Friday, April 17, 2015

Where to Drink Cocktails in Rome-The Jerry Thomas Project

(I wrote this soon after my first visit to The Jerry Thomas Project. I’ve since been back, though not as often as I’d like. The city has also seen an explosion of high-end cocktail bars in the last few years. While I haven’t been to all of them yet, I’ve tried a fair few of the top contenders. I still find JT to be the best all around experience due to the consistent excellence of the cocktails paired with perfect service.)

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of sipping a cocktail or three at the Jerry Thomas Project, a speakeasy here in Rome. Now, I have always been grumpy about the speakeasy trend in the States, mostly because I don’t like having to plan ahead to have an excellent drink. In cities like San Francisco or New York, there are so many high quality offerings in so many different kinds of cocktail bars that it becomes simple to imbibe the best and still avoid making reservations. In Rome, the selection is more restricted.
            Let me put it in perspective. I love, adore, delight in great cocktails, deep spirits lists, and bartenders that appreciate my requests and improve upon my fantasies. These things, however, are not historically among the wonders of Rome. While it is easy to find a drinkable Negroni or a Spritz, and the occasional bar will turn out a passable Old Fashioned if I am very specific with the bartender, someone coming from a historically cocktail centered city like SF is going to miss the ubiquitous high quality of the drinking culture. By someone I mean me, in case that wasn’t clear.
Cut to a couple weeks ago, when I went out to girls’ night at a place my embarrassingly cool hair stylist had fleetingly mentioned (and that I totally pretended to know already, because you have to maintain credibility with your stylist). I got to the unmarked door and rang the bell, rolling my eyes at the process and hoping this place was worth the sweaty bus ride to the Centro Storico. Trying not to feel ridiculous, I gave the password and the name of my friend. Minutes later, seated on a comfortable pouf, I was explaining to the charming (bearded) gentleman semi-hopefully what exactly I was seeking in a cocktail.
The perfectly balanced and wonderfully complex martini of Sipsmith London Dry Gin, Vermouth del Professore and a teensy dash of bergamot bitters he brought me soothed a homesickness that I did not even know I felt.
When the aforementioned gentleman returned to check in, the relief and pleasure I felt must have been clear to him. We ended up talking, and I discovered that they have a lovely deep spirits collection, that the vermouth they use is their own production, and that I had found a sort of spiritual home in this city full of churches.
You’re thinking, “It’s just a bar, Homie, don’t be so dramatic!” Maybe, but it is a damn good bar. You like gin? They have the best, from Genevers to London Dry, and they’ll make you the right cocktail with each. Rum, you say? The last time I was there I sniffed out some of their selections, and they are not playing. I think whisky, scotch, bourbon, rye go without saying. But the best part? The part that makes my Mexican heart flutter in my chest and brings an absurd smile to my face? Mezcal! Not only do they have a well-curated selection including anonymous looking bottles that probably aren’t available to mere mortals, but the owner behind the bar is passionate about and expert with them.
Friends, I sipped things I had never even heard of. This is not to be taken lightly. This is any spirits lover’s dream-to have every visit to the bar be a learning experience with the lingering finish of shared enthusiasm. The fact that I have found a place of that caliber in Rome is a gift from a whole pantheon of wine gods.
Is it as good as the spots in SF, New York or London? I would say yes, it is. Like everything, it is slightly different from its hometown counterparts, due in part to its dual role as a bar serving the Italian palate and a locus for greater visibility of cocktail culture in Italy. I think they do an admirable job of being accessible to the less trained palate and interesting for aficionados. The only thing I wish is that I didn’t have to make reservations, but such is the price I must pay to have my gin and drink it too. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Pescheria dei Consoli, or Hurry And Go Before Success Ruins It

