recipe: a variation on vignarola

The last few months have brought many changes, not least among them my return to Brooklyn. Setting up shop in my old apartment means many things: a gas stove (thank god), extra space to entertain and proximity to my beloved Park Slope Food Coop. While I managed to maintain my membership throughout my two year residency in Manhattan, it was less than pleasurable to be so far removed from what has become one of my favorite parts of living in NYC.

The timing could not be more perfect, because spring at the Coop is a spectacular parade of delights. From fava beans to fiddleheads, gourmet chicories to garlic scapes, all of my favorite green ingredients literally burst forth from the shelves. There is also the chance to discover new friends, including the ugly-but-intriguing celtuce.

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For those who are unfamiliar, celtuce is most often spotted on asian menus, perhaps in some form of stir fry. Even in New York, I had only crossed it once, but given my affection for celeriac, I couldn't resist grabbing a couple of these knobby-roots-having-a-bad-hair-day. 

Trim off the rough exterior, and the texture is akin to a crisp, tender broccoli stem. The flavor is subtle, a mix of lettuce, celery and a touch of hazelnut. Sauteed or braised, it holds its crispness nicely, gaining a translucence that actually looks rather elegant.

Of course, as is the case with most odd veg, there aren't many celtuce recipes on the internet. But the few article that do exist suggest either raw or stir-fry preparations, and I thought I would attempt something akin to pan-fried. As it so happened, I had also spent the previous evening shelling fava beans, and the limited recipe searches on that end yielded an intriguing option: vignarola.

Traditionally, a braise of artichokes, peas and fava beans with crispy bits of pancetta, vignarola is quintessential Roman spring at its finest. The problem being, of course, that the mise en place for both fresh artichokes and favas is a massive labor of love, and all the moreso when a recipe requires both. Since I'm less patient than the average nonna, I decided celtuce would make a solid understudy for finicky artichokes.

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Flavor wise, it was certainly a gamble, but the structural integrity of the celtuce held up beautifully against the favas and peas. With no pancetta at hand, I started the recipe with a frozen puck of schmaltz (or improvised schmaltz really - just the drippings from a recently roasted chicken). After sauteeing down the celtuce therein, I deglazed the pan with white wine, added in the favas, peas and some white pepper, and braised them, slowly, over low heat for about an hour. The wine I chose was not particularly acidic, so I added a bit of sherry vinegar to round things out. Then I added some umami by grating in a block of mystery cheese somewhere on the manchego-to-parmesan spectrum, because why not. And what do you know...it was really fantastic. It was beautifully green—pale olive, in fact—and captured all the things I love about Italian home cooking. With a little salt, a little fat and some intuition, whatever mishmash is in your pantry can truly turn into a masterpiece.

celtuce, fava and pea vignarola

Note: As with all my cooking, this recipe was largely improvised. I truly believe that's the best way to cook, so my instructions will rely more on sensory guidelines than on definitive measurements.

Ingredients:

  • two heads of celtuce
  • 3 tbsp of schmaltz / chicken drippings
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic
  • 1.5 cups of whatever white wine you have on hand
  • two cups of shelled fresh favas
  • one cup of frozen peas
  • 2 inches, square, of a salty / umami-forward cheese
  • sherry vinegar, to taste
  • salt, to taste
  • white pepper, to taste

Instructions:

  1. Trim the rough outer skin of the celtuce stem, much as you would for celeriac or broccoli. The interior is rather tender, so be careful not to remove too much of the flesh. Slice the remaining stem into thin, 1-inch long rectangles.
  2. Heat up the chicken drippings in a pan and add the celtuce slices. Season with salt and sauté for 5-7 minutes on medium heat, until the slices become more translucent. About halfway through, add thinly sliced garlic.
  3. Reduce the heat and add white wine to the pan. Add your shelled favas and peas as well, with a bit more salt and freshly cracked white pepper. Add just enough water to make the mixture the consistency of a rustic stew (rather than a soup). Cover and stir periodically, simmering over low heat for at least 40 minutes.
  4. As the flavors start to come together, taste and adjust the seasoning with sherry vinegar. Once the acidity is to your liking, grate in your cheese and stir. Continue to simmer the dish for another ten minutes, then taste again to assess the adjustment of flavors. 
  5. At this point, if you're satisfied with the dish, toast some crusty bread. Ladle the vignarola into bowls and enjoy, possibly with a glass of the remaining white wine leftover from your cooking.

