Nature may abhor a vacuum, but, apparently, it adores symmetry. On February 16, 1992, one of the people who indelibly shaped my life—my maternal grandmother—died. Feelings of security and optimism and a sense of self, now so resolute that they seem hardwired into my DNA, got their toehold in quiet afternoons cooking with her at her ancient white stove, a triple layer of cardboard wedged under one shapely leg—the stove’s, not hers.
This February 16th, someone else who had an impact on my life died. It’s not, mercifully, The One, a family member, or a friend. But still, my life got a little dimmer—by about 100 watts. The person: Ronald Howes, Sr.
In the early ‘60s, Mr. Howes invented the toy that, powered by two low-watt light bulbs, came to delight battalions of little girls—and me: Kenner’s Easy-Bake Oven. Just as my grandmother found ways of shunting my breathtaking lack of athletic prowess into hours of cooking, Mr. Howes gave me an out. And an outlet. Whenever my three cousins—Barry, TJ, and Jeff—would ask me to go out and play some form of ball (whether base, foot, or basket), I had an excuse. “I’m baking cakes with Claire,” I’d shout through the window. Claire, another cousin, was the official owner of a harvest gold Easy-Bake Oven. And when the inevitable and expected ridicule was heaped on me, I would bake with a fury. Read more “A Light Forever Dimmed”
As you know, I’m a thoroughbred Portagee (a nickname given unto my people, derogatory for sure). But I’ve embraced my inner pork chop—another needling dig—and have no qualms about who I am, what I’m called, and what I like. And one of the things I adore are bolinhos de bacalhau, or salt cod fritters. It would be considered cultural treason if I didn’t love these little fried nuggets of salt cod and potato goldenness. What’s not to love? We Portuguese have been marrying the two ingredients for centuries: Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (casserole of cod, sliced potatoes, onions, hard-boiled eggs, and olives), Bacalhau à Brás (scrambled eggs encasing shoestring potatoes and flakes of cod), Bacalhau Cozido com Todos (basically, boiled cod, potatoes, and vegetables), and—well, you get the idea.
So when The One and I recently went to Allium in Great Barrington, MA, and I took a look at the menu, for a moment everything around me went pleasantly fuzzy. Kind of like looking at the world through the wrong end of a smudgy telescope. There, at the top of the appetizer list, was bolinhos de bacalhau with harrisa aïoli. My countrymen were relying upon me, I told myself. So what if harrisa was a North African condiment? The real balls of the dish (pun intended) were the fritters. It was my national duty, being a citizen of Portugal, to order them. Read more “Spanish Cod Fritters”
The One’s birthday extravaganza went off without a hitch. And I take back everything I said in my last post. The One overcame his Luddite ways and actually picked up the remote to fiddle with his new stereo, the crowds along Fifth Avenue were thinner than usual, the night wasn’t terribly cold, and the decorations were better than usual. (The ten-ton Norway spruce at Rockefeller Center was sparkling with predominantly green lights to symbolize its energy-saving feature: 30,000 LED bulbs, which were partially powered by solar panels atop of the Rock.)
The one thing I’m happy not to take back is our dinner at Marco Canora’s Hearth. It was a slam-dunk. (Holy cow, my first-ever sports metaphor.) When the hostess snaked us through the room and sat us at a four top, I was instantly plumped with self-importance. I was sure they knew who I was: David Leite, food writer. I expected the staff to bow and scrape in my exalted presence, but, instead, what to my wondering eyes did appear? A waiter who treated me (as well) as he did the other guests. No more, no less. My face began to set in that “Oh, no you din’t” expression—eyebrows arched, eyes half-lidded, mouth curled until bracketed by two deeply etched commas.
“I’m sure they’re secretly thrilled,” said The One, “and don’t want to make a fuss over you in public.” I knew it was a lie, but it was just the emotional grease I needed to slide me into the evening without pouting.
After perusing the menu, I told the waiter (henceforward named “Michael,” because when I was a waiter, it seemed any time a customer forgot my name, he called me Michael) that I wanted to order only dishes that are in Marco’s cookbook, Salt to Taste.
“You pick for me,” I said. Off Michael went to confer with Marco.
“Okay, it’ll be grilled quail with farro, leeks, tomato, and a quail egg,” he said on his return, “followed by braised veal breast with sweetbreads, cauliflower, and Romanesco sauce and a side of gnocchi.”
Superb. For a first course, The One ordered grilled calamari with smoked chickpeas and frisée, and for an entrée, roasted venison (which he was craving and why we picked Hearth), quince, autumn vegetables, and venison sausage.
The quail was beautifully grilled, moist, and tender. The knife Michael slid into my place setting seemed almost a nod to tabletop protocol rather than to fulfill any real function. My fingers were tool enough for me. The meat had a slightly charred tang that didn’t overwhelm the quail. The One and I actually shared from each other’s plate (a habit of mine he absolutely hates—something to do with never having enough to eat when he was a kid). His squid, like my quail, was tender, and the chickpeas picked up the smokiness where the quail left off, but—again—not overpowering his plate.
(Confession: Somewhere in my meal were these amazing little gems of smoked lentils—I think, with the quail—but by then, the 2001 Bosquet des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape à la Gloire de Mon Grand-Père had its grenache grip on me.)
