italian Tag

CHI SPACCA’S FOCACCIA DI RECCO, OR THE CLOSEST YOU’LL GET TO IT AT HOME

DOLLOPS OF FRESH COW’S MILK CHEESE COCOONING IN BETWEEN TWO PAPER-THIN FILMS OF UNYEASTED DOUGH, AND BAKED INTO A BALLOONED AND BLISTERED PIE WITH CHEESE-FILLED UNDERGROUND CHAMBERS.

What is obsession?  When is it helpful and when does it get silly?

Ever since that episode of Chef’s Table on Nancy Silverton, I’ve been dwelling, not upon, but inside this subject.

The episode, of course, celebrates a chef’s willingness to spend an inexhaustible amount of effort to close that last short climb between what is already a great dish to a conceivably perfect one.  A distance too short and steep no doubt, for most to commit.  But to Silverton, especially when it comes to breads, being obsessed is not a question of should or shouldn’t, but do you have what it takes?  I am, however, at least not today, talking about the theoretical aspect of obsessions.  Instead, I’d like to bring forth the physical one that I was sent into after watching her episode.

During that show, there was about a 30-seconds scene showcasing a flatbread-looking pie, a glowing golden-brown mirage.  Captivated by that glimpse, nothing but a glimpse, without even knowing what “it” actually was, I plunged into a months-long pursuit from grasping what I saw to realizing it in my own kitchen.   First, it took me a considerable amount of Googling to find out what I initially thought was a “thin double-sided pizza stuffed with mozzarella?”, to be something actually called focaccia di recco from her restaurant Chi Spacca, an extremely crispy-edged, flatbread-like creature that has nothing to do with either pizza nor mozzarella, or the typical focaccia for that matter.  The dish is essentially dollops of fresh cow’s milk cheese cocooning in between two stretched, unyeasted, paper-thin films of dough, and baked into a ballooned and blistered pie with cheese-filled underground chambers.  Mostly cracker-like crispy, partially soft and stretchy, all in all and bona fide gastronomic wonder unlike anything I have ever seen.

It, allegedly, took her two whole years to perfect.

Since then, I bled over bringing it into my reality.  I don’t have anything else to elaborate other than the every words already written in the instructions, each summarizing hours and hours of theorizing, testings, failings, staring, and re-testings, presented to you, as shortly and concisely as I think what a normal human being has patience for.  The result rewarded and justified every last drop of sweat and tears spent, and whatever difference there may be from the real deal, I confide in my belief to be a result of hardware issues (commercial oven VS. home electric oven).  Except, maybe, whatever experience I cannot transcribe through words.  And if so, then that my friend, is where only your obsession can take you.  But it’s worth it, let me tell you.  It’s all worth it.

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TUSCANY’S PORK FAT BITS COUNTRY BREAD

WHILE MY BRAIN WAS ANTICIPATING TYPICAL BREAD, CAME THESE POPS OF DEEPLY SAVORY AND UNMISTAKABLY CARNIVOROUS STIMULANTS.

Working mothers, I don’t know how you do it.

Those of you who follow our Instagram will know that recently, two toddlers have joined this family.  Not just some harmlessly drooling, homo sapien nuggets that crawl inside your neatly confined perimeters sucking on a bottle.  But two wall-eating… wood-shredding, (stuffed) animal-hunting, flying and flipping and cirque du soleil-style acrobats that, quite literally, ate and pooped the entire past week away, and then some.  Hi Internet, please meet 芝麻 (Sesame), and 湯圓 (Sticky Rice Ball.  SRB for short), the two Rottie-mix that we newly adopted over the past weekend.

So long, sleep.  Hello, stress.

I have so much to say about them, how we met, how we overcame fear, how we took an oath.  But this type of story deserves clarity and mindfulness, both not what my sleep-deprived head of glue can provide as we speak.  So I’m just going to leave you today with a Tuscany-inspired country bread, speckled with salty bits of porky fatness.  You heard right, a delightful discovery made in a motherly restaurant named Trattoria Dardano, nestled inside a tiny yet historical town named Cortona where we stayed.  The conversation we were having without suspicion was upended by my first bite of the unexpected burst of flavors.  While my brain was anticipating typical bread, came these pops of deeply savory and unmistakably carnivorous stimulants.  WHAT was that!?  I investigated immediately, to realized that this seemingly unremarkable bread was relentlessly laced with specks of salty fatty cured pork-bits which, I assumed, not only created these sparks of salivating porkiness, but also spread their gospel aromas into the neighboring bread-tissues when their fat was rendered during baking.

