Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mmm... sacrilicious

Ask anyone who knows me in real life, or anyone who has read my book: I am extremely particular about my pizza toppings. Generally speaking, I will only eat one topping: pepperoni. If there's no pepperoni available, I will grudgingly eat plain cheese pizza. Vegetarian pizza can go to hell, and I don't even dig on sausage and mushroom pies. But things may be changing.

A couple years ago, Liz and I discovered this recipe for white pizza topped with arugula. It's totally great, and it totally violates my pizza principles. We've added it to our regular pizza rotation.

Now there may be another candidate. A few weeks ago up at Crippen Creek, Don whipped up a variety of small pizzas for dinner, including the usual suspects... pepperoni, margarita, cheese... and a bacon/garlic/spinach concoction that really got my attention. In fact, as I was waiting for a hot pepperoni pie to come out of the oven, I sneaked a slice. One slice turned into two. Then the next day, when we were heating up leftover pizza for lunch, I found myself reaching for the bacon/garlic/spinach slices before I reached for pepperoni.

It was pizza sacrilege, pure and simple. But you better believe that it was worth every last sinful bite. Here's how to make your own:

Make or buy your usual pizza dough. Cook up some bacon, I recommend Fletcher's. When the dough is ready for toppings, drizzle olive oil, salt and minced raw garlic generously over the top. Add a handful of baby spinach leaves, top with mozzarella, then sprinkle your chopped bacon on top. Grate some parmigiano over the top of everything. It should look roughly like this:

And here it is out of the oven:

Now obviously bacon is a pork product... and not entirely unlike pepperoni. And yeah, I love bacon... so it's not like these toppings are a total stretch. But the raw garlic and spinach transform the pizza from a mere variant of pepperoni into something special that deserves its own place in my exclusive pantheon of pizza toppings. You could also try adding goat cheese and/or arugula (which is what Liz did) for a kind of hybrid between the bacon pizza and Ina Garten's White Pizza.

Coming soon: I have Sunday Gravy (spaghetti and meatballs) simmering on the stove right now. It's in hour 2 of a 4-5 hour simmer, and I'll post a report in the following days.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Bloggin' 2: Electric Blogaloo

One post per year, Fazio? That's all we get? Nah, Viva Robusto is blowing up huge in 2011. Since I've been away for so long, the least I can do is start off with some photos.

Fried chicken with bacon'd greens and mashed potatoes

Pumpkin pasta with pork belly

White pizza topped with arugula and lemon vinaigrette

Crippen Creek pork chop with roasted brussel sprouts and salad

Thanksgiving dinner rolls

And my signature home-baked rustic loaf

So, as you can see, I never stopped taking photos of the food we prepared, I just stopped blogging about it. In my defense, I did spend some of the time I wasn't blogging publishing a book, moving into a house (and painting every room), having a baby and working a full-time job.

However, since the ad agency I was working for has more or less decided to move to Ohio, I have a lot more time on my hands. And my loss is your gain, Viva Robusto faithful!

Look for updates soon and on the regular. And I mean it this time.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Le Super Bowl

Yeah, it's been almost a year since I've updated. My excuse? I wasn't sure that I wanted to continue with the blog. I started working again, and things were busy. Every time I considered making a post I realized how long it had been since my last update, and I felt that any new content would sort of imply that I was going to continue maintaining Viva Robusto with more new content, and I just wasn't sure I wanted to do that.

Well. I guess I'm back on board, at least for now. Liz and I are still cooking a lot of interesting stuff, and we take pictures maybe 30% of the time. But we haven't made anything so remarkably wonderful or unusual that I just had to go out and blog about it. Until now.

I finally made a cassoulet. I had never even heard of the dish until Christmas 2008, when Liz's father Don made some around Christmas time. He went all out, using his own duck to make duck confit, ham hocks from his own pigs (I believe) and his own homemade kielbasa sausage. It took him three days, and believe me when I tell you that the result must have been worth every minute.

I decided that I'd like to give the dish a try at some point, but I never got around to it last winter. This year, Don made Cassoulet again for Christmas, and I renewed my vow to make the dish before the weather started getting warm again. But for what occasion? Cassoulet isn't the sort of thing you whip together on some random Tuesday for one or two people. No. A feast so grand requires a major event or holiday to justify the effort and expense the chef lovingly pours into the dish.

