Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Luigi's Italian Cuisine

Recently returned from Italy, I've been rather leery of visiting any of the local Italian-American eateries. However, one restaurant in particular kept coming up in conversation from a variety of folks: Luigi's in Denbigh. It had been over three years since the last review, and my curiosity was piqued.
Dave and I strolled in to the open, domed dining room. An enormous live Christmas tree sparkled in the center, and all around tables buzzed with the chatter of families and couples. The hostess took us to a somewhat quieter corner table and left us to peruse the menu.

A smiling black-clad waitress came to the table for our drink orders. Dave chose a bottle of the Sterling Reserve Pinot Noir ($23.99). While pouring the wine, she reviewed the night's specials-- I went with the scallops and shrimp. Dave, after much consideration, elected for a veal-eggplant dish. The entrees come with your choice of pastas, and the waitress gave us her recommendation for the most suitable pairings.

She whisked the menus away, made the rounds at a few other tables, then returned with a piping hot basket of garlic knots and rolls. Dave pulled a roll, while I dived on past into the bottom of the basket. The little doughy balls were drenched with garlic, butter, more garlic and more butter. Each one was a short, sweet bite of pure buttery bliss. When the waitress cruised back by to refill our glasses, she warned against over-indulgence: "Too many people eat these, then can't eat their meals! Be careful." We heeded her advice with some degree of difficulty.

Both entrees came with house salads. I opted for a simple oil-and-vinegar dressing, while Dave went with a chunky blue cheese. They were fresh enough, although I once again encountered the dreaded refrigerated-tomato syndrome.

Our meals arrived just as we finished up with the greens.

Dave's vitello con melanzane ($17.99) was a massive plate topped high with breaded cutlets of veal and eggplant. Baked in a mild marinara, topped with mozzarella and served with a helping of spaghetti, this wasn't for the meek of appetite. The veal was perfectly tender, as was the eggplant. Both pieces were a little heavily breaded, so when stacked and baked, the crumb crust became a little too dominant.

My shrimp and scallops arrabiata-style ($21.99) came with the suggested linguini. A plentiful, pleasantly spicy tomato sauce coated fat shrimp and halved scallops, making for a lively, filling dish.

Our waitress returned to pack up the remnants, and offered dessert or coffee. "Can you make a REAL macchiato?" I asked hopefully. She'd been to Italy, too, and understood the distinction.
She returned in about ten minutes with our boxes and two steaming cups. Served in small portions, two shots of a perfectly pulled espresso were stained with a dash of hot cream. Dave and I sipped, paused, laughed, then sipped again. It tasted just like Italy.
Of course, I can't resist the thought of pizza, so ordered a Neopolitan-style ($8.50) to go.
This thin crust pizza was topped with my choice of onions, mushrooms and anchovies. While the amount of mozzarella was rather heavier than I anticipated, the flavor was well-balanced. Salty rich anchovy melded in gently with the rest of the pie. This ain't no Domino's, and trust me- that's a good thing.

I'm new to the world of Luigi's, but certainly see why they've won so many fans. The staff was very personable and friendly-- I saw chef making the rounds to each table, wait-staff hugging regulars and warmly greeting newbies. The food is solid and appealing, and most interestingly, not bound by the menu: "if there is something you would like, and don't see it on the menu, please ask and we will try our best to make it for you!" It sounds like somebody is having fun back in the kitchen!

Luigi's Italian Cuisine
15400 Warwick Boulevard, Denbigh
Phone: 887-0005
Specialties: Italian
Price range: appetizers: $5.50-$6.99; soups & salads: $3.50-$6.99; pizza: $7.50-$12.00; entrees: $7.99-$21.99; dessert: $1.50-$5
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday: 11a.m.-10p.m.; Friday: 11 a.m.-midnight; Saturday: 4 p.m- midnight; Sunday: 4-10 p.m.
Alcohol: beer, wine, mixed drinks
Smoking: no
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards
Noise level: conversational to noisy
Atmosphere: casual, family-friendly
Additional Information: open for lunch, lunch buffet, daily specials, carryout, catering
Star rating: food 4, atmosphere 3 1/2, service 4
(out of five stars)

from The Daily Press


Baked Ziti

It has been a season of rich, luscious celebratory foods-- timpanos, roasted suckling pig and peposo (a peppery Italian beef stew) have all made their way through the kitchen and onto my table in the past few weeks. It's been fun, but as in all things excessive, it's time to tamp it down a bit. Who has a schedule that allows the luxury of an entire day devoted to cooking?

That said, I still want something reminiscent of those full-on flavors, just a little lighter on the work-load. With that in mind, there's one dish that fulfills my requirements: a classic baked ziti.

This large casserole is essentially short tube pasta that's been mixed with sauce and cheese, then briefly baked. Variations abound, but I fell sway several years ago to a particular recipe from Fine Cooking magazine. After some tinkering, my husband and I feel that our version is pretty close to ziti perfection.