I’ve discovered the Roman fish restaurant, and it is called Pescheria dei Consoli. Though far off the beaten track, this tiny place is worth making the necessary reservations and taking the Metro A down to Numidio Quadrato. The restaurant started as a fish market by day, eatery by night, but well-deserved success has seen them add a lunch seating and expand the restaurant a bit. If it is always packed to the brim, it is with good reason. The fish is impeccably fresh and as locally sourced as possible, the chef has an uncanny ability with pasta sauces, and the prices are borderline ridiculous in their affordability. Anyone who has gone out to a fish restaurant in Rome knows how hard it is to find quality, even in the higher price ranges. Here, they deliver every time.
I took my parents when they were last here, and I admit we gorged ourselves. We started with two mixed fried seafood plates, which meant perfectly crispy moscardini (tiny octopus), whitebait and tender calamari. Next came two platters of marinated seafood and salads such as octopus and potato, octopus and roasted pepper, seafood salad with carrot and celery, boquerones, salmon and pink peppercorns in olive oil and more. Each preparation was delicate but flavorful and clearly made with the freshest of ingredients. 
At this point, our bottle of Vermentino from the Gallura region of Sardegna had run dry, so the friendly staff brought us another, along with the three pasta dishes we had ordered to share among the five of us. The best of the three was without doubt the scialatelli with crab, a huge portion of fresh noodles shaped like thick fettuccine tossed in a fragrant and creamy tomato based sauce and topped with about half a succulent crab. The linguine with lobster and paccheri with perfectly done scampi and truffles, while both delicious, couldn’t compete with the incredible combination of sweet crab, chewy rich noodles and velvety sauce.
Though you might not find the scialatelli on the menu, which changes depending on the catch of the day and seasonal ingredients, there is always at least one dish as extravagantly wonderful. For my last birthday, the chef made the best paccheri (wide smooth tube shaped pasta) I’ve ever had, with cherry tomatoes, scampi, mazzancolle shrimp and squash blossoms. We crave it regularly.
That time we decided to skip their secondi, but I can attest that the grilled calamari, shrimp and scampi are perfectly done and as with everything else, exquisitely fresh. With a bit of lemon squeezed on top, they make you feel as if the beach might be just on the other side of the Pescheria’s nautically decorated window. Even the oysters and sea urchin are excellent, so you really forget you're in Rome!
My only complaint is that service used to be slowish (before the expansion) but was carried out by two really sweet women that liked to go out salsa dancing after work and put correspondingly good music on the restaurant’s playlist. Since growing a bit, service has fallen into the hands of two young men who are perfectly competent and friendly, but attempt to order for you at least once a dinner. For example, you’ll order three mixed fritture, look around at your table mates to make sure they agree, and they’ll break in to say, “Why don’t we do the risotto with lobster and a grilled fish tonight?” complete with diminutives inserted wherever possible (risottino,  prosecchino, that type of thing). You get the feeling that both of the waiters have at least a couple small children each at home and haven’t gotten the hang of turning off dad-mode while at work. 
Nonetheless, it is easy to accept this small flaw by keeping in mind the casual vibe and the correspondingly low price tag of an evening at the Pescheria. We five ate extraordinarily well, drank two bottles of wine, water, and shared a few lemon sorbets, digestifs and coffees between us, and the bill was about 110 euro. For the quality, at that price, I’ll put up with being brought the “conticino” when I ask for the bill.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Joy of Reading...about Cooking!

