Caponata by Anthony Michael Contrino

In anticipating the need to defend myself, I'm going to start off by addressing the absurd amount of oil in this recipe.  Eggplant is one of those ingredients that acts like a sponge - you need to add enough so that it sautés properly.  When you drain the eggplant, you'll be surprised as to how much of the oil get sopped up by the paper towels.  To ensure optimal drainage, place the eggplant, in a single layer, on a plate lined with 3 layers of paper towel. 

Anyways, caponata is a Sicilian dish usually served as an appetizer or as a component of an antipasto platter.  Caponata recipes vary greatly based region and family preferences.  Some are simple, with just eggplant and celery cooked in stewed tomatoes, while others may have potatoes, octopus or even lobster in them.  This is a tweaked version of my grandma's family recipe which hails from Gratteri, a mountain town 35 miles southeast of Palermo.  It relies on the addition of capers and Sicilian olives to season the sauce.  If you like things on the salty side, you may want to add a pinch of salt.

Caponata// Makes approximately 1 quart

  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil, more as needed
  • 2 pounds eggplant, peeled, cut into 1” cubes (about 1 ½ pounds yield)
  • ¾ cup red onions, rough chopped, about ½ medium red onion
  • ½ cup celery, chopped, about 2 large stalks
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 ½ cups crushed tomatoes
  • ½ cup cracked Sicilian olives, pitted, rough chopped
  • 1 tbsp. capers in brine, drained, rough chopped
  • 1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  1. Heat ½ cup of the oil in a large stainless steel skillet, over medium high heat.
  2. Add half of the eggplant and cook, flipping often, until lightly browned, about 6 minutes. If the eggplant absorbs all the oil, add a generous drizzle more.
  3. Transfer the eggplant to a paper towel lined plate; drain well.
  4. Add another ½ cup of oil and repeat with the remaining eggplant.  
  5. When you remove the second batch of eggplant, if there is not residual oil, add a couple more tablespoons to the skillet.
  6. Add the onion and celery and sauté until they begin to caramelize, about 4 minutes.
  7. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute.
  8. Add the tomatoes, reduce the flame to low, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring often.
  9. Add the olives, capers and ½ cup water.
  10. Simmer an additional 15 minutes, stirring often.
  11. Add the eggplant and 1 cup of water.
  12. Simmer 15 minutes more, stirring often.
  13. Add the red wine vinegar and simmer for 5 minutes.
  14. Remove the caponata from the heat and cool for 30 minutes before transferring to a storage container.
  15. Refrigerate overnight; serve cold or at room temperature.

Crumb Cake by Anthony Michael Contrino

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I'm probably the only person who goes on a getaway and decides to recipe test and do a photo shoot.  In my defense, my cousins just moved into a brand new house with a gorgeous gourmet kitchen and I couldn't resist.  They've been living in Georgia for a while now, so I wanted to bake something that would remind them of New York/New Jersey.  A classic crumb cake was the obvious choice.

This crumb cake is ridiculously buttery and moist and a bit less dense than you may be accustomed to.  The crumb, in contrast, is crunchy and sweet.  This recipe comes together pretty quickly and can feed a crowd.  

Special thanks to my cousin, Joey for making me this reclaimed wood board.  You can't enjoy it too much in this picture, but I'll be sure to feature it soon!

 

FOR THE CRUMB TOPPING:

1-1/3 cup dark brown sugar

2/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

8 ounces European or European-style butter, melted 

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

FOR THE CAKE:

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for greasing

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

7 oz. unsalted European or European-style butter, softened, plus more for greasing

1-3/4 cups sugar

3 large eggs, room temperature

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

½ cup whole milk

½ cup buttermilk 

Confectioner's sugar, for serving

  1. Make the topping.  Combine the sugars and cinnamon in a large bowl.  
  2. Add the melted butter and pour into the sugar mixture; stir to combine.
  3. Add the flour and stir, until the flour is fully incorporated and the mixture begins to clump; set aside.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  
  5. Grease a 9x13 cake pan or casserole dish with the extra butter and flour.
  6. In a medium sized bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; whisk to combine.
  7. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
  8. Add the eggs, one at a time, allowing each to incorporate before adding the next.  When all three eggs have been added, add the vanilla extract and mix to incorporate.  
  9. Combine the milk and buttermilk.
  10. Add half the dry ingredients to the egg mixture and mix on low speed.  Drizzle in the milk mixture and mix until it is almost completely combined.  
  11. Add the remaining flour mixture and mix on low until all ingredients come together.  
  12. Scoop the batter into the prepared pan.  Smooth the top with a small spatula and bang on the counter to remove air bubbles.
  13. Spread the crumb topping evenly over the top of the cake batter.  
  14. Bake until a cake tester comes out clean, about 40-45 minutes.
  15. Cool before serving.
  16. Serve with a generous sprinkling of confectioners sugar.

TIP: To get a mixture of larger and smaller crumbs, squeeze a handful of the topping and then break it up over the batter.

Master A Classic: The Old Fashioned by Anthony Michael Contrino

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Everyone loves a well-crafted cocktail, but sometimes when it comes to mixing a classic (think martini, Manhattan, or, in this case, an Old Fashioned, you may not always get what you're accustomed to.  Bartenders do their best to craft a drink that is traditional, but (as with everything in the culinary world) it's not so black and white. There are choices to be made.  Sometimes it's the spirit (for an Old Fashioned: bourbon or rye whiskey), sometimes the technique (shaken or stirred).  Even the choice of serving vessel can be debated (rocks or coupe?)!  Trying to figure out the most authentic recipe can be daunting.  To add another layer of stress, it's often the simple drinks (and foods) that are the hardest to execute as the ingredients need to be combined perfectly.  

When it comes to an Old Fashioned, it's all about the balance of the sugar, bitters and spirit.  In my opinion, in order to achieve the perfect balance you have to break a rule right off the bat.  I'm ditching the sugar cube.  First of all, who has them lying around?  (Full disclosure...  I do, but because they're nice to have for food styling, but normal people?  Probably not.)  Secondly, and more importantly, it's difficult to dissolve in this cocktail.  The solution is a potent simple syrup.  

So, bourbon or rye whiskey.  Choose what you like.  Most traditionalists would use rye whiskey, which has spicy tones, to add to the balancing act of the cocktail.   Of course I have to go against the grain and prefer to use bourbon since I always have it on hand for cooking and baking. 

Lastly, when you use so few ingredients, quality matters.  Use the best bitters and bourbon (or rye whiskey) you can get your hands on.  

