It’s Fat Tuesday! Laissez les bon temps roulez!

I lived in Mobile, Alabama back in the late 80’s, and if you asked the locals, they’d quickly tell you that Mardi Gras originated in Mobile, not New Orleans.

Joe Caine paraded through the streets of Mobile dressed in a Native American costume in 1868, and is credited for our current way of observing the Mardi Gras celebration. Of course, it’s hard not to think of New Orleans when you hear the phrase “Mardi Gras,” and I spent many a weekend on the streets and bars of the Crescent City back in the day.

It was then that I fell in love with Cajun food, and needed to learn how to cook it myself. I bought cookbooks by two of the greats: Justin Wilson and Paul Prudhomme. I learned about layers of seasoning, and often I’d use those ideas in my own dishes.

When I moved to Rhode Island in 1990, I had yearly Mardi Gras parties at my house, and I cooked massive batches of these Cajun chicken breasts, using a spice mix I learned from my cooking experiments. They’re so good, my daughter asks for them all the time.

Double-dipping in the seasoned flour is a messy step, but it makes them extra crunchy and flavorful.

 

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1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon granulated onion
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon basil
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon gumbo file (file powder), optional
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken tenders or breasts
4 eggs
oil for frying (I like using avocado oil and some pork fat for flavor)

 

Cut the chicken breasts into manageable pieces. If they’re thick, slice them horizontally to make two thinner breasts. A thick piece of chicken won’t cook all the way through.

Combine the flour, salt, paprika, onion, garlic, basil, white pepper, cayenne, black pepper, thyme and gumbo file in a bowl. Mix well.

I like to separate the 4 eggs, placing 2 eggs in 2 separate bowls. This keeps the first bowl “clean” and not gummed up with flour. You’ll see what I mean once you start, because it’s a bit messy. So, crack 2 eggs in the first bowl and the other 2 eggs in the second bowl. Scramble them up and put the bowls on either side of the seasoned flour bowl.

Pre-heat a pan of oil or a fryer to 350 degrees.

Dip the chicken in the first egg bowl and then the seasoned flour mixture. Shake off the excess flour and dip the chicken in the second egg bowl, making sure the flour is covered by egg. Then dip the chicken back into the flour for a second coat. Carefully place the chicken in the pan. Fry the chicken until it’s cooked all the way through and golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

 

Nothing like a hot, fresh batch!

 

If you need to feed a crowd, just double or triple the recipe. I used to make a 10x batch for my Mardi Gras parties!

 

 

You’d think it would be Cinco de Mayo, but February 22nd is National Margarita Day.
My personal recipe uses no sour mix…just 4 basic ingredients. I still have a small stash of the HoneyBells mentioned here, but the original recipe, below, uses pineapple juice. Cheers!
Every year around January, we get a shipment of Cushman’s HoneyBells. They look like fiery red bell-shaped oranges, but they’re not really oranges at all, and their season is very limited.
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HoneyBells are a unique natural hybrid of Dancy Tangerine and Duncan Grapefruit. The plants are grafted to a sour orange root-stock, and when the tree reaches maturity, it looks just like a grapefruit tree…but with oranges growing on it.
I usually make my signature margarita, the Algarita, with pineapple juice. But when I get those HoneyBells in the mail, my recipe takes on a new twist:
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2 oz. Patron silver tequila (3 oz. is even better!)
1/2 oz. Cointreau orange liqueur
4 oz. pineapple juice (or fresh-squeezed HoneyBell juice, when in season)
1/2 oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice
Fill a cocktail shaker or tall glass with ice and add all the ingredients. Stir vigorously. Pour into a large margarita glass. Garnish with a lime wedge. Salt optional.
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 Either way: with HoneyBells or with pineapple juice, it’s a great way to celebrate National Margarita Day! Cheers!

Through years of tireless experimentation, I’ve come up with a barbecue sauce that I feel is the best I’ve ever made. Granted, everybody has their favorites, but I prefer a slightly sweet and tangy barbecue sauce. Unless I’m making a classic pulled pork sandwich, I usually avoid vinegar-based sauces.

What makes this sauce special is the citrus. I originally used lemon juice for this recipe and it was good. Lime juice with lime zest was better. I also tried oranges, tangerines, even Meyer lemons. But my breakthrough happened on a day when I was craving barbecued chicken and all I had in my fridge was a grapefruit. I thought: how bad could it be? Turned out to be the perfect foil to the sweetness of the brown sugar and ketchup.

