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" -

Sunday, November 16, 2008

pumpkin 101: roast it, toast it, puree it and parlay it

pumpkins: the harbinger of fall. you can cook them into pies, carve them into jack-o’-lanterns, toast their seeds and smash them on your neighbor's lawn. most pumpkins you see around this time of year are of the ornamental variety, genetically engineered to grow to gargantuan proportions; these are ideal for carving and smashing. smaller, "sugar pumpkins", are what you will need to seek out if you intend on eating this festive fruit.

pumpkins can be prepared a number of different ways, however, roasting them really intesifies their earthy sweetness. with the addition of some cream and spices, roasted pumpkin can easily be transformed into a delicious pumpkin puree that can be used in many sweet applications such as pumpkin pie. YOU'LL NEVER BUY THE CANNED STUFF AGAIN!!

Pumpkin Rice Pudding
yield 1-2 qt

1 cup arborio rice
2 cups water
3 cups whole milk
3/4 cups light brown sugar
nutmeg and cinnamon to taste
1-2 cups pumpkin puree
2 egg yolks
2 TBS whole butter

1. par-cook rice: bring 2 cups of water to a boil, add rice. bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer. cover and simmer on low for 15-20 mins or until the water has been fully absorbed. this can be prepared 30 mins to 1 hr ahead of time, but fresher is bester - you know that.

2. combine milk, brown sugar, nutmeg and 1-2 whole cinnamon sticks in a small sauce pot. bring to one boil, kill the heat and pour milk mixture over the par-cooked rice.

3. bring milk-rice mixture to a quick boil, reduce to a simmer and cook UNCOVERED for 20-35 minutes. the pudding will begin to thicken, add pumpkin puree, one cup at a time until desire flavor is achieved. continue to simmer until desired consistency is reach.

4. once pudding has thickened to your liking, KILL THE HEAT. add the beaten egg yolks and whole butter. the residual heat will melt the butter and cook the egg so you don't get the salmonella. make sure the pudding is as thick as you want it to be because you can't cook it any further. DO NOT PUT BACK ON HEAT, IT WILL CURDLE!

5. allow pudding to sit 15-20 minutes. you can serve it warm, but i think it's best after spending the night in the fridge. you're call.

Roasted Pumpkin Puree
yield 1-2 qt

1 ripe sugar pumpkin
olive oil, as needed
1-2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp freshly grated ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4-1-/2 cup whole milk
salt as needed

-- preheat oven to 400.

1. cut pumpkin in half, scoop out innards. save the seeds so you can toast them later.

2. rub pumpkin halves with olive oil, inside and out, all over that sum'bitch. season liberally with salt, once again, all over that sum'bitch. place seasoned pumpkin on a parchment or foil-lined sheet tray, CUT SIDE DOWN. bake until the flesh gives little-to-no resistance to a knife poke.

3. allow pumpkin to cool slightly, but not too long; it will be easier to remove the flesh from the skin while the pumpkin is still well heated. remove flesh from the skin, the skin should peel away easily enough. try scooping it out with a spoon. get as much out as you can!

4. scoop pumpkin flesh in a blender or food processor, season with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt. add enough milk to get things moving. WORK IN BATCHES! -- don't over crowd your food processor, you will not get optimal results and it might explode hot puree all over your face. not cool.

5. adjust seasoning to taste. this recipe is a good start, but it lends itself to modification, add more or less of any ingredient to better suit your taste. consider adding brown sugar or some butter, it's up to you. you can use this puree whenever a pumpkin recipe calls for the canned stuff. i guarantee this is better. freezes well for up to 2 months.

Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
yield 1 pt

pumpkin seeds from one medium-large sugar pumpkin (about 2 cups), rinsed and picked through
1-2 tsp olive oil
salt to taste
optional seasonings

-- preheat oven to 375.

1. scoop the stringy, seedy innards out of your pumpkin and place into a work bowl. pick through the seeds to remove most of the stringy pumpkin guts ( a little left over is OKAY). rinse seeds in a colander to help move this process along.

2. put seeds in a small pot with enough water to cover by 2 inches. salt to taste. bring to a boil, then reduce and simmer for 10 minutes. drain in a colander and allow to dry. try spreading the seeds out on a flat, paper towel lined surface, they will dry much faster this way.

3. toss seeds with olive oil and 1/2 tsp of salt in a work bowl. spread seeds out onto a parchment or foil-lined sheet pan and bake in oven until golden brown and toasty, about 15-25 minutes.

4. season seeds with a little more salt while they are still hot. experiment with other flavors, try garlic powder, some goya stuff or old bay. allow to cool and eat by the greedy handful.

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

Thursday, November 13, 2008

the brunch club? - fatty's cafe

an inventive menu riddled with latin flair... ostentatious 80's new wave on the stereo... b&w photos and abstract paintings hanging on the walls - priced to sell... wait, what stop off the L is this? --ah, even the most ironic of williamsburg hipsters would feel right at home at this funky astorian brunch hotspot. so put on your tightest t-shirt, oversized sunglasses and skip the shower, 'cause we are going over to fatty's cafe to indulge in the best brunch in astoria.

25-01 ditmars blvd astoria, ny 11105

brunch will run you about $12, this includes your meal and one alcoholic libation; bloody mary, mimosa or limeade - your choice. all of the usual suspects you'd expect to find on a brunch menu are there; the eggs, omelets, pancakes, ect., but the hispanic influenced specialties are the stars of the show.

