Sunday, December 30, 2007

Anatomy of a dinner party, part two.

I love a good list. A good list is one that sets you up for easy check-off, that records accomplishment, and that keeps you organized right up to the last moment. Which is why, when I throw a dinner party, I make not one, not two, but three lists: the menu, from which all things flow, the shopping list, and the schedule.

The menu is obviously the most fun - days, sometimes weeks of brainstorming and creative fervor boiled down into the final decision. In this case, since we're going vegetarian, coming up with a main that would satisfy my meat-craving brother was my main puzzle to solve. I was paging through the December issue of Bon Appetit (which I am now receiving courtesy of a gift subscription from Sur La Table) and saw a polenta and wild mushroom ragout entree in one of their Christmas menus. Perfection! Meaty mushrooms, hearty polenta, and it doesn't require the last-minute attention that any pasta dish (other than lasagna, which lacks the desired elegance) would. Crisis averted.

Next up, the shopping list. My shopping list is organized by department (grocery, dairy, vegetables, and so on), each item noted with its anticipated provenance (typically either FreshDirect or Agata & Valentina, my two preferred shopping destinations). Anal-retentive, yes. But it also means that I'm rarely in the position of running out for ingredients at the last minute. Since I live alone (no one to send out while I keep on cooking) and in a third-floor walk-up (not isolated, but not convenient, either), it's important to have everything on hand.

Finally, the schedule. For tomorrow's New Year's celebration, I'm pretty much on task, save for a missed trip to the grocery store yesterday to pick up some vegetables and herbs. (I woke up late but couldn't skip doing my laundry, going to the dry cleaner, hitting the post office, or seeing Sweeney Todd with some friends.) I'll be headed there in a few minutes, once my FreshDirect order arrives - 11-1 was the only slot left on this very popular day.

And, finally, there are always the last-minute changes - our Rockette has had to cancel, since someone in the California show broke a leg. She's flown out to take over. We've also lost Faith from the guest list. So we're down to four. Quite intimate.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Anatomy of a dinner party, part one.

For some reason, I have offered to host a dinner party in my teeny studio on New Year's Eve. So far, the guest list includes my brother and sister-in-law, my friend Faith, a pregnant Rockette, and said Rockette's husband - and those last two keep kosher.

Right now, the menu's looking like some heavy hors d'ouevre (which will allow me to make some things containing bacon, or meat and cheese or cream, without making anyone feel left out), then a soup (gougéres served alongside), a pasta, and a salad. Followed, of course, by an appropriately festive dessert. (Any suggestions?) After all, it is New Year's Eve.

Over the next few days, I'll be posting about the dinner party process, complete with lists, schedules, and brainstorming sessions. Throwing a party is complicated under the best of conditions, but in a small Upper East Side studio with little counter space, the planning becomes even more elaborate - but it absolutely can be done, and this week we'll all watch it happen (Touch wood.)!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Ringing in the weekend.

Those who know me well know this: I am not a weekday morning person. I don't understand people who get up in the morning and run errands, go to the gym, or organize themselves in any way, shape or form before going to work.

Me, I prefer to hit the snooze button as many times as possible before shooting out of bed at the last minute, jumping in the shower, and hustling through my getting-ready routine. I do not leave time for breakfast, coffee, or stops at the post office. To all those who do: you are nutty.

That all changes on weekends, though. On weekends, my alarm wakes me with NPR, not a harsh, failsafe buzzing sound. I emerge from sleep bright-eyed, and bound toward the kitchen to put the kettle on for coffee.

All week I look forward to Saturday mornings, because Saturday is the day I get to relax on the couch with a cup of coffee, reading material in hand. It's eight o'clock in the morning, and I have nowhere in particular to be, save for right here, cozy in the snug warmth of my little apartment.

I think I love the ritual of the coffee as much as I love the coffee itself. Measuring the beans, their rich, cocoa smell wafting up from the bag. Grinding the beans, letting loose a screech that reminds me, inevitably, of childhood mornings (my mother being just as much a caffeine addict as yours truly). Pouring the hot (but not quite boiling) water over the grounds in my French press pot, and, finally, pressing the plunger and pouring the first perfect cup of the morning.

During the week, I behave myself and add Splenda and skimmed milk to my coffee. But on weekends, I get organic turbinado sugar and whole milk. At work, I drink coffee from little paper cups with plastic spill-prevention tops. At home, I drink from my favorite earthenware mug, which manages to be both dainty and capacious.

Is there anything better than coffee on a weekend morning? I think not.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Kitchen Lust: Pretty aprons for pretty cooks.

Anthropologie subscribes to a French flea market aesthetic, one which dictates that no household item, no matter how mundane, shall remain un-fancified. Tea towels are flounced and fringed. Doormats are creweled. And the humble apron is turned out in toile and needlepoint.

While my tastes run a bit sleeker in most of the house, I fully embrace this idea when it comes to my kitchen: since I can't renovate it, I have to cover its seventies cabinets and fake-wood linoleum somehow. Currently, I'm obsessed with the idea of a wall rack full of their aprons, feminine, flouncy things that hug your curves while protecting your cashmere. Unabashedly girly, they're practical, too, turned out in 100% cotton and machine-washable.

After all, if you have to wear something every day, and look at it in between, don't you want it to make you smile each time it catches your eye? Plus, if your apron is this pretty, you don't have to take it off to greet your guests.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Processed foods in other countries, part two.

So, remember how I showed you pre-poached eggs from France a couple of weeks ago? Well, last week I was in England (Manchester, to be precise) for my brother's wedding.

The wedding was on Friday, so on Thursday we had a Thanksgiving-themed tea: turkey sandwiches with cranberry jelly, pumpkin pie, cranberry scones, and the like. My mom and I were put in charge of assembling the cucumber sandwiches, and I couldn't believe it when Gisela, my new sister-in-law's mum, handed me this:

Soft sandwich bread, made crustless. Amazing!!! It's billed as being perfect for those pesky, picky kids, but what it's really suited to is speedy finger sandwich construction. No crust trimming equals no torn bits of bread, and no ruined sandwiches.

