Tuesday, December 16, 2014

HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE

The holidays are sneaking up on us with shrapnel-fury (who's the genius who gave us a late Thanksgiving this year???) and demand that we silence our wreathing inner demons for about two weeks and be merry and cheerful and bright. It's an impossible task, of course, but we'll try once again. To help you expedite your holiday shopping and possibly delay your anger explosion at the Christmas family table for an hour or two, here is Dead Chef's holiday gift guide for the family and beyond. Everything here is pure gold: I dare you not to buy anything. Let's start!

FOR THE KIDS: POP-UP PIRATE


I have longing and painful memories of not having this as a kid and being allowed to play with it only at my cousins' (incidentally, they also had all of He-Man character toys). It's a jolly pirate stuck in a barrel and playfully tortured with swords. Once the right sword gets to him, he is launched from the barrel. The Italian jingle explained the process with something that I will loosely translate thusly, "He's going to launch like a missile / Once you tear him a new one." Jokes aside, this is a great game for kids: simple, sturdy, fun, and begging to be played again and again for years. My almost 4-year old is still playing with it. And you know what? This is one of the few games I enjoy, too.

Buy it here.


FOR DAD: MOZZARELLA KIT


Aren't you sick of stereotyping dad by making him brew horrible and sour IPAs at home? I'll say enough with the home brewing already! If you want to provide dad with a worthy project to impress his family and reconnect with some kind of olden-days skill, then get him a mozzarella kit. First of all, mozzarella can be eaten with the entire family and in a variety of dishes (check thisthisthis, and this). Secondly, and this might be my own fascination, a man is a man when he can manipulate and subdue a chunk of dairy.

This cheesemaking kit gets great reviews.


FROM PARENT TO PARENT: A WEEKEND HOME ALONE

When I'm alone, my house looks like this to me.

This is for the parent who takes the most care of the children and who is constantly denounced by society for both spoiling and neglecting the kids so that they will turn out just like Millennials, but without the icing of good manners (i.e. The Worst). I'm trying to be PC here, but we all know I'm talking about mothers. This is the idea: you take the children to the grandparents or to a sky lodge or wherever, and the other parent (mom) is left in A CLEAN HOUSE for an entire weekend. I've been twice the recipient of this gift, and I can tell you there's is really nothing like it. I read, I sewed, I watched a movie during the day, I went out with friends, I ate whatever, whenever I wanted, and I SLEPT IN.

FOR OTHER PARENTS WHO NOW HATE CHRISTMAS: FATHER CHRISTMAS BY RAYMOND BRIGGS


I can't remember how we got hold of this wonderful children book. It is a beautifully illustrated story of a very grumpy Santa on his big day of the year, stuck in what appears to be a much hated yet comforting routine. This Santa hates the cold and the work, complains non-stop throughout his sleigh-ride around the world, and is only really happy when he drinks his Cognac or a bottle of "party-size" red wine surrounded by his pets. Kids will enjoy all of the details in each panel; parents will fall in love with the unsentimental humor. And the beauty of it all it's that there's no post-modern sarcasm in this tale. Somehow, below Santa's cranky mutterings, readers will find the comforting rituals and magic of the Christmases of their childhood.

Buy it used (new is pretty expensive) here.


FOR THE BEST OF FRIENDS: ARCHY & MEHITABEL BY DON MARQUIS


I found this total joy of a book only a few years ago, so pardon me if you know it already, but it's worth talking about in the hope that future generations will also enjoy it. Published in 1927 as a collection of Don Marquis' columns, this book recounts the stories of Archy, a cockroach who writes poems on a typewriter, and his friend Mehitable, a passionate alley cat. This is a wonderfully funny, dark, bittersweet, romantic, and heartbreaking book. And the illustrations are from George Harriman himself, of Krazy Kat fame (a personal favorite). I am so in love with this book it almost hurts.

You can buy it here.


FOR YOUR OVERWHELMED FRIEND: A GIFT AND A RE-GIFT


You know what I really need? An inexhaustible collection of unopened treats in my pantry to be brought as last-minute gifts at parties and family events. I'm always running to the closest grocery store to find something that hopefully is not too popular and won't look exactly like what it is: a desperate random gift wrapped in haste and profanities. And don't tell me I'm alone in this. So let's start a virtuous cycle of regiftables. The idea is, buy two boxes of the same NICE treats, be it cream-filled bonbons, or gourmet macaroons, or Turkish pistachios, or whatever. One is for the giftee, and one is to be regifted. You don't actually have to explain the process to your giftee. You might add a wink if you feel like it, but we all know regifting will happen. You are just a generous and understanding facilitator.


FOR THE FRIEND WHO IS EASILY PLEASED: ORIGAMI SANTA ORNAMENTS

Last year I purchased a "Christmas Crafts Fun Kit" for my kids at a thrift store. I'm usually very wary of crafts for kids, mostly because I think it's weird that parents do all the work without even the chance of complaining about it, since crafting requires that you look ecstatic at all times. In any case, the only activity I picked up on is Origami Santa. Now, I like origami in principle but I really don't care about it much. These Santas, though, have something special. They are unapologetically adorable (if I may), and the process by which they're made is weirdly addictive, so much that this year I bought a pack of red origami paper to make as many Santas as I can. I plan on giving one to whomever is going to come by my house, and I'm already sad that in two weeks I'll have no reason to make my little Santas. That's why I think you should make them, too.

