Photo by erix!/Flickr CC
When I found out that K and B had bitten the bullet and gone to City Hall to get married (what is it with my friends lately?), I invited them over for dinner. I'd met K a couple of times and had compiled the following bits of information:
1. He was part of a tight-knit group of high-school friends my boyfriend, D, had managed to keep close over the years
2. He was studying to be a lawyer
3. His new wife, B, was an animated and charming Albanian, and
4. He liked sauce.
I felt a kinship for K and B even though I barely knew them: my parents had done the same thing--on their lunch break. They decided it was about time, impulsively called their best friend to be a witness, and were married at City Hall with only one slight glitch: the official summoned them to the front as "José and Esmerelda," not their names. They took their wedding photos in a photo booth.
They took my order for a quarter-pound of cappicola (just $2.80) as I listened, wide-eyed.
But what to cook? My first thought was to make a traditional Albanian feast in honor of B. I imagined that upon seeing it she'd look up with glistening eyes, embrace me, and softly begin speaking in Albanian. But hunting down Albanian recipes proved difficult. Most of the dishes seemed bland, and the interesting ones were, well, straight-up confusing. Take the recipe for "Roasted Lamb Entrails on a Spit," which called for not only "entrails of lamb" but also "one pair of intensive lamb." Something must have been lost in translation there, and I just didn't know where to begin. I found that most Albanian cookbooks are, alas, written in Albanian, and though I plugged some recipes into Google translator, no dice. Mish qingjji me barbunja spit out "meat qingjji with barbunja" - not so helpful.
Instead, I decided to cater to K and his one known culinary trait: "likes sauce."
I'd been looking for an excuse to go to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, a slice of old Italian New York accessible by mass transit. You can wander up and down 187th street and find some of the freshest cheese, sausage, and pasta in the city. I justified my trip by telling myself that Albania is but a hop, skip, and a jump away from Italy.
And so this Jewish girl went to Arthur Ave on a Sunday, not realizing that most people would be in church at the time--the stores were empty, and I feared the shelves would be too. But I did manage to snag some smoked mozzarella, marinated eggplant, olives, and sundried tomatoes at Casa Della Mozzarella. At $12 for fresh antipasti for four, I'd come back even if they hadn't said "Ciao, bella" when I walked in.
Next, I wandered into Joe's Italian Deli, where three older men behind the counter, all in aprons, were discussing a rumble. "Can you believe it, Joey? That boy duffed her right in the face." They took my order for a quarter-pound of cappicola (just $2.80) as I listened, wide-eyed - a street fight where a girl got hit in the face? How real! How... Bronx! "Imagine what people think of us Italians after seeing that!" another man replied. Then they turned to me: "Do you watch this show, Jersey Shore?" I shook my head no. Almost a slice of preserved Italian New York.
I also slipped into Borgatti's, one of the best pasta stores in the city. Lindo and Maria Borgatti opened the store in 1935, and if you go there now, you'll see Mario, their son, and Chris, his son, behind the counter or making pasta in the back. Plastered on the walls are pictures of the Borgatti clan through the ages. When you order pasta, they take out the dough, rolled out into sheets, and feed it through a hand-cranked pasta cutter set to your desired width. Now, that's old New York. While they didn't have any sheet pasta left, they did have fresh ricotta ravioli. I picked up fifty for $6.
Now that I had ravioli, the pièce de résistance of my dinner, the rest of the menu came naturally: a ragu to go on top, some roasted cauliflower, and a light tri-colore salad to balance it all out. I had some extra bananas from a failed attempt to make banana bread, so I'd flambé them Foster-style. (I am not a firm believer in having a conceptually coherent meal. As long as it's delicious and varied, who cares?)
I decided on sausage ragu for three reasons. 1. I'd made a lamb ragu at the restaurant every week and was sick of it. 2. Sausage is cheap and delicious. 3. I had a lovely recipe for a sausage sauce from the Rogers Gray Italian Country Cookbook I'd tweaked over the years.
The Rogers Gray recipe is simple and quick. After sweating down onions and garlic, you cook the sausage, mashing throughout so that the meat crumbles. Then you add tomatoes and cook a little longer. Right at the end, you add a dash of cream and some cheese, and if you're me, a few drops of truffle oil because, even if it is chemically manufactured and isn't authentic, it smells so damn good.
K and B arrived with wine and set to work, with D demolishing the antipasti platter. Though I can't take credit for it, the ravioli was pillowy and complemented the sausage ragu, which smelled delectably of meat, garlic, and truffles. Because of my limited dishware, everyone piled the crisp, caramelized cauliflower into the pasta bowls, and I found the combination so good I may include cauliflower in my ragu next time. It provides a nice texture contrast to the rest of the dish, and adds a charred flavor I happen to love. (Keep it as a side if that's not your guests' collective cup of tea.) After a palate-cleansing salad, dressed simply with balsamic vinaigrette, we moved to dessert.
Photo by @joefoodie/Flickr CC
Last time I made bananas Foster, the flambéing got a little out of hand: I got excited, the pan jumped, and all of a sudden I had bananas Foster dripping off the TV across the room. (To this day, I find bits of hardened brown sugar and butter on various surfaces in my apartment.) This time around, I was more careful and less concerned with my performance, and I flambéed sans theatrics, serving the bananas over ice cream. K pronounced the bananas the best he'd ever had, which, for a sauce man, is quite a compliment.
The next day, B told me she'd been hard-pressed to find authentic Albanian cuisine in the city. I did a little research. Maybe I should've been focusing on food stores instead of recipes. To my surprise, I discovered that Arthur Avenue is becoming more and more - - Albanian. Right around the corner from where I purchased my antipasti is an Albanian restaurant and a smattering of shops where you can buy Albanian products. Under my nose the whole time.
Perhaps next time I'll stop by Tony and Tina's, which specializes in Albanian burek. They haven't been there as long as the Borgattis, but I'm sure they'll have some suggestions about how to make the yogurt sauce common to many Albanian dishes. That way I'll be able to cater to both husband and wife.