Archive for Italian food

Bistecca alla Pizzaiola

Posted in Home cooking and more with tags , , , , , , , on November 17, 2008 by restaurantouring

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So, in a previous entry that I wrote, I said that I was disappointed in a steak that I had ordered at an Italian restaurant.  I also said that I would make it at home myself, the implication being that I knew I could make it better.  This is normal for me.  I often think this about ordinary dishes from run-of-the-mill restaurants, not just because I think of myself as a decent cook, but because I am an asshole.

So, because the steak I had at Andrea’s restaurant in Metairie, Louisiana was so disappointing, I made my own bistecca alla pizzaiola for revenge.  The results were much improved, if I do say so myself.

For the record, I hope I’m not angering anyone out there, especially any Italians.  I’m not trying to be an asshole about these restaurants.  I’m just trying to pursue good food.

Anyway, for those who are interested in making this classic, rustic Italian dish at home, you will need:

– A heavy gauged pan, preferably a clad, stainless steel pan, although a well seasoned cast iron pan will do (A lot of people are afraid of cooking acidic foods in a cast iron pan.  As long as the cast iron is well seasoned, I don’t see any problem with occassionally cooking mildly acidic foods in it.  The flavor might be altered, but for this dish, it won’t be a very big deal)

– oil, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper

– a steak (Andrea’s used rib-eyes)

– tomatoes (fresh plum tomatoes are great when they are in season — summer to early autumn.  If they are out of season, it is best to use canned plum tomatoes rather than using the pale red, fresh, bland, flavorless, hydroponically grown tomatoes from Mexico or Canada.  Since it is November, I used the canned variety.)

– red chili flakes, 1 tbsp finely chopped onion or shallot, 1 tsp minced garlic, and some [preferably] fresh oregano, basil, and thyme.

– (optional) a shot of chicken stock and a shot of wine (red or white.  Doesn’t really matter.  Depends on your taste, and/or what you have on hand.)

You will also need to know how to properly sear a steak, and it wouldn’t hurt to understand why searing is important for your food.

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Begin by salting and properly searing the steak over medium-high heat.  Again, instructions for how to sear a steak can be found here.  Remove the steak to a plate, grind some black pepper onto it, and cover it with foil to keep the steak hot while you prepare the tomato sauce.

What a properly seared steak looks like

What a properly seared steak looks like

Turn the heat down to about medium-low to low.  Pour off any excess fat in the pan, add the onion or shallots first, followed by the garlic and red chili flakes (to taste.  Use your best judgment when dealing with spice).   Adding garlic after the onions can help prevent the garlic from burning and tinging the dish with the bitter disgustingness that is burnt garlic.

Sweat these aromatics for a couple of minutes until they turn translucent or until the pan is dry.  At this point, water, wine, or chicken stock may be added as needed if the pan gets too dry.  Otherwise, use the tomato.

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Add anywhere from 2 – 4 plum tomatoes, depending on how much you like tomato (dice them if they’re fresh.  Otherwise, canned tomatoes can be mashed with a wooden spoon or a spatula).  Turn the heat back up to medium, medium-high, and cook until the tomato mix has been reduced to a cohesive sauce-like consistency.  You don’t want your sauce to be runny and watery, since the flavors will be diluted.

Speaking of flavors, taste the tomato sauce and adjust for seasoning (you’ll probably need to add salt and some black pepper at this point).

Throw in the herbs shortly before you’re finished cooking the sauce.  You can chop, tear, or bruise the herbs — it doesn’t really matter.

Now, you can either return the steak to the pan to finish cooking (if you like your steak a little more done), or you can simply top the steak with the sauce if you like your steak on the rare side.

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That’s it.  Bistecca alla pizzaiola.  Simple, rustic, and you only need one pan.  I served mine with steamed broccoli and carrots, simply because I have too much of those two vegetables laying around.  At Andrea’s, I had a watery mound of spaghetti squash and I think some mashed potatoes.  John Mariani had his with a side of angel hair pasta with garlic and olive oil.  Whatever side you choose, this steak is a winner.

Cooking at home is great.  You save both time and money in this case, since this dish is so easy to make.  What more could you ask for?

A steak knife, perhaps.

Mushroom Risotto with Chardonnay

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Home cooking and more with tags , , , , , , on November 9, 2008 by restaurantouring
Like the dino squirt bottle?

