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Friday, September 27, 2013

Pasta Problem

I try to avoid gluten, mainly because of what is says about my chicness, socio-economic situation, and sexual orientation - Thank you Surviving Whole Foods and Guido Barilla.

I jest, however, it is something I've tried to eliminate from my diet, for many reasons, all tied to personal neuroses.

That said, I will admit, I have a pasta problem...

Bread, crackers, cream based soups, really any starch... I can do without, but every once in a while I get a craving for pasta that no amount of self discipline nor flagellation can defeat.

That's when I go off the deep end...

My friends call them dinner parties, I call it gluten bombing (it's the guilt talking) but bottom line I make copious amounts of pasta and we all drink wine and groan about it in feigned chic

Having recently acquired a small hand crank pasta maker, these parties seem to be happening more and more often...queue the regret.

This post came to life after a drool worthy perusal of La Cucina Italiana's October "The Pasta Issue" - an issue I looked forward to every year with equal parts excitement and fear. Excitement for the decadent lasagna recipes and drool worthy pappardelle shots, it's food porn at it's best. Fear because of how I know it will affect the fit of my pants, enough said.

All bloating aside, and inspired as I was, I recently had three girlfriends over and decided to make Tagliatelle, a simple process that is not easily hindered by wine consumption (an important consideration for any recipe).

I'd picked up some slab bacon and shiitake mushrooms, and fresh spinach at various farmers markers the previous weekend, so naturally my thoughts went to a rich, bacony, and earthy vegetable laden Carbonara.

Ultimately, it ends the same way...both the company and the carbs are perfectly satisfying. After all, happy and full is never really a bad thing, we should all be so lucky.

So maybe when I say I have a pasta problem, it's not that eating pasta somehow damages me or negatively affects my well being (emotional fragility aside) but it's that I just can't get enough!  To me it's the penultimate comfort food, as fancy or as plain as you like it, able to take on as many flavors and forms as one can imagine, the perfect vehicle for any favorite cheese or seasonal ingredient, and always sure to please.

The trouble is, though it may be the starch that binds us and the one food impossible not to enjoy, it's also the hallmark of all that is uncool at the moment. The food we love to loathe...

I'm not going to wax philosophical or make some broad social commentary about the state of carbs today, I'll just say this; I love pasta and I'm not afraid to admit it - I hope that makes it easier for the rest of you to accept your pasta problem.

Before this becomes an all out confessional, I'll turn you over to the recipes...

Farmers Market Carbonara


  • 3 large eggs + 1 large egg
  • 1 cup parmigiano reggiano (shaved or grated)
  • Pecorino Romano to taste (grated)
  • 2 cups ‘00”’ or all purpose unbleached flour
  • 1 teaspoon + 1 tablespoon EVOO
  • Sea Salt to taste
  • 2 oz Fresh Shiitake mushrooms (sliced)
  • 6 oz Slab bacon or pancetta (diced)
  • 2 cloves garlic (chopped)
  • 1 ½ cups fresh peas (shelled)
  • 3 large bunches fresh spinach (rough chop)
  • 3 Red Serrano peppers (chopped into rounds)
  • 2 ounces fresh sage (chopped)


  • Pasta:
    • In a large bowl, mound the flour forming a well in the center (looks like a volcano).
    • Put eggs, evoo, and salt into the well. Using a fork, incorporate the flour into the well, move to using your hands until all the liquid is absorbed and you have a cohesive dough ball.
    • Add water as needed and knead for 10+ minutes until dough is smooth
    • Take breaks for wine.
    • Once smooth, wrap in plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for about 30mins – Then run through pasta maker to desired thickness and width.
    • Cook in salted, boiling water until al dente, about 5 mins
  • Carbonara “Sauce” :
    • Render bacon and garlic in a large non stick pan for 10 mins while pasta dough is resting.
    • Add mushrooms once there is a good base of fat in the pan. Add peas and sage once mushrooms have browned, and add spinach last so it just barely wilts.
    • Add EVOO, Salt and Pepper as needed to taste to “lubricate” the mixture.
    • IMPORTANT – try to time the completion of the "sauce" to coincide with the cooking of the pasta, the pasta must be strained and hot when you add the eggs, cheese, and sauce mixture in the next step in order to get the texture and an even coating right
  • Putting it together:
    • As soon as pasta is strained, pour back into pot, immediately add the single egg and parmigiano cheese, stirring quickly to create a sauce (do not let the egg scramble).
    • Once evenly coated, add the carbonara sauce ingredients and incorporate.
  • Serve with fresh ground pepper, pecorino romano, and the chopped red serranos to taste (I garnished mine with some fresh basil just because I wanted to)
On another occasion, just 5 days prior, I devoted hours to making a slow cooked pork 'bolognese' style ragu, equally rich and satisfying over tagliatelle. 

