Author: James Cooper

Chicken stir fry with candied walnuts

Chicken stir fry with candied walnuts

Here’s a stir fry you can make in less than half an hour and serve as a festive weeknight dinner. You can use almost any vegetables you like in the stir fry along with the chicken, or you could add more veggies and omit the chicken if you want.

  • 1 lb chicken breasts or boneless thighs
  • Cornstarch
  • Olive or vegetable oil
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 6 oz walnuts
  • ½ lb snow peas or sugar snap peas with strings and ends removed
  • 3-4 green onions, cut into short lengths
  • ¼ lb mushrooms, sliced
  • Teriyaki sauce, bottled, or any other favorite sauce
  • Rice
  1. Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces and shake with the cornstarch. Shake off the excess cornstarch into a bow using a colander.
  2. Saute the chicken in a wok or pan with some oil. Set the chicken side and wipe the pan clean.
  3. Heat several more Tb of oil in a pan or wok and saute the mushrooms, onions and peapods. The pods should remain somewhat crunchy.

  1. In a smaller cast iron pan, add the sugar and heat over medium high heat until the sugar has melted. Stir in the walnuts.

  1. Add the chicken to the sauteed veggies and stir to warm through.

Warm the walnuts in their pan so the sugar softens and add them to the chicken and vegetables.

Add about half a cup of Teriyaki (or other ) sauce and stir and heat to soften the candied coating on the walnuts.

Serve over rice.

Stephen Spielberg’s Slum Clearance Story

Stephen Spielberg’s Slum Clearance Story

Stephen Spielberg’s take on West Side Story seems to be about a slum clearance project rather than a modern take on the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. I will assume that you are familiar with the story: this article contains plot spoilers.

I am not sure exactly why Spielberg made this movie other than perhaps to comment on the evils of urban renewal. While he claimed that this was closer to the Broadway production than to the 1961 Robert Wise movie, it really isn’t true. Gone is the ballet sequence and Laurents’ dialog has been replaced by Tony Kushner’s talky speeches which make the movie drag when it should soar. And the destruction of upper West Side tenements was never part of the plot of the script devised by Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein.

Only part of the opening sequence is really choreographed as a dance number, and it eventually devolves into a brutal fight. And the dialog that follows has some pretty cruel lines that seem unnecessary. In the original show, Lieutenant Shrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) come on for just over a minute and deliver 5 lines about cooperating with them and leave. In this version, Shrank’s nasty comments on the Jets and Sharks go on for about 4:45, and includes this winner:

“By the time you get out, this will be a shiny new neighborhood of rich people. With Puerto Rican doormen to chase trash like you away.”  

Filmed in sets more like a bombed out city than the Upper West Side housing projects it is really depressing to watch and is possibly a major indication of why audiences are staying away from a movie which, though problematic, has real merit in many other scenes.

Kushner also took it on himself to invent backstories that don’t add much of interest. Tony, in Kushner’s version, had spent a year in prison for nearly killing a boy in a gang fight. Just the guy you’d want your sister to marry!

And for no reason, both Bernardo (David Alvarez) and Chino (Josh Andres Rivera) are amateur boxers. While playwright Arthur Laurents described Chino as a sweet-faced young boy, whom Anita and Bernardo want Maria to marry, Kushner piles it on, making Chino not only a boxer, but a student studying accounting and (snort!) “adding machine repair.” Why do we need to know this? It explains why this Chino wears glasses?

You probably have read enough about this movie already to know that the character of Doc, who runs the drugstore where the Jets hang out has been replaced by Valentina, the late Doc’s wife, played by Rita Moreno, who was Anita in the first movie. This gives her a chance to comment on the story from the Puerto Rican point of view as well as advise Tony. It works quite well.

Laurents, in his book Mainly on Directing, praises the economical use of lines as a technique he learned working on radio. He points out that only 2 lines separate Anita’s discovery that Tony had just left Maria’s bedroom and the beginning of the powerful song “A Boy Like That.” Kushner observed that precept in that scene but unfortunately not in many other scenes in this overly long movie.

