Super Bowl Sunday: weekend recipe – USA’s dish of dishes: hamburger

Beef. It is, still, what’s for dinner.

I grew up in a place (Cleveland, Ohio) where, and time (the 70’s and 80’s) when anything for dinner that wasn’t a) beef and b) potato was thought of as, well, just plain evil. Of course we had the singular chinese take-out joint from time to time (yeah!) and those two really, reeaalllly bad pizza places (each slice had enough cheese on top to sink a latest generation aircraft carrier. Maybe a whole fleet. And if you waited t’ill the pizza got cold, well, its resulting density was only slighter more than your average neutron star. Set it near a lamp and the light would bend.) And we ate spaghetti sometimes but with ragout so most nights there was something that used to ‘moo’ on the plate and, ex-noodles, something vaguely green and a potato in some form as side dishes.

Not that that’s a bad or good thing. Or even evil. But my mother tended to adopt her cooking times to my father and older brother’s specific…tastes. Both of them tended to like food… cooked. As in dead-real-dead, petrified really. Steaks were, until university, dry, dark things that could be used as roof shingles in a pinch. I would need at least 12 glasses of milk just to swallow half of whatever abused remnants of a moo-moo was placed in front of me at the table. Even Rio, our small collie mix, couldn’t manage to grind down the… oddly brown-black beef tile leftovers. And burgers… were useful in that I could use those leftovers for shot-put practice. I’d say she cooked them usually about…. 50 minutes or so on each side. Throw one hard enough and you could have, in the right circumstances, killed somebody. Well, if not murder at least put them in the hospital awhile. Luckily the round-ish lumps were often grilled outside and made of good quality ground round so if you topped them with enough ketchup, say, about a half gallon… you could mush them down enough to eat and notice that the flavors were good. Surprisingly. Intense, I suppose you could have described them. Like having to sit and watch an entire Wagnerian opera. Kiww the wabbit. Anyway.

That last part stuck with me – the quality of the meat you use, and the grilling, are what determine whether a burger is something oddly perfect, a grand dish, or, uh… something more adapt for a drive-through, paid for across a window, necessitating suger-coated fried potatoes as a side distraction, various special and not-so-special sauces to mask the meat’s mediocrity while the whole eaten quickly, parked aside where few if anyone else can spy, radio on softly, motor running, in shame: ‘Bless me father for I have sinned…’ ‘Eat 3 green salads and drink 2 cups of herbal tea. Amen.’ Still, the lovely feel of a thick, juicy grilled patty with a slice of melted cheese on top remained second to apple pie, mom’s, of course, in the list of culinary things missed when overseas.

So much like everyone else from the midwest… there was a time when cheeseburger was the concept and word of the first thing I ate whenever returning from overseas. I would change my itinerary, literally, to pass through an airport with a decent burger place, paying that little extra a few times or maybe extending travel time a few hours to make sure I had time for the much anticipated ritual, the bland tiredness of after a longish flight, passing through customs, picking up and re-checking bags, strolling to transport to change terminals, walking slowly through the rush of people to the restaurant, wheedling through the tables with my handbags filled with stuff to give, plop down at a wooden table, order the double or biggest cheeseburger they had, smile quietly as the waiter or tress strode over to me tray in hand, breath in deep, plop on the ketchup, wrap my hands around the warmed bun, open up and—ahhhhhh.

That was long ago… now we almost have access globally, pretty much, to all sorts of decent burgers, even burger oddness: roadhouse grills, black angus pseudo-american diners, burgers topped with truffles and gold foil, tofu vegan burgers, turkey burgers, triple bacon burgers, pineapple toppings, mushroom, wasabi, mexican chile, soy, ginger, red bean … all sorts of stuff. Agreeable, mostly: make them as you want them. Not just your way right away, though the ‘right away’ part is still often requisite.

