Sunday, May 31, 2009

Puttanesca Power

Yesterday, I ran the Brooklyn Half Marathon. With the race day forecast calling for hot and humid conditions and my training being nowhere near adequate, the best pre-race preparation I could do was to eat a carb-heavy meal that would power my ill-trained body through the race. I ended up making spaghetti puttanesca; a meal that was both carb-laden enough to give me energy for all 13.1 miles and salty enough to help me avoid cramps during the race. The result: a personal best half marathon time. Normally, I would take all of the credit for a great race, but this time all the credit goes to the puttanesca power.

Spaghetti Puttanesca
Serves 4

  • 1 lb. spaghetti
  • kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes in juice, crushed by hand
  • 5 basil leaves
  • 3 anchovy fillets, minced
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. capers, drained
  • 1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives, halved
  • 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp. oregano
  • Ground black peppercorns
  • Parmesan cheese, grated for serving

  1. Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water according to directions on box.
  2. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Add garlic and saute until fragrant, about one minute.
  3. Add tomatoes and juice, basil, anchovies, capers, olives, pepper flakes, and oregano. Simmer over medium-low heat until thickened, about 10 minutes. Add pepper to taste.
  4. Drain pasta and toss with sauce. Serve with Parmesan cheese.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Review: Bar Artisanal

My significant eater and I paid a recent visit to TriBeCa's Bar Artisanal, a newly opened small plates spinoff of Terrance Brennan's popular Artisanal Bistro.  Terrance Brennan himself was in the house the night we were there, increasing our expectations of the restaurant despite its very recent opening.  Despite the boss's presence, Bar Artisanal was a letdown.  

While I hesitate to criticize a restaurant's service when the it has not been open for very long, the poor service we experienced was inexcusable, especially given Chef Brennan's long experience with opening restaurants.  Walking into the spacious restaurant, we were seated at first in the back of the restaurant.  After being seated for a few minutes, the hostess came apologized and said she would have to move us to another table.  She was very gracious about it, but I was perplexed why we needed to be moved in the first place; the restaurant was half empty.  

The service woes continued.  After being seated at our new seat, our waiter took our drinks order.  We order a bottle of Malbec; it took nearly twenty minutes to arrive, after which our waiter promptly disappeared without taking our order.  The restaurant was still only half full, mind you.  Fortunately, as I was very hungry and frustrated, once our waiter took our order, food arrived in a timely manner.  Unfortunately, our waiter again disappeared when we were ready for our check; it took another thirty minutes for him to bring our check and take my credit card.  

After all of our frustrations with the service at Bar Artisanal, I wish I could say that the food overcame the front of the hourse issues.  Unfortunately the food was mediocre, which is a shame because the menu is a very exciting read.  With menu items such as "pork rillette spring rolls, rhubarb marmalade" and "soft shell crab, spicy iceberg, peanuts" you would think that the dishes at Bar Artisanal pack a big punch, but everything we tried read better on paper than it was on the plate.  Manchego beignets ($12) consisted of several fried cubes of cheese on skewers; expensive drunk food, if you ask me.  A duck pissaladiere with gizzard, confit, and foie gras was an excellent mix of flavors and the clear winner of the night, but not worth its $18 price tag.  Grilled octopus with chickpeas and pimenton oil ($12) did not pack the flavor I had hoped for, although the octopus was perfectly grilled.  A dessert of beignets was nicely done and better than its manchego sibling, but again, not crave-inducing.   

What irritated me most about Bar Artisanal is what bugs me about many restaurants that are jumping aboard the small plates bandwagon.  Opened as affordable dining options to give diners a way to continue dining out and still cope with the recession, they are anything but affordable.  After drinking a bottle of wine and ordering several dishes unsatisfying in both size and flavor, I could have eaten at Artisanal Bistro for less than what our meal at Bar Artisanal ended up costing.  And in the end, Bar Artisanal's large plates sibling would have been not only the better value, but the better overall experience.  

268 West Broadway (at 6th Ave.)
New York, NY 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hake with Lemon, Chive, and Butter Sauce

Here's a perfect weekday dish that's so easy, it doesn't even need a recipe.  Just season a fillet of any white fish with salt and pepper, then dust both sides with Wondra flour.  Melt a mixture of butter and olive in a pan over medium-high heat, and sautee the fish for about three minutes a side.  Let the fish rest while you make the sauce: melt more butter with chopped chives, lemon rind, and lemon juice.  Spoon the sauce over the fish and serve.  In this case, I served the fish with sauteed broccoli rabe.  

