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Monkfish, brutti ma buoni

Monkfish is an ugly fish. The Venetians call it Angelfish or Angelshark, which is a corruption of its genus, anglerfish. It’s colloquially called “Poor Man’s lobster” because it is sweet with a dense, firm flesh. I’ve never had a mouthful of lobster tail (shocking, I know!), but monkfish I can now say I’ve had.

Z and I went to Chelsea Market, a wonder-building filled with lovely shops, including The Lobster Place. Inside the place smelled clean and briny and the floors were wet from being regularly washed down. This cleanness, which is such a contrast to the dank stink-holes I find in Indiana, filled me with much excitement- freshly caught fish! The fish, lobsters, mussels, clams and oysters were shining and beautiful; Z was giddy with the potential of stuffing his maw with tasty piscatorial delights. But what particularly caught my eye was a large, translucent, gleaming tail of monkfish. I had never tasted monkfish before, and at $13,50, I felt like it was due time to try it.

Monkfish filet

Z and I shopped for the rest of our ingredients at Buon Italia and Manhattan Fruit Exchange. Buon Italia is a great resource for the Italian cook, as they have many rare pastas, cheeses and meats, as well as roasted porchetta and hot pasta dishes, imported sundry and chocolates. At every turn I was gasping with delight- they have three lengths of buccatini, they have spaghetti alla chittara, they have 18-hour-old burrata flown in from Puglia, they have 36-month old Vecchio Rosso parmesan, they have speck!! I was almost vibrating from excitement. I turned to Z and said, “We’re not going out tonight, I am making a big feast for us.” We settled on burrata on a spicy arugala salad, monkfish braised in a Sicilian-style sauce then tossed with spaghetti all chittara, and tiramisu with hazelnut chocolate curls.

For the monkfish, I removed the thin outer membrane, cut it into 2″ chunks, and lightly floured and browned it. I then sauteed lots of garlic, pitted and slivered olives, a generous pinch of pepperonchini and anchovy fillets before deglazing with white wine and crushed tomatoes. Finally I returned the monkfish to braise while I boiled the chittara, which took a bit longer than regular pasta as it is dense and rough. Finally, I tossed it all together and served it with basil and vecchio rosso cheese.

Dinner

We both really enjoyed the meal. The burrata was milky, buttery and so fresh. The monkfish was sweet, delicately flavored and meaty. The chittara pasta was toothsome and the sauce clung voluptously to the hewn edges. And finally we both had a hefty square of tiramisu, which is always delicious.

Tiramisu

Les noms

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A Tale of Two Pastas

One of the days that Z was in class I took a 3 train to Penn Station to Salumeria Biellese, an old-school shop/restaurant across the street from Madison Square Garden. I was in search of guanciale to make Bucatini alla Amatriciana for dinner. This is one of my favorite Roman dishes, and while I make it at home with linguine and bacon, it’s just not the same. So a hunt for guancica it was.

Amatriciana sauce is a simple one with very few ingredients: onion slices, guanciale, pepperochini, crushed tomato and a liberal topping of medium-aged pecorino. There are variations, such as the medeval amatriciana (which means “from Amatrice”, indicating it’s origins 100 miles east of Lazio, the Roman province) of shepherds, which has no tomato sauce and is thus “white” with a flurry of pecorino and speckled with a heavy hand of black pepper. I believe this was a peasant dish before tomatoes were commonplace in Italian cookery. You see, tomatoes were considered a poison in Europe for centuries, as they are part of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which includes potatoes and eggplant. The nightshade plants themselves ARE poisonous- atropa belladonna is a perfect example of this- but the fruits and tubers which are now staples to us are not. It wasn’t until the 16th century that Europeans began to cook with nightshades and tomatoes gained their current foothold in Southern Italian food culture. Interestingly, current medical research claims that the alkaloid enzyme solanine in tomatoes may have an inflammatory property for people suffering from arthritis, so maybe our predecessors were onto something.

