Restaurant interlude: Denver

I'm going with a top ten format on this one. My top ten favorite places to eat in Denver are:

10. Sassafras American Eatery. The newest addition to this list and the only place I have been just twice before. A brunch place, in my mind, needs to offer truly amazing food, just like a dinner place, and Sassafras does. My two favorites are the fried green tomato eggs Benedict (I am a sucker for creative interpretations of eggs, bread and hollandaise) and the Southern Sunrise (pulled pork, fried red onions, jalapeño and cheddar grits, sunnyside up egg, pico de gallo, biscuit with homemade jam options ). Oh how I love good grits, and how hard they are to find in Denver! They also served good espresso, milkshakes, brioche French toast and "Elvis" (peanut butter mousse and banana) beignets, plus a solid kids' menu. A tie with Beatrice & Woodsley for best brunch in Denver.

9. SALT.* I, for one, am delighted with increasing popularity of sea salt caramels over the last several years and of the sweet-savory trend in general. I was initially drawn to Salt for the chocolate caramel sea salt tart and then drawn in by the mix and match cocktail menu. The food is consistently fabulous, fresh and fun, a great exemplar of Boulder's farm-to-table cuisine. (Honestly, it was a really tough call between putting Salt, The Kitchen, and Black Cat on this list, so I'll say no more.)

8. Spuntino. I first encountered Spuntino's gelato (which rivals Capogiro) whilst shopping at Marczyk. When my mom came to visit, I decided I wanted to take her to the shop itself, so she could choose from the full range of flavors (though I recommend chocolate and hazelnut and roasted almond and vanilla bourbon and...). That happened to be the week they opened the full restaurant - easily the best Italian food in Denver. I especially love the ricotta cavatelli with spicy homemade sausage, cannelini beans, and sautéed greens and the porchetta sandwich (though all the sandwiches and salads have been amazing). Dinner is a great deal too. And for dessert, of course there is gelato, but don't neglect the almond macaroons, pear tart and olive oil cake.

7. TAG. I sometimes think TAG actually has the best food in Denver - sashimi with pop rocks, taco sushi, amazing buttery white fish with English peas, and so on. Their omakase is spot-on and they host some cool events. In January, we went to their Prohibition Dinner, which was a great excuse to dress up Roaring Twenties style and have some good cocktails. The only down side, really, is that I just don't love the atmosphere. I want to like Larimer Street, but it's just a little too fake-hip...and I always forget to carry cash for valet parking. That extends to the interior of TAG, which is just a little too noisy and a little too crowded (unless you're not in a booth, in which case it's a lot too all of those things). But back to the food...

6. Z Cuisine. And À Côté too, of course. I won't go so far as to say I feel like I'm in Paris - or Provence - but Z Cuisine definitely conjures a European ambience unlike most other restaurants in Denver. I love the delightful cocktails (think St. German and Champagne, grapefruit granita with vodka and Champagne, and the best Corpse Reviver No. 2 in the city), the crowded (yes, really, I do) wooden tables, and the handwritten chalkboard menu. Most of all, I love the salade gourmande - several kinds of charcuterie with a perfect dressing and some greenery (more precisely: "duck gesiers confit maison sautéed with Morcillas sausage, chorizo tossed with apples baton, Colorado beef langua carpaccio style lightly flambéed in Cognac and topped with Hudson's Valley duck magret prosciutto, served on a sherry and Dijon vinaigrette butter and frisée lettuce). It is the BEST single dish in Denver, I promise. That and a cocktail are really all I need.

5. Frasca Food and Wine and Arugula.* Why are these two tied? Well, together, they serve the best Italian food in Colorado (my standards are  very high, I admit). I have had many delicious meals at both. I love Frasca's focus on a single ingredient at each meal, and I think their service is unparalleled. They once overcharged us by $2 on a glass of wine. Instead of simply fixing the mistake in a timely manner (which was really all that was required in the situation), they fixed it quickly, apologized profusely, and served us glasses of digestif on the house. They were tolerant of my then five month old son (though perhaps not as overjoyed with him as real Italians would be). On the other hand, I secretly suspect that Arugula's food is just as amazing - if only I could do a head-to-head test (and their service and atmosphere, while not Frasca, are quite good). Arugula is the restaurant that persuaded me to finally enjoy octopus (in a carpaccio preparation with a blood orange vinaigrette, I think).

4. Sushi Sasa. I once dated a guy who basically sucked at birthdays, holidays, any sort of special occasion with expectations and gift-giving involved...except for my twenty-seventh birthday, when he took me here - we sat at the bar and he told the chef to give us whatever he thought was best. (I peeked at the bill later, curious, and it was over $300 with very little alcohol.) It was easily one of the top 10 meals I've ever had - the flawless, buttery sashimi and oysters with soy and scallion stand out in my memory, though I also like their cold green tea soba noodles, tempura and "new-style" salmon sashimi. The wine list and cocktails are solid, certainly better than the average Japanese restaurant.

