Saturday, December 7, 2013

Bucatini with Shrimp and Mushrooms, Infused with Black Truffle

First off, it's been a while since I've posted.  It's been a busy fall between football and hockey so not a lot of entertaining lately here at La Cucina.  Rest assured there have been some good meals and tasty cocktails in that time, just haven't had the time to write about them.  This winter will be filled with parties and fun dinners so I expect to be updating this blog much more regularly over these winter months.

So it's just me and Titus (the dog) tonight.  The boss (meaning my better half, Sara) is in NJ with Grace for a hockey game so I can stay home and watch Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.  Chili is in NYC with a buddy of his for a birthday trip.  That means I get to cook something for dinner that the rest of the family wouldn't necessarily want to eat.  I have no problem cooking for myself and eating by myself.  I often prefer it that way.

So what to cook?  Of course pasta.  I went with bucatini tonight.  No particular reason, just felt like it. Bucatini is kind of like a thick spaghetti - round - but has a hole through the middle so it's a little thicker.  The hole supposedly helps to absorb more sauce.  As always, use a good quality pasta.  What you want to look for is one that is extruded through a bronze die (this gives it a rough texture, better to absorb any sauce) and and dried at a low temperature (usually 120 degrees or less).  If you can find and afford pasta from Gragnano, Italy go for it.  It's the best in the world.

So, what to put on my pasta?  I was thinking mushrooms and truffles and a little shrimp so here's what I did:

I cooked the pasta in heavily salted water.  As always, it should be like your cooking your pasta in the ocean - that salty.

While the pasta was cooking I sautéed garlic and crushed red pepper in some good olive oil over a low heat.  Once that was going good I added some sliced mushroom blend that I had gotten at Wegman's this morning.  It was portabella, shitake and oyster mushrooms.  After a minute or two I added some of the water I was cooking the pasta in and turned the heat up.  I also added some white wine at this time (don't ask me how much).  By the time most of the liquid was evaporated the pasta was almost cooked, but not quite.

That was the time to scoop the pasta out the cooking water and drop it in the pan where I was cooking the sauce.  In went some raw, peeled shrimp, some of the cooking cooking water, some truffle infused butter (also bought at Wegman's) and some black truffle salt.  The key is to let the pasta finish cooking in this so it can absorb all the flavors going on. I kept adding the cooking water gradually as it evaporated and was absorbed until the pasta was done.  Once the pasta was almost done I added some truffle infused olive oil.  As soon as the pasta was at the right texture it was out the pan and into the dish and garnished with some chopped flat leaf parsley.  Added a little shaved parmesan and it was all set.  The earthiness of the mushrooms and the earthy pungent aroma of the black truffle mixed with the brininess if the shrimp make this sooooo good.  Keep it simple and easy, with good ingredients and you're all set.  A little sauvignon blanc to wash it down - now that's a meal!

Bon apetit!


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The 31-11 Cocktail

The 31-11
3 parts Stoli Ohranj
1 part St Germain
1 part lime juice
1 part mint infused simple syrup
Combine with ice, shake, pour, garnish with lime 

So what's with the name, right?  Who calls a cocktail a 31-11?  Well, here's the story.  A couple of weekends ago we had some of the hockey crew (from Grace's team) over for a little get together prior to the season.  I mixed up some of these bad boys and everyone seemed to enjoy them.  Especially Steve, one of my hockey drinking buddies.  He asked for the recipe, which of course I shared with him.  Of course the ratio of ingredients is important (3-1-1-1).  As he was putting them into his phone so he could remember it came out 31-11.  Hence the name was born.  

So how did this cocktail come about?  Well, a few years ago my brother-in-law and fellow cocktail aficionado Jeff came back from NYC with tales of this amazing cocktail called a Walt's Kingdom.  It consisted of orange vodka, St Germain, lemon and lime juice, simple syrup and muddled mint.  I must admit it was a damn tasty cocktail.  But in a true spirit of mixology, I felt it could be improved.  I had a couple of issues with the recipe:

The first was not enough vodka compared to the St Germain.  St. Germain, which is an elderberry flavored liquor, has a wonderful flavor.   However, it can easily overpower the other elements in a drink.  I felt the ratio of the St Germain to the other ingredients needed to be cut down a bit.  The original recipe only had 2 parts vodka.  I increased this to 3 parts.

The second thing I needed to change was the vodka itself.   The original recipe Jeff brought back from New York called for Absolut.  I don't like Absolut.  I think it's one of the worst vodkas on the market.  All marketing and poor taste.  Without a doubt one of the best marketing campaigns ever.  Too bad the vodka doesn't meet that level (the only Absolut I ever use is their pepper vodka, which I use for cajun martinis - it becomes palatable with the hot pepper juice).  I decided to make them with Stoli's Ohranj, my go-to spirit.

The third issue I had was the lemon and lime juice mix.  It's just me, but I'm not a huge fan of lemon juice in my cocktails.  So I decided to make it all lime on the juice end.

