Making Pasta Less Ordinary (aka “The Importance of Sourcing Unique Market Ingredients” Post)

Memo: Pasta at home, from a box, does not have to suck. And it certainly doesn’t require being drenched in generic sauce from a jar. Promise.

Erin’s Easy Pasta Less Ordinary
Serves 1

1/8th box vermicelli pasta, or whatever you have on hand (I used De Cecco brand)
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 small tomato, diced
1/3 zucchini, chopped
fresh lemon juice
E.V.O.O.
fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 exceptional ingredient*

*Here’s your first tip: All it takes is one exceptional ingredient — in this case, I used this jar of Tonnino tuna fillets packed in olive oil that I found at my local health store — to make a quick pasta meal just a touch special.

Capers (optional)
Parmesan cheese, shavings (optional)

1.) While the pasta cooks, saute the garlic over medium heat for a minute or two; add the tomato and zucchini. Cook until mixture is warm throughout but not mush.

2.) Drain the pasta and place into a bowl. Top with the saute mixture.

3.) Drizzle dish with fresh lemon juice and premium E.V.O.O. (I’m currently working my way through a small bottle of Arbequina E.V.O.O. from Agata & Valentina)

4.) Add tuna fillets (break up in advance), chopped parsley. Repeat drizzle of E.V.O.O. and lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.

5.) Gently toss to mix pasta and ingredients.

6.) sprinkle dish with capers*, Parmesan slices.

*Here’s your second tip: Capers — those lovely, briny, green berries — are pasta’s best friend, esp. if the pasta is “nude” like this one (e.g. without sauce).

They will add a certain complexity to the dish, as well as the element of delicious surprise. A $3 jar will last for months. They make bagels extra-special, too. Basically, there is no excuse to not have capers on hand.

Tag … you’re it!

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Tuesday: Simple Italian with a Touch of Ferrari Red (aka the “Trattoria Cinque Discovery Post”)

When I come across a solid restaurant concept, I like to sometimes pretend that I know enough about the business that can dissect why it works.

rustic bread, fresh ricotta, E.V.O.O., black pepper
rustic bread, fresh ricotta, E.V.O.O., black pepper

I was up for the challenge at Trattoria Cinque on Tuesday. This newish neighborhood spot in Tribeca is a good find — crowd-pleasing trattoria-style Italian run by Italians in a venue that could just as easily be the spot for a low-key, midweek meal with a friend (or three) as for a birthday dinner production for 20.

As far as I can ascertain, here’s why it works:

photo-21Start with stylish, but unpretentious, decor: From the street, you want to walk inside.

Stunning (original) exposed brickwork, vaulted ceilings, brown leather banquets, industrial matte black lamps, backlit bottles of lemoncello, chairs and other accents painted official Ferrari red paint — I was told the design is intended to channel the Ferrari factory, circa 1950s, and it works. It’s fun without being gimmicky.

Keep the concept simple: “Cinque” is Italian for “five” and, appropriately, the menu has five beginnings, five pizzas, five big plates, five pastas, five endings.

On top of that, the entire menu receives a makeover about five times a year, to account for seasonality, popularity and whatever else. Plenty of room for the kitchen to engage with the crowd and evolve responsively.

Make it accessible: The most expensive thing on the menu at the moment is a $25 ribeye steak that’s aged for weeks in a meat locker on site. That’s cheap, especially for this neighborhood, but my favorites of the evening (I didn’t try the steak) were priced well below that.

photo-17The first thing I’ll be back for are Trattoria Cinque’s thin, oblong pizzas ($11-$12) like the pizza con gorgonzola e pere, a delicate, ultra-thin crust pie that is finished with white truffle oil and fresh ground pepper. It’s cooked perfectly and evenly throughout, and somehow, that thin crust holds itself together long enough for you to get it in your mouth.

photo-19Also: A fantastic Caesar salad ($10) that is only deserving of such a production:

Each one ordered is prepared from scratch at a tavola, or a large, wooden table placed prominently and dramatically in the main dining room. It’s dining meets spectacle, old world style.

And before I come back for the brasato di Manzo — braised beef short ribs with white polenta ($20), the hearty meat and potatoes dish I ordered on Tuesday — I’d dig into the list of pastas, all of which are made in-house. Entrée portions of pasta dishes run $14-$18, like most of the menu.

Eventually, we got around to desserts … but by then a bottle of grappa and a bottle of limoncello had showed up on the table. It was time to relax.

TIP: Trattoria Cinque is currently offering a “Pie, Peroni & Pigskin special” on Monday nights where $15 gets you a pie and two Peronis. And, presumably, some NFL football on the TVs in the bar area.