First post-baby cocktail,
a Pepper Blossom at Root Down
3. Root Down. I agree that Linger is excellent and, if anything, has an even more fabulous space with great views of the city, but it just hasn't won me over in the same way. I first discovered Root Down accidentally, when I was choosing a restaurant for Harvest Week (the old version of Harvest Week). The carrot and Thai curry soup and sweet potato fries with lime-curry dipping sauce quickly won me over and are consistently awesome. (As much as I love to try new things, it's also nice to have a few favorite dishes.) The menu usually includes something delicious involving beets, tasty sliders, and excellent gnocchi. Variations on arepas, especially in their brunch incarnation, have been on the menu for a couple of years now; unfortunately, the previously spectacular burrata has disappeared. Overall, brunch is solid too and greatly improved by the bottomless blood orange mimosas. The cocktails are outstanding - the Pepper Blossom (vodka, St. Germain, jalapeño, basil, grapefruit, lemon) makes my top 10 Denver cocktails list. Another plus - they have tasty homemade sodas like the Cardamom Fizz (or nonalcoholic cocktails, if you prefer to think of it that way), ideal for pregnant girls. Sit on the deck and enjoy the Denver skyline if you can.

B&W's wine cellar
2. Beatrice & Woodsley. I have been enchanted with this restaurant since my friend Catharine first recommended it. I'm not sure there is a more unique venue in Denver (aspens rising through the floor to touch the ceiling?) and I'm sure it has the most unique bathroom sinks (see for yourself). An open, adventurous palate is a must for eating here, along with a willingness to share your food (many dishes are tapas-styled). Cocktails are fabulous. Brunch is also exceptional, a judgment I reserve exclusively for places going above and beyond what you are simply too lazy to make for yourself at home on a Sunday morning. For example, do you make pain perdu (a variation on French toast by way of custard that changes on a regular basis, currently "battered huckleberry-lemon curd bread with brined belly, cranberry-orange butter and poached egg") at home? No? Perfect. The brunch menu also includes one of my top 10 cocktails, the Tea Thyme, a blend of Earl Grey-infused gin, lemon juice and thyme syrup. Don't forget to order the rasher of bacon. (Trust me.) And for the enchanting, almost magical, atmosphere and omnipresent booths, I sincerely think this is a great place for kids - we held my son's christening celebration here, in the wine cellar that serves as a private party room.

1. Potager. An easy decision. For those who don't know, Potager is a consistently delicious farm-to-table restaurant in Capitol Hill (a few blocks from where I used to live). The menu is seasonal, changing every four to five weeks, and nearly always includes an amazing goat cheese souffle (the late summer corn version was to die for) and pizza (I can still taste the version with cherries and goat cheese). Other highlights have included savory greens, sweet potato soup, whole roasted chicken with panzanella, and a clambake. The wine list is solid (including a few Infinite Monkey Theorem bottles and some good ciders). For dessert, I recommend anything that comes with homemade ice cream (don't be afraid, even if it's black pepper or olive oil). But it's the service and atmosphere that push Potager to the top of my list. When my son was just a few weeks old, dining out had not been going as smoothly as planned, and so we decided to cancel our 5280 Week reservations at Colt & Grey and just walk to a place nearby - Potager. From the beginning, and once or twice a month thereafter, the hostess, servers and bartender could not have been more accommodating and welcoming. This is actually the first restaurant where I've had a "regular" table (left back corner of the bar area).


A few restaurants that really should be on the list but I limited it to 10 because my fingers were starting to hurt: Fruition (demoted because it was walking distance from my house but too crowded for my stroller), Amu (best agedashi-dofu in Colorado), Colt & Grey (marrow bones, please), Black Cat (romantic!), The Squeaky Bean (everything about it), The Kitchen

And a few (okay, more than a few) runners-up to the runners-up:
Dinner - Twelve, Domo (sit in the garden on a summer night!), Tables, Izakaya Den (except for one manager's appalling taste in music), ChoLon Bistro, TAG raw bar, Satchel's on 5th, Mizuna (lobster mac and cheese), Bones, Café Brazil, Lou's Food Bar, Rioja, Table 6, Bittersweet, Charcoal, Firenze a Tavola, Solera, Village Cork, Steuben's, Olivéa
Take away/quick bites - Pinche Taqueria (happy hour!), Chada Thai (tom kha gai), Peter's Chinese Café, Phoenician Kabob, Mecca Grill, GB Fish & Chips
Lunch - Vert Kitchen (braised pork shoulder sandwich), Thai Street Food
Breakfast - Waffle Brothers (I like a traditional waffle with strawberries, blackberries and kiwi and I loved being the first person in the door after a stroller jog at 6:30 in the morning), Snooze (except I can't stand the ridiculous crowds), Lucile's Creole Café
Dessert - Glaze, Cake Crumbs Bakery, Lik's Ice Cream, d Bar Desserts
Coffee - Aviano Coffee, Pablo's Coffee, Fluid Coffee Bar
Cocktails/Wine - Williams & Graham, El Diablo, Churchill Bar (Brown Palace Hotel), Infinite Monkey Theorem Tasting Room, Caveau, Sketch

What can I say? Denver has a LOT of great restaurants! And I haven't been to Trillium yet...


