My Pandemic Diary, Entry #82
Hello Fellow City Cooks,
If there’s a line between being a prudent shopper and a hoarder, I may have crossed it. My cabinets have over-flowed into a closet, my freezer is full, and I can’t remember the last time I only bought one of something instead of multiples.
My goal was to deepen my pantry in case there is a Covid-caused grocery supply chain problem and I think that still makes sense in these uncertain times. I haven’t completely lost control because everything I’ve bought is something I will use before its sell-by date. But for an urban person with several grocery stores within walking distance and without much storage space, I may have gone a bit too far. After all, stocking up may be wise but buying too much is nutty.
That said, my kitchen is less the Collyer Brothers (Google them) and more like Willy Wonka meets Whole Foods. I am calmed by having one or two back-ups plus I’ve discovered a bonus: now I can make a last-minute decision about what’s for dinner and odds are, every ingredient I need I have on hand. That’s also not a bad thing during the winter months when a storm can sneak up on us.
In an attempt to self-analyze, maybe I’m using a full pantry/freezer as a delusion for having some kind of control, which of course, none of us have right now. We remain in dark times that still have several months to go. So what’s the harm in having a dozen cans of tuna fish?
I’m writing this at the start of Christmas Week 2020, soon to be the end of this annus horribilis. Whereas we usually greet most new year’s eves with exultation, this one will be met with an exhausted sigh. The whole holiday season has been deflated. I know several people, especially ones with kids, who have made the effort, buying a tree or hanging wreaths. But as our building manager said to me when I complimented the tree and menorah he had set up in the our lobby, “we try but there’s no spirit.” Even Fifth Avenue, which glitters even during the rest of a normal year, is a pale and emptied route. (I will never again complain about the holiday tourist crowds in Midtown. Ever.)
Mark and I decided that if we couldn’t share the holidays with others, we would save the effort until we can. Still, I can’t ignore it completely so I bought my elderly neighbor a poinsettia, I’m raising from a bulb what I hope will bloom as a red amaryllis, and not to be completely without something green and piney, Mark found a photo of last year’s tree and blew it up into a ten-by-twelve print which he mounted on cardboard and propped up on a table. Sort of like re-using the tree without all the pesky pine needles on the floor.
I’m also planning two special Christmas dinners because at least we can cook. For Christmas Eve I'll make shrimp cocktail followed by pan-seared tuna steaks served with an endive and red onion salad, my riff on the Feast of Seven Fishes reduced to two fishes for two persons.
Then for Christmas Day I’m preparing a meal that is reminiscent of one that I’d always make when we'd spend the holiday in Italy. I'm roasting a leg of lamb – with the bone – on a bed of artichoke hearts (frozen; Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have good ones; use a whole 12 oz. bag of them for this – don’t defrost), two medium lemons sliced very thin, little red potatoes, scrubbed but unpeeled, and a handful of peeled garlic cloves. Add a drizzle of olive oil, some salt and pepper, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Toss it together, including the still-frozen artichoke hearts, and scatter in a roasting pan big enough to hold the lamb.
Prep the room-temperature lamb by rubbing it with a little olive oil, cut slits in the meat and insert little shards of garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Nestle the lamb on top of the artichoke mixture. Roast at 450°F for 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 375°F and cook for another 45 to 60 minutes although this will vary depending on the size of your roast. If you find that the lemon slices are starting to char, give the vegetable mixture a bit of a stir and return to the oven. If your goal is medium rare, use an instant thermometer inserted into three or four places in the meat and aim for 135°F. Remember that the shape of a leg of lamb will produce meat cooked from well to medium to medium rare all at the same time. Let rest for 20 minutes before carving and serve with the roasted artichokes/lemon/potato mixture.
If we were in Italy we would start with an antipasto of cured meats and good bread. Lacking the exquisite local charcuterie we’d have in Florence or Rome, instead we’ll begin with glasses of Prosecco and salmon caviar served with crispy tater tots and a little crème fraîche (a combo I spotted in a bar scene in the Showtime series, “The Circus;” you never know where inspiration will come from). And after the lamb and roasted artichokes, lemon, and potatoes, we’ll have a mesclun salad and a cheese or two that I still have to get at Zabar’s. A Colston-Bassett Stilton would be special and a splurge.
It’s a good thing we love lamb because the smallest one I could find was nearly five pounds. I’ve never done it before but the BBC says you can freeze leftover cooked meat so I will give that a try.
Groceries and Cooking
Our neighborhood Greenmarket has shrunk down to its winter population. Some farmers have left and won’t be back until late spring, leaving the market half its size. We still have two selling apples and root vegetables, but mostly the stalls are selling dairy, fish, meat, duck, turkey, bread and bakery, some local cheeses, and treats like pickles and salamis. The grocery stores are in good supply, although for much of the past month there was an odd shortage of butter, but that seems to be resolved.
For those of you who cook and eat veal, I want to remind you about Marcella Hazan’s exquisitely simple and delicious Veal Stew with Tomato and Peas. It was in her very first book, now out of print, The Classic Italian Cookbook and then it was repeated in The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking* which is still in print and still in demand since its debut in 1991. The recipe is the same in both books but written differently, something I’ve never seen done before. But in the introduction to The Essentials, Marcella explains that she and her renowned editor, Judith Jones, decided to include many recipes from her first and second cookbooks but only after “freshen[ing] them up” with “a little bit of housekeeping” to keep pace with how people cook and new ingredients.
If you have a copy of The Essentials -- and if you cook Italian food, you probably should -- I encourage you to re-read its introduction where Marcella writes in detail how they modernized the recipes while staying true to the principles of Italian cooking. She also devoted a paragraph to her disdain for the microwave oven which to me suggests that she would probably feel the same way about Instant Pots and Ninja Air Fryers and their like. You have to respect her principles.