The star of the show is the guanciale and the pasta. Guanciale is pig jowl, and it is a cured meat but unsmoked. The jowl, or cheek, is a much used muscle, which makes the flavor more complex. It is also 80-90% fat, and since all this fat is unsmoked it remains sweet and savory, something that American bacon just can’t replicate. Even after rendering quite a bit of fat, guanciale retains an unctuous toothsomeness, it is a chewy little morsel for your teeth and tongue to delight in when you’re wrestling with the long, reluctant buccatini, also called perciatelli (“little worms”). The buccatini struggle to free themselves from the constrains of your plate as you wrangle them onto your fork; this is a dish to eat with a loved one who won’t mind you leaning into your meal and splattering your face, your shirt, and every available surface with sauce.

Getting buccatini was a job unto itself. I asked the congenial men behind the counter at S. Belliese if they sold it, or where I could find one. They didn’t have any and could offer no suggestion. I needed to pick up a few things, so I took the E five stops to Spring St. and ambled around, popping into every little gourmet shop I came across but no dice. I took the E back to WTC and headed over to Whole Foods. While they have an entire aisle of pasta, my little worms weren’t one of them and grabbed some emergency linguini. I shuffled home feeling defeated. I texted Z “I can’t find the buccatini for my BUCCATINI!” I just couldn’t bring myself to serve him buccatini all amatricana made with linguini, so I used my Google-Fu and found that Dean and Deluca on Prince Street- the flagship D&D- claimed to carry it. After playing musical phone chairs for fifteen minutes, I got the sundry stock guy on the phone and he said that he had two packets of buccatini left. “You better hurry, Miss, someone’s going to buy them!” I put my pants back on, took the W up to Prince St. and entered Dean and Deluca.

The place was amazing, as you enter you are dazzled by perfect produce and an aisle of jewel-like flowers. On your left is a counter that lines most of the building offering pastries, antipasti and cured meats. The center of the shop is filled with the most obscure dry foodstuffs, including my beloved buccatini (I actually found three varieties after a little digging, but who am I to say that to the stock guy?). I also spied a dusty cellophane-encased box of strozzapreti, or “priest stranglers.” I’ve never seen these in person, but legend goes that the most delicious strozzapreti are rolled on the thighs of virgins. I snatched up the box, my packets of buccatini (I wasn’t walking out of there with just one packet after all that work!) and a few other items I just couldn’t live without, and returned gloriously (albiet a little sweaty from waiting for the train for twenty minutes) to the apartment to cook.

Bucatini all’Amatriciana

2 medium onions, sliced into half moons
1/4 cup water
1/4 lb. guanciale, cut into lardon
1 28 oz. can whole San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
1/2 tsp. pepperochini
1 lb. buccatini
Pecorino
Chiffonade of basil (optional)

Begin by cooking the onions in the water to soften. After the water has evaporated, add the guanciale and saute until some of the fat has rendered and the gunaciale becomes translucent. Add the pepperochini and let it toast in the fat, then add the tomatoes. Rinse the bowl out you crushed the tomatoes in with water and add the water to the pan. Simmer the sauce while the buccatini cooks, about fifteen minutes. Toss together in the saute pan and serve immediately with a generous amount of pecorino (this is obligatory) and basil (this is optional and not traditional).

Strozzapreti with tomato and ricotta

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3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, diced
Olive oil
1 28 oz. can San Marzano, crushed by hand
Handful basil leaves, chopped and divided
Pepperochini
1 lb. strozza preti
8 oz ricotta, drained
Ground pecorino or parmesan
S&P to taste

Take your garlic, onion, olive oil and tomatoes and make a basic marinara: saute the garlic and onion, add the tomato and pepperochini and rince out the bowl with water and add the water. Add half the basil to cook in the sauce while you boil your pasta. When it is cooked toss with the sauce and add quenelles of ricotta on top, along with ground pecorino or parmesan. Broil until the ricotta is hot and the whole thing is browned and delicious. Top with fresh basil and serve.