Old Fashioned // Makes 1 Cocktail

2 teaspoons potent simple syrup, recipe below

2 dashes bitters

2 ounces bourbon 

1 orange, for serving

  1. In rocks glass, combine the simple syrup, bitters and bourbon.  
  2. While holding the orange above the cocktail, use a vegetable peeler to remove a 2 inch length of the peel, aiming so that the oils are sprayed into the glass.
  3. Add a few large cubes of ice and stir vigorously to chill; serve immediately.

Potent Simple Syrup  // Makes about 1 3/4 cups

1/2 cup water

1 cup sugar

Pinch sea salt

  1. Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan.  
  2. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until the sugar and salt have completely dissolved; do not bring to a simmer.
  3. Remove from the heat and cool at room temperature for 30 minutes.
  4. Transfer to a pitcher and refrigerate until cool.
  5. Store in the refrigerator up to 7 days.

NOTES:  If you'd like to kick things up a notch, make the simple syrup with organic cane sugar to create a syrup with a more complex flavor profile.  Also, switch out the orange peel with blood orange peel.

Traditional Italian: Bolognese by Anthony Michael Contrino

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Nothing screams Sunday more than macaroni and gravy.  Yes, we say gravy in my family, not sauce - well, usually, but I don't need to get into that.  Anyway, while there's nothing wrong with a classic, simple gravy loaded with meatballs, sausage and braciola, I'll take a slamming bolognese over that any day.

In my opinion, making a bolognese is so much easier than making gravy and meatballs.  Aside from boiling the water for the pasta, everything is done in the same pot.  There's no need for mixing bowls and frying pans.  The only time consuming part is chopping the vegetables for the soffritto (an Italian version of mirepoix.)  If chopping vegetables isn't your thing, most supermarkets carry them already diced, but you'll pay up to four times more for the convenience.  

Some notes about the recipe:

  • I like a very hearty bolognese, so this version is loaded with the soffritto.  
  • Serve this sauce with a wide noodle such as tagliatelle or pappardelle.  
  • You shouldn't have any issues finding pancetta these days.  Freezing the pancetta will make it much easier to dice.  If you want a shortcut, Citterio sells a 4-ounce package that is already diced.
  • I like to use Cento brand tomatoes.  I like the way the flavor develops as it cooks, and I swear it needs less seasoning than other brands.

Bolognese // Serves 8 - 10

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 ounces pancetta, finely diced 

6 ounces celery, finely chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)

6 ounces carrots, peeled, finely chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)

6 ounces red onion, peeled, finely chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)

4 very large cloves garlic, sliced (or 6 medium-large cloves)

2 pounds of meatloaf mix (1 pound ground beef, 1/2 pound ground veal, 1/2 pound ground pork)

2/3 cup dry red wine

2 28-ounce cans certified whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, pureed with juice

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1 sprig fresh oregano

1 fresh bay leaf

2/3 cup whole milk

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

  1. In a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat.
  2. Add the pancetta and cook until crispy.
  3. Add the celery, carrots and red onion (soffritto) and cook, stirring often until the vegetables begin to caramelize, about 10 minutes.
  4. Add the garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes.
  5. Add the meatloaf mix.  Use the back of a wooden spoon to break up the meat and cook, stirring often, until all meat is browned, about 6-8 minutes.
  6. Add the red wine and cook until it reduces by half, a few minutes.
  7. Add the pureed tomatoes; bring to a gentle simmer.
  8. Add the herbs and simmer, stirring every 15 minutes or so, for 2 hours.
  9. Fish out the herbs, as best as you can, and add the milk and nutmeg.
  10. Return to a simmer and cook an additional 30 minutes, stirring often.  
  11. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

 

 

Small Batch: Half Sour Pickles by Anthony Michael Contrino

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Living in NYC has it's pros and cons.  One of the biggest advantages to living here is the New York deli.  Until you go to a "delicatessen" outside of the city, you really can't appreciate just how amazing a pastrami sandwich really is.  One of my favorite places to hit up is actually in New Jersey.  Harold's Deli does everything over the top and larger than life.  Sandwiches and cake slices tower over the table.  The matzo balls are softball-sized and protrude from the broth.  The turkey platter can make your Thanksgiving offering look weak.  You get the picture.  

But, my favorite part is the self-serve pickle bar.  It's straightforward and nothing fancy.  Just some bread (so you can make normal-sized sandwiches from the mountain of meat being served) and some pickled things for topping.  My go-to is the half sour pickle.  Their vibrant green color makes them stand out from the rest of the spread.  Plus, you know, they're tasty AF.

If you're not familiar with this variation, it's because you won't find them in the pickle aisle at the supermarket, but rather the refrigerated section, probably near the cole slaw.  Because they are in a salt brine and not fully "soured" with vinegar, the shelf life is shorter, but they'll last a good couple of weeks in the fridge.  Sometimes I add the slightest bit of sugar for a hint of sweetness, but if you're looking to avoid excess sugar, omit it.

Half Sour Pickles //  Makes 1 Quart Jar

2 cups distilled water, divided, cold

2 tbsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. sugar, optional

4 cloves garlic, with peel, smashed

2 large sprigs fresh dill

3 allspice pods

1/2 tsp. coriander seed

1/4 tsp. black peppercorns

1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds

1 fresh bay leaf

4 thick kirby cucumbers, tips removed, cut into quarters to make spears

  1. Place 1/2 cup of the water in a small saucepan with the salt, and sugar, if using.
  2. Cook over medium heat until the salt and sugar are fully dissolved.
  3. Pour the warm salt water into a pitcher and add the remaining cold water.
  4. Place the garlic, dill, spices and bay leaf in a sanitized quart-sized mason jar.
  5. Add the cucumber spears.
  6. Pour the brine into the mason jar, filling almost to the top, being sure to cover the cucumber completely.  There may be some leftover brine.
  7. Secure the lid onto the mason jar and refrigerate.
  8. The pickles will be ready to eat in as soon as 5 days.   They should be consumed within 2 weeks afterwards.  (The longer they stay in the brine, the more their flavor will intensify.)

 

My Secret Pesto Sauce by Anthony Michael Contrino

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Years ago when I was interning in Southern France, I was lucky enough to have a few days off.  I decided to trek to Italy.  While I could have flown there, I would have lost a whole day traveling just to get there, so I opted to take the train.  The rail system in Europe is pretty extensive and it's easy to get around, even from smaller cities.  I decided to visit the city of San Remo, which is right over the border, on the Italian Riviera.  