Cheers, you crafty Brits.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

By yon bonny banks...

I've just returned from a whirlwind three-day stay in Edinburgh, and I'm here to tell you that all the rumors are true - Scotland is amazing. Not only did I play fetch with an adorable little dog with a stick he fished out of the North Sea, but I also ate some delicious food and had a fabulous cocktail or two.

Most notable were the two scrumptious lattes and the bacon sandwich I had at Renroc cafe, my (very generous) hostess Louise's local, run by her friends Bill and Jane. The coffee is excellent, and the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich (served on a poppyseed bagel) was fantastic. The cafe appears tiny, but actually has seating outside, upstairs, and downstairs, so don't let that put you off. They do take-away as well as eat-in, and I highly recommend the lattes.

Louise's friend Diane, who is apparently the authority on all things new and cool in Edinburgh, found a new cocktail bar called Voodoo Rooms (plural because they also have a restaurant, cabaret, and ballroom) for us to try. It just opened a week ago, so things are still a bit quiet. The bar is quite stunning, painted black and trimmed in white, gold, and gilt skulls. Looks like the cocktail revival has hit Edinburgh in full force - they had Bourbon, rye and Laird's Applejack behind the bar, something that I've found to be rare in the UK. Good stuff.

Of course, cocktails and coffee are hardly the only reason to get thee to Edinburgh. So I leave you with a far more compelling reason (a few more reasons can be viewed here, if you choose):

Friday, November 16, 2007

Kitchen Lust: Floral arrangements, minus the flowers.

It's that time of year again - Christmas and Hanukkah are zooming toward us faster than you can say "relentless onslaught of commercial exploitation," and I'm loving every minute of it. The recent barrage of tabletop features in my favorite food and design periodicals made me realize that I've yet to bring my unabashedly shallow and materialistic love of, well, things to this blog.

Now, let me backtrack a moment here - I actually think there's something inherently un-shallow (you might even say important) about the relationship we have to the objects with which we fill the space around us, even more so when those objects serve a functional purpose in our lives. And so I'm introducing what will be a regular feature, Kitchen Lust. If you're as in love with beautifully designed tools and whatnots as I am, read on. If not, I promise to keep talking about the actual food, too. Honest. Now, on to the latest object of my adoration.

I love flowers - I'm a firm believer in (if not a terribly faithful follower of) the principle that one should have at least one spray of blossoms in the house at all times. I love the luxury of tightly bunched little poseys, and I find solitary stems, particularly calla lilies, to be incredibly elegant. That said, I'm not a huge fan of huge floral centerpieces. They have their place at more formal events, but for home entertaining, I prefer to set a table with candles and solid, earthy objects, perhaps with some greenery thrown in here or there for freshness.

Imagine my delight, then, upon coming across this idea in November's issue of Domino: feather bouquets. The feathers are naturally shed by pheasants and guinea hens, so not to worry that they may clash with your humanely raised turkey (or vegetarian spread, for that matter). Bunched together in pure white faux bois vases (a current design craze), the feathers bring a rich, unexpected, velvety texture to the autumnal table. Even better - they won't die! You can use these over and over again. Plus, they match nicely pretty much every decor imaginable, from French country to mid-century modern.

Now, my idea of what constitutes "pricey" is often well below Domino's own mark - but, in this case, we seem to be working at more or less the same level. The feathers are available for $38/bunch from (the otherwise ridiculously expensive) Source Perrier Collection. Go forth and feast beautifully!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

French lessons for free!

Anyone who's watched one of Gordon Ramsay's shows or read one of Anthony Bourdain's books knows by now that your average kitchen is on par with your average sailing vessel for the amount of crude language used. And anyone who knows me knows I'm a big fan of a well-placed Anglo-Saxon phrase.

So I couldn't resist pointing you toward Ms. Blaze's recent post about cursing in a French kitchen. She thought she was learning some great language skills from her culinary colleagues, till she dropped her cellphone and exclaimed "Oh, putain!" on the Métro one morning. Whoops - or, should I say, merde.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Hot chocolate from a box is for suckers.

When it gets cold, my cravings change. Well, maybe it's not so much that they change - it's more like they come out of their summer hibernation.

Much as I love springtime, with its wild asparagus and sweet peas, and much as I adore summer, with its tomatoes and luscious, juicy corn, I am a sucker for fall. Fall means cauliflower and brussels sprouts and potato gratins and apples and game. It means all things roasted and spiced and melted.

In prep school, it also meant hot chocolate. The dining halls' hot chocolate machines were switched on and filled up on October 1st each year. Even though they spewed your typical, Swiss Miss-esque hot cocoa, I looked forward to the big switch flip each year. To me, it was synonymous with the smell of burning leaves, the scent of approaching snow, and the cozy early dusks of a New England fall.

And so, on Friday night, when it was cold and gray and just generally autumnal, I came home from work, ate a quick salad (to assuage the guilt of what was to come), and melted some bittersweet chocolate. In a larger saucepan, I heated some milk, sugar and water, and then mixed the two together. The result? The most perfect hot chocolate I've ever managed to make at home.

I owe it all to my friend Louisa, who sent me the recipe, to M. Pierre Hermé for writing it, and the unbelievably decadent hot chocolate of Prague for opening my eyes to what hot chocolate should be. When Louisa and I were there last fall, we couldn't believe how thick and rich the hot chocolate was - so strong that it was served with a sugar cube on the side, in case it was too dark for your liking.

We never had that problem.

To recreate the Prague experience at home, give this recipe a twirl. A couple of caveats - whole milk is best, but 2%, 1%, or skim work well, too. Make sure the chocolate is high-quality, since it's pretty much all you'll be tasting. Spring for Valrhona or Scharffen Berger - you won't regret it. Oh, and, if you don't have an immersion blender, just whisk briskly for a bit. It won't be quite the same, but it's close enough to enjoy the whole thing immensely.

Pierre Hermé's Hot Chocolate

2 cups milk
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted

Bring the milk, water, and sugar to the boil in a medium saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the chocolate and, stirring with a whisk, heat the mixture until one bubble pops on the surface.

