Sunday, July 20, 2014

Grilled Pasta

'Tis the season ...... summer time.  The time to get out of the kitchen and get cooking on the grill.  Except I've never been a big fan of grilling.  I'm much more comfortable in the kitchen.  Give me a gas range and oven over charcoal or propane any day.  Oh, I can cook a nice steak, or some sausage & chicken, and of course burgers and dogs, on the grill.  Just not my preference.

My friend Michael, frequent guest here at La Cucina, is the grill master.  He is a carnivore (unlike myself) and can sear a pice of meat with the best of them.  He's been re-discovering the joys of cooking with charcoal this summer.   About a month ago we were talking about grilling and he mentioned that I needed to challenge myself and master the art of grilling.  He oft-handedly mentioned that it would be cool if I could grill pasta, my favorite thing to cook.  The thought intrigued me.  A quick google search didn't come up with much but I did find one site that talked about grilling pasta.  Basically they said to cook it about halfway, toss with olive oil and season then finish on the grill.  Of course you would need something to put on the grill, some kind of mesh.  You can't really throw pasta on a regular grill grate or it would all end up on the bottom of the grill.  As fate would  have it, Sara had bought some grill mats over the winter.  We hadn't used them yet for anything.  They really are the coolest things.  You just lay them over your grates and cook on the flat surface they provide.  You still get the grill marks and grill flavor but you don't get all the gunk on the grill grates and can cook smaller things ..... and pasta.  They aren't very expensive and can be found in most stores nowadays.  I highly recommend picking up some.

I've tried three times so far.  The first batch was intriguing to say the least.  I cooked the pasta(dry cappellini) about halfway, tossed with olive oil, some garlic oil, seasoned, then threw it all on the grill with chopped parsley.  It was a little too al dente for my tastes but definitely had interesting textures.  The various strands of pasta were all cooked through a little differently.  Some pieces got kind of crispy with burnt ends.  It came out well enough that I was tempted to try again.  The second attempt I thought I would try to cook on the mats after cooking some chicken and sausage and get some of that flavor.  I used buccattini for this batch and cooked it about 2/3 of the way before following the same steps as before.  Cooking it through a little before throwing it on the grill made for a better dish I thought but one issue I found was that were was a little too much liquid and fat, which added flavor but made for some uneven doneness.  

This past weekend I tried it again but with fresh pasta (linguine).  Again I cooked it about 2/3 of the way in heavily salted water on the stove top.  After taking it out of the water I put it in a bowl with raw shrimp and seasoned with lemon salt, lemon infused olive oil and a quick squeeze from a lemon.   I added chopped fresh parsley and basil and threw it all on the grill mats.  Let is cook for a few minutes with the cover closed, then tossed and let it go awhile longer while I finished my martini.  

I cooked it over very low heat this time -  I think I had the burners cranked up a little too high the last couple of tries, which made some of it too crispy without allowing it to cook all the way through.  Needless to say, this was my best batch so far.  I think the fresh pasta and lower grill temp were a step in the right direction.  Texturally it was still very interesting, with some crispy strands.  The shrimp cooking with the pasta on the grill added a hint of brininess.  

I'm going to keep tinkering until I get this down (and will post a kick-ass recipe at that time).  It is a very interesting way to put a new spin on something I love to cook.  As I've stated before, it is the textures you get with cooking the pasta this way that makes it so interesting.  So now when you come over to La Cucina Castano and I say let's grill, don't be expecting a steak.  It will be pasta, as always.

Bon appetit!


Friday, January 24, 2014

Godfather - The Drink You Can't Refuse

When snow fills the air and arctic vortexes chill us to the bone those refreshing summer drinks made with rum, vodka and gin are but a distant memory.  The body, and soul, require something more substantial and soothing to get us through these cold winter nights.  A Godfather fits the bill.

Simplicity in itself, a Godfather consists of only two ingredients - whiskey and amaretto.  At first glance, perhaps, an unlikely pairing.  But in reality, these two liquors work magic together and bring out the best in each other.

Most recipes call for anywhere from a 50-50 ratio to a 2-1 ratio (with the whiskey consisting of the 2/3 portion).  I prefer about half and half. You can use any whiskey.  The first time I ever had one it was made with scotch.  Bourbon or rye work just as well.  I've never tried it with Irish whiskey but I suppose that could work too.

The nature of the the two liquors are what make this concoction work.  On the one hand you have a whiskey - strong and hefty with a bit of a burn (at least until you let enough ice melt mellow it out if drinking it straight).  On the other hand you have the wonderful hazelnut flavor of amaretto - too sweet and sticky amaretto.  What happens is that the amaretto takes the harsh edge off the whiskey - which is appealing to the the Cosmo and G&T crowd who make funny faces when they even smell any kind of whiskey.  The whiskey, on the other hand, cuts down the sweetness and stickiness of the amaretto.

Traditionally this drink does not have a garnish - though a friend recently garnished their Godfather with an Amerena Fabbrini cherry, which I must try.  It can be made on the rocks in a tumbler or straight up in a snifter.

So batten down the hatches, throw another log on the fire and enjoy this wonderful cocktails on one of these cold winter nights.



Godfather on the rocks

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.