Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Failed Kale (What a Difference a Minute Makes)

photo courtesy of

Dear Mouse,

I learned something. I couldn't decide how to sum it up, so here's 5 versions:

It's the little things. In cooking just as much if not more as anything else.

It is possible to ruin kale.

It is possible to ruin a tested, well-received, simple!! recipe by missing one tiny important step.

God is in the details.

The harder you try to be impressive with your dinner the more likely it is you will fall on your face.

But now wait a minute, actually, in my defense: This was NOT a trying-hard dinner. I know better than that! I wasn't going to bone a duck or make tapenade. The Date was coming over, and I was going for graceful, effortless, 'so-what-if-my-kitchen-must-be-viewed-through-a-microscope' sexiness. No stress. I chose a very very easy and tasty menu: Pasta Puttanesca (as endorsed in your Valentines post), and the Kale with Bacon and Vinegar that everybody loved at Fall Equinox. (Duh - it has BACON and VINEGAR). Fast, simple, AND impressive, right? FYI I based my version of 'Whore's Pasta' on the Amateur Gourmet's version ... though I just couldn't do the 8 cloves of garlic!!! (Sorry Adam!) and stopped at 5, as The Date's eyes were already bugging out at the pile on the cutting board.

The Kale is a breeze - into the boiling water for 5, into the pan with the fried-up bacon for 10, into a bowl, splash with vinegar, serve. I was way more focused on the Pasta of Ill Repute, having never made it before. And while flitting around trying to appear gorgeous and not sweaty, I blithely splashed the vinegar into the saute pan during phase 2. As in, I cooked with it, instead of finishing with it. But so what, big deal.

The Puttanesca - salty, savory, garlicky, sour - was a big hit. "This is great", the Date (who had claimed to hate anchovies) enthused, piling on the grated parmesan White American Man-style.

The kale, however, got this response:

"Tastes kinda weird."

And, Mouse, it did. Oh, my bruised FoodBlogger Ego. It was, like, musty, or kind of fruit-gone-bad. No denying it. And I was all, "but it has BACON and VINEGAR..." I couldn't figure it out. I'd made it before!

There was but one thing to do. Go upstairs, visit The Neighbors, and eat most of their cake. And, while there, learn a few things. Firstly, that Puttanesca was the first thing that Mrs. Neighbor had ever cooked for Mr. Neighbor, and secondly, that she had also screwed up a perfectly good vegetable recipe by doing guess what: putting the vinegar into the pan while cooking instead of using it to finish the dish. She likened the taste to a bottle of wine that had turned. Yep.

I tested out this theory a couple of days later with a whole new bunch of kale and I have to say it holds up. Delicious once again, bacon and all. photo courtesy and Boo's laziness

So, while most of my posts are of the "Just get in there! Make it up!" variety, the moral of this one is: Attention Must Be Paid. Stick to the G-D recipe and stop worrying about your waterproof mascara.


The Boo

Friday, November 20, 2009

On Paper Delivery and Pork Chop Braising

Dear Boo,

Recently, the Mother did a lovely thing for the Boyfriend and me, by ordering the NY Times to be delivered to our door. Daily. I think she's got this idea that we can help save the printed word, one hard copy at a time. I don't want to burst her bubble, and frankly I do enjoy sitting down with the paper instead of my laptop on a Sunday afternoon. Not to mention what daily consumption of the Times has done for my moral superiority. However, one can only imagine what it's done to my organizational inferiority. I mean, this thing arrives at our doorstep. EVERY DAY. I'm sure you can picture what that much accumulated paper does to a one bedroom apartment, inhabited by one (and maybe a half) die-hard packrat.

The other day, the Boyfriend and I were totally fed up and decided to dig ourselves out from under the piles and toss things with ruthless abandon. Of course, because he's The Boyfriend and by his very title must be kind, sweet, and endlessly in touch with my needs, amidst the purge, he pulled out a dining section and cried, "Wait! Did you see this? Don't you want it? It's got all kinds of recipes..." What a sweetheart. Of course I kept it.