My favorite chicken pieces are the leg quarters: thigh and drumstick all in one. Chicken breasts, even on pastured birds, are pretty flavorless and dry, so I pass on them for the darker meat that’s juicy and fatty. (Honestly, I find it hard to trust anyone that won’t eat meat off a bone.)

Cooking chicken in the oven before putting it on the grill has several advantages. I don’t have to stand over the grill, constantly worrying about the meat burning or the fire going out. I can simply set a timer when I need to brush on the barbecue sauce or remove the chicken pieces. And the chicken cooks evenly…one piece won’t be burned while another piece is undercooked. Cooking them low and slow in the oven keeps the chicken juicy and tender. And I’m assured that my chicken is thoroughly cooked…no worries about salmonella.

I pre-heat the oven to 350 just to get it nice and hot. I line a sheet pan with non-stick aluminum foil, placing the chicken pieces on it. I rub each piece with a little olive oil, and season them lightly with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt. The chicken goes into the oven and I immediately lower the temperature to 200 degrees.

While the chicken is cooking, I combine all the barbecue sauce ingredients in a sauce pan, bring it to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer, letting it cook for about 20 minutes, until it has thickened. Then I turn the heat off and set the pan aside.

I’ll bake the chicken for about an hour, taking the sheet pan out of the oven to brush the barbecue sauce on the pieces before returning to the oven again, now bringing the temperature up to 300 degrees. (Because there’s sugar in the barbecue sauce, I don’t want to crank the heat or it will burn.)

Taking the chicken out of the oven and brushing it with sauce.

 

In 30 minutes, I take the sheet pan out a second time, and brush the sauce on the chicken pieces again…then back in the 300-degree oven for another 30 minutes.

Once the chicken’s back in the oven, it’s time to start the grill. For projects like this, I like to use a small grill I bought for our family camping trips. It’s like a mini-Weber, and it grills enough food for 4 people easily, without wasting charcoal like a larger grill would.

These small grills are just 20 bucks, and they save you a ton of otherwise wasted, unused charcoal.

 

I use a smaller charcoal chimney for this project, and I use charcoal briquets, not hardwood, because I want an even fire. The coals are ashed over in just 10 minutes.

Out of the oven and onto the fire! The grill grate was nasty and rusty, so I just grabbed a clean one I had handy and popped it right on top. (I hate scrubbing grills!)

 

Once the chicken has cooked its total of 2 low-and-slow hours in the oven, I bring the pieces outside. I spread the coals evenly on my little grill, and place the chicken pieces on it, flipping the pieces so that both sides get nice and smokey with a little bit of char…about 5 or 10 minutes per side will do the trick.

Getting that char on the chicken is key to making it taste like it’s been on the grill all the time.

 

The chicken goes back to the kitchen, and while it’s still hot, I brush with the barbecue sauce one last time before serving.

 

 

Perfectly done…perfectly delicious!

 

Here is the magical barbecue sauce recipe…

1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
Juice and zest of 1 grapefruit
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper sauce, like Frank’s Red Hot
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon granulated onion
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
(no salt)

Combine all the ingredients in a sauce pan. Bring it to a boil and then turn it down low, and let it simmer for about 20 minutes, or until slightly thickened.

 

 

The original recipe for this white bean soup used bits of bacon. But it just so happened that I was planning on slow-cooking a pork shoulder in my smoker today. When the smoked pork met the white bean soup, it was a match made in pig heaven!

 

2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 medium fennel bulb, finely chopped
1 smashed garlic clove
3 cans (15 1/2 oz.) cannellini beans, drained and rinsed, 1 1/2 cups reserved
40 oz. veal bone broth or chicken broth (homemade is best)
1/4 teaspoon bouquet garni
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Bacon fat and/or olive oil
A slab of slow-cooked smoked pork shoulder, pulled and shredded

 

In a large heavy saucepan, sauté the onion, fennel, and garlic in bacon fat or olive oil until they are tender, about 8 minutes.

Drain and rinse the cannellini beans, reserving 1 1/2 cups for later. Pour the beans in the saucepan.

Add the veal (or chicken) broth, the bouquet garni, and the salt and pepper.

Simmer for 15 minutes, then turn the heat off and let it cool for 15 minutes.

Puree the soup in batches in a blender or food processor, until smooth.

Return the soup to the pot and add the reserved beans. Heat it for 10 minutes, and then taste it, adding more salt and pepper, if needed.

