Foodie Tuesday: Fast & Festive

June-cleaver

Here we are, smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, and I’ve been whiling away my December afternoons by cooking.  Whether I’m baking cookies and listening to Christmas music or preparing the Sunday roast while serenely sipping a glass of wine, the kitchen is the perfect place for reflecting on the joy of the season.

HA HA, JUST KIDDING.  I’VE HAD THREE COLDS AND HAVE BEEN SO BUSY I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT DAY IT IS RIGHT NOW.  I ONLY KNOW THAT I’M WICKED BEHIND ON EVERYTHING, AND PUTTERING AROUND IN THE KITCHEN LIKE A DERANGED JUNE CLEAVER IS ABOUT THE LAST DAMN THING ON MY MIND.

Ahem.

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Seriously, though, how does this happen?  I remember being a kid and feeling like Christmas would never arrive, and now I look at the calendar and just fucking panic because the time is flying by so quickly.  This particular holiday season feels especially frenetic, as I’ll be singing on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day this year, so our big holiday home cooking extravaganza is likely not going to happen until New Year’s Eve.  What to do in the meantime, then, for some festive (but low-maintenance) holiday treats?  Well, below are some foodstuffs and libations that will spark the holiday spirit but which require little to no effort to throw together and may, in fact, inspire a night out on the town.

1. Appetizers for dinner.  Swing into your corner store and pick up a couple of good cheeses (mix it up: try a cloth-bound cheddar and a soft, creamy blue or a nutty Parmigiano and silken triple-creme), some marinated olives, some sliced prosciutto or store-bought pâté, and a baguette, and voilà: an elegant, no-fuss repast that feels chic and celebratory.   These noshes are perfect for when you’d love to have dinner with a friend but don’t want to spend a bunch of money at a restaurant or slave over a hot stove at home.

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2. Eggnog.  I know, it’s so obvious, so slow-and-over-the-center-of-the-plate, that I’m almost embarrassed to include eggnog on this list.  But this wildly caloric holiday tipple is a classic for a reason. I tend to loathe mornings, but this time of year, I look forward to making an eggnog latte and sitting by the Christmas tree while I wake up and prepare to face the day. And, at the end of a long day battling crowded subways and an ever-expanding to-do list, a glass of eggnog dusted with a whisper of freshly grated nutmeg and bolstered by a shot of bourbon or dark rum (my favorite) is a balm for the spirit.

3. Clementines.  I’ve never been a big fan of oranges, but last year at about this time, I was leaving an evening yoga class (insert “caricature of a Brooklynite” joke here), and the teacher offered me a clementine for the road, which I ate slowly as I walked home.  The night air was still and icy, and each wedge of clementine seemed to contain a bright, intense burst of sunshine. Eating that clementine in that winter night air felt meditative and right; it was one of those food experiences that is memorable for its simplicity and clarity.  I love to end my day with a cup of herbal tea and a clementine.  (The shot of vitamin C feels restorative, too, as cold and flu bugs abound this time of year.)

4. Oysters.  I know that it is now perfectly acceptable to consume oysters in the months without the letter “R” in their name—May, June, July, and August—but just as I only drink rosé in the warm months, I only eat oysters when there’s a chill in the air.  For a decadent treat, I love to spontaneously duck into a charming bistro and enjoy a dozen oysters on the half-shell while I read a good book (it feels vaguely illicit and Parisian).

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5. Bubbles.  I couldn’t write about oysters (or the holidays, for that matter) without mentioning sparkling wine.  Whether it’s champagne, prosecco, or cava, if it has bubbles, I want some.  Just one bracing sip of ice-cold sparkling wine calls to mind the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon’s (likely apocryphal) exclamation upon discovering champagne: “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” The holidays’ hectic pace notwithstanding, there is much to celebrate this time of year, and there’s really nothing more celebratory than a flute of bubbly.

If you’ve  managed to keep your pantry as full as your calendar this holiday season, I salute you.  For my part, though, I’m surrendering the notion that I can keep my sanity intact and spend leisurely hours in the kitchen this time of year.  Until the holiday frenzy is past, I foresee a lot of catch-as-catch can meals and, yes, sparkling wine in my future.  Cin-cin, santé, and happy holiday eating and drinking!

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Foodie Tuesday: Venetian Sunsets

Thanks to recent heavy rains and a storm surge (which seem to be going around, these days), more than half of Venice is under water.  I thought today would be a good time to revisit and celebrate La Serenissima and her many culinary wonders.

My first visit to Venezia was on a misty November day in 1995, with a group of girlfriends from the Italian high school I was attending at the time.  I fell in love with Venice immediately and eternally, although I am embarrassed to say that my first meal in Venice as a seventeen year old exchange student probably consisted of pizza and Coca-Cola.