Here's a video tutorial. I know it's 7-minutes long, but after 3 Santas, you'll be down to 2 zen minutes.


FOR YOUR DEAREST, NON-VEGETARIAN FRIEND: OILY MACKEREL 

OK, so this is not the most photogenic food.
But look, Origami Santa!
Home-made treats are always well received, but if you don't want to bake yet another batch of cookies and want to surprise your giftee with something strong-flavored and unexpected, then home-made mackerels are just what you want. You just need a few mason jars, a few whole mackerels (get them at H-Mart), and good olive oil. They are salty, oily, great with bread, and, according to science, healthy, so really, what's not to like? There is a slim chance your giftee might find them a little too tasty, but I believe this is the kind of litmus-test gift to see if this friendships is a keeper or a tosser.




OILY MACKEREL


For 2
3 jars

2 fresh whole mackerels, cleaned
Kosher salt
freshly-ground black pepper
1C EVOO
2 tbsps lemon juice

  • Turn the broiler on. Place the mackerels in roasting dish, and sprinkle liberally with salt on the outside and inside. Let stand on the counter for 30 minutes.
  • Broil the mackerels for about 8-10 minutes, turning them halfway, until the skin bubbles up.
  • Fillet the mackerels and add more salt if desired, then sprinkle with freshly-ground black pepper.
  • Mix EVOO and lemon juice together.
  • Place fillet inside the mason jars, then pour in the olive oil mixture to cover the fish.
I read the mackerels in oil keep refrigerated for a month. Just bring them to room temperature before serving them.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

YOU'RE READING MY DIARY

AN ANTHROPOLOGIST'S DREAM

I've spent the last 2 months (or more, who cares) locked at home with a ton of work to do and with a child who has been sick every other week with a variety of viruses. My life has completely unraveled. My baby has been wearing the same summer onesies, designed for children half his age, and I can't remember the last time I went shopping for groceries. I can only tell you that today my fridge contains only vintage exotic sauces and two half cabbages, soft and jaundiced like two moldy pillows. But never mind the baby or the fridge: After two months with basically no real nutrition or human contact, I have regressed to what can only be described as a female hominid at the dawn of our species, struggling with bipedalism and clearly affected by reverse encephalization (i.e., I walk on all fours, and my cranium shrank). I've also become intensely paranoid and easily startled, like a trapped beast, and I find myself napping on the floor, cuddling with my dog and growling when I dream, because now I live like I would in a pack of wolves. My husband realized I was in desperate need of socialization and took me out to a dinner party last week. Everything seemed menacing and weird. My eyes were popping out of my skull at the unusual sound of human words; I dug at food with my hands from the potluck table; and when I finally retreated to the bathroom, I left the door open because at this point I don't know any better. So yes, I'm an anthropologist's dream, a fantastic human regression whose only purpose is to now be subject of study. This is all to say, I need human companionship. Someone take me out, please.

PERFUME IDEAS?

In the past year, I've become more interested in perfumes. Mostly I love how perfume smells on other people, and I finally realized I can also simply buy a bottle and become part of that crowd. From then on, I've been struggling to find a fragrance I feel comfortable in. The most-acclaimed perfumes are too sexy and sophisticated, and I don't really see the purpose of wearing a perfume with more personality than I'll ever hope to have. Really, I tried Tom Ford's Black Orchid, and it demanded I behave like a mix between Joan Crawford and Ernest Hemingway. Clearly impossible. So I'm looking for a deadpan fragrance, but I'm having no luck so far. This also led me to realize one massive gap in modern perfumery: Where are the food-inspired scents? You would think all the major perfume houses would be just churning out food perfumes. After all, is there anybody who doesn't count fresh bread as the best smell in the world? I'd be all over a perfume giving me the smell of a croissant, or bread pudding, or possibly my favorite smell of all: a nicely charred hanger steak.

THE RULE OF TWO

My youngest baby is now a toddler, an event that I almost missed thanks to my oldest son's constant interference. Anyway, if there one lesson I've learned about dealing with children aged 6 to 18 months, is the Rule of Two, and I want to share it here for parents in need. It is a simple concept: Give them two of anything. When you're having dim sum and your child is bored out of his/her mind, do not reach for the iPhone. Give them two soup spoons. Or two straws. Or two cars, if you have them (good for you!). If you give your child one toy, this will be hurled across the restaurant; but two, it's a game. And when you're child gets bored, change objects or add a third.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

GENIUS INVENTIONS FOR PARENTS / 2

You might remember I published a list of genius inventions for parents a few months ago. There I proposed 5 ideas for products that will make the lives of new parents immensely easier, so I'm surprised I wasn't contacted by any venture capitalist afterwards. I guess those people have nannies. In any case, now that my children are a little bit older, my needs as a parent have matured. For example, I'm meditating on purchasing half a dozen wet floor signs to be used around the house every day. But I digress. Here's a list of five more inventions that need to happen right now.

And wheels.

1. SHOP-VAC TOY BOX

I was watching the leaf collector on Thanksgiving Day (why were they working?) and I had a vision. What if, at the end of the day, I could just vacuum all the toys around the house so that they fall straight into their dedicated box? So here is the idea: a vacuum with a larger nozzle that will suck toys big and small into the canister, which is actually a wheeled toy box. How great that would be? I would love if the vacuum part could be detached and applied to different toy boxes.