The train ride to San Remo was bearable, thanks to an overnight stay in Nice and a quick layover in Monte Carlo.  Upon arrival to San Remo, I dropped off my bags and headed straight to the market.  I was greeted by the most flavorful sun-dried tomatoes, fragrant olive oils and life-changing focaccia.  I sat in my room, looking out my window over-looking the Mediterranean Sea, and ate as much as I could without getting sick.

The next day I explored the city by foot, venturing into any butcher shop, gelateria, bakery or cheese shop that caught my eye.  I checked the menu of every restaurant that I passed, looking for the perfect dinner spot.  Nothing was catching my eye.  I'm not sure what sort of epiphany I was expecting, but it sure wasn't happening.  

I was about to give up and just grab some cheese and mortadella to bring back to my room when I spotted groups of people appearing from behind a bunch of trees.  I walked over and discovered a hidden stone entrance which lead to a small piazza.  There were a handful of restaurants, and nothing else.  I walked over to one and I felt drawn to eat there. 

I ordered a quattro stagioni pizza, a bowl of pasta with pesto and, for dessert, tiramisù.  The pizza was really good, but not much better than anything in NYC.  I was mildly disappointed.  Once again, I'm such a snob that my expectations can easily ruin a good thing.  

After a few minutes, the waiter returned and placed the plate of pasta in front of me.  It was the most vibrant, creamy pesto I'd ever seen.  I'm used to pesto looking more rustic - often oily with big flecks of basil.  

It was so good.  I went into an eating trance.  All I remember is running my finger around the bowl, grabbing any remaining remnants of sauce and licking my finger clean.  It was by far the best pesto I'd ever had.  But I couldn't figure out how they achieved that texture.  I asked the waiter, but he was no help.  There was definitely no cream or creamy cheese whipped in - the color was too green and the sauce was so fresh and light.

As I ate my tiramisù (which was also delicious) I vowed to recreate the sauce when I returned home.  It took a few tries and some crazy experimentation, but I was able to recreate it.  I'm not sure if I figured out their trick or if I was lucky enough to replicate the sauce with my own variation.

That being said, after years of making my secret pesto sauce, I've decided to share the recipe.  In no way is this recipe traditional, but I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.  

So what is this secret ingredient?  Artichoke hearts.  Nothing fancy, just the canned version in water.  I use this to create a creamy paste, which is the base for the sauce.  Also, I do not believe pine nuts belong in a pesto.  They are far too expensive to be pulverized, and, in my opinion, not flavorful enough to add any excitement to the sauce.  I prefer to toast some up and sprinkle them over the sauced pasta.  Finally, I use pecorino instead of parmesan.  I like how the flavor of the salty pecorino melds with the garlic and basil.  It also seasons the sauce enough that additional salt is not necessary.

My Secret Pesto Sauce // Makes approximately 1 cup

3 artichoke hearts, canned, in water, see note 

2 medium cloves garlic, peeled

1/4 cup, plus 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

1/4 cup, plus 1 tablespoon grated pecorino cheese

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 ounces fresh basil leaves, cleaned and allowed to dry completely, about 2 cups, packed

  1. Place the artichoke hearts, garlic, 1/4 cup and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, cheese and pepper into the work bowl of a mini food processor.  
  2. Purée until all ingredients are smooth.  Use a small rubber spatula to scrape down the sides, as necessary.
  3. Add the basil, pressing it into the paste and purée, scraping down the sides, until creamy.  There should be mostly small specks of basil remaining.  The sauce will be creamy and vibrant.
  4. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and pulse to incorporate.
  5. Transfer the sauce to a container and place a sheet of plastic wrap onto the top of the pesto sauce.
  6. Cover with a lid and refrigerate until ready to use.

NOTES:  Remove any small leaves that are left on the artichokes.  They should peel off easily, leaving the heart intact.  Use them in a salad, or discard.  

The sauce will hold for 2 days in the refrigerator.  The sauce can be frozen for 3 months.  Defrost in the refrigerator a day before using.

 

 

 

Madeleines by Anthony Michael Contrino

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I recently posted a poll on social media asking for recipe suggestions and I received a couple of requests for Madeleines.  It's been a while since I've made them, so I had to spend some time working out this recipe - like two months.  But, I am finally happy with the end result.  

Batch after batch, there was always something wrong with the finished product.  My focus was always achieving the signature hump.  In the pastry world, the bigger the hump, the better the pastry chef.  Traditionally, the cookie should be served decorative-side down, allowing the hump to shine.  So, in true Anthony fashion, I was starting to drive myself crazy, worrying more about the hump than I was the flavor and texture.  

When I first made this version of the recipe, I was going to toss them before even tasting them because the (lack of a) hump was depressing.  But, they baked perfectly - an even golden rim on the border of the cookies.  When I went to un-mold them they were almost weightless, the perfect sponge.  At this point I knew I should at least taste them.  They were DELICIOUS.  Now the dilemma - do I keep tweaking to achieve a hump when everything else is perfect or call it a day?   Eff the hump.  

Some ingredient notes:  I've added vanilla bean in this recipe, which I think pairs nicely with the citrus.  I used a tangelo (a cross between a tangerine and grapefruit,) but a plain old naval orange will work, too.  The golden syrup adds to the necessary sweetness and offers a hint of earthiness which highlights the vanilla, but if you can't find it, honey will work.  

Vanilla Citrus Madeleines // Makes approximately 2 dozen

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 tsp. aluminum-free baking powder

1/4 tsp. Kosher salt

1/2 cup sugar

Zest 1/2 tangelo (about 1/2 tsp.)

Seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean 

3 large eggs, room temperature

1 tbsp. golden syrup

4 ounces European butter, melted

Confectioners sugar, for serving

  1. In a bowl combine the flour, baking powder and salt; whisk well.
  2. In another bowl, combine the sugar, zest and vanilla.  Massage the sugar with your hands to release the oils of the tangelo.
  3. Place the eggs into the bowl of a stand mixer and, with the whisk attachment, scramble.
  4. Add the sugar mixture and golden syrup and whisk, on high, until the eggs thicken and lighten in color, about 3 minutes.
  5. Gently fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture.
  6. Add the melted butter and whisk, just to combine.
  7. Transfer the batter to a piping bag, seal and refrigerate at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight.
  8. When ready to bake the Madeleines, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  9. Generously spray a Madeleine mold with non-stick cooking spray.  Place the mold in the freezer for 10 minutes, or until the spray is frozen.
  10. Pipe the batter into the cavities, filling each no more than 3/4 of the way full, about a heaping tablespoon.
  11. Bake for 8 until the tops are set, and the edges of the cookie are golden.
  12. Cool for a few minutes before using an offset to carefully remove the madeleines from the molds.
  13. Serve warm or room temperature with a sprinkling of confectioners sugar.