There is a lot of other parts of this movie that deserve praise: unlike the first movie, all the performers do their own singing, and they are far better actors than in the Wise film. (In his book, Laurents notes that the acting in that movie was terrible.) And further, the Sharks are actually Latinx actors, not white guys and girls painted brown.

Tony and Maria, the star-crossed lovers, are played by 27 year old Ansel Elgort and 20 year old Rachel Zegler, although neither matches Larry Kert or Carol Lawrence in singing ability. Both sing well enough to seem convincing in their roles. Zegler as the rather young Maria clearly has fallen for Tony, but there is only one place where that intense love shows in her singing: in the power duet with Anita (Ariana DeBose), “A Boy Like That,” that to me is the best musical number in the show.

Elgort has a light, pretty tenor voice, but he never really cuts loose with passion either in his singing or his acting. In fact, he is the only actor whose lip synching of his performance during sound recording seems off. This is possibly because he was singing more strongly in the studio than he was on the set, and his mouth movements didn’t quite match his singing. For comparison, here is Aaron Tveit singing Maria with real passion.

Ariana DeBose has received a lot of praise for her acting, dancing and singing, and it is much deserved. “A Boy Like That” is certainly her top number. However, in this duet with Maria, she doesn’t hold on to her notes as long as she should to blend better with Maria. But her performance leading the big dance number “America” is outstanding.

To me the strongest acting by far came from David Alvarez as Bernardo. He communicated a strong, powerful gang leader ready to take on anyone. You can’t take your eyes off him!

Justin Peck’s choreography was certainly different from that of Jerome Robbins, but while the Prologue was rather straightforward, the dancing in the Mambo sequence at the Dance at the Gym was truly thrilling. On the other hand, the Rumble wasn’t ballet. It was just a violent fight with Tony eventually holding Bernardo down and hitting him repeatedly until someone stopped him. This was recapitulating the violence he was imprisoned for and was in terrible taste. Of course, he eventually stabs and kills Bernardo after Bernardo knifes Riff and that would have been more than enough.

The original orchestrations were by Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin, but with Bernstein editing their work so he gets an orchestration credit as well.  Orchestrations for this film were by Doug Besterman, Michael Starobin and Garth Edwin Sunderland. Nearly all of the music sounded like Bernstein’s originals except Tonight. Bernstein marked this number as “Moderate Beguine Tempo” in other words a dance rhythm. Part of that is the repeating Da-da da-Da-da-da-da in the accompaniment. But in the Broadway cast recording, there is also a bass line that is off-the-beat—on-the-beat that is completely missing. This helps move the song along. There were also a few odd orchestral passages in the Prologue that I never heard before.

One of the most powerful numbers in Act I is “Cool,” where Riff and the Jets sing about keeping their tension contained until the forthcoming rumble. But instead, in this version, Tony sings it. Riff has bought a gun from a bartender and the song seems to be about tossing the loaded gun around among themselves. Again, this was nothing envisioned in the original LRB script, and considering that the gun did not need to be cocked to fire, was rather stupid.

Musically, my favorite part of West Side Story has always been the Tonight Quintet, featuring Tony, Maria, Anita, Riff (Mike Faist), Bernardo and the Sharks and Jets.  On stage this can be very effective, grouping them to suit the music. In the film, this is harder to do, and revolving shots between the five groups just doesn’t work as well. The vocal sound, however, was outstanding.

Usually, the Somewhere Ballet is included in WSS productions, where Tony and Maria and a couple of the Jets and Sharks battle out the Rumble again in ballet form, while an offstage soprano sings “There’s a Place for Us.”  It’s a shame that this was lost and giving this song to mezzo Rita Moreno to talk her way through didn’t have the same kind of effect without the ballet. But it was nice to give her this honor.

“Gee, Officer Krupke” was inserted in the first act to give some comic relief but the tragedies hadn’t happened yet. Honestly, this was one of the least funny stagings of this number that I’ve seen.  Needs more vaudeville, I guess.