And lucky for him that I did. In it was a recipe by Melissa Clark for a quick braise of pork chops that has all the flavor of a day-long event. It's a simple sauce of tomatoes, garlic, onion and rosemary, with anchovies added for that hard to identify briny/funkiness. After our massive newspaper toss of 09, the Boyfriend and I took a stroll through Chelsea Market where we were lucky to get a grand tour of the newly opened Dickson's Farmstand Meats, the glorious creation by my high school friend, and now go to meat-expert, Jake Dickson. (You may remember him from the days of Hamlet the pig.) The store is amazing, and once the kitchen is fully up and running, I'm sure will be totally overrun with customers. He's already had a visit (and tweet) from Ruth Reichl, and a ton of press, and will soon have an even greater honor bestowed upon him (if accepted), that of A Mouse Bouche's Baker's Dozen interviewee! Lo and behold, Jake had some gorgeous thick pork chops, perfect for my trash-bin rescued recipe. We grabbed the rest of the ingredients (what I could remember of them after a quick glance at the paper) and headed home to cook.

Apologies for the messy plate and the fact that you can't get a good look at Jake's beautiful chops. Trust me, they were beauties.

The result? Quick, simple, comforting, and delicious. I served them with roasted fingerlings from the farmer's market, and a salad of arugula with leftover roast acorn squash, gorgonzola, and caramelized onions. The leftover sauce from the chops turned into a great pasta the next day with wilted arugula, this delicious olive oil, and generous amounts of cheese.

The salad was delicious. I roasted the squash with maple syrup, chili powder, olive oil s&p.

The next day's dinner. Delicious.

If you're planning on cooking for someone (just anyone, no one in particular, not that I have anyone in mind :)), may I recommend this meal. It's very autumnal (love that word), very tasty, manly enough if your guest happens to be of the male persuasion, still elegant, and when you get down to it, you can do like the Boyfriend and eat the last bits with your hands. tres sexy. Well, maybe not, but tres tres tasty.

Melissa Clark's Braised Pork Chops (adapted only slightly by the Mouse)

2 1 1/2-inch-thick bone-in pork loin chops (about 1 1/2 pounds total)

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, more for seasoning pork

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, more for seasoning pork

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced (the Mouse used 2 large shallots and some leftover caramelized yellow onions)

3 large rosemary sprigs

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 large can of plum tomatoes, reserving some of the juice so the sauce doesn't get too soupy (Clark calls for a mix of yellow and red fresh tomatoes)

6 anchovy fillets

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rinse pork chops and pat dry with a paper towel. Season generously with salt and pepper. In a large, ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat, place 1 tablespoon oil. Sear chops until well browned, 3 to 4 minutes a side. Transfer to a plate.

2. Add remaining tablespoon oil to skillet and sauté onion and rosemary until onions are golden, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook for another minute.

3. Add tomatoes, anchovies and remaining salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes begin to break down, about 8 minutes.

4. Add pork chops to skillet, spooning sauce over chops. Cover skillet and transfer to oven to bake until a thermometer inserted into center of meat reads 145 degrees, about 15 minutes. For me it took much longer but that may be because I was raised by our mother and am terrified of undercooking pork. Allow chops to rest for 5 minutes in pan. Serve with some sort of starch. Polenta would be good, or crusty bread. The potatoes were also delicious.

Yield: 2 servings.

The Mouse

Friday, November 13, 2009

Baker's Dozen #1: Danielle diVecchio

Dear Mouse,

I did it! Our first interview! I feel soo journalistic. Two nights ago at this Union Squarea bistro, I got to take down 1) a bowl of (excellent, minimalist) french onion soup and 2) a series of scholarly notes on a yellow pad while wearing my Sexy Librarian glasses and sitting across the table from one Danielle diVecchio, NYC-based actress AND owner of "Biscotti diVecchio".

First I'll just say that I know Danielle from our work together on the play LILA CANTE, in which she played the hardass-who-just-wants-to-be-loved record exec and during which she fed me and our castmates bags of the hard-but-still-can-be-chewed-best biscotti I've ever had. Fact. And THEN she was all, "Oh, I made these." Danielle is a prime example of a MouseBouche personality -- a working artist who knows her way around a kitchen -- which is why I was excited to make her our first Baker's Dozen interview.

Here's the thing: I don't like biscotti. Let's start there. As anyone who's been to a Starbucks knows, biscotti are oblong, bland, vaguely anise cookies roughly the texture of a brick and impossible to eat without breaking your molars. Right? Well, often. And now I know why. As Danielle informed me, biscotti ("twice baked") are traditionally made with flour, sugar, eggs, and anise/almond flavor (liqueur or extract, never real almonds). That's it. No butter. No wonder no teeth. Apparently the original audience were Italian sailors, heading to sea for months and thinking only of the longevity of their snacks.

