Wednesday, March 28, 2007

From My Pad to Yours

One Sunday afternoon in February I was strolling about town and wound up at Barnes & Noble. Somehow I found myself browing through what is probably the most-used cookbook I own, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. I know, this makes no sense. Among a bajillion new books I gravitated to the one I knew best. Anyhow, there I was, idly flipping the pages, and landed on a recipe for Pad Thai. Now there's something I'd never made. I'd always been a little afraid of attempting to cook the famous noodle dish, figuring that as a New Jersey-raised Italian-American I probably would not be a natural (also, Alton Brown's recipe looked really scary--the prep time is 12 hours and 40 minutes --as if!). But if any book could demystify Pad Thai for me, it might be HTCE. So I scribbled down the ingredients on an author event flier and headed to the store.

The result of this random experiment was not fabulous, but promising. I made the dish in a wok, using rice noodles, grapeseed oil, garlic, shrimp, eggs, fish sauce, sugar, bean sprouts, red pepper, peanuts, cilantro and lime juice. Things moved quickly ("add garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, for another 30 seconds. Add the eggs and let sit for 15 seconds"). Although I'd arranged all my ingredients beforehand, I hadn't actually measured out a tablespoon of sugar, 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, etc. Rushing to pour things into spoons, I think I burned the eggs and who knows what else. But the result was tasty enough to set me off on doing some Pad Thai research.

By far the best article I found was on Chez Pim. While Pim probably wouldn't approve of HTCE's 4-servings-in-one-wok approach (nor its omission of tamarind sauce), I gleaned some very useful tips from her, the most important being the importance of mise en place . Like I said, things move quickly when you're cooking Pad Thai. You MUST have everything washed, measured and chopped prior to firing up your wok. I also learned that the success of your Pad Thai depends on your use of a well-seasoned wok:

A wok is not built for heat retention or long and even cooking, unlike Western style pots and pans. A Le Creuset pot, for example, is built like a marathon runner, slow to warm up but has long staying power. A wok, on the other hand, is more like a sprinter. It heats up really fast, and loses it just as quickly. The thin iron steel material in a good wok transfers more or less all the heat from the flame directly to the content inside. This is great for the ability to control heat, you can turn the fire up and down and the heat in the pan will rise and fall just as quickly. This also means that a wok can sear and cook a small amount of food lightening fast. Adding too much all at once and letting the heat escape would turn a wok into a useless piece of tin in a blink of an eye. And since the caramelization and charring from a hot wok is where the wok-flavor, or wok-breath as some call it, comes from, your utmost goal in wok-cooking is to start out hot and keep it hot! Make sure that all your ingredients are at room temperature, and that you add them in sequence and let the wok reheat back up before each addition. At no time should you add a huge amount of ingredients all at once, unless you want a Pad Thai stew.

I have since made Pad Thai twice. Both times I successfully avoided Pad Thai stew and burnt eggs. This week's version was sweet, sour, spicy and sensational.--S

Pad Thai

12 ounces rice noodles, preferably vermicelli
3 tablespoons peanut (preferred) or other oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup peeled shrimp, roughly chopped (or use small shrimp and leave whole)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt, if needed
1 1/2 cups mung bean sprouts
1/4 cup roasted salted peanuts, chopped
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
Minced cilantro leaves
2 limes or lemons, quartered

1. Soak the noodles in warm water to cover until soft; this will take from 15 to 30 minutes. You can change the water once or twice to hasten the process slightly. Drain thoroughly, then toss with half the oil.
2. Heat the remaining oil over medium-high heat in a wok for a minute or so, until the first wisp of smoke appears. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, for another 30 seconds; don't worry about fully cooking the shrimp.
3. Add the eggs and let sit for 15 seconds or so, until they begin to set. Then scramble with the shrimp and garlic, breaking up any large clumps. Add the fish sauce and sugar and cook, stirring, for 15 seconds. Add the noodles and toss and cook until heated through. Taste and add salt as needed. Add 1 cup of bean sprouts and toss to distribute through the noodles.
4. Tun the noodles out onto a platter and garnish with the remaining bean sprouts, the peanuts, a sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes, and some cilantro. Squeeze some lemon or lime juice over all and serve, passing more lemon or lime separately.

Recipe courtesy of How to Cook Everything

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Jersey Pizza

A Mano
24 Franklin Ave.
(Chestnut St.)
Ridgewood, NJ 07459
(201) 493-2000


The Bergen Record's article on A Mano, a new pizzeria in Ridgewood, NJ, begins, "It took a week for a craftsman from Naples, Italy, to build the brick ovens. Today, it will take a half-hour more to build, light and monitor the fire." And it will take four requests, two waitresses, and a good 35 minutes to get your entire order (including water) if you go in on a Saturday afternoon.