I still thoroughly enjoy a good burger from time to time and despite the globalization of the food industry away from the states, if you want a pretty good burger…your safest bet is to do it yourself. Which I do. The first step, of course, is the beef.
   Finding a competent, honest butcher is worth your while. I buy mine from a crusty, aged, silver-haired one, thin and serious, who demonstrates an avid passion for both his market and meat in general. Half and half I use usually, half beef and half ‘vitellone’ or veal but not of the milkish kind (adolescent I suppose you could call them – it might sound a bit monstrous but if you’re going to be eating it…it’s not a bad thing to recall, show some respect. Adult but less than a year old.) The color of the meat is clearer than beef yet darker than the veal you’re likely used to. And if not local then at least as close by as possible – my butcher only uses certified piedmont beef.
   The cuts and relative fat content is then a personal issue. Ie, you can use any ground meat really, almost, mixing and matching, lamb, pork, ecc., adding flavors into the mix, artichokes, olives, suaces, etc. I’m more of a purist with regards to the meat, and I prefer my burgers fairly lean and large, about 180 grams or so – if the patty is pure, you don’t need to cover up its flavor but enhance it. Something like this –
Of late I make a topping sauce out of sweet scallions and ginger. It’s easy to do, better tasting and much cheeper than most stuff (onion jam) you can find in a jar. Simply slice through (thin strips) the body of a scallion or two (or sweet red onion), salt and pepper, lightly toss them in butter with maybe a drop or two of olive oil (always virgin. Don’t ever use the chemically extracted cheap stuff,) for a minute -or three- until the slices just begin to become translucent, then add some water, sugar, and honey maybe. Like this –

…and slowly at lowest temperature, cover and boil. Later, grate in some ginger juice or not. If you don’t have a grating plane like the one shown, well, get one. They’re worth it. On lowest heat let the onion sauce-chutney go for about 15-20 minutes or so or until it’s thick, taste and adjust for sweetness and flavor, and let it simmer until you get something that looks like this below –
Next of course is the bread…and that, to, depends on what kind of finished burger you’re shooting for. Make it proportional to the beef and toppings and use the kind of bread that fits well with whatever’s going into the sandwich. Well, as best you can. I usually add fresh sliced scallion, tomato and mayo, sometimes an egg gently fried sunny side up, sometimes cheese, mixed greens, you know, the usual.
Penultimate…the potatoes. Sometimes instead of fries I try to prep them with a little more flavor, boiling wedges in broth before tossing and crisping them in flavored butter, whatever your taste. I often lightly crush a garlic clove and add a little sage, salt and pepper. Let the butter melt on lowest of heat as the potatoes are almost ready, then turn off the flame below them while putting the butter on high some seconds while you strain, transfer and toss. Then lower the heat – only a bit – and wait. And wait some more. And when you think you should turn the wedges, wait another minute before doing so – you’ll find they’ve turned a lovely golden-brown on the down side. I turn them over one-by-one to make sure but you can simply roughly toss them – but then be sure not to over-cook those potatoes that didn’t turn over. Then, once they’re crispy, transfer them into the now empty pan you prepped the burgers in to sweep up those small flakes of caramelized beef, and plate. Like this:

….which, along with a good beer, is still: Beef. It’s what’s for dinner. And Super Bowl Sunday.


Weekend Recipe: The Simplest of Pasta (spaghetti with a Neruda tomato sauce)

Weekend Recipe: The Simplest of Pasta (spaghetti with a Neruda tomato sauce)

‘…the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile…’
Pablo Neruda

10-12 fully ripened cherry tomatoes
6-10 Piccadilly tomatoes
1 sweet red onion
good unsalted butter
honey (medium sweet)
black pepper
bi-carbonate of soda
1 handful of sweet, small leaf basil
180 grams of hard-grain wheat spaghetti
serves 2

The simplest of things… aren’t. Not really. Everything has a depth to it. Things seen or felt, their scent… is only the perceivable end, a pause after a long series of countless interactions, each with its own language. So many languages, so many exchanges in each moment, all that happened before you… reach for it, say, a ripe tomato, note its smoothness, color, weight, bring it toward you as you lean forward and breath in. It seems simple, even the simplest, of actions: identifying a vine-ripened tomato. Yet before that moment…. the specific composition of soil had to be formed, the plant had to grow, the fruit ripen, sunshine and temperature and humidity. Then it had to be harvested, shipped, brought to market – rarely do you find a proper tomato in a chain super market produce bin. You will find them in a local market or farm, in season – unless you’ve done the farming yourself. And you have to have some way to compare, experience or a form of intuition, nose, hands, eyes, all the tomatoes you’ve ever eaten codified as the prediction of what that fruit in your hand will taste like after you’ve done the cooking, tried to exalt its flavor. It’s the tomato that talks to you, yes, but also the soil from which it drew its nutrition, the sun, the weather. Picking a great tomato isn’t new age or anything like that but it is complex, necessarily seasonal if not even ephemeral, and holds not a little mystery. No two tomato sauces can ever be the same.
cherry tomatoes

A similar notion can be repeated for each of the few ingredients in this recipe, the butter, the sweet red onion, the basil, the large spaghetti… if each is chosen with patience and an odd uncertain certainty – the sauce and dish will turn out wonderfully, simple as it is. First, a little early on – remove the skins from both the cherry (a few seconds after if you’ll do them together) and piccadilly tomatoes in the usual way by placing them briefly into boiling water, maybe a minute, maybe two but as soon as they look ready or immediately if any of the skins split, remove into ice-cold water and cool them asap. Once they have, the skins will slide right off. If you have to open a skin or two with a knife, use one with ridges (like a normal serving knife) that penetrate the skins more easily.

