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Sunday, July 21

Gapers Block

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Food is the language of love. For many people at least, myself included. There are moments where I take a bite of something and all the flavors are so perfectly matched and blended that my heart literally swells and the oxygen-flow to my brain slows and I experience euphoria. And then I cry. I've had friends who've fed me things that have made me cry who look frightened and ask, "Is she choking? Is she allergic to this?" I'm sure that my face must look like I'm in agony, but I'm not. I'm only hazily aware of my surroundings and so amazed at what I'm tasting that I'm aware of each smooth transition as different ingredients replace each other like a slow and seductive dance.

And as much as I hate to admit it, nothing I've made has ever made myself cry, or anyone else for that matter. And I'm okay with that because I'm lucky enough to have friends who understand that even though I'm no Grant Achatz, I do put love into every dish that I make for other people. And even if they don't like everything I make, they appreciate the effort and are grateful that I'm willing to try to make them so happy.

There is one special person who I most enjoy cooking for. He gets to see glimpses into most of the dishes that I make. He sees the ingredient lists and the messes that I create while cooking, and he knows that he not only gets to taste my newest dish, but he is often my muse. I enjoyed cooking when I lived alone, but not as much as I did once I had someone living with me everyday who I wanted to make happy.

As much as I despise the store-bought, roses-and-chocolates-and-diamonds sentiment around Valentine's Day, I'm kind of a sucker for at least making sure that we have a really nice meal. The effort I put forth, while sometimes affected negatively by time constraints, is equivalent to the amount of joy I take from the eater's presence.

And since Valentine's Day is "the day of expressing your love for that special someone," what better way for me to do it than to make an amazing meal? Sure, going out to eat can be romantic, but it isn't always. Based on past experiences, Valentine's Day is one of those days when I never want to eat out again. There's so much pressure to be romantic and enjoy each other's presence while the servers are doing their best to rush you through a meal, and the kitchen staff is upset that they're not spending the day with their sweethearts and they're pressured to do everything as quickly as possible, so the food just doesn't look as nice as it could or taste as good as it should. Which leads to disappointment, which leads to more pressure, which leads to less enjoyment.

Which leads me to want to stay home and cook. Maybe it's because I love Italian food, and maybe it's a little because my guy has some Italian heritage, and maybe it's because a lot of Italian food is comforting and good during the winter, but this year I decided that our dinner would have an Italian focus.

It's common in Italy to have multi-course meals. This doesn't mean that each course is huge — sometimes a course is just a few shrimp, or a small green salad. Here are the different courses in what my father-in-law calls a "trick meal," since he never knows when it's going to stop.

Antipasto: (pasto means meal, so this is "before the meal") Olives, bruschetta, cured meats, cheeses, sliced vegetables. These are usually things that wouldn't require a plate or utensils, something you could pick up and pop into your mouth.

Primo: This would be a pasta, risotto, polenta or soup depending on which area of the country one comes from. This is not the traditional size of a full entree. Picture a half portion or smaller. This is something to calm your hunger while still giving you room for the several courses still to come.

Secondo: This is what Americans would usually consider a main course. Meat, fish or eggplant parmesan for vegetarians.

Contorno: (which gets served with the Secondo) Separate vegetable dish. Usually this is simply prepared, however for a more drawn-out dinner, something like eggplant parmesan could be served at this course.

Salad: This is an optional course. Yes, many Italians eat a light salad after the rest of the courses. It's intended to end the meal on a light note, so simple greens with a light vinagrette is what would be typical.

Dessert: Italians are known for their desserts, with a lot of regional influences. However, oftentimes a dessert is just a piece of sliced fruit with a little honey or some nuts on the side.

Since eating this meal is intended to be the evening's entertainment, it's OK to have a meal that will take several hours to make and cook. And the making can be part of the enjoyment of the evening. There are many steps which can be completed ahead of time so that the meal prep on Thursday night goes faster, and I'll tell you what those steps are. But if you're trying to impress your date, then some of the cooking has to be completed while your guest watches and helps.

