arni yiouvetsi (lamb baked with orzo)


Sometimes I enjoy exquisite meals in restaurants that I would never try to recreate at home, that I am happy to experience thoroughly in the moment and then leave behind. Other times I try something I love and then become fixated on figuring out how to make it myself. This recipe – lamb braised in a pot with orzo – fits into the second category. I first had this at the same restaurant in Central Jersey, Pithari Taverna, that inspired these lemon potatoes. When I moved to Jersey City, I thought this meal would be like the first kind I described above, something magical that could only be relived in memory, until I discovered recently that it’s actually a fairly common Greek recipe that could easily be found with a quick Google search.

I knew that the tomato sauce at Pithari had a distinctly non-Italian taste to it, but for the longest time I had no idea what special ingredient gave it such a different flavor profile. The answer? Cinnamon. To people only used to adding cinnamon to desserts or sugary breakfast foods, this might sound like a weird spice to put in a savory recipe – but paired with lamb and tomatoes, it contributes a warm, earthy, and peculiarly Greek flavor.
CIMG3044Unfortunately, I somehow managed not to get any good shots of the lamb itself when I was taking photos. It’s there somewhere in that pile of orzo. After two and a half hours of slow braising in the oven, it is meltingly tender and falls apart if you poke it. Though this meal is baked in a clay pot at Pithari, which I am sure adds some extra-special something-or-other to it, don’t let not having one be an excuse not to try this – I used my stainless steel, and was blown away by how exactly like the version from my favorite far away Greek restaurant this tasted.  Read the rest of this entry »


lasagne alla bolognese

“Using clunky, store-bought lasagne may save a little time, but you will be sadly shortchanged by the results.”

Thus saith Marcella Hazan in her lasagne alla bolognese recipe, which I was consequently scared away from making. Having eaten American-style lasagna and real Italian lasagna in Italy, I certainly preferred the Italian variety. It is lighter, without all the gloopy cheese of its American offspring. Because it is not weighted down with cheese, the exquisitely comforting flavor of the meat sauce is allowed to shine. But I had neither a pasta machine nor the budget to go out and get one, so I figured I’d just have to put off creating the best lasagna ever to some unspecified future date.

Recently, I remembered that I live in New York City (close enough anyway, in Jersey City) and that it was probably not impossible to find fresh pasta. A quick Google search, and I discovered that not only were there many places to purchase fresh pasta in the city, but one was quite conveniently located for me. For anyone in the New York area, I highly, highly recommend a trip to Raffetto’s. They have been making fresh pasta since 1906, and will cut the pasta any way you like on a machine that looks like it has been around since 1906. You can get spinach pasta (like I did), saffron pasta, squid ink pasta, and they have all kinds of different filled pastas – ravioli, tortellini, agnolotti – all you have to do is prepare a sauce to go with them, and you have dinner. They also have all kinds of imported Italian goodies and sauces that they make in house, if you are too tired to make your own sauce. I bought a box of pumpkin ravioli and served them with an alfredo sauce.

I’m not being paid by them to sing their praises. As someone who grew up in a place where Olive Garden and Carrabba’s were considered great Italian restaurants, I simply didn’t know that places like this existed. I was helped by some very kind ladies, who explained just how to cook the pasta and wanted to know the size of the pan I was using so that they could cut my pasta to the right size. It was a delightful experience from beginning to end.

I ended up going to six different shops to source all the ingredients for this lasagne – this isn’t necessary, but I wanted to get the best quality ingredients, since it is a pretty epic meal to make. So I went to Raffetto’s, a butcher (Ottomanelli, where they grind the beef fresh – so good), a cheesemonger (Murray’s), the Van Vorst farmer’s market back in Jersey City, Jersey Wine Merchants, and a small local grocer for the few ingredients that couldn’t be found anywhere else. This is how people used to shop for food, before the days of giant supermarkets with their meats in styrofoam packaging and aisles upon aisles of processed food products. I realize not everyone has access to these kinds of small, local shops, but since I do, I feel that I should support them. Collecting my ingredients was a perfect way to spend a cool, cloudy Saturday morning.

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rigatoni bolognese

This bolognese sauce is real comfort food. It cooks down all day (3+ hours) while filling your home with exquisite smells, and is the kind of dinner I want to come home to after trudging through snow in the dead of winter. No, it’s not exactly winter yet, but we’ve been having autumnal weather up here in the Northeast the last few days, and now I am craving fall/apples/apple cider/apple cider donuts (are we sensing a theme here?).

