Friday, December 30, 2011

A Luxe Hors D'Oeuvre - The Perfect New Year's Party Offering

With 2011 drawing to a rapid close, we here at NK are getting ready to face the sobering reality of New Year's resolutions. Among other goals, we'll be trying to shave off some of those extra holiday pounds and attempting to return to our usual frugal approach to elective spending. After a solid month of revelry and excess - two of my favorite pastimes - we hope to tighten our belts in more ways than one.

But New Year's Eve is just one of those nights that calls for celebration. For me, that means special food.

Even if your holiday dinner or evening plan is intended to be easy on the wallet, I am a big believer in including, if you can, one item that just feels luxurious. If you are attending or hosting a budget-friendly NYE party in the home, why not create one lovely hors d'oeuvre that befits this special night? 

For us, this year's "special bite" will be Truffle Tremor, Hot Soppressata and Pepper Jelly Crostini. 
I love this hors d'oeuvre because it combines humble and luxurious ingredients to create a very unique and delicious taste. The result will be a peppery, smoky, sweet, and savory bite that always gets raves.  

Truffle Tremor, Soppressata and Pepper Jelly Crostini, Photo: NK

Truffle Tremor is a wonderful aged goat cheese from a company called Cypress Grove. Flecked with black truffles, this creamy, slightly salty chèvre is really something to talk about. It is mouthwatering on its own with just a piece of crusty bread, which was how I first experienced it a year ago. After a few bites, I found myself scouring the web for ways to put it in a more complex dish. Finally, I happened upon a Truffle Tremor crostini recipe on

Below is NK's slight adaptation on this luxurious party app that is sure to wow! 

Truffle Tremor, Hot Soppressata and Pepper Jelly Crostini 
Adapted from The Denver Post
Serves 6 - 8

One foot-long baguette sliced in to 1/4 inch pieces 
1/2 pound Cypress Grove Truffle Tremor Cheese (chilled for easy slicing)
1/4 pound thin-sliced Hot Soppressata, rounds cut down the middle into half moons
1 Jar Red Pepper Jelly - we prefer Stonewall Kitchen brand: Check them out here
A handful of Baby Arugula or other spicy flavored micro greens (optional)
White or Black Truffle Oil (optional)

Slice your bread. 
Toast it, or if using optional Truffle Oil, brush the bread with Oil before toasting, finishing with a very light sprinkle of Sea Salt. 
Remove cheese from the fridge and cut off the back portion of the rind for easier slicing. 
Warm a flat edged knife in a cup of hot water and cut thin, triangular slices of cheese. Wipe your knife and rewarm in water between each slice. 
Note: If slicing proves difficult or cheese breaks apart, feel free to let it come to room temperature and spread it/press it onto the bread - it will be just as tasty! 
Place a triangle of cheese in the middle of your bread round.
Place two half moon pieces of soppressata onto the cheese folded in half, or in whatever formation looks nice, pressing the pointed edges into the cheese to affix. 
Pop in a few arugula leaves (to enhance the spicy flavor and for color).
Dot with red pepper jelly to taste.  

Pepper Jelly pictured with beautiful
handmade napkins from Boxwood Linen
Check Boxwood Out Here Photo: NK

Serve and Enjoy.

Happy New Year to you and yours from NK! 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Feast of the Five Fishes (because 7 might have pushed me over the edge) Christmas Eve Dinner

My husband is half Neapolitan, the other half a mix of Swedish and Scottish. He definitely favors his Scandinavian side what with his stoicism and sometimes maddening calmness in the face of situations that would make me descend into hysteria. Whenever I indulge in one of my hot-blooded rants, (which I excuse myself for because I am Southern Italian) he inordinately looks at me bewildered. I’ve explained to him that these emotional displays are what I consider to be normal. Such “conversations” remind me of the Facebook group I once joined called, “I’m not yelling, I’m Italian, this is how we talk.”

Beautiful Sicily, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

Nope, the husband doesn’t get it when I lose my cool. Let’s not forget he is a man. But I have to say, the more I spend time with him, the more his even-keeled nature rubs off on me. It’s a good thing, but there will always be those times when you just can’t deny your genetic programming. Sometimes a hearty rant just feels good to me.  

