Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Parm, New York

After what can only be described as a glorious night at Torrisi Italian Specialties I wanted to visit another one of the family of restaurants and ventured in to Parm, the culinary keeper of Torrisi's history -- their Sunday gravy red sauce roots.
I love the feel of Parm. I love the inauthentic authentic style counters, I love the ticky tacky Grandma's kitchen wallpaper, I love the community center punch letter style menu board, I love the graphics. The only thing I don't love is the food.
Rather than harken back to a chef's take on beloved family recipes, Parm -- though only a year old, feels tired. It doesn't feel like Nonna's nostalgic kitchen where each dish was lovingly brought to it's ultimate flavor potential. Parm feels like no one is paying attention. The eggplant "parm" is soggy and heavily breaded with Progresso breadcrumbs straight from the can (not that there is anything wrong with that if used well). Quickly reheated under a warmer, my serving was still cold in the center. The staff is nonchalant to the point of neglect. The salad dressing -- although part of me in some way found it appealing -- was a dressed up (maybe chef made) version of Wishbone's Italian. The spicy rabe (a vegetable I love) was certainly spicy but had little other flavor -- a splash of olive oil and lemon could have been a big improvement. Sigh. I wanted so much for Parm to be great but in the end I like the idea of Parm, I just don't like Parm.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Torrisi Italian Specialties, New York

 Torissi Italian Specialtes started in 2010 as a tribute the red sauce Italian American backgrounds of chef partners Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone. Masquerading as a sandwich shop and market by day, at 6 pm the tables turned to a prix fixe Sunday style supper re-imagined by 2 chefs with resumes citing some of the city's best fine dining options. Red sauce cooking not to be derided but treated respectfully by chefs who grew up in and clearly still loved the tradition.
Despite what at times must have seemed like a chef's inside joke -- no imported ingredients, no buffalo mozzarella, no regional specialties, a truly American immigrant grocery experience -- Torrisi was an instant hit. New Yorkers lined up for one of the coveted 18 seats.
Success brought diversity and expansion. Torrisi and Carbone found a new home for their red sauce concept at Parm right next door and Torrisi Italian Specialties, no longer a daytime market, diversified into a more elaborate chef's tasting menu that presents a vision of modern day New York. Still centered on the Italian American experience but now peppered with the influences of nearby cultures (Asian, Jewish, etc) and tastes on the surrounding city.
Some things stay the same. The nightly menu is still presented on a chalkboard and changes everyday -- though some favorites make regular appearances. Tasteful bites, chef's interpretations of classics, are still artfully presented on delicate china flea market dishes that might have brought our Grandma's specialties in years past.
Our dinner started with an amuse, a gift from the kitchen that sets the tone for the meal and whets the appetite for tastes to come, delicate bites of hand pulled mozzarella floating in a creamy lemon sauce.

Winter gardiniere is Torrisi's playful interpretation of the pickled Italian condiment. With paper thin slices of beets and fresh market greens the delicate salad was so beautiful and colorful at first glance it appeared like a painted design on the hefty white bowl. The flavor was fresh and clean and enticing. If there had been bread wed have slurped up every drop of bright, delightfully acidic dressing
Clearly a nod to the nearby lower East side, a course of lox and eggs was hardly the deli standard. Layered on a bed of delicate creme fraiche and topped with a runny poached quail egg the richness became the perfect counterpoint to the previous course's tart salad.
A paté, not of imported Prosciutto or chef's darling guanciale but Boar's Head meats was unique and dare I say utterly delectable. A kind of homemade head cheese served with house baked semolina bread and an attention grabbing pickled apple and onion salad.
I can hardly think of clams casino without my mind lazily drifting to red checkered tablecloths and chianti bottle candle holders dripping with colored wax. It's a "Goodfellows" kind of dish. Delicious when done well but far out of fashion. Torrisi re-interprets the standard as a topping for homemade pasta. Crispy breadcrumbs harken back to the original while briny bivalves mingle with the chewy pasta.
 I have often heard gnocchi described as little pillows of dough but never believed it until Torrisi showed me what gnocchi could be. Light, fluffy sheep's milk marvels that melt in your mouth opening up their delicate milk flavor. Topped with a chestnut ragù this simple and seasonal dish may very well have been my favorite of the evening. It's the one I know I could never make and the one that I'll be thinking about for some time to come.
A riff on a coffee shop standard this scallop Francese had little in common with the all too familiar dish of often soggy lovelorn chicken in cornstarch heavy lemon sauce. The scallops in a delicate egg batter with the thinly sliced poached lemon and silky sauce are the only familiar elements in a dish re-invented for the better. A far cry from the New York wedding reception version seen plated at numerous city events.

