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Originally published on Refinery29.com. Photos by Alex Brook Lynn, copyright protected.

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After a long day at work, then evening classes or a gym session, the last thing you’re about to do is whip up a gourmet three-course meal. More likely, your fingertips are on the food delivery app on your phone – meaning, you’ll spend at least twenty bucks, just for one dinner.

There is one recipe you need to know about, with ingredients you can always have on hand. You can whip it up at 11pm on a random night when you need something salty, delicious — and which takes no longer than twenty minutes.

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Pasta puttanesca is a dish of southern Italy, and it’s basically anchovy paste, capers, olives, a little tomato, and spaghetti. The word “puttanesca” is derived from the Italian for “whore.” Personally, I find myself smiling a little bit when I’m making pasta puttanesca at 11am in my undies, sipping a cold glass of white wine, thinking that I’m making whore’s pasta. Maybe we could say that the contemporary version of the dish is basically the working girl’s pasta. If you want, you can sing “She works hard for the money,” while stirring the saucepan.

There is a little bit of debate as to where exactly pasta puttanesca comes from, and how the name came about. I asked Keith Beavers, owner of the East Village, NYC Italian restaurant In Vino, to help me figure it out.

“Originally, it’s said to be named that way because the ladies of the night would get off very late, and they only had a few ingredients in their kitchen, so they threw together whatever they could find,” is what Keith told me. In other words, pasta puttanesca just refers to ingredients hastily thrown together – whatever you’ve got in the pantry. Olives, capers, anchovies, tomatoes, are all commonly found in Southern Italian pantries. And they should be in yours!

I started making pasta puttanesca recently because I moved into an apartment with a teeny tiny kitchen, which isn’t ideal for more elaborate dishes. It has quickly become my favorite weeknight dish, and once you’ve made it you won’t really need a recipe because it’s that easy.

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Here is my personal rendition of pasta puttanesca. I recommend enjoying a glass of dry, nutty white wine from Southern Italy along with the meal. Actually, whites from Italy are pretty much some of the best values you can find out there. Southern Italian whites I love include Falanghina, Greco, Fiano, and Vermentino. Feeling into red? Try Aglianico, one of Southern Italy’s prettiest and earthiest red grapes, and also a good value.

 

Pasta Puttanesca

Serves one working girl

 

You need:

1 bag spaghetti or bucatini

Salt

3-4 Tbs. olive oil

2-3 Tbs. anchovy paste

2-3 Tbs. tomato paste

Capers

Black olives without pits, roughly chopped

1 little jar anchovies (optional but recommended)

Red pepper flakes

Freshly ground black pepper

 

Steps:

Boil a large pot of salted water for the pasta. Meanwhile, start the sauce.

First, heat up olive oil in a non-stick saucepan or a cast iron skillet. When the oil is hot, add the capers and olives. Stir them for one minute with a wooden spoon.

Add in the anchovy paste and tomato paste one after the other, and whisk it all together so the ingredients combine. If you are using anchovies, add them here.

Keep adding in tiny teaspoons of the tomato paste and whisking the sauce.

When the water boils, add however much pasta you want for yourself (1/3 of the package is good in proportion to the sauce). Now, this is very important: you need to make sure not to overcook the pasta, because you’re going to let it finish cooking in the sauce. So, if the package says 11 minutes, give it only 9. Use a timer! No overcooked pasta!

Use tongs to lift the pasta out of the water – don’t toss the water yet – letting the pasta air dry for a moment, before dropping it directly into the sauce. Cover the dish and let the pasta fry in the sauce for one minute. Uncover, add about ½ cup of the pasta water, stir, and cover again.

Last steps: sprinkle red pepper flakes. Twirl it all into a pretty pile on your plate and enjoy!

 

 

On Sunday, I moved into a new apartment. Was feeling pretty good about it. Monday, left the house in a hurry, aware that my commute would take longer — a bus and a train, as opposed to just the train.

I saw the B44 clanking on by, and started jogging. My backpack, carrying my laptop, thumped against my shoulders. The bus and I played cat-and-mouse until finally, after crossing Atlantic, I boarded, out of breath but content that I would not be late to work, or at least not late enough that I would miss the 10am edit meeting.

