Tuesday, December 28, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Green

I have heard from more than a few of you, dear readers, that I might have gone a little over-the-edge in blogging about my wonderfully green dry cleaner. I get it. My rhapsodizing wasn’t even remotely related to food and I may have gone a bit overboard. Mea culpa; I hear you.

Perhaps it is because I am a novice small business owner…or the fact that I am, by training, a clinical social worker, as well as an unapologetic former hippie, and only marginally rehabilitated “bleeding heart liberal”, to which my much loved brother—the big mucky muck on Wall Street--- will attest. But I really am interested in doing anything I can to promote the healing and future wellness of our planet. I recycle and re-use religiously, donate to environmentally friendly causes and vote accordingly; I’ve watched “An Inconvenient Truth” more than once, and I just bought a second hybrid vehicle to get around our labyrinth of freeways in Los Angeles for cryin’ out loud. I make no claims to be Laurie David, but I think I’ve earned some credibility on the eco-friendly score.

My food business, No Reservations, is a modest one. I am happy to say it is successful in the sense that it is a fulfilling endeavor for me and, I believe a convenient (and hopefully tasty) resource for my clients. Since its inception, I’ve wanted to be as “green” a business as possible. At great length, I’ve researched resources for affordable recycled and recyclable packaging, use organic and local produce whenever available, and advertise strictly by word of mouth or internet.

It is with this in mind, I want to tell you about Nicolas Jammet, Co-founder of Sweetgreen, an eco-friendly salad and frozen yogurt chain in the D.C. area. (sweetgreen.com) Nicolas is the son of the owners of the famed La Caravelle restaurant in New York City, which closed in 2004. I was impressed with his and his partners’ concept in running such an establishment, but even more so by their business practice he calls “random acts of sweetness”. (Okay, it’s a tad precious, but it speaks to me and I want to “play it forward”.)

Here is one example Nicolas gave of the ways in which Sweetgreen helps promote kindness and healing in the communities which they serve: “On rainy days we cover someone’s bike seat with a plastic cover that says ‘You biked to work today, thanks, we have you covered.” I mean, COME ON, we can all get on board with this way of thinking and operating, can’t we? Have you heard or read about similar efforts by business owners? I’d love to hear about it and perhaps utilize them myself.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Waste Not Want Not

Just when I think I can’t possibly love my dry cleaner more, he does something else that rocks my world. I know this sounds extreme. But honestly, I am convinced my sweet middle eastern dry cleaner has only the best in mind for our planet and all of humanity.

I know you’re laughing but you haven’t been to THIS dry cleaning establishment, the one who’s motto is “If we were any more environmentally friendly, we’d be beating your clothes on a rock.” Come on! How can you NOT be moved to pull your car into their beautiful new, paver- lined parking lot?

Quick back story: I have patronized Hilltop Cleaners in Encino, California since we bought our house here eight or nine years ago. For most of that time, Hilltop has been a modest establishment, more kiosk than storefront. The owner and his staff were always friendly, although the gals who staffed the place were mostly dressed, shall I say “scantily”, prompting more than one customer to mutter something like “Aguilera meets Heidi Fleiss” under their breath as they gathered their freshly laundered clothing and hustled out to the tiny, hard to navigate parking lot.

But all that has changed. About a year ago, a renovation was begun. As time passed, it became apparent this was no ordinary remodel….this was a rebuilding of magnitude. And the months wore on...

Just as I began to despair of ever being able to quickly drop off and pick up our family’s stuff and even thought of switching cleaners, the GRAND OPENING was announced---in a big way. The banners, flags and fliers seemed kind of over-the-top for a dry cleaner but I have to say, the opening far surpassed anything I’ve witnessed of a similar kind.

What once could be likened to a glass shack with a driveway and a few measly parking spaces had become---Ta-Da!---a marvel of modern architecture proudly boasting coral-colored stonework, enormous glass windows, and an adjoining strip of light-filled spaces just waiting to be filled with uber-cool boutiques and ridiculously high-priced coffee shops.

