A mid-winter's snack.

We had a few friends over this evening to enjoy each other's company while the snow piled up outside. We couldn't decide what to serve; stew was too predicatble. Soup? Sure. In fact, we whipped up another batch of the tortellini soup from last night (we got a higher-quality spinach and splurged for the black Angus ground sirloin. What the hell, it's snowing out!) But we needed something else to start off with.

For whatever reason, my mind recalled a time when I had a single green Gironde oyster in San Francisco. Just one. At $7 a pop, a dozen seemed a far, far shot. Besides, where quality of flavor is concerned, one of something is more than enough to savor the experience; over-consuming overwhelms the taste, and leaves you with a lesser impression anyway.

For those who haven't had a green Gironde oyster, they really are something special. By French standards (as they are from the French Atlantic), green oysters must spend at least two mature weeks in their oyster bed, and have a population density of no more than 20 oysters per square meter. Only the Spéciales de claire stays longer (over twice as long), and has a smaller population density (10 per square meter). They are delicious, and "bien équilibrées"; providing a well-balanced taste with smooth flesh texture. As for serving them, hard-core enthusiasts insist you chew them "natural," with no additional sauces or dressings. For those not quite as fervent for the little bi-valves, a vinaigrette with shallots or a lemon sauce is dee-lish. Of course, the high-society way to nibble on the little guys is to eat an oyster (chewing for only a moment to release the flavors), take a sample of crusted bread (a la baguette), and a sip of a dry white wine. Repeat as necessary, or until you are mistaken for a debutante or ambassador's well-wisher.

While at our local Whole Foods, I spied a 16-ounce container of same-day-caught Maryland oysters. They may not be Gironde, but they are fresh, and that makes ALL the difference. Lightly-crumbed and sauteed, they were delightful with nothing more than a twist of lemon and a moderately-chilled glass of Sonoma Chardonnay.

Casserole-frit Huîtres
(modified from MacGourmet)

18-20 fresh oysters, drained
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp telicherry pepper, coarsely ground
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
A pinch of lemon thyme or lemon grass (just a pinch to accentuate the lemon juice served with them.)
1/2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter

Drain the oysters. Mix the dry ingredients together. Coat both sides of each oyster and put on paper towel for two or three minutes. Heat oil and butter in a frying pan until hot but not burnt. Brown oysters on each side and remove from heat. Serve with your favorite sauce and a glass of chilled vino.

Bon Appetit.


Dinner and a Mac.

My lady and I made our first major purchase together this afternoon; a shiny new Apple laptop computer.

In light of such a major endeavor to set it up and get it going, I wanted to make something easy for dinner. Easy, and tasty, of course. I started flipping through my home recipe cookbook, and came across this gem. Growing up, this soup was one of the favorites; probably THE favorite. I hope you enjoy it as well. Serve it with any crusty bread and fresh parmesean cheese grated over top.

Minestra della Polpetta con Tortellini

1 pound ground sirloin
14 oz. beef broth
14 oz. stewed tomatoes
2 cups tortellini
3 cups fresh chopped spinach
1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp. parmesean cheese, finely grated
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp parsely, minced
Garlic salt
Fennel seeds

For meatballs: mix beaten egg, bread crumbs, parsely, onion, salt, and pepper together in a bowl. Add sirloin and fold in until well-blended. Preheat oven to 350. Roll meat into smallish balls and put on non-stick baking sheet; this should make 20-25 meatballs. Bake in oven until browned.

For soup: Bring broth, tomatoes, basil, fennel seeds, and oregano to a boil. Add pasta and reduce heat to medium-low to allo pasta to simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let simmer for 5 minutes. Add spinach and meatballs. Simmer a further 4-6 minutes. Serve in a bowl with grated parmesean cheese and a fruity white wine.

Buon appetito!

A quick dessert.

For me, dessert is an occassional treat; this is largely because I could eat my weight in pie daily. As they say, however, moderation is best, and so I moderate whenever possible.