The fourth thing I had an issue with was the muddled mint.  I love mint, especially in a cocktail of this nature.  However, I hate muddling mint and I hate muddled mint in my drinks.  Invariably either the mint is not bruised enough to bring out the essence of the mint or you end up with little green pieces floating in your drink and sticking in your teeth.  Since the recipe also calls for simple syrup, which I always made myself, it;s really no extra effort to infuse the simple syrup with mint.  You get the mint flavor with none of the mess.  Win-win in my book.  No muss, no fuss.

So, the 31-11 is really just my version of a Walt's Kingdom.  I had previously just called it a Walt's Kingdom, albeit my own version, but it's not really a Walt's Kingdom.  Just a really close rip-off that, in my opinion, is better.  So we now call it 31-11, at least here at La Cucina Castano.  


Wednesday, July 10, 2013


I was pleasantly surprised recently when my friend Ricky called me from the Finger Lakes in NY.  While visiting a local distillery he stumbled upon a vast array of Fee Brothers bitters and called to see if I wanted him to pick me up any.  I decided to have him get me a few bottles (pictured above).  Needless to say I was quite excited.  I'm always on the lookout for interesting bitters, which seem to be  (extremely) hard to find in the local stores here in PA.  As a cocktail aficionado I've come to appreciate bitters.  There is always a bottle of Stirrings Blood Orange bitters in the fridge for making Stoli Orhanj martinis, as well as some Peychaud's.

I'm sure there is a bottle of Angostura, which is the most commonly found brand,  around here also.

Bitters are basically alcohol strongly infused with herbs, roots, bark - basically it seems just about anything.  They have a very strong flavor, which is why they are used in very small amounts, usually just a few dashes, when making a cocktail.  Originally concocted for medicinal purposes, they eventually became a staple of mixology and many famous cocktail recipes specify certain types of bitters.

Here is a very brief article on the history of bitters -

So what exactly do bitters do?  It's kind of hard to describe.  They don't really change a cocktail in any major way.  They sort of give a little extra sumpin sumpin, a little oomph.  I like to think of it as adding some depth to a drink.  Not very clear?  Well like I said, it's hard to describe but something you subtly realize as you are drinking a well made cocktail.

I already had ideas of how I would use these bitters.  The lemon bitters I intended to use in a straight up Stoli martini.  Needless to say it proved an excellent addition.  Bitters will stand out more in a simple drink made with a neutral spirit like a vodka martini, which won't have other strong flavors.  I figured the celery bitters would make a nice addition to a Bloody Mary.  However, with all the strong flavors in a good Bloody I feel the bitters got lost and didn't really add any significant.  I'll keep experimenting with the celery bitters in some simpler concoctions.  The dark chocolate bitters I added to a White Chocolate Russian, which was made with 360 Double Chocolate vodka, almond coconut milk.  I really think the bitters added something.  Really took a little edge off the creaminess.

I'm not quite sure what to do with the rhubarb bitters.  I made a Stoli martini with them to get a feel for the flavor.  While quite nice, it's not a martini bitters.  I'll have to give that one some thought on how to properly use them.

So, if you enjoy mixing a cocktail at home and don't have any bitters go grab yourself a bottle next time your shopping.  Start with a bottle of Angostura, the original, and add it you mixology. Get a feel for it and what it will do to your drinks and then move on to other types and keep experimenting.  Your cocktails will improve in surprising and subtle ways.



Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Belmont Jewel

So the Triple Crown season winds up today with the 145th Belmont Stakes, my favorite of the Triple Crown races (being a native New Yorker), even when there is no Triple Crown on the line.  Like the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, The Belmont has it's own signature cocktail.  In fact there have been several.

The first was the White Carnation, a fitting drink considering the winner is draped with a blanket of carnations, like the blanket of roses for the Derby winner or the blanket of Black Eyed Susans for the Preakness winner - though for the Preakness they are really yellow daisies painted with black in the middle since Black Eyed Susans don't bloom this early in the year.  The White Carnation was the official drink until 1998.

  • 2 oz. vodka
  • 1/2 oz peach schnapps
  • 2 oz. orange juice
  • soda water
  • splash of cream

Stir and pour over ice in a highball glass. Can garnish with an orange slice.

I'm not big into drinks with milk or cream so this would not be my first choice for a cocktail today.  

The White Carnation was replaced by the Belmont Breeze.  While it is certainly a refreshing drink on a hot June Saturday, it seems to me a bit overly complicated.  

  • 1 1/2 ounces of a good American blended whiskey
  • 3/4 ounces Harveys Bristol Cream Sherry
  • 1/2 ounce of fresh lemon juice
  • 1 ounce of simple syrup
  • (1 ounce of sweet and sour mix may be substituted for the lemon juice and simple syrup)
  • 1 1/2 ounces fresh orange juice
  • 1 1/2 ounces cranberry juice
  • 1 ounce 7-Up
  • 1 ounce Club Soda

Shake first six ingredients with ice, then top with 7-Up and club soda. Garnish with mint sprig and lemon wedge.

It just doesn't seem as classic and timeless as a Mint Julep on Derby Day.  Which brings us to the current drink of Belmont Stakes - The Belmont Jewel.  