Enter the Super Bowl. I love the Super Bowl, for the game and the commercials and the chance to get together and eat some really unhealthy food with friends. I have only missed one Super Bowl broadcast since 1985, and that was because I was in Bangkok and the game was on at the ungodly hour of 6am.

So this year, the New Orleans Saints made it to the big game. For reasons I can't quite express or explain, I like the Saints. I like New Orleans. New Orleans has a strong French background. If you squint your eyes, Cassoulet is kind of like a French chili of sorts -- you know, meat, beans, fat -- and chili is practically the official dish of the Super Bowl. It all made sense. I was going to make cassoulet for the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately I arrived at this decision the day before the big game. No time to get my own duck, render the fat out of the legs and then ferment the meat in the fat in the fridge. In other words, no duck confit. But what's that old saying? No duck confit... no problem! My favorite part of the dish is the rich smokiness, and that comes from the ham hocks. And there would still be plenty of meat between what I scraped off the hocks and the sausage. So, after consulting Don three or four or eleven times over the phone, I armed myself with the Saveur recipe for cassoulet, and headed to the store to pick up ingredients.

First up, ham hocks. These things look disgusting in real life, but they're oh so delicious.

You start by boiling the hocks with some onions, thyme, salt and pepper for two hours. Here they are, ready to start imparting delicious smoky flavor to my stock.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I soaked my beans overnight.

While the ham hocks are rendering, you puree the raw garlic and onions with a little water.

When two hours are up, drain the ham hocks and keep the stock. Shred all the useful meat off the hocks and discard everything else. Pour the stock over the beans, bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes.

Here's the part where the duck fat and confit comes in. Usually you'd use the fat to cook the sausage. I just used butter. After browning the sausage, add the garlic/onion paste and cook a while longer.

Now you assemble the cassoulet in the baking dish. Put most of the beans on the bottom, then layer the pork on top of that. Put the sausage and garlic/onion on top of that. Then put even more beans on top of that. Finally, add about 3 cups of the stock. It looks messy, but it's going to taste great.

Bake for about an hour at 350, then reduce the heat to 250 and bake for another 3 hours. You're supposed to check every now and again to see if the cassoulet is forming a crust. If so, break the crust by pushing down on it with a spoon, and add more stock if it looks dry. I had to switch venues (from my house to a friend's) so mine didn't develop an ideal crust, but the pieces on top did get crispy enough. And here's how it turned out, pictured with a rib in the background.

I was extremely pleased with the results. The beans and sausage were melt-in-your-mouth soft with a deep, rich, smoky flavor. I suppose it couldn't possibly have been as rich as the real deal with duck confit, but I honestly couldn't taste the difference.

Typing this out, it doesn't sound all that complicated, but I would rate this meal as one of the most complex and effort-intensive I've ever produced. I'd say I spent three to four solid hours in the kitchen all told. Obviously that's not much compared to someone who's making their own duck confit from scratch, but it ain't exactly like microwaving a pizza either. Still, it was completely worth it. And I've discovered the joy of boiling ham hocks firsthand. If it were up to me, I'd start using them in just about every soup we make, a statement that no doubt terrifies my wife.

That's it for now. If I'm feeling inspired later, I'll post a write up of my first attempt at beef bourguignon.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Busy summer

Well, it's been over a month again. But I'm not even going to apologize this time. At this point, I think Viva Robusto is a once-a-month kind of blog. I've just got too much going on to update it more than that.

Such as? Well, most significantly, I've started working again. I'm back at my former place of employment (an ad agency) as a contractor, working around half time in the office for a couple of new clients. Call me crazy, but it's nice to be in an office working on a regular schedule again. And yeah, it feels good to be employed after 20+ months living as a poker "pro."

More big news: If anyone even still remembers about our epic trip around the world, I'm just about ready to publish my book!

I sort of gave up on shopping the thing around right around the time the economy was circling the toilet bowl. Two (2) published authors with connections in the industry advised me that nobody was buying anything, so I figured the best move might be to bide my time rather than spam every literary agent in the world.

In the meantime, I heard some good things about self-publishing. Turns out several outfits offer "on-demand" publishing, which means they will print up a single copy of my book each time someone buys the thing through or another online retailer. In other words, no need for me to purchase 10,000 copies and warehouse them in the basement.