Pull the saucepan from the heat and whip the hot chocolate for one minute with an immersion blender or in a regular blender.

Serve immediately in large cups, or pour into a container to cool. The hot chocolate can be made up to two days ahead and kept tightly covered in the refrigerator.

Serves two, generously.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Run, don't walk. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars...

Just get your tush over to Hearth as soon as possible. If pumpkin bread is fall in a baking tin, dinner at Hearth these days is fall as experienced through a three course meal, from quail with farro salad to apple cider doughnuts with maple cream.

I hadn't been to Hearth since spring 2006, so I was willing and eager to return. I'd forgotten how much they excel at haute comfort food. I started with roast quail, tiny and well-seasoned, served alongside an exquisite farro salad. The salad was just fantastic - topped with tomatoes (preserved from late summer, no doubt), laced with herbs, it was a great counterpoint to the meaty little quail.

For my main, I had the pumpkin tortelli, served with brown butter and sage sauce - in other words, drenched in candied butter and topped with a few crispy sage leaves. The tortelli were half pumpkin, half cheese, and they were just shy enough of too rich to justify the addition of all that butter.

Finally, dessert. Apple cider doughnuts. Yum, yum, yum. These are a classic at Hearth, and with good reason. Served piping hot and smeared with a thin layer of sugary icing, the doughnuts are cakey and moist, perfect with the applesauce and maple cream served alongside. To drink, I enjoyed a glass of Neige, an apple ice wine from Québec. Autumnal perfection.

403 E. 12th Street
Corner of 12th Street and First Avenue

Photos courtesy of Hearth.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Welcome, Great Pumpkin.

My apartment smells so good right now, like cloves and cinnamon and nutmeg. There is no time of year I enjoy more than the run-up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, and nothing ushers in the season for me like the first round of baking.

This weekend, I decided to kick things off with pumpkin apple bread from the (excellent, indispensable) Gourmet Cookbook. It's a quick bread, like banana bread, so it's just about the easiest thing in the world to bake. (Brownies come in second, but since you have to melt the chocolate, they do not take the championship title for simplicity.) You just mix everything together (OK, there's a bit of sifting involved, too), dump it into loaf pans, and bake it for about an hour - though in my hot oven, it's more like 45 minutes.

So go for it - if my results are anything to go on, your house will smell like fall in no time.

Friday, November 2, 2007

When you don't feel like sushi.

When it comes to sushi, I'm a bit late to the party. I've always enjoyed raw fish (and raw meat in general for that matter - my mother and I share a passion for steak tartare), but I never really loved sushi. That's changed over the last year or so, but even before then, I had a place in my heart for Japanese cuisine in general. That snug little spot was in no small part carved out by the many meals I've eaten at Kasadela.

Kasadela is what's called an izakaya, a sake bar that serves food alongside the hooch. Their sake list ranges from the ridiculously affordable to the indulgent (though it's much heavier on sakes in the former category). Each listing is accompanied by a helpful description of that sake's character; Kaishu is described as "medium-dry, well-balanced and compact," while Ginban is "dry, elegant smooth" with a "clean finish." Add the knowledgeable servers to this mix, and it's hard to order a sake you won't like. (If you're not a sake drinker, full-stop, no need to worry - they have beer, wine and soda, too.)

The vibe is low-key, and ordering is done as it would be at a tapas restaurant - order a few things, share, and order a few more.

The menu always boasts a few specials; on my last visit, they were serving a tomato salad topped with daikon radish and fried mint. The rich, earthy tomatoes were warm compared to the chilled, crispy daikon, and the fragile, ethereal mint lent a fresh bite to the entire dish. Another recurring special is the duck tataki, seared ever-so-quickly and served with ponzu, wasabi, and shaved scallions. Served chilled, it manages to be both light and meaty at the same time.

Perennial favorites of mine include the light-as-a-feather rock shrimp tempura, served with a spicy ponzu-spiked dressing. The dressing is so good that chopsticks do battle for the small green salad served along side, the better to dip them into the stuff. The tempura batter is light in texture and flavor, allowing the fresh, pert shrimp to shine. I also love their donburi, be it chicken, shrimp, or unagi, and their salmon tartare, studded with avocado, flavored with soy, and served with paper-thin sweet potato chips for scooping, is a must-have.

Kasadela's proprietor, Yujen Pan, used to work for Nobu, and the food at Kasadela is refined and satisfying in many of the same ways. But, unlike his former employer, Pan has established a singularly affordable eatery - I have yet to leave here having spent more than $45/head. Not a mean feat for food of this quality on this island. And you can always get in.

647 E. 11th Street
Between Avenues B and C

Ugh, un oeuf.

Robyn of Serious Eats posted this today as her Photo of the Day, and I think it's an act worth repeating here.

I always think of processed convenience foods as a quintessential hallmark of la cuisine américaine - turns out that we're not the only ones who partake of shortcuts where doing the real thing is actually easier (Prepackaged egg whites you need to measure, anyone?). Nope, the French themselves have fallen victim to the trend, though in an incredibly French way. Pre-packaged poached eggs.

Note that the picture on the front of the package is of a frisée aux lardons salad - wonder if pre-washed bags of frisée and pre-cooked packets of lardons are marketed alongside les oeufs?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

More like "Everyone's Talking About It."

Where do deep-fried hot dogs and meticulously crafted cocktails come together? Why, at PDT, of course. PDT (it stands for Please Don't Tell, a nod to the place's speakeasy feel) is the latest arrival to New York's revived cocktail scene. Though the vibe is laid-back (this is, after all, the East Village), the emphasis is definitely on the cocktails, rather than, say, beer, or wine by the glass. Which, as you all know, is fine by me - I love a good cocktail, and PDT delivers just that, with a chili dog on the side to boot.

Why all the talk about hot dogs? PDT is reached through a false-backed phone booth tucked into a corner at the East Village restaurant Crif Dogs, famous for its wild toppings and crispy waffle fries. Hot dogs and fries are available for consumption at PDT - helpful for hangover prevention, I'm sure you'll agree. I managed to keep my consumption to two cocktails on my first visit, but I figured it was still worthwhile to partake of a little headache insurance in the form of a chili dog and fries.

