Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bloody Good

There’s nothing like the comfort of home and a delicious cocktail to end a week from hell at work.  My friend Steve had told me about the blood orange martinis he made so I decided to try his recipe this past Friday.  Two parts orange vodka, one part blood orange juice, 1/2 part Grand Marnier and some blood orange bitters.  Not half bad.  I’ll have to fiddle with the proportions a bit, I think, but a promising start to the weekend.  

Of course I worked late Friday and missed the annual Christmas week get together with the crew at Theo’s, but Kathi, Michael and Kristen came over to La Cucina afterwards and kept the party going.  Needless to say some very loud kitchen singing ensued.   We had the Ion cranking.  Michael, the technical advisor to La Cucina Castano, bought a late Christmas gift - a set of two wireless omnidirectional microphones to replace the one corded microphone that came with the Ion speaker.  Tested them out today and they work like a charm.  They will be put to good use Monday night as we host the first New Year’s Eve party in The Brown Kitchen.  La Cucina Castano will be rocking with the crew all here.  It’s going to be a fun time!  

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Little Something From The Past

The Brown Kitchen has been rocking through the holidays, with lots of food, fun and friends.  I just haven’t had time to get it all down yet to share with you so here’s one of my blog posts from (yeah, I know, it has nothing to do with photography) to get you through the holidays.  

Cooking is like photography in a lot of ways, and very different in at least one important way.  I’ll explain that in more detail in my next blog post.  Let’s just say I like to cook.  I love to cook pasta.  I LOVE linguine with clam sauce.  White clam sauce.  Not the red version.  Don’t know who ever  thought that up but ..... never mind.  I give Italian restaurants the Clam Sauce Test.  Whenever I try a new Italian restaurant I order linguine with clam sauce (if they have it on the menu - most do).  If it’s good, I might go back and try other dishes (maybe ... maybe I just keep on ordering the clam sauce).  If they can’t make something as simple as linguine with clam sauce properly, well, no use going back and trying anything else.  Worst I ever had was at Original Joe’s in San Jose California.  Best I ever had - in a restaurant - was at Mama Riso’s in Lake George NY.  I had to clarify that last statement a bit because the absolute best clam sauce I ever tasted was cooked in my own kitchen by my own hands.  I don’t mean to be immodest but I’ve got this down cold.  People who wouldn’t touch a clam with a ten foot pole rave about my clam sauce.  The picture above is the stove at the beach house in OBX we go to each year.  I cook Lw/CS every year.  This past year it was “only” six pounds.  Didn’t want too many leftovers!  Many have asked for the recipe so here goes:

I base this on 1 lb of pasta.  If you need more or less, you can do the math.  Also, I don’t really measure anything when I cook so you’ll have to experiment a bit to get it to your own individual liking.    


1 lb linguine - my favorite for this dish is Barilla Linguine Fini, if I can find it.  
Garlic, lots and lots of garlic, chopped up
Olive Oil - use extra virgin, always
Crushed red pepper
Fresh Basil (I use a whole bunch) - see step 7
Lemon juice - please squeeze it fresh, don’t use the stuff from concentrate
White wine, something dry - Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc.  
Sea Salt.  
4 6-7 oz cans of minced or chopped clams, unless you can find a big can of them - open them, drain and save the clam juice in a bowl before you start cooking.  
1 bottle of clam juice.
Fresh Clams - I prefer Golden Necks.  They are a little bigger and beefier than little necks and add a little color to the dish, but any are fine as long as they are not too big and chewy.  Rinse them before adding to the sauce at the end.  