Geniale!  I shouted, but in English.

I think you’ll agree, too.

Gotta go.  Somebody’s eating my feet.

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SWEET POTATO TAPIOCA GNOCCHI, GLUTEN-FREE

SOFT BUT PLEASANTLY CHEWY, THAT IT FROLICS IN BETWEEN EVERY BITE WITH THE UPMOST PLAYFUL RESISTANCE


Light.  Airy.  Delicate.  Cloud-like.

See, surely these are rules best to dictate cotton candies and runway models.

But, in my opinion, not for gnocchi.

I know, I know.  Who am I – an Asian who grew up in North America – to judge gnocchi, an inarguably Italian prerogative guarded by some very defensive if not hostile Italian grandmothers.  To some, if I am ever entitled to an opinion then it should only be on chop suey or somethin’, certainly not this heritage pasta sacredly given by the ancient Roman Gods.  Hey, I know!  I agree!, or at least I used to, which was why I never complained every time I was served with a plate of texture-less and borderline-mushy “clouds”, in Rome or Nice and etcetera might I add, and nodded in compliance like a team-player.  “Yes, Mandy.  These mashy semisolids are intentional and authentic.  Now shut up and eat them.  Gollum Gollum”.  I truly tried.

You see, close-minded it may seem, but I come from a place where any flour-involved, savory carbohydrates have to have, a chew.

Whether it’s hand-pulled xi’an noodles, the delicate wrappers of dim sum dumplings, or hand-shaped fresh pastas and whatnots, no matter.  No chew, shameful personal failure of the cook.  Doesn’t matter if it was the long-term habit that shaped my preference, or the other way around, it’s the same thing.  I just like’em chewy.

So as time went on, a quiet rebellion came when I first found out about this French” gnocchi business.  It’s a pâte à choux type of dough that yields a firmer, chewier and springy form of gnocchi, which were much more relatable and appreciated by my (ok angry nonna, I’ll say it myself) narrow-minded Asian taste-buds.  It was a vote of endorsement that said, hey there is actually a market out there for a texturally different type of gnocchi and it isn’t going to get me burnt alive on a stick in the middle of a piazza.  It was encouraging, although, not enough to push me to commit recipe-social-suicide, to turn the idea of gnocchi upside down.  Until, unfortunately, the real affirmation came a few weeks ago during one innocent gathering with friends, when one of them ever-so-harmlessly mentioned…

“I’ve never like the soft, fluffy gnocchi.  I prefer the chewier type”, he said.

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POPCORN POLENTA W/ MUSHROOM JUS

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Yellow bowl from Dishes Only.

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WE ARE GONNA TURN POPCORN INTO GRITS

One sleepless night in Hong kong, I sat in darkness as my face was dimly illuminated with fascinations and lights extruding from an iPad, where David Chang and Daniel Patterson were performing the magic of turning popcorns into polenta.  Popcorns.  This lowly snack that nobody deems worthy as anything but an afterthought on movie nights, or an amusement as we watch them being tumbled in disgusting, clownish rainbow food-dyes, in their hands, became this creamy and velvety substance.  That moment, I suddenly became interested in the word polenta again.

I tried cooking real polenta before… once.

It was somewhere back in the early 2000’s when I was still a collagen-filled college student, merely trying to feed myself at the end of the month by counting coins left from a careless visit to the Urban Outfitters.  Had I, a barely seasoned juvenile cook, any business making this hopelessly romantic Italian staple with slogans like “stir till death do us apart”?  No, absolutely no.  But clearly, no one had the heart to tell me.  I remember standing by the stove for what must’ve felt like an eternity, blood sweat and tears, tending a pot of lava-like substance that constantly spat out skin-meltingly hot sputters onto every surfaces that hurt, and yet somehow, still tasted like a flavorless goo with crunchy, uncooked bits.

It’s been like… I don’t know, 15 years?  I’ve never tried again since.  Actually, I forgot about polenta all together.  Bad word.  Very bad word.

Well, until PBS arrived.

Or more accurately, the show The Mind of a Chef arrived on PBS which was featured on Netflix which had just recently become available in Hong Kong.

