Thursday, August 16, 2007

"The Arthur Avenue Cookbook" (Volkwein) & "99 Ways to Cook Pasta" - Bocconcini Salad and Vermicelli alla Santa Lucia

Date I made these recipes: August 11, 2007

The Arthur Avenue Cookbook – Recipes and Memories from the Real Little Italy by Ann Volkwein. Foreword by Mario Batali
Published by ReganBooks
ISBN: 0-06-056715-5
© 2004
Recipe: Bocconcini Salad - p. 27

99 Ways to Cook Pasta by Flora and Robert Alda. Preface by Alan Alda
Published by: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.
ISNB: 0-02-500740-8
© 1980
Recipe: Vermicelli alla Santa Lucia – p. 54

As my friend Andrea would say: “Huh.” As in, “Huh, I thought these recipes would turn out better than they did.”

Let's start with tomato salad. After last week's very good but very heavy casserole, I was in the mood for something lighter, something Italian. (Contrary to popular belief, not all Italian food is heavy). So I grabbed The Arthur Avenue Cookbook because, well, it was staring right at me. While flipping through it, I came across the tomato recipe and then remembered my husband brought home some cherry tomatoes a couple of days earlier and so rather than make something a bit more interesting, I decided to make this very simple recipe. While there was nothing inherently wrong with the recipe, it didn't float my boat, either. Maybe it needed to sit a bit longer for the flavor (of fresh basil) to set in. But I also think that working with fresh mozzarella (Bocconcini are small mozzarella balls) is tricky. By itself, mozzarella can be rather bland. Cooked tomato sauce enhances it a great deal but just plain tomatoes? Not so much.

By the way, unless there are several Ann Volkwein’s who used to work for an online company, that, among other things, produced online restaurant review guides, I’ve met the author of this cookbook. Years ago, after I finished working on the Zagat Survey for Minneapolis and St. Paul, Ann contacted me to see if I would be interested in working on a similar project for the company she worked for. I said sure, signed the contract and even happened to be in New York shortly thereafter so I went to meet her and deliver it in person. And then, of course, everything changed and the project was no more. End of story. But Ann was very nice and I was glad to see her name on the cookbook. I’m also glad that a couple of years ago, some friends and I went to the Bronx, where Arthur Avenue is located to go to the Bronx Zoo and to check out the food finds there. We didn’t get to all the places Ann mentioned but it was fun to have a connection to the place.

So on to the next book by Robert and Flora Alda and our next recipe, Vermicelli alla Santa Lucia. Robert Alda was Alan Alda’s father. Alan Alda, as many of you know, was the star of the TV show, MASH as well as a cast member of The West Wing the last couple of seasons. His father, Robert, was a talented actor who starred on Broadway in, among other things, one of my favorite musicals, Guys and Dolls.

But despite this lineup of talent, I hate to report that the recipe just fell flat, as flat as a pancake. I suspect it was the tomatoes.

Unlike the very nice and juicy cherry tomatoes used in the Bocconcini Salad, this recipe called for Roma tomatoes. But people, let me tell you, just because it is now summer does not guarantee a nice, vine-ripened tomato. In fact, once I started slicing and dicing the tomatoes, I found just the opposite and was disappointed that they looked like winter tomatoes instead of ones becoming plump, tender and juicy under the summer sun.

I’m pretty convinced that had the tomatoes been ripe, they would have added considerable flavor to this dish. As it is, they added nothing.

And so it was up to the other main ingredient, the peppers, to take over, and they failed that task miserably. The recipe also called for the peppers to be julienned but cutting them that way made them harder to eat. I would definitely cut all slices in half.

None of the remaining ingredients, the cheese, the wine, the basil or the garlic picked up the slack and so while it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, it wasn’t something I would make again.

The Alda’s also called for Vermicelli pasta but I think that this recipe might have been better served by using rigatoni or something that could capture the sauce better than the vermicelli. By the way, the Alda’s also noted that in Italian, this recipe means “Little Worms” but I waited until now to tell you--who wants to see that when deciding which recipe to make?! (“Let’s see honey, how do you fee about little worms tonight?”) Ew.

Actually, I have no right to cringe. My last name, Verme, means “worm” in Italian, and Vermicelli means little worm. Now, most people, with the exception of my junior high classmates, do not get that connection and ask if it’s German or French or “What is it exactly?” But bless my classmates’ heart, they heard Verme (and it is pronounced with a silent “e”), turned it to Worm and so my junior high yearbooks are littered with salutations such as “To Worm, you’re a nice girl and you’ll go far” or “Worm, remember all the good times we had at camp.” Awww.

At any rate, little worms or not, if you make this, make sure you get the juiciest tomatoes available, perhaps play around with the seasonings and see if you can’t resurrect this dish from the “wouldn’t make it again” graveyard. Good luck.

Bocconcini Salad – Serves 4
2 cups cherry tomatoes
1 pound bocconcini
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or basil
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Slice each of the cherry tomatoes in half and toss in a bowl with the Bocconcini, chopped herb, garlic, oil and salt and pepper. Serve on a platter garnished with herb leaves.

Note: you can substitute slices of mozzarella in this recipe if you can’t find Bocconcini.

