Hummus

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Plain hummus is my favorite. I've never really been into any of the "flavors" like black bean or roasted red pepper or whatever is being thrown into a circular plastic container and served with pretzel chips. Hummus is supposed to taste like its ingredients - tahini, garlic, lemon, chick peas - but usually grocery store brands like Sabra fail to deliver in that department. We devolved hummus into this functional paste; it's only purpose being to serve as an exact calorie count. In short, it's never really made to actually taste good. Hummus should have some zip. I'm not saying pile it up with garlic - we often confuse authenticity with too much garlic, and I'll admit that I'm guilty of that - but if you find a suitable balance to all of hummus's ingredients you're in good shape. The bite from the garlic, the acidity of the lemon, the spice from the tahini - hummus is best when it tastes like its parts. When you do it right, you end up creating something bold and yet even keeled. Beats eating a bag of characterless baby carrots.

Recipe
2 15.5 oz cans garbanzo beans
2 tablespoons tahini
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
the juice of 2 lemons
toasted pinenuts
salt, pepper, and paprika

To Make:
This is a food processor job, meaning that you can just combine everything but the olive oil and blend. Once blending, slowly add in the oil. Add a little more if you need it. Salt and epper to taste. Separately, toast some pine nuts in an oven on 350. Closely monitor it. They go from 0 to 100 quickly. Top the hummus with toasted pine nuts, smoked paprika, and more olive oil.

 

Wedding Cookies

Italian Wedding Cookies, or simply just Wedding Cookies because they were so common as a kid, are tiny anise flavored sugar-bread balls with icing. They were on every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and wedding spread in my family. They're simple and polite. They also play well to my personal tastes - I am partial to lemon flavored desserts, a symptom of having half Mediterranean blood and being overexposed to Italian, Greek, and Middle-Eastern food as a child. They might be called Wedding Cookies because cookie tables are such a huge thing in Western Pennsylvania + Ohio. In most weddings back home, the cookie table takes the place of the wedding cake. It sounds a little poor, but it is truly spectacular. Can't believe anybody would ever have a cake instead of a cookie table. I tried to write a piece about cookie tables a while back that I couldn't get anybody to bite on, so I'll include that after the recipe. I think it explains cookie tables pretty easily.

Normally the icing isn't colored for weddings, but my grandma would do that sort of thing for Christmas. It's currently July. I did it anyways, though. Food coloring always makes me think of that scene from Hook where they have to imagine food in empty bowls and it ends up just being neon slop. "Hey, we can imagine any food in the entire universe and it will manifest in front of our very eyes, and we chose....colorful slime." Weird. Anyways, I don't bake much. Yours will probably look much better.

Here's the recipe, straight from my grandma's cookbook:

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A cookie table for your wedding 

I love a good wedding. I also love a bad one. To know what's good, well, we must understand what is bad. We must embrace bad. We must study it. Pontificate on it. I've seen wedding menus so bland they looked computer generated. Salad with raspberry vinaigrette and chicken cordon bleu, that sort of thing. One decision that is usually consistent and idiot proof (that means very hard to fuck up) is the wedding cake. Nobody complains about cake. To me, though, the wedding cake seems boring. Isn't it kind of dull? I mean, this one type of cake has to be something everyone in the room can enjoy. It's the laugh track sitcom of desserts, and yet, we accept it as tradition. Wedding cake gets ratings. 

But friend, there's an alternative to wedding cake that you're missing out on: It's called a cookie table. It's a stupendously vast array of cookies, a truly a spectacular display of treats. It's fantastical in presentation and conception. A good cookie table looks like overkill. It should be the mirage of a desert straggler. It should feel royal. You should be afraid to touch one cookie for fear of the whole thing falling apart like the later stages of a Jenga session. Growing up I remember pizelles, Hungarian butterhorns, biscotti, buckeyes, peanut butter blossoms, and so many more being spread out on fancy, yet cheap plastic trays and paper doilies. A true symbol of community, the cookie table has roots in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio. It's supposedly an immigrant tradition. The assumption is that when couples were too poor to afford a traditional wedding cake, they had both families contribute an absurd amount of cookies to compensate. Its origins are disputed; the exact kind of thing people from Ohio and Pennsylvania fight over. But, I'm not here to talk about where the cookie table came from. Who cares? It's already arrived. We live in this reality. I'm here to tell you why you should have it at your wedding. 

Can I put my hand on your shoulder and call you that shortened version of your name that nobody calls you? Great. I'm a numbers guy, Al. Right now, we're discussing one type of cake versus dozens of different cookies. The cookie table vastly outdoes the wedding cake in terms of variety and flavor. There's something for everybody, and the best part? There's no rules. Just go have a cookie. You don't have to wait. Not like cake. Cake takes an eternity to arrive and leaves in a few short minutes, but cookies at a wedding are eternal. From the beginning of the reception till the end of the night, the cookies are there for you. They're the last person to leave, and get this, you get to take them home. That's right, a traditional cookie table has takeout containers or bags. You can take them home or eat them in the car to sober up. You'll be a hero. People will say, "God damn, remember that cookie table?" and they'll think of you fondly. 

Coffee? No, I don't, but I can run to the AutoZone next door and they usually let me take some from the pot. You sure? OK. Where was I? Oh yeah, remember how poor you are? Remember how you caved into the pressure of society and planned a wedding? While you insist on getting "married" or whatever, you might as well save some cash, and this dessert won't cost a dime. All you have to do is commission your family to bake. In its purest form, the cookie table is a dessert potluck, and you can bet on your relatives taking it way too damn seriously. You're essentially setting up a competition for your family to engage in while you tie the knot. Remember, everyone who bakes for your wedding is trying to have the best cookie, so there's tons of room for conflict. This is the big day. Some will fold under pressure, but someone, probably your grandma, will be completely on top of her shit. The end result of all this family related competitiveness is one of the most awe-inspiring displays of treats you've ever seen. I've seen cookie tables so beautiful I cried at the mere sight. Maybe it's old age, but there's something squirt-worthy about a family driven cookie table. Hm? That sounded gross? Sorry, we have different expressions up here. 

Now, I know you've got your suspicions, and hell, I would too, but I've seen a whole lot of weddings and the ones with cookie tables are the most successful. I'm not trying to sell you a bunch of bells and whistles; I can promise you that. There's nothing in it for me. I don't make a commission here anymore, and I sure don't have any cookies to sell you. I'm just a guy on an hourly wage that's passionate about his job. I like hospitality. Treat your guests, Al. Ditch the cake, and plan a cookie table. 

