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Fateful Moments

fresco painting of snake from Pompeii

detail from Pompeii fresco

Southern Italy, the Fall of 1980 – I had just been at the wedding of my Mother’s sister Anna, and my cousin and I were driving one of the guests back home. Shortly after the drop off, as we pull away down a narrow alley, our little car seemed to encounter some odd mechanical difficulty. Engine running? Check.  Wheels spinning? Check… but, we were not moving – not horizontally at least. Our car appeared to be bouncing wildly up and down, hopelessly trying to gain traction in the air. What in the world was happening?

At that moment on the evening of November 23rd, 1980 we were in the midst of the most devastating earthquake to hit South Italy in recent times.

Within seconds life around me suddenly became bizarre and surreal. The sky turned strange borealis colors. There were explosions, fire, smoke, screaming and devastation everywhere. The whole of Sorrento was in shock. There were strange sights you would never have imagined. I saw a building collapse, leaving only a sliver of itself standing, supported only by a skeleton of metal plumbing, and on the fourth or fifth floor, a mother, holding her baby, stood on a toilet screaming for help. There was nothing I could do.

I sprinted back to the restaurant… only to discover there was no restaurant. It, along with some lives, had been taken by the Mediterranean Sea. There, floating in the clear water was the wedding I had just been to… just peacefully bobbing up and down among the waves. I heard that the bride and groom had just barely escaped by jumping out of a window and onto an awning as the floor collapsed beneath them.

Sorrento practically lost all its businesses and residences, and soon my own family was placed in a hotel until we waited for an answer to the question “Now what?” The time that passed in the next few weeks and months seemed both long and short. Much needed to be done, but at the same time there was little that could be done. For all its urgency, mostly all you can do is sit and wait. This part of Italy is certainly no stranger to life changing disasters. It is the home of the infamous graveyard city of Pompeii, once buried alive by volcanic ashes. There are literally cities built on top of older cities that did not survive one disaster or another. We counted ourselves lucky. In relative good fortune, while we were there, we met a bar owner, told him our story, and he agreed to let us use a part of his space for business, which we quickly turned into a makeshift restaurant –  a kind of tourist location in one of the many “piazza” in Sorrento. It became at least a buzzing and busy place with a lot of activity.

One sunny afternoon, during our break, a large group of American Marines on shore leave from the legendary Nimitz, in port at Naples, came to get their load of beer. The waiter came to our kitchen to let us know that 20 Americans were in the mood for some sweets to go with their drinks, specifically “Bananas Flambé” also known to some as Bananas Foster. The flambé part is simply a bit of liquor added and lit to produce a little alcohol fueled pyrotechnics show, mostly for entertainment purposes, but also to add a bit of caramelization. My mom quickly refused, explaining that her husband was not present (my stepfather was out losing our money in a little poker game), and therefore we could not deliver.

I protested “But mom, we could use this money. I’ll cook.”

“Be quiet”. she scolded.  “That is not a thing for a 14 year old to handle”.

But I continued to insist, assuring her that I had watched the dish assembled many many times and that I could indeed handle it. With a prayer and sweating pearls, she sighed… and bravely agreed to let me step up to the stove. A short while later, we delivered 20 plates of Bananas Flambé…  and just 10 minutes later was a request for an additional 20. Apparently the Americans loved them, claiming them as the best dessert they ever had in their life. You can imagine what a tremendously huge boost that was for my confidence in the kitchen. That was the first taste of the special feeling that has since been the reward and motivation for my career as a Chef.

Even still under a long shadow in this difficult time, somehow I was gifted this one bright spot – a hint that life might one day be good again. Just one moment, a very small push forward. But how much we all need that sometimes. Because that’s how you get through life – one moment at a time.

CTS

PS: Years later, Bananas Flambe was the first dessert I ever made for my now wife of 22 years… so thank you again Bananas Flambe. Amen.