The hit of the evening for me were the braised veal breast and gnocchi. I could have stripped down and rubbed that little glistening tournedo of veal goodness all over my body. It was so silky and unctuous, so tender and rich with meaty flavor. Then there were the gnocchi. Now, I’ve had what I believe to be the best gnocchi ever while dining at Felidia, Lidia Bastianich’s Upper East Side restaurant. They were little puffs of air—what Cheetos secretly aspire to be. And since then, whenever I’ve seen them on a menu, I’ve ordered them, hoping to relive that gastronomic equivalent of a bosom-smoothing grandmother moment with Lidia. But, alas, I’ve had nothing but a string of belly bombs, potato bullets, and chewy corks. So I was delighted, and relieved, to discover Marco’s were a very, very close second to Lidia’s. And while eating them, a memory bobbed up to the surface of my conscience: I had had these before, hadn’t I? Yes, yes. I vaguely remembered dining here with a magazine editor and eating these pillows of potato-y loveliness. (I think that night was muddied by several bottles of wine, too. Note to self: Read the 12 Steps.)
The One loved his medium-rare venison, but it was too gamey for me. No matter. I was content with my veal and gnocchi, and when The One asked to have a few, it was I who felt the need to wrap my arms around my plate and scream, “No, they’re mine! All mine!” But it was his birthday. I smiled and let him have his fill. Hey, I’m just that kind of guy.
Click for Marco’s gnocchi recipe.
Braised Veal Breast
There are two things that make all the difference in this recipe: the right liquid and the right pan. You want a broth or stock with a certain amount of gelatin. If you have veal stock, that’s great. If not, add 1/2 cup demiglace (reduced veal stock) to homemade or commercial chicken broth. The demiglace will provide the viscosity necessary to glaze the veal properly at the end of cooking. As far as the pan goes, you want one just big enough to hold the meat and aromatic vegetables snugly so the broth surrounds but doesn’t swamp the meat. This is true whenever you braise, but it’s particularly important here. Using a pan that’s too big will force you to use too much broth, which will in turn reduce the concentration of flavor and leave you with a weak-tasting, thin sauce. As long as the meat and vegetables fit with room to add broth to cover, the pan is fine.–Marco Canora
There are several advantages to making the veal a day in advance. 1) Breaking the cooking into two parts makes for short easy work just before serving. 2) The veal can be sliced neatly only when chilled. 3) It is easier to defat the chilled braising liquid—just spoon the fat off before you reduce the liquid. In a pinch, you can forgo these advantages and start and finish the veal in the same day. But in that case, I would advise you to skip slicing it and serve it whole—a dramatic if slightly more rustic way to go.
Braised Veal Breast Recipe
- Quick Glance
- 1 H
- 4 H
- Serves 6
- 1/2 boneless veal breast (about 2 1/2 pounds)
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced, plus 1 head cut in half crosswise
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary leaves, plus 3 sprigs tied together
- About 7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
- 1 onion, peeled and chopped
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 1 cup dry white wine
- About 2 quarts homemade chicken stock or canned chicken broth
- 2 garlic cloves
- 2 rosemary sprigs
- 1. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
- 2. Lay the meat flat on a clean work surface. Mix the minced garlic, chopped rosemary, and 2 tablespoons oil in a small bowl. Spread evenly over the meat, then season liberally with salt and pepper. Roll the meat into a tight, thick roll, securing it every few inches with butcher’s string. Season the outside of the meat with salt and pepper.
- 3. Heat a deep pan just big enough to hold the meat over medium-high heat and add enough oil to generously coat the bottom, about 5 tablespoons. Add the veal and brown it on all sides, about 10 minutes. Remove the veal from the pan and reserve.
- 4. Add the carrot, onion, celery, and garlic head. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables brown and soften, about 5 minutes. Return the meat to the pan. Add the rosemary sprigs and wine. Let the wine boil and reduce until the pan is almost dry, then add enough broth to surround and just barely cover the meat. Bring to a boil on top of the stove, turn the veal over, and put the pan in the oven.
- 5. Braise the veal, turning it every 20 to 30 minutes, until it is tender and a knife can be easily inserted and removed (always check the thickest part closest to the center), about 2 hours.
- 6. Remove the pan from the oven and allow the veal to cool in the braising liquid. Take the meat out of the pan and put it into another container. Strain the braising liquid over the meat (discard the vegetables). Cover and refrigerate the veal in the braising liquid overnight.
- 7. To glaze the veal, preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Remove the meat from the pan and cut it into slices about 1/2 inch thick. Skim the fat from the braising liquid. Put the liquid into a saucepan and bring it to a boil over high heat. Skim frequently and reduce until the liquid is slightly viscous (the amount of time this takes will depend on your broth).
- 8. Arrange the veal slices in a roasting pan big enough to hold them in a snug single layer. Pour enough of the reduced braising sauce around the veal so it comes about two-thirds of the way up the meat. Crush the garlic with the flat of a knife and add it along with the rosemary. Baste the veal with sauce and place it in the oven. Glaze the veal, basting it with the sauce every 5 minutes, until it is browned and heated through, about 40 minutes. Serve.