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Archive for August, 2007

East Village treasures

Back in… ahem… a month that has past, my brother John (one of my favorite dining partners) took me out to dinner for my birthday in NYC. As always we had to go through the process of choosing a restaurant, emailing back and forth with ideas for weeks, and finally narrowing it down to three restaurants based on various possible scenarios relating to weather and mood on the day/time we would be going. We ultimately ended up at Knife + Fork in the East Village. It is a tiny spot – cozy and intimate – with a semi-open kitchen in the corner where you can see chef Damien Brassel and his staff working away. It was a Sunday night so obviously he is always behind the stove (they are closed Mondays) – a good sign.
We went for the six course tasting menu, which changes nightly. This was what we were served the night we were there:

1. Torchon of foie gras with octopus salad and tangerine reduction

2. Cured salmon wrapped in nori seaweed with wasabi creme fraiche, poached baby pear and radish and ginger salad

3. Barbeque eel with bacon rosotto and sun dried tomato tapenade

4. Skate with apple and black sesame seed salad with poached pineapple and a Thai sauce

5. Coriander and garlic marinated lamb with goat cheese and black bean compote

6. Cheese plate

I can’t remember the cheeses or the wine – I think we had a riesling. I intended to write about this right away so thought I would have it fresh in my head. Oh well. I had my camera with me too but it was such a foodie place I just didn’t feel right pulling it out – like it would be too touristy or something – and might reveal that I am visiting from the culinary lowlands.

The staff were excellent as well, and their enthusiasm for the food made it even more fun. Every time a new dish came out each of them (there were two on the floor that night) would come over and expectantly ask us how we liked it – then we would excitedly discuss the ingredients and flavor combinations. My favorite was the foie gras with the octopus and tangerine – sounds bizarre at first but it was exquisite.

Anyway the whole experience was so incredibly enjoyable – if in NYC I would highly recommend Knife + Fork.

After dinner we stopped in for a cocktail at Death + Company (it is kind of ironic how both places I went that night had plus signs in their name – or maybe it is just pretentious. And should I be saying “plus”? I’ve been saying “Death and Company” – is it Death plus Company? Knife plus Fork?). Shana’s friend Eric’s friend Eric told me about this place – he seems to know about all the good places for cocktails in NYC. (He should do a guest post for us right?) Anyway I liked the name of the place when he told me about it, although I was kind of half expecting it to be some goth hangout, which it was not. It was actually really charming and maybe a little dimly lit but appropriately so. I had this drink called an Elder Fashion (get it?), which is made with Plymouth Gin, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, Orange bitters and a grapefruit twist. It was a divine ending to our evening, although we really wanted to stay for a second cocktail. Butwe decided against when we figured out it would be $25 for another round (before tip!). I guess drink prices (as great as this drink was) are the one thing I don’t miss about NYC!

Knife + Fork – 108 East 4th Street

Death + Company – 433 East 6th Street

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Q: What do you do when, on a whim, you buy a peck of tomatoes at the farmers’ market on Saturday (for only 8 bucks!)? And then later, that same day, your boyfriend’s sister who is visiting from out of town bequeaths you with another half of a peck from her garden?

A: Spend Sunday afternoon in the kitchen, transforming those tomatoes into a lot of salsa and even more marinara sauce.

This is the story of how I worked myself into a puddle of exhaustion, after having spent the better part of the day sorting and tossing and packing my belongings in preparation for my move, which, god willing, will happen tomorrow.

So here’s what I did to make marinara sauce:

  • I rinsed off the dirt from the tomatoes, cored them, and cut out any bad spots;
  • grabbed a few handfuls of basil from the plants in the backyard;
  • smashed and roughly cut a bunch of garlic cloves; and
  • chopped a big onion.

THEN:

  • I heated up about a half-cup of olive oil in each of two pans (I didn’t have one vessel big enough for the whole batch. But, friends, do not use a cast iron, enamel-coated dutch oven, because I did and that batch of sauce turned kind of orange) and heated up the onion and garlic and basil for about 2 mins.
  • And then the fun really started:

    • I cut the tomatoes in rough quarters, and then squeezed them into the pans. I leave the skins on and the seeds in because I’m lazy not fussy. It’s so pleasing to squeeze tomato after tomato into the oil-garlic-onion-basil mixture: hands are the best kitchen tool.
    • Stirring frequently and breaking up the big chunks with a wooden spoon, I let the sauces bubble on for a good 30 mins or so, reducing by about a third.
    • You can either leave the tomato sauce chunky and thick, or make it more smooth by running it through the blender or food processor. I reserved some of the chunky sauce and blended some, and mixed it together. Season with salt and pepper (of course).

    We used the sauce on our pizza Sunday night, and sent our friends home with about a quart of the sauce in a freezer bag. Another two bags ended up in the freezer (which I’m already looking forward to using come fall). And some more will go to friends who just had a baby. Not a bad afternoon’s work!

