Spaghetti alla Chitarra with Octopus, Sea Urchin and Breadcrumbs

CECCONI'S
8764 Melrose Avenue
310.432.2000


Sea urchin pasta is easily one of my top picks as a fantasy last supper but, I have to admit, it's not exactly an original idea of my own. It was an idea I picked up from lounging around at Italian art dealer's loft in West Chelsea years ago (when I still lived in New York). Most of those random nights in the city were a blur, but this one in particular stood out because of the fantasy last supper conversation. 

The whole thing began when I shared that I'd recently read an interview with Eric Ripert in which he revealed that his fantasy last supper would be something like meditating under a banyan tree and then eating a dozen oysters. What a Zen answer, Eric Ripert. Anyway, that somehow evolved into everyone taking turns sharing what their fantasy last supper would be.

While I can't remember what I said–or what anyone else said that night–I do remember what the hostess said:

"I'd be on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea with my best friends. We'd all go diving for sea urchins, swim back to the boat and open them up. I'd cook spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, and then we'd dump our catch into the pasta!" she said, while waving her cigarette around. "And, of course, there would be very good wine."

With that, she conjured up a timeless image of la dolce vita; a life of leisure, nature, and friends. 

Since then, from time to time, I'll have an insatiable craving for sea urchin pasta and nothing else will do. Cecconi's rendition uses spaghetti alla chitarra tossed in a silky sea urchin sauce with slices of grilled octopus. It's an oceanic splendor that whisks me away to the turquoise waters of the Italian coast by the forkful... In other words, give me sea urchin pasta and then give me death!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Quiet Birthday Pasta Extravaganza

I find myself being drawn to low-key birthday celebrations more and more every year. All I wanted this year was to have a very good pasta dinner with my boyfriend and his niece who's visiting from Copenhagen. I chose Angelini Osteria because of their specialty dish–linguine with Santa Barbara sea urchin, a favorite of mine–and also because it's small, family-owned, and anti-trendy. 

Everything we ordered was fantastic and reminded me so much of the osterias I dined at when I traveled to Italy years ago. During my first visit to Milan, I remember that a friend recommended we meet for dinner at "one of the best restaurants in the city". Like a typical New Yorker, I dressed to the nines, thinking it would be a glitzy and glamorous place. Instead, I found myself at a discreet restaurant in an alleyway where I stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the locals who were quietly dining in their cashmere sweaters and loafers. 

It's been some time since I've gotten dressed up like I used to. This past Thursday night, I wore an oversized black cashmere sweater (a birthday gift from my beloved earlier in the day), black leather pants, and simple black suede strappy sandals. I find that there's a certain elegance to feeling comfortable.

We all shared the linguine with sea urchin–which appeared as a special on the menu, the lasagna, and the bombolotti all'amatriciana. I forewent wine for water the entire evening. For dessert, there was a hefty serving of tiramisu with a candle on top. The waiters sang "Happy Birthday" to me in their charming Italian accent. By the time I blew out the candle, my birthday wish had already come true.

 

My Inner Picky Eater

What's the deal with hummus? I mean, seriously. When guests come to the ranch, they always bring at least two tubs of hummus. It doesn't matter if it's roasted red pepper flavor or roasted garlic with gold-leaf and white truffles, nobody ever eats it. You know why? Because there are OTHER OPTIONS. Nobody willingly goes for the hummus when there are other things on the table. (Don't be that person who brings hummus to a party.) Dieters, especially, believe that hummus is a "healthy" snack, but it's actually loaded with carbs and it tastes meh. Meh, I tell you! It's edible, but it's not fantastic, by any means. It certainly doesn't warrant all of the oohing and aahing that it gets. I've heard people gushing "Omg, I loooove hummus" as they scoop up a gob of it with a baby carrot and I just want to grab them by the shoulders, look them square in the eyes, and say: "It's OK. It's not that great. You don't have to fuss over it. Try the Doritos over there. Those are great." Dips are meant to be fun. Hot spinach and artichoke dip in a bread bowl is fun. Queso con carne with tortilla chips is fun. And, if you want something fun for your baby carrots, try whipping up a packet of Hidden Valley Ranch Dip with sour cream–that's fun. Garbanzo bean paste? Not fun. It's suffice to say that I'm not that into hummus. 