I can’t quite remember the specific episode, but it was Season One somewhere, featuring David Chang with guest chef, Daniel Patterson.  And the second they proclaimed, “We are gonna turn popcorns into grits” (not the exact quote)(and call it grits if you want but I’m calling mine polenta because it’s very yellow), I knew it was going to be very cool.  Of course, being a respectably fancy chef, Daniel had to demonstrate achieving this goal through extra laboring steps just to prove his self-worth (like… God-knows-how-many small batches of popcorns, separately, being poached then pushed through a ricer and then strained again…).  And leaving me, this lowly reputable home-cook with very little self-respect, to wonder why on earth couldn’t I cheat in like 4 steps?

Turned out, it can be.

Have your popcorns.  Blend them with liquid.  Strain.  Heat and season.

Without any stirring or sputters, I had creamy polenta with an extra nutty flavor from the popcorns in under 15 min.  Given that the texture may be less “pearly” compared to if I did it in 20 steps, but as a shortcut that served no other noble purposes but to make myself happy, I could gladly forgo the esthetic imperfections.  Especially, did I mention, that it was armed with melted cheddar cheese, and topped with deeply caramelized mushrooms with a dark pan-sauce made from garlics, fresh thymes, wine, chicken stock and a good dousing of tabasco sauce…  This gooey, buttery, savory, slightly spicy and tangy bed of comfort made an October Tuesday night really happy.

Who says that popcorns can’t be dinner?

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CRACKLY PORCHETTA AND SWEET GORGONZOLA SANDWICH

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I want to tell you about my trip back in New York in extensive details, I really do.  But I’m jet-lagged… drowsy… sleepy but awake… awake but not really… and the only words I can pound out of my marshmallow of a brain right now, repeating itself in an almost undetectable frequency, are these:

I’m sorry, Di Palo’s.

If you also don’t know what Di Palo’s is, then maybe I’ll feel a little better about myself, but it’s the iconic Italian grocer standing on the same corner in Little Italy for more than 80 years which, for some unforgivable reasons, I had failed to visit in the entire seven years I lived in New York.  But this time around, a friend brought me to its doorstep and introduced me to its porchetta sandwich smeared with dolce gorgonzola…  Ridiculous, just ridiculous, as if the sheer volume of Italian salami’s and cheese it carried wasn’t enough to make me weep in regret, but I had to walk away with an audible sandwich?  Yes, audible, as in even with just one bite, I could hear the sound of the chips-like skin crack under the pressure between my teeth, and tasted its fatty, savory and sticky meats mingle and be with the gentle funk of sweet Italian blue cheese.  Right then and there, walking down the contagiously energetic sidewalks of New York in my joyous steps, I knew I had to recreate the recipe for you.

So here it is, as the ultimate redemption for never visited Di Palo’s in all my times living in New York, a seriously, seriously tasty sandwich.  Just checking out the photo with the knife sticking out and the photo after that, you know how good the skin cracks.  And if you think you see a nipple or two while browsing through the photos, yes they are.  Just bonus materials, you’re welcome.

I promise, hesitantly, that I will talk more about my time in New York, no matter how complicated the mixture of emotions were.  But right now, let’s just get the pork on.

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AS THE ULTIMATE REDEMPTION FOR NEVER VISITED DI PALO’S IN THE ENTIRE SEVEN YEARS I LIVED IN NEW YORK…

AND YES, THOSE ARE NIPPLES.

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THE EGG YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU NEED – PART I, CARBONARA 2.0

I understand what it’s like.  It’s totally okay.  Happens to everyone.

We venture into unfamiliar, “exotic” markets coming from strange corners of the world, seeing bewildering ingredients for the very first time of our small existence, feeling intrigued, curious, excited even, and then at the end of a good thorough lap we walk out of the markets with our sparkly eyes wide open and our shopping bags, utterly empty.  Hey, I do it all the time, like last week in an Indonesian grocery store, and then again yesterday in this “sports goods” shop?  It’s no fault of our own, actually if anything, only human nature, to take caution with unfamiliarities.  It’s survival instinct 101.  As far as I know, no one has ever died from tomato sauce in a jar or freezer-section pizzas, right?  I guess I’m just trying to say, I can relate.

