Sunday, December 24, 2017

What's For Dinner On Christmas Eve?

Many folks have their feast on Christmas Day. Often centered by a ham, or turkey, maybe a goose, with all the fixin's and plenty of desserts. In my family we usually have a turkey feast on Thanksgiving, and a nice glazed ham feast for Christmas Day. Many of the side dishes are the same, but with more cookies, chocolates, and desserts after Santa comes than we have at the harvest celebration.

Then there are a lot of folks, especially here in New York where there are so many families with Italian roots, who enjoy a grand meal on Christmas Eve. Being a day of fasting for Catholics, the meal is centered on seafood, while meat dishes are avoided altogether. Traditionally known as The Feast of Seven Fishes, these days you might find many more than just seven dishes being served through the evening, leading up to the celebration of Midnight Mass.

As many times as I may forget I am not Italian, I have to be content to just have a lot of Italian-American friends and extended family. I am not particularly religious either, in an organized fashion anyway. So usually I spend a quiet evening at home with my closest family, relaxing. Though we are not Catholic, we usually try to catch Midnight Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. (That link there should be available tonight for livestrameing straight from their website. You can also catch it on television as well, or livestreaming too, from PIX11 who have also rekindled the tradition of the Yule Log afterward just in time for hot cocoa.)

Here is the dilemma now. What do I make for dinner on Christmas Eve? I suppose any old thing would do, but I want something a little more special to mark the night. Something not too fancy or difficult since I will be cooking all day tomorrow, but something filling that makes it feel like Christmas. So why not go with the Catholic seafood theme? I've got it! Pasta with clam sauce! So tasty, yet simple, easy and quick. Here's how I like to make it:


Pasta With White Clam Sauce

Pick your pasta. Traditionally you always hear of linguine with clam sauce, which is a fine choice, or maybe even some spaghetti or fettuccine but long cuts are not your only option. After being stuck with only a box of medium shells one night, I found it to actually be just as good, if not preferable, being easier to eat with a just a spoon and getting more clam in every bite. I find thicker sauces to be best for long cuts of pasta, a thinner sauce like this is great with those sea-shell shapes.

Now let's get this sauce going here. Pour in plenty of olive oil to a saute pan and melt in an equal portion of butter. About a stick of butter usually for a box or so of pasta. Not too hot now, olive oil burns at a lower temp than other oils.

Have a good sized onion chopped and ready to go into the butter and oil. Let them sweat out a little then add in two big mounds of chopped garlic. Fresh garlic is obviously going to be more flavorful, but I find it a lot easier to keep a big jar of chopped garlic in the fridge. At least two big, giant heaping tablespoons of garlic here. It's okay to let these brown a bit, but be sure not to scorch and burn the garlic or you will get a bitter taste. In a pinch, you could substitute with onion and garlic powder, which some people actually prefer.

Now this is really one of my own little tricks here. As that onion and garlic is going, I add in one of those little cans of anchovy fillets, and break them up nicely as I stir. I am sure you could use anchovy paste too, but I like adding the olive oil from the fillet can which adds a bit more anchovy flavor. Don't worry if someone hates anchovies either. You won't really taste it in the final product. It just adds a nice, rich depth of flavor overall and all the salt you will need.

Add some crushed red pepper flakes, to taste. I like my sauce to have a little kick to it. Just a dash will, again, add some more depth of flavor, where a little more will add some zip too. Don't go too crazy though, it gets spicier as it cooks, than just some dry flakes on a slice of pizza.

Now let's talk about clams. Some people prefer to be real authentic gourmet, but I find fighting with clam shells while trying to eat pasta is just a pain in the littleneck, so I use canned, rather than fresh clams. I also find keeping some canned clams in the pantry a great idea for a night when I need to make a quick easy meal, or just get bored of the same old stuff.  Chopped clams are fine, but lately I found some canned clams that are not chopped, just shucked and canned whole without the shells. (Make sure you don't try to use those smoked clams in oil.) Now another advantage to the canned clams is you don't have to go buy an extra bottle of clam juice, because the clams are canned in their own juice. The whole ones I get come in one big can, but if you are using the chopped you will want at least 3 maybe 4 of those tuna-sized-cans. Have those tins open and ready to go. Pour all the juice right in the hot pan, but reserve the actual clams. Just drain all the juices in there, and leave the actual clams aside for the moment.

Add some white wine if you have some on hand, but I usually don't have any and the sauce still comes out very tasty. The same goes for a bit of lemon juice as well at this point. It's a sort of and/or/both/neither option here. 

Let all of that simmer and reduce for a bit. The sauce will never really get "thick" but you do want it to concentrate the flavors and cook down some. I just sort of go by sight, the line where it has reduced from, the richer color. You'll have to sort of guess I suppose until you have made it a few times.

In the last few minutes, add your herbs. Fresh or dried according to what you have on hand. I like plenty of parsley, some basil, and a bit of oregano, in that order.

Finally, right in the last minute or so, toss in all your canned clams. If you did use fresh ones, you'll want to add them earlier to steam open. You just wanted the clams heated through, because overcooking will rubberize their texture pretty quick.