 

 

To serve, place a mound of the pork, cubed or pulled, in the center of a bowl. Pour the soup on top, and drizzle with a touch of extra virgin olive oil. Chopped scallions, or fresh chives, or parsley on top never hurt!

 

 

 

My buddy, Lee, and I had a discussion the other day about fresh versus frozen beef served at fast food restaurants.  What’s the big deal about fresh beef? Does it really make a difference?
Doing a little research, I found that the answer to that question is: yes and no.
Wendy’s claims their beef has always been fresh, since they first opened in 1969. Never one single frozen patty. Because the meat is fresh, it comes from local farms in North America and is delivered in refrigerated trucks to your local Wendy’s restaurant. They claim the flavor of fresh is better than the flavor of frozen.
They also go on to say that because their beef is fresh, it doesn’t come from “cheaper, far away places,” like Australia.
My experience with both Australian and New Zealand beef, shipped frozen, is that it is of very high quality. Where most American beef is fed corn, grains, antibiotics, and who knows what….beef from New Zealand and Australia is grass-fed.
Wendy’s claim that their beef was never frozen is really more of a marketing ploy to try to appeal to people who want to think they’re eating healthier food. The fact of the matter is, a properly frozen greasy burger is just as bad for you as a fresh one.
Giving in to Wendy’s ad campaign (and their taunting on Twitter),  McDonald’s brought in the fresh meat Quarter Pounder. (The rest of their burgers are still frozen.) Again, this really has nothing to do with good health. It’s strictly good marketing.
Personally, if my meat is going to be sitting around for more than 24 hours, I would rather keep it in a freezer, not a fridge, to reduce the possibility of contamination.

I like the taste of the Quarter Pounder Deluxe, though it isn’t a very big burger for the $7+ I paid for it.

The only negative of frozen beef can be the texture if it is not frozen properly. If you don’t place the meat in a freezer that’s cold enough, the beef doesn’t freeze quickly, and can form larger ice crystals that will change the texture of the flesh when the meat thaws.
If you’re not sure whether the quality of frozen beef is any good, simply ask your friendly neighborhood farmer…or hunter. My in-laws hunt deer and bear, and they process the entire animal, freezing the various cuts and putting them in a deep-freeze to enjoy later. I can tell you that when I’m allowed to share in the bounty, the frozen meat is absolutely delicious.
So my research tells me that fresh or frozen doesn’t matter. Go with quality, go with price…or go with what you think tastes better.
Whether you should go with meat or not…is another topic altogether. Plant-based burgers are all the rage, now that Burger King has introduced the Impossible Whopper.
But from a health standpoint, is it any better? Not really. Check the nutrition information below and you’ll see that most fast-food burgers are pretty similar when it comes to fat and calories. Even the plant-based ones aren’t healthier.

It tastes like a real burger…an overcooked, very dry real burger.

It all boils down to what your feelings are about eating meat. If factory farming makes you cringe (and it should), go with a plant-based burger. But remember this: If you’re going vegan because you don’t want to kill animals, many creatures, from ground birds to moles and voles, to rabbits to foxes, are killed by vegetable harvesting machinery. Unless you’re growing your own, or getting your veggies from a local farm that doesn’t use machinery, you’re substituting the life of one animal for another.

Burger King’s “real” Whopper.

As for fast-food flavor…my vote goes to McDonald’s Quarter Pounder Deluxe (not the plain one.) The beef patty is juicier because it’s thicker, so it doesn’t dry out like either Whopper. And it’s cooked to order. Both Whoppers are frozen patties that have liquid smoke added to simulate a grilled flavor, and have fake grill marks painted on them before cooking. The Dave’s Single from Wendy’s, the original fresh beef burger, is good, but small, like the Quarter Pounder, and greasier.

Dave’s Single from Wendy’s.

IMPOSSIBLE WHOPPER: (from Burger King‘s website)
Calories (Kcal): 630
Fat (g): 34
Cholesterol (mg): 10
Sodium (mg): 1080
Carbohydrates (g): 58
Fiber (g): 4
Sugar (g): 12
Protein (g): 25

Impossible Whopper: mayo, tomatoes and pickles keep it from being a dry brick.

REGULAR WHOPPER: (from Burger King‘s website)
Calories (Kcal): 660
Fat (g): 40
Saturated Fat (g): 12
Trans Fat (g): 1.5
Cholesterol (mg): 90
Sodium (mg): 980
Carbohydrates (g): 49
Fiber (g): 2
Sugar (g): 11
Protein (g): 28

The Whopper.