NOTES:  Madeleines taste best the day that they're made.  Finally, you're better off under-filling the molds; a little batter goes a long way.

 

Shrimp & Grits by Anthony Michael Contrino

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I'm pretty sure I'm a southerner at heart.  There's something about soul food that gets me all tingly inside - fried chicken, mac and cheese, biscuits...  YUM!!!

Southern food is not just delicious, but simplistic, non-pretentious, and most importantly, unapologetic.  There is no lack of butter, shortening, cheese and frying oil in the southern kitchen, but thankfully not all dishes will consume your daily calories in one sitting, including this one.

Shrimp & Grits // Serves 6

For the grits:

6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

2 cups corn grits

6 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature

1 tsp. ground black pepper

2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

1/2 cup grated pecorino romano cheese

 

For the shrimp:

1 pound shrimp, peeled, deveined, tail on

2 tsp. blackening seasoning

6 slices bacon

4 cloves garlic, minced

Juice of 1 lemon

½ cup scallions, thinly sliced on a bias

Parsley, chopped, for serving

Sea salt

  1. Bring the stock to a boil in a stock pot. 
  2. While whisking constantly, sprinkle in the grits.
  3. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring often, until the grits thicken, 20-25 minutes.
  4. Stir in the butter, pepper and cheeses and mix until melted.
  5. Season with salt, to taste.
  6. Meanwhile, make the shrimp.
  7. In a bowl, combine the shrimp and blackening seasoning and toss to coat.
  8. Warm a large seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat.
  9. Add the bacon and cook until crispy.
  10. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon, leaving the grease in the skillet; drain the bacon on paper towels and crumble when cool enough to handle.
  11. Add the shrimp to the skillet and cook the shrimp until bright pink on both sides, about 2 minutes per side.
  12. Add the lemon juice, garlic and scallions and sauté 1-2 minutes, tossing often.
  13. Serve the shrimp over the grits.  Add a sprinkling of crumbled bacon and garnish with chopped parsley.

 

 

Watermelon Smash by Anthony Michael Contrino

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One of the few things I love about summer is watermelon.  I can't think of a more refreshing fruit.  As the days get hotter, watermelons seem to get sweeter and juicier.  That said, why not treat yourself to a poolside cocktail. Enjoy!

Watermelon Splash // Makes 1 cocktail

1 large lime wedge (1/4 of a lime)

3 mint leaves, plus more for garnish

Pinch fine sea salt

1 ounce simple syrup, recipe follows

1/2 cup watermelon juice, see note below

2 ounces light rum

1/2 cup club soda

Watermelon slices, for garnish

Lime slices, for garnish

  1. Muddle the lime, mint and salt in a cocktail shaker to release the juices and oils.
  2. Add the simple syrup, watermelon juice and rum. 
  3. Fill the shaker with ice and shake vigorously for 5 -10 seconds.
  4. Strain the cocktail into a glass filled with ice.
  5. Top with the club soda and garnish with mint, lime or watermelon.
  6. Serve immediately.

Simple Syrup  // Makes about 1 3/4 cups

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

Pinch sea salt

  1. Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan.  
  2. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until the sugar and salt have completely dissolved; do not bring to a simmer.
  3. Remove from the heat and cool at room temperature for 30 minutes.
  4. Transfer to a pitcher and refrigerate until cool.
  5. Store in the refrigerator up to 7 days.

NOTE:  To make the watermelon juice, cut the flesh of 1/2 watermelon into chunks.  Pulse the chucks in a food processor until smooth.  Strain the liquid through a fine mesh strainer.  Refrigerate for up to 2 days. 

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Panzanella Caprese Salad by Anthony Michael Contrino

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I'm not the hugest fan of summer.  I'm not sure why everyone loves the extreme heat, humidity and bugs, but if there's one thing I can get down with, it's a perfectly ripe tomato.  Tomatoes just taste better when they're in season.  Panzanella and caprese are two of my favorite tomato dishes so I like to put them together for the ultimate summer side.  Make the salad about 15 minutes before serving to allow the dressing to slightly soften the toasted bread.

Panzanella Caprese Salad // Serves 6

12 ounces cherry tomatoes

1 large English cucumber, peeled, cut into chunks

12 ounces mozzarella balls (ciliengine), or 12 ounces fresh mozzarella, cubed

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, torn

Toasted Bread, recipe follows

Balsamic Dressing, recipe follows

  1. In a large serving bowl, combine the tomatoes, cucumber, mozzarella, basil and toasted bread.
  2. Drizzle some of the dressing, to your liking, over the salad and toss to combine.  
  3. Let sit for 15 minutes before serving.

Toasted Bread:

½ loaf crusty Italian bread, cubed

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp. fine sea salt

½ tsp. garlic powder

¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Add the bread to a large bowl.
  3. Drizzle the oil evenly over the bread.
  4. Add the salt, garlic powder and pepper and toss to coat the bread.
  5. Place the cubes on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown, about 18 minutes.  
  6. Cool completely before using.

Balsamic Dressing:

3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp. balsamic glaze

1 ½ tsp. Dijon mustard

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

½ tsp. fine sea salt

Pinch of freshly ground black pepper.

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, balsamic glaze and Dijon mustard.
  2. While constantly whisking, drizzle in the olive oil to emulsify.
  3. Add the salt and pepper and whisk to combine.
  4. Store in the fridge until ready to use.

TIP:  This makes a generous amount of dressing.  Dress the salad to your liking.  Also, I use balsamic glaze in this recipe for some depth and sweetness.  If you do not have any, use an additional tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and a touch of honey. 

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Simple Sides: Grilled Ramps by Anthony Michael Contrino

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It looks like spring is finally here to stay in the Northeast.  The weather may have arrived, but we're still waiting for local produce to catch up. While we wait for some of the more mainstream vegetables, like broccoli and summer squash to hit it's peak, why not try something you might not be too familiar with - ramps.  

Ramps are becoming more popular, but there are still many people who have never heard of them, let alone tasted them.  Looking like scallions with a leafy top, and tasting like a garlic infused onion, ramps are best when simply prepared.

Ramps are often sautéed or oven roasted, and cook quickly, but this version makes it even easier, and better yet - THERE'S NO CLEANUP!  All you need is some aluminum foil and a barbecue grill. Serve these alongside lemon marinated chicken for a quick, delicious and healthy meal. 

