Monday, February 27, 2012

Highlights from a Birthday Weekend

Rob's not going to be happy I posted this.
Happy birthday Robbie!
This past weekend was a whirlwind of fun and excitement, of birthdays, celebrations and recoveries.  It's hard to whittle it down to just a few highlights, but here goes.

Friday night: Dinner at Brushstroke in TriBeCa for Robbie's birthday - 10 delicious courses with wine and sake pairings, including a delicious Cherrywood and Chrysanthemum Smoked Duck and capped off with this soy milk panna cotta for the birthday boy.

Needless to say, we were met Saturday morning with a food and drink hangover.  

Schmaltzing up the chopped liver.
But that didn't stop us from celebrating again on Saturday night, this time joined by many friends for raucous birthday revelry at Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse.

If you've never been, try to imagine a bar a rec the community center of your grandparents' Catskills bungalow 1975, complete with bottles (and bottles) of Ketel encased in ice.  Can't imagine that?  You owe it to yourself to go then.  

Ain't that the truth.
Super awesome Saturday night usually means a not-so-awesome Sunday, and yesterday wasn't entirely different.  We did, however, cap the weekend with a wonderful dinner at Robbie's aunt and uncle's place, and, of course, some birthday cake. A far more genteel affair, and one infinitely more appropriate to ease us back into the workweek.

Will be back soon to share details, both of this weekend and a little President's Day weekend jaunt to Newport, RI.  Hope everyone had a great weekend!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Valentine’s Day Dinner: Duck Breast with Red Wine Sauce and Cauliflower Two Ways

Lest you think I cooked my devoutly carnivorous boyfriend a mere salad for valentine's dinner, there was much more in store.  Admittedly, despite my affection for kale, a kale salad does not a valentine’s meal make. Though I'd told him a few times that I was planning on an entirely vegan valentine's feast (which he had, in fact, assured me he would devour without question), my plan was to cook something out of the ordinary. 
Yes, that is a little heart drawn in red wine sauce. Yes, I am a dork.
 I wracked my brain a couple of weeks ago, trying to remember the last time I cooked a piece of meat at home (bacon, soup and random meats cooked in the homes of others excepted).  From my recollection, it had been about four years.  Yes, seriously, four fucking years.  I am not a big meat eater - this we know - but this still shocked me.  Sure, I’ve cooked a few pieces of fish here and there, but even those were few and far between.  Valentine’s Day seemed as good a reason as any to test my meat-cooking chops again and see just how rusty I’d become.  This is not to say that, prior to the last four years, I’d been a huge meat eater / cooker – I never really have been, and my meat eating tends to be relegated to restaurants and the homes of family and friends.   Since this was a special meal, though, I decided to go big, and settled on duck breasts.  Duck, done well, is awesome – tender, juicy and so flavorful that any comparison to its poultry brethren is entirely misguided. 

So after our salads, I left Rob for a few moments with bread and room temperature Icelandic butter sprinkled with crunchy sea salt, and of course a glass of red, to keep him occupied for the few minutes it would take me to retreat to the kitchen to put the finishing touches on and plate our second course.  Everything was pretty much ready – the duck was removed from the fire just before I served the salad, so it was able to rest while we filled ourselves with roughage.  I had prepared the sauce and cauliflower puree earlier in the day, and had kept them over low heat during kale time, so those were the perfect temperature.  The only aspect I didn’t time quite well enough was the roasted cauliflower, which sadly got a bit cold – but it was delicious nonetheless.

Rob admitted as we were eating that he had been a bit skeptical when I told him I was making duck.  I don’t think he realized it’d been four years since I cooked a nice piece of meat, but he knew that it’d been a damn long time.  As we were eating, he admitted this to me, and said that he’d been worried for no reason.  I had to agree – the duck was really great – the skin was perfectly crisp, the meat soft and tender, and the simple flavorings spot-on.  The wine sauce was the perfect accent – leading with wine, deepened by the flavor of duck tenderloins; rich, yet light.  Since the red wine imbued a bit of sweetness to the plate, I paired the dish with cauliflower, which I find has a subtle, natural sweetness.  I also love having a range of textures on my plate, so I opted to treat the cauliflower two ways: pureed for velvety smoothness, and roasted for crunch.  The roasted cauliflower, which I took from Smitten Kitchen, was topped with pomegranate arils post-roasting, which provided for a tart-sweet-juicy pop; a bit of a surprise texture that also served to highlight the sweet notes in the cauliflower and tie it together with the sauce.  Once plated, I took a step back and felt pretty proud of myself.  It was a well-composed, pretty, thoughtful and frankly delicious plate of food.   And I didn't go bonkers in the process. 

