Monday, September 28, 2009

The best apple cake

Last night we had Gian Luca's labmates and their wives/ girlfriends over for dinner. As I said before, I have been so busy this week ( and I still am) but I love the fact that, even when we are crazy busy, we invite people over for dinner.
Still, we needed to keep it fairly simple (no homemade lasagna this time). But I just can't invite people over and not bake something.
See, if I had to choose between cooking or baking I'd 100% choose baking as my preference. There is just something about mixing ingredients together and popping them in the oven.
I even love the waiting, as it usually allows me to chat with friends on the phone. Then there's the smell of sweets wafting through the apartment, waiting for them to cool and finally, the pay big off. I always said that if I were to change careers I'd love to open up a bakery. Who knows... maybe some day. But for now, I have my family and friends to bake for. So yesterday afternoon, that is exactly what I did.
My mom called as I was peeling the apples for this cake, and it turns out that she was making the exact same cake for a friend's birthday. It makes sense that she was making this particular cake because it is the best apple cake I've ever tried. I can't even describe how moist it is. You're just going to have to bake it and see for yourself.

The best apple cake

5-6 medium apples, cored, peeled, and sliced to 1/8" thickness
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar + 1/2 cup for the apples
1 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup orange juice
2 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla
3 teaspoons baking powder
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat oven at 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a tube pan. Set aside

Place the sliced apples in a bowl and mix with 1/2 cup sugar and cinnamon. Set aside.

Beat the eggs and remaining sugar until well incorporated. Add the veg oil, orange juice and vanilla. Mix well.
Sift together flour and baking powder. Slowly incorporate the dry ingredients into the wet, mixing well. Pour 1/2 of the batter into the prepared tube pan. Layer 1/2 of the sliced apples on top of the batter. Cover with remaining batter and top with remaining apples.
Bake on middle rack for 45 minutes or until tester comes out clean* Allow to cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then remove and allow to cool completely on a wire rack. Dust with powdered sugar and serve with vanilla ice cream ( if desired).

* My oven is funny so I bake this at 350 degrees for 25 minutes then lower the heat to 325 and bake for another 35 minutes.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

a quick one

Uffi, this week has been pretty hectic, and the next couple days will be even more so. But it's all hectic in the best way as I've been working hard and having fun in the meantime.

Even amidst all the chaos, sometimes I just need to bake something. But today it had to be quick.
So while the baking time on this Marble Loaf Cake* is actually pretty long, the prep time ( or the actual time spent working on it was really fast).

I also took advantage of the long baking time as an excuse to sit in front of my computer and sketch out the structure of my novel. Yay!

Oh, by the way, Happy Autumn!

* From Food and Wine Magazine

Saturday, September 19, 2009

If you know me

I have big dreams. If you know me, you already know that. You also know that I'm pretty good at setting a goal and getting things accomplished. You remember grad school, managing a restaurant, moving to Manhattan, then to Rome, because you were there with me. And you were also there when I got what I wanted and it wasn't at all what I expected. So you stayed with me while I cried through my entire first year of teaching, then again, two years later, when I left the job. And you listened, even when my dreams seemed outlandish, like when I came home the night of meeting Gian Luca and swooned that " I want to marry that man!"
But I have a secret. None of these accomplishments are mine. I did not create them and they would not be possible if it weren't for others. Yes, if it weren't for God and the team of people who support and love me unconditionally then I would have nothing.
See, if you know me you know that there is one thing that I still haven't crossed off my list. Yep, that pesky book I started, oh three years ago has had enough time to rest. Oddly enough, it does center around food, though when I started writing it I had no intentions of ever starting a food blog. Its just that my mom was roasting these tomatoes, and smelling them, a story came into my head. So I wrote it down. Now, 220 pages later, I need to clean it up. I'm giving myself 12 weeks to finish revising it and I need your help.
So, I implore you, if you know me, please, please help kick my butt( and if you don't know me but feel like you do, you can help too!). Ask me if I did my work, make me feel guilty, or best yet, send me a comment to keep me on track.
I can't promise I'll succeed, but with your help, I know I'll try.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A repeat offender