As soon as I got on, I reached into the side pocket of my backpack, for my phone — planning to do my usual morning commute read-through of e-mails and Twitter and whatnot, thinking ahead to what I would respond to or use in my labors as an Internet writer.

It wasn’t there, and a very bad feeling came over me. Immediately, I got off the bus, backtracked, and started looking. Back at my apartment, I logged into iCloud and used the “Find My iPhone” app. It appeared that the phone was just one block away from my place, so I went there.

“Excuse me, have you . . . seen a phone anywhere?” I sheepishly asked a group of guys standing around on the corner. That’s how I met the residents of our local shelter. Two guys, both named John, walked up and down the block with me for several minutes, but the phone was nowhere to be found.

Later on, and over the next two days, I watched the phone travel, deeper and deeper into East New York, into neighborhoods that I had never lived in. Watching the little pin change locations on the interactive map, I was reminded that, despite having lived in Brooklyn for going on seven years, I am still a newcomer; that there are and will always be areas that I feel comfortable in and ones that, by contrast, I know not to be my stomping-grounds.

An eBay order took place, and the phone arrived. In between, there was much drama: at work, I had to borrow colleagues’ cell phones, and found that trying to get a landline at the Vice Office is probably a bit like trying to get a Visa to travel to China. Despite requests, and mysterious half-promises, it never came. Meanwhile, I realized that I’d entered the wrong address (off by one digit) for the eBay delivery, which of course created more drama, and a very drawn-out visit to the Crown Heights post office that I won’t bore you with.

All throughout the week, I had to explain over and over again that people couldn’t call me, I didn’t have a phone. Within two minutes of having said that, people would say, “OK, text me!” — completely oblivious to the possibility that I could not do such a thing. (As it turned out, Messenger came in very handy as my texting instrument.)

But on Saturday, a woman I met in the T-Mobile store on 6th Avenue showed me just how much it can debilitate a person when an iPhone goes missing. Continue Reading »

Originally published on Collectively.org. Some photos mine, copyright protected.

Chef Amana Cohen EDITED

Chef Amanda Cohen, photo by Rachel Signer

If you’ve ever been a server, chances are you’ve watched your day’s wages disappear when snow or rain starts coming down hard, and all the reservations cancel. If you’ve ever been a line cook, most likely you’ve bitterly wondered why, with your culinary degree and rock-star knife skills, you’re earning the same hourly wage as the 19-year-old hostess who spends her time texting behind the podium.

Last fall, the Economic Policy Institute reported that 40 percent of restaurant workers live in poverty. And on top of providing low wages — maybe $12 per hour for a line cook in any critically-acclaimed restaurant in cities as expensive as L.A., New York, or San Francisco — very few restaurant jobs offer benefits like health insurance. Yet, many people, have chosen to pursue these careers because they love them and have culinary or service talent.

One chef in New York City is taking a stance against the unfair employment structure that pervades restaurants across the country.

Photo by Rachel Signer

Amanda Cohen’s vegetarian restaurant, Dirt Candy, recently re-opened in a new space, with an unusual proposition: no tipping. Instead, diners will pay an “administrative fee” of 20 percent on top of their meal price. Cohen’s workers are paid between $15-$25 per hour, with the exception of managers, who are salaried. Continue Reading »

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Originally published on Collectively.org. All photographs mine, copyright protected.

Making Roti

Only minutes after walking into Dolly’s house, taking off my shoes off and saying hello to her four kids, who were lounging on the couch and playing reggaeton videos on YouTube, I was holding a steaming mug of fresh ginger tea and swapping stories and recipes with my new cooking classmates. The whole atmosphere cultivated a kind of warmth and casualness you don’t usually encounter in a cooking class, for one main reason: most cooking classes aren’t in someone’s home.

League of Kitchens launched in early 2014 as a cooking school for people who want an intimate, culturally-rich food experience. It’s about much more than knife skills, or learning classic French sauces. These classes are for people who want stories, culture, and authentic, unguarded interchange alongside instruction. And the instruction itself is meant for the home cook, rather than the professional.

