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Simple LivingBiscotti. You can’t have just one.

No…literally, you can’t have just one biscotti, because biscotti is the plural form. If you only have one, you have a biscotto. The word biscotti (and biscuit, for that matter) comes from the Latin root: bis – coctus, meaning “twice-cooked,” and they are, indeed, baked twice. What I like best about biscotti is that the recipe is essentially a blank slate that allows for myriad variations.

Below you’ll find two of my variations: Classic biscotti, with that lemon and anise-seed flavor, and my Holiday biscotti, with orange and cranberries. Check the Notes for ideas on additional variations.

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Braised Pork Shanks - FinalSay the word “braise” to most home cooks and you’ll likely get a blank stare.

Leaving out crock-pots and pot-roasts, I think it’s safe to say that the braise is rarely used in the modern kitchen. Even if you love pot-roasts, you may not know what a braise is or what it does.

A braise is a long, slow cook in moist heat. It’s great for stews and pot roasts, as it transforms a cheap cut of meat into succulent, tender morsels of flavor. It breaks down those tough connective tissues–tendons, ligaments, cartilage–transferring them to the braising liquid, building that unctuous mouth-feel we love in sauces and gravies. Technically, my In-the-Oven Chicken Stock is a braise, cooked at low temps for a ridiculously long time, and the difference shows in the results. It has a complexity of flavor you just don’t get with other methods.

Our most common mistakes in using the braise are:

  1. We cook with too high a heat
  2. We cook for too short a time

A braise requires patience and subtlety as we build flavors layer upon layer. However, a braise doesn’t have to take all day. Here’s an example…

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LasagnaMy wife is not Italian. She’s Irish. She just married an Italian. (Actually, I’m mostly French, but try telling that to someone who’s struggling to pronounce “Giambastiani.”)

She calls herself a “truck-stop cook.” She isn’t what she would call a “chef.” She is a craftsman who has a few really good recipes.

Over the years, she’s cooked these few (these happy few), receiving raves from friends and family lucky enough to partake. Over the years, she’s tinkered with each concoction, improving and perfecting her enchiladas, banana bread, beef stew, spag-bol, quiche Lorraine, cinnamon rolls, cookies, fudge, and–notably–lasagna.

She’s been working on her lasagna recipe for 30 years. She measures by eye, always has sauce and cheese left over, always makes them two at a time–a large one for the feast, a smaller one to be frozen, uncooked, for later–and always, always it is wonderful, flavorful, and unlike any other lasagna I’ve ever tasted.

Last weekend, Ilene made her lasagna for a large gathering of friends and neighbors. The occasion was specifically to introduce her masterpiece to folks who’ve never had it before. Normally, I am her sous chef, doing all the chopping and grating, stirring and cleaning, while she swans in and casts her magic alchemy with handfuls of spice and multiple taste-tests. This time, however, I followed her around, noted her every move, measured every handful and pile she used, and weighed all the ingredients left behind. I calculated the mounds and pounds that went into each of the two mismatched pies, then got out my slide rule and conversion charts and constructed a single recipe for a 9×13″ lasagna.

Last night, I tried it myself, and got Ilene’s stamp of approval.

As with all recipes, I can think of things I want to try next time–a dash of this, a spoonful of that–but this is the radix, the omphalos, the groundwater source of Ilene’s wonderful, delectable, world-class lasagna.

Caveat: This is not a health-minded recipe. It’s a heart attack on a plate. We don’t have it every week, or even every month. For us, it’s a once-, maybe twice-a-year treat, usually bookended by days of low-calorie meals and exercise for preparation and recovery.

Trust me. It’s worth it.

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Lasagna

“I’m a gourmet chef and I don’t measure anything.”

———

“Some people can cook. Others can follow recipes.”

These statements and others like them were leveled at me this weekend, after I mentioned I was going to attempt to capture the recipe for my wife’s world-class lasagna. Frankly, they caught me unaware. Never before had I come up against such blatant and illogical snobbery regarding recipes.

The fact is, if you’ve ever…and I mean everbeen taught how to cook something, you’ve used a recipe. “Recipe,” with its last century cousin “receipt” and the pharmaceutical “Rx,” all come from the Latin recipere, meaning “to receive or take.” Recipe, in fact, is the imperative form: Take! as this was the first word of almost every recipe written in that language.

Whether you were taught at your nana’s knee or trained at the Cordon Bleu, you were given step-by-step instructions on how to construct a dish. Whether you measure by the handful or the gram-weight, you’re following a recipe. Whether it was written down by Julia Child or passed down by oral tradition, you are following a recipe, and to pooh-pooh recipes (and those of us who follow them) as being somehow less than you is to ignore facts and to uselessly denigrate what is for many of us a gift of love.