Grilled Ramps // Serves 4

2 bunches ramps, washed, dried, roots cut off

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Light your grill and allow the heat to reach 400 degrees.
  2. Lay a long sheet of heavy aluminum foil on a work surface.  
  3. Place half the ramps onto the center of the sheet of foil, with all the root ends facing the same direction.
  4. Place the remaining ramps onto the center of the foil, with the root ends facing the opposite direction.
  5. Pull the sides of the foil up and bunch the ends to make a boat with the ramps in the center.  
  6. Drizzle the oil evenly over the ramps.
  7. Season generously with salt and pepper.
  8. Seal the foil to conceal the ramps.
  9. Place the ramps onto the grill and cook, lid closed for 2-3 minutes.  (You should hear the oil begin to "fry" the ramps.)
  10. Carefully flip the packet over and cook an additional 2 minutes.
  11. Carefully remove the packet and transfer onto a plate.
  12. Serve as is or with a splash of freshly squeezed lemon juice.

 

Cuban Dinner Party by Anthony Michael Contrino

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Even with a hectic schedule, I love to host the occasional dinner party.  I recently had some good friends over for dinner.  While I wanted the meal to be on point, I also didn't want to spend my time stuck in the kitchen.  Sometimes I get carried away and lose sight of the point of the dinner party - to spend time with friends and family.  Not this time.  With spring finally upon us (sort of!) I wanted to create a fun menu.  So I put on some Cubano salsa music and started to create my menu.

Below are all the recipes you need to throw a Cuban fiesta for 6 or so guests.  I've also included a timeline to help keep you on track.  If you stick to the plan, aside from making some a la minute cocktails and clearing plates, you'll be in on all the action!

Disclaimer:  Usually I pre-plan a post.  This time the food came first, so you'll see a mixture of Instagram photos, stock photos and a few I had a chance to take after the fact.  


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Snack Board // Serves 6

 Spanish olives

Pickled baby peppers

Marcona almonds

Grilled artichoke hearts

Cornichons

Sliced Ibérico ham

Sliced chorizo

Wedge Manchego cheese

Goat cheese log

Wedge Gruyere cheese

Savory plantain chips

Crostini

Bread sticks

Honey

  1. Arrange all ingredients on a large cheese board.

 TIP:  There are really no rules here.  Use what is readily available in your area.  Do try to include a variety of textures and flavors. 


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Ropa Vieja // Serves 6

2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 yellow bell pepper, cut into strips

1 green bell pepper, cut into strips

1 Spanish onion, sliced

4 cloves garlic, sliced

Two 1 ½ pound flank steaks

1 ½ cups beef broth

1 ¼ cups pureed tomato sauce

2 tbsp. tomato paste

½ tsp. cumin

1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
  2. Warm the oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven.  
  3. Add the bell peppers, onion and garlic.  Season with salt and pepper, and cook until lightly caramelized, about 10 minutes.
  4. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl.
  5. Pat the flank steaks with paper towels to remove any excess moister.
  6. Season the steaks liberally with salt and pepper.
  7. Sear the steaks on both sides, one at a time.  Remove the meat.
  8. Deglaze the pan with the broth.  
  9. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer.  
  10. Remove from the heat.  
  11. Return the steaks and vegetables to the Dutch oven, cover with a lid and cook for 4 hours.
  12. Use a fork to shred the flank steaks.  
  13. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

TIP: The stringiness of the pulled flank steak is why ropa vieja translates to “old rags.”  Braised flank steak has a little more bite and chew than you may be used to.  If you’re looking for a more tender cut, swap out the flank for chuck.


Stewed Black Beans // Serves 6

2 14.5-ounce cans black beans, rinsed and drained

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

4 ounces pancetta, diced

1 large Spanish onion, diced

1 green bell pepper, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

8 cloves garlic, minced

½ cup manzanilla olives, chopped

1 tbsp. tomato paste

1 ½ tsp. dried oregano

½ tsp. cumin

1 ¼ cups chicken broth

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Mash 1/3 of the black beans; set aside.
  2. Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, high-sided skillet.
  3. Add the pancetta and cook until crisp.
  4. Add the onion and bell pepper and cook until softened, about 4 minutes.
  5. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute more.
  6. Add the olives, tomato paste, oregano and cumin and cook an additional minute.
  7. Add the broth and beans (whole and mashed) and lower the heat to low.
  8. Simmer for 30 minutes, covered, until the flavors have melded and most of the liquid has evaporated.
  9. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. 

TIP:  Taste before seasoning.  You may be surprised that you do not need to add additional seasoning.


Arroz Blanco // Serves 8

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 head garlic, cloves separated, smashed

4 tbsp. unsalted butter

2 cups jasmine rice, rinsed

2 tsp. sea salt

½ tsp. garlic powder

  1. Add the olive oil and garlic to a large sauce pot.
  2. Cook over medium heat until the garlic is golden brown.
  3. Use a slotted spoon to remove the garlic, discard.
  4. Add the butter and stir to melt.
  5. Add the rice and cook for 4 minutes, stirring often, until lightly toasted.
  6. Add 3 cups water and bring to a boil.
  7. Reduce the heat to simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes.
  8. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to sit for an additional 15 minutes; do not remove the lid.
  9. Fluff the rice with a fork.

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Blood Orange Mojito // Makes 1 cocktail

2 large wedges blood orange 

1 large wedge lime 

1 sprig mint, plus more for garnish

½ tsp. demerara sugar

1 ½ ounces simple syrup, recipe follows

2 ounces light Caribbean rum

Club soda

  1. Muddle the blood orange, lime, mint and demerara sugar in a highball glass to release the juices and oils.
  2. Add the simple syrup and rum; stir.
  3. Fill the glass with ice.
  4. Pour the club soda into the glass leaving a ½” of space from the rim; stir gently.
  5. Garnish with a strip of blood orange peel and a sprig of mint.
  6. Serve immediately.

Simple Syrup  // Makes about 1 3/4 cups

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

Pinch sea salt

  1. Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan.  
  2. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until the sugar and salt have completely dissolved; do not bring to a simmer.
  3. Remove from the heat and cool at room temperature for 30 minutes.
  4. Transfer to a pitcher and refrigerate until cool.
  5. Store in the refrigerator up to 7 days.

