Berry Optimistic

I sleep violently. A typical night's rest is usually marked with fits of tossing, multiple trips to the kitchen to refill my water glass and an indecisive relationship with our blankets. On or off? Comforter or top sheet? Do we need fresh air?

Saturday night was no exception. After a night out, Brian and I planned to sleep in before heading out Long Island to celebrate Easter with our families.

And then I woke up. At 5:00AM. Scratching my arms.

It took me a minute to realize that I'd been the victim of an obese mosquito. My arms were covered in cherry-sized welts. War was waged.

I'll spare you the gory 'skeeter-versus-cranky girl violence that ensued; I've returned to a happy place by repeating these one, two, THREE things:

you need to put screens in the windows...
b e c a u s e:
summer is almost here...
w h i c h  m e a n s:
it's time for fun with summer fruits!

That's positive thinking, folks. Let's make a fruit crisp to celebrate.

Tropical Crisp with Blackberry, Mango and Basil
Serves 6

For the fruit:

2 1/2 cups blackberries
2 cups mango, diced into 1-inch pieces
2 Tbs. all-purpose flour
1 Tbs. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
pinch salt
1 Tbs. lemon juice
2 Tbs. agave nectar
1 Tbs. basil, sliced very thinly

For the topping:

1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup toasted coconut (unsweetened)
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of ground ginger
pinch salt
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
2 Tbs. agave nectar
2 Tbs. rice milk
1 Tbs. vanilla

1. Prepare the fruit: toss all ingredients in a bowl and set aside while you work on the filling.

2. Prepare the filling: Combine the first seven ingredients until they are evenly distributed. In another small bowl, stir together the wet ingredients. Slowly add this mixture to the dry ingredients and stir with a fork until the dry ingredients are all moistened and slightly crumbly in texture.

3. Spread the fruit in an even layer in a greased 9-inch square baking dish (or in individual ramekins). Spoon the topping over the fruit and spread out in an even layer (as much as possible). Bake for 30 minutes, until the top is golden and crunchy and the fruit is bubbly.


Happy Earth Day!

What is Earth Day? It is a reminder to think about, appreciate and give back to the amazing planet we've been blessed with.

Trees don't need hugs, but litter needs tidying, pets need adopting, farmers need support, plastic needs recycling and the less fortunate need compassion.

It's a reminder to be the change we want to see in the world.

How cute? I have no words.

Click here for ways to contribute and for more information.
Check out picnic-friendly recipe ideas here.

Now for everyone who loyally reads this:
What kind of recipes would you like to see next at PipCooks?

Comments are loved and appreciated!


Leave the meatball, take the crostini.

Men, overeating, office complaints, swimsuit season, diets for swimsuit season:  There are certain things in life that are best when shared with friends. Girlfriends, to be exact.

Add crostini to that list.

Earlier this week, after my cheese-making binge, I made an Italian dinner for me and Brian. Fresh semolina pasta, meatballs, sauce; it was an all-out festa, especially for a Tuesday night. I was antsy to use (read: show-off) the ricotta I made, and decided to also put crostini on the menu.

Spring is here, I had beautiful, fat asparagus spears, and I was craving something that tasted sunny and green. After toasting crunchy baguette with olive oil, I rubbed a clove of garlic over the top of each slice to impart a subtle, spicy flavor. A sprinkling of lemon zest into the cheese brought it to life, and I thinly sliced blanched asparagus and sauteed the slivers quickly with plenty of black pepper.

The result? For me, it was perfect. Two crostini and a big kale salad, and I was set. Brian's reaction? "Crostini aren't really my thing. Can you pass the meatballs?" Sigh. Boys will be boys.

1. Call your girlfriends.
2. Pop open a bottle of bubbly.
3. Make this crostini.
4. Eat and dish.
5. Repeat as much as possible.


Voted most likely to be adored (by everyone).

Like the popular girl in high school who found a way to befriend every social group effortlessly, cheese knows no bounds. It can hang with the fruit and vegetable crowd and then chill with meat and pasta.

Its flavors can morph from the shy to the obnoxious; its face can change from soft and creamy to pebbled and moldy, and each is intoxicating in its own right. Every food group it pairs with is better for having known it.

What I've neglected to mention here is that I'm actually lactose-intolerant, which is basically a death sentence to my dairy-loving taste buds. So for the majority of the time, I respect that, and my stomach, and try to resist temptation.