You may have read that Sondheim hated his lyrics to “I Feel Pretty” and wanted to cut the song, as did Spielberg. But fortunately, Kushner intervened because he felt that the suspense of Maria not knowing that Tony was dead was important. And it is a good thing they didn’t, because this number is a standout in this movie, performed by the women who work nights cleaning Gimbels, including Maria, of course.

The ending is close to the original, where Chino finds Tony and shoots him just as Maria arrives. In the original they sing a bit of “Hold my hand and we’re halfway there,” from Somewhere before Tony dies. I missed that but when both gangs walk off together, it was still extremely effective.

So, overall, a mixed bag. I wish they had lived up to their promise to stay close to the original, since the cast would have done it well.

Lemon ricotta pancakes compared to Grandma’s

Lemon ricotta pancakes compared to Grandma’s

Several weeks ago, Genevieve Ko published a fascinating recipe for Lemon Ricotta Pancakes in the Sunday New York Times. She used superlatives like “most tender,” “fluffy,” “light” and “comforting,” and we just had to try them.

The pancakes are light because the recipe has 3 eggs, buttermilk, ricotta and only ¾ cup of flour. And the unique part of her version is that the batter also has some grated lemon zest. To counter that, she recommends serving them with a blueberry sauce.  Here is her recipe:

Ingredients

  • ¾ cup flour
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 large eggs
  • ¾ cup whole milk ricotta
  • ¼ cup buttermilk
  • 2 tsp melted butter
Lemon zest in sugar
Bubbles forming on lemon pancakes
  1. Heat a griddle to “medium low.” We chose 350˚ F.
  2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl.
  3. Put the sugar in a large bowl and grate the lemon zest into it, Work in with your fingers.
  4. Mix in the vanilla
  5. Add the eggs and whisk until foamy on top.
  6. Add the flour, ricotta and buttermilk and whisk until uniform.
  7. Butter the griddle generously and drop ¼ cup portions onto it. Cook 2-3 minutes until bubbles begin to from. Turn each pancake gently and cook about 2 more minutes.
  8. Serve with butter and blueberry sauce.

Blueberry sauce

  • ! pint blueberries
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 tsp cornstarch

Place all ingredients in a saucepan, mix and heat to a boil. Cook for about 5 minutes, until thickened.

Stack cut open

There is no doubt that these are light, delicious pancakes. Ko says the recipe makes 12-14 pancakes, but since they are so small and not all that filling, this recipe serves just a bit more than two people. We each ate two stacks of 3 pancakes without any trouble. You could have to double it to serve four. And, of course, you could omit the lemon zest if you wanted to serve them with maple syrup.

Grandma’s recipe

This is our old family recipe that was handed down from my mother’s mother, Edna Neely, who probably learned the recipe in the latter part of the 19th century. The copy I got came from her daughter, my aunt Elsie, many years ago. It is a simple recipe that you can remember as 2-2-2-1-1-1/2:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 Tb sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • Buttermilk

Over time, I’ve reduced the baking soda to about ¾ tsp so that the buttermilk flavor comes through more strongly.

  1. Mix the dry ingredients together.
  2. Break the eggs into the mixture and add buttermilk to make a “thickish batter.”
  3. Cook on a griddle at 375˚ F until bubble form and then turn them and cook another two minutes.
Buttermilk pancakes rising
Stack of buttermilk pancakes

How they differ

We usually make bigger pancakes, using maybe 1/3 of a cup of batter each, but you certainly can make them smaller like the ones in Ko’s recipe. They are nearly as light as Ko’s and much less work. It is also easy to make, say a 1-1/2 recipe to serve more people, but the basic recipe will serve 3-4.

I’ll probably make Ko’s recipe from time to time because they are really good with blueberry sauce, but it is so much more work than Grandma’s recipe and if you put a stack of 3 ¼-cup sized pancakes from each recipe side by side, the difference is relatively small.