  • 1.5 oz Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon
  • 2 oz lemonade
  • 1 oz pomegranate juice

Shake vigorously with ice and serve on the rocks. Garnish with maraschino cherry or lemon twist.

The official recipe calls for Woodford Reserve, a fine bourbon, but I am sure that is strictly for promotional purposes.  I made myself one of these bad boys for Belmont Eve and it is definitely an interesting drink.  I used Jim Beam rather than Woodford and used 2 oz instead of 1.5 ounces.  Using whiskey gives this drink some heft and the pomegranate juice adds some nice bite, though I did find it to overpower the drink a bit, even with the little bit of extra whiskey.  The lemonade was just lost, I thought, in the whole mix.  Overall a nice drink, not too fruity, even with lemonade and pomegranate juice.  Definitely worth a remix here soon La Cucina Castano.  

Enjoy the race, or whatever you do this weekend.  As always, relax, have fun and enjoy a well made cocktail.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Black Eyed Susan 1.0

The 1st annual Preakness Party last weekend here at La Cucina Castano was a fun day.  Good time had by all.  And the drink of the day was the traditional drink of the Preakness - the Black Eyed Susan.

As I stated in my last post, the idea was to take certain elements from all the numerous different recipes for this drink to come up with a starting point.   I was then planning on getting into some experimental mixology and adjusting the drink recipe throughout the day (and evening) to come up with the ideal cocktail for the Preakness.  However, it didn't go quite according to plan.  What happened was that the first version of this cocktail proved so popular with the crew that I stuck with it all day and didn't change the recipe.

Here's what I came up with to start (and stayed with):

Half orange-pineapple juice.  The other half was a mix of vodka, white rum, triple sec and blueberry infused simple syrup (home-made of course).  Don't ask me proportions on the alcohol - you know I'm not big on measuring anything.  The drink was garnished with frozen blueberries.  They served as the 'black eyes' in the Black Eyed Susan.

Honestly the drink, while somewhat refreshing, was a little weak for my tastes.  I thought it needed a little more bite, a little more heft.  I like to taste the alcohol in my cocktails.  But being that the majority of guests were more beer and wine (as opposed to cocktail) drinkers I think the lack of overpowering alcohol taste or bite appealed to them, so that's what we rolled with.

I still plan on experimenting with this drink (while staying in the spirit of the cocktail, if there truly is one) to come up with the ultimate Black Eyed Susan for the 2nd annual Preakness party next year.  Cut down (or out) on the juice - I'm not big on juice in my cocktails.  Perhaps get some acidity from lime instead of orange.  Maybe substitute whiskey for rum for a little more depth.  Try and work in a little mint.   St Germain comes to mind as an intriguing option somehow.  I'll keep working on this drink throughout the next year so that come next May I can give you the ultimate Black Eyed Susan recipe.

So, until next time, enjoy the holiday weekend (for those of you in the USA).  And, as always, take the time to relax and enjoy a well made cocktail.



Saturday, May 18, 2013

Get Your Preak On - With A Black Eyed Susan

Well it's been two weeks since since the Kentucky Derby which means only one thing - The Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown, is today.  Plans fell through to have the first Derby Party here at La Cucina Castano two weeks ago - an all day middle school lacrosse tournament the same day put the kabosh on that idea - but a few friends did stop over to watch the race and yours truly certainly had quite a few mint juleps in honor of the race.  Since a Derby party was not to be we decided on the next best thing - a Preakness party.

The Preakness, while not my favorite TC race (that would be the Belmont), it is the closest race to us here La Cucina.  It is is run about an hour down interstate 83 in Baltimore at Pimlico Racecourse and lo and behold also has an official drink - The Black Eyed Susan.  Guess I'll be whipping up some Black Susans then for the shindig today.  Except there is one small issue.  There doesn't seem to be any one single recipe for this drink.  A quick search of the internet  yields varying recipes with quite different ingredients.  All seem to have vodka but then it diverges from there.  Orange juice seems to be a common theme in almost all the recipes I've read, though it is not an ingredient in the recipe on the official Preakness website -  

Some recipes have rum, some have whiskey, a few add triple sec or grand marnier.  I've seen both pineapple juice and lemonade listed in some recipes.  Limes, lemons, oranges, cherries, simple syrup, you name it it's probably been in a Black Susan recipe at some point.  Google the drink recipe and you'll be amazed at how many versions you come up with.

This inconsistency of recipes and ingredients, I think, makes this drink a perfect fit here at La Cucina Castano.  Cooking and mixology are all about the creative process.  Take something standard or simple and then riff on it until you come up with something unique and fun .... and tasty.  Kind of like jazz in the kitchen or behind the bar.  So that's what I'll be doing today as friends gather here for our first Preakness Party.  Taking what I think are the best elements of the various recipes I've found and getting into some serious mixology until I come up with my own best version of this drink, which will then become the standard bearer of Preakness parties to come.  I'll let you know what I come up with.

Until next time .... Enjoy the weekend.  Enjoy the race if you will be watching.  If not enjoy whatever endeavors you set forth on.  And as always - eat well, have fun and enjoy a tasty cocktail.



