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?
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