I’m currently reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation both for fun and to mine it for sociological sources on the role cooked food plays in our lives. I have been greatly enjoying it, and it has inspired me to experiment with lacto-fermentation, baking sourdough bread and other kitchen projects. So far it is fact filled and yet very readable, he has a knack for writing to an educated audience that is fairly well informed but still wants to learn new things. That style might also be part and parcel with the lack of class analysis so far, which indicates that he is writing for an audience that views cooking as a valid intellectual and political interest, not a necessary part of daily life (it is both). To be fair, he has confined himself to the West, and in the West food that we don’t need to cook is increasingly available at all price points.  It does become frustrating, however, to read cursory discourse about the role of second and third wave feminism in redefining women’s relationship to cooking, and even more prominently, the way capitalism has shaped modern cooking and eating habits, without a serious discussion of class woven throughout*.
Apart from my nitpicking of a scholarly and sociopolitical nature, Pollan contends that people chafe at the time demanded by cooking, see it as time wasted and better spent doing literally anything else.  Is this true? It has made me sad as I read.
Pollan ascribes this low-grade dread of the kitchen as a battle between the desire to do fun or productive things (tv, read, email, etc.) and the “drudgery” of preparing a meal from start to finish. He goes on for pages about how everyone in the history of mankind has hated cutting onions, which I think is monstrously unfair to the onion, without which food would be an bland mess exactly 98.3% of the time.  The other enemy of the desire to cook is time, or more precisely the lack of it. It is true that cooking different things every day is time consuming, and that many of the best cooking techniques take as much time as you can give, the more the better.  But why, oh why, should that be imagined as time wasted?
He makes the comparison to alchemy, and I couldn’t agree more with the analogous elements of transformation of materials, scientifically described rituals, dedication to the experimental process.
But cooking is like alchemy is another, less purely material, sense. Cooking is a labor of passionate hunger of the spirit as well as the body. Certainly most days I don’t find the sublime while prepping carrots. But every day I return to the process of creating the elixir of life with renewed fervor. Part of me must continue to cook, to engage the materials and expose them to the elements of water, fire and air, possibly without end, possibly until, as a marketing guy Pollan quotes predicts, the alternatives to cooking are too good and it becomes obsolete. I doubt that will ever happen though. The calling of alchemical discovery is too strong in some of us, even if our privilege allows us to employ alternatives.  
All that being said, I still haven’t convinced anyone that cooking isn’t a waste of time. I can’t think of what I could say that will apply universally. Instead, I can describe the pleasure I felt when I recently learned to dice an onion into regular little pieces. It was as if I was standing victorious on the field of battle. That same class I julienned a vegetable for the first time, and though I will probably never use the technique regularly, doing it then made me want to do a little dance of joy (not advised when holding eight inches of chef’s knife). Those moments arose out of what Pollan calls drudgery, a word that recalls the very antithesis of pleasure. Now every time I dice up an onion a feel an echo of that satisfaction murmuring through me, saying something like, “God you’re good, Homie.”
How is a thoroughly empowering moment spent reveling in developing skill a waste of time? If you had that feeling playing your instrument of choice, or a video game, or ball in the street, wouldn’t that be characterized as a perfectly normal positive? So why is it so hard for the people Pollan describes, himself included, to want to cook? It isn’t actually that hard when all the ritualistic mumbo jumbo is stripped away. Most cooking is popping things into a pot in this order: first veggies, then protein, then liquid. And then you just wait while a low fire does its thing. That is the basis of so many dishes across culinary cultures that it might be the basis of all cooking. Sauteeing, frying, poaching and certainly sous-vide and other high tech type stuff is completely secondary in my mind. Pollan also takes this approach, but he also validates this idea that cooking is hard and strenuous. It doesn’t need to be. Through the course of the book, he learns to take pleasure in the processes of cooking, but he never quite shakes the notion that this pleasure is hard won.
So far, he seems to be arguing that a combination of marketing, technology and wage labor has caused us to renounce cooking as a fact of life. Throughout the book he is attempting to overcome his 21st century resistance to the kitchen by learning from masters of various cooking approaches: barbeque, California cuisine, etc. I don’t have a complaint about that. In fact, I think it would be great if people let themselves reach back into their cultural and personal memories and remember the way cooking creates pleasure and community in their traditions. I also agree that capitalism has radically changed the way we approach food in the US, particularly through the commodification of ethnically coded products as exotic experiences.
In summary, I rebel against being told that something I love so much is just a chore that must be got through, even if most people do see it that way. Cooking, even the unglamorous slicing and dicing and blood and guts, just isn’t a chore. Not for me.

