Originally created 03/02/05

Alfred Portale sees home cooking as simple pleasure



NEW YORK - His latest cookbook's mandate was "to create recipes that didn't require a lot of stuff," Alfred Portale said, getting straight to the point.

That's his unpretentious style, in evidence in the book as well as at an interview in a quiet corner of his acclaimed Manhattan restaurant, Gotham Bar and Grill.

The book's focus is home cooking, which gets top billing on the cover above the title, "Alfred Portale Simple Pleasures" (William Morrow, 2004, $34.95). But the book, co-written by Portale and Andrew Friedman, makes it clear that there's still a link between Portale's stylish restaurant menus and the food he cooks at home with his family.

"The difference between recipes that we cook at the restaurant and those we cook at home is that they all have about four less steps" in the home versions, he said with a smile.

About 90 percent of the dishes in the book are favorites that Portale cooks for the family, said the chef, a James Beard Foundation award-winner who lives in Manhattan with his wife and two teenage children. But although most were worked out at home, some have graduated up to a more formal level.

"That's what is special about this book," Portale said. "I developed all the recipes, and in the process I found some clever combinations that have come to the restaurant menu, too. My watchword is: Nothing is sacred. Dishes evolve and change, just as the restaurant menu changes with the seasons."

He described the flavor of the book as being cross-cultural, centered on the kinds of cooking found around the Mediterranean.

"I come from a large Italian-American family, where meals and food and flavors were important," he said. Having grown up in that tradition, he said, he was influenced by other cooks, too, especially Paula Wolfert, to explore other Mediterranean cuisines, but always based on the food of the Italian culture.

He also trained as a chef living in France and cooking with people he characterized as "some of the finest chefs," before returning to the United States and New York.

After doing two other cookbooks, he explained, "I'd come to recognize that chefs take a lot for granted" and resolved to take another tack, that of the home cook, in this latest book.

"At home, I do most of the cooking in the summer, and at weekends, for family and friends," he said, adding that his wife is also a professional chef and very involved in the family meals.

Aiming to make life easier for the home cook, he said, "I really and truly keep all the processes in mind, including the shopping and prepping. There's a certain proficiency I've cultivated, given that we all enjoy eating well and want to eat well."

After all, he said, he had a good motive to streamline and fine-tune home cooking for himself: "I cook professionally, and I don't want to spend all my spare time doing that, too."

His goal, then, was to choose recipes and dishes for the book that were quick and easy, with relatively few ingredients - "but they had to be something that I found interesting."

At home or in the restaurant kitchen, Portale said, one rule still applies for everyone: Success depends on the quality of the ingredients.

Most of the 125 recipes in the book are new, although a few have been reworked, according to Portale. They are grouped in chapters following the usual courses of a meal, from salads and starters through desserts. They're accompanied with just enough helpful detail to explain techniques or ingredients - how to make a pan sauce, for example. And they call for relatively few tools.

The layout design is clear and, yes, perfectly simple: one recipe per page, often with extra notes on pairings (menu suggestions), variations, and "flavor building" (optional extras), each type of note color-keyed in orderly fashion.

With these notes, Portale said, "I hope I'm giving license to people to create some of their own signature variations." The concept of pairing is something most chefs think about, he pointed out. So here, in the book, he explained, they have tried to suggest how to put a menu together, either seasonally, or according to "the truest, best principles."

Some dishes know no season, he said. He mentioned the chicken with olives and preserved lemon sauce as an ideal dish for early spring, paired with an orange dessert - or for any time of year.

"The tagliatelle is a very delicious pasta dish," he commented on another favorite. "I was trying to come up with something relatively simple, basically to mix all these vegetables, saute some seafood, and add sauce, for a very powerful flavor, trying to capture the idea of the seafood." The dish has now made an appearance on the restaurant's menu, he said.

Looking back, he said with another big smile, although he found it hard getting started, "I did have a lot of fun doing this book."

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The following pasta dish has a quick, uncooked tomato sauce that's warmed when tossed with just-sauteed shellfish. The sauce can be made hours, or a day, in advance and set aside in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve the pasta. Like many pasta recipes, this one lends itself to adaptation, especially regarding the shellfish; make your decision at the market - if the scallops seem superior to the shrimp, make scallops the center of the dish.