 Drifting from the Italian theme to France -- at least in name -- a short rib "pot au feu" paired a robust coriander beef broth with thinly sliced short rib. "A combination of pot roast and pho." our server counciled. An accurate description but by the time this last savory course came I could barely muster a few bites. Not my favorite dish of the night.
"We'll hit it out of the park with dessert." Another accurate description from our server, clad in chef's whites and seemingly released from the tiny kitchen to bring us the last of our small plates.
 Dessert was good. The rainbow was an almond cake so fragrant and heavy flavored I could barely notice the colorful chocolate coating for which the cake is named -- a dessert that could just as easily have been on Don Corleone's 1940's dinner table as finishing a meal on a winter's night in 2014. A pastry time capsule from mulberry street's past. Not content to revel in the past, the chefs brought old and new together in one course. In contrast to the brightly colored cake a dessert simply called ricotta was a revelation. Creamy curds gently dressed in cinnamon and sweet syrup resisted becoming cloying and one note with the addition of tart finger limes. Tiny pops of flavor that burst in your mouth while the creamy base cools the tongue. I usually take a couple bites of dessert and move on. If no one had been looking -- and in a 25 seat restaurant with tables pressed against each other someone always is -- I might have licked the bowl. Honestly I just can't understand how ricotta can be so delicious.

A night at Torrisi is a mini-vacation back through time --  a delicious love letter to New York's neighborhoods sent by chef's who love the city's neighborhoods and are equally at home with meatballs and matzoh balls -- real New Yorkers.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

You Can't Quite Call It Pizza

James loves pizza and over the years it's been a pretty regular (a homemade version of course) feature on our dinner table. Since going gluten free James says he isn't so achy and his back feels better so I can't argue it's something worth pursuing but pizza is one of gluten free's many casualties.
A couple years ago uber chef Thomas Keller, a personal hero, started to market a gluten free flour called Cup 4 Cup based on the mixture he uses for gluten free rolls at his Yountville restaurants. More recently the flour was joined by a Cup 4 Cup pizza dough mix. The C4C products are easily double the price of any other gluten free mixes and flours. But for James and for pizza I thought I'd give it a try. I popped the little red bag in my cart and headed home with a smile.
I think I followed the directions. I did exactly as Chef Keller's instructions prescribed. And yet, the result is more of a rolled crisp bread than a pizza crust.
"Think of it as elaborate cheese and crackers" I said as I handed James his plate.
Maybe, I'm thinking, it just can't be done. If Thomas Keller can't devise a real chewy acceptable substitute for pizza dough I am willing to believe it can't be done. If he can't do it, I'm not sure I should try.
Tasty enough but not pizza.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Warm Stew For A Cool Night

Maybe I'm the only one, but I'm happy to be past the holidays. With New Year's coming mid-week this year we've had a few days of post holiday limbo and I for one am ready for things to get back to normal.  I combed through the freezer looking to use up some packages from our meat CSA and found a nice thick chuck roast. "What could be more normal than pot roast?" I thought. Something simple, something easy, something every day.
Instead of roasting the whole piece I cut the meat into 2 1/2 inch cubes and browned the generously seasoned pieces well in hot olive oil. After removing the beef from the pan I added in two chopped onions and a couple cloves of minced garlic. After about 5 minutes I splashed in about 1/4 cup of red wine and let it reduce with the onions until the pan was almost dry. I did that 3 more times to build up flavor and then returned the meat to the pot, poured on 2 cups of red wine, added in 2 whole cloves and 1 bay leaf (I meant to add a few leaves of fresh sage and I forgot) and let the meat simmer for 2 1/2 hours while I went about other chores around the house.
When dinnertime came close I steamed some cauliflower which I mashed with a splash of milk, a tiny bit of butter and peppery sheep's milk cheese and tossed arugula with olive oil and lemon for a little bright salad on top. One pot, one bowl, starting out the new year right.