 

supper club: springtime italian

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

After spicing things up in February with a Mexican supper club, March seemed a time for returning to the familiar. For me, that means Italian food and, in this case, an opportunity to put an innovative spin on the flavors of my youth.

For this back-to-basics occasion, it seemed fitting to invite the "family", a rambunctious group of New York friends who have grown closer than most blood relatives. Silly, selfless and as indiscreet as they come, I knew we were in for a delicious and rowdy evening.

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First came the friselles, little pepper biscuits that have become one of my signature dishes. I often give these savory, crumbly cookies as housewarming gifts, so they seemed the perfect greeting for my guests.

bruschetta combo

Next came crostini, sesame toasts layered with homemade ricotta and oven dried tomatoes. The tomatoes, simple as they come, were instant hits, which guests used to garnish everything from salad to savory dishes.

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Then came a simple escarole salad, dressed with garlic, oil and anchovy dressing. My favorite briny fish served double duty, tying the salad to my grandmother's signature pasta dish: linguine with anchovy, walnuts and parsley.

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After pasta came the main course, Sicilian meatballs (ground pork with pine nuts, parsley and currants) baked over a bed of radicchio. Alongside it, I served spicy broccoli rabe with bread crumbs and thinly sliced, roasted-going-on-blackened winter white vegetables (cauliflower, celery root, fennel).

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Relaxing on the couch before dessert.

Relaxing on the couch before dessert.

Then came dessert, a blood orange olive oil cake topped with blood orange/honey compote and home-whipped cream. It was the perfect, bittersweet end to this especially nostalgic supper club.

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A last round of drinks, and it was nearly midnight. That didn't stop the stragglers however, who challenged me to highly competitive game of Connect-4, the most intense (I'm sure) that my local dive bar has ever seen.

Thanks again to all who made this such a special night. You truly all are family to me, and I look forward to hosting you again and again.

eater's digest: al di là

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

One of the great misconceptions that people often have is that I've eaten at all the restaurants in my neighborhood. The truth is, if I'm near home, I'm usually cooking. Moreover, something nearby is no more likely of an edible destination than others, as I've never been shy about traveling far and wide for the perfect bite.

That said, moving to South Brooklyn has opened the flood gates to an entirely new world of local eats. Though I still spend a hefty chunk of my paycheck on groceries at the Coop, the unique culture of small business in this borough has inspired me to spend more time outside my kitchen. And so it was that on a recent weekend I arrived at Al Di Là.

Soup of the day.

Soup of the day.

Now, eating Italian food in restaurants is a tricky thing. Raised on la cucina della nonna, I typically opt to explore more obscure cuisines on my restaurant outings. To boot, if I'm dining with the discriminating palates of my parents and sister, the bar for a "pasta joint" is set pretty high. But as I've eaten in more and more of the excellent Italian establishments in NYC, I've come to appreciate the perfection of truly al dente pasta or the difference between everyday minestrone and a masterpiece.

In this ever-crowded genre of restaurant fare, Al Di Là inches ahead with grace and little fanfare. The dining room is a quirky spin on bistro chic, with a red/maroon and gold aesthetic that repeats in the wall paper, curtains and painted-to-look-vintage tin ceiling.  The dishes echo this unassuming - yet distinctive - charm, with slight details that consistently offer something more than expected.

Spaghetti carbonara.

Spaghetti carbonara.

A mild mandolined salad of white winter vegetables was refreshing, elegant and crisp. The soup of the day contained everything but the kitchen sink, and yet achieved a refined balance - in particular, the contrast of bright, just-wilted greens with the slow-built flavors of meat stock. The pastas, too, were an upgrade on the classics. The carbonara tasted distinctly grown-up, with pronounced, lingering notes of white wine and far-superior-to-your-average bacon. An indescribably delicious cavatelli with cauliflower ragu had me bartering "a-bite-for-a-bite" so often that I surely ate half of my sister's plate.

Cavatelli with cauliflower ragu.

Cavatelli with cauliflower ragu.

These are the meals that inspire me as a cook. The dishes that remind me that ingredients, timing and the tiniest dash of creativity are the difference between great and phenomenal. The days where we laugh ourselves silly, sopping up every last bit of sauce with our bread. The ones where we walk out of the restaurant not stuffed, but satisfied - knowing we've truly shared a meal.

Al Di Là
248 5th Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11215
718.783.4565