A Brief Reinvention

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As chefs, we often become comfortable in our styles. We know how to push the limits within said style, however, we may not always be willing to step out on a ledge and try something drastically different.

I would define my style as simple and respectful. I appreciate the beauty of a raw apple or the aroma of rubbed tarragon picked right from the garden. I buy or grow the finest ingredients I could get my hands on because I love and respect what I serve. Although I am classically Italian trained, my cooking beliefs have transformed over the years into something completely different. Into something that I consider to be true and honest.

So why am I saying this? Why am I talking about how I cook and what my culinary norm is? Because I had the pleasure of being challenged a short while ago to execute a dinner of extreme elegance. I was asked to give a Michelin dining experience to small group. The wheels started turning immediately and I began to work on a menu.

I am a very classic cook when it comes to technique. Along with my purist mentality on ingredients, I also cherish and prefer simple cooking methods. A good sear on a protein, hardwood grilling, braising, open fire slow roasting, these are some of my favorite techniques. While they are beautiful- they were not enough to pull off this type of dinner.

Now, I knew how to execute every item on the menu deliciously, but it wasn’t the best it could be. I began to dissect each dish, piece by piece, bite by bite. I wanted to take both myself and my diners on a culinary adventure to somewhere neither of us have been, but to do that, I had to learn a few new tricks.

I dug through my library of cookbooks and endless amounts of cooking sites and I began to pull inspiration from them. I looked at different ways to make purees, compose sauces and cook vegetables. I discovered a great deal of things that I never thought of before. It was so simple and I felt like I was 20 again learning about classic French cooking techniques for the first time.

The biggest thing for me was working with sous vide cooking for more than just proteins. I was already cooking several items sous vide… mostly pork bellies, briskets, short ribs, other tough cuts of meat that I want to cook at a controlled temperature and maximize yields. But the more I started to dive into the possibilities, the more I was excited to take on this new style of cooking. So, what was the menu I ended up serving?

As the dinner was in early September, I wanted to create a menu that brought my diners from the end of summer into early autumn. I focused on bringing a different experience in both flavor and texture to each course so the meal would stay exciting. I started in my garden, as produce is the greatest expression of the seasons, tasting and picking vegetables to see what I wanted to use. Once I had that guideline, I chose my proteins. This may not be the traditional way most chefs write their menus, as many look at the protein and build the flavors around it.

Peaches and nectarines were in their prime- two of my favorite fruits. I immediately built the amuse and first course with those. Then, I stated to look at mushrooms. A farmer I know told me he had some beautiful chanterelles;  course two identified. After that, I chose sunchokes, sunflower seeds and black garlic for the third course. A great follow up to the mushrooms and a good preface for the fourth course. I felt at this point the diners would be ready to start tasting fall, so I brought in the root vegetables. This was a great progression from where the dinner started.

Finally, I created the last course with pears. Nothing says fall to me like pears, and I had some beauties growing that were ready to pick. So now that I had my flavor profiles, it was time to build my menu!

AmuseRich, sweet and zesty. A good start to ignite the palate for courses to come.
Foie Gras, Peach Mostarda, Fennel Puree

First Course Chilled, refreshing and lightly spicy. Brighten the mouth for a rich following course.
Hawaiian White Tuna, Compressed Nectarine, Cucumber, Icicle Radish, Micro Basil, Fresno Chili Oil

Second CourseEarthy, gelatinous, and full bodied. Overload the palate with richness as the mid-course.
Suckling Pig, Carrot Puree, Buckwheat Corzetti, Suckling Pig Jus, Chantarelle Mushrooms

Third CourseSmokey, sweet and acidic. A bright recovery from the pork and a bridge to the steak.
Pheasant, Smoked Sunchoke, Heirloom Tomatoes, Sunflower Seed, Black Garlic, Mache

Fourth CourseTangy, earthy and creamy. A full balanced entrée with the textures and experiences to complete the savory part of the meal.
Dry Aged Rib Eye, Celery Root Puree, Beets, Brussels Sprouts, Parsnips, Pommes Anna, Rosemary Jus

Fifth CourseRich, salty and lightly spiced. A subtle ending to a variety of experiences.
Poached Pear, Mascarpone Semi Freddo, Marcona Almond Shortbread, California Cinnamon

The meal was a success! My team and I dug deep into our culinary repertoire and took every step to give pure elegance. We peeled the tomatoes, strained the sauces through coffee filters, hand-picked every leaf, and did every other obsessive step to give the best we could.

