TRADITIONAL FAMILY RECIPES CAN MAKE CHRISTMAS MERRY!

I think that our food and recipes are one of the best ways to live on long after our minds and bodies cannot keep up. In fact, some of my earliest memories are about the food from holiday celebrations long past.

I love foods that are rooted in history; traditional dishes that have lined the bellies of many before us. Preserving food history is a keen interest of mine. I have cookbooks from the 1800’s that are filled with strange things I have never heard of (which is a bit of a shock, considering I spend most of my waking hours focused on food)! These recipes are nearly forgotten, only preserved in the pages of these artifacts.

My deep appreciation for history is the main reason I always cook family recipes during the holidays. As much as I believe in 21st-century food wizardry, I don’t find it necessary to update or modernize these traditional recipes. I like cooking them, and I enjoy reveling in the memories associated with them.

The one meal I look forward to more than any other is the meal my mother made on Christmas Eve: The Feast of the Seven Fishes. Now, we didn’t really do seven different fish, but multiple preparations of calamari and cod in one meal.

Our family’s Feast of the Seven Fishes menu consisted of:

  • Fried calamari, simply breaded with flour and seasoned with salt and pepper.
  • Fried codfish with the same breading as the calamari (my mom was the master of fried foods and her biggest secret was to reuse oil for frying. The flavors just keep getting better and better – her chicken was absolutely amazing).
  • Fried codfish in a cracker meal breading. My dad would pick this up at the East Side Fish Market already prepared; it was highly seasoned (not spicy) and fried in some sort of animal fat.
  • Dried codfish (bacala) cooked with tomatoes, capers and olives.
  • Dried codfish (bacala) cooked with dried hot red peppers grown in my father’s garden the previous summer.
  • Capellini with a very light tomato sauce with calamari that was slow simmered for several hours. For my mom, and as a general rule of thumb, calamari is either meant to be cooked for 30 seconds or an hour – anything else produces an unacceptable result. My mom also threw in cooked broccoli which added a great texture and a very fresh flavor that compliments the sort of “bottom-of-the-sea” flavor imparted by the long cooking of the calamari.
  • Stuffed calamari with bread crumbs, onion, garlic, Parmesan cheese and parsley simmered in a tomato sauce.

OTHER HOLIDAY TREATS

Sicilians are fans of the sweet and sour. Growing up, we had a treat that has been absent from or table for several years now: cippolini onions cooked in a Sicilian sweet and sour sauce spiked with chili flakes from my dad’s garden. These wild onions were extremely bitter – we had to boil them first to remove some of the bitterness, then sugar was added and we cooked it to a soft boil. Vinegar, chili flake and some salt was then added for the final product. I think these Moroccan-grown wild onions are no longer allowed into the USA, which is a travesty!

We also made a version of an Italian doughnut called a sfinge. They resembled doughnut holes, and when they were still hot, we got to shake them in a bag of sugar until they were coated.

My mom made baked goods like she was cooking for an army (this might explain my love for big portions, which I see as an extension of generosity). Whether it was pizza, bread, Easter bread or the huge variety of cookies for Christmas, it was always my mom’s intention to share with others. The seemingly endless variety of cookies was a feast for the eyes. Guantis, love knots, and some others that sadly I cannot recall. I do remember a type of cookie that my mom longed for from the old country called biscotti di San Martino. These were a favorite of her childhood, but the recipe did not survive – thanks to the Internet, though, she was finally able to get a recipe that she thought was lost forever!

Although the days of singing Christmas carols around the tree at McKee Elementary School are long gone, you can still watch “Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer” and “Frosty The Snow Man” on TV, and you can still fill your house with the sights and smells of your family’s own traditional holiday meals!

Don’t be afraid to say it – Merry Christmas, everyone!

FRIED CALAMARI RECIPE

Want to try your hand at one of my family’s holiday recipes? Try this traditional yet very simple recipe for fried calamari!

This is all you’ll need for a Formaro holiday classic!

First, clean the calamari by removing the cuddle bone and beak (I’m sure you’ve seen “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”). Cut tubes into rings and leave the tentacles whole.

Calamari, all cleaned up.