But there are other times. Oh, are there other times. There are days when I'll actually plan to have a meal of pleasure and a night of pain. And it's almost always worth it.

A couple of months into culinary school, we had a "cheese day" in the curriculum. We each received a board of about 15 different varieties to taste and compare. By the end, when we reached the strongest cheeses, we were feeling a light-headed happiness brought on by the flavors, textures and (probably) the mold. Once I came down from my Camembert nirvana, I learned the most basic and popular of cheese recipes--ricotta--and was shocked at how simple it is to make on your own.

I mean, really. Why buy this....

...when you can have this*?

* Disclaimer: I don't intend to come off as a Negative Nellie about buying pre-packaged foods. Life is busy, and there are a lot of amazing products out there. BUT if you have the time and the interest, homemade is so rewarding and delicious.

So I'm re-gifting this gem of a recipe to you.

Homemade Ricotta
courtest of Epicurious.com

2 quarts whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp. salt
3 Tbs. fresh lemon juice

1. Line a large sieve with a layer of heavy-duty (fine-mesh) cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl.

2. Slowly bring milk, cream, and salt to a rolling boil in a 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Add lemon juice, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly, until the mixture curdles, about 2 minutes.

3. Pour the mixture into the lined sieve and let it drain 1 hour. After discarding the liquid, chill the ricotta, covered; it will keep in the refrigerator 2 days.

Make a huge batch. Introduce it to honey and figs for breakfast, to sauteed kale for lunch, to fettucine for dinner and to balsamic-marinated strawberries for dessert. You'll thank me later.


A tree grows in the East Village.

This beautiful spring weather that's finally graced us with its presence has me thinking of dining al fresco.

I have been living in the East Village for over a year and in that time, have never visited the East River Park. Urban dwellers are mostly all familiar with its counterpoint, the Hudson River Park, which lures visitors with its sparkling water, glamorous High Line and all-around ritzier setting.

The East River Park involves a stroll through a seedy stretch of town, a stop at Mister Softee (thanks, Brian), and a walk over the FDR Drive. It was worth it.

In its 57 acres, there is a baseball and soccer field, a track, a concert venue, and a field for barbecuing. It seemed like every other downtown New Yorker caught the same case of spring fever that we did.

Just when the day couldn't get more idyllic, we stumbled across a smattering of tiny gardens on the way home.

Along a quiet section on 6th Street we found the 6BC Botanical Garden, aka: the-cutest-little-utopia imaginable. Fountains trickled, people picnicked, cats walked on leashes (seriously).

As great as it was to find these peaceful, hippie havens, the best part was learning that each garden was founded and maintained by volunteers who had the insight to think, "hmm, we might want a patch of grass to hang around in 50 years when everything is bulldozed." To this day, the gardens are funded by donations and groomed by locals who give of their time to plant flowers and tidy up. So inspiring.

Jungle gym for the neigborhood birds at the Creative Little Garden

And the best part is...

Branches run beautifully amok.

They are available to rent for outdoor dinner parties!

I see picnics in my future.


Something to get excited about.

Quick post here, you may or may not know that Bon Appétit magazine has a fairly new Editor-in-Chief. Adam Rapoport, formerly of GQ, who took the helm late last year, was a surprising choice. He was an editor at a top men's publication...does he know food?

Turns out he does. I was never a big fan of Bon Appétit . I definitely mentioned my love for Gourmet before, and that's where my loyalty has always resided. But since that's no longer (moment of silence), and Bon Appétit has been redesigned (read: new layout, new columns, flashy food shots, etc.), I considered revisiting the magazine.

And then I was convinced to renew my subscription:

Um, an entire issue devoted to Italian cooking...

and a recipe for rainbow cookies? 

And a tutorial in pasta making?

Yes, please.


A strawberry kind of day.

As I've mentioned before, I'm pining for the bright, crisp flavors of summer produce. Although it's not exactly that time just yet, I came across a carton of beautifully ripe strawberries that I couldn't pass up, no matter how out of season they might be in April.

Last night was a date night for me and Brian. When a marriage is semi-long distance (he works out of town for half of the week), date night becomes a celebration in and of itself, and this week's was no exception. After a very rich, very big dinner and delicious cocktails from Beauty & Essex, I woke up this morning craving a simple, healthy breakfast to balance out the indulgence from the night before.

