Thursday, February 19, 2009

Barefoot Bloggers: Real Spaghetti and Meatballs

It seems ironic, in an admittedly Alanis-Morrisette-kind-of-way, that after having spent a week waxing poetic about the glories of non-traditional meatballs and straight-up dissing standard Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs, the first of this month's Barefoot Bloggers challenges would be just that. Touche, fate. You win this time.

Really, there is absolutely nothing wrong with basic spaghetti and meatballs, at least not when they are made right. I've certainly enjoyed quite a few plates in my time. There's just something homey and comforting about this dish that I think makes everyone feel just a little bit childlike at heart, no matter what their age. As Ina would say, how bad can that be?

And so, I will admit to approaching this recipe with quite a bit of excitement. Any excuse to eat pasta and red sauce is a-ok with me, and when you start throwing ground meat around too? Sign me up.

Super Meatball Scooping Action Shot! Just want to insert here that of all the invaluable tips and tricks I've picked up from the great Alton Brown, using an ice cream scoop (or disher, as he calls it) to evenly portion out things like meatballs, muffin batter, and really anything other than ice cream, is one of my favorites. Probably a close second to brining just about any meat that isn't beef before cooking. You're my hero AB!

As usual, I made a few small changes to Ina's recipe. For the meatballs, Ina calls for a 4-1 ratio of fresh white bread crumbs and dried seasoned breadcrumbs to be added to the meat mix; I didn't realize until the night I made this that I was out of dry bread crumbs, so I just used extra fresh crumbs and tossed in a bunch of dry italian spices (granulated garlic and onion, some parsley and oregano) to compensate for the missing seasoning. I also soaked my breadcrumbs in a bit of milk for 10 minutes, then pulsed them in the food processor with the egg to make sort of a paste which I then added to the meat mix. I can't remember where I picked up this trick, but it invariably creates a more moist, tender meatball with none of the mealiness that you sometimes get with just ground meat and dry breadcrumbs. I just really like the texture when they're made this way. It also saves me from having to remove the crust from my bread, which would have been particularly difficult considering I made my crumbs from a soft semolina roll rather than slices of white sandwich bread.

Mmm, golden brown deliciousness.

I also adjusted the basic meat proportions, using an even 1-1-1 ratio of beef, pork, and veal, where Ina called for twice as much beef as pork and veal. I'm pretty sure I had just under a pound of each, because that just happened to be the size of the pre-packed meatloaf mix they were selling at the grocery store. Don't worry, the finished meatballs were still sufficiently beefy.

The sauce recipe that Ina pairs with the meatballs seemed a little boring, so I amped it up a little with some fresh torn basil leaves and a handful of chopped sundried tomatoes for sweetness. I also pureed the sauce with my stick blender after cooking, because I prefer a smooth sauce with long noodles - chunky sauces, in my world, are relegated to short cuts of pasta like penne, gemelli, or rotini.

Finally, I used some fresh linguine in place of the usual dry spaghetti, mostly because I'd bought some on a whim at this great natural/organic market that we discovered on the weekend's trip to Huntington. I used the cooked pasta to create sort of a nest on each plate, perched three steaming hot meatballs on top, and finished with a ladle of sauce and a generous grating of parmesan.

All in all, I have to say that this was pretty much what I want and expect from a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. The flavors weren't terribly complex or exciting, but they WERE delicious. The bread-milk-egg slurry in the meatballs did its job well, as they were indeed moist and tender and not the least bit mealy. Next time I would make them a bit smaller, as Ina's 2" round specimens didn't quite cook all the way through in the time indicated. The sauce was certainly not the best I've ever had, but it served its purpose and paired quite well with the richly-flavored meatballs and salty parmesan. It was a bit too thick for my tastes, even after blending, and I wish I'd thinned it out with some beef stock and tomato juice or puree afterwards.

Oddly enough, the only real off note in the meal was the pasta - I just wasn't thrilled with it. This particular brand had a strange aftertaste that I found unpleasant, and I had to be sure to have a little bit of sauce and meat on every bite of pasta to cover it up. The texture was perfect, as is usually the case with fresh pasta, but I would never be able to eat this pasta with anything less than a robust sauce or ragu, so I don't think its worth the money. I'll just have to try another brand, or (gasp!) finally get around to making some myself.

