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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

SURVIVAL TACTICS

Summer in the city sucks. Too much asphalt and too few trees make warm days uncomfortable and hot days positively hellish. That’s until you descend into the subway and discover what Hell really feels like. There's nothing to make a body wilt like a blast of that heavy, overheated subway air. And as much as I love to romanticize New York’s gritty character, I can do without the intensified smells of the summertime—the rotting garbage heaped at the curb, the urine scenting an alley, the sweaty guy on the train whose armpit is two inches from my face.

Sadly, unless you’re a certain species of New Yorker that I will never be (the species that migrates to the Hamptons for the season), there is little in the way of escape. Swimming pools accessible to people like myself tend to be overchlorinated “Y” affairs that are more slimy than refreshing. Packed beaches are anything but relaxing. Most of us can’t even cool off in a kiddie pool or with a run through the sprinkler (no yards).

So we sit in our too-small apartments, bask in the frigid blast of our window-unit air conditioners, tell ourselves that a grill pan is as good as a Weber, and fantasize about the suburban lifestyle many of us rejected. But not for long. Because with the perfect cocktail in hand, summer—even in the city—rocks.

Our Limoncello Lush is a super-refreshing treat featuring Limoncello, a sweetened, lemon-infused vodka, and Prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine. The mint is subtle, more of a supporting player than a star.



LIMONCELLO LUSH

1 shot vodka
5 mint leaves, plus a sprig for garnish
1 shot Limoncello
Juice of 1 lemon
Prosecco

Muddle vodka with mint leaves in a cocktail shaker. Add Limoncello, lemon juice, and ice to shaker and shake well. Strain over ice into an old-fashioned glass. Top with Prosecco and garnish with a mint sprig.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

LOVE AND ANCHOVIES

What would I do without Brian? He rubs my feet whenever I ask and doesn’t mind when I sign him up for early-morning golf lessons. He happily takes long treks across the city with me (provided he gets a meal or at least a frosty beer at the end) and tackles big piles of dirty dishes with gusto. And there’s this: it’s not easy finding a special someone who shares your enthusiasm for anchovies.

We eat the fishy kind from a jar and the wimpier ones that come in a tin. We eat boquerones—Spanish marinated anchovies—and sardines, too, even though they’re not really anchovies. We eat them draped over salads, dissolved in spaghetti sauce, tucked into sandwiches. And yes, sometimes we even eat them on pizza.

That we don’t recoil at the very mention of anchovies makes us two of an apparently rare breed. Even friends who happily slurp oysters and possess insatiable appetites for sushi draw the line at these salty little fish. Is it their disconcertingly leech-like appearance? Is it their taste? Possibly—but I don’t think so. After all, how can you dislike a flavor you’ve never experienced? Yes, I suspect most anchovy-avoiders wrinkle their noses without ever having tried the little fishies. If you really don’t like anchovies, fine. However, if you just assume you don’t like them—but haven’t actually tasted them—please give anchovies a chance.

This sandwich—a takeoff on the classic Italian treat Mozzarella in Carrozza—is a terrific showcase for anchovies. Their salty, fishy flavor stands out, but is tempered somewhat by the creamy mozzarella cheese. The red pepper flakes add a lively jolt of heat. Traditionally, Mozzarella in Carrozza is fried, but Brian and I like our panino version just as much. If you don’t own a panini press, try making it in a pan, like a grilled cheese.

MOCK MOZZARELLA IN CARROZZA

Olive oil
2 thick (about ½ inch) slices of rustic Italian bread
Fresh mozzarella
Flat anchovies from a tin
Red pepper flakes

Brush outside (the part that will touch the press) of each bread slice with olive oil. On one piece of bread, layer mozzarella (just enough to cover), 2-4 anchovies, and red pepper flakes to taste. Top with other bread slice. Cook in panini press until bread is golden and cheese is gooey.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

DON’T TRY THIS IN FRANCE

It’s so wrong. But it tastes so right. Brian and I first encountered kalimotxo—a distinctly Basque concoction of red wine and Coca-Cola—at Bar Carrera, a fabulous little tapas bar in the East Village. “We Spaniards give wine no respect,” said the grinning bartender as he poured wine, and then Coke, into a small carafe. Perhaps. But if disrespect tastes this good, who cares? I think of kalimotxo, best served over ice with a cinnamon-stick stirrer, as sangria for wine lovers. It’s a terrific summer refresher, but less sweet than its fruitier, juicier cousin. The wine’s tannins still come through, and you are treated to a spicy whiff of cinnamon with every sip. An oversized wine glass makes for perfect presentation. About cinnamon sticks: like all spices, these lose potency over time. If yours are left over from the twentieth century, dump them and buy a fresh supply!