*Let’s not even start on the way race and ethnicity recreate any conversation around food, from the perspectives of nutrition or gastronomy.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rabbit-Don't Worry, It Isn't Peter

I've developed a fool proof rabbit recipe that never fails to be delicious. Lucky for me, rabbit is almost always available in the market here at chicken prices, so I make it once every couple weeks. I know it is rarer and more expensive in the States, and I wonder how much that scarcity owes to American squeamishness rather than any lack of supply. Regardless, I love rabbit-its flavor is more complex than that of chicken without being gamey, and it takes all kinds of spices and cooking methods perfectly.

My recipe pairs rabbit with intensely aromatic herbs, crisp white wine, and a few hours over the fire to let the flavors develop. Here are the dirty details:

1 whole rabbit, cut in pieces (get your butcher to do it, and tell her you need neither head or innards)
1 bottle white wine (1 1/2 cup for rabbit, the rest for dinner)
1/2 large white onion, in chunks
1 large clove garlic, smashed but whole
1 sprig of rosemary
2 sprigs of thyme
4-5 dried juniper berries, slightly (gently!) smashed 
A generous sprinkle of whole or freshly cracked black pepper
A generous pinch of your favorite cooking salt, or to taste

On to the method:

In a pot or deep pan, heat up a generous drizzle of olive oil over medium high heat. Rinse and dry the rabbit pieces and then pop them in the hot pan to brown. Add the onion chunks after a couple minutes and let sizzle. When the browning side of the rabbit is nice and golden, flip the pieces over and add the garlic clove. Check your email, dance around the kitchen to some Al Green, sip on a glass of that white wine you opened for the rabbit. Browning takes longer than you think.
When everything is golden (I'd say give it ten minutes a side), add all the herbs, salt and pepper, then pour in a cup and a half of wine and a half cup of water.
Lower the heat to a simmer, stir, put the lid on the pot, and go read a book or snuggle with your partner.  Occasionally remember that there is something on the stove and stir it a bit. If the liquid has reduced too much, add a little more water or a little more wine. This phase will continue for approximately an hour and a half, until the meat has gone from being over cooked to falling off the little bones.
Serve with fresh bread, or saffron rice, or sauteed greens.

If you want to do a rag├╣, you have two options. The first is to ladle some of the rabbit sauce over pasta and toss them together. This is a perfect, light primo piatto to precede the main course. The second is to take the rabbit off the flame when it has reached the fork-tender stage and let it cool. Once cool, put all the pieces in a bowl and take all the meat off the bones, inevitably shredding it. Add the meat back to the pot and reheat gently, simmering for a few minutes to let it reintegrate with the sauce. Serve hot over pasta for a satisfying main dish.

Regardless of what you do with it, don't forget to bring the rest of the wine to table.

Speaking of the wine, I tend to use an Arneis from Roero, a crisp and mineral Piemontese white, but an aromatic white like a Gewurtztraminer, Muller-Thurgau or Sylvaner would work just as well to add to unctuousness to the rabbit rather than freshness like the Arneis. The key is to pick a bottle you want to drink with the meal, because you only use a cup or so in cooking!

I want to clarify what I intend with respect to the herbs. I have a rosemary bush, and therefore use fresh rosemary. If you don't have one, dried rosemary works just fine. Same with the thyme. I don't grow thyme, but I buy it fresh and then dry it at home in a cookie tray on top of my toaster oven. Just spread the fresh herbs out evenly and leave them. When you turn the toaster oven on it speeds the drying process, but they do well enough on their own as long as you don't live in tropical humidity. Here in Italy, fresh herbs are cheaper and easier to come by if you know where to go. I don't have a fancy garden or budget, so I buy herbs at the open market near Piazza Vittorio, where a big bunch of anything costs a euro (80 cents if I know the vendor). That way I avoid paying for the packaging of super market products and I get much more potent and fresh dried herbs. I dry sage, thyme, mint (though I just got a mint plant), bay leaves and oregano. You really can tell the difference.