2. SMARTPHONE HEADBAND

Look at my headband!
I think the next big thing in televised sports will be Baby&Toddler Dressing. I am really surprised nobody has thought about it. It involves physical force, quick smarts, and lots of drama. It's the ultimate man vs. beast conflict. For those of you who appreciate how difficult it is to get a child aged 0 to 4 dressed, but still feel unfit for formal competition, then I might have a solution for you. It's a headband with a clip on the front for your smartphone, so that your baby can be distracted by the cute video of a baby sloth on your forehead while you change his/her diaper and put clothes, socks, shoes, coat, and even gloves on your little love. You know it will work.




Just as effective.

3. GENTLE!


This is so essential. It's a wall-mounted loudspeaker who repeats the word "GENTLE!" strongly but firmly at regular intervals (suggested: 45 seconds). If you have a baby and a dog or two small children, you know you need this. As far as I'm concerned, this will finally allow me to have a conversation with my husband without screaming "GENTLE!" every five words.


4. COOL-TO-EAT


This is a device to instantly cool food that your child deems too hot to eat without screaming, and then proceeds to scream anyway because he's hungry. I'm a mother who cooks, and there's nothing as maddening as scrambling to get lunch ready only to see it rejected with desperate rage because its temperature is not ideal. Technology did actually bring us the Blast Chiller, but it is used only in molecular gastronomy restaurants and is huge. I need something small and cheap-ish to keep on my kitchen counter or even at the table.



5. PLAYGROUND BAR


Yes, you can go on the slide, dear.
When I'm stuck watching my children at the playground, bored out of my mind, I dream about Playground Bar. It is a coffee bar with an enclosed playground inside and outside. You come in with your children and send them to the playground while you watch on the side, seated comfortably at real table on a real chair rather than an acorn stool (I live near a "treehouse" playground) with people serving me food and drinks (I'm dreaming of other mothers working part-time, so that they know what I need). Ah, the dignity... The thought only is intoxicating! For those of you who think McDonald's already fits the bill, I'll counter by saying that Playground Bar does not serve junk food. Instead, it provides appropriate snacks in the form of fruit, cheese, bread, and other healthy treats. For mothers, it will serve very complex French pastries that kids don't yet understand and therefore will be suspicious of. At Playground Bar, I can order a coffee, or a stiff drink. And about this, can someone tell me why Irish Coffee is not every mother's favorite drink? It has everything you need: the energy of caffeine, the soothing embrace of booze, and the health benefits of calcium. Playground Bar, come to me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

PUMPKIN RAVIOLI (MADE WITH CHESTNUT FLOUR)

Image of plated chestnut-flour pumpkin ravioli.
  
Here I am with a recipe that has been wiggling in my brain for months: pumpkin ravioli made with chestnut flour. I LOVE chestnut flour. I bought it for the first time a few years ago from The Italian Store, and I've used a few times to make linguine and crepes with great success. Chestnut flour has a mellow, sweet, nutty flavor that is subtle and unexpected. It produces a pasta dough that is tougher than the usual dough for egg pasta, but it also cooks very well and maintains a good bite, so it's worth every extra pound of pressure you need to apply to your rolling pin and pasta maker.

The pumpkin/chestnut idea became suddenly urgent when last month, on a whim, I bought a peanut pumpkin that a DeadChef follower and cooking expert later defined as "the MOST delicious pumpkin ever for pies and everything else". This is the kind of comment that gets me really excited, of course. Unfortunately, days passed and I couldn't get to my ravioli thanks (really, THANK YOU) to a string of unforeseen, disheartening sh*t, including Microbee (the youngest) getting sick and throwing the entire family into a weeklong nightmare of tears, snot, insomnia, and recrimination. When I finally judged myself ready for my peanut pumpkin, I realized with great horror that it had rotted from the inside and was completely inedible. To make things worse, my farmer's market was not selling them anymore. Which brings me to my new motto:

Image of motto, "Good things rot for those who wait".

I had to give up on the best pumpkin in the world, but I wasn't giving up on my ravioli vision.
So I immediately drove back to my farmer's market and purchased another pumpkin. This time, I chose a Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, because if I couldn't have the best, then I wanted another with a similarly evocative name. The Cheese Pumpkin didn't disappoint—well, it did disappoint in not tasting like actual cheese, but I knew the name was due to its shape—it is a more velvety and sweet version of a butternut squash, and decidedly more delicious. 

While the pumpkin was roasting in the oven, I worked on the chestnut-flour pasta dough, and then rolled it out, stretched it, filled it, and cut it despite the slightly unnerving attentions of my very defiant and mechanically-obsessed Minibee (the oldest).
Step-by-step ravioli making. Image of thinly-rolled pasta dough, dough with bits of filling, hands pressing dough on filling, hand using pasta cutter to shape ravioli.
The pasta cutter in the last pic belonged to my maternal grandma. It's my amulet.

I'm happy to report, the final ravioli were a total delight, sweet and creamy and absolutely perfect for fall. We served them topped with melted butter, grated Parmigiano, and a little black pepper, and added some leftover cheese pumpkin cubes aside. It took a whole afternoon with the constant sabotaging by my kids, but when there's a pot of buttery ravioli at the end of the parenting tunnel, nothing can stop me.