 

Banana Flambe- ingredients and recipe:

Ingredients- 2 semi-hard bananas(peeled and cut in half lengthwise), 4 tablespoons of granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons of butter, 1 juicy orange(including zest), 1 lemon(including zest), 1 shot of Grand  Marnier, enough Cognac for flambe (the pyrotechnic effect as well as for taste), 2 portions french vanilla ice cream, and some chopped toasted almonds.

Recipe: In a frying pan, put sugar, and butter and let it melt slightly. As the sugar begins to caramelize, add the juice of the citruses and let it all become a creamy caramel. As all the ingredients are blended, add the bananas, poke the top of the bananas with a fork to let the juices absorb into the fruit. Add the Grand Marnier. It is now time for the cognac. Set it on fire, getting your flambe effect. You will see, as the alcohol burns out of the sauce, the flames will extinguish by themselves. Time for serving. In a dessert plate, arrange the two halved bananas almost into an oval shape. Arrange the vanilla ice cream in the center and pour the sauce over the entire dish and sprinkle with chopped almonds, and be ready for pyrotechnics, but this time in your mouth and your belly.

That Wonderful Thing called “Mom‘s Cooking” – A Visit from Mamma Teresa

My Mother came from Europe to visit recently ( I live in New York now ) and of course, she cooked for us. It was a wonderful dish, a favorite of ours; Pollo al Limone. And of course it was delicious, but the meal was wonderful because of what it brought back to me when my Mother cooks.

What do you think of when you hear the words “Mom’s cooking”? Wherever one comes from in this world, I think we all nod our heads the same way when we hear the phrase “Mom’s cooking”. But at the same time, its meaning is deeply personal to each individual. After all, there are as many versions of “Mom’s cooking” as there are Moms out there.

Now, when you are 13, or 14, of course, you think nothing of it – you go out, do your kid things, come home hungry, and there it is waiting for you – Mom’s cooking. Looking back on it, wasn’t it the most wonderful thing? Your meal, right there, waiting for you, nice and hot. In my case, sometimes she would even bring it to me, down by the shore, to make sure I had something to eat between my long dives chasing lobsters or octopus. Whatever it was that she brought was exactly what I needed. But of course, this is the result of someone thinking of you. She remembers what you like, what you don’t like, and may even come up with something invented just for you. Even on the normal days, she had to plan meals, had to go out and buy the ingredients, and almost every day, try again to answer the same problem – “What would the kids like for dinner?” What a headache it must have been sometimes. My mother told me that once, she was so frustrated she almost opened the window and tossed all the cookware out. I never knew.

As with many things, it’s really only when all that wonderfulness is behind you and years later, looking back, that you realize what a beautiful thing you had. That’s when the words “Mom’s cooking” really take on the full meaning, and you close your eyes and feel whatever those words mean to you.

In the end, it’s not really about the food.  But what Mom’s cooking is really, if you think about it, is love served on a plate. Corny, but isn’t it true.

Peace,

Chef Tony

Life, and Cooking, is an Adventure – A Very Happy Tiramisu Birthday ( Viewer Success Story #1)

Chef Tony here;
We love hearing from our viewers! Here is a wonderful letter from Michael, who watched our tiramisu video recipe and adventurously decided to make it for his wife’s birthday party. Results? Well, just read the letter he wrote and you will see how things went.
tiramisu closeup

Chef Scarpati:

A few weeks ago I found your YouTube Tiramisu video, watched it a couple dozen times, and last week I make Tiramisu for the first time and being daring, I made it for my wife’s 45th birthday party, which I held at a local Italian restaurant.

I made a couple of small mistakes along the way, like not brewing enough espresso in advance, but in my defense, I made it in an 11×15 pan, and simply forgot to make enough.  I am not a baker or a cook, although I do make the most delicious pecan cookies and everyone compliments me on them, but now I have added Tiramisu to my short list and I have you to thank for your wonderful recipe, video and preparation tips.  Oh yeah, I also forgot the layer of unsweetened cocoa between layers, but it still came out awesome.  So much so, my wife offered some to the manager and wait staff at the restaurant, and the restaurant manager and waiter both came to our table to compliment me, and the waiter even shook my hand saying it was the best Tiramisu he had ever tasted, high praise, especially when you factor in that the restaurant offers Tiramisu on their dessert menu.