This really was a fantastic experience for me as it reminded me of how much more beauty there is in the culinary world. As I always say, if you put your whole heart into cooking and take your time, you can truly create something beautiful and memorable.

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Giardiniera: Spicing it up… Chicago Style

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One of my absolute favorite things to make is Giardiniera.

I am constantly pickling, or preserving food in vinegar, all year long.  It is my way of hanging on to the best food throughout the seasons and having them available for a longer period of time.  

In spring I pickle carrots, in summer, sweet bell peppers and a variety of mushrooms and other produce throughout the rest of the year.

Every culture has a version of pickling.  Korean cuisine has kim chi, Mexican has escabeche and German—senfgurken.

It all started from the need to extend the consumable life of food.  What was once a necessity to survive has now become a culinary treasure.  The flavors and textures of pickled foods both accent and elevate today’s culinary art.

But in Chicago, we have one thing that stands above the rest.  One delicious component that when added to grilled sausage sandwiches, Italian beef, and even pizza brings out the hometown flavor that makes Chicago so unique.

I’m talking about Hot Giardiniera.  

Giardiniera is a mouth-watering combination of chilies, vegetables, vinegar and oil.  It can be made mild or spicy and is extremely versatile.  This is something I have been eating my entire life and would be hard pressed if I didn’t have it in my pantry.  There are a lot of great options in the market to buy, but I can never buy one that gives me the flavors, textures and satisfaction I get when I make it myself.

I now make gallons of hot giardiniera every few months.

My giardiniera is a two day process to prepare and is all about fresh, quality ingredients.  The standard vegetable blend is jalapenos, carrots, celery, and cauliflower, which I love.  Over the years I have altered my blend to add a few more layers of flavor that make it unique and even more delicious.  First things first, let’s start with the vegetables.  

  • 1 Green Bell Pepper
  • 2 Red Bell Peppers
  • 8 Fresh Serrano Chilies
  • 1 Celery Stalk
  • 1 Medium Carrot
  • 1 Small Yellow Onion
  • 2/4 cup Cauliflower Florets
  • 1 Bulb Fresh Fennel

I cut all of the vegetables into an even sized ¼ inch dice and mix well.  After I have my vegetable mix, I season them.  I do this by adding ¼ cup of kosher salt and enough cold water to just cover the vegetables.  I stir to mix them well and then place them into the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, after the vegetables have absorbed the salt, I drain and rinse them in cold water.  This is a very important step to assure that the vegetables are well seasoned, but not too salty.  Now it is time to make the brine which will pickle the vegetables and develop the true giardiniera flavor.  

Here is what I use:

  • 2 Cloves of Garlic
  • 1 ¼ Tbsp Dried Oregano
  • 2 Tsp Crushed Red Pepper
  • ½ Tsp Black Pepper
  • ¾ Cup Pimento Stuffed Olives
  • 1 ¼ Cup White Vinegar
  • 1 ¼ Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

I finely chop the garlic and olive and put them in a stainless steel bowl.  I add the spices, vinegar and oil and whisk to make sure it is well mixed. Then, I put the vegetables in a glass container.  I pour the vinegar and spice mixture over the top vegetables and stir well to make sure it is evenly mixed.  The liquid should barely cover the vegetables.

Now there are two options to let my giardiniera blossom.  The easiest method is to place the glass container with a lid into the refrigerator.  In 4-5 days, it is ready to eat.  The other way is to preserve the giardiniera by canning it.  But that is a conversation for another day.  For now, give this a try and enjoy your taste of Chicago!

The Feast of the Seven Fishes

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Christmas Eve Dinner. My favorite meal of the year.

Like any good Catholic Italian-American family, we celebrated The Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Every year, my family would gather in my Uncle’s basement for a giant seafood dinner.  My Nana would make her homemade fettucine with Baccalà Sauce– we would feast on fish salad, mussels, shrimp and so on. The kids who didn’t eat fish would enjoy homemade focaccia and buttered noodles.  

We ate all night.  We drank all night.

While there was no shortage of wine, meat was something we NEVER had on Christmas Eve.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a longtime Italian Christmas Eve tradition.  It started with the Roman Catholic belief of abstaining from meat from Christmas Eve until the grand feast on Christmas day.  The symbolism that goes into this meal is something worth knowing.  