But step inside and be blown away…..big screen tv’s abound, playing seemingly endless reels of the hottest live concerts available….Beyonce, Rhianna, the REAL Aguilera anyone? Multiple checkstands abound tended by uniformed, yes uniformed friendly young ladies offering free “panic buttons” (should you suddenly find yourself popping your’s), instant tailoring, 2 hour pressing or dry cleaning, and free freshly grilled hotdogs, popped corn and a cappuccino stand! I’ve started suggesting it as a luncheon place for me and my gal pals.

But the things I am most impressed by are the owner’s commitment to environmentally friendly business practices. Apparently, they’ve dumped the ol’ toxic to people and the environment chemical processes and are now using – well, I don’t know what they’re using but I do know my cleaned clothes no longer have that funky medicinal smell.

Last week, big advertisements went out for their Food Truck/Garmento Event. Yep, for the price of two items of clothing to be cleaned, customers would leave the store with a huge green (get it?) reusable Garmento bag that has four, count ‘em four uses! Turn it inside out and use it to collect soiled clothes, hang it on the back of a door to keep things off the floor, use the nifty shoulder strap to tote your unmentionables to the cleaner and, here’s the best part, they will return your cleaned items to you in the same bag now functioning as your own personal garment bag! That’s right, no more wasteful, landfill-devastating plastic bags! Do you love that??

Your reward for doing your environmental part, was to stand in the line of your choice at not one, not two, but three food trucks parked at the curb for the sole enjoyment of Hilltop customers! Does YOUR dry cleaner do that? I didn’t think so.

Finally, just when I thought the honeymoon might be ending, I was waiting at one of the registers for my ticket, mindlessly watching the shifting images on the monitor to my right and one message suddenly came into focus:

“If you are unemployed and need an outfit cleaned for an interview, we will do it for you FREE.”

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"The Mamas and Tapas"

Who does Laurie David (ex-wife of “Seinfeld” creator Larry David) think she is anyway? I mean, she’s already been crowned The Green Goddess, driving around in her earth-friendly Prius preaching environmentally correct sermons. Now she’s suddenly the expert on quality family time vis a vis The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids One Meal at a Time? She’s proven she’s got credibility on ecology issues, but where does she get off telling the rest of us how to enhance our family relations thru shared meals? If she really wants culinary street cred, she should attempt the massive undertaking my son Adam, his buddies and I did this past weekend.

The school both my sons attended in North Hollywood, has a tradition of holding annual social gatherings for the parents of students in each grade, beginning in kindergarten and culminating in the senior year of high school. Naturally, over time, we parents who’ve been haphazardly lumped together due to the coinciding ages of our children, form bonds that last many years and sometimes, a lifetime.

Wonderful, right? Except someone has to host these things. And that someone, at least in my son’s class is now us. It began last year when Adam’s tenth grade Room Parents asked me if we’d be willing to host the party. We had a great time doing it and the event was a big success, so I volunteered our house again this year.

Last year we did an Italian theme. At 15 or 16 years old, the boys were serious foodies; not only did they have the good fortune to travel extensively with their families, thus tasting some of the best cuisines in the world, but on occasion, they also pool their pocket money and dine out together in the best restaurants Los Angeles has to offer. Oh, and some of them have had summer jobs working in the finest professional kitchens around. These are boys who shop at 99Ranch Market, purchase a live duck, take it home, break its neck and start cooking. I am not nearly as adventurous.

Last year, the boys and I planned a menu and worked out a reasonable work schedule, that allowed us to prep and freeze many of our dishes in advance—a huge time saver. This year was no different. However, I had the bright idea to produce an authentic Spanish tapas menu, using a much admired but never used cookbook* I received as a jumping off point. We devised a menu of eight different tapas, some to be passed and some stationed, and a paella-sort of rice and chicken dish for an entrée. Did I mention we were expecting approximately 100 parents?