Back to the veal stew recipe: Comparing the recipe in the two cookbooks where Marcella included it, I saw the editorial achievement of The Essentials. The recipe itself is identical in both but in the re-do, it is easier to follow and you’re more assured to have success. Unlike most meat stews, this one is light and features the veal instead of the vegetables so resist increasing the amount of onion or tomatoes or adding other ingredients, especially garlic or herbs, or you’ll crush the stew's delicacy. Marcella said this could serve six; for us it serves two with a bit left over so if you're serving four or five people, you could easily double the recipe, although I'd hold back a bit on the peas, maybe only increasing them by 50%.
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ tablespoon unsalted butter
1 ½ pounds boned veal shoulder or shank, cut into 1 ½ inch cubes (or 1 ½ pounds pre-cut veal stew meat)
Flour, spread on a plate
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 cup canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, chopped coarse, with their juice
1 ten-ounce package frozen small peas, thawed
I’ve taken these directions directly from The Essentials: Place the oil and butter in a heavy-bottomed pot over high heat. When the fat is hot, dust the veal pieces in the flour, coating on all sides. Shake off the excess and place in the pan. Cook the meat, turning it, until all the sides are deeply browned. Transfer to a plate using a slotted spoon. Cook the meat in batches if it doesn’t all fit at once but dust the meat with the flour just before you’re ready to add it to the hot pan.
Turn the heat down to medium and add the chopped onion to the pan, cooking it until it becomes colored a pale gold. Return the meat to the pan, season with salt and pepper and add the chopped tomatoes with their juice. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, adjust the heat so that they simmer slowly and cover the pot. Turn the meat from time to time.
When the meat has cooked for about 50 minutes, add the thawed peas. Cover the pot again and continue to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes (possibly more time; test with a fork to know when the veal is very tender). Taste and correct for salt.
If you buy the veal already cut into pieces, you can make the stew in less than two hours. It’s perfection served with any pasta and a sturdy salad, like one with radicchio and romaine.
While I’m thinking about Italian food, I want to remind both New Yorkers and home cooks who live elsewhere but like to know about NYC food sources, about Raffetto’s, a great New York grocery institution. First opened in 1906 in Greenwich Village, Raffetto’s is a pasta emporium – specifically fresh pasta. They wholesale many of their products to NY and NJ supermarkets, including Fairway; a list is on their website. But there’s nothing like going to the source and having them cut you a pound of egg tagliatelle or parsley-basil fettuccine or any of their fourteen flavors available in eight sizes. They also have a big variety of ravioli, tortellini, cavatelli, and more, plus many Italian grocery items, including DOP imported canned tomatoes at very good prices. The store is on West Houston Street, near Sixth Avenue; hours and Covid shopping information is on their website. Cash only.
If you’re looking for fresh ideas and new sources for recipes, a good place may be an online retailer. Several websites that are primarily focused on selling ingredients or cookware have excellent recipe archives. Williams Sonoma and King Arthur Flour are two of the best. But sometimes smaller merchants, particularly specialty stores, are good sources, too. New York cheese monger Murray’s Cheese has recipes and cooking and serving tips on their website as well as their blog. Here’s their version of baked brie.
If you want slightly lighter alternatives for celebratory holiday meals, or any meals for that matter, David Lebovitz has an outstanding method for cooking frites without frying. In a recipe from his 2014 My Paris Kitchen* cookbook, my favorite of all his titles, he shows how to oven-cook three pounds of russet potatoes with 4 tablespoons of olive oil. After 45 or so minutes in a 400°F oven, they are amazingly tasty and crispy. Here’s a blogger called EverOpenSauce.com who has more details about the technique, including Lebovitz’s tip to soak the slices in cold water for an hour before they go into the oven.
One other recipe that I’ve been loving is a Wild Rice and Roasted Squash Salad with Cider Vinaigrette that I found at The New York Times Cooking. It’s hearty, complex, and is another great way to use the season’s bountiful butternut squash, this time with raw radicchio and warm wild rice, making an appealing combo of textures. I made a few tiny changes, primarily to replace the reduced fresh cider (hard to find, I discovered) with a little honey, I added baby arugula, and substituted toasted pumpkin seeds for the walnuts because that’s what I had. This salad is substantial enough to be a main course and it’s now in my winter repertoire.
If after reading about Raffetto’s you still want to know more about pasta, here is a brief article from the wonderful people at Culinary Backstreets about how dried pasta was innovated in Naples in the early 18th century. This reminds me that when the world opens again and we all get back onto airplanes to travel and explore, Culinary Backstreets is a superb and safe resource for food tours around the globe. Mark and I first met them in Istanbul when we took two tours with them to explore that magical city’s cuisine and fabled souks and spice markets. Even if it’s too soon to get on a plane to Istanbul, they also give food tours of Queens, New York City.
A friend has forwarded to me a link to a very engaging cookbook that has been produced by the ABA Commission On The Nineteen Amendment to “celebrate the courage of the suffragists” and women receiving the right to vote in 1920. There is a hardcover version for sale from the American Bar Association but the digital version is free, complete with Judge Merrick Garland’s recipe for Gefilte Fish, RBG’s Quick Ratatouille, and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s Spinach Squares.
As we head into the year’s final days and hours, let’s say good riddance to 2020. At least we got through it together. And keep in mind that a bottle of opened Champagne lasts four hours before it goes flat so drink up. You’ve earned it.
Stay safe, stay engaged, and have a nice dinner.
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