QUARTER POUNDER WITH CHEESE DELUXE: (from McDonald’s website)
Calories (Kcal): 650
Fat (g): 39
Saturated Fat (g): 15
Trans Fat (g): 1.5
Cholesterol (mg): 110
Sodium (mg): 1180
Carbohydrates (g): 44
Fiber (g): 3
Sugar (g): 11
Protein (g): 32

Quarter Pounder with Cheese Deluxe.

 

DAVE’S SINGLE: (from Wendy’s website)
Calories: 570
Fat (g): 34
Sat Fat (g): 13
Trans Fat (g): 1.5
Cholesterol (mg): 100
Sodium (mg): 1080
Carbohydrates (g): 38
Sugar (g): 8
Fiber (g): 2
Protein (g): 29

Dave’s Single was good, but quite greasy.

 

 

After tasting all these burgers, my choice is to go back to a humanely-raised grass-fed burger, but for that, I have to go to my own kitchen. I can’t get it through the window of my car.

 

PAN PIZZA, TWO WAYS

Posted: February 9, 2020 in Food, pizza, Recipes, restaurants
Tags: , , ,

Well, I posted my blog about pizza last week, not realizing today is National Pizza Day! So let’s talk pan pizza this time…

 

I got my first restaurant job when I was 17, working at Pizza City East, just down the street from my childhood home in Plainview, NY. It wasn’t a great job, but I learned an awful lot about food preparation. It’s where I opened and tasted my first clam on the half shell. It’s where I had my first sip of espresso and cappuccino. And it’s where I learned a lot about how to make really good pizza. My buddy, Mel, and I worked the counter. Mel made the pies and I did the rest: sandwiches, espressos, clams, and eventually even cooked in the kitchen. We were 2 hard-working slobs in high school, but we bonded in a way that kept us friends to this very day, over 40 years later.

So you could say pizza was in my blood. For me, the true test of a great pie is a simple slice with only sauce and cheese. It’s not easy to get that right, despite how easy it may look.

And for me, there was no other pizza than New York style Neapolitan pizza, the classic round pie with thin crust. I have no doubt that it would be my choice for the classic question: “If you were stuck on a desert island, and you could only have 1 food, what would it be?”

But then I discovered Sicilian pizza: it was thicker, square, and was baked on a large sheet pan. The crust was crisp on the bottom, and light and airy inside. I thought: OK, I have room for 2 favorite pizzas. And then, believe it or not, I went to Uno’s…(Pizzeria Uno back in the day)…and I had my first pan pizza. It was thick like Sicilian, but somehow different, and heavier on the sauce. But absolutely delicious. I finally settled on 3 favorite pizzas.

Despite having 3 favorite styles of pizza, I always cooked a Neapolitan pie when I made pizza at home. Perhaps it was a bit easier, or perhaps I just never felt I really made the perfect pizza, and I needed to keep trying. In either case, it meant that after 40 years of making my own pizza, I finally made a pan pizza for the first time just last year. And it was good…really good.

 

The dough is stretched out and ready to accept whatever tasty toppings you like!

 

The dough…

The key ingredient is 00 flour, and it can be found in specialty stores, or online. Using ready-made store-bought dough saves a lot of work, and it’s great, too. Ratios for my dough recipe depend on the humidity in my kitchen on any given day, but my basic pizza dough recipe is as follows:

4–5 cups 00 flour
1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
1 tablespoon salt
1 packet Italian pizza yeast or regular dry yeast
a squirt of extra virgin olive oil

I mix all the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer, then slowly add the water as it mixes. After the ingredients are well mixed, and the dough pulls from the side of the bowl, I remove it to a floured board, where I knead the dough by hand for another 5 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic, shaping it into a ball. I rub a little olive oil over the ball of dough, place it in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, and let it rise for 2 hours, punching it down after that. I roll it back into a ball, cover it, and let it rise another 2 hours again.

Let’s talk pans. For me, nothing beats a real heavy duty cast iron pan for this recipe…and I’ve got a large one. I brush olive oil generously all over the inside of the pan–even on the sides–and then place the dough in the center. Slowly, using my fingertips, I spread and flatten the dough out from the center evenly all the way around. I keep spreading and stretching until the dough just starts to come up the sides of the pan. I cover the pan with a clean towel, and turn the oven on to 450 degrees to pre-heat.