Our tapas menu consisted of Ginger-Spiced Cashews, Imported Spanish Tuna Butter Canapes, Wild Mushrooms with Marsala Wine, Roasted Mussels in

White Wine with Garlic & Pernod, Mini Spanish Frittatas with Chorizo & Chipotle Crema, Roast Pork Tenderloin with Herbed Cheese Crostini, Roasted Garlic Shrimp with Paprika & Aioli Dipping Sauce, and Chorizo “Lollipops”. (see right)

Talk about quality bonding time! Move over Laurie David! Over the course of a few weekends and many hours, the boys and I prepped our hearts out, sharing culinary tips and tweaking flavors. The best part for me though, was quietly observing the boys become so involved in their work, they talked and teased freely amongst themselves, seemingly forgetting I was in the room. What a wonderful window I was given into the hearts and minds of our children. So while getting your kids to help out in the kitchen on an already harried weeknight is a nice idea, I heartily recommend rolling up your sleeves, forming a partnership with your child(ren) and jumping into a challenge that neither of you will forget.

Next year I’m thinkin’ Chinese…..

*Tapas by Penelope Casas

Saturday, October 23, 2010

All in the Family


Veal Loin Chops in Balsamic-Marsala Syrup with Anchovy Butter

For the anchovy butter:

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

4-5 anchovy fillets in oil

for the veal:

8 Veal Loin Chops

Unbleached All-Purpose Flour or Brown Rice Flour

Kosher Salt & Cracked Black Pepper

4 T Unsalted Butter

4 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Marsala Wine

1 Large Shallot, thinly sliced in rings or half-rings

Aged Balsamic Vinegar

¾ cup chopped flat leaf parsley

1. Begin with the butter. Mash the butter with a fork in a small bowl. Add the anchovies and continue mashing until fully incorporated.

2. Spoon the butter mixture onto a sheet of plastic wrap, folding and rolling the butter into the shape of a small log. Place in freezer to solidify for easier slicing later.

3. Pat each veal chop in clean paper towels to dry completely. Divide the butter and oil in two heavy bottomed skillets (not non-stick), so as not to crowd the chops, and melt over medium-high heat. (Patting the meat dry prior to flouring and using non-stick pans will ensure a good crust on the chops.)

4. Mix a mound of flour (whichever kind you choose) with a healthy amount of the salt and pepper as this will be the only seasoning for the meat. Dip each chop in the flour mixture and shake gently to remove excess. (Do not flour until ready to sear or flour will become soggy and won’t form the desired golden brown crust.)

5. Carefully place each chop in the pans as the butter and oil begin to bubble but not brown. Leave some room between the chops and don’t touch for 4-5 minutes. Then check for browning and turn over. Let sear for another 3 minutes. Remove from the pan and keep warm by covering with foil.

6. Scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, add the sliced shallots and wilt. Then add the marsala wine and let reduce while scraping the pan some more. (This is called “deglazing the pan”.) When the shallots are soft and the marsala thickens slightly, add the balsamic and heat. Then add the veal chops and cook for a few more minutes until pink in the center.

7. Arrange the chops on a platter, pour the syrup over and slice the anchovy butter into eight pieces. Place a butter slice on top of each chop, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

“Pasta Rags” with Asparagus & Shiitake Mushrooms in Parmesan Cream

1 bunch thick asparagus, ends peeled and blanched

1 lb thin sliced large white mushrooms

1 lb thin sliced shiitake mushrooms (or other wild mushrooms)

1 garlic clove, pressed

2 T unsalted butter

2 T olive oil

truffle salt, if available

or kosher salt

marsala wine

half and half

finely grated imported parmesan regianno

1. Melt butter and oil in heavy bottomed skillet. When bubbling around the edges, add the asparagus, mushrooms and garlic clove. Add a pinch of truffle salt, if using.

