As early spring showers and warmer, longer days signal the impending arrival of Spring, all I can think about is what I can grab from the grocer’s to cook with and capture the sense of ease that characterizes the season. It’s not quite time for a full on barbeque, but picnic season is around the corner and I am beginning to whip up things that look like they want to be eaten on a grassy lawn. Naturally, I want this list of items to be small, simple, and easy to work with - who wants to be stressed out by a picnic? - yet varied and interesting, flavorful and yummy enough to keep me coming back for small nibbles and leisurely bites. finally, in keeping with the spirit of Spring, I want it to be light enough for repeat noshings that will inevitably ensue.
I write a lot about Soul and Southern food, but actually spend a lot of time cooking and eating Italian cuisine, which tends to get heavier play on this blog in the summer: it’s my favorite beach and picnic food, though lately I find myself increasingly drawn to it all year round. When I first began cooking, a lot of my dishes were inspired by the Medditeranean, and while I’ve recently shifted my focus to early American and African Diasporal traditions, Italian flavors and cooking have always been close at hand. I didn’t grow up eating a lot of it, but began to learn about it while living in Providence, RI, where I attended art school and lived for a little under a decade. I became a regular in many of the city’s eateries, which are diverse and feature everything from old school Italian American to authentic Hmong and Guatemalen fare. It is a true melting pot, with an array of recently settled immigrant communities who run a number of eateries featuring authentic preparations of their foods from home.
It didn’t take long before I fell in love with the Federal Hill district, and I remember the relish with which I ate my first gelatto at Pa Dolci Vita, a cafe/bar that was rumored (like many things in mid 90’s Providence) to be a Mafia front. A few blocks away, my friends and I could have our pick of thick crust home style pizza at Cassertas (which also sold cigarettes!), or thin crust, hipster inflected grilled pies at Bobby and Timmys. Every so often, we would splurge and go to Al Forno or the famed Capitol Grill. If we were broke, we would steal into The Sandwhich Hut, a hoagie joint run by a friends’ family whose most popular menu item for 60 years was meatballs prepared by Grandfather Joe, a WWI vet who brought the sauce recipe to America from Italy. I loved going to Venda Ravioli to buy iimported espresso for my stove top moka maker. By the time I arrived in Brooklyn, Italian cooking, at least it’s American cousins, had won me over, and my first favorite restaurant in my new hometown became none other than Frankie’s 457, 17 Clinton when I went over the bridge to meet my Manahattan dwelling friends. There, on visits that became like mini pilgrimages, I would order a cocktail, a plate of meatballs, and a glass of Aglinaco. Every so often I would steal a bite off a friend’s plate, but I loved this simple meal and the type of enjoyment that it imparts.
Three years ago, a Neopolitan pizzaria opened in my neighborhood, and I became an instant regular, once showing up three times in one weekend with two sets of friends. I introduced many people to Saraghina, and eventually took part time work there as a server and later bartender. The draw for me was initially the pizza, which has a cult following that crosses all ages, tastes, and cultural background. I myself am no exception - ordered the Coppa and Carciofi every time and I ate there for the first two years - but over time I began to see the allure of the restaurant’s entire food program, which emphasized a mix of fresh, humble ingredients with select imported items. I loved that there was ample seafood, and that simple vegetables were often assigned the starring role on the dinner menu’s small plates. In time, I befriend the restauraunt’s then pastry chef, Pascale Boucicaut, who recently opened Yemanja, a hostel with a Pan Carribean restauraunt and sweeping ocean front views. Pascale’s family is Hatian American, and while we initially bonded our experiences eating soul and Carribean food, when we got together to cook, we often opted to prepare pastas and salads, dishes that were easy to manage with our hectic New York lifestyles. In time, we would eventually teaming up to cook and throw elaborate seven course meals inspired by the Feast of the Seven fishes, impressing our Italian friends with our intuitive grasp of the cuisine.
In time, I began to make connections between cucina povera’s use of pork and beans to that of the use of meat in all common men’s cooking: it was minimal,
Used as a flavoring and seldom as a dish unto itself, and overall was frugal and delicious. I began to experiment with fennel, artichokes, and broccolli raab, my garden became crowded with 5 types of basil and I started to mix amaros into my Manhattan instead of vermouth. As I began to embrace the mix of flavors both subtle and boldly expressive that characterizes cucina lovers, I also became lulled by it’s relaxed attitude about pleasure and enjoyment. At this point, I am not only a big fan on of flavors but the very spirit of the cuisine, and hope that my recipes will convey this as well as their simplicity and ease.