That little 3×5 card with your grandmother’s crabbed scrawl, that brittle age-browned scrap of paper written by your mother’s hand, and that ancient notebook packed with torn clippings and annotated soup-can labels, those are physical manifestations of devotion, of love. You don’t cook out of hate. You don’t feed people you dislike. You don’t note what pleases the palate of enemies.

You don’t slave in the kitchen for hours and serve it up to people you don’t love.

Recipes are captured moments, repeatable moments. Recipes are confidences held between friends. “Here,” they say, “this is a secret from my heart.”

My wife has been making and perfecting her lasagna for thirty years. Each time, something is a little bit different. Ask her for the recipe (and many have), and she can’t tell you; she measures by eye, often has mounds of cheese or cups of sauce left over. And though I am working to write down her recipe from this last weekend’s bake-off, I know that in ten years’ time, it will be different.

But this recipe–this weekend’s recipe–is a starting point for everyone who’s ever asked for the secret. It’s a place for us all to start and then say, “Oh yes, it is wonderful; now I will make it mine.” They can add a bit more heat, a bit less ricotta, cook it a bit longer. They may still call it “Ilene’s World-Class Lasagna” or they may change it enough until, over time, it will be something all their own. It does not matter to me. It does not matter to my wife.

A recipe shared is an act of love. It’s your best effort, writ down and passed along, from hand to hand, kitchen to kitchen, family to family, heart to heart.

k

No-Knead Bread

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Wisteria, Number 6, Royal CrescentDuring our last trip to Bath, we stopped in at Same-Same but Different, a little bistro on Bartlett Street. It had a distinctly Parisian feel to it, but with an English twist–sidewalk tables and chairs, but wicker and steel, not wrought iron; creaky floors of dark wood, but well-lit from lamps and windows; a laid-back, unhurried tempo, but with attentive service.

It also had an eclectic menu, which intrigued us both. I had a Caesar salad with duck and a poached quail’s egg, while my wife had an old standard: macaroni and cheese.

Mac-n-cheese is a comfort food for many. Personally, I never warmed to it, but after tasting the version we had at SSBD, I knew I had lived a deprived life. I talked to the chef at SSBD, and he graciously gave me the basics of his dish, which I fleshed out and kitchen-tested myself. Mac-and-cheese is no longer on the menu at SSBD, so I feel comfortable posting my interpretation of his recipe.

I’ve kept chef’s original “single serving” proportions, which make it easy to multiply for as many mouths as you wish to feed.

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Simple LivingCioppino is an Italian standard, a fish stew in a tomato-based sauce, but before we get into the recipe, let’s have a lesson in correct pronunciation.

First, in Italian, the initial letters “ci” makes a “ch” sound, like the word “ciao.” Next, know that the word has only three syllables, never four; say it cho-PEE-no, not chee-oh-PEE-no. If you want to be exact, throw a bit of the “i” in the first syllable–chyo-PEE-no–but keep it to three syllables.

Good. Now, onward.

For my family, cioppino is the traditional Christmas Eve supper. In the morning it’s coffee and pastries over which we plan our maneuvers like Napoleonic generals. Just before noon, we split up–some to the kitchen, some to the streets. The kitchen crew begins the prep work for the sides and salads, breads and sweet-afters, while the street crews disperse, heading out to fish mongers and green grocers in search of the freshest of the fresh.

The calls come in to the kitchen. There’s fresh rockfish down the wharf. Scotty’s has sea bass. Central has live Dungeness, but they look small. The Dungeness at Petrini’s are beefy and fresh, but cooked. The kitchen receives the intel, reroutes operatives ad hoc, decides on the final mix of fish and shellfish, and sends out orders to purchase. The great thing about cioppino is that you aren’t locked into any specific mixture of seafood or shellfish. The only criteria is that it has to be good; flash-frozen is good, fresh is better, live is best (especially for the bivalves). Some years, winter storms will keep the crab-boats in harbor. Other years, there is no suitable fresh fish to be had. You have to be nimble, but the recipe doesn’t really care, as long as there is ample in the aggregate.

So take this recipe and make it your own, build it to your own taste. Pre-shell all the shellfish if you prefer. Keep the base, and build on that.

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Simple LivingHere’s an easy recipe for a classic soup, with a twist. We had this last weekend and it was super good, especially on the cold, grey days of autumn.

Nom.

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