2. Sautee until soft, about 8 or 9 minutes, then add marsala. Let marsala reduce a bit, then add half-and-half and some grated parmesan.

For the pasta rags:

Refer back to my post entitled “Cooking Outside the Box” of July 12, 2010 in which I cite a recipe for homemade pasta dough by Mario Battali. While you can certainly use boxed or fresh store-bought pasta, (for this sauce, I would recommend either a tagliatelli or fettucine, but whatever you have in your pantry is perfectly fine as long as it’s not too delicate), I love using my pasta machine and still have so much to learn about making my own pasta, that I chose to make it while my family and our close friends hung out in the kitchen. If using a machine, connect the plain sheet roller and make long thin pieces of pasta, going all the way down to #6 or 7, so the finished product is really, really thin and delicate. (Remember, pasta this thin will cook almost immediately in simmering water, so do not walk away from the pot!)

To make the “rags” simply cut or tear the long, thin pieces into squares that are approximately 3-4 inches on all sides. This does not have to be perfect, in fact, a sort of rough look is preferable, so don’t sweat it.

To serve the pasta and sauce, I would spoon a little of the sauce liquids onto the plate to keep the pasta from sticking. Then, slowly ‘wrinkle’ the cooked pasta rags onto the puddle of sauce and place a scant ladle of the sauce with vegetables atop. Finish with another fine grate of imported parmesan. Yum!


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Necessity is the Mother of Invention or...Use It or Lose It!

Our son, Adam has recently begun working out with and following the nutritional advice of a personal trainer. The two have formed a great relationship and Adam is reaping significant benefits from this challenging pursuit. As a result, my cooking skills are also being tested as I sometimes struggle to develop new and appealing ways to cook poultry and fish, as red meats are currently verboten. In my desire to support Adam's efforts, I’ve also made the switch from cooking with all things ‘white’ such as potatoes, rice, breads, and flours, to more wholesome multigrain or wholewheat ingredients. We’ve both had to make some adjustments but agree that it’s been worth the effort.

I don’t often make fish dishes at home because my husband, Daniel doesn’t like it. (I know, can you imagine ruling out an entire food group? But that’s another post.) So with Adam’s new dietary regimen, I’ve been branching out, and yesterday I purchased about a pound of halibut for our dinner. (Daniel would be having the remaining short ribs I’d made the previous night for company.) Intending to make poached fish tacos in place of fried, I knew this would be a great way to use up the leftover and soon to wind up in the trash romaine lettuce, almost overripe heirloom tomato, and slightly browning avocado I left on the counter after making a turkey sandwich for my lunch. That was until I returned home and discovered someone ate the remaining whole wheat tortillas I thought were still in the fridge. So now what to do with this halibut?

I browsed my bookshelves of cookbooks and reflected on a recipe I read in Nancy Silverton’s A Twist of the Wrist (2007) called “Garbage Salad”, which she created one night after deciding to empty her refrigerator of miscellaneous items. Spying the numerous jars and bottles of asian ingredients on my own refrigerator door, I decided it was time to use them or lose them. Somehow I’d figure out a compelling way to mix all of them into a sweetly sour sauce for our fish, including that stub of fresh ginger wrapped tightly and waiting quietly in the freezer.

Some of the most satisfying meals I’ve made for myself or family have come from a spontaneous refrigerator clearing effort. More often than not, I find myself fondly remembering just such a dish and being unable to reproduce it for lack of written notes. Most frustrating. Here then, as a memory jog for me and hopefully, an inspiration for you, is last night’s dinner. (I regret the absence of a photo but the fish was so good, we scarfed it down before I thought to capture an image!)