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Coconut Passion Mousse  // Serves 8

2 tsp. gelatin

1 cup passion fruit puree, divided

2/3 cup sugar

¾ cup cream of coconut

1 tsp. Mexican vanilla extract

2 cups heavy whipping cream

Toasted coconut, for serving

Micro cilantro, for serving

Edible flowers, for serving

  1. In a small bowl combine the gelatin with 2 tablespoons of cool water; allow to set.
  2. In a small sauce pan combine ¾ cup of the passion fruit puree, the sugar and the gelatin mixture.
  3. Cook over a medium flame until the sugar and gelatin are dissolved.
  4. Remove from the heat and pour the mixture into a large bowl.
  5. Add the remaining passion fruit puree, cream of coconut and vanilla.
  6. Cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes.
  7. Meanwhile, whip the cream to medium peaks.  Fold the cream into the passion fruit mixture with a whisk until fully incorporated.
  8. Pour the mixture into 8 ramekins.  Refrigerate at least 4 hours before serving.
  9. Garnish with toasted coconut, micro cilantro and edible flowers.

TIP: Make sure you mix the cream of coconut well to re-emulsify and remove lumps.  Also, passion fruit can be pricy and hard to find.  You can substitute with any other tropical fruit juice, preferably with no added sugar.


TIMELINE

2 DAYS BEFORE

  • Make the simple syrup for the Blood Orange Mojitos.
  • Make the Coconut Passion Mousse to completion.  

1 DAY BEFORE

  • Prep the vegetables for the Ropa Vieja.  Store in a zip-top bag in the refrigerator.
  • Make the Stewed Black Beans to completion.  Store the sauce pot in the refrigerator.

4 HOURS BEFORE

  • Make the Ropa Vieja.
  • Start making the Arroz Blanco up until the addition of the water.

1 HOUR BEFORE

  • Make the Arroz Blanco.  Do not remove the lid until ready to serve.
  • Cut the citrus for the Blood Orange Mojitos.
  • Set up Snack Board.

30 MINUTES BEFORE

  • Finish making the rice.  Leave covered until ready to serve.

SHOWTIME

  • Make the cocktails as your guests arrive.
  • Warm the Stewed Beans.
  • Remove the Ropa Vieja from the oven and allow to rest, covered.

TIME TO SERVE THE MAIN

  • Shred the Ropa Vieja.
  • Fluff the Arroz Blanco.
  • This isn’t fancy food.  Place a scoop of rice, beans and ropa vieja on a plate and garnish with some micro cilantro.  Serve with a brioche roll to sop up any residual sauces.

15 MINUTES BEFORE DESSERT

  • Remove Mousse from the refrigerator to temper and garnish.
  • Brew coffee and tea, if serving.

Chicken Marsala by Anthony Michael Contrino

 Photo by Matt Wagemann

Photo by Matt Wagemann

This Italian restaurant menu staple is one of my favorites - and it's one of the easiest dishes to replicate at home.  Marsala is a fortified wine from the area surrounding the Sicilian city of Marsala.  Marsala can be dry or sweet.  This recipe calls for the more common sweet variety.  The sweetness of the Marsala with the earthiness of the mushrooms and thyme are balanced out with the smoothness of the butter.  If you do not have Marsala, you can substitute with sherry or even white wine with a splash of Brandy.

 

Chicken Marsala

Serves 4

 

8 chicken cutlets

1 cup flour

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. pepper

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 pound button mushrooms, cleaned, sliced

1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves

¾ cup marsala wine

¾ cup chicken broth

2 tbsp. butter, softened

3 tbsp. flour

Parsley, chopped, for serving

 

1.    In a flat-bottomed bowl, mix the flour, salt and pepper.  

2.    Coat the chicken in the flour mixture.

3.    Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat.

4.    Add ¼ cup of the olive oil and sear the chicken, in batches, on both sides until lightly golden. The chicken should be cooked through.

5.    Remove the chicken from the pan, onto a plate.

6.    Add the remaining oil to the skillet.

7.    Add the garlic and mushrooms and sauté until softened, about 6 minutes.

8.    Add the thyme, marsala and chicken broth; bring to a simmer.

9.    Meanwhile, combine the butter and flour to form a paste.

10.  Add the butter paste to the simmering liquid and stir until it melts and thickens the sauce.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

11.  Return the chicken to the skillet along with any juices that were released.

12.  Simmer for an additional 2 minutes.

13.  Garnish with parsley.

General Tso's Chicken by Anthony Michael Contrino

 Photo by Matt Wagemann 

Photo by Matt Wagemann 

Even though Chinese New Year festivities are winding down, the celebration continues - at least in my kitchen.  With Chinese food being so affordable in the US, it's no wonder most would rather order it than make it.  So, I challenge you to make this General Tso's Chicken recipe.  It is bursting with flavor and will make you think twice the next time you go to pick up the phone to order some.

 

General Tso’s Chicken

Serves 6

 

For the chicken:

2 egg whites

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. brown sugar

¼ tsp. ground black pepper

¾ cup cornstarch

1 tsp. baking powder

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed

Vegetable oil, for frying

White rice, for serving

Scallions, sliced, for serving 

 

For the sauce:

¼ cup peanut oil

2 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane

1 tsp. red pepper flakes

¼ cup scallions, chopped

½ cup sugar

1 tsp. ginger, grated on a microplane

¼ cup chicken broth

1 tbsp. sake

¼ cup soy sauce

2 tbsp. sesame oil

2 tbsp. cornstarch

 

In a bowl, whisk the whites until frothy.  Add the salt, brown sugar and black pepper and whisk to combine.  Add the chicken and toss to coat in the whites.  Add the cornstarch and baking powder and toss to combine.  The mixture will become tacky.

Bring 4 cups of vegetable oil to 350 degrees in a frying pan or wok.  Carefully drop the chicken pieces, one at a time, into the hot oil and cook in batches until the chicken is golden brown.  Drain on paper towels.

Meanwhile, make the sauce.  In a small saucepant, combine the peanut oil, garlic, red pepper flakes and scallions.  Cook over medium-high heat until the garlic begins to fry. Add the sugar and stir until it dissolves.  Add the ginger, chicken broth, sake, soy sauce and sesame oil and stir to combine.  In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of water; mix to create a slurry.  Add the slurry to the sauce and bring to a boil.  Cook for 2 minutes.

Toss the chicken in the sauce and serve over white rice.  Garnish with chopped scallions.

Butternut Squash Ravioli with Caramelized Onion by Anthony Michael Contrino

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If there's one question I am asked all the time, it's "Do you cook dinner when you get home from work?".  Instead of giving them a "hells, no," I usually just explain how I get home too late to even think about dinner.  Truth is, even when I'm off, I try to avoid the kitchen unless it's for testing or recipe development.  Don't get me wrong, I love cooking.  The problem is, I'm spoiled.  I usually have an assistant or dishwasher who helps clean up so that I can move onto the next thing.  There's none of that at home.  Just me.  And, no dishwasher.  So, no, I don't really cook at home unless I can throw something together quickly and with minimum clean up.