To drink, I went for two cocktails, both served up in the mercifully small cocktail glasses. First up, a Newark, made with Laird's Bonded Apple Brandy, Vya Sweet Vermouth, Fernet Branca, and Maraska Maraschino. This was delicious - reminded me of an apple-tinged Manhattan (and we all know I love a Manhattan), with the added complexity of the maraschino. Second, a Woolworth, made with Asyla Scotch, Lustau Manzanilla, Benedictine, and Orange Bitters.* This one was smoky, due to the Scotch, and perfect for me, an aspiring Scotch drinker - Scotch cut with a bit of sherry. Yum.

So head on over to PDT - you can call ahead and make a reservation for up to 8 people, or you can just walk in and sit at the bar. I'll tell you what, though - in a place like this, where cocktails are a craft, a seat at the bar is pure entertainment.

113 St. Mark's Place
Between 1st and Avenue A

*Thanks to Don, bartender extraordinaire, for refreshing my memory on the cocktail ingredients and names - I forgot to jot them down in my trusty Moleskine on Thursday night. Imagine that.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Quoting yourself isn't plagiarism, is it?

Prompted by Barry Fife's comment on the burger post from back in August, in which he cites condiments as Americana, I thought it might be fitting to dredge up this tidbit from Queenie 1.0, my 2005 newsletter and precursor to this blog.

My first edition was about ketchup, its history and how to use it in your kitchen (other than putting it on a burger, of course). Perhaps this is a bit lazy of me, but what the heck - there are recipes, too.

Queenie Catches on to Ketchup

Ah, ketchup. This thick, tomato-based sauce, so often considered quintessentially American (perhaps as a result of President Reagan’s effort to classify it as a vegetable for school lunches) is making a comeback. Gourmet ketchup lines the shelves in many a New York and middle-American grocery store, and in the past year alone, stories and recipes featuring ketchup have appeared in Gourmet, The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Guardian. (Andrew F. Smith, widely regarded as America’s leading expert on the history of the tomato, even wrote ketchup its own book back in 2001.) Somewhat anachronistically, many of those recipes do not focus on ketchup as an accompaniment to a dish, but as a key component in a larger sauce. Bending our traditional notions of ketchup even further, these recipes have an Asian flair.

Feeling skeptical? So was I. It had never occurred to me to use that big old bottle of Heinz sitting in my fridge to grace anything beyond the occasional hot dog, or to do more than augment the measly two packets of ketchup the corner diner delivers with my craving-induced order of fries. But think about it – ketchup is a far more complex sauce than we give it credit for.

A culinary descendant of the infamous Roman condiment garum and a cousin to modern Asian fish sauces (both of which are essentially made by brining fish bits and draining the brine off to use as a sauce – yum), ketchup is a now-outdated way to preserve tomatoes. (So maybe Reagan didn’t have it so wrong after all.) When fresh produce became more widely available in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, ketchup bottlers had to come up with a way to keep their product (then still more a chutney than a sauce) in the marketplace. So they pureed the tomatoes and added more sugar, vinegar, and spices (including cinnamon and cayenne pepper), resulting in a concoction that slides back and forth in flavor from spicy to sour to sweet. They also created a best-selling staple of the American pantry, and one that gives an unexpected depth of flavor to various dishes, particularly when cooked (rather than, say, mixed into a salad dressing).

Some people enjoy ketchup so much that they dip anything they can find in it, including chocolate chip cookies (I have witnessed this first-hand.). I wouldn’t recommend that pairing, but I think you might enjoy these recipes, some of my favorite to incorporate ketchup as a primary ingredient. In honor of ketchup’s eastern origins (the modern version of ketchup comes to us from China, via Indonesia), I have created the menu below. I haven’t yet come up with a dessert recipe incorporating the stuff (unless you decide to go in for that whole dipping thing), but I think the lightly sweet, Asian-influenced roasted pears are a lovely counterpoint to the garlicky flavors of the meal.

Manchurian Chicken
Adapted from The Minimalist

¾ lb. boneless chicken (white or dark meat), cut into ½ inch chunks
1/3 cup flour
2 tbs. vegetable oil
Salt and pepper to taste
3 cloves slivered garlic
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper (or to taste)
½ cup ketchup
Steamed rice (accompaniment)

Toss the chicken with the flour so that it is lightly dusted, and set aside in a bowl; discard remaining flour. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a 9- or 12-inch skillet over high heat until smoking. Add chicken to the pan in one layer and sprinkle with the salt and pepper.

When chicken has turned golden brown on one side, toss chicken and cook until just about done – this will probably take about 4-8 minutes total, depending on the personality of your skillet and your stove. Remove the chicken to a bowl to rest while you prepare the sauce.

Reduce heat under the skillet to medium-high and add the second tablespoon of oil to the pan. Add garlic and cayenne and cook until garlic turns just slightly darker than golden brown (this should take about 2 minutes). Add ketchup to the pan and cook until the mixture bubbles, darkens, and slightly thickens (about 2-3 minutes more).

Return the chicken (and any accumulated juices from the bottom of the bowl) to the pan and cook for another minute or two. Taste and adjust seasonings before serving with the steamed rice.

Serves 2.

No kitchen nightmare, this.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Cristin called me up and asked if I was busy one impending Friday night. I had some vague, misty plans, which promptly blew aside when she mentioned what she was calling about - for her birthday gift, her lovely boyfriend Paul had booked the chef's table at Gordon Ramsay at the London. Buh-bye, half-laid plans; hello nine-course dinner!

The nine lucky guests gathered in the bar just ahead of our 8 PM reservation. Our cast of characters for the evening:

Cristin, the birthday girl
Paul, the generous host
Connie, Cristin's oldest friend
Dan, Connie's husband and dog walker
Jasmine, a colleague of Cristin's
John, Jasmine's husband
Priya, another colleague of Cristin's, and quite the foodie in her own right
Rohit, Priya's husband, a devotee of sweet and fortified wines

After a cocktail in the bar (a glass of Ayala brut for me, my absolute favorite champagne from my trip last fall, and rarely to be found here in the States), we trouped back through the dining room, down a long, narrow hallway lined with wine refrigeration, and into the hot, bustling kitchen.

