Monday, February 23, 2009

a penne for your thoughts

penne alla vodka -- pasta, booze, and heavy cream; an instant classic in italian-american lore. insofar as generic italian dishes are concerned, it's one of my favorites. i see a lot of people ordering it at restaurants, and even more buying it pre-made at the supermarket, however, only ONCE have i had it prepared fresh in someone's home. how is it that a dish, loved by so many, is prepared by so few? i'm going to go out on a limb and say that people think it's too complicated of a recipe to pull off at home; they couldn't be more wrong. granted, it's not as easy as heating up jarred sauce or ordering out, but it is more economical, more tasteful, and infinitely more satisfying.

traditionally, vodka sauce is served over penne pasta, however, any stout, tube-shaped pasta would be an acceptable substitution. i usually enjoy mine over whole wheat penne, to help create the illusion of a healthy meal. tonight i opted for rigatoni, penne's more brolic cousin.

* if you halve this recipe it will be just enough for one pound of pasta, however, i suggest you prepare it in bulk and freeze some for a rainy day.

vodka sauce
enough for 2#'s of pasta

2 cups pancetta, medium dice
1 onion, medium dice
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp crushed red pepper
1/2 cup vodka
2 (28oz) cans whole peeled tomatoes
1 cup heavy cream

fresh basil, to garnish

1. put the tomatoes and their juices into the work bowl of a food processor and puree until smooth. longer pulses will aerate the tomatoes, resulting in lighter colored tomato puree.

2. sauté pancetta in a sauce pot over medium heat. render off most of the fat; CRISP IT UP - DON'T DRY IT OUT! remove from the pot with a slotted spoon; reserve on paper towel.

3. sauté onions in the rendered fat (add some olive oil if needed) until well browned; about 8-10 minutes. add minced garlic and sauté until fragrant; about 2 minutes.

4. TURN OFF THE HEAT!! add vodka and scrape up all the browned goodness stuck to the bottom of the pan. these caramelized goodies are called "fond". put the heat up to high and cook down for about 1 minute until slightly reduced.

5. add tomato puree, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer. simmer, uncovered for 20 minutes until reduced by 1/3rd.

6. add heavy cream and reserved pancetta; stir to incorporate.

--garnish with fresh basil and grated pecorino romano.

© 2009 c. c. villani @ "mission: insatiable" -

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

burger aficionado

if you've seen morgan spurlock's "Super-Size Me" you know one thing is true: fast food is the DEVIL. it's cheap, unhealthy and easily accessible; a ploy devised by mega-corporations to transform honest, hard-working americans into the fat, lazy slobs the rest of the world knows us to be. i couldn't agree more, but here's the thing -- fast food is awesome. we all know it's true, but no one likes to admit it.

fortunately, a new class of fast food restaurants is on the rise. DC-based, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and local new-comer, Petey's Burger, share a penchant for fresh ingredients and made-to-order service. they travel along separate trajectories towards the same point of impact; a "fast food" paradigm shift, where fast food facilities evolve into quick service restaurants.

43 W 55th Street; various locations
New York, NY 10019

according to their website, the five guys burger chain started in the DC-metro area circa 1986 and has since expanded to over 300 locations in over 25 states. i believe the first NYC outpost opened in 2008.

five reasons five guys is a one of a kind:
  • ONE - they boast that none of their locations are equipped with a freezer, a guarantee that only the freshest ingredients are used.
  • TWO - they only use idaho potatoes to make their french fries. a frequently updated sign on the wall provides the name of the town in idaho from where that day's batch of potatoes hail.
  • THREE - double burgers come STANDARD. that's right, if you want a single burger, you'll have to order a "little hamburger", like a bitch.
  • FOUR - ALL TOPPINGS FREE (save for cheese and bacon).


-- i prefer the cajun fries over the regular, they've got some tang to 'em. the portions are large, too large to be contained by that diminutive foam cup; a bevy of fries will inevitably find their way to the bottom of the brown paper bag in which they are served. the fries are thick-cut, and have a tendency to get soggy if not fresh out of the fryer - i prefer shoe-string variety for this very reason.