While he cooks the sausage with onions and garlic, I'm shredding copious amounts of pecorino cheese. I dice some tomatoes and hand them over: he plunks them down in the concentrated essence of red wine. There's just enough time left to slice the mozzarella and drain the pasta. All are gently mixed together, poured into a casserole, layered with more cheese, then placed into a fairly hot oven.

In about 15 minutes, you get the first real scent of sauce and cheese. A few minutes later, a distinctively garlicky, meaty aroma begins to fill the air. Five more minutes will see you peeking into the oven, where the casserole is lively and bubbling away. Let it go a bit longer, allowing some of the cheese-coated pasta to darken and turn crusty and crisp. While the casserole cools, those crunchy little nibs make for a very satisfactory chef's reward.

Notes: This makes for a pretty substantial meal, so I usually cook half right away, then wrap and freeze the rest for another night. Also, don't limit yourself to just the ingredients here. I've found that any manner of sauteed veggies work very well-- try mushrooms, zucchini or even eggplant. Additionally, you'll notice that the pasta pictured is actually penne: the bias cut affords more surface area to turn delightfully crunchy.

Baked Ziti with Tomato, Mozzarella & Sausage

olive oil
1 large onion, cut into small dice
4-5 cloves minced garlic
1 pound hot Italian sausage, casing removed, and crumbled
freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup dry red wine
34-ounce can whole plum tomatoes, with their juice
2 large tomatoes, roughly chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano, or about 2 teaspoons dried
1/2-1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1 pound ziti (I use penne)
1 pound mozzarella, preferably fresh, cut into small cubes

Heat oven to 425-degrees, and bring a large pot of water to boil.
In a very large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and crumbled sausage, and saute until the sausage begins to brown. Season with salt and pepper.
If the sausage gives off a lot of fat, pour most off, but be sure to keep a bit for the flavour.
Add the red wine and let it boil until mostly gone. Add tomatoes, with juices, and cook, uncovered, at a lively simmer until sauce thickens slightly. Add oregano and red pepper as this cooks down.
In a large mixing bowl, mix together ricotta, about half or so the grated pecorino, the nutmeg and parsley. Season with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain well and toss it with the ricotta mixture until well-coated. Add the sausage and sauce, and mix again. Add the mozzarella and toss gently.
Pour everything into the baking dish, and sprinkle the remaining pecorino on top.
Bake uncovered until golden and bubbling- I like to let some bits become magnificently darkened and crunchy. This will take maybe 20-30 minutes.
Let sit for at least 5 minutes before serving.
Serves 4-6.
recipe adapted from Fine Cooking magazine.

from The Daily Press


My recent trip to Italy has left me craving all things Italian, from black squid ink pasta, to wild boar ragu, to one euro glasses of outrageously good wine. While I don't have easy access to these things, I'm still able to comfort my palate with fresh pasta, Bolognese sauces and the like. A recent cold snap saw me settling my sight upon a hearty soup that I experienced in Florence: ribollita.

"Ree-bow-lee-tah" is peasant food at its best. Born out of hard times, this soup could last for days, getting better all the while: the name literally means "re-boiled". Bits and scraps of leftovers were added to the cooking pot, where the flavors gently merged and ripened over the days. It usually begins life as a plain vegetable soup, or minestrone. The leftovers would be poured over toasted bread at the next meal. Day three saw the actual re-boiling of the soup and any leftover bread. Suddenly, there was a fantastically thick, porridge-like soup that had finally achieved maximum flavor! The recipes vary from person-to-person, but common ingredients include cannellini beans, cabbage or kale and assorted vegetables.

While I'd love to spend several days coddling and cooking a soup, most of my waking hours are spent away from home. When a friend invited my husband and I over for an Italian dinner featuring a classical ribollita, I knew it was time to try out a quick version-- would it compare to the original?

The recipe comes from Giada de Laurentiis' Everyday Italian series. While keeping many ingredients similar to the original, there are little touches such as pancetta, herbs and a Parmesan rind* to pump up the taste. It was extremely easy to make, and just as it finished a half-hour simmer, we packed it up and headed over to our friends.

Side by side, these two little bowls couldn't have looked more different. The original version looked just like what I'd tasted overseas, color-flecked, and thick like porridge. It tasted good, but fell a little flat in comparison to memory, even with the traditional drizzle of olive oil on top.
Giada's take didn't call for any mashing or pureeing, so it was thick with whole vegetables, beans and greens. Yet as different as it looked, the flavor was rich and intense, all the more joyous for the way it melded into a slice of crusty toasted bread. It would seem that all those little shortcuts really added up to a surprisingly tasty soup. Since it's not actually re-boiled, I hesitate to call it a ribollita, but it is indeed a fine homage to hearty Tuscan peasant food.