Leaving the pan on the stove top while the oven pre-heats will help the dough rise again. Meanwhile, I get my ingredients ready for my pizza.

 

Crumbled sausage on top of the pizza.

 

White pizza…

 

3 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil
mozzarella
Parmigiano Reggiano
Provolone cheese
dried oregano
crumbled Italian sweet sausage

 

The first time I made a pan pizza, my daughter requested a white pizza. I minced a bunch of garlic and lightly sautéed it in olive oil, being sure not to burn it. I set that aside.

I grated mozzarella cheese and Parmigiano Reggiano, setting them aside. I also use sliced provolone.

And this time, my daughter asked for sausage on the pizza, so I got a few mild Italian sausages, cut open the casings, and crumbled the meat in a bowl, setting it aside.

The oven should be pre-heated in about a half-hour, so it was time to make the pizza. I removed the towel covering the pizza dough, and stretched it out a bit more. Using a spoon, I spread the garlic and oil mixture evenly on the dough. I layed down 5 or 6 slices of provolone. I then sprinkled the Parmigiano Reggiano on top, followed by the mozzarella. I crumbled the sausage meat over half the pie (I like my side plain), and then I finally gave the pizza a sprinkling of oregano.

The pizza went into the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. I kept an eye on it to make sure it didn’t burn.

 

My first pan pizza: half sausage white pizza.

 

My second pan pizza was a classic tomato sauce recipe…

I use canned crushed tomatoes for my tomato sauce pizza.

 

Tomato sauce pizza

1 cup crushed organic tomatoes
1 teaspoon sugar
mozzarella
peperoni, sliced thin
dried oregano

 

I like my tomato sauce to be a little chunky for my pan pizza, so I bought a can of crushed organic tomatoes. I placed about a cup of the crushed tomatoes in a bowl and added a teaspoon of sugar, mixing it well. This cuts the acidity of the tomatoes, and makes the pizza even better! I spooned out the tomatoes onto the the pizza dough. I sprinkled the mozzarella over the sauce. I layed slices of pepperoni on half the pizza (like I said, I like my side plain!), and I gave it a sprinkling of oregano.

 

Don’t skimp on the pepperoni!

 

The final product!

 

Delicious! Crispy crust on the outside, soft on the inside.

 

 

I’ve had a lot of pizza in my life. But truly great pizza? I can probably count that on one hand: Sicilian at Ben’s in the Village in NYC…Pizza Montanara at Pizzarte on W 55th in NYC…a coal-fired oven-baked clam pizza at Frank Pepe’s in New Haven, CT…Sicilian at La Piazza in my hometown of Plainview, NY…and now…my house!

If you want to know the measure of a truly great pizza, you gotta go bares bones and order a simple cheese pizza. It’s tough to hide behind a classic combination of dough, sauce and cheese. It either rocks or it sucks.

There are few foods that people take as personally as pizza. Tell someone your pizza place is better than their pizza place, and chances are you’ll start a fight. Well, my pizza place is better than your pizza place, because I make it at home. Besides, I can run faster than you.

I’m not going to say that much of the pizza that I’ve tried here in Rhode Island is mediocre, but I will say that I was born in Brooklyn and grew up working in many New York pizza places in my youth. So, yes, I do have a very strong opinion on what I think makes a good or bad pizza. And, alas, I’ve tried, but a good gluten-free pizza is not yet within reach. The frozen ones you get in stores are passable, but making one at home has been nothing short of a disaster…and don’t even talk to me about using cauliflower!

My homemade pizza is all about the basics. The better quality my original ingredients are, the better my pizza will be:

 

More cheese = better pizza, right?

 

 

The dough…

The key ingredient is 00 flour, and it can be found in specialty stores,  or online. Ratios for this recipe depend on the humidity in my kitchen on any given day, but my basic pizza dough recipe is as follows:

4–5 cups 00 flour
1 cup tepid water
1 tablespoon salt
1 packet Italian pizza yeast
a squirt of extra virgin olive oil

I mix all the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer, then slowly add the water as it mixes. After the ingredients are well mixed, and the dough pulls from the side of the bowl, I remove it to a floured board, where I knead the dough by hand for another 5 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic, shaping it into a ball. I rub a little olive oil over the ball of dough, place it in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, and let it rise at room temp for 2 hours, punching it down after that, and letting it rise another 2 hours again.