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I had the most amazing May, spending nearly three weeks with my sweetie. A couple days after finishing my classes for the semester I flew to New York for twelve days, returning to Indiana for a few days of work and then, finding myself without an agenda and making myself and everyone around me miserable without my man, made my most spur-of-the-moment decision and bought a ticket fourteen hours before it was scheduled for departure. I felt like quite the jet-setter, though my initial departure was out of South Bend, IN. No offense to any Notre Dame fans, but South Bend is quite literally the dullest place in America. There’s not even a Starbucks.

First time ’round found me on my own during the day for five days, and I made the most of it with trips wandering aimlessly through Soho and Chelsea, going into shops like Purl and their haberdashery sister a few doors down. I needed to fix the sleeves of a dress and they had the elasticized thread I needed. After a long day of walking in the beautiful cool sunshine without a plan or a thought in my head (other than, “Hey, is that a gelateria?”), I returned to the apartment with an icy cold Toddy-brewed coffee from KAFFE 1668 and watched cartoons and sewed in my underpants. Because that’s how I roll.

The Wednesday that I was in town I got up early with Z and made him breakfast and then wandered uptown to Union Square Greenmarket, on the hunt for a few Spring specialties: ramps, fiddlehead ferns and asparagus (sadly the asparagus was a little past season- and thusly overpriced- when I arrived). People, Union Square did not disappoint! First of all, the market is wonderfully de-crowded of the mass of sweaty humans that usually inhabit the market on Saturdays. Secondly, the prices were unreal, even cheaper than Fort Wayne. Thirdly, HELLO! this is shit I can’t get in Fort Wayne, in fact, I’ve only seen pictures of fiddlehead ferns in magazines! I was wetting my foodie-knickers.

My haul:

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– a 1.5 lb. rainbow trout ($9)

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– a pint of fiddlehead ferns ($3)

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– a bunch of ramps ($4.50)
– a pound of fingerling potatoes ($2)
– a pint of shallots ($1.50)
– a large basket of cippolini onions ($3)
– a pound of baby spinach ($2)
– some Rick’s Picks spicy pickled green beans ($8)
– and a gigantic head of Red Sails lettuce ($2)

I roasted the cippolini onions and potatoes in the oven with olive oil and S&P until they were nice and crispy. I sauteed some lardon then used the drippings to saute the ramps, ferns and spinach with shallot, finishing them white wine, pepperochini and lemon. The fish I stuffed with lemon and seasoned liberally inside and out then dusted with flour and pan fried it about 4-5 mins per side. The result was a barely cooked filet for both of us that was a beautiful coral pink and fragrant with lemon. I served the fish on a bed of the greens, topped with the reserved lardon, with onions and potatoes on the side. It was a delicious, fresh, understated meal that really embraced local, affordable ingredients.

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Planning my trip to New York Z wanted me to meet a friend of his, L, and make dinner together. I thought this was an awesome idea as I love cooking with others and feeding people I love. I had been storing recipes and ideas in the rolodex that is my brain for weeks, trying to have something tasty for whatever shiny happy foodstuffs we fell upon.

On Saturday, Z and I did a lot of eating, concluding it with a walk through Union Square Greenmarket. It was late in the afternoon and a lot of the good stuff (free range chickens, LAMB BACON (I’m still pissed about missing that one), ripe hydroponic tomatoes) was gone. What we did find was delicious local cheeses, greens and bread. We picked up Bianca cheese (a soft fresh whole milk cheese), an 18 mo. sharp cheddar and 1/4 lb. mache from Hawthorne Valley Farms in Ghent, NY. This got the cogs in my brain turning: what is one of the most perfect foods? Mac ‘n Cheese!

Z has ate at S’mac a few times. He called it “just okay,” I think. This drives me bonkers, as he and I are NOT the “just okay” type. Obviously I had to show Z what real mac and cheese is supposed to taste like. We went to Whole Foods with L on Sunday afternoon and picked up a few more ingredients: some intense, earthy Gruyere, a milder, more buttery cheddar, milk, flour, butter and something unusual: seabeans. I had sea beans once when I was in London and loved the briny, asparagus-like flavor. L picked up ingredients to make a pie she had thought of: chocolate orange swirl.

