Retro Recipes and Traditional Fare

crudite disaster 4“…definitely the tuna tartare, and the hazelnut crusted chicken, and… then a nice, big crudite platter…”

My client was reviewing my menu suggestions for her 150-guest cocktail party, adding the last one on her own.

“NO”, I said, a little more aggressively than I had intended. “No”, softer now, but with the same sentiment. “I just can’t do crudite anymore.”

My client paused. The phone was silent. “Ok”, I caved, “we’ll figure something out. Maybe a small crudite is alright.”

Years ago, I worked as a free-lance chef for a big-time catering company in Los Angeles. We would cater colossal parties for the astronomically rich, where every display was over the top. There were epic platters of food – with sausages and cheese flown in from other countries and cupcake towers the size of New York brownstones.

We would cut vegetables for days, whittling jicama and carrot wedges into little pointy daggers, nipping the tops off radishes, and blanching broccoli and sugar snap peas into the brightest green they could be. It was a thing of beauty for sure, but we had to buy and cut three times more veggies than anyone could ever eat.

Catering is all about making platters look full at all times – which means there has to be tons of coverage. We have to make sure that if someone suddenly goes on a Persian cucumber binge, the display still looks abundant. Hey, nothing says success like excess, right? Well, 75% of the cascading peppers, baby tomatoes, and asparagus would wind up in the garbage. It was heartbreaking.

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mostardaI spent a year living in Europe, and six months of that was in Italy. Having eaten a lot of Italian food, I like to think I understand it, perhaps just a little. In fact, whenever I try to recreate an Italian dish I think back to earlier versions that I've eaten. What was it that I liked about it? What was the essence of the dish?

In all my time in Italy, I don't remember trying mostarda. It's not surprising really because the most well-known versions come from Veneto, Lombardia and Piemonte. Most of my time was spent in Tuscany. But I still think I understand mostarda, just a bit. It's like an Italian chutney I suppose. Don't make the mistake of translating it as "mustard". Mostarda does have a little bit of mustard in it, but it's really a combination of preserved fruit in syrup with a bit of a kick. The kick comes from mustard oil, mustard essence, dry mustard, mustard seeds or some combination thereof. Other ingredients include sugar or honey, wine, vinegar and sometimes citrus juice.

When I am developing a recipe, I often look for several variations then strike off on my own. The recipes I found for mostarda varied greatly--some used dry fruit, others fresh fruit. Some cooked slowly others cooked quickly. Some had lots of mustard, others barely a pinch. My own experiment lead me to this conclusion: Mostarda is very forgiving and can easily be made to your own taste. You can taste as you go and make changes.

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ImageIt’s funny what you think you know. For the last thirty-five years I’ve been cooking chicken scarpariello – or shoemakers’ chicken — for my family. It’s one of my kids’ favorite dishes out of my humble repertoire – cut up pieces of chicken, still on the bone, flash-fried with garlic, white wine and rosemary. The best way to eat this dish is with your fingers, mopping up the sauce with a piece of good Italian bread. It’s heaven on a plate. I first came across the recipe in Alfredo Viazzi’s cookbook. Alfredo had a restaurant – he had a few of them, actually – in Greenwich Village where we lived in 1972. We ate at Trattoria d’Alfredo a couple times a week, often spotting James Beard at a table by himself, packing away Alfredo’s fabulous food.

Imagine my shock when I researched the recipe on the Internet and found that it’s not Italian at all. I typed in “pollo allo scarpariello – ricette” on Google, so that I could pull up the recipes in the original Italian and I came up empty. They don’t have that dish in Italy or, if they do, they call it something else.

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lemonpoppybread.jpgI know it doesn't look like much, but looks are often deceiving. 

I have been craving a little snack cake.  You know, one of those desserts you curl up with in the afternoon over a cup of coffee and a good read. 

I went searching in my files for something to satisfy my craving for a quick, easy dessert.  I came upon this recipe I clipped out of the Los Angeles Times possibly ten years ago.  I thought it was about time I made it.

This Poppy Seed Cake was a two-top prize winning recipe at the Iowa State Fair (not sure what year) and it's delicious.  Just perfect. 

The cake is moist, airy and totally enjoyable to eat.  It doesn't even need frosting, just sprinkle with powdered sugar and it's ready to devour.


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ImageFor this recipe I defrosted two chicken breast halves overnight. And with a jar of capers from the pantry, I thought I'd make a simple chicken piccata. I chose to use one of my favorite flours, Wondra. It gives such a unique coating to meats when pan fried. It's usually used for making gravies because it dissolves instantly without forming lumps, but as the name implies, it works wonders on just about anything.

To serve with this quick meal, I had a bunch of white asparagus I bought last week. I know they're not in season in the Northeast, but at least they were from California. And they were on sale too. The spears of asparagus, steamed just until tender but with a little crunch, nicely complement the pan-fried chicken. If cooked just right, the breasts should be crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. Make sure you let the breasts rest, like with any meat, so that the internal juices redistribute. This recipe is easy to do and so rewarding at the table.

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