I would suggest having this prepared ahead of time so you can simply plate it and have it ready for nibbling upon arrival. I suggest a handful of a few different types of olives, a dozen or so slices of a nice hard cured meat, maybe a quarter ounce of cheese cut into cubes, some sliced fennel (just the white part), bell pepper slices, or grape tomatoes that have been tossed in a simple combinatiion of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a zest from a lemon or an orange and sprinkled with a little salt and pepper. Place this onto a large plate and leave it in the kitchen so you can both snack and sip wine while preparing the rest of the courses. And since several of these recipes call for white wine as an ingredient, I suggest buying a bottle of Trebbiano or Verdicchio to cook with and sip on during the antipasto and primo courses before moving to finish the meal with a red Barolo.

Primo: Spaghetti Carbonara
Many restaraunts serve a concoction that contains a lot of cream and crispy bacon and sometimes even peas. This isn't traditional. This also is a dish that is best made for just one or two since it requires some care and attention to prepare. It's not a very healthy dish, but since you're eating a smaller portion than you would get in an Italian restaraunt, and since the next few courses are much lighter and healthier, don't feel too guilty eating this.

4 ounces of spaghetti
3 tablespoons of prosciutto, pancetta, bacon or other cured pork cut into cubes or sticks
2 eggs
1/4 cup of parmesan cheese (more if you wish)
a generous teaspoon of black pepper
a pinch of nutmeg
1 cup of white wine or vermouth
2 tablespoons of butter

Place a pot of water over high heat and bring it to a boil. While it heats up, chop the meat into cubes and add it to a skillet placed over medium-low heat. Stir this frequently while the fat cooks out and the meat cooks. Once the meat is crispy, drain off most but not all of the fat. In a bowl, combine the eggs, cheese, pepper and nutmeg. Stir well to combine and let it sit. Turn the heat on the meat back to medium and add the white wine. Let it reduce until it almost seems syrupy. Add the butter and stir it till it melts. Let the skillet sit over very low heat until the pasta is finished cooking. Drain it and pour it into the skillet. Toss to coat the noodles evenly with the bacon-wine-butter mixture. Now pour the egg mixture over the top and stir vigorously until the noodles are coated. Serve and eat immediately.

Secondo: Chicken with Wine and Lemon Sauce
1 lemon
2 chicken breast halves
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup of olive oil
5 tablespoons of fresh herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, tarragon or any mixture would do)
2 cloves of garlic, minced or run through a press
salt and pepper

Grate the zest off the lemon and place it into either a plastic zipper bag or a small glass bowl just large enough to hold the chicken side-by-side so it can marinate. Squeeze the lemon and add the juice to the zest. Add the wine, olive oil, herbs and garlic. Stir the marinade to combine it and place the chicken pieces in it. Seal the bag or cover the bowl, and place it in your refrigerator to marinate overnight.

Preheat your oven to 350° F. Place a skillet over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and place the chicken breasts in the oil. Cook it until it is almost crisp on the first side (about 4 minutes) before flipping and cooking for another 3-4 minutes on the other side. Place the chicken in a dish that is just large enough to contain it (a loaf bread pan is the perfect size) and place it in the oven. Pour the remaining marinade into the skillet and scrape up any bits left in the pan. Let it come to a boil before pouring this over the chicken. Let this bake for 20-25 minutes. You'll know its done when you poke the thickest part of the chicken with a knife and the juices are clear. Transfer a piece to each plate and pour some of the sauce over each breast.

Once the chicken is in the oven you should have enough time to leisurely make the cauliflower side dish below.

Contorno: Cauliflower with Chickpeas and Mustard Seeds
(Thanks to Ilva of Lucullian Delights for the inspiration for this dish.)
1 head of cauliflower (I found some orange cauliflower at Caputo's on Harlem near Grand Avenue)
1 medium onion, chopped fine
1 tablespoon of olive oil
5 tablespoons of yellow and black mustard seeds (These can be purchased in the bulk section of Whole Foods or from the Spice House. If you can buy them separately, purchase more yellow than black seeds.)
1 can of chickpeas, drained
1/4 cup of white wine

Place a skillet over medium heat and add the onion, olive oil and mustard seeds. Let it cook until the onion is just starting to turn golden brown. Divide the cauliflower into small florets (this can be done ahead of time) and add them to the skillet with a sprinkle of salt. Let this cook for about 4 minutes before adding the can of drained chickpeas. Add a 1/4 cup of dry white wine and cover the skillet. Let it cook for about 3-4 minutes, stirring it once or twice. Remove the lid to let the alcohol evaporate and let it continue cooking until the cauliflower is fork tender.