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Review: 'inoteca, vino, cucina e liquori bar

As a twenty-something living in Manhattan for over three years, I was probably just about the only person in my demographic who had never been to 'inoteca.  It was not for lack of interest; the never-ending crowds at the restaurant's Rivington Street outpost had me convinced that 'inoteca's wine list and Italian small plates menu were not to be missed.  However, despite it being on my restaurant radar for years, I never made it to 'inoteca, as making the long trek to the Lower East Side just to grab a panino and a Sangiovese never seemed worth it to me (but going to Chinatown for a banh mi and some water, on the other hand...).  So when the owners of 'inoteca converted their short-lived high-end Italian restaurant in Gramercy, Bar Milano, to the much-better-suited-for-the-times 'inoteca, I finally had my reason to give 'inoteca a try.  

The evening that my significant eater and I went to 'inoteca was particularly good weather, so we sat outside on the sidewalk seating along 24th Street.  I did not have much time inside the restaurant, but it is fairly large, and the ambiance seems similar to that of the its Lower East Side sibling.  The outdoor seating, while noisy with Third Avenue traffic, is on a great street corner for people watching; we ran into two separate friends walking down the street during my two hour dinner.  

While Italian small plates restaurants have become nearly as ubiquitous in New York as high-end Italian restaurants, 'inoteca, vino, cucina e liquori bar, as the Gramercy outpost is formally named, has a menu that strays from the cured meats, bruschetta, cheese, and esoteric Italian varietals formula of other restaurants in the same genre.  In addition to those standards, the liquori bar offers an extensive cocktail list, a holdover from the Bar Milano menu.  I have heard that the cocktails are well-made.  However, I am not much of a cocktail drinker, so I stuck to the well-priced and well-chosen wine list, ordering Lachryma Christi ("tears of Christ") del Vesuvio White from Mastroberardino, one of the top producers from the Campania region.  I thoroughly enjoyed this tart wine with a beautiful golden hue and will seek it out for home consumption.

The food menu from 'inoteca also goes beyond the standard Italian small plates menu.  While the menu offers the same panini, fritto, and larger plates as the Rivington Street outpost, it also contains a number of pastas and several spiedini (skewered meats).  Somewhat overwhelmed by the choices, my SE and I chose selections from three areas of the menu: calamari-shaped pasta with mussels in a tomato and saffron broth; a panino with spinach, fontina, mushrooms, and truffle oil; and chickpea fritters with cheese (fontina?) and mint.  All were delicious, going above and beyond our expectations with nuanced flavors and textures in each dish: the mint in the fritters, the meaty mushrooms in the panino, and the saffron in the mussels.  Our favorite plate was the pasta with mussels, which proved to be the perfect meal for sitting outside on a warm spring day.  Despite 'inoteca's small plates concept and fairly low priced menu, with the $16 pasta being $5 more expensive than the other dishes we ordered, the portion sizes were quite large, with three being more than enough to feed the two of us.  All too often in New York restaurants, a small plate dish consists of two minuscule bite-size portions, so it was nice to eat at a small plates restaurant that does not also offer a small value.

I should note that the service as 'inoteca is also very friendly.  Despite the restaurant being very crowded, our sever was patient and helped us navigate the borderline pretentious all-Italian menu (a short and incomplete glossary is provided with the menu).  Each of our plates arrived in separate, well-timed intervals.  

It took me years to finally make it to 'inoteca, and I went only after a more convenient location to my apartment opened.  While the food did not amaze me to the point of questioning why I never ventured to the Lower East Side 'inoteca, it was certainly a good enough value for me to hope to return to the Gramercy location soon.  

323 Third Ave. (at 24th St.)
New York, NY 10010

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Best Yellow Cake with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting

Growing up, Duncan Hines' yellow cake was always my benchmark of cake success. Moist, full of flavor, and with a nice crumb, I had found no cake, homemade or out of a box, that could surpass Duncan's. Birthday after birthday, all that I requested was three layers of that perfect cake with chocolate frosting.

When my significant eater's birthday came around, I knew that it would be a great opportunity to attempt to beat Duncan at what he does best and bake the perfect homemade yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Knowing that Duncan had years and years of experience on me, I painstakingly researched recipes to find recipes for both the best yellow cake and the best chocolate icing. I required a cake that would be just as moist Duncan's and was also just as full of flavor. The icing had to be fluffy and rich, but not to sweet. After nearly a week of sugar-obsessed research, I decided upon this recipe from Carol Walters. For the icing, I chose Ina Garten's buttercream frosting.