    Stay tuned for my salsa recipe . . .

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    Sometimes, especially in summer, food speaks for itself:

    This Week’s Share

    • ARUGULA: an aromatic, bright green, salad green with a peppery mustard flavor
    • GENOVESE BASIL
    • GREEN BEANS
    • BEETS or KOHLRABI — sadly, it was kohlrabi
    • CARROTS (Sugarsnax)
    • SWEET CORN (Montauk): bicolor kernel with superior, sweet flavor and remarkably tender.
    • SWEET PEPPERS
    • FRESH HERBS: Parsley— dark green leaves have a strong parsley/celery flavor for use dried or fresh; Rosemary– pine needle-like leaves.
    • KALE (Green Curly)
    • LETTUCE
    • YELLOW ONIONS (Olympic): medium-sized yellow bulbs for short-term storage.
    • NEW POTATOES: You may choose Red Norland (smooth, red skin and white flesh) or Yukon Gold (delicious, medium-dry, yellow flesh).
    • SUMMER SQUASH
      • TOMATOES: Sun Gold Cherry, Red Grape, Chiquita, Juliet
      • Muskovich—heirloom with deep red color & rich taste.
      • Buffalo Ruby Red—long popular Dutch beefsteak tomato.
      • Debarao—deep red heirloom tomato, medium size , oval, plum variety used for sauces and salads.
      • Brandywine—deep pink heirloom tomato with smooth, red flesh; delicious flavor and large (1 lb.) fruit.
      • Rose—deep pink heirloom tomato, which is large, meaty, and flavorful.
      • Green Zebra–delicious, tangy salad tomato; ripe just as green fruit develops a yellow blush, accentuating the darker green stripes; beautiful sliced into wedges for salads.
    • WATERMELON/MUSKMELON

    Tender, delicious, aromatic, smooth red flesh. A yellow blush. Meaty and flavorful. Beautiful.

     

    Chop some things. Cook some others. Add butter and salt. Dinner.

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    Lest you think it’s all goat cheese and olive tapenade for the younger set around here, let me describe Nick’s choices for his second birthday meal. We had a moment of gustatory hope when he said he wanted “pink fish” aka salmon, but after considering that for a day, he retrenched to hot dogs. All natural kosher hot dogs of course. I neglected to defrost them in the flurry of birthday excitement in the morning, so here they are simmering in hot water to hasten thawing:

    After thawing, we put them on the grill to develop just the right degree of crunch on the skin. A real hot dog needs to put up a bit of resistance before you get to all that sausage-y softness. (True confessions: I snuck a couple of burgers made with grass-fed beef and portabello and stilton on the grill for the adults. Nick didn’t notice).

    To accompany the dogs, or sauccisons as I like to call them, Nick requested his favorite Mac and Cheese. This is a little intensive to prepare, but nothing but the best for my boy on his birthday:

    (True Confession 2: This is supposedly cooked up for Nick at our house but a box disappears way faster than a two year old could get through it. It really is quite creamy and delicious. )

    There were a few other dishes along the way — some tomato salad for the adults, some corn on the cob from the farm share cut off the cob for one who’ s not quite adept at cob handling yet, a splash of lemonade in a sippy cup, a splash of merlot for the elders, a bit of baguette. Here’s the feast, assembled:

    I think I plated it wrong. It would have looked better on green.

    Nick ate it with some enthusiasm, although none of his trademark “mmmmmms.” Naomi gave it a thumbs-up. All the boy really wanted for his birthday was a cake and a candle. He got those. He was happy. And lest you think we totally let our standards slip, there was homemade vanilla ice cream made with vanilla beans. Mmmmmmm.

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    I have deliciously mixed feelings about summer cooking. On the one hand, summer is so relaxed, and its straightforward flavors so satisfying, that it hardly seems worth doing anything as elaborate as cooking in any formal sense. Instead, we eat what’s around and what’s around is almost invariably delicious. I can’t tell you how many time in the past week dinner around here has been a piece of meat or a couple of sausages tossed on the grill, a few ears of corn on the cob, and something else made from the farm share. That something else might be some cole slaw or it might be some blanched green beans tossed with olive oil, pine nuts and few slivers of roasted red pepper or, lately, it’s often sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and salted. The biggest decision of the night is whether to put basil on the tomatoes or not and we are, without fail, very happy.

    Like, I’m sure more than half of the food-obsessed American public, I eagerly bookmarked Mark Bittman’s 101 Simple Meals a couple of weeks ago, then printed it out and stuck it in the kitchen bulletin board as a source of inspiration. The popular response to Bittman’s article seems to indicate that I’m not alone in my pleasure in simple summer cooking.

