22 February 2012

From the Chef ~ A Meatball - By Convention!

As fiercely contested as homemade tomato sauce, every household doggedly defends its own cherished version of the meatball.  In fact, some of the most heated debates on this hot issue have occurred amongst my dearest family and friends.  In an attempt bring harmony to years of controversy, I convened a summit with some of the most highly esteemed chefs in my family:  my first cousin Frank Buono, my brother-in-law Joe Mele, my paternal grandfather Fiore L. Pignataro, and my mother Marianna Pignataro.  With their recipes and methods in hand, I set out to create the first non-partisan meatball.  

I collected a wide range of methods and ingredients, as well as some surprising hints and colorful commentary.  According to my sources, the basic ingredients for meatballs include the following:

1. Beef, and oftentimes some other meat
2. Breadcrumbs
3. Egg
4. Grated cheese like pecorino or parmiggiano
5. Seasonings such as salt, garlic, herbs, or spices

Advice on exact recipes and methods was a little less standard, ranging from “You can do whatever you want—be creative” to “Well, I’ll tell you the recipe!” to “Forget about it—he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!”.  And within the confines of the five ingredients listed above, the details got blurry:  beef was amended with pork, veal, and even Jimmy Dean sausage, breadcrumbs were substituted with bread soaked in water, and eggs ranged from 0—4.  Through interviews and my own trial and error, at the end of the day I found that dishes like these are highly adaptable and difficult to botch, though a really special meatball is hard to find.  Here is my current recipe...

  • Soak one thick slice of bread sans crust in warm water for 1-2 minutes.  Squeeze out water, shred, and set aside.
  • In a large bowl, combine with your hands 1/2 lb. lean (but not overly lean) beef, 1/2 lb. pork, and, against even my grandfather’s advice, 1/2 veal.  Again, you could try any meat you like—I am personally tempted to try some ground lamb next time around.
  • Now add about 1/2 cup breadcrumbs (I just use a food processor to make my own using stale bread), 2 beaten eggs, 5 or so heaping tablespoons of grated pecorino cheese, a handful of chopped parsley, 4 large cloves minced garlic, salt and freshly ground pepper.  Mix together all ingredients thoroughly with your hands.

  • Now roll into 1.5 inch balls.  A tip that I learned from cousin Frank is to dip your fingers in a little bowl of olive oil and the meat mixture will roll up into a ball nicely without sticking to your hands.
  • Drizzle a large skillet with a little bit of olive oil (one recipe called for Crisco) and warm to medium heat.  Fry meatballs until lightly browned on all sides, turning as necessary.  Then add to your favorite homemade tomato sauce and let simmer for 30 min. or as long as you can.
  • Serve over the pasta of your choice with a hearty red.

From the Chef ~ The Ultimate Sunday Meat Sauce

It's hard to find a meal as deeply satisfying as the ultimate meat sauce. There’s lots of flexibility in this dish, and like a basic tomato sauce recipe, everybody and their mother thinks they have the very, very best and only true version. My version is the sort of "carnivores dream" sauce that we'd savor at Sunday evening dinner either at my folks' home on Capitol Hill or my grandparents home in North Tacoma.  A meatball with a bowl of sauce and a slice of bread just barely tied me over until dinner.
  • Start with your favorite tomato sauce. Mine is based on the following for 1 lb. of pasta:  sauté until translucent 1 medium yellow onion finely chopped, 5-6 minced garlic cloves, and about 1/4 cup olive oil. Now for the canned tomatoes; lots of discussion surrounds the very best brands, but I’ll spare you today! I use two 28-ounce cans for a non-meat sauce and 3 for a meat sauce. Drain the liquid if it appears more like water than tomato juice. Puree the fruit and add to the onion/garlic base. Add your herbs and spices:  I like bay leaf with meat, a little red pepper and salt, sometimes oregano (I prefer oregano with my non-meat version), and a big handful of chopped parsley to add at the end. Now for the meat!
  • Meatballs are always a favorite (Casa Fiore, March 2005, A Meatball—By Convention! Let me know if you’d like a copy!) Prepare and set aside. Then, brown some or all of the following, as each will impart it’s own character to this deep, rich, and complex sauce:  sweet and hot sausage; some cuts of pork and beef and even lamb, like ribs, neck bones, and chuck roast; homemade bracciole, or rolled and stuffed flank steak; you can even try rabbit or wild game. Want the ultimate stroke? Try NY Italian specialties! Sausages and pork skin rolled and stuffed with prosciutto and grated cheese often bobbed away for hours in our pot. Contact our favorite sources for your own personal shipment:  A & S Pork Store on 86th Street in Brooklyn, 718.238.6030 (I pray it still exists...) or my cousin's place, Fortunato’s in New Jersey, 732.262.7999.
  • Add the browned meats to the sauce and let simmer on low for hours—2-3 hours minimum. Halfway through, do as I used to do, and ladle out a bowl full of sauce and a meatball, grab a piece of bread, and make sure everything is going alright. Boil your pasta—either dry or fresh pasta is great. Plate and serve with grated pecorino or parmigiano cheese. Enjoy with a bold Italian red like Barolo, Barbaresco, or Brunello.