We tried cooking this recipe at the lower temperature as Ko recommends, and this works fine too. They just take slightly longer to cook. However, we did find that the lower temperature cooked those frozen sausage patties more uniformly without burning them.

Why were my scones so flat?

Why were my scones so flat?

We make scones for breakfast fairly often, because as we showed earlier, you can make them quickly and they are quite delicious.

But, a couple of days ago, we made some of the worst scones we’d ever made.

As you can see, the recent scones were a flat-out disaster. We had used new baking powder and everything, but they were a flop.  What had gone wrong?

Well, the immediate suspect was the baking powder. Baking powders sometimes fails because it was stored improperly: in a hot warehouse or truck, for example. Let’s explain how this works here.

Baking soda is just sodium bicarbonate, NaHCo3. You use it when acidic ingredients such as buttermilk, sourdough or yoghurt are included in the batter. The baking soda will react with any of those acids to release carbon dioxide, CO2, which causes bubbles that make the dough rise.

Baking powder is sodium bicarbonate mixed with one or more acids in dry crystalline form, such cream of tartar  (tartaric acid), monocalcium phosphate, sodium aluminum pyrophosphate, or a couple of others.  Double acting baking powders (and most of them now are) contain two acids, one that reacts immediately when liquid is added and one that reacts only when heat is also applies. In all cases, the baking powder also contains cornstarch, to help keep the mixture dry and add bulk to make it easier to measure.

But you can easily test baking powder by putting a couple of teaspoons in  a bowl, and adding boiling water. Just microwave a cup of water in a pitcher for a minute or so until it bubbles a bit, and pour it over the baking powder. It should foam up right away as you see below.

New baking powder foams up in hot water

But let’s look at that suspect baking powder: no foam at all, it scarcely breathes a word!

Suspect baking powder

In fact, it doesn’t really look at all like the other sample. In fact let’s look at the package:

Oh!

Square biscuits really are better!

Square biscuits really are better!

Taking a tip from my friend Robert Lortz, I made square (or rectangular) biscuits today.

There are no scraps that you have to re-roll and the biscuits rise higher because you didn’t force them into a biscuit cutter. You just cut the dough with a table knife or sharp knife and move them onto a cookie sheet with a spatula. You can see the results.

My biscuit recipe is slightly different than Lortz’s but it is pretty similar. Rather than shredding the butter, you cut the stick into little slices and blend them into the flour with a pastry blender. The real difference is that you fold the dough into thirds and roll it out three times to make some buttery layers.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 Tb baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup cold, unsalted butter (2/3 of a quarter pound stick.)
  • 1 cup plus about 2 Tb buttermilk
Butter incorporated into the dough
Fold into thirds three times
  1. Preheat the oven to 450˚ F.
  2. Mix the flour, baking powder, soda and salt in a bowl.
  3. Cut the butter into thin slices and put them all into the flour.
  4. Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour until uniform, but with some small butter lumps remaining.
  5. Add the cup of buttermilk and mix in with a fork. Add a little more buttermilk if all the flour isn’t all incorporated.
  6. Roll out the dough on a floured board or pastry marble.
  7. Fold the dough and thirds and roll it out again three times to form some butter layers in the dough.
  8. Cut the dough rectangle into squares (or rectangles) using a knife.
  9. Then use a spatula to move them to a cookie sheet.
  10. Bake for 10 minutes.
Dough cut into squares
Dough on cookie sheet

The result is tall, fluffy, buttery biscuits. Enjoy them!

Why does my diet soda taste ‘off’?

Why does my diet soda taste ‘off’?

If you’ve ever been given a can of Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi and it tastes a little off, or way off, you probably just toss it out. Why does this happen and what can you do about it?

Many diet soft drinks are sweetened with aspartame a leading non-nutritive sweetener that works very well in cold or room temperature foods. Aspartame is little more than 2 amino acids (aspartic acid and phenyl alanine) stuck together in a peptide linkage with one extra methyl group.  This useful colored diagram came from the paper by Prodolliet, et. al. [1].