-- a double cheeseburger, to be exact. not the most diligently arranged burger i've ever had, but delicious nonetheless. two all-beef patties smothered by copious amounts of melted cheese and ample add-ons; framed by a lightly toasted sesame seed bun. NICE. the burger was out of sight, and if you consider yourself a burger aficionado, i strongly recommend you get your ass in gear and head over to five guys post haste.

: the meat was under seasoned and a bit too lean for my taste.

30-17 30th avenue
astoria, ny 11102

petey's burger is a recent addition to the food scene in astoria, queens. so far as i know, they operate out of one location, however, i gather they are an east coast knock-off of the popular west coast burger chain, in-n-out burger. astoria has been in dire need of a proper burger joint for some time now. does petey's fit the bill? i submit that it does.

FRIES-- bad ass shoes-string fries; crispy as hell, if not a bit too starchy. not as large of a portion as five guys, but still plenty generous. the fries were adequately seasoned, but they needed a little something extra. a dusting of cajun spice a la five guys would have been sweet, or better yet, i'd like to see petey's offer a selection of novel dipping sauces similar to NYC burger co.

BURGER-- again, a double cheese burger. you can tell just by looking at it, this is a well crafted sandwich. meticulously stacked with care and finess; alternating layers of vegetation, meat and cheese. the bun was fresh and the meat was juicy far beyond the likes of five guys. best of all, someone took the time to actually SEASON the meat! imagine that, properly seasoned beef from a fast food joint - or rather, quick service restaurant.

bite for bite, petey's has a better product than five guys, however, they have to broaden their scope and zazz it up with some bells and whistles. i don't know if FREE PEANUTS is the route to follow, but FREE TOPPINGS and unique dipping sauces certainly do hold promise.

FULL DISCLOSURE: petey's is a bit pricey for what they offer. just a bit.

everything in moderation, right?

© 2009 c. c. villani @ "mission: insatiable" -

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

mac 'n cheese

a clever headline or witty narrative would do nothing to properly exalt a dish so fundamentally simple and delicious as macaroni & cheese. whether out of the box or fresh out of the oven, mac 'n cheese is always a crowd pleaser. velveeta shells & cheese is my favorite boxed variety, so it should come as no surprise that i've incorporated it's processed goodness into my recipe.

but enough of this palaver, let's get this show on the road!

mac 'n cheese

1 # elbow pasta
2 oz unsalted butter, by weight
2 oz AP flour, by weight
1 qt whole milk
1 TBS dijon mustard
1/2 tsp hot sauce
(secret ingredient omitted)
(secret ingredient omitted)
2 cups shredded cheese, sharp cheddar
1 cup shredded cheese, three-cheese
4 oz velveeta (a MUST)
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 cup plain breadcrumbs, as needed
salt and pepper to taste

-- pre-heat oven to 400 degrees
-- put a large pot of salted water up to boil
-- lightly oil a 9x13 baking dish

1. heat milk to just under a boil, whisk in dijon mustard and hot sauce, kill the heat.

2. make the roux: melt the butter over medium heat in a sauce pot large enough to hold the total amount of milk you are using and then some; you will need the extra room when whisking the milk into the roux (unless you don't care about scalding yourself while making a mess of your stove top). once the butter is fully melted, add the flour all at once, stir to combine. cook over medium heat until the roux begins to pale in color and starts to resemble wet sand. kill the heat.

3. slowly combine the heated milk INTO the roux, whisking constantly. incorporate about a third of the milk each time you make an addition, whisking the mixture smooth each time. once all of the milk has been incorporated, bring it to a boil then reduce to a simmer. simmer for 5-10 minutes, skimming any gunk that rises to the top with a ladle or spoon. taste & season. at this point, the sauce should be of a medium-thick consistency; it should coat the back of a spoon and hold its form after running a finger through it.

a white sauce prepared this way is refered to as a béchamel.