Saturday, May 4, 2013

It's Mint Julep Time!

It's Cinco de Mayo this weekend, but we won't be talking about tequila, because it is also the first Saturday in May, which means two things - The Kentucky Derby and Mint Juleps - and that means bourbon.  So we'll be talking about this traditional Kentucky Derby drink.

A Mint Julep is a refreshing concoction of bourbon, sugar, mint and ice.  Here'a recipe for a traditional Mint Julep:

I make mine a little differently.  It takes a some preparation beforehand but I think it's worth the effort.

Step 1 - infuse your bourbon with mint.  For a mint julep I go a little old school with my bourbon, nothing fancy or top shelf, just some good old Jim Beam.  Chop up a whole lot of mint and put it in a big mason jar with a bottle of bourbon.  Let it sit in the fridge for about a week or so.  Strain so you get all the mint out and your ready to go.

Step 2 - mint infused simple syrup.  Simple syrup is easy.  Equal parts sugar and water.  Boil the water until the sugar dissolves.  While it's boiling add a bunch of mint.  Once the sugar has dissolved turn off the heat and let it cool, leaving the mint leaves in.  Once it's cooled, strain the mint out, pour it into a container and stick it in the fridge until your ready to use.

Stpe 3 - ice.  Shaved ice is best, crushed ice will do in a pinch (and what was used in the picture up top, since I couldn't generate any shaved ice).  I have found that a snow cone machine works best.  Just get a small portable one for $20 bucks or so.  Ours is broke so I need to go get one before post time.

Step 4 - prepare.  Fill a glass to the brim with shaved ice.  Pour a little bit of the mint infused simple syrup in and then fill the rest of your glass up with your mint infused bourbon.  You can make it as sweet or strong as you want - just adjust your ratio of bourbon to syrup.  Garnish with a fresh mint sprig.

Step 5 - drink.  It really is a tasty, refreshing drink.  I generally only drink this once a year on Derby day.  I think that this year it may become a staple at the poolside bar here at La Cucina Castano.

Have a great weekend, enjoy the Derby, pick a winner and enjoy a delicious cocktail (if not a Mint Julep then one of your favorites).



Thursday, April 25, 2013

Scarpiello and Eggplant Parm Redux

It was a fun time last weekend here at La Cucina Castano.  Some old hockey friends made their first appearance here.  The Toll's (Rick, Lori and Braden) and the Amsley's (Todd, Beth and Conner) came over for some food, drink and fun.  As always, tried to keep the menu simple but tasty in order to kick back and enjoy some time with our guests.

The main course was Chicken Scarpiello, a tasty Italian-American dish made with chicken, sausage and peppers.  I say Italian-American because there is no history of the dish in Italy.  It was developed by Italian immigrants here in America.  Chicken Scarpiello translates as 'chicken shoemaker style'.  There are several theories about the etymology of this name.  It could be because the meager ingredients are all that a poor shoemaker could afford.  Some think that the name is a take on simple ingredients being 'cobbled' together.  No matter how it got it's name it an easy and delicious.  Here a link to a good recipe for this dish -

I varied it a little for a few reasons.  It's better to cook this chicken on the bone for this dish but I had some boneless chicken breasts that had been marinating for quite a few days and I needed to cook them so they went in the oven and cooked by themselves (in the marinade).  I also had some boneless thighs.  These were also cooked separately (dredged in flour and sauteed on the stove top). The sauce I made pretty traditionally though I added roasted peppers along with the hot peppers.  It still had some kick, though.

The side was simple pasta - linguine - with lot's of garlic and olive oil, a little clam juice and a little of the salted cooking water.  Lot's of basil, as always.  The drink of choice for your's truly were Bombay Sapphire East martinis with piri piri stuffed olives, which Rick and I enjoyed thoroughly, as attested by the fact that I had no gin left Sunday morning!  It was great seeing some old friends and very much looking forward to the their next visit here to La Cucina.

This coming weekend many of the Cucina Castano regulars will be here and the main course will once again be eggplant parm.  Apparently I really nailed it last time so this will be a meal by request, which I don't do all that often, but I love to cook for my friends so if they all want eggplant parm this weekend that's what I'm cooking!  Since this meal will be Friday night, and I have to work on Friday, the eggplant, since it's so time consuming to prepare properly, was put together last night.  I spent a good two hours frying eggplant to make the biggest dish of eggplant parm I've ever made.  All I've got to do tomorrow is pop it in the oven.  Of course there will be pasta, maybe something "puttanesca-ish".  Lot's bread, beer and wine ... and of course a martini for the chef.  I'm sure there will also be some serious singing and kitchen dancing too.

Until next time, enjoy the weekend.  Treat yourself to a great meal and a well made cocktail.  You know you deserve it!



Sunday, April 7, 2013

Friday Night Pasta

Friday's have been pasta night lately here at La Cucina Castano.  Of course, if it were up to me, every night would be pasta night!  But Friday night's are all about cocktails and pasta.  Not a better way to end a stressful week as far as I'm concerned.