Set them aside or do the rough slicing and/or light crushing (with your hands) if you’r ready to prep the meal. Never, if tomato a principle flavor of the dish you’re preparing, use a mechanical blender on tomato. It ruins them, making their flavor hollow and a bit acidic. If you have the time you can pass them through a tomato sieve but that takes a bit and, truth is, the sauce seems to turn out slightly more flavorful without. In any case, set the tomatoes aside – their scent should be delightfully gratifying.

Get to stewing the onion. Red, firm, and slightly sweet the scent, not overwhelming. Take off the outermost peels, trim the stem and beard, and dice it up roughly – the stem with a little more care. Use two if they’re small. Here you can cheat and speed up the making just a little by using a spoon of EV olive oil on medium heat and sauté the onion in a coverable pan until they begin to become translucent. If you want a little more umph to the final sauce, at the very end you can add a quarter of a well diced sweet garlic clove – but be very careful not to brown it. Then add only enough water to coat the bottom of the pan, a few tablespoons, lower the heat once it begins to boil, add a pat of good unsalted butter, mix it up as it melts. Add a dash of salt, a twist of pepper and a couple dashes of sugar, mix, cover and let it gently stew on lowest heat at least 10 minutes. In the meantime place the big pot of salted water on a burner for the spaghetti. Once the onion has wilted completely but before caramelizing, remove the cover and let the excess water evaporate. Once it has, add the peeled tomatoes and raise the heat to medium. By now the water for the pasta should be about to boil. Add 180 grams or so, and choose a solid hard-grained wheat pasta noodle, preferably passed through bronze machines. I use Rummo, a pretty good industrial brand.

Now comes the ‘cook’ part, the adjustments you’ll have to make along the way using your eyes, hands, nose and tongue. After the tomatoes have heated, crush them with a wooden spoon in the pan, add enough salt, pepper, a pinch or two of sugar and bicarbonate of soda, mix well and let the soda do its de-acidification thing. Then taste and adjust and crush again, lower the heat and add a half teaspoon of good honey, medium sweet like sulla or sunflower, mix, taste, adjust again to the flavor balance you’re looking for, then turn off the heat. Now add a small handful of freshly picked, small-leaf roughly sliced sweet basil – use a ceramic knife if you have one or you can use your hands to shred the leaves, and a healthy pat of butter, mix and let the sauce rest for a couple minutes. Taste the pasta noodles for saltiness and adjust them, to, if necessary.

By now the pasta should be about ready to go – al dente. Drain the noodles. Two schools of thought to plate: most of the time sautéing the pasta with the sauce is the natural way to go, letting the flavors penetrate into the noodle but for this one… it’s more a personal choice. Twirling the noodles without mixing leaves the sauce more rich and pure, mixing of course flavors the noodles more but slightly alters the sauce. In any case, you can add a spoonful on the bottom beneath the noodles. Then add another pat of fresh butter on top of the spaghetti, then spoon over the sauce abundantly. Try to do the plating in a hurry to keep the spaghetti from drying or cooling. Lightly heated serving plates also aren’t a bad idea (if you’re making it for 4-5 people or fewer you can place the dishes one at a time on the heated water pot and plate the noodles straight in.) Top off with freshly grated parmigiano or not, to taste.

Serve with an easy red or cool white, and enjoy the sunshine, rich soil and salty breeze and sweetness once you place the first fork in your mouth. Most of all though, those summer tomatoes delicately giving forth all that… cool, magic completeness.

link – how tomatoes ripen:  

Ode To Tomatoes by Pablo Neruda
The street
filled with tomatoes,
light is
its juice
through the streets.
In December,
the tomato
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
its ease
on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife
into living flesh,
a cool
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
its flag,
bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
at the door,
it’s time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.

