The Wise Guy in the Back Yard

Paulie Walnuts died this week, along with Tony Sirico, who played him. Paulie was one of Tony Soprano’s wise guys: a psycho, a dedicated, kind uncle who also happened to kill more people – nine – than any other character during The Soprano’s six-year run. Charming, vain, not too bright. Vicious, in an endearing sort of way.

Kind of like my vegetable garden. I go out there every morning expecting leafy lettuce, succulent peas, budding tomato plants. And some days, that’s what I get. Other days, it’s bolting arugula or petrified radishes. What the hell happened to the radishes? They were tender and sweet last week. There’s baby carrots, and then there’s minuscule carrots. I have the latter. Overnight – seriously – the spinach has gone to seed. The green beans are too afraid to climb their nice bean poles. Maybe, like Paulie and Tony Soprano, they need a therapist.

Unfortunately, the garden and I are co-dependent. I water him, and he feeds me, or something approximately like that. I go out there with the colander and bring back what I can find, because dammit, you gotta eat something.

So tonight, that bolting arugula has lost its head. I cut off all the flowers, hoping to encourage lusher, lower growth. The flowers came back with me in the colander.

They will become arugula flower pesto, with pistachios, olive oil, fresh garlic I was smart enough to buy at the farmer’s market, and some Pecorino Romano. Big sloppy spoons of the pesto is going on some Bristol Bay sockeye salmon. And to cook it, I’ll steam some fat lacinato kale leaves … a garden success story … and wrap each pesto-napped fillet in a leaf, brush with more of that olive oil, and bake for just a few minutes. Alongside, we’ll have some red and purple roasted potatoes.

As our therapist might ask us, “How does that make you feel, Bolted Arugula?”

A well-done onion

The onion is the most undercooked vegetable in the American kitchen. We know our meat times, pressing a thumb to a burger patty sizzling away in a cast iron pan, feeling for medium rare, or a fork to braised beef shortrib, looking for that moment of total tenderness. But onions? We think if we chop one up and saute it for two minutes, it’s good to go.

So wrong. Want caramelized onions on top of that burger? Better start 30minutes before you put that burger in the pan. A long slow saute in fat … butter, olive oil, bacon, suet … breaks down the onion into velvet sweetness. This is why shallots are so often recommended for quick pan sauces, because they cook so much faster than a yellow or red onion.

But for weeknight cooking, when our fingers ramble through the vegetable drawers looking for some credible items for a quick pasta sauce, we are more likely to find a lowly yellow onion. And so the trick is to give it enough time to cook all the way through, and not be a discordant note, too sharp and crunchy.

The  other night, I had a half-bag of dried orecchiette, the ear-shaped pasta that holds sauce so well, a few strips of fatty bacon, a yellow onion, some parsley, a half-squeezed lemon, and a bunch of rapini, also called broccoli raab. I chopped the bacon and cut the onion in slices and started them, on a low heat, together. Thirty minutes later, the onion and bacon had made a wonderful fond on the bottom of a small rondo, and I was ready to finish the dish. I started the pasta in boiling water, and 10 minutes later, I added the rough-chopped rapini to the pasta and water, so that they would finish up together. In the rondo, I set the flame to medium high and poured some hard apple cider over the onions and bacon, scrapping up all the delicious brown bits, squeezed in some lemon juice, a spoon of Dijon mustard, tossed in the minced parsley, and then, using a spider, just transferred the pasta and rapini, dripping a bit of nice pasta water, into the rondo, and stirred them up together until the water evaporated, and the sauce was evenly distributed.

On to the plates it went, dusted with cracked black pepper and a handful of grated Parmesan cheese.

Night of the Spatchcock

The chicken, the herbs, the bones.

A good stock is a force of nature. It can stand up to a studio executive or a Supreme Court nominee. It is made of flesh and bones, herbs, onions, whole peppercorns, perhaps a few whole allspice, carrots, celery and time. Hours of untended time, and at a temperature that moves things just below the surface of the stock pot with a quiet menace.

A broth is another thing entirely. A broth is an idyl, a simple, small idea made on the back of the stove in the hour or two before it’s needed, with whatever happens to call to me, for the sole purpose of bolstering up some pan drippings or finishing a pan sauce along with some sherry or cider and dijon mustard and a slug of very good vinegar.

A broth is just what is called for tonight. Recently, I brought home some local chickens from Hood Hill Farm. These small birds, just under three pounds, are meaty, lean and petite. They are more like gymnasts than those fatty four-pound grocery store chickens who were butchered shortly after sitting in recliners watching Kardashian reruns and drinking cheap bourbon before noon.

On a Friday night in mid December, the light is already dimming at 4:00 when I enter the kitchen to start dinner prep, I look at that cute little chicken on the sideboard and decide to spatchcock it and roast it with winter orange slices under its skin. I rub it with salt, pepper, and smokey paprika, and lob a knuckle of butter on top. Because it is a local bird, the farmer was kind enough to place the chicken neck in the cavity. Armed with nothing but the spine snipped off when I spatchcock the bird, the neck, and that fat little butt we called the Pope’s Nose when I was a kid, I start a broth: those meager bones, the green tops of two leeks, several cloves of garlic, some parsley leaves and stems, and just enough water to cover. The broth will simmer slowly for at least an hour, then sit and cogitate until I run it through a chinoix.

My bird is laying flat and placid on a rack on a sheet pan. It’ll roast at 375 until a thermometer reads 160 in the fat part of the thigh, which will take 75-90 minutes. And I’ll be rewarded with mahogany brown drippings on the sheet pan. All those dripings will be prodded and scraped from the sheet pan into the strained stock.

And what now? Since hunger will be afoot by then, I will make a beurre manie, simply rubbing equal parts cold butter and flour together with my fingers, and whisking it into the lightly bubbling stock and drippings. It will not confuse anyone into thinking it’s a much reduced rich sauce built over hours, but on a cold December Friday, it is light and simple enough to moisten my little bird, and pool nicely over some potatoes and butternut squash mashed together with minced sage leaves, butter, buttermilk and parmesan cheese.