A few of the regular crew - Kathi & Michael, Mick & Troy - were over for some food, drink and hockey - Rangers lost to the Pens in a shootout :-( .  Being a Friday and having to work all day there was not a lot of time for preparation.  The idea was to keep it simple.  So, after a quick stop at Wegman's on the way home for some olives (Wegman's has the best olive bar) and fresh bread (tuscan garlic loaf, still warm out of the oven - perfect timing!) it was time get home before anyone arrived to mix a cocktail and start the water boiling.

For some reason I wanted to do a cajun inspired sauce.  Not sure what brought that inspiration on but I just rolled with it.  Due to time constraints it needed to be quick and simple.  Mission accomplished.  I started with olive oil, garlic and crushed red pepper, like I do with just about any sauce I make.  Once the garlic was simmering nicely I added tomatoes (peeled, canned), some clam juice, chopped green onion and andouille sausage (cut into slices).  I didn't have a cajun spice mix readily available (forgot I had used it all up last time I was on a cajun bent) so I added garlic powder, cumin and chili powder.  Also some worcestershire sauce.  Normally this type of sauce I would let simmer for quite a while but as the guests were arriving soon I cranked up the heat to get the sauce to a boil.  I needed the wonderful flavor of the andouille sausage to infuse the sauce and fairly quickly.  As the sauce was reducing too much - great for intensifying flavors but not so great when you have a lot of pasta to coat - I added more liquid in the form of clam stock.  I was originally planning on adding some file powder at the end as a thickening agent but I had cooked two pounds of pasta and had just enough sauce to coat the pasta so I passed on that idea.  For the pasta I used fettucine (Lidia's, a very good, not too expensive brand).  Once the pasta was cooked it was quickly removed from the water into the sauce and raw shrimp was added.  The shrimp then cooked as it was stirred into hot pasta and sauce.  Everyone seemed to love it.

Since I was cooking a cajun inspired sauce I decided cajun martinis were in order.  Pepper vodka, vermouth and some of the juice from a bottle of Trappey's peppers.  Tasty and spicy, just the right amount of kick.

Tasty cocktails and cooking for my friends.  What a great way to kick off the weekend.  Hope your Friday was as good as mine.  


Friday, March 22, 2013

Quick restaurant review - Vino, Harrisburg, PA

It's not often Sara and I get a chance to eat out together.  With our busy travel schedule, plus the fact we like to entertain and I love to cook for our friends, it's not often we get out for a nice meal.  Last weekend we had a few kid free hours and decided we needed to get out and enjoy a nice adult meal together.  Italian was in order, and on the suggestion of a friend of a friend we decided to try Vino, located in Harrisburg PA.

I'll start off by saying it was an excellent choice.  Service was great, as was the food, and the prices were quite reasonable.

The food was top notch all around.  I had the fried calamari for an appetizer.  Some of the best I have ever had.  We both got the tomato basil soup.  Sara loved hers.  I'm not a huge tomato soup fan but wanted to try it.  Salads were good, I had the Caesar, Sara had the house salad that was nice mix of greens.  She loved her salad.  I thought the Caesar had too many hearts and not enough leafs of Romaine, but hey, I'm not a big salad guy so no big deal.  For the main entree Sara had Chicken Parm with pasta on the side.  Very healthy portion and she loved it.  I had a small taste and would have to agree.  For my entree I gave it the litmus test - Linguine with Clam Sauce.  White of course.  Linguine with clam sauce is my favorite dish in the world.  It's a very simple dish to make.  If a restaurant can't nail this dish there is simply no use even thinking about going back.  The dish I got was very good.  They did it justice.  The pasta was very al dente.  I prefer my pasta cooked softer so when we go back I'll have to specify that.  Desert was great.  I had Tiramisu that was served in a martini glass.  Sara had some sort of chocolate cake thing.  Both were excellent, as was the coffee.  A nice dark roast.  As a coffee fiend I had no complaints.

Both our waiter and the owner were very friendly and attentive.  The restaurant itself is very small.  I counted the tables and chairs and came up with forty diners max that could eat at any one time.  That being said, the bar, which takes up a rather large portion of the room, could seat at least twelve, maybe more.  I don't know about you but I kind of like when the bar has a significant place in any establishment.  I'd much rather have too much bar and not enough dining room than vice versa.

All told, two meals (salads included, plus one soup), two deserts (with coffee), one appetizer, one extra soup, two beers, a Kettle One martini plus a glass of Sauvignon Blanc came to $70.   A most excellent deal for a great meal with great service.

Will I be going back?  For sure.  Maybe next time I'll just sit at the expansive bar.

Ciao for now,


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Eataly, NYC

I had the pleasure a couple of weeks ago to visit a truly amazing place - Eataly in New York City    It is the only Eataly location in the USA.  There are currently eight locations in Italy, the first of which opened in Torino in 2007, as well as four in Japan.  There is a second US location scheduled to open in Chicago this year as well as several more in Italy.  If you are a foodie, love Italian food, love food shopping, appreciate the finest and freshest products or just enjoy a great atmosphere you have to visit this place if you ever find yourself in NYC.  