I know what your thinking... another pasta dish. But I promised I'd cook something else and I did. We're off of pasta ( at least for tonight).
I'm not accustomed to eating the same thing every night. I'm not saying that I don't eat leftovers, I actually really love them, but if I'm cooking I'll never cook the same thing two days in a row. I don't even like repeating flavors. Its just not my style. So today I was surprised when, midway through cooking, I reached for the oregano.
I hardly ever use the herb. In fact, I bought the little jar months ago when Gian Luca wanted to make his Mariottini Pizza. And after that night, it sat on our shelf until yesterday. But there was something about the soft aroma that rose up from that pan and lingered in the kitchen. I wanted more.
So tonight, I reached for it again, and sprinkled it liberally on some fresh cod and potatoes before popping them in the oven.
Once again, I wandered through the apartment savoring the aroma of oregano.

Baked Cod with Potatoes

4 medium cod filets
4 large potatoes
1 cup marinara sauce
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste

Blanch potatoes in boiling salted water until soft but still a bit firm. Drain and slice into 1/8" rounds.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Cover the bottom of a medium baking dish with a thin layer of marinara sauce. Layer the cod and potatoes in the dish. Sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil. Place a bit more marinara sauce on top.
Bake for 15-18 minutes.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A southern girl

I realize that all I've been cooking lately is pasta, and that all of my recent posts have been based on pasta. It's not that I'm uninspired, I'd love to cook something else. But the truth is, Gian Luca has this huge deadline and basically he's been living in the lab. We've either been eating out quickly at campus restaurants, or eating on the lounge tables in the Science Library. So it's not that I don't want to cook, I just feel weird eating multiple courses while college students stare hungrily at us as they walk by. And pasta travels well. So, here's another one, I promise I'll cook something else soon.
Tonight's pasta was not thrown together, but rather, inspired by a dish that my mom used to make for the take-out section of her restaurant. She called it Sicilian Eggplant Casserole, although I am not quite sure why. Basically it was sliced eggplant, tomatoes, onions and dried black olives, drizzled with olive oil and oregano and baked in the oven. It was fabulous, but I'm not sure if it is authentically Sicilian.
My mother has never been to Sicily ( either have I). And honestly, I will probably never go there. I have nothing against Sicily, and I'm sure its amazingly beautiful, but frankly, I'm tired of defending other parts of Southern Italy.
My family is from the south and I am proud to be a southern girl. But the first thing people say when I tell them that we're from Southern Italy is, "Oh, Sicily?" Soon enough, I'm explaining that no, my family is not from Sicily, we are from Basilicata.

Basilicata is the small, almost forgotten region of Italy about 6 hours south of Rome. I always tell people that it is the arch of Italy's boot. It is bordered by the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas and the Apennines mountains run right through the center of the region. Its two major cities, Potenza and Matera are slowly gaining tourism but, besides that, the region has not been explored by many Americans. But that's ok. I like that fact that I've been places that not too many others have been. My mom's town, Salandra, is pretty much my favorite place on earth (and, by the way, the setting of my novel-in-progress). The sunset in Salandra

Ok, sorry for the tangent. Back to the pasta. I was craving my mother's Sicilian Eggplant Casserole ( authentic or not) so I created a pasta dish inspired by it. Enjoy!

Sicilian Eggplant Pasta

1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 of one medium eggplant, cut in 1/8" cubes
4 Roma tomatoes finely diced
1/2 cup dried black olives
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup ricotta salata ( or feta cheese)

Cook pasta in boiling salted water.
As the pasta is cooking, heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and tomatoes and saute until the onions are translucent and the tomatoes have softened and start to break up. Add the diced eggplant, black olives, red pepper flakes, oregano, and salt and pepper. Stir and add one ladle ( about 1/2 cup) of the pasta water. Cover and allow the sauce to simmer for a few minutes. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss.
Top with ricotta salata, or feta cheese.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The best thing

The best thing about being in the restaurant business, and the only reason why all the long hours are worth it, is getting to share food with people. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing people enjoy a good meal. My mother realized this even before opening her restaurant, and opted for an open kitchen, so she could see be part of her guests' dining experience.