I was going to use your decoration with the fork and spoon, but I got courageous and melted some Ghiradelli white chocolate, and using a scripted printout below some wax paper, I wrote a birthday message in chocolate and gently dropped it onto the cake.  I’ve attached photos (it was also her best friend Elizabeth’s birthday, both name Elizabeth, so that is the reason for the size and wording, my wife and daughter are on the right in the second picture).

Everyone is still talking about it a week later.

The first time my wife and I both tasted Tiramisu was in Venice in 2005, we ended up having it for every dessert for the the remainder of our trip, but I never thought to try to make it.

Anyway, it came out perfect, I made a couple of small mistakes, and made some notes to remind myself next time, but it was still unbelievably delicious, I still can’t believe that I made it so good.

My sincere thanks to you Chef, you not only helped me to make a delicious birthday dessert for my wife, you helped me to put a big smile on her face as well.

Warm Regards,
Michael Bisbee
tiramisu birthday party

Another happy camper!

I’m speechless. Thank you for sharing your letter Michael. It really really gives me such a warm feeling inside to hear stories like this. This is really what food and eating is all about, and this is really the reason I have my food show and why I try to share my knowledge – so that people can create some happiness and memories in their lives. What better way than through sharing food? Look at those happy faces. Happy birthday Elizabeth and Elizabeth!

I also love that Michael went off on his own with decorative ideas and got inventive. Be brave with your cooking adventures. Try new things. Remember that cooking is partly an art, and a chance to express your individuality. Sometimes the best ideas lie very close to the worst, so yes, you have to risk failure sometimes, but it’s worth the risk, for the great adventure of cooking. You think Chef Tony hasn’t had his own kitchen disasters? Of course I have  (but I have buried them deep in the yard so you will never know!).

I know there are more stories out there, so if you have something to share, good or bad, please let us know. As they say, shared misery is half misery, and shared joy is double joy.

Take care everyone,
Chef Tony

 

For the Love of Broccoli Rabe – episode 35 recap and recipe follow up “Orecchiette with Sausage and Rapini”

orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe

video episode #35 – Broccoli Rabe

Chef Tony here. I don’t have to tell you. You already know you should eat your veggies. It’s good for you. I consider broccoli rabe the king of healthy vegetables (and so does Sofia Loren by the way). Luckily for me, I happen to love love love broccoli rabe – I could eat it all day. Some people call it Rapini, Cime di Rapa, Rabe, Raab, Broccoletti… whatever. It’s basically the same awesomely delicious plant and it’s really great by itself or as an ingredient in another dish. It has a slight spicy bitterness to it, which I consider part of its charm. I love it so much that we dedicated an entire episode to it.

broccoli rabe, rapini, raab, broccoletti

Now, because we all like variety, I like to use it also with some dishes, and I’m now going to give details on a recipe I mentioned in the video – Orecchiette con Salsiccia e Rapini ( Orecchiette with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe ) It’s a dish famous to the Puglia region of Italy. The Orecchiette is an ear shaped pasta that is traditionally hand made by grandma (“orecchio” means “ear” in Italian). You can think of it as the “gnocchi” of Puglia.


These are the approximate amounts for preparing for about 2 people. We need one bunch of rabe, about 250 grams of orecchiette pasta, 2 large links of sausage (1 per person), and at least two cloves of garlic. Optional is hot pepper flakes and pine nuts. There are variations of this dish throughout Italy. Some people add nuts, some without. Some add anchovies. Feel free to experiment.
So, let’s get into it.

