Dining In…

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One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1996 film, Big Night. But it wasn’t until about 4 years ago that I was introduced to this foodie classic by a roommate who told me about it after I had made a dinner of risotto and chicken. (We then watched the movie together later that evening.)

The film centers around two brothers, Primo and Secondo, immigrants from Italy, who own “Paradise” a restaurant in 1950s New Jersey. The restaurant is in danger of closing as its competing restaurant, another Italian-owned restaurant, “Pascal’s” is taking all of its business. As popular as their competitor’s restaurant may be with locals (think Bucca di Beppo-style decor) the restaurant does not have the heart and soul of the true Italian cuisine that the brothers’ restaurant embodies.

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The chef, Primo (beautifully played by Monk star, Tony Shalhoub) is the soul of the restaurant–preparing special dishes he brought from Italy to the States. While Secondo (played by Stanley Tucci, doing triple duty as actor, writer and director of the film) is the businessman of the restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant has to close, but a chat with Pascal leads Secondo to believe that he has set up a final dinner, a “Big Night”, where famous Italian-American singer, Louis Prima is supposedly invited to dine at their “Paradise.” The dinner is meant to be something special, a final goodbye to the restaurant and its roots. Cooking for a big-time star like Louis Prima not only excites Secondo, it pushes him to encourage  his brother to create a special, final meal.

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And the meal, well, it’s definitely something memorable. With about 6 courses, the Big Night meal is a culinary adventure that shoots to inspire any foodie, chef, student, and home cook alike. I often dreamt of recreating my own Big Night meal, and I thought that my (belated) housewarming dinner with a few friends would be the perfect opportunity to do just that.

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Instead of 6 courses, I opted for 4. The dinner centers around pivotal scenes and dishes in the film. I tried to be as ambitious yet realistic as possible. I had a day and a half to create this meal by myself, so I definitely had my work cut out for me. After pulling an all-nighter and waking up early the following morning to get this meal prepared before my guests arrived, I am incredibly happy with how well the dinner went. By the time my guests arrived, I already had the timpano in the oven, the sorbetto in the freezer, and I was able to cook the stracciatella and the risotto a la minute, right in front of my guests. The reveal of the timpano and slicing it at the table, and then pouring the Prosecco over the sorbetto was another visual treat my guests enjoyed. It appears, we, too, had our own Big Night.

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Big Night-Inspired Menu

zuppa: stracciatella (Italian Egg Drop Soup)

primo: risotto con capesante (Seared Scallop Risotto)

secondo: timpano (Baked Pasta Pie)

dolce: sorbetto alla fragola con prosecco (Strawberry Sorbet with Prosecco)

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots are property of Rysher Entertainment and Timpano Productions.)

A Delicious Start

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In the Big Night dinner, the meal starts off with the zuppa (soup), although the film didn’t specify what type of soup was served, I opted for lighter fare. A light, clean-tasting soup felt like the best way to begin a four-course meal.

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This stracciatella (Italian for “to tear”, or “to shred”, the term is used to describe other foods, including stracciatella ice cream with its shreds of chocolate.) is so easy to make and requires only 5 ingredients–so convenient when you’re preparing a four-course meal for four people all by yourself! But remember: don’t stir the mixture in too much–the clumps cooking in the hot stock will create lovely little semolina dumplings once set.

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Stracciatella (Italian Egg Drop Soup)
Serves 2-4
Recipe adapted from Simply Recipes

INGREDIENTS
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
2 cups spinach leaves, stems removed and chiffonade cut (kale, chard and arugula also work well)
1 Tablespoon semolina flour
3 Tablespoons finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese (use a Microplane if you have one)
1 large egg
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

METHOD
Heat the chicken stock in a stock pot and bring to a boil.

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While your stock is heating up, in a medium-sized bowl whisk together the egg, Pecorino Romano and semolina flour.

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Stir in the chiffonade-cut greens into the boiling stock. Lower the heat to a simmer. Slowly pour in the cheese/egg/flour mixture into the stock. Do not stir the mixture, allow it to sit in the simmering stock for about 2 minutes.