Two close-up of chestnut pumpkin ravioli. Second image shows open ravioli with filling oozing out.

PUMPKIN RAVIOLI 

(MADE WITH CHESTNUT FLOUR)


for the filling:

2C roasted pumpkin (with EVOO and kosher salt)
1/2C grated Parmigiano Reggiano
freshly ground black pepper

for the pasta:
1C chestnut flour

1C unbleached all-purpose flour
a pinch of salt
1 tbsp EVOO
2 eggs
1 egg white (for sealing the ravioli)

finish:
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1/4C grated Parmigiano
freshly ground black pepper

MAKE THE FILLING
  • Peel and cut your pumpkin in small pieces. Drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt and roast in a 375F oven until fork tender. Let cool.
  • Mash the pumpkin with a potato masher if you like to keep some of the original texture (and heartiness), otherwise, puree until smooth in a food processor. 
  • Stir in the Parmigiano and the pepper.

MAKE THE PASTA DOUGH
  • Mix the two flours in a bowl and stir in the salt and EVOO.
  • Add the two eggs and mix first with a fork and then, when the dough starts to come together, with your hands, until you obtain a compact, elastic dough that is not sticky. If the dough is still dry and crumbly, sprinkle with water until you reach the desired consistency.
  • Cover and let rest of 30 minutes.

MAKE THE RAVIOLI
  • Roll out the dough with a rolling pin or with a pasta machine until very thin. If you never used a pasta machine before but want to start now, check out these instructions.
  • My ravioli were 3X3'', because I wanted to have a little filling in the center and some room for the pasta itself to breathe (you get to enjoy the chestnut flavor more). If you want the same, cut the pasta in 3'' wide strips and place a heaping teaspoon of filling every 3''.
  • Brush with egg white (mixed with a couple tablespoons of water) along the edges and in between the filling heaps.
  • Place another strip of pasta on top and cut the edges of each piece with a pasta cutter.
  • Place the finished ravioli on a floured kitchen towel and sprinkle with flour.

COOK&SERVE
  • Melt butter in a nonstick pan.
  • Cook the ravioli in gently boiling water for 2–3 minutes. Be delicate: they are.
  • Serve the ravioli, about 5 per portion, topped with melted butter, black pepper, and Parmigiano.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

NOVEMBER 11: DOLCE DI SAN MARTINO

Venice tradition, the Dolce di San Martino, a cookie shaped like a knight on a horse
One of the greatest challenges and joys of being an expat parent is keeping up with traditions from home. The challenge comes especially when my Venetian calendar demands a specific sweet to be consumed on a specific date, and I realize I have to f*cking make it myself since there are no Venetian bakeries from where I could just purchase said traditional sweet (remember Easter?). Well, today is San Martino (Saint Martin), a strictly Venetian holiday that is celebrated with the Dolce di San Martino, a gigantic cookie covered in candy and shaped like a knight riding a horse. The cookie shape is inspired by the legend of San Martino. Children, gather round and listen.

It was a horribly cold and windy November 11 many centuries ago, and Martin was riding on his horse, shrouded in a warm cloak lined in sheep wool. Along the muddy way, he encountered a poor old beggar covered in rags. So Martin got off his horse, cut his cloak in half with his sword, and shared it with the old beggar. As Martin rode on, the cold wind subsided, the clouds dissipated, and the day became warm and sunny. And that was the beginning of the so-called "Summer of San Martino", or the handful of warm and sunny days that often grace our early Novembers.

It is not clear how San Martino's act of charity became linked with the traditional decadent mega-cookie, but as a child I didn't question (and, truth be told, I don't really care even today). I loved unwrapping my Dolce di San Martino and breaking off a limb from the Saint or his horse to eat in perfect merriment. That was the extent of my celebration, but you have to know that traditionally children also walk around Venice banging on pots and pans demanding money or candy while singing an adorable song that ends with the curse THAT YOUR PIG MAY DIE if you don't give them anything—I guess it's still cute as long as they haven't joined a gang yet.

Today, I want my children to experience the same joy, so I made my own Dolce di San Martino. I traced down the outline from the web (straight from the monitor, because drawing is another of my non-skills), applied it on a sheet of 1/4''-thick shortbread dough, cut along the outlines, and then baked knight and horse for 20 minutes. Then, under the enchanted gaze of my oldest child, I decorated with cheap colored icing and chocolate chips. And for today, my job as a Northern Italian mother is done.

Check out a fancy Dolce di San Martino here.