KALIMOTXO

6 oz. chilled red wine (we used Rioja)
2 oz. chilled Coca-Cola
Cinnamon stick
Ice

Mix wine and Coke together, without ice, in a small carafe or measuring cup. Fill a glass with ice. Gently rub the cinnamon stick against the ice and around rim of the glass. Pour in wine and Coke and serve with the cinnamon stick.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

HAPPINESS IS A TASTY TACO

Sometimes, the worst restaurants have the best dishes. Case in point: my local Tex-Mex joint, which I will not name, but could be a bad Tex-Mex restaurant anywhere. You know the place: nasty, cloying margaritas; stale chips with bland salsa; indistinguishable entrees served with gobs of sour cream, chewy rice, and beans smothered in cheddar-jack cheese. The perfect formula to attract hordes of barely legal kids who—let’s face it—aren’t there for the quality of the food. Did I mention that every frozen drink comes with a large rubber souvenir lizard?

So why is it that Brian and I eat here at least once a month, despite having a cityful of choices? You see, this restaurant, which does so many things wrong, does one thing right. That would be their tacos al pastor—flavorful and succulent shreds of pork in a corn tortilla with just a little red onion and cilantro. Never mind that they’re not really authentic tacos al pastor, which are typically filled with meat cut from a spit, much like Greek gyros. They just taste really good, and that keeps us coming back for more. We tried to recreate the tacos on our own last weekend, and came up with this recipe, a fair imitation:

JUICY PORK TACOS

Meat:

1 or more tablespoons vegetable oil
2 lbs. pork stew meat, cut from the shoulder
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
1 onion, quartered
6 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1½ cups chicken broth
Salt and pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a pressure cooker. Brown the pork in batches, adding more oil as necessary. Remove meat to a bowl. Add garlic, cumin, and chile powder to pot, stirring for a few seconds. Add thyme, bay leaves, onion, reserved pork, broth, 1½ teaspoons salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Cook at high pressure for twenty minutes, relieving pressure with the natural release method. The meat should be falling-apart tender. With a slotted spoon, remove meat to a bowl and shred a bit with a fork. If it seems dry, mix in a little of the cooking liquid. Taste, adding salt if necessary.

Taco assembly:

Pork
Warm corn tortillas
Chopped red onion
Chopped cilantro
Limes

Fold about a quarter cup of pork in each tortilla. Sprinkle meat with red onion, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime juice. Yum!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

TAPAS FOR TWO

Brian and I can pass many happy hours in the kitchen, cooking, drinking wine, and listening to The Restaurant Guys podcast. Sometimes, though, we want a special meal but don’t have a whole lot of extra hours. That’s when we turn to garlic shrimp—or, more alluringly, gambas al ajillo—to save the evening. This dish of garlic, fruity olive oil, and succulent shrimp is satisfying beyond its uncomplicated ingredients, and it’s quick enough to whip up on a weeknight. But despite its simplicity, gambas al ajillo is quite rich, and I tend to think of it as a Saturday night pleasure. Served with a green salad, good crusty bread—the bread is imperative—and a crisp Spanish white, it anchors a meal that begs to be lingered over and savored, not scarfed down in front of Law & Order.

The olive oil is a big player here, and must be a flavorful, good-quality extra-virgin. I’m a student of the more-garlic-is-better school and use up to ten cloves. Adjust downward to your liking. If I’m feeling lazy, I slice it; otherwise, I mince. (It’s not that there’s anything improper about sliced garlic, I just prefer the look and texture of the minced.) A touch of smoked Spanish paprika adds depth and a wonderful smoky nuance to the shrimp. A word about the whole dried chiles: do not break these, as subtle warmth—not searing heat—is the desired effect. And the idea is not to fry the shrimp, but to cook them gently in the olive oil. The shrimp juices will mingle with the oil and create a luscious sauce. And that’s where the bread comes in, the perfect sponge to soak up the garlicky, oily goodness.



GAMBAS AL AJILLO

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
5-10 cloves minced garlic
3 whole dried hot chiles (or a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes)
1 pound peeled and deveined shrimp
¼ teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the garlic and cook until soft and fragrant. Add the shrimp, chiles, and smoked paprika and cook just until the shrimp is pink and cooked through. Season to taste with salt and stir in the chopped parsley.