Monday, March 24, 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have Really Gone and Done it This Time!

My grandmother, who was a great cook and her own biggest cheerleader, would slave away at elaborate meals pretty frequently. Upon sitting down at the table, while everyone else was engrossed in eating, my grandmother would take one bite, slap the table with both fists and stridently proclaim, "Rose Bondi, you've done it again!" Well, after the meal I cooked on Saturday, I found myself doing just the same thing.

Lately I haven't been able to get cochon de lait out of my head. This is a dish that is hugely popular in Cajun Louisiana and typically features a whole pig on a spit. One of my favorite interpretations of the dish I discovered at Storyville, one of my old places of employment. Their cochon was more like a pulled pork, paired brilliantly with braised collard greens and sweet potato cakes with tasso and then doused with a whiskey-bbq sauce.

So, I bought my greens and sweet potatoes, took out a pork tenderloin and went to town recreating it. It was really delicious, I'm sorry that my porcine-eschewing friends won't be able to enjoy this.


1 bunch greens, wash and picked over for woody stems
1 onion, diced
4 slices bacon, chopped
16 oz. stock
1 bay leaf
1/4 c. vinegar (I used rice wine vinegar)

Render the bacon in a stockpot, add onions and cook until soft, about 15 minutes. Add a bit of oil if the bacon grease isn't enough, not too much though. Add the stock, vinegar and bay leaf, bring up to a high simmer. Once it's there, turn it down and simmer for 45 minutes to and hour. You can make these up to a couple days ahead of time.

Cochon de Lait:

1 lb pork tenderloin, trimmed and cut into chunks
spice rub-I used a mix of cayenne, coriander, garlic, cumin, thyme, smoked paprkia, dried mustard, black pepper and salt
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, chopped
1 T mustard-praline glaze*
1/4 c. vinegar
1 cup water or stock

Rub the spices into the meat and let sit anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours. Add all the other ingredients into a shallow baking dish, cover with foil and cook in a 300 degree oven for 1 1/2-2 hours. Remove from the oven and shred the meat with two fork. There will be a good amount of liquid in the pan, continue to cook down and reduce. After about 15-20 minutes, reincorporate the meat into the pan juices to keep it moist.

Mashed Sweet Potatoes

2 large Louisiana yams
1 1/2 T. butter
1-2 T light sour cream
2 green onion, chopped
salt and pepper

Roast the yams in the oven while cooking the pork (or for perfect timing, roast at 350 degrees, remove from oven and then add the pork. This allows time for the yams to cool.) Remove the skins and mash with the other ingredients until smooth.

As a crowning glory, I battered some onion slices and fried them to garnish the top. This dish makes a little meat go a long way, this probably could have fed four people with only one pound of tenderloin.

*Dr. Pete's mustard-praline glaze is what I used in the pork. If you don't have that, it was basically brown sugar, ground pecans, mustard and some spices. You could add that or even some good barbeque sauce instead. As long as it's sweet and spicy.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Today is the Day!

I had to follow-up on my previous post, lamenting the lack of appropriate festivites for St. Joseph's day. I was kvetching about it to my father, who said that the Armory Restaurant was having a table, dinnertime was already booked but there were still seats for lunch. I called up immediately and made reservations with a somewhat gruff employee who assured me I would enjoy myself.

As a bit of background on the Armory Restaurant, it's on Connecticut Street, near Plymouth. It looks like a neighborhood bar from the front and it's a place one could go by all the time and not register its existence. A few years ago, someone told me they have really good Italian food and by that I mean, spaghetti and meatballs and chianti in a straw-covered bottle. I, like most Italian-Americans-am pretty partial to how my family makes that kind of food. I'm not saying other styles are bad but it's just to each his own. Some like a sweet sauce, some only use tomato paste, my grandmother would die if someone put oregano in the sauce (that's only for pizza suace!). The point is, I've never been there and had no idea what to expect.

Well, I was pleasantly surprised. We were quickly ushered into a banquet room in the back, with row after red-checkered row of tables. We immediately struck up a conversation with our neighbors; a young woman and her 90-year old grandmother. She promptly whipped out a picture of a massive, framed picture of a St. Joseph's table they had in 1985 while explaining that she just moved back here from Virginia where (eegads!) they have no Italians or cardoons to speak of!