Peppered Duck Breasts with Red Wine Sauce
From this New York Times recipe
Serves 2

My duck breasts were significantly smaller than those called for in the original recipe, so each serving was a full breast.  I couldn't finish nearly all of it, but Robbie cleaned his plate with no problems.   Though I thought the duck could have been taken from the heat a good 45 seconds earlier, Rob thought they were cooked perfectly. 

2 duck breasts, about 6 ounces each
Kosher Salt
1 tablespoon freshly crushed black peppercorns (I laid them out in a bowl so they wouldn't escape and used the bottom of a glass bottle to crush them)
2 garlic cloves, sliced
Thyme sprigs
1 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small shallot, sliced thinly
1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste ( I like to use the tomato paste in the tube so that you don't have to open up a whole can for just a little bit)
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons medium-bodied red wine
1 cups unsalted chicken broth
1 1/5 teaspoons brandy
1 teaspoons potato or corn starch.

Remove the tenderloins, thin strips of meat on undersides of the duck breast, and reserve for the sauce. (NOTE: My duck breasts were already trimmed for the most part, but there were a couple of small strips of meat that came off with trimming the rest of the fat away, so I used those and a bit of the extra skin for this purpose. I mean, can you go wrong with extra duck skin? (FYI - No.).) With a sharp knife, trim away any gristle from the undersides and trim any excess fat from the edges of the breasts, preferably without slicing away the top four layers of skin on your thumb (cooking with a paper towel bandaged around your finger is inconvenient at best). With a VERY sharp knife, core the skin in a diamond-shaped pattern, without cutting to the meat. Lightly sprinkle salt on both sides, then rub 1 teaspoon crushed black peppercorns all over. Sprinkle with the garlic and a few thyme sprigs, cover, and leave at room temperature for an hour. (For deeper flavor, refrigerate for several hours or overnight, then return to room temperature to cook.)

Heat 1/2 tablespoon of the unsalted butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallot and the reserved duck tenderloins; let them brown well, stirring occasionally, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and a small thyme sprig and let them fry for a minute, then add 2 tablespoons of red wine and the chicken broth. Raise the heat to a brisk simmer and let the liquid reduce to a bit less than 3/4 cup, about 10 minutes. Strain the sauce and return to the heat. Add the remaining tablespoon red wine and the brandy and cook for 1 minute more. In a small bowl, dissolve potato or corn starch in a tablespoon of cold water, then stir into sauce. Whisk in the remaining 1/2 tablespoon butter. Taste and add salt as necessary. (Sauce may be made in advance and reheated, thinned with a little broth.)

Remove and discard the garlic and thyme sprigs from the breasts. Heat a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, lay in the duck breasts skin side down and let them sizzle. Lower the heat to medium and cook for a total of 7 minutes, checking to make sure the skin isn’t browning too quickly. With tongs, turn the breasts over and let them cook on the bottom side, 3 minutes for rare, 4 to 5 minutes for medium-rare. Transfer to a warm platter and let rest for 10 minutes. Slice crosswise, not too thickly, at a slight angle. Serve with the sauce.

 Cumin-Roasted Cauliflower with Pomegranate and Mint
 Serves 2 generously
 Adapted very slightly from this recipe over at Smitten Kitchen

I didn't really measure anything for this recipe.  I drizzled olive oil over the cauliflower just until it was evenly coated, then spilled out waht appeared to be a teaspoon of cumin seeds into my palm. I decided to forego the yogurt, since we had a creamy element on the plate already, and I felt the tanginess would overpower the other items on the plate.  This recipe, if you can really call it that, is such a keeper.  The cumin seeds elevate it from the ordinary, and the mint and pomegranate give an otherwise earthy dish a load of brightness and a little bit of spunk.
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium - large head cauliflower
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus additional
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup pomegranate arils

Preheat oven to 425°F.Lightly coat a baking sheet with olive oil or cooking spray.