Vermicelli alla Santa Lucia – serves 6 to 8
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, cut in half
2 cups plum tomatoes, peeled and cut into chunks (canned varieties are usually peeled)
4 bell peppers (preferably red or yellow or both), cut into julienne strips
1 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino cheese (or Romano cheese)
½ cup dry white win
8 fresh basil leaves, chopped (or 1 tsp. dried)
1 ½ lb vermicelli (or spaghettini)
Freshly grated parmigiano cheese to taste (optional)

In a large skillet, heat the oil and sauté the garlic until golden brown, then discard. Allow the oil to cool a moment, then add the tomatoes and bring to a boil, lower the flame, cover and let simmer. Add the peppers and salt to the simmering sauce and continue cooking about 20 minutes. Mix in the cheese, wine and basil, cover and let simmer for three more minutes. Turn off the flame and let stand.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and pour into warmed serving bowl. Cover with the sauce and gently toss. Serve in warmed soup dishes or bowls.

Monday, August 6, 2007

"Joyce Lamont's Favorite Recipes" (Minneapolis radio reporter) - Chicken-Wild Rice Casserole Supreme

Joyce Lamont’s Favorite Recipes by Joyce Lamont; edited by Carol Jackson, Home Economist (Note: Joyce Lamont was a broadcaster with WCCO Radio, a local Minneapolis station)

Published by: Meyers Printing Company, Minneapolis, MN

Recipe: Chicken-Wild Rice Casserole Supreme – p. 64

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

When life hands you a catastrophe, make comfort food.

According to the newspapers, after 9/11 people wanted comfort food. If they couldn’t have mama, then they wanted the comfort of mama’s favorite recipes to soothe their tattered and shattered hearts.

After the I-35W Bridge fell last week in Minneapolis, I too, wanted comfort food.

My husband and I live a couple miles away from that bridge and while we didn’t drive over it too often, we did drive underneath it on the River Parkway at least a couple times a week. The parkway was our little shortcut from downtown Minneapolis to our home, just across the river in southeast Minneapolis. My husband also biked on a bike path on the opposite side of the river under the same bridge. It was unnerving, to say the least, to think that we could have been driving or riding along as sweet as you please, when the bridge came down.

And so to pull my rattled self back together, I pulled out my “Minnesota” cookbooks to find just the right thing to soothe the soul. And find it I did.

This recipe represents Minnesota comfort food at its best: a casserole, containing two cans of cream of “something” soup (like it matters what kind it is!), sausage and chicken (because why stop at one type of meat?) and Minnesota wild rice.

Although it’s called rice, wild rice is really a grass, not a grain. When it cooks, though, it looks like rice so that’s probably why it was named such. The Ojibway Indians (sometimes referred to as Chippewa) have harvested this product for centuries and it is a popular item on many a Minnesota menu. Minnesota wild rice is the main ingredient in Byerly’s Wild Rice Soup, a soup which Minnesotans gulp down by the gallon, spring, summer, winter, and fall.

Speaking of gallons, the first thing you do when making this recipe is to basically make a chicken soup and then use that broth to cook the wild rice. Even though three cups of broth were used to cook the rice, I had plenty left over for a couple of bowls of chicken soup in the future. The chicken is then used in the casserole itself. Nothing goes to waste in this town!

Thankfully, the day I made this dish, the temperature finally dropped to around 75, much more comfortable than the searing 90 degrees experienced the week before and so turning on the oven to cook the casserole wasn’t an exercise in torture. But I’m not sure it would have mattered—when life hands you a catastrophe, make a Minnesota casserole.

Chicken-Wild Rice Casserole Supreme – serves 8-10
For the chicken broth
1 3-to-4 pound broiler-fryer, cut up
1 carrot, sliced
1 cup celery, sliced including tops
1 small onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, mashed
6 peppercorns
2 teaspoons salt
For the casserole
1 cup wild rice
1 pound seasoned pork sausage
1 cup fresh or 1 cup drained canned mushrooms
1 cup diced onion
2 tablespoons butter
1 10 ¾ ounce can cream of chicken soup
1 10 ¾ ounce can condensed cream of celery soup
1/3 cup milk or 1/3 cup dry sherry
¼ cup diced pimiento
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon EACH oregano, thyme and marjoram
½ cup sliced almonds

Put chicken pieces in a heavy saucepan. Add water to cover, and the sliced carrot, celery, onion, garlic, peppercorns and salt. Bring to a boil; then reduce heat and let chicken simmer until it is tender. Drain, reserving stock.

A couple of notes: I did not add the 2 teaspoons salt this part of the recipe called for nor did I add a full ½ teaspoon of salt to the casserole because the soups contained a lot of salt and I didn’t feel the need for any more. Also, Joyce doesn’t say how long to cook the chicken but “until tender” seemed to take at least an hour, particularly since the chicken breasts I bought in a chicken packet were huge. You’ll have to keep checking to make sure all parts are done.

Let chicken pieces cool, the strip the cooked meat from the bones and cube it.

Grease a 2 ½ - 3 quart casserole. Set aside. Cook wild rice (according to the package), using chicken stock in place of water. Note that the rice I bought had instructions for how much broth and/or water to use – nice!

Brown pork sausage in a skillet.

In melted butter, sauté mushrooms and onion.

In the casserole, mix the soups, milk (or sherry), pimiento, salt and spices. Stir in the cubed chicken, browned sausage, cooked wild rice, sautéed mushrooms and onions. Top with almonds.

Cover the casserole. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the cover for the last 10 minutes of cooking time.