Ooh, you saucy noodles you.

In the end, though, I really enjoyed this. On a cold and gray winter Monday, after a long day of work, a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs was more than welcome. The meal was warm and soothing and evoked more than a little bit of nostalgia for my childhood, and I know I was smiling a little on the inside as I ate.

The best part is that we now have a big tupperware container of meatballs and sauce in the freezer. (Even making the meatballs large, I must have gotten around 16 meatballs out of my mix, and since J and I only ate 3 apiece, that left a LOT of leftovers.) So someday soon, when we have another cold and dreary day, I can take them out and fix up the sauce to get it just right, and serve it over some better pasta, and we'll have yet another spaghetti and meatballs dinner that'll be even better than the first.

Thanks to BMK of Reservations Not Required for this great recipe selection!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

In Photos: "Cutting Board Meals"

We originally made this meal last month as an entry for the Barefoot Bloggers' Bonus Recipe Challenge for January - Cheese Platters. However, I never got on the ball enough to post it in time to submit it to the group, so I've just been sitting on the photos ever since. However, I decided to share them with you as an example of one of our favorite types of meals to make on a weeknight. We call them "cutting board meals".

Similar to an Italian antipasto, our cutting board meals always involve a couple varieties of cheese, usually one or two types of cured meat, some bread, and a few types of veggies, occasionally with a dip or spread depending on what components we've chosen. These meals are fantastic because they're lightening fast to make (usually involving no more work than some slicing and possible blanching of veggies) and can be adapted to any culinary ethnicity you like (Asian, Italian, Indian, Mexican, and Spanish cuisines work especially well here). Plus, they're fun to eat. We'll sit for maybe an hour or so, leisurely picking a bite at a time, playing with combinations of ingredients, trying to find the best all around bite out of what we've assembled. It's interactive and relaxing, and a nice change from our usual modus operandi of spending over an hour in the kitchen for a meal that only takes 15 minutes to eat.

This meal was sort of an antipasto with an identity crisis, comprised of two cheeses (Jarlsburg swiss and Prima Donna), two sausages (sweet soppresetta and a really fantastic spicy salami with fennel), roasted red peppers, quickly blanched sugar snap peas, roasted garlic ciabatta, and for a fun twist, some baked brie in puff pastry with pecans and raspberry-champagne preserves. It was delicious.

How would you make a cutting board meal? Give it a try!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Besito Mexican Kitchen and Agave Lounge (Huntington, NY)

Besito is sort of a jewel among jewels in downtown Huntington, NY on Long Island. J and I spent the entire day there on Sunday, and found literally dozens of restaurants, bars, and short-orders shacks that piqued our curiosity, many of which were recently given high ratings in the Long Island Press "Best of L.I." issue.

Besito itself was rated the best Mexican restaurant on Long Island, and a jewel it certainly is.

The interior of the restaurant is dim and atmospheric with a clean, modern style. The smallish bar greets you first as you walk in the door, backed by shelves heavy with their myriad selection of tequilas (hence, the "agave lounge" part of their name - they have the most extensive tequila menu I've ever seen, longer even than their dinner menu). The long dining room in which we were seated was a mix of tables and deep, comfortable looking booths, dominated by a huge photo-print of two beautiful horses hung on the far wall. Another seating area was located on a slightly raised area on the other side of the restaurant. Before taking our seats, the polite yet somewhat cool hostess offered to check our coats - of course we took her up on it.

After a few moments to peruse the drink menu (I'm ashamed to say we did not take advantage of their massive tequila offerings, but neither of us are really tequila drinkers), our smiling and friendly waitress appeared tableside and offered to take our drink and appetizer orders. J ordered a tequila mojito (at least he HAD tequila) and I a pomegranate martini, both of which arrived in short order along with a duo of firey salsas and a basket of warm corn tortillas. She also offered some quacamole to start, and I must admit that this was a crafty move on her part, because the guacamole was one of the more expensive appetizers on offer, but she snuck it into her spiel so that for a second it sounded like a complimentary starter, so of course we said yes. Unsurprisingly, this was not the case, and I was mentally kicking myself a bit for letting myself be had. But we both do enjoy guacamole, and decided it wasn't a problem.