DOLCE DI SAN MARTINO


2 sticks unsalted butter (room temperature)

3/4 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
lemon zest from one lemon
colored icing
candy and/or chocolates
silver and/or gold sprinkles


  • Draw and cut out the outline of the San Martino on a piece of cardboard or construction paper. I used this one
  • Heat oven to 250F.
  • With an electric mixer, work the butter and the sugar until creamy and then mix in the egg yolk.
  • Add the flour, cornstarch, salt, and lemon zest and mix until dough barely comes together.
  • Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  • Roll out the dough on parchment paper to a 1/4'' thickness, and cut out the San Martino using your cardboard outline.
  • Transfer the San Martino with the parchment paper on a cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes, or until it just starts to brown around the edges and the center is still slightly soft.
  • Let the cookie cool down, then decorate with icing and candy. You should definitely use icing to glue chocolates still in their wrapping (see here). I didn't have any and I regret not buying them.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Q&A: THE CASE FOR THE BIDET

A bidetFor my birthday, my mother-in-law gave me one of the best gifts an expat Italian could ever dream of: a handheld bidet for our American toilet. It was promptly installed by my husband, and we've been enjoying a very welcome freshness ever since, many times a day. Yes, a handheld sprayer is not a proper bidet, but it's the closest thing I'll ever get to one in my tiny bathroom. I am so happy about this gift, I realized I needed to have a few words with you, dear reader, and hopefully turn you into a bidet convert. Now, I know Americans can be a little squeamish when we talk about this, once an American friend literally covered her ears and started jumping up and down and singing not to hear my eulogy of this adorably essential indoor spring. (Sorry, Americans, but I have to say it: Those founding Puritans sure did a number on you!) So I thought I'd write a Q&A to answer all of your burning questions so you don't have to bring anything up yourself.

Q: What is a bidet?
A: A bidet is a low basin with a faucet or a flushing rim (not preferred) situated in the bathroom. I've read 97% of Italian homes have one. The remaining 3% never have overnight guests.

Q: When do you use it?
A: After going to the toilet (mostly number two), before/after love making, during your period, and whenever you feel like it.

Q: ...
A: I know what you're about to ask: No, a daily shower is not enough. Unless you time the aforementioned activities around your morning shower or regularly take multiple showers per day, you do need a bidet.

Q: Well, I still think it's gross.
A: *eye-roll and sigh* I think I need some help. Read what these Italians have to say about this.
Bidet, always and forever. Honestly, I have no idea how you can live without it. I think it's the most genius invention in history. Is it possible that we are the only ones who use it? A., Crafter  
I can't live without it. If there's isn't one, then I always pray there's a tub or a handheld shower. C., Theater critic
I think the bidet is at the same time an object of design and an extremely gratifying practice, and I would add also a great topic of conversation among friends. It will decorate your bathroom as well as solve a sluggish conversation. And in any case, being clean and in order (down there) can eliminate embarrassment and lead to unexpected joys. A., Attorney
Hurray for the bidet, fresh water, and menthol intimate wash! So that when you're done you feel like you have someone else's [genitals]. R., DJ and philosopher

Q: "Methol intimate wash"?!?
A: Don't worry about that now. Yes, we have a "intimate" soaps, but menthol is not required. Anyway, focus. See how these people are obsessed with the bidet? The feeling of freshness and cleanliness a bidet gives you is something you can't take back.

Q: So what do you do when you're abroad?
A: Italians, your turn.
Bidet is like a great love that you take for granted and that you only realize you miss when it's no longer there, i.e. when you are abroad. This with the exception of Japan, when the bidet is integrated in the toilet, but that's another story. M., Executive Courier
I live abroad, and I've been using the sink instead for over 12 years, standing on the tip of my toes. It's awkward, but it's the best solution for me. I've never seen a bidet in the countries I've lived in, with the exception of Spain. I have to admit is great to rinse your feet, too, or to let your young children entertain themselves, but I've learned to live without it. B., Entrepreneur and muse
I can't believe the idea of the bidet hasn't spread to the rest of the world??? Why can't the world realize the superiority of the bidet? Anyway, when I travel I always carry a cargo of baby wipes. F., Travel guru and It Girl
When I'm abroad I use wipes. If I'm in a house or a hotel, I'll use the shower, but being fundamentally lazy and very sensitive to cold, I think that's torture. A., Crafter
Q: I don't know... I lived without a bidet for my entire life. I think I'm fine.
A: Then I have the ultimate question for you. Imagine you are walking down the street on your way to a nice dinner. You trip and fall—face down in dog shit. Would a simple tissue be enough for you? Or perhaps you'd prefer a baby wipe? Or do you wash profusely with soap and water?

Q: ...
A: I rest my case.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

MORE DOUGH: STUFFED PIZZA

Stuffed pizza with sausages, Swiss chard, and mozzarella.

We were recently invited to a birthday "pie party", where the host asked us specifically to bring an "Italian dish with sausages". The request put me in a tough spot: Although sausages are a specialty of the Veneto region where I'm from, it is hard to find them in a dish that you can bring pre-cooked to a buffet-style dinner. Sausages in Veneto—peppery and coarsely ground, with no fennel seeds or other spices—are mostly grilled on the spot and served with polenta.

As I started thinking about a dish that would be appropriate for the occasion, I remembered the pizza dough from The Italian Store in the freezer, calling me hauntingly like Poe's tell-tale heart. I also remembered a recipe for "Escarole-Stuffed Pizza" in an old issue of Gourmet Magazine that sounded pretty fantastic. I knew what to do: a stuffed pizza with sausages, Swiss chard, and mozzarella.

The only problem was, I'm still completely terrible at stretching dough. I'm too clumsy and impatient, and I always pierce several holes in any dough (or fabric, actually) that passes through my nervous hands. (Upon close inspection, you will notice that my pies are just a perplexing puzzle of broken pieces haphazardly thumbed together.) I needed help, and my very helpful and patient husband was happy to do the stretching with the lovely but fundamentally useless assistance of MiniBee, our oldest son. So I stood on the side and took the pictures, and begged my husband to write a little how-to for you coordinated and smart readers. (You'll find it below; keep on reading.)

