Category Archives: Recipe Box

Whenever I post a recipe.

Jewish Spaghetti and Other Family Secrets

Jewish SpaghettiWhile staging in a Piedmontese restaurant in Torino years ago, I was startled by the reminiscent flavor of spaghetti al pomodoro we were eating at family meal one night. The tomato purée, canned earlier in the year when the fruit was at its peak, was as sweet as candy. Finished with a large spoon of butter, a technique Italian chefs call montecare al burro, the sauce had a pleasing richness. The combination of flavors was resonant with my childhood memories of a favorite family dish we called Jewish Spaghetti.

Jewish Spaghetti? What on earth? It was staple side dish in my mother’s repertoire, a dish that her grandmother Eva had apparently conceived, and that each of Eva’s four daughters passed on down to their families. (I suppose her four sons, though likely fans of the dish, probably didn’t know how to make it.) My grandmother made it. My mother made it. I make it. I recently learned on one of my radio shows that my cousin Madeline Poley, the celebrated chef/owner of the Soho Charcuterie and creator of other New York city food faves, hated her mother’s Jewish Spaghetti. We loved ours so much that I assumed it was a known pasta variant, like spaghetti bolgonese and fettuccine alfredo. So, imagine my surprise at the reaction of my classmates when I referred to Jewish Spaghetti in elementary school.

I wrote home from the restaurant in Turin to tell my family I had found an Italian antecedent to our family’s Jewish Spaghetti.

The recipe is simple. Continue reading

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The Cheese Thing

If there is one dish that my family can claim as its own, it is The Cheese Thing. Truth be told, the recipe probably came from some other source lost long ago. But my mother adapted it and made it so often—especially once my brother became a vegetarian in the 1970s—and my siblings and I continue to make it often enough—sometimes coincidentally on the same day—that it stands as a Davis family original. I actually don’t make it as often as I would like to because I can’t control myself around it. As I wrote in Cook Something, I believe one batch serves 1 to 8, depending on my mood and my self control. I like it before it’s baked, once it’s baked, after it’s cooled to room temperature, chilled the next day, reheated to a crisp in a frying pan the next night, any which way.

Clearly, The Cheese Thing is a flavor that reminds me of my mother and my childhood and my family. But I’ve never served it to anyone who didn’t like it almost as much. Tonight I made it because the other day Nate said to me that he’d only had it once or twice. When we ate it—bubbling out of the oven, the points of the penne brown and crisp—he said we may call it The Cheese Thing, but it’s really just macaroni and cheese. Technically, he’s right, it’s macaroni and cheese (plus tomatoes). But the sum is more than it’s parts. And without a cream sauce to make or cheese to grate or anything to prep that can’t be finished before the pasta is cooked, it’s a simple dish that’s simply delicious.

The Cheese Thing

1 pound (500 g) penne rigate, zitti, rigatoni, or other tubular pasta, preferably cut on a diagonal (so it browns), and ridged

8 ounces mild cheddar

8 ounces extra sharp cheddar

1 28-ounce can tomatoes, without basil

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon sugar

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente according to the package. Better to under cook than to over cook, as the noodles will continue cooking in the oven.

Meanwhile, cut the cheddars into 1/2-inch cubes or smaller. Don’t grate. the cubes melt into puddles of bubbling cheese. Also don’t try to use all medium cheddar or all of one or the other. The two different, mild and old, cheddars melt differently so the texture and flavor of the finished dish is more interesting.

Now, do as my mother did and insert a small, sharp knife into the can of tomatoes to cut the whole tomatoes up into bits with the juice.

When the pasta is done, drain well but do not rinse. Return it to the hot pot. Add the butter and stir until the butter is melted and coats the noodles. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cubed cheese and stir to evenly distribute. Don’t worry if it starts to melt. Add the cut up tomatoes with their juice and the sugar and mix well. Transfer to a rectangular 2-quart baking dish or casserole. Don’t flatten the noodles on top, rather, let the ends stick up to create an uneven surface. This will encourage browning.

