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September 2005

Barbuto's Bucatini with Tuna


In last week's New York Times, Florence Fabricant adapted a pasta recipe from Barbuto to pair with Sicilian red wines in the "Wines of the Times" segment. Buried in the article is a method for oil-poaching tuna that sounds delicious. I might come back to that at some point, but for convenience's sake and because I couldn't afford fresh tuna yesterday, I stuck with the canned stuff last night, and made a few other adjustments.

And now for a side note (or, ahem, paragraph) on adjustments, substitutions, and adaptions. I used to get highly annoyed by the cooks on the reader comments of Epicurious who would tweak and adjust and leave out and put in ingredients other than the ones listed, and then leave comments about how the dish tasted bad or didn't work or took too long to cook. I figure that in most recipes, the instructions and ingredient lists are there for a reason. Improvisation should be left to people who are really pretty skilled in the kitchen (just this past weekend, I had the good fortune of spending time in the kitchen with someone whose prowess and cooking skills with nary a cookbook in sight taught me quite a bit). That having been said, there are obviously always times when a cook has to take matters into his or her own hand. Think cilantro tastes like industrial-strength rat poison? Leave it out of the guacamole. Don't have a shallot around? Use a small onion. And so on...

In this recipe, I started out by halving the recipe - it served 6 originally. I smashed a small garlic clove and minced a very small sweet onion (I didn't have a shallot) from my CSA basket and slowly cooked both in a small amount of olive oil over low heat, while the water for the pasta came to a boil.  I used whole wheat penne instead of bucatini (I like the toothier consistency of the whole wheat and couldn't find bucatini anywhere). When the onion and garlic softened, I added the hot pepper flakes, olives and (soaked) capers, stirring the whole mixture together (I left out the chickpeas. I didn't think they really belonged.) Then I flaked a can of As do Mar tuna into the pan. The whole thing got shook around in the skillet together while the pasta finished cooking.

I saved some of the pasta water, then poured the drained penne into the skillet along with the water, some more olive oil, and small handfuls of chopped parsley and mint. I then went on to toast the breadcrumbs to sprinkle on top (in old times, this was the poor man's sprinkling of Parmigiano), but a friend called with an emergency and I ended up burning the breadcrumbs. Luckily, the dish tasted delicious without them.

It was pretty salty - the capers and olives and tuna all contribute to the saltiness, so I kept a light hand when salting the pasta water. Still, not for the high blood-pressured among us. The addition of the mint is a small touch, but really elevates the flavor of the dish - don't skip it! Although you could, and it would still taste good. In total, I would make this again, and don't think I'll even need to clip the recipe. It's so simple that once you make it, it's pretty easy to remember.

Bucatini With Tuna
Yields 6 servings

1 pound bucatini (or penne)
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 small shallot, minced
2 large pinches chili flakes, or to taste
½ cup pitted oil-cured black olives, sliced
¼ cup large salt-cured capers, well-rinsed
½ cup canned chickpeas
12 ounces imported canned solid tuna, drained
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
¼ cup chopped mint leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup coarse, lightly toasted bread crumbs.

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook bucatini for about 8 minutes, until al dente.

2. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a very large skillet if using bucatini, a large skillet for penne. Add garlic and shallots. Sauté until soft. Add chili flakes, olives, capers and chickpeas and cook another minute or so. Break up tuna in flakes and add. Cook until ingredients are warm. Remove from heat.

3. Drain pasta, reserving about a cup water. Add pasta, parsley and mint to skillet. Return to low heat and toss well. Add remaining olive oil and pasta water to moisten ingredients. Season with salt, black pepper and more chili flakes if desired. Transfer to a warm serving bowl, top with bread crumbs and serve.

A Night at Prune

I haven't been able to post for a while - I went out of town this past weekend for a few days along the Hudson River Valley. Lots of delicious cooking and eating occurred, but I didn't document a single dish. Back in the saddle now! Although this post will take a quick divergence from the newspaper competition...and instead delve briefly into the pleasures of a good restaurant in New York. For many people, Prune is no longer the hidden gem it used to be. The chef and owner, Gabrielle Hamilton, has long become a familiar name in world of food and restaurants and cooks who long to set themselves apart from the traditional cooking world by using humble ingredients and straightforwardly fabulous cooking, thereby creating a dining experience that reminds one both of home cooking and the kind of dinner one can only have once in a blue moon.

