House Special Fade Out & a Homey Casserole from a Guastavino’s Chef

With the turning of the new year, House Special is going into hibernation. Fortunately, we’ve salted away a pretty solid back catalog of recipes and party ideas. Over the past few months, we’ve concocted cocktails, learned how to pair wine with vegetarian meals and everything else, cribbed a spaghetti dish from Isaac Mizrahi, picked up cheese and chile educations, mixed tempeh and tequila, figured out how to make our apartments look less like urban wastelands, and infiltrated the cocktail menu of one of New York’s best bars. Oh, and we’ve made a red velvet cupcake for Megan Fox. Before we prepare our departing toasts, we’ve got a last recipe for the cold months ahead. It comes to us from Brian Di Giorgi, senior sous chef with the Rose Group (Guastavino’s and 583 Park Avenue), who sat down with Stephanie Kramer and shared some thoughts about entertaining at home. Happy New Year!

When did you know you wanted to be a chef? I was 21 years old and not really getting much done with my life. I had been working at Wholey’s, a fish market in my hometown of Pittsburgh, and that’s where I was exposed to the food industry for the first time. The fishmongers taught me how to butcher fish. One day I was making pasta and sauce for Sunday dinner at my mother’s house when she asked me, “What are you going to do with your life? Because you can do whatever you want as long as you put your mind to it. Pick something you like to do, and just do it!” All the while this conversation was going on I was stirring my sauce, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I love to cook, and I love food. Culinary school started two weeks later.

What’s it like to cook for large, high-profile events? One word: stressful. I always explain the stress factor in my job to people like this: in a restaurant setting if you have an overcooked steak, or an undercooked pasta, or a dry piece of fish, you can correct those problems by re-firing the order and comping some drinks. In my world, if you just overcooked one steak, you just overcooked 700 steaks. There is very little room for error.

When you entertain at home, what kind of food do you like to serve? I like to think that I serve simple food, but that’s never the case. What starts as a small gathering of friends with a bottle of wine usually turns into a full-on buffet with bottle service. I like to head to the greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza and pick up fresh protein and produce. I usually just buy whatever looks good that day and head home to start creating a menu. A lot of the stuff I do at work inspires me, and I try to take those ideas and put them into more of a comfort food style. Lots of beets (even though my wife despises them), and a massive amount of pork usually find their way onto my home menus. I mainly just try to serve food that inspires conversation and makes people smile.

A few months ago, you were on your honeymoon in the Yucatan. How was the food there? My experience with food there was amazing. I have always had a special place in my heart for what we in the industry call “family meal.” Family meal is usually cooked by someone who is trying to earn their chops in the kitchen. Every station will take its scraps and give it to the family meal cook. It’s then their responsibility to make it into something we can all enjoy during our break before service. A lot of the food I ate in Mexico was so reminiscent of that, what I call “Necessity Cooking,” eating and using what you have. There is no Dairyland, Baldor, or Sid Wainer to deliver what you want, you work with what you have. I did pick up a few things there, and my cooks loved it when I came back and made family meal tacos.

Do you have a favorite food or drink recipe for home entertaining that you’d like to share with us? I do actually, but it is more home-fare. This is a dish that my mother used to make for me as a kid, and I feel that every time I make it I can still sense her presence here. I have revamped it to put a chef twist on it, but it’s still nothing more than good, homestyle food done well.

Mary Grace’s Tuna Fish Casserole Revisited 1 bag Pennsylvania Dutch Egg Noodles 1 can Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom or Celery Soup 1 can Campbell’s Cheddar Cheese Sauce 2 cans Starkist tuna packed in oil 1 can sauerkraut 1 sleeve Ritz crackers Butter Shredded cheddar cheese A little hot sauce—not to taste it, just enough to enhance all the other flavors. Maybe like two shakes from a bottle. Preferably Sriracha (the red sauce with the rooster on the bottle and the green top).

Preheat oven to 350˚. Boil water, add egg noodles. Cook noodles al dente. Drain hot water and shock the pasta with cold water to stop the cooking process. Meanwhile, add the cream soup and cheese sauce to the same pot you just cooked the pasta in over medium heat. Drain the oil from the can of tuna and add the tuna to the sauce. Drain half of the juice from the sauerkraut, add sauerkraut, and hot sauce. Bring to a simmer and fold in the pasta. Check seasoning and add salt/pepper if needed. Spray a casserole dish with vegetable spray and pour the mix in. Sprinkle shredded cheddar cheese on top. Crush Ritz crackers up in a bowl, and pour melted butter over the top, and toss to coat the crackers. Sprinkle over the top of the dish. Wrap with plastic wrap and then foil, place in oven for somewhere around 35-40 minutes on 350˚. Once the casserole is on the firm side, remove the foil/plastic and put back in the oven for 5-10 minutes more to crisp the top. Eat and enjoy! This was something my mom used to make all the time, but upgraded. I hope you like it.