Simple olive cream sauce

Mixed olives, about 1.5 cups, pitted and finely diced in a mini food processor or similar (I like a mixture of marinated spicy Greek olives, kalamata and green, but there are many options)
Heavy or double cream, 0.5 cup
Crushed red pepper flakes, 0.5 tsp (optional)
Garlic, crushed, 4 cloves
Olive oil, 2 tbsp
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Saute garlic and crushed red pepper in olive oil until garlic is softened.
2. Add olives, quickly sauteing for 2-3 minutes.
3. Add cream. Stir until warmed through and flavors well merged.
4. Add salt and pepper if needed.
5. Toss with pasta or serve over chicken or fish.

The story: 
It really is that simple. My mom made a sauce similar to this several years ago and served it over cheese tortelloni, alongside some spicy chicken (recipe to be posted soon!).


Cream of Jerusalem artichoke soup

1/4 cup unsalted butter
2 lb Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), peeled and cubed
12 oz leeks, washed and finely sliced
1 potato, peeled and cubed
1 medium onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed and finely chopped
6-8 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup chestnuts, cooked and peeled
1/4 cup firm goat cheese, finely grated
1 garlic clove, crushed and finely chopped
1/2 tsp coarse seat salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 cup flat-leaf parsley
Juice from 1 lemon
3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup rapeseed oil

1. In large, heavy-based saucepan, melt the butter over a low heat, then gently sauté the sunchokes, leeks, potato and onion until soft, about 20 minutes. 
2. Add the stock, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 20 to 30 minutes, until the artichokes can be easily mashed against the side of the pan with the back of a wooden spoon.
3. Allow to cool slightly, then purée soup in food processor until smooth. Return to pot.
4. Add cream and season to taste.
1. Purée the chestnuts, cheese, garlic, salt and pepper in a food processor. 
2. Add the parsley and purée again until well chopped. 
3. Add the lemon juice and slowly add the oil until smooth. 
4. Add salt and pepper to taste. 
5. Drizzle soup with pesto and rapeseed oil. (Store remainder in freezer or refrigerate for up to two weeks.)

The story:
In 2005, my mom and I met my dad and sister in Dublin, after they had finished visiting some 
View of other Hebrides,
just before ascending the In Pinn
sites in England, Germany and Netherlands related to my dad's research. After a few days there, we spent the rest of our holiday in Scotland, where my father's family lived a mere 300 years ago. I had originally wanted to hike the West Highland Way, and although I was soundly overruled on that point, I did manage to coax everyone a bit further east to the Isle of Skye so I could go rock climbing. Though no one joined me in the Black Cuillin, we all loved the island. We stopped for lunch one day at the Three Chimneys, where I had cream of Jerusalem artichoke soup as my first course.

Skye landscape, near the Three Chimneys
A few years later, I searched for a recipe and found one quite similar to this in The Guardian. The original didn't have the chestnut pesto, but it's a fantastic addition. This soup reminds me of the delightful coziness of a misty summer day on Skye. It remains one of my favorite places in the world, and I hope I'll return (and see more of the Hebrides) someday soon. (I loved it so much, I contemplated naming my son Skye - unfortunately, soap opera girls have co-opted that spelling. I still think it might be suitable as a middle name for a future son or daughter.) 


Three-day miso-marinated Chilean sea bass

Chilean sea bass (can substitute salmon or black cod)
White miso paste, 1/3 cup
Mirin, 1/3 cup
Sake or white wine, 2 tbsp
Honey, 2 tbsp
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Simmer ingredients over low-medium heat until thoroughly combined and miso has dissolved.
2. Cool to room temperature, then pour over fish in a glass or ceramic container. Seal well with lid, plastic wrap, foil or all of the above.
3. Place in the refrigerator to marinate for three days.
4. Three days later: Preheat your oven to 400˚F.
5. Remove fish from marinade and season with a pinch of salt and pepper.
6. Brown sea bass on all sides in an oveproof pan over medium-high heat.
7. Place pan in oven and bake for 10-15 minutes, until fish is opaque and flakes easily.

The story:
I've been getting behind on blogging whilst travelling...

This recipe is based on a similarly-named dish that I first tried in February 2010 at Syringa, a Japanese restaurant in beautiful Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. (For awhile, due to a family/relationship situation too complicated to describe here, I visited Spokane every couple of months and, thankfully, ate lots of yummy food, always my saving grace.) Anyway, I was naturally a bit skeptical of marinating fish for three days, having memorized "marinate fish for 15-30 minutes, no more than an hour" as a basic rule of cooking. But it was fabulous and, since I'm always looking for ways to make fish at home that aren't incredibly complicated or impossibly simple (see sole meunière), I decided to try it. Apparently the miso lightly cures the fish, and I've since discovered similar dishes with black cod and salmon on the menus of Morimoto and Nobu (though not, sadly, Matsuhisa Vail about which I was so excited!). Morimoto, incidentally, has been a favorite of mine for more than ten years - well before I lived in Philadelphia, my college boyfriend and I drove five hours (each way!) from Charlottesville to have omakase there. So worth it. As is waiting three days to eat this dish.