We were seated at a stainless steel horseshoe-shaped table facing the pass, and since the table and its banquette were raised a couple of feet off the floor, we had a clear view of the entire kitchen, all the way down to the end where the food for the more casual restaurant, Maze, is prepared. The pass was directly in front of us, so we had a front-row seat to the executive and sous-chef's doings all night long.

The meal was one of the longest I've ever had, with eleven courses spread over four and a half hours. There were canapes, two dishes featuring foie gras, three fish courses, and three desserts (not counting the cheese or the petits fours). Each course was paired with a different wine, starting with champagne and finishing with a sherry from 1971 (the birthday girl's birth year, it's worth noting).

Each course was introduced by the cook responsible for it - the guy working the fish line introduced the scallops, the cold appetizer guy told us all about the crudo, and the grill cook told us all about our filet, and the most adorable (and patient) captain painstakingly carved and served our cheese course.

For me, the highlights of the meal were the crudo and the quail. Well, those and watching Cristin learn from the pastry chef how to make a souffle. But first things first: that crudo. Delicate circles of pale swordfish and flushed tuna were served with paper-thin slices of cucumber - the crisp cucumber added some crunch to the fleshy, unctuous fish, and the soya dressing added a hint of richness. The dish was satisfying but light, substantial but ethereal. Really, really well done.

Quail and liver make a classic pair - Ouest serves roasted quail with a side of duck liver risotto, and dinner party hosts have been impressing their quests with quail stuffed with foie gras for years now. Both represent impractical luxury at its finest - quail with its tiny bones and little bitty pieces of meat, and foie gras with its time- and care-intensive production - and both are delectably, delicately rich. This presentation was no exception - a seared leg of quail flavored with honey and soy was presented atop a sweet-and-savory pear chutney (fall creeping into the menu there), alongside a seared lobe of foie gras. We eaters were left to mix and match meat and liver to our hearts' content.

Once we'd made it through the savory courses (save the cheese), the smokers declared it was time for a break, and the rest of us started poking around the kitchen. Josh, the executive chef, took Cristin back to the pastry station, where the pastry chef and his assistant taught her all about the fine art of souffle-making (whipping the egg whites, folding in the sugar, and so on). She very much enjoyed the lesson, which she attended under Gordon's watchful eye - you know what they say: if you can't be there, a wire sculpture of your imposing mug is the next best thing.

Chef's Table
Gordon Ramsay at The London
September 28, 2007
Photos of the full menu

Selection of canapes
Melon sorbet with watermelon, blood orange and tomato
Confit of Hudson Valley foie gras with slow-cooked free-range chicken
and micro green herb salad
Joh. Jos. Prum, Graacher Himmelreich, Mosel 2004
Carpaccio of swordfish and tuna with cucumber, herb salad and soya dressing
Riesling Rosenbourg, Paul Blanck 2004
Hand-dived scallops roasted with spices, golden raisin puree
and cauliflower beignets
Alex Gambal Chassagne-Montrachet 2003
Braised Pacific halibut larded with smoked salmon,
Romaine hearts, artichokes and marinated lemon, served with
smoked horseradish veloute
Godello, As Sortes, Rafael Palacios, Valdeorras 2005
Honey and soy roasted quail with sauteed foie gras
and spiced pear chutney
Corton, Grand Cru Les Combes, Chateau Genot-Boulanger 2002
Filet of Brandt beef and braised shortrib, spaetzle with
shallot confit and beef jus
Mayacamas, Napa Valley Cabernet 1992
Selection of cheeses
Chateau La Clotte-Cazalis 2003
Pineapple puree, vanilla yoghurt, pineapple granite, coconut tuiles
Apple and caramel trifle with cider granite, cinammon doughnut
Valrhona chocolate fondant with caramelized banana ice cream,
vanilla moelleux and malted milk
Bodegas Toro Albala, PX, Gran Reserva, Montilla-Moriles 1971

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Let us eat brioche.

When confronted about the bread shortage that precipitated the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette infamously replied, "Let them eat cake."

Only she didn't. First of all, it wasn't Marie Antoinette who said it. The phrase first surfaces in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1766, when the future queen of France was a child in Austria. Rousseau claims the words were spoken by a "great princess," but no one in particular is mentioned. Moreover, he did not use the word "cake" (or its French translation, gâteau), but, instead, brioche. To quote: "S'ils n'ont plus de pain, qu'ils mangent de la brioche."*

If you don't know what goes into brioche, you might not think this is so bad - the remark may seem tempered: "Oh, she's just telling them to eat a different kind of bread. Lighten up, people!" But then you make brioche, and you realize that, honestly, it might as well be cake. It's the gâteau of breads, the foie gras of baking. (OK, the latter title probably belongs to croissants, but you get the idea.)

I discovered this for myself during my trip to Ohio in July, when Louisa and I decided we needed to make bread. Given our love of all things French, we thought brioche would be a good place to start. I remembered that Ina Garten had a recipe for brioche in her Barefoot in Paris cookbook, and thought that might be a good place to start. Garten's recipes are always easy to follow, and are typically the cooking equivalent of the straight line - they represent the shortest distance between two points, without sacrificing taste or quality.

People give Ina a lot of grief for the amount of butter and eggs she uses in her recipes, and brioche is no exception (though it's not really her fault, since the definition of brioche is an eggy, buttery bread). Her recipe features six extra-large eggs and half a pound of unsalted butter - like I said, foie gras. Heart attack in a loaf pan, baby, but a remarkably easy one to bake up. You just mix the ingredients together in your electric stand mixer, give it a minute or two with the dough hook, and let it rise. That's it!

Now, it's easy, but you'll need to plan ahead, since the dough needs to rise, refrigerated, in a buttered bowl overnight, and then on the counter in the loaf pans. Once the rising is done, you paint the loaves (the recipe makes two) with an egg wash and pop them in the oven till golden-brown. Bread is one of those things with very few ingredients, so if you decide to give brioche a try, please, please, PLEASE spring for high-quality butter and fresh, preferably local eggs. You'll be doing yourself (and the environment) a favor.