Like my dinosaur squirt bottle in the back? Can you tell that I'm a fan of Alton Brown? I used to have a T-rex squirt bottle, but someone stole it. Sadness 😦

A few months ago, I was cooking with my cousin, Sharon.  It was her birthday, she was throwing a party because she wanted to cook for everyone, and I agreed to help with the cooking.  She suddenly started panicking, because she realized she lost her recipe for a mushroom risotto that she really liked (it was a Rachel Ray recipe, and my cousin adores Rachel Ray for some reason).  After calming her down, we made this risotto, which I love.  The picture above was taken tonight, since I had it for dinner.  Apologies for the terrible lighting.  My apartment is poorly lit and it’s been rainy and cloudy all week, so I haven’t had much luck with the whole photography thing.  Also, I’m using a shallow frying pan here because, quite frankly, the pot I would normally use to make it was being used by my roommate.  It happens.  It’s not my pot anyway.  The pan, however, is.

I’m a big fan of not following recipes.  That’s because I strongly believe that as long as you understand what’s supposed to go into a dish, you can wing it and you can get by just fine.  Sometimes, you just need to know a lot more about some dishes, especially if it’s a complex and very refined recipe.

So the question naturally follows: “What is a risotto?”  To me, a risotto is nothing more than a flavorful rice porridge — sublime when it is executed correctly, and utterly bland when the proper steps aren’t taken to maximize flavor.  To elaborate, risotto is a rice porridge that begins with an aromatic sweat*, usually with butter and olive oil (which add flavor, as well).  Then, the rice (classically, but not always, with arborio rice) is toasted, which develops more flavor.  Then, liquid is added several times during the cooking process, until the rice reaches the desired consistency and level of doneness.  Some people like their risotto al dente.  I like mine softer.

But the heart of the matter is that risotto is basically a rice porridge.  And I’m Chinese.  We Chinese people know alllllll about the rice porridge.  We eat rice porridge for breakfast (literally)!

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So, we began the risotto.  First, we assembled our meez (or mise en place, if you prefer.  It’s French for “everything in its place.” *cue Radiohead song*): chop a medium onion, dice a rib of celery, mince a couple cloves of garlic, steep about 7 or 8 dried shiitake mushrooms in hot water, stare at a package of button mushrooms, and set aside those button mushrooms for another day because they can be too bland for me (although they’re great for making duxelle, but that’s another blog.  I hope I’m not infringing on any of Alton’s copyrights, by the way.  That would be teh suck).

Then, we melted some butter (if you have to ask, I’d say it was about 2 or 3 tablespoons, but I hate measuring, which explains why I’m such a TERRIBLE baker), added some olive oil to the pot (regular olive oil, not the extra virgin stuff, since heat spoils the great flavor of aromatic oils), and started the aromatic vegetable sweat by gently cooking and stirring the chopped onion, celery, and minced garlic over low heat.

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While the aromats sweat, filling the house with fragrant deliciousness, we retrieved the mushrooms from the hot water (I usually just use my bare hands because I’m an idiot and I think that if you’re gonna cook in the kitchen, you oughta get a few lumps anyway).  I sliced off the woody stems and threw those into a pot of barely simmering, home made chicken stock (WASTE NOTHING!).

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Then, I sliced all the mushrooms into 1/4 of an inch thick strips and added those to the sweat (you can brown mushrooms like you would a piece of meat, as well, but since these were reconstituted and totally waterlogged, it would be difficult to do.  Otherwise, I’m always a fan of developing as much flavor as possible, which would include browning mushrooms).

Once the onions, celery, and garlic turned translucent, I added a touch more butter and olive oil (since there wasn’t enough), turned the flame up to medium-high heat, heated up the pan, and added the arborio rice (about a cup of it).  I toasted the rice and stirred it occassionally, to prevent sticking.

Once the rice started smelly nutty and turned a golden brown color, I deglazed the pan with chardonnay, and flamed the pan because I think I’m cool (I’m not).  Remember to always be careful in the kitchen, and keep a fire extinguisher nearby, just in case.

Then, I cooked this mixture down until it was almost dry to try to drive off as much of the alcohol as possible**.

Then, once the mixture was mostly dry and starting to stick to the pan (be careful not to let it burn!), I deglazed it again with the reserved water from when I reconstituted the mushrooms (That water is full of good mushroom flavor.  Also, WASTE NOTHING!).