L got to work on her pie: a chocolate cookie crust filled with chocolate ganache, swirled with tangerine curd, topped with cocoa-tinged meringue. While she did so, I prepped for the mac: I chopped the cheeses by hand (being the typical bachelor Z doesn’t possess a cheese grater) and minced the bread into crumbs (nope, no food processor either- L had to beat her cookies with a pan). Here follows is my receipt:

Boil your pasta to al dente, maybe even a little toothier as it will bake. I used lumache, which has large holes to be filled with tasty sauce.

Make a mornay sauce with the following ratios:
– 8 tbsp. each unsalted butter and AP flour (1/2 cup) to 1 quart whole milk
– 24 oz. cheeses: I used Gruyere, mild and sharp cheddars
– 1 Tbsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. pepper (white or black), 1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Fold the pasta into the sauce, place into a buttered casserole and top with sliced tomatoes and buttered bread crumbs. Bake at 375*F for 30-45 minutes until bubbling and browned. Let cool for a few minutes to tighten up and serve.

I served this mac with a salad of mache, bianca cheese and dried cranberries, tossed in a homemade vinaigrette:

The juice of a lemon
A squeeze of honey
1 tsp. dijon mustard
S&P (be aggressive, you are seasoning the greens, too!)
Delicious single-origin olive oil, such as Arbequina (olives from NE Spain) olive oil.
– Whisk oil into ingredients to create a silky emulsion. Great with herbs, too.

Finally, L helped me out by sorting through the seabeans and removing bad bits and I simmered them in a bit of water, rinsed them and sauteed in butter with shallots and garlic. When they started to caramelize, I added some white wine Z and I picked up at Chambers St. Wines. The seabeans were pretty salinic, but they were a nice foil to the rich, heavier mac. Z commented they were even “meaty.” I would have to agree, they added a great substance to our plate.

It was wonderful cooking and eating with my new friend, L. She’s a great baker, as that pie kicked some major ass. I was eating little bites of it for breakfast for the rest of the week. Stay tuned, as I will be reviewing our meal at Babbo and talking about the mechanics of making an emu omelet in a 6’x6′ Manhattan kitchen.

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Back from New York

Took the weekend off from work; this is the second time I returned from New York with a cold. I just finished sieving the chicken soup I made for myself and the water’s on for the noodles (yes, nurses nurse themselves!). I would love to get better naturally and not have to see my nurse practitioner again. This has been unusual year for me as I rarely get sick, I guess there is something in New York that I’m not used to.

This was my third trip to Manhattan in the last four months, I’ve grown to really enjoy the city despite it’s difficulties. I can imagine myself living there, but working as a nurse in New York? I’m not so sure. I hope that this summer I can spend a longer period in the city so I can really feel what it is like as well as to see how well Z and I get on. This is really just the start of our relationship since we don’t get to see each other very often. My feelings for him continue to grow and now when I think of him I ache for the next time we are together.

Z and I had an amazing time. Saturday we put on our fancy-pants and listened to Il Trovatore at Lincoln Center. Walking up the steps and seeing Lincoln Center lit up and glowing is an image I’ll never forget.

I was 19 when I heard my first opera here in Fort Wayne. It was on a whim on a humid early spring day and I received tickets for $12 and attended with a coworker. She and I were not even amature enthusiasists, we walked into the Philharmonic not knowing what to expect. We didn’t even know what we were going to hear, we were that innocent. It was Verdi’s La Traviata. I had absolutely no knowledge of opera and I remember thinking during Alfredo and Violetta’s duet Un di felice, eterea, “Holy shit, this is what the human voice is capable of.” Opera is what made me see that the voice is an instrument capable of such range not just of sound but of emotion. When I hear an aria it is not merely the purity of the woman’s voice that moves me to tears but the part of her soul- and the soul of her character- that she includes in the notes. Opera moves me because I am eternally connected to the composers and singers through what they have given me to listen. Furthermore, I love opera because everyone in the house is capable of having the same experience. You don’t feel opera more fully if you’re wealthy. You may not see as well in the third balcony but you can still hear the power and tenderness. Music is the great equalizer.

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