4. DROP PASTA. cook until al dente. drain, toss with a touch of olive oil and reserve.

5. KILL THE HEAT. add the shredded cheese and stir to combine, the residual heat of the cream sauce will melt the cheese without it turning to shit. add the velveeta and parmesan, stir to combine. the béchamel will take on a lovely golden hue. taste and season.

6. combine cheese sauce with the reserved pasta and mix well. pour mac 'n cheese mixture into the greased 9x13 baking dish, dust with bread crumbs and cook in the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until bubbly. place under the broiler to brown the top; 2-5 minutes but KEEP WATCH or it WILL BURN!

7. allow to rest for 10-15 minutes. over-indulge.

© 2009 c. c. villani @ "mission: insatiable" -

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

heavy lies the crown...

asian fusion restaurants have more skeptical critics than george w. bush, and rightly so. few chefs understand and respect eastern ingredients enough to do them justice via western applications. critics LOVE to tear fusion menus apart; they are usually easy targets marked by uninspired culinary creations with clumsy flavor profiles. double crown breaks the mold.

double crown
316 bowery
new york, ny 10012


i've wanted to visit double crown since its opening this past september, however, i didn't get around to it until a couple of weeks ago. in a strange twist of culinary fate, on the day of my reservation i discovered that i went to high school with the pastry chef, rob. he had such lovely hair back then, i wish i had pics to post and embarrass him. i want to thank him once again for his generosity and hospitality during our visit. double crown exceeded my expectations and it's good to know they have at least one person on staff who cares.

the vibe was part sex in the city, part day spa, and part buddhist shrine. a sprawling bar, stocked with exotic drinks provided refuge for the sober just off the entrance, while tropical foliage coyly framed the esoteric wood carvings embellishing the perimeter.

but let's be honest, i was here for the food...


lentil flatbreads; dipping sauce trio

(left to right curried mustard, tamarind, cucumber raita)

-- crunchy and addictive. it was a classic case of, "i'll just have two" turned, "i better finish these off before my girlfriend decides she wants more." the lentil flatbreads, a traditional indian snack, were crisp and earthy - they had all the indulgence of a side of fries without all the guilt. of all the dipping sauces, the curried mustard was my favorite; mild yet tangy with the slightest bit of heat. the cucumber raita came in at a close second; the lightly herbed yogurt and cool cucumber combination was head-and-shoulders above its contemporaries served at the pakistani slop-shops throughout this fine city. the tamarind sauce, however, eh...not so much. this particular condiment never does it for me; if a dipping sauce isn't thick enough to clog a straw (and presumably an artery) than i'm just not that into it, sorry.


salt & pepper sepia; squid ink vinaigrette

- sepia (aka "cuttlefish") is kind of like squid, but different and the salt & pepper preparation is kind of like italian calamari, but different. however, for all intents and purposes, both proteins and preparations are very much the same. the batter is slightly thicker than you would find at an italian restaurant and much more aggressively seasoned. these little squidbillies were deep fried to perfection and served with a wedge of lime and squid ink vinaigrette. aside from its jet black appearance, the squid ink vinaigrette was actually pretty conventional - kinda salty, kinda tangy; nothing to be squeamish about. YUM.

baised pork belly; chili caramel, fresh herbs

-- beneath a bed of fresh mint and cilantro hide two unctuous pieces of pork belly, lazily lying about in a zesty puddle of chili caramel; a snappy slice of squash tossed in for good measure. vietnamese-style caramel sauces are something you have to taste to truly understand. there's an obvious sweet component due to the caramel, but hot chilies and fish sauce take it to the next level. there's never enough with a dish like this.

duck steam bun; pickled asian pear, sourdough

-- the taste and texture of the sourdough bun was enjoyable, however, the individual flavors were all but lost. the duck was nondescript and the pickled pear was no where to be found. the hoisin dipping sauce was yummy, but otherwise very straight forward. if you REALLY want a steamed duck bun, perhaps you should keep walking down the bowery to canal, otherwise just enjoy any of the other interesting dishes on double crown's menu.

