Monday, March 17, 2008

The Ides of March, or The Fall of the Roman Empire

You know, with St. Patrick's Day staring me down, I realized I wasn't feeling it. With it also being the Ides Of March, however, I connected the The Fall of Rome to turning 40 and the realization that it might all be half over. The Ruin... the Sag... the general Gravitas (!!) of it all... this was great inspiration, people! Who cooks an Ides of March meal? Me, that's who!

Here's the invite:

I know the soothsayer warned Caesar about the Ides of March, and then Calpurnia took up the tune and nearly sang the life right out of it, but for some reason I have always thought of it as a rather lucky day. Maybe it was Shakespeare's version of Mark Anthony's opportunist turn...luck.

Something about turning 40 (today!!) makes me think about the fall of Rome. Perhaps because I realize that the sagging could be just around the corner.... the ruin....the glory leading to the complete going to seed.... Let's just think of it as the Fall of the Roman Empire.

In honor of the Ides of March, I thought we might enjoy:
Some Spring lamb shanks, braised with saffron, pomegranate, cumin, and garlic,
Some artichokes... perhaps even fried, alla Giudea,
Some white gigante beans with a salsa verde, Italian style,
Some potatoes roasted with duck fat.
A little pasta course--a cacia a pepe.
Some bitter dandy greens with a light lemon anchovy dressing.
And to finish, an almond cake with dates and candied orange peel.

Short notice, that is true. But delicious, and on a "lucky" day.

Fall of the Roman Empire
Saturday March 15 show up anytime after 6:30pm, dinner at 7.

In love and garlic,

Once I settled on Rome, the meal practically planned and cooked itself. Well, not really. Spring Lamb Shanks, (which turned out to be a combination of shanks and shoulder cut into pieces) Braised with Saffron, White Wine, Pomegranate Molasses, Preserved Lemon, Cumin and Garlic, and the luxury of time. If you take away one thing from this blog it should be the AWESOME POWER of cooking at 225 degrees for 7 hours. Seriously. Highly aromatic and delicious.

We started with Fried Artichokes a la Giudea. This is an IDEAL way to use artichokes that are on their way out, as you discard almost all of the tough outer leaves. Cut them into quarters, remove the choke if it is big, and deep fry 'em.

Mmmm. A squeeze of lemon, a big pinch of salt and away you go. Great Scooby Snack.

White Gigante Beans, a mix of both soaked and canned (horrors!) were cooked in chicken stock and then drizzled with Salsa Verde (a combination of all the green herbs you can get your hands on, two big bunches of parsley, some capers, anchovies, garlic and olive oil all food processed and finished with lemon), tossed to combine and lovingly served over some of the baby dandy greens left over from the salad.

Starchy, but also very green, it was the perfect foil for rich lamb.

Christopher, coincidentally, is also the perfect foil for rich lamb...

Baby Dandy Greens always make an appearance here in Astoria, this time of year; They are bitter like their teenage brethren but in a much less astringent way. I heated some olive oil with garlic and anchovies, sauteed, then added a touch of butter, some red wine and sherry vinegars and a bit of lemon and poured the whole business hot over the dandys.

Then I thought-- ooh-- fried eggs! so I fried some eggs in the leftover dressing and placed them on top of the salad. Lazy gal's poached eggs, kids. Take note!

Meanwhile, the potatoes had been chopped and were happily sizzling away in duck fat in the oven. Mmmmm. Salt and pepper finished them beautifully.

The pasta course was first. Very simple Buccatini cooked just past al dente, tossed with loads of Caciocalvallo Cheese and pepper. Salt to taste. Reminded me of Rome in July. An excellent memory indeed-- the first time Zora and I travelled together!!

And Cardoons.... where would Rome be without Cardoons? Peeled, soaked in acidulated water so they keep their color, rough chopped and braised in chicken stock until soft and finished with fresh mint.

I also modified Lydia Bastianich's Scallion and Asparagus Salad, substituting a dijon mustard vinaigrette. I just poached the scallions and the asparagus, cooled 'em, and coated them with the delicious dressing. I love this recipe: It makes the onions taste like fresh spring ramps...


Amy, getting her asparagus on...

And last but not least, Kim Sunée's fucking excellent Almond Saffron Cake recipe from The New York Times last month. That woman is a genius.

Oh, man.

