July dinner with Friends

We have some very good friends nearby, and we’ve known each other for well over 50 years.   While we share many things in common, pretty high on the list is a love of food and wine.  We had the opportunity to have them as guests for dinner last month.  Here are the highlights:

  • a range of appetizers (or antipasti, tapas, or mezes, as you prefer)
    • black and green olives
    • Iberico jamon and Pipperas pickled peppers
    • golden beets with Manchego cheese
    • walnut paté emulating chopped liver
    • leftover octopus salad
  • salad of avocado, orange segments and pesto
  • grilled salmon, lentils, and red potatoes
  • figs with honey & goat cheese, candied orange peel, and cacao powder
  • wines: Polvanera Spumante (rosé) and Beaux Freres Pinot Noir (red)

It was a great evening.  I must say that Barbara’s creative fig dessert was as spectacular to taste as it was to see on the plate.

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Finally Learned How to Cook Octopus

On those occasions when I vary from a vegetarian lifestyle, the most frequent cause is grilled octopus, a favorite food of mine for many years.  I learned about 6 years ago that one reason may be — besides being delicious — that octopus is one of the foods with highest vitamin B-12 content, one of the few nutrients missing in a vegan diet.

When we first got our pizza oven, I did manage to research and make good grilled baby octopus, thanks to help from Chef Mike Anthony in NYC.  But I have always been intimidated by the idea of cooking a full-sized octopus.  Every time I searched online, a found a bewildering array of techniques and recipes, often with totally contradictory instructions and advice. Two other obstacles also loomed large: (1) Barbara’s aversion to most shellfish, especially scary-looking ones, and (2) no one else in the house would eat it, and I didn’t want to throw a lot of it away.

This month I overcame my fears and was very pleased with the results.  Since Barbara was away for four days, I could cook without offending her and her kitchen.  A year earlier I had purchased a 2+ pound frozen Spanish octopus at Restaurant Depot; it was time to use it soon; and it was small enough that I could consume or freeze what I didn’t use in a couple of days.

My friend and fishmonger, Chris had shared how he had handled creatures about that size, so I could draw upon that guidance.  In addition I read a number of online blogs and articles and then, finally plunged ahead.  I defrosted the package overnight on the kitchen counter, and in the morning took it out of the packaging, cut off the head with its beak, and then let the legs soak with a few changes of cold water for an hour.  From there, it was a three-step process:

  • simmer the octopus in water at about 200º F. until tender
  • remove it from the water, separate each of the legs, and place them (still hot) in a large bowl with olive oil and flavorings, to cool and absorb the tastes
  • when ready to eat, remove as many legs as you wish for your dish, add salt and olive oil, and grill them until they have crispy edges all over

At that point you can use them in whatever dish you want to make.  I ended up with three different dishes, and 2-3 servings of each:

  • salad with potato, white beans, black olives, and capers
  • warm salad with orzo and vegetables
  • chopped salad with greens, radicchio and hot peppers

Poaching the octopus

Marinating the legs before grilling

grilled octopus with potatoes, beans, black olives and capers

same dish in the bowl

Warm Whole Wheat Orzo Salad with vegetables

Thinly-Sliced “Octopus with Chopped Greens, Cucumber, Onion, and Hot Peppers

The key things I learned had to do with “simmer until tender”.  Most important was not to get the water too hot or too cool.  Ideal seems to be between 190º and 200º F.  Food scientist Harold McGee helped me on this.  His article led me to look up some material about cooking octopus sous vide, and now I know I am looking for a final temperature in the meat to be between 175 and 180º F.  I also understand that there is NO WAY to know how long it will take to achieve that temperature.  You will see time estimates in recipes from 30 minutes to 3 hours.  The truth is, we do not know.  You must measure as accurately as possible, and then cut a piece and taste near the end.

I had two digital tools that were useful.  One was the the culinary laser thermometer which I normally use to gauge the pizza oven temperature.  This is quick and versatile, but may not be accurate enough to ensure my water temperature is where I want it.  The other is a simple digital thermometer, which I always use in breadmaking to be certain the water temperature is correct for making the levain.  The latter seems to be the best for gauging water temperature.

In theory one could bring a pot of water to a low boil and then place it in a pre-heated 200º F. oven.  However, oven temperature controls are not that precise, and the actual temperature could be off — higher or lower — by as much as 25º F, so I would not want to take a chance of getting it too hot, which would turn the meat into rubber.