2 T dark sesame oil

1 T vegetable or canola oil

1 one pound boneless halibut

sea salt/fresh ground black pepper

Pat the halibut dry with a clean paper towel to facilitate the formation of a crisp crust. Sprinkle very lightly with salt and pepper, and heat the two oils in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. As oils begin to ripple, carefully lay the halibut in the pan, turning once after about 3-4 minutes. When both sides are seared, lower the flame and continue cooking fish, covered with a lid. Meanwhile, mix the following ingredients in a bowl:

2 t fish sauce

scant ¼ cup teriyaki sauce

1 T plum sauce

1 T mirin (Japanese rice flavored wine)

1 T oyster sauce

1 t grated fresh ginger

1 crushed garlic clove

When the fish is just barely opaque in the center, add the sauce to the pan to heat thru. Turn off the heat, place the fish on a bed of brown rice or tangy greens and spoon over some of the sauce. Enjoy!

(Note: We paired our halibut with sweet potato fritters made with wholewheat breadcrumbs, and sautéed French green beans with shallots, mushrooms & sliced almonds.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Penne for Your Thoughts

Have you heard the latest controversy coming out of North Carolina, courtesy of---you guessed it, Fox News? Apparently, a mid-level restaurant owner posted a sign informing customers “Screaming Children Will Not Be Tolerated” and an irate mother of an autistic child who spends a lot of time screaming, is claiming discrimination.

Feeling wrung out from following the “Pastor Jones” debacle in Florida, I am not going to get into a dialogue about the outrageously inappropriate musings of both combatants. Instead, I suggest we all just stay out of that region til things settle down and cook ourselves into a cocoon of culinary comfort.

That being said, I am presenting my antidote to one blogger’s complaint that appeared in the story (which can be viewed at aol’s parentdish site), which reads “There’s nothing that can ruin a good dish of penne a la vodka more than a side of screaming kid.”

My advice to those of you who, like me, are sickened by the flurry of recent media fueled controversies, is to turn off cable news, turn up your Mario Lanza CD (you DO have one, don’t you?), and get yourself in your kitchen recreating Patricia Wells’ deliciously satisfying Penne with Vodka and Spicy Tomato-Cream Sauce or “Penne alla Bettola”. Or better yet, fly over to Florence, Italy and squeeze yourself onto a wooden bench packed with locals at La Vecchia Betolla, where you’ll eat well and won’t even hear an occasional infant squall over the din of lively conversation and laughter.

Here is Patricia’s version of the recipe served there; I’ve made it countless times over the years. Each time is as good as the one preceding it and always brings satisfied sighs of appreciation from my diners.

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 plump fresh garlic cloves, minced

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste

sea salt

one 28-ounce can peeled Italian plum tomatoes in juice or

one 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes in puree

1 pound dried Italian tubular pasta, such as penne*

2 tablespoons vodka

½ cup heavy cream

¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, snipped with a scissors

In an unheated skilled large enough to hold the pasta later on, combine the oil, garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt, stirring to coat with the oil. Cook over moderate heat just until the garlic turns golden but does not brown, 2 to 3 minutes. If using whole canned tomatoes, place a food mill over the skilled and puree the tomatoes directly into it. Crushed tomatoes can be added directly from the can. Stir to blend, and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

2. Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add 3 tablespoons salt and the penne, stirring to prevent the pasta from sticking. Cook until tender but firm to the bite. Drain thoroughly.

3. A Add the drained pasta to the skilled with the tomato sauce. Toss. Add the vodka, toss again, then add the cream and toss. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and let rest for 1 to 2 minutes to allow the pasta to absorb the sauce. Add the parsley and toss again. Transfer to warmed shallow soup bowls and serve immediately. (Traditionally, a cheese is not served with this dish.)

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

*I find penne is the best pasta to use in this case because the chewiness the tubes provide serve as the perfect counterpoint to the silkiness of the sauce.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

This Little Piggy Went to Market

Inspiration comes in all forms, and my eyes, nose and tastebuds are always on alert. I’m certain that in a culinary sense, travelling anywhere in the world would offer more ideas for creativity in the kitchen than could be used in a lifetime. Thus far, my travels have taken me primarily to European countries, so the meals emanating from my kitchen are largely influenced by the colors, scents and flavors favored in this part of the world.