Well, like many of our favorite artists, Danielle has found success through a combination of adherence to tradition and respectful tweakage thereof. Her cookies are a sly blend of traditional biscotti and a simple "soft butter cookie" recipe she remembers learning at her (2nd-generation Italian) grandmother's side.

As I heard this story, Mouse, I smiled as it brought back memories of our own grandma's famous cooking and equally famous recipe caginess ("oh, you know... a little of this, a little of that...") Danielle recalled herself at 13 or 14, standing in the kitchen as her grandmother spread flour on the counter ("everything was on a counter, no bowls") and made a well for the eggs. There was no recipe ( "I don't know, did you see, Danielle? Did you see?") and the lessons were all hands-on ("Do it til it feels like this"). The rogue ingredient, communicated in a conspiratorial whisper, was a good dose of whiskey... which of course burned off in the cooking, leaving only the flavor.

Fast forward to 2001 where Danielle is living and acting in a shell-shocked NYC. A friend is organizing a 9/11 benefit at a local church and wants to give party favor bags to those attending. Danielle offers to bake, specifically pistachio chocolate chunk biscotti. Why biscotti? She shakes her head now - "I don't know!" - and points out that no one seemed to think of them as biscotti, just as good cookies. By now, Danielle had already put her own stamp on the family recipe; she laughs, thinking how her grandmother would be "horrified" by the inclusion of chocolate. Or cayenne pepper (but I get ahead of myself).

Business began in earnest in winter 2003, when an upcoming 'sure thing' acting job had fallen through (that never happens) and Danielle was, in a word, broke. A friend said "You'll think of something", and she did. The cookies! She drew up an order form on a Word document, got a free fax number, send 300 emails letting people know she'd be selling biscotti for the holidays, and left the house to calm down. An hour later she had her first 25 orders, and the rest is crunchy, unorthodox history.
Between Janis and Carmela!

As I slurped my soup and scratched down notes we of course got to talking about Our Life in Art. Reminiscing about her time on The Sopranos, Danielle was talking about the show's quality, a word that came up a lot in this conversation. The show was a huge success for a reason: much time, effort and thought went into making it. One episode would take three weeks. The writers had full creative control. Actors were hired more for talent than name. "And then, imitations {ie, with none of these practices} fail - and they wonder why!" We clinked our glasses and nodded in agreement on this, I think, fundamental point in the artistic life -- that creative AND business decisions made from the HEART are wise, that time and effort and attention result in quality, and that mass production and the bottom line can (CAN) be a project's downfall. Danielle has often been encouraged to market her biscotti, for example, to big box stores, lowering the price point to reach as many people as possible. She has resisted, holding out for "quality, integrity, and the passing on of tradition". It's just sensible, she says; it makes better cookies.

I had a vision of a bag of Biscotti diVecchio looking at me from the warehouse bins at CostCo and shuddered, picking up my soup spoon and applying it to my note pad.

Danielle is currently working in theatre/TV/film and the business is no longer a matter of survival but a labor of love (and secondary income). She still does most of the hands-on work, though she has hired one baker (found through the Artisan Baking Center). Her first and most pressing question: "Do you LIKE baking?" (He said yes.)

Ok, now the Important Stuff:

* Where can I get me some Biscotti diVecchio?
Note the THANKSGIVING SPECIAL if you order before 11/18/09!!
Also @ the specialty store DOMUS in Hell's Kitchen and on the Rum & Blackbird NYC Tasting Tours

* What kinda Biscotti di Vecchio?
Sweet flavors: Pistachio Chocolate Chunk, Cranberry Orange Zest, Toasted Almond, White Chocolate Macadamia Nut, and the very popular Cayenne Cherry Chocolate Chunk.
Savories: Sun Dried Tomato, Basil & Cheddar, Black Pepper Asiago Parmesan, Rosemary Thyme Walnut.
Upcoming: bags of finely ground crumbs ('which make a great alternative cheesecake crust') and bags of the leftover 'ends' ('which are great crumbled over ice cream').

* The Mouse Asks - Where should we eat in your neighborhood?
In Hell's Kitchen, Danielle likes Cara Mia for Italian; Pam Real for Thai and El Centro for Mexican.