Restaurant interlude: San Francisco

We spent the weekend in San Francisco so I could attend and speak at the awesome National Conference for Physician Scholars in the Social Sciences and Humanities. It was such a fascinating weekend that I actually wanted to attend every session, but I did manage to squeeze in a few good meals and few more cocktails. Philadelphia and Denver just got bumped down a couple notches in my personal rankings of cities with extremely innovative, local, farm-to-table cocktails.

We started out by walking to the Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery for lunch, fresh off the plane Friday morning. We shared Devils on Horseback, bacon-wrapped goat cheese-stuffed dates, which I had to admit rivaled my own variation. My sister tried their spicy wings, my mom chose prosciutto and Carmody cheese, and I ordered fish and chips. The fish had an amazing texture - butter-soft white flesh in a perfect crisp shell but seemed bland even after a dash of salt and several helpings of malt vinegar. The chips were solidly good and went well with the Blue Bell Bitter.

For dinner, we took a taxi to aziza - I was very excited about the duck confit bisteeya (my favorite Moroccan dish) and about my son's second Michelin star experience. The only disappointment was the portions - I'm used to tiny plates from high-end restaurants, and if I was a local, it would have been a really good value, because we took home several boxes. The sweet-savory (and therefore always filling) bisteeya could have served four but neither my sister nor my son wanted to taste it. The lamb shanks with prunes (classic!) and barley was generously oversized, as were the short ribs (which my sister pronounced the best she'd ever had). My son devoured the green chickpea spread and shared the lentil soup with his aunt and grandmother. (Yes, we let the one year old eat $10 worth of soup. Sigh.) We also shared the marinated olives. I thought he would be excited to be allowed some preserved lemon (since he LOVES to gnaw at the peel of fresh lemons) but he seemed disinterested. Finally, the cocktails...I had an amazing concoction of arugula, turmeric and tequila and a completely different, equally exotic blend of whiskey, grape, and smoke.

On Saturday night, my mom generously stayed in with the baby (who had not exactly been showing off his best restaurant behavior, despite some adventurous eating performances) and my sister went to the Alembic. We had olives and shishito peppers (so simple, so delicious), followed by sea bass with artichoke, clam and smoked potato, and smoked cavatelli with early spring vegetables (smoke is very definitely our friend). Best bar food ever. Megan tried a couple of the beers, including Moonlight Death & Taxes, and I tried the Rise Above (tequila, Lillet Rose, lemon juice, rose hip syrup) and the Jack Rose (applejack brandy, lemon juice, grenadine). I was intrigued by the Poop Deck Cocktail (cognac, port wine, blackberry brandy) but the name? Ew. Sadly, we had to get home to baby and so I skipped the tempting caramel panna cotta and caramelized brioche desserts.



Ground beef, 1/4 lb
Ground bison, 1/4 lb (for purists, substitute 1/2 lb ground beef)
Ground pork, 1/4 lb (if you have extra time on your hands, you can braise and finely shred pork shoulder)
Ground lamb, 1/4 lb (but yes, you can substitute veal if you are a purist)
Carrots, minced (I usually use a mini food processor)
Yellow onion, minced
Celery stalks, minced, 2 (in practice, I leave these out, but they are traditional)
Garlic, crushed (releases flavor better) and minced
Crushed tomatoes, 28 oz
Basil, chopped, 1/4 cup (technically "against the rules" but I love basil)
Olive oil, 4 tbsp, divided
Butter, 1 tbsp
Dry red wine, 1/2 cup
Balsamic vinegar, 2 tbsp
Crushed red pepper flakes or paprika, 1/2 tsp
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
The right shape and kind of pasta - tagliatelle or pappardelle are my favorites but bucatini or garganelli would also work well

Serves: 6-8 people

1. Mix the different types of ground meat together, seasoned with salt, pepper, and balsamic vinegar.
2. Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil and 1 tbsp butter in a large Dutch oven or saucière over medium heat. Make a soffritto by sautéing garlic, onion, carrots and celery (if using) until softened and fragrant. Set aside.
3. Using the same pan, add 2 more tbsp of olive oil. Brown meat thoroughly, then set aside.
4. Again, in the same pan, add crushed tomatoes, red wine, and basil. Season with salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. Bring to a simmer.
5. Stir in soffritto and ground meat.
6. Simmer on low-medium heat for 2-3 hours.
7. Serve over pasta (though, in a pinch, you can eat it plain, like an Italian chili - which is also the way I fed it to my son when he was eight months old).

The story:
Several months after I moved to Atlanta in 2003, I discovered La Tavola Trattoria. Though I was surprised to find much good Italian food so far south of the Mason-Dixon Line, La Tavola had a lot going for it - walking distance from my Virginia-Highland apartment, a good wine list, a nice balcony seating area in back, which was absolutely lovely in the fall and spring, and a reliably superb tagliatelle al ragù alla bolognese. Sometime later, my friend Lauren introduced me to the Dekalb Farmers Market, which had an expansive and mouthwatering butcher section, as well as the ability to grind pretty much any and every cut and type of meat, on the spot. Though vaguely aware that pork, beef and veal were the more traditional components of a bolognese, I decided that pork, beef and lamb would create a more interesting and complex taste. I borrowed the use of balsamic vinegar from a really great pizza that Lauren made with tomatoes marinated in balsamic, after practicing on some innocent steaks. Then, after making my sauce a few times, I discovered that the farmers market made their own bolognese in-house and convenience won that round.