How to make stuffed pizza with sausages, Swiss chard, and mozzarella.
The pizza is fairly easy to make once you have mastered the dough-stretching part: It is simply a pie filled with sausages and Swiss chard, to be eaten warm (or any temperature, really) in slices. The only trick I learned from the Gourmet recipe is cooking the crust first in the oven so that it does not get too soggy once you add the stuffing. The final pizza is soft, chewy, and perfectly salty. The sausages add a decadent joy to this recipe, but pizza is so versatile, you can really stuff it with anything you like. Although pardon me for repeating myself: NO PINEAPPLE AND NO CHICKEN. Don't make me come there with my perforating fingers and Poesque delusions.

Stuffed pizza with sausages, Swiss chard, and mozzarealla.


STUFFED PIZZA


3 sweet Italian sausages (about 1/2 lb)
1 crushed garlic clove
1/2 bunch Swiss Chard, chopped
1 C cubed mozzarella (drained for 10 minutes)
2 tbsp EVOO
Kosher salt 
pepper
flour
1 pizza dough at room temperature (only best-quality dough—DC people, you can only use Vace or The Italian Store or make your own)


MAKE THE STUFFING
  • Heat the oven to 500 degrees and put a large pot of salted water to boil.
  • Blanch the Swiss chard in water for 2 minutes, then strain it and dump in ice water. Dry with paper towels.
  • Squeeze out the meat from the sausages' casing. If you don't love doing this like I do, find someone who will.
  • Cook the sausage meat, breaking up large lumps with a wooden spoon, in a large skillet for 8 minutes or until browned and cooked through. Transfer a large mixing bowl.
  • Cook the crushed garlic in the rendered fat for 2 minutes. Discard.
  • Add the Swiss chard to the skillet and cook for about 4 minutes. 
  • Mix the Swiss chard with the sausage, let cool for for a few minutes, and then add the cubed mozzarella.
  • Sprinkle with one tablespoon of EVOO and salt and pepper to taste.
MAKE THE PIZZA
  • Cut 1/3 of the pizza dough and stretch on a floured surface to a 9'' diameter.
  • Place the dough in the cake pan, sprinkle with EVOO, and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the dough is golden. Let cool for 10 minutes or until you can touch dough and pan with your bare hands without risk of erasing your fingerprints.
  • Spoon the filling on the crust, keeping it about one inch away from the border.
  • Stretch the rest of the dough to a 10'' diameter. Place the dough it over the pizza and carefully fold it underneath for about an inch. Press edges so that the stuffing is perfectly enclosed.
  • Brush the top of the stuffed pizza with olive oil and sprinkle with additional salt.
  • Cook in the oven for 10-12 minutes, or until your pizza looks like the one in the picture above.
HOW TO STRETCH PIZZA DOUGH
Whether you have been a show-off and made your own pizza dough or simply bought it from your local pizzaiolo, you'll still need to transform that sticky ball of goodness into a soft, elastic, and impossibly thin disc. The first thing is, the dough should be room temperature. Too cold and you will actually feel it resisting your touch (insert joke here). Then, you should have plenty of flour on your working surface. Once you're ready, plop the dough on the flour and dust it liberally. Do not to fold the dough over onto itself: The time for kneading has passed, and all you would be making is a really crappy croissant. Instead, flatten the dough with your fingers, pushing it outward from the center, and flip it often in the flour. Soon the dough will begin to soften, and at that point you can start to stretch it—literally, pick up the flattened dough, hold it in front of you, and pull at it gently while turning it like a steering wheel. Eventually the dough's own weight will be enough to continue stretching it (that's why those guys flip it in the air!). You really want to make the dough almost paper thin, but without creating any holes. There are other tricks to making non-compliant dough more elastic, including dousing with olive oil, but really—flour is your best friend. —Alec

Find the original recipe from Gourmet here: Escarole-Stuffed Pizza.

Monday, October 13, 2014

PIZZE FRITTE (DEEP-FRIED PIZZAS)

Deep-fried pizzas with mozzarella, tomatoes, and eggplants.Last week I had my birthday. If you're dying to know, I turned 38, which apparently is considered the best age, at least according to this article I found by googling "38 is the best age". To celebrate, my dear husband fulfilled my dreams (and his) by getting me a deep-fryer. Of course, we had to put it to work right away, and the first dish that sprang to mind was deep-fried pizzas.

That's right: These are mini-calzones minimally filled and deep-fried. Please note this recipe is not a culinary junk dare like these deep-fried donut bacon cheeseburgers that I don't even want to comment on. It's actually inspired by a traditional Neapolitan recipe: the pizza fritta.

Junk food in America is traditional cuisine in Italy.


The original pizza fritta was born in the poor neighborhoods of Naples after the devastation of WWII. People could not afford pizza cooked in a wood-fire oven, so they started frying it in the streets instead. The pizzas were filled with ricotta and chitterlings, or left empty. In one my favorite movies, Vittorio De Sica's "L'Oro di Napoli" (The Gold of Naples) from 1954, you can see a young and impossibly beautiful Sophia Loren as a pizza fritta vendor. The pizza fritta is not as common today in its original form, but you can still find the calzone fritto: a whole calzone filled with ricotta, mozzarella, salami, and ham and deep-fried to perfection.