Cut your cauliflower into bite-size florets and place on baking tray.  Drizzle over the olive oil and sprinkle with cumin seeds, salt and pepper.  Toss to coat evenly. Toss florets with remaining olive oil, cumin seeds, salt and pepper and spread out on prepared tray. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, until the cauliflower is cooked through and well-browned. Keep a watchful eye towards those later minutes - the line between crispy and carcinogenic is sometimes a tough one to toe when you're doing a bunch of things at once in the kitchen.  

That said, I LOVE those near-black pieces. When the cauliflower is done to your liking, remove it from the heat and sprinkle with mint and pomegranate seeds.

Cauliflower Puree with Feta and Garlic
Serves about 4
Inspired by this recipe

This stuff is so good, you may never turn to mashed potatoes again.  May... 
Yes, I put this in a bowl just to get a picture of it and then put it immediately back into the pot. Again, dork.

1 head cauliflower, 2 to 2 1/2 pounds
1 1/2 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

Core the cauliflower and cut it into evenly-sized, about bite-sized, florets.  Pour the chicken broth into a steamer pot and add water so that you have about an inch of liquid.  Steam the cauliflower over the liquid until a paring knife inserted into the florets is met with little (but some) resistance, about 15 minutes.  Remove half the cauliflower from the steamer and place in your food processor of blender.  Transfer the cooking liquid (about a cup's worth) to a measuring cup, and pour about 1/2 of a cup of the liquid into the blender / processor.  Puree the cauliflower until it's smooth.  Add the rest of the cauliflower and the garlic to the blender.  Add a few more tablespoons of cooking liquid (just enough to allow the machine to process it) and puree until smooth.  Add more cooking liquid as needed, with the intent of adding as little of possible, as you don't want your puree to be watery.  Once smooth, add the butter, feta cheese, salt and pepper to the machine and process until combined.  Check for flavoring; you may wish to add more feta cheese, salt or pepper to suit your taste. 

I prepared my puree ahead of time, and let it sit over low heat.  This allowed for a bit of the excess liquid to evaporate, so we were left with a smooth, creamy, decadent-tasting puree that was really quite healthy (and really delicious).  

Note: If you're hesitant to plunk some raw garlic into your puree, you can place it in the pot with the cooking liquid while you steam the cauliflower.  This will imbue the cauliflower with a very faint garlic aroma, and will significantly take the edge off of the garlic before you puree it.   You can go halfsies too and keep one raw and one slightly leeched of flavor.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Valentine's Day Dinner: Kale Caesar

I took charge of Valentine’s Day dinner this year.  Sure, we could have gone out, feasted on an overpriced, underwhelming prix fixe menu, crushed between loads of other amorous patrons, but why would I pass up the opportunity to cook an awesome meal to share with the person I love?  It’s so much more personal, so much more intimate, so much more special when you have personally orchestrated a really special evening for an immeasurably special person.  An opportunity to create a memory that we can share down the road, which seems only fair given the number of memories Robbie has bestowed upon me (and the amount of my crazy he's put up with). 

I haven’t been cooking (either for me, or him, or both or us) nearly as much as I’d like to lately, so I took the holiday as an excuse and ran with it, cooking up a storm and, somehow, not being a complete, frazzled mess of a human being when it was actually time to sit down and eat.  Some good advance planning on my part led to a well-orchestrated and well-timed meal that, if I may indulge myself for a moment, was pretty bad ass. 

To say that I like a good kale salad is a vast understatement.  I fucking love a good kale salad.  It’s easy, it’s healthy, it’s versatile and it’s delicious – what’s not to like?  While I typically just massage a bit of lemon and oil into it and let it sit for a few minutes before tacking some other stuff on top, Valentine’s day calls for something a bit more indulgent.  I find Caesar salads to typically be imbalanced; the dressing far too heavy and intense for the delicate romaine beneath.  But kale is a perfect vehicle – it’s heartiness and bite allow it to withstand the onslaught of yolk and garlic, of anchovy and oil.  Frank, a great Italian standby in my neighborhood, makes a fantastic, simple black kale Caesar, but I rarely order it, since I know exactly what goes into Caesar dressing, and despite its virtuous base, it’s not exactly health food.  But this seemed like a great opportunity to recreate it, and get the meal off to an arguably healthy start. 