NESTED WITHIN, IS A JEWEL, DENSE AND COMPRESSED WITH THE ESSENCE OF ITSELF, HIDDEN TO BE EXCAVATED FROM THE BLACK SALTED EARTH

A RED DIAMOND

But growing up from two distinctively different backgrounds and cultures also means that, I too, relate to the other side, perhaps from your perspective, the scary side, the side that is teeming with strange and unfamiliar ingredients, flying pig-parts and deeply rouge sauces that hurt.  Being a Taiwan-born, Canada-fed then New York-aged piece of mind, one foot half-in half-out on all sides for as long as 25 years, naturally, you know for my thighs’ sake, I want to find ways to close the distance between each, a distance that is all but illusions and narrower than anyone thinks.  Because I’m also from the other side that knows stuff that you don’t.  The other side that tries to shout “Hey there’s good stuffs here, really good stuffs, and you should try it!”, but often times in inaudible volume with a world that is too busy to investigate.

It’s not anyone’s fault.  We didn’t shout loud enough.

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Needle point pasta in light blue cheese sauce

  

IF YOU LIKE STUBBY AND CHEWY PASTAS, LIKE ORECCHIETTE, YOU’RE GONNA LOVE THIS

Are you still waiting for your simple, elegant, next go-to dinner party recipe that you can strut out in front of an impressed crowd and say “oh this?  I just pulled it out of the fridge“?

Well, this one is mine.

In case you aren’t aware yet, but for the past two weeks, I’ve been and will be stuck with tiny and barely equipped kitchens in rented apartments all the way till early January.  You know when they say, you don’t know what you have until you’ve lost it?  Well, I feel exactly the same about my kitchen.  Because what I have now in my temporary possession is a bended cutting board, a non-stick skillet, and a knife that’s about as sharp as a letter-opener.  But, strangely, it is always when I don’t have something, that I find myself wanting it the most.

Two days ago, like a crippled soldier standing amidst the desert, not the most convenient timing of all you see, I found myself really, really craving some homemade pastas.

  
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CLAM CHOWDER RISOTTO W/ CELERY PROSCIUTTO SALT

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CLAM CHOWDER IS A FOOD THAT SPEAKS NOSTALGIA, THE KIND THAT WANTS ME TO REMEMBER SOMETHING… EVEN IF THE MEMORY ISN’T MINE. IT’S A POWERFUL STORY-TELLER.

Today is my favourite day. Veterinarian day + Monday + The-day-I-woke-up-to-an-empty-coffee-jar day. Pure. Awesomeness.

So yes, I did. I selfishly spent every God-damn beautiful hours of this day chuckling at waffle-coned dogs through a glass-wall, powered by a state of mind as sharp as a pile of shredded cheddar cheese melting inside a hamburger. And at exactly 6:30 pm, realised that I’ve left very little time to tell you about this risotto I made last weekend. It’s my fault. The risotto doesn’t deserve this neglect. In fact, this clam chowder risotto with prosciutto-salt deserves every autumn-loving and nostalgic-holic’s attention. Thing is, I’ve always thought of clam chowders as a food that speaks nostalgias, the kind that wants me to remember something, in an almost eager manner, trying to bring out memories even if it isn’t mine. Memories of trips to the San Franciso pier to find and taste the best clam chowder in san francisco and then heading to the beach to enjoy the feeling of sand between my toes, and the smell of the salty sea air. Great memories, however, I was never that girl standing on a beach of grey sands, with the cold waves, that late summer, or on that blue wooden bench and in the knitted cardigan…, the soup wants me, no, it needs me to feel like one when I eat it. Clam chowder is a powerful story-teller.

But again, people who are truly nostalgic about clam chowders probably wouldn’t do what I did, replacing potatoes with equally starchy arborio rice and chewy farro, then instead of saltine crackers, a sprinkle of finely crushed crispy prosciutto and toasted caraway seeds. What can I say, it felt almost natural to me, and even more amazing because now it tells a slightly different story. Of what, I’m not quite sure yet. I need to hear it a few more times for it to become words. Perhaps a rocky mediterranean shore… a brownish tweed newsboy hat… that old sea-port market and the stain of espresso on the napkin. Or perhaps I’m just hearing a food-coma.

How about you? Have you heard any good stories from your table lately?

The beautiful brass dinner spoon is made by the amazing Ann Ladson.

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