Aspartame, showing aspartic acid(red), phenyl alanine (blue) and the methyl ester (magenta)

Aspartame was discovered in 1965 by James M Schlatter, while working at G.D. Searle. He said that he had made the aspartame (methyl ester) and was trying to recrystallize it to purify it, when some of the mixture bumped outside the flask. Later, when he licked his fingers to turn a page, he discovered a very sweet taste. Since he realized that the compound he made was unlikely to be toxic, he tasted it and found it extremely sweet indeed. In fact, aspartame is about 200 times as sweet by weight as sugar.

Searle patented this product, naming it Nutrisweet and Equal. Officially, aspartame has a half-life of about 300 days in solution at about pH 4, about the pH of soft drinks, but half life means that half if it as gone by that time. And if the cans are exposed to a hot storeroom or stored in a warm summer garage, they may deteriorate faster.

Why does it start to taste awful?

Diet sodas have a date on the package: it’s not the “sell-by” date, it’s the “use-by” date. Depending on you grocer, this may be 2 to 2-1/2 months from the date you bought it. Grocers are not too good at stock rotation of diet sodas, so it is up to you to make sure you don’t get an early one. Nearing the end of January, we have picked up cartons dates from Mar 21 to April 11 in the same stack! Unless you only buy one or two at a times, this won’t matter, but if you buy several on sale (and they all do this) you need to be watchful.

Carton date
Can date

So what happens? Well, the simplest thing that happens is that the two amino acids come upzipped: this is called hydrolysis,  since it always amounts to adding a water molecule at a carbon-oxygen bond. If you unzip aspartame into the two amino acids and remove that methyl to become methanol, you have a tasteless mixture of pretty harmless compounds. Your body easily metabolizes that bit of methyl alcohol and you are none the worse for it. This is described in the Prodolliet paper [1] and in the one by van Vliet [2].

Aspartic acid
Phenyl alanine
Methanol

What tastes so awful?

It is easy to understand that a solution of those two amino acids might well be tasteless, which is one of the outcomes when diet sodas age. But what about that really vile taste you sometimes encounter in old diet sodas?

I think there are two possibilities. If you look at the various steps aspartame undergoes as it unzips [1], you discover that one of the intermediate products is a form of diketopiperazine.  The basic compound is shown below along with the derivative, sometimes also referred to as DKP that is actually produced:

Basic diketopiperazone
DKP found in aspartame decomposition

Bothwick [4] has described the taste of DKPs as “bitter, astringent, metallic, and umami.” This is not surprising, since ring compounds with one or more nitrogen usually are pretty smelly. And a table of the concentrations of intermediates in van Vliet[2] shows that DKP occurs in significant amounts. But, in case you are concerned about their toxicity, Ishii et. al [3] studied aspartame and DKP for 104 weeks in Wistar rats and found no toxic effects at all.

The other possibility, albeit less likely, is another form of the sweetener called β-aspartame, which differs only in the position of that NH2 group: it is moved one carbon to the left. This isomer has a pronounced bitter taste, and does occur during aspartame decomposition, but in much lower  concentration. But again, it is harmless.

beta-aspartame

Diet Coke mythology

You can’t discuss diet sodas for very long before someone brings up the old saw the diet sodas cause weight gain. The theory was that the sweetness induces hunger and you eat more actual food to satisfy it.

In 2008 Fowler and Williams[5] published a paper noting a correlation between obesity and diet soda consumption. A correlation, not causation. But in 2009, Chen and Appel [6] monitored 810 adults for 18 months, recording their beverage intake. They found weight gain from sugar sweetened beverages and but no weight gain from artificially sweetened beverages.

Finally, in 2012, Maersk and Belza [7] compared satiety scores for milk, sugar sweetened beverages and artificially sweetened beverages, and found no evidence that artificially sweetened beverages increased appetite or energy intake, concluding that “diet colas had effects similar to water.”