The two recipes made components that came together to make what I can easily say was the best yellow cake I have ever tasted. The cake was wonderfully moist, an area where I find many homemade cakes to be lacking, and its flavor was full of butter and vanilla. Scharffen Berger chocolate kicked up with a bit of espresso powder and lots of butter made for a sinfully rich frosting. While Duncan Hines was the cake champion of my household for many years, I think I have him beat now.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Chicken Thighs with Panko and Parmesan Crust

A recent article in The New York Times about the universal popularity of Huy Fong brand sriracha sauce had me considering what is the most versatile ingredient in my kitchen. While my spice rack is full of items I find indispensable, and finding myself without garlic or onions has been the source of many last-minute trips to the grocery store, panko would be my answer to the "if you were on a desert island and had to cook a gourmet meal" question.  A well-cooked meal is about texture and taste, and panko provides both of those elements.  If on that dessert island, find a sizable local varmint, coat it in panko, then fry it up.  In the comforts of a studio apartment, chicken or scallops are nice substitutes.  For this dinner, I breaded some chicken thighs in panko supplemented with parmesan cheese.  I served it over some delicious--and not the least bit bitter-- swiss chard from Eckerton Hill Farms.

Chicken Thighs with Panko and Parmesan Crust

  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 lb. chicken boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup panko
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
  • salt and pepper
  • lemon wedges, for serving
  1. Heat butter and oil over medium-heat in a large skillet.
  2. Meanwhile, mix panko and cheese on a large plate.
  3. Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper. Note: the cheese is salty, so only a few pinches of salt are necessary.
  4. Dip chicken each chicken thigh into eggs, then panko and cheese mixture. Shake off excess panko.
  5. Add chicken thighs to skillet and cook, about 4 minutes per side.
  6. Serve with lemon wedges.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Flap Steak with Red Wine and Shallot Sauce

Ever since reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, I have been tempted to try grass-fed beef. After all, most of my diet consists of local, minimally processed foods, so grass-fed beef would be a logical addition. It's more nutritional and more environmentally-friendly than grain-fed beef, and the theory goes that grass-fed cows are happier since they're digestive systems are made for eating grass, not grain. However, critics say that grass beef is lacking in both flavor and texture to it's grain-fed brethren; plus it's more expensive. In supermarkets, most of the grass-fed beef I see has been shipped in from Australia, which defeats the Mr. Pollan's message to eat grass-fed beef. Taking all of this in mind, my home-cooked steaks have always been from grain-fed cows.

This past weekend, I finally decided to give grass-fed beef a try while passing the Grazin' Angus Acres stall at Union Square Greenmarket. Initially, I had only planned to purchase some of their amazing eggs. But then my eyes turned to the farm's core competency, grass-fed beef. If Grazin' Angus Acres' beef was only half as good as their eggs, I might finally jump onto the grass-fed bandwagon.

Not wanting to risk all of my Greenmarket budget on a piece of meat, my eyes wandered to the cheaper options that Grazin' Angus Acres had for sale: flank, skirt, and flap steak, all of which were in the respectable $13 to $15 per lb. range. The woman at the stall suggested the $13 per lb. flap steak, so I picked up two nice pieces, and returned home with my Greenmarket tote bag held up high in my self-righteous grass-fed glee.

As with most foodie splurges, I was determined not to screw up my foray into grass-fed beef. Upon returning home, I researched how to cook flap steak, a an ill-named cut with which I was unfamiliar. Thanks to know-it-all Wikipedia, I found out that flap steak is a cut similar to hanger steak, coming from the bottom of the sirloin butt. From, there, it was onto finding a suitable recipe that would push me over the edge of the "I'd rather be a vegetarian than eat grain-fed beef" trend. I found this recipe for flap steak with red wine and shallots from the San Francisco Chronicle; with a whole stick of butter in the sauce, it seemed like it would be difficult to screw up my meat with this recipe.

I was impressed with my first taste of grass-fed beef. The beef does indeed have a unique flavor; it's much more gamy than grain-fed beef, but it's just as flavorful. Since flap steak is inherently a tougher cut, I can't be a judge of whether grass-fed beef is less tender than grain-fed, but I will say that my flap steak was just as tender as any grain-fed hanger steak I have eaten. I cooked it to a perfect medium-rare (the picture makes it look more cooked), which I read is important with grass-fed beef; overcooking it will make the meat very tough.

So am I sold on grass-fed beef? My steak was delicious, and its flavor differed from that of grain-fed beef. However, in the end I owe its deliciousness more to the good farming methods of Grazin' Angus Acres than to its grass-fed powers. As with any food, beef's flavor is more about how it is raised than what it is raised on. While all things being equal, I will try my best to choose grass-fed beef for all of its earth friendly good qualities, I will always choose my beef based on it being a good product rather than what the cow has been fed.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Baked Scallops with Panko Crust

Good sea scallops don't need much more than salt and pepper to make a great meal, but what's the fun in that? Topping jumbo scallops with some spiced up panko and popping them into the oven is nearly as simple and a little more delicious.