I remembered reading about when it opened in 2010.  Of course having Mario Batali along with Lydia Bastianich and her son Joe  as partners in the NY location helped the place get a lot of press.  I thought at the time that this would be a cool place to check out the next time I had some free time in NYC.  A busy schedule the last few years meant I hadn’t had the chance yet.   Fortunately, Grace’s hockey team had their district playoffs in Hackensack, NJ and a game schedule favorable for a jaunt in the city - Saturday morning game and then nothing until early Sunday morning, meaning a whole afternoon and evening free to head into Manhattan.  Piling Grace, two of her teammates (Sarah and Paige) and their mom’s (Dana and Amy) into the Camry we headed into the city.  After lunch and the obligatory Times Square/midtown shopping excursion Dana suggested we check out Eataly.  I am grateful she did because I hadn’t really thought of it.  So we headed downtown to 5th Ave and 23rd St. to check it out.  

Walking in and around Eataly I felt like a kid in a candy store, or maybe like a kid walking into FAO Schwarz the week before Christmas.  50,000 square feet of Italian foodie heaven.  Besides seven restaurants where you can sit down and eat (which we didn’t do) there is just the most amazing shopping.  You can find the freshest meats, cheese, fish, produce, pasta and bread as well as an amazing variety of oils, vinegars, spices, and dry pasta, much of it from Gragnano, home to the best pasta makers in Italy.  Oh, and wine too.  While we didn’t drink I saw numerous people shopping with glasses of wine in their hand.  There is a kitchenware section, where I found some great little 3oz martini glasses, and a whole section of cookbooks.  My only regret was not being able to buy any fresh products (as I had not way to keep them refrigerated until we got home on Sunday).  I did splurge, however, and came home with lots of incredible dried pasta, which I’ve been eating since, as my waist line can attest.  Oh, I can’t forget to mention the gelato, which the girls wanted to get on the way out.  I wasn’t going to get any until I saw they had tiramisu gelato.  I’d never seen that before so I just had to try some.  It was sooooo good.  

For someone living in Central PA having all these top quality products available in one place was mind boggling.  I’m not a huge on-line shopper.  I actually enjoy food shopping and find it relaxing.  I can tell you one thing, though.  This excursion to Eataly and enjoying all the amazing pasta these last couple of weeks has made me realize that I will be ordering all of my dry pasta online from now on.   Barilla just don’t cut it anymore (though they did sell Barilla at Eataly).  Also, it reinforced for me that when cooking, or eating, always start with the freshest, best ingredients you can get your hands on.  You can’t go wrong if you start with the best.    

The bottom line?  If you find yourself in NYC and have an hour or two follow 5th Ave or Broadway until they intersect and stop into Eataly, you won’t regret it. 

Ciao for now,


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Don't Screw Up The Beef

Things haven’t been too crazy here the last month at La Cucina Castano.  Well, things have been crazy, just not in the eating and drinking way.  Hockey, hockey, hockey  (the coolest game on earth) was keeping us busy and didn’t allow us a lot of time for indulging in food and drink with friends here at la cucina.  However, I did have time for a small birthday dinner with some friends.  Nothing too fancy and of course I did the cooking (wouldn’t have it any other way!).  

The menu was beef and pasta.  Beef mainly for everyone else, pasta mainly for me, not that everyone else doesn’t love it too, at least it seems that way when I cook it.   

The meat portion of the meal was a whole beef tenderloin.  I was a little worried, to be honest.  Here’s the thing - I am totally not a carnivore.  If you told me I could never eat steak again for the rest of my life I wouldn’t be all that upset.  I’m all about seafood and pasta.  However, whenever I cooked steak, be it NY strips, filet mignon, flat iron, you name it, I could pretty much nail it.  On the grill, in the oven, whatever.  No special tricks or methods.  Just instinct I guess.   And then we moved here and redesigned the kitchen from scratch and got a nice new grill for the deck and I couldn’t seem to cook a steak right to save my life.  It’s like I lost my touch.  I certainly didn’t want to screw up a prime cut of beef like tenderloin, especially for guests.  Fortunately it came out great.  Just some seasoning, seared the outside in a pan with olive oil then finished in the oven.  I did use a meat thermometer, which I never do, which probably helped.  Often it’s best to just keep it simple, which is easy t do when the ingredients are top quality.  

I kept the pasta simple too.  Just some olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper, a little butter and fresh basil.  Oh, and some shrimp (of course).  I cooked it using a method where you finish the pasta in the pan you are using to cook your sauce.  You don’t cook the pasta all the way in the water, you let it finish cooking in the sauce you are making.  The sauce is very simple and uses some of the water you cooked your pasta in.  Simple and delicious.  Of course use good pasta as this type of sauce really let’s it shine.  As I’ve stated before I’m not really that good at giving recipes since I tend to wing it most of the time in the kitchen but this article gives a good idea of what I’m talking about -

Of course martini’s for chef and some good dry wine to wash it all down.  Good crusty bread, don’t forget that.  All in all a great way to spend a birthday, cooking for friends.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.   