It was this same cool and collected fellow who volunteered me to host our very first holiday as a married couple. In fairness, our immediate family is quite small and I would only have to cook for 6 people. Not wanting to deny my 100% Italian blood (three quarters of which is Sicilian),  the traditional Southern Italian Christmas Eve meal better known as La Vigilia seemed like the right choice. La Vigilia calls for an all fish dinner of (yikes) 7 courses. There’s some debate in both Italian and Christian lore around why it should be seven dishes. Seven is of course the number of sacraments, and seven throughout the Bible is the symbolic number of creation and perfection. At any rate, I feel more comfortable making fish than cooking roasts, so I am glad that Italians, being observant of dietary restrictions on holy days, went with fish. I have a lot of practice cooking fish and shellfish, and it doesn’t hurt that they are my favorite foods in the world. Of course I like hosting parties and cooking - but the sum of all my perfectionist tendencies always heaps on the pressure. Here’s how I combat my natural tendency to panic by following two very simple practices that always make for a successful dinner party:

Planning and Organization – I am a planner. In most areas of my life I am well thought out, in others, not so much, but in the kitchen- always. This is one of the reasons that my Neurotic Kitchen is so therapeutic for me. It’s a place for me to take control of the “what-ifs” in my life, and most of the time, conquer them without breaking a sweat. As any good host will tell you, planning is the key to serving up a successful meal and making it appear effortless. To do this, read through all your recipes and write down the steps you need to take, day by day, to address all that goes into a dinner party. This list, or “battle plan” as I often call it, is more than just a shopping list. It is instead a day by day reminder of all key tasks, like cleaning your house, purchasing and arranging  flowers or any other decorative items, deciding what dishes you will use for what course (yellow sticky notes are a handy way to label your plates so that in the heat of the moment, you are clear on what goes where), setting your table, staging your kitchen with pre-measured ingredients for courses that must be prepared on the spot, and buying your wine and spirits (a strong drink always breaks the ice and sets the mood). Since I’ve mentioned that I like my parties to be largely “make ahead,” this plan will also tell you what days to prepare dishes that can be made in advance. On the day of, I always have a separate  document that I stick on my kitchen wall which tells me step by step what to do in the crucial moments before guests arrive (the time most common for mental breakdown), as well as during the time after the party is in full swing (when you may or may not have indulged in a glass or two of wine) yet you still have to remember things like when to dress the salad or pop the fish in the oven.

Know Your Limits - Though it pains me to share this, when I looked at my busy work schedule and prep schedule, I determined that making all 7 dishes would be dangerous territory for me. I  had already come up with 4 courses that could be largely prepared ahead, and one that would cook quickly with a bit of prep, but adding another two to be cooked while guests were here... that would be fertile ground for a stress-fest. Weighing my desire to uphold tradition, that only half of my guests are huge eaters like me, and my intent to deliver the meal without agita, I decided that I could live with five courses instead of seven!

Holly Bouquet, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen
For a wonderful article about the classic Italian Christmas Eve feast, check out Greg Ferro's piece on one of my favorite foodie sites, Saveur:

Italian Christmas Eve Feast from Saveur

Next year I will make a more traditional dinner, perhaps with baccala and all seven fishes. But this year I was just getting my flippers wet. Our meal was a great success, so I am encouraged to try again next year and go bigger and better.

But without further adieu, here is the result of NK’s "Feast of the Five Fishes – because 7 might have pushed me over the edge – Christmas Eve Dinner:"

Christmas Eve Table in Gold, Bronze and Red - Gold
Pine cones, Red Pillar Candles, and Poinsettia, Photo: NK

Hors D'Oeuvres/Cocktail Hour
Italian hors d'oeuvres can be simple and are very adaptable to each cook's own interpretation. My goal was to wet the appetite but also not fill up my guests too much. In general, nothing's easier than cold Italian Antipasti for quick, ready to assemble pre-dinner snacking. Buy high quality ingredients and present them simply so they shine.