Want more food shots? There’s a photo of the frito misto plate — fried calamari, shrimp, artichoke hearts, and lemon slices — after the jump:

Continue reading “Tuesday: Simple Italian with a Touch of Ferrari Red (aka the “Trattoria Cinque Discovery Post”)”

Friday: Rotisserie Chicken Leftover Pasta Improv

This Murray’s rotisserie free roaming herb chicken that I bought at Fairway Market is something else: The skin is crusted with a coarse lemon pepper blend, the cavity stuffed with fragrant sage, rosemary and whole garlic cloves that imbue the whole bird with seasoned goodness. That’s a whole lot of bliss for $7.99.

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Since I had some leftover saffron pepper fettucine from Wednesday, I decided to improv:

photo-3After sauteing some sliced red onion, I added to the skillet about 1 cup of cold, leftover noodles, which actually improved in the pan, crisping up a bit on the edges.

Next, I added shredded chicken and chopped flat leaf parsley, and when everything was mostly heated, at the last minute I added two handfuls of fresh spinach leaves.

photoOnce the spinach was wilted, I turned it all out into a bowl, topped with the baked garlic cloves from inside the chicken cavity, drizzled with E.V.O.O. and a little lemon juice, salt and pepper.

And, voila, a quick, balanced, well-seasoned meal, requiring nothing more than a few leftovers in the fridge — fridge scrounging at its best.

Wednesday: A Long-Delayed Emergency … Spaghetti. (aka the “Agata & Valentina Fresh Pasta Exploratory” Post)

So this was the night. After having clipped out the recipe for “Emergency Spaghetti” from some now-forgotten magazine years ago — the recipe itself an excerpt from a cookbook called The Seducer’s Cookbook published in 1963, according to the explanatory paragraph — after having taped it into a small, journal-type notebook that I had since moved cross country and all but forgotten about, and just rediscovered, I’m finally making Emergency Spaghetti.
photo-2…Only, with fettucine. Fresh, saffron pepper fettucine that sells for $3.99/lb at Agata & Valentina in the Upper East Side, also known as only $2.83 for more pasta than two people could possibly eat in one sitting, to be exact. (Who can say no to that?)
Paging through the notebook, I realized that I had every single ingredient — garlic, E.V.O.O., fresh parsley, white wine, salt/pepper, red pepper flakes — except for the base pasta, which was the perfect excuse to finally try one of the fresh made (and cheap!) pastas that I’ve been oggling at Agata & Valentina for months now.
Really high expectations never end well, and with the case of Emergency Spaghetti, which turned out okay. Scale of 1-10: 6. I realized that I have a lot to learn about cooking fresh pasta — the fettucine cooked faster, absorbed more water and was generally much more delicate than its boxed/dried cousins.

Still, a nice, if super simple, sautee of some of the other ingredients, all turned into the the pasta, with the addition of some fresh spinach, tomato and more olive oil — it’s worth a repeat. Really simple. Just so glad to check that one off the list.

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Dinner: A Good Patio Makes Every Mediocre Meal Better

photoMy history choosing Italian restaurants: There have been moments of greatness; the rest blend together in a sea of mediocrity.

I always go in hopeful; since moving to the Upper East Side, I’ve been particularly intrigued with Caffe Buon Gusto, which has dual patios — need I say more? There is a slightly-elevated, street-facing patio and a cozy, vine-covered patio out back; really, it was only a matter of time.

The back patio lived up to expectation: Small, round, tiled tables; vines draping everywhere; candles casting a pleasant glow. I’d come back just to hang out, have an appetizer and drink some wine … if the wine list was a little more interesting.

photo-3The food? It was … fine. Which is my problem with Italian food most of the time. It’s rarely bad, but rarely great.

My spinach salad (called the Fiorentina salad) came tossed in a creamy, vaguely tangy (yogurt? sour cream?) dressing and topped with sliced mushrooms and diced pancetta, which was salty even by my standards (and I love salt). The portion was substantial; I could have probably stopped here.

But we also split an order pasta from the choose-your-pasta, choose-your-sauce menu: homemade cheese tortellini, pesto.

photo-2I am no connoisseur of Italian cuisine, but I think pesto, I think fresh herbs pounded into a pulp, mixed with good things like garlic and olive oil. Our tortellini turned up in something more like a cream sauce with some herbs blended in — let’s put it this way, if you were lactose intolerant, this would become an issue. Sigh. Let’s just say, the patio and the company saved this meal from the mediocrity abyss.

Dinner: The End of Last Week’s Food Bounty (The Adrienne’s Leftovers Post)

Digging around in the fridge I found this lonely, last little stuffed shell leftover from the feast that was Adrienne’s Pizzabar last week. And I ate it. Along with the end of the mixed salad, which was mixed with the last of the fennel.

photoIt’s funny how food carries the imprint of an emotional memory. Readying dinner, I was struck with vivid memories from the excellent meal the week before, as well as memories of other dishes made with the greens — in particular, one day last week I made my first attempt at an omelette in just about forever, and it turned out spectacularly. The olive oil that I drizzled all over the dish (and which is nearly gone, too) is remnant from my article on olive oils that I wrote in February.

For some reason, tonight, everything had a memory.