The sauce…

I’ve written an earlier blog about real and fake cans of San Marzano tomatoes. I feel that San Marzanos make the best sauce, but not all cans of San Marzanos are created equal. The only way you can be guaranteed you have a real can of these beauties, grown in volcanic Italian soil in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, is by the D.O.P. designation on the can. (D.O.P. stands for “Denominazione d’Origine Protetta,” and signifies that it’s the real deal.) Anything else that says San Marzano may not be.

San Marzanos are so amazing, that all I do is puree them in a food processor, pour the sauce into a pan, and let it reduce until it has thickened. No spices or additions of any kind.

 

Simple and delicious.

 

The cheese…

I don’t need to go super-fancy with mozzarella di bufala (cheese made from the milk of the water buffalo) …but I don’t use the mass-produced supermarket stuff, either. Fresh mozzarella, found in most supermarkets, is how I roll.

 

The toppings…

Most of the time, I go plain cheese. But when I do decide to add toppings, one of my favorites is my marinated beef tenderloin and fried chive blossom pizza. I marinate and grill a piece of beef tenderloin, slicing it thin. And in the springtime, when my chive plants are budding like crazy, I snip the blossoms before they open and place them in Ziploc freezer bags to use all year-long. When it’s time, I grab a handful of the blossoms and fry them in a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and sprinkle them over the top of the beef tenderloin pizza. A touch of Fleur de Sel on top seals the deal.

 

My signature marinated beef tenderloin and chive blossom pizza.

 

The oven…

Many professional pizza ovens reach a temperature of 1000 degrees. My home oven only reaches 500, but it does the trick. I do use a pizza stone, and place it on the center rack of the oven, and let it heat up thoroughly (about an hour) before sliding a pizza onto it for cooking.

 

Thick pan pizza, which is easy to create at home if you’ve got a cast iron skillet, is a completely different animal, and the subject of another blog.

 

My favorite pizza?

I haven’t been to every pizzeria on this here planet, but I’ve been to a few, and for my money, the best pizza I’ve ever had is something called pizza montanara. They take the pizza dough, stretch it out, then fry it in olive oil for a minute so that it puffs up like a beautiful pillow, then they add the sauce and mozzarella di bufala on top and place it in a wood burning oven to cook. Garnished with a basil leaf, it is absolute pizza perfection, and my favorite place to get it was Pizzarte on West 55th St. in Manhattan. However, recently, much to my dismay, they took it off the menu. (But I’ve heard that you can still special order it.)

The original location of Frank Pepe Pizza Napoletana in New Haven, CT, is the home of the clam pizza, a very different and very delicious pie. And locally, in my neighborhood of Southern New England, I’ve had excellent pizza at Al Forno in Providence, RI, the restaurant that started the grilled pizza craze…and Fellini Pizzeria, on the east side of Providence, RI and in Cranston, RI, home of a wonderful New York-style thin crust pie.

The “paste” used in this dish is really more like a citrusy pesto that you smear all over the meat before cooking, preferably the day before. The citrus flavors work really well with the pork, and the initial high-heat cooking really gets the fat crispy and delicious. I used a pork loin here…but this is fantastic on a pork belly! Don’t use a pork tenderloin, but it’s very lean and will dry out.

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1 pork loin, about 8 lbs. (I use Berkshire pork)
zest of 2 oranges
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
3 cloves garlic, through a press
1/4 cup olive oil

 

In a food processor, combine the orange and lemon zest, the rosemary, sage, salt and pepper, and garlic. Pulse the processor just to mix, then turn it on and add the olive oil slowly, in a stream, until you get what resembles an oily pesto.

Score the fatty side of the pork loin with a knife in a diamond pattern. Rub the paste on all sides of the pork, but especially into the cracks of the fatty side.

Lay the loin down on a rack, raised off a sheet pan, fatty side up. Place it in the fridge, unwrapped, overnight.

The next day, about an hour before cooking, remove the loin from the fridge and let it come back to room temperature.

Pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees.

Bake the pork loin at 450 for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 and cook until the pork reaches a temperature of 140 degrees (light pink). Let it rest for 15 minutes before serving.

 

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Calamari is the official appetizer of the state of Rhode Island. And for good reason. Squid means big business, and what we catch in Rhode Island accounts for up to 50% of the east coast’s quota every year! Squid have a lifespan of 12 to 18 months, reproduce twice a year, and can be caught year-round, with very few catch limitations, making it lucrative for fishermen.