I find the dish best if you now cover it and let it sit a few hours or a day in the refrigerator, so the noodles soak up some of the tomato juice, but you can also just bake it right away and it is delicious. Set the dish in a preheated 400°F. oven and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the top is brown nicely browned. Don’t worry if some of the noodles look burnt. These are the ones people will fight over. Let sit for 10 minutes, if possible, before serving. Enjoy. Serves 1 to 8.

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Recipe Box: Mujedrah—Instant, Universal Comfort Food

Isn’t it funny how sometimes you encounter a food that is so darn yummy and satisfying that it becomes an instant comfort food, even if you’ve never tasted it before. I felt this way the first time I tried Indian poha, for example, a fluffy, mashed-potato-like starch dish made from dried, pounded rice that’s rehydrated and sautéed with spices. One bite and I knew I could eat it every day, even for breakfast.

Mujedrah (aka mujadara) is another candidate for an instant, universal, comfort dish. Made from rice, lentils, and caramelized onions, it’s a specialty of Lebanese cuisine, where it’s usually served with yogurt. This recipe is adapted from my dear Lebanese Kiwi friend Dorita Hannah. When her mother found out she shared the family recipe with me, her mother was embarrassed because, apparently, it was an easy, everyday, ersatz way of making mujedrah. Of course, that’s one of the reasons I loved it! The recipe was delicious and easy.

Lentils, rice, and caramelized onions: Lebanese comfort food.

I try not to make this mujedrah too often because I can eat the entire batch, which really serves 8 to 10 people. It’s too good to resist. Mujedrah is perfect as a side dish with roasted lamb or chicken. Sometimes I even serve it as a vegetarian main course. I find the best rice for it to be basmati, the best lentils, green or brown. You can serve it warm or at room temperature (which makes it great for a buffet or pot luck).

The Hannah Family’s Easy Mujedrah
Makes 7 to 8 cups, 8 servings Continue reading

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Recipe Box: Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Although this dish on mediterrasiancooking.com might be tasty, it has nothing to do with the Italian technique of risotto. It looks like pilaf.

There are a few Italian dishes that are so simple but that require such attention and care that they are only at their best when they are made at home or in the fanciest, most expensive restaurants. Risotto is one of them. In order to make a perfect risotto, you really need to start it 20 minutes before you intend to serve it. Although you don’t have to stir it constantly, you do have to stir it often. You also have to dedicate an entire burner to the process. Then you have to eat it almost immediately. Most restaurant can’t afford to produce and serve a dish in this manner. And if they do, they have to charge a fortune for it. You are better off making risotto at home.

Spaghetti alla carbonara is another dish that’s usually better in the hands of an experienced home cook. Though simple, the temperatures have to be just right: too cool and the eggs will be runny, too hot and they will curdle. Like risotto, carbonara also has to be eaten as soon as it is ready. If it sits, it clumps; if it’s reheated, the eggs scramble. What’s more, most restaurants doctor the recipe with cream or cream sauce, both aberrations of the original Roman speciality.

Guanciale is cured, seasoned, and air-dried pig's jowl. Traditionally, it is not smoked. Photo by Kyle Phillips.

In addition to only using eggs too make a true carbonara, you should also use guanciale, or cured pork jowl, a Roman specialty. Guanciale is becoming more common as the charcuterie craze takes hold across America, but often guanciale made outside Italy is cured and smoked. It is not traditionally smoked. If you can’t find true guanciale, pancetta or unsmoked country bacon are my preference. And then, when all else fails, just use your favorite smoked bacon, which, it should be noted, makes a mighty delicious carbonara. no matter how inauthentic.

What follows is my favorite recipe at the moment for spaghetti alla carbonara Continue reading

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Ingredient Alert! Fresh Chick Peas at Whole Foods (with Recipes)

These fresh garbanzo beans (aka chick peas) were on sale in the produce section of the Whole Foods in NYC's Union Square.

So, after strolling through the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturday, I ducked into Whole Foods to pick up a few staples and things I couldn’t find at the market. (Despite the beautiful spring weather, it’s just too soon to harvest much of anything locally.) And there in the produce section, I spotted these beautiful fresh garbanzo beans (aka chick peas) in the pod. I’ve only ever seen them for sale before on the streets of Naples. And here they were in downtown Manhattan!