Don’t be scared away by the 3+ hour cooking time – during most of that time, the sauce is slowly simmering with very little attention needed from you. And depending on how many people you are cooking for, this recipe makes a lot of leftovers, so it’s an ideal Sunday afternoon project that will leave you with leftovers to be excited about for the next few days. Next time I make it, I think I’ll do a double batch and freeze half. This is a recipe that I will make again and again, and want my grandchildren to remember me by (er, though I’ll need to get around to producing some children first).  Read the rest of this entry »

penne alla vodka

I don’t think I’d ever had/heard of vodka sauce before moving to the Northeast. For the similarly uninitiated, vodka sauce is a basic tomato sauce, plus vodka, plus some heavy cream, and it is generally served over penne. One can’t really single out the flavor that the vodka contributes, but it adds a certain something that makes the pasta more exciting than just a tomato or tomato-cream sauce.

I was tired and scatterbrained last night as I was preparing this, and started off by nearly burning the pancetta after overheating the pan. Very little of the pancetta actually burned, but somehow this was enough to send billowing smoke all over the apartment, forcing us to open a window to the 15 degree weather outside. I later tried to put all four servings of sauce onto the two servings of pasta we were eating, and had to fish the pasta out of the sauce since I wanted to save some sauce for tonight. But then, still forgetting that I had intended for there to be leftovers, I dumped all the pancetta into the pasta that we ate last night, meaning there will be no pancetta tonight. After that, I made a comically disastrous attempt at whole wheat pitas, which went wrong in too many ways to list. If that had been my first time working with yeast doughs, I’d probably vow never to deal with yeast again. The pitas are more or less edible, although instead of being perfectly round, as the picture from the recipe I used suggested they should look, they are more like weird alien amoebas. Oh well, not every cooking experiment can go smoothly. In any case, despite creating one disaster after another last night, this sauce came out perfect – smooth, flavorful, a little spicy. And, yes, I think your serving size should be a lot bigger than the one shown in the picture. Read the rest of this entry »

pasta puttanesca

Pasta puttanesca means literally something like “the whore’s pasta.” The story goes two ways: either this sauce was whipped up by Italian prostitutes in hopes that its smell would seduce passersby in off the streets (in case the normal attractions of a brothel weren’t enough, I guess), or they made it for themselves for a quick and easy bite to eat when they had a bit of down time.

Who knows if either of these legends is actually true. What is true about this sauce is that it is packed full of flavor: garlic, anchovies, olives, and capers simmer (briefly) with tomatoes to produce a loud, complexly flavored sauce. A healthy dose of red pepper flakes contributes a spicy kick. This is definitely racier stuff than your average tomato sauce. I recommend having some crusty bread to mop up the leftovers, plus a nice glass of red wine (or two).  Read the rest of this entry »

linguine with lemon cream sauce and salmon

This is not a great title for this recipe; I wanted to add “and seasonal vegetables” at the end, but that was getting too long. In the version I made tonight, I used zucchini and summer squash; when I make this in the spring, I like to use asparagus, and I imagine that fresh peas and even chopped green beans would also do nicely here. This recipe is something of an original; I found the sauce online, but it wasn’t intended to be a pasta sauce, and everything else was my own little invention. I think it’s a lovely spring/summer pasta that tastes light and fresh, and contains lots of things that are good for you (salmon, vegetables), to make up for the heavy cream.  Read the rest of this entry »

tomato sauce with garlic and basil

This pasta is, for me, the essence of summer. Tomatoes, basil, garlic, and olive oil are simmered for 20-ish minutes to produce a light, fresh, and healthy sauce. It is so much better than any tomato sauce you will ever find in a jar, and it isn’t complicated at all. When tomatoes are out of season, it can be made with canned tomatoes, and is still delicious. It’s very versatile; I’ve eaten it alone on pasta (as above), and used it in both chicken and eggplant parmesan. This is the first tomato sauce I attempted to make from scratch last summer. I tried several other versions after this, some with long lists of ingredients that started with a mirepoix (diced onion, carrot, and celery) and included wine, sugar, and red pepper, and they just didn’t match the simple goodness of this sauce.

This is another recipe from Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. This book is worth owning just for the pasta section, which is over 100 pages long and includes 50+ recipes for different sauces (disclosure: I haven’t actually tried anything outside of the pasta section, because there are so many tasty-looking pasta recipes). Marcella always recommends certain pasta shapes for certain sauces. Before buying this book, it had never occurred to me that pairing pasta to sauces was something that was done, but I have tried her recommendations and understand now that certain pastas and sauces complement each other very well. I think this sauce, though, can be used with a variety of pastas; she recommends spaghetti or spaghettini (smaller spaghetti noodles), but I’ve also enjoyed it with linguine (my own favorite noodle!) and penne. Whatever pasta you use, some crusty bread is an absolute necessity. How else will you mop up the sauce leftover on your plate once you’ve eaten all the noodles? (Er, other than scooping it up with a spoon, which I have definitely done before).  Read the rest of this entry »