    On the other hand . . . it’s so damn, well, bountiful, right now, and fresh ingredients are almost endless, and I think I should be stretching a little and seeing just what can be made out of all this summery possibility. After all, if we can invest hour after cold hour in braising and stewing flavor into humble winter ingredients, don’t their more glamorous summer cousins deserve a little love too?

    This week, I guess because it was my birthday week, I got to have it all. There was corn on the cob and corn a la Shana. There was a little bucatini tossed with quick simmered Juliet tomatoes and olive-oil saute-ed yellow zucchini. Yes, there were sausages on the grill. And then there was my birthday dinner.

    In brief, John was very good to me and planned and pulled together a dinner that was elegant and innovative and that featured bright bursts of summer tastes. And he only got desperate once or twice and asked me to chop. Any meal that involves firing up the grill twice in one day gets an A for effort from me. But really, he made it seem effortless.

    The menu went like this: We started with grilled and marinated scallop ceviche. We were both a little skeptical about the departure from conventional raw fish cooked in acidic liquid, but the grilling added a really nice smoky touch. With this, we drank part of a bottle of prosecco (see below for where the other part went).

    After the ceviche, there were lamb chops from the rack, cooked scotta ditto style with an insalata tricolere (radiccio, endive, and arugula) — the salad was briefly saute-ed and then wilted under the heat of the chops. there was also a dish of creamy mashed potatoes, rich with sage and white cheddar, that soothed all the wild flavors of the lamb and salad. A very nice dinner a deux dish as the cooking time was only about 6 minutes. The coals got going while we ate the first course, then it was only a slight break while the chops actually cooked. The flavor of basil is brilliant in this marinade. If the food is cooked efficiently and eaten slowly, the whole enterprise takes about the time it takes to drink a very nice bottle of Brunello, with a swallow left over for the cheese course.

    We paused for a palate-clearing grapefruit-champagne sorbet (thank you once again David Lebovitz). I have to admit that our romantic dinner was punctuated by “has it been three minutes yet?” and “did you remember to churn?” and that an ice cream maker on the table isn’t all that elegant, but the cold and lovely shock of the sorbet right out of the freezer was more than worth it.

    Then we nibbled on two cheeses from Morgan and York; a local organic chevre that was tangy and nicely textured and a triple creme something or other that was indeed triply creamy. And then we were way full, with room only for two perfect Sweet Gem truffles and a wee glass of cognac. (The meal from start to finish minus truffles can be seen here.)

    It all tasted wonderful and it was even more wonderful that it was all made for me, and it was extra wonderful to return to tonight’s dinner of a simple salad of melon and prosciutto and a few greens with a glass of wine.

    Nick gave me an extra birthday present by, the next day, swiping my cracker with leftover goat cheese, popping it in his mouth and looking at me with delighted surprise. “Mama!” he exclaimed. “Good!” Indeed, it was.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald says that “The mark of a first rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” By that measure, holding in mind that summer offers both the simplest and most complex pleasures, I’m doing just fine.

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    The G3 plus one (11 year old Naomi) made an outing on Sunday to see No Reservations. This is really not a good movie, in any deep way, but if you like food and restaurants and don’t mind a dash of sugar sweet romance, it’s a hard movie not to like, especially on a rainy summer Sunday afternoon. The settings are urban and lovely, especially the Greenwich Village restaurant where much of the action takes place and the pre-war-ish looking apartment that is home to Kate, our masterful chef and imperfect human being heroine. Predictably and entertainingly, Kate’s rigidly ordered life is upset by the arrival of her orphaned niece and an earthy, talented and handsome male sous-chef. The trio navigates an only slightly bumpy road to happiness and along the way they cook and eat. There is a homey pizza-making sequence about half-way through that Shana and I particularly enjoyed as our respective partners were in their respective kitchens turning out pizza at that very moment. (John sniffed with disapproval when he heard that Nick, the sous-chef love interest used pizza PANS not a pizza stone.) There is a little erotic dwelling on desserts, culminating in a perfectly torched creme-brulee that made me drool, and lots of enticing glimpses of high-end lobster, lamb and quail dishes which excited my urban longing.Personally, I had a hard time buying Catherine Zeta-Jones and her frosty beauty as anyone who would spend a lot of time in restaurant kitchens (and her whites remained impeccably white in the kitchen — as if!), but that quibble aside, I had a good time. And if you’re an 11 year old girl or taking the time to read this blog, you probably will too.

    (As an aside, I note this is a pretty lame post after being incommunicado for a month. There’s much to report from the summer culinary front; I’m just getting my feet wet again).

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    I woke up this morning thinking about my favorite food writer, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, whose book, Gastronomical Me is the namesake of our blog.  I missed her birthday by nearly a month (I’m not known for my genius with keeping schedules), but it’s not too late to share with you this brief profile of her. She has such grace and elegance, no?

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