Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Choice Eats 2009

I returned not too long ago from the VIllage Voice's Choice Eats tasting event, which featured 56 restaurants showcasing 37 different cuisines. By the time I arrived at the Lexington Avenue armory at 6:20, I was forced to make my way to the back of the line, since they had yet to start letting people in. So I walked along, following the line, and walked, and walked, until I finally found the end...on Park avenue. Slowly, but steadily, the line started moving along, and I think we finally made it into the building a bit before 7, maybe around 6:50 or so. Lesson one: Arrive very early so that you are not waiting on the longest line ever; one long enough, in fact, that about one in every four people passing by felt compelled to inquire as to the cause behind the congregation of this motley crew.

I managed to eat a great deal, both in terms of variety and sheer quantity, and my stomach is still feeling the effect of my gorging. I managed to snag the following bites, which I will recount in as much detail as my memory and compromised physical state (read: huge food coma) will allow. Lesson two: Bring a note pad (and a camera).

Thanks, but no thanks:

Mama's Food Shop: Macaroni and cheese with ham. This was the biggest disappointment of the night (or at least the biggest disappointment once in my hands, the fact that a bunch of tables I really wanted to hit up were "finito" by the time I made my way to them is a whole other kind of disappointment). How can macaroni and cheese really be that bad? I don't know! I understand that mac and cheese is the type of dish best served immediately - the gooeyness factor is what you really want, after all. But the lack of goo wasn't even the issue, it was completely and utterly tasteless, with the most fleeting hint of salt provided from the teeny specks of ham interspersed throughout the mess of elbows and white cheddar (I think it was white cheddar...). It was, by far, the most bland thing I ate all evening.

Cabrito: Jalapeno releno with pollock, capers, raisins and a mini-shot of horchata. The horchata I actually really liked, and could have dealth with a larger serving of it, especially since it muted a lot of the flavors fighting for attention on my palate. The jalapeno itself though was kind of gross, it just tasted fishy, but far too mushy to be pleasant, and the salinity of the capers was not strong enough to make their presence felt. It was the same story with the raisins, though I think I'm happy abnout that. Now that I'm describing this, I'm not sure why I even picked this up - chile + pollock + capers + raisins can equal nothing but fail.

Jimmy's No. 43: Pulled pork with orange (maybe?) marmalade. Honestly, this kind of just tasted of booze. Bizarre.

Tortilleria Nixtamal: Beef enchilada with mole. I'm not really sure why I didn't like this, I just didn't. At all. Maybe I'm just not a mole fan? I don't think that's true though, but I can't pinpoint exactly why I didn't like it. I just took one bite and put it down (which I pretty much did with everything, since otherwise I would have exploded, leaving only partially digested, potentially identifiable ethnic foodstuffs in my wake. Lesson three: I need a larger stomach.

I Could Take it or Leave It:

Barbao: Spicy beef salad with pomelo, pineapple and peanuts. This was good, but nothing great, and nothing that I hadn't seen or tasted before.

Cheburechnaya: lamb dumpling-type thing; rice with beef. The rice tasted like nothing, while the lamb dumpling thing was interesting. The lamb had good flavor, nestled inside what looked and tasted like a won-ton skin, which in retrospect I guess makes sense for an Uzbek eatery, since the nation falls directly between two regions with incredibly different, and strong culinary traditions, it's unsurprising that they'd take from each - the dumpling wrapper from Asia to their East, and the cumin-carraway scented lamb from the Indo-south. The plate was accompanied by a tomato sauce, which was very thin, and while quite acidic, it didn't have any of that pleasant brightness that tomatoes usually impart.

Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop: Chopped Liver on Marble Rye. Chopped liver is chopped liver, unless it's REALLY bad, in which case, no thanks. This was definitely not really bad, but it lacked the oniony-eggy punch that I love about chopped liver. It had a pleasantly smooth texture, but the chopped liver I know and love isn't totally smooth, which may be unfair to Eisenberg's, but that's what you get when messing with nostalgia!

