Tag Archives: Sfixo

My Favorite Secret Italian Sauce

italian tomato sauce

You’ll flip when you see how easy it is.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love all types of cuisine. But Italian cooking – that’s my absolute go-to favorite. Many of my favorite restaurants are Italian – in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Sfixo in Beverly Hills is still – hands down – my favorite local Italian. It’s really fabulous if you’re a fan of dishes that come from northern Italy.

Many people think that all Italian food is basically the same – pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, etc.  But, there are real variations all along the entire country – traditional Italian cooking is strongly region-based. In northern Italy, you’ll find an emphasis on rich cream sauces, polenta and stuffed meats, Southern Italians embrace the Mediterranean diet with tomato sauces and lots of sea food with everything in between.

I travel to Italy as often as possible – at least once a year – and during each visit I make sure that I take at least one cooking class to learn “secrets” from great Italian cooks.  I follow several of them on social media – two have even become friends – Judy Witts Francini (@divinacucina) and Helena Kyriakides (@yummyyummyitaly).  It’s the only real way to understand a cuisine – take a class, tour an area of the country and eat the food!

The truth is, you don’t have to be a great cook to make a great dish – just understand some basic rules of the cuisine. All you really need is a sense of adventure. My recommendation, start small, and work your way up!

For instance, I was watching a post by Judy on how to prepare a simple Tuscan tomato dish (they’re in season right now) that you can use as a sauce, a side dish, or even as part of the main course.  And, in that post I learned a secret about olive oil and fresh garlic (by the way – true Italian cooks uses very little garlic – they prefer to let the fresh ingredients shine).

Ingredients

  • 1 Clove Garlic, sliced (add more if you’re cooking a lot of tomatoes).
  • Whole Cherry Tomatoes (I recommend organic). Use multi colored ones for fun or slightly larger ones that you can cut into fourths.
  • Enough EVOO – that’s “extra-virgin olive oil” to lightly cover the bottom of your frying pan or saucepan. I recommend Long Meadow Ranch Winery Prato Lungo Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It has just the right flavor for Italy.
  • Sea Salt (to flavor).
  • Fresh Basil (to flavor).

Preparation

  • Add sliced garlic to the COLD oil. Here’s the “secret” I learned from my friend: never put fresh garlic in hot oil – it will burn almost immediately and become very bitter. You’ll just have to throw the whole thing away and start over. By adding garlic to the cold oil, the garlic has more cook time in the olive oil adding flavor to the oil and will turn golden very slowly so you can remove any bits that start to get too dark.
  • Medium heat.
  • Sauté garlic till golden.
  • Add the tomatoes to the pan.
  • Add sea salt (to flavor).
  • Slowly cook down the tomatoes until tender and they begin to burst.
  • Add the fresh basil (cut into thin ribbons – chiffonade) at the end if you’re using the tomatoes on pasta.

As I mentioned before, this preparation is very flexible. You can use this as aside for a grilled steak or on top of pounded and sautéed (Paillard) chicken breast with some baby arugula. You can use it to dress up grilled fish, or as a simple sauce for pasta or over small noodles for a simple pasta salad. And personally speaking, the basil leaves are a must – for the aroma and the flavor.

See? It’s so simple. Doesn’t this make you want to jump up and cook?

The Art of ordering from a menu

Charcoal_venice_Oysters-Josper

Don’t covet your neighbor’s dinner – order for flavor and experience!

Reading a menu at your favorite restaurant can be a lot of fun (especially if they’ve added new items that you haven’t tried) unless you’ve waited too long to eat and you’re starving! Then your eyes start darting around and you’re completely distracted by all those beautiful dishes passing you by – and at nose level! I suggest buying time with some bread so that you can actually pay attention to the dishes that the chef spent so much time creating.  Go ahead, order the drinks to start and with a few bites of bread to calm those hunger pangs you’re ready to go.

Over the more than 20 years that I owned restaurants we approached menu creation logically.  When my chefs came to me with menu ideas, our goal was to create menus that offered guests a chance to experience a particular flavor combination using what was in season, especially if one of us had just returned from travel with new ideas. I wanted our guests to enjoy the food, the friendship that brought them to the table, but definitely not to envy each other’s dinner because they thought they’d ordered wrong.

That’s where the art of ordering from a menu comes into play.

Your response might be “Ordering from a menu is art?” Depending on the restaurant, yes; just as much as it is an art in preparing the food for you to enjoy.

When I was a child, my parents had friends from China who frequented our dinner table. It was at that time that I learned how many Asian families prepare and eat food: small dishes of all kinds of different preparations, shared around the table so that everyone got a taste of something different. It was one big social experience that happened to involve food.  I didn’t realize it then but it’s the perfect way to eat a meal – tasting multiple dishes.

Mexican and Spanish “tapas” (snacks or small plates) cuisine has evolved in the same way. Everyone orders their favorite dish to share with everyone else at the table – what we used to call “family style dining.” This style of restaurant (shared plates) and type of ordering has become extremely popular.  Everyone gets to order something that has caught their eye on the menu and the whole table gets to taste different dishes that they might not have tried before.

