Happy 2012, Pantry Confidential readers! The dawn of a new year often forces us to pause and reflect on our lives and the very busy world around us. With that in mind, we thought Christina would be just the right person to kick 2012 off for us. This food studies student has an incredibly thoughtful approach to the way she cooks and eats. We couldn't help but get swept up in her enthusiasm - for both food communities and great olive oil! - when we dropped by her bright and funky kitchen a few months ago. If you've resolved to eat better this year, you can learn from Christina, who shows us how inexpensive and easy it can be to eat conscientiously.
Read on to find out where Christina gets her fresh pasta and her single most important pantry item!
Hi Christina! Please tell us what you do.
I am currently pursuing my Masters in Food Studies at NYU and I also took classes this summer through the local non-profit, Just Food, in their inaugural year of Farm School NYC; for at least one small moment every day, food is on the brain. Following these courses has certainly shaped my perspective in the way I approach shopping for, buying and preparing food and, in extension, thinking about the ways in which those quotidian actions may differ for me than for someone living in a different part of the city.
I am very committed to the idea of supporting not just farmers in New York State, but the many small local businesses that have been in operation, sometimes for generations, in the city. The pasta for the recipe that I am making today comes from a small shop, Rafetto’s, in the West Village. Not only is the pasta fresh cut to order, but it is also significantly cheaper than buying pre-packaged fresh pasta available at most supermarkets. I find that the more thought and intention that you put into preparing and shopping for your food makes for a healthier meal and also more vibrant, thriving local communities. [Editor's note: the mussels Christina used for the pasta are from her local farmers market. Fresh mussels are a go-to for Christina--cheap, easy to cook, and totally delicious!]
How would you describe your food aesthetic/cooking style?
In the past few years, I have really come to rely on the farmers markets as my primary source of food (easy living in Park Slope and working very near Union Square) and would describe my cooking style as seasonal and produce driven. While I am certainly not a vegetarian, I do wind up eating lot of meals based on grains, legumes, and fresh fruits and vegetables. I do also very much enjoy eating a nice piece of meat on occasion. Living in a state like New York, which has an abundance of great pastureland, it is actually a more efficient use of land to incorporate a small amount of grass-fed meat into your diet.
What are your favorite dishes to make at home?
I really eat a very wide variety of foods and constantly try new recipes (although I still pine for Gourmet Magazine).
Do you have a go-to dish that's sure to draw raves from guests?
For a large group there is a recipe originally published in the December 2001 issue of Gourmet Magazine for Butternut Squash and Hazelnut Lasagna — it is not a typical lasagna preparation but it is delicious and is always a hit with everyone (vegetarians and carnivores, alike!).
What's your idea of a perfect dinner party?
No more than six people (for conversation purposes/natural space constraints in my apartment), lots of wine, and good company. I really like to bring people together from various parts of my life and I am always thrilled if new friendships are actually forged in consequence.
Please share some of your favorite kitchen utensils with us.
I love the silicon egg poacher that I got at Crate & Barrel — just $5 and perfectly cooked, easy to remove eggs every time! I also make great use of my mandoline slicer – it is not fancy or high-tech but it is a great tool to have around. For some reason, everything taste so much better when sliced paper thin. It is especially great for making raw salads with heartier vegetables in the winter and fall.
Where do you shop for kitchen supplies?
I have had the good fortune of receiving a lot of the “bigger-ticket” kitchen essentials as hand-me-downs or gifts from my mom — a KitchenAid mixer, Belgian waffle maker, Krups blender — but when not received in that fashion, I enjoy browsing in kitchen shops wherever I encounter them; locally I often go to Tarzian West Cookware Store on 7th Avenue and 2nd Street in Park Slope.
Top pantry essentials in your kitchen?
Having access to great extra virgin olive oil from Italy makes a huge difference, especially in “salad season” – nothing beats dressing fresh greens with a bit of olive oil, some vinegar or lemon, and a dash of salt.
Do you have a secret or unexpected ingredient you love to use?
It’s all about the olive oil.
Who is your biggest food inspiration?
I do not have a single source of inspiration, but I do always admire people who are able to create things without following recipes — more improvisational, of the moment in style.
Who are some chefs/food producers you admire?
I don’t really follow chefs too closely, but I do admire those that use their celebrity to call attention to issues in the food system and focus on using local, seasonal produce.
Your favorite hole-in-the-wall you'd be willing to share?
There is a little Indian place by NYU on Bleecker Street named Sangam. They have a small, mostly vegetarian menu with a very tasty sag paneer. Everything is freshly made and very nicely spiced. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that they may have closed recently as they gate has been shuttered on the past few occasions I have walked by. Very sad.
I really love a cookbook on Tuscan cuisine, Twelve, that I received as a gift while living in Italy. As its title suggests, it is organized by month and focuses on dishes that utilize the bounty that is available at that time. Most recipes are simple and economical to prepare and consistently delicious. The book also has beautiful photographs.
We'd love to know some of your best tips for novice home cooks.
Don’t be daunted by the kitchen! Start with a simple dish that you know you enjoy and build from there. Even just reading recipes can help build up your culinary lexicon and illuminate common building blocks to cuisines — the more you read/prepare recipes, you really start to see the common pantry items and preparation styles inherent to different cuisines.
What do you like to listen to while you cook?
Depends on my mood/what is in rotation. Recently, I have been listening to Edward Sharpe’s album, Alexander, as well as Dead Man’s Bones' eponymous album.
Tell us! Whose pantry would you like to raid?
Not really something I ever thought about, but I am sure raiding someone like Mario Batali’s pantry would produce a treasure trove of fine Italian products.
Tagliatelle with Mussels and Peas
Adapted from Trestle on Tenth, Courtesy NYT.com
1 cup fresh English peas (about 1 pound in pods)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large shallots, sliced vertically paper-thin
Freshly ground black pepper
60 mussels, about 2 pounds, debearded, scrubbed
24 basil leaves, torn
2 cups dry white wine with good acidity
1 pound fresh tagliatelle or fettuccine
1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
1. Bring a small pot of salted water to a boil, add peas, cook 2 minutes and drain. Set aside.
2. Heat oil over medium-low heat in a skillet or sauté pan large enough to hold mussels in a single layer. Add 1 tablespoon butter. When it starts to foam, stir in shallots and cook until wilted but not colored. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in mussels and basil. Add wine, cover and cook gently just until mussels open, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Add remaining butter.
3. Meanwhile bring 4 quarts salted water to a boil. Add pasta, stir to separate strands and cook until al dente, 5 to 6 minutes. Drain. Add pasta and peas to mussels in skillet and cook over low heat, tossing to combine ingredients. Add salt and pepper.
4. Divide pasta, mussels and broth among 4 warm soup plates. Dust with bread crumbs and serve.