Here's what I served:

Jarred Vinegar Peppers sliced in strips
Bocconcini - Mini Mozzarella Balls tossed with a bit of salt, pepper and a drop of oil
Ubriaco - a delicious Italian wine cured goat cheese with a pungent but appealing flavor
Mixed Olives and Sun-Dried Tomatoes in oil
Antipasti, Photo: NK
Some Crackers and a few slices of bread 

Pre-Dinner Cocktails:
St. Germain and Champagne Cocktail - A splash of St. Germain Liqueur (Elderflower) topped with champagne

Bellinis - Peach or Pear Nectar topped with Prosecco at a ratio of about 1:1

Candle with Fresh Cranberry

First Course - Crab Cocktails in a Martini Glass (Serves 6)
This is one of my favorite easy, make-ahead starters. I like to serve it at the end of cocktail hour in the living room to kick off the meal. One can of Lump Crab goes a long way and makes an impressive but easy appetizer. The addition of the martini glass as a serving vessel makes it feel luxurious. 

Several hours before your party, take one can of chilled, pasteurized lump crab, rinse carefully, and pick through the meat to check for any shells.  Gently pat dry crab and toss with salt and pepper to taste plus a tablespoon or two of lemon juice. Just before serving, line glasses with a few lettuce leaves cut in half - Boston lettuce or hearts of romaine work well. Fill glasses halfway with 5 or so pieces of lump crab.

To finish, garnish with chopped chives and add a lemon wedge to the side of each glass.
Serve and put out a communal bowl with cocktail sauce and another with extra horseradish.
Crab Cocktail, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

Second Course - Shrimp Puttanesca (Serves 6) 
Note: This and all subsequent courses are served at the table 

Puttanesca is one of my  all time favorite Italian sauces. It's delicious over pasta, but also makes a great accompaniment to milder fish fillets or shrimp. I wanted to serve this in a bowl with bread to make sopping up the tasty sauce easier. Next time I will use a larger bowl because I noticed my guests struggling a bit to cut the shrimp in such a small space. Live and learn! Still, this was an easy and yummy starter. The sauce can be made up to 3 days in advance, in fact it is better the longer it sits in your fridge. 

Prepare your sauce a few days in advance and set it covered on the stove just prior to your party. 

I've tried a few versions of Puttanesca over the years, but my favorite is from Food and Wine's chef, Grace Parisi. Her recipe is quick and has a great flavor balance. Here's the link:

In the morning or the day before your party, clean 18 large shrimp, leaving the tail on (or better yet have your fishmonger do it). Ten minutes before serving, heat sauce on a low flame. While you wait for it to warm, season the shrimp with salt and pepper and sauté them in a non-stick pan with a tablespoon or two of olive oil for about 4 minutes, turning them midway. Shrimp should turn bright pink and be slightly firm to the touch. Assemble as pictured and serve right away. NK Tip: Don't forget your garnish. A little pop of green from fresh parsley or other herbs goes a long way to upping points for plating. 

Shrimp Puttanesca, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

Third Course - Cold Seafood Salad (Serves 6)
I started with a Rachel Ray recipe and tweaked it considerably to make it easier (lobster tails vs. whole lobster because I don't like boiling the poor guys alive) and appropriate to my dinner party size (hers served 25). The key to this recipe is to taste it before serving to make sure it is sufficiently lemony. Lemon is key! I like it served slightly chilled rather than room temperature as Rachel suggests. After purchasing your fish, inspect everything and make sure it is just right. You can prepare this the day before and refrigerate in a gallon plastic bag. Be sure to rotate it every 8 hours or so to distribute flavors and take out of the fridge about fifteen minutes before serving so that the oil can return to a liquid state (it may solidify a bit in the fridge).

Cold Seafood Salad - Adapted from Rachel Ray's "Grandpa Vic's Xmas Eve Seafood Salad"
3 4 to 6 ounce lobster tails 
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails removed
1/2 pound bay scallops 
1.5 pound calamari, tubes only, pre-cleaned
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced. 2 cloves if you are less of a garlic lover
2.5 celery stalks, sliced lengthwise down the middle and sliced
Juice of 4 lemons
1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped
Juice of 2 lemons  + extra lemon juice to add just prior to serving
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil plus more as needed.
Fill a large pot halfway with water and bring to a boil. Add the lobster tails and cook until the shells are bright red, 4-6 minutes. Remove from water and let cool.