All over the Internet, there are platforms for communal dining experiences, outside restaurants. EatWith, for example, sells tickets to home-cooked meals with a cultural twist, all over the world; Feastly, similarly, allows you to support “an indie cook’s dream” by joining a meal at their house or a pop-up location.

The idea behind League of Kitchens started when New York City resident Lisa Gross realized that her family’s Korean American culinary heritage was at risk of disappearing.  Continue Reading »

Batard: Just So Tribeca

It wasn’t until I dined at Batard that I understood what had made so many of my previous restaurant experiences as special as they were.

Batard is a restaurant that gets basically everything right, on the surface. Every dish is plated with absolute stunning attention to detail and use of space. Each ingredient is cooked with evident precision. And of course, the service is fairly good, in that totally impersonal, very Manhattan, kind of way.

But appearances aside, Batard may be a waste of some very serious kitchen talent. The first mistake is a perhaps unavoidable result of an already existing structure, or it may be a design flaw: when you walk in, you enter into an immensely stressful clusterfuck. We had to hunt the hostess down amidst all the clamor, ducking people who were speaking unnecessarily loud about their coats and bags. It put my date and me on edge, right away.

More importantly, though, several of the dishes were rather underwhelming. I had been thinking about having the octopus “pastrami” (it’s basically a terrine) ever since it was featured in Pete Wells’ write-up. Well, Pete, this may be the first time you’ve let me down. The octopus was bland and unsalted, and the soft potatoes on the plate were a nicely saline companion but they were also boring. Oh, and it came with these these crazy, sort of airy crouton things, which I could have done without.

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My date had the tete de cochon, which was deliciously flavorful. Like the octopus, it was beautifully presented. Continue Reading »

Originally published in Food Republic

Hm, could it be . . . Syrah?

Hm, could it be . . . Syrah?

When someone hands you a glass of wine and says, “Here, try this Cali Chardonnay,” it’s hard to be objective. Without realizing it, you’re already judging the wine based on all the Cali Chard you’ve had in the past, or what people have told you about it.

That’s partly why, hands down, the best way to get to know wine is to blind taste on a regular basis. It’s easy. You don’t need a blindfold, though some ultra-literal types do, in fact, go for the bondage look. All you really need is some way to conceal the labels (wrapping bottles in foil is one method), so everyone can sip without any hints of what’s to come. This is how sommeliers train and educate their staff, and how wine retailers check their knowledge. Thomas Pastuszak, wine director of New York’s NoMad, uses blind tasting in two different ways with his staff. First, he conducts a weekly hour-long tasting with all the sommeliers on his team, where each of them brings a wine priced no higher than $200 on the menu. Then, he does a separate, “more approachable” tasting with the servers and kitchen staff. Ideally, your own tasting group has a fairly even level of knowledge.

Whether you’re a formally educated expert or just a normal guy or gal who likes grape juice, the results of tasting blind are usually pretty interesting. Even the most esteemed sommeliers get tripped up from time to time. And, that’s what makes it fun. “Sometimes you think it must be Chablis, definitely premier cru, super minerally — and then it’s Greek Assyrtiko,” Pastuszak says. “But it’s not like, ‘Oh, you suck, you didn’t get it right.’ It’s, ‘How cool! Now, we can tell our guests, if you didn’t know what it was, you might guess that it’s this.’”

Indeed, the general idea of a blind tasting is quite simple: mask the label, sniff and sip, then start guessing. But, as I’ve learned after several months of weekly blind tastings with a group of dedicated wine professionals, there are some “best practices” that will help ensure that the  experience is as educational as possible.

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Keep those corks hidden!

Begin Broad
Start with very general categories of wine, picking a different one each week. Start with, say, Italian whites, then move on to Italian reds. Italy has many varieties, so it’s good to split them up. French and Spanish wines each deserve their own week. But, staying within national borders doesn’t always make a good grouping. Alsace is a great example. Though the region is geographically part of France, the wine arguably has more in common with stuff from Germany and Austria. Likewise, New Zealand and Australia generally make a good pair. If regionality isn’t your thing, you could also group by style. For instance, devote one week to sparking and the next to rosé. Continue Reading »

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