Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Watermelon Granita

Summer is here and so are all the wonderful and beautiful melons one comes to look forward to every summer: Ambrosia, Canary, Cantaloupes, Casaba, Sharlyn and of course my favorite Watermelon (follow this link for a nice description with pictures of these and more melons).

I love eating ripe melons over the sink with the juice dripping everywhere. In fact when it comes to watermelon I can make a whole meal out of one. I like it so much that a few years ago I started making a Gazpacho with it, using the juice and flesh, and adding diced red onions, peppers and a little lime juice. It has become a favorite of friends and customers alike.

I also love making Granita with watermelon. Granita is that wonderful Sicilian treat of shaved flavored ices. It’s simple to make and any number of fruits can be used, but since I’m all gaga over watermelons right now, I’m going to give you my watermelon recipe.

Start with a half of a medium sized watermelon. Peel it and turn the flesh into juice with a blender or food processor. It’s best to use seedless watermelon for this. Pass the pureed flesh through a strainer so that all you have is the juice. To this add as much or as little sugar as you like. Now in to a 2 inch deep baking pan pour the liquid. Place the pan in the freezer and set your timer for 1 hour. After one hour check the granita as it starts freezing start shaving it with a fork. Return to the freezer and wait another hour and repeat the shaving. Return to the freezer and start shaving the ice every 45 minutes. Keep doing this until it is frozen and the texture is like snow. Transfer to a container and store in the freezer. Enjoy

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Fusion Confusion

Recently I was talking to a Chinese friend of mine, who professes to be a very good cook of Chinese cuisine - I’ve yet to confirm this claim so for the sake of argument I just go along with her on this matter. She suggested we cook together and create a fusion of Italian and Chinese food. I brushed off this notion because I’m a purest when it comes to my cooking and understanding of Italian food. I’m Vero in this matter if you will. Later that evening I was talking with Massimo and Antonio and getting a big laugh out of the whole idea. We were bouncing back and forth ideas for dishes combining the 2 countries cuisines, and even silly names for a restaurant based on such concept. Later as I was driving home from work still thinking about it I said to myself, why the heck not? It’s just so silly it just might work and be the start of something big. Honestly I don’t think it has a snowball in hell chance of taking off but I was bored so I kept thinking of dishes and combinations. The French have taken fusion cooking to levels that now most diners think that ginger enhanced scallops is real French. There is no French cuisine anymore it’s all about looking outside France for flavors and ideas. Not in Italy, Italians love their food almost to a point of worship. No way are you going to catch an Italian chef using sesame oil or fish sauce with his pasta. Pizza with black bean paste? Ha, not in my lifetime. We will never experience shark fin minestrone, and it’s probably a good thing too. For Italian cuisine has its own demons to slay.

20 years ago Italian food in this country was being explored in a very exciting way, regional dishes were being introduced and restaurants were opening that only focused on a particular region’s dishes. WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED? It seems somewhere somehow all that became a thing of the past. Say Italian food now and you’re more than likely to get a comment like "oh don’t you just love penne with chicken Alfredo sauce?" Pizza chains taking their pasta dishes to Rome and fooling an Italian crowd in a restaurant that the food isn’t a local delicacy(yeah like that’s going to happen). Italian restaurants here claming they do dishes from all regions of Italy, and do them well no less. Fast food places inventing new Italian food words. Or how about shrimp in Alfredo sauce? Did I mention putting chicken with pasta? “You’re an Italian restaurant, how come you don’t have a Caesar salad?” People, for Caesar’s sake, the Caesar salad was invented by an Italian immigrant who owned a restaurant in Tijuana Mexico. His name was Caesar by the way. It is NOT an Italian salad named after the emperor Caesar. But hey lets put chicken on it ‘cause that’s what the Italians would do. Where does it stop? When do people wake up (particularly the Italian people) and say I’m mad and I’m not going to take it anymore?

Now mind you I’m very aware that it was Italian immigrants who started restaurants here in the States that first started to bastardize their own cuisine; just like the Chinese, Indians and pretty much every other ethnic group. They put Caesar’s salad on their menus, and started to offer sides of pasta with fish on the same plate. Made cream sauces and called them Alfredo – who is this guy anyway? Don’t even get me started on spaghetti and meatballs.