Friday, February 1, 2013

Eggplant Parm

Things are quiet here at La Cucina Castano currently.  A busy travel weekend for hockey means no cooking, drinking or dancing.  We did have a bit of fun last weekend, however.  A little Friday night gathering with some of the crew.  Troy and Mick, Kristen, Janene, Mick and Jeff, Anita and Matt all stopped by.  Amy and Pat made their first appearance at La Cucina too.  Always glad to have them on board.  Kathi and Michael were sadly missed.  

Your host was drinking martinis (of course) and probably had one, or maybe a few, too many.  But with two days to recover, what the hell.  I was kicking it old school with brother-in-law Jeff.  Belvedere Intense vodka, Noilly Prat vermouth and blue cheese stuffed olives for garnish.  

The big hit seemed to be the eggplant parm.  I wanted to make something ahead of time that could just be popped in the oven or crockpot to minimize time spent slaving over the stove wihle guest were here.  This was more of a happy hour, certainly not a dinner party, but you gotta have food, right?  Eggplant parm, while easy as hell to make, is just a wee bit labor intensive.  You have to start with some nice firm eggplant.  Nothing soft.  Nice and firm.  Color should be a nice dark purple.  You rinse off the eggplant and then slice into thin slices - short way, not length wise, though I guess you could do length wise if so inspired.  Hopefully the eggplant won’t have a ton of seeds.  Most don’t these days.  Seeds are being bred out of eggplants and many today have hardly any.  Not like they will hurt you or anything.  It’s just that less seeds equal more eggplant flesh.  

After slicing the eggplant you dip each piece in an egg wash (beat some eggs in a bowl) - you should at least salt the egg wash but you can add other seasoning too.  After you take each piece out of the eggs let the excess egg drip off because the next step is coating the eggplant slice in seasoned bread crumbs.  Too much egg still on the eggplant slice will result in clumps of breadcrumb burning in the oil you will fry this in.  After coating the slice in breadcrumbs drop into a big pan of hot oil.  If you are lucky enough to have a deep fryer more power to you.  If not (and that’s most of us) fill a deep pan with oil and get as hot as you can.  I used Canola oil for this batch.

Drop each piece in the hot oil and fry until brown.  You will flip at least once to make sure each side gets fried evenly.  After each piece is fried - and you should be frying multiple slices at a time or it would take forever - drain on paper towels or a rock.  Eggplant’s soft flesh will absorb a lot of oil.  

Once you get it all fried let it cool for a bit.  You can even fry the eggplant a day or so ahead of time and keep in the fridge.  Now you get a pan, some tomato sauce (whatever kind floats your boat) and lots of mozzarella cheese.  Then you start layering from the bottom up - sauce, eggplant, sauce, cheese, eggplant, sauce, cheese, etc, etc, etc.  I prefer less sauce and more cheese, but that’s just me.  With each layer add some seasoning - whatever tickles you fancy - garlic powder, onion slat, garlic salt, italian blend mix, whatever you like.  After all the layering the top should be a ton of cheese.  I mean a ton.  Cover with foil and pop in the oven.  Temp isn’t that critical, you just want it heated all the way through and all the cheese melted.  Take the foil off when it’s almost done to get the cheese on top a little brown, but not too much.  

Of course I had to make a little pasta to go along with this so I ended up cooking while the guests were here.  Just something simple, though.  Penne pasta, a lot of extra virgin olive oil, a ton of garlic, a little bit of crushed red pepper, some plum tomatoes (crushed by hand), a little bit of clam stock and some chopped black olives.  Super simple and easy.  

Well, it will be a few weeks before the next shindig here in the Brown Kitchen.  So until then, eat and drink well, sing and laugh often, dance the night away and have fun!


Friday, January 18, 2013

Proper Proportions, Please

As I sit here and enjoy a Bombay Sapphire East martini I am thinking of the currently outdated concept of the ‘Three Martini Lunch’.  This was something that was in vogue for a long time but fell out of favor in the 1970’s and is pretty much unheard of today.  The idea was that business lunches between executives would be leisurely affairs that would take the better part of an afternoon while consuming at least three martinis.  This time would allow deals to be made while executives could have indulgent lunches they could write off as business expenses.  

My question is how could any person, let alone a business executive, have three martinis and still function in a professional manner.  One answer is maybe they didn’t act in a professional manner.  However, I think the answer may lie in a different direction.  

I have quite a large collection of martini glasses.  Most of them are similar to what you might find in any bar or store.  They are big.  We’re talking glasses that hold about 6 -8 oz of martini.  Mind you, a martini is pure booze.  No mixer, no juice, no ice in that glass.  Just booze.  Three martinis at 6 - 8 oz each is a pretty hefty haul of alcohol.  You have a tiny bit of lower proof vermouth and then the rest is all high octane alcohol - I’m not talking about frou frou martinis here, by the way, I’m talking about a real martini.    If you’re drinking a traditional gin martini, you’re most likely looking at 96 proof.  Over 20 ounces of 96 proof alcohol over the course of a lunch, even a leisurely lunch, and you’re going to be feeling no pain.  

