Monday, December 22, 2008

BASIC training

any tri-state greaseball worth their salt prides themselves on being able to cook a great red sauce.

- "just like my grandmother's", they say.

i've sampled enough over the years to know that for the most part, they're right. an authentic red sauce is more than just the sum of its parts; you can taste beyond the garlic, onions, tomatoes and meats - you can taste the generations that have stood behind the recipe.

each individual has a unique red sauce that is the result of years of tradition and culinary superstition; it is the modern day family crest. many family recipes involve slow cooking various cuts of meat in a vat of well-seasoned tomato sauce until fork tender. a robust red sauced cooked in such a manner is referred to as a ragu, which in italian means "sauce." when you are eating sunday diner at 2pm with all of your zip relatives, odds are this is what you are having.

but what if you don't have 5 hours to kill making a "sunday sauce"? what if you only have 30 minutes? you need a sauce that comes together quick, tastes great and freezes well.

my friends, you need: BASIC.

Basic Tomato Sauce

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, minced
1 medium carrot, grated (optional)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup red or marsala wine (optional)
2 (28oz can) whole peeled tomatoes and their juices

salt and pepper, to taste

1. empty the canned tomatoes into the work bowl of a food processor or blender. PULSE until well incorporated; about 5-6 one-second pulses should do the trick. if you just turn the processor up to full speed the tomatoes will aerate and become pink; we want deep red tomato sauce - use the pulses!

2. saute onions and grated carrot over medium high heat until well caramelized; about 10-12 minutes.

3. add the garlic, sriracha hot sauce, or crushed red pepper flakes. cook until fragrant; 1-2 minutes.

4. add the wine. cook over high heat until almost dry.

5. add tomato puree, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. add sugar, season and simmer, uncovered, for 23-35 minutes. DONE. either use it right away or cool it in an ice bath and keep refrigerated for up to one week, FREEZE indefinitely.

- versatile and delicious, this is a great workhorse sauce; use it whenever a basic tomato sauce is needed:

add some tomato paste and toss with pasta
add some stew meat and work on that signature ragu of yours
add some chicken breasts and fresh mozzarella, bake up some CHICKEN PARMIGIANA.

i picked up on this recipe while working at Lupa Osteria Romana. we would make a large batch 2-3x/week and use it for everything. red onions and marsala wine add a nice tang to it.

© 2008 c. c. villani @ "mission: insatiable" -

Sunday, December 14, 2008

serendipity 3 - where diets go to die

my mother took me to serendipity once when i was a child. it was summertime, probably a weekend. we had just seen pauly shore's smash hit, "The Son-in-Law"; a movie so bad the only way to salvage the night was to overindulge at an ice cream shop of wonka-esqe proportions.

i can't remember what i had that night, and for the longest time i couldn't remember serendipity's exact name or location either. 15 years later, i'm zipping across 60th street on my bike, when i spy a rather thick crowd of out-of-towners and yuppies.

"go fuck yourselves!", i growl from my bike.

i always like to let tourists and the upwardly mobile know exactly where i stand. then i noticed the awning:

serendipity 3
225 East 60th Street
between 2nd and 3rd Avenues
New York, NY 1002

-serendipity! so, we meet again...

a few weeks later i came back to join the throngs of yuppies and tourists with some out-of-towners of my own, sandy's mother and sister. it was a rainy sunday in late november and we still had to wait 30 minutes for a table. apparently, only one person per party is allowed to wait indoors during peak hours - just thought i'd mention it...

the inside is just as i had remembered it; wall-to-wall schmaltz with enough tinsel to choke a reindeer. the foyer is an impulse buy extravaganza; mini jesus statues, hand bags, rubber stamps, and many more spencer's gifts type items. the bi-level dining room is chock full of tacky christmas lights and gaudy chandeliers - incredibly cozy or ostentatious, depending on your mood.

the menu is vast:

buffalo wings, soups, burgers, salads, seafood, pastas and dim sum, all grace the bill, however, most people come for the desserts. a $1,000 ice cream sundae?!? pretty tempting, but i rather be able to pay my rent. sandy and i decide to split an "outrageous banana split" instead.

5 scoops of ice cream:

peanut butter

3 types of syrup:


2 frozen bananas, wet nuts, whipped cream, rainbow sprinkles and a cherry on top!

it was as good as it looks. the flavors were well balanced and the harmony between hot, cold, gooey and creamy was heavenly. a deluge of goodness overflowed beyond the confines of the goblet and pooled in the plate below - my favorite part.

all done!