Weekend recipe: Penne with ricotta

Weekend recipe: Penne with ricotta

Ingredients -/+ (per person):

100 grams of penne pasta
120 grams of ricotta, cow or sheep
50 grams of pig cheek or bacon
30 grams of grated ages cheese, a mix of parmesan and pecorino romano or any other you like

It’s late. It’s been a fairly busy day, your girl friend will be getting back about 20 minutes or so after you will, tired and a little stressed at the ongoings of the day. It’s your turn to cook and you really, really don’t feel like prepping a meal. What’s worse: you’re hungry, even ravenous. You want massive, mouth-filling, gut-fulfilling fair in a hurry. Pizza? Burgers? The deli on the corner? Maybe, even though they all sound boring.

   Ok, it isn’t that they actually sound boring. It’s just that your taste buds are looking for something hardy and flavorful. And sound can have a flavor, or vice versa. Pizza: you’re really not in the mood for melted cheese and toppings, that familiar odor of cooked canned tomato, heated cardboard and animal fat mixed with dried herbs. Burgers: or more grilled, too-thin, plain beef patties on wimpy bread. The deli: the deli has more to offer but a sandwich for dinner – though sometimes a pleasurable change of pace – tonight would be strikingly inadequate. So you might want to try an old stand by, something you don’t make that often and so forget just how satisfying it is, kind of like having a burger, pizza and deli sandwich all at the same time.
   Plop some water in the pot as soon as you get in, salt it, then take off your coat, change into a more comfortable pair of shoes, undo your tie if you have one on, use the bathroom if you need to but please do give your hands a good washing before heading back into the kitchen. Now, take out that prosciutto you have leftover in the fridge or freezer. It can be one nice, thick slice but even if it’s been thin-sliced it’ll work just fine. If the meat is in the former condition, slice away thin ribbons and then in turn slice those ribbons into small squares. If it’s the later, stop once you’ve chopped that, instead, into thin ribbons. By now the water is boiling, so shove in some penne, the smooth kind
would work better here but any short pasta will do (dry, not egg pasta).
   You’re hungry, so realistically put in at least 100 grams per person, 200+ for the two of you. Now, take out the leftover ricotta, sheep milk if you have it but the cow milk kind will do as well. The first is more flavorful but less fatty, so make sure that once you’ve put it in a bowl and separated it into several chunks, 100-150 grams per person, take a small cup of boiling salt water from the pasta pot, pour it into the same bowl and mix until you get a sort of really thick paste. If instead it’s the cow kind, grate a tad of nutmeg into the cheese, then add some water but not as much. Now put the prosciutto ribbons or squares into a pan on medium-low heat and let them fry up slowly until good and crispy. You can even get a little stupid and deglaze after a bit with some cognac, but no need to. Anyway.
   Once the pasta is ready don’t drain it well. Plunk it fairly wet into the pan and toss a few seconds with the crispy meat, add some other grated cheese – that is, parmesan – if you must but again there’s no need. Once the noodles are well-flavored transfer them into the bowl with the ricotta paste and mix the whole well. Add a good dose of pepper if it’s to you liking. Your girlfriend will walk through the door, take one wiff and thank Manitu that you’ve made a great smelling, great tasting, fully satisfying dinner, plus one that won’t rest in your stomach like, well, a double-stuffed with sausage or two all beef patties with special sauce. Tomorrow you can have a a corned beef on rye…

Weekend Recipe: Pasta with Tuna and broccoli

4 of the top 10 things that guys, even more so heterosexual, don’t do naturally of their own free will are: their nails, shopping, ironing…and dishes, the later unless there just isn’t any more space left in or around the kitchen sink. You know, those leaning tower constructs of stained, somewhat brownish plates, glasses and silverware that seem to defy gravity as they glisten under the lighting, testaments to the meals of days gone by? I’ve been domesticated, hence I do all the above mentioned stuff, the dishes even while I cook  – under duress, admittedly, but I do them.

Still, I’m reticent about it so when I have the chance to limit the cleanup I do. There are several ways to do so. The most pleasurable is takeout – sushi, pizza and the like. But the former can get rather dear and the later tiring, say, if you’ve done it for 6 straight days. By the 5th evening the guys at the pizzeria have become so used to your 7:55pm arrival that they have your order ready for you even if you didn’t call it in beforehand. At that point it’s time for option 2: a one pot meal.
Once again there are a bizillion ways to make one. One rather yummy one, fast to boot, is this: Put the usual salted water on to boil, (the water should sort of be as salty as the Mediterranean sea,) and once boing, slide in the pasta – short noodles for this recipe, large bow tie or butterfly shaped, though any will do. 80-120 grams per person, depending on how hungry you are. Add a minute to the suggested cooking time, seeing as the addition of broccoli about mid-way through will lengthen the time necessary. You can use spaghetti if you want but if you do it would be better to sauté and mix in a pan before plating, which would mean extra cleanup. So.