A couple of years later, I escaped the tedium of my college life and returned to Venice on winter break.  My American friend and I were tired, cranky, and hopelessly lost in the Dorsoduro.  I had nearly fallen into a canal earlier that day, and both my ego and right hip were badly bruised.  Rain began to fall as we found ourselves surrounded by schoolchildren on their way home.  A girl of about ten was walking close by my side in the narrow calle, and I was surreptitiously taking advantage of the shelter of her umbrella.  As my friend tried to (not so gently) pull me out of the girl’s way, the girl admonished him, “No, no, la tenevo proprio sotto! (No, no–I was keeping her under my umbrella on purpose!)”

The view from our suite on the Grand Canal.

I returned to Venice this February with my husband for the second leg of our European honeymoon, my heart nearly bursting during our ride, via water taxi, to our hotel.  We stayed in a nine-room palazzo on the Grand Canal, and upon learning that E. and I were on our viaggi di nozze, the proprietors upgraded us from our small interior room to a suite–a suite!–overlooking the Grand Canal.  Every day we’d throw open our shutters and gaze in awe at the sun glinting on the water as Venice began her day.

Fish fry at the Rialto Market.

We spent many hours happily perusing the Rialto Market, wishing we had a kitchen so that we could cook some of the bounty we admired: silvery fish, purple-tipped artichokes, and overflowing baskets of lettuces and radicchio.  One sunny morning, we were fortunate to discover an Italian fish fry about to take place in the market’s adjoining piazza.  Fritto misto and white wine at 11:00 am?  Yes, please!

Every day we’d get happily lost for hours in Venezia’s dreamlike, labyrinthine calle.  No matter how many museums we visited, however, or how many times we stopped for cicheti, E. and I always made it a point to return to our hotel before sunset.  We’d sit on the terrace, sip a cocktail, and watch the sun set over the Rialto bridge. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you the Aperol Spritz?

Like so many Italian inventions, the Aperol Spritz (or just “spritz,” if you’re Venetian) is simple, elegant, and unlikely to ever go out of style. Aperol is a lower-alcohol cousin of Campari, tasting of bitter and sweet oranges mingled with rhubarb and various herbs.  Some might argue that the Aperol Spritz is a decidedly summertime cocktail, but oranges are a winter fruit, after all, and Prosecco is never out of season.

My heart is never far away from La Serenissima.  As these autumn days grow shorter and we lean ever more sharply into what portends to be a harsh winter, I will continue our honeymoon tradition of an Aperol Spritz before dinner.  And I will dream of Venice and her sunsets.

Aperol Spritz
3 parts Prosecco
2 parts Aperol
1 splash club soda
Pour over ice, garnish with a slice of orange, and let yourself be transported to Venice at dusk.

Foodie Tuesday: Veni, Vidi, VINO

As many of you know, I had the immense good fortune to spend nearly a year living in northern Italy when I was 17.  I fell completely, irrevocably in love with la bella Italia, learning to speak Italian, forging lifelong friendships, and eating and drinking with (occasionally too much) abandon.

One of my Italian host sisters, Cristina, is a sommelier.  Her dual citizenship means she’s living the dream of splitting her time between the U.S. and Italy with her husband and young son.  Cristina was kind enough to offer some tips and insight into exploring the varied and wonderful world of vino Italiano.  

What makes Italy’s wine and winemaking philosophy unique?

 As [is true of] most of the Old World wine philosophy, Italian wine is made to be enjoyed with food.  The whole experience of wine is never meant to be by itself; there is always food with wine, and this food has to be specific to the region and type of wine.

To give you an example, last year I went to a Wine festival in Valtellina, north of Lake Como.  For something like $15 we had access to 20+ wineries, each serving at least 4 different types of local wines in these Roman-era cellars, which you could only reach by walking down several flights of stairs.  Everywhere there was free food served to accompany the wine: salami, prosciutto, cheese, bread, etc.

Many Italians keep “house wine” on hand, often traveling to wineries to bottle their own sfuso.  When it comes to everyday wine drinking, what are your favorite red and white varietals, and why?

My answer depends on the season.  This summer all we had in the house was Vinho Verde from Portugal. It’s a wonderful light, crisp, and slightly sparkling white wine. It goes great with almost anything you eat, especially BBQ and spicier summer foods.  Now that the seasons are changing I am finding myself drawn to light-bodied Pinot Noirs from various regions. As the weather gets colder I will try to get some good Tuscan wines on sale, as well as Argentinian and Spanish wines.  All under $12 of course.

Brooklyn Wine Exchange; Photo from the Village Voice

Unfortunately, nothing compares to vino della casa (house wine) that you can get sfuso directly from the local vineyards, so I just resort to buying great wines at affordable prices.  Fortunately, there are a lot hidden treasures in the best wine shops.
*A word from Hilary: If you happen to live in Brooklyn, you will find no better resource for wines both exotic and familiar than Brooklyn Wine Exchange on Court Street. They even have a “$12 & Under” table of affordable, delicious wines from around the globe.