Pork Bolognese Ragu

  • See pasta recipe and prep above
  • 3lbs Pork Shoulder (Boston Butt)
  • Pecorino Romano to taste (grated)
  • 2 cups ‘00”’ or all purpose unbleached flour
  • 1 teaspoon + 1 tablespoon EVOO
  • Sea Salt to taste
  • 2 oz Fresh Shiitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 6 oz Slab bacon or pancetta (diced)
  • 2 cloves garlic (chopped)
  • 1 ½ cups fresh peas (shelled)
  • 3 large bunches fresh spinach (rough chop)
  • 3 Red Serrano peppers (chopped into rounds)
  • 2 ounces fresh sage (chopped)

  • Pork Ragu:
    • In a crock pot, place 1 chopped onion, bay leaves, crushed red pepper, and 3 lbs of pork shoulder and pour crushed tomatoes over top. Cook on low 6 hours, add 1 cup red wine after 3 hours.
    • Pour off cooking liquid and set aside
    • Using forks, pull pork apart
    • In a sauce pan, combine carrots, onions, celery, garlic, and bacon, cooking until rendered and vegetables begin to soften. Add sausage and cook through.
    • Add tomato puree and incorporate
    • Pour saucepan mixture into crock pot, incorporate with pulled pork
    • Stir in reserved cooking liquid until you achieve the sauce consistency you prefer
    • Cover and allow to simmer as long as you like/need, flavors will continue to marry until you are ready to serve. If you added too much liquid, remove the lid for a while and allow to reduce slightly.
    • Once pasta is cooked, return to cooking pot and slowly add ragu until pasta is coated and sauce is evenly incorporated
    • Serve with parmigiano reggiano or pecorino romano, or both!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Any Given Sunday (50 Shades of Caramel Custard)

This Sunday started like any other… with strong roots in Saturday night. The prior evening I had decided to make my triumphant return to the enigma that is Baltimore’s Gayborhood, Mt. Vernon.  While it was a tame night by most standards, the vigor with which I took to the dance floor and the hour I returned home, had an indelible effect on my energy level on Sunday morning.

I awoke early, determined to track down some of the elusive ingredients I lacked for an important cooking assignment this week, so I forced myself on my bike and headed toward the JFX. I think this initial burst of endorphins was the key to shaking off the exhaustion or at least it helped to sweat out my Saturday. 

I was at the market before 8, and by 8:15 I’d realized my pursuit of heads-on mackerel was going to fail (don’t ask) and decided to make my way home. Not without first buying the inaugural organic cauliflower of the season, something I most certainly didn’t need…it’s the little things.

Somehow I’d agreed to do some work at the office this Sunday - I can’t say I’m totally stable - so I decided to temper this situation with an equally misguided breakfast decision at Jimmy’s in Fells Point. A tomato-bacon omelet, home fries, and slab of scrapple later, I had officially heard the last of Saturday night and was beginning to feel the grumblings of the guilt associated with such caloric indiscretions – I’ll call it a draw…

Work was work, but I’d signed up for a Terrarium Making Class at Local Color Flowers at 11, so I had something to look forward to.

I met my friend Erica at the Charles Village studio that lived up to every charming and rustic expectation I had developed in my years of Facebook and Instagram stalking of LocoFlo, Ellen Frost and co. If you’ve never seen their work, look it up, they use only locally grown flowers and greens to create breathtaking arrangements and displays. They also happen to be an incredibly charming group with which to work and exercise an impeccable aesthetic.

The class was amazing, and definitely appealed to the 12 year old Discovery Channel Nerd that occasionally inhabits my body. We learned about the history of terrariums, got some design tips, and suggestions to care for our subject, succulents. My terrarium was decidedly restrained, with neurotic attention paid to color, contrast, and arrangement. Erica's on the other hand was an example of whimsy and color that had everyone talking. Both clearly made appearances on Instagram.

The entire experience was incredible, and while it didn’t turn out to be the “single and ready to mingle” format I delusionally thought it might, what better than to end up with another embellishment for the home and some new friends with minivans? My only thought is, why not add wine? then again, when am I NOT thinking about adding wine?

Post planting, reality set in and I still needed my mackerel. I texted the only person who I knew wouldn’t react badly to the following message  - “I desperately need whole mackerel! I can’t find them anywhere! I’m facing ruin… I think I need to go to the Asian Supermarket!” – Enter Sage (and yes these names are changed)

Sage, in addition to being “my kind of crazy”, an incredible friend, possessing a ridiculous appreciation and taste for food and wine, has also lived in Bangkok in a past life, often pines for it, so was clearly on board with my mission.

H - Mart is a short drive from Fells, but it’s a whole different world. If the Korean man playing an accordion in a mariachi outfit greeting customers at the front door doesn’t give you the picture, then you need to come see it yourself.