Or beans and lentils, in general.

Tell me, is there anything more unappealing to look at than a bowl of mushy brown lentil soup? You can try to garnish it with a sprig of parsley, but it's like putting lipstick on a pig. It's another one of those things that's marketed as "healthy." I'd beg to differ. A bowl of simple chicken soup is much healthier for you, and your stomach won't feel like it's filled up with slop when you're done.

You know, I never thought of myself as a picky eater. I eat liver and sea urchin and anchovies and headcheese, for crying out loud. I've always kind of prided myself on being open-minded when it comes to food. Only recently did it occur to me that I might be a closeted picky eater. 

For example, whenever I order pancakes with bacon and eggs, I always ask for the pancakes on the side because I can't stand when the syrup touches the eggs and bacon. And, speaking of breakfast, I can't stand omelettes either. I think people go too crazy with the ingredients: ham, cheese, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, spinach, turkey, sausage... I've even seen chicken quesadilla omelettes on a menu! Stop the madness already! I rarely stray from soft-boiled or sunny-side up because I like my eggs yolky, with the whites barely set. When you ask for them scrambled, it's never done properly. It's either too dry or not whisked well enough. Scrambled eggs should have a certain creamy look that takes skill to achieve.

Caramelized onions? Not a fan. Just because you get caramelized onions on your hot dog or burger does not make it fancy. It just makes it complicated. I do, however, like thinly sliced raw red onions on my burger, but not lettuce–because it gets soggy–unless it's shredded, which is fine. I usually skip the tomato too, due to the sogginess factor. For the tomatoey-ness, I can get that from ketchup. Plain or sesame seed-topped hamburger buns are acceptable. As are soft potato buns. Brioche is a no for me–too sweet. And don't even think about putting a burger patty between a ciabatta roll. Are you insane? It's too chewy. 

French onion soup. I don't mind the soup part, but it's impossible to eat gracefully because when you dip your spoon into the thick blanket of gruyère, the melted cheese seems to string on forever, like an endless strand of spaghetti. Do not order this while you're on a date at a French restaurant. This sort of thing can only be eaten if you're dining alone and your table is completely shrouded by a thick curtain. 

Bell peppers. You know how Nicolas Cage is always Nicolas Cage in every movie he's in? Well, anything that a bell pepper touches tastes like a bell pepper. It doesn't enhance whatever dish it's in, it just overwhelms it. Therefore, I refrain from using bell peppers in curries, stir-fries, fajitas or pizzas. On the other hand, I like them as cold and crunchy slices on a crudité platter, or as the star of a dish, as in Stuffed Bell Peppers. Let's just say they don't do well as a member of the supporting cast.

I'm such a purist when it comes to classic dishes and this could not be more apparent than the night that Mountain Man cooked "spaghetti bolognese". You cannot put chunks of carrots, mushrooms, bell peppers, blue cheese, coconut milk, curry powder, and tons of hot sauce in ground beef and tomato sauce and call it "bolognese"! A twist here or there, like adding a splash of heavy cream, can still qualify it, but not a full-on Frankenstein situation. 

Swiss cheese, like the cartoon one with the holes in it. It tastes like rubber! We can also add Jarlsberg and provolone to this category. They're all flavorless. I mean, why bother? 

Meat dishes that contain cherries, dates, apples, raisins, currants, pomegranate seeds, or any kind of fruit or berry. And may I also add: no pineapples on pizza. Just not into it. Same with nuts. Nuts are totally overrated. Also, do you know how much fat is in a nut? Who can stop at six almonds? 

Rhubarb. It's so ridiculously tart and sour. Why is it used as pie filling? Blech. In the same dessert vein, toasted coconut flakes always texturally feel like they don't belong on whatever they're sprinkled on. Kind of like finding a hair that has accidentally fallen into your food.