While the lobster tails cool, add shrimp to the same pot the lobsters were cooked in and cook for 2 minutes, or until they are just pink; use a slotted spoon to transfer the cooked shrimp to a bowl to cool. When all the shrimp are cool, cut them in half and place them in a large mixing bowl. 
In the same pot, cook the scallops for 4-5 minutes, or until tender. Remove them from the water with a slotted spoon and let cool. Repeat with the calamari, cooking for 4-5 minutes or until tender. Scoop them from the water with a slotted spoon and let cool. Discard all but a quarter cup of the cooking water.
Once calamari is cool, slice the tubes as thinly as possible to create rings. If some of the tubes don't seem tender enough, toss them. Nothing is worse than rubbery squid. 
When the lobster tails are cool enough to handle, crack the shells and remove the meat. Remove the vein, rinse, pat dry, and cut into bite-size pieces. Add the lobster meat to the bowl with the shrimp. Add the cooled scallops and calamari.
Stir together the chopped celery, garlic and parsley and add them to the bowl, stirring to
distribute them throughout the seafood. Add the juice of 2 or 3 lemons, the oil and 3 tablespoons of the cooled seafood-cooking liquid and stir again. 

Refrigerate the salad, stirring every 6-8 hours. Just before serving, add more lemon juice, oil, and salt to taste if needed. Serve with lots of lemon wedges - again, the key to a good seafood salad!  

Cold Seafood Salad, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

Fourth Course - Linguine with White Clam Sauce  (Serves 6)
In a recent conversation, I told friends that this dish would be my chosen last meal - if ever I were in need of a last meal. My long-standing love for linguine with white clam sauce is well documented. I have eaten this dish in most every Italian restaurant I've visited more than once in my lifetime. I love it. There are really two styles of linguine with white clam sauce: the oily kind prepared with minimal clam juice, and the brothy kind, swimming in delicious liquid perfect for sopping up with a piece of crusty bread. I am a broth girl. Below is my father's recipe for this dish and I find it the most delicious interpretation I've tried. I make it often, and I've even converted a few non-clam eaters with it. Best of all, this recipe is easy and fast to make. For the purposes of our party, I adapted my father's recipe so that it could be made ahead. I also changed it so that clams were served outside their shells (not my usual preference) so that guests wouldn't struggle with clam shells on a night where they were all dressed up. 

Dad's Linguine with White Clam Sauce (Serves 6 as an appetizer course)
1/2 to 3/4 bottle of clam juice
3 dozen littleneck clams (the smallest available), well scrubbed in cold water
3 large cloves of garlic sliced very thinly
1 can chopped clams with juice (optional, if you like it extra clammy)
2 tablespoons salted butter
2 tablespoons oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or less if you like it more mild

Place butter and olive oil in a very large pasta pot over medium-low heat until butter melts. Add garlic, stirring occasionally until just slightly golden. If you burn the garlic, be sure to toss everything and start over. Burned garlic can ruin the delicate flavors of this dish.

Next, add about half of the clam juice and optional chopped clams with their juice.
Heat on a moderate flame for 3 minutes or so. 

Add black pepper to taste, crushed red pepper to taste, and half the wine.  
Continue to heat until the liquid is just bubbling. 

Add clams and cover for several minutes, stirring occasionally. 
Continue to heat over moderate flame until clams begin to open and then toss in the remainder of the wine.

As each clam opens, pull them out immediately with tongs and set aside. 
Stir the clams still in the pot a bit to make room for them to pop open. 

Once clams are open and removed from pot, turn off the burner and let them cool until they can be handled. Be sure to discard any clams that do not open. 

Carefully remove cooled clams from the shell and give them a course chop. 

Return clams to the sauce only once it has fully cooled.

Taste for seasoning and add salt only if needed. 
*The steps above can be done the morning before your party*
When ready to serve, prepare linguine as indicated. 

As your pasta cooks, heat the clam sauce on the lowest possible flame for 5-10 minutes.
Too much heat too quickly will make clams tough. Reserve some pasta water to loosen the linguine if needed.