And in the end, the guacamole was absolutely worth both the price and the shifty delivery. Just moments after our drinks were delivered (both of which were quite tasty, my martini made interesting by a shot of vanilla vodka along with the pomegranate) our waitress reappeared, wheeling a cart across the dining room that was covered in guacamole-making ingredients and tools. She made our order of guacamole right there at tableside in a molcajete, right down to splitting and scooping the fresh avocados. After a few moments of mixing and smashing, the molcajete was deposited on our table with a basket of fresh, warm tortilla chips. We dug in as she rolled the cart away. The guacamole was a smooth, velvety base studded with onions, tomatoes, jalapenos, and big chunks of unmashed avocado, and was as fresh as fresh could be. We'd asked for medium spiciness, which she described as having just a bit of jalapeno (the mild had none) and although I'm sure it wasn't hot enough for J, it was just about right for me - bites with a piece of jalapeno would alternate with bites without, so my mouth would have a chance to recover. I must admit to preferring my guacamole rather smoother, and it seemed in need of some fresh lime juice to cut the richness of the avocado, but really, it was delicious.

As we enjoyed our guacamole, we perused the dinner menu and selected our entrees. J chose the Salmon Manchamanteles, described as "roasted wild salmon with crispy bananas, pineapple pico de gallo and mole manchamanteles". True to form, I ordered enchiladas: Enchiladas Barbacoa y Chorizo, to be exact, which was described as "Beef barbacoa & chorizo baked in roasted tomato & tomatillo salso, topped with potatoes, raja, and queso fresco". Mmm, sign me up. Our waitress also tempted us with a list of optional sides, including yucca fries, which I don't remember actually seeing on the menu - J jumped at that, and I had to oblige.

The meal was well paced, and we had plenty of time to leisurely enjoy our guacamole and drinks before our entrees arrived. The plating was attractive but unfussy - J's fish arrived with a graceful curl of thin, crispy banana perched on top, sitting in a shallow pool of deep dark mole; and my enchiladas were covered in a tumble of sauteed onions and peppers (the "rajas" of the menu description) crispy potatoes and shredded crisp lettuce, and a generous fine grating of queso fresco. But we all know what really mattered - the flavor. And as we both took our first bites, we were silent for just a second or two before our eyes met and we smiled. This was GOOD. Really, REALLY good.

My enchiladas were full to bursting with tender, meaty shredded beef ("barbacoa" refers to long-cooked meat, often beef from the head of cow, like the cheeks) and generous chunks of garlicky, spicy chorizo, all wrapped up in soft corn tortillas and swimming deeply flavorful tomato-chili sauce. The sweetness of the rajas, the salty crunch of the just-shy-of-bunt potatoes, the fresh crispness of the lettuce, and the mild tang of the queso, provided perfect counterpoints to the rich taste and body of the enchiladas themselves. Every bite was different and exciting and deeply satisfying. J's fish was cooked just right, tender but flaky and moist, and the sweet pico de gallo was an inspired foil to the smoky, complex mole. And the yucca fries, which we've never actually eaten before, were crispy, slightly sweet, and generously salted (perhaps a bit too generously, if truth be told) and delicious dipped in the chili aioli that accompanied them.

This was easily the best and most creative Mexican meal I have ever eaten, and to have found such a treasure in Huntingon, of all places, was revelatory. The menu may be based in standard tex-mex staples like enchiladas, tacos, quesadillas, chili rellenos, taquitos and tamales, are prepared with unique and exciting culinary twists that keep the diner on their toes and turn what could be a run-of-the-mill mexican meal into something truly special.

And if the food alone wasn't enough to sell you, the service was gracious and cheerful, the pacing was perfect (neither rushed nor sluggish), and the atmosphere was lovely. All together, this was a wonderful dining experience, and we will be returning. Often.

Besito Mexican Kitchen and Agave Lounge
420 New York Ave
Huntington, NY

There is apparently a second Besito location in Roslyn, NY - you can find more information at the Besito website. The Huntington location was the first, however, so I would recommend trying it out first.

Also, if you feel like exploring downtown Huntington, the owner of Besito also owns Honu, a "small plates" restaurant just down the street from Besito, as well as a short-order burger shop America Roadside one block further - I bet they're worth checking out as well. They're certainly on our list!