I moved across the Atlantic and back, spent some time in Philadelphia, where I started to think of bolognese as the ultimate one-dish meal (lots of protein, veggies, and carbohydrates in the pasta) and eventually wound my way out west, where I gave a bison a chance. My skepticism was unfounded, derived from some disappointing experiences with elk and reindeer. I ordered an elk steak whilst skiing in Snowbird, Utah, in 2002 - it was unremarkable and I mainly remember my friend Mitch commenting, "There's just nothing like cow, is there?" The reindeer appeared on my father's plate at an otherwise lovely restaurant in Helsinki the following year.

Seven years later, I was intrigued by the omnipresence of bison in Colorado grocery stores, especially because it had seemed to me, over the years, that very little about grocery store chains was regional anymore. When I first moved away, I discovered that even the best grocery store in my college town carried very few of the Italian staples and imported ingredients that were readily available at home. Now, even Whole Foods (and definitely places like Marczyk and Di Bruno) carries brands that I remember from childhood trips to Italy. But bison seemed to be the exception! I'm fairly certain the Atlanta and Philadelphia Whole Foods, and Wegman's of 2008 did not carry bison - yet every store in Denver did.

You're probably wondering how this relates to the bolognese. I had been leaning toward eating grass-fed, and between 2007 and 2009, I read several things that persuaded me that this was something I needed to be strict about, akin to being vegan, for instance, rather than a weak food preference, like preferring linguine to spaghetti (only me!). These included Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and this article from the New York Times. But once I was committed, I discovered just how hard it is to exclusively buy grass-fed beef (and let's not even discuss grass-fed and grass-finished beef). Due to the vagaries of history and contemporary market pressures, bison appeared to be a better and more readily available choice. In fact, my first real hamburger (unless we're counting that camelburger in Morocco) was actually a bison burger. So when I first set out to make bolognese in Colorado, it was an easy decision to include ground bison.

What, no family stories? My grandmother didn't make "meat sauces" as they would recognizable to most Americans, though she often added whole sausage links, cubed pork shoulder and meatballs to her sauces.
Gross Reservoir Dam, Boulder, Colorado, August 2012


Pasta al pomodoro | Fresh tomato sauce

The BEST fresh tomatoes you can find - plum, vine-ripened, heirloom or even cherry or grape tomatoes, chopped, about 2 cups (or 4 plum tomatoes)
Basil, chopped, 1/2 cup
Garlic, crushed and finely chopped, 6-8 cloves
Hot red pepper flakes or paprika (ideally, homemade), 1/4 tsp
Olive oil, excellent quality
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste or about 1/4 tsp each
The right shape of pasta

Serves: 2

1. Cook pasta in a pot of salted boiling water until almost but not quite al dente. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup of cooking liquid and set aside. (The sauce cooks quickly, so I recommend cooking the pasta first.)
2. Sauté garlic in olive oil until softened.
3. Add chopped tomatoes and season with salt, pepper and paprika.
4. Simmer for about 2-3 minutes, then add basil.
5. Simmer for another 2-3 minutes, up to 10 minutes. A shorter cooking time will leave tomatoes with more substance; a longer cooking time means a less chunky sauce, with only the tomato skins left behind. All are good.
6. Add pasta and reserved liquid to sauce. Simmer for another 2-3 minutes to reduce liquid. By cooking the pasta a bit more in the sauce, the pasta gains more flavor. Serve.

The story:
View from the Old Parsonage,
where we stayed during my first trip
back since graduating, October 2012
This is very definitely my recipe - to make my mom's version, simply substitute fresh for crushed tomatoes in our family tomato sauce recipe. I made this - from scratch - several times a week when I was a graduate student at Oxford. It was a quick, spectacular and reasonably healthy lunch.

My son explores the Old Parsonage's
17th century fireplace
This is also very much a recipe that rests on the quality of the ingredients - your tomatoes and basil need to be outstanding. A sprinkle of sugar or splash of high-quality balsamic vinegar can help bring out the flavor in suboptimal tomatoes; a teaspoon of good pesto can help with less-than-fresh basil. But in general, I prefer to save this recipe for when I know I have amazing produce to serve. I also find the quality and shape of the pasta (which always matters to me) matters even more. I like something with some firmness and bite to it and so would suggest farfalle, garganelli, cavatelli, or cheese tortelloni. Both fresh (i.e. egg) and dry pastas work well.
Lovely Oxford in the summer
June 2007


Mozzarella in carrozza

Fresh mozzarella, sliced into 3/4 inch thick rounds
Flour, seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper
Eggs, beaten, with salt and freshly ground pepper
Seasoned Italian breadcrumbs
Olive and canola oils, enough to cover your frying pan with a 1/2 inch of oil

1. Dip slices in seasoned flour and then beaten egg.
2. Coat with breadcrumbs.
3. Fry in oil until crumbs are crisp, turning once.
4. Place on paper towels to drain oil.
5. Serve with tomato sauce for dipping.