Are there any Italian grape varietals that are perhaps not well known but deserve wider appreciation?

I would say there are a lot of varietals that are not well known outside of Italy and definitely deserve attention.  Some of these are not necessarily grape varietals, as much as location-based varietals.  To name a few: Tocai Friulano from Friuli, Lugana from Lake Garda region, once again Franciacorta wines,  Sauvignon from Italy (known as Sauvignon Blanc in other regions), Muller Thurgau, Pinot Bianco (much better and much more interesting than Pinot Grigio in my opinion), Lagrein and so many more….

Autumn is here; what are your favorite varietals for fall’s heartier braises, stews, and pastas?

Fall is a great season for wine drinking (not that the other three are bad) because it is warm enough to still enjoy whites and rosés, while it is already cold enough to open up those mouth-filling reds.  Of course, I can never go without a nice Prosecco for all those holiday gatherings with lots of appetizers.  I also enjoy Pinot Noirs in the fall because they can be light but comforting at the same time, while pairing very well with all the roasted turkey and poultry of the season.  I also like to change things up a bit sometime with a nice rosé.  I can also assure you that bottles of Rioja will be always present in my house, along with Valpolicella, Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and Tuscan reds.

Cristina, grazie mille for your time and expertise!  Now, let’s all raise a glass of Italian wine and toast autumn’s arrival!

Foodie Tuesday: On Love & Oysters

I ate my first oyster on the half shell when I was 22, persuaded by A Moveable Feast and a chef with very long eyelashes.  Sitting in a trés French bistro in Seattle, I sipped my glass of Muscadet and gazed dubiously at the table, where a dozen bivalves reclined in their shells atop a bed of kosher salt.  I squared my shoulders and, following the example of my long-lashed dining companion, spritzed a bit of lemon on an oyster and tipped the shell toward my mouth.

The oysters were cold and tasted clean and briny, echoing the Puget Sound outside our window.  The Muscadet mirrored the brightness of the lemon, and the flavor of the ocean lingered on my tongue. Everything was quiet.  Chef Eyelashes grinned.  With one glorious bite, I’d become an oyster-lover for life.

Several years (and relationships) later, I traveled with my boyfriend to wine country in California. The September evening was crisp and I wore a wool dress to our dinner at the French Laundry. Our first course was Thomas Keller’s signature dish, “Oysters and Pearls,” described as a ‘Sabayon’ of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sturgeon Caviar.  The Schramsberg blanc de blanc we were drinking clarified and intensified the dish’s delicate richness, and I pronounced “Oysters and Pearls” the best thing I’d ever eaten.  Later that night, my boyfriend became my fiancé.

Just a week or two ago, the weather in New York finally turned wintery, and I found myself nestled in a back corner table at a Brooklyn haunt for dinner.  I was overstuffed from holiday excesses but still craved something festive; I ordered a half-dozen oysters on the half shell, this time with an ice-cold beer in a frosty mug as accompaniment.  I happily slurped down my Long Island Blue Points and was overtaken by the same rhapsodic silence that followed my very first oyster.

This time, the man grinning at me from across the table was my husband.

And thank heaven for that.

Foodie Tuesday: Men Who Cook

Gourmets capable of ordering from a French menu and discussing wines with the sommelier inspire respect in women, a respect that can easily be transmuted into a voracious, passionate hunger. We cannot resist men who know how to cook. I’m not talking about those clowns in histrionic caps who dub themselves experts and with great flourishes scorch a hot dog on the patio barbecue. No, I mean epicures who lovingly choose the freshest and most arousing ingredients, prepare them with art, and offer them as a gift to the senses and the soul, men who uncork a bottle with style, breathe in its aroma, and decant the wine into our goblet to taste, as they describe the juices, color, tenderness, aroma, and texture of the filet mignon in the tone we believe they will later use to refer to our own enchantments. It seems to us that all the sensibilities of a man like that must be equally refined, including his sense of humor. Who knows? Maybe he can even laugh at himself!

~Isabel Allende, Aphrodite; A Memoir of the Senses

Bacchus, by Caravaggio

 

Foodie Tuesday: Let them eat (wedding) cake

Okay, friends…super-short Foodie Tuesday post this week. I have my reasons:

1. I am boarding a plane tomorrow. Early. Said plane will wing its way to Sonoma, California, where I am getting married. I’ve been more than a little swamped with details, and while I have cooked some meals and watched some cooking shows, I’ve mostly been dotting i’s and crossing t’s in preparation for my wedding.