* The Mouse Asks - What flavor biscotti is best for stress eating?
Cayenne Cherry Chocolate Chunk. (Duh.)

After her most recent Biscotti diVecchio email blast, Danielle received a call from a well-known casting agent who she happened to know personally. "Well hello", she said, "So you're calling to order some biscotti?" A small pause on the other end, then: "Well, yes ... But also, there's this play..."

That's what we're talking about.

The Boo

I'll leave you with this truly creative recipe for panzanelle (italian bread salad) which uses savory Biscotti diVecchio as the base. !!! Buon Appetito.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My New Favorite Thing

Dear Boo,

I think I first fell in love with beets back at Charlie Browns, when we'd go for dinner during a busy week of teaching, school, rehearsals, lacrosse practice, chorus or whatever else. My favorite, as long as I can remember, was the salad bar. An endless array of iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots, macaroni salad, black olives, sunflower seeds, cauliflower, croutons, breadsticks, jardinieira, spread out before me like a magic carpet, glittering with crushed ice and neon buckets of glossy dressing. I'm not sure what made me try the beets. Maybe it was mom's intense hatred of them. "They taste like DIRT! UCH!" I always had weird ways of rebelling. But it didn't take long for me to incorporate them into the salad rotation, smooth wet purple orbs atop a bed of iceberg, slathered in some kind of creamy italian. Boo: 'Creamy Italian' = Jersey. Even processed, canned, and sitting out for hours under a sneeze-guard, I could taste the earthiness, the sweetness. And in the days before makeup, they dyed my lips a beautiful bloody red, which no complimentary wet-nap could dull.

Now, beets are old news. How many countless goat cheese-walnut pairings have I had at how many countless neighborhood restaurants? But love them, I do. And while they've taken on the familiar and pleasant comfort of an old lover, like any long love affair, there are phases of renewed excitement where you see your love with new eyes. Right now is one of those times. It's a second honeymoon.

PICKLED BEETS. Not a new concept. But my passion for anything that sits in vinegar and sugar and salt for long enough to give that lovely salivating kick in the back of your throat, is powerful. Recently, I had some pickled beets made by our friend Chef Josh, who served them with....cottage cheese. Frankly I wasn't all that psyched about the pairing, but I trust Josh, and when a Chef is feeding you, you do what you're told. How glad am I that I did? The cream of the cheese cuts the sharpness of the beets and lends another layer of texture. Josh douses the pickled beets and onion (or shallots) with olive oil, salt and pepper, then spreads generous dollops of the cheese over the top, sprinkling it with more oil and fresh thyme. It's unbelievably good. I can eat bowl after bowl of the stuff.

I pickled some of my own the other day when I just HAD to have some. Three days later I'm already through half of each jar. It's lunch, dinner side dish, after-school snack, addictive. Trust me on this one.

Of course you can eat them straight or on salad, or with falafel or sausage, or a pork chop. But these days, for me, it's cottage cheese all the way.

Here's a link to Josh's recipe. I made mine slightly differently, influenced by Alton Brown's recipe, part as experiment, and part because I was out of a few ingredients. Both versions are delicious.

Pickled Beets with Cottage Cheese

8 medium beets, roasted (I used half golden and white beets, and half red)
1 small red onion (1 small yellow onion, if you're doing golden too)
2 Cups rice vinegar
1 Cup water (or a little more if you don't like it super vinegary)
1.5 tblespoons kosher salt
3/4 Cup of sugar

To roast beets: drizzle generously with vegetable oil, salt and pepper, wrap in tin foil and roast in oven at 400 for about 50 minutes depending on the size of the beets. While still warm, using a paper towel, rub skins off. They should come off easily.

Slice onion very thinly. Slice beets to about 1/4 in thick. Pack two jars with beets and onions, alternating. If you're using gold beets, keep them separate from the red ones or everything will just turn out red. Heat the rest of the ingredients until boiling and dissolved. Pour into jars over beets, leaving a small amount of space at the top, but letting bubbles escape. Wait 24 hours before tasting.

Drizzle beets and onions with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pile cottage cheese on top, and add more oil and s&p to taste. Scatter fresh thyme over the top.

The Mouse

Friday, November 6, 2009

HartWarming Moment

Dear Mouse,

It was only a matter of time.

