Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chow Bella! Little Italy Comes to Magdalena

Fork Tender
By Nancy Newberry

Transport yourself 6,000 miles due east, and where are you? You’re in the heart of Sicily. Or, you could save the trip, and walk right into Italian Buffet Fridays at the High Country Lodge in Magdalena. A little Mario Lanza coming through the speakers and the heady aroma of marinara simmering on the stove takes you deep into an Italian country kitchen, but here everyone knows your name, and you didn’t have to suffer from a Transportation Security Administration pat-down.
Chef Michael DeMaria now heads the kitchen at the High Country, and he’s bringing in a new game. He’s been cooking for 27 years in New York and New Jersey. He started as a kid plating salads, always watching what the sous chef was doing, what the chef was doing. The appetizer chef left; he moved up, and within six months, Michael was head chef at age 19, serving about 400 dinners on Friday and Saturday nights. He’s worked in Manhattan’s Little Italy; in Chambersburg, Trenton, N.J., where busy Decembers saw him serving as many as 2,500 people per day. For Michael, cooking is a pure pleasure, and he loves it: It’s all “about the creativity and making people happy with the food,” he says.
And his plans don’t stop with Italian Fridays. On Saturdays, prime rib joins other specials on the menu, and limited room service for guests at the lodge is in the works. On Tuesdays, he’ll have Chris Pino preparing Mexican dishes, and soon to come are Pizza Wednesdays, accompanied by calzones, hoagies, and even a Philly cheesesteak sandwich. A catering menu is in development, and if you need a gallon of chili or a big batch of meatballs for a party, all you need to do is call. Daily lunch specials and an expanded breakfast menu have already begun.
Everything is made fresh and healthy, with all sauces from scratch – you won’t see packages in this kitchen. Friday’s menu always includes dishes on the lighter side and vegetarian selections, and will be different every week. I have the scoop on this Friday’s menu, and I’ll share it with you: appetizers include pepperoni and cheese stuffed bread, olive salad, tomato and onion salad; featured mains will be eggplant parmesan, roast pork with port wine sauce, rigatoni with vodka sauce, and sausage with peppers and onions. Sides of string beans marinara and garlic parmesan mashers will make it hard to leave room for dessert…will it be cannoli? Zabaglione? Dessert is still a secret. My lips are sealed. Don’t even think of trying to bribe me with ricotta cheesecake.
I was in the kitchen with Mike last Friday, taking his calm, quiet direction, chopping peppers, onions, and potatoes; plating a fragile rum cake with homemade whipped cream. The week’s menu featured a surprising side dish made of cooked romaine lettuce, seasoned with garlic, salt, and pepper, and with a slight sweet note provide by raisins. Though we think of lettuce as for salad only, it is delicious and sturdy when cooked. This dish was a happy accident some years ago: the New Jersey restaurant was so busy that they ran out of every vegetable, and the only thing Mike had left in the kitchen was romaine lettuce. Into the pot it went, and people loved it. Mike never uses recipes – all these dishes come straight from memory – but I watched these vegetables come off the line, and created these recipes so that you can try some Italian at home.
Michael has been in Magdalena just more than a year, when he joined his sister Catherine of Magdalena Feed Company. So he’s still kind of the new guy in town. When you come on down to the High Country, do say hi to Mike and tell him what you think – he’s the gentle guy in the white coat who really wants you to love the food.
Details: The High Country Lodge is located on Highway 60, just west of Kelly Road, in Magdalena, and open for breakfast and lunch daily. Dinner is served between 5 and 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights. The all you can eat Italian buffet each Friday is $12.95.

Lettuce Entertain You Italian Style

Salad no more, romaine lettuce cooks into a quick, sweet-savory side dish. Any sturdy lettuce with flavor will give you a great result: I tested it with red-tipped leaf lettuce, and it performed beautifully.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Serves 2-4
1 large head Romaine lettuce or red leaf lettuce, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ cup raisins
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Stir in the Romaine lettuce, and cook for 1 minute. Drain.
Heat the olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium high heat. Stir in the Romaine, garlic, red pepper flakes, and raisins. Cook and stir until the Romaine is tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Michael’s Roman Rosemary Roasters

Savor these tasty little red potatoes, seasoned just right and roasted to perfection with crispy skins and tender flaky centers.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Serves 4
1 ½ pounds small red potatoes, halved
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon dried rosemary
Salt and ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Toss potatoes in a large bowl with the olive oil, garlic, and rosemary. Season with salt and pepper, and spread in a single layer in a baking pan.
Bake in the preheated oven until tender, about 35 minutes.
Nancy Newberry arrived in Magdalena from Seattle about a year ago, where her DIY food exploits are, while not quite legendary, pretty daring. She has worked in coffee shops and deli kitchens, cooked for camps and field trips, and worked as a site producer for the #1 Food and Entertainment website on the web,

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