carrot and cardamom soup; chili marshmallow, cilantro oil, pumpkin seeds

-- double crown's take on mulligatawny soup - classic. notes of ginger, cardamom and spices danced against a velvety carrot backdrop. and a marshmallow? they really shouldn't have, but i'm glad they did. it reminded me of a sweet potato casserole with marshmallow crust from the holidays, only subtopic. the crunchy pumpkin seeds proved to be a delightful crispy garnish.

miso-glazed bone marrow; orange-olive marmalade, brioche

-- i'm used to extracting marrow manually, with my teeth. having it prepared and presented in such a manner as to not break my jaw was quite a
treat. the miso glaze created some great color under the salamander, however, its flavor was subtle and unobtrusive. unfortunately, i can't say the same for the robust marmalade that easily overshadowed the marrow's delicate sensibilities if not used sparingly. it was more enjoyable on its own as a spread on the accompanying brioche

yellowtail sashimi; tomato vinaigrette; crispy lotus root

-- lightly seared and undeniably fresh, less is more. topped with a light vinaigrette, cilantro and a crispy slice of lotus root, this refreshing morsel was heaven on a plate; albeit rather difficult to wrangle with chopsticks.

sides & mains:

steamed rice; cinnamon, raisins, green chili/scallion relish

-- a pretty straight forward preparation; not much to comment about. the rice was cooked properly, it's not a difficult task, but you'd be surprised how many places drop the ball. the green chili/scallion relish had a heavy garlic influence and was overall very refreshing. sweet, plump raisins elevated the bold relish to another level, ultimately transcending this simple dish beyond, "just a bowl of rice."

garam masala potatoes; baby spinach

-- again, a pretty straight forward preparation. the potatoes were well seasoned and the house-blended garam masala had an adequate ethnic punch. the baby spinach added some nice color but not much else. i would have been more thrilled with this dish if they had prepared it more like a hash; crispy caramelization - iron skillet style.

grilled yellowfin tuna; baby spinach, shallot confit, fried taro

-- WOW. what a looker. from the top to the bottom then the bottom to the top; eat with your eyes first. at the base, a flavor pool of shallots confit, seasoned with a hint of worcestershire. second floor, mandatory roughage and glistening greens. the tuna was well seasoned a seared to perfection, but that is easy to see. fried taro, the crowning jewel; nothing special flavor wise, but it does attract the eye and add a great texture contrast.

venison wellington; red currant jus, cranberry chutney

-- it tastes as good as it looks. the gamey venison loin was cooked perfectly; not well-done, not medium, not medium-rare, but RARE...135 degrees, RARE. i appreciate that. the flakey dough was a tad too doughy rather than flakey, but i blame that on the leek that snuck its way inbetween the meat and the pastry crust. the piquant sauce and chutney did well to balance the gaminess of the rare deer meat and tied the dish together well.


rice pudding samosa;honey apple chutney, carrot ice cream, fenugreek anglaise

-- an incredibly novel idea reinforced by flawless execution and a palatable delivery. the "samosa" was more similar to those of the thai variety rather than their indian cousins. nestled deep within a delicately fried exterior, a rich rice pudding lie in wait; poised to ambush an unsuspecting mouth with its textual ambrosia. the piquant apple chutney had the sweet and sour vibe down; the ying to the carrot ice cream's reserved, mellow yang. although the anglaise did add a welcomed luxuriant texture to the dish, its fenugreek component seemed to get lost in the fray.

pumpkin brioche pudding, miso butterscotch and chai ice cream

-- i'd love to get my hands on this recipe. brioche is my bread of choice when making bread pudding and pumpkin is easily one of my favorite flavors; to combine the two is genious. you could taste the pumpkin but it wasn't overpowering, a difficult balance to achieve. moreover, the consistency was spot on; not too dense, not too mushy. it's the type of dessert that makes you forget about calories and saturated fat.