  1. boil your water and cook your pasta however you like it.  I’m not a huge fan of al dente - I like my pasta a little softer.  Just bear in mind that as the pasta sits in the sauce after it’s cooked it will absorb the sauce and become softer.  Okay, that’s the easy part.
  2. While all that is going on, or even prior, in a big pan saute garlic in olive oil with some crushed red pepper (use your judgement there, just a few flakes or a lot more, depends on how much heat you like, I like a little kick in mine).  Here’s a little trick I use - I buy peeled garlic, but not that shit you get in the supermarket.  I get it at the farmer’s market and then freeze it.  When I need it, I take out some frozen cloves and chop them up with a nut chopper - the kind with the zig-zag blade that you pound on the handle.  Since the garlic is frozen before cooking it takes a lot longer to burn and gives you a little leeway there. Add a little butter after a few minutes.   
  3. Once the garlic is nice and sautéed (in other words, before it burns) add lemon juice (about one lemon’s worth) and some white wine - maybe the equivalent of what you would pour for a glass.  Preferably the wine you’re drinking while you cook, unless you are like me and have a martini while slaving over the stove.  
  4. Let that simmer down and reduce for a bit.  Once it starts to get a little thicker add the minced clams, which you should have already drained all the clam juice from.  At this point add some salt to the dish - preferably sea salt from a grinder (you never want to add all your salt at the finish of cooking - add some salt at each step and taste to make sure you don’t over salt.  You know why restaurant food from great chefs usually tastes better then your food?  Because they know how to use salt.  It’s a skill worth learning).  Cover and let it go for a while.  Have a drink.  
  5. After about 5 minutes or so, add the bottle of clam juice and all the juice you drained from the cans of minced clams. Let that bubble away.  Maybe add a little more salt (taste, always taste while you’re cooking).   Drink some more.  
  6. So now you’re pasta is cooking and your sauce is bubbling away.  You now want to add your rinsed clams to your sauce and cover.  Eventually the clams will open and all the wonderful liquor from the clams will mix in with the sauce.  Once the clams all open your sauce is done.  Hopefully this is about the time your pasta is cooked.  Timing is key is here.  You don’t want the pasta to get too soft waiting for all the clams to open so you are better off starting the sauce first, get that going and then start cooking the linguine.  You can add the clams when there us about 5 minutes left for the pasta to cook.  
  7. Once your sauce is done and the clams have all opened and your pasta is done we’re almost there.  Drain the pasta and pour into a big bowl.  At this point you want to add the basil.  I haven’t talked about the basil yet but it is the one ingredient that will make the dish.  You want to use fresh basil.  You can rough chop it or julienne it.  What I like to do is get a fresh bunch - you can find it in just about any supermarket these days or at your local farmer’s market.  I pick all the leaves and put them in a ziploc baggie, squeeze the air out and then throw it in the freezer.  After the basil leaves have frozen, take the bag and mash it up with your hands.  The frozen basil leaves will break into a million little pieces, which when added to a dish will diffuse throughout your dish.  Put it back into the freezer until you’re ready to use.  After you dump the pasta into a bowl add the fresh basil (it’s okay if it is still frozen if you’ve taken my advice) then pour the sauce on top.  Mix good and you’re ready to go.    

Good white wine and fresh baguette bread are essential accompaniments.  Don’t forget to drink some wine or have a cocktail while you’re cooking.  Too many people stress about cooking, especially when cooking for friends or a dinner party.  Don’t be that person.  Cooking should be fun and relaxing.  Always have some music paying when you cook too.  It relaxes and sets the tone.  I prefer either Tony Bennett or John Coltrane but play whatever gets you in a creative groove.      

Well, now you’e done.  Enjoy you’re meal with family or friends.  Relax and have fun .... and enjoy the compliments on you’re fabulous cooking!

Bon Apetit!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Party

Today is the Winter Solstice.  And if the Mayans were wrong and the world doesn’t end some time today it will also be the first Christmas Party here at La Cucina Castano.   Our annual party started as a small gathering of friends on Christmas Eve and hasn’t changed all that much through the years except it’s not on Christmas Eve anymore, a few more friends have been added along the way along with a few more kids.  Always a great time.   

The idea with hosting a party is to not jump through too many culinary hoops.  Keep it simple, have plenty of food and have dishes you can prepare ahead of time so you can kick back and relax when the guests arrive.  This is a different philosophy than having a few guests over for a dinner party, where you want to experiment and stretch your culinary skills and are often cooking away as your guests enjoy hors d’oeuvres and cocktails.

The menu tonight will be Italian Mac ‘n Cheese (I’ll give out that recipe one of these days soon), gumbo and sausage & peppers.  Plenty of fun hors d’oeuvres, too, along with sandwiches and pretzels and such.  The fridge is stocked with beer and the bar is filled with all the necessary cocktail ingredients. I haven’t decided what my beverage of choice will be tonight, though after my friend Steve told me about the Blood Orange martinis he made last weekend I found some blood orange juice while shopping so I may have to give that a try.

Well, time to start prepping so I can get all this food preparation out of the way and get ready to spend a fun evening with friends.  Enjoy all your holiday festivities and let’s hope those Mayans were wrong and we make it through the day so we can party tonight.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Favorite Martini

I do love martinis.  Crisp, clean, refreshing.  Straight up with a twist. 

You can keep your ‘dirty martinis’, with their nasty olive juice.  And all those frou frou chocolate martinis and appletinis and such. A ‘real’ martini is pretty simple and classic - all you need is some good gin or vodka, some good dry vermouth, a dash of bitters and the proper garnish.  Here is one of my “go to” favorite, refreshing martinis.  

