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.

Twice-Baked Potatoes Inspired by the Neelys

I was home sick from work this week with a nasty virus and nothing but the television to keep me company. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the chance to browse daytime programming, and it’s just as bad as I remember. The only channel I could bear for more than thirty seconds was the Food Network. I dozed off to the soothing sounds of the Barefoot Contessa preparing a silky chocolate cake, and woke in the midst of a fever flash to the sounds of a Southern couple fussing over grilled Cornish hens and lobster mac ‘n’ cheese. What was this? Down Home with the Neelys? I’d never heard of it before but I was instantly hypnotized. “Ohh, honey. I just loooove me some lobster,” cooed Gina, her voice dripping with sugar. “I know, baby,” Patrick drawled back. “Now check this out, y’all…” as he proceeded to brush a sticky orange glaze over the smoking hens. Lordy.

I felt like I was watching something private and slightly naughty. Maybe it’s the fever working, but those southern accents suddenly seemed the sexiest things I’d ever heard. You can see the Neelys magnetic connection when they move around each other playfully on camera. “That’s my man!” Gina hollers when Patrick successfully flips a perfectly golden hash brown patty in one piece. “Gimme some,” he responds, and pulls her in for a kiss. You have to think these two are getting it on like crazy off-screen. With episode names like “If Pat’s a Good Boy” and “Lovin’ in the Oven,” they’re not exactly dispelling that notion. The Neelys’ food is just as tantalizing as they are: tasty, decadent southern dishes that are homespun and fun. Blue cheese mashed potatoes, “Get Yo’ Man” Chicken, and strawberry pie for example. Gina and Pat are co-owners of the successful four-location Neely’s BBQ in Memphis and Nashville, and they give away a few family secrets on the show and in their new cookbook, Down Home With the Neelys. I had to wonder… do I have any recipes that would make the Neelys swoon? I’m no BBQ master, but I do make a mean twice-baked potato that would stand up nicely to the Neelys’ ribs. Check it out, y’all!

Twice Baked Potatoes 2 large baking potatoes 3 tbl butter 1/3 cup milk 1/3 cup shredded sharp cheddar 1/4 cup shredded gruyere 3 tbl goat cheese Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 4 tbl panko breadcrumbs 3 tbl grated parmesan Paprika

*This recipe is very flexible and you can add in other ingredients to your liking, such as different cheeses, bacon, ham, or veggies.

Bake the potatoes in a 400˚ oven for 45 minutes or until soft. Remove from oven, slice potatoes lengthwise, and scoop out cooked potato into a medium bowl, taking care to preserve the potato skins intact. Add butter, milk, cheddar, goat cheese, gruyere, salt, and pepper (and anything else you’re adding in) and mix well with a potato masher or fork. When blended, scoop mixture back into the potato skins, pressing it in gently with a spoon. Sprinkle the tops with breadcrumbs, paprika, and parmesan. Return to oven on a baking tray for 10-15 minutes more, or until golden and lightly crisped on top. Serves 2-4.

[Photo/ / CC BY-SA 2.0]

A Bloody Mary Takeoff for ‘Project Runway’

It’s finale week on Project Runway. I’ve watched all six seasons, and the theme that jumps out at me this year is copycatting. Logan copied Althea’s zipper collar. Althea copied Irina’s slouchy sweater sleeves. Irina copied some Coney Island artwork. (Carol Hannah hasn’t copied, but she just makes boring dress-dresses anyway.) I understand when you spend all day every day in the same room with people they’re going to rub off on you, but you have to do a little self-editing. If you repeat what the person next to you did last week, you have to expect to be called on it. Personally, I was rooting hard for Gordana. She may not have had that “wow” edge, but her clothes were all so beautifully constructed. She never sent anyone down the runway not looking their best. I thought her final piece looked like a Georgia O’Keeffe.

Going into the last episode, I was pretty sure Irina was going to win. But then I saw her collection. Everything is black and gray. As a New Yorker, I’m all with that color scheme, but it’s looking a little drab. Christian Siriano, who won season four, came in with a lot of black, but he was playing in a whole different league. Pant after pant, jean after jean, his stuff looked edgy, arty, and amazing. I don’t see any of this season’s finalists working at that level. Season six seems the weakest in terms of design talent. With the exception of the newspaper challenge, most have been yawns. Is it just a coincidence that the lower quality synchs with the first year of this being on Lifetime, instead of Bravo? Does just putting it on Lifetime automatically make everything mediocre? Thursday night I’m predicting it’ll come down to Irina and Althea — Carol Hannah should be back in South Carolina designing bridesmaid’s dresses. Irina at least has a little character to her. Althea, despite the Ohio background and Grateful Dead name, has some flair of her own, but her stuff all season long has been safe and a little boring. I wish that they had kept around Malvin. He got booted for his too-literal egg design in the maternity challenge, but at least the guy had some vision. He knew he got carried away and admitted as much to the judges, but he had to go. Too wacky for Lifetime’s version of Project Runway.

