Fresh Apricot Jam for the First Day of Summer

June 21, 2011


Straight off the tree, an apricot is a shy and retiring fruit, reluctant to display its charms. Add a little heat, however, and its true character is revealed.  This is a flirtatious fruit, teasing you with sweetness before turning on you with a sour smile. By turns sweet, acid and sour, a cooked apricot is a juicy and endlessly fascinating companion that likes to keep you guessing.

I love cooking with apricots, and this time of year, when the local fruit comes onto the market, makes me almost absurdly happy. They are perfect in pies and crumbles, and nothing makes a more delightful jam. 

If you've been scared of making jam because of all the sterile bottles and boiling water that comes with canning, you should know that's the only hard part. If you make the jam in fairly small batches and eat it quickly, there’s no need for any of that.

Begin with the heaviest-bottomed pan that you have and make a syrup by stirring a quarter cup of water into one and a quarter cups of sugar and bringing it to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer, while stirring, until it is clear.

Add a pound of apricots, that you’ve pulled apart with your fingers, remove the pits, and cook slowly until the apricots disintegrate. When that happens, add another pound of halved apricots and cook until they’re soft and have turned into a consistency that pleases you. If you like the flavor of vanilla, add a whole vanilla bean at this point. Be sure to keep stirring the pot from time to time so that it doesn’t scorch.

Add the juice of half a lemon (or more), stir well and cook another few minutes. Eaten warm, on fresh biscuits, this makes a perfect summer snack.

Apricot jam will keep well, in the refrigerator, for a couple of week.  Mine never lasts that long.


Dreaming Italian

May 26, 2011

In my dreams, sometimes, I walk down a New York sidestreet and find a simple, sunlit trattoria, the tables a bit rickety, the door open wide. The chef beckons me inside.  He sets bread, cheese, and salume on the table, picks up a plate and fills it with hand-made pasta topped with the simplest tomato sauce.  Music washes through the air. There is grilled meat, sautéed spinach, a splash of wine. One tiny cup of espresso. I go dancing out the door.

In real life I run in, breathless and a bit late, having reserved weeks ahead. The music is too loud, the chairs too hard, the tables too close together. Everything’s overdesigned. The food is too fancy and it costs too much. By evening’s end my throat is sore from shouting.  I walk out unsatisfied, once again.

There are hundreds of Italian restaurants in New York City, and while there are a few I truly love, most are deeply disappointing. Finding two swell newcomers in a single week? A small miracle.

I wasn’t expecting much from Manzo.  Everything at Eataly has been so heavily hyped that I’ve looked at the entire enterprise with a slightly jaundiced eye. The room’s not much, carved awkwardly out of Eataly’s giant space. On the other hand, there’s a straightforward simplicity that proclaims, quite loudly, that food is what matters here.

And the food is fantastic.  The Razza Piemontese is manly meat with a deep, seductive resonance.  Cured in tea and shaved into thin red slices, it comes raw, the flavors underlined with the pure green taste of fiddlehead ferns and the sweet crunch of apple. There are squares of fried sweetbreads too, soft as pudding, airy as clouds, and supple slices of tongue that almost melt off of your fork.

But it’s the pasta I most admire, particularly the tajarin, thin ribbons of pasta made only of egg yolk and flour that have their own unique heft.  Served almost naked, the juice of roasted meats ladled across the sturdy strands, this should not be missed. Filled pastas – agnolotti, ravioli and the like – are also superb.

Afterward there are grilled meats (including more of that Razza Piemontese), served with very little fuss, or a fish stew, a roasted squab. This is extremely fine food.

I didn’t expect much from Ciano either. What is Shea Gallante – the guy who travels with a Paco Jet, the man who created the excruciatingly twee Cru -  doing in this lovingly rustic room, with its roaring fire, its book-filled shelves, its golden light and comfortable seats?  This is a room you want to settle into, a room you want to stay in. 

And you won’t be unhappy when you do; the food is very fine.  Starters include delicate little spheres of shrimp that fairly float into your mouth. Arancini, the little saffron rice balls, have hearts of melting cheese.  Substantial meatballs made of fluffy veal float on a river of polenta.  And those still mourning for Cru will be delighted by translucent slices of raw fluke intertwined with grapes, chiles and cucumbers that glitter up at you like gorgeous pieces of jewelry.