My first meal at Prune is a bittersweet memory I don't think I'll ever forget. In the weeks after September 11th, we all walked the streets in a fog of shock and grief and depression. I found it so hard to muster up the ability to have an appetite. Food was purely fuel to get a body through another day. It seemed frivolous and beside the point to enjoy a meal when so many people were still missing their loved ones, and we were still grappling with the magnitude of what had happened to us and our city. Food completely lost its allure for me.

On one of the weekends after the disaster, my father got in his car and drove down from Boston to visit me. We set out from my apartment on the Upper West Side and walked all the way down the west side of the city, through Lincoln Center and Hell's Kitchen and the Garment District and Chelsea, ending up in the West Village, where we sat outside at a now-closed bar and drank a  beer together. The streets were empty, as they had been for weeks, and we talked and were silent, alternately, until we got hungry. Then we made our way across town to Prune. It was early and the restaurant was mostly empty. We ordered haphazardly - I vaguely remember fried chicken livers and lentils and a salad of sorts. Whatever was placed before us was delicious and comforting and gave me a sense of warmth and ease that I realized, in that moment, had been missing for quite some time.

Last night, my colleagues and I had a client in from out of town. Prune seemed like the perfect choice for a dinner together. For those who don't know it, it's in the East Village, on a small strip of 1st Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. We got there early - we might have even been the first customers of the evening. We were given boiled peanuts sprinkled with cayenne and salt to nibble on while we read the menus. The appetizers and side dishes and bar plates were more appealing than the main courses, and so we decided to order from those. To start, we had sardines with Triscuits and cornichons and a generous dab of mustard, a salad of shaved artichoke and celery and Parmigiano, a bowl of boiled cauliflower showered with bread crumbs that were toasted in generous helpings of toasted beurre noisette, and a plate of aged goat cheese with sliced red onion and buttered brown bread. By the end of the first course, three of us had converged on the empty bowl of buttered bread crumbs and were fighting for the last scraps.

The second round included a couple plates of succotash (in this case, creamed corn with green beans - everybody has a different version of this), a toasted potato galette, lamb brochettes on a small salad of rhubarb and mint, fried sweetbreads with bacon and capers, and a plate of pasta sheets folded around a poached egg and shredded French ham, sitting on a bed of wilted spinach and covered with toasted pine nuts and lashings of a butter and vinegar sauce. The winner by far was the plate of sweetbreads - meltingly tender and white on the inside and crispy-crunchy on the outside. The pasta plate was admirable to look at and contemplate, but I found the actual eating of it a bit difficult. Bits and pieces of pasta kept flopping into the sauce and the flavors clashed a bit.

Because we'd kept our orders to small plates, we were still going by the time the dessert menus were handed out. There were two specials: a summer bread pudding and a yogurt panna cotta. We ordered both of those, plus a ginger beer float and a chocolate bread pudding. The winner by far was the summer bread pudding - spongy and light and crammed full with berry flavors, juices and seeds, with a dollop of citrus-scented whipped cream on top. The panna cotta was nicely acidic and fruity. The ginger beer float was the strangest mix of textures and flavors - it was by far the most interesting dessert on the tongue. At first sip, the flavors were harsh, but then they melded together nicely. The chocolate bread pudding was totally average - in fact the chocolate flavor almost reminded me of a chocolate drink mix from my childhood.

By the time we left, the restaurant was packed to the gills and humming with activity. Around us people were sucking on langoustines, smearing bread with fresh burrata (at $18 a plate!) and lapping up the juices from a plate previously brimming with fresh tomatoes, herbs and oil. Our check had come with a lychee for each of us, and the floral taste of  it lingered in my mouth as we walked out onto the street and into the breezy night. I can't wait to go back.

Susan La Tempa's Cheese Focaccia

In the L.A. Times yesterday, Susan La Tempa wrote an article about picnic food - including three recipes for pickled vegetables, fig pate and a cheese focaccia. I wanted to try something that I had (almost) all the ingredients for and so I chose the focaccia recipe. It calls for what seemed to be to me an inordinate amount of yeast to start with - 2 full packets of dried active yeast. I'm not the world's expert on bread-baking, but in my experience, the best breads are made with not even one full bag of yeast, and several rises. And the focaccias that I know best are the ones made by my extended family in southern Italy - loaves dimpled and shiny with olive oil, strewn with rosemary, with a soft and fluffy crumb, then split and filled with prosciutto or eaten alongside plates of tomato salad.

This focaccia was, to say the least, nothing like those. The yeast, first combined with warm water and sugar until it bubbled, proofed up just fine. I added it to a bowl of flour and salt, mixed it all together and added some tablespoons of olive oil. The dough is then lightly kneaded and patted out on a board. I sprinkled Pecorino Romano (it calls for Parmigiano, but I only had the other cheese) over the rectangle, then folded the dough over itself and kneaded until the cheese was incorporated. This was a little tough at first, but the dough eventually came together. I rolled the ball of dough in olive oil, then let it sit in a bowl, while I went out for a walk with my friend Becca along the Hudson River.

The recipe calls for an hour of rising time, or until the ball of dough is doubled in size. My walk took longer than I expected (but so lovely, fall is on its way and you could really feel it last night - the breeze felt amazing), so I let the dough rise for an hour and a half before punching it down. The recipe then calls for an oiled baking sheet to be sprinkled with cornmeal. This resulted in a strange sludge - the cornmeal on top of the olive oil just sort of squodged into the pan instead of providing a nice crust for the focaccia. Odd - if I made this again, I'd probably just leave the cornmeal out. I patted out the dough into the pan and let it rise another 10 minutes. Then I brushed it with oil and sprinkled it with a quarter teaspoon of salt and scored it with a knife. This is what it looked like before it went into the oven:Before

After 30 minutes in the oven, a nice toasty smell enveloping my kitchen, I took the focaccia out. It had scarcely risen at all in the oven and looked a lot like hardtack. I waited for it to cool, then broke off a piece. It was salty as all get out (if you make this, cut down on the salt sprinkled on top! In fact, you can probably leave it off altogether!) and a bit crunchy and tough. The flavor was good, but it wasn't focaccia. It was a big sheet of cheese crackers. Served with white wine before dinner, it could even be an aperitif. But cheese straws or cheese coins or gougeres would all be nicer alternatives to this: After

I wrapped the squares up in plastic and brought them to work today. My coworkers are darling tasters - they like everything I've ever brought them - but I'm wondering what their reaction will be.

A beginning

Yet another foodblog, the readers sigh resignedly. With thousands of blogs being added to the web daily, it's hard to feel that one's own endeavor will have a chance to stand out. Nevertheless, I've decided to jump into the fray with my own take on food and blogging. Every week I look forward to Wednesday's newspaper the most. The food section in my city's newspaper is something I put aside and save for last, to enjoy once all the regular news has been slogged through. And in the past few years, I discovered an additional treat: the highly regarded food section on the other coast, to be read and savored online (since the print copy can no longer be found at kiosks in Manhattan).

Once both sections became an integral part of my Wednesday mornings, I began to notice differences and similarities between the two. One week, The L.A. Times would publish a section on, say, pistachios, and the next week, The New York Times would counter with an article on hazelnuts. The New York Times devotes an article each week to a (usually) local chef and a signature recipe. The L.A. Times, instead, showcases a recipe that has been requested by a reader from a local chef. The New York Times has regular columns by Mark Bittmann (The Minimalist) and Nigella Lawson (um, The Maximalist?), while The L.A. Times has no such celebrity wielding a wooden spoon over its food section. Rather it has a reliably great group of cooking writers, such as Russ Parsons and Regina Schrambling (who, incidentally, used to write for The New York Times). Of course, the sections differ in their accessibility to good ingredients. While Manhattan certainly doesn't lack great grocery stores and quality food stuffs from around the world, nothing really can compare to the kind of produce showcased in West Coast farmers markets. So, the recipes in each section are tailored to the ingredients available to the readers.

I'm a longtime food blog reader, and would often search the web for blogs writing about the recipes published each week, but to no avail. And yet I continued to cut and paste articles from the web, and assemble notebooks full of clipped newspaper recipes. I cook from them and have found winning recipes and absolute doozies. So, why not start a blog that catalogs the recipes tried from the two best (arguably) food sections in the country and see what happens?