Unfortunately, because of work this week it’ll be Saturday morning before I get to the finale. But my DVR is set and I’ll just walk around with blinders on for a couple of days. To celebrate the finish of the season I’ll be mixing up a pitcher of Bloody Marys. After overhearing someone saying “That’s the place with the great Bloody Marys,” I planned on copycatting these from Sidecar, near my house in Brooklyn. The elements sound great — Tito’s Vodka, infused with horseradish root, and then garnished with a cherry pepper and a pickled green bean in a pint glass that’s rimmed in Old Bay — but when I went to try it in person it didn’t quite stand up to its promise. I’ve studied the various alternatives and decided I don’t need to copycat; I’m more comfortable going with a recipe of my own. It may not be a designer drink, but the horseradish and the celery salt rim mean you won’t be playing it too safe.

Bloody Mary 10 oz tomato juice 3 oz vodka 1.5 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice 4 tsp prepared horseradish 3 tsp Worcestershire sauce 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper 2 tsp freshly ground sea salt 5-15 drops red or green Tabasco, to taste Celery salt and pepper for the rim Garnish of choice: celery, green olives, cocktail onions, pickle spears, or other marinated vegetables.

Put all ingredients in a large shaker (except the ingredients for the rim). Rub a lime wedge along the rim of a pint glass. Dip glass into saucer filled with celery salt and pepper. Fill glass two thirds with ice cubes, taking care not to disturb the rim. Carefully pour Bloody Mary mix over the ice, add your choice(s) of garnish. Serves two.

Getting Sauced on Vodka

What’s the deal with vodka sauce? I certainly get the whole tomato-cream-parmesan idea, but I never understood what adding vodka is supposed to do for an already deliciously balanced combo. (Not that Patsy’s in midtown doesn’t pull off a pretty mean sauce.) Vodka trades in subtleties. Why waste it on a saucepan? You could be making a martini with that. A little research reveals that vodka sauce first entered our culinary consciousness in the 1980s. More cause for skepticism. Although the kids today may not know it, that whole decade was fraught with bad style choices and overindulgence. It’s no surprise that some Reagan-era genius thought it was a good idea to dump half a bottle of vodka into red sauce. Have another line, chef. I’ve got a recipe and a bottle of Grey Goose and a quest to illuminate a waste of good hooch. I’ll make two batches and we’ll have ourselves a little taste test.

First, a pot of simple red sauce:

Tomato Sauce ● 2 tbl extra virgin olive oil ● 1 medium onion, diced ● 2 cloves garlic, crushed ● 2 bay leaves ● 1 fresh basil leaf or 1/2 tsp dried basil ● 1 tsp dried oregano ● 1 28oz can whole plum tomatoes ● 1 28oz can diced or crushed tomatoes ● Freshly ground salt and pepper, to taste

Vodka Sauce To make the tomato sauce into vodka sauce, stir these ingredients in at the end: ● 1/2 cup vodka (or less), optional ● 1/3 cup heavy cream ● 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano ● 1/2 cup roughly chopped prosciutto

Heat the oil in a large heavy saucepan (cast iron is best). Add the onions and garlic and cook a couple of minutes until the onions start to look translucent. Add the can of crushed tomatoes and then the whole tomatoes with their juice, crushing each whole tomato through your fingers. Add the oregano, basil, bay, salt, and pepper. Stir well, then bring to a gentle boil. When the sauce starts to bubble, reduce heat immediately and simmer for at least one hour, stirring occasionally. Yields about 5 cups.

I’ve never added vodka to my vodka sauce before so I’m not sure when it goes in. Giada de Laurentiis’s recipe puts it in before the cream and lets it cook off for 20 minutes or so. She also calls for a cup of vodka to a quart of sauce. Damn, girl. I divided my sauce and added about half a cup of vodka to one batch, then set it to simmer on low heat. I tasted it because I’m curious, and at this point the sauce tasted exactly like Bloody Mary marinara. I let it cook down and then stirred the cream and Parmesan-Reggiano into each batch and let it cook down a little more. The final touch: stirring in 1/2 cup of prosciutto. When I taste each batch of sauce, I can barely tell which one is which. The only difference I can discern is that the sauce with the vodka tastes a shade sweeter, a result that could easily be achieved with a teaspoon of sugar. The vodka-free version tastes better: the nutty saltiness of the cheese doesn’t have to compete with the sweet aftermath of the vodka. So score one for the virgins, and save your vodka for cocktails.