Yesterday was one of those times where moderation simply doesn't work, and I indulge. Cognizant of the need to moderate, I went in the pantry looking for a snack I could feel good about, and realized we had the makings for one of my favorites; vanilla wafers and warmed butterscotch.

It's quick, simple, and really tasty. I prefer the actual butterscotch to any 'flavored sauce,' and would suggest actual caramel if butterscotch isn't available. This goes well with a piece of sharp cheddar cheese and a tart fruit.


Nibble Notes: El Pollo Rico

Tonight was Sunday-dinner-with-the-inlaws night. And it was a winner. Boy, was it a winner.

We went to El Pollo Rico, a Peruvian rotisserie chicken joint in Arlington, Virginia. Mom-in-law has friends who know it well, and recommend it highly.

Located amidst office buildings, El Pollo Rico is an unassuming storefront with a small private parking lot, full at 8pm on a Sunday night. Families were making their way into the building as we pulled in; one of the gentlemen even guided us into a parking spot.

As we opened the door, the smell of chicken and cumin hit us straight on, and it was oh-so-savory. The interior is painted in red, green, yellow, and white (the colors of Peru), with paintings of country scenes hanging on the walls. The line wrapped around the edge of the interior, and was almost all Peruvians; I figured we were in the right place. We made our way up front and the line rounded to the left near the two small registers at the serving counter. I looked up at the menu to peruse their offerings, and saw only the following;

Quarter-chicken $3.90
Half-chicken, white and dark $6.30
Half-chicken, white $7.80
Whole chicken $11.00

All orders served with steak fries and cole slaw.

Cash only.

That was the second good sign. It has been my experience that cash-only joints are serious foodie locales. Experience did not let me down this time, either.

The line was held up while they replenished the chicken supply from the open-air roasters. Twenty-five chickens in each turned slowly over the exposed flame, their juices spitting into the fire, making it lick up at the lower birds. The stove itself is old wrought-iron with brick and surrounded by bags of charcoal; it mesmerized me as my dinner spun before my eyes. After a few minutes, the chickens were ready, and the line moved. Finally, we got up to the counter. It was our turn. My mother-in-law and I ordered (in Spanish, of course!)

The process was as simple as this;

(In Spanish) "I'd like a half-chicken, please, with an Inca Kola (a Peruvian drink that smells like Bubble-Yum and tastes like cream soda.)"

One cook took a plate and put freshly-made steak fries, cole slaw on it, and several little containers of just-made salse verde and spicy mayonnaise. The second cook grabbed a bird, took a cleaver, whacked off half of it, and put the rest on my plate. On a tray, at the register, and off to an old wooden table to eat.

My first bite confirmed my suspicions; this place knows how to make a rotisserie chicken. The skin had been cured in cumin, garlic, pepper, parsely, and salt. The fire-roasting gave the skin a crisp, light texture that was delicious and moist. The meat was perfectly-done, and plenty juicy. I preferred to dip mine in the salsa, which provided just the right amount of kick. The steak fries were hot and lightly-salted, and provided a great starch to go with the protein. The cole slaw was a little runny, but hardly worth complaining about (face it, when the first 'complaint' is about the cole slaw, you're doing something right.) For dessert, a home-made flan ($2).

So let's see. A half a chicken, steak fries, cole slaw, flan, and a soda for under $10? This was one of the most value-oriented meals I've ever had in metro DC. South American candies were available as well to finish off your meal if half a chicken wasn't enough for you.

Interior: 7.00/10.00 (it's simple, appropriate, and very comfortable.)
Menu: 2.00/10.00 (in this case, not a bad thing at all! It's the best 2 I've ever given.)
Wine list: N/A
Service/Waitstaff: N/A (but I will compliment the staff for trying to speak English to us.)
Food: 8.50/10.00
Value: 9.50/10.00 (you cannot beat a quarter-chicken meal for $3.90 around here. Nope.)