1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus some for drizzling on bread
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
4 ounces pancetta, chopped
2 garlic cloves, 1 minced and 1 whole
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 (15 ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 lb frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 (15 ounce) can cannellini beans, drained
1 tablespoon herbes de provence (I only used one teaspoon, and found it just right)
3 cups chicken stock (I used a roasted chicken stock)
1 bay leaf
1 piece parmesan cheese, rind 3 inches *
4-6 ciabatta rolls, halved lengthwise (or any old bread)
grated parmesan cheese, for serving

Heat the oil in a heavy large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, pancetta, minced garlic, salt, and pepper.
Cook until the onion is golden brown and the pancetta is crisp, about 7 minutes.
Add tomato paste and stir until dissolved.
Add tomatoes and stir, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release all the brown bits.
Add the spinach, beans, herbs, stock, bay leaf, and Parmesan rind.
Bring the soup to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Drizzle the ciabatta halves with olive oil. Toast until golden brown, about 5 minutes.
Remove from the oven and rub the top of the toasts with the whole garlic clove.
Place the toasts in the serving bowls and ladle the soup over the toasts.
Sprinkle with Parmesan and serve immediately.

from Giada de Laurentiis' Everyday Italian, Episode EI0802

Shelley's notes: I used fresh, chopped Swiss chard in place of the frozen spinach. If doing so, please be sure to wash it out thoroughly, as this is notoriously sandy stuff! Of course, almost any green will work: kale and cabbage would do just fine here. When I make this again, I'll remove half the soup and puree it, adding it back in just in time for the boil. Again, please be cautious about the amount of herbes de provence. While she recommends a whole tablespoon, I found a teaspoon to be just enough, without overpowering the other ingredients.

*I was very please to see Giada make use of one of my favorite cooking secrets! When I get to the end of a wedge of Parmesan or Pecorino, I seal up the rind tightly and keep it in the freezer. It adds a wonderful depth to any manner of soups and stews.

from the Daily Press

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Battery Park Grill

I don't get out of town much, so I'm always thankful when a reader points me in the direction of a favorite restaurant. A few months ago, I received word of Battery Park Grill, located in Smithfield's business district. Since my husband, Dave, and I were in town checking out The Bon Vivant Market, we took our dinner plans just across the street.

Walking in beneath the festive holiday lights, we really didn't know what to expect-- "lighter fare" and "fresh seafood" were a few of the words I'd heard bandied about. Dave opened the door to a brightly lit dining room, decorated with suspended window and door frames: each of these peered into a different painted view, to nice effect. A smiling waitress hurried past, saying that we could help ourselves to a table: she'd be with us in a moment.

Settling into the back of the wood-dominant room, Dave had a bottle of wine picked out by the time the waitress returned. She disappeared through a painted saloon-style swinging door, returning almost as quickly.

I was thrilled to see that not only did the waitress have a proper wine key, she knew how to use it, too. Sadly, the wine was corked. After an apology and a few words on the benefits of screw-caps, she suggested another bottle. The Banrock Station Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon ($17) made for a nice, slightly more inexpensive option.

We'd placed our food order, so I took the opportunity to find the bathroom. Passing through that swinging door was an experience in itself! The light level lowered dramatically, and I was in a bustling, smoky bar. On the far side of the room was a very cute little dining area, slightly brighter than the rest of the room. Before I could have a closer look, one of the patrons almost walked into me. "Girl, ya need to smile, now!", he said, peering into my startled face. I smiled, murmuring something about 'just looking for the restroom', and continued on through.

The final area was a spacious billiards room. There were only two playing, so it was quiet, a little darker and a lot less smoky. The restrooms were off a small hall, where a loveseat nestled into a plethora of reading materials. However, there was no wait, and the bathroom was nice and clean.

By the time I got back to my seat, appetizers had arrived. That night's special were scallops'n'bacon (75 cents each/min. four), still piping hot. The scallops were fresh and perfectly cooked, the bacon making a fine foil for the rich meat. Dave had two, and he doesn't even particularly care for scallops!

I ordered a house salad ($2.25 with entree) with oil & vinegar. It was nice and crisp, although the cut tomatoes suffered the all-too common restaurant refrigeration-syndrome (chilling a tomato renders it flavorless). With a little green in my system, I was ready for the next round of seafood.

We both ordered the seafood combo ($15.50), a plate filled with your choice of three seafoods and two sides.

I ordered the scallops-- not quite as good without the bacon, but fresh and tasty nonetheless. I'd almost requested fried shrimp, but the waitress exhorted me to try blackened: "they don't come under a crust of spices, we use a special blackening pan". Indeed, they were different than any other 'blackened' food I've had, but didn't really resonate. A dip into a spicy cocktail sauce helped immensely. I tried the fried catfish, and lo, it was the pinnacle moment of the meal. The fillet was light, fluffy and perfectly surrounded by a golden crust.