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Once the batter looks set (it will cook rather quickly) give the mixture a gently stir to incorporate all of the ingredients. The clumps of batter have now turned into mini dumplings. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve!

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots are property of Rysher Entertainment and Timpano Productions.)

She Likes Starch!

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In one of my favorite (and famous) scenes in the movie, Big Night, a customer at Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo’s (Stanley Tucci) Italian restaurant is upset because the Seafood Risotto she ordered appeared to have “nothing that looks like a shrimp or a scallop (anywhere).” The customer then asked for a side of spaghetti and meatballs. Upset, Secondo then goes into the kitchen to tell his brother, the chef, Primo, that he needs to make an order of spaghetti and meatballs. Primo is not happy with this request, as he believes in the integrity of the food. The two argue about the customer liking too much starch. Primo then barks back with, “Maybe I should make her a mashed potato on the other side!” The scene is pure comedy and sets the tone of the movie.

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For the Primo (first) course of the meal, I wanted to recreate the Seafood Risotto to my own liking. I wanted the caramelization of the seared scallops to shine, so opted out on not adding any other seafood to the mix. The brightness of the spinach greens and basil work well with the creamy risotto, allowing the scallops to take center stage. Adding a splash of fresh lemon juice finishes the dish perfectly.

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Risotto con Capesante (Seared Scallop Risotto)
Serves 2-4
Recipe slightly adapted from Barbells and Bellinis 

INGREDIENTS

FOR THE RISOTTO
5 cups chicken broth
1 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups arborio
1/2 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated
1/2 cup shallots, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
3 cups of fresh spinach or other leafy green (chard and kale work well, too)
1/2 cup basil, chiffonade cut

FOR THE SCALLOPS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound of scallops (I used diver)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

METHOD
In saucepan, bring chicken broth to a boil.  Reduce to medium-low to keep warm.

In a large shallow skillet, heat the butter over medium-high heat. Sauté the shallots till translucent. Turn down the heat to medium and add in the garlic and stir till aromatic–don’t burn the garlic!

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Add in the rice, stir to coat with the butter and cook for about 3-5 minutes.  Deglaze the pan by adding the wine and cook till the liquid is evaporated, stirring constantly.  Start adding your hot chicken broth in 1 cup-intervals and cook until mostly absorbed, stirring constantly. Continue to add the broth 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly until broth is almost completely absorbed (this should take 20-30 minutes).

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Stir in the spinach and basil after the final 1 cup of broth has been added.  Remove risotto from heat and add the Pecorino Romano. Cover and allow to stand for about three to five minutes (or until scallops are finished).  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To cook the scallops, heat a large cast iron skillet over high heat.  Add in the olive oil and allow oil to heat for a minute till hazy. Just before adding the scallops, pat them try with a paper towel; any excess water will create a splattery mess. Add the scallops to the pan, giving each scallop enough room to cook evenly without crowding the pan. Let the scallops sear without disturbing them for about 3-5 minutes. Once you’ve got a good dark, caramelization on one side, flip it over to cook for another 2 minutes. Remove the cooked scallop and top with the risotto.

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots are property of Rysher Entertainment and Timpano Productions.)

Save this one for Louis Prima

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“This is so fucking good, I should kill you!” screams rival restauranteur, Pascal (Ian Holm), as he takes his first bite of the grand, drum-shaped Timpano. 

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In what is truly a labor of love, the Timpano is a very special Italian dish–best explained by Primo to have, “a special crust, that is shaped like a drum, and inside…all of the most important things…in the world.”

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There are several components to the dish. First, the pasta crust. Then the meatballs. Then the marinara sauce, and everything else in between. Unfortunately, because of time restraints, I wasn’t able to make the pasta by hand, so I decided to cheat a little bit (just one cheat!) and topped the Timpano with lasagna sheets. The result is not as good as its original, but boy, the inside of the pasta pie well then makes up for it!