Fatty Crab - Coconut Rice with curry chicken. I barely tasted this, I was infuriated at this point by the jerk who unceremoniously barreled his way up to the table, totally unfettered by the line of people patiently waiting their turn to be served unconscionably demanded not one, but two plates. Lesson four: take anger management prior to attendance. Lesson five: lower expectations of the good-naturedness of humans in general.

Kabab Factory: Chicken, beef, with different sauces. Only tasted a tiny bit of this. Tasted like kabab. Decent kabab, though.

The New French: roast pork on pizza bianca. Don't really remember anything about this besides the fact that the pork was really soft; the flavor totally escapes me. I'm honestly not sure if it even was pizza bianca on which the pork was served.

Motorino: Donuts filled with chocolate, vanilla or raspberry-rhubarb. This was my first disappointment. I wanted PIZZA. But then I got there - and donuts. Just lots and lots of donuts. The vanilla custard itself was quite good, the chocolate was unimpressive, and the rhubarb was totally lost in the jammy filling. However, the donuts had obviously been fried far too long before the event, and they were way too cold and honestly kind of stale. Note to Motorino - "bomboloni" is a cop-out; a deep-fried, sugary cop-out. I get if they make wood-fired pizza they're not going to be able to get us an adequate representation of their fare in this sort of setting, and risk ruining their reputation if they serve a sub-par product, but still. I wanted pizza.

Kuma Inn: Tofu with mirin and mushroom. This was pretty good, but nothing too out of the ordinary. It tasted exactly how you'd expect it to upon taking the plate in hand, nothing more, nothing less. That being said, I could see potentially myself ordering this dish were I to eat there, but this dish itself isn't driving me there anytime soon.

Queen of Sheba; Misir Wat - lentils stewed with onion, garlic and a blend of spices, served in the typical injera pancake This was pretty good, though incredibly heavily spiced. It killed my taste buds for a while, but probably worth it. Probably. That's the danger with the disproportionate representation of ethnic eateries: while all delicious, they feature really aggressive spices, and after a while the jerk in the chicken and the chiles in the salsa start making it difficult to taste even the most fragrant curry. Lesson six: bring some sort of palate cleaners, perhaps ginger candy? But that would take up precious stomach space...I'll think about this one. Recommendations welcome.

Peppa's Jerk Chicken: Jerk Chicken, obv. Really flavorful, though I got a bit screwed with a super bony piece and was too full to validate fighting the crowds to go back for another one to get a better sample. The piece I had was pleasantly spicy, not mouth-numbingly so, and sitll had pretty balanced flavor. A bit dry, though.

Pinche taqueria: carnitas burrito and corn. I had intended to get a taco, but didn't realize that they were kept separately from the burrito pieces, so I thought they were gone. The pork in the carnitas, though, was really flavorful, though my gripe with burritos held true here - just too much going on, obscuring the taste of the meat, especially since I got the end piece and had an excess of flour tortilla, and I prefer the texture and taste of corn tortillas at all times. I snagged a little bite of Andrew's carne asada from his taco, though and it was moist and tender.

I'd hit that again:

Dirt Candy: Portobello mousse with with portobellos and fennel-pear compote. This was totally surprising - the richness of this little bite was so far beyond what I had expected. Though I had heard much about this mousse, in my mind I still knew it was made of mushrooms, and so I felt it hard to believed all the hype. The hype was well-deserved - it was complex, with the deep, earthy flavor that I love so much about mushrooms (and which I often think portobellos lack), concentrated into a dense, unctuous richness. The fennel-pear compote brightened the plate and was a great contrast to the mushrooms.