Clean some broccoli, about one full handful per person, and divide it into small bite-sized pieces. If you want to use the stem part of the vegetable as well as the leafy part peal and slice the stem immediately and place it into the boiling water. Now, grab the main serving bowl. Take one garlic clove and squish it along the inside. Your hands will taste rather lovely like garlic for a day after if you scrunch the clove hard, but hey, you’re a guy. What’s a little garlic? If you want the end result to have even more of that fresh garlic flavor, rub the individual serving bowls with some as well. Check on the pasta to see it isn’t boiling over or sticking. Now, slice some datterini (or cherry, if you can’t find them) tomatoes from Sicily in half, about one palmful per person, and slide into the main serving bowl. Check the timer. If the noodles have about 5 minutes or so to cook (it depends on the size of the broccoli pieces you prepared,), slide them into the boiling water as well. Now for the main ingredient of the condiment.

Open one box of quality tuna ventresca filets in olive oil per two people. Remember, drain out the oil. Don’t be a guy about it. The oil will detract from the taste. Anyway, place the filets into the serving bowl and break them up a little with a fork. Now add a tablespoon per person of fresh, good extra-virgin olive oil. Then add a pinch of salt, a bit of fresh ground black pepper. Now check on the pasta for salt and tenderness. Add salt and adjust the cooking time as needed. Finally shred in a few basil leaves.

When the pasta is ready drain well and toss the noodles straight into the main bowl, mix, plate, and dribble but a few more drops of oil on top. You can add a dash of hot pepper optionally. And serve with a glass of medium structured, chilled white wine. It’s a light dish, which is a good thing. After dinner don’t forget you have the leaning tower of clothes to iron…..
PS: In alternative, you can can the broccoli and add 1/4 a grated lemon rind per person, which is just as delicious, maybe more, and will leave even less to clean….

Ingredient list for 2:
1 can or tin of tuna ventresca (or tuna filet) in olive oil
180 grams of short noodle pasta
2 cloves garlic
EV olive oil
1 (bio- no pesticide) lemon and/or –
– 1 small broccoli
10 ‘date’ tomatoes or other savory type
Salt and pepper to taste
(opt) flat-leaf parsley or sweet (small-leafed) basil, fresh hot pepper

link: endangered tuna:

Weekend Recipes: Fried polenta with Zola (cheese)

…yesterday fried polenta with fresh, creamy Gorgonzola cheese. Lombardia, the northern region of Italy (Milan), doesn’t have a coastline with the Mediterranian sea. Still, Italians, northerners included, are an expressively emotional lot by and large, tending always to remain connected sentimentally and interactively with something larger than themselves individually. Love, family, food, soccer, dialect… and the sea, sometimes the mountains. Lots of traditional songs of yearnings and conflicts, loss and place. It’s the nation of opera, after all, Puccini, Verdi, Bellini…. sentiment. Melodrama. Maybe that’s why the people in the Lombardian (and Piemonte) valleys and plains invented Gorgonzola (it’s a real city. See the photo below) cheese: to have something to miss when it’s not there.

…the recipe is straightforward, almost a no-cook. Simply make a ton of polenta – there are differing schools as to how, whether to stir all the time or leave it mostly alone but the end results are fairly similar. Unless you have a big fireplace and let it cook over the flames, just follow the instructions on the package. If you want it a bit richer, near the end of its cooking or as soon as you remove the cornmeal from the burner add some quality whole milk, like a glass per 4 people, and stir it in. The important thing is, of course, to use good corn flour – avoid cheap stuff.  And when it’s ready, pour all of it into a wet, smooth textured rag or towel and mold the steaming polenta into a loaf, slicing pieces after from the loaf with a wooden knife if possible. You can accompany it with pretty much anything, cheeses, cold cuts, rabbit, chicken of other liver, meaty ragu, ecc. Make too much to finish that day…leave the rest covered in the fridge.

The next day remove it, slice the cold polenta – not too thick, maybe half an inch at most but it depends on personal taste, and fry them up in butter until the slices crisp on each side then spoon on the hot slices a bit of the freshest Gorgonzola you can find. That’s it. Orgasmic. A little white wine or lightly structured red, let the flavor overwhelm your mouth and mind, close your eyes… and begin to miss the plains of Lombardia, even if you’ve never been there, from wherever you are….

link – gorgonzola cheese:
and twitter: