Thursday, October 01, 2009

Coulda knocked me over with a feather...

I am constantly amazed by the widely varied areas that are home to visitors of my blog (though so few of you say hi... )

I often get a smile out of the different Google searches that lead here too.

Tune in soon paisans and paisanas... I have a couple in the basket almost ready for you.

Johnny T

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Capisce Caprese??

I love the heat I have been taking out here... sun has been beating down on my San Marzanos getting them good and sweet. While I am a carnivore by nature, one of my all time favorite dishes for a hot summer night is a little fresh mozz and tomatoes. I usually leave the mozz in the freezer for about a half hour before I cut it- slicing is a lot easier and cleaner. Then I go to work on some big juicy tomatoes. Even if I'm making them for nobody but myself, I can't help but alternate the red and white in a line around the edge of the plate... to me, it is just the way it has to be... I like to get the whole plate covered and then I slice up some basil and scatter it across the top- one of the chefs I used to work for always yelled at me about that-"You're gonna brooze dem leaves up kid!!"- but I like a little basil in every bite and this is the best way I know how. Then, a little salt and fresh black pepper, a turn of the Fillipo Berio bottle around the plate and a splash of good balsamic vinegar.

This is one of the best summer dishes... satisfies the salt and sweet cravings and is nice and light for the hot weather. Plus, good for a Friday night when you're taking the non- carnivore route. The smell and taste of this always puts me in mind of summer... I know what it is too- its the basil, that sweet,smooth smell of basil always screams 'SUMMER!!!"

The smell of basil always does it for me... some people like fresh cut grass, others figure its the first crack of the bat in the Bronx... but for me, it will always be the basil. I used to walk home down 79th Street from Utrecht after I got off the M train. There was a guy who lived about half way down... he didn't have much of a yard, it was maybe five feet square. But it was just enough room for Our Lady on the halfshell and a forest of basil... I used to breathe extra deep as I walked down that block and always on his side of the street. One day I struck gold... on the way home one hot afternoon, I passed during the middle of a harvest... I expressed my appreciation for what he had done and I was duly rewarded for my honesty and developed sense of "The Good Stuff". My new friend was not pleased until I was walking down the street with my over-sized mitts each grasping as much basil as I could carry.

That night, many pignole nuts gave their lives so I could make the best batch of pesto ever... enough for two nights of dinner and still a generous amount to put in the freezer, to be used a spoonful at a time in soup, on pizza, and even striped across the top of a fritata.

Fresh cut grass is good if you're in the country and the Yanks will always be aces in my book, but if you want something you can only get in the summer, it has to be the basil... each and every time. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It's Not Easy Bein' Green

Six years ago, today, St Pat's... we all gathered at Mom's house for dinner. St Pat's wasn't a huge deal for us (not like Christmas Eve), but Mom always made sure we had out corned beef and cabbage that day, sort of an acknowledgment of the Irish blood from my father's side. Let's face it.. a meal like this is something even a big Guinea like me can enjoy a few times a year. My sister, all my brothers and I gathered around the old table we grew up at. Mom cooked up a serious feast for us... beef, cabbage, potatoes, soda bread (two kinds I think) for the older ones- even Mom had some. We took our time going through the meal... savoring every bite; taking a lot of time to talk and share and just be together. This was a big deal for Mom, to have all of her kids together under one roof like we had always been- it was not something that happened all that often anymore.

This dinner was special for more than that though... this was the day before Mom was going back to the hospital... she had high hopes of something new that was gonna knock the crap outta what was eating at her insides. So while the atmosphere seemed a happy one... lots of laughs and joking around... there was an underlying concern. We all knew this was serious stuff...

The meal was great though... we all ate till we couldn't fit anymore and then we added just a little more. I was not all that happy to be leaving that night, but I had to work the next day, so off I went after a pot or two of coffee.

That turned out to be the last meal Mom cooked for me. We shared a few more meals... I knew she needed to eat to keep up her strength but that there was no way she'd be able to eat much of the hospital food, so I went home everyday and cooked a meal to bring to her. I still remember sitting there and having dinner with her one night when I made Chicken and Penne Arrabiata. I added a lot of hot peppers because the treatments were killing her tastebuds... the smile on her face at the first bite... brings tears to my eyes... "ahh- the fist thing I have been able to taste all week!!"

I brought her food for the first couple of weeks, but her appetite was waning as the medication and treatments took their toll. All my life, that was the only time we knew for sure when Mom was really not feeling well... lost her appetite.

And here we are, back to St Pat's again... I eat my corned beef, potatoes, and cabbage- a meal Mom and I shared many times, and remember that Last Supper. Time has a way of slipping by way too fast, but the memories never fade... like it was yesterday.

So load up your plate- get your fill of beef and cabbage and potatoes. Raise a glass- of Guinness, Harp, Pellegrino, or whatever- and toast the cook. Wear your best green and a big grin... we're all Irish today. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

"... And until I see you again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand..."

Miss you Mom

Monday, March 09, 2009

On a Roll

So... here we are.. coupla weeks into Lent and I'm loving it... no meat on Fridays? No problem- I love to cook fish and since Ash Wednesday I have loved pulling up the old meatless recipes. In that spirit, I decided I had to bring Eggplant Rollatine to Maryann and Marie's Italian Festa . This is one of my favorites to make- it seems so complex, but years of preparing it have turned the entire process over to muscle memory and I was able to crank out this one in about an hour and a half.

(Author's Note:Looks like no dice again this year... car started acting up, couldn't get out of the driveway to get over to the party in time... next year, my friends... but here is a peek at what was sitting next to me in the passenger's seat and for all of you who haven't seen it, here and here are the dishes that made it there... way to go everyone... guess 'll see you next year!)

I start by peeling and cutting my eggplant lengthwise (one medium eggplant will usually work out to a 9x13 baking dish) Nice thin slices are good, so make sure your knife is sharp and your eggplant is nice and firm. Get as many slices out of the center as you can and you can use the smaller ones to 'build' long slices in the construction phase. Once its cut, I leave the eggplant out on the board to let it dry out a little.

While that is in the works I next get to making my basic sauce- dice a little onion and saute in olive oil till it is nice and soft- low heat, like a match or somethin'. When its all mushada turn up the heat and add your tomatoes- I like to use whole ones. I cook them for about thirty minutes and then pass them through a mill. Not only do we get the seeds out, but the onion gets ground up very nicely too.

During the first half hour of cooking the tomatoes, I open my ricotta and get it into a bowl. I add a couple big handfuls of fresh grated Pecorino Romano, about half a Tbs of oregano and white pepper and a tsp of nutmeg. Mix it well, then add some grated mozz- I usually add about half a pound- and then one egg to help bind and give it a nice texture. Mix it all up and let it sit in the fridge.

Time to go to work on the eggplant now. Set up a big frying pan with a good amount of olive oil and start heating it. Dip the slices of eggplant into a plain egg wash and fry whatever will fit in the pan until golden brown. Drain on a cloth or paper towel to get the excess oil off of it.

Once that is done, time to move back to the sauce while the eggplant cools. I always start the sauce in a shallow fry pan (from my restaurant days) and then pass it through the mill into a medium pot. So, into a new pot now with the sauce, add about two Tbs of salt to two large (two pound+ cans), a pinch of sugar to kill any excess acid, and a tablespoon of butter for flavor and texture. I let it simmer for about 15 minutes or so.

Once the sauce is ready to go, I take down the baking dish and throw in a coupla gupinas to set a nice base. Now, like any good guinea, we come to my favorite part- construction. Hold a piece of eggplant in your left hand and spoon a good shot of the ricotta in about a third of the way from one end. I usually make that the end near my thumb- don't ask me why, just got to be a habit, part of the muscle memory. So now you take that short end, and roll it over the ricotta and keep going. Now put the roll into the baking dish with the seam down and repeat till all the eggplant or all the ricotta is gone... with a little practice you can make it all come out even.

Once the pan is loaded, hit it with a little more sauce, enough to make sure it doesn't dry out and maybe a top it with a little more shredded mozz. Cover it with foil and put it into the oven, about 375, for 25 or 30 minutes... just enough to get all the liquids boiling. Once you reach that point, draw it out and let it sit out to cool just long enough to set- about 10 minutes or so. And thats it.

This dish holds a special place in my heart. I didn't grow up eating it. In fact, I never had it until I was 15 or 16 years old and started working in my first restaurant. (That is a long story, and better to be told over glasses of Fortissimo) One day I decided I was going to make this one for Mom. It was tough to replicate at home the first time, but I managed and Mom loved it. Gramma too. Over the next ten or so years, I made this for Mom any time she asked and a lot of times when she didn't ask for it. She loved it and I was so proud to have been able to introduce a new recipe to the family and to be able to make something for my mother that she loved; like a little bit of payback for all of her great cooking. I get a little emotional every time I make this dish, because of her, because of the special connection it represents to Mom.

So... next time you find yourself looking for a special meal, for a little something different, try a little Rollatine. 'Ey!! If it was good enough for Mom, it'll be more than good enough for you... 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

In a pinch... you can find yourself among Royalty

Ok- quick one... let me set the stage- warm summer evening, dinner on the grill and I'm ready to pour a cocktail.  So I pull down my bottle of Crown, load a little ice in the glass, and get ready to pour.  Problem.  No mixers... no Coke, no Ginger Ale, not even any sour mix... what to do... what to do... 

It was at that moment I decided to invent a new cocktail... I had a couple of quart bottles of sweet tea I had made the night before.  Like a lightning strike, I had it... Royaltea... my new cocktail of choice... and because I am such a giver, I am going to share it with you... my close personal friends...

Like any good cocktail, start with a pint glass... yeah- a pint glass... I mean if you're gonna do this might as well pour it right... besides, it's so good you won't question it after you finish the first one... load it up about half way with ice.  I borrowed this glass from my favorite bar in San Diego, Papa's Hammer- great place to go for a cold beer and a great meal...

Next, cover the ice with a bit of Crown.  I figure pouring in a pint glass necessitates at least a double shot... or so...

Finish it with a fast pour of Sweet Tea... poured correctly it will be a 'self-mixing' cocktail.  You can add a little lemon if you like, but if you brewed your tea the right way- steeping the lemon with the leaves- you wont need to.  

The sweetness of really good Sweet Tea (gotta pronounce the 'Swate tay' to get it right) works perfectly with the Crown... just the thing for a hot summer night.. or a cold winter night... or anywhere in between.

They say necessity is the mother of invention... well, thanks Mom- glad you could help me invent this one.  I'm glad all my ears of training and the spirit of ingenuity my parents fostered in me during my youth have enabled me to reach this pinnacle.

In a pinch, you have to use whatever resources are at your disposal... improvise... adapt and overcome... 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

'Twas the night before Christmas...

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the condo, not a Guinea was stirring, not even Uncle Armando.

Not a bad start, huh? Christmas Eve, the biggest dinner in the year of a Guinea like me, is upon us. I got started late; most years I would have my menu well in advance and my fish bought too. This year, not so much...

Talked to Gramma and my brothers about it and it seems everyone is cutting back. Not so much an economic thing; this stuff's just not getting eaten like it was... I was really a little surprised, but Gramma said she wasn't even making the Octopus Salad this year. What's the world coming to??

So in my cutback, I killed half the normal menu too... This year was easy- shrimp cocktail, octopus salad, fish cakes (with Bacala), some raw clams, and some macaroni. I am really glad I made the Octopus salad this year. Even though I can never find scungilli, which is texturally my favorite part, I have been honing my skills over the last few years and this time, I really knocked it out of the park. Everything was tender and had great flavor... lots of garlic, lemon, good olive oil. I made it 2 days ahead and let all those great flavors flow together... Brought a little sample to some of my local Guinea friends and got back some good reviews.

Centerpiece this year was Shrimp and Clams over fresh linguine. I bought a pound each of fresh regular and squid ink... made for a nice presentation. The fish cooked up nicely- shrimp were bigger than I usually use and the clams were smaller than I usually use, but I cooked them in some tomatoes I crushed in my hand and used a lot of garlic. I dished it all up and, being a crazy diavolo, hit the whole thing with a nice coating of grated Pecorino Romano. I know my Aunt Marie can't read that without getting upset- fish and cheese don't mix in her world... but I could never have a plate of macaroni without it. (recipe, if you care was 3lbs shrimp sauted in Garlic and oil, 3lbs little neck clams scrubbed and thrown in once the shrimp get their color; steam the calms open and then open 2 big cans of tomatoes and crush the tomatoes one by one over the pan, adding the juice from the can last, then a little salt and fresh basil; let it cook about 20 mins or so just for the tomatoes... that's it... put it over pasta if you want, or serve it in a bowl with a good loaf of bread)

Christmas Eve... this dinner hasn't been the same without my brothers around to eat everything in sight; next year, I'm gonna make 'em all visit and hit all seven courses.  Putting out dishes like this, I don't think they'll be able to say no.  And even if they try to, they'll HAFTA come... 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

Home again, home again, jiggity jig...

I got into town on Wednesday and within 90 minutes was putting down a couple of slices and a Manhattan Special at Francesco's (former Nino's on Henry St... across from Mazzola's)... that was about 5 o'clock. I took up a good amount of space- hadn't bothered waiting till after I dropped by my friend's place and still had my bags with me. Heaven... they make a good plain slice here- crisp bottom and a little bit of dough between that and the sauce. The Manhattan Special... perfect, just like it has been for the last 50 or so years... I had a smile on my face and it seemed like all the weight had been lifted from my shoulders... I was home... I was among family, some of "my own" and the stress of my day-to-day existence on the Left Coast just melted away.

After a quick call, I met up with some "family" two blocks away. I haven't seen them in what seems like forever and it was a great reunion. We dropped my bag at the apartment and headed right back out. As we walked and talked, I brushed my feet through crispy dead leaves... colors I never get to see in my new home. It is still strange to me to see the NY plates; I get a little excited when I see them in LA, but to see one after the other all the way down each block... it was... hmmm... comforting. We walked a little way to a place I had never been before, a place I had only read about. Lucali's, a brick oven challenger that stepped up to face the old champ, Grimaldi's. It couldn't have been any better than it was... I won't go into details here, Lucali's has earned its own post. I will say that I am very excited about my next opportunity to get there and I have a new "must visit" when people tell me they are going to NY.