Inspired by Woodside: Thai Fish Curry

Last weekend I got a hankering for Thai food. I easily convinced my boyfriend to make the trek to Woodside for the ultimate: Sripraphai. Too bad everyone else in the whole damn city had the same idea. There were a hundred people outside. Hipsters, Thai families, locals in the know. Too hungry to wait, we headed up Roosevelt Avenue and had an amazingly flavorful meal at Zabb Zabb that quenched my thirst for Thai fire. Or maybe not completely quenched, because I’m still thinking about those beautiful steamed mussels with chili and herbs. And the crispy duck salad. Oh man, the crispy duck salad.

It’s funny; the more I have Thai food, the more I seem to crave it. All week I’ve been waking up with an itch for that addictive combo of coconut milk, curry, chili, and lemongrass. Queens is a bit of a haul for me, but fortunately I have this awesome Thai curry recipe that’s totally satisfying, easy to make, and fun to play around with. It was based on a recipe from MediterrAsian.com, but I’ve tweaked it to suit my own taste, and you should do the same. You can vary the protein — try shrimp, crab, chicken, or tofu. Koh hai cha-roen ar-harn!

Thai Fish Curry

● 1 1/2 tbl canola oil ● 1/2 tbl sesame oil ● Half a large red pepper, julienned ● 16-20 green beans, topped and tailed and halved ● 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped ● 1-3 tsp thinly sliced jalapeños, to taste ● 1 1/2 tsp finely chopped lemongrass ● 1 tsp finely grated fresh ginger ● 2 tsp turmeric ● 1 1/2 cups coconut milk ● 3/4 cup water ● 3 tbl fish sauce ● 2-3 tsp brown sugar, to taste ● 2-3 tsp chili powder, to taste ● 1 cup jasmine rice ● 2 6-8 oz firm white fish fillets (tilapia works well), each cut into large chunks ● 2 tbl freshly squeezed lime juice ● 1 tbl finely chopped fresh basil ● 1 tbl finely chopped fresh cilantro

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Cook the red pepper and green beans for about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Toss in the garlic, jalapeños, lemongrass, ginger, and turmeric and cook for another minute, stirring constantly. Add the coconut milk, water, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and chili powder and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 8 minutes. As the curry simmers, cook the rice. Add the fish (spoon the curry sauce over the fish to coat) and simmer, covered, for 8 minutes. Taste the broth and adjust the flavors to your liking. Remove from the heat and stir in the cilantro and basil. Serve over rice. Makes 2-4 servings, depending on how hungry you are.

Real Men Eat Quiche: A Serious Belly Bomb for Brunching at Home

Reading over BlackBook’s “Top 10 Meals for Nursing a Hangover” got me thinking of my absolute favorite post-imbibing brunch dish: mini quiche. It may sound like something you’d daintily sup on in madras shorts and a blue Oxford with pinkie finger extended beyond the handle of a porcelain tea cup, but make no mistake. This is a full-on belly bomb, and you can up the ante by adding your choice of tasty mixin’s.

It’s not that I don’t love having brunch in a restaurant. My hood, Park Slope, is a mecca of awesome brunchy spots. Stone Park, Rose Water, Tom’s, Bogota, and Belleville have all done their share of making me right again after a late night out. The cranberry and sweet corn pancakes at Tom’s are well worth braving the line with a pounding head, especially when Tom himself brings out coffee and cookies while you wait. But nothing beats a homemade brunch. Seriously, why bother getting out of your PJs? If your mission is to sop up some of a previous night’s tequila-fueled excess, these cheese puffs are on the case.

Mini-Quiche Cheese Puffs ● 8 oz large-curd cottage cheese ● 1/2 cup Bisquick or other baking mix ● 3 eggs ● 1/2 cup and 3 tbl sour cream ● 4 oz grated cheddar ● 1/4 cup melted butter Beat the eggs, then add in everything else and mix. Batter will be lumpy. Grease mini-muffin tins and put 1 tbl batter in each cup. Bake at 350˚ for 30 minutes or until lightly browned. Makes 36 puffs. For extra flavor, add in ingredients like crumbled cooked bacon or pancetta, smoked salmon, chopped mushrooms, jalapenos, snipped chives, and scallions.

Children of the Corn: A Homemade Kettle Snack

It’s not September already. It can’t be. The summer flew by like it always does, and now, despite my best efforts to ignore the signs, fall is just around the corner. The days are shorter and cooler. Baseball is winding down, and football is gearing up. My boyfriend and I are bickering about where to spend Labor Day weekend, and I might capitulate because his team is losing and I feel bad for the poor guy. I’m not a sports-fan kind of girl, but I try to be supportive. When he can’t find anyone better than me to watch the game with, I’ll sit and parrot what the announcers are saying in an attempt to sound like I know what I’m talking about. “He’s really seeing the ball well right now, isn’t he, honey.” We’ve got tickets to watch the Yankees slaughter my sweetie’s team, and strangely, I’m looking forward to it. Mostly I’m excited to see the new stadium; I want to know what all the hullabaloo is about. Are the beers really $10? What kind of snacks do they have?