After all, if you're spending the calories, why wouldn't you spend them on the best food you can find? Except for Cheetos - there's always room for Cheetos, empty, crappy calories be damned.

*Translation: "If they have no more bread, then let them eat brioche."

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fresh from the dock.

I'm a big believer in partaking of the local specialties - why else would you travel? And so, I've sampled bone marrow salad in London, obscene amounts of foie gras and tarte flambee in Alsace, champagne in Napa, and now fried perch in Ohio. Sandusky, Ohio, to be more specific - in full view of Cedar Point.

On the last Saturday of my visit to Norwalk, Nick, Louisa, Hunter (their border terrier, with whom I am desperately in love) and I piled into the car to drive out to Sandusky for some fried perch and a sail on Lake Erie.

We pulled up in front of the New Sandusky Fish Company (heartily endorsed by Nick and Lou, as well as by the always-reliable While Louisa and Hunter saved us a table outside, Nick and I went inside to order two perch dinners and a sandwich, all with extra tartar sauce. The restaurant is take-out only, and oddly resembles the office suite of a small-town paper goods distributor. That aesthetic consideration aside, the place is awesome. There's basically nothing on the menu but different preparations of fish from the lake, along with fried accompaniments (french fries and onion rings among them). Extra tartar sauce will set you back 25 cents for a small, 50 cents for a large.

We toted our Styrofoam boxes out to the picnic table, where Hunter danced around our feet, hoping desperately for dropped pieces of fish. My sandwich was loaded with light, flaky strips of fried perch. The fish was fresh as could be, mild and tender, and the crunch of the crust against the soft bun brought back memories of my beloved chicken finger subs, the meal that kept me going through years of terrible prep school cafeteria food.

Nick and Louisa got the perch dinner, which came with coleslaw and french fries. The slaw was decent, the fries excellent - crispy, piping hot, and judiciously salted.

We never did make it out of the dock that afternoon, due to a spider infestation followed by a broken bilge pump - but the drive to Sandusky was more than worth it. Plus, I got to hold this on my lap all the way home:

Friday, September 21, 2007

A slap on the back.

Drinking has long been considered every legitimate writer's second career, and I'm afraid I'm no exception. Though, given that writing is really my second career, I suppose that makes drinking my third. Or something.

Its tertiary status notwithstanding, as I sit here, watching the minutes tick by and seeing Friday's cocktail hour approach over the horizon, the thought of my first drink of the weekend is creeping up on me. I'm thinking about a martini, or, more likely, a Manhattan - a real one, with two dashes of bitters. But should I have a twist, or a cherry?

But enough of me - to kick off your weekend something proper, here are a couple of my favorite drinking quotes, from writers illustrious all. And, if you're so inclined, won't you share your favorites?
"We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air."
- Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

"Champagne is funny stuff. I'm used to whiskey. Whiskey is a slap on the back, and champagne's heavy mist before my eyes."
- Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart), The Philadelphia Story

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."
- Oscar Wilde

"Come quickly - I am tasting the stars!"
- Dom Perignon*

"Sometimes too much to drink is barely enough."
- Mark Twain

"The food of thy soul is light and space; feed it then on light and space. But the food of thy body is champagne and oysters; feed it then on champagne and oysters; and so shall it merit a joyful resurrection, if there is any to be."
- Herman Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities

"No animal ever invented anything as bad as drunkenness - or as good as drink."
- G.K. Chesterton
*Definitively apocryphal, but lovely nonetheless.

Friday, September 14, 2007

There is beauty - and Miya's here to tell you all about it!

For those of you who like crafts, design, cooking, or any or all of the above: may I direct your attention to There Is Beauty, a new blog by the lovely and talented Miya Hirabayashi? (She really is lovely, no? That's her, right there on the left.) See, for example, today's post on designer Tord Boontje, or yesterday's step-by-step instructions for putting up pesto for winter. Can't wait to see what she shows us next!

It truly is sweet to do nothing.

A few years ago, I went out to dinner at Ouest with my friends Nick and Louisa. After a thoroughly delicious meal (I can still remember my first taste of the cauliflower custard with parmesan and lobster meat), dessert seemed a lost cause. Nick, always thinking, ordered us a bottle of Far Niente's Dolce. From the first sip, I was entranced. Here was an American wine that rivaled the great Sauternes, ripe with noble rot and sweet as honey.

And so when my mother and I were planning our trip to Napa, I insisted we make a pilgrimage to the home of my favorite dessert wine. Mom was game, particularly given her love for Far Niente's Cabernet Sauvignon. She still tells the story of how she bought a case of it back in the 1980's, and how the single bottle she has left, for which she paid about $10, is now worth about $200. She would return to the vineyard a triumphant collector, and I would get to taste Dolce at its source.

Far Niente was our first stop, and I drove at breakneck speed from Fresno to ensure we wouldn't miss a single minute of the visit. We ended up only missing about 10 minutes, not a bad showing, and joined our tour group on the balcony overlooking the fields and Route 29 beyond them. Far Niente's grounds are exquisite, lush with gardens and fountains, and the view was breathtaking.

From the balcony, we headed down into the cool quiet of the cellars, where we walked past yards and yards of French oak barrels, inside which the precious Cabernet sat, aging to perfection. The winemakers test the wine periodically as it ages, and little dribbles of red stain the barrels. The solution? Paint the barrels evenly with the wine, creating a soft red stripe down the middle of each. The wine ages the barrels, and the barrels age the wine.

On our walk to the wine library, we paused in front of a wrought-iron gate decorated with a golden sign - just beyond lay barrels of Dolce. So close, yet so far!

Once we had seen the library, we trooped back up the stairs to the main reception area, where a long oak table was set with ten places, each with a plate of three cheeses and five glasses. The tasting started with two Chardonnays, one from 2004 and the other from 2005. I preferred the 2004, which was a slightly richer, warmer wine. Both were paired with an Abbaye de Belloc, a French sheep's milk cheese whose caramel flavor went beautifully with the Chardonnays.