-- mofongo stuffed w/ queso blanco

mofongo is a dish of puerto rican descent and is very popular throughout the caribbean. a peculiar item to find on a brunch menu, but who am i to argue? fatty's mofongo was well seasoned and sufficiently moist; i've had mofongo as dry as british comedy, and it's not especially appetizing. mofongo is traditionally laced with chicharrón (deep fried pork fat), however, fatty's studs theirs with generous amounts of pancetta crunch, an acceptable substitution. chicken, ground beef, shrimp or queso blacno are the stuffing options. i was very please with my choice of queso blanco; melted by the heat, it oozed from the mofongo's open wounds as i attacked repeatedly with my knife and fork. pico de gallo and a fresh mesclun mix accompanied my meal. the dressing was light and delicious, however, i am unable to discern exactly what it consisted of. i would order this again in a second.

-- pancakes w/ fruit and berries

sandy, ever the adventurous eater, ordered the pancakes; she was very pleased with her order. they were griddle-crisped on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside. the fruit mixture consisted mostly of blueberries with a few chunks of peach. the flavors were fresh and bright and definitely did not taste canned, i'd say it was made in house, but who knows?

the drinks were decent enough. sandy isn't much of a drinker to really care one way or the other, she had a pineapple mimosa. my bloody mary was more vodka than mary, that's never a bad thing.

there's much to try on fatty's menu. next time i come for brunch i am going to try to polenta cakes with provolone and ham. if that wins me over, i'll be back for dinner.

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

casserole casanova: guilt-free gratin

the humble potato lends itself to many a cooking technique, the casserole is a common favorite. potato casseroles go by many names: potatoes au gratin, scalloped potatoes, gratin dauphinois...the list goes on. supporting ingredients dictate each application's unique personality, however, there are a few common traits; thinly sliced potato rounds, a savory liquid and sturdy bakeware.

most potato casserole recipes call for copious amounts of heavy cream and cheese, ie. potatoes au gratin. the result is an utterly decadent dish that is hard to beat, unfortunately, it is equally hard to burn off at the gym. by substituting chicken stock for the cream and significantly reducing (or omit entirely) the amount of cheese you can enjoy a rich potato casserole without all the guilt.

Guilt-Free Gratin

4 medium sized golden potatoes
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme, minced
1/2 tsp fresh rosemary, minced
salt & pepper to taste
olive oil as needed
1/2 cup dry breadcrumbs (optional)

--pre-heat oven to 375.

1. saute garlic in oil over medium heat. add thyme and rosemary, cook until fragrant; about 1 min. add stock to pot, bring to a boil and let steep covered, off heat.


2. lube a 9x12 baking dish with olive oil, season with salt and pepper.

3. slice potato into 1/8th inch rounds. if you have a mandolin, use it! otherwise, just try your best. work quickly, the potatoes WILL brown if they are exposed to the air for too long.

4. layer potato slices so that they are slightly overlapping. season each layer with olive oil, salt and pepper. lay down about half of the potato slices, then add some of the stock. finish off with the rest of the potatoes and then the remaining stock. push down to compress.

5. cover tightly with tin foil and place in oven. cook until tender about 35-40 minutes.

6. UNCOVER potatoes, add breadcrumbs and some grated parmesan cheese if you'd like. put back into the oven and bake until golen brown and delicious; another 20-40 mins.

-- allow to cool for 10-15 mins; drizzle with some EVOO and serve!

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

Sunday, November 9, 2008

chola at ya boy...

chola (aka chana masala, aka curried chickpeas) is a fairly popular dish in northern india and pakistan. most NYC pakistani curry-huts feature this dish as one of their vegetarian options; check out curry in a hurry and the pakistani tea house.

if you are an indian food enthusiast, odds are that you've had this dish before, and if you haven't it's a great introduction to indian cuisine and its cooking techniques.

i've adapted this recipe from one over at manjula's kitchen, the ULTIMATE resource for all things edible and indian. manjula does NOT cook with onions or garlic because she is a jainist; as an italian-american, i cannot cook without them.

Chana Masala (chola)
yield 1pt

2 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 hot chilies, chopped
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp ground cumin
1 TBS ground coriander powder
1/2 tsp turmeric

1 (15 oz) can of garbonzo beans (chickpeas), drained
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 red onion, minced
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup tomato puree
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 lime, juiced

salt to taste

1. combine garlic, chilies, ginger paste, cumin, coriander powder and turmeric in a small bowl. add 1-2 tsp of water to create a paste. this is your curry paste - reserve.

2. saute onion in canola oil over medium-high heat until brown around the edges, 6-8 minutes.

3. add flour, and lower heat to medium. cook until lightly browned, 1-3 minutes.\

4. add curry paste, saute over medium heat until well fragrant, 3-5 minutes.

5. add tomato puree, simmer 2-3 minutes to combine flavors. add chicpeas and cook for 3 minutes or until the mixture begins to thicken. taste and season with salt and chili powder.

6. add 1/2 cup of water, cover and simmer for 8 minutes. mash some of the chicpeas with the back of your spoon or a potato masher to thicken. i suppose this is optional but it adds great body to the curry.

7. garnish with freshly chopped coriander and squeeze of lime, serve with pita.


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