Ravioli Florentine

This ravioli Florentine is a dish re-imagined, but one that I think keeps its original form intact. The first way I saw this prepared was as a cheap, Italian-American style restaurant dinner with store bought ravioli, heavy cream, cheese, and spinach. It is what in America we would swiftly identify as a ravioli alfredo. American alfredo is all cream and no technique !!! GOD JUST SOFTBALLIN' EM UP HERE !!! Once in a while I crave a heavy cream sauce or a casserole style pasta dish, but not often. Italian alfredo, to my understanding, is a lot of butter, pasta water, and cheese. If you're not already doing it, the pasta water technique is a great way to work a sauce. Basically take a ladle or 2 of pasta water, add it to a hot pan and slowly work in butter and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. The starchy pasta water, coupled with the butter and cheese, makes for an alfredo-like sauce. Creamy, yet no cream. Here, I took the concept of a ravoli Florentine - ravioli, alfredo, + spinach - and made it like a classic Italian alfredo. I tried to class up a lazy dish from my youth, so to speak.

For Ravioli
3 1/2 cups AP flour
5 large eggs or 6 regular store bought
1 tablespoon olive oil

For Fresh Ricotta
4 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pinch salt
1 lemon

For Sauce
1/2 cup pasta water
1/4 lb. butter
1/2 cup Romano Cheese
Spinach
Garlic optional
 

To Make Ricotta
It is best to look at an online tutorial on how to make ricotta, but the process is adding cream and milk to a pot which you bring to a slow rolling boil. Once boiling, squeeze a lemon and stir. Take off the heat for about 3-5 minutes. It should have curdled. Once curdled, drain onto a cheese cloth in a fine mesh sieve. Let the ricotta sit in a bowl to cool. I added a little Romano and basil to mine for filling.

To Make Ravioli + Sauce
Make a well like you would any pasta dough and knead until smooth. Cover and let sit for 30 minutes. Plenty of musings and instructions on pasta doughs here. Flatten with a pasta machine or use a rolling pin. From there, space out little pockets of ricotta cheese and brush some egg wash on the top half of your dough - pictured above. Fold over once and use your index finger to cover the gaps in-between each ravioli square. Buy a pasta crimper to make those little ravioli ridges on each side that we have all grown accustomed to.

Fresh pasta takes only a few minutes to cook, so monitor closely. Use the pasta water method above - I would say 1/4 cup of pasta water to 1/4 pound of butter and 1/2 cup of Romano cheese to achieve a creamy and smooth Italian alfredo sauce. Add the ravioli then spinach goes in at the end - at the end always with spinach. Give it a few quick tosses so that the spinach is wilted but not cooked. Salt and pepper. That's it, baby.

Gnocchi and condiment

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In Italy they often call sauce "condimenti" or some shit. I read it in a cookbook. Point is, in Italy it's all about the pasta; Pasta served with as little ingredients as possible. I've always loved that - and look, I'm not here to lecture you about how they do things in Italy. I'm not from there. I think Italian-American pasta can be great. I'll defend a cream based alfredo sauce. Stuffing a pasta dish like a casserole, while barbaric to Italians, represents comfort food to me.

That "condiment" concept, though, is something that I've thought about quite often. Here, I kind of literally applied the idea and practice of condiments to this gnocchi dish. I served pasta with some sides. I made fresh ricotta, gremolata, and added a slice of lemon to the plate. The dish is compartmentalized. There's no homogeneous sauce to speak of. Gnocchi and condiment works well because of texture. If you're not searing gnocchi, I highly recommend doing it - it almost creates a new layer of potato skin on the outside. No longer pillow-y in nature, a seared gnocchi has some firmness going for it. The creaminess of the ricotta helps balance out some of that hardened gnocchi texture, and the gremolata is a condensed version of my ideal pantry pasta. Lemon, like basil, to me is best when it's fresh and added at the end. I kind of love this strict translation of the word "condiment" in terms of pasta. It creates a new experience.

To Make Ricotta
4 cups milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tsp salt
1 lemon

Ricotta is simple as hell to make. Simply bring the milk, cream, and salt to a rolling boil on medium heat. Stir as needed. Don't scorch the bottom of your pan, that's what the medium heat is for. When it's boiling, squeeze a lemon in there and take it off the heat for 2-3 minutes. Let it curdle. Strain over a cheesecloth that's set over a strainer, and let it drain for about 10 minutes. You got ricotta, baby.

Here are the recipes for gremolata + gnocchi. When you cook gnocchi, it's basically ready as soon as it starts to float. After it floats, strain and transfer to a rip-roaring hot pan that has a little olive oil in it. Get a good sear on both sides. Get some color on it. From there, it's a matter of assembling your condiments.

Gremolata

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Bonus Pics: I saw this terrifying corn puff mascot at a butcher shop in Little Armenia. Also my friend told me that I look like a banker in a Western movie. What a Sunday.

Parlsey > Basil

I think parsley is superior to basil and before you tell me to fuck myself, please allow me to tell you why. First of all, pesto nowadays has made its way onto everything from turkey sandwiches to muffins. Like most things, as soon as it gets overexposed it loses some of its shine. Pesto found mainstream success because it has mainstream flavors. The star of pesto is of course, basil. Basil often steals the show. Basil is a ball hog. Once you add basil to something, that dish becomes basil-centric to me. It's all I taste. Don't get me wrong, I love basil. I'll chew on the stems. There's nothing better than a simple pomodoro sauce or a margherita pizza. But, when it comes to purées and rough chopped condiments - I like parsley. I like chimichurri and gremolata and I use parsley as a heavy garnish to most of my pasta dishes at home. Parsley has softer notes. It's subtle. It's earthy and yet it brightens up a dish. It's also low-key bitter, a quality which I enjoy in my foods. Parsley wants to work with your dish, not dominate it. 

Parsley is also a huge beneficiary to anchovies and lemon. I prefer a puréed gremolata to a basil pesto when it comes to sandwiches and pastas. It's great on fish and also steak. Also - parsley, lemon, garlic, and anchovy are the quintessential ingredients to pantry pasta - what you cook on the cheap when you're emptying your cupboards. These four ingredients together are the cornerstone of my taste. Gremolata is Italian, yes, but it's got some Middle Eastern flavors working for it, too. I'm partial to Middle Eastern and Italian mash-ups.

To Make
3 cloves garlic
3 bunches parsley
1 lemon
1/2 cup olive oil
1 can anchovies
1/4 cup Romano cheese

This is a food processor job, although traditionally a gremolata would be made through a rough chop or the use of a mortar and pestle. Peeled and crushed garlic, parsley, a squeezed lemon, and anchovies (with their oil) go into the food processor. Blend a few times on pulse, then continue to blend continiously while slowing adding the olive oil. Once the olive oil is finished, grate in about a 1/4 - 1/2 cup of Romano cheese and give it another few pulses. Don't blend it to total hell.