As a manager in Stone Harbor for six years, I have the privilege of overseeing the dining room seven days a week from mid June to early September, and in those months I saw many many happy guests. Luckily for us, most of our customers are regulars, and in a seasonal restaurant, it is a joy to see people come back each summer, to see how families have grown, how people have changed and yet, stayed the same. Through time, most of our regulars have become our friends. And, since eating together is really a familiar experience, some friends have become like family.

One of the great things about regular customers is that they've tried everything on the menu and nine out of ten times, have selected their favorites. Some people order the same thing so often that we've begun to associate certain dishes with certain people, so much so that when Luciano gets a ticket in the kitchen, he knows who its for without having to be told.

Even now, in my own kitchen, I cannot cook a dish without thinking of the person who loves it the most. And so, this morning, when I began making meatballs I thought of my friend Pete.

Pete and his wife Joanne are regulars at Luciano's and they usually come in with their friends Phil and Tony. From the first summer that we were open, the four of them were outgoing and comforting to me, especially when the restaurant was packed and I would run around like a mad woman, bussing tables, greeting guests, answering the phones and making sure that everyone is ok. They'd cheer me on, send me smiles from across the room, and offer me a glass of wine when I finally had a moment to breathe.Through the years we've become really good friends and as I mentioned before, good friends are just like family. So always, when I would see their names on the reservation sheet, I would make sure that Luciano had enough meatballs in stock.
Though we don't even technically have meatballs on the menu ( they are served with our ravioli) Pete has been ordering them since day one. He even mentioned them on my wedding video, which made me laugh. He really loves them and I don't blame him; they're that good. Just like mama makes, because, well, my mama does make them. And now so do I. And hopefully, after they read this blog, so will Pete and Joanne. That way he won't have to wait until next summer for a juicy bite.


Roll up your sleeves for these because you need to use your hands!

1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground veal
1 pound ground pork
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup breadcrumbs
1/2 cup milk
2 gloves of garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
1 cup pecorino romano cheese, grated.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
In a large bowl mix all the ingredients together until thoroughly incorporated. Roll meat into a small, tight ball using the palms of your hands ( some people use a small ice cream scoop to get meatballs that are all the same size). Place on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour, or until fully browned and cooked through.

These go great with my meat sauce

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Just one of those nights

Occasionally, when Gian Luca comes home for dinner I'll look at him and say "you're either gonna love tonight's dinner or you're gonna hate it." There is no in between on nights like this, when I take a risk, mix ingredients that normally would not go together, or improvise on a recipe. Tonight was one of those nights, only instead of sitting in our kitchen, I'd packed up my experiment and took it to Gian Luca's lab.
He's been working non-stop on a huge deadline, but we'd planned to have dinner together. By the time I started thinking about cooking tonight it was already eight, and Gian Luca had called me in need of a break. I quickly threw some things together, crossed my fingers and prayed that it would work.
So when I met him tonight, and gave him my line, he smiled. Nine out of ten times he loves it, but, like I said, there is no in between so when a recipe fails, it tanks. Thankfully, tonight's dinner did not. It was a hit. We ate penne with peas and walnuts, out of plastic containers in the study lounge of the lab and it couldn't have been better.

Penne with Peas and Walnuts
4 cups of penne pasta
1/2 cup onions ( finely chopped)
2 cups of peas ( fresh or frozen)
1 cup walnuts ( finely chopped)
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon of butter
3 tablespoons grana padano cheese ( finely grated)
salt and pepper to taste.

Cook pasta in salted, boiling water.
While the pasta is cooking, heat olive oil in a medium saucepan and sautee onions until they become translucent. Add peas a small ladle ( about 1/2 cup) of the salted pasta water. Cook until peas are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Toss pasta in the saucepan and add the walnuts. With the heat still on, add the butter and allow it to melt. Sprinkle with cheese before serving.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Still Holding On

I can't accept that summer is over. No, I just won't. And technically, it is not over for another 2 1/2 weeks, so I can keep holding on to these long sunny days and cool summer nights. Hopefully the weather will cooperate. You never know in Minnesota. I might start snowing tomorrow.
But it's not snowing now and it didn't snow yesterday, so I seized the opportunity for a picnic at the lake with some friends.