Soak the cleaned calamari in buttermilk for 20 minutes to an hour. Then remove the calamari and shake the excess buttermilk off. Dredge the calamari in flour seasoned with a bit of salt, pepper and garlic powder.

After a buttermilk bath, dredge the calamari in seasoned flour.

Shake off excess flour and fry in at fryer set to 375. Fry for about 30 to 40 seconds until the calamari is golden brown. Once removed and dried, serve with marinara sauce.

All fried and ready for dinner!

A NEW TASTE OF THE OLD SOUTH

Southern food fascinates for me. It’s hard to say exactly why; maybe it’s the flavors. Maybe it’s the generous hospitality associated with southerners (something I got used to in my own Italian-American upbringing). Maybe it’s the rich history and commitment to tradition. When I think about it, all of the above attracts me to what I consider one of my favorite styles of cooking.

My affinity for Southern food has me looking forward to the upcoming pop-up restaurant event in January in the gallery at Hoyt Sherman Place. Man-about-town Chris Diebel and Orchestrate chef extraordinaire Scott Stroud are opening Bubba, a southern-themed restaurant spanning three days (Jan. 10-12). It has all your down-home favorites; from grits to gumbo, fried green tomatoes to chicken and waffles! Each course is paired with a southern-inspired cocktail sure to warm up a cold Iowa night. Four courses, $75/person. Call 515-493-6500 or visit Bubbadsm.com for reservations. Trust me – you won’t want to miss it!

Check out this menu, then call to make reservations ASAP. This thing will be selling out for sure!

Now, my contribution to the pop-up restaurant is one of the most celebrated signature food item of Southern cuisine: the biscuit. Over the years, biscuits have evolved from beaten biscuits to what I call the modern day biscuit.

Biscuits are one of the most celebrated foods of the South.

Few people, especially in the north, know about the beaten biscuit. Originally made from short patent flour, water or milk, salt and some lard or butter, these were beaten with a large wooden rolling pin – the more they were beat, the better they got. For special company, some biscuits were beaten over 1,000 times! Like many labor-intensive work during the 1800’s, this was typically done by slaves or servants, although cooks of all means also got into the action in pursuit of the perfect biscuit.

By the middle of the 1800’s, a kitchen tool called the biscuit brake came along to make the task of biscuit-making much easier. This machine still required a skilled hand and some hard work, however, and by 1904, the biscuit brake was nearly obsolete. Recipes were still in cook books for these biscuits, though, and even a few recipes today still suggest a biscuit brake. But still the most educated of cooks have little familiarity with these little gems.

I found this biscuit brake online and snatched it up! A little bit of cleaning, and it’ll be back in commission.

Miss Howard Weeden (a 19th-century African-American poet and artist from Alabama) wrote:

Gone are the splendid, brave old days,
When cooking was a feat:
When it stirred one’s blood like victory,
Just to hear the biscuit beat

Clearly Miss Weeden longed for these biscuits!

HOMEMADE SOUTHERN BISCUITS

Most specialty dishes are difficult to make. This might explain why convenience foods grew to be so much in demand (I’m not sure who first coined the term “labor of love,” but that’s how I see cooking). In the mid 1800’s the availability of commercial baking powder was an early convenience food and the modern day biscuit evolved from there.

Wherever I travel, I talk to cooks about cooking and food. This is a formula I picked up from a cook in Atlanta, Ga., for a very good southern biscuit. (On the average, 2 cups of flour will yield about 12 biscuits.)

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 2 cups self-rising flour
  • 1 stick of butter (very cold)
  • 3/4 cup well chilled buttermilk

In a large mixing bowl, sift the self-rising flour. Using your fingertips, rub the cold butter into the sifted flour until mixture looks like crumbs. You’ll need to work quickly; you don’t want the butter to melt. Make a well in the center of your mixture and pour in the chilled buttermilk. Stir just until the dough comes together – it will be very sticky.

Turn the dough onto floured surface, dust top with flour and gently fold it over itself 5 or 6 times. Press into a 1-inch thick round. Cut out biscuits with a 2-inch cutter, being sure to push straight down through the dough. Do not twist the cutter! Place the biscuits on a buttered baking sheet, preferably one without raised edges. Gather up the scrap dough and re-form it, working it as little as possible and continue cutting. Note that biscuits from the second pass will not be quite as light as those from the first.