Lupini Beans

Lupini beans: What are they? Well, I know they're Mediterranean in nature - a delicacy ranging from Egypt, Ecuador, back in the direction of Greece. My Great Greek Uncle, Uncle Mike, loved lupini beans. He would strain the store-brand jars of legumes packed in salt water then refill the vessel with layers of garlic, olive oil, and lupini bean. It's a snack that I still eat to this day. The beans themselves are extremely bitter in their natural state, so they normally come packed in salt water. Eaten straight out of the jar, the lupini bean is delicious without any additional meddling. It packs a good enough salty flavor and textured crunch that you could put them right into a bowl or add to an anti-pasta platter.. The "Uncle Mike" preparation involves eating raw garlic preserved in olive oil so I recommend buying a bouquet (why not) of parsley and chomping on it. Parsley will help reduce the stench that is sure to accumulate in your mouth from the garlic. Leave these suckers in the fridge for a few days before eating them if you want to cut the harshness of the garlic. It's still going to hurt a little, but you should welcome it. This is some Old World shit right here that I'll do for the rest of my life. You crazy for this one Uncle Mike.

Gia Russa is the brand of lupini beans that were available to us. While I'm giving you a recipe for store-bought beans, I would like to take this time to mention that some things are best bought from trusted sources instead of laboring over a completely homemade dish. Preparing fresh lupini beans isn't worth the squeeze, I'm afraid. The good folks at Gia Russa have cleaned and cooked and packed these beans in salt water for you. Jarred things, even mass produced and bought at a store, can still be great.

To Make
12 oz. jar Gia Russa lupini beans
1/2 head of garlic
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Strain the lupini beans but don't rinse them - you want to keep some of the salt water on them for flavor. Keep the jar the beans came in. Now, thinly slice about a 1/2 head of garlic and start to layer the jar little by little with beans, garlic, and olive oil in that order. Keep doing this until the jar is full. Leave in your fridge for, honestly, months.

Spaghetti Pie

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Spaghetti Pie. Another family meal from my Pennsylvania Italian-American restaurant days. It's basically a frittata with spaghetti in it, although that description might not do it justice. Pasta in a frittata is a welcomed carb addition to something that is usually lacking in substance. It's a pie due to its circular nature; it being baked in the sauté pan you began the process in. The spirit of the spaghetti pie, which I hope to articulate its importance precisely, lies within the Sunday buffet shifts I worked when I was 17. A buffet, mind you, not a brunch. There's a difference. This Sunday institution opened at 11Am every Sunday, just in time for church to let out. Chafing dishes filled with baked ziti, sausage and peppers, chicken marsala, a salad bar, desserts like fresh biscotti and rice pudding - this was an early lunch in 2002. Sunday was also a day we blew off steam in the kitchen. We were all pretty high (serving a buffet is something you can do with your eyes closed) and usually fed ourselves an amalgamation of leftover weekend ingredients. Enter spag pie. It feels like the perfect brunch item although it might actually be more of fusion of breakfast and dinner. It's stacked with leftover lunch meats, vegetables, and aromatics. It's like a lot of Americanized versions of Italian food - a casserole stuffed with so many great ingredients that it's hard to fuck up. The result, however, is anything but a bastardization of the cuisine. It's something else entirely. It's thrifty, yet not traditional in any way. Maybe that's the beating heart of American cuisine - stuff tired line cooks make on Sundays.

To make
Render off the chopped slices of bacon, then add onion and 1 clove of garlic. Sauté until aromatic, then add the peppers and deli meats. Continue to cook on medium heat until soft. Add a 1/2 pound of cooked spaghetti (dry is good - use De Cecco) and saute for a minute. Salt and pepper generously. Take the pan off the heat.

Whisk your ten eggs and add to the saute pan. The total mixture of eggs and "frittata filling" should reach near the top of the pan, yet not be close to overflowing. This recipe fills a 12 inch sauté pan. Place pockets of goat cheese evenly into the spaghetti pie. Cook for 20 minutes on 350 degrees.

Separately, I like to either oven roast or pan fry some thinly sliced Roma tomatoes to place on top. Adding tomatoes to the spaghetti pie, or any omelette for that matter, increases the acidity of the product and with it the chances of the pie or omelette breaking. For that reason, I like to add the tomatoes on top at the end with some chopped parsley. Your spaghetti pie should slide right out of the pan.

- Danny

Ingredients
10 eggs
2 red peppers, sliced thin
2 green peppers, sliced thin
1/2 white onion, diced
1 clove of garlic, sliced thin
5 slices bacon, chopped
2 Roma tomatoes
1/2 lb. of cooked spaghetti
deli meats (about 1 cup of capicola, salami, and prosciutto) - diced
goat cheese
parsley

Dessert Polenta

I usually think it's super hacky when someone posts a food pic that's some crazy mash-up of flavors with the caption, "I came up with this little concoction when I was high! lol!" but that's exactly what I did here. I did it. I got very high and I put peanut butter and jelly on a seared polenta cake. I made sure to eat it the next day sober just to make sure I wasn't crazy, but...it's kind of good? Seared polenta cakes with peanut butter & jelly or nutella and marshmallows is a sweet and savory corn-cake dessert that's so damn simple to make. Anytime I make cornbread I always end up fiending out on some of the cookie-dough like corn batter. That's what this reminds me of. I know this sounds like "mmmmm corn dessert" and admittedly I'm doing a bad job of selling it, but I've always thought of polenta and cornbread as a little treats. I think they can make great vessels for syrups, chocolates, berries, etc., all you got to do is open your eyes mannnnn.

Tips

A good ratio for polenta is 5:1 if you're using basic, store-bought cornmeal. Bring the 5 cups of water to a rip-roaring boil and start adding in the cornmeal in batches. Make sure to whisk furiously each time you pour in some cornmeal. Keep stirring and stirring until there's no more clumps and your forearms hurt. This takes about 20 minutes. For the last few I like to add in a half of cup cream a few knobs of butter. I also add about a 1/4 cup of grated Romano cheese, salt, and pepper.

To cool I put in a sheet tray and let it sit for 30 minutes. After that, I wrap it tightly before putting in the fridge. In a few hours, you can cut little polenta squares and sear them in a pan on high heat.

English Breakfast

Clockwise: Bacon, Croque Madam, Poached Eggs, Italian Sausage, Redskins, Scallop, Cherry Tomatoes, Smashed Potatoes.  Not Pictured: Black Beans

Clockwise: Bacon, Croque Madam, Poached Eggs, Italian Sausage, Redskins, Scallop, Cherry Tomatoes, Smashed Potatoes.