How to make deep-fried pizza with mozzarella, tomato, and eggplants.


But back to my birthday. I have no illusion our deep-fried pizzas would compete with their Neapolitan inspiration, but they were super delicious: soft, chewy, salty, and not at all greasy. We filled them with mozzarella, a little bit of San Marzano tomato sauce, and fried eggplants. We didn't make the dough ourselves because, living in D.C., we are blessed with great ready dough from two delicatessens, Vace and The Italian Store. We used Vace this time, and were thrilled to try their own mozzarella, prepared in-store every day.

These pizzas are fairly easy to make, and definitely very fun for a Sunday with friends. Of course, this is if your guests don't mind the smell of fryer oil on their hair and clothes for a week. Present it as a party favor: You might get away with it.

Deep fried pizzas with mozzarella, tomatoes, and eggplants.
D.C. people: Start frying.



PIZZE FRITTE

Makes 16 little fried pizzas.

3 quarts of frying oil (or 3 inches if you are doing it in a dutch oven over stove heat)
2 pizza dough disks
2 whole mozzarellas, cubed and drained for 10 min in a colander
1 1/2 C of tomato sauce (make your own with San Marzano tomatoes)
1 large eggplant, cubed and deep-fried
fresh basil leaves
EVOO
Salt
Pepper


  • Heat the oil in your deep-fryer or dutch oven to 375 degrees.
  • Cut each dough in 8 parts on a well floured surface (flour is your friend, it helps soften the dough and make it more elastic) and then flatten each mini-dough, starting from the center (about 4'' diameter). Be careful the dough doesn't tear. Use your hands here; using a rolling pin is not advised for pizza. (It will cause it to tear more easily.)
  • On each pizza disc, place a small handful of mozzarella cubes, 1 tablespoon of tomato sauce, 1 tablespoon of fried eggplants, and a basil leaf.
  • Sprinkle with salt and pepper and a little EVOO.
  • Fold the dough over and press firmly to seal the pizzas into tiny calzones. It is important to create a good seal so the moisture from the cheese and sauce does not mix with the hot oil and splatter. 
  • Deep-fry until the pizzas are puffed-up and golden, turning once, just under 2 minutes. 
  • Serve immediately.

Note: These pizzas can be easily made vegan. Fill with tomato sauce, eggplant, olives, and everything you would like to see on pizzas with the exception of pineapples. 
Another note: Pizza fritta can also be made like this. My friend Checco makes this kind every year in Italy, and it's a celebration to remember. Just fry the open pizza dough and then spoon over tomato sauce and grated cheese.





PASTA WITH FRIED ZUCCHINI (AND THE GARLIC RULE)


I woke up this morning and was shocked to see it's October and not August. Where did late summer go? Halloween decor has been gracing the shelves of my CVS since July 5th, so perhaps I've trained my brain to screen out all references to Fall. But I know whom to blame for my confusion: My CSA is still offering zucchini and squash, so I'm still in summer mode. You'll have to scalpel away the Haflinger cork sandals from my dead, tan feet. (Sorry, this is a horrible image.)

Today I present you with a classic Sicilian recipe that my grandmother and mother prepared many times for my sister and I when we were little girls. The main ingredient is zucchini, thinly sliced and fried until golden brown and then spooned over spaghetti and topped with grated cheese. The sweet juices from the zucchini are going to give your spaghetti a nice brown color once you mix all the ingredients, which is something I remember perfectly from my childhood.

Standing in front of a frying pan for 20 minutes, carefully turning over zucchini slices is not my ideal approach to summer heat, so maybe it's really better if we make this pasta in October, when the air is nice and cool and our sunny past is just behind us.

Fried zucchini
Fried zucchini at rest.

THE GARLIC RULE

And here's the Garlic Rule you've been waiting for since reading this post's title. As you will see in the recipe below, the garlic is just crushed, added to the hot oil until golden, AND THEN DISCARDED. This is key concept in Italian cooking that people used to Italian-American cooking might not realize. Italians love garlic and use it often, but they like it mostly in moderation, as a small pungent accent. Heaps of minced garlic are NOT a thing in Italian cuisine. By frying the garlic for a minute, you basically infuse the oil with garlic flavor and perfume and you don't turn it into a branding tool to stamp the word "garlic" on your entire meal.

Eat me.

SPAGHETTI WITH FRIED ZUCCHINI

4 medium zucchini
2 garlic cloves, crushed 
1/4 C EVOO (or enough to fry the zucchini)
1 lb spaghetti
1/4 C grated pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano
Salt
Pepper


  • Cut the zucchini in 1/4'' disks and set up a large pot with water for the spaghetti.
  • Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan.
  • Cook the garlic cloves in the hot oil for one minute, or until golden. Then discard.
  • Place the zucchini disks in one layer in the pan and fry on both sides, a few minutes per side, until golden brown. You might need to fry the zucchini in batches.
  • Remove the zucchini and place them on a plate covered with paper towels to drain the excess oil.
  • Cook the spaghetti al dente. You might want to use the technique for pasta with uncooked sauce outlined here.
  • Mix the spaghetti in a large bowl with the zucchini, the cheese, and some freshly-ground black pepper.
  • Serve immediately.