After that, it was simply a process of dosing the rice with liquid just to cover, cooking it down till it was fairly dry, and adding more liquid to cover, until the rice had taken about 5 – 7 doses of stock or water, or until the rice reached a desirable consistency and level of doneness (whichever one came first).  Don’t worry about the rice getting mushy.  The rice is pretty hearty, plus the toasting helps to slow down the rate that the rice absorbs liquid, so by the time all that stock is either absorbed or evaporated, the rice hasn’t lost too much of its integrity.  The key is in proper, frequent stirring, which allows enough of the starch to mix with the liquid to make the rice creamy, without actually adding any cream.  Of course, if you want to add cream (and parmesan cheese, highly recommended), you can do so to very good effect.

I used homemade chicken stock, which is ridiculously easy to make at home, provided that you’re like me and in the habit of saving up all your chicken bones (WASTE NOTHING!).  In fact, it’s a shame that more people don’t do it, because that crap you can buy at the store is terrible.  I’ll include a recipe for chicken stock one of these days (probably soon), but it’s really easy, and good recipes can be found online quite quickly and easily.

Risotto Redux

Risotto Redux***

That’s it.  Risotto, with mushrooms and chardonnay.  Maybe with some chopped, flat leaf parsley at the end for flavor and garnish.  Started with an aromatic sweat, toasted some arborio, dosed the mix with wine, mushroom water, and chicken stock, and cooked it down until it was done.  Delicious.  And even more delicious the next day, since time allows the flavors to meld and deepen.  You can also make this with a touch of cream or with some shaved parmesan cheese.  Or both!  Why not?  The variations are endless.

another angle

another angle

* The term “sweat” in cooking refers to  cooking [vegetables] without frying or sauteing them.  It’s done over low heat, so you shouldn’t hear any sizzling, or you shouldn’t hear vigorous sizzling, anyway.   This gentle cooking allows the aromats to flavor the oil and whatever food that will be cooked with it.  Properly sweated veggies will turn soft and translucent (well, onions, garlic, and celery will.  Good luck trying to make carrots and peppers turn translucent, though!).

** You can never really totally cook out the alcohol when you’re cooking with it, so if you’re pregnant or cooking for someone who may be pregnant, you should probably avoid cooking with wine and alcohol whenever possible.  Yes, the amount of alcohol is tiny, but better safe than sorry, I always say.  The acidity that wine brings to the table can be substituted with just a little bit of lemon juice, added towards the end of cooking to brighten up the flavors.  Just deglaze the pan with stock, water, or the mushroom water instead of deglazing with wine, but it won’t be the same.  Depends on your taste.

*** I actually made the risotto again a little while later, since I had left over arborio rice that I wanted to get rid of.  This time, I stirred in some freshly grated parmesan cheese and some left over basil cream sauce from a roasted vegetable terrine I made earlier (WASTE NOTHING!).  I also had some asparagus, which I later threw into the mix, but that’s not pictured above.

Andrea’s Carpaccio and Bistecca alla Pizzaiola

Posted in New Orleans Restaurants with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2008 by restaurantouring

So a while back, I stumbled across an article written by John Mariani, from Esquire magazine, while browsing the interwebs. The article lists (according to Mariani) the top 20 steaks in America. Basically, he went around eating different kinds of steaks until he found what he considered the best steak of a particular style. When he found what he considered the best, he moved on to focus on a different style of preparing steak. So, if you click above and read the article, you’ll see that the kinds of steak vary from porterhouses to New York or Kansas City strip steaks to cheese steaks to Japanese, teppanyaki steak (hibachi).

I read the article, somewhat enthused, because I love me a good steak. Sometimes, it’s hard to find a good one, especially if you don’t live close to a really good steakhouse. I was excited when I saw that there was a restaurant in Metairie, Louisiana, on the list, because I frequently travel to New Orleans, Metairie, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi for work. I’ve been there so many times, and I’ve eaten in so many restaurants there that dealing with the omnivore’s dilemma (not the book, but the problem of trying to answer the question “what am I going to have for dinner tonight?”) has become very difficult. “Things will be different, next time,” I thought to myself. Andrea’s was now on my list.