If there's one thing that defines summer for me, it is tomatoes. And since I can't bear to let the season go, I figured that I'd make the entire house smell like sweet summer. It was easy. I just threw some cherry tomatoes in the oven, turned up the heat and basked in the aroma.

Besides smelling great, these tomatoes are delicious, and tossed in a pasta salad made each bite taste like sunshine. Hours later, when I returned, the smell was still lingering, like those last few rays of sun before the end of the day.

Roasted Tomatoes
2 cartons of cherry tomatoes
1 tablespoon oregano
2 tablespoons olive oil.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Wash tomatoes and place on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with oregano and olive oil. Place in oven for 30 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

Roasted Tomato and Mozzarella Pasta Salad
1 box of pasta ( I used Rotini because it is my favorite shape for pasta salad)
2 cartons of Roasted Cherry tomatoes
8 oz ciliegine ( fresh mozzarella)
1 cups fresh basil
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil.
Salt and pepper to taste.

Cook pasta in boiling salted water. Drain and rinse with cold water to cool.
Blend the basil and 2 tablespoons olive oil in a mixer to a rough chop ( you still want to be able to see some leaves of basil).
Place roasted tomatoes in a large mixing bowl. Place the cooled pasta on top. Top with the basil and remaining oil. Toss until all the pasta is coated. Add the ciliegine, salt, and pepper. Toss and serve.
serves 4-6

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Moment of Disbelief

I can not believe it is almost Labor Day and I still have not written about Ristorante Luciano, the restaurant at the Jersey Shore that my brother Luciano and I opened seven summers ago. Maybe its because I am so far away and this is the first summer that I have not worked in the restaurant since it opened. Or maybe it is because I cannot find the words to accurately describe the place that changed my life seven years ago and has shaped nearly all of the decisions that I've made since then.
I suppose that all a writer can do is try, and so, here is my humble attempt at describing the opening of a restaurant.
The story really begins sixteen years before we opened the doors of Ristorante Luciano, when I was seven and Luciano was nine. We didn't know then that one day we'd be business partners, or that we'd even be in the restaurant business. The only thing we knew for certain at the time was that my mother was opening a restaurant and we were not happy about it.
But eventually, we began enjoying the restaurant. The two of us would spend time in the kitchen next to our mom. Luciano had the cool jobs, like frying slices of eggplant in the deep fryer, while I got stuck doing the jobs that no one wanted to do like snapping string beans and grating mozzarella. Still we had fun; we were two kids playing restaurant in a real restaurant.
As we got older, we had more formidable roles in the restaurant. My brother took on the part of sous-chef and learned all of my mom's secrets while I followed my dad around the dining room, learning how to work a crowd with finesse.
Then, during my last year of college in New York City, while I was trying to juggle two jobs and grad school applications, I got a phone call from Luciano. "We're opening a restaurant in Stone Harbor," he said. "And you're the new manager." It was April. I was graduating in May.
For the previous four summers we ran a small take out restaurant in Ventnor, New Jersey, a little town near Atlantic City. Luciano cooked while I answered the phone, took orders and cleans the four tables in the place. We did well together, so it was no surprise that we'd expand. I just never though it would happen so quickly.
Though I was slightly nervous, I took on the manager role with full force. My first move was to check out every restaurant management book that I could get my hands on. I began interviewing waiters and waitresses and, in the most serendipitous circumstances interviewed my future best friend ( but that's a whole different story). By graduation day I had hired almost my entire staff of employees, most of them college students like myself. While I was telecommuting as manager from New York, Luciano was building the restaurant piece by piece, laying in Tuscan style tiles on the floor and thick rustic stones in the wall.
Soon it was the night before opening and we were finishing up the last minutes details. The waiters had been trained, the kitchen prepped, the dining room set. At about three am, as we were locking up to go home, we looked at each other in disbelief. We were opening a restaurant...