I searched the interwebs for kale Caesar recipes, finding that, while the ingredients themselves don’t vary too much, the proportions vary widely.  Some dressings call for up to one and a half cups of olive oil, albeit for more salad than I was planning on serving.  That just seemed egregious to me, so I followed a far more wholesome-sounding lead, and went with a recipe I found on Serious Eats.  I made the entire dressing recipe, though used less kale than called for since we were only two (I anticipated leftovers), played around (very) slightly with proportions, and dressed it relatively lightly.  This recipe did not include croutons, but I find them to be an integral aspect of a Caesar, so I threw some well-oiled bread chunks into the oven while I whizzed together the dressing, which came together in minutes.  It was a smart choice for a first course, since I was able to throw it together completely before well in advance of the more complicated main course (which I'll get to in another post). Which is only another reason why kale salads should be embraced: they don’t need to be dressed immediately before serving.  The dressing tenderizes the kale and makes it more palatable, not to mention easier to chew and digest.  Whereas a mixed green salad, for instance, would be a soggy, drippy, inedible mess after a couple of days in the fridge, a kale salad persists, and is no less delicious for it. 

Kale Caesar Salad
Adapted, slightly, from here

Makes 2 generous first-course servings, with leftovers (or, I suppose, three first-course servings)

About 5 one-inch thick slices of bread, preferably slightly stale (I used a European country boule), cut into one inch-ish chunks
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt to taste
7 ounces kale
2 medium cloves garlic
Kosher salt
2 anchovy fillets, minced (about 1 teaspoon)
1 large egg yolk
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice,more to taste
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese,more for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper


Make the croutons:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Place the bread chunks into a bowl large enough to accommodate them, and pour the olive oil over the bread.  Toss the bread to cover with oil, and salt liberally (or to taste).  Spread the bread onto lightly greased or sprayed baking sheet and toast in the oven for 10 minutes, keeping an eye out and shaking the pan as necessary to ensure that they don’t burn.  Remove and allow to cool to room temperature.

Prepare the kale:
Remove the large, thick stems from the center of the kale leaves (easy way to do this is to hold the stalk between your thumb and forefinger and slide your fingers up the stalk, so that the leaves peel away).  If using black kale (also called lacinato or dinosaur kale), you can tear the kale into bite-sized pieces.  If using curly kale or if your kale has a less tender leaf, cut the kale into thin strips by stacking the leaves on top of one another, rolling them tightly, and cutting crosswise.  Place the kale into a large bowl and set aside while you make the dressing.

Make the dressing:
Chop the garlic, sprinkle it with a good pinch of kosher salt, and smash it into a paste with the side of a chef’s knife.  Transfer the paste to a small bowl and add the anchovies (which I also like to smash into a paste before adding to the bowl), the egg yolk, lemon juice and mustard.  Whisk to combine.  Very, VERY slowly, whisking constantly, add the olive oil - first drop by drop, and increasing to a slow stream once the dressing has been emulsified.  Taste and add more Dijon or lemon juice as desired (I added a good amount of Dijon, which I reflected in the above measurements, though I’d venture to say I added more than an additional half teaspoon; I added more lemon as well).

Dress the salad:
Add a few tablespoons of the dressing to the kale bowl, and toss with your hands to coat, massaging the dressing into the leaves a bit.  Add the parmigiano cheese and toss to distribute evenly.  Allow the salad to rest for a few minutes, taste and add more dressing or salt as desired.  Once the salad is dressed to your liking, set it aside until it’s time to serve.  When ready to serve, toss in the croutons (you can add them earlier if you’d like – they won’t get too soggy, but for max crunchiness add them just before plating).  Garnish with a bit more cheese and some fresh ground pepper.  

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Trufflepalooza at Locanda Verde


I like Locanda Verde.  I like truffles.  I like wine.  I saw no reason why I wouldn’t like all of these things together.  Though the reservation line opened and closed before I was able to secure my spot for the third annual Trufflepalooza, I jumped at Urban Daddy’s offer of a multi-course, wine-paired meal bedecked with truffles in the cozy back room of the TriBeCa restaurant.  Sure, it was pricier than the initial restaurant offer, but it included wine pairings (which proved to be generously poured), a couple of additional bites, and tax and tip, which meant that, come Monday, we were completely settled-up. 