The food was set up on a table in the center of the room, tables were called up for their turn, wedding-style. I have to say, I was impressed with the offerings. Here's a list of each dish; lentil soup, pasta with beans, pasta with peas, pasta with clams, pasta con sarde, pasta with eggplant, pasta with broccoli, dandelion omelette, artichoke omelette, caulifluar omelette and cardoon omelette. I was a little sad to see that my favorite vegetable were not battered and fried but instead cooked to make omelettes (fritatta). Actually, the dandelion omelette was great, and although the others were fine, I thought the vegetable retained too much moisture. Plus, if you've ever prepped cardoons, it's a pain in the butt. After all that work, I want them fried! But all the pasta was cooked and seasoned well, not overdone. The pasta con sarde was actually very good and the eggplant was great. It sort of reminded me of caponatina, with ample capers and a slightly smoky flavor. Even the pasta with clams was surprising; the clams seemed to be fresh, they were definitely not those small ones in a can!

Desserts were just ok but everyone knows sfingi is best served fresh and warm. I would give the food a B but the overall experience was an A. I loved the jovial, frenetic vibe of the staff and listening to snippets of other peoples' conversations about how they celebrated St. Joseph's Day. I miss being with family and get nostalgic and misty but I really enjoyed my hour at the Armory. Happy St. Joseph's Day!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Evivva Il San Guiseppe!!!!

Around this time of year, when people are consuming large quantities of green beer and corned beef, I am often surprised that St. Patrick's Day outshadows St. Joseph's Day, honored on March 19th. It's been my favorite holiday since I was a kid and my Aunt Jo Honey had a table at her house every year. We would all get tickets for which kind of sauce we'd like on our pasta-plain or con sarde.

Oh, excuse me, I should back up and explain St. Joseph's Day for those who don't know. St. Joseph is the patron saint of Sicily and hundreds of years ago during a terrible drought, the people of Sicily entreated to St. Joseph to bring rain. The rains came and as a way of showing thanks, Sicilians set out table in the town plazas, bearing food. The guests of honor during these celebrations were the elderly and the children and it was a way of the community taking care of its own. However, since this falls during Lent, no meat is on the menu.

While the food is important, it is also essential to have an altar set up, with candles, flowers and bread formed into crosses and other various shapes. Music must be played. Wine should be flowing.

Back to the food. Every vegetable you can imagine is battered and fried, my favorites being artichokes, caulifluer and cardooni. Cardones are part of the artichoke family but look like celery that's overgrown and slightly fuzzy. I love them but they are kind of labor-intensive; you have to skin and boil them before they are ready to be battered and fried. My Aunt Jo uses the stems of swiss chard with fantastic results. Frittata with spinach, artichokes and chard are also popular, as are cabbage patties and baked eggplant. Of course, there is pasta con sarde, which is a red sauce made with no meat and instead uses sardines, pine nuts and raisins. For dessert, there is sfingi, fried dough made with whiskey, and honey balls, which are smaller, firmer fried dough balls that are drenched in honey and shaped, again, into crosses and the like. Finally, plates of oranges, olives and fennel slices are set out to aid in digestion and sweeten the breath.

Sadly, the festivites have gotten to be too much for Aunt Jo so I usually do something small with my immediate family. This year, my mother had the nerve to go out of town so I'll have to fry up a plate of cardones for myself. More for me!

Monday, March 10, 2008

And the Birthday Beat Goes On and On...

Since I spent my birthday with my lovely friends, I did not get to celebrate with my family. My mother had the core family over on Tuesday night for very pleasant evening. I don't know what's been going on lately but every Tuesday seems to challenge us with some new way to weather winter. This past week, it came in the from of freezing rain but battling the elements turned out to be worth the effort.

My father made this astonishingly tasty salad, with all kinds of treats in it. In fact, it was less like a salad and more like antipasti with some greens but I loved it. Making guest appearances were peppadews (if you haven't had these, try them, they're piquant and unique!), olives (the big, purple ones), red onions (sliced ever-so-thinly), marinated mushrooms and Beemster. Beemster is a cheese that apparently is in the Gouda family but I would have guessed it to be kissing cousing with the cheddar clan. It's nutty and creamy and really tasty. My mother made a stew that I requested, a beef stew with shitaake mushrooms and black beans, courtesy of Ming Tsai. This, of course, was wonderfully appropriate during the middle of some awfully harsh weather.

