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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sunday, 11:30AM

One of my favorite meals is brunch. I like it because of its idiosyncratic rituals and traditions.

Brunch is best served on a Sunday with a good, strong Bloody Mary. Why Sunday and why a Bloody Mary? Do you really have to ask? Brunch, done right, is the antidote for the late-night poker game with the guys; the dinner party that lingered a little too long; or the plain ol’ “painting-the-town-red” kind of night.

The Bloody Mary is the perfect drink for brunch. It’s just boozy enough, but not too over the top. After all, you are likely drinking before noon, or at least you should be. (I like to start brunch around 11:30, so I can watch the horrified faces of the after-church crowd walk past my table—me, with the unkempt hair and the guts of the Sunday New York Times insouciantly piled on my table next to my second Bloody Mary—“obviously, I’ve been here a while folks!”)   Also, the Bloody Mary is  not completely unhealthy. After all, tomatoes are full of things called lycopene and antioxidants, which I’ve been told are good for you. And don’t forget about that celery stalk! Some good roughage there!

So where did the Bloody Mary come from? Like most great drinks, its provenance is shrouded in mystery and controversy. As the old saying goes, success has many fathers, and so does the Bloody Mary. One version has it invented in the 1930s by a bartender named Henry Zbikiewicz at New York's 21 Club. Another version claims that the comedian George Jessel, who frequented the 21 Club, invented it. A third version, and the one I will go with, is that Fernand Petiot, the bartender at the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis in New York, invented it in 1934. I’ve been to the King Cole Bar, and they do a great Bloody Mary, though it will cost you a pretty penny.

Here’s the recipe Mr. Petiot gave to New Yorker magazine in July 1964: 

I cover the bottom of the shaker with four large dashes of salt, two dashes of black pepper, two dashes of cayenne pepper, and a layer of Worcestershire sauce; I then add a dash of lemon juice and some cracked ice, put in two ounces of vodka and two ounces of thick tomato juice, shake, strain, and pour. 

Of course, brunch is more than just booze served before noon. As the name implies, brunch presents a culinary conundrum. Sweet or savory? Eggs or waffles? French toast or grits? This is why, for me, brunch has a golden hour. Too early and all you want is typical breakfast food, but too late and you want more in the way of lunch food. Recently, I had a great brunch that was the perfect combination of the two: chicken and waffles. Now, if you’ve never tried this kind of soul food, then you have seriously missed out. Chicken and waffles is a sublime combination of sweet and savory. Of course, one can never go wrong with the classic Eggs Benedict. And if you are asking yourself where that dish came from, then you guessed it: who knows! This origin of Eggs Benedict, like the Bloody Mary, is surrounded by controversy. Suffice it to say, it apparently originated in New York City.

So, we have our Bloody Mary and our chicken and waffles or Eggs Benedict. What’s left? Companionship! Brunch is equally enjoyable alone, immersed in your newspaper of choice (mine—New York Times); with just one other person (who may have his or her Sunday paper of choice different from yours—New York Post perhaps); or with a large, boisterous group of friends or family. Either way, you can’t go wrong: a belly full of food and booze and the fading embers of the weekend.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Pasta Part 2

Lately, I’ve been training for a marathon to be held in late October. At this point in my training, the weekly long runs are getting longer and longer (today’s was 22 miles). That means a lot of what runners call “carb loading”—storing glycogen to fuel your body. And what’s the most popular—and tasty—method of carb loading? Pasta!

So, I decided to make what I call spaghetti bolognese. Bolognese sauce, which is known in Italian as ragù alla bolognese, is a meat-based sauce from Bologna, Italy. And like many old, traditional dishes, no two recipes are alike. (The first published recipe for ragù wasn't until 1891.)

In Bologna, ragù is served on a bed of tagliatelle pasta. Elsewhere, especially the United States, bolognese contains minced meat and tomatoes dominate much more than the original. (“Traditional” ragù contains no tomatoes, except for some tomato paste. ) Perhaps, in order to avoid all these technicalities, Americans whether of Italian extraction or not, simply call it “spaghetti with meat sauce” and call it a night. 

My recipe is slightly different from the “traditional” ragù and is more of a meld between what we call in the United States “spaghetti sauce” and what a nonna in Bologna would call ragù. I’ll start with the official version first.

On October 17, 1982, the Bolognese chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, "after having carried out long and laborious investigations and conducted studies and research,” decreed the following recipe to be the official one for classic ragù alla bolognese. 

Official Bolognese Sauce


1  5-oz. piece pancetta, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1/2 small yellow onion, finely chopped
3/4 lb. ground skirt steak
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tbsp. Homemade Tomato Paste
1 1/2 cups milk
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tbsp. heavy cream
Homemade Tagliatelle (You can cheat and buy the stuff at the local Piggly Wiggly.)


1. Put the pancetta into a heavy-bottomed medium pot (preferably terra-cotta) over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until its fat has rendered, about 10 minutes.

2. Add the celery, carrots, and onions and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and lightly browned, about 15 minutes.

3. Add the skirt steak and cook, stirring occasionally, until broken up and lightly browned and beginning to sizzle, about 5 minutes. Add the wine to the pot; cook until evaporated, about 4 minutes. In a small bowl, stir together the tomato paste and 2 tbsp. water; add to the pot and stir well to combine. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally and adding some of the milk, little by little, until all the milk is added and the sauce is very thick, about 1 1⁄2 hours.

4. Season the ragù with salt and pepper and stir in the cream. Toss with farfalle, fresh tagliatelle, or the pasta of your choice. Serve with grated parmigiano-reggiano.

The Insouciant Chef’s Bolognese Sauce


2 28 oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes
1 package of Johnsonville mild Italian sausage (5 links) with the casings removed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup of good olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 large green bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup red wine
2 garlic cloves minced
Oregano to taste
Salt & pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
2  teaspoons ground fennel
3-4 basil leaves finely chopped
In a large, heavy pot (preferably a Dutch oven), sauté the onion, green bell pepper, and carrots with salt and pepper on medium high heat until soft; add garlic and sauté for about a minute or until fragrant; reduce the temperature to low, cover, and sweat the vegetables for about 10-15 minutes. 
Add red wine, 1/4 cup olive oil, tomatoes (hand crushed and with liquid) and bring to a good simmer. Incorporate the oregano, red pepper, fennel, and basel.
In a separate sauté pan, brown the sausage and incorporate into the sauce; reduce to a low simmer for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Taste periodically and add salt, pepper, etc., to suit your tastes.

Try them both out and see which one you like better, or make your own!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Authentic __________ [Insert Name of Cuisine Here]

The most overused word in the foodie universe these days is “authentic.”  And, to avoid accusations of hypocrisy, I freely admit that I have probably used the word myself. How many times have you heard someone mention—usually with a tone of self-satisfaction—a restaurant where the food was the authentic embodiment of some country or people’s cuisine (usually the more exotic the better)? Really, how would they know? Have they actually been to Kerala region of India? 

So what does it mean for a particular dish to be “authentic?” More importantly, authentic to whom, when and where?

The increased culinary emphasis of authenticity is a blessing and a curse—the product of the increasingly diverse nature of culinary options in America today. Thirty years ago, we couldn’t have talked about an “authentic” Indian or Vietnamese restaurant because we were lucky to have a third-rate Chinese restaurant serving lo mien. Now, we have cafes offering banh mi sandwiches with southern style barbecue sauce. But does that make that banh mi any less authentic than one served from a truck in Hanoi? 

A recent trip to Huntington, West Virginia, provides a perfect example. I was in town on business; it was late; I was hungry. Like many of us, I grabbed my iPhone and pulled up the Urbanspoon app and found a place called Black Sheep Burritos and Brews. It got a pretty good rating and seemed halfway decent, so I decided to give it a try. I thought I’d find the typical burrito there, but to my surprise, they served one with Hawaiian pork-confit with a grilled pineapple glaze, shaved red cabbage and fried plantains; and one called the “Bulgogi,” with ginger and sesame marinated flank steak, kimchi, and cilantro Dijon and smoked  cashews. The one that really caught my eye, however, was a curry burrito. Vindaloo spiced chicken with smoked peach chutney, seasoned rice, all topped with a curry sauce.  Of course, this is not even remotely “authentic” Indian, but then again neither is chicken Tikka masala (the national dish of England).

A nation’s cuisine is not monolithic. It is inaccurate to speak of one kind of “French,” “Italian,” or “Indian” food because what people eat varies so widely within their own borders. Classic haute cuisine in Paris would be foreign to people raised on the rustic stews of Southwest France. The red sauce that Americans associate with Italian food is rarely found in the cuisine of Northern Italy. And what most Americans consider “Indian”—a country of a billion people—comes from just one rather modest-sized region. If anything, authenticity is a concentric circle that expands outward from the home to the larger world. The authenticity of my mom’s fried chicken did not extend past the front door, and North Carolina style barbecue ceases to exist once you drive into South Carolina. Authenticity is also about time, as much as place, because like any human cultural endeavor, cuisines evolve over time. For example, what is “American” cuisine? Is it jelled veal from colonial New Hampshire (yes, this is a real dish) or a turducken? 

With the world getting smaller and the international travel ever more routine, maybe one day there will be something called “world cuisine,” the last concentric circle. Pizza is seen as American more than Italian, with a pie from a NYC pizzeria no less authentic than one from the Piazza Navona in Rome. Heck, you can get chicken Vindaloo burrito in a small restaurant in Huntington, West Virginia!