Bake the biscuits in a 450 degree oven until they’re tall and light gold on top (this will take about 10 to 15 minutes). If they get too brown, they will be dry – which will be a downright shame.

COUNTRY HAM & BISCUITS

Slab bacon is a great stand-in for country ham.

Country ham and biscuits is one of my favorite flavors of the south. Slow roasting slab bacon works perfectly for replicating the flavors of a southern country style ham with much less labor.

In addition to the biscuits, you will need:

  • 1 package of Smithfield bacon (Niman Ranch is an acceptable substitute; both are available at Gateway Market)
  • 1 cup of water
  • Some farm-fresh eggs
  • American cheese slices

Place the bacon in baking dish with 1 cup of water. Cover the dish and bake in a 325 degree oven for 3.5 hours until the meat is tender. Let the bacon cool, then slice and fry it in cast iron skillet to crisp.

Use the fat from the bacon to fry up your eggs. Season with a pinch of salt and plenty of black pepper.

Country ham and biscuits is more than sandwich!

To assemble, split warm biscuits in half and place a freshly fried egg on half of the biscuit. Top with a slice of American cheese and the crispy fried bacon.

Then, just put everything back together and watch the faces of the people you give these tasty delights to… this is my favorite thing about cooking!

COOKING WITH GEORGE

I’m very excited to announce another round of “Cooking with George,” coming up in early 2013! Each event takes place at Centro and focuses on three of my favorite Italian dishes (check out the menu below for the full lineup). I’ll walk through the steps for preparing each course, then serve a four-course meal with plenty of wine to go around.

The demonstrations make for great gifts and really help cheer up those dreary months after all the holiday festivities have passed. The cost is $100 a person, which includes all food, wine, tax and gratuity. Call 515.248.1780 or email management@centrodining.com today to reserve your spot.

Menu and dates for my cooking classes.

 

GEORGE’S 1 AM BURGER BAR: PRAISE THE LARD!

Our last visit to George’s 1 a.m. Burger Bar featured techniques for making great burgers by frying them in beef fat. Today I am going to talk about another type of simple but amazing burger inspired by the dives and burger joints of the Midwest.

These burgers, cooked in lard with onions, might be the best burgers you will ever make.

First: let’s talk about fat. Chefs are obsessed with it. We often recommend that our friends order something with way more fat than any normal person might want. For instance, chefs and foodies might tell you to order the ribeye steak because it has a nice amount of fat. Other people might tell you not to order it for the same reason.

Well, for the record, I’m solidly in the first group. I especially like dishes cooked in different kinds of animal fat (duck and beef fat is fantastic for this). And, here and now, I am going to share a recipe for a great burger cooked in lard.

PRAISE THE LARD! BURGER

This will feed 8 normal people (or 3 or 4 of my friends). Remember, the success of any dish (these burgers included) depend on the quality of your ingredients.

You’ll need:

2 pounds of George’s Grind from Gateway Market.
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 a cup of lard
8 white Zombie Burger buns, available at Gateway Market.
1 large onion, sliced
8 slices American cheese

The first step to making these tasty burgers is to melt lard on a cast iron pan or griddle.

Start by lightly toasting the buns in a toaster oven.

Mix your salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder with George’s Grind beef. Equally divide the seasoned beef into 8 balls.

Heat a large cast iron pan or griddle (medium high heat). Once the griddle is hot, add the lard. Once it has melted, add the sliced onions. Season the onions with salt and pepper and cook them until they just start to brown.

These burgers are meant to be thin – smash away!

Place 4 to 6 balls of seasoned meat on the hot griddle or cast iron skillet. Smash each ball of meat flat (these burgers are best when the patties are very thin). I try to make sure the patties are far enough apart so that when smashed, they do not touch.

Sear the meat to a nice brown color, then flip them to give the other side some of that grill love. What’s important here is to cook the meat to your preference, so it may not be necessary to brown the other side. You can do these burgers a nice medium rare if you like. But since George’s Grind (from Gateway) is designed to be juicy when cooked well done, you won’t be missing out on anything if you let it cook a bit longer!