Dave had ordered the fried flounder, which was good, but not quite as nice as the catfish. His fried oysters were rather oily, but the fried crab cake was excellent. Lots and lots of sweet crab meat were packed into a substantial cake, then fried until the crust held just enough satisfying crunch.

We sampled a fair amount of fried food, but our sides made us feel somewhat better. Sugar snap peas were bright green and sweet, while the applesauce was slightly tart and pleasingly chunky; the coleslaw was on the lighter side, but not my favorite of the trio. Dave threw caution out the window with his choice of mashed potatoes, and I was glad he did so. These were the perfect skin-on mash, with a nice balance of rich, creamy smoothness and comfort.

After all that food, there was no way that dessert was happening. But after seeing a round of sweets get delivered to the table behind us, I had to order a piece of the bread pudding with rich bourbon sauce ($3.50) to take home. Much to my dismay, it was dropped in the gravel parking lot on the way out, too top-heavy to ride the tottering tower of take-out boxes. Personally, I'm taking this as a sign to pay a return visit and rectify that mistake as soon as possible.

Battery Park Grill
201 Battery Park Road, Smithfield
Phone: 357-1747
Specialties: Seafood, lighter fare
Price range: appetizers, $3-$12.95; soups and salads, $2.50-$10.25; sides, $1.25-$2.25; sandwiches, $6.25-9.50; entrees, $8.50-$17.95; dessert, $2.95-$3.95
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 3-11 p.m.; Friday, 3 p.m.-1 a.m.; Saturday, 3 p.m.- 12 a.m.; Sunday: 12 -10 p.m.
Alcohol: yes
Smoking: there are separate smoking and non-smoking areas
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards, checks if they know you
Noise level: conversational to noisy
Atmosphere: informal, casual, relaxed
Additional Information: nightly specials, happy hour (weeknights) 5-7, “Live Bartender Nightly”
Star rating: food 3 1/2, atmosphere 3 1/2, service 4
(out of five stars)

from The Daily Press

Taco Mexicali

I first noticed Taco Mexicali as I was finishing the NY Deli review-- it's housed in their old location. I hurried over, grabbed a menu from the bustling dining area, and swore to make a return trip.

The focus of the menu is short and sweet, consisting mostly of wrapped Mexican-style goods. The line-up is familiar, and allows your choice of the following "Mexicali" meats: al pastor (red chili pork), barbacoa (beef barbecue), carne asade (grilled steak), carnitas (barbecue pork), chile Colorado (pork tips in red sauce), chile verde (pork tips in green sauce), chorizo (Mexican sausage) and pollo asado (grilled chicken).

The restaurant is laid out 'pick-up' style. Place your order at the register and grab your drinks. You can opt to watch your meal being prepared behind the sneeze-guard, or wait for it to be delivered to your table.

After ordering, we stuck around long enough to watch my husband Dave's margarita($5.95) being prepared. The cook, who had been slapping down thick tortillas onto the grill, was summoned to the counter by the cashier. There was much impassioned murmuring and gesturing, but the margarita was soon shaken into a plastic cup. I was handed my Modelo beer ($2.00), so we wandered to our seats in the back of the colorful tiled dining area.

After a few minutes of watching Hispanic television (on the ceiling-mounted flat screen television) the cashier came around the corner with our plates.

Dave had ordered four types of tacos. Tacos carne asado ($2.25) were beefy grilled strips of steak that greatly benefited from the addition of some vibrantly green sauce and spicy salsa from the self-serve condiment bar. Tacos chorizo ($2.25) were spicy, pungent, greasy and utterly gorgeous: these were easily the best. The original taco Mexicali taco ($1.40) came in soft or hard shell versions, both using the original ground beef. The soft shell was good, but bested by the fresh corn flavor of the hard shell.

I'd had thoughts of burritos or gorditas, but was tempted astray at seeing tortas-- Mexican sandwiches. My choice of the torta cubana ($4.95) was not at all what I expected!
The menu said that this pork loin sausage was served on 'freshly baked Mexican bread"; it came with lettuce, tomato, onion, avocado and jalapeno (I asked them to hold the mayo). The latter half of the explanation was correct, while the former seemed to have been lost somewhere in translation. The meat was a fire-grilled slice of pork that tasted and looked similar to a square-shaped bologna. It came along with what looked and tasted like a good hot dog, similarly cooked. Not bad at all, but certainly not what I had anticipated.