© 2008 c. c. villani @ "mission: insatiable" -

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

an eclectic thanksgiving

this was my first year taking on thanksgiving; the bird, the sides the whole shebang. needless to say, my mind was a bit scattered and i wasn't able to photo-document the event as attentively as i would have liked to. in fact, aside from the turkey salad i made from the leftovers, i failed to capture any evidence of the incredibly moist, perfectly roasted 12 pound turkey that graced our table – you’ll just have to take my word for it.

it was dinner for 6 but there was enough food for 12. italian antipasto and pastry desserts, the bird, all the conventional trimmings and various pies – yes, it certainly was an eclectic thanksgiving.

some shots of the eats i was able to capture:

prosciutto wrapped honeydew wedges

fresh mozzarella, beefsteak tomatoes, basil olive oil

robiola cheese, sharp provolone; orange blossom honey dip

tangled roasted red peppers, breadcrumbs, parsley, olive oil and fresh lemon

corn pudding: creamed corn, serrano peppers, onion and chipotle powder

roasted autumn vegetables: carrots, apples, brussel’s sprouts, sunchokes and rutabaga; cracked almonds, baby frissee and truffle oil

sweet potato casserole, decadent pecan crust

creamed spinach gratin: dijon mustard, parmesan and gruyere cheeses, bread crumbs and a dash of curry powder

classic stuffing; turkey bacon, apples, and chestnuts; maple syrup glaze

curried turkey salad; cashews, apple, red onion and shaved carrot

© 2008 c. c. villani @ "mission: insatiable" -

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

roz-a-roni, the middle eastern treat?

the good people of lebanon have been enjoying "rice-a-roni" long before it was the san fransisco treat. lebanese rice pilaf is an incredibly versatile dish that lends itself to many different interpretations. the recipe that follows will get you familiar with the basics. -master that then try using different seasonings, cooking liquids, and rice/pasta combinations.

Lebanese Rice Pilaf (Rice-a-Roni)
yield 2.5 qts

35 ounces chicken stock
1 TBS goya adobo seasoning
1 tsp old bay seasoning
1 TBS canola oil
1 bay leaf

2 TBS butter (or vegetable oil)
2 cups long grain rice
1 cup uncooked vermicelli, broken into 1/2 inch pieces *
2 cloves garlic, minced

1. combine chicken stock, adobo, old bay, canola oil, and the bay leaf in a sauce pot and bring to a boil. reduce to a simmer and keep screaming HOT but do not cook it down!!!

2. melt butter in a dutch oven over medium-high heat. add dry rice and pasta, saute until lightly toasted; about 3-5 minutes. DO NOT BURN. add garlic and saute until fragrant; about 1 minute.

3. bring the stock back up to a boil and immediately add it to the rice/pasta. stir once, cover, and reduce to a bare simmer. cook UNDISTERBED for 20 minutes, kill the heat and let rest for 10 more minutes -- UNDISTURBED !!! **

4. uncover and fluff with a fork and serve with lamb, chicken, stews or veggies.

* orzo is a great substitution for the vermicelli; it's already bite-sized and everything. most types of long, thin pasta can be used successfully, i've had good results with both linguine and spaghetti.

** add 1 cup of thawed veggies to the pilaf as it rests; the residual steam will heat them through. peas and carrots are a good start.

© 2008 c. c. villani @ "mission: insatiable" -

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

get a leg up on the holidays...

nothing says, "happy holidays" like a well-roasted piece of meat (or poultry for that matter). this year will be my first attempt at cooking the holiday bird. i wanted to make sure my roasting skills were up to snuff for the big game, so i decided to roast this gigantic leg of lamb i fabricated several months ago while in culinary school.

NOTE: when thawing something this large you should always do it over several days in the refrigerator or leave it in the sink under a steady stream of COOL running water. my leg of lamb took 4 days to fully thaw in the refrigerator; it was totally worth it.

- a simple roast lamb recipe that will get you jump-started for the holidays

Roast Leg of Lamb

4-6 # leg of lamb, partially boned

2 TBS fresh thyme, minced
1 TBS fresh rosemary, minced
2 TBS garlic, minced (about 6-8 cloves)
1 TBS dijon mustard
olive oil, as needed
salt and pepper to taste

-- preheat oven to 500

1a. finely mince garlic, thyme and rosemary. reserve.


1b. PULVERIZE garlic, thyme and rosemary in a food processor. reserve.

2. combine garlic/thyme/rosemary paste with dijon mustard and olive oil to form a smooth paste. season with salt and
pepper. reserve.

3. season the leg of lamb liberally with salt and pepper on ALL SIDES. rub down the leg with the garlic/herb paste,
coating evenly.

4. place leg on a wire rack with the shank bone facing towards you. roast in a screaming hot 500 degree oven for 20 minutes.*

5. your roast should be plenty brown after that 20 minute scorcher. drop the heat down to 350 degrees and continue to roast until internal temperature at the thickest part of the leg reaches 135 degrees (for medium-rare); about 1.5 - 2 hours. be sure to baste the lamb with pan drippings every 20 minutes so that it stays moist and delicious.**

6. once the internal temp reaches 135 degrees, pull the leg from the oven and transfer to a resting rack. cover in tin foil and let rest 20-30 minutes before carving. carve parallel to the bone for best results.

* don't have a wire roasting rack? no worries. take a standard roasting pan and place it on the bottom rack of your oven. now, place the leg of lamb DIRECTLY on the oven rack ABOVE the empty roasting pan. this will promote proper air circulation that will mimic the effects of a convection oven. the juices will drop into the pan below. you can use these later to make a sauce or gravy.

**if you own a digital probe thermometer, this would be a great time to use it. situate the probe securely into the thickest part of the leg. make sure not to hit bone, as this will give you a false read.