Regarding unfounded rumors that artificially sweetened beverages had some neurological effect, a panel of 10 experts examined all the current literature [8] and concluded:

The data from the extensive investigations into the possibility of neurotoxic effects of aspartame, in general, do not support the hypothesis that aspartame in the human diet will affect nervous system function, learning or behavior. Epidemiological studies on aspartame include several case-control studies and one well-conducted prospective epidemiological study with a large cohort, in which the consumption of aspartame was measured. The studies provide no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue. The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.

So aspartame is safe before and after it degrades into the component amino acids, but for the best taste, you should check each package’s expiration date.

References

  1. Prodolliet, Jacques; Bruelhart, Milene (1993). Determination of Aspartame and Its Major Decomposition Products in Foods. Journal of AOAC INTERNATIONAL, 76(2), 275–282. doi:10.1093/jaoac/76.2.275 
  2. Aspartame and Phe-Containing Degradation Products in Soft Drinks across Europe Kimber van Vliet,1 Elise S. Melis,2 Pim de Blaauw,2 Esther van Dam,1 Ronald G. H. J. Maatman,2 David Abeln,3 Francjan J. van Spronsen,1 and M. Rebecca Heiner-Fokkema2,*  Nutrients. 2020 Jun; 12(6): 1887. Published online 2020 Jun 24. doi: 10.3390/nu12061887
  3. Toxicity of aspartame and its diketopiperazine for Wistar rats by dietary administration for 104 weeks H IshiiT KoshimizuS UsamiT Fujimoto DOI: 10.1016/0300-483x(81)90119-0
  4. 2,5-diketopiperazines in food and beverages: Taste and bioactivity, A Bothwick and NeilC DaCosta, Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017 Mar 4;57(4):718-742 doi:10.1093/jaoac/76.2.275 
  5. Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long-term weight gain. SP Fowler, K Williams, et. al., Obesity (Silver Spring). 2008 Aug;16(8):1894-900. doi: 10.1038/oby.2008.284. Epub 2008 Jun 5.
  6. L Chen and L J Appel, et. al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;89(5):1299-306. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2008.27240. Epub 2009 Apr 1.
  7. M Maersk, A Belza et. al., Eur J Clin Nutr . 2012 Apr;66(4):523-9. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2011.223.
  8. B.A. Magnuson et al.  Crit Rev Toxicol. 2007;37(8):629-727. doi: 10.1080/10408440701516184.

 

Newman’s Own Pizzas

Newman’s Own Pizzas

We thought that the Newman’s Own pizzas we say in the grocer’s freezer would be a nice change from our making our own. The pictures, at least, looked enticing. So we picked up a couple of them: Supreme and Harvest Vegetable.

Boxed pizzas

The pizzas come in a box and sealed in plastic as well, on a cardboard disk about 10 ¾   inches. So, the pizzas are about 10 ½ inches each.

Pizzas before baking

You cook them in a 425˚ F oven for 10-12 or 11-13 minutes: the veggie one takes the slightly longer time. You are supposed to remove them from the cardboard disk, but the picture didn’t make that clear, and after we put them in the oven, we discovered that fact in the text, and used our pizza peel to lift them off the cardboard to continue cooking. You are supposed to cook them until the cheese melts and the crust browns a bit. Because of our snafu, this took a bit longer then 12 minutes, but they came out looking pretty nice.

Pizzas just out of the oven

We cut them into 6 pieces each.

While we thought the flavors of both pizzas were quite good, they really were diminutive. The thickness was less than 1/8 inch, except for the occasional pepper or sausage lump. The pepperoni was sliced so thin it only had one side. Surprisingly, the ingredients suggested that this was a yeast dough. It certainly didn’t rise much.

Edge view of Supreme pizza

The package said that a serving was 1/3 of a pizza, or two of the six slices implied in the package picture. That was about 250 calories, which is not going to fill you up very much. Each of the 6 slices weighed about 1.8 oz, meaning that the whole baked pizza weighed about 10 oz. Initially the pizzas we 15.7 or 17 oz meaning that there was at least a 5 oz water loss in baking.  By contrast, the pizza we usually make produces slices of about the same dimensions that weigh about 5 oz each.