And that is where the modern martini glass and idea of portion control comes in.  I have no scientific evidence to back this up, but I’m pretty sure the martini glasses in days of yore were not the behemoths they are today.  They are probably more similar to what I am drinking my martinis out of tonight - a glass that comfortably holds about 3 - 4 oz of cocktail.  There are several positives to having this size of a glass.   One is that the drink is small enough that it should stay cold and not get all warm and room temperature on you by the time you are swilling the last drops.   Secondly, you can have two martinis and still function in a somewhat responsible manner.   I have always believed that two martinis is just about right - it means relaxing and unwinding, either after a hard day or before a good meal.  Three or more martinis means you just want to get really drunk - not that there is anything wrong with that.  Just sayin’.

People tend eat whatever is on their plate.  The brain is hardwired to finish the meal.  That is why portion control helps in weight loss.  Big plates, big bellies.  Small plates, healthy people.  I think the same applies to cocktails.  Can I have three 4 oz martinis and feel as satisfied as if I had three 8 oz martinis?  I think so.   

So what’s the motto of this story?  In the words of the immortal Steve Martin - Let’s Get Small.  Keep the drinks reasonably sized and cold.  You’ll feel better in the morning.  And if you really, really want to get shit-faced, just make twice as many.  


Monday, January 14, 2013

When God Give You Lemons, Enjoy!

Things have been quiet here in The Brown Kitchen lately.  Between post holiday recuperation and a busy travel schedule for hockey this month there hasn’t been any entertaining, or kitchen dancing, going on.  Things will get cranking back up here in the next few months but in the meantime here’s a simple dish I love making that you may want to try - Lemon Puttanesca.  

I love pasta and I love simple sauces, the kind I can make while the water is boiling and the pasta is cooking.  Puttanesca fits the bill perfectly.  Spaghetti alla Puttanesca (which translate’s as ‘Whore’s Spaghetti’) is an earthy, salty dish that is hearty and easy to make.  It’s made with olives, capers, anchovies and crushed tomatoes.  Here’s a recipe if you want to try it the traditional way (which I whole heartedly encourage you to do) - 

While I have made puttanesca many times and love it for it’s taste and simplicity, I often make it with lemons instead of tomatoes.  I’m crazy about lemons and will use any excuse I can to cook with them.  I love the bright flavor and acidity they bring to dishes.  I also use linguine or fettucine instead of spaghetti.  Pasta is all about texture and shape.  I’ve never been a big fan of spaghetti, preferring the flatter shape of linguine to the rounder shape of spaghetti, but use whatever pasta you prefer!


While you’re water is boiling and cooking pour yourself a glass of wine and make the sauce - 
Saute chopped or crushed garlic and some crushed red pepper in some good olive oil.  In the meantime drain some capers and chop up some kalamata olives - you can use other types of black olives if you want, I just prefer the taste and saltiness of the kalamatas.  Once the oil gets hot and the garlic starts to simmer add some flat anchovy fillets.  You want to add them well before the garlic gets going good - the key is to have them break up and dissolve in the hot oil, but you want them to do so before the garlic would burn.  Once the garlic is going good and the anchovies are dissolving add the capers and chopped olives.  Let this go for a bit.  Normally you would season here but with this dish I don’t - between the anchovies, capers and olives there are so many salty ingredients I often don’t add any salt at all.  If I do it’s at the very end.  Once everything in the pan is cooking away nicely add some fresh squeezed lemon juice and a splash of dry white wine (which you hopefully are already enjoying as you stand at the stove cooking).  You also want to take some of the lemon and grate lemon zest from the rind into the dish.  Let this bubble away and simmer down as the pasta finishes cooking.  When the pasta is done drain it, pour the sauce over, add some freshly chopped basil, season if needed and serve with lots of freshly grated cheese and some good crusty bread.  Wash it all down with the dry white wine you have been drinking - I prefer a sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio.


PS - Forgive me if I don’t give you any measurements of how much of each ingredient to add.  I don’t ever measure when cooking unless absolutely necessary.  I almost never make a dish exactly the same way twice as a result, but I find it’s more fun to go with the flow and wing it each time, maybe change things up as the feeling strikes me during the cooking process.  

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Best Laid Plans

The best laid schemes of mice and men often go astray.  
That’s a translation of the opening lines of the Robert Burns poem ‘To A Mouse’.  
Unfortunately, the best laid plans to bring in the 2013 along with ‘the crew’ here at La Cucina Castano were waylaid by a nasty little stomach virus that swept through our household and caused us to cancel the New Year’s Eve festivities last night.  Therefore I cannot regale you with tales of food, cocktails and kitchen dancing on this first day of January.  
But while 2013 didn’t get off to the start we had hoped for, there will be plenty of good times ahead in the coming year, which will be documented here on these pages so check back often.  
Have a healthy and happy new year and try to follow these simples rules:
Always eat and drink well
Sing like no one is listening
Dance like no one is watching
Life is too short, enjoy it while you can.