All in all, the food was flavorful, fresh, and amazingly fast. The employees, from cook to cashier, were very friendly, and seemed to take pride in what they were serving. It would seem that quality IS a matter of choice.

from The Daily Press

Taco Mexicali
6572 Richmond Road, Williamsburg
Phone: 220-3116 Fax: 220-3117
Specialties: Mexican
Price range: From $1.40 for a taco to $6.95 for fajitas to $8.50 for arrachera
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. seven days a week
Alcohol: yes
Smoking: no
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards
Noise level: conversational to noisy
Atmosphere: relaxed
Star rating: food 3 1/2, atmosphere 3, service 3 1/2
(out of five stars)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Cannellini Beans riffin' on the Game-Bird Style

based upon the recipe Fagioli Borlotti all'Uccelletto by Marcella Hazan in "Marcella Says..."

For the beans:
2 cups canned cannellini beans
fine sea salt
To finish the dish:
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
5 or more whole fresh sage leaves, cut into fine shreds
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup good-quality chicken stock (I use roasted)
2 Tablespoons Bolognese sauce
Parmesan rind
freshly ground black pepper
sea salt

Drain the beans, whether you have used dried, fresh or canned.
Pour the olive oil into a large saucepan, add the garlic and sage, and turn the heat to medium. Cook, stirring from time to time, until the garlic becomes colored a light nut-brown.
Add the drained beans to the pan, mixing in well.
Add the white wine, chicken stock and Parmesan rind: turn heat to high and bring to boil, then lower heat to a simmer.
Add the Bolognese sauce and salt and pepper: taste and correct seasoning.
Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally. (I let this cook over lowest heat, with the lid on, for quite some time.)
Serve with pan juices.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Rauchonni Hunter Stew

Rauchonni Hunter Stew, aka Pepo

1.5 pound beef stew meat
1.5-2 pounds pork shank (can use butt)
1 lb cubed veal stew meat
2 large cans whole peeled tomatoes (28 ounces each)
4 stalks celery small dice
2-3 carrots small dice
1 whole onion, small dice
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 small bay leaves
sea salt
2 Tablespoons roughly cracked peppercorns
2 cups dry red wine

Brown beef in olive oil+butter (2+2) over high heat, then remove.
Continue with remaining meats.
Add mirepoix to about 3 tablespoons of grease; soften vegetables.
Pour in wine; add 2 cans of tomatoes, roughly chopped with the juices.
Add meat back in; add peppercorns, salt and bay leaves.
Liquid should cover all of the meat, if not add additional wine or water.
Cook, covered, in oven 350 for 4 hours, stirring about once an hour.
Brought up to stovetop, cook uncovered at a slow simmer for 45 minutes until liquid reduced.

Cranberry Beans with Garic, Sage & Tomatoes- final!

Cranberry Beans with Garlic, Sage & Tomatoes
pictured on the left

based upon the recipe Fagioli Borlotti all'Uccelletto by Marcella Hazan in "Marcella Says..."

For the beans:
1 1/2- 2 pounds unshelled fresh cranberry beans, OR 1 cup dried cranberry beans, OR 1 cup dried or 2 cups canned cannellini beans
fine sea salt

To prepare the beans
If you are using fresh: shell, discarding the pods, then rinse the beans under cold running water.
If you are using dried: put the beans in a bowl, cover amply with lukewarm water, add 2-3 pinches of salt and let them soak overnight, or no less than 6 hours. Drain.

Put the reconstituted dried beans or shelled fresh beans in a saucepan and pour in enough water to cover by 1 1/2-2 inches. Add salt, cover the pan and turn heat to low. Bring the water to a gentle simmer. Continue to simmer gently but constantly for 45 minutes-1 hour, until the beans are fully tender.

{Beans may be prepared up to this point a day or two in advance. Once cooked, transfer to a storage container with all of the cooking water. Cover tightly and refrigerate until you are ready to proceed.)

To finish the dish:
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
5 or more whole fresh sage leaves, or 1 Tablespoon dried leaves, cut into fine shreds
28 ounces canned whole peeled tomatoes, roughly chopped, with juices
freshly ground black pepper
sea salt

Drain the beans, whether you have used dried, fresh or canned.
Pour the olive oil into a large saucepan, add the garlic and sage, and turn the heat to medium. Cook, stirring from time to time, until the garlic becomes colored a light nut-brown.
Immediately a
dd the tomatoes and their juices to the pan, turning to medium-high, until it reaches a lively simmer. Season with salt and pepper, and let cook until slightly thickened.
Add the drained beans to the pan, mixing in well. Taste and correct seasoning, lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve with pan juices.

FINAL VERSION: As written, this is a vegan preparation, and if I do this in the future, it would definitely benefit from a day or two to ripen the flavours.
As it was, I needed to serve them the next day, so made the following additions:
-roughly puree bean mixture in food processor and place in small Dutch oven (this may be done stove-top, however, I didn't have the room).
Add 1/2 cup red wine and 1/2 cup roasted chicken stock; cover and place in a 350-degre oven for 20-30 minutes, stirring after the first ten.
When warmed and bubbling, remove to stove-top, uncover, and set on a burner over medium-low. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired, and simmer until slightly thickened.
To gild the lily, top with crisped bits of pancetta or prosciutto.