You should have your pasta ready to go at this point too. The timing can be a little tricky, and again, practice makes perfect as to when you should actually put the pasta on the boil. You can serve the sauce straight over the pasta, but I prefer to have my pasta just a tad underdone, then finish in another saute pan right in with some of the sauce so that it cooks right into the pasta a bit. You might also prefer to do this "per order" so to speak or per serving you intend to plate right then, and reserve some of the sauce for later. I tend do do about a half box of pasta at at time, and reserve half of the sauce for later. You don't want to try to cook too much all at once. If you are serving a few more people consider using more than one saute pan to finish off your pasta. 

Toss with your favorite sort of hard, grated, Italian cheese a few seconds before plating.

Once plated top it all off with some fresh cracked black pepper, maybe some fresh grated lemon zest, and maybe a little more parsley if you have it on hand fresh.

Serve after a nice garden salad, and alongside some golden brown butter garlic bread to sop up the leftover sauce and juices at the bottom of the dish.

All of that may sound a little long-winded and complicated, but really, this is a super-easy and quick dish to make, even for a beginner in the kitchen. So here's the real simple version:

Olive oil and butter as the base for your sauce. Chopped onion first, then chopped garlic next. Anchovy and crushed red pepper flake if you like. Plenty of clam juice. Some white wine and/or a squirt of lemon juice if you like. Simmer. Add herbs, pause, add clams. Use sauce for pasta along with some grated cheese, black pepper, and perhaps a bit of lemon zest.

Buon Appetito!







Merry Christmas!!!






Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sunday Gravy

I am so hungry. The sweet smell of Sunday Gravy fills the house. It will be worth the six to eight hours it takes to be ready for spaghetti.

Except for the amount of time it takes, it's not really that hard to make a hearty tomato sauce better than just about any restaurant, and blows the doors off of any jarred stuff. Today I am making a beef tomato sauce. Recipe as follows:

Use a nice, deep non-stick pot or pan. I have a nice one that is sort of in between the two that I picked up at Job-Lot for under $20. Non-stick pan means you don't have to keep stirring all day like we used to. Now, every half hour to 45 minutes give it a good stir, then more frequently toward the end as the sauce really starts to thicken.

Beef - Ground, a pound to a pound an a half of 80-85% lean. Brown in the pan on high heat, letting it sit and sizzle for a bit untouched, almost to the point of burning, to get a sort of char flavor in there. Now break it up really good, add some salt, continue stirring a bit. It's okay if you leave some parts pink, which may happen if you wind up using a partially frozen pack of meat. It will be plenty stewed over the next few hours. DO NOT DRAIN THE FAT.

(Alternatives - Some days I just throw in some Italian sausages raw, rather then the beef. Even adding raw, they will come out super tender and fully cooked. Tender enough to eat with a spoon. Some days I will use ground sausage, or a mix of ground sausage with ground beef. Adding links to other meats takes up too much room in my pan, and may require more tomato, but you could go that route too.Veal chunks or ground veal may be an option to play with. In larger batches I will often add one large veal chop right on top, along with grounhd beef, and sausages. I have also used pork trimmings, or pork chunks, beef chunks, there are a lot of different options really. I tend to stay away from any chicken though. It doesn't really seem to stew well and comes our very grainy. If you are using less fatty meats, be sure to add a good amount of olive oil. Ground beef renders the most fat to meld into our gravy, but other meats will need the added oil.)

Onion - One, chopped, add to ground beef, stir. Some prefer more or less onion, choose the size of your onion accordingly.

Garlic - Chopped or crushed, roughly a heaping tablespoon's worth. I keep a big jar of chopped garlic in the fridge for convenience, but smashing up some fresh garlic and tossing them in there is good too. A little more rustic. You might score a nice, big, soft hunk of garlic in there when you start eating later. Stir.

Mushrooms - I don't have any today sadly, but they go well with ground beef. 1 package of sliced baby bellas or white, your preference. These can be added at just about any point really, if you forget. I just like them to soak up some of that straight beef flavor. Stir.

Tomato - 3 cans. Have them opened ahead of time so you can add right away if things start getting a little too hot too fast since you are still on high heat. Whole canned tomatoes are the best quality, but today I used one can of puree, one can of crushed, and one can of diced. Other times I will hand crush some whole ones. You can go cheap, middle of the road, or even really expensive in your selection of canned tomato. Anywhere from under a buck a can to well over five-bucks a can. Better tomato does make for a better sauce, but even if you use some cheap store brand tomato, you will be fine. More important is to watch the consistency. Take crushed tomato, for example. Usually it's about as thin as puree, with a little bit more coarseness in texture. But today I used a different brand, and it was very thick puree. So I was sure to add the tomatoey water from the diced tomato to thin it out a little, rather than discard the extra juice. Whole tomatoes vary too. Some are just in with some really thin tomato water, others are packed in very thick puree. You want the sauce to thicken up as you cook it down, starting out too thick causes problems, so add or discard tomato water from the can accordingly. Too thin to start, you will have to simmer longer. Stir after you add each can.