So America’s perception of Italian food can be in a large part blamed on the Italians themselves. It makes one wonder why has it come to this? One reason is that Italian food is still the most ordered food in this country, and I think that statistic includes pizza. Ah pizza, god's food, a simple dish easy to make and deliver. Can I have mine with Canadian bacon and pineapple please? It’s a wonder that Italy doesn’t declare war on all of us here.

Fusion... confusion... Sushi with cream cheese, pot stickers with wild fennel, nachos with amatriciana sauce, wasabi mashed potatoes, wasabi butter with calamari, texmex, mextex, can I get that with chicken? Now don’t get me wrong I’m all for creativity and innovation, just please show respect for the countries’ cuisine that your spanking. At least take the time to truly understand the countries’ food and culture before you shred it apart, because if you take that time and effort you might just find appreciation for that food and seek to enjoy it for what it is. P.S. I thought it was olive groves, not gardens?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Roasted Artichokes

A few years back during a very good spring for Artichokes I found myself with more than I knew what to do with. I had my crew clean, slice and cook two cases of the small loose ones. As I was looking at them in the walk-in refrigerator and thinking what was I going to do with all of them, a customer’s remark came back to me. He had said that artichokes were not wine friendly, and his view is shared by many wine enthusiasts. I didn’t buy into that school of thinking, and set out to create a preparation that would make these tasty thistles marry well with wine. That’s how the following recipe came about. By the way I think this preparation of artichokes goes very well with a light acidity white wine, and the customer that made the remark agreed with the pairing I suggested: a nice bottle of Vernaccia.

These Artichokes are great as a condiment for pasta, or as a vegetable to serve with Lamb or fish. Start with 4lbs of small loose baby artichokes (the fresher the better). Clean the artichokes by tearing off the tough outer leaves. In other words clean them until the tender inner yellow leaves are showing. When the artichokes are all cleaned, cut off the stem and the tops (about 1inch).
Prepare a pot large enough to hold the artichokes and add water and a 1/4 cup of lemon juice. Slice the artichokes thinly and add to the water and lemon, place the pot on the stove and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook the artichokes until just tender. Drain the chokes and cool under running cold water. Place the cooled chokes in a shallow roasting pan, large enough to spread out the chokes into a thin layer.

While you have the oven pre-heating to 400 degrees, peel 2 small red onions and cut in half. Slice the onion very thinly and layer over the chokes. Next take 4 TBS of sliced garlic and sprinkle over the mixture. Sprinkle red pepper flakes over the whole mixture (about 2 TBS) and pour 1/2 cup of good olive oil over the artichoke mixture, and add salt to taste. Mix the whole mixture very well coating everything with the oil. Place the artichokes in the pre heated oven and set the timer for 35 mins. After 35 mins remove the pan and stir the mixture so that the bottom artichokes are now on top. Return the pan to the oven and roast for another 20 to 30 mins checking often and stirring each time you check. When the artichokes are slightly browned and the edges a bit crispy, they are done. Remove from the oven and let cool. To reheat, simply warm in a saute pan with a tsp of olive oil, or serve right out of the oven. I like to let them cool and then place a whole Branzino fish over the artichokes and roast the fish with the artichokes.

California artichokes are available year-round, with peak harvests in the spring and fall. Enjoy.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

North Carolina blues

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen my parents... ok maybe more than a few, but at long last I planned the trip to visit them and my older sister and her husband. The last time I saw any of these people they all lived in California; then 3 years ago my parents retired and moved to North Carolina to be near my sister and brother in law. So I took my much need vacation and set out to cross this country to visit the south, the Bible belt, again the south. You know what I mean, not the south of California or the south of Italy... but the South, the land of Bubba; no liquor stores but ABC stores; no alcohol sales of any kind on Sundays until after 12 noon, and no hard liquor sales at all just beer and wine (I could use a drink just thinking about that) It’s how shall I say… a lot different from California.

