Thursday, August 16, 2007

"The Arthur Avenue Cookbook" (Volkwein) & "99 Ways to Cook Pasta" - Bocconcini Salad and Vermicelli alla Santa Lucia

Date I made these recipes: August 11, 2007

The Arthur Avenue Cookbook – Recipes and Memories from the Real Little Italy by Ann Volkwein. Foreword by Mario Batali
Published by ReganBooks
ISBN: 0-06-056715-5
© 2004
Recipe: Bocconcini Salad - p. 27

99 Ways to Cook Pasta by Flora and Robert Alda. Preface by Alan Alda
Published by: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.
ISNB: 0-02-500740-8
© 1980
Recipe: Vermicelli alla Santa Lucia – p. 54

As my friend Andrea would say: “Huh.” As in, “Huh, I thought these recipes would turn out better than they did.”

Let's start with tomato salad. After last week's very good but very heavy casserole, I was in the mood for something lighter, something Italian. (Contrary to popular belief, not all Italian food is heavy). So I grabbed The Arthur Avenue Cookbook because, well, it was staring right at me. While flipping through it, I came across the tomato recipe and then remembered my husband brought home some cherry tomatoes a couple of days earlier and so rather than make something a bit more interesting, I decided to make this very simple recipe. While there was nothing inherently wrong with the recipe, it didn't float my boat, either. Maybe it needed to sit a bit longer for the flavor (of fresh basil) to set in. But I also think that working with fresh mozzarella (Bocconcini are small mozzarella balls) is tricky. By itself, mozzarella can be rather bland. Cooked tomato sauce enhances it a great deal but just plain tomatoes? Not so much.

By the way, unless there are several Ann Volkwein’s who used to work for an online company, that, among other things, produced online restaurant review guides, I’ve met the author of this cookbook. Years ago, after I finished working on the Zagat Survey for Minneapolis and St. Paul, Ann contacted me to see if I would be interested in working on a similar project for the company she worked for. I said sure, signed the contract and even happened to be in New York shortly thereafter so I went to meet her and deliver it in person. And then, of course, everything changed and the project was no more. End of story. But Ann was very nice and I was glad to see her name on the cookbook. I’m also glad that a couple of years ago, some friends and I went to the Bronx, where Arthur Avenue is located to go to the Bronx Zoo and to check out the food finds there. We didn’t get to all the places Ann mentioned but it was fun to have a connection to the place.

So on to the next book by Robert and Flora Alda and our next recipe, Vermicelli alla Santa Lucia. Robert Alda was Alan Alda’s father. Alan Alda, as many of you know, was the star of the TV show, MASH as well as a cast member of The West Wing the last couple of seasons. His father, Robert, was a talented actor who starred on Broadway in, among other things, one of my favorite musicals, Guys and Dolls.

But despite this lineup of talent, I hate to report that the recipe just fell flat, as flat as a pancake. I suspect it was the tomatoes.

Unlike the very nice and juicy cherry tomatoes used in the Bocconcini Salad, this recipe called for Roma tomatoes. But people, let me tell you, just because it is now summer does not guarantee a nice, vine-ripened tomato. In fact, once I started slicing and dicing the tomatoes, I found just the opposite and was disappointed that they looked like winter tomatoes instead of ones becoming plump, tender and juicy under the summer sun.

I’m pretty convinced that had the tomatoes been ripe, they would have added considerable flavor to this dish. As it is, they added nothing.

And so it was up to the other main ingredient, the peppers, to take over, and they failed that task miserably. The recipe also called for the peppers to be julienned but cutting them that way made them harder to eat. I would definitely cut all slices in half.

None of the remaining ingredients, the cheese, the wine, the basil or the garlic picked up the slack and so while it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, it wasn’t something I would make again.

The Alda’s also called for Vermicelli pasta but I think that this recipe might have been better served by using rigatoni or something that could capture the sauce better than the vermicelli. By the way, the Alda’s also noted that in Italian, this recipe means “Little Worms” but I waited until now to tell you--who wants to see that when deciding which recipe to make?! (“Let’s see honey, how do you fee about little worms tonight?”) Ew.

Actually, I have no right to cringe. My last name, Verme, means “worm” in Italian, and Vermicelli means little worm. Now, most people, with the exception of my junior high classmates, do not get that connection and ask if it’s German or French or “What is it exactly?” But bless my classmates’ heart, they heard Verme (and it is pronounced with a silent “e”), turned it to Worm and so my junior high yearbooks are littered with salutations such as “To Worm, you’re a nice girl and you’ll go far” or “Worm, remember all the good times we had at camp.” Awww.

At any rate, little worms or not, if you make this, make sure you get the juiciest tomatoes available, perhaps play around with the seasonings and see if you can’t resurrect this dish from the “wouldn’t make it again” graveyard. Good luck.

Bocconcini Salad – Serves 4
2 cups cherry tomatoes
1 pound bocconcini
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or basil
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Slice each of the cherry tomatoes in half and toss in a bowl with the Bocconcini, chopped herb, garlic, oil and salt and pepper. Serve on a platter garnished with herb leaves.

Note: you can substitute slices of mozzarella in this recipe if you can’t find Bocconcini.

Vermicelli alla Santa Lucia – serves 6 to 8
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, cut in half
2 cups plum tomatoes, peeled and cut into chunks (canned varieties are usually peeled)
4 bell peppers (preferably red or yellow or both), cut into julienne strips
1 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino cheese (or Romano cheese)
½ cup dry white win
8 fresh basil leaves, chopped (or 1 tsp. dried)
1 ½ lb vermicelli (or spaghettini)
Freshly grated parmigiano cheese to taste (optional)

In a large skillet, heat the oil and sauté the garlic until golden brown, then discard. Allow the oil to cool a moment, then add the tomatoes and bring to a boil, lower the flame, cover and let simmer. Add the peppers and salt to the simmering sauce and continue cooking about 20 minutes. Mix in the cheese, wine and basil, cover and let simmer for three more minutes. Turn off the flame and let stand.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and pour into warmed serving bowl. Cover with the sauce and gently toss. Serve in warmed soup dishes or bowls.


pitbull friend said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pitbull friend said...

Well, Ann, which is worse? Eating vermicelli or fettucini (tongues)or orecchietti (ears) or farfalle (butterflies)or radiatore? Tough choice. All yummy! (Oops, I deleted that & tried to correct the plurals. They still look wrong.)

Too bad the Alda's dish didn't turn out well -- sounds like it should have.

pitbull friend said...

That should have been "Aldas' dish." Sometimes you can't get anything right!;>)