Overall, a great trip (could there be a bad trip home?) The weather was typical of the season... somewhere beteween warm and cold, the sun out just enough to keep you warm when the cool breeze blew... that smell in the air- damp with almost a tangible quality to it, the scent put out by the decomposing leaves... one of the great smells of my city in the fall. I had four days to squeeze it all in again, to get those batteries to take a charge, and I was as excited as I could be. Somehow, I ate less on this trip than I normally do- don't get me wrong, I still ate more than the average tourist, just not as much as I think I should, would, or could have... just another reason to go back soon.

Central Park looks beautiful this time of year... the colors, the leaves are everywhere, the sun seems to have a different affect on everything. There were more people in the park than I expected on a weekday. I spent some time sitting on a bench in The Mall (if you don't know, google it) under a long archway of trees. The amount of satisfaction gained from just sitting and watching people walk by... I felt like I was there again. It is actually pretty amazing how you can sit among all those people and still get a sense of solitude... I didn't talk to anyone, I simply drank my coffee and had some alone time with my city and the little piece of nature that was there. Thinking back on it, I can't find anything that even begins to compare to the feeling.

I spent more time with family on this trip than I have in the past. I introduced my youngest brother to a lot of what the city has to offer; he has spent very little time here and I think it was an eye-opening couple of days. As usual, I spent the days leading up to the trip thinking about what I would have while I was home, especially the things that I can only get there. I got to most of them- bagels (GREAT everything bagels from Mazzola), buttered rolls with coffee from one of the fabled silver coffee carts downtown, dogs, pretzels, more pizza than you woulda thought possible... sushi over at Tomoe- they still make the best salmon skin roll I have ever had... and the city was just great. I know I felt better for walking around for those few days than on any sunny day here in LA.

The days seemed to pass in a hurry... A couple of days in Brooklyn and then I spent a couple of days at my brother's place... we had our usual Italian Feast of Meats- I was hard pressed to make sure I tried a little bit of everything with all the deli paper open on the table... I kept thinking there was something under the cappicola wrapping, or maybe something sitting under the mortadella that hadn't even been opened yet... The fresh mozz, as usual, was perfect- smooth and creamy with just the right amount of salt... and the bread... crispy-doughy bits of heaven covered in sesame seeds... chased with a Yeungling or two...or three... hmmmmmm... how many was that? So easy to lose count when I am with my brothers and sister... talk, eat, drink.. it becomes circular.

Lunch rolled right into dinner, and next thing I know, the youngest was frying up some chicken cutlets... I haven't had a proper chicken cutlet in... well far too long... made with the breadcrumbs I grew up with, fried in the olive oil Mom always used... the kid did good... I was sorta proud of him (could never tell him that though- make him too comfortable, he'll get lazy and stop improving)

We got out to see some family I haven't seen in way too long- since before my last trip, you know-a million years ago.  I started to feel better and better about being home. Nothing like seeing extended family to keep things in perspective... being around people who had been a such a huge part of my youth almost felt like it was taking responsibility off my shoulders... I didn't have to be the oldest, the guide, the example... I felt younger than I have in a long long time.

I had thought about getting over to Philly... coupla friends over that way that need a visit... and God knows I could use a quick stop into Jim's for a cheesesteak or two... hmmmmmmmmm...  but that is going to have to wait for next time... but then, you know I'll be there.

Next thing I know, it's a cold dark Sunday morning and I'm on my way back to Kennedy for an early flight. Can someone tell me where all the time went? It seems like every trip home... no wait- it isn't the trip there, it's when I have to leave- every time I leave, I think more about pulling the chain and getting off the Left coast... This trip more than any of the others, I felt it. I think it may have been the way I spent my time, doing 'regular' things, doing things I would actually be doing if NY was still my daily grind- seeing my brothers and sisters, regular 'home'-type meals, just spending the day wandering through the City...

Sometimes being away from home is tough. Sometimes going home can be tougher. I serve an important function though; I am a missionary, an emissary from NY, spreading the word about my beautiful city. It's never easy being away from the things you know... but when the pain comes, you rub a little dirt in it and play hurt... Me? I like to make a dish of macaroni, maybe some fried meatballs on the side- a little Guinea comfort food always helps; then a phone call to tell someone about it that can really appreciate it... whether they are around the corner or three thousand miles away... hey it's only a quick flight away! So salt that pot of water on the stove and let's get it started. Time for another great meal. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!