Gorgeous berries + cleansing breakfast = Strawberries N' "Cream" Oatmeal.

As a kid, the Quaker Oats version of this flavor was my favorite. This morning, I set out to make a grown-up, healthier version without all of the preservatives and chemicals found in the little brown paper package we all know and love.

Good ingredients don't require tons of extra flavors and spices. They sing all on their own. After chopping my strawberries, I was tempted to throw the towel in on cooking and just eat them off the board. I resisted, and breakfast was worth the short wait.

This recipe is healthy, filling and since it uses creamy soy milk instead of regular, is great for healthy eaters, vegans and those with dairy allergies.

Strawberries N' "Cream" Oatmeal
Serves 4

1 c. rolled oats
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground flaxseed
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of salt
1 c. chopped strawberries, with 1/4 c. reserved on the side
2 1/2 c. soy milk
2 tsp. agave nectar

1.) Combine the first 5 ingredients in a small pot. Toast the oats and spices over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 4-5 minutes, until fragrant.

2.) Add 3/4 c. of the strawberries and stir to evenly distribute. Once the berries are mixed throughout, add the soy milk and agave nectar.

3.) Bring the mixture to a boil, and then lower the heat to medium and simmer. Stir frequently (scraping the bottom of pot), until the liquid is absorbed and the oats are tender, about 7 minutes.
Serve immediately and use the reserved fresh strawberries to top each bowl with.

Breakfast is served!


She had her cake.

As far as brides go, I was a bad one. 
I wasn't a bridezilla, or weepy, or bossy.

I was just uninterested in wedding planning.

Don't get me wrong; I couldn't wait to get married.
Brian and I had waited nearly a decade to get to that aisle, and we were in the final lap of the race. But conversations about the wedding were less about flowers and more about "what's taking so long for it to get here??"

I blame my disinterest on two things:
1) I worked at Modern Bride magazine for three years. I loved it, but a huge chunk of my writing assignments were devoted to interviewing brides. Pre-marriage, post-marriage, beauty regimens, bachelorette parties--I talked to them all. About everything. And any friend of a bride knows that when she is planning a wedding, every thought and action orbits around that centrifugal event. By the time I left the magazine, I was a little wedding-ed out, even if it was my own.

2) I hate being the center of attention. Most of the planning leading up to the wedding featured parties and appointments where I would be the guest of honor. Not really into that. I still remember the exact feeling in the pit of my stomach before walking down the aisle on our wedding day. As anxious I was to see Brian, I was dreading having one hundred pairs of eyes on me at once.

The point of this digression (and I do have one) is that the ONE thing I looked forward to--the one thing that I had big plans for and told everyone about--was our wedding cake. During my years at Modern Bride, I had the utmost pleasure of befriending cake master Ron Ben-Israel. I remember the first issue I worked on featured one of his creations. I'd never seen anything like it. I took it home and showed my mom, assuring her that even if I knew nothing else, this uber-talented, sweet-as-pie pro would make my cake one day.

Ron and I had a fun time coming up with a vision of what the cake would look like. I shared a few ideas with him that would have a lesser chef running scared: orange flowers, ruffles and peacock BLUE fondant. 

This cake would be my something blue, my favorite accessory and the most delicious thing on the menu, all wrapped up in one beautiful confection.

Ron rose to the occasion and drew up a sketch that was absolutely inspired. It was as though he had direct insight into my matrimonial soul.

And I think his masterpiece speaks for itself.

And I think my reaction does the same.

The first proverbial slice is dedicated to Ron for bringing to life a gorgeous, sounds-crazy-on-paper, thoroughly modern cake. It looked and tasted like a dream.

All photos courtesy of Lauren Slusher Photography

The last bite is saved for Brian, my patient fiance then and my dear hubby now—the frosting on top of it all.

Note: The thing about Ron's cakes is that they are more delicious than they look (see if you can wrap your brain around that one).

For his Vanilla Cake recipe with Apricot and Pistachio Buttercreams, click here.
For information on Ron, his cakes and contact information, click here.


Keep it Kosher

Those who really know me know that I love the Jewish. I love their food, I love their culture, I love the way Jewish New Yorkers talk like my Italian family, with expressive gestures and a slight whine at the end of certain words: "Is that any way to talk to your moth-aah?" I see my family in them.