Essentially, this was a tasty 2-dimensional pizza, that left us kind of hungry. I guess if we had looked at the grocery receipt and found they were only about $7.50 each, we shouldn’t have been surprised. We did go away hungry, though.

Baldanza at the Schoolhouse

Baldanza at the Schoolhouse

Baldanza moved into the Schoolhouse restaurant last August and we decided to give them a try now that they have presumably settled in. According to their web site, this is a family business with Sandy Baldanza at the Proprietor, Angela Baldanza as the chef de Cuisine and Alex Baldanza as the General Manager.

The layout of the restaurant is much the same as it was before, with banquettes along the windowed walls and about 16 well-spaced tables within. The hosts are gracious and quick to seat you when you arrive. Water comes right away, and some very good bread and butter soon follows. We particularly like the pecan bread with raisins.

The dinner menu consists of 10 appetizers (mostly Italian), 7 definitively Italian pasta dishes and 7 entrees which seem to be much more American: hamburger, salmon, halibut, strip steak, pork chop, chicken Milanese and tuna au poivre.

There is a one-page wine list, with one prosecco, 2 rose’s, 5 white wines, and 16 red wines, many of them Italian and all but 3 available by the glass or full bottle. We chose the Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 2016, but would try something else next time.

If you’re looking for a single sentence capsule review: Everything we ordered was excellent, and we’ll certainly go back.

Fritto misto

One of our appetizers was an outstanding Fritto Misto ($21). It contained fried calamari, rock shrimp, and fried zucchini with a marinara sauce and a red pepper aioli, The portion was enormous and completely greaseless. It was excellent but save room for your main course!

Beet salad

Our other appetizer was an amazing composed Beet Salad ($18), with red and golden beets, tangerines, pistachio, green beans, apples, fennel, dates and goat cheese. I don’t think we’ve ever had a better one. What a great combination of flavors!

Shrimp risotto

One of our pasta dishes was Risotto with Jumbo Gulf Shrimp ($39). It was served, or course, with arborio rice, along with asparagus, cherry tomatoes and saffron. The flavors were outstanding, although the shrimp were so large that they were a little difficult to cut.

Tagliatelle Roma

Finally, our other entrée was Tagliatelle Roma ($28), which was their house made tagliatelle served with prosciutto, peas, mushrooms and a cream sauce. The waiter added some grated cheese as well. It had a smooth texture with little spikes of prosciutto throughout.

We would have like to tell you about their desserts (several are pictured on their web site) but we were much too full to order them.

However, next time, we are sure to try their Caesar salad and their meatballs, either as an appetizer or in their Rigatoni con Pallotine. Their Chicken Milanese looks interesting too….

Our bill was $143.95 with tax but before tip.

All in all, this was a delightful evening, and we welcome Baldanza to Wilton!

Tuna Noodle Casserole

Tuna Noodle Casserole

This midwestern favorite wouldn’t exist without the historic contributions of the Campbell Soup company. Campbell’s was founded in 1869, selling canned tomatoes, fruits and vegetables, but in 1897 the company’s manager, Arthur Dorrance, hired his nephew, Dr. John T Dorrance, to join the company. John Dorrance was a chemist by training and developed a method to eliminate much of the water in canned soup, making it much easier to can and ship. These canned soups in the familiar 10 oz cans would serve several people when the water was added back in and sold for about a dime per can. This revolutionized Campbell’s entire business, and Campbell’s became the Campbells Soup Company.

In 1913, Campbell’s introduced the a condensed Cream of Celery soup, which along with the 1934 introduction of their Cream of Mushroom soup became the basis for “America’s bechamel,” a simple sauce base the led to thousands of convenient recipes.

In the Midwest, people developed untold numbers of casseroles that they could quickly make for dinner or bring to pot-luck dinners and other social events. In the northern Midwest (Minnesota and North Dakota) these were just called Hot Dishes and their variety is legion.