Porchetta: One of the few eateries giving a genuine taste of what they offered - I guess it's hard for them to do otherwise, though when there is but one main thing on their menu - it would have been pretty ballsy for Porchetta to show up and serve beans (I'm looking at you Mercadito and your mango guacamole). Half sandwiches were on offer: a generous smattering of meat and crispy, caramelized pig skin that wasn't as crispy as I would have believed from the descriptions I've read - it was better, in fact - the texture was more complex than just pure crunch. The initial crunch gave way to a chewy, almost caramel-like quality that was just begging to be stuck in your teeth. It was divine. I feel that the actual sandwich could only be better, since I think that in the rush to keep the sandwiches coming, a bit of the moisture, which would typically be sopped up by the bread, was sadly separated from the porcine beast from which it leaked, bidding it a sort of bon voyage from the cutting board deck as the plates were whisked away from the table. Regardless, it left me wanting more, which is precisely what these establishments want - our return business.

There were a few places I wanted to try but just didn't get to in time, which kind of just sucks. Lesson seven: finagle media pass.

Momofuku Milk Bar and Bakery: I think they were giving out their notorious compost cookie, or at least that's what all the blissfully happy people I passed by looked like they were enjoying. This kind of pissed me off, though - they left a little note that they brought 500 cookies and they were all gone by 7. 500 cookies? For a crowd of over a thousand? That's not to even mention those working the event for the various eateries and sponsors that were given the opportunity to walk around before the event started. That's bad math. And I really wanted a cookie.

Fette Sau: I've heard much about Fette Sau, and it was unlikely I was going to eat there anytime soon, so I was pretty excited to try this. Unfortunately, fail. Andrew's constantly on the lookout for barbeque, and I had really wanted to see if their offering would entice us to head to Williamsburg. Has anyone been there that can vouch for its deliciousness?

Kampuchea: Andrew and I recently did a little sandwich tasting from Num Pang, which is the new Cambodian sandwich shop recently opened by the owners of Kampuchea. The sandwiches we had were all great, so I was looking forward to seeing hat they had to offer. No dice.

No. 7 had some sort of dessert. I ran into someone who said this was great, when I headed over to try it, they were packing up. Lame.

Baoguette: This isn't a total fail, and they don't deserve to be in this category, since they had plendy of food to go around. I've been there before and have had their sandwiches (the catfish sandwich is seriously good). That said, had there not been a ginormous line for their table, I definitely would have hit it up, but I there was, so I didn't.

And so it was an evening of Choice Eats. I will likely attend again, though I will heed my lessons and be approach the event with a better strategy in hand. Maybe it's all in the personnel management, amassing a tasting team, dividing up and acquiring a range of plates may be the best way to ensure that all is tasted. The biggest issue is the lack of areas to really stand and eat, and you're constantly running into people balancing three plates of biryani in one hand, while holding a fork and beer in the other, and trying to figure out how to eat in the midst of never-ending throngs of people. I definitely left feeling supremely full, and next time, oh next time, with lessons learned, I'll leave even fuller.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gefilte Fish with Horseradish Cream

At the Passover Seder table growing up, I always had to watch with envious eyes as my brother took supreme pleasure in eating piece (glob?) after piece of gefilte fish. I just had to sit there and watch, I wasn't able to eat it because I was still allergic to pretty much every little seemingly harmless thing in the vast ocean.

Jealousy is really the only explanation I can come up with as to why I always coveted gefilte fish. It was not its visual appeal - that's for sure.

It's really quite an unseemly thing - a grey, pallid mass of congealed fish. It emerges from its jar coated in a gelatinous goo. This jar also contains little carrot discs, as if to assure you that the goo can indeed provide a welcoming home to things that were once real, living things. And don't think that I'm doing gefilte fish a disservice by describing it as such - there's no denying it's instantaneous ick factor.

Once plated gefilte fish is not nearly as off-putting, but if you've seen where it comes from, it's a tougher pill to swallow. The jar, from whence it was fished in all its gooey glory, is a bit hard to get past. Yet, in spite of all of this, likely more than enough to scare off most any right-minded kid, I wanted nothing more than to be able to enjoy gefilte fish - or at least to be able to try it, and hate it, and then make fun of my brother for liking it with the ammunition to back it up.