While planning my trip, I started researching local food and restaurants. Of course me loving all Italian food, I wanted to see what was available, perhaps a fancy white table cloth restaurant, or a wood burning pizza oven restaurant with thin Neapolitan pizza would work. Ok a trattoria doing humble but real Italian food would satisfy my soul. Nothing, blank, zero. Oh don’t get me wrong, Burlington NC has Italian restaurants; they have a few, like pizza places that serve hush puppies, or Tuscan restaurants that serve Italian American food. Getting my drift? Yep those kinds of Italian restaurants, all of them trying to be their own version of the OG (by the way they have one of those there). Hmmm let it go I say to myself. Do what you always preach, go local and eat what the area is famous for. But just what is NC famous for food wise? I ask and am told it’s the BBQ: Eastern North Carolina BBQ.

I like BBQ, but what is eastern NC BBQ, and where do I get it? Seems Eastern NC BBQ is based on a thin vinegar sauce, slightly sweet, and spicy. No ribs here just pork meat. Ok got my full attention now. Sounds like I have a quest, a holy grail, a windmill to conquer. I’m ready, willing and able. I tell my folks that I’m in search of real eastern North Carolina BBQ. Great they say we will take you to a place tomorrow for dinner. Yum I can’t wait to eat local and my first taste of E NC BBQ (I might not be able to sleep). The restaurant they take me to looks the part, no table cloths, crowded, a long line for take-out. I’m truly looking forward to this. It even has a sign above the door that says God Bless YOU (that kinda freaks me out because I’m reasonably sure I will burst into flames if I pass under it). Seated and ready I dive into the menu like a best selling novel. Pulled pork, sliced pork, ribs, beef ribs, chicken (ok the last three sound kinda pedestrian to me). I order, hush puppies, sliced pork, pork rib, beef rib, and a side of mustard greens. Waiting for the food to arrive I check out the condiments on the table, a thin vinegar sauce, a thick sweet bbq sauce, and ketchup. KETCHUP? Hold on, what’s up with that? Maybe it’s for the fries? Food arrives hot, smelling good but sticky and sweet, hum red flag. Looks good but I’ve seen this stuff in BBQ joints in California, I tuck into my meal and must admit it’s good, real good, I use the vinegar sauce to thin out the sticky sweet sauce that coats my feast. Still doesn’t feel right. The mustard greens are great slightly sweet with the natural bitter taste of the greens, and some vinegar sauce to pour over, I could have made a meal of just those. The hush puppies are dry and not at all what I had read they were supposed to be. Dinner over I feel let down. Waitress comes by to ask how everything is y’all? Good I tell her, but I’m feeling duped, lied to, taken advantage of, hallow. So this is ENC BBQ? Hell I could get that in California.

The next day we meet my sister who is going to take us to a NC winery, just outside the town of Lexington NC. I tell my sis that I was disappointed with ENC BBQ. Well she says, Lexington is the most famous place for Eastern North Carolina BBQ. THAT’S WHAT I WANT!!! So we ask a local where the best BBQ in Lexington is, and she tells us. Armed with the 411 we race to the restaurant. Running a red light and 2 illegal u turns later we arrive. Parking lot is full with a lot of pick ups. We step out of the car and are greeted with the smell of burring oak, and cooking pig, beautiful pig, ah just let me breathe it in. We enter the place and are seated in a booth. Looking around I see food being served, looks and smells great. Yum this is it, my windmill! I order for the table, finely shredded pork, coarsely chopped pork, blackened outer pork, crispy pork skin, batter fried shrimp (gotta have some sea food). Game on, I tell my family. What seems like seconds later the food starts to arrive. Hush puppies that are crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside. Crunchy batter fried shrimp with tarter sauce, and pork, lots and lots of pork. Good pork, tasty smoky pork, pork moistened with a thin slightly spicy and sweet vinegar sauce. Ah so damn good I don’t want it to end. Crunchy pork skin that with every bite you can feel you arteries harden just a little more. No sticky sauce, no ribs just mounds of differently chopped pork, smoky and wonderful. I want to stay for dinner and breakfast damn it. Oh and don’t let me forget the slaw, delicious. Shredded cabbage dressed again with that wonderful vinegar sauce. Gotta go back there next time I visit the folks.