Stoli Ohranj vodka
Noilly Prat dry vermouth
Stirring Blood Orange Bitters
Frozen wedge of orange

Start with a 5 to 1 ratio of vodka to vermouth.  Adjust according to taste.  Add a few dashes of bitters.  
Stir over ice for at least 30 seconds.  If you using a shaker do not shake vigorously.  Gently rotate the shaker by turning your wrist.  James Bond had it all wrong.  Martinis should be stirred, not shaken.  There are two things to keep in mind as you mix this cocktail.  One, all the ingredients need to be completely mixed.  Hence  the suggestion to stir for at least 30 seconds.  Two, you always need a little ice melt to to bring out the flavors and characteristics of any alcohol.  If you’ve stirred you’re martini for at least 30 seconds don’t be afraid to let it sit for a minute or two to let some of the melted ice infuse the cocktail.  

While you’re stirring, take a rinsed martini glass and put it in the freezer.  Cold cocktail + cold cocktail glass = just right.  If you know ahead of time you’ll be imbibing throw your glasses in the freezer well before the mixing phase.  If you have the space, keep some glasses in there all the time ‘just in case’.   

After you pour your ice cold cocktail into an ice cold martini glass, throw in a frozen wedge of orange.  Buy a regular orange.  Cut into quarters then cut into smaller pieces.  Put them all in a Ziploc and throw them in the freezer.  Use these pieces as a garnish.  It will act as an ice cube to help keep your drink cold as you swill it.  Depending on how fast you swill, it will thaw by the time you get to the bottom of your glass and be a tasty little healthy snack!

One side note - if you are making a martini please use a martini glass.  I’m a big believer that a proper cocktail is always served in the proper glass.   It’s all part of the experience, don’t shortchange yourself.  


Friday, December 14, 2012

Gumbo and Cajun Martinis

We had that unusually warm spell for a few days last week.  Not a bad thing for the first week in December.  But really, just a big tease, you know?  When the weather turned back to it’s normal cold, windy, miserable self my thoughts turned to gumbo.  I hadn’t eaten it or made it in quite a while.  It just seemed like the perfect dish for the weather.  Something to fill the bellies and warm the souls of our Friday night guests (Kathi, Michael and Kristen) in la cucina castano.  

I do love a good gumbo.  Having traveled to New Orleans many times and having eaten the real deal I became a big fan (though I must admit that the best gumbo I ever ate was not even in Louisiana but in Memphis TN, some little restaurant on Beale Street whose name I cannot remember).  I’ve cooked it many times myself with some success.  I’m certainly not an expert at gumbo but I have at times done it justice.  This time I was determined really nail it, which I think I did.  

The whole key is the roux.  It is a slow, patient process to get it nice and dark without burning it.  I took about 45 minutes to get it where I wanted it.  My arm felt like it was going to fall off after constantly whisking it that whole time.  That’s the important part.  If you don’t keep whisking and stirring it and it burns you’ve got no choice but to throw it out and start again.  After you get the roux where you want it the rest is easy.  I went with sausage and shrimp this time.    After about three hours of bubbling away it came out perfect (at least in my eyes ... and taste buds).  I really nailed it this time.  I was quite proud.  I’d give you the recipe but honestly I don’t know that if I made gumbo a hundred more times I would make it the exact same way again.  There are probably as many ways to make gumbo as there are people who make it.  If you want to give it a shot google some recipes and have at it.  Try a little of this and that.  There’s no right or wrong way to make it.    Just have fun ..... and don’t burn the roux!

Of course it’s not all about the food.  Cocktails are the other half of the equation and for this rendition of Friday Night at La Cucina Castano I decided to go with Cajun martinis to wash down the gumbo.  I had never made cajun martinis, which I know is shocking given my affinity for martinis.  I’m sure in the past I have had some iteration of one during one of my trips to the crescent city, but if I did those memories are now lost along with the brain cells they killed along the way.  Some pepper vodka - the only brand I could get at the local Wine & Spirits shoppe was Absolut.  I’m not a fan of Absolut of the their Peppar was not half bad, I must admit.  Just a splash of vermouth, some of the juice from a bottle of Trappey’s hot peppers, granish with a fresh jalapeno and I was off to the races.  Quite tasty.  Next time, with a little more planning, I will infuse the pepper vodka with the jalapeno for some serious kick!

All in all a successful evening.  The food was banging, the cocktails were delicious, the tunes were cranking and the vocals were loud, if not always in tune.  Another fun night in La Cucina Castano with good friends.