Overall: 9.00/10.00

I know the numbers don't add up; I can barely explain it myself. But maybe I can sum it up best this way. On our way out, I noticed a table of ten people. They were a Peruvian family having dinner together. The father sat at the head of the table, overseeing it all with a smile on his face. He had a suit and a tie on, and it was then I realized; this was their Sunday family dinner together. The children were laughing, the adults were chatting, and everyone was eating with a grin on.

I cannot encourage everyone enough to try this place.



I stand over the 12" pan, sipping a deep and fruit-forward Cab from California, inhaling the aroma of breaded veal sautéing in butter, olive oil, and as much garlic as it can take.

And it is intoxicating.

Cooking is every bit as gratifying as eating. It is the process by which one earns their palatal fulfillment. Ask my wife; for me, half the pleasure in going to (or hosting) a dinner party is the time spent socializing over an ambrosial stove; all the ingredients to be consumed later still melding together and learning to play nice.

The veal is where the forthcoming L'umido di Vitello starts. Lightly breaded and then sautéed, it will soon be joined by red peppers, freshly-cut sage, and pitted Kalamata olives in an oregano-infused tomato base. Yum. Yum. Yum. Accompanied by a Greek salad (of which my ever-faithful Carmen is the master), and a fresh, warm baguette.

I assemble the ingredients together, and set the pan to stewing the concoction for another fifty minutes. Hey, a good stew takes time. But it's okay. It allows me to peruse the used copy of the Culinaria France I acquired earlier in the day for a mere twenty bucks (score!), and imbibe a bit more. This Cabernet, from V. Sattui wineries in St. Helena, California. We discovered this non-distributed winery on our honeymoon, and are finishing off the last of the case we bought. It's all about the blackberry and vanilla with this one; twenty months in French oak barrels will do that to a fella. I love the underscored anise flavor as well. I wonder for a moment if it will pair nicely with the veal stew, and then dismiss the thought. Good ingredients, good wine. That's that.

As the stew nears readiness, I start the egg noodles and once again hover over the pan, inhaling. It never gets old, the aroma of tomatoes and meat and spices working together. I revel in how many memories it brings back for me. I take another sip.

Everything is at last complete. The egg noodles are just a skosh al dente, the veal is falling apart, and the red peppers and olives are tender and sweet.

Dinner time.

L'umido di Vitello con Pepe e Olive

1.5 pounds veal, cut into stew cubes
3/4 cup red wine (I used Cabernet, and it worked well)
28oz. crushed tomatoes
2 red bell peppers, cut into thick slices (3/4-inch wide)
1 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
5 garlic cloves, flattened with a knife blade
1 tbsp. sage, chopped
1 tbsp. oregano
Sea salt (to taste)
Tellicherry pepper (coarse-grind, if possible)
2 tbsp. butter

2 cups egg noodles

-Heat olive oil in deep pan. In the meantime, coat the veal in flour, shaking off any excess.
-When the oil is warmed, add the garlic. Sautee for 3-4 minutes and discard the cloves.
-Add the butter and melt.
-Add the veal and sautee until golden brown. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the pan.
-Add the tomatoes and sage. Mix over medium heat until warmed, then add veal.
-Let simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes.
-Add the peppers and oregano. Let simmer for an additional 50 minutes until the veal and peppers are tender.
-Add the olives.
-Start the egg noodles.
-Simmer mixture for 5 minutes longer (approximately the same length of time the noodles need.)
-Spoon the mixture over the noodles. Sprinkle oregano or chopped parsely over top as desired.


The simplicity.

If there is a more gratifying dish than sausage with roma tomatoes, garlic, and roasted peppers, I don't know of it.

The more I explore culinary traditions and proclivities, the more I appreciate the Italians.

It's the simplicity of Italian cooking I'm hooked on. True Italian cuisine is subtle, unrefined, and purposeful. Italian chefs mostly use only ingredients that are in season. They do things like use the whole fish, not just fillets. They use few spices (an Italian kitchen, at it's most basic, has basil, oregano, garlic, salt, pepper, and fennel.) They rarely use much sauce on a meat. It's purity of ingredients.