Not Pictured: Black Beans

I know this isn't what a lot of people would consider an English Breakfast, but look, I had an English Breakfast one time and as far as I could tell, the entire aesthetic was, "7 or 8 different things that aren't connected, or even necessarily breakfast, on a plate." I made this in a condo on Sanibel Island, Florida. This breakfast was made with limited resources and beach house knives. "Beach house knives" are what I will be calling dull knives from now on. I imagine that in the routine cleaning that happens in between people checking in and out of these condos, amidst the vacuuming and scrubbing and flipping over couch cushions, nobody thinks, "Hey, you know what else we should do? Sharpen those knives."

Sanibel Island was the first time I took a family vacation in 2 decades. My parents have been going to Florida for the last 5 or 6 years now with my Aunt and Uncle. My cousins have also been meeting them for a few days each year. I never went to Sanibel with them, and for poorly thought out reasons. There's a great book - Blood, Bones, + Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, where she quotes her Dad saying, "...it's stupid to let money be the reason you don't do something." I think about that all the time.

The whole experience was peaceful. It wasn't an "exciting" vacation. Sanibel Island is retiree central. It's a bubble. It's a lot of rented bikes and Bahama Breeze's. It's old men playing cornhole (I don't know those people in the picture, by the way) and people collecting sea shells. Every room has a god damn sea horse lamp. To set aside my judgments of this place and have a good time, surprisingly, only took about 12 hours. Pretty soon I was striking conversation with strangers and enjoying chain restaurants. I admired sand castles like an idiot. I woke up to watch the sun rise. During the days I drank, cooked, and swam in the ocean. I didn't worry about work or my career. I didn't send any emails. I just kind of existed with my family. In that regard, I felt like a kid again.

I'm rarely one for novel gluttony, but that's exactly what I did here. I was feeling...lavish? I like feast eating on big occasions. Vacation put me in an extravagant mood. The thought process behind this breakfast started with a Croque Madame, which is breakfast-y enough given the poached eggs. Then I thought, "You know what goes good with béchamel and Gruyere? A scallop." Bring it back around to American breakfast and there's got to be bacon and sausage on there. There are few things more detestable to me than breakfast sausage, so I went with hot Italian. I would have gotten blood sausage, but unfortunately they didn't have any at the Sanibel Island grocery store. Next I decided to do 2 different types of potatoes: The Gordon Ramsay "smashed" style with onions and garlic, and a nice quartered redskin with bacon, garlic, and onion. Sautéed + salted cherry or grape tomatoes are highly underrated on breakfast plates, in my opinion. Underneath it all were some black beans with garlic, onion, and bacon.

Note: There was a heavy amount of butter and rendered bacon fat used here as I did not have any oil on hand. Dad took a nap at 10AM. Nobody was hungry for dinner. It was a good day.

Not leaving a recipe here, as it would be kind of pointless, but you should at least try a Croque for breakfast. Maybe on your birthday.

- Danny

Cavatelli + Hot Peppers

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I had just finished manning the pasta station at a country club, which is not glamorous work, but knowing how to churn out pasta for 80 - 100 people is necessary in Eastern Ohio. I had been staring at red sauce, white sauce, and oil + garlic for about an hour and a half, and I was losing my mind. I was listening to people give inevitable instructions like,  "Add chicken," "Make an alfredo," or "Do a vodka sauce!" There's not much room for imagination at a pasta station in a country club. Still, I was going to cook for myself from that same pasta station, and I sure as hell didn't want to eat anything these country club goers were. I definitely wasn't going to make myself cook penne - the country club of pastas.

As I was tearing down the station, I ran into my brother (who was the GM) and said, "Hey, man - have you ever made pasta and red sauce with like, a LOT of oil in it..." Before I finished my sentence, my brother knew exactly what I was talking about. Turns out we had been doing the same little experiment in our free time. We had both arrived to the same conclusion separately. I imagine that he too, over the course of his life, has stared at pasta and sauce so much that the wheels started churning on how to do something a little bit different.

That night I sautéed tomatoes, banana peppers, and garlic in a lot of oil. Then I added just a little bit of tomato sauce and tossed it with cavatelli. It was great. It was oily like an aglio e olio, but it still had some faint red sauce consistency to it. The pasta was stained with tomatoes, not drenched in it. This recipe is a riff on oil + garlic. When there's a good amount of oil, you don't need much else. You don't need to start adding pizza toppings like you're baking a penne casserole. There's no cheese in this dish because it doesn't need it. It's thrifty in the sense that I used some pepper oil (oil that I saved from frying hot peppers last Sunday) to the sauce. It's plenty filling without meat and cheese. Most great pastas are vegetarian in my experience.

- Danny

Instructions
Saute the peppers in your pepper oil until wilted, then add the halved cherry tomatoes. Cook all until it looks like the mixture above. Add the sliced garlic, then the olive oil. Cook for another few minutes, then toss with cavatelli.

I used probably 1/2 lb of pasta here. Once the cavatelli floats in heavily salted boiling water, I add about another 3 minutes of cooking time.

Ingredients
5 cloves of garlic thinly sliced
1/2 lb. of cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
5-7 hot banana peppers, slivered
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup pepper oil
1/4 cup red sauce (I didn't use it here)

Note: You don't NEED pepper oil, but last week I fried some hot peppers and saved the oil in plastic wrap. The oil became infused with hot peppers and it was quite nice.


Cavatelli Instructions
Pretty simple. Make a well with your flour and add the eggs. Add the olive oil and start to slowly incorporate, forming a ball with your hands. Fold, punch, and knead until you get a smooth, stretchable ball. Sometimes I add a few tablespoons of water to help the process if it's too dry. Now, just make little "snakes" and feed them through a cavatelli machine. I flour the mechanism on the machine to ensure no dough gets stuck.

For Cavatelli
3 1/2 cups AP King Arthur flour
5 eggs
1 tablespoon of olive oil

Gnocchi Hash

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I got very high and made a breakfast hash that uses gnocchi instead of potatoes. Seemed to make sense and this was really good. You'll see a lot of pasta recipes here that include egg. That's because I eat pasta for breakfast almost every Sunday. Normally it works out just fine and I go about my day. Today ,however, I have taken 2 naps watched 3 episodes of the new Chef's Table. I also fried an entire eggplant and ate the whole thing Milanese style before 10AM. Haha.

Hash is, well, really whatever you want it to be. I'll include what I did below with some tips, but don't expect an exact recipe. I really think the flavors work well together and I've never tried eggplant and serrano peppers in the same dish but it's pretty fire. Oh, and you can find the recipe for homemade gnocchi right here.