When the burgers are done to your liking, add the cheese and let it melt a bit, then remove the burgers from the griddle. Without draining, place the patties on buns. Add the cooked onions to the burgers.

A beautiful sight.

Repeat the process with the remaining balls. If you’re making a large quantity of burgers, just keep going with more onions and patties. The lard, onion and natural beef juice just keeps getting better and creates an even more intense flavor.

Again, you need very little in the way of condiments for these – they might be some of the best burgers you will ever eat!

FORMARO’S FINDS: OUTSTANDING OILS, BRILLIANT BROTH AND PRIMO PASTA

It’s hard to believe that Gateway Market has been open for more than five years. What’s even harder to believe is that five years later, I still enjoy roaming the aisles and taking in all the great products. One thing that makes Gateway Market so different from other markets is that it’s chef-inspired; in other words, most of the products we offer are on our shelves because chefs want them and can’t find them anywhere else.

This means that our shelves are packed with excellent, unique items and brands that many people have never seen before. Even a lot of Gateway regulars can walk right by something without knowing the story of the item! So, from time to time, I am going to pull a few of my favorite items off the shelves at Gateway and share with you why I think they’re special – I call it “Formaro’s Finds.”

Two of Gateway Market’s most popular olive oils.

Gateway Market’s selection of olive oils is amazing – although there are tons of types and brands of oils out there, the ones we carry were chosen based on chef reviews and preferences. BelAria, a fruity Italian import, delivers a lot of bang for its buck and is extremely affordable – it’s the “go-to” olive oil for everyday use. Frantoia, which comes to us from Sicily, is a premium olive oil; this is a top pick with rave reviews from connoisseurs around the world. If olive oil has a starring role in your dish, you gotta go with Frantoia!

Field Day is just one of the brands of organic broth we sell at Gateway.

The best way to guarantee complete satisfaction with any homemade soup is to make your own broth. But there usually isn’t time for DIY; so the next best thing is a quality organic broth. Why is organic better? Well, many regular canned broths have a bunch of additives that just make them taste heavier than they should. Organic broths, especially those made by Field Day, taste fresh and light, like the kind you make at home.

Sprouted grain pasta has a unique texture and flavor; try it for a nice change of pace!

Anyone that’s looking for an alternative to traditional white pasta needs to check this out! Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Grain Pasta is a great find for anyone often feels over-stuffed and sluggish after eating white pasta. Because of the different texture of the pasta, it works best with lighter sauces or a mix of olive oil, garlic, pepper and cheese rather than your traditional red sauce.

These represent a tiny fraction of all the amazing products on Gateway – next time you stop by, grab something unfamiliar off the shelves for a closer look. You just may find a new favorite!

GEORGE’S 1 AM BURGER BAR

One goal for my blog is to offer a glimpse of some of the food that chefs, restaurant workers and their foodie friends gather around when they get together. These reunions typically happen at weird times; with the busy, high-stress schedules of those of us in the restaurant industry, it can be hard to get together with friends and let your hair down.

Yes! A burger cooked in beef fat is one of my favorites. It tastes so good that it does not need condiments.

Mom always said, “Nothing good happens after midnight,” and that IS partially true. However, that’s prime hangout time in the restaurant world. We’re usually awake, and maybe even up to no good (sorry ma, I didn’t heed your advice). We get together in the early morning hours at a late-night taco truck or in someone’s kitchen, throwing together batches of anything from pizza to hot dogs.

Good food is something good that can happen after midnight when chefs and their friends get together.

Now, I love burgers. No question. And there’s a lot of really easy ways to make some very tasty burgers. Often, I experiment with these in my kitchen (what I call my own “1 a.m. burger bar”) surrounded by friends and family. I enjoy different styles of burgers and will walk you through a few of the iconic regional styles (or just really great, simple burgers) with some tricks I have learned along the way.

I won’t waste your time with burgers that are just good enough and mindless enough for the home cook. These are truly great burger ideas that would make any burger junkie happy. And you will blow the minds of your friends, even if they haven’t been drinking!