  1.  Prepare the broccoli rabe just as seen in the video. Ideally, you want to set your rabe aside at the point when it still bright green and has a little crunch left in it.
  2.  Now in a large skillet give a generous amount of olive oil, 3 or 4 tablespoons. On a light heat, add a couple of garlic cloves, and then brown the sausage (out of casing) broken into small chunks.
  3. Get your pasta water boiling. Add salt. Add your orecchietta.
  4.  When orecchiette are almost cooked al dente, drain (save a bit of the pasta water).
  5.  Add orecchiette and rabe to your sausage. Toss a generous amount of pecorino or parmigiano cheese, and mix it all together well. If it is dry, add a bit of the saved pasta water.
  6.  Simple. Enjoy.

Don’t be afraid of Broccoli Rabe. Try it in different ways with different dishes and I bet you will find a way to love it. Let us know how it works out for you. Leave a comment. Ciao!

CTS

FULL VIDEO LINKED HERE:  

Creative Cooking – Mushy Tomatoes Saved in the Eleventh Hour! Episode 34 Tomato Sauce Video Tutorial Recap

pasta con pomodoro homemade tomato sauce with spaghetti

Work with what’s available. That’s always been my mantra. Don’t, at the start of the day, lock yourself in by saying “Today, I must have… (whatever that may be – salmon, asparagus, duck, etcetera). When I go to the market, my mind and my tastebuds are open. I look around, see what ingredients look like they are having a good day and bypassing those things that are, for whatever reason, not looking so fresh. And I go home with some good looking stuff to work with, rather than some sorry looking “must have” items.

If you’re not shopping; you’re home, you’ve got mouths to feed quickly, that same flexibility in thinking will serve you well. In our latest episode, we take tomatoes as an example. Let’s say you have some soft, too ripe tomatoes. Who knows… they were sitting in the corner and you forgot all about them, let’s say. Well, too ripe maybe for a salad, but perfect for something else… like a great tomato sauce. The ripeness will add a sweetness, and the softness will make it break down easier so you can have that meal ready and on the table much sooner than working with firm tomatoes.

This is so easy and so very basic, but this is the sort of dish that will repeatedly save the day, so everyone should know this. And here is how it’s done.

As an example this is what I would use for about three people ( or two very hungry ones )

Basic Italian Tomato Sauce:

  • Tomatoes nice and ripe – 6, about two per person
  • Garlic – one, two, or three cloves depending on how garlicky you like it
  • Basil – a good handful
  • Olive Oil – enough to generously cover the bottom of your pot
  • Parmigiano Cheese
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Peperoncino (if you like spicy)

Chop your tomatoes into small cubes. Lightly mash your garlic cloves with the side of a kitchen knife but keep the skin on so that you easily can fish the piece out when the sauce is done. Of course, you are the cook, so if you and your guests really don’t mind garlic chunks then feel free to leave them in.

So we heat up some good olive oil over a very low flame and we drop in our garlic. What we flavoring the oil here to make a little “soffritto”. We don’t want to burn our oil, just enough heat to simmer the garlic a bit. After a couple of minutes you can drop in your chopped tomatoes. Add a bit of salt and or pepper. Be conservative… you can always add more later. Bring the heat up to medium and cover. After a few minutes of simmering you will see that the tomatoes are releasing a lot of water and now it’s starting to look saucier. You can help it along by mashing the chunks with a cooking spoon or a fork. Adjust the flame to make it an even medium low simmer, and cover again.

If you are going to make a meal of this right away, then get your pasta water going in a large pot. While that’s heating up, I would chop up a handful of basil and grate some Parmigiano. Add your basil to the sauce. At this point I’d taste the sauce and add more salt and or pepper if needed.

Once your water is boiling, salt your water, and add enough pasta for your meal. Judging whether the sauce is ready is really a subjective call. You decide when it looks like a sauce to you, but about 15 minutes is safe to say it’s about right. If you keep simmering, it will get drier and drier and eventually become more of a paste.

When your pasta is ready, drain it, and put it in with your sauce. Add your grated cheese and give it a mix; turn the heat back on just for a minute while you mix. This will help the sauce stick to the pasta and make sure it’s not watery. Plate it, top it with a little extra cheese and fresh basil to make it pretty, and that is IT, my friends… you have a really delicious meal, right there.