Yes, this is a huge amount of food, and way too much for tonight's dinner. But that's the point. Put the leftovers in two separate containers and on Friday, you'll have an edible reminder of the night before for lunch. You can even eat some of the leftover cheese, salumi or olives to round out your lunchtime meal.

To make this slightly lighter, and since you're likely to be full but still wanting to save room for dessert, this salad is very light, served in small portions, and can be easily dawdled through.

1/2 cup of olive oil
1/2 cup of white wine vinegar
1 clove of garlic, minced or run through a press
1 tablespoon of honey
1 teaspoon of salt
several grinds of black pepper
1 teaspoon of finely grated parmesan cheese

Combine all of the ingredients in a jar and shake vigorously. If the honey doesn't distribute well, warm it in the microwave for about 30 seconds and then shake again. Place it in the refrigerator and let it sit overnight. When ready to serve, shake well and then pour over:
Two large handfuls of mixed organic greens (about 3 ounces) that have been washed and shaken dry
1/4 of a cucumber washed and cut into slices

Serve and eat. The leftovers will keep for up to two weeks.

Dessert: Grana Padano "Ice Cream" with Balsamic Vinegar Reduction
This dessert is totally over the top. Completely over the top. But it is easy, slightly unusual, not terribly sweet, and very impressive. If you're trying to impress someone, you want to end big. This isn't really ice cream, and yes it is made from fancy parmesan cheese. So it is almost savory, but just sweet enough to classify as a dessert. And a little goes a long way.

1 cup of whipping cream
3.5 ounces of finely grated Grana Padano (available at Italian grocers, or Whole Foods)
1 cup of balsamic vinegar

Place a stainless steel bowl over a pot of simmering water. Combine the cream and cheese and whisk it until the cheese melts and the texture is very smooth. Place 2 or 3 layers of cheesecloth into a mesh strainer and pour the mixture through the sieve and into a deep baking dish. Let it cool on the counter for about 30 minutes and place it in the fridge overnight.

Pour the vinegar into a stainless steel pan. Aluminum and copper will react with the acid in the vinegar so the type of pan is important. Bring the vinegar to a boil before reducing the heat to medium low and letting the sauce reduce until there is about 1/4 cup left and it has the consistency of syrup. Let it sit on the counter to cool before putting into a squeeze bottle or small jar so it can be refrigerated. This will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.

When ready to serve, take the "ice cream" out of the fridge. The mixture should be solid and have the texture of ice cream. Use a small ice cream scoop or a melon baller to create small balls and place them into decorative dishes. Drizzle the balsamic vinegar reduction over the top and enjoy.

I can't promise that anyone else is as easily won over to love by way of food like I am, but making a full meal that is fancy, but not difficult can't hurt. The ingredients required are available at Caputo's, Whole Foods and probably many other smaller grocers with a decent Italian section in the city or suburbs. But there aren't so many ingredients called for that you'll wish you went out to eat instead. And if you do end up making this dish, let me know. I'd love to hear how it went for you. And in case you're in a rush, here is the shopping list you'll need to make this meal.

3 ounces of mixed organic greens
1/4 of a cucumber washed and cut into slices
5 tablespoons of fresh herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, tarragon, or any mixture would do)
1 head of cauliflower
1 medium onion, chopped fine
3 cloves of garlic, minced or run through a press
1 lemon
2 1/4 cups of white wine or vermouth
7 ounces of olive oil
4 ounces of white wine vinegar
8 ounces of balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon of honey
black pepper
5 tablespoons (2 1/2 ounces) of yellow and black mustard seeds
a pinch of nutmeg
1 can of chickpeas
9 ounces of finely grated Grana Padano parmesan cheese (or 4 ounces of Grana Padano and 5 ounces of a less expensive variety)
3 tablespoons of prosciutto, pancetta, bacon, or other cured pork
2 chicken breast halves (1/2 to 3/4 pound)
4 ounces of spaghetti
2 eggs
2 tablespoons of butter
8 ounces of whipping cream

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tracey / February 13, 2008 11:59 AM

Whole Foods bulk spice section is all but gone now. *sigh* I really liked getting my spices there because I only got as much as I needed and they wouldn't get stale...

anne / February 13, 2008 2:06 PM

If you're looking for bulk spices try the Spice House. They're local and the staff is ever-so-friendly. You can still get great deals without having to buy a gallon drum of cumin in the process.


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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