As for the juniper, if you can't get it or can't afford it, don't use it. I did a little dance of happiness when I realized juniper is widely available here. A jar from the supermarket costs 2 euro, and it costs about 15 euro/kilo at the open market. You only need a couple berries to infuse a whole pot with flavor, so it lasts forever. However, I know how expensive it is in the US, so like I said, don't worry about it. I like the flavor it gives, but I am also a loving gin drinker. If you don't or can't use it, rosemary and thyme will definitely be enough. If you're stressed by leaving out an ingredient, substitute oregano for an extra mentholated kick, or smoky paprika to make it a darker dish (but in that case go with the Gewurtz)
The bottom line when it comes to the herbs is that you should use what you want and can, in any amount that you see fit. Think of this recipe as a guideline, not a commandment. It'll be tasty regardless.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Some Thoughts On San Francisco Mexican Food

I'm going to have to sadly report that La Taqueria is declining in quality. The prices have gone up, and I didn't love my burrito de carnitas con todo the last time I was there. It was a little dry and strangely both salty and flavorless, as if they had over salted to compensate for the lack of seasoning on the meat (or the quality). The tortilla was drier than it should have been, and I felt that the portion was too small for the ten dollars I paid. Since in the past every element of their burrito has been perfect, including the tortilla, this was a major disappointment.  I haven't found a burrito that I like as much as I used to like theirs, but I have SF homies keeping an eye out. As for other things Mexican, I do have some suggestions.
For nachos and pozole, I'd recommend Zapata on 18th and Collingwood. For great mezcal and tequila I'd recommend Tacolicious/Mosto. The bartenders at the one on Valencia know what's up and will pour you something you'll love if you let them. For shrimp, La Corneta still owns it. Their garlic or chili camarones are delicious with tortillas and guacamole. El Huarache makes awesome quesadillas de cecina and huaraches. I think they're usually at the Alemany farmer's market on Saturdays, and probably at other markets around the Bay.

I'd love a Del Maguey right now to burn all the sickness away. If anyone knows where to get good mezcal in Rome do let me know.

Belly Fat

I'm currently quite sick and yet swamped with work. I scraped up the energy to make a pot of caldo de pollo with chayote, yellow corn, zucchini and carrots, otherwise known as the Mexican cure-all (even more so than Vicks, which I am also using).
However, in order to make myself feel truly better and able to do the things that need to get done, I've decided to turn to the ultimate weapon: experimenting with pork belly.

I bought a small piece of uncured pancetta (pork belly) from my friendly neighborhood pork butcher, and I'm going to cure it. I haven't yet decided if it will be air cured, Italian style, or oven cured, bacon style. I don't have a smoker, but the internet authorities are clear that one isn't necessary.

It'll be a week before any results come in, but just beginning the curing process is making me happy. In the mean time, I've got caldo...and roommate's mom's lasagna.

The cure:
Salt (no curing salt, which means it won't be as pretty when I cook it later but is plenty safe in this case. I'll be ordering curing salt ASAP)
Chili flakes
Brown Sugar (and a bit of Honey)
Cumin (just a touch)
Crushed Garlic
Whole Cloves
Fresh Sage

We'll see what happens with this little test run...if it is successful, the pork butcher is going to be seeing a lot more of me.

In other news, the owner of my local Korean restaurant told me where to find the Korean market. My roommates have no idea what lies in wait for them once I have my hands on some doenjang and gochujang (and hopefully homemade tofu).

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tamarind Chicken

I feel like lately my success rate with new dishes is increasing. The experimental tamarind chicken I made last night turned out quite well, if I may say so myself.
The tamarind glaze included chile de arbol, garlic, light brown sugar and soy sauce. Browning and then baking the legs gave the skin a bit of crispness, and basting with the glaze 25 and 40 minutes into baking helped the sweet sour flavor of the tamarind seep into the flesh of the chicken.
It came out moist and piquant. This despite the fact that I have no idea what the degrees Celsius on my oven mean in Fahrenheit.