Sunday, December 03, 2006


Fueled by reminiscence, perhaps,
or a swallow of that spiked egg nog? The reason doesn't really matter. Let's get straight to the heart of the matter: holiday cookie madness has taken hold!

It comes in fits and starts. A platter of cookies mysteriously shows up in the office lunch room. A neighbor pops by with a plate full of warm delights, fresh from the oven. Even the mail carrier seems in on the gig, dropping off cookie-laden packages from far-flung relatives. At this time of year, thoughts of sweets and sugar-dusted treats tempt even non-bakers into donning aprons and firing up ovens. Hooray, holiday cookie madness is here!

Of course, you know the usual suspects-- frosted cut-outs, chocolate chips, snickerdoodles. Why not liven up the cookie tray a bit with that coffee shop favorite biscotti? They may look fussy and chic, but don't let that elegant exterior fool you. These twice-baked cookies are outrageously easy to make.

Like many people, I believed that biscotti were the quintessential Tuscan treat. Indeed, that's where the definitive, almond-laced biscotti di Prato originated, but they've been around since ancient times. Sailors, soldiers and other travelers carried the hardy, long-lasting biscuits on journeys; they were a staple in the diet of Roman legions.

That's enough history for today, its time to get down to basics! Biscotti can be lumped into two categories. The classic biscotti don't contain butter or oil, relying on eggs to bind the ingredients together. This produces a very crisp, hard cookie that is best enjoyed dunked into coffee or Vin Santo. The second type contain some kind of fat, resulting in a softer, more cookie-like texture. They also have a much shorter shelf-life, and are best eaten within a few days of baking.

Whichever type you choose to make, the process is quite easy. The sticky dough is divided in half, formed into two 'logs' and baked for almost half an hour. Pull and cool for a few minutes, then grab your serrated knife.
Cut the logs crosswise, with just the hint of a slant, into 1/2-3/4 inch thick slices. Keep in mind that thinner slices will produce the crispest biscotti.

Now for the twice-baked bit.
Lower the oven temperature and cook for a little longer. Some recipes call for the slices to be placed cut-side down, baked for ten minutes, then flipped for ten more. I say, keep it simple! Set them standing up, leaving just enough room for air to circulate, and cook until golden and crisp.

You should have just enough time left to brew up a nice cuppa to enjoy with your new favorite holiday tradition.

s'kat's notes: The variety of biscotti are endless as the imagination. Classical examples tend to include anise, almonds and hazelnuts; current versions range from chocolate-orange to chai, and everywhere in between.

While perfect plain for dunking, they take well to gussying up– drizzle or dip in chocolate for some added panache. And when the recipients exclaim over a ribbon-wrapped cluster of biscotti, don't be afraid to say, "Really, it was no trouble at all."

biscotti (bee-SKAWT-tee) – In Italian, biscotti means, "twice cooked." The word biscotto is derived from bis (twice) and cotto (cooked). Biscotti is also the generic term for cookies in Italian. The dough is formed into logs and baked until golden brown. The logs are then sliced, and the individual biscotti are baked again to give them their characteristic dryness. The shelf life of biscotti are three to four months without preservatives or additives. Other countries have their version of this cookie - Dutch rusk, French biscotte, and the German zwieback

Additionally: to ask for a single biscotti, while widely accepted, is incorrect. The singular is 'biscotto'.

Chocolate -Hazelnut Biscotti

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon amaretto
3/4 cup hazelnuts, skin on
½ cup mini chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350F.
In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, cocoa, sugar and baking powder. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, yolks and Amaretto. Add the wet ingredients to dry and stir just until the dough comes together, about 1 minute. Add the hazelnuts and chocolate chips and mix just until incorporated.
Roll the dough into 3 logs about 10x2 inches and place on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, until light golden brown, and remove from the oven.
As soon as they are cool enough to handle, cut the logs on a slight diagonal into pieces 1/3-inch thick and arrange cut side down on the sheets. Lower the heat to 275F., return the pieces to the oven, and bake 20 minutes longer, until crisp and dry. Allow to cool.

makes 30
from Simple Italian Food, by Mario Batali

Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti

1/4 cup light olive oil
3/4 cup white sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
2 eggs
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ cup dried cranberries
1 1/2 cups pistachio nuts

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
In a large bowl, mix together oil and sugar until well blended. Mix in the vanilla and almond extracts, then beat in the eggs. Combine flour, salt, and baking powder; gradually stir into egg mixture. Mix in cranberries and nuts by hand.
Divide dough in half. Form two logs (12x2 inches) on a cookie sheet that has been lined with parchment paper. Dough may be sticky; wet hands with cool water to handle dough more easily. Bake for 35 minutes in the preheated oven, or until logs are light brown. Remove from oven, and set aside to cool for 10 minutes. Reduce oven heat to 275 degrees F.
Cut logs on diagonal into 3/4 inch thick slices. Lay on sides on parchment covered cookie sheet. Bake approximately 8 to 10 minutes, or until dry; cool.