Although I'm an Italian-American who is Christian, every December I exchange Happy Hanukkah's knowing full well that I'm going home to a menorah-less apartment. I crave Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda; a knish, always square, most certainly needs to be accompanied by spicy mustard. I look forward to Purim just for the Hamantashen.

No, I'm not converting to Judaism just for the food. And of course, there is more to being Jewish than that. But culinarily speaking, I'm indebted to what their culture has brought to New York's food scene. After a year of living a stone's throw away, I finally made my pilgrimage to Russ & Daughters. Getting to the counter at Russ & Daughters (during prime time hours) is not for the weary. There are long lines spilling into the streets with locals, tourists, strollers and everyone in between. The common bond among us all? We love a good Jewish breakfast. Russ & Daughters has arguably the best in the city, with smoked whitefish, herring, and smoked salmon ranging in flavors from a classic dill to pastrami-cured. This is my Lower East Side Promised Land.

Pickled Lox Plain & Onions

Dozen Mini Bagels Plain

Wasabi Roe 125g

Photos courtesy of russanddaughters.com

It's not just the food. Though, did I mention the bagels and fluffy goat cheese? The quality of service here is elevated to an art form. The most adorable elderly men stand behind the counter, wearing ties and white apothecary-style coats. They sing. They make jokes. They yell "challlaahhh" as though they are hip Jewish rap stars. They wear ties. Nary a bored, angst-ridden teen in sight. These men love what they do and they take it seriously, as they carefully spread the cream cheese on my bialy.

I shamelessly tucked into my breakfast on the corner of Allen and Houston. As the salty capers met the ripe tomato which highlighted the most perfect lox I've had, I had the chutzpah to think that right then, in that moment, I was one of them.

Tonight I'm making latkes.


An Engaging Feast

Shots of Chilled Zucchini Soup, Mini Cheesecakes, the day's menu

Brian and I had been dating for 8 years before he popped the question. Combine that with the fact that I spent the prior three years working at a bridal magazine, and everyone assumed I was hiding a wedding file brimming with ideas of everything I wanted our day to be. Wrong. I was at square one just like any other bride-to-be.

The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to cater our engagement party. Only me, cooking for 70 of our best friends and family. My family was not keen on the idea, to say the least. There were concerns that it would be too stressful, that there wouldn't be enough food, that it would be too much work. My parents suggested that we have our favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant provide trays of pasta, chicken parmigiana and Italian salads. I, on the other hand, wanted the food to mirror the vibe of the party. It was going to be held outdoors, on the water; I thought the menu should match the relaxed, fun atmosphere.*

At that time, I was working in the kitchen at Mirabelle, and had the advantage of asking chefs for advice on cooking large quantities and what to plan in advance. Kelly, the pastry chef, let me know that freezing cookie dough the week before would be easy to bake off the day of the party. I called Bill, the chef de cuisine, before the party with last minute questions on the shots of zucchini soup I planned to serve.

When the day came, it was hot, and bridesmaids were flurrying about, helping with skewer assembly and Champagne popping. My mom was still worrying about the food quantities and my almost brother-in-law was handling the playlist. In the end, everyone was well-fed, happy and we wound up having leftovers for days. (Insert a big "I told you!" here).

Here is the best recipe for mac n' cheese, which we finished off with breadcrumbs and tomato slices. The combination of cheeses with the crunchy bite of the breadcrumbs and the creamy béchamel sauce is ethereal.

Mac and Cheese (courtesy of Ina Garten)
Serves 6-8, generously
  • Kosher salt
  • Vegetable oil
  • 1 pound elbow macaroni or cavatappi
  • 1 quart milk
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 12 ounces Gruyere, grated (4 cups)
  • 8 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, grated (2 cups)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 3/4 pound fresh tomatoes (4 small)
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (5 slices, crusts removed)
1.) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the macaroni and cook according to the directions on the package, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain well.

2.) Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan, but don't boil it. Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large (4-quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. While whisking, add the hot milk and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the Gruyere, Cheddar, 1 tablespoon salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish.

3.) Slice the tomatoes and arrange on top. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, combine them with the fresh bread crumbs, and sprinkle on the top. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the macaroni is browned on the top.

*I should note that although there are a lot of "I"s and "me"s here, Brian was a gem and gave me creative carte blanche over the food I decided to cook up. To thank him, I surprised him with adding one hundred burgers from White Castle to the menu--the low-brow, high-point to his dinner.