I made her recipe and then, when the pieces cut twenty ways looked really small, I had a brief moment of brain firing and whipped up some heavy cream I had in the fridge with vanilla, powdered sugar, and Orange Flower Water. Aromatic, only slightly sweet and the perfect way to make the cake "bigger."

All in all... a lovely night that made me REALLY appreciate my husband even more than before (he was working and wasn't there to perform his Herculean effort of backup and prep) and introduced me to some wonderful new people.

Chair - J.Blesso © 2008

Zora's Mexico!

The Invitation Email:

The Marriage of Fine Handmade Lace Mexican with Girl Next Door German-- think of it as a Mariachi band with a Tuba!

From the Desk of World Renowned Travel Writer and Mexican Food on the Run Expert Zora O'Neill:

While I was eating at this hot Mexico City chef's underwhelming new alta cocina restaurant in Cancun, I got to thinking that I can probably cook fancy Mexican food a lot better. Even though my people don't call it maize...but when has that ever stopped me or Tamara?

This is not chalupa-wrapped-gorditas-in-a-bucket-with-a-side-of-sour-cream. No chihuahuas in sight. This is a real sit-down Mexican meal, featuring the best manchamanteles (shirt-stainers--the term for those dishes that have really rich, oily sauces). It also won't be spicy-hot. Or not much. Just enough to warm you up on a winter night (as it will almost certainly be--sigh). And it will involve a lot of lard, because Rick Bayless tells us so.

So, I think we'll have:

--Assorted antojitos (little snacky bits) to-be-devised, and hopefully involving huitlacoche, aka Mexican truffles, aka corn smut (but that's not so appealing-sounding--unless you have corn fetish?)
--Best. Guac. Ever. (Did you know that, thanks to the stranglehold of the Evil California Avocado Overlords, Mexican avocados can be imported only to the East Coast of the USA, and only at certain times of the year? It's that time of year, to enjoy one of the finest fruits of the republic, straight from the garden state of Michoacan...which, incidentally, is entirely unlike our own fair Garden State, NJ.)'s the return of bring-your-own-soup-bowl! Do just that, for no Mexican meal is complete without a soup:
--Caldo de Pollo con Hongos y Cilantro (fancy name for chicken consomme with mushrooms and cilantro)

--Duck Mole (maybe a peanut mole? hmmm...)
--Wild rice with raisins
--Wilted purslane with queso oaxaqueno and a squeeze of lime
--Buttery steamed chayote

And finally, because fancy Mexican restaurants just can't get enough of the tableside fire show (can you blame them?):
--Bananas flambeed in passionfruit schnapps (which I hauled back from the state of Tabasco) and topped with bitter Mexican-style chocolate. Dude.

Best of all, this will all be accompanied by:
**Spaten beer!** The lovely folks of Spaten North America will be donating their best brews to accent the meal! They were probably expecting it to be served with schnitzel, but why ghettoize?

Really, it makes sense to drink German beer along with our Mexican dinner. In fact, Mexico's excellent breweries were all started by Germans. And those tubas in norteno music? You betcha--Mexicans say danke for that too.

To make your Spaten, Dinkelacker and Franziskaner go down more smoothly, we'll be offering the chelada treatment: salt-rimmed glasses filled with ice and lime juice, ready for you to top off with a cold lager--muy refrescante! If you want a little more heft, make it a michelada: add a dash of Worcestershire, and one of Tabasco--tastes like a pork chop in a glass.

The Breakdown!!

In Truth, I tried to write this last week, but I was sooooo caught up in birthday festivities and work that it never got done. Then Friday afternoon I FINALLY had a quiet moment and spent an hour writing the post, only to have blogger freeze on me and I lost it all. After much cussing I gave up, left work, and went to Zora and Peter's for dinner. (That usually fixes everything)

But then over the weekend, Peter took all of Karl's fabulous pictures and created a little movie-- which is right below. It tells the entire story of the dinner with excellent documentation, and music!

So my only words were that it was deeelicious-- Zora did the heavy lifting and I merely chopped and diced, Spaten helped us out with some beer, the people were mostly old friends and that was gorgeous, you should ALWAYS fry your own chips, and the Best. Guac. Ever. has both roasted AND raw finely chopped chilis.

Oh-- and Duck legs go very well indeed with mole sauce.