from Meyer

Enjoy a couple more biscotti recipes:
Christmas-Flavoured Biscotti (Chocolate-Coconut Biscotti)Susan Betz's Triple-Orange Pecan Biscotti

Retro's Good Eats

While looking for someplace to escape the bustle of busy shoppers on Williamsburg's Prince George Street, I found my eye arrested by vivid aqua blue signage. "Retro's Good Eats", it read, touting hot dogs, fresh cut fries and milkshakes. My husband had no complaints as we fled inside under a flapping black-and-white awning.

The dining area is very cute, with aqua blue tables and a massive chalkboard covering the wall on the right. It also advertised their shakes and custards, along with the hand-written litany of the day's specials. A girl at the far counter greeted us, patiently waiting for us to come to a decision.

Finally, Dave did and placed his order. I was torn between a couple of items, one of them being the chicken salad. After describing it to me, she offered me a sample, returning from the kitchen station with a small portion and a tasting spoon. Thankfully, it was just what I had in mind. We paid up and waited for her to pull our lagers ($3.00), specially created for Retro's by local brewer St. George's. She only made it halfway through the first cup before realizing the keg was tapped out. With an apology, she handed us the cup, and said if we'd like to take a seat, somebody would bring two more to our table.

What I hadn't realized upon walking in was the secondary dining area to the left of the counter. This slightly smaller room was filled with black and white photographs of local history-- some included copies of old newsprint and records, as well. By the time we'd circled the room, our food and beverages were out of the kitchen, and being placed on our table.

Retro's menu boasts "best hot dogs in town!", so Dave ordered a couple to see what all the fuss was about. One had blue cheese slaw and chili ($3.00), the second came with cheddar cheese, onions and spicy mustard ($2.65). Both were something new to us: a 100% Black Angus beef dog.

The toppings were prodigious, and definitely tasty. The blue cheese slaw was fairly tangy, and made for a nice contrast against the meaty chili; the other trio of toppings were flavorful, if a bit overzealously splashed with mustard.

The anomaly were the dogs themselves. Extremely mild in flavor, with a soft texture, I thought at first they'd been boiled. I scraped away a portion of the toppings, revealing a few dark scores. Had they been boiled, then finished on the grill? Whatever the case, they were missing that certain snap that makes a good dog really great.

I began with a cup of the vegan 3-bean chili ($3.75), a pleasantly mild blend of beans, corn and sauce. While it didn't taste much like chili to this carnivore, it was tasty and warming, even better re-heated in subsequent days.

My main course was the chicken salad sandwich ($XXX). Meaty chunks were interspersed with celery and grapes, all in a very light, mild mayo, and served on a split hot dog roll. I ended up eating it sans bun, as the two didn't seem to mix quite right.

Dave and I split the renowned fresh-cut French fries ($3.00). They were long, in varying shades of golden, dark and light brown. I tasted one, still warm, and was slightly disappointed. They were softer than I'd anticipated: no crunchy exterior, and a slightly raw-tasting interior. Had these been baked in a fresh batch of oil that was still too cool, or was this the norm? Even so, Dave and I managed to nibble our way through half a batch, which goes to show that even slightly limp fries can still hold some appeal.

The dining room was beginning to fill up, but I managed to slip in front of the cashier just ahead of the crowd. I ordered some of Randy-from-New-Orleans' red beans & rice (4.25) to take home, then impulsively got a hand-churned chocolate shake ($3.75). I'd had the best intention to also save that for the next day, but that was a laughable (if noble) idea. I cracked into it before we left the parking lot, and was rewarded with a silky, rich shake that tasted just like my childhood. Dave and I passed it back-and-forth, finally stuffing it in the back seat, away from tempting sight. I can't remember the last time I tasted a shake this good.

The beans and rice made it safely home, and re-heated nicely the next afternoon. It was a mild, laid-back version that benefited greatly from the addition of a shake of hot sauce. I'd also chosen the option of ordering it with the 'andeolu' sausage, something I'd never come across. Whatever its origin, the sausage was extremely mild, and didn't add a lot of zing to the dish.

Retro's is an interesting little restaurant, comfortably nestled into its home in Williamsburg. Its proximity to students and shoppers alike give it a built-in customer base. The menu is small and focused, and most people could find something enjoyable-- even the vegans, which is a pleasant surprise. With its friendly staff and earnest food, its a fun place that should blossom nicely in future years.

Smokin' Joe's

It was a bright, if chilly, post-Thanksgiving afternoon when my husband, Dave, and I made our way across the James River Bridge into Smithfield. We came in search of ’que: bar-b-que, that is.
Map in hand, Dave drove right on past the inauspicious little building.