The produce section is a full contact sport where Grandmothers become gladiators and persimmons and star fruit fly with such speed I’ve considered wearing goggles. The meat section looks like an anatomy book, and the noodle selection is as widely varied as the packaging is colored. The whole thing is a cacophonous, overwhelming, and beautiful sensory experience. Needless to say, I found my fish. And Sage found about a million things…I won’t disclose details, a lady never tells….

We decided to celebrate our victory with Pho, as if there is any other way when you’ve braved H-Mart and come out alive. In a bowl so large I could have bathed myself, I found heaven. I don’t need to expound on my love for Pho, anyone who’s had it understands….

Nirvana achieved, we headed home, I had a mountain of prep work to do for the week ahead so I made the difficult decision to skip dinner at Gran’s….It’s that Catholic guilt, gets me every time.

A quick run around Fells with Lady Gaga in my ear, and the requisite stop at Chesapeake Wine Co under my belt, I headed home to get to work in the kitchen, a lovely Riesling from Pfalz in tow…

My main objective that evening, was to re-learn how to make custard.  I had what appeared to be an amazing recipe courtesy of a like minded colleague whose taste I trust implicitly, but I was nervous about the execution. 

This Salted Caramel & Spiced Rum custard was a conundrum, promising to be as be as difficult to make as it is simple to eat…There are temperatures to consider, actual measurements, and generally the whole process feels like a risky gamble. Mind you, I normally wouldn’t stress over dessert, but this was to be the final sweet note, the signature, if you will, I would put on my cooking assignment this coming week, and it HAD to be perfect. 

The present endeavor was to be the dress rehearsal, the dry run of all my dishes, the moment of truth…This kind of high stakes, hot pursuit, adrenaline pumping, make-you-sweat cooking is the perfect way to spend Any Given Sunday… there you go, there’s your sports reference...that felt forced.... Go Ravens!

I prepped many items that evening, but I will focus on 'the custard', because I know that's what everyone really wants to know about.

Now, I’m not a fan of using a hand mixer and this certainly led to some tense moments in texture, but what resulted was truly divine.  I’m not typically a dessert person, but this sweet, savory, creamy and  oh-so-rich pudding just may be the best thing I have ever made. Not that caramel, sea salt, and rum really need any embellishment, but bringing them all together in a heart-stoppingly decadent custard was a transcendent, dare I say orgasmic food experience.

Needless to say, it was a success, the climax of my weekend...I’m still glowing and was honestly tempted to call this post “50 Shades of Custard” – but frankly, it’s better than that!

So for your pleasure, the recipe:

Salted Caramel & Spiced Rum Custard

·    Ingredients
o   3 cups whole milk, divided
o   1/4 cup cornstarch
o   3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
o   3/4 cup water
o   5 large egg yolks
o   3 tablespoons unsalted butter (room temp)
o   2+ teaspoons dark rum
o   1 teaspoon kosher salt

o   Whisk 1/2 cup milk and cornstarch until combined. Set aside.
o   Heat the remaining 2 1/2 cups of milk until simmering. Remove from heat and set aside.
o   In a large bowl with a hand mixer, whisk egg yolks on medium speed for about 3 minutes – really, time yourself
o   To make the caramel, stir the brown sugar and water in medium saucepan over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. At that point, increase the heat, and cook without stirring until an instant read thermometer reads 210 – 220 degrees, it will darken and be careful not to scorch. Remove from heat.
o   With mixer at low speed (you may prefer to do this by hand), gradually whisk in the hot milk, then the cornstarch mixture into the eggs. Slowly whisk in the caramel. You will have a foamy mess of sweet hot milk at this point, don’t panic!
o   Return the mixture to the saucepan and whisk constantly over medium heat, until the mixture thickens (coats back of a spoon) and a thermometer registers 175 degrees, about 7 to 10 minutes. Honestly, at minute 7, I almost gave up, sure that this foamy mess was my fate and I had failed, but I pressed on, and all of a sudden it came together, so have patience, this will work!
o   Remove from heat; whisk in the butter, rum, and salt
o   Once whipped smooth and allowed to chill slightly, serve with whipped cream and sea salt. I made my own cream and used black sea salt…just because I’m fancy.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Back to Basics

There seems to be some universally accepted notion that when certain aspects of life are in flux or hard times come upon us, that one is best served to ground oneself in that which is most core, basic and essential, the defining characteristics of identity, values, and lifestyle.

But what is one supposed to do when those very things that define, are those that are called into question and are so shaken that they no longer feel real, much less definitive?