As an avid reader, film goer, and lover of richly woven textiles, I often find myself craving cuisines from the cultures represented, and have tried my hand at many, including those from Latin and Asian countries, and the Caribbean.

But as you know, I am currently in Italy, so naturally, my mind is reeling with snapshots of the ingredients and dishes native to this land. Strolling through the many local farmers’ markets in Rome, Florence and tiny villages in Tuscany is similar to the experience many of us have in our own local outdoor markets. Is there anything more stimulating than wandering aimlessly in the early morning, when vendors’ stalls are overflowing with fresh meats and produce, considering what looks best and deciding upon the evening’s menu?

I for one, am always thinking about sharing this abundance with friends and family, so I look to gather large quantities of a multitude of ingredients. I often return to the tried and true, especially with seasonal herbs and vegetables, but what really delights me is the prospect of trying something new, thereby introducing new experiences for our inquisitive palates.

At times, this can be a daunting task. Imagine the culinary delights possible with a bounty such as the one we discovered at “Perini” (at right), where an overwhelming cornucopia of specialty hams, salamis and so much more is offered by a welcoming duo, intent on stuffing us with food samples and wine, while laughingly taunting us with their prized Boston Celtics souvenir pencil acquired at a game attended years before. Along with several types of meats and a hunk of parmesan cheese the size of a child’s head, we purchased a delicious sweet and spicy “salsa” mixed with boiled chunks of pork resembling short ribs. The purveyers explained it can be used to top crostini or alongside a piece of roasted turkey, pork and even a roast beef. All I know is when I return to my own kitchen, I intend to try my best to replicate it, using it again and again throughout the year. (www.periniitalia.it)

Finally, our lunch at Cantinetta dei Verrazzano , known for it’s wonderful assortment of crostini and sandwiches made with foccaccia bread, offered some excellent examples of the endless variety of flavor combinations that can be achieved with just a couple of ingredients, each yielding remarkably different results.

Here is a picture of just one of the assortments we tried. Take a close look and imagine what you could accomplish using this plate as your inspiration! I almost can't wait to get back in my kitchen and start experimenting...I hope our friends are hungry.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Good, The Bad, and The Delicious

I am of the belief that for all the joyful experiences and happy remembrances a family vacation brings with them we must sometimes bare heightened tensions, sensitive nerves, and not-always-welcomed insights into one another’s character and the complex nature of closely bound relationships. It is the combined adventure of stepping into the unknown or unfamiliar, coupled with the inordinate time spent in undiluted company, that brings about such familial lightheartedness and oftentimes, drama. In other words, travelling with loved ones can be a real bitch.

With the whirlwind touring of sights and teeming streets of steamy Rome and Florence behind us, I’m taking today, a rather uncertain day weather-wise, to review and organize our travel photos to share with you as inspiration, perhaps propelling you on an adventure of your own, culinary and otherwise. Sitting here in our rented house in our favorite retreat, the tiny hillside village of Panzano in Chianti, I scan the pictures, marveling most at the bounty of colors and flavors offered to us at restaurant tables, and overwhelming the bins and shelves of numerous stalls of every kind of food merchant imaginable. Within these amateur photographs lies for me, that which is the joy of Italy and the expressions of my life.

Cooking is something I turn to in times of great joy, terrible sadness and everyday monotony. It is for me, the best means of communicating my deep need to nurture others, thereby nourishing myself. No wonder then, my heart fills, my eyes widen, and my pulse races when I come upon the sumptuousness of Italian markets and kitchens. The flavor combinations are limitless, anything is possible, and I want to share it with those that I love. Who can gaze upon these treasures and not feel the same?