Great fried calamari is an art form. It may seem like a simple dish, but to make it light and crispy, you need to be on your game. That’s why it can be a real hit-or-miss item on most restaurant menus. And there’s nothing worse than getting what would have been a great plate of calamari had the chef not decided to pour sauce all over it, turning the crispy cephalopod into mush.

What makes great fried calamari are three basic elements: it needs to be wild-caught in the US (preferably Rhode Island!)…properly cleaned…it needs to be fried at the right temperature for the right amount of time so that it’s perfectly cooked and not greasy…and the coating needs to be light and crispy.

 

calamari

 

1 lb. wild caught cleaned squid (thaw if frozen)
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1  teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup milk
1 large egg
oil, for frying (I use avocado oil)

Thaw the squid and slice them into bite-sized pieces. In a bowl, whisk the milk and the egg together. Toss in all the squid pieces into the bowl to coat. Place the bowl in the fridge for at least 15 minutes.

In another bowl, combine the flour, oregano, paprika, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. Set it aside.

Fill a large pan halfway with oil…or use a deep fryer if you have one. Heat the oil to 350 degrees.

Working in small batches, remove the squid from the milk and egg mixture, letting some of it drip off, then place the squid in the flour mixture and toss to coat. Shake off any excess flour and place it immediately into the hot oil. Fry the squid until it’s golden brown, about 4 minutes. Serve it immediately with tartare sauce, tomato sauce, hot peppers, whatever you like. (But keep the sauces on the side for dipping.)

About the oil: I cook almost exclusively with olive oil. But for hot frying like this recipe requires, I go with avocado oil, which can take higher temperatures.

Winter is here. It’s time for some serious comfort food.

Years ago, when I received a shipment of venison from my father-in-law, an avid hunter that lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I knew that although I could certainly use beef for this dish, it would be absolutely stellar with venison. I’ve made it several times since then, with beef or venison, with delicious results!

 

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Olive oil
3 red onions, peeled and chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons butter, plus extra
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 celery stalks, trimmed and chopped
10 oz. baby bella mushrooms, chopped
3 lbs. venison (or beef), cut into 3/4″ cubes
A few sprigs of fresh rosemary, leaves picked and chopped
Salt and pepper
24 oz. of your favorite lager or stout
3 tablespoons flour
12 oz. freshly grated cheddar cheese
1 1/2 pounds store-bought puff pastry (all butter is best)
1 large egg, beaten

 

Pre-heat the oven to 375.

In a large oven-proof pan, heat a few tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onions and fry gently for about 10 minutes. Turn the heat up and add the garlic, butter, carrots, celery and mushrooms. Stir well, then add the venison, rosemary, and a teaspoon each of salt and pepper.

Sauté on high for about 4 minutes, then add the beer, making sure you take a swig for luck! Stir in the flour and add just enough water to cover. Bring it to a simmer, cover the pan with a lid or foil, and cook it in the pre-heated oven for about 1 1/2 hours.

Remove it from the oven after 1 1/2 hours and stir it a bit to combine all the flavors. Put it back in the oven (covered) and cook another hour, until the meat is cooked and the stew is rich, dark and thick. If it’s still liquidy, place the pan on the stove top and reduce it until the sauce thickens. (You don’t want a soupy stew or you’ll get soggy puff pastry later.) Remove the pan from the heat and stir in half the cheese. Taste it to see if it needs seasoning, but remember there’s more salt coming when you add the rest of the cheese. Set it aside to cool.

Depending on whether your puff pastry comes in sheets or a block, you’ll need to use a rolling-pin to get it into sheets about 1/8″ thick. Butter a good-sized pie dish or an oven-proof terrine, like the one in the photo above. Line the dish with the sheets of pastry, letting the pastry hang over the sides. Pour in the stew, even it out with a spatula, and add the rest of the grated cheese on top.

Use another 1/8″ thick sheet of pastry (or a couple if they’re not wide enough) to cover the top of the pie dish. Lightly crisscross the top with a knife, then fold over the overhanging pieces of pastry over the lid, making it look nice and rustic. Don’t cut or throw any of the extra pastry away! Find a way to use as much as you can, since everyone will want some.

Brush the top with the beaten egg and then bake the pie on the bottom of the oven for about 45 minutes, until the pastry has cooked, and it’s beautifully puffed and golden. Serve with a side of peas (and beer!)