The tuna-noodle casserole is one surviving casserole from the 1950s that people like me still make. This recipe is more or less the one my mother made, and is much like one in the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.

There are a wide number of variations on this recipe: many use Cream of Mushroom soup as the sauce base, but we’ll stick to the 1913 version that used Cream of Celery. Some people add green peas or broccoli to their casseroles: you can adulterate them any way you like, but we’ll stick to the original recipe. You can make it in 10 minutes plus a baking time of around 20 minutes.

We make this casserole using half of a 12 oz package of noodles, which works out to about 3 ½ cups. And be sure to use Albacore tuna for the best flavor.

  • 3 1/2 cups dry egg noodles
  • 2 5 oz or 1 12 oz can of albacore tuna
  • 1 cup sliced celery
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • ½ green pepper, cut up
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • 1 can cream of celery soup
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 cup cheddar cheese, cut into small cubes
  • Salt and pepper
  • Slivered almonds or crushed potato chips for the topping
  1. Preheat the over to 425˚ F.
  2. Cook the noodles according to package directions, about 9 minutes, and drain into a colander.
  3. Put the canned soup to a small saucepan and add the milk. Heat through and add the shredded cheese. Cook until melted.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, combine the celery, onion, pepper, and mayonnaise.
  5. Add the tuna and break up any large lumps.
  6. Add the soup mixture and the noodles.
  7. Season with salt and pepper.
  8. Put the contents of the mixing bowl in a large over proof casserole and top with slivered almonds. To honor the decade, we used a Corning ware casserole dish from that period.
  9. Bake for about 20 minutes until bubbling throughout.
  10. Serve while hot.
Chicken breasts with mushroom puree

Chicken breasts with mushroom puree

The idea behind this recipe in Bon Appetit is a good one. Making mushroom puree to go with chicken breasts (which are less flavorful than thighs) is a good one. But this is another case where the recipe just doesn’t work out at all like the photo: a problem we have with most recipes in Bon Appetit.

The complete recipe is linked here, but amounts to browning bone-in chicken breasts and then cooking them in the oven at 350˚ F for about  25 minutes.

Meanwhile, you make the mushroom puree from

  • 4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 8 oz. button mushrooms, halved                                      
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 Tbsp. crème fraiche
  • 2 tsp. truffle oil (don’t do this!)
  • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
  1. Just as you’d think, you sauté the mushrooms in the butter until they give up their water and
  2. add the shallots and garlic, and saute them.
  3. Then you add the chicken broth, thyme and bay and cook it down at least by half.
  4. Next you add the cream and cook that down by half or more
  5. Skip the truffle oil: it always has a chemical taste since it isn’t truffles at all but 2,4-dthiapentane, and tests pretty fake.
  6. Remove the bay and thyme leaves and blend the whole thing until smooth..

Ideally the breasts are done now, and you put the puree on each plate and top with the sliced chicken breasts and a little sauteed Swiss chard. 

I can tell you that the puree is really delicious and would work with any sort of chicken as a sauce.

But there are problems

  1. The BonAppetit recipe doesn’t stop there. It has you sauté more shallots and garlic in butter and then boil down 2 more cups of chicken stock and strain it to make a sort of gravy. This is utterly superfluous, because it has the same flavors as the mushroom puree and runs off into the puree anyway.
  2. Serving the chicken breast sliced but with the bone still included makes it very hard to eat the chicken. You should debone it before slicing and serving.
  3. Cooking store-bought chicken breasts is not that simple since most of them are huge and hard to cook through without drying out.
  4. The puree in the BA picture is very thick and creamy. Despite our boiling it down a lot more than they say, we never got it to be that thick. Perhaps they used some arrowroot as well?
  5. Our puree had black flecks in it because most supermarket mushrooms have black gills. They call for “button mushrooms,” which may be whiter, but weren’t in our stores.

Our conclusion is that a simpler version of this recipe has real promise, but we’d not go through all those steps again.