So forget finding real Italian food here, and instead go native and have the BBQ. These people talk a little slower and have a southern accent that can be so thick you just nod your head pretending to understand what they just said. The people are nice, they’re humble, and they know their BBQ. Props to the good people of ENC and their BBQ. In the words of our governator, I’ll be back.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Yelping Yelp

There’s a new restaurant that I’m looking forward to trying. The menu looks interesting; the chef is good; I’m thinking this could be fun. Unfortunately I make the mistake of mentioning the restaurant to a friend, who proceeds to tell me he “Yelped” the place, and guess what? Seems the Yelpers have given the restaurant more bad reviews than good ones. Ok I say, who gives a crap about Yelp, I'm going and making my own opinion.

Who writes these reviews anyways? Well my friends I’m going to tell you who.............. For the most part complete idiots!!!! People who don’t know the first thing about food or the restaurant business. Small minded jerks that given a forum to vent do just that. Yelp thinks it provides a service?? HAHAHA, Yelp is a joke. Right or wrong Yelp gives people the power to play with a business future and not in a good way. Go ahead check out any restaurant on Yelp. Look at the reviews, and pay attention to the screwed up ramblings of Yelpers. One person says they like it and then it almost becomes a cyber competition to contradict the positive. Complaints so lame that you almost want to laugh at… almost. The food was great but my boyfriend couldn’t keep his eyes off the cocktail server so I’m giving it 1 star. Loved everything, but because I’m a pig, I’m giving it 2 stars because the portions were too small. 4 stars I thought the portions were just right. The food was great but the service sucked. We brought this to the owners’ attention and he comped the whole tab for us and gave us a gift certificate, so I’m giving them 2 stars. 1 star the lighting in the restrooms wasn’t bright enough, but the food and service were great. This is Yelp!! Supposed to be helpful to the consumer, yeah right, helpful only to the consumer that has no life. Written by people that don’t know or understand the restaurant business from a hole in the ground. People who think fast food is real food. People who don’t know restaurant etiquette, who think it’s ok to enter a restaurant and ask to be seated while sipping on a Starbucks Frappuccino. Or my personal favorite, bringing their own water to drink while having a cocktail at the bar. You know who you are!! Yeah you... the person that tips $3 on a $50 tab.

Now I’m not saying all Yelpers are this bad, just the vast majority of them. The good ones actually seem to know what they’re talking about and then provide positive or negative feedback to the managers and owners even before Yelping, now that’s a service, that’s Helping! The others hide behind a computer screen trying to seem more important than they are or ever will be. You see friends, I can’t Yelp the incompetent jerk who works in cubicle #24 at a business that doesn’t get Yelped. I most certainly can’t Yelp the ass bite that just used Yelp to bad mouth my restaurant, because he was 1 1/2 hours late for a 7pm reservation on a busy Saturday night, after we gave his table away to a walk-in, only after trying to call him to confirm the reservation, and find out the number he booked under is disconnected.

You get my point!! All the true diners don’t write on Yelp; if they love the place then they return and tell friends. If they hate the place they don’t return. In other words they don’t try to put a business out of business. Yelp has not and never will put their heart and soul for 30 years in an industry that is arguably the toughest business there is to make money in. Yelp is nothing more that a cyber bullying site, controlled by dim witted consumers. Yeah that’s right I said it and I mean it. They provide a forum to those punk ass induhviduals that don’t have the guts to put what they do on the line day after day. I give Yelp no stars, and ask… is there anyone who wants to build a website that allows public comments to the Yelpers’ reviews?

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Two years ago, while I was visiting Italy (the Piemonte area to be exact), we dined in a restaurant in the city of Alba. We had been to this restaurant on past visits and had become friends with the chef owner Bruno. He was kind enough to set up visits at wineries, and other restaurants. We always looked forward to dining at Bruno’s restaurant whenever we were in Piemonte, because he is a man of size both physically and in personality. We’ve shared many a great meal and many many bottles of great Piemontese wines there. On the last night of our stay in Italy we again ate at Bruno’s restaurant. The meal was multi coursed with a lot of Alba white Truffles being shaved over many of the courses. As we were leaving he handed us gifts he had made, one of which was a bottle of his Amatriciana sauce.