15 February 2012

Today's Trends in Seattle Real Estate

Over the past 15 months, we have seen signs of improvement in the Seattle real estate market.  You can feel it on the street as a Realtor:  multiple offers abound for well-priced homes in popular neighborhoods; what little new construction pops on the market quickly pops off; homes pending in 10 days or less, an unofficial marker I've created and watch every day, is holding steady at 25-35% of all daily pending listings.  Take it a step further and look carefully at the statistics.  Windermere commissions a consulting firm, Trendgraphix, to give us a deep statistical analysis of what is occurring in the market.  A glance at the graph below gives you snapshot of the conditions we are seeing firsthand in the field.  In a nutshell, inventory has lowered significantly while sales have remained steady.  Thus, supply and demand are equilibrating.  Economists tell us that a 4-6 month supply of inventory marks a balanced market.  For the past 15 months, we have been well within these parameters for single-family (read: homes and town homes) homes (see "Months of Inventory {Closed Sales}" on the chart below).  In fact, since March '11, we have consistently registered 3-4 months of inventory.  Couple lowering inventory with extremely low interest rates and discerning shoppers, and it is no wonder that such high demand exists for the most choice properties.  This rate of sale, by the way, does not change when you isolate distressed short sale and bank-owned properties.  In January '12, months of inventory based on closed sales for single-family homes is as follows:  distressed homes - 4.5 months of inventory; non-distressed homes - 4.1; all homes - 4.2.  Values in January '12 are identical to January '11 at $410K for non-distressed homes, while distressed homes values, which account for roughly 25% of the market, have lowered about 10% from $274K to $240K.  Taken collectively, single-family homes dropped only a bit when comparing January '12 to January '11, from $379K to $367K (see "Median" at bottom of chart).

Condominiums continue to lag behind single-family homes, though this market shows signs of improvement as well.  Months of inventory was in the double digit figures 12-15 months ago.  Over the course of 2011, levels dropped to the 5-7 months range and held steady there since last spring.  Yes, prices are down, but so is inventory.  With all of the pent up demand found in the single-family market, one can imagine a scenario where the condo scene improves further, something that at one time was difficult to visualize. 

Given the challenges of recent years, it pays to be cautious in one's thinking about real estate.  That being said, these indicators are much preferred to the bloodshed of the past.

As always, let me know if you'd like more information!  I've got a lot more statistics and perspectives to share!  As always, it'd be a pleasure to help anyone you know in need of real estate services.

09 February 2012

Seattle's Grocery Store Fetish

Sunday Sauce:  Imported tomatoes from PFI,
quality cuts of meat from Whole Food, dried herbs from PCC

Grocery stores in Seattle is one of my favorite topics.  I guess you could call me a real Seattle GSS. That's my term - a "Grocery Store Snob".  While my modest side wishes I was not a GSS, I recognize that I am quite particular and quite spoiled given the excellent quality of grocery stores in our area.  When it comes time for great produce, fresh fish, specialty food items or just a plain good value, I've got my list and thankfully it's quite long and varied in Seattle.  As a Realtor, buyers want to know about neighborhood home values and local schools, but almost as crucial is how close good groceries stores are to their prospective new dream home.  And as a Realtor who cares dearly about food and cooking and eating, I've got my opinions.  Whether sourcing food for the kitchen pantry, for a special dinner party with family and friends, or for my Casa Fiore's Cucina cooking classes (it takes 12-15 grocery stops for one class!), here's a list of the stores I frequent, complete with a mini review.  Obviously, Seattle is a big town, so I don't pretend to know all of the great spots.  This is just my list - I am sure you have yours.  What are your favorite grocery shopping spots?  Please do share!  Without further adieu and in no particular order, here is where I shop.