In fairness, the food at A Mano, which opened in January, is quite tasty. The pizzas are "Neopolitan-style," which means dinner plate-sized; topped not with sauce but with plum tomatoes; and modestly sprinkled with fresh mozzarella. The dough--which spends a night and the following morning rising--is cooked in ovens that burn at 1,000 degrees. When I ate there with my family today, we ordered a Pizza Margherita, a Pizza alla Funghi and a house salad. And some water. The quality was great; we left full and sated. But A Mano, which opened two months ago, has a few kinks to work out.

The Margherita came first. We sat there admiring the beautiful steaming pie, inhaling its fiery aroma, and then realized we had no plates. Waitress flagged, the plates arrived. And the pizza was indeed delicious. Mom and Laura, who have spent many a summer evening perfecting homemade grilled pizza, agreed this pizza tasted more like their own version than any restaurant's ever had. The crust was airy; the flavors light and fresh.

It was a lovely first course. Except it was meant to be a second course (and it was only half of that, to boot). The Margherita plate cleared, we checked out the restaurant (see photo, right), noting the smart outfits worn by the waitstaff, who were buzzing around the joint like little Italian signorinas bringing out shoes for Imelda Marcos. They wore neckerchiefs--neckerchiefs!--and the ones we interacted with had what sounded like European accents. It was a little like being at Epcot, except the food was better and there were no screaming kids.

After about 10 minutes the salad arrived, another fresh creation topped with diced fresh mozzarella and grape tomatoes; and almost simultaneously, our Pizza alla Funghi, which was just as tasty as the Margherita, with a variety of sliced, sauteed mushrooms. This was all very enjoyable, except we were really thirsty. And then--miracle of all miracles--a bottle of sparkling water came down from the heavens. Alleluia! Oh, wait, we needed glasses.

A Mano is just getting over that two-month hump. We'll give them a few more tries. Their pizza is yummy, and hey, the waitresses wore neckerchiefs. They're dressed up like Super Mario Brothers, and anybody enduring that kind of fashion torture deserves a second chance.--S

Monday, March 19, 2007

Lean on Me

Every baker has that one book they turn to in a time of need. For example, when she needs to bring dessert to a friend's house for book club, or when she's visiting Fork's parents and wants something tasty but not too, well, froufrou. Or, sometimes she just needs a good ol' oatmeal-raisin cookie or blueberry muffin.

For me (and quite possibly my mom, sister, cousin Kathy and my Aunt Betty), that book is Kathleen's Bake Shop Cookbook, by Kathleen King. Aunt Betty gave me my copy at least seven years ago and my edition is plastered with her Post-It notes. These missives have proved invaluable over the years; the "Chunkies," for instance, carry a note saying "Easy, yummy--delicious. I use mini choco chip and currants--then make smaller w/cookie scoop." I cannot tell you how many friends my sister and I made when we used to bring these cookies, created as per Aunt Betty's amended instructions, to parties.

King, who once owned the Hamptons bakery Kathleen's and now owns Tate's, has penned my go-to baking book, with a little extra editorial help from Aunt Betty, of course. I've tried recipes for everything from Banana Muffins (which I mailed to Sarah last year for her birthday, with a jar of almond butter--the perfect accompaniment) to Peanut Butter Squares (essentially a homemade version of the Reese's peanut butter cup). All winners.

The book has only failed me once, when I attempted the lemon bars. They were so sticky we had to eat them frozen. Fork maintains they weren't a real failure and that eating them out of the freezer made them a great treat for a hot summer night. He's so loyal. I should add that Aunt Betty did not append a note to this recipe. I should've known.

This weekend I made Kathleen's Chocolate Chip Cookies. "One of her specialty cookies," AB says. "Should be crisp." What do you know? Right again.--S

Friday, March 16, 2007

It's What's For Dinner

Wolfgang's Steakhouse
4 Park Ave (33rd Street)
New York, NY 10016-5339
(212) 889-3369


It's hard for me to believe my good friend Eric is leaving New York City. Alas, as he explained last night, "there was time when I got more out of the city, but now, the city gets more out of me." So, in honor of his migration north I suggested that we celebrate with a farewell dinner at a place he'll really miss when he's gone: Peter Luger, the venerable Williamsburg steakhouse. Eric, you see, is in league with historic T-rex as one of the world's great carnivores. And Peter Luger is the best steak in the world. Or, is it?

"Make it Wolfgang's and you got a deal!" Eric suggested.