- Danny

Some Tips
I uniformly diced the eggplant, onion, garlic, and serrano pepper. First, I sautéed the eggplant with a little olive oil, then added the onion, serrano, and garlic. Get everything soft and a little golden. Leave in the pan and set aside off the heat. I also chose to roast some thinly sliced tomatoes in the oven which I recommend. Separately, cook your gnocchi in some heavily salted boiling water until it floats. When it does, strain it and get another pan rip roaring hot. Add a little olive oil then add your gnocchi to the pan. You want to get a nice golden color on your gnocchi. When you do, toss in the eggplant mixture. Crack a few eggs on top and throw it in the oven on 400 degrees for about 10 minutes or until the eggs are cooked to your desire. Top with Romano and parsley.

Ingredients
Gnocchi
Eggs
Eggplant
White Onion
Serrano Pepper
Roma Tomatoes
Garlic
Parsley
Butter
Lemon
Romano Cheese
 

Greens & Beans

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Recently, I wrote about learning how to cook in bad restaurants for the Austin Chronicle. In the article, I mention how at the first restaurant I worked we had this killer dish called Greens & Beans. It's one of the stronger ways to prepare cooked spinach. Its rustic, stew-like viscosity is the perfect substance to dip in some crusty bread. Also, it utilizes a whole fried pepper - a beautiful thing that also foodies go crazy for. Maybe this dish from 1999 is still relevant. It's got some cheap restaurant tricks, I'll admit. Chicken stock (the magic juice) used in a vegetarian dish seems a little bit lazy, and it is. It's easy flavor - but boy does it do a lot for spinach. Greens & Beans could be vegan or vegetarian easily, but that's not how we did it. It tastes better this way - as a senseless utilization of vegetables. It's a meat soaked vegetarian dish, and it's one of my favorites.

- Danny

Ingredients
4 bunches fresh spinach
1 small white onion, halved and sliced thin
6 cloves garlic
2 15 oz. containers of canned cannelloni beans, rinsed
1 1/4 cups chicken stock
1/4 lb. butter
2 lemons
Romano cheese

To Make
We're sautéing here. Get a large pot hot on medium heat. Add a little olive oil and caramelize the white onions. Then add garlic. Stir and cook for 30 seconds. Now add the rinsed beans. Squeeze 2 lemons. Salt and pepper. Now add in the chicken stock. Let everything cook for 10 minutes. Now add the butter. Once the butter is fully incorporated into the sauce and has disappeared completely, add your spinach. Add a little more salt and pepper. Keep spinning the spinach - moving the bottom to the top and the top to the bottom, until it starts to wilt. I can't stress this enough, wilt your spinach. The name of the game is here to let the heat from the sauce do most of the cooking. Keep twisting with tongs until you've got greens that looks cooked, but not the overdone, dark forest green you see so often in frozen spinach.

Top with a hot fried pepper and some Romano cheese. I eat it with crusty bread.

Gnocchi with potato skin and lemon

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Potato skins and gnocchi seemed like a logical conclusion. Instead of throwing away the skins (a direction in just about every recipe for gnocchi), I wanted to try to incorporate them in the pasta dish somehow. When fried, potato skins are crispy, dark, and flavorful. They're the opposite of the soft, pillow-like, melt-in-your-mouth fluff fest that are homemade gnocchi. The skins themselves can be a little overpowering, so the game here is to salt them, then chop them up with parsley and Romano cheese. The salty bite of Romano and the earthiness of the parsley compliment the potato skin well. Sprinkle this mixture on top of your gnocchi and lemon and you've got a winner. 

- Danny

Recipe

For the Dough
2 cups AP flour (King Arthur)
2 cups mashed gold potatoes (buy about a pound of whole potatoes)
1 egg

For the Sauce
2 cloves thinly sliced garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
Romano cheese
Flat leaf parsley
1 Lemon
3 tablespoons butter

To Make
My family's recipe for gnocchi doesn't involve egg. I added one here, and you might, might have to compensate with a little more flour, which is OK.

Boil your potatoes with the skin on - about 15 to 20 minutes until a knife goes through the potato with ease. Strain and rinse with cold water. Peel the skin off the potatoes, and set the skins aside on paper towels. Once your potatoes are peeled, go ahead and put them through a ricer. The only reason I have a ricer is for gnocchi; it's the only way to get them completely smooth and without clumps. Once you have some nice, clump-less mashed potatoes - measure them out to exactly 2 cups and set them on your counter. Now, measure out 2 cups of AP flour and set that in a separate pile from the potatoes. You should have two separate piles on your counter. Make a well and crack 1 egg into the flour pile, whisking with a fork until homogeneous. Now combine the flour and egg slowly until it's, well, clumpy flour. It doesn't have to be a ball. Now combine the clumpy flour mixture with the separate pile of mashed potatoes. Mix together until it's a smooth ball. Gnocchi dough won't be as elastic as egg dough, but it should be somewhat flexible. Like orecchiette, you're going to cut little ropes which should resemble pillows. Roll each pillow across the end of a fork to create ridges. Make sure your fork has flour on it.

Note: Don't give up on pasta dough. If it's too dry, add a splash of water, if it's too wet, add a bit of flour. Pasta dough is something you're going to have to keep messing up until you get it right.

Heavily salt a pot of water and bring it to a boil. Once boiling, go ahead and put a saute pan on medium heat. Add a few tablespoons of olive oil, then add the thinly sliced garlic once the pan is hot. After the garlic is golden, but not brown, go ahead and squeeze a lemon inside the pan being careful not to let any seeds fall into the pan. Stir that around on low heat. Now, start to cook your desired amount of gnocchi in the boiling pot of water - I would say about 3 handfuls. Once the gnocchi floats, it's done. Before you strain the gnocchi, take about 4-6 tablespoons of the starchy pasta water and add it to your lemon and garlic pan. Swirl. Add 3 tablespoons of butter and swirl around some more. Toss with your gnocchi, and top with your potato skin mixture.

LINGUINI AND CLAMS

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My favorite dish is linguini and clams. This was family meal in the first restaurant I worked, when I was 16 and learning how to cook. This version of linguini and clams, aka vongole, is something different than most recipes you'll find online. It's not traditional in the traditional sense. This is designed to feed line cooks quickly. It's made to slurp up while sitting on a milk crate. It's about flavor, efficiency, and accessibility. Its preparation and consumption feels more Asian than it does Italian. It's got a lot of liquid, though not enough to be considered a soup. A good zuppa de pesce should have a lot broth, and this is no different. You should drink the clam sauce afterwards. If you don't, I won't be able to look at you. This dish also celebrates parsley, an overlooked ingredient as far as flavor is concerned. Parsley almost always comes in second to basil, but I actually prefer its earthy subtlety. There's shallot - for no other reason than it was always on the saute station. Whole clams are often considered to be preferred in vongole, but you won't need them here. You will not be sifting out shells from your pasta bowl. It also breaks a cardinal rule made up by some asshole that you can't put cheese on seafood. You absolutely can, and Parmigiano-Reggiano belongs on this dish.