How about a graceful, Victorian style, nervous breakdown? Maybe a public, embarrassing, binge eating episode? Don’t worry, no pressure friends, I am paying my therapist to navigate this minefield with me…brave soul that she is…

You see, this summer has seen some fabulous meals, excruciating moments, trips to the Whitsundays and the South pacific, and ultimately seismic changes in my personal life.

Have no fear, you will get to hear about Fiji, but this post is about finding myself in the basics in the face of overwhelming change. I tested this notion of grounding in the simple things recently, and turns out, it works. It’s not a complete answer to life’s challenges, but doing what you love and what makes you feel good is a great place to start – And for me that’s dinner!


I planned this test one Wednesday night, and invited my good friend S over for dinner. Not only has he been an incredible sounding board, reality checker, and an integral part of my summer survival experience, but he is also potentially the biggest fan of my cooking and therefore the perfect guest for the dinner at hand. He a took little convincing to make the trip, but when I told him I was making pork chops he was all-in.

Per usual, I’d spent the previous Sunday morning over-buying at the JFX farmer’s market. Overkill on groceries being one of the less painful aspects of being newly single, it has played significantly to the advantage of my friends. During this particular trip, I was seduced by some incredible red chard, bone-in pork chops, red skin new potatoes, and fresh sour cream….among far too many other things….

Planning the meal was a no-brainer - pork chops and warm potato salad, starch and protein – You can’t get much more back to basics than that. 

I marinated the pork in garlic, salt, pepper, a little evoo, and fresh rosemary from my garden. I’d also chopped and par-boiled the potatoes so I could make the salad more easily once S arrived. I saw the fear is his eyes, when I narrowly avoided the meltdown moment when flipping on the grill only to find the propane was spent, but I dodged that bullet, recovered and moved the cooking indoors without so much as a clenched fist.

I placed the potatoes in the bottom of a non-stick pot in some evoo, diced shallots, and fennel, placed the chopped chard on top to let it wilt slightly while the potatoes heated up. Meanwhile, I seared the pork shops with even more garlic and rosemary, an easy and equally as satisfying way to cook them as the grill – Deep breathes…

Once the chard and potatoes were hot, I added the sour cream, some mayo, and a healthy portion of chopped ricotta salata I’d picked up at Fleet Street Market. 

Side note: If you haven’t tried ricotta salata, do! It’s a delightful salty flavor profile, but has been dehydrated as it ages. Due to its low moisture content, it doesn’t melt when combined with warm ingredients or sauces, hence it’s a unique way to add flavor and texture to a dish through cheese.

Back to the dinner… With the potato salad combined, and the chops achieving golden caramelization and perfect medium rare temperature, I plated with a sprig of Rosemary - it was that simple.  If I had to change one thing about the dish, I would have preferred green or yellow chard. The red chard bled, and combined with the red skin potatoes, and the pink of the pork, it made for somewhat of a monochromatic plating – but now I’m nitpicking as it was delicious!

Despite the trials and tribulations that life has and will no doubt continue to send my way, I’ve found a way to ground myself in my cooking and my friends. 

My dishes aren’t always this simple nor the company always the same, but the simple act of preparing a meal and enjoying it with people I love has been a prevailing force of good my life, and I intend to make sure it continues.

Pork Chops & Warm Potato-Chard Salad

  • 2 bone in pork chops, 1 ½” thick
  • 1 bunch chard, rough chop
  • 1 large shallot, diced
  • 1 small fennel bulb, diced
  •  8 - 12 small red skin new potatoes, chopped into uniform pieces and boiled in salted water until fork tender (this can be done ahead of time and refrigerated)
  • 4 cloves garlic - 2 sliced, 2 minced
  • Evoo (don’t measure, use judgment as needed)
  • 5 Sprigs fresh rosemary + 2 for garnish
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • ¼ cup mayonnaise (plus more depending on your potato salad “dressing” preferences)
  • 2 cups chopped ricotta salata


Pork Chops
  •  Marinate the pork in evoo, 2 minced garlic cloves, salt, pepper, and 5 rosemary sprigs overnight in the refrigerator.  Allow to come to room temperature prior to cooking. Press rosemary from marinade and sliced garlic on to each side.
  • In a large non-stick pan, over medium heat, warm evoo, and once hot place the pork chops down forcefully to ensure maxim exposure to cooking surface. Cook until caramelization begins and the pork is medium rare, about 5 mins each side depending on heat and thickness.
Warm Potato-Chard Salad
  • In a non-stick pot, over medium-hi heat, warm evoo and sautée shallot with the fennel until translucent. Add potatoes and stir to coat with oil.
  • Place chard on top and cover, cooking until chard is wilted and potatoes are war
  • Remove from heat and add mayo, sour cream, and ricotta salata, stirring gently as not to smash the potatoes but to incorporate the “dressing” evenly
  • Plate salad first, place pork chop on the side, and garnish with reserved fresh rosemary sprig.