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

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” (, 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!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Cloudberries….Puffin Eggs…Ramson Flowers….and Ashes of Hay. Sounds like summer, doesn’t it? Actually, these are just some of the native-to-Denmark ingredients foraged and prepared by chef Rene Redzepi at his acclaimed restaurant “Noma”. Having worked side-by-side with no lesser talents than El Bulli proprietor and master molecular gastronomist Ferran Adria, and Thomas Keller, of French Laundry fame, Redzepi nonetheless set out to scavenge the local landscape and serve only foods native to his homeland. The result has recently won him the honor of being voted “Best Restaurant in the World” by food critics around the globe.

I read about Redzepi and his extraordinary cuisine in today’s New York Times Dining Section. If you would like to learn more about Chef Redzepi and Noma, go to WHAT’S AT NYTIMES.COM/DINING to view an interactive feature, and be inspired!

Incidentally, inspiration seems to be an ongoing theme these past few days. My family and I just returned from a much-enjoyed Fourth of July weekend in San Francisco. As usual, prior to planning our days’ activities, we booked tables at some of our favorite restaurants in the city, including the italian A-16, thai dishes at The Slanted Door, and a new find for us: Tong Kiang for a never-ending rotation of delicious chinese dim sum offerings.

Two show stoppers from these culinary indulgences: the parfait-like banana tapioca with sweet potato chunks/avocado ice cream/lime meringue dessert at Slanted Door was surprisingly refreshing and delectable; the Salt and Pepper Ice Cream at Humphrey Slocombe in the Mission District, which was a featured article in the NYT Sunday Magazine section (7/4/10). We ventured there after reading the article, hoping for a taste of foie-gras or hibiscus beet ice cream, but they were not offered that day. Instead we sampled proprietor Jake Godby’s “Secret Breakfast”, a deliciously sweet and creamy concoction of corn flakes and bourbon in what resembles a vanilla cream base.

Stimulated by the exotic gustatory mixings of the weekend, I arrived home itching to create a treat of my own and whipped up several dozen CHAI-SPICED MINI CUPCAKES WITH ALMOND-CHAI CREAM CHEESE FROSTING. I topped them with crushed blanched almonds and sent them out to several of my trusted testing sites; the hungry hordes at Paramount Studios, my book group foodies, and my girlfriend’s college-age daughter and her chai latte drinking friends. Their verdict so far: ‘these babies are a keeper’.

Below is my recipe, but Shhh….it’s a secret!

Chai-Spiced Mini Cupcakes with Almond-Chai Cream Cheese Frosting

For the cupcakes:

1 box Betty Crocker Vanilla Super Moist Cake Mix

(batter prepared according to directions on box)

A mix?? I know—right??

1-1/2 tsp cinnamon

¾ tsp allspice

¾ tsp cardamom

½ tsp ground cloves

Stir the spice mix into the cupcake batter until evenly distributed and bake in lined mini-cupcake trays, according to package.


For the frosting:

1 pound cream cheese, softened (I use Philadelphia)

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

4 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar

In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese, butter and vanilla til blended. On low speed mix in the powdered sugar, then turn speed up to high and beat until fluffy and smooth

Add the following flavorings on low speed:

1 scant tsp almond extract

½ tsp allspice

½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp cardamom

¼ tsp ground cloves

Chill frosting til firm.

When cupcakes have cooled completely, pipe on the frosting with a small tip in a circular motion, ending in the center with a tiny peak. Crushed blanched almonds sprinkled on top add a pleasingly crunchy texture and look pretty.

Bake, enjoy and post your comments!