That brings me to this post.  This recipe is EASY and the clean up is a breeze.  Sometimes I'm feeling festive and finish the dish with some pomegranate seeds.  They add a pop of color and flavor, and a much needed crunch.  Toasted pine nuts are cool, too.  This dish also makes a great starter, which can easily serve 4.

Butternut Squash Ravioli with Caramelized Onion //  Serves 2

8-10 ounces Butternut Squash Ravioli (I like Trader Joe's.  It comes in an 8.8 ounce package)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 Spanish onion, sliced thinly

2 tablespoons unsalted European butter

8-10 small sage leaves

1/4 cup grated pecorino, plus more for serving

2 tbsp. pomegranate seeds or toasted pine nuts, optional

Salt & freshly ground black pepper

 

Bring a 6 quart stock pot filled with water to a boil.  Add a generous pinch of salt.

Meanwhile, warm the oil in a large high-sided skillet over medium heat.  Add the onions and season with salt and pepper.  Sauté until they caramelize, about 10 minutes.  Add the butter and sage and swirl the pan until the butter is completely melted.  Reduce the heat to the lowest setting.

Add the ravioli to the boiling water and cook according to package directions.  When al dente, use a slotted spoon to transfer the pasta to the sauce.  Sprinkle the pecorino over the pasta.  Cook 2 minutes, tossing often.  

To plate, scoop some of the ravioli into a shallow bowl, make sure to get some onion and sage.  If using, add the pomegranate or pine nuts..  Sprinkle with some more pecorino and some freshly ground black pepper.  Serve immediately.

 

Special thanks to my editor, Bridgid Egan.  ;)

Gingerbread Muffins by Anthony Michael Contrino

 Photo by Matt Wagemann

Photo by Matt Wagemann

Gingerbread Muffins // Makes 1 Dozen

Every year I create a recipe to share with friends and family in lieu of a traditional Christmas card. This year, I wanted to incorporate some of my favorite winter flavors.  These muffins, laced with cinnamon, ginger and a touch of molasses, are not overly sweet and are perfect for breakfast on a cool Christmas morning.

1¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup candied ginger, small dice, optional
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves      
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt  
2 large eggs   
½ cup whole milk
½ cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
½ cup dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon blackstrap molasses1 large egg white
1½ cups confectioners sugar
Sprinkles or dragées, for decorating

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line a 12-cavity cupcake mold with aluminum liners. Spread the exposed pan and liners with baking spray.

In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the flour, candied ginger, cinnamon, ground ginger, cloves, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside.  In a large bowl, whisk together the 2 eggs, milk, oil and vanilla.  Add the sugar, brown sugar and molasses, and whisk to combine.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir until all ingredients are combined.  

Scoop or pipe the batter into the prepared liners, filling each ¾ full.  Bake the muffins for 35-40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center of the muffins.  Carefully transfer to a rack and cool completely. 

To make the royal icing, combine the egg white and sugar, and stir, until a smooth, stiff frosting forms.  It should should hold a peak.  If it is too loose, add some more sugar to reach the desired consistency.  If it is too thick, add a splash of water to reach the desired consistency.  Working fast, spread the icing over the muffins and decorate with sprinkles.

Italian Wedding Soup by Anthony Michael Contrino

Nothing makes me happier than stepping outside in the morning and being jarred awake by brisk air.  If I could live in a hoodie, I'd be a happy camper.  

After a long day in the studio, I love coming home to my apartment, lighting the fireplace and warming up some leftover soup.  This is one of my favorite soups, and I make it by the vat.  If you are going to freeze the leftovers, cook the pasta separately and do not add it to the pot of soup, otherwise it will get mushy.

PS.  Sorry for the lack of a picture.  I was too hungry to set up a shot!! ;)

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 1/2 cups carrot medallions, about 8 carrots

2 1/2 cups sliced celery, about 6  celery stalks

2 1/2 cups chopped white onion, about 2 large onions

10 cloves garlic, sliced

1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1-1/2 tablespoons tomato paste

3 quarts vegetable stock

4 sprigs fresh thyme

Mini Meatballs, recipe follows

1/2 pound small pasta

1 bunch kale, stems removed, ripped to chunks

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pecorino cheese, for serving

In a large stockpot or Dutch oven, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add the carrots, celery and onion and sauté until they begin to caramelize, stirring often, about 15-20 minutes.  Add the garlic and sauté and additional 2 minutes.  Add the red pepper flakes and tomato paste; stir until the paste is fully incorporated.  Add the stock and thyme.  Bring to a boil.  Add the meatballs and reduce to a simmer.  Simmer for 1 hour.  Add the pasta and kale and cook for 10-15 minutes, until the pasta is al dente.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste.  Serve with grated pecorino cheese.

Mini Meatballs // Makes approximately 3 dozen

1 pound 80/20 ground beef

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 egg

1/4 cup seasoned Italian breadcrumbs

2 tablespoons grated pecorino cheese

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix until fully combined.  Roll the meat into balls the size of a gum ball. 

FOOD FINDS: Some of the Country's Best Restaurants by Anthony Michael Contrino

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I've been lucky enough to work in some of my favorite cities this summer.  Whenever I travel, I make it a rule to try as many new restaurants as I can.  Luckily, I haven't been disappointed!  Here are some of my faves, ranging from no-frills breakfast joints to fine dining - there's something for everyone!

LOS ANGELES // CAFE JANE

While in LA, I stayed in an AirB&B and the host left, as most do, an informative packet with local attractions, info and food recommendations,  Cafe Jane was on the list.  Featuring breakfast, lunch, and coffee options, this spot is as casual as it gets, but the food is on point.  Everything is made to order and fresh, fresh, fresh.  DO NOT skip the bacon - it's crack!! If you're not hungry, the coffee here, alone, is worth the visit.

FAVE DISH: 2x2x2 (2 eggs, your way, 2 strips of bacon and 2 pancakes)

LAS VEGAS // AMERICANA

In my opinion, the Vegas food scene is as good as it gets.  You can find whatever you want, pretty much when ever you want it.  I ventured off the strip to Desert Shores near Summerlin to try Americana.  Full disclosure:  My cousin Joe grew up with the executive chef/owner, Stephen Blandino, so we wanted to see what the Staten Island native had up his sleeve.  Having worked at some of the best restaurants in town, Chef Blandino knows his way around the kitchen.  Each dish is meticulously conceptualized, prepared and plated.  While this restaurant is by definition a fine dining establishment, eating at Americana will not set you back as much as its competitors on The Strip.   Also, contact the restaurants for specials - they'll even pick you up (on their dime) via Uber, so that you can enjoy a peaceful meal away from the strip.