The finale was really the showstopper. My father, informally known as the Cheesecake King, made one of my favorites; lemon cheesecake with candied ginger and raspberries. That alone would have been more than adequate for me but my mother complemented that with some homemade blood orange sorbet. The flavor of the sorbet was so intense and was a perfect union with the creamy, citrus-bright cheescake. While both desserts were excellent, I was really astounded that two separate people in separate kitchens could create such a well-suited harmony of flavors.

Finally (!!!!), it was gift time. I got a subscription to Cook's magazine, some lovely dishes and this amazing cookbook from an author who was born in London, grew up in South Africa, with parents from Finland and Cyprus respectively!

Thank you again, all my friends and family, for making this one of my most happy birthdays!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bistro on a Budget

A few months back, I read an article about O'Connell's American Bistro, formerly the old Hourglass on Kenmore Avenue. It piqued my interest because, well, the food sounded amazing, and because they offer a 2 course lunch for $12 and a 3 course lunch for $15. On Tuesdays, the 2 course lunch is only $10! So, as a belated birthday lunch, N. took me there on Tuesday for lunch.

The menu offered 5 starters and several main courses, all very tempting. I decided to start with a spring mix salad with poached pears, gorgonzola and a green fairy dressing. N. opted for the french onion soup. My salad was nicely composed and the green fairy dressing ( a cousin to green goddess?) had nice, lemony kick. N.'s french onion soup was earthy and delicious, a fry cry from the version we ate a while back at Gabriel's Gate. I had a hard time choosing an entree but went with the gnocchi with braised veal cheeks. I know, it's not PC but it sounded damn good. It was phenomenal. The veal was meltingly tender and, I don't know what a veal cheek even is but it flaked apart beautifully, sort of like a pot roast. The sauce was UNBELIEVABLE. It was made with the veal braising liquid, wine and heavy cream but there was a depth of flavor that belies the short list of ingredients. I don't think the gnocchi was housemade but the sauce was so good that I really didn't care. N. had steak frites, which was served cooked as ordered and dripping with an herbed butter. His was good but mine was stellar.

As both the entrees were so rich, we didn't order dessert although my friend, Chef Roo, who works in the kitchen makes the world's best creme brulee. Really, after a meal like that I probably didn't need to eat for another few weeks. We eneded with some tea and coffee even with that and tax, our meal came in well under $30. For a two course, gourmet lunch, I'll be back for sure.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Sunday Dinner Celebration

My boy got a new job so to celebrate, I thought I'd make him a hearty, manly, stick-to-your ribs, meat and potatoes meal. I had bought a few pork tenderloins at Tops because they were on sale and I can't remember the last time I bought or cooked a pork tenderloin or chops or whatever. Which means I have some refining to do. I was reminded of this duck I had at Oliver's that had a mustard-pomegranate glaze. The duck actually wasn't very good but the glaze was sumptuos and melded the pureed parsnips and roasted brussel sprouts together so nicely.

I marinated the tenderloin overnight, then I seared it stovetop and finished it in the overn. It was good, but not QUITE as tender as I wanted it to be and not nearly as infused with flavor, considering all the time and lovely elements that were put into it. But then I made a pan gravy with the leftover marinade and that was really delicious. If you have tips on how to best diffuse flavor throughout a tenderloin, let me know because I need an excuse to use this glaze again!

1 2 1/2 lb. pork tenderloin
2 T. dijon mustard
2 T pomegranate jelly
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients and rub into the pork tenderloin. Marinate as long as possible and make sure you turn the pork so that all bits get a soak in the marinade.
Heat the oven to 425. While waiting for the stove to heat up, heat a cast iron skillet on the stove, add olive oil. When smoking, add the pork tenderloin but reserve the marinade. Brown on all sides, about 4-6 minutes total. Then finish the tenderloin in the oven, until the internal temperature reaches 155 degrees. The oven may get smoky and watch that the bottom of the pan doesn't start to burn. To avoid that, add some more olive oil. Actaully, I used some oil, then I used some apple juice, too bad I didn't have pomegranate juice! Remove the pork and let sit for about 20 minutes and make the pan gravy while waiting. To make the gravy, add the reserved marinade to the skillet you cooked the pork in, stirring any bits off the bottom. I added more liquid, about 1/4 c. apple juice and 1/2 c. of water from boiling potatoes for the mashed potatoes, and a small spoon of cornstrach to thicken things up. Let the gravy reduce, season if necessary.