perfect little coastal town. Cetara, unlike its neighboring towns of Amalfi and Positano, is untouched. We stayed at the one B&B in town- it was 50 euros a night and even had air conditioning, which basically made it a luxury hotel.

The morning after we arrived, Kathleen and I walked down the curvy mountain path to the town. The town itself is really just a street. It has about 3 restaurants, a drug store, a few convenience shops and not much else. We rented a small paddle boat and spent the morning paddling, swimming and napping in the Southern Italian sun.

Then it was time for lunch. We walked into town and sure enough there was Gennaro, standing in front of his restaurant. Much to my surprise, he recognized me and invited us in. (We had only met that one time, several months before.) “Mangiamo qualche acciughe,” he said, meaning, “Let’s have a few anchovies.” Before we knew it, we were sitting down in the private dining room of his restaurant, drinking Prosecco and wine, in tank tops and bathing suits, eating a six course meal. Anchovies upon anchovies. Colatura bruschetta. Delicately fried zucchini flowers. Seafood pastas. Seared local fish.  And gorgeous pistachio gelato. You know, lunch.

Gennaro, wearing a pajama-esque get-up, then insisted on taking us around town and showing us how his colatura is made. Being the trusting girls we are, we said “Sure!” and hopped into his yellow VW Beetle.  Gennaro first took us to see the colatura production. Each day over the summer fresh anchovies come in from the local fishermen and are salted and packed into wooden barrels and then pressed. After months pass, usually in December, the make a whole in the barrel and the beautiful amber liquid that is colatura slowly drips out.  One of the local producers Delfino made a video showing how its done.  It’s a bit slow but shows you Cetara and the overall process.

The rest of our stay was a series of more elaborate meals and trips to the town of Amalfi and into the mountains (see pictures above). The whole experience was so whimsical and magical.  It also confirmed that if you are two young girls in Italy, anything can happen.

I have since brought colatura back to the States and cook with it at home, mainly in that same simple spaghetti dish but also in certain salad dressings, fish and meat seasonings or mixed with mayonnaise as a dip.  We also use it quite regularly at Marea, in our cucumber mignonette and in a vinaigrette for one of our fish appetizers.  The two main brands you can find in the States from Cetara are Delfino and Nettuno (of the two I prefer Nettuno, but it’s harder to find.) Sadly, while Gennaro’s colatura has made it to certain parts of Europe, it has yet to make it to the US.  I think getting a bottle for your pantry is enough of an excuse to pop over to Cetara. I guarantee the journey will be worthwhile.

Posted in Nerd Adventures

Aldea: A Disappointment

As a cook with very limited free nights and change to spare, picking a new restaurant to try is a difficult task. You want something that will be fun and exciting, yet satisfying and a reasonable value. From what I have seen with my coworkers, we are not afraid to plop down several days of hard labor’s pay for a great meal. But there is nothing sadder and more frustrating than when the experience falls short.
Such was Aldea.
The menu looked appealing. The prices were steep, but nothing obscene by New York standards. We ordered all the classic dishes: the octopus, the squid, the shrimp ALHINHO, the famed duck rice and the traditional pork chop with clams. Nothing hit the mark. That mark where you take a bite and start singing to your food. That mark when your eyes open to a new width. That mark when you realize you just tasted something beautiful. The octopus was tender enough, but the lemon-squid ink puree tasted of preserved lemon and had a lingering flavor of detergent. The shrimp was bland and one dimensional. The duck rice lacked balance and was too fat heavy- some more acid would have helped. The squid was the best of the dishes, but I suppose that doesn’t mean much. And then there was the pork chop. The pork chop was just depressing. It was just a watery flavorless chop of nothingness. I honestly tasted nothing.
As always, I will be looking for a new restaurant to try for my next outing. Hopefully I can share a more favorable review.

Posted in Food Facts, Local Finds, Nerd Adventures

Sweet Summer Produce Baby!