Next up, two Cabernet Sauvignons, one from 1998 and the other from 2004. I preferred the 2004 this time around as well. It was smoother and a little less spicy, but still round and full. The Cabernets were paired with a San Joacquin Gold, a creamy, rich cow's milk cheese.

Finally, and most delightfully, the freshly chilled bottle of 2003 Dolce was opened and poured into our waiting glasses. Dolce is a gorgeous honey color, thick-but-not-syrupy in the manner of the best dessert wines, like a good muscat, but redolent of noble rot, like a Sauternes. Far Niente paired the wine with a Bleu d'Auvergne, my most favorite blue cheese. It comes from the Auvergne region of France, and its flavor is strong, robust, but not overpowering - the perfect compliment to the slightly mouldering wine. Yum. And oh-so-pretty.

All in all, a wonderful visit, capped off with a significant purchase of Cabernet, Chardonnay - and, let's not forget, the Dolce. I bought two 375 ml. bottles for my own cellar.

Who wants to come over for dinner?

Friday, August 31, 2007

I scream, you scream, we all scream for mac & cheese!

A quick and hearty shout-out to my local, Bar Etats-Unis, which was named one of the top ten spots for macaroni and cheese in the city (outer boroughs included, too). Their version is big enough for two, with parmesan and cheddar and a super-rich bechamel base. It comes bubbling hot in a rustic crock, crusty on top and creamy underneath. Awesome stuff, folks, especially with a glass of red wine. Mmmmm...

Thursday, August 30, 2007

All that sparkles is gold (and sometimes pink).

I am in love with champagne.

I have always enjoyed champagne, but only in the last couple of years have I begun to develop a true appreciation for it, an appreciation that borders on worship. It's a drink with endless variations, a spectrum of flavors, the added textural element of the bubbles (which vary so widely from wine to wine), and it makes everything so gosh-darn special. Plus, it's way more fun to learn about than still wine - you've got the yeast, the degorgement, the riddling...fascinating.

Plus, champagne has inspired some of the loveliest drinking-related bon mots yet coined, including the (apocryphal) "Come quickly, I'm drinking the stars," attributed to Don Perignon, and, more recently, this one from The Philadelphia Story: "Champagne is funny stuff. I'm used to whiskey. Whiskey is a slap on the back; champagne is heavy mist before my eyes."

If you ask someone from France if what Schramsberg Vineyards produces in California is champagne, they will poo-poo you. If you ask a member of Schramsberg's staff, they will launch into a mini-lecture on the methode champenoise and the 1891 Treaty of Madrid, which provided France with sole ownership of the term "champagne." Schramsberg's product may not technically be champagne, but it's absolutely stellar.

Our tour of the Schramsberg facilities began with the long ascent of a narrow, curving drive. We were a bit early, so we spent some time enjoying the crisp sunshine of a Calistoga morning and chatting with the staff about the tornado that had touched down that day in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The other members of our tour trickled in, and at 10:30 we gathered by the Frog Pond to begin.

Our guide gave us a bit of the history of the estate, originally established by Jacob Schram in 1862. The hillside vineyards reminded him of those used to grow Riesling in his native Germany, and he bought the land and began his wine-making business (he had been a barber by trade). Eventually the family sold the property, and nothing much of note really happened to it until Jack and Jamie Davies bought the land in 1965.

The Davies' were specifically interested in making sparkling wines, but only discovered after moving onto the land that the hot Calistoga hillsides (Calistoga is typically 5 to 15 degrees warmer than the rest of the Napa Valley) were not particularly hospitable to the two grapes essential to champagne, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They set about finding suppliers in other parts of the valley, and produced their first sparkling vintage in 1965. Widespread fame came in 1972, when President Nixon used the 1969 in his toast to China. Schramsberg has been the official sparkling wine of U.S. presidents ever since.

After the history lesson, we proceeded into the caves. Based on my trip to the Champagne region of France, I knew we'd be spending most of our time in the cellars looking out for the remnants of bottles that had exploded during the aging process and hearing about the magic of riddling and its grand finale, degorgement.

Riddling is so cool - in order to get the sediment produced by the yeast (whose carbon dioxide exhalations remain behind to make your champagne good and bubbly, or subtly creamy, depending) out of the bottle, the riddler comes around periodically and turns the bottle just so. With his or her hands. A tiny bit each time, with just their fingertips, ever so lightly. A good riddler turns upwards of 20,000 bottles each day. Schramsberg's turns 35,000.

Once the sediment has collected in the bottom of the bottle, and been coaxed toward the neck, it's time for the degorgement. Basically, they freeze the neck of the champagne, open it, allow the ice cube (which now contains the sediment) to pop out, top the bottle off quickly with the dosage (whose contents differ from maker to maker) and seal the whole thing up again. A few months of aging incorporate the dosage into the wine, and bam! Champagne ready for drinking.

After a spin around the caves, we were led into an empty room, at the back of which stood a table - our tasting was in the caves! This was one of the neater things about the visit. It felt very personal and intimate, and we never felt rushed. Quite the opposite, actually - the computers were down, so the staff from upstairs brought a sixth bottle for us to taste (to keep us occupied so that we could place orders on said computer before we left).

We tasted the Blanc de Blancs first. Blanc de Blancs means "white of whites," and contains only Chardonnay grapes. It was tart, full of apple flavor, and would have paired beautifully with oysters. Its bubbles were lively but small, popping all over the tongue. Next up, the Blanc de Noirs, which, as you've probably guessed, is a white champagne made entirely of Pinot Noir grapes. This one was true to its Pinot origins, full of berry flavors and a subtler bubble than the Blanc de Blancs.

Third, the J. Schram, which was one of the most full-bodied champagnes I've tasted. It could stand up to lamb, something that can't be said for many sparkling wines. We followed it with the Brut Rose - I have a soft spot for pink champagne, and this one was no exception. It was divine, and our guide recommended pairing it with lobster or buttered popcorn. I hope to put both suggestions to good use someday soon.