Wolfgang's it is. At some point in Luger history it seems a wall came down and waiters and Maitre D's bonded in servitude to Peter Luger for decades suddenly bought their freedom, and left to make their own meaty futures, with Luger's beef connections, cooking process and steaksauce recipe in hand. Wolfgang's is one such place. Is it better than the Original? Well, it certainly is a lot nicer than the beerhall that is Peter Luger. It's easier to get to. They serve a mean cocktail, unlike Luger, of which I had too many last night. The waiters are not as crusty as Luger's. And, they take all major credit cards.

As for the menu, it's pretty much the same, which is just fine when you're being compared to Peter Luger. If you've never done a great New York Steakhouse, pay attention. This is how you do it: First, go with a fearless friend, like Eric. Daintiness is not tolerable. Second, forget wine. You want a draft beer or a cocktail. Next, sart with a strip of charred canadian bacon. Yes, bacon. It may sound like a bit much but it really sets off the palate, especially for the next course: oysters and little neck clams on the half shell. Then, the main event: steak for two, medium rare, served sizzling, the bone blackened, the meat crisp on the outside and perfectly red on the inside. For sides, German potato salad and creamed spinach. For dessert, well, why have the sorbet now? Go for the chocolate-chip chocolate sundae.

I couldn't have imagined a better meal for Eric and me to share. We ate and drank for three hours before saying goodbye. I understand what Eric means when he says the city is now getting more out of him. But certainly I got more out of the city for having Eric here, and it won't be the same without him.--F

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

One Croque Monsieur, Hold the Vermin!

A new day has dawned for New York diners, and you can thank the rats. After a pack of the little buggers made national news by commandeering a KFC/Taco Bell in the west village and mugging for the cameras, the board of health realized it might just have to go to work. The result is a food-cop reign of terror that saw our beloved neighborhood bistro, L'Express, become one of 83 restaurants closed by the health department in the days after the embarrassing rat episode.

Also closed was the popular Union Square eatery, the Coffee Shop. And the owner is pissed. Co-owner Charles Milite told the New York Post that a city inspector scoured the place for 3 1/2 hours instead of his usual 60 to 90 minutes. "After 17 years of business and a clean bill of health, they have decided we cannot store a sealed jar of olives on the floor, we need rubber gloves in our resuscitation kit, and we must place end cups on fluorescent lights in our dish area and prep kitchen," they wrote in a notice posted on the restaurant's entrance.

If you know the Coffee Shop, it is a popular place right on Union Square that serves homey, if pretty average food. It's known mostly as a hangout for models and aspiring actors, so if someone is throwing up after eating at the Coffee Shop it is probably because they're purging, not food poisoned. I'm sure most diners are more concerned about catching an STD there than food poisoning. I don't even want to think about where the rubber gloves from their rescusitation kit ended up. Nevertheless, Milite's right when he says he smells a backlash simmering at the Department of Health.

What does closing down all these restaurants really accomplish? The real, practical effect is that each restaurant's hardworking staff are needlessly losing their pay.

L'Express is a fine esablishment. Spoon and I often go there for their authentic bistro fare: they serve an excellent warm goat cheese salad, a killer croque monsieur, and they make their own delicious lyonnaise sausages, pate and duck liver mousse. Sometimes, I find myself craving escargot. It's also a great place to kick back with a fat cafe au lait, or a glass of wine or a beer.

I'll admit, my second thought after hearing they'd been closed for 24 hours, after "what a shame," was "what better time to dine there than the day after coming back from a department of health closure?" So, Spoon and I had a lovely, ultra-sanitary meal there upon their reopening, which we finished with a creme brulee. Just our way of letting our friends at L'Express know we never doubted them. --F

Monday, March 12, 2007

Spicy Asian Pork

Daylight savings time is here, and for me that means the start of many months of running outside in the evening--a magnificent time of year indeed. Spurred on by the glorious blue sky over the Manhattan skyline as I headed back up the East River on my way home, inspiration struck, in the form of an idea for dinner that was light, fresh and kind of spring-like.