About a month ago, I finally found myself back in New Orleans International, ready (more or less) for a monster of a business trip, where I would have to work anywhere from 12 to 17 hours a day, every day, for 3 weeks straight (Not that I mind all that much. As long as the time passes quickly, I consider it training for the long hours I will inevitably work when I eventually decide to switch careers from psychology and research to working on the line). I make my way over to Metairie with my co-worker, Florence, to try to find this restaurant — getting lost along the way (Andrea’s is on 19th Street, but the highway intersects 19th street. I was on the wrong side of 19th Street).

Andrea’s is a fancy Italian joint, right off of North Causeway Blvd. An old brick-and-mortar building, with gas lights, the building’s exterior is as elegant and charming as the interior’s bar, chandeliers, and refrigerated dessert display case. We were terribly under-dressed for the place (every other guy in the place had a jacket and tie, while the ladies wore nice dresses).

We started dinner by ordering wine; Florence had a decent glass of Merlot, while I had a somewhat flat-tasting pinot noir (a pitfall of ordering wines by-the-glass, I suppose. Too much oxidation). Additionally, we started by sharing a plate of carpaccio.

Beef carpaccio is a dish that was created to reflect the brilliant uses of the color red in Venetian painter, Vittore Carpaccio’s paintings. Typically, beef carpaccio is made from thin slices of beef tenderloin, pounded wafer-thin, seasoned simply with some salt and freshly ground black pepper, and drizzled with some good extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Capers and minced parsley garnish the dish and add additional flavor. Personally, I prefer nonpareil capers (they’re smaller — the smallest capers, in fact — and more elegant). Also, I don’t think tenderloin has to be the default cut of beef, since the pounding already severely tenderizes meat, so as long as you’re using a lean piece of meat, you’re fine. Of course, if you’re breaking down your own pismo [piz-mo, phonetic for PSMO, butcher-speak for “peeled, side meat on”] of beef tenderloin, feel free to pound up the ends and trimmings for carpaccio. Of course, I’m not here to write a recipe for beef carpaccio (that’s another blog). I’m here to talk about Andrea’s.

Andrea’s version of carpaccio was a little bland, to be honest. The tenderloin was drizzled with white truffle oil (at least that’s what it said on the menu. I personally didn’t get any truffle flavor with the dish), served with a simple arugula salad, and garnished with some shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Perhaps they forgot the salt? Alternatively, I could have used some acid — either fresh lemon or capers. Or both. That would have been nice.

No matter. I wasn’t there for the carpaccio, anyway.

After a bit of a wait, the crabmeat ravioli that Florence ordered came with my medium-rare bistecca alla pizzaiola. Unfortunately, both of us were disappointed. My steak was cooked to perfect doneness, but the flavors just weren’t there, contrary to John Mariani’s description of a steak seasoned with an “artist’s sense.” My rib-eye wasn’t seared properly. The bottom was a dull, unappetizing, brownish-gray color — a clear sign of a failed saute. The pizzaiola sauce was made with canned plum tomatoes that had been left mostly whole, and although I could distinctly see the minced garlic, I couldn’t really taste it. I couldn’t detect a hint of spice, unlike the description I enthusiastically read just a few weeks prior to this meal, and the weak parts definitely did not add up to an “unexpectedly powerful whole.” This was one of America’s best 20 steaks? I felt cheated.

Florence later told me that her crabmeat ravioli was “not that good,” and in fact that it was “kind of disgusting.” Harsh words, to be sure. All around, it was not a good experience, despite the higher-end feel of the place and people. With so many older people around, I was surprised that the food wasn’t more heavily seasoned, considering our sense of taste diminishes with age (no offense all you older folks out there).

I suppose the problem was really two-fold: 1) We were not John Mariani, and 2) the chef probably wasn’t the one doing the cooking that night. We were just two bums from off the street — under-dressed and clearly out of place in the restaurant that night. We had no reservations. Rubes, from the looks of it. And because we were under-dressed, no-reservation nobodies, it probably wasn’t terribly important to the kitchen staff that we were served the best food possible. This is wrong. Everyone should be treated equally, when it comes to a good meal, and I hate to settle for mediocrity, especially when I have to pay upwards of $50 for mediocrity. I’d rather cook for myself. At least I know how to properly sear a steak!

Since I highly doubt that I got the same steak as Mr. Mariani (and since I sincerely doubt that Mr. Mariani got the same steak that I got and simply thought it was the best), I’m going to come up with my own recipe for bistecca alla pizzaiola. It’s going to be awesome. I’ll be back when I’ve got it more-or-less down.