Here we are together on the desk in the Public Theatre Lobby. Your play, my show. Makes me feel like I actually got to see you this week.

Oh, and the truffled chicken salad on cranberry nut bread in the lobby is pretty good ... if someone else is buying.


The Boo

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Still kicking.

Dear Boo,

Consider me a matzoh ball, momentarily bobbing to the surface to say hello and remind you I'm here. Never fear, I am indeed, alive. Questionably so, but no matter.

Forgive the metaphor. My brain is fried. And frankly, I'm lacking in proper nutrition these days, which I suspect is beginning to affect my sanity.

I am currently making chicken soup as a preemptive strike against whatever cold or flu is lurking in the corner, waiting for my immune system to fall asleep on the job. Also, to remind myself that I can actually cook, though the amount of time I just spent debating how many parsnips to put in and whether they should go in NOW or after the chicken is cooked, was laughable. I'm moving slowly these days. It's like I'm learning to walk again.

Let me give you a peek into a day in the (eating) life of Mouse:

7am: Wake up. Weep silently into the pillow. Shower, dress in whatever is closest, and leave the house. BIG coffee. Cliff bar on subway.

8am: Get to school (as in, the middle school I'm working at as part of my field placement for grad school). Wonder at the energy and sheer volume pre-teens have at 8 in the morning. How do they do it? Can I bottle it? Do they think I'm deaf? Am I going deaf? Am I already done with that cup of coffee?

10am: Snacktime. Our school has transformed school breakfast into snack time so as to get rid of the stigma of partaking in a free meal program and to stave off that teenage brand of midmorning hunger-induced spaciness/temper tantrum. Usually consists of a variety of cereal and milk, a cheese stick, sliced apples, a muffin, or some weird cardboardy bagel-ball stuffed with cream cheese. And juice. I steal the cheese stick and leave the rest for my cohorts.

12pm: When I first started working at this school, I didn't venture further than the local Subway. Everything was unfamiliar and alien--the neighborhood, the building, the job, the people, and Subway provided consistency and predictability, if lacking in taste. But now, slightly more comfortable, I've discovered the corner bodega where I can get a delicious turkey and cheese sandwich (on whole wheat, with lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayonnaise, please) for $2.50. TWO FIFTY. Spanish Harlem, I love you.
Come back to school. Dispense counseling in between bites and killer Connect-4 moves. Give my chips to a kid who refuses to eat the school lunch. How can I blame him.
Caffeine in the form of diet coke.

4pm: Run from school to rehearsal. On the way, if there's any possibility, grab a water and a snack. Soy chips. Lunch leftovers. an apple. Coffee....

7pm: Dinner break. 45 minutes and limited options. Our cast has been bouncing between Chipotle, Chickpea, and NY Burger Company. But we usually come back to Chipotle. Why? Because, I'll be honest, it's delicious. I know, I know, it's owned by McDonalds. But it's not expensive. It's super fast. And their chicken tastes pleasantly like bacon. But mostly we go because they serve beer. And after hours of tech and a hundred thousand costume changes, and constant script revisions, and climbing on furniture in heels, BOY OH BOY do we need a beer. Oh, and more coffee.

12am: Leave theater. Crawl home. Munch on some of the real food I have in my fridge. Thanks to our saintly mother, I have two turkey meatloafs, a brisket, potatoes, and some other fixins. This has been my saving grace. A moment of sanity and nurturing at the end of the day (or, beginning of the next). And while the deli on the corner is great for a cheap lunch, nothing beats a homemade meatloaf sandwich in the middle of a chaotic, exhausting day. Thank you, Mom.

As of this very day, the last of my midterms will be turned in, and as of Thursday, the show will be officially up and running. Which means things will be ever so slightly calmer. I am sprinting to the finish line, visions of a quiet Sunday afternoon, a chicken braising in the kitchen, my feet resting in the Boyfriend's lap, and NPR on the radio, dancing in my head.

I don't mean to complain. Life is very full. In a lot of wonderful ways. I'd just love one good night's sleep, after a dinner. Made in my kitchen. Eaten at my table. At a reasonable hour. With a glass of wine.

Some day. I have faith. In the meantime, soup will do.

Me, at snacktime.

The Mouse

P.S. Soup turned out bland. Moral of the story? Sometimes it's better to let someone else cook. And while they do that, grab yourself a nap.