As soon as the crazy lady who was slowly sorting through ginger, spreading it and her bags out over everything in the vicinity, including my chick peas, was finished, I dove in. I bought about a pound of the peas in the pods, which amounted to a little more than a cup shelled. The pods are small and papery. They pop when you open them, revealing one or two chick peas inside. The fresh chick peas are  bright green in color. When cooked, they are less starchy, more vegetal, than their dried cousins. And they have a great texture that Continue reading

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Recipe Box: Devil’s Food Cake that Isn’t a Sin on Passover

This Passover adaptation of my favorite devil's food cake from my book Kitchen Sense is pretty delicious.

When I was a kid there was no such thing as kosher for Passover baking soda and baking powder. Quite the contrary, any leavening beyond the magical power of egg whites was strictly forbidden. But times change. And so do rabbinical proscriptions. Today there are legal leavenings that open a whole new world of pesadich desserts.

Last night, on a whim, I attempted a Passover-approved version of my favorite devil’s food cake, substituting matzo cake meal and potato starch for the flour. It turned out better than fine, it was delicious. Miles away from boxed brownie mixes. Even my underbaking the cake slightly didn’t diminish the results, and instead gave it a pleasant molten quality that some top chefs strive for. Here’s the recipe for all the chocolate cake starved observant Jews out there. My partner, Nate, can’t be the only one!

Pesadich Devil’s Food Cake (with a pareve variation)
Adapted from Kitchen Sense by Mitchell Davis Continue reading

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Recipe Box: Recipe Perfection and the Question of Pancakes (with a Passover Option, Too)

I’m not the sort of cook who needs a hundred recipes for every dish. I’ve never understood the appeal of books like 365 Brownie Recipes or 1,001 Hamburgers You Can’t Live Without. This is especially true of staple items, such as chocolate chip cookies, fried chicken, waffles, pancakes, and such. When I find a perfect recipe, I’m happy to accept it into my repertoire categorically. Then, when I’m craving that one particular thing, I know what I’m going to make. In time, the craving becomes tied to the recipe.

The combination of heat, cast iron, and butter produces pancakes with crisp, buttery edges.

In fact, whenever I try a recipe, I’m hoping it’s going to be “the one,” whether it’s lentil soup, meatballs, or shortbread. I’m sure I’m not alone in this pursuit, since it’s the basis of the appeal of recipes on the backs of packages and of the success Cook’s Illustrated. Mind you, I won’t go to absurd lengths to get a certain crispness or a particular flavor, the way the folks in America’s Test Kitchen will. For me, the perfect recipe doesn’t require you to divide an egg into three parts or assemble a makeshift dehydrator using a hair dryer and a pastry tube.

Which brings me to buttermilk pancakes. About a dozen or so years ago Cook’s Illustrated published a recipe for perfect buttermilk pancakes. Looking for the pancake recipe I could call my own, I tried it. And it was very good, indeed. But in typical test kitchen fashion, they created a few problems just so they could solve them with an unnecessarily clumsy technique. To prevent the melted butter from congealing when it hit the cold milk you were supposed to take everything out of the refrigerator an hour before you made the pancakes and then stir the melted butter into the egg yolk, while you beat the egg white into the milk. Whatever. Unnecessary.

The way I make them, these buttermilk pancakes are hands down my favorite. Nate’s too. And we don’t have to set our alarm an hour earlier on a Sunday morning to make them. They never disappoint. If I don’t have buttermilk on hand, I substitute plain or vanilla yogurt or sour cream thinned down with milk, or sour milk, or whatever I’ve got. When it comes to pancakes, I prefer mine fried in butter in a cast-iron pan rather than cooked on a lightly greased griddle. My favorite part of the pancake is the crisp, brown edge that forms when they are made this way. Nate always takes a bite before adding maple syrup just to taste their buttery goodness pure.

Of course, you can add blueberries or chocolate chips or what have you, as you wish. But then, why mess with perfection?

Buttermilk Pancakes Continue reading

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