The First Chicken

It's time to make an admission: I've never cooked a whole chicken. Bits and pieces, yes, but a whole chicken in the oven? No. There was something that scared me about doing it. Would it take forever to cook? Would I just dry the thing out? And besides, my ghetto grocery up the street sells rotisserie chickens for very little scratch. Sure, they're kind of scary, but when you're on a budget, sometimes you settle...

But a few months ago I caught an episode of one of Jacques Pepin's shows in which he cooked a butterflied chicken. It seemed easy, quick, and delicious. I've had the recipe on my computer desktop since then, and this week I finally bit the bullet. Of course, I didn't follow his recipe completely (it is me, after all), but the basic cooking process is his. It turned out pretty well, I must say, though next time I'm going to get crazy inventive with the spices...

Quick Roasted Chicken
• 1 whole chicken, about 3 lbs., butterflied
• 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
• 2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
• 2 tbsp. olive oil
• 1 tbsp. herbes de Provence
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Make a paste from the garlic, mustard, olive oil, herbs, salt, and pepper. Smear half of the mixture over the open side of the chicken, then place the bird, skin side up, in an ovenproof skillet (I used my cast iron). Smear the rest of the bird with the remaining paste. Cook on top of the stove, on high heat, for five minutes, then place everything--skillet and all--in the oven for 30 minutes more. Check to make sure it's done, then allow to rest in the skillet for a few minutes. Serve (I had the nicely-crunchy wings with some roasted potatoes with truffle oil, which I baked in the oven at the same time as the chicken, stirring every 10 minutes.)

Not Quite Sure...

 ...why this taxi wasn't taking fares yesterday. Confusing.

But, I just love that Rudy's pig has decided to wear a snow hat.


The Truffle Oil Diaries: Easy Mac & Cheese

This constant cold, snow, and more snow is making me crave an odd combination of comfort food and blood oranges (I scored six pounds of the beauties yesterday--yessss!). These culinary desires could definitely be worse, but my salad-only post-holiday diet has really gone down the toilet...

So, when I decided I wanted to make a simple pasta for lunch, then spied my brand new log of goat cheese, my creative cooking light bulb went "*Bing!* Truffle oil mac and cheese!" I ended up making, perhaps, the easiest mac and cheese ever? And it's not so horrible health-wise, to boot...

For my portion of hot, cooked pasta, I stirred in a little more than a teaspoon of truffle oil and a generous pinch of Maldon salt, then tossed to coat. I stirred in a hunk of goat cheese (more than a tablespoon), about a tablespoon of freshly-grated Parmesan, and some freshly-ground black pepper. That's it! Super easy, super happy (especially when followed by a blood orange for dessert).


Yeah, I Ate That...

Sometimes, what you buy because it's funny ends up being a not-so-great idea. (Also, note to self: choices made when you're recovering from the flu aren't really good ones. Just because it's absolutely freezing outside and the fridge is down to 50 jars of chili paste and a quart of milk doesn't mean you should eat mystery meat...)

A couple of months ago, while I was perusing the aisles of Kam Man, I bought this can of "Pork Paste (Chili Pepper Flavored)," which was displayed prominently on the side of an aisle. What could be bad? It had pork and chili (two of my favorite things). Its can was awesomely retro. It was even made in San Francisco and proudly wore its Department of Agriculture seal! So I, giddy with the thought of porky-chili goodness, laughed and bought the stuff--and believed it would be AWESOME!

You know what? Just because it's made in the US doesn't mean it's going to be edible. If anything, I would probably have been better off buying the Chinese-made equivalent...

When I opened it, the aroma was not was I expected. I optimistically thought it would smell like Dan Dan Noodles...but instead, the scent of processed leftover meat parts wafted to my nose. Was it feeding time for my friends' cats?

Regardless, I forged ahead and cooked some rice noodles, then sauteed them with the mystery meat and some spicy black bean paste to up the chili quotient. I downed the whole bowl, but the aftertaste was pretty nasty. I was grateful for the pile of blood oranges on the table--those babies fix everything.

Lesson learned? Heck no, that wasn't the end. As I'm slightly crazy and too stubborn to admit defeat, I used the stuff again at lunchtime. There HAD to be a way to make it work. I stirred in a tablespoon of Szechuan Pepper Pickle, a little Szechuan Pepper Oil (which is probably antifreeze, but whatever...it tastes good), and some chili garlic sauce. I actually ended up with some fairly edible noodles.

So, here is what I've learned: When the end of the world is nigh and there are only cans of dog food remaining in the ransacked supermarkets, my emergency supply of Szechuan Pepper Pickle will save the day!


Sorry for the Silence...

...I've been kicking off my post-holiday diet by battling some sort of flu... While I recover, here are a couple of little NYC history tidbits from the Times: A story on the Polo Grounds (don't miss the slide show), and another on a 1770 map discovered at the Brooklyn Historical Society.