© 2008 c. c. villani @ "mission: insatiable" -

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bhindi Bucantini

Many shy away from okra because of the "gooey" substance it secrets in it's cooked state, however, this secretion is what makes okra so valuable as natural roux; used to thicken soups, curries, and stews - most notably in the U.S., GUMBO.

The "goo" factor can be significantly reduced with a few tricks:

  • Pair the okra with acidic ingredients; LIME and TOMATO make a great team.
  • Cook the okra pods whole; if the cell walls are not broken the "goo" won't seep out.
  • When using cut okra, saute over medium heat until most of the "goo" evaporates.
  • Don't be so fussy! People have been living off of this Mesopotamian staple for MANY moons, it's NOT that bad!

Spiced Okra

2 tsp ground coriander seed
1 tsp ground cumin
1 1/2 tsp old bay seasoning
1/4 tsp chipotle powder
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 hot chili, chopped
1/2 # okra, blanched, halved lengthwise
1 TBS flour
1 small onion, sliced
1/2 cup tomato puree
lime juice and fresh cilantro to garnish

  1. combine ground coriander, cumin, old bay, chipotle, garlic and chopped chili with enough water to form a smooth paste. reserve.
  2. toss blanched okra in flour, reserve.
  3. saute onions over medium-high heat until limp; about 3-5 minutes.
  4. add okra and spice paste to onions, cook until fragrant; about 2 minutes.
  5. add tomato puree and simmer until it coats the okra to your liking. season with lime juice and freshly chopped cilantro.

This dish is great as a side, served with lamb or chicken and a big piece of whole wheat pita. if you are gunning for a main dish, try tossing some okra together with a handful of freshly cooked pasta, i used bucantini. thin with some pasta water and garnish with a lil' olive oil, lime juice and fresh herbs.

© 2008 c. c. villani @ "mission: insatiable" -

Thursday, November 20, 2008

sophie's choice

it will bring you to tears. no, not the meryl streep movie; i'm talking about "sophie’s cuban cuisine", the nyc chain-let that will have you begging, "dame más!"

sophie's cuban cuisine
23 East 23rd Street / various locations
New York, NY 10010
212-260-8884 / 8886

there are a half dozen or so locations throughout the city, from downtown to east 50th, sophie's has got the latin comfort food market cornered. i've been a regular at the chambers street location since it opened several years ago. the service is usually shoddy and the hours are inconvenient (closed on the weekends; closes at 6pm on weekdays) but the generous portions, authentic cuisine and friendly prices have kept me coming back all these years. recently a new location sprung up at 23 east 23rd Street between park and 5th (where the wendy’s used to be). i was pleased to discover that this location is open until 8pm. what can i say? i'm a late eater.

i had a little bit of everything just to make sure this noob offshoot wasn't slacking, and i am pleased to report that they pass my inspection with flying colors.

-- chicken patty / empanada de pollo

crispy on the outside, a moist flavor explosion on the inside. perfectly seasoned and studded with salty green olive bits. sophie's empanadas come in both the beef and chicken varieties. both are outstanding, however, i prefer the chicken when i when my main is pork or beef. i love to drown these things in their enigmatic green sauce; i can go through half a squeeze bottle of that stuff in one sitting -- it's THAT good.

-- mashed cassava with pork / croqueta de yuca

a giant croquette, stuffed with stewed ground pork. the cassava is light resulting in a croquette that is considerably more delicate than one made from potato; it really lets the ground pork sing. these are also enhanced by dousing them in the green sauce.

-- fried sweet plantains / maduros

they are good; up to par with any other maduros i've had. i don't know what else to say about them. these are one of the few things on the menu that are not especially enhanced by the green sauce. i dip them in said sauce anyway.

-- baked chicken sandwich / pollo al horno

lighter on the wallet and the stomach; sophie's pressed sandwiches are a great way to sample more of the menu when you aren't up for a full meal. the chicken was well seasoned and sufficiently moist. pickled onions and a slathering of mayo push this sandwich over the top; you will be back to try others (go for the cubano!).

-- fried pork chops / chuletas fritas with yellow rice and beans

two crispy, crunchy pork chops smothered in caramelized onions; i was left sucking the bones! if you are into thick, double cut pork chops, you might be disappointed, but if thin-cut, flash fried chops are more your speed then you are in good company.

-- roast pork / pernil with yellow rice and beans; pickled onions

i have NEVER been let down by this dish. EVER. i've had my share of pernil from many different vendors. hell, i've even made it myself. NOTHING compares to sophie's. slow-cooked to succulent perfection, the layers of flavor go well beyond the last bite. it's the type of meal you are still thinking about during lunch the next day. there is nothing quite like stumbling upon that hidden cache of pork fat buried deep within your mound of pulled pork. it's a religious experience. i always ask for extra pickled onions with mine, i don't think they even charge extra.

do yourself a favor, get down to a sophie's location and order this dish with rice and beans. ask for the extra onions and DOUSE it in the green sauce.
then come back and tell me if i'm lying.

"dale más duro!"

© 2008 c. c. villani @ "mission: insatiable" -