2. I am now officially contributing to a couple of food blogs. Remember a few weeks ago, when I wrote my inaugural Foodie Tuesday post on “Extra Virgin”? Well, I sent it to Gabriele, who in turn invited me to contribute to his blog, Under the Tuscan Gun. UTTG is a great resource for down-home Tuscan recipes, Italian food lore, and guest posts from a variety of authors. I’m honored to be a part of the Under the Tuscan Gun community. My author page is here, but I highly recommend looking around the whole site; you might wind up with a great dinner recipe for tonight!

And with that, Dear Reader, I bid you a fond “Peace out.” I’m goin’ back to Cali, yo. See you in a couple of weeks!

Wine country, here I come!

Foodie Tuesday: Constant Craving(s)

I’m preoccupied with spring. It’s entirely likely that my obsessive fixation on sunshine and 70-degree weather is rooted in the fact that both seem to have RSVP’d “No” to April. Ah, well. Until the Brooklyn Heights Promenade is fully bedecked with blooming tulips, I’ll continue to summon spring as best I can in my kitchen. Below is a list of some epicurean delights I’ve been craving (and savoring!) lately, all of which evoke spring’s lush, temporal beauty.

1. Fava Beans
I can’t stop with the favas! This early in the spring, fava beans taste mild and, well–green–with a pleasantly subtle bitterness. There’s something bucolic and picturesque about fava beans, despite (because of?) the rather protracted shelling, blanching, shocking, and re-shelling process. A couple of glasses of wine into a Sunday afternoon, with Italian canzoni emanating from my stereo, I can imagine myself returned to a life I’ve never lived: I may be shelling fava beans in my Brooklyn apartment, but in my mind I’m at home in the Tuscan countryside, watching the rolling brown hills turn green and preparing for Pasqua. I told you, this is after a couple (oh, fine…a few) glasses of wine. Hannibal Lecter was on to something: fava beans do go beautifully with a nice Chianti.

2. Peas
Since my parents are reading this blog (and, let’s face it, they may very well be the only people reading this blog), the inclusion of peas on my list of spring cravings will doubtless come as a shock. I’ve never been a fan of peas. In fact, there are pictures of me as a baby, grimacing as I spit peas out of my mouth. But. Around ten years ago (Jesus), I worked at a French restaurant in Seattle, and one spring our chef introduced a salad of watercress with barely blanched, tiny, sweet peas tossed throughout. The whole business was finished with a medallion of goat cheese and a dressing that I couldn’t replicate if my very life depended on it. Remembering that salad, I’ve started introducing petites pois into my gastronomic forays. They’re even part of the menu for my upcoming wedding. And don’t even get me started on the pairing of sugar snaps with Sahadi’s hummus. Sweet(pea) mystery of life, at last I’ve found you!

3. Roast Chicken
Roast chicken was one of the first things I learned how to make. Lucky thing, too. The dish immediately calls forth images of home, comfort, and effortless sophistication, yet it’s almost laughably easy to prepare. Salt, pepper, and a little olive oil will result in a moist, tender bird with crispy skin. Fresh parsley and thyme, along with lemon zest and copious amounts of butter, will result in a brush with nirvana. When I was 22, I was seduced by a very romantic and very complicated chef. Using his roast chicken and impossibly long eyelashes, he lured me down a rabbit hole of bad decisions and emotional turmoil. Had I known at the time that a perfect roast chicken was a decidedly unromantic, uncomplicated proposition, I doubt I would have been as easily duped.

4. Rosé
I don’t really have to elaborate on this, do I? Nothing bespeaks indulgence, elegance, and frivolity (springtime’s daughters, all of them) more than pink wine. A glass of Bandol rosé is a Provençal sunset in liquid form. And if God made anything more luxurious and enchanting than a flute of Billecart-Salmon brut rosé, She kept that shit for Herself.

5. Asparagus (and Eggs)
Eggs, whether poached, hard-boiled, fried, or scrambled, are the perfect dance partners for asparagus. The woodsy pungency of steamed young asparagus fairly cries out for a baptism of molten, silky egg yolk and a sprinkling of sea salt. And on my more motivated mornings, I revel in asparagus and goat cheese scrambles. Something about seeing a bunch of asparagus stalks in my fridge, standing up like so many soldiers, fills me with good cheer.

I could go on, I really could. Mint, fennel, rhubarb, lamb, and countless other springtime delights each merit rhapsodic praise. But I have to go be a singer today, then I’m meeting up with my fiancé and his family for Passover seder at Sammy’s Roumanian. Who would have ever believed it? This German-Norwegian-Anglo-Saxon Catholic girl (from Alaska, no less), is celebrating Passover. Stay tuned, as the Sammy’s Seder is sure to figure prominently in an upcoming Foodie Tuesday post. Until then, may all the delights of spring–however belated her arrival–be yours.