But no, I just had to sit there - eating my hard-boiled eggs covered in heaping scoops of horseradish, as if it were some sort of substitute, lest my entire face swell up - lest I turn into a living reminder of the plague of boils set forth on the Egyptians. And that's not what Passover's about! It's about relaxing, and celebrating our freedom and drinking until you can't stand up from your oh-so-reclined position (not to mention eating tons and tons of chocolate-covered matzoh), not relishing the ills that were cast upon our adversaries - Jews aren't into that kind of schadenfreude.

As I've discussed before, I've outgrown this fish allergy (though less so the salmon, though I trudge on anyway, trying to will it out of my system), and when I finally had the chance to taste gefilte fish, I actually really liked it. Why, precisely, I couldn't tell you - probably the fact that it's pleasantly fishy, soft and salty, and a perfect vehicle for tongue-numbing quantities of Gold's horseradish. I was finally able to take joy in what my brother had been able to enjoy his entire life, though to his chagrin, there was now another mouth at the table with whom he'd have to share.

When I set out to prepare my first Seder last year, I wanted to go all-out. I tend to go all-out with most things cooking, especially when I'm cooking for others, and I wanted my first Seder to be a smash-hit. I suspect that it was - I think the text messages I get from my blond-haired and blue-eyed friend telling me that she's having a hankering for the brisket I made is a pretty good indicator of success, if I do say so myself.

With a couple of non-Jews in attendance at the Seder, I wanted to make sure that all the dishes were executed in order to maximize their potential, lest my fear that they'd forever be turned off from Jewish food be realized. I saw gefilte fish as the biggest hurdle - as you can imagine it's not really the easiest thing to sell: Fish cakes! Fish dumplings! Fish blobs - from a jar! A jar full of gelatinous goo!

Since I was a third-year law student (read: I had a significant amount of time on my hands), I figured I'd try my hand at homemade gefilte fish, since steamed fresh fish dumplings seems a bit (though just a bit) of an easier sell than their goo-laden brethren.

And though the gefilte fish stunk up my house something serious, it was an undeniable success. I'm still counting my lucky stars that I had a roommate easy-going and understanding enough to deal with the smell of steaming fish for days (let me tell you - steamed fish smell is the gift that keeps on giving), without so much of a peep of complaint (and a shiksa, no less!!).

The gefilte fish was so much fresher, the texture undeniably better than anything I'd had in the past - there was much more than the hint of fishiness present to make you wise to that fact that what you were eating had once swam in the sea. The horseradish cream lends a sophisticated air to the dish; its flavor, at once spicy and tangy, really heightens the flavors of the fish, serving as a lovely contrast to the smokiness of the salmon and cutting through the richness characteristic of many Passover dishes, in all of their egg-laden glory. The gefilte fish itself had better depth of flavor than the jarred variety, owing to the fresh carrots, onions, scallions and two types of fish, and the fact that it was steamed just the day before, and with no goo of which to speak.

Homemade Gefilte Fish with Horseradish Cream
Adapted from Bon Appétit April 2002

This is an undeniably laborious recipe - albeit one that yields results that kick jarred gefilte fish's ass. However, I didn't have a food processor and decided not to buy one for the gefilte-fish-making occasion, so I found myself chopping...and chopping...and chopping fish until it was in a consistency akin to what would've been realized in the food processor. I'd imagine that this greatly reduces the time commitment of this endeavor. Whether this recipe is worth it is completely up to you, but one thing I think is certain is that this recipe will not leave you reaching for the jar.

And yes, this recipe and the next couple I'll be sharing are from last year, but I never got around to sharing them then, and they became less and less timely as the year progressed, and they dropped by the wayside. But now, with Passover creeping up on us, I again have an opportunity to share them!