The traditional way of ordering from a menu, what you might call the “mainstream” approach, is to order by course – appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert (if you can manage it) – none of which is shared, except for maybe a bite or two that someone else at the table might ask to taste from what you had ordered. The problem is that many people look at the entrées first to decide what they want for their main course and then they decide if they want an appetizer or salad.  That is exactly the opposite of  what I do even if I’m at a traditional restaurant and not a tapas style place.

It doesn’t matter if I’m at Sfixio, one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Los Angeles, Charcoal Venice, in Los Angeles where everything is wood-fired and delicious, or the incredible restaurant at The NoMad Hotel in New York City that I make sure I visit every time I’m there so I can indulge in as many appetizers as I can handle and still have room for “Chicken”.  I always order the same way.

Look at the menu carefully and you will see that the chef is his most creative in the appetizer section and perhaps even in side dishes.  I’ve found that these dishes tell more of the story of the chef and the type of food he wants to share than anywhere else on the menu.

If I am with at least one other person, we find at least two-three appetizers that we both are happy with, find a side dish or two that look good and then maybe share one entrée if we’re hungry.  Of course, if those appetizers look absolutely amazing then we might just add a couple more and skip the entrée all together.  If it’s a party of four, then I add at least one or two more appetizers, another side and a second entrée.

You will get to taste more items on the menu than if you just ordered by “course” and you’ll also understand better how the chef views food.  Perfect!

Then, of course, you might still have room for dessert.

Enjoy!


PHOTO: Oysters Josper, from Charcoal Venice

Serving Caviar for a Tasting?

Champagne-Caviar-Tasting_orig

Handy tips for serving caviar at your next event.

 

When you own restaurants, as I did for more than twenty years, you learn quite a bit about serving all kinds of different food. Caviar is a little unusual in its own way. Serving can be tricky, but the effort is well worth the work.

Remember that caviar is basically cured (salted) eggs from sturgeon, a white meat fish. The sturgeon flesh is also very edible, usually found in stores canned or frozen, but the big value are the eggs. For that reason, because fresh caviar is so delicate, you want to keep it unopened for no more than 8 days in the coldest part of your refrigerator – ideally at 28-32 degrees. If the tin is opened, don’t keep it for more than 2 days.

You want to be especially careful with unpasteurized caviar which is the freshest and the best tasting and truly the one you want to spend your money on.  So, buy it close to the date of your party and only what you think will be eaten.  If there’s any leftover use it as a garnish on an omelet the next day!

When serving, you want to keep caviar cold. I place the smaller serving dish into a larger dish that is filled with ice. This will chill the serving dish and keep the contents cold for a few hours. Just a little warning, you do NOT want the caviar to warm up on the table or it will spoil. Also, never use a sterling silver spoon with caviar. You won’t like the taste of the caviar if you do. You want to use wood or glass for the serving dish; mother of pearl, horn or bone for the serving spoon. You can even use plastic as an absolute last resort, but maybe not for the nice party you just laid out!

When it comes to serving, there are a couple of options – it can be served plain if you prefer or as a garnish on other foods. Some people are happy with just a dab of real butter, and some lemon juice on a cracker. But I serve my caviar with blini and pumpernickel or rye cocktail size bread, with sieved egg yolk, sieved egg white, minced red onion, minced chive, and crème fraîche.  A perfect bite!

It’s important to remember that there’s actually all kinds of “caviar.” My favorite Italian restaurant Sfxio in Beverly Hills serves Truffle Caviar Pasta. They import “truffle caviar” (truffle oil in the shape of caviar) from Italy and serve it on house made fresh pasta. It’s delicious and it’s their most popular dish.

Truly the best recommendation is one that I’ve done myself. Not long ago I hosted a tasting party that featured my favorite Champagnes and vodkas with the best osetra caviars from Petrossian.

For the Champagne or sparkling wine, we served Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and Gruet Sparkling from New Mexico which is my go-to sparkling for informal gatherings. Don’t forget nice glasses for your beautiful bubbles.  Two favorites are the Reidel Veritas collection for simple wide tulips or the Mulle Nuits crystal flute from Baccarat.

Now let’s say that you want an alternative for Champagne, like a vodka. I like vodka distilled from potato. There are three that catch my eye for flavor and body. My favorite vodka is Luksusowa, a popular brand imported from Poland. You can make a real statement with Chopin from the Podlask Wytwornia distillery also in Poland.  Or you can serve another favorite, Ultimat, which is actually a blend of wheat, rye and potato vodkas!

Serving tip for vodka – keep the bottle in the freezer until you’re ready to serve. Put it in the deepest recesses of the freezer for at least three days. The vodka won’t freeze but will get a little thicker and taste a great deal better than just chilled. Find some fun shot glasses at a resale shop for a vintage look or use these plain ones I found at Crate and Barrel.

I think it’s time to party!