To serve, use tongs to place a small portion of linguine in a deep individual pasta bowl. 
Scoop a good amount of clams onto the pasta, and then ladle a generous amount of broth over each portion. 

Garnish with fresh parsley and serve immediately with extra crushed red pepper. 

Enjoy with love from me and my dad!

Linguine with White Clam Sauce, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen
Fifth Course - Rao's  Broiled Fillet of Lemon Sole (Serves 6)
Oh my gosh is this delicious. The simple to prepare Rao's lemon sauce used in this dish is the same lemon sauce that goes on my most favorite lemon chicken dish in the world. Because this was a special meal, I included the two steps I usually skip in the preparation. These include making flavored olive oil and grating fresh breadcrumbs. Both of these steps as well as preparing the lemon sauce, can be done up to three days in advance. 

First - Prepare Flavored Olive Oil, for brushing the fish filets (Can be done several days in advance and stored at room temperature)

Flavored Olive Oil- Adapted from Rao's Cookbook

1/2 Cup fine quality olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

Heat oil in a small saucepan on medium-low heat. Add garlic and slowly simmer until garlic is just beginning to brown. Remove and discard garlic. Pour oil into a container and reserve, at room temperature, to use for frying or sautéing. If you feel like skipping this step, most good bakeries sell their own fresh breadcrumbs. They store in the fridge for 3 days.
Next - Grate some fresh breadcrumbs. This is Rao's tradition. It takes some elbow grease but it's worth it.

Fresh Breadcrumbs
Allow a good quality loaf of Italian bread to sit for several days until stale and hard. Grate on a box grater until you have about a quarter cup. Store tightly covered in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Prepare Rao's Lemon Sauce (Up to 3 days in advance)
Note- this recipe will be more lemon sauce than you need for the Sole dish. Either save the rest for another use (see: Rao's Lemon Chicken) or adjust the recipe down to make less. 

Rao's Lemon Sauce - Courtesy of Rao's Cookbook
Whisk all of the following together in a jar: 
2 cups fresh lemon juice
1 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Shake well before using.

Ok, and now for the Sole. Make sure to have all your ingredients pre-measured and ready to go in your kitchen prior to your guests arrival. Prep should take less than 10 minutes if you are well prepared. 

Rao's Broiled Fillet of Sole - Adapted from Rao's Cookbook
Serves 6 
6 large pieces fillet of sole (grey sole works well)
3 tablespoons flavored olive oil*
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup bread crumbs *
2 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
Paprika to taste
Approximately 1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup Lemon Sauce

Preheat broiler.
Lightly brush each fillet with oil. 
Lay on a baking sheet with sides that fit in the broiler. 
Dust with flour and sprinkle bread crumbs over the top of each fillet and dot with butter. Season with salt, pepper, and paprika.
Pour wine and Lemon Sauce into the baking sheet to a depth of 1/8 inch and place in broiler. 
Broil, without turning, for 4 to 5 minutes or until fish flakes easily when poked with a fork. 
Serve immediately with a lemon wedge and parsley garnish. Spoon some of the pan juices over the fish. 

I didn't count dessert as one of our five courses because, well, I wasn't making it. 
The inhabitants of Neurotic Kitchen are not much for baking. Luckily, I have family and friends who are fantastic bakers and I am working on them for some guest posts on the subject. For parties, our solution to our baking aversion is that when guests ask what they can bring, we always say dessert. Our Christmas Eve meal featured a delicious dark chocolate tart that my sister in law made as well as a really beautiful and fluffy tiramisu from my mother in law's kitchen:

Tiramisu, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

I hope you've enjoyed our easy and accessible Five Fish Feast. Standby for all seven next year. Buon Natale and happy eating to all!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Best Thing I Ate in Spain (So Far)

My husband and I recently ate our way through Madrid and Barcelona. It was my first time in Spain, though I've been all around Europe, and his second trip since his days backpacking on a Eurorail pass more than 10 years ago.