What follows is the first of my favorites:

DEEP FRIED BURGERS

Here are details about an amazing 1 a.m. burger that would taste good anytime. Inspired by Dyers in Memphis, this specialty burger is fried in beef fat! Deep frying things isn’t just a hillbilly or state fair method of cooking; what goes on with meat that is browned in high heat (aka, the Maillard Reaction) is somewhat of a magical transformation. Yes, do not take for granted the value of browning meat (except for the onion cooked burgers that are steamed and boiled in sliced onions and beef stock!). Sometimes a fancy and very expensive grill, like the custom built one at Zombie Burger, is required to get a certain level of browning, or what we call crust. Other times a cast iron skillet or griddle will do the trick just fine.

Anyone who remembers the 1980’s might remember the war that was waged on fat and the creation of “fat-free this” and “low-cal that.” Frying is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance, and in some circles (“the Modernest Cuisine,” for example) frying is actually celebrated. Beef-fat fried burgers get the correct amount of browning. Because we are using a flavorful fat, these burgers are simple and satisfying and don’t require much in the way of condiments.

Here’s what you’ll need :

  • 2 pounds of ground suet or 2 to 3 pounds brisket or ribeye fat. (If you have a good relationship with a butcher, you might ask for this fat to be saved for you. Sometimes, it is just thrown away, so you might be able to get it for next to nothing.)
  • 8 hamburger buns
  • 2 pounds of George’s Gateway Grind
  • Salt
  • 1 yellow onion cut in quarters
  • 1 red onion, sliced
  • 8 slices of American cheese
  • Enough fat to deep fat fry your burgers

GATHERING THE FAT

First, you need to make your fat. This can be done waaaay in advance when you’ve got a little extra time and extra fat. I start with the fat trimmings from a brisket or ribeye, and supplement that with an additional amount of ground suet (about 2 pounds).

Place all the fat in a large Dutch oven and put over low heat until all the fat is melted and all that’s left are the cracklings. This will take some time but trust me it’s worth it! Let it cool slightly, and strain it through paper towels or a couple of coffee filters.

When the grease is filtered, cool and separate any beef juices that might be left. This will appear on the bottom of your container. Once hardened, tip out the fat onto a large bowl or plate and discard these juices. Use a paper towel to dab the bottom of the fat where the juices collect. Place the fat back in the fridge in a covered container until you’re ready to use it.

USING THE FAT

You can use either a 12 inch cast iron skillet/Dutch oven, or an electric skillet. Make sure that the fat is below the halfway line on whatever pan you are using. For the skillet or Dutch oven, use a deep fat thermometer to gauge the temperature. The electric skillet has built in temperature control which makes things easy… especially if you have been partaking in any of the fermented arts.

Carefully dipping a cheese-covered patty in the hot beef fat produces results in a decadent taste.

It only takes a half inch of rendered fat to get started. You’ll want to make sure the fat is right around 320 degrees. You can go to 350, but I feel the splatter gets to be a bit too much for my floor. The beauty of this is that the burgers cook fine even if the temp drops to 275! Throw in the quartered yellow onion for flavor; remove it when its browned, but not burned.

Divide your beef equally into eight balls. Season each with salt and flatten it with your hands to a little less than 1/4 of inch thick. Make a hole about the size of a dime in the center of each burger (you’re not making a donut… this will close up when it cooks).

When the fat is hot, slide the burgers into the hot grease using a spatula. Be very careful – do not splatter yourself! No need to crowd the pan, because these things cook fast. When edges are visibly brown, flip the burgers. When they’re done to your liking (here is the sinister part!) use a slotted metal spatula or pancake turner and gently lift the burgers, keeping them on the slotted spat. Place cheese directly on the burger and dip the edges of the stack back into the fat. This will warm the cheese and impart a little more of what Dyers calls “Vitamin G.” Place the patty/cheese combos on toasted buns and serve. These burgers do not need much in the way of condiments, but I find some pickles and raw onions compliment the flavors nicely.

While the grease is still warm (I usually wait ’til the next day) strain the remaining grease with the same method you used to get it in the first place. Freeze or refrigerate it until your next midnight excursion. If you strain and replenish it and don’t contaminate it with starch from breadcrumbs, flour or potatoes (I use a separate one for fries), this grease will last a long time. The grease at Dyers is reportedly 100 years old now… and the burgers are fantastic!