And that brings us back to the la piastra del giorno. This is my recipe. Of course, it can vary by taste, but in any case, please please PLEASE! Keep it simple; otherwise my grande nonna will roll over in her grave.

La salsiccia italiana con i pomodori

6-8 sweet Italian sausages
8 semi-firm Roma tomatoes (a.k.a. "plum" tomatoes)
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped (2" pieces)
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped (2" pieces)
6 cloves garlic
Olive oil
Iron skillet (if you have one)

Put 2 tbsp. oil in the skillet, heat over medium-high heat until the oil is warmed, around 3 minutes. Add the sausages and peppers. After 2-3 minutes add 2 tbsp. oil. Shuck garlic gloves, crush with the heel of your palm or a knife blade (crush the garlic to increase the surface area exposed to the oil). Add garlic and oregano. Simmer for 10-12 minutes, turning frequently. Chop tomatoes into largish chunks. When sausages are browned, add tomatoes. Let simmer for 5 minutes longer. Serve with Tuscan bread or any other crusty loaf.

You can serve this with either red or white. I prefer a room-temperature or slightly-chilled Italian white.

Buon appetito!


The virtues of Cognac.

Ahhh. Cognac; a favorite on a cold winter night. Apropos for a well-crafted flask, or served simply straight-up in a snifter, this spirit never fails to serve and delight.

For those interested, Cognac is named for the region in France from whence it came. (Interesting fact; only products from Alsace are excused from including the town or region name in the title. French law. Kah-razy stuff.) It is rated into several different grades by marketers; they use brandy grades, but the conversion is not always accurate. But, it's a good starting point.

VS (very special, three stars); the brandy is stored at least two years.
VSOP (very superior old pale, or Reserve); the brandy is stored at least four years.
XO (extra old); the brandy is stored for at least six years.

I prefer XO-grade Cognac; the taste mellows significantly as it ages, and allows for much more depth to come through in the palete.

Particularly, I favor what I am sipping now; Tesseron Lot N° 76, X.O Tradition. It is complex and delicious. If you like a Cognac now and again, this is a great bottle to try. It's my standard 'house Cognac,' if I can have one without sounding like an a-hole. It sells for around $80 a bottle, and a bottle typically lasts me 2-3 months.

As for what to have with it, I suggest complimenting it's peach, almond, or candied fruit flavors. Here is a recipe for a dee-lish Portugese honey bread.

Portugese honey bread

2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for buttering pans
3/4 cup dried cranberries or dried sour cherries
3/4 cup chopped mixed fine-quality candied fruit such as pear, citron, and candied orange peel 1/4 cup Port
1 1/4 cups walnuts (4 1/4 oz)
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
3 teaspoons active dry yeast (from two 1/4-oz packages)
1/4 cup warm water (105–115°F)
3/4 cup molasses (not blackstrap)
1/2 cup mild honey

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 325°F. Butter loaf pans.Bring cranberries, candied fruit, and Port to a simmer in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and set aside, covered.Pulse walnuts in a food processor until just coarsely chopped. Add flour, salt, baking soda, and spices and pulse to combine.Beat together butter (2 1/2 sticks) and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes in a stand mixer or 6 with a handheld. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition.Stir together yeast and warm water in a small bowl and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. (If mixture doesn't foam, discard and start over with new yeast.) Add one third of flour mixture to butter mixture and mix at low speed until combined, then add molasses and mix until incorporated. Add half of remaining flour mixture and mix until combined, then add honey and mix until incorporated. Add yeast mixture and remaining flour mixture and mix until combined, then stir in candied-fruit mixture.Divide batter among pans, smoothing tops. (Do not let batter rise.) Bake until a wooden pick or skewer inserted in centers of loaves comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Cool in pans on a rack 10 minutes, then remove loaves from pans and cool completely on rack.

(recipe courtesy of www.gourmet.com.)

Bon appetit!