Friday, January 3, 2014


Several years ago my friend Shari and I dabbled in home cheesemaking. There were tomes, farmstead cheddars, chèvres, mozzarellas and our last effort, a home version of manchego. We lovingly tucked away our efforts in a wine cooler James bought me to store cheese and turned and aged and then ate our prizes with family and friends. Except for one. I'm not sure how it happened but the lonely little manchego kept escaping dinner. I thought about it many times but before I knew it this little wheel was nearly five years old and had been carried North in a cooler when we moved.
Shari is a neighbor once again and to start 2014 off with a bang we broke into our long stored cheese. Quite aged and dry the wheel crumbled under the knife like an aged parmesan with a similar trademark salty sourness. I can't say anyone is lining up to taste our vintage cheese at this point more science exhibit that culinary delight but it wasn't bad, no one died from the taste and this simple success may invite more cheese making adventures. Long live cheesezilla.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A New Year's Cabinet Clearing Dessert

Invited to celebrate with friends and asked to bring dessert, my mind drifted, as it often does, from weighing the options of new diets and work-out schedules to cake. Chocolately, rich, layer cake. Lately when I have made desserts I've fallen into a modern day rut of bundt pans, snack cakes and cobblers -- quick easy desserts. No frosting, no second clean up, no awed on-lookers. Even at the last county fair I noticed there wasn't a single layer cake. It seems the once classic American cake is falling out of favor with home cooks which makes me love it and yearn for it all the more.
A couple months back I had too many oranges and not enough time to eat them and made a thick sweet orange curd thinking it would come in handy as a cake filling. We were supposed to attend a party where we were bringing dessert (it tends to happen) but in the end we missed the party and the curd stayed in the freezer. My opportunity had come.
Thawing the orange curd I decided instead of the simple yellow cake I'd once planned that a flavorful chocolate cake would use up some pantry staples and complement the rich orange curd. Instead of my own recipe which I deemed a bit too fussy I turned to Ina Garten's shockingly simple double chocolate layer cake. The orange curd filled between the layers while a simple frosting featuring melted semisweet chocolate covered the outside. The dark cake combined with the orange flavor was at once holiday and familiar like those little chocolate oranges carefully unwrapped and divided or found in Christmas stockings in years past.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Day Tradition

Black-eyed peas eaten New Year's Day are supposed to bring good luck for the coming year. Now I generally am not superstitious but every January 1st for as long as I can remember, certainly all of my adult life, I've made sure to have a bowl of "crowder peas" in some version, topped with greens.
For years I have been making cowpeas the same way -- long simmered with ham hocks or slab bacon and mixed with rice for "hoppin' john" a Southern staple since at least the mid- 1800s. The first published recipe surfaced in 1847.
I started out to make a healthy even vegetarian version of my old favorite based on a recipe I saw from Los Angeles' Cafe Gratitude. The vegan hearty food restaurant has become the recent darling of LA's health crazed beautiful people with dishes named not for the ingredients but for the results they hope to achieve like  "I Am Inspired" and "I Am Cleansed."
Gratitude's recipe started with sun dried tomatoes and capers to replace the meaty texture and saltiness of the ham usually found in these recipes. I rehydrated the tomatoes, rinsed the capers and stood staring at them in the colander. Going back and forth I couldn't quite imagine the capers and the beans, the molasses and the chills. I wanted to trust and yet the years of tradition (and my own prejudice seeing capers only as a mediterranean accent flavor) from my rarely more than once a year dish gave me doubt. I put the capers back in the jar and reached for the salt pork tucked away in the freezer.
The sun dried tomatoes were ready to use so I opted for a somewhat more healthy vegetable filled version of the old standard. First I rendered lardons of salt pork in olive oil and when they were crisp added in the chopped sun dried tomatoes and a couple chopped cloves of garlic. A couple minutes later chopped onions, carrots, celery, and a jalapeño pepper went into the pot. When the onions were translucent I added in my fresh black-eyed peas (though the method would work just as well with dried soaked beans -- just require a longer cooking time), the tomato soaking liquid and water to cover. The beans simmered until tender while the rice cooked nearby.
Another bowl of beans, another year of good luck. Welcome 2014.