I’m already planning some homemade snacks to bring along so we don’t have to take out a loan if we get hungry during the game. For example, I’ve always loved kettle corn. The lip-smacking sugary saltiness is so satisfying. It’s also a traditional baseball snack, perfect for serving if you’re the type to invite friends over for a pennant race. Give me a bucket of the stuff and I’ll happily watch sportsball all day long.

Homemade Kettle Corn ● 1/2 cup unpopped popcorn ● 1/4 cup canola oil ● 1/4 cup sugar ● 1-2 tbl sea salt Heat the oil and corn over medium heat in a large pot that has a lid. Hold the lid so that no popping corn will jump out, but leave a small space for steam to escape. Shake the pot as the corn pops so that the kernels don’t stick to the bottom and burn. When the popping slows, add the sugar and salt and stir well (you can taste the popcorn and adjust the amounts to your liking). Best eaten warm, or else let the kettle corn cool to room temperature and store in an air-tight bag or container.

Shock & Slaw with Greenmarket-Fresh Cabbage

Farmer’s markets: they’re not just for unbathed hippies and granolas anymore. Uma Thurman shops at the Union Square Greenmarket. So does Adrian Grenier. The city’s top kitchens serve up the bounty as well, thanks to the likes of Alex Guarnaschelli (Butter), Mo Batista and Michael Anthony (Gramercy Tavern), and Wylie Dufresne (wd-50). Right now is the best time of year to be a Greenmarket forager. Harvest is coming in, and celebrity and home chefs alike are taking advantage. I’m hosting a Greenmarket party and asking six guests to bring one item each from their closest farmer’s market. I included a list of the best markets around the city on my Evite, along with categorical guidelines like “protein,” “green vegetable,” “starch,” and “grains.” When everyone arrives, we’ll look at what we’ve got, come up with a menu, and start cooking. And cole slaw is definitely going on the menu.

My aunt’s special recipe follows. She jokes that it’s saved her marriage many times. And any of my guests who spot a celeb at the Greenmarket get double dessert. Is that Tom Colicchio eyeing a cabbage? Or just some other impish, sleep-deprived, bald dude?

Greenmarket Cole Slaw ● 1 head white cabbage ● 1 red or yellow onion ● 3-4 med carrots ● salt ● sugar ● pepper ● mayonnaise ● cider vinegar Slice up the cabbage and place in a large bowl. Peel the carrots into strips, chop the strips and place in bowl. Dice the onion and add it in. Add 1/4 cup sugar, 1-2 tbl salt, 1 tbl black pepper. Toss together and let sit for 5-10 minutes. Add 1/2-3/4 cup cider vinegar, 1/2 cup mayo (or more if you like it creamier). Toss well. At this point you can taste the cole slaw and adjust the mayo, sugar, salt, or vinegar to your liking.

The Cedar Fever: A Hill Country Cocktail from Austin’s Fino

No one’s arguing the superiority of our beloved New York, but pockets of coolness are also speckled from coast to coast. Take Austin, for example. Even amid the honkeytonk wasteland of the Lone Star State, interesting things are going on. Award-winning mixologist Bill Norris, who can be found behind the bar at local fave Fino, takes inspiration from his surroundings. He shares some thoughts and a favorite recipe with us, featuring Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur of the Alps, an artisanal liqueur derived from the fruit of the arolla pine.

How did you come up with this drink? When I first tasted the Zirbenz, it reminded me of the way the Hill Country outside Austin smells. We call the cedar allergy season here “Cedar Fever,” and I was looking to come up with a drink that brought the sense memory of the Hill Country to life in a glass.

Why is it a good choice for home entertaining? It’s simple to make, but it’s really complex — the tastes unfold in layers, and it packs a lot of flavor for not a lot of work. You can also expand the recipe to make a batch for a party. Because it’s not sweet, it’s perfect for a dinner party. It won’t overpower your wine or food choices.

What are some current trends in mixology right now? I think right now there’s a lot of things to be excited about. The epicenters of creativity continue to be places like New York and San Francisco, but there are scenes emerging all over the country that draw on different influences. There are culinary bartenders who take inspiration from the kitchen, molecular mixologists who draw inspiration from culinary innovators like Ferran Adrià, and classicists that reach back to pre-prohibition bars. What all those people have in common is a fierce passion for elevating the craft of making drinks and a dedication to using the freshest and best ingredients they can find. And, in my experience, the people at the top of the field are more than generous about sharing their ideas and skills with those of us who are still learning.

The Cedar Fever ● 2 oz Hayman’s Old Tom Gin ● ½ oz Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur of the Alps ● ½ oz St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur ● 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters Combine all with ice and stir to chill. Strain into chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist. (For New Yorkers, all ingredients are available at Astor Wines & Spirits.)