The last time Rob and I were at Locanda Verde with his family, we sat next to a table of Kardashians (Khloe, Lamar, Kris and Kourtney, the douchey-looking guy and their kid).  This time, though, we came for truffles.  The event was held in the private room in the rear of the restaurant.  Upon checking in, we were greeted with a glass of prosecco (Aneri Prosecco Brut).  I always enjoy a glass of bubbly, so not a bad start at all.  Place cards dictated seating, and Rob and I nestled in to our (tight) seats in the center of one of the two long communal tables that had been set up back-to-back.   All of the food (save the burrata) was served family-style on large platters, so making friends with those across from us was inevitable. 

After our prosecco (the only glass of the night I was able to successfully polish off, despite leaving rather tipsy), we were given a hearty pour of Inama Soave Classico 2009, a full, round white that stood up well to the truffle flavor dotting our first courses. (The restaurant was supremely dark, so please bear with my Camera+'ed iPhone photos.  Danke.)

 The bread course was not immune to the truffle treatment; the black truffle focaccia was light and airy and eminently fluffy, though my piece tasted more of cheese than of truffle.  Not a bad thing, of course, but not precisely as advertised.

Plates of beef tartare descended upon the table next.  Portioned atop well-oiled crostini and crowned with a wisp of black truffle, the beef lacked zing.  It tasted merely of cold and fat, and could have used a bit more time with the salt shaker.  The truffle, though optically present, didn’t stand up to the taste of the meat, which overpowered. 

Perhaps my favorite course of the evening was the burrata, though this might not be a fair contest given my deep-rooted affection for the cheese.  It was everything burrata should be, creamy, salty, ooey, gooey.  It played wonderfully with the roasted butternut squash and melted leeks.  The truffles were perfect here – the funky earthiness a welcome complement to the salty cheese and the sweet roasted veggies.  Pumpkin seeds for crunch and a light coat of dressing helped knock this dish out of the park. 

Once the last licks of burrata were cleared from the table, the red wine portion of the evening commenced with a hefty glass of Renato Ratti Nebbiolo d’Alba 2009, my favorite wine of the evening.  Of the three glasses in front of me by the end of the night, this was the wine I kept coming back to, pairings be damned. 

Buckwheat ravioli was up next, stuffed with truffled ricotta and topped with a blanket of trumpet mushrooms, cabbage and black truffle shavings.  This dish was another hit at the table, the pasta was toothsome and nutty, and despite being obviously bathed in butter, felt almost wholesome.  The truffle came through very subtly in this dish, not taking over, but merely accenting the other ingredients.  Not a raviolo remained when the plates were cleared. 

The meat portion of the meal was paired with a big red, Grifalco della Lucania Aglianico del Vulture 2008.  The chicken came portioned into quarters, flanked on all sides by chestnut chicken sausage, Brussels sprouts and apples, all atop a bed of lovely black beluga lentils (one of my favorite types).  The lentils were awesome, the Brussels sprouts great, the chicken – oh the chicken – so flavorful, so well-seasoned, so…dry.  The sausage was pretty good, certainly juicy with a nice snappy casing.  But the chicken merely served to uphold my belief that one should not order chicken in a restaurant; sure it was tasty and well-seasoned, but ultimately, it’s just chicken. 

I’ve been to Locanda Verde multiple times before, always drawn back by the sheep’s milk ricotta and, as out of character as it may be, the desserts.  Karen DeMasco does supremely ridiculous things at the restaurant - by day with the pastry bar up front, by night with desserts.  Never has a dessert failed to satisfy there – and it’s the rare case when it fails to go above and beyond mere satisfaction.  Monday night’s dessert was no different.  It was, in a word, incredible.  It was the one course that sent murmurs up and down the tables, that had strangers locking eyes in mutual, contented surprise.   Her carrot black truffle cake came to the table looking rather ordinary, aside from the pile of black truffles atop it, of course.   It was far from ordinary, though – a crunchy, chewy crust gave way to a moist, dense, almost gritty crumb that I imagine was the product of cornmeal in the batter.  The white chocolate mascarpone crema was delicious as well, thick and rich and far from sweet.  The whole dessert had a very savory quality, and I kept digging my fork in well past my declaration to Rob that I was about to burst.  It was, in a word, awesome. 

Though there were high and low points of the meal, we enjoyed a lot of good food, which I’ve come to expect from Locanda Verde and a lot of good wine.  Not a bad Monday night at all.  

377 Greenwich St (at N. Moore St.)
(212) 925-3797