If you’re ready to wow your guests (and impress yourself, for that matter!) roll up your sleeves, and prepare to make this very special, timely dish.

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timpanoballs

Italian-Style Meatballs
Yields 14-18 meatballs, depending on size
Recipe via A Streetcar Named Devour

INGREDIENTS
1 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
1 small onion, finely minced
1 shallot, finely minced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 egg
1/4 cup Parmesan, grated
1/2 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
1/4 cup basil, finely chopped
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1 Tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flake
olive oil

METHOD
In a medium-sized skillet, heat the oil till hazy. Add in the onion and shallot, saute till translucent. Add in the garlic, stirring for one minute. Remove from the pan and allow to cool.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix the ground beef and pork, egg and cheese. Once the onion mixture is fully cooled down, add it into the mixture. Finish with the rest of the ingredients, mixing till just incorporated.

Roll the meatball mixture into 2 1/2 Tablespoonfuls-sized balls. Set aside.

Heat the same skillet over medium-high heat, adding just enough oil to reach about 1 1/2 inches of the skillet.

Load the skillet with the meatballs, making sure not to overcrowd the pan. Cook all sides of the meatballs for 3 minutes per side. Remove from the pan and place onto a baking sheet.

Once all of the meatballs have been cooked, place into a 350-degree oven and cook for an additional 10-15 minutes, or until the center of the meatballs are cooked through.

(This can be done a day ahead.)

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Italian-Style Marinara Sauce
Yields 3 1/2 quarts
Recipe via A Streetcar Named Devour

INGREDIENTS
24 ounces of canned whole tomatoes
3 Tablespoons dried oregano leaves
1/2 cup basil, torn
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons Kosher salt

METHOD
Place all ingredients into a food processor or blender. Puree till all ingredients are completely blended together. Set aside.

(This can be done a day ahead.)

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Timpano (Baked Pasta Pie)
Serves 4-6 people
Recipe slightly adapted from LA Mag

INGREDIENTS

FOR THE ASSEMBLY
1 1/2 cups Genoa salami pieces
1 1/2 cup sharp provolone cheese chunks
6 hard-cooked eggs, shelled and quartered lengthwise, each quarter cut in half
2 cups small meatballs* (Recipe above)
3 1/2 cups marinara sauce* (Recipe above)
1/2 pounds ziti, cooked al dente (about half the time recommended on the package) and drained, tossed in olive oil
1 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup finely grated pecorino Romano
3 eggs, beaten
8-10 sheets of lasagna, cooked al dente, drained, tossed in olive oil

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METHOD
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Make sure salami, provolone, hard-cooked eggs, meatballs and marinara sauce are out at room temperature. Toss the ziti with 2 cups of the marinara sauce. Place 4 cups of ziti onto the bottom of the pan. Add a layer of a 1/2 cup salami, 1/2 cup provolone, 1 1/2 eggs, 1/2 cup meatballs and 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese after that. Pour another 1/2 cup of sauce over the ingredients, repeat this step, adding layers of ingredients until the filling comes to about 1 inch of the top of your timpano pan. The last of the marinara sauce should be the top layer. Then pour eggs over the filling. Fold the lasagna sheet layers over the filling to seal it completely.

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Cover with aluminum foil and bake until lightly browned, about 1 hour. Remove the foil and continue to bake the timpano till it’s cooked through and is golden brown (and reaches an internal temperature of 120 degrees), an additional 30-45 minutes. Once done, remove from oven and allow the timpano to rest for another 30 minutes to allow it to cool and contract before attempting to remove it from the pan. Failing to do so, will result in a broken pasta pie. Once it’s fully cooled down, the baked timpano should not adhere to the pan.

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Place a baking sheet or a large, thin cutting board that covers the entire diameter on the pan on top of the timpano. Grasp the baking sheet or cutting board and the rim of the pan firmly and invert the timpano. Remove the pan and allow timpano to cool for 10 minutes. Using a long, sharp knife, gently slice the timpano like slicing a pie into individual portions. Serve!

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots are property of Rysher Entertainment and Timpano Productions.)