Pastas may be ornate, but they’re lovely.  I especially like the rich intensity of the duck Bolognese, and the saffron tagliatelle with its scattering of crabmeat.  Nicely roasted meats (a chicken for two), a fine wine list and truly impressive desserts. A cup of espresso – and I'm doing a quick, happy dance.
As for the trattoria of my dreams, it does exist.  But it’s two hours north of North York, in Red Hook.  That’s Mercato – and another story, for another time.


Peppery Not So Hot But Very Tasty Sauce

May 25, 2011

Mea culpa.  I've been so wrapped up in the launch of Gilt Taste that I've been neglecting my own blog. My excuse – it's been a really exciting ride, and I'm spending most of my time thinking about what this new form of media is going to be. 

So I promise more writing – and recipes – down the road. But the reason I'm posting today is that I just discovered, quite by accident, that Tabasco Family Reserve is once again available.  In my experience it sells out quickly.  If you like Tabasco, you'll love this richer, more intense, more nuanced version of America's classic pepper sauce. It's not cheap, but if you use it judiciously, it'll last you quite a while.

What do I use it on?  It's great on Jambalya (or even Spanish rice), and it gives scrambled eggs more character.  But most of all, it's the perfect condiment for people who like a little heat – but don't want their mouths to be on fire. Most of the mild hot sauces are rather wimpy; this one is made of sterner stuff.



Pink Deviled Eggs for Easter

April 24, 2011

I've always wanted to dye the eggs themselves, not just the shells.  Yesterday it occured to me that if I hardboiled eggs and plopped them into pickled beet juice, they would probably turn pink.  And they did – a vibrant, wonderful color.

I was using my neighbor's eggs – laid by happy chickens who produce yolks that are a bright marigold orange. They were gorgeous against the now magenta-colored whites, and simply cut in half they looked lovely.

But I decided to devil them so I could heap the yolks into the pink eggs. I mashed the yolks with some mayonnaise, a bit of mustard and some salt and pepper.  I added a splash of Sriracha.  And then, at the end, just for the color, I decided to top each one with a little triangle of sweet pickle.  They were gorgeous – and delicious.

(You'll need one can of pickled beets for half a dozen eggs; add a little water if the hardboiled eggs aren't completely covered. The longer you leave the eggs in the beet juice, the darker they will become, but if you leave them too long the yolks will begin to begin to take on the color.  18 hours seems about right.)




The Best Black Beans

April 17, 2011

Every cookbook gives you a list of the foods you should always keep on hand. By which they usually mean things like bottles of olive oil and vinegar.

But my recipe for good living involves a tiny bit more work.  Yes, I always have bacon, eggs, onions and butter in the house, along with dried pasta.  And I've always got lemons, anchovies, miso, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese and chiles on hand too. But my more serious staples mean that a meal is never more than minutes away. They include:

Homemade chicken stock: it is always in my freezer, ready to turn into soup, sauce or risotto, and to improve every vegetable it comes in contact with.

Cooked rice: you can't make fried rice without it.

A couple of boiled potatoes: you never know when you'll decide you have to have some hash browns.

Homemade tomato sauce: keep it in the freezer as a reminder that summer will return.

A pot of black beans: the most satisfying last-minute meal I know.  Eat it with rice, roll it into a tortilla, or top it with a fried egg. Utterly restorative. 

Wonderful Black Beans

Pick through 2 cups of black beans and remove any stones or ugly beans.  Soak them overnight. Drain them in the morning, add 6 cups of water, one chopped onion, a sprig of epazote and a few tablespoons of lard (Mangalitza if you can get it) or bacon drippings. Bring to a boil, cover, turn the heat down and simmer for a couple of hours until the beans are tender.  Remove the epazote, stir in a teaspoon of salt, a very healthy glug of cream sherry, a few splashes of soy sauce and another splash of balsamic vinegar.  Taste for seasoning.  These will keep in the refrigerator for a week – but mine never last that long.