(sampler) passion fruit marshmallow; citrus tart; chocolate english trifle

- what's better than house-made marshmallows? well, i suppose house-made marshmallows that taste like passion fruit. an airy little adventure to someplace warm where passion fruits are still in season; my favorite treat on the sampler plate.

- i'm not a big fan of tarts, that being said, i found this little bite to be rather enjoyable. the consistency had a keylime pie thing going on, i enjoyed that. it wasn't too acidic for a citrus-based confection, a relief considering how tart some tarts can get.

- not so much an english trifle as it was a cup of pudding, but i'm not complaining. the chocolate was rich and downright decadent, this is a good thing. it even came equipped with its own utensil, a convenient toffee scoop.

© 2009 c. c. villani @ "mission: insatiable" -

Sunday, February 1, 2009

guppy kisses: monkfish


americans are afraid to eat fish. shrimp and lobster don't count, neither does the seared salmon, fried flounder or tasteless tilapia at T.G.I. Friday's. it's a cultural caveat passed down from generation to generation; fishy = funky. no one wants to deal with bones, eyes or even the most remote aroma of the sea. fortunately, you are in luck, as most well-prepared seafood DOESN'T smell fishy. moreover, there are a wide variety of boneless, skinless and eyeless fish fillets available for you to enjoy without being hassled or grossed out.

a good entry-level fish is the monkfish:

a hideous monster of giger-esque proportions, but don't judge this book by its cover; this creature yields beautiful, boneless fillets that have a mild, sweet flavor reminiscent to that of lobster tail. in fact, monkfish in often called “the poor man’s lobster”, on account of its delicate taste and velvety texture.

livornese sauce is traditionally made with chopped tomatoes, white wine, onions, capers and olives. sliced bell peppers and caper berries help to bulk up the sauce, while the addition of red pepper flakes add some tang. in this recipe we will use the livornese sauce to delicately poach the monkfish fillets.

creamy polenta is a great starch to pair with this dish because of it’s uncanny ability to coalesce with partnering sauces.

monkfish livornese w/ creamy polenta

1# monkfish fillets, trimmed

2 TBS olive oil
1 TBS butter
1 onion, sliced
1 green pepper, sliced
1 tsp red chili flakes
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 cup kalmata olives, roughly chopped
1/4 cup caper berries (capers will do)
1/2 cup marsala wine
1 (26 oz) carton of Pomi chopped tomatoes

1/2 cup parsely, roughly chopped
1 lemon, juiced
salt and pepper to taste

1. trim-up your monkfish with a sharp knife. remove as much of the dark skin and connective tissue as possible. set aside under refrigeration.

2. heat olive oil and butter of medium-high heat. saute onions and peppers until brown around the edges; 6-8 minutes.

3. add garlic, olives, red chili flakes and caperberries. saute until garlic starts to brown; 4-6 minutes.

4. deglaze with marsala wine and reduce by half. add chopped tomatoes and simmer, covered for 15-20 muinutes.

5. add half of the parsley and the monkfish fillets to the sauce, cover and simmer until fish is cooked-through; flakey on the outside, opaque in the middle; about 6-8 minutes.

6. garnish with a squeeze of fresh lemon and the remaining parsley. serve over creamy polenta.

creamy polenta
yield 1qt

4 cups chicken stock
1 cup water
1 TBS honey
1 TBS fresh thyme, finely chopped
1 cup "instant" italian polenta
1 TBS white truffle oil
1 TBS grated parmesan

1. bring stock and water to a boil. add honey and fresh thyme, whisk to combine.

2. gradually whisk polenta into boiling liquid. DON'T STOP WHISKING!

3. cook at a lively simmer, stirring frequently until polenta reaches the consistency of hot cereal; whisk in truffle oil and parmesan cheese, off heat. SERVE IMMEDIATELY!*

*polenta will "set" if allowed to cool, leaving you with a solid mass - great for twice-cooked polenta cakes, horrible for creamy polenta.

© 2009 c. c. villani @ "mission: insatiable" -