Not all people do seven.  Some do eight, twelve, or in my family’s case, thirteen!  But where do these numbers come from?

There are many different thoughts on why the number seven is so popular for this.  Some say it is because “On the seventh day God rested,” others say it aligns with the number seven in the bible, which is the most repeated number throughout the book.  Because so many family traditions have developed throughout the years, there is no clear or absolute reason why the number is seven.

Like I said, my family does thirteen, one for each Apostle and one for Jesus.  

The meal can be a combination of any types of fish you like.  The most traditional are octopus, shrimp, clams, anchovies and Baccalà.  A great Zuppa di Pesce can satisfy most of the requirements by having calamari, shrimp, fish, mussels and clams in it.  Other classics are baked clams or a chilled octopus salad.  The key is to have one to represent each of the seven different fishes, but not every dish needs to be seafood.

Much like any tradition, it is what you make of it.  

We’ve made a variety of side dishes including creamy polenta topped with a mushroom ragu, vegetable arancini, eggplant parmigiana, and roasted Brussels sprouts.  (A good Caesar or Greek salad counts too because there are usually anchovies in the dressing)

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an incredible tradition for bringing families together. Opening clams, boiling octopus, and cutting calamari with family always guarantees a memorable experience.

Some of my favorite holiday memories were made during The Feast of the Seven Fishes, partially because it’s not every day an eel will escape your grip and chase you and your cousins around the kitchen.

Whatever your family’s traditions may be– no matter what you believe– I would definitely recommend adding a hearty fish stew or clam pasta to your Christmas Eve dinner!   

Who knows, you may end up starting your own tradition.

Buon Natale!

The Purpose and Function of Pasta

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I grew up in a large Italian family.  Needless to say, pasta was a staple in our home.  It was a guarantee that every Sunday we would sit down to a pasta dinner and often one other day in the week too.  It was a meal that brought our family and friends to one table where we ate together, talked with one another, and built our relationships.

Pasta was basically a member of our family.

But, like most Americans, I never really understood the purpose of the pasta.  I was all about the sauce.  As far as I was concerned, the pasta was nothing more than a vessel to serve the neck bone gravy on.  It was this perfectly doughy, slightly chewy part of our dinners that we all looked forward too.  As I grew, it all changed.

I took my first trip to Italy at the age of 14.  I tasted and experienced foods out there I would never forget.  One of the things that stood out the most was the pasta.  The flavor and texture of every bite of pasta was different than anything I had ever experienced back home.  But I couldn’t explain it and I was far from understanding it.  One thing was for sure, I was obsessed.

As my culinary career started to grow, so did my understanding of ingredients.  I trained under some really amazing chefs who believed that every ingredient had a purpose on the dish.  I adopted those beliefs… especially for pasta.  I quickly began to read everything I could get my hands on about the history of pasta, the regions and the different shapes.

I began to develop my own understanding of the purpose and function of pasta.  The quality of the noodle, the way it should be cooked, and most importantly, how the sauce supports it.  Yes, I said how the sauce supports the noodle.  Weird, right?  It was to me when I had this breakthrough, but to people all over Italy, this is the only way to think.

Each shape of pasta is designed to be paired with a different type of sauce.  

  • Long, Thin Noodles

Spaghetti, linguine, and capellini are considered long and thin noodles.  These noodles are best accompanied by lighter oil based or delicate seafood sauced like vongole or aglio olio.

  • Long, Wide Noodles

Pappardelle, malfaldine, fettuccine, bucatini and tagliatelle are long and wide noodles.  The width of the noodles gives them more surface area to stand up to richer, meatier sauces such as a neck bone gravy or beef ragu.

  • Hollow Shapes

Penne, rigatoni, conchiglie, and paccheri are shorter, hollow shapes.  These shapes were designed to allow for heavier ingredients to be scooped and grabbed by their openings.  Ground meat sauces like Bolognese, or hearty meat and vegetable sauces are perfect for these.  Their thicker texture also makes them perfect for baking with cheese.

  • Twists

Caserecci, strozzapreti, gemelli and fusilli trofie are short, delicate twisted noodles.  The small curves allow the noodles to grab lighter, smooth sauces such as a pesto sauce or butter sauce.  They do not work well with larger chunks of ingredients, but julienned vegetables or other accompaniments cut similarly to the noodle pair nicely.