Finally, we moved on to the Reserve, which had a deep caramel flavor - it would be lovely after dinner or on its own. The bottle rushed down to compensate for the computer lag time was the Cremant, a sweeter wine - perfect with or instead of dessert.

So, basically, all I have left to say about Schramsberg is this - you should go. Or at least get up, go to the wine store, and buy a couple of bottles. But you shouldn't store them in the fridge for more than a month (which is an awfully good excuse to drink anything you've got in there right now).

Pre-degorgement photo courtesy of Google Images. Photos of Schramsberg's Frog Pond and the Rose champagne courtesy of yours truly.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

There's nothing wrong with a burger...or three.

My recent travels have presented me with the opportunity to eat lots of great meals: ris de veau at Bouchon, coq au vin at Bistro Jeanty, steak with Bearnaise sauce as prepared by Nick - and quite a few burgers.

Hamburgers, not cheeseburgers, you understand. Though I've warmed to cheese over the last couple of years (I hated it with a flaming, burning passion from early childhood - odd, given my willingness to eat almost anything else.), I still don't like it on my burgers. So don't even ask.

The burger is perhaps the quintessential American food, something that rang true with me as never before on my trip to Strasbourg last year. Louisa and I met an incredibly charming (I'm swooning at the memory) French man at a bar near the cathedral who had attended UT Austin for university.

By the end of it, he said, people didn't believe him when he told them he was French. He himself only realized how truly Americanized he'd become when he mastered the art of driving while eating a hamburger. And I believe it - I picture him, from time to time, cruising down a two-lane, rural Texas highway, burger in hand, the wind in his hair (because, of course, he's driving a red convertible), and think: "Good lord, how American."

The freedom of the open road epitomized by a hand-held meal. Like Henri*, I associate burgers with driving and travel, and so am not terribly surprised that my first lunches upon arrival in Norwalk, Fresno and Calistoga, respectively, were hamburgers all.

First up, H n' B's Hop in Norwalk, Ohio. I admit, this was my first old-fashioned hamburger hop ever. As Louisa and I pulled up, I looked around for the waitresses in bobby socks and roller skates, but, alas, you now go inside to order off of the hand-written menu.

I went for the hamburger meal (with fries) and a small vanilla shake. After all, I was on vacation, people. Louisa ordered the BBQ beef sandwich and sauerkraut balls, an Ohio specialty of which I'd been ignorant before my visit (look for a separate post on those later). We grabbed a table in the dappled shade of the Hop's wooden canopy and waited patiently for our food and drinks.

They called our names, and we ran up to the counter, salivating. Now, I know it doesn't look like much, but trust me, this burger was awfully good. Straightforward, with robust, beefy flavor, and just the right size. I'm sure I'll get hate mail for this one, but I really don't like a thick hamburger patty - they're hard to eat, messy, and don't leave enough bite clearance for the good stuff, like tomatoes, pickles and onions. The condiments on this were good, but the beef was the standout. Not surprising, given I was in the Midwest, land of excellent beef (though too often also the land of excellent beef overcooked to point where its excellence goes bye-bye).

The shake was thick and delicious, rich and robustly vanilla, and definitely not light on the ice cream. Just the way I like it. Needless to say, I was quite full as we tottered back to the car. Oof.

My next hamburger experience came at a restaurant that is, frankly, the standard by which I judge all other fast food burgers: In n' Out Burger. If you are not yet familiar with In n' Out, you must live east of the Mississippi or somewhere outside of the States. If this is the case, I advise you to buy a plane ticket to parts west as soon as possible - they've got stores all over California, and a couple in Nevada, I think. Go. Go now.

Why are their burgers so good? Well, they're delicious. Oh, ok - so, the meat is never frozen. It's fresh. The veggies? Ditto. Including the potatoes, which are peeled and sliced into tiny little french fries right there in the store. Right there in front of you!

Whenever I visit my mom in Fresno, I make every effort to visit In n' Out for a double meat with fries and a Diet Coke. It just makes me smile. Some people don't like "secret" or "special" sauces - not me. Condiment-loving fiend that I am, I just can't get enough. Onions? Bring it on - I'm not kissing anyone tonight. Pickles? Marry me.

I am, however, undecided in the matter of In n' Out's fries. Yes, they're fresh and taste more like potatoes than any other fast food fry I have ever tasted in my life. But they're a little bit...soggy. Like someone forgot to teach the In n' Out folks the old fry 'em twice trick. But I get them anyway, because I'm a sucker.

Finally, a visit to Taylor's Automatic Refresher in St. Helena. I'm sure it's not the case, but I wouldn't be surprised if people trying to get to Taylor's is the reason traffic in St. Helena is so maddening around lunchtime - it's that good, and that popular. Don't be fooled by the picture on the website - it's mobbed around the clock (though I managed to escape the worst of it by going for lunch at 2:00 PM).

I ordered a hamburger, fries, and (gasp!) a Diet Coke, then grabbed a seat at one of the picnic tables to wait for my name (Megan B.) to be called by the cute boy manning the microphone. The total (around $10) was the highest by far of my three hamburger outings, not surprising given the locale (Napa Valley) and the clientele (those who prefer their down-home food come with upscale trappings, including gourmet pickles and bottles of wine).

Let me start with the fries - Taylor's fries were, hands-down, the winners in their category (for this go-round, at least). Crisp, perfectly salted, and piping hot, they tasted of potato and of summer, and tasted great dipped in mayonnaise (my ultimate test, as ketchup is awfully acidic and can mask weak potato flavor).

Finally, the hamburger. This was a hamburger worthy of its price tag. The Taylor's sauce is mustardy where In n' Out's is ketchupy, and the deeper flavor goes well with the as-close-to-cucumber-as-you-can-be-and-still-be-a-pickle new pickles (my favorites). The toppings were around the burger - the lettuce and tomato below, pickles above, and I enjoyed this pre-packaging of the tasty meat. Not quite as purely beefy as H n' B's, it was still well-seasoned and tasty. Plus, they asked me how I wanted it cooked - and managed medium-rare, even with a satisfactorily thin patty. A feat few can manage, friends.

*Not his real name, but we never asked what it was, and it seemed to suit him best.
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