This version of linguini and clams is about a brief few moments of pleasure, then getting back to work (usually drinking). I've had linguine and clams a few hundred times, and I don't think I've ever sat down once while eating it. Always standing. Usually gesturing or making a fool of myself. This recipe has served two. It's served four, and five. It's a big pot of shareable noodles. It's a compelling argument for store bought pasta, canned clams, and the holy trinity of Italian American restaurant soffrito - garlic, shallot, and crushed red pepper.

- Danny

Ingredients
7 cloves garlic diced
1 large shallot diced
2 tbsp crushed red pepper
1 bushel of flat leaf parsley rough chopped
1 large lemon
2 cups white wine
4 tablespoons butter
1 lb. De Ceccco Linguine
30 - 35 ounces of canned clams in juice
(Cape Cod brand is preferred, just anything but bumble bee) 

To Cook
Put a large pot or dutch oven (enough to fit an entire package of pasta) on medium heat. Add a couple tablespoons of olive oil, then your garlic and shallot shortly after. Cook both until softened. Now add your crushed red pepper. Stir and cook until golden and aromatic. Now add 2 cups of white wine, preferably a dry Chardonnay. Lots of people say don't use cheap wine. I respond, "Who can afford to use expensive wine on anything other than getting drunk?" A 10 dollar bottle will do. Reduce your white wine by half. Get a waft of the liquid and its delicious bits of garlic, shallot, and pepper floating around. Now add the clam juice, only the juice, from your canned clams. Cook for another 10 minutes on medium to medium high heat, being careful not to boil.

In a separate pot, bring a heavily salted pot of water to boil. Boxed linguine is preferred here. In my opinion, an al dente De Cecco noodle is a thing of beauty. The factory made pasta is built to withstand the elements of a seafood dish more than a frail, homemade pasta. Cook your pasta a notch under al dente (6 minutes or less). Transfer your linguine to the pot of clam sauce, and stir. Right now you are infusing the pasta with the clam sauce mixture as it finishes cooking. Now add the chopped clams. Add the chopped parsley. Add 4 tablespoons of butter. Stir for a minute. Now take off the heat and squeeze a lemon. Plate with more fresh parsley and grated Parmigiano Reggiano. You did it.

 

 

Cheeto + Shrimp Chip Mac & Cheese

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Alright look I was high out of my mind. I was also hungover. Was this good? Yeah, of course. Should I have made it? I mean probably not. It's sitting in the fridge right now and I'm afraid to waste it. Now I've eaten mac and cheese 3 days in a row and I don't feel good about myself.

Here's my creative process thank you for asking: I thought, "Man, lobster mac and cheese is a thing. Cheeto mac and cheese is a thing. What about lobster chips? OK, what about shrimp chips? Shrimp chips and cheeto mac and cheese."

Leave me alone. 

- Danny

Ingredients
2 cups milk
1/2 pound American cheese
1/2 pound sharp cheddar
3 tablespoons of butter
1/2 pound of elbow macaroni
Flaming hot Cheetos
Shrimp chips

*I bought shrimp chips at an Indonesian restaurant and grocery store. Although the make lobster chips, I didn't see any on hand. Anything seafood flavored will do. Also, go nuts with chips and flavors and experiment. I think a lot of different things would work. 

To make
Bring the two cups of milk to a simmer on medium heat. Stir often and make sure it's on medium or even low heat. You don't want the milk to burn at the bottom. Now, slowly add in your cheese while continuing to stir. Some people will add roux to their mac and cheese and I'm not a fan. Thickness that you can achieve with roux can easily be had with cheese. Use only cheese. You're looking for a creamy - not watery and not chunky - consistency. Add in your butter and fold it in off the heat. Let it blend it naturally with your sauce.

Elbow macaroni. Bring a pot of heavily salted water up to a boil and cook the elbow macaroni all the way through. This isn't a delicate pasta dish so you don't want it al dente. Cook that damn macaroni. Again, the best way to test pasta is to take a piece out and try it. Drain the macaroni. Wipe out the pot that your pasta was in with a rag to remove any water. Now dump your pasta back in that pot and add the cheese sauce. Stir well until everything is coated. Salt if it needs it. Add white pepper if it needs it.

In a food processor or blender, add a ratio of 2:1 shrimp chips to Cheetos. The Cheetos are going to straight up overpower the shrimp chips if it's an equal amount of each. I used half a bag of cheetos to a full bag of shrimp chips and now I have tons of leftover chip crumbs in a tupperware container. No clue what I'm going to do with it, so keep that in mind before you blend up the entire bag. Pulse at first, then continuously blend.

In a small casserole dish, pour your mac and cheese in and top with the chip dust. Place in your oven on 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Boom daddy.

Orecchiette and Vegan Red Sauce

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When I made this dish, it didn't dawn on me until later that it was vegan. Vegan food is at its best when it's like that. When it sneaks up on you. When it makes you realize, "You know what? This doesn't even need meat." As a general rule, I'm not a fan of meals that try to recreate animal product. Veggie hot dogs, tofu burgers, even buffalo cauliflower reeks like it's trying too hard. It's devoid of imagination. It's an attempt to simulate meat, and ultimately it fails. It always does. I don't see the point in trying to reanimate what's already gone. You forfeited the concept of a burger a long time ago, vegan friend. Instead, celebrate the things that can make vegan food so tasty. Pasta is a dish that doesn't need meat to be delicious. There are endless amounts of techniques and combinations to achieve flavor.

I don't think I've ever made red sauce the same way twice. When I use San Marzanos, I generally don't do much outside of garlic, onion, and butter. When I peel my own tomatoes, I like to add a lot of herbs. When I buy cheap plum tomatoes in a can, I sear some pork neck and stew them in the meat to achieve flavor. If you're going meatless, it better be interesting, or at the very least spicy. While this recipe isn't loaded with spice, it does have a generous base of garlic, shallot, and crushed red pepper. I use these 3 things in just about every pasta dish I make, and here it shines with stewed tomatoes. I finish this with a generous pour of olive oil to achieve that nourishing and smooth umami flavor that your body craves. This is a fulfilling meal in every sense, while maintaining the simplicity associated with a great pasta dish. Orecchiette & Vegan Tomato Sauce.