I have been playing around with a few things of late that I can’t seem to get enough of - a rare treat for a me; I am a self described restless, fidgety, jumpy kind of person who skips sleep if I can avoid it and was constantly reminded by my father growing up “to chill out and relax”. I work on my feet most days, and often steal bites here and there, eating standing up or on the run. To complicate matters, I live in a part time f Brooklyn where this a dearth of quality produce, and scant pasture or hormone free animal products. Add to this my pickiness about having the “ideal” conditions to eat, and my tendency to idealize the perfect meal: as I wrote oon this blog about a year ago, I caught the cooking bug after watching the film Big Night. It’s not uncommon for me to think about wanting to visit a restaurant for months before I am in the proper frame of mind and have a couple hours to devote to sitting down and enjoying it. That said, It takes a lot for me to want to slow down and really enjoy a meal When those moment come, or rather, when those dishes come along that usher in these moments, I feel I’ve hit an especially sweet spot. This week, I worked quite a bit from home, deep in recipe research mode for some new beverage projects that I will write about more in a later post. Generally, when I am deep in the books, I resort to takeout….but my appetite for homespun everything has got a big hold on me, so I’ve lately made a point to carve out time for a nice lunch at home.
To keep things interesting and the work to a minimum, I often pair one simple, handmade element with something bought from the store. I try to keep it to six ingredients or less, all good quality stuff with a nice thing here or there (fresh butter, local eggs played a day or two before at most, a a thick slice of bacon or loaf of local artisan bread), to really put it over the top. Here are a few things myself and a few friends came with, which can be put together in 20 minutes but keep you around the table for an hour or longer basking in simple pleasure and enjoyment. May this Roman inspired spread inspire you to welcome the coming Spring with a light and happy heart!
this recipe was born out to of equal parts necessity and curiosity: I had done scant cooking for myself that week, and was living off the scraps from research projects and catering gigs - my fridge was full of a less than obvious bounty: a handful greens that were a day or two away from relegation to the scrap pile/ needed to be eaten before they were relegated to the scrap pile, a bag of almonds that didn’t make it into a party mix, and a clutch of greens and herbs that I didn’t have any immediate plans for. These elements, combined with a winter weary appetite (root vegetables again?) Prodded me to reach further and dig deep - I wanted to avoid waste, try something new and funky, and throw a dash of yum into the mix while I was at it.
The inspiration came partly from Matt Klein, Pratt alum and one of my comrade in arms at Bedford Hill Coffee Bar, a tiny jewel of a space in Bedford Stuyvesant budding Jew food corridor that is a euro style cafe serving everything from coffee and house,Ade panini to local craft beers and boutique wines by the glass. I manage the wine and sale program, while Matt helms the kitchen, turning out both seasonal and one off specials that has highlight local purveyors and the resident nt of the space.
We are both self taught food geeks flavor fanatics who know our respective ways around a kitchen and a bar. Our lives follow a set of parallel lines that Brooklyn alone is set up to accommodate, much less illuminate: we grew up in smallish towns near big cities, studied painting at big name art schools and have been foodies since we could hold a fork and help out in the kitchen. I may have been cooking longer than Matt, but I consider him to be a peer, because his willingness to put in the hours tinkering and perfecting an idea goes way beyond where I typically venture: I mine the classics searching for contemporary renditions that offer new ideas around what may typically register as mundane and obvious, while he pushes, pushes, and, yes, barrels through ideas, and is constantly inventing new ways to use ingredients in novel configurations, driven to search for ever fresher culinary paradigms.
So back to the pesto. Matt makes of version of this with hazlenuts, which is delicious. I always have almonds on hand in my pantry, however, and one day I used those to save myself a trip to the grocers. This recipe will make enough for a pound of pasta and serves 4 to 6 depending on what else is on the table and how hungry you are:
2 1/2 cups of kale, julliend fine
1 cup of almonds, raw and ground to a meal
1 bunch of parsley, chopped fine
1/2 cup of pecorino or romano cheese, grated
1/2 cup of olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced fine
salt and white pepper to taste
Combine garlic, almond meal, parsley and kale in a food processor and pulse until chopoed fine and well integrated. If you must reach into the blender with a spoon between pulses to further mix, but always unplug this - or any other kitchen appliance with powered blades on it - before touching or putting your fingers near these parts.
Add the cheese, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Continue to process until you have a chunky paste. This pesto will keep in the fridge for a week.
To serve with pasta, spoon 2 generous teaspoonfulls of pesto for every cup of cooked noodles, adjusting for desired color and taste. I made this pasto deliberately low key, and served mine on linguine with shaved mushrooms.
When I get together to cook with my friends, a good time is never too far off. A few times this month, I’ve gathered with a handful of folks - friends and neighbors, visiting family, and new faces, over casual, easy meals that evoke spring and picnic baskets. My good friend Rory invited me over one Sunday and his boyfriend Chris made these wonderful sandwiches, which were extra yummy because of the honey butter he slathered on the bread before toasting the sand which on the griddle - a brilliant and tasty move.
Only takes a few minutes of light cooking in olive oil, salt and pepper. Right before eating, I like to squeeze some lemon on it, and it’s nice with shaved pecorino or sauteed mushrooms.