FAVE DISH: Compressed Watermelon Salad with Watercress, Burrata, Heritage Tomatoes

NEW YORK CITY // GIUSEPPINA'S BRICK OVEN PIZZA

I almost hate to share this joint with the world - it's that good!  Chris, the owner, and all-round good guy, knows how to make a pie.  After all, he did learn from his brother who owns the celebrity-filled post, Lucali.  While Lucali is AMAZING, it's not worth the crazy wait (and not always friendly waitstaff,) unless you are desperate to see Beyonce.  Anyway, the pizza is banging, but the calzone will make you hear angelic voices.  You really can't go wrong with anything on the menu, just bring cash because credit cards are a no-no here.

FAVE DISH: THE CALZONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!

NASHVILLE // KITCHEN NOTES

I came across this restaurant by accident.  Located in the Omni Hotel, Kitchen Notes is a southern-inspired restaurant serving favorites like Fried Green Tomatoes, Fried Chicken (by the bucket) and Shrimp and Grits.  Not only do they source local ingredients, this is the only joint in Nashville with a biscuit bar.  Oh, those tasty biscuits!

FAVE DISH: Rustic Meatloaf with Braised Green Beans, Whipped Potatoes and Mushroom Gravy

CHICAGO // MINDY'S HOT CHOCOLATE

This is possibly my favorite restaurant in Chicago.  I need to go whenever I'm in The Windy City.  Chef Mindy Segal is a James Beard Award Winning Pastry Chef.  While her desserts (and hot chocolate, of course!) are drool-worthy, she knows her way around the savory kitchen.  The menu is seasonal and Mindy sources as many local products as possible.  The only things that seem to never vanish from the menu - because they're AMAZING - are the Mac N Cheese and Burger.

FAVE DISH: The Mac N Cheese.  Not only is it gooey goodness, it's probably the only restaurant that cooks their pasta al dente for a Mac N Cheese.  Pair with a seasonal salad and have whatever your server recommends for dessert!

Yellow Cake by Anthony Michael Contrino

So, I wasn't going to share this one on my site.  I figure, I should probably save some recipes exclusively for my cookbook, but this one is too good to shut away.  When I tell you that I have spent years trying to perfect a yellow cake recipe, I, unfortunately, am not exaggerating.  

The problem is, if it doesn't sort of taste like it came out of a box, people just don't like from-scratch yellow cake.  This yellow cake is super buttery, like pound cake, but less dense.  And, while it may be reminiscent of the boxed stuff, it surely doesn't have the chemicals, preservatives and weird aftertaste.  

YELLOW CAKE // SERVES 12

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for greasing

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

7 oz. European or European-style butter, softened (DO NOT skimp!), plus more for greasing

1-3/4 cups sugar

3 large eggs, room temperature

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

½ cup whole milk

½ cup buttermilk 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Melt some butter and brush it generously into a bundt pan.  Coat the butter with flour and shake off any excess.

In a medium sized bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; whisk to combine.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar.  Add the eggs, one at a time, allowing each to incorporate before adding the next.  When all three eggs have been added, add the vanilla extract and mix to incorporate.  

Combine the milk and buttermilk.

Add half the dry ingredients to the egg mixture and mix on low speed.  Drizzle in the milk mixture and mix until it is almost completely combined.  Add the remaining flour mixture and mix on low until all ingredients come together.  

Spoon the batter into the prepared bundt pan.  Smooth the top with a small spatula and bang on the counter to remove air bubbles.

Bake until golden brown, and a cake tester comes out clean, about 40-45 minutes.

Cool for 20 minutes before flipping onto a cooling rack.  Cool completely.  Wrap well with plastic wrap until ready to serve.

BUTTERY GLAZE

1-1/2 cups confectioners sugar, sifted, plus more as needed

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons whole milk

Combine all ingredients and mix well to create a smooth glaze.  The finished product should be relatively thick, but still run slightly.  If it is too loose, add a tad more sugar.  Use glaze immediately.  Allow the glaze to set before serving.

Roasted Corn Carbonara by Anthony Michael Contrino

 Photo by Andrea Patton Photography

Photo by Andrea Patton Photography

Sit the 'eff down for this one - it's THAT yum!  When we were testing and shooting this recipe, we couldn't get enough of this creamy, but light sauce.  The roasted corn adds a subtle sweetness and smokiness that dances in your mouth with the sharp cheese, salty pancetta and earthy sage.  Dramatic, huh?  

To roast your own corn, you'll need about 4 ears.  Don't be afraid to char it up.  If you'd like to omit this step, you can find frozen roasted corn at Trader Joe's.  Be sure to fully defrost it in the fridge the night before.  It may seem like there's a lot of process going on in this recipe, but everything is quick and easy.  Be sure to toss the linguini as soon as it hits the sauce to avoid scrambled eggs.

Roasted Corn Carbonara // Serves 4

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

8 ounces pancetta, diced

1/4 cup fresh sage leaves

2 cups roasted corn kernels

1/2 cup grated pecorino cheese, plus more for serving

4 large egg yolks

1 pound linguini

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a small skillet, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add the pancetta and cook, stirring often, until crispy.  Transfer the pancetta to a plate, leaving the hot oil in the skillet.  Add the sage and cook until crispy.  Remove the sage leaves and transfer to the plate with the pancetta.  Reserve the cooking oil and rendered fat.

Meanwhile, bring a stockpot, filled with water, to a rolling boil.  Add 2 heaping tablespoons salt and allow the water to return to a rolling boil.  Add the linguine and cook until al dente.

Meanwhile, in a food processor, puree the roasted corn and pecorino.  When the pasta is halfway cooked,  add 2 tablespoons of the pasta water and process until creamy.  Add up to an additional 2 tablespoons of the pasta water, if needed.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Place the egg yolks in a large mixing bowl and whisk.  While whisking, drizzle in the reserved oil from the pancetta.  Add the pancetta, sage and roasted corn puree and mix to combine.  

When the pasta is done, use a pair of tongs to remove the pasta and add it to the bowl with the roasted corn mixture.  Toss immediately to coat the pasta and cook the egg.  Serve with some freshly ground pepper and a sprinkling of pecorino cheese.  

 

Place the