In general, we've been making an effort to travel more, and we are trying to squeeze a lot in before the blessing of children benches us for the next 18 or so years. 
Lots of anticipation was associated with this vacation, and it only increased as each person we told about our upcoming adventure gushed about how amazing the food would be.
Our time in Barcelona and Madrid did not disappoint. Besides the gorgeous scenery       
Madrid, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen
amazing architecture, and friendly people, the food really is fantastic. And once we found out that you can order a good bottle of wine
at dinner for the American equivalent of ten dollars, we were pretty much over the moon.
As Americans, and as New Yorkers, we just couldn't get our minds around this wonder.  Yet after so many cheap bottles of wine, our minds weren't really that useful anyway. Yes, we overindulged in the omnipresent Jamon Iberico, sampled delicious tapas all over each city, and ate a few really good paellas.

Ham Selection at the Market in Barcelona, Photo: NK

Seafood Paella in Barcelona, Photo: NK
I'm a fan of tapas. I have problems making decisions - especially food related decisions. I like the idea of small bites and lots of variety. I am also a fan of Europe. I am always so much calmer there. Sure, it has something to do with being away from work and other obligations, but the relaxed atmosphere and positive outlook of the people really does my soul good.  Europe just seems to me like the way life should be (see: affordable wine and encouraged daytime napping). 
Barcelona by Night, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

Now I realize we only experienced a small part of the vast cuisine of Spain (primarily Catalonian and Castilian), and my hope is that we can return to further explore the countryside and get a wider sampling of the uniquely regional cuisines. 

But for now, here are some of my my favorite tastes from our trip:

Croquetas de Bacalao
Oh so good. Creamy, potatoey, perfectly fried.  We ate them at Casa Labra in Madrid - a bar founded in 1860 known for being a preferred meeting place for the Socialist Party. The bar is also famous for superior cod croquettes. They deserve the hype.   
Click HERE for more info on Casa Labra.
Bacalao Croquettes, Photo: NK

Rabbit Paella
Next, I sampled Rabbit for the first time, one of the last small game meats I'd not yet tried. I was sad about it, and I remember being scandalized when my first generation Italian roommate brought Rabbit leftovers home from Easter break back in college.  As I enjoyed it, all I could think of was the story my dad once told me of how his parents gave his pet bunny, Sir Archibald, to the neighbors to eat. Nowadays, you could get on Oprah with a childhood trauma like that. But times were tough back then and people did what they had to do. This wasn't Archie, I told myself.  The dish, despite my guilt, was delicious. 

Anchovy Canape, Tuna & Caperberries: NK 
A much maligned food here in the States, but a food I just love. The Spanish are unabashed about their fondness for anchovies. They are everywhere. Anchovies are delicious as a tapa, served simply on bread with or without other accompaniments. I was in heaven. 
Huevos Estrellados
Served as a side dish or meal, this dish was a revelation. We enjoyed it as part of our meal at El Lando in Madrid. It is one of their specialties but it is widely available elsewhere. The components include a simple combination of crispy, perfectly cooked fries topped with a few soft-cooked eggs.  Your waiter will usually cut the eggs table-side resulting in the runny yolk seeping into the crevices of all that golden potato goodness. Who knew two such familiar flavors and textures could result in the ultimate soul-warming comfort food? As with many foods that are simply prepared, the magic comes from perfect execution. 
Pan Con Tomate 
Ubiquitous in Spain, this tapa is simply garlic rubbed bread topped with shredded tomato flesh. Delicious. 

We tried restaurants that ranged from very traditional to slightly more modernized interpretations on tapas, Catalana in Barcelona being an example of the latter. No complaints.
Fried Baby Squid and Shrimp Skewer at Catalana, Barcelona, Photo: NK

But my favorite taste experience in Spain was the most simple. It was waiting at the table for us when we arrived for dinner at El Lando

I am not sure what this dish was officially called, but I would describe it as a Tomato Carpaccio.

I learned it is something that they put on all the tables and only remove if you ask. Not knowing this wasn't simply a gratis snack I told the waiter, "of course we'll eat it!" when he asked if we wanted it, after which point my husband predictably grumbled that they would charge us. Anyways, best mistake ever. 