Enjoy (and don’t forget to sign up for our blog!)

CTS

Click pic at the top for full video tutorial with our kitchen friend Francesca.

Olive Oil – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

illustration olive oil good and bad

Illustration for Ask Chef Tony by Athena Chuang ©2014

Well, you can knock me down,
Step on my face,
Slander my name
All over the place.

Do anything that you want to do, but uh-uh,
Honey, lay off of my shoes
Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes.
You can do anything but lay off of my blue suede shoes.

- from Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” (words by Carl Perkins)

Take a good look at the sentiment expressed above by Mr. Presley… well, that is pretty close to how I feel about my olive oil. You can do anything that you want to do, but uh-uh, lay off of my olive oil… baby.

It does seem, however, that someone is stepping on my blue suede shoes.

Have a look at this smartly illustrated explanation of what is going on with olive oil, created by Nicholas Blechman for the New York Times.

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/01/24/opinion/food-chains-extra-virgin-suicide.html?_r=1

Olive oil. Well, a seemingly simple topic, it might seem, at first. But really, not. Olive oil is so central to food and cooking – to my cooking, to Italian and Mediterranean cooking, that I could spend days talking about it. Long books can, and have been, written about it. Confession: I actually started writing this post a week ago, but each time I would find a place to start digging into the topic, it was not long before the beast got too complex and too big, and I would lose my grip on the subject, and have to start all over again. I repeated this process several times, and now I know how Sisyphus felt. So let’s not even attempt to serve the whole story here, or to try to swallow it up as one single topic. This will just be the first of who knows how many ongoing posts about this beautiful green oleaginous liquid. Whenever I find something relevant to bring up regarding olive oil, I’ll make a new post.

So the illustrated article linked above does most of the work for me in today’s post. It explains very well that unfortunately, there is (and has been for a while) trouble in the world of olive oil. I wish it were an uncomplicated matter and when you pick up a bottle in the market and it says “extra virgin olive oil” then you know you are going home with a bottle of exactly that. But of course, it not so easy. But really for us, it boils down to a practical question. Let’s accept for now the fact that there is really nothing we can do about the shady world of olive oil being what it is. The only thing that really matters to you, reader, is  – “How can I make sure that what I’m buying is pure quality olive oil?” You won’t like the answer. I wish it could be something like “You put a drop of vinegar in it and if it turns purple, it’s the real stuff.” Maybe someday someone will come up with something like that, but for now, the only answer that you can trust is that you have to really really know olive oil well. The tastes, the texture, the smells. And that is a very big task. Olive oil has as much nuance and sophistication as wine, so it’s not something you learn quickly.

But, yes, I know – you have a dinner to prepare tonight, and you don’t have 10 years to become a sommelier of olive oil right now. So for today, let’s just get down and dirty… the best practical advice I can dispense, is to rely mostly by understanding brand and scale. If you find a small label with small scale and limited product supply, it’s more likely to be a good source. It will be expensive though. But they are consistent and likely get their olives from a single reliable source. You can probably trust larger scale brands such as Colavita or Bertolli, but they distribute all over the world, so they mix olives from different sources in order to meet the demand, and the formula will change depending on factors. But if you see oil from a brand you’re not familiar with, and it’s only $9 for a half gallon… stay clear. There is no way anyone can sell real olive oil so cheaply. And be wary of tricky labeling, such as “light”, “extra light”, etc. Many of the terms are just marketing and are either useless or misleading in determining quality.  We will tackle the issue of olive oil grades (extra virgin, virgin, etc ) another day soon, but remember those are the terms that do matter. You can also put some trust in high quality markets with great reputations, such as here we have Stew Leonard’s, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Fairways, and such. They usually are able to source it themselves and on a smaller scale. Farmer’s markets also usually keep strict standards for the vendors, so I would take a look there as well. Again, probably very expensive, but likely good quality stuff.