I've made Spicy Ginger Pork in Lettuce Leaves many times, and tonight was as tasty as all the rest. This is a very easy dinner to make; once you've done your prep, it takes less than 10 minutes to cook. You need a bunch of Asian sauces, but if you make stir-fries somewhat regularly, you've probably got them on hand already. Tonight, for instance, I only had to pick up the meat, a bell pepper, water chestnuts and lettuce. Handing over a sweaty $10 bill to the cashier at the grocery store after a run is always kind of embarassing, but it's a small price to pay for the spring/summer ritual of an evening run and a homemade dinner.--S

Spicy Ginger Pork in Lettuce Leaves

3/4 pound ground pork [I use a mix of ground pork & veal]
1 red [or green] bell pepper, finely diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon minced peeled ginger
1 tablespoon Thai sweet chile sauce [I use General Tsao's Stir Fry Sauce, from Trader Joe's]
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon grapeseed oil
One 8-ounce can whole water chestnuts, drained and diced
2 scallions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
24 Boston lettuce leaves

1. In a medium bowl, combine the ground pork with the bell pepper, garlic, ginger, chile sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil and 1 tablespoon of the grapeseed oil.
2. In a large skillet or wok, heat the remaining 1 teaspoon of grapeseed oil until shimmering. Add the pork mixture and stir-fry over high heat, breaking it up, until it is cooked through and starting to brown, about 8 minutes. Stir in the water chestnuts, scallions, oyster sauce and cilantro and remove from the heat.
3. Spoon the pork into bowls. Stack the lettuce leaves on plates. To eat, spoon the pork onto the lettuce leaves, roll up and eat.

Recipe courtesy of Food & Wine, Aug. 2006

Sunday, March 04, 2007

And Many More...

Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar
101 2nd Avenue
(Bet. 5th and 6th)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 673-0338


We at Spoon & Fork have a birthday tradition: on birthdays, our gift to each other is a great meal at one of the city's top restaurants. Fork started started the tradition on Spoon's 25th birthday with a meal at Wylie DuFresne's first love, the soon-to-be-closed 71 Clinton Fresh Food. In the ensuing years we've celebrated birthdays with Wylie (who Fork also knows from his softball league: DuFresne is a left-handed power hitter in addition to a culinary genius) at WD-50, with Mario Batali at Babbo, Esca, Del Posto, and Casa Mono, a star-studded, palate pleasing evening at Nobu and Shun Lee Palace. It's an impressive list that'd be tough to rank.

Last night, in honor of Fork's 40th, we added Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar to the list. We'd heard good things about the place, and we'd expected a good meal. But we never expected that Jack's would actually top that list. It may very well be the best experience we've had for a birthday meal--and they have all been special meals, so yes, high praise indeed.

What made the meal so memorable? First, of course, the food. We are seafood lovers, and every dish was exquisite. Fresh, mostly raw seafood accented with homey, landlubber touches like Cape Cod potato chips. The room is tiny, seating only about 16. The ambiance is romantic, but contemporary and not corny. Even the music was sensational, from old Bob Dylan to Art Brut. The service was first-class, personable and precise without being formal. They really seemed to care that we enjoy every single aspect. And we did.

Ah, to the menu. As usual for our birthday dinners, we opted for a tasting menu. Our philosophy is that it's always best to let the chef cook for you. This was a wise choice: the tasting menu was comprehensive, and a shocking value: although everywhere we read online listed the tasting menu at $75 per person, it was $50 on this night, for six stunning courses.

The meal began with a selection of fruits de mer: Washington State and Virginia oysters, littleneck clams, shrimp, and caviar on a toast point. A perfect start. Each bite was refreshing, icy cold and oceany, smooth and delicious and flavorful. Next, tartare: coho salmon for Fork, served with warm Cape Cod chips; big-eye tuna for Spoon. At this point, we were thrilled. Once again perfectly prepared, and the perfect second course. The third course, a knockout: homemade duck liver mousse served in little jars, topped with port gelee, served with a spoonful of black truffles and whole-grain mustard and toast points. In a word: decadent.

Just the thing to lead us to... more decadence and a triumphant piece-de-resistance: butter-poached lobster with pistachio, green beans, enoki mushrooms and lobster jus. All of it washed down with Fork's favorite wine, a crisp Muscadet. It was with this triumph of a dish that we began entertaining the notion that Jack's could possibly contend with Nobu for Most Amazing Birthday Dinner Ever.

After the lobster course, we were intoxicated. The flavors were still swirling in our minds, familiar flavors that we loved, but also new and complex at the same time. Just when we thought couldn't eat another bite, dessert began. First a palate cleanser of pear sorbet drizzled with a fresh vanilla bean cream. We wiped that out. Then a complimentary taste of Sauternes, a spectacular French dessert wine. At this point, NO WAY we could eat another bite, right? Until the dessert arrived: Jack's take on smores: so delicious we wiped that out too...

We can't wait to go back to Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar. Friendly, inventive, familiar yet new flavors, great music and ambiance, and a great value... it is a gem. It may not always beat Nobu, but on this enchanted evening, believe us when we say we have a new champion. --S&F