  • Tiny Noodles

Ditalini, pastina, stelline and acini di pepe are too small to eat with a fork.  Unlike the other noodles, these were made to be added to a broth.  These are traditionally added to soups like Italian wedding soup and pastina in brodo.

  • Filled Pastas

Ravioli, tortellini, sacchetti and agnolotti are merely a few of the endless amount of stuffed pasta shapes.  Since their fillings are the main flavor of the dish, gently wrapped in pasta dough, they are best served with a smooth sauce or a light butter sauce.       

Now you might be asking, what about gnocchi or cavatelli?  Those are technically dumplings.  They fit into a different category and we will visit that in the near future.

The next important thing is the quality of the noodle.  I used to think you could buy any box of pasta and it would be fine.  Then I started to see some very expensive pastas in the store, almost triple the price of the ones I used to buy, and decided to try those.  They weren’t necessarily better.  The price has nothing to do with the value and quality.

While good pasta is slightly more expensive than a standard one, the difference will not be significant.  I always try to buy pasta that have been cut with bronze dies.  It will say right on the package.  The bronze die helps give a certain texture to the noodle that factory produced pasta can’t provide.  Mass produced noodles have a smooth texture that won’t allow as much sauce to stick to them.

The other factor I look for is if the pasta was produced in Italy.  I know this may sound a little cliché, however, the durum wheat and water in Italy are both completely different than what we can get here.  The pastas from Italy tend to have a wonderfully light chew and the wheat in the gives a completely different flavor and the pasta absorbs the sauce better.  This allows for a light coating and glossy finish on your pasta dish.

Since you can’t open and taste the pastas at the grocery stores, this may take a little trial and error.  But after a few tries, you are sure to find a pasta that fits what you love.  Once you do, I can guarantee you won’t buy any other kind.

Buon Appetito!

Rice to Meet You

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Rice to Meet You

Rice. Every culture has its own take on it.

In Asia, it is fried, in India it’s curried, pilaf style in France, and made for paella in Spain. But in Italy, rice is something different.

Risotto is one of those little gifts from the heavens that really separates Italian rice from all other cultures. Utilizing the natural starches of the rice, a creamy risotto can serve as either a hearty meal, or a delicate accompaniment. Finding the risotto that suits your taste depends a lot on what kind of rice you choose.

So let’s meet our rice!

There are over 2000 different varieties of rice throughout the world. Fifteen of these can be used to make risotto. The varieties vary from soft to firm, long grain to small and are graded accordingly. Risotto grading goes as follows:

Superfino – Largest grain
Fino – Medium grain
Semifino – Small grain
Commune – Smallest grain (Little pearls)

Basically, the larger the grain, the lighter and less sticky the risotto will be. This is because of the separate starches within each grain. Each piece of rice contains two parts, the outer starch, which dissolves in the cooking process and gives risotto the creamy texture it is so famous for, and the inner starch, which, when cooked properly, is al dente and allows each grain to stand out among the others. The larger the grain, the larger the inner starch is and the better texture your risotto will have. Both professional chefs and home cooks have narrowed the variety of rice down to four main choices.

The most commonly used risotto rice named after it’s place of origin, Arborio in the Po Valley. Cultivated in the Lombardy and Piedmont regions of Italy this large grain rice is classic for Risotto Milanese.

From the same region as Arborio rice comes Carnaroli, the king of risotto rice. The grain of this superfino rice is slightly larger and can therefore retain more liquid while still holding shape. Acquerello brand is a favorite among top chefs throughout the world.

Vialone Nano comes from the Veneto region of Italy. It is classified as semifino due to the smaller, thicker size. This medium grain rice allows the risotto dish to be smoother and creamier, with less separation of the grains.

Baldo rice is considered the daughter of Arborio rice. Because of the small size of the rice, it is much stickier and creamier than the previous three and therefore is graded as semifino. That being said, it has a much shorter cooking time and is very common in salads, soups and deserts as well.

The standard ratio of cooking liquid to rice in a risotto is 1:3. This means for every one cup of rice, you would add three cups of liquid. However, this tends to vary based on the type of rice used and the consistency desired. Classic risotto dishes use water, a stock of some sort, or just wine. The cooking liquid can be anything you desire, so feel free to get adventurous with it.

Making risotto can be a terrifying task to try to overcome. Have no fear though, because with a little concentration, and a little more wine, one can easily create a fantastic meal.

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