Un Dolce Finale

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To complete a rather heavy (yet balanced!) Italian feast, inspired by the glorious meal shown in the classic film, Big Night, I wanted to incorporate a light and fruit-forward dessert. When planning the final course for this special meal, I consulted with my good friend, Brett, who is the pastry chef assistant at a superb Italian restaurant in Oakland that I used to work with him at. He immediately suggested a strawberry sorbet topped with some Cava or Prosecco. It was pure genius. This recipe of my Strawberry Sorbet from a few years’ back is my go-to. Just make the sorbet a day-ahead and pour a bit of Prosecco tableside and just see how delighted your guests will be!

Sorbetto alla Fragola con Prosecco (Strawberry Sorbet with Prosecco)
Serves 4

INGREDIENTS
1 quart strawberry sorbet (recipe HERE)
1 bottle Italian Prosecco

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METHOD
Make the sorbet at least 1 day before serving.

When ready to serve, leave the sorbet out in room temperature for about 20 minutes to soften a bit. Using an ice cream scoop, scoop 2-3 scoops of sorbet into each bowl. Pour enough Prosecco over sorbet to just cover. Repeat for all bowls. Serve!

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(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots are property of Rysher Entertainment and Timpano Productions.)

Starting Over

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“You know what’s funny? This is the first time in my life there’s no one waiting at home for me. I don’t even have a home to come back to.” -Liz Gilbert in Eat Pray Love

After re-watching that scene, I can’t help but feel the jolt of goosebumps travel from my shoulders, down to my toes, and back up again. The feeling is eerily familiar. I had just experienced my own similar Eat Pray Love journey not too long ago. Liz was leaving behind everyone she loved; everything she knew. I, too, left behind everyone I loved and everything I knew.

I had reached a point in my life back in California, where nothing felt right. 

I began to feel the pangs of every decision I had made up to that point. Wasn’t this the life I had procured for myself? I (just like Liz) actively participated in creating this life, so why wasn’t I happy? I began to accept something I knew deep down inside for a very long time–I needed to start over. I wanted to move somewhere where I could become inspired again. I wanted to go to a place where I didn’t know a single person. After telling my story to a well known astrologer/medium in the Bay Area, she agreed and told me (as Ketut Liyer prophesied to Liz in Bali) that I needed to move and start over somewhere new. Together we consulted the spirits, and of all the cities and countries we examined, they (we) chose Portland. That was the moment I decided that I would have to figure out a way to move out of Oakland, and then save up enough money to make my way up North.

I didn’t have any housing planned, nor job lined up. Just the sheer determination and faith in the process that I would make it work. The only thing that had kept me in Oakland for as long as it did, were the friends I made within the four years I lived there. Saying goodbye to those friends truly was the hardest part; my friends are an extension of my family. After four years, I guess you can say I fell out of love with Oakland, as Liz fell out of love in her marriage. So she ended it. And I did as well.

I admit, it wasn’t an easy process, but thanks to my willingness to never give up, and meeting a group of truly amazing people (the new friends I’ve made here have been such a blessing and have helped me get through the many obstacles I encountered) I managed to set out and do exactly what I intended to do: start a brand-new life. The rush of being inspired again gives me goosebumps. The good kind. So while my journey here is far from over, I believe that I’ve started a new chapter in my own Eat Pray Love story.

Because it’s February (with the Hallmark holiday of Valentine’s Day just a few away) I thought I’d partake in the festivities and create a menu of Eat Pray Love-inspired recipes, featuring cuisines from the countries Liz visited.

I hope my story (or Liz’s) inspires you to partake in your own Eat Pray Love journey.

MENU

ITALY:  Roasted Asparagus with Black Olives, Lemon Vinaigrette, Pecorino Romano and a Soft-Cooked Egg

INDIA: Butter Chicken with Rice and Homemade Naan

INDONESIA: Gemblong Sweet Rice Fritters with Coconut-Caramel Sauce

 

(Editor’s Note: All movie screenshots in this story are property of Columbia Pictures.)