The grilling part is relatively easy, and there are a number of way that can work.  My preference is to put the legs directly on the grate of a very hot gas grill, turning once or twice.  It would also work well a la plancha (Spanish style), in a preheated cast iron skillet, or under a hot broiler.

The final tip from my explorations has to do with flavor and texture.  Online instructions were diametrically opposed — some said simmer in well-salted water, others said absolutely none.  I used none in the water, but I also heeded advice that said to salt aggressively after cooking, both in the marinade and afterward on the grill.  Low-salt octopus will not be appealing from my point of view (and it was the consensus).

In restaurants I often have a glass of red wine with grilled octopus, figuring that the bold grill flavors will complement a robust wine.  However, I may be changing my perspectives on this issue, more toward white wines.  In any case on warm summer days and with the three salads I made, the perfect choice was my favorite Assyrtiko from Santorini, the 2016 Estate Argyros.  A Portuguese Vinho Verde also works well.

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Union Square Greenmarket – NY June 2018

This gallery contains 28 photos.

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NYC Trip – June 2018

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you will know that I make short pilgrimages to NYC a couple of times each year for FFW — i.e. Friends, Food, and Wine.  This year is unusual, in that my previous trip was in March, and just 3 months later, I am back again.  Usually I drive down, stay two nights in an Airbnb, and drive back with a few cases of very good wines not available in our Boston market.  Instead, this trip was by the LimoLiner bus (inspired by their special $69 fares each way vs. the normal $89), I stayed in a hotel that was new to me (Arlo Nomad), stayed three nights, and returned with only 6 bottles of wine stuffed into my backpack.  Still, it was a delightful interlude, and a healthy one.

Here is a brief summary of the highlights:

  • Wednesday — lunch with Jeremy at The Modern, dinner with Judy at Antonucci Cafe
  • Thursday — lunch at Il Tinello, short stop at Paul Stuart to say hello to friend Patrick Young, then dinner at L’Artusi in the West Village, walking a total of 5.4 miles
  • Friday — visit Union Sq. Greenmarket in AM, stop at Eataly Vino, lunch at Masseria dei Vini , dinner at abc Cocina, walking another 4.5 miles
  • Saturday — stop at the Greenmarket again, breakfast at Essen cafeteria, early lunch at Blank Slate, catch the 1:15 bus home, and go to the music festival that evening at home

This post will provide pix for each day, and a separate post will give you a gallery of the market photos.

Arlo Nomad Hotel, Antonucci Cafe

Il Tinello

Il Tinello is a more fashionable, upscale location, more formal and expensive than the others, but I had a very good lunch of Beet Salad with Arugula, followed by Pasta with Fresh Porcini.  The chef provided a complimentary plate of delicately-battered Zucchini strips that were first-rate.  These were accompanied by a glass of a fine Chianti.  Instead of dessert, I finished with a glass of Amaro (Montenegro).  In the background the conversations of investment bankers, financial advisors and their clients, and well-heeled global travelers did little to distract me from the joys on my table.

….and L’Artusi

I had been to this restaurant last year and loved it.  Once again, it delighted.  This time I had my table for one upstairs.  It had more light than the first level, and there was an upbeat energy about the place that was satisfying.  My server, Nick, was extremely helpful and insightful, answering all my questions about the dishes and their preparation.  The Primo as a crudo of Escolar and Avocado, perfectly executed.  The Pasta was Bavette Vongole, featuring real imported Manila Clams, all nicely matched with the LaStaffa Verdicchio.  My cheese course was a Pecorino Gregoriano, which had a nice creaminess to it and was just the right size piece.  Finally, we capped the dinner with a tasting of three different Amari: Nonino from Friuli, del Capo from Calabria, and SantaMaria al Monte from Liguria.  All three were new to me, all were very good.  Nonino was my favorite.

That same morning I had made a long-postponed stop at Kalustyan’s, a widely-renowned store with an incredible array of spices, condiments, ethnic delicacies of all kinds. and staples including rices, beans, pulses and peppers with astonishing variety.  One could spend hours there.  I bought 9 small items that intrigued me most.  Here I provide just a very small sample with three snapshots.

Masseria dei Vini

I chose this for lunch based on a description in a listing on OpenTable’s website.  It turned out to be a great choice.  Not far from Columbus Circle on the West side of town, this place is not attractive from the outside, especially with all the construction around it and metal scaffolding in front.  Once inside, however, I felt very comfortable, in a restful, Pugliese-themed space, where most of the staff and patrons were or at least spoke Italian.