Baked Scallops with Panko Crust
Serves 2

  • 6 large "dry" sea scallops, muscle removed and patted dry with paper towels
  • 1/2 cup panko
  • 1 tbsp. chives, minced
  • 1 tbsp. parsley, minced
  • 1/2 tbsp. thyme leaves, minced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 tsp. cumin
  • 1 tbsp. butter, melted
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • lemon wedges, for serving

  1. Preheat oven to 400F
  2. Mix panko with herbs and spices, salt, pepper, olive oil and butter
  3. Add scallops to oven-proof pan. Top scallops with panko mixture.
  4. Cook scallops in oven until just cooked, about ten minutes.
  5. Cook scallops under broiler until panko begins to brown, about a minute.
  6. Serve with lemon wedges.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ramps, Mushrooms, and Cream over Polenta

I'm still on what will surely be a short-lived vegetarian kick. However, the idea for this dish came more so from a necessity for a quick meal with minimal cleanup than a desire to make a meatless meal. The dish won't blow you away, but it does the trick when you want to make a nice spring meal with minimal effort.

Ramps, Mushrooms, and Cream over Polenta
Serves 2

  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 10 oz. button mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 1 bunch ramps, cleaned and trimmed, with bulbs separated from leaves
  • 1/4 cup (or more) heavy cream
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Parmesan cheese, for serving
  1. Heat olive oil and butter in a skillet over medium heat until butter is melted.
  2. Add mushrooms and ramp bulbs. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally until mushrooms have given off their liquid and liquid has reduced, about 8 minutes. By this time, mushrooms and ramp bulbs should be slightly browned.
  3. Add two big splashes of cream and bring to boil.
  4. Add ramp leaves and stir until leaves have wilted, about 1 minute.
  5. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve over polenta with parmesan cheese.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Asparagus Risotto

Risotto is one of those dishes that I have always been wanting to add to my repertoire. It's known to be one of the more labor-intensive dishes, requiring constant stirring and fairly little room for error. And as with any labor-intensive, finicky recipe, it is a dish that is a rite of passage for all chefs; once you have successfully cooked risotto, you reach a new culinary skill level.

My first attempt at risotto was a disaster, resulting in crunchy, flavorless rice. The other night, determined both to use up the asparagus I purchased from the Greenmarket and to give risotto one more try, I came across this recipe for asparagus risotto from The Amateur Gourmet to find out if I was finally ready to take my cooking to the next level. Fortunately for my pride as a cook, my second attempt at risotto was an overwhelming success, no doubt thanks to the terrific step-by-step instructions from The Amateur Gourmet.

The asparagus stalk puree is the key to this recipe, ensuring that every bite is filled with the great flavors of the season's first asparagus and that the dish has a wonderful green hue. The dish is the perfect celebration of spring and left me with little doubt that I could easily be a vegetarian if spring lasted all year round. Despite the small number of ingredients, this dish was a struggle for me, with the rice taking twice as long to become tender and creamy as the recipe indicated; after stirring constantly for nearly 40 minutes in my hot kitchen, I had worked up quite a sweat. However, the end result was well worth the effort.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Mom-Inspired Meal for Mother's Day

I have my mother to thank for my love for cooking. My first cooking experience was helping her smooth out lumps in the gravy one Thanksgiving when I was in elementary school. From there, I went on to helping her make mashed potatoes, icing for my family members' birthday cakes (and "clean" out the bowl), chocolate chip cookies, and mashed potatoes. It all culminated with one Thanksgiving where I made all of the pies. By then, I had the foodie bug, all thanks to my mother.

Although I could not be with my mother this Mother's day since she was across the Atlantic Ocean, I made the meal that I would have cooked her had I paid my parents a visit. It was truly a mom-inspired meal; after all, my love for cooking comes from her. Here is what I made:

Salmon Fillets Braised in Pinot Noir with Bacon & Mushrooms: My mom will always choose a salmon dish when dining out, so this one was a no-brainer. The recipe came from Molly Stevens' All About Braising, a terrific cookbook my mom gave me last Christmas. I served the dish with mashed potatoes, a dish that my significant eater claims I have perfected, no doubt to the many times I helped my mom make it. My mom did teach me to always have a vegetable with dinner, but I rebelled, choosing not to make any veggies for the sake of not having to wash dishes all night.