And while I will receive pretty decent royalties for each self-published copy sold, I also retain the rights, and the option to make a deal with a traditional publisher. Even if I don't get any nibbles, it's nice to have the option.

So, it's still probably a couple months off, but it's coming. You'll hear about it here, and probably in some kind of worldwide spam email from me.

On to the food portion of the blog! Let's just get this out of the way: Mandatory asparagus shot.

Yeah, we eat a lot of asparagus, and we're always taking pictures of it for some reason. I dunno, it just seems to go with everything. Like melt-in-your-mouth beef loin with bearnaise sauce and twice-baked potatoes.

Another Viva Robusto staple: Roasted potatoes. Pictured with Kirkland steak seasoning, which is actually pretty tasty stuff.

Sort of a first try at fish tacos. We pan-seared a pre-made mix of raw fish, onions and seasoning from a local grocery store, and it turned out pretty well. The fish in real fish tacos should be crispy and fried in my opinion, but these were pretty good and we didn't have to splatter the whole stove with grease to make 'em. (A grease screen is high on the list of things I am planning on purchasing when Liz and I are back in a house).

Of course, we've had many good meals at Crippen Creek since I last posted. This one stood out. 3 courses, starting with spaghetti and mussels.

Next, wild salmon that Liz's dad caught himself. This is probably the best salmon I've ever had. Lightly crusted with butter and bread crumbs and topped with minced garlic and herbs. I don't mean to brag, but this is a pretty appetizing photo, and it doesn't even do the food justice. So good. If you look closely, you can even see a little asparagus in the background.

Oh, and the dinner still wasn't done. Final course: Rare beef loin and, you guessed it, asparagus.

One last piece of big news before I end this update: I finally got the motorcycle I've been after for years. When I agreed to travel around the world with Liz (and spend nearly all of my poker savings in the process), one condition was that I would be allowed to buy a brand-new Triumph motorcycle when we returned. Well, it's been about 10 months, and it finally happened. This baby was actually used, but it only had 17 miles on it. I couldn't pass it up.

It rides as nice as it looks.

That's it for now. See you next month, hopefully with more news about the book.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Eating the Easter Bunny

Vegetarians and vegans beware: In this edition of Viva Robusto, I document the killing and eating of a couple of cute, furry bunnies.

The story begins a few months ago, when Liz's friend Jessi from grad school contacted me on Facebook after one of my Viva Robusto updates. Turns out she and her husband are particularly resourceful foodies, making the most of their modestly-sized NE Portland yard to raise chickens, grow all manner of vegetables and, now, raise a crop of rabbits for meat.

The first batch of bunnies was going to be ready for slaughter in a few weeks; did we want to come over to document the process -- and the first meal -- on our blog?

Naturally I jumped at the opportunity, although I told Jessi that Liz would have to take the gory pictures if they wanted photos of the processing.

Well, we ended up missing out on the actual bunny killing, which left me relieved and Liz somewhat disappointed. But we did come over to sample and photograph their first meal prepared with homegrown meat -- Rabbit Cacciatore.

As the cacciatore simmered on the stove, Jessi led us on a tour of her incredible backyard -- in which nearly every inch of land is being put to good work growing vegetables or housing chickens and rabbits.

The reproductive cycle of rabbits is downright amazing. The male stud rabbit is kept in a separate cage -- until it's time to fertilize the female. When the male and female are placed in the same cage they instantly have sex, and the female gives birth to anywhere from 2-10 babies about a month later. A few weeks after that, it's possible to repeat the process!

Meanwhile, the batch of young rabbits is ready to process and eat in just a few short months, with each rabbit yielding around 2 pounds of meat. I haven't done the math, but it seems like even with only one male and female, two people could practically live off rabbit alone if they were so inclined. Talk about sustainability.

On to the pictures. Here's the lucky stud rabbit:

Here's the mother:

And last but not least, here's the cacciatore:

This is a "hunter-style" Italian dish with tomato, mushroom, onion and plenty of herbs and spices. It was already simmering when we arrived so we don't have any prep pictures. But here's what it looked like on the plate and ready to eat:

This was the big moment for Jessi and her husband. There was a bit of pressure associated with that first bite of homegrown rabbit -- after all, they had another 10+ pounds sitting in the fridge -- it had better be good!

I'll spare you any drama -- it was fantastic. A little more complex and hearty than chicken, but far from gamey. We ate it with homemade bread and oven-roasted asparagus, and it made a wonderful meal.