Metropolitan Markets.  I frequent the one in Hawthorne Hills for convenience, but the best one is in the Proctor District in Tacoma; we stop there every time we go to visit Great Grandpa Fiore.  I agree, way expensive (and have you ever noticed, there's something off with the layout at the front of the Hawthorne Hills store), but excellent foodstuffs all the way around.  I pick and choose what I buy here - some nice cheese, Salumi cured meats, some produce or seafood in a pinch.

QFC.  I remember as a kid hearing my parents say, "Oh, has QFC ever gone down hill."  It seems that the fall is long.  At risk of sounding like a geezer, "Oh, has QFC ever gone down hill."  That being said, compared with what I've found while travelling the rest of the county, we are lucky to have a chain as decent as this to place at the bottom of the barrel.  And to be fair, some stores are much better than others.  I guess my real problem is paying Whole Food prices for something that is nothing close to Whole Food quality.  Unless I have little time to spare, I get the basics and basically that is it.

Trader Joe's.  I will chime in with the chorus and agree, this is the greatest snack shop EVER!  It is true that the TJ line of foods is really just repackaged good, quality stuff, and therefore a great value.  However, beware of the produce and much of the meat, which QFC, even the feeble flagship U-Village store, can beat on most days.  And beware of the Roosevelt store when busy, which, as far as I can tell, is from 8am-9pm.

Here's is what you are looking for.  Now good luck in getting here.
Pacific Food Importers or "PFI".  Hard to locate and old-school crotchety Italian-American ("One pound minimum!"), this place is still one of the best food stores in town.  All kinds of bulk flours and staples, a good range of canned tomatoes, peppers and other odds and ends, many varieties of panettone at Christmastime, and super selection of bulk olives.  Though hard to find, it's hard to miss this spot whenever I throw a big dinner party or cooking class.  Sure, De Laurenti's is great as well, but PFI is my go-to spot.  This place inspires in the kitchen.

No-need home-baked bread:  tipo 00 and semolina flour bought in bulk at PFI
Uwajimaya.  One of the best places to purchase seafood in town.  And surprisingly affordable.  Best range of produce in town and good quality stuff.  You can find stuff here that you cannot find anywhere else.  Always a great adventure and always a great vibe in this store.

Whole Food.  While it is difficult to tolerate the snooty Cascadia-Ecotopia vibe whenever I visit (is this place Seattle's walking-talking version of Portlandia, or what?), there is no doubt that most everything is superlative at this store (I frequent the Roosevelt Ave. location).  Stellar meats and produce, great cheese selection, tasty takeout.  I do think their cakes are overrated, but overall a place to really get excited about food.  Word of warning:  shop wisely to avoid a dangerous ding to your debit card.

Ballard Market.  My very favorite store day in and day out.  Just the right balance for me of excellent quality, selection, specialty products, good specials, and value brands.  Great beer selection, solid and fresh seafood, always something great on sale like baby back ribs or mangoes, and possibly THE best produce in town.

Screaming deal for these beauties at Ballard Market
Central Market.  Owned by the same group that owns Ballard Market, this could really be the best store in town.  Huge and just packed to the gills with so, so much great stuff.  Problem for me is, it actually isn't "in town".  Though worth the trek and not so hard to get to, alas, it is located in Shoreline just off of 99.

PCC.  Best store for spice shopping:  best selection, freshest spices, best prices.  Beyond that, a bit pricey and, for me, a bit overly focused on exclusively organic ingredients (before you blow me up with a comment, read further and you will see that I am big proponent of organic, natural food).  Overall, these are really fine stores.

West Seattle Thriftway.  Just an all-around great store, much like Ballard Market.

The Market.  The Pike Place Market is still a wonderful place to shop for a meal.  For me, given my geography and personal circumstances, regretfully I do not get there often enough.  However, for range and quality and fun, The Market is a blast.

Vashon Thriftway.  A real anchor store in the heart of town on Vashon Island.  Offers a lot more than just food to Islanders... great beer selection, excellent produce, good balance of fancy- and value-driven items.  Good vibe to boot - what else would you expect on Vashon?  Very friendly place to shop and to be.