Fresh produce lovers rejoice! Summer is in full swing and with it arrives its glorious bounty. Now is the time to truly ditch your supermarket produce section and hit the green markets and roadside farm stands.  And let me tell you- the local farm stands in Upstate New York and Long Island are overflowing with wonderful colors and smells. I went to one today that was pure food porn.  The tomatoes were so sweet and perfect and the blueberries, my dear, they tasted like a blueberry pie.  I can only assume that the farmers serenaded them every morning until they were picked. Often you pay a premium for these elevated earthy delights, but you will certainly  taste the difference.

You can also get involved with a CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and it’s one of the best ways to support your local farmers.  CSAs work by offering memberships before the growing season, which help ensure the farmer’s income for the year.  Green markets are great for business, but they can also be a gamble for sales.  Typically you either pick up or receive a box of whatever is being harvested that week.  You can opt for fruit and eggs too.  There are are even different meat and fish CSAs that have popped up. Usually sign ups are in April/May so you would normally be too late to participate in a regular CSA now. (Do sign up next season- check your local community boards or the Local Harvest site to find a convenient one near you.)

But…. Guess what FreshDirect just started offering? Non-membership CSAs! While signing up for a season membership is best for the farmers, the new FreshDirect option is a great alternative. One of the most exciting aspects of a CSA is that you can’t pick what you get, so you are forced to be creative and try new vegetables. Of course you will occasionally get that one vegetable that you dislike or are just confuzzled by (for me that’s kohlrabi) but that’s when you conveniently start gifting your neighbors or coworkers fresh produce…

So hit the markets or try out the new FreshDirect option and enjoy!

Posted in Nerd Adventures

The Art of the Trail

For most jobs, an interview is a conversation.  Often rather stale and bears little to no relevance on the work you will be doing.  The interviewer wants to ensure your credentials fit, you present yourself well and that you have whatever else he or she might deem necessary for the position. The interviewee may briefly tour the work area, talk to a few senior management guys and often not much else. He has no real idea of what the the day to day is like, what his potential coworkers personalities are- essentially he will be walking into the job relatively clueless.

To work in a kitchen you don’t interview, you trail or stage (both terms are often used interchangeably but stage can also suggest a type of internship.)  You generally show up around 2/2:30 and immediately are thrown into the mix of cooks and put to work.  Every kitchen is different. Most trail work is very basic, picking parsley or helping to prep whatever vegetable they may need for the night.  I’ve heard of mini “Iron Chef” competitions, in which one restaurant gives its trails several items and 1 hour to come up with a dish.  But that is certainly an exception.

Trailing is very much like dating.  And many cooks date around before they accept a job.  You probably have preconceived notions of what the kitchen will be like- is it intense or laid back? Bro-y? And as you work, your opinion begins to form.  Often the other cooks ignore you, some make light conversation, and occasionally they’ll joke around with you a little. You observe how they interact with each other and how the sous-chefs treat the cooks. Are the sous helpful or short and dismissive?

Prep ends around 4pm and family meal is put up. Despite frequent misgivings about the restaurant world, family meal is not a selection of the restaurant’s menu. We taste our food, but we certainly don’t dine on it. Family can range from whatever is cheapest and easiest to make- sloppy Joe’s and rice to slightly more thought out and themed meals of pork buns with homemade pickles. My restaurant always puts up a vegetable, salad, drink and dessert in addition to a protein and starch. I have found this selection to be rather exceptional.

During family, a meal that can last somewhere between 3o seconds to a whole half hour depending on the restaurant, you have some more time to get to know the cooks.  Family can be awkward, as you don’t really know where to go or sit.  In some restaurants the cooks are obligated to you eat in the dining room, others stand around the kitchen or find spots in various storage spaces to eat.  Often cooks joke around, though I’ve sat in family meals in dead silence. Those are fun.

After family, the cooks set up their stations and service begins. Each restaurant will allow its trail various levels of participation in service. Often you’ll help with the amuse-bouche (if they have one), maybe help plate a dish or two or you may not be allowed to do anything at all.

Service is generally the best part of the trail because you get to sample their menu. Some places are stingy and barely feed you anything but others stuff you silly, pushing you to the point of discomfort. It is glorious.  Being fed as trail is better than properly dining in a restaurant. It’s like being at the chef’s table except with zero barrier and even better zero cost to you other than your day’s labor.  (Given what most of these places charge for dinner and what the average cook gets paid, it’s a bargain!)

Often cooks will trail at restaurants just to try the food, without any desire to work there.  Some kitchens, if they are not hiring, offer observational trails, where you are literally not allowed to work and just stand there for the evening and eat.  You feel slightly helpless at first, but once you embrace it, it’s awesome.

Generally around 10 pm or so, the more senior chef will take you to the office and discuss employment.  If they like you, most places will just offer you a job on the spot.  I always found it crazy that after a day of usually the most menial tasks possible, they could decide whether to hire you or not.  (Note that this rule is not true for every kitchen.  As I mentioned places like The French Laundry will give their trails a duck, bass and beets and expect them to make three courses each by set times.)  I suppose all hiring is a leap of faith and let’s face it, there seems to be a shortage of cooks! From what I’ve gathered, hiring is also based on the impressions the other cooks got of you while you prepped with them.  Regardless, I was initially shocked each time I got a job offer.

After the employment talk you are free to go home. Don’t. Well not if there is any chance you may work at that restaurant.  As one of my favorite cooks said to me on my trail at my current restaurant, “You gotta stay and break down, then go out for drinks with the cooks and really hear about what it’s like to work there.”  He also says that if you don’t, well at least stay till the end, he won’t respect you if you come to work at the restaurant.

After you’ve trailed at enough places, hopefully you’ll find a place that fits.  One where you’re inspired by the food and the cooks are crazy enough that you’ll commit to spending the next chunk of your life with them. Enjoy!

Posted in Nerd Adventures, Recipes

Bread Head

Two weeks ago I finally got to live my dream and take a bread making class at the International Culinary Center.  They offer two day classes for students and alums (I am now an alum!) and teach you how to make a few basic French and Italian Breads.  I am life long lover a breads, having spent my summers in Aix-en-Provence, France and learned the glories of a fresh baguette and butter early on. Eleven years ago, when I first started going to France, there was no comparison between French and American breads.  Well perhaps there were a few producers, but they were few and far between- I always liked Eli’s breads, but venturing to his store was a bit of a trip and I always had an inner struggle when I gave him my money.  Today I can proudly say, despite the rise of glutenphobes, new bread hubs are developing around this city.  My current favorite, outside of the bread kitchen at my culinary school, is Maison Kayser.  They are a chain from France and having tried their product in Paris, I can proudly say that they produce very similar product, if not virtually identical. Their baguettes are just lovely and their brioche with white chocolate is a sumptuously sweet journey in my mouth.

The take away from my bread class (other than a LOT of amazing bread) was this: bread, although rather intimidating to make, is relatively manageable to grasp in your home kitchen.  It would be ideal if you had a stone and a mechanism to pump steam into your oven, but you can compromise and find other ways to do it.  The New York Times has it’s famous “No Knead Bread” Recipe, which my Great Uncle used to make- and it was great.  It’s certainly not something you make on a whim, but definitely a fun Sunday activity to do.  And remember: BREAD IS NOT YOUR ENEMY. EVERYTHING IN MODERATION.

Posted in Nerd Adventures

Revisiting a Dream

About a year and a half ago I went on a adventure beyond adventures.  I left my job at a specialty Italian food importer to return to Italy and learn what “farm to table” really meant.  For three months I worked on an agriturismo in Tuscany.  An agriturismo is a form of hospitality on a farm, be it a hotel, villa, farmhouse(s) ecc. that helps sustain the farm as well as educate the guests.  They can range from exquisite to very rustic.  Do your research before you go to one, but certainly experience one if you can.

So here I present a series of pictures with memories and recipes to accompany them.  I’ll start with some farm friends! They were adorable and tasty!