Quinoa, buckwheat, bulgar, barley, farro, and other grains. I must not have the same tastebuds as a horse because I cannot down any of the aforementioned grains. Yet another thing labeled as "healthy". Listen, I've tried living on a macrobiotic diet for four months in my twenties, and grains were put on a pedestal, but, for slimming down, I'm all about the high protein/low- or no-carb aspects of diets like the Dukan Diet or the Paleo Diet. I can't stand when I see a "quinoa and kale salad". The kale would taste so much better on its own without those soggy clumps of quinoa!

Broccoli. Poor broccoli. It's kind of an outdated vegetable and it smells awful when you cook it, no matter whether you're steaming it or puréeing it into a broccoli and cheddar soup. My thought is, why not eat broccolini? It has a much nicer flavor and doesn't stink up the house. Or try cauliflower, which looks like an albino version of broccoli, but has a nice mellow sweetness to it. 

Chicken feet. 'Nuff said.

 

 

 

 

The Lonely World of Acquired Tastes

A page from Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook

Oysters, caviar, anchovies, sea urchin, tripe, bone marrow, pâté, testa, blue cheese, chicharrones... My affinity for acquired tastes definitely comes from my mother, who I would say is my original #singlegirldinner muse. I remember very vividly catching her make her own #singlegirldinner for the first time as a child and this has always made an impression on me. 


It was an odd hour for my mother to be cooking. It was late in the afternoon—much too late for lunch and way too early for dinner. I was in my room doing my homework when I smelled a buttery and garlicky perfume waft down the hallway. What is she cooking? I wondered, and trotted down to the kitchen to investigate. 

There she was, hovering over a sizzling frying pan on the stovetop, nudging its contents gently with a wooden spatula. She spooned a steaming scoop of rice into a small bowl and scooted her secret dish onto a plate.

"Is that steak?" I asked, with my mouth watering.

"No, it's something else" she responded, carrying her little meal over to the kitchen table, "Do you want to try it?"

I examined the plate, She had cut the liver into strips and seared it with caramelized onions and crispy garlic. It looked like steak that was perfectly charred around the edges and still pink in the center. I had never had liver before, but I wanted so badly for it to taste like steak. I nodded.

She put a little bit of everything onto a fork and fed it to me. I grimaced, "Yuck! The texture is so strange! What is it?" I had expected to chew and instead it just became a paste in my mouth. I was weirded out yet intrigued.

"It's liver," she said, with a sigh, "See? I could never make this for dinner. Nobody would like it except for me."

You might protest: "But she was married! And she was a mother! She wasn't a single girl!" Oh, but it doesn't matter, you see—it doesn't matter where we are in our lives, if there is a moment to steal to ourselves to have our cake and eat it too... We will! 

It didn't stop at liver with my mother. She had her own stashes of things, like jars of homemade kimchi, blue cheese dip (which, to my own dismay, I once confused for ranch dressing) and papaya (which looks so much like cantaloupe to a child when it's all sliced up). I thought it was marvelous that she preserved her own little world, in spite of having a troop of five children.

Her snacks were particularly quirky. She would pair bananas with Laughing Cow cheese, dip grapefruit segments into chili salt, and mash soft-boiled eggs into stinky tofu so that she could dip sprigs of watercress into the mixture. I've even caught her sautéing ramen noodles with garlic and French's Yellow Mustard, which—believe it or not—became a hit with her friends. Many of her acquired tastes eventually became mine. But I draw the line at pickled chicken feet. That, I can't do. 

Now I understand why she had all of the #singlegirldinners that she did. It's not easy to find dining partners who share the same craving for those off-the-beaten-path tastes; the pungent, bitter, sour, unctuous, mineral sorts. And that's fine.

More for me.

 

Ricci Crostini (Sea Urchin & Lardo)

MAREA
240 Central Park South near Broadway
212.582.5100


Sea urchin and lardo sound like an unlikely pair but they make for a successful marriage on a sea salt crostini. Both have a melt-in-your-mouth sensation and possess their own distinct characteristics. The sea urchin's sweet brininess is balanced by the buttery tones from the lardo. Mmm... And that crunch from the crostini. If a plate of these were offered as an entree, I'd order it and forget the rest of the menu existed.