Hot chili flakes - The red chili flakes can be omitted, but I like my sauce to have some zip. Not too spicy though. Just a dash will help make it a bit more hearty in flavor, where four to five good shakes will give it a noticeable zip, and then you can add even more if you want to start getting it really spicy. Adding them now will help draw out the full heat of the chili flakes, where adding them later doesn't really help make the sauce deeper in flavor. Stir again.

Cover, and reduce to a simmer. Stir every 30-45 minutes if you have the non-stick pot/pan. If not, stir regularly to be sure the sauce doesn't stick. As the hours tick by, you will want to watch the time more closely, and stir more frequently. When is is done? Hard to say. You just sort of "know" when it's just about ready. It has the right thickness, the onion and garlic have just about disappeared into the sauce, the meat is thoroughly tender. The tomato has cooked off all the tin flavor from the can and gets richer as it goes until it sort of hits a point where the flavor just sort of pops, and you know it is well-cooked to the right, hearty thickness. Minimum of six hours, up to eight hours. Remove the lid if it seems very thin still after a few hours. Let the water steam off.

When I figure it has about 15 or 20 minutes left to go, I add the finishing touches. At this point, you will want to be paying much closer attention and stirring pretty regularly.

Sugar - I usually just kind of eyeball it, but I guess maybe about two good tablespoon's worth. Stir, and keep stirring pretty regularly so the sugar sort of melds and caramelizes right into the sauce. You might want to up the heat on the burner just a touch now too. Be careful not to add too much sugar. You just want a hint of sweetness, you don't really want to know the sugar is really there. Again, you can just sort of sense when the sugar has really thoroughly melded with the sauce and has been exposed to enough heat.

Red Wine - Again, I don't have any on hand today, but it makes for a deeper flavor profile and a bit more sweetness. A cupful or so, to taste. The wine flavor will fade into the background over the next few minutes.

Herbs - I use a lot of parsley, a fair amount of basil, and a bit of oregano. Use your favorite herbs to taste. Do not add until the end though, as the herbs will just burn during the long simmer rather than add any real flavor. This was an important step I learned as I perfected my sauce over the years.

As you are in the final touches stage of your sauce, you can get your favorite cut of pasta on the boil. I prefer thick spaghetti lately, but was on a penne kick for a long time. Cook pasta until just slightly underdone for your liking. Reserve a bit of that starchy water.

Add a portion of pasta to a frying pan, with some of the starchy water, a few big spoonfuls of the sauce, and however much grated cheese you want to your liking. Stir. Add a bit more tomato sauce if necessary. Be sure to ask your guests if they like cheese or not, and prepare accordingly. Some people are revolted by Parmesan, for example. You could also just leave some cheese on the table, but I prefer it sticking to the pasta rather than just sitting on top of the final dish, so that I get the cheese in every bite. A good helping of ricotta can help cool down a sauce that is a little too spicy. A nice dollup on the side of the plate can help as well, to swipe into as you eat.

Plate the pasta in a deep dish plate, and smother with that wonderful sauce which took all day to make.

There should be enough sauce for about 2 maybe 3 boxes of pasta, depending on how generous you are when topping the final dish.
Serve with a green, leafy salad and some garlic bread.






Sunday, March 5, 2017

Don't Get Shot - How To Survive A Traffic Stop

Things can go from bad to worse very quickly along our roadways. Fault and blame may have to be decided later, even after someone is killed.

The first thing to remember is that when you are stopped, the officer is in charge. There is no argument, debate, or law on the books that will tell you otherwise. Listen to his instructions, even if you hate cops, if you think this guy is a dick, or whatever.

Stop in a safe area, usually on the right shoulder, but you may get some leeway from an officer if you go a few hundred yards extra to pull into a gas station or motel or somesuch.

Shut down your vehicle, ignition off, and engage hazard warning lights. (Turn off headlights to save your battery.)

Now... we have an officer about to approach a vehicle for something as simple as an infraction, but in his mind it might just be a violent felon that was just described over the radio that he is about to engage. Make the officer feel safe. Again, make the officer feel safe, so that he doesn't plug you with a round.

Keep your hands on the wheel, and instruct any passengers to stay still. When the officer approaches you may have to make movements to lower your window in order to speak with the officer clearly, but wait until you are instructed to do so.

The same goes for showing your papers. Your license, registration, insurance card... only present them when instructed to to so, and do so calmly, as instructed.

At that point the officer has probably already decided to ticket you or not. Sob stories, "I know the Chief" and all that crap are not gonna do you much good. Keep your hands visible and follow any instruction the officer gives. He is in full tactical mode, and will shoot you without thinking twice about it.

I have been through many traffic stops, even felony stops (that weren't really felonies, at least on my part, after all) and in each one the adrenaline runs high for both parties. Stay calm, breathe, and listen to instructions. At the end of the day, whether you like it or not, whether you agree with the ticket or not, the cop is in charge with no doubt. If you think he is wrong, if you think he's a dookie stain, take it up with the judge and/or file a complaint. DO NOT ARGUE WITH THE COP. If you think you have been wronged, tell the judge, and/or call a lawyer. You are not going to win here, or change the cop's mind with some Jedi mind tricks. Live to fight another day.