The tomato dish, a plate of paper-thin slices of tomatoes laid out in a row, sprinkled with lemon juice and a fruity olive oil, then finished with sea salt, was one of the most delicious things I had in Spain.  My whole meal at El Lando was actually fantastic, including my entree of delicate baby lamb chops, our huevos estrellados side, the tasty (and free) dessert of pastries and chocolate, and the wonderful service thoughout that enhanced the experience... but I just couldn't get past these tomatoes.

So there you have it, folks - our one splurge at an upscale restaurant (one we later learned is a favorite of almost every A-list American Celebrity because of its food and secluded paparazzi-free location) and I am stuck on the tomatoes. More about El Lando Madrid HERE. 

I really am a simple girl at heart. 

Back home in wintery NYC it is most certainly not tomato season, but I was  itching to recreate this dish from the moment we landed.  I've not found a recipe for Tomato Carpaccio that is as simple as what was presented to us at El Lando, so I winged it.  Despite it being December, I managed to find two nice looking beefsteak tomatoes and let them ripen for about three days.  

Below is what I came up with, and I have to say, it tasted quite similar.                      
Sometimes the best things in life are the simplest.

Tomato Carpaccio, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

NK's Tomato "Carpaccio"
Serves 2-3

2 ripe beefsteak tomatos
3 tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons of fresh squeezed lemon juice
sea salt and pepper to taste 

Thinly slice the tomatoes into paper thin rounds. A smooth-edged steak knife actually works well for this. Place the slices in one layer, edges overlapping a bit, on a platter.  Sprinkle with lemon juice and leave to sit about a half hour for the flavors to blend. When ready to serve season liberally with sea salt and pepper, and finish by drizzling oil on top. Enjoy!
Though it pained us to say Adios to Espagna, we came away with many great memories and culinary experiences.  As part of my own personal goals, I intend to learn more about the cuisine of Spain and try new dishes in NK. Lucky for me, I have a thoughtful friend named Rhianne who gifted me with one of the best reviewed and comprehensive books on Spanish cooking: 

Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

I am excited to read it and cook from it, and I promise to share! 


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Musings on Meatballs - A Lifetime Quest For the Perfect Recipe

The dishes with the most familial history have always been, for me, the most daunting. Because of this, I avoided making traditional Italian meatballs for years. There is no dish, in my family at least, more revered and more universally appealing to a wide audience. As most Italian Americans will tell you, their grandmothers' made them best, and the same is of course  true for my Neapolitan grandma. After her passing, my mother and I tried in earnest to recreate her fantastic meatball recipe - but first we had to find it. This meant scouring her files and recipe boxes for her handwritten index cards and little papers shoved into issues of Gourmet Magazine decades old. Once obtained, we'd be routinely perplexed at the fact that no matter what we did or how carefully we followed along, the result was always just a smidgeon less delicious than my grandma's. My mother has always been a superb cook, and with some time, she got her meatballs to a place we could all be proud of. 

When I came of age and was finally inclined to try my hand at grandma's recipe solo, the pressure was really on. The card, written in her beautiful, curly penmanship, looked simple enough, but to my dismay, included several phrases that were up for interpretation like: "a scant cup of freshly grated pecorino." Now I know that a scant cup means just shy of a cup, but how shy??" Such uncertainties really invite neuroses, if you ask me. 

I credit my relationship with my now husband, in part, to my mother's meatball prowess. During our years dating, I would always encourage her to make extra meatballs, lasagna, or sauce for me to bring to him. At any rate, he got hooked. Now that we are married, he enjoys when I make meatballs from time to time, but he still delights in informing his mom, also a fantastic cook, every time my mother sends him extra food of any kind. I asked him once why he persisted in advertising this because after all, I wouldn't want my mother in law to think my mom was stepping on her toes. He responded by telling me with a totally straight face that he likes to "create competition" so as to obtain more gifts of food from mother and mother in law alike...

It wasn't until my mom and I became aware of the Rao's Cookbook, that our meatball recipe quest officially came to an end. Their recipe is nearly identical to my grandmother's method with two exceptions - she would use chunkier pieces of homemade breadcrumbs soaked in milk, and she'd omit one cup of water. The Rao's recipe offered me clearer direction than her index card, which of course I still use and treasure, and it took away some of the guess work by laying out the method in a clearer fashion. It has since become, to my mind, the best iteration of traditional Italian-style meatballs out there... and I can live with that, because they are so similar to my Mima's! 