Gefilte Fish

3/4 cup peeled carrots, thinly sliced
1/4 cup matzo meal
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green onions
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 pounds mild white fish fillets (such as sole or flounder), cut into small pieces
2 cups chopped smoked salmon
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 large cabbage, separated into leaves

Cook carrots in pan of boiling salted water until very tender, about 8 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup cooking water in small bowl. Stir matzoh meal into water; let stand 10 minutes to allow maximum saturation. Place carrots in food processor. Heat olive oil in heavy medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add green onions and stir 1 minute. Add onion mixture to carrots in food processor. Add the matzo meal mixture and blend until mixture is pureed and smooth. Using electric mixer, beat 3 eggs and lemon juice in large bowl until foamy and slightly thickened, about 4 minutes. Stir in mixture from processor to the egg-lemon bowl; do not bother cleaning the processor bowl.

Blend fish fillets, smoked fish, salt, and pepper in same processor bowl until fish is finely chopped. Add remaining egg and blend to coarse paste. Add fish mixture to matzo meal mixture and mix thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate until very cold, about 2 hours.

Line large baking sheet with waxed or parchment paper. Using wet hands, shape 1/4 cup fish mixture for each dumpling into an egg-shaped oval. Place on prepared sheet. Cover with waxed paper and chill while preparing cabbage and steamer.

Set vegetable steamer rack in large pot. Fill pot with enough water to meet, but not cover, the bottom of the rack. Line rack with cabbage leaves. Arrange 8 fish dumplings on leaves; cover with additional cabbage. Bring water to boil. Cover pot and steam dumplings until cooked through and firm to touch, about 25 minutes. Transfer upper cabbage leaves to platter. Top with cooked dumplings. Cover with bottom cabbage leaves. Steam remaining dumplings in additional cabbage leaves in 2 more batches. Cover and refrigerate gefilte fish until cold, at least 6 hours. (Can be prepared 2 days ahead. Keep refrigerated.)

Horseradish Cream

This sauce is fantastic - I found myself slicking it on anything and everything I could validate being a good vehicle for the days following my Seder, and I have a feeling you will as well. Even if you don't make the gefilte fish yourself, give the sauce a whirl - it's a great change of pace from the jarred stuff.

2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup prepared white horseradish (or more, depending on your taste - I love horseradish and used, if I recall correctly, a bit more)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup mayonnaise

Mince garlic and place in a bowl. Mix in the lemon juice and horseradish until combined. Gradually add in the mayonnaise, whisking to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste, cover, chill and refrigerate until ready to serve. (Can be made one day ahead. Keep refrigerated.)

Serve horseradish cream alongside gefilte fish, toss aside the jar, and enjoy!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Testing the Waters

I spent the last few Saturdays taking a cooking class at the Institute of Culinary Education. It was a five-week course meant to introduce us to the "Elements of Fine Cooking," which I couldn't see being a bad idea. The course was a great time, an air of camaraderie between the instructor, my classmates and myself was immediately evident and good times were had by all. I'm now far more proficient in the arts of roasting and hollandaise-making than I was before, though it would seem that I could use a bit more practice in the souffle-making arena.

I'm not sure whether it was confidence in my cooking gained from this class or a desire to test my culinary limits that inspired me to attempt a recipe from Eric Ripert. I'd have to say it's more likely the latter, considering this throwdown occurred a mere two weeks into my course. His cooking at Le Bernardin is unmatched - nowhere else in New York will one receive plate after flawless plate of impeccably prepared seafood, as refined and clean as any I've had. I dined there for lunch a couple of years ago, and it remains one of my most memorable meals ever - everything was just so perfect, from my himachi appetizer to my pineapply trio of desserts.

Dishes in fine dining restaurants, even those that appear to be straightforward and simplistic rarely are. Each layer of flavor has often been prepared in some complex fashion. The preparation time and ingredient lists are enough to turn most home cooks off, which is part of the appeal of eating in these establishments in the first place.