And since we're making spaghetti, let's refresh our basic pasta skills:


Monday, September 22, 2014

DEALING WITH "HELP": A CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK

This post is aimed mostly at mothers, but I believe it might be useful for everybody else, too. So read on, and let me know what you think.

I believe that one of the most difficult tasks a new mother is presented with (together with taking care of an infuriatingly ungrateful living creature while being continually chastised by society) is getting the help she really needs. Since I had my first child over three years ago, I was lucky to have family and friends come and visit often in order to help me. The help was mostly well received, but to be honest there were times I wished I had no help at all. I'll give you a few examples.

One time I thought a simple nap WITHOUT MY BABY would save my life, whereas my mother thought I needed her to reorganize my kitchen drawers. Another time, a well-meaning friend pestered me to tell her exactly how she could help me, but I was too tired to answer so she reorganized my kitchen drawers. Once I dropped my baby in my father's arms and ran to take a nap. I awoke to my child screaming out of mad hunger in a soiled diaper while my dad was happily reorganizing my kitchen drawers. See a pattern here? 

At first, I thought the problem was finding a way to communicate effectively what I needed. But that was only half of the problem, since there are people who won't meet your needs even when they are expressed in a simple sentence written in a bold Helvetica typeface on the side of a zeppelin and echoed by a Gospel choir. The real lesson I had to learn before I asked for any help was a simple one:

THE HELP YOU'RE GOING TO GET = THE HELP ONE IS WILLING TO GIVE YOU

There are different kinds of helpers in this world, and unless you learn to recognize and accept their strengths and limitations, your pleas for help are going to be exhaustingly unproductive. So let me introduce you to a framework to help you identify the types of Helpers in your life so that you, dear mother, can maximize the support you're receiving.

Type 1. The Moderate Helper

As you can see from the diagram below, the Moderate Helper will help you in some of the things you need done (the Help Offered is a subset of the Help Needed). The Moderate Helper listens to your requests and usually takes on the easiest and quickest tasks. People in this category tend to be friends without children, so their judgement is not impaired by blood line or by supposed "experience with kids".


Babysitting: Up to 30 minutes for a non-crying baby.
Duties performed: Allows you to shower and take a short nap, makes sandwich and/or coffee.
Advice offered: Suggests interesting new releases on Netflix.

Type 2. The Good Helper

The Good Helper does everything s/he can while in your company. S/he will listen carefully to your requests and even spontaneously assess your situation in order to provide help that you feel too embarrassed to ask for. People in this category are usually well-adjusted individuals with children close in age to yours, and rarely blood relatives. As you can see from the diagram, they perfectly cover all your needs.



Babysitting: Up to 3 hours.
Duties performed: Lets you take a bath, cleans up your living room, brings a bag of groceries (prompted or unprompted).
Advice offered: Generic and non-judgmental tips on baby-rearing.


Type 3. The Great Helper

The Great Helper doesn't even need to hear your requests. S/he will immediately help you with everything you need and with other things you didn't even know you needed (Help Needed is a subset of the Help Offered). People in this category are usually successful members of society with a high level of empathy. Please note this is the Holy Grail of friendships. Honor it.


Babysitting: Up to 12 hours (overnight included).
Duties performed: Schedules appointment with lactation consultant as soon as you're back from the hospital, lets you drop off your child at their house and then kicks you out, brings gourmet food unprompted, leaves dry shampoo in your beauty-case without mentioning it, changes your bedsheets, instills in your child awe and respect for nature.
Advice offered: None.

Type 4. The Bad Helper

The Bad Helper will technically help you, but will feel obligated to "help" with tasks you couldn't care less about. Bad Helpers technically don't deserve the "Bad" label, since they are actually helping, but you will get so irritated at their misdirected efforts that I have to call them that. People in this category are usually close relatives or people whose adult children live in another state/country.




Babysitting: Up to 1 hour.
Duties performed: Sets the table, brings junk food, distracts you with mildly-entertaining gossip, reorganizes kitchen drawers.
Advice offered: Long, heartfelt discussion on the best way to change your parenting style completely but successfully, based on their personal experience.

Type 5. The Really Bad Helper

The Really Bad Helper is someone who will not do anything you need because s/he knows better than you. In this diagram, you see how Help Needed and Help Offered do not intersect at all. Really Bad Helpers are usually a parent (yours or your partner's) or a parent's sibling. In case of the sibling, having children is irrelevant to their uselessness.



Babysitting: Up to 30 minutes (while you are printing some weird document they need printed).
Duties performed: Polishes brass you didn't know you had, vacuums laptop keyboard, irons your wedding dress, spends hours online researching scientifically obsolete diet plan for you to follow, informs you your child needs to learn some respect.
Advice offered: On all fronts, because they think you're being too soft but also too insensitive to your child's needs.


OK, BUT WHAT DO I DO WITH THIS INFORMATION?


Being able to identify the types of Helpers in your life is hugely important. While it's true you will have to deal with each of them at some point, knowing their role will help you decide who to call and when, and whose offer to politely reject. For example, Great Helpers need to be called right after birth, whereas Really Bad Helpers can be invited for tea on a weekend or whenever you and your partner are both home to support each other. I would also suggest you share this framework with your Helpers, so that people can take a hard look at themselves and see whether they can drop the brass polishing already.