The story:
To borrow a quote (though not the recipe) from Nigella Lawson: "This is Italian food before Tuscan rustic chic." To borrow a quote from my mom: "I'm not sure where this recipe came from. Grandma made it when I was having some friends over in 1977." I think that sums it up perfectly, don't you? My grandmother used a similarly simple, delicious approach to frying eggplant and veal.

Me at age 2, helping my grandmother Ida open a present
It looks like I'm already about half her height :-)

Tomato sauce

Crushed plum or vine-ripened tomatoes, 16 oz (alternatively, 3 cups of chopped fresh plum or vine-ripened tomatoes)
Garlic, crushed, about 5 cloves
Crushed hot red pepper flakes, 1 tsp (alternatively, 1 chopped Italian long hot pepper)
Salt, 1 tsp
Sugar, 1/2 tsp
Fresh basil, chopped, 1/4 cup
Flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped, 1/4 cup
Olive oil
Water, 1/4 can (1/2 cup)

1. Sauté garlic in olive oil until softened.
2. Add remaining ingredients and simmer about 30 minutes.
3. Serve over pasta, with lasagne or eggplant involtini or drizzled over mozzarella in carrozza.

The story:
My grandparents and
my aunt Ann Marie, c. 1945
My grandfather Peter grew his own tomatoes, hot peppers, and herbs. When he came home from work, he would take off tie, suit jacket, white shirt, dress pants and shoes and go to tend his garden. (There were actually two - a small one behind the garage of the house where my mother grew up, where my great-grandparents, grandparents, great-aunt Na and their children all lived, and another, larger one at my aunt Ann's house.)  His ingredients were always fresh from the garden, so he made the best sauces. My grandmother Ida canned the fresh tomatoes with basil for the winter.
My grandfather Peter after gardening,
with his two oldest grandchildren,
my cousins Michael and Lisa, August 1967


Stuffed dates

Fresh dates (can substitute jalapeño peppers if you prefer spicy to sweet), as many as you need
Fontina, manchego (3 month aged - best with peppers) or asiago fresco (best with dates)
Pancetta, sliced to about 1/8 inch thickness, or prosciutto, as thinly sliced as possible, about 1/2 lb per 25 dates

1. Line a baking sheet with foil and preheat your oven to 375˚F.
2. Slit your dates (or peppers) along one side and remove the pits (or seeds).
3. Slice cheese into pieces that will fit inside your dates (or peppers), approximately 1/4 x 1/4 x 1 inch for dates.
4. Stuff with pieces of cheese and wrap with pancetta or prosciutto. If using pancetta, you will probably want to unwind the spiral and use about half of a slice of pancetta per date or pepper. If using prosciutto, you should fold the prosciutto slices so that the vertical height is approximately the same as each date or pepper. When wrapping, the slices will go around the date or pepper more than once.
5. Lay each on the baking sheet. Bake about 10 minutes or until prosciutto/pancetta is crisp and cheese is just beginning to bubble out.
6. Cool and serve.

The story:
I first had a bar snack similar to these at D Bar in August 2009, not long after I moved to Denver. A few weeks later, I improvised my own version for the first time at a housewarming party. The jalapeño version evolved a year or so later, when I was trying to come up with an appetizer to bring to a Halloween party that would compliment the hosts' chili. I liked the concept behind jalapeño poppers but I hate messing around with deep-frying, and I don't really like cream cheese either!

These make great party appetizers because they can be made well ahead (though ideally, kept warm or warmed up) and they also travel flawlessly. With dates, they are sweet and decadent; with jalapeños, they vary more, from just a hint of heat to fiery and flaming. The date version is ideal with a balanced red or rosé wine (not too sweet or too dry: I like Infinite Monkey Theorem's sparkling red); the jalapeño version is better suited for an ice-cold beer.

Sauce verte

Fresh basil, 2/3 cup
Green onion, coarsely chopped, 2
Fresh Italian parsley, 2 tbsp
Capers, drained, 3 tbsp
Lemon juice, freshly squeezed, 2 tbsp
Dijon mustard, 2 tsp
Garlic, crushed and finely chopped, 2-3 cloves
Extra-virgin olive oil, 3 tbsp
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Purée all ingredients in a food processor or immersion blender.

The story:
Toss with sautéed or roasted vegetables (zucchini or green beans are good, as suggested in the recipe) or pasta, serve as a dip with crisp wedges of red bell pepper, or drizzle over chicken or fish. There are lots of options for this easy, classic French sauce.