Of course, you're probably still wondering -- what did we actually eat on Easter Sunday? Turns out my parents had been saving a nice big chunk of ham from the Speranzas' pig for just such an occasion. So we had a homegrown, nitrate-free ham slow-roasted with some kind of sweet bourbon glaze, and it was spectacular.

Most of the cuts of meat from the Speranzas' pigs look quite different than their store-bought equivalents. They're darker and almost kind of gray -- not as attractive in their raw state, really -- but incredibly flavorful when cooked and healthier than store-bought pork.

This roast was just off the charts in my opinion. My parents brined the ham in advance so it was tender and juicy, and the salty/sweet contrast between the meat and the sweet bourbon glaze was to die for. I ate approximately 3 pounds on my own and promptly got the .

Wrapping this post up, here are a few other notable meals we've enjoyed lately.

Some kind of African peanut/curry/vegetable stew that Liz prepared. A sprinkle of cilantro and fresh-squeezed lime on top... we'll be making this again.

Coffee cake muffins. Also made by Liz.

Our first attempt at , an Italian flatbread. Topped here with brie, fresh basil and prosciutto. I made the bread itself a little too thick, but this is another one we'll continue to experiment with.

Another potato leek soup -- this time using Ina Garten's recipe topped with crispy shallots. The shallots really make the dish.

That's it for now. Hopefully we'll get to do some grilling this summer -- we packaged our grill with the house when we sold in 2007 and we're itching to get back in the game.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Lasagna Virgin

I suppose the title says it all -- until last month I had never cooked my own lasagna from scratch. Yes, I love cooking, and I love Italian food, but lasagna was always just off my radar screen.

See, I've had a number of mediocre to bad lasagne in my life. Chalky, bland, mushy... there are so many ways a lasagna can be done poorly, and I suspect I've tried all of them. When it came time to cook something for myself, lasagna simply never registered as an option.

In recent years, however, I've had a number of lasagne that have brought the dish back into my good graces. My mom discovered an excellent lasagna recipe at some point during my college years, and has been making it every now and then for the past decade. More recently, Liz started making the Barefoot Contessa's recipe with incredible results. So, I decided to give it a shot.

I used the same recipe with a few modifications. Most significantly, I used spicy Italian pork sausage instead of sweet Italian turkey sausage. In any case, here's how it all came together.

Onions and garlic ready to be sauteed.

Sausage -- casings removed -- into the pan.

Brown the sausage, add pureed tomatoes and seasonings, including fresh parsley.

In this recipe, we used regular lasagna noodles (not "no-cook" noodles) but we didn't exactly cook them. Ina Garten has you place them in a bowl of hot tap water for 20 minutes instead. I'm guessing this technique helps the noodles retain an al dente texture after all that time in the oven.

Prepping the cheeses.

Finally, we build the lasagna.

Ran out of sauce at the end... I could have done a better job estimating how much needed to go in each layer, but ultimately I don't think it mattered much.

Straight out of the oven:

And onto the plate, served with roasted asparagus.

I impressed myself... this lasagna was terrific. I like the creaminess and rich flavor that the goat cheese adds.

What else have we been cooking? Without getting into as much detail as the lasagna, here are a few pictures.

Tagliarelle with truffle butter (I couldn't find truffle butter in any brick and mortar store -- even . Apparently we need to order it online. So I substituted regular butter and a bit of truffle oil).

Wish I could take credit for this. Chili Egg Puff with potatoes sauteed in duck fat at Crippen Creek. There are no words.

A better look at those potatoes getting nice and crusty in that wonderful duck fat.

Our friend Austin, who is from Oregon but lives in Thailand, has given us a good technique for making Thai curries. Pictured: Masaman curry.

Meatballs for . A little different than the meatballs we use for Sunday Gravy, but pretty good in their own right.

I can't stop making this bread. What can I say?

Finally, here's what we had last night. From the latest issue of Saveur, pan-seared flatiron steak with herb butter.

The mashed potatoes don't look as appetizing as they might have, because I poured some of the pan juice on top of them. However, I can assure you that they were delicious.

What's next on the agenda? I vow to attempt a cassoulet before the end of the year. I am tinkering with and perfecting my pizza recipe. And some friends of ours are raising rabbits for meat, and they have invited us to share and photograph a special meal they will prepare after the slaughter. Until then!