Tagliatelle With Squid, Scallops and Shrimp

Coarse salt

1 tablespoon finely chopped, rinsed salt-packed anchovy fillets (8 to 10 fillets)

2 cups chopped canned whole tomatoes, drained

2 teaspoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon minced garlic, mashed with a pinch of coarse salt

4 teaspoons coarsely chopped rinsed capers

¾ teaspoon sugar

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

8 ounces bay or small sea scallops

8 ounces large shrimp, peeled and deveined (about 12 shrimp)

8 ounces cleaned squid, sliced crosswise into thick rings

¼ cup dry white wine

12 ounces fresh tagliatelle pasta

¼ cup heavy cream

4 teaspoons unsalted butter

¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 heaping tablespoon chopped basil leaves

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, make the tomato sauce. Stir together the anchovies, tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, capers, sugar, red pepper flakes, and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a wide, deep saute pan set over medium heat. Season the scallops with salt and pepper, add them to the pan, and saute until just seared and firm to the touch, about 2 minutes, depending on their thickness. Add the shrimp and saute until firm and pink, about 2 minutes, depending on their size. Add the squid rings and cook until they just begin to turn opaque, about 1 minute. Add the white wine and deglaze the pan.

Pour in the tomato sauce and bring it to a simmer over medium-high heat, about 2 minutes. As the sauce warms, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook it for 2 to 3 minutes.

Once the sauce is simmering, stir in the cream. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter, then the parsley and basil. Drain the pasta and add it to the pan. Toss, taste, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary.

To serve, transfer the pasta to a warmed bowl and present it family-style from the center of the table.

Makes 4 servings.

This chicken dish is Portale's version of a Moroccan classic stew made with both preserved and fresh lemon and adding his own "herbaceous lift" with cilantro and parsley.

Chicken With Olives and Preserved Lemon Sauce

2 chickens (3½ pounds each), skinned and quartered

½ cup olive oil

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon saffron threads

½ teaspoon ground turmeric, or an additional ½ teaspoon saffron threads

6 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

1 cup grated onions, drained

2 preserved lemons (recipe follows), pulp removed and set aside, peel julienned

½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

½ cup chopped cilantro leaves

Coarse salt

Juice of 2 lemons

1 cup pitted and halved green Moroccan olives

Harissa, optional (see note)

Put the chicken pieces in a deep baking dish that is large enough to hold them in a single layer.

Pour the oil into a small bowl. Add the ginger, paprika, cumin, pepper, saffron, turmeric, garlic, half the grated onion, and the preserved lemon pulp. Stir, pour over the chicken, cover, and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or overnight.

Put the chicken in a large, heavy-bottomed pot with a lid. Add the remaining grated onion, ¼ cup of the parsley, ¼ cup of the cilantro, 2 cups cold water, and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then cover, reduce the heat and simmer very gently until the chicken is tender, 30 to 40 minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the chicken pieces to a warmed platter and set them aside, covered to keep them warm.

Let the cooking liquid sit for 5 minutes, then skim off any fat that has risen to the surface. Strain the cooking liquid through a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl. Return the liquid to the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Continue to boil until reduced to 1½ cups, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice, olives, and preserved lemon peel. Warm through, and spoon the sauce over the chicken.

Serve the chicken from the platter, garnished with the remaining parsley, cilantro and, if desired, harissa.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: Harissa is a fiery-hot sauce from Tunisia, available in markets that sell Middle Eastern foods - where preserved lemons also may be found, in jars, as an alternative to homemade.

Preserved Lemons

5 lemons, quartered lengthwise

1 cinnamon stick, broken

3 bay leaves

1/3 cup salt

1 and 1/3 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice

Arrange the lemon quarters in layers in a 1-quart jar, topping each layer with some of the cinnamon, bay leaves and salt. Pour the lemon juice over the lemon quarters. Seal the jar with a tight-fitting lid. Set in a cool, dry place for about 1 month.

For the best flavor serve this dessert between late December and March when Honeybell and Minneola oranges are at their peak and bursting with sweet nectar.

Oranges With Cinnamon, Honey, and Orange-Flower Water

3 tablespoons honey

¾ teaspoon orange-flower water (see note)

3 or 4 large ripe oranges, preferably Honeybell or Minneola, peeled and cut crosswise into pinwheel slices

About ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Leaves from 2 mint sprigs, julienned

In a small bowl, stir the honey with 1½ teaspoon warm water. Stir in the orange-flower water.

Arrange the orange slices on four chilled dessert plates. Drizzle the honey-water mixture over the slices, and sprinkle with the cinnamon. Scatter the mint over the oranges, and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: Orange-flower water is a Moroccan ingredient available from baking or specialty food shops.

(All recipes from "Alfred Portale Simple Pleasures," by Alfred Portale and Andrew Friedman, William Morrow, 2004, $34.95.)