Happiness Is...

...a breakfast break comprising moro blood oranges and some midwinter NYC sunshine. (Though frankly, if I was eating this breakfast on a sunny beach in Sicily watching the Mt. Etna eruption, I'd be happy too!)


Truly Cheap Eats: Tacombi @ Fonda Nolita

Taking a lunch break in the midst of my crazy week (why does everything happen all at once?!), I fondly remembered Sunday night's quiet, chilled out dinner at Tacombi @ Fonda Nolita on Elizabeth Street. I'd walked by the extraordinarily inviting space a few times, and been dying to try the place. Turned out it was the perfect place to hang out on an absolutely frigid January evening.

As we entered, I got my first good look at the place, and it was as of some moment of midwinter magic had happened. The colorful, open space seems as if it was ripped from a small Mexican beach town: metal folding tables, hanging lights, hand-painted signs, and unfinished walls, with a kitchen in the back and Tacombi's VW van taco truck parked smack in the middle. 

And then we tried the tacos ($4 each), and we were in heaven. I went for the pork, followed by the black bean and cactus (Nancy's chicken molé looked pretty great, too). Each pile of goodness is served on two little tortillas, and as there's so much filling you basically end up making two tiny-but-satisfying tacos from each. The flavors were well-balanced yet rich, and everything seemed really fresh. And FYI, the hot sauce on the tables packs some serious heat (and if I'm saying that, it's HOT), but washing it down with the hibiscus iced tea made everything all good again (they also have horchata, which is definitely on my list to try next time I pop in).

Tacombi also serves breakfast burritos all day long, and if the pile of prettily-painted coffee cups says anything, I bet it's a great place for an inexpensive brunch.

Tacombi @ Fonda Nolita, 267 Elizabeth Street south of Houston.


Things to Do: Snug Harbor

Note to self: This spring, go back to Snug Harbor.

I'm embarrassed to admit...before this weekend, I'd only been to Staten Island once. I know, I know, for someone who loves NYC so much, that's completely unacceptable. This weekend, I finally went back to attend an event at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden. Originally founded in the early 1800s as a home for aged sailors, today it serves as a beautiful snapshot of the New York of long ago. Alas, it was so cold--and we were so late--that we didn't get to look around, but it's officially on the KKNY must-visit list for 2011.


Nonsensical Mysteries

It's just about mid winter, so there time for my favorite fruit on the planet--blood oranges--to miraculously appear on store shelves (sorry locavores...I love them too much not to eat about a ton of them--preferably shipped from Sicily--each year). There are various varieties, which seem to show up in stores kind of randomly, so I thought I'd do a little pre-season research so I could make more informed buying decisions this year.

Interestingly, it seems like the variety I love leaps and bounds beyond the others--the Moro--was originally cultivated in the Sicilian state from which my mom's side of the family hails: Siracusa. It's much more intensely-flavored and colorful than the other varieties, and I just can't get enough of them.

I wonder, perhaps, if they're in my blood, so to speak (wink wink)? I think I'll have to track some down so I can do a little research.

(Or, if nothing else, I'll have to find more of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle type pictured above. If I remember correctly, they taste like pizza...)


A Resolution For The New Year

I've never been any good at keeping New Year's resolutions, so I abandoned even thinking about making attempts years ago. Why begin the year by putting some sort of ridiculous pressure on yourself?

But yesterday, I decided I'd institute one that seems pretty easy (I hope!): I'm going to use dried beans, rather than canned, from now on. Usually too lazy to plan ahead, I grab cans at the supermarket and keep a few on hand for last-minute decisions recipe additions. But every once in a while I'll pick up some of the dried variety, generally adding them to a soup that's going to be cooking forever anyway--no need to prepare in advance!

Spying a container of dried chickpeas--I had a bit of a craving for them--I decided I'd use them to make a spread. I dug up Mark Bittman's guide for reconstituting all sorts of dried legumes, and set to work. The result, my friends, was leaps and bounds better than what I'd achieved using canned beans. So, from here on out, though I'll keep a few emergency cans in the pantry, I resolve to plan my bean usage ahead of time and use the far superior--and way cheaper--dried variety.

Chickpea/Roasted Red Pepper Spread
(This makes about one ton of the stuff, so feel free to dial things back a bit...)

• 1 1/2 cups dried chickpeas (cooked and drained, though you'll want to retain a bit of the cooking water)
• 2 cloves of garlic
• 1 roasted red pepper (from a jar, so you can use some of the water, too)
• 1/2 teaspoon pimentón
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1/4 teaspoon salt

Purée chickpeas, garlic, red pepper, pimentón, olive oil, and salt in a processor, adding small amounts of the cooking water and/or pepper water, bit by bit, until the mixture becomes smooth.