The last piece of advice for this post is to use your olive oil according to its quality. I keep my standard olive oil around for my light frying or sauté needs, but the stuff that I spent a small fortune on at a specialty market, I only use as a finishing oil. The cooking process would destroy much of the delicate flavor that makes that olive oil special, so, just keep that in mind. Don’t be using your bottle of vintage Chateau Latour as cooking wine, is what I’m saying.

So that’s enough to chew on for now. But I love olive oil as a topic, so we will revisit from time to time and I will try to pass on what I can, so that if you follow my blog here, you will one day know a lot more about olive oils than you did today. And I’m posting a link to our very first YouTube video, which was, surprise, about olive oil. I’m aware we probably need to make a new updated video to keep up with the world of counterfeit and adulterated olive oil, now that it has become more sophisticated and widespread. But for now it’s a good place to start.

Stay tuned,

Chef Tony Scarpati

Know Your Food

Let me explain something about my childhood. My grandparents had 12 kids to feed, and I was number 13. Shopping, cooking, and feeding (for at least 20 people daily) was always a journey as you can imagine.

If goat was on the menu, for instance, we needed no less than 1/2 of the whole beast, and you learned not to fuss about whatever part of the animal landed on your plate because there was always a volunteer ready to take your meal. Now whatever the reason was – whether by choice, taste, or necessity, grandpa always ended up with some very strange anatomies on his plate… like half a goat skull. I remember watching him skillfully carve the brain and other goods out of it, with delight, enjoying it as though he were having caviar on New Years Eve. So by his example, I learned not to discriminate when it comes to food. You didn’t complain. You didn’t talk. You didn’t go to bathroom. You just eat. This was life at our dinner table.

Growing up, we understood – food is food. What do I mean by that? I mean that we had a real awareness of food. We were familiar with it. We knew where it came from, we understood its value, we knew we were lucky to have it and we never took it for granted.

Today, on a very basic level we have lost touch with our food. When we consume it, we often never see it until it arrives in its final form – ground up and shaped into a “patty”, or as a headless “filet”, as a deep fried breaded “stick”. Really? How do you know what it ever was? Let’s not spend so much effort denying that food is food. So, ok, let’s get past the goat story for now. I’m not trying to convince you to go out and eat a goat head. Let’s start with something simpler and talk about some more recent experiences on this side of the ocean. Fish. Whenever I buy fish, or go fishing, I always like to bring the whole fish home-  head, tail,  and everything in between. There are a lot of reasons for this, and it all has to do with “knowing” your food- in this case, fish.

Here is a bit of Neapolitan wisdom:  “The fish starts to smell from the head.” If you buy a headless filet of bass, you have taken away your most reliable method of telling how fresh the fish is. You can’t see the clarity of the eyes and you can’t smell the head. Plus, you leave yourself open to being scammed. There are recent surveys claiming that as much as 50% of the fish in the markets are “mislabeled”- cheaper species of fish swapped on an easily duped public. That’s easy to accomplish when you’ve stripped the fish down to just a pinkish piece of flesh. And of course, there is the sheer waste. Waste, waste, waste! There is so much good (if not the best) eating in the head. For instance, in some larger fish, the cheeks (often the size of a big scallops) are so flavorful and tender that my heart breaks to see that go out in the trash… you have to trust me on this one. With the oceans being over fished and certain species, such as the infamous Chilean Sea Bass (which, by the way is not a bass and has nothing to do with the country of Chile) are being pressured out of existence, we really need to use more of what we already have. Another typical crime of waste I see all the time- lobsters that are killed just for the tail, while the head and body are tossed;  it is a crime to do that to our food chain. Learn about that food. Learn how to deal with it. Learn how to make the most of our precious precious food. 

With this topic in mind, here is a video from not so long ago. So friends, learn everything you can about your food, and do not lose your head.

If you enjoyed this, take a moment to subscribe. I’d love to have you along for the journey!

BUON APPETITO FROM —CTS

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