“If I hadn’t known, I would’ve thought it was closed!” he said, quickly pulling a U-turn.

We hovered outside the front door for a moment, checking out the handwritten chalkboard menu. So many choices! We each tried to narrow it down, then went inside.

Once again, handwritten chalkboards surrounded us, with even more choices! Appetizers, sandwiches, salads, it was quite a bit to take in. As we spun about like menu-skimming tops, a young man strode up to the front counter with a welcoming word and broad smile.

We begged off for a few minutes more...“There’s so much to choose from!” He laughed in agreement, and lingered by the front, offering useful advice as Dave and I negotiated our way through the menu.

Finally, we came to a decision, placed our order, and paid up. Josh, as we discovered was his name, quickly got our drinks and told us we could take a seat wherever we liked.

The dining area ambled over to the left, the floor a classic black-and-white checkerboard that led the way to two small rooms. The first was open and flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows, while the second was enclosed, decorated with old-school metal signs. TVs were stationed in the corner of each room, ready to be turned and tuned by staff. We kicked back with some beverages and chatted about the ambiance. It looked like the kind of place people had depended faithfully upon since the ‘60s. Just as I got up to examine a framed article, Josh was out with our orders.

Dave ordered the ribs, wings and rings ($9.29), a large plate heaped high with a plethora of steaming baby back ribs, plump wings and a crisp mound of onion rings. He went to pick up a rib, and the bone slid cleanly out. Always a good sign. Descending upon the first naked riblet still dangling from his fingers, I heard a pleasurable utterance issue forth.

All the meats here come sans sauce so that you can dress the meat as desired. There were at least half a dozen choices, so he began squirting and sampling with abandon. They were all quite good, but he finally settled upon the smokin’ bbq sauce.

As he worried away at the bones, I plucked up a wing, and took a bite. An intense juice exploded in my mouth: a quick dab with my napkin barely preventing the chicken-tinged liquid from escaping. They’d been fried to achieve an ultra-crispy skin, although I didn’t pick up very much smoky flavor. Nonetheless, these were some of the best wings I’ve tasted, even sans smoke and sauce.

I finally drifted back toward my own plate. The Smithfield burger ($6.49) was a thick round topped with sliced ham, sautéed onions, provolone cheese and honey mustard. It was heavy to pick up, difficult to wrap my mouth around, and without a doubt, utterly worth the effort to get it in there. The toppings were the proper mix of sweet, savory and rich. Downside was the patty itself, which was cooked rather well. If I’d requested it cooked medium-rare (they didn’t ask), it would have been comfortably close to burger perfection.

Finally, it was time to check out the sides. Mine was the homemade coleslaw, bursting forth from a small ramekin. It was green, very lightly creamy and fresh tasting. My personal preference for slaw runs to the very light and tart, but I could certainly see why folks would like this. Dave had the collard greens, another of the many homemade items. Judging by the amount of pork dispersed between the leaves, I was pretty sure they’d been cooked down just right, and they were. A little splash of the vinegary Carolina-style sauce was the perfect finishing touch.

Last, but not least, the rings from Dave’s dish were nicely breaded and perfectly crisp, though they suffered from that all too common affliction— one bite completely removing the onion from the shell.

Unable to eat any more, I picked up a pound of the pulled pork barbecue ($8.50) to take home. It reheated very well, still retaining a fair amount of moisture, along with a very clean porcine flavor. The hickory was subtle, but definitely present: a mingling of their hot barbecue sauce and some of our own homemade sauce made for the perfect, quick weeknight meal. It wasn’t long before we succumbed to that sweet, succulent post-que satisfaction.

I’m sure that you’ve come across a Smokin’ Joe’s, be it in York County, Hampton, Toano or the original location in Kilmarnock. This ain’t no national chain, baby, these are local folk who’ve been doing it right since 1998. If the couple that I’ve visited recently are any indication, it would seem that the next generation may be poised to take over. That would be a mighty spot of alright, y’all.

Check out the full-sized images from Smokin' Joe's here

Smokin' Joe's
1400 North Church Street, Smithfield
Phone: 356-1227
Specialties: barbecue, smoked meats
Price range: Appetizers: $2.99-$9.25; Soups & Salads: $2.50-$6.99; Sides: $1.25-$5.50; Sandwiches & Wraps: $5.49-$6.49; Smoked Meats (sandwiches/platters): $3.50-$18.49; a variety of menu items are also available by the pound, ranging from $3.50 to $15.99 per pound
Hours: 11 a.m. –8 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sundays
Alcohol: no
Smoking: no
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, major credit cards, checks
Noise level: conversational
Atmosphere: casual
Additional Information: low carb menu, kids’ menu, bottled signature sauces, catering
Star rating: food 4, atmosphere 2 1/2, service 4
(out of five stars)