I've become accustomed to superior meatballs from years of enjoying them with my family, so they just aren't something I ever order at restaurants because, well, it's rare that I am not totally disappointed. Here are some of my collected pet peeves about one of my favorite meals, and some ideas on how to remedy these issues:

The Problems That Plague Meatballs:

Flat flavor -  A lot of meatballs are tasty but not complex. They hit one flavor note.

Overly firm and dry meatballs - The outside of a meatball is a key area. When it is firm, dry, or rubbery, the meatball is ruined. Adding enough liquid to the meat mixture is necessary to achieving the ideal texture. 

The quest for the perfect spherical shape is an exercise in folly -  When a meatball comes out perfectly round, be warned. Any meatball worked that hard is likely to be sub-par. Check out my theory next time you spy a super-round meatball. 

Solutions for the Perfect Meatball:

Do not overwork the meat - I cannot stress this enough. Handle meatballs with the lightest touch possible as you form them. Please, for me. 

Use a combination of meats - The best meatballs, my grandma's, Rao's, are made of more than just beef. The veal and the pork combination with the beef is absolutely key to the flavor complexity, and imparts a buttery richness to the flavor without adding any heaviness. The meats also have varying fat contents that aid in preserving the moisture needed for the perfect ball. 

Method - Cooking method is one of the big reasons some meatballs come out too firm on the outside. I have never had a baked meatball I enjoyed as much as the fried version. The texture comes out totally different, and not for the better. Now taste and texture preferences are clearly subjective, but please, give yourself a chance to experience a fried Italian meatball. After all, the people at Rao's agree! You'll never go back to baking. Now frying does add a bit of extra time and effort, but it's time well spent. The key to frying a great meatball includes draining them well on paper towel, and ever so slightly undercooking them. You can freeze them in this state if you wish, and thaw them when ready to eat by dropping them in tomato sauce and warming them through slowly, so they are thawed and cooked completely. 

The perfect meatballs will just never be round - If your meatball is perfectly spherical, it runs the risk of being dry and overworked. As well, the moisture needed for a good meatball will simply not allow it to preserve its round shape during cooking - especially if you are frying them. If it does, the recipe is probably too dry. Baked meatballs make for a rounder result but when you fry them, a good recipe will usually end up looking like round spheres with flat tops and bottoms. For me, this is sign of a great meatball, and the natural result of frying gently on each side. Learn to love this quirky shape, and the taste will be a huge payoff. When you cut into your meatball, it should yield easily to your fork, even break into pieces a bit on your pasta. This is a good thing! Embrace it. 

Now that you've heard my very opinionated rant on superior meatballs, let's move on to why the Rao's recipe that I've shared below is so wonderful:
  • The secret's in the water. Two cups of water seems a lot, but that is precisely what keeps these meatballs so tender and juicy. 
  • The ratio of the three meats is well balanced. You'll get a complex hit of meatiness, fragrance from the herbs and garlic, and a bit of tangy flavor from the cheese.
  • They are fried.  
  • Note: as with all meatballs, they get tastier the longer they sit in your fridge. 


Rao's Meatballs


  • 1 pound ground lean beef
  • ½ pound ground veal
  • ½ pound ground pork
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1½ tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
  • ½ small garlic clove, peeled and minced
  • 2 cups bread crumbs
  • 2 cups lukewarm water
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil 
Combine beef, veal, and pork in a large bowl. Add eggs, cheese, parsley, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Using your hands, blend ingredients together.
Blend bread crumbs into meat mixture. Slowly add water,1 cup at a time, until the mixture is quite moist.
Shape the meat mixture into balls (2½ to 3 inch balls).
Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan. When oil is very hot but not smoking, fry meatballs in batches. When bottom half of meatball is very brown and slightly crisp turn and cook top half. Remove from heat and drain on paper towels.
Lower cooked meatballs into simmering Marinara Sauce and cook for 15 minutes. Serve over pasta or on their own.
Makes about 28 meatballs

-Recipe Courtesy of Rao's Cookbook:

Click HERE for Rao's Website