Torta arcobaleno | First birthday cake

Butter, softened, 3 sticks
White sugar, 1 1/2 cups
Eggs, 6 large
Almond paste, grated with a box grater, 12 oz
Pure almond extract, 1 tbsp
Milk, 1 cup
Cake flour, 3 3/8 cups
Baking powder, 3 tsp
Gel food coloring (3 different colors)

Homemade jam (strawberry, raspberry or apricot), 1/4-1/2 cup or 1/8-1/4 cup of two different kinds of jam
Double or heavy cream, 1 cup
Milk chocolate, 6 oz
Dark chocolate, 6 oz

1. Butter and flour three nine-inch round pans with parchment paper on the bottom.
2. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy, using an electric mixer.
3. Beat in the eggs. 
4. Add the grated almond paste, almond extract, and milk. Beat until well combined.
5. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. Slowly add to the almond paste batter and mix until combined (this is where that plastic spill-catching rim on the KitchenAid mixers is VERY helpful).
6. Divide the batter evenly between three bowls. Color each bowl with a different shade of gel food coloring (I chose green, blue and yellow for my son's first birthday; red, yellow and green are more traditional). Be careful - gel food coloring really really stains. My fingers were blue for days.
7. Pour batter into pans (one color per pan). SMOOTH OUT THE TOP!! DO NOT FORGET! Bake at 350˚F for approximately 25 minutes. 
8. Remove from the oven and let cool. 
9. While the cake is cooling, make the ganache: Heat heavy cream in a small saucepan until bubbles begin forming around the edge. 
10. Turn off the heat and pour over the chocolate. Stir continuously until melted completely. Cool to room temperature.
11. Spread jam on the bottom layer of the cake. Top with the next layer. Spread with another thin layer of jam. Put the top layer in place.
12. Pour the ganache over the cake, coating the sides thoroughly with a spatula. 
13. Let sit at room temperature in a cool spot for 2 hours or longer until completely set.

The story:
When I was growing up, my mother always made (still does, in fact) soft tricolor almond cookies - tiny cakes, really - with chocolate ganache topping at Christmas. She called them petit fours. Many years later, I bit into the tiny treat that most American bakeries label "petit four" - which enchanted me with its resemblance to the "Eat Me" cakes in Alice in Wonderland - and was disappointed to discover it was fairly ordinary white cake coating in hard icing. Several more years passed, and I moved to Philadelphia, where I learned that many Italian bakeries sold "Italian rainbow cookies" that greatly resembled my mom's petit fours. I investigated further (i.e. Googled) and learned that these were quite well-known in New York City, but whatever their origins, they apparently never spread to the upstate Italian community where I was raised. My mom says she found the recipe on the back of a jar of almond paste, long ago, and made it her own.

A few years later, I was seven months pregnant and it was Christmastime again. I was eating a petit four and suddenly thought, This would make a fantastic cake. Remembering their better-known name, I typed "Italian rainbow cookie cake" into Google, which spit out this fabulous recipe from Alejandra Ramos at Always Order Dessert. I decided then and there that this would be my son's first birthday cake - the snowflakes with which she decorated her cake seemed especially fitting for a midwinter baby. I even reposted a photo of the cake to my nursery photo album on Picasa. And fourteen months later, at about 9 o'clock on a Saturday night, my son finally asleep in his own bed, I set to work making it. Spoiler...it is harder than expected to get the layers flat and to avoid "gaps" on the sides, which makes spreading the ganache around the sides also quite difficult. My mom always weighted the petit fours with something heavy to press them flat, which makes dense, delicious cookies, but I wanted the cake to be lighter and fluffier. Regardless, it was still AMAZING. The birthday boy liked it too. 


Fresh pasta and ravioli

Pasta dough
Eggs, 6
Water, 6 1/2 eggshells
Flour, 4 cups
Semolina, 2 cups

Cheese filling for ravioli
Ricotta, 1 lb
Mozzarella, grated, 1 cup
Pecorino romano or parmigiano-reggiano, grated, 1/3 cup
Eggs, 2
Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, finely chopped, 2 tbsp
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Beat eggs and water.
2. Mix in flour and semolina.
3. Knead into stiff dough.
4. Shape as desired. Using a pasta machine is of course optional but very helpful for some shapes. (I highly recommend The Geometry of Pasta if you need ideas.)
5. Mix filling ingredients if making ravioli. You have several shape options for ravioli; regardless you'll need a little egg yolk to seal the edges. I recommend using a smaller amount of filling that you think is appropriate; we tend to overestimate and then the ravioli will burst while cooking.
6. Allow to dry overnight before cooking.

The story: 
This recipe came from my great-grandmother Maria ("tiny, five feet tall, always wearing an apron," says my mom), handed down to my grandmother Ida 
My great-grandparents, Battista and Maria,
celebrating their anniversary, c. 1950s
and my great-aunt Olympia, always known as Beaba or Bea, because she was the baby of the family, the youngest of five girls and one boy. Aunt Bea taught it to me during my year "off" between college and medical school (when I wasn't reading Kierkegaard and
stirring chocolate into my espresso in Danish cafés). A few weeks after a marathon ravioli-making session together (using this dough), I set out to do it myself for the guy I was dating and his roommates...in a house that was truly an unholy disaster (and lacked air-conditioning, in July, to boot), on a rickety folding card table, using a wine bottle as a rolling pin (handy!). 