For the Orecchiette
2 cups Semolina Flour
2 cups All Purpose Flour
1 1/4 cups warm water

Mix the Semolina and all purpose in a large bowl. Incorporate until one homogeneous mixture. After that, it's time to make a well. Dump your flour onto a clear surface or counter and make a hole in the middle. Slowly add in the water, using a fork to stir as you go. Once your water is slowly incorporated with a fork, go for it with both hands and start to kneed. Kneeding this dough should take about 20 minutes. Go nuts. Take out some frustration. Once you've got a ball of smooth, but not sticky dough, place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap for about 20 minutes.

Lightly dust some flour on your surface. Basically, you want to cut long pieces of dough and roll them into snakes. Once you do that, you're basically cutting "coins" of dough that you press down with your thumb to make little ears, or orecchiette. Each one is hand made, so it can take a while, but there's no machine required. I freeze mine in bags, and it lasts forever.

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Red Sauce Ingredients
2 35 oz. cans Whole Peeled Tomatoes
8 cloves of garlic, minced
3-4 small shallots, minced
2 tbsp crushed red pepper
2 tbsp salt
2 tbsp pepper
olive oil

Instructions

Put a pot on your stove and put it on medium heat. Once hot, drop in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Throw in your minced garlic and shallot and stir as needed until they become translucent. Now add in your crushed red pepper. Stir everything together for another minute or 2, making sure nothing is raw. Everything should have color to it, but not burnt.

Open your cans of tomatoes and pour them in. At this point, I use my bare hands to crush up the tomatoes. You can blend them if you have a food processor, but I don't prefer a completely smooth sauce. I like a few broken chunks of tomatoes. I like some character. Most of them will break down anyways. You can cook this sauce for an hour or two. I cooked mine for an hour and a half. 

Once your orecchiette is done, go ahead and toss it together with some pasta sauce in a saute pan. Always, and I mean always, toss your pasta. Sometimes you see pasta served directly into a bowl, and then "topped" with sauce. That is wrong. It all needs to get familiar with each other so give it a good toss.

Before I serve, I always hit it with a big helping of olive oil, maybe 2 tablespoons at the end as it sits in a bowl. That's why it looks so shiny. You're looking to get some fat in there. Normally I add butter to the end of my sauce, but since we're going totally vegan, finishing pasta with olive oil is a great substitute. I do recommend a little bit of chopped parsley, which I didn't add here, but you can if you want some earthy flavor to mellow out the acidity. We won't get into basil vs. parsley today, but a little bit of parsley will go a long way in enhancing fresh pasta and sauce.

- Danny

Kibbeh with carrot and harissa cous cous

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There's probably some elegant selling point that's escaping me right now, but the quick and dirty is that kibbeh is essentially a deep fried football of meat. It's Middle-Eastern in its origins and therefore varies in style depending on where you are. The Lebanese prefer it raw like a tartare. Versions in Iraq ditch the football concept and shape it flat like a disc. It can be done grilled or put in a soup. It also seems like everyone uses different spices. The only seemingly consistent opinion is that baking it in a casserole is tacky. It's nice to see people come together and hate casseroles.

My grandmother was Greek and cooked Greek food - an ethereal overlap of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern preparations. Kibbeh was usually a part of our Sunday dinner. That dinner usually included pasta and red sauce, kibbeh, grape leaves, braciola. My grandfather was Italian. I didn't realize until later in life how unusual and awesome it was to be eating meatballs with dolmas. Growing up I ate kibbeh with garlic yogurt and pepper sauce. This recipe is a little more refined. A meld of ingredients, preparations, and cultures - this is an excellent and filling dinner if you're looking for something a little different. Its texture is flaky yet filling. Plain, it succeeds- but it also benefits immensely from sauces, starches, and vegetables. This is a great and complete dish, and after you've mastered kibbeh, feel free to explore and create other sides to match this classic pile of meat.

Cous Cous

Ingredients
For the cous cous
5 cups chicken stock
4 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 cups Israeli cous cous
1/4 cup harissa paste

To make
Mix the stock and Carrots in food processor until carrots are finely chopped.  Strain through fine mesh sieve and bring carrot liquid to simmer.  Add your harissa paste.  Once incorporated, add couscous and lower heat to a low simmer and cover the pot, stirring occasionally. Once most of the liquid is reduced, remove the couscous and cool on sheet pan.

Kibbeh

Ingreidents
3 # meat
1 handful mint
1 1/2 cup parsley
1/2 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons cumin
1 tablespoon pepper
bulgar wheat

To make
Mix all ingredients into a ball and deep fry?

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Breakfast Carbonara

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To me, this idea just makes sense. It's not gimmicky. I'm not adding Jimmy Dean sausage (shout out to our non-sponsors) and calling this breakfast. All I did was take the elements of a traditional carbonara and make some tweaks. It simply arrived out of necessity, and what I was left with was a pasta dish for the early morning. 

Pasta for breakfast is one of my favorite things. I remember in 2005 I was working at a restaurant with my brother (this would happen 4 more times), and being very stoned at 8 in the morning, eating veal parmigiana as we set up the line for the day's service. Breakfast carbonara is more suited to a morning palette. Deviating from a traditional preparation, the egg is fried or poached and placed on top - so you get to cut the yolk yourself like a proper morning egg. Spaghetti is substituted for orecchiette or gnocchi, a pasta more suited for spoonfuls so it feels like a hash. The result is something that feels natural, easy, and will surely leave you wondering why you've never eaten pasta for breakfast before.

For the Orecchiette
See the section in Vegan Pasta.

For The Carbonara
Dice the guanciale evenly. Guanciale is salty and fatty pork jowl. It is delicious and I eat it raw, but don't do that. Add it to a pan on low heat, and slowly render off any fat until it's close to being golden brown. Add your diced shallot and garlic and sweat until it becomes as cooked as the guanciale. Now add your butter and let it melt into the mixture. Crack a lot of black pepper. Now it should look like this...

At this point, your orrecchiette should be about 5 or 6 minutes into cooking. Use the pasta water, maybe 10-12 spoonfuls, and add it to your carbonara sauce. The starchiness in the pasta water is an excellent addition. It will help create a solid sauce, and it holds the flavors immensley well. The ratio for your pasta water is important. The pot shouldn't be too full of water, but there should be room for it to breathe, to float. Also, it's very hard to over salt your pasta water. Salt generously. Always.

I believe in tasting pasta, not timing it, although you can bet on your orrecchiette taking 8-12 minutes. When it's al dente, add it to your sauce, which should contain enough liquid to continue cooking your pasta, although not completely submerging it in some watery mess. Let everything cook together for another 2 to 3 minutes. Your pasta will finish in the sauce and take on amazing flavor. Start grating a ton of parmigiana. Add a fried egg, some basil if you wish. Carbonara with the egg on top. Not reinventing the wheel here, just a simple thing done well.