Fremont Fred Meyer.  Just kind of a fun store to go to.  Heads and shoulders above any other Freddy's.  Solid.

Local farmers markets.  Love to make a stop at the Phinney Farmers Market when the cherries and peaches are in.  Beyond having excellent, local produce and products (like "98103 honey"... that is honey from bees buzzing around in my neighborhood!  How cool is that?!!), just a great and easy food/community experience.  University Heights Market is one we visit as well.  Wherever you live these day you can find a local farmers market, which is a real triumph because it shows you just how far we've come in our food culture and habits.

My garden.  This IS the best place for sourcing prime, fresh, unusual, healthful, tasty, and value-driven food products.  No tomatoes can beat my tomatoes for tastiness, tenderness, freshness, variety, and eatability-literally-right-off-the-vine-with-juice-running-down-your-forearm-and-in-between-your-toes goodness.  Nothing beats my beets in January baked straight out of the dank, frigid ground.  Nothing beats inventing dishes with whatever is fresh TODAY.  Nothing beats assembling an original flavor bouquet from the 25 or so fresh herbs growing on hand.  Can you see that I can go on and on with this?  I will spare you...  but it's really the best store I know of in town!!! Try starting one of your own and you will know what I know.

So, you tell me:  am I really just a spoiled Seattle GSS? 

06 February 2012

Casa Fiore #64: Published, Posted, and in the Mail!

This month's offerings include:
  •  From the Realtor:  Values and Sales in Two Key Areas of Seattle
  • From the Chef:  Aunt De's Broiled Clams on the Half Shell 
  • Testimonial from Satisfied Clients 
Stay tuned to CasaFioreOnline.com for the web release of selected articles.  Care to join the hundreds who receive the old-fashioned, snail mail version of Casa Fiore at their door step?  Send along your address and let me know!

01 February 2012

Casa Fiore's Cucina ~ What a Blast!!

Thanks to everyone for attending Casa Fiore's Cucina and for following my Facebook posts in the run up to this class!  We had an absolute blast!  From the fantasic eagerness and gregariousness of my students, to the tasty morsels we put together, to the friendly and zany antics of my wife Lisa, to all the help provided by sister Carmela and brother Mario, the whole event was a success!  Thank you to all!  And a special thanks to my in-laws Jack and Bette Neal for letting us use their wonderful "Kitchen Stadium". 

I posted the menu on Friday, January 28th - scroll down and you will find it.  Here are a few photos to commemorate the evening. 

The table is set!  Now just add students.
Preparing the ingredients and setting up the "classroom".

Ingredients all lined up like Julia Child.
Killer Super Fudge Brownies!
The Lesson Plan/Menu.
Chilled prosecco and happy students.
Time to get down to business.  There will be a test.
On to the next lesson... please dig into the antipasti whenever you like!
How to make limoncello.
Gamberi al Limoncello.
A+ students.
The spoils of spaghetti alla puttanesca.
Fond farewells and party favors.

I had a request for my baba ganoush recipe served at the class... here it is for you:

From the Chef  ~  Baba Ghanoush

Anyone out there love eggplant like I love eggplant?  Then this is the dish for you!  This is a Middle Eastern classic!  Roasted eggplant combined with sesame tahini, garlic, and lemon.  This is a great addition to a dinner of “small plates”, tapas, or antipasti.

1.  Select one large eggplant.  Prick skin 10-12 times and set in a pan under broiler or set directly on your outdoor grill.  Cook for 45-60 minutes, turning to blacken on each side.  The eggplant will look like a charred, deflated football at the end.  You can proceed to step two immediately, or conversely, you can let the eggplant sit 12-24 hours and then continue.  Serendipitously over the years, I've discovered that the dish takes on a much smokier character when allowed to sit for some time.
2. In the meantime, in a bowl add together 1 large clove of minced garlic, juice of 1 lemon or to taste, 2 tablespoons toasted sesame tahini, and salt to taste.
3. After eggplant has cooled a bit, cut open and scrape out roasted flesh with a spoon and add to other ingredients.
4. Using a whisk, blend eggplant pulp together with other ingredients until smooth.
5. Transfer baba ghanoush to a serving bowl.  Drizzle 2-3 tblsps. quality olive oil on top and sprinkle with 1-2 tablespoon chopped parsley.   Enjoy with pita or crusty bread.