However, when a special occasion arises, and one that you have no desire to spend in a restaurant because everyone else in the world is spending that same special occasion in every restaurant, everywhere, the preparation and ingredient lists become less of an obstacle. Why not celebrate with a meal courtesy of the best seafood chef in New York City? And why not enjoy it in your own home, without the pretense of "fine dining?" Not to mention that on top of the fact that you're enjoying an excellent meal, in the comfort of your own home, to be enjoyed at your own pace, without the interruption of servers asking if you're finished

Though this recipe wasn't effortless, it wasn't quite as burdensome as you'd imagine; the most difficult aspect ended up being the timing, since I made all of the components right before we were to eat. And the end result exceeded my expectations (though admittedly, of my performance, not of the dish) - the snapper was cooked perfectly; crispy, delicately spiced skin blanketing perfectly cooked, flaky fish. The mushrooms were earthy, yet vibrant, and the whole dish was brought together by the sauce, which provided a wonderful tang with immense depth of flavor, at once brightening the mild fish and the mountain of mushrooms on top of which it sat.

So we sat down to a wonderful, sophisticated (not to mention rather nice to look at) meal, I gave myself a little pat on the back, and dug right in, immensely proud of creating an experience that would put most restaurants to shame.

Red Snapper and Shiitakes in Port Reduction
adapted from the Le Bernardin Cookbook recipe available on epicurious.com

For the sauce:
1 cups high quality port (the recipe suggests 10-year old, I'm not sure how old the port I used was)
1 cups high quality sherry vinegar
For the mushrooms:
2 1/4 teaspoons corn oil (I used canola oil - the high smoke point is what's important here)
1 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices, caps halved if small or cut into 3 or 4 slices if large
2 branches fresh thyme
1 clove garlic, peeled and halved
1 large shallot, peeled and finely diced
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground white pepper, to taste
For the fish:
2 1/4 teaspoons corn oil
2 (6-ounce) red snapper fillets
1/8 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
2 teaspoons minced fresh chives


For the sauce:
1. Bring the port to a boil in a medium-size heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Lower the heat slightly and simmer until reduced to 1/2 cup (if using a gas stove, never let the flames extend above the bottom edge of the pan). Add the vinegar and simmer until reduced almost to a syrup consistency, lowering the heat as necessary to keep the sauce from burning around the edges—you 'll have around 3 1/2 tablespoons (10 1/2 teaspoons). (Note: The sauce can be made to this point up to 1 week ahead; cover and refrigerate.)

2. Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons of corn oil in a skillet and place over high heat until the oil is just smoking. Place the mushrooms, thyme, and garlic in the skillet and lower the heat to medium. Sauté until browned, about 4 minutes. Turn the heat to low and add the shallot and 1 tablespoons of butter to the skillets. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until the shallot is softened and the mushrooms are tender, about 6 minutes more. Discard the garlic and thyme. (Note: The mushrooms can be made to this point up to 1 day ahead; cover and refrigerate).

3. Season both sides of the snapper with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the five-spice powder over the skin and rub it into the fish. Clean the skillet and add the remaining tablespoon of corn oil. Place over high heat until the oil is just smoking. Add the snapper to the skillet, skin side down, and briefly hold the fillets down with a spatula to prevent the skin from shrinking. Sauté until the bottom of the fillets are dark and crusted, about 5 minutes. Turn and cook for about 5 minutes longer, until a metal skewer inserted into the fish for 5 seconds is met with medium resistance and feels warm when touched to your lip. Keep the fillets warm until you're ready to plate.

4. Meanwhile, if mushrooms had been prepared ahead of time, set them in a skillet to reheat. Bring the sauce to a boil over high heat. Cut the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter in to 1/2-inch pieces. Lift the saucepan a few inches above the heat and add the butter. Shake the pan back and forth until the butter is melted and incorporated into the sauce; this will take about 3 minutes. Do not stir or whisk the butter into the sauce. The sauce will be very shiny and clear.*

5. To serve, stir the chives into the mushrooms. Divide the mushrooms evenly among the two large plates, arranging them in the center of each plate. Top the mushroom mountain with the snapper. Drizzle the sauce around the mushrooms and serve immediately.

* Seriously, don't stir it - I grew impatient at this point, didn't read the instructions closely enough and stirred the butter in; this caused a bit of separation that I think would have been avoided had I just been patient - regardless, it tasted divine.