- Danny

 

Zucchini Conserva

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The following is a guest post from my cousin, Andy. Andy is not formerly trained in the kitchen in any way, he just balls at being a home cook. He's a wild forager and mad scientist in his kitchen. At some point, I hope to have Andy as a full time contributor, but he's parenting 2 kids at the moment. This recipe for conserva is one of the most delicious things I've eaten. It's genius. Love ya, Andy.

I am willing to bet that at some point you have had too much zucchini. Where I live, it's abundant. It runs rampant. People are constantly approaching me in rags and begging, "Please take my zucchini." To make matters even worse I already have about 8-12 yellow and green summer squash plants I grow in my ever expanding home garden. Before too long those young squash are coming at me like an angry mob, and like some theory of attraction more and more show up at my doorstep through friends and family. Of course I like bread, and muffins, and yes ill even turn some into baby food, but I don’t NEED zucchini to make any of those things. There are far better bases or additions to breads, muffins, soups, dips and so on, than zucchini. 

This isn't meant to disparage zucchini, by the way. This is a plea to turn it into something where it's the star, instead of an approach that calls for tossing it aside or hiding it. I had the idea to preserve zucchini, so I created my own method, which turns out is called conserva. This particular recipe has since turned any bounty of squash into a delicacy for me. It is easily my favorite companion to any Mediterranean dish. Eaten straight from the jar, topped on crackers, crusty bread, with any charcuterie or cheese plate, pasta cold or hot, with yogurt aside or atop fish - this is a winner. It will keep many months in refrigeration or on the shelf and makes a delightful gift. Now I look forward to those end of summer days when everyone is giving the stuff away. I'm proudly the crazy guy in the neighborhood who takes on all the zucchini.

 

Technique
Slice the cherry tomatoes in half and place in the dehydrator for 6-8 hours on 115 degrees, or until completely dried. Set aside.

Slice the squash zucchini on a mandolin, and the eggplant into thin quarter inch rounds. Lay on a flat wire wrack and sprinkle generously with salt (you can also place them in a colander and toss with salt that way). Let them sit for about 2 hours. Take them out and dry them with a paper towel, then add to a bowl filled with your red wine vinegar. The vinegar does not need to cover squash completely. Just toss it once or twice to have all slices submerged at some point of this process. Let sit for 4 hours or more (I have let them sit overnight).

Lay the zucchini, squash, and eggplant flat - carefully, and so no pieces are stacked - in the food dehydrator on 125 degrees for 4-6 hours. If dehydrating overnight lower temperature to 105 for 8-12 hours. Once your vegetables are fully dehydrated it should look papery thin, withered, and almost crisp but with a rubbery texture. Add this to jars, layering with your artistic discretion, adding herb and dried tomato in between.

Now, add ¼ cup of vinegar to each jar. Fill 75% of the jar with PURE olive oil. Add a tablespoon of extra virgin olive to each jar, careful to leave a healthy inch of head room at the top of the jar to account for expansion.

Screw on the lid tight and voila! If the zucchini and tomatoes are dehydrated fully the risk of spoilage should be of no concern considering the environment is completely protected from oil and we have replaced all water with salt/vinegar solution to protect from any harmful bacteria.

- Andy

Recipe makes approximately 2 pint jars

Ingredients
4-6 yellow and green zucchini squash (small)
3-4 small Japanese eggplant
10-12 cherry tomatoes
2 sprigs of fresh thyme per jar
2 cups red wine vinegar
½ cup white wine vinegar
24-30 ounces of PURE olive oil (pure is important, as it doesn't congeal in cold temperatures)
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.
½ cup sea salt of choice

Special Tools
For this recipe I used a standard Nesco food dehydrator and a very basic plastic grocery store mandolin.

 

Fried Smelts

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At the first restaurant I worked, we paid an old Italian lady to clean smelts for us. Buckets full. She would just sit in front of her TV at night and rip the spine out of these little Lake Erie sardines. Over and over. Truly, cleaning smelts is a pain in the ass. No clue how we even found this woman to do it - it was just a reality I walked into. It was a work responsibility. "Drop the smelts off to the smelt lady." And then my car smelled like fish for a week. Years later, at another restaurant, the chef dropped a large bucket full of uncleaned smelts in front me, and I brought up that "actually" I knew somebody who would clean them for cheap. He said, "Oh, the smelt lady? She's dead." Then I repeatedly ripped out the spine of about 500 smelts.  

It helps to have 3 buckets. One bucket is for uncleaned smelts, one is for cleaned smelts, and your final bucket is for spines. Don't get too attached to the spine bucket. Fried smelts are a Western Pennsylvania/Eastern Ohio classic, but they're available everywhere nowadays. They are cheap, fresh, and impossible to overcomplicate. It's bait. It's immigrant food. Every bar, restaurant, and bar-slash-restaurant in my hometown serves smelts with cocktail sauce and lemon. I'm from New Castle, by the way. It's a sullen rust belt town destroyed by drugs and without hope. Smelts are indicative of the area. They're one of those foods that you can't really elevate. I've seen people try, and it never makes sense. It's bar food, dude. Here's a recipe for some bar food. 

Ingredients
1 pound of smelts
Enough beer to cover the smelts in a bowl
Large container of vegetable or canola oil

Instructions
Clean the smelts in the horrific manner mentioned above, removing the spine from the center to reveal a more flat looking sardine. Soak in a beer of your choice overnight. When ready to fry, drain the smelts and dredge them in some seasoned flour that has been generously sprinkled with salt and pepper. Sift away any excess flour through a mesh strainer.

Frying Technique
You can buy a lot of equipment to fry at home, and it does make the process a lot more honed and ultimately safer - but you can always fry on the cheap if you're smart. Even though frying is a technique I prefer to let restaurants handle, there are safe ways to do it when needed. Whatever pot you use, make sure it's deep enough to shield you from any splashes. I fill it up a little over half way with oil, then bring it up to temp on medium heat. Truthfully, I don't use a thermometer, but rather drag a "test smelt" through the oil after a few minutes to see what kind of temperature I'm working with. If it bubbles steadily and sizzles and floats, you're in business. You want a nice steady fry, so don't overcrowd your pot with smelts, but rather add them in batches. You want a golden brown color. Never, and I mean never add anything to a pot of oil that's smoking. Once you get the feel for oil and its temperature, frying will be second nature. Make sure you have a slotted spoon to take out the smelts.

Serve with lemon wedge and cocktail sauce.

NOTE: A New Castle bar preparation method calls to dredge smelts in pancake batter instead of flour. My Grandma also did this. Just the cheapest pancake batter you can find. It's not as sweet as you think, and with a little salt, pepper, and lemon, it actually accents the smelt nicely. Give it a try.

- Danny

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