With creative juices flowing and excitement mounting, I quickly jot ideas in a tiny notebook for future experimentation upon returning to my own kitchen in Los Angeles.

These eye-popping porcini we discovered at the Mercato Centrale in the San Lorenzo area of Florence are waiting to be softly sautéed and tossed gently with homemade tagliatelli and a drizzle of truffle oil. Reminded of the utter simplicity of the Italian cuisine, I will restrain from adding other elements, such as cheese or cream to the dish, and simply offer the pungent earthy flavors of the earth at my table. And all will be right with the world, at least for a time…..

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Never let it be said that we Ferlegers take our eating lightly. Recently, a friend inquired how our planning was going for our trip to Italy next week. I replied that our lunch and dinner reservations were made, so now we can focus our attention on lodging and transportation. He thought I was kidding. He doesn’t know us very well.

Daniel and I have taken our boys to Italy a couple of times and as a result, we’ve devised a list of our favorite restaurants that have served us some memorable meals. One of the dining experiences that we frequently re-live was the night in Rome, after a very long and hot day of sight-seeing, Daniel dragged us from the relative coolness of our hotel room to a pizzeria named “Da Baffeto”. Exhausted and sweating in 100 degree heat, we stood in line outside the small establishment for what seemed like forever, as countless parties ahead and behind us were granted permission to enter. Finally, we were waved in and seated. The place was packed and noisy; with pizza ovens roaring and no air conditioning, the interior was as hot if not hotter than the outdoors and it was creeping toward midnight. Needless to say, we were getting cranky. Eventually, our order was taken. Little did we know it would be well over an hour before our food arrived on our table. The kids and I were about to abandon their father to his foolishness when voila! Pizza for everyone! Our empty threats of violence fell silent upon our first bite. THIS was pizza! Thin, crisp crust, a light sprinkling of toppings, served piping hot---without a doubt well-worth the agonizing wait. The mood at the table instantly lifted; there was much laughing and devouring as we began planning our next visit the following day.

Since returning home and recommending “Da Baffeto” to friends, we’ve learned we are not the only family to have more than one meal there on each visit to Rome. (You can check it out in today's New York Times Travel Section at nytimes.com/travel/florence.)

And what can I say to make you truly appreciate the beauty of the surroundings and the food at “La Chiusa”, a family run restaurant and inn in Montefollonico in the Tuscan hills? Nestled in the countryside, overlooking an extinct volcano, “La Chiusa” is run by the elegant and charming Umberto Luccherini and his wife/chef Dania. Upon our arrival, we were greeted like old friends although we

had never been, and graciously served course after course of dishes suggested by Umberto, each individually tailored to our specific personal tastes. The soups, pastas and lamb were heavenly, Dania’s silky soft papparadelle in Bolognese—a revelation. One of the most expensive lunches we’ve ever eaten, and again, well-worth it. We plan to return on our upcoming visit.

Certainly, the ultimate example of our relationship with good food, is completely rearranging our itinerary yesterday when Daniel fortuitously discovered that “Trattoria Sostanza”, our all-time favorite restaurant, will be closed for the month of August---exactly when we planned to eat there! “Sostanza” is a small and modest place, difficult to find on a close winding street in Florence. The menu is limited but everyone goes for the same thing, which in our family is known simply as “the chicken”; fat, juicy breasts cooked over a blasting fire and served swimming in butter. Simple fare at a reasonable price and a dish we plan vacations to Italy just to eat again. Panicked, we called the restaurant and secured a table during their last seating before closing. Then, in a moment of pure insanity, we cancelled our stay at “Locanda Dell’Amorosa” (locanda@amorosa.it), and lengthened our stay in Florence, from where we will make due with day trips to San Gimignano, Bologna and Ravenna…but we’ll still get “the chicken”. Feast your eyes on this baby!