My server brought a small basket of delicious breads, a little whole grain bread and grissini, plus some semolina bread, too.  I added some of the lentils in olive oil in a small bowl to top the bread slices, and it was a new and successful pairing.  The soup was a purée of zucchini and potato, smooth and creamy, made with only vegetables and olive oil.  The pasta was Gnocchi Sorrentina, a light spinach gnocchi floating in a creamy sauce of tomatoes and olive oil, with mozzarella and basil on top.  A fine glass of Pecorino wine accompanied the meal, and I took home the leftover gnocchi for the bus ride back.  All together, an excellent meal and a good value.

abc Cocina

This was a repeat from my visit in March.  It was a light meal at an outside table, seafood in both dishes, and quite tasty:

  • crudo of fluke
  • crispy fish tacos
  • and a glass of Godello from Spain

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More Italian Dinners

Two recent meals at home were definitively Italian.  One was Cianfotta, about which I wrote last November.  I made the dish pretty much by the book, except for the addition of some excellent fresh spinach.  You can check the recipe via the link provided.

The next day, the leftovers were even better than the dinner version.  I piled the vegetables onto some toasted whole grain bread of mine (which I sliced and froze a few days after baking).  It made a magnificent lunch, served with a glass of Aaron’s 2017 Rosé, Idiopinkracy, from Arizona.

A few days later, it was pasta time.  The dish was Gnochetti Sarde with Vegetables, purely my own invention.

In my wine cellar I have a tall rack where I store my artisinal specialty food items — pastas, sauces, cases of Italian tomatoes, dried porcini, etc.  One of the pastas in there is a high-end American product, Baia Gnochetti, made with special American Durum wheat.  I made a sauce with available ingredients:

  • onion
  • tomato (peeled, chopped)
  • zucchini
  • yellow squash
  • chickpeas (already cooked a few days before)
  • home roasted and peeled peppers

These were cooked individually, and then all they needed were some toasted homemade bread crumbs and lots of good olive oil to bring it all together.  Add the cooked pasta and some pasta water, heat through for 2-3 more minutes, serve with freshly grated Parmiggiano and a glass of Tollara Malvasia di Candia from Emilia Romagna (imported by Nick Mucci), and I was transported back to the Mediterranean.

 

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Pammy’s

We did go out to dinner a few times.  Far and away the best of those occasions was dinner at Pammy’s in Cambridge with our friends, Nick and Kelsey.  This new American Trattoria was alive with energy and full of creative and superb approaches to food and drink.

The place was lively but not overpowering, and the food was marvelous.  We enjoyed everything, starting with 1/2 a Negroni on draft and continuing through the three courses and a bottle of Reale Aliseo wine, which Nick imports and which Barbara and I enjoyed during a visit to that winery in Italy last year.

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May Food Highlights

This was a busy month, with schoolwork, travel, and some cooking.  Here are some of the brief highlights of Spring, when we did get into the kitchen.

Spicy Guacamole

Now that I’ve learned how to make guacamole with some zip, it is becoming a more frequent topping for my breads at lunch.  Here’s what it looked like on May 23rd:

Ramps Mean Springtime

One of my seasonal favorites is the wild leek known as Ramps.  I don’t always buy them when I see them, because they can be very expensive ($15-$20/lb.) and frequently look terrible by the time they make it to the market.  I did find one lovely batch at Russo’s in late May.  I pickled a few and cut up some of the rest of them, cooing the greens separately from the bulbs.  Here is an artistic rendition of those two components:

The greens were much sweeter and tastier than I remembered from previous attempts.

Baked Pasta

One night I played with a large, ribbed pasta, making a baked version with tomatoes and chopped greens.  The dish was a good match for a Nebbiolo I bought recently in NY.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

For variety one night, I decided we should do some Vietnamese Spring Rolls, Vegan and delicious.  I even remembered where we had some of the dried rice paper needed as the wrapper.  Naturally, this called for Barbara’s pastry/dough handling skills, which are considerable and transcend many cultures.

Miscellaneous Vegetables

One night we did a cabbage braise, and another featured the other half of the cabbage, in a Baked Rice with Vegetables.

If it looks like we were losing enthusiasm for long, involved dishes, you are correct.  But it was a short interlude, not a lasting change.

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