Aunt Bea is the first girl on the left, c. late 1930s
My grandmother and Aunt Bea always made homemade pasta for Christmas, served with sauce, meatballs, sausage, beef and tender slow-cooked pork. They started with zuppa (soup), then antipasti (including fennel dipped in olive oil, salt and pepper), then the pasta, then capons with potatoes, corn and peas, stuffed artichokes and finally fruit and nuts. By the time I was a child, the argument about whether soup or antipasti should be served first was itself a part of the tradition at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Aunt Bea and my godmother
Christmas Eve 2008
Aunt Bea passed away in November 2011 at the age of 91, the last of her generation in our family. For many, many years before she died, starting when I left for college in 1998, she would slip a ten-dollar bill in my hand and say, "buy yourself a cup of coffee." I always laughed that people her age were supposed to be out of touch and believe that coffee only cost ten cents, but she was prophetic. Last year, I ordered a large Rainy Day latte (cinnamon, hazelnut, caramel and vanilla) with almond milk, whipped cream and an extra shot of espresso at Under the Umbrella, and the bill came to $8 (it was my birthday...month)!

Butternut squash, tomato and chickpea stew

Butter, 1 tbsp
Olive oil, 1 tbsp
Yellow onion, medium, diced, 1
Garlic, crushed and finely chopped, 4-5 cloves
Cinnamon, freshly ground, 1 tsp (or 1 cinnamon stick)
Coriander seeds, 1 tsp
Smoked paprika, 1/2 tsp
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Butternut squash, large, peeled and diced, with seeds set aside for roasting
Chickpeas, drained, 12 oz
Diced or crushed tomatoes, 12 oz
Fresh lemon juice, 2 tbsp
Chicken or vegetable broth, 2 cups
Green olives, pitted and slivered (or whole if you want to add them early, in step 6)
Cilantro, finely chopped

Red quinoa

1. Rinse the butternut squash seeds, spread them on a foil-lined tray and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Roast at 400˚F until crunchy. Set aside.
2. Heat butter and olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat, until shimmering and melted.
3. Add onion, garlic, cinnamon, coriander, paprika, salt and pepper.
4. Cook, stirring occasionally until spices are aromatic and onions are soft and translucent, about 5-7 minutes.
5. Add squash and more salt and pepper to taste. Stir and cook about 3 minutes.
6. Add broth, chickpeas, tomatoes, and lemon juice. You can also add whole green olives now.
7. Bring to a boil, then reduce to low. Cover and simmer until squash tender, about 10 minutes.
8. While stew is simmering, cook the red quinoa.
9. Serve stew over quinoa, sprinkled with roasted squash seeds and cilantro.

The story:

On January 21, 2013, I came home from work, kissed my son, ate some dinner, watched the news...and checked my e-mail. And then my heart sank to my knees. With trembling hands, I dialed the number of an old friend in Philadelphia, someone I hadn't spoken to more than two years. And then, for the first time in life, I physically fell to the ground when he confirmed my worst fears. This recipe belongs to the memory of my friend Melissa, who was smart, beautiful, funny, and always honest with me when I needed grounding in reality, who had done so much but still had so much more to do when she met the wrong person, on the wrong day.

Two weeks later, I flew to Philadelphia for Melissa's funeral and memorial service. I lived there for just one year but my memories of the city - and influence that CHOP had on the kind of doctor I have become - are outsize. Initially, moving there from Atlanta was something of a culture shock, but I've learned that as long as the food is good, I can make any place into home, for awhile. I've also learned that a shared love of good food is as good a reason for starting a friendship - or relationship - as any other. Melissa and I got to know each other over brunch and
rock climbing. She was there for both my first meal out in my new city, at Tria, and my last, zucchini pancakes at Morning Glory, before I hopped on a plane postcall and moved across the country. In between, we shared pho and tom kha gai, dolmas and syrupy Greek wine, salatin and lamb pastilla, mussels and Belgian beer, yuzu ceviche and chorizo fried rice... If all we ever really have is the moment...well, we had a lot of well-fed moments.

From the moment I landed in Philly, I was struck over and over again by the generosity and friendship from people I had known for such a short time, so long ago - friendship cast in sharp relief by our shared grief. One friend - whom I had not seen in two years - picked me up at the airport (sparing me the usual frustrations of shepherding baby and luggage and carseat out to a taxi) and drove me to house of another former colleague and friend, who had offered to host me and my son for dinner so I would not have to take a cranky baby to a restaurant after a long day travelling. She cooked a spectacular stew of butternut squash and chickpeas served over red quinoa, one of those outstanding recipes that I rush home and describe to my mom, so she can try to replicate it. (Okay, why don't we just ask friends, neighbors, restaurants, etc. if they will share their recipes? Good question. Our way is just more fun.) My son was hesitant at first, but he now loves it (leave off the seeds for older infants and toddlers), and I'm looking forward to taking him back to Philly when he's a little older.

In celebration of Melissa Ketunuti

To make a donation to the fellowship in infectious diseases and global health endowed in Melissa's name at CHOP:

Click here, then click on "Ways to Give" to make a gift online or "Donate Now" on the right, select "Other" under "Fund Designation" and type in "Melissa Ketunuti Fund"