Rhubarb Crisp: One of the favorite desserts my mother makes is a blackberry and nectarine crisp. Since blackberries and nectarines are not in season, I chose rhubarb for tonight, and used this recipe from Epicurious. The dessert was good, but it sure doesn't beat my mom's original.

The meal was terrific, as is anything inspired by moms. The only thing missing was that she could not enjoy it with me. When I see her, I will definitely make a mom-inspired meal for my mom. Happy Mother's Day!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Pasta with Ramps, Breadcrumbs, and Pecorino

The spring air makes me forget about protein-centric meals and crave simple meals where seasonal vegetables take the lead role. For this dish, I used fresh whole wheat fettuccine from Knoll Crest Farm, but a thinner pasta like fresh linguine would work best in letting the flavor of the ramps come through. Don't be shy about browning the ramp bulbs; they will not take on the bitter taste of burnt garlic, but rather will become soft and sweet. I was generous with the pecorino and found it to add just enough salt to the dish, but feel free to add a pinch of salt while cooking the ramps.

Pasta with Ramps, Breadcrumbs, and Pecorino
Serves 2-3

  • 12 oz. fresh linguine
  • 4 tbsp. olive oilBold
  • 1 bunch of ramps, cleaned, leaves separated from bulbs and leaves julienned
  • 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs, toasted
  • Gated pecorino romano cheese, for serving

  1. Cook pasta in salted boiling water until al dente.
  2. Meanwhile, heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add ramp bulbs and cook, stirring occasionally, until very brown and blistered, about 5 min.
  3. Add ramp leaves and breadcrumbs and stir until wilted about 1 min.
  4. Drain pasta and toss with ramp mixture. Serve pasta on plates topped with grated cheese.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Stinging Nettle Soup

This soup is inspired by a recipe from Matt Tebbutt's Cooks Country. Yes, this cookbook was the source of the Pheasant Phlop. Fortunately, this recipe did not end in disaster, and made good use of an ingredient I had never cooked with before in stinging nettles. Be sure to handle the nettles with gloves prior to blanching them in water to avoid a stingy situation.

Stinging Nettle Soup

  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 2 yellow onions, diced
  • 2 leeks, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1 thyme sprig
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 4 large red potatoes, diced
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 1 bunch stinging nettles, leaves only (handle with gloves), blanched in boiling water for one minute and cooled in ice water (this will remove the stingers, making the nettles safe to handle)
  • 2 loosely packed cups spinach leaves
  • creme fraiche, for serving
  1. Melt butter in soup pot over medium-low heat.
  2. Once butter has melted, add onions, leeks, celery, garlic, bay leaves, and thyme. Saute until vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Add potatoes and stock. Let simmer until potatoes are soft, about 30 minutes.
  4. Add spinach and nettles, and let wilt for approximately one minute.
  5. Puree soup with a stick blender and taste for salt and pepper.
  6. Serve soup in bowls with a dollop of creme fraiche.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Best Eggs of the Greenmarket: Grazin' Angus Acres

I have tried nearly all of the eggs sold at the Union Square Greenmarket, and can now proclaim those from Grazin' Angus Acres to be the best. At $8 per dozen, these eggs are by far the most expensive eggs sold at the Greenmarket, but I assure you they are worth every penny as they far surpass any other egg sold.
Sold only during the spring months (yes, eggs do have a season), when the hens are freely roaming the pasture, these eggs have the most deeply orange yolk I have ever seen; they are the richest and creamiest eggs I have ever tasted. The yolk has a slightly grassy flavor, a reminder of the pasture on which they were laid. The white, an afterthought in most eggs, is creamy in these. With eggs this fresh and rich, make sure to cook them minimally, leaving the yolk runny. In my opinion, poached and served over toast is the way to go.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Fried Soft-Shell Crabs with Ramps and Asparagus

I was inspired to make this dinner after reading this interview of Michael Anthony, chef of Gramercy Tavern. He says that his last meal would consist of soft shell crabs and ramps. I decided to up Chef Anthony a notch by including some roasted asparagus on the plate. You can't get much more seasonal than this dish, and I was somewhat annoyed by it's success, knowing that it would likely be next year before I have a chance to make it again.

This marked the first time I have ever cooked soft-shell crabs, and I was impressed with how easy they were to make and how well they turned out. Don't be intimidated by the thought of throwing live crabs into hot oil. My technique was from David Pasternack's The Young Man & The Sea. While heating up a large skillet filled with about a half cup of olive oil, I mixed together Wondra flour, corn starch and salt and pepper, and set aside another small bowl filled with milk. I dipped the crabs in the milk, then in the flour mixture, shaking off any excess. The crabs then went into the skillet, about 3 minutes per side. After a sprinkling of sea salt, they were ready to eat.


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