Follow along on our trip right here and if you have recommendations for us to consider, leave them in the comments box. I will be photographing and sending you pictures of our meals to serve as inspiration for creating your own memories with glorious Italian cooking! Buon Appetito!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Cooking outside the box

Dear Readers,

Surprisingly, I have not taken any flack since I admitted to using a boxed mix as the basis of my Chai-Spiced Mini Cupcakes in my last post. Frankly, I’m shocked because had I been following a blog in which the writings were focused on all things F-O-O-D, I’d be chagrined at such a revelation. But thankfully, you readers are much more forgiving and I appreciate it.

Regardless of this recent transgression, I’ve noticed of late, I’ve found it necessary to return to my culinary roots, as they were, by making everything from scratch. I’m embarrassed to say, over the past few years I’ve taken advantage of….shall we say….’short cuts’ when producing vast quantities of food for vast quantities of friends and family on a very regular basis. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve ‘Sandra Lee’d’ my food (ie, “Semi-Homemade” of the Food Network sort), but hey, life is hectic and teens are endlessly ravaged; friends are waiting in the wings---you get the picture. So I may have cheated a tiny bit and doctored up a sauce here or there. But honestly, only minimally.

And yet, I’ve felt guilty and cheap in each instance.

Therefore, as a result and with the start of No Reservations, I have recommitted to cooking with only the freshest, locally produced and organic ingredients whenever possible. And the results my friends, are a vast improvement.

Following is a tried and true recipe for homemade fettucine pasta with garlic, homegrown basil and organic tomatoes. The pasta recipe is derived from Chef Mario Battali’s “Basic Pasta Dough” (see his Babbo Cookbook---named for our favorite of his NY restaurants). I say derived because like many recipes, pasta dough is one with which the cook needs to endlessly experiment under conditions unique to her kitchen; sometimes requiring more liquid or more flour, depending on a multitude of variables, such as temperature, humidity, equipment, etc. Pasta is one of those foods in which it becomes evident that cooking is indeed, an art more than a science. Buon Appetito!

Basic Pasta Dough

Makes 1 pound

3-1/2 to 4 cups all-purpose flour

4 extra-large eggs

½ tsp extra-virgin olive oil

Mound 3-1/2 cups of the flour in the center of a large wooden cutting board. (I made this directly on my granite countertop. I find it easier to move the dough around than on wood, and cutting the dough to the right size is a no-brainer.) Make a well in the middle of the flour and add the eggs and the olive oil. Using a fork, beat together the eggs and oil, then begin to incorporate the flour, starting with the inner rim of the well.

As you expand the well, keep pushing the flour up from the base of the mound to retain the well shape. The dough will come together when half of the flour has been incorporated.

Start kneading the dough with the heals of your hands. (Really not as intimidating as you think.) Once you have a cohesive mass, remove the dough from the board and scrape up and discard any leftover bits. Lightly reflour the board (or counter) and continue kneading for six more minutes…(more or less.) The dough should be elastic and a little sticky. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow to rest for 30 minutes at room temp before rolling or shaping as desired.

Again, like all pasta dough recipes, you must be willing to experiment and change up quantities of ingredients in order to achieve the perfect, elastic and fluffy result. (Trust me, you'll figure out what that means by playing around with it.)

For Suzanne’s Fresh Pasta Sauce:

Saute olive oil and garlic until the garlic is softened, but not browned.

Add chopped fresh tomatoes or halved cherry or grape tomatoes.

Throw in some fresh mozzarella -- NOT the plastic supermarket kind!

Lastly, tear fresh leaves of basil and toss in the pan to enhance the flavor of the oil.

Pour over pasta and pass the freshly grated parmesan.

The Result:

You will note from the following pictures, I am enjoying greatly the use of a pasta attachment to my stand mixer. While this appliance is certainly not a necessity, I have found it to be a great enhancer of the homemade pasta experience since rolling and cutting the various pasta shapes by hand requires years of experience and frankly, I just don’t have that many years left.

And of course, making food with close friends always elevates the final product!