Amatriciana is a southern Italian condiment from Rome, so I asked Bruno why he was making this in a northern Italian restaurant. He said he loved this sauce on pasta and used it a lot in his restaurant. I then asked him how he made his, and he went into great detail explaining the sauce to me. Well I liked his so much that it has become the recipe I now use.

Amatriciana sauce is very simple to make so that’s why I’ve decided to share it with you. There are very few ingredients but cooking time is rather long so plan ahead. Take 1 lb of good Guanciale (dry cured pork jowls) and chop into very small pieces. Finely mince one small white onion. Puree one 6lb can of whole tomatoes in juice until very smooth. have on hand 750 ml of white wine, lots of red pepper flakes, a TBS of sugar, and 2 bay leaves. In a thick bottomed pan large enough to hold all the ingredients, start heating a1/4 cup of olive oil. Add to this the chopped Guanciale, and cook slowly to render the fat from the jowls. As the fat starts to render, add the minced onion. Stirring the whole time, turn the heat down and let the onion slowly melt into the rendering fat. When the onions have melted then add the white wine, and turn up the heat. While the white wine is reducing add the bay leaves, the sugar and as much pepper flakes as you desire (I like mine very spicy so I add a lot). When the wine has reduced by half add the pureed tomato and again turn the heat down, and let the sauce come to a simmer. Stirring often let the sauce simmer for 1 1/2 hours. When the sauce is done toss it with your favorite pasta and you have a very tasty pasta course that will please all. Store the left over sauce in the refrigerator for up to one week. I recommend using Bucatini pasta for this sauce. Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What's a Restaurant to do?

Times are hard, recession, depression, swine flu, it’s all a downward spiral. The press needed a break from pounding into us how bad the economy is, so luckily a flu pandemic was just the ticket. Stay home, don’t go out, avoid public places, close the school, just don’t spread that flu.
Well that’s just great. Restaurants are for the most part taking it on the chin during this recession, so why not give us the knockout punch and create a pandemic just to make sure America has another reason to stay home. Driving to the restaurant the other morning listening to the news, with its endless stats on how many have died how many are sick and how many probable cases are looming, I thought to myself… maybe I should just turn around and go back home... no wait can’t do that, who would open the restaurant? Besides I need the pay check. Trust me I feel very fortunate to be able to say that.
I live in a world that for the most part is never black and white. My world is the restaurant world and it’s painted in many shades of grey. My world is measured by 3% to 5% profit margins, and by rising costs that are all a result of this recession. The food I buy to prepare for you costs a lot more than 2 years ago. Yet because of the hard times, I can’t raise the prices just so that I can maintain the same profit margin I’m used to. I’m not talking getting rich here just maintaining the same margin is all I’m after. I watch fewer customers come in everyday, not because we don’t put out a great product, but because people are afraid. We're afraid that tomorrow will be worse than today; afraid that this pay check will be my last for a very long time. Afraid that our houses will be taken away from us. It’s all just too depressing, so stay home. You won’t catch the pig flu at home, and you won’t spend any money if you stay home, so that’s got to be the correct answer: STAY HOME!!!! By the way did I win anything for coming up with the right answer???
I don’t know about you but it really makes Americans look like a country of wimps, and damn it that’s just not right. I’ll take much less of a profit margin in order to serve good food to good people. You know share the wealth, extend a helping hand sorta thing. I’ll even come up with deals to entice the customer to come in. But come in we must start doing, or this recession will last even longer. Hello, we are a nation that lives by supply and demand. So I’m demanding you all to go out to eat at a restaurant, and support the only business I know and love. I don’t mean go out to micky d’s or the box, those so called restaurants are doing just fine during these rough economic times. Yep just fine, and also contributing to the on going obesity problem in this country. But hey I can feed my family of 6 for under $13. What’s a restaurant to do?