Monday, April 30, 2007

Because a Happy Animal is a Delicious Animal

In a somewhat responsible and at times loony Newsweek editorial, famed Los Angeles chef Wolfgang Puck said that from now on he will only serve his customers happy animals. He says he made the change after the Humane Society of the United States, a Washington, D.C.-based animal-welfare organization, approached him about using ingredients “exclusively from humane farmers.” Good for you, Wolfgang!

Of course, in addition to listing some good, practical reasons for the switch, Puck also managed to sound like a chicken-fried hippie. “Why shouldn’t cows and pigs feel sunlight on their backs, grass under their feet?” he asks. “Yes, they’ll be killed for food—but until then they should have a nice stay on Earth.” I guess when you put it that way, I’d rather be a dinner at Spago than a diner, especially when the check comes.

Puck lost me, however, when he blithely mentioned foie gras, a delicacy produced in small quantities in the U.S. almost if not exclusively on artisanal farms but is nevertheless banned in California because of cruelty issues. “My customers and I can easily live without it,” he says. That kind of dispassionate, toss-off line makes me wonder what really motivated this editorial. Is this about the hopes and dreams of grill-bound animals? Is it about good, reponsible farming? Or could it be, gasp, that Wolfgang, who's more known for frozen pizza than haute cuisine these days was afraid of losing business?!

I am all for produce that comes only from “responsible farmers” who grow fruits and vegetables without pesticides or genetic modification. I'm willing to insist on meat from farms that “shun the use of antibiotics and growth hormones and raise their animals humanely.” It’s better for them. It's better for us. And, it’s better for the environment. I sincerely appreciate restaurants like, for example, Cookshop, who already do here in New York what Puck says he will now do in LA.

This editorial, however, is a good example of what I call moral convenience. Why is the artisanal goose farmer taken out with the trash that gives us KFC? At the end of the day, just because you might feel a little better about the life of the chop, don’t think for a second the pig does. If you really want to make a difference, eat locally and stop buying things like, well, frozen pizzas, which have to be individually packaged and then shipped on the pollutant farms we call highways.--F

Sunday, April 29, 2007

My Silver Palate

Last Monday evening found me kicking back on the terrace outside the Central Park Boathouse, overlooking the Lake, enjoying a glass of white sangria with some of my colleagues. Along with 250 other people, we were there to celebrate the publication of the 25th anniversary edition of The Silver Palate Cookbook. The party was pretty fabulous: waiters passed hors d'oeuvres, buffet tables offered tastes of some of the book's main courses, and a guy was even taking partygoers out for gondola rides on the lake.

By the end of last week, I finally got around to checking out the goodie bag, and pulled out an apron, a bag of cookies and the book itself. I brought the book home to my mom over the weekend, and the two of us pored over it, she reminiscing about her old b&w edition--which she may or may not have sold at a garage sale at some point--and me learning the story of Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins's claim to fame. The women opened a gourmet food shop called The Silver Palate on New York's Upper West Side in 1977, and it became a tremendous success. They wrote their cookbook in 1982, and it arrived on the scene in the same decade as chichi creations like Newman's Own Oil and Vinegar Salad Dressing, Tofutti, and Boboli Pizza prefab crusts. With its recipes for Cream of Mango Soup, Cold Poached Salad with Blueberry Mayonnaise, and Pizza Pot Pie, The Silver Palate Cookbook fit right in with that chic aesthetic. It went on to sell more than 2 million copies.

Fruity soups and bizarre combinations notwithstanding, The Silver Palate Cookbook actually contains some terrific recipes. Its Chicken Marbella is a legend, and while I haven't cooked it yet, I tasted it at the party, and it was delicious. This weekend I made a Sesame Mayonnaise, which we drizzled over grilled asparagus and also used as a salad dressing. Made with rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil and a touch of Szechuan-style hot and spicy oil, it was a tasty French-Asian hybrid. I also made an Orange Pecan Bread, which my mom said was definitely a keeper and could contend with my grandfather's favorite birthday treat, an orange raisin cake from none other than the famous Aunt Winnie.

I'm definitely going to keep my Silver Palate handy, and plan on making Chicken Marbella for my next dinner party. Maybe we'll even have Mango Soup... for dessert.--S

Sesame Mayonnaise

1 whole egg
2 egg yolks
2 1/2 T rice vinegar
2 1/2 T soy sauce
3 T Dijon mustard
1/4 c dark sesame oil
2 1/2 c corn oil [I used only 1 cup of vegetable oil for a thicker dressing]
Szechuan-style hot and spicy oil

1. In a food processor, process the whole egg, egg yolks, vinegar, soy sauce, and mustard for 1 minute.
2. With the motor still running, dribble in the sesame oil and then the corn [or veg] oil in a slow, steady stream.
3. Season with drops of the hot and spicy oil if you use it, and scrape the mayonnaise out into a bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Orange Pecan Bread
1 loaf

8 T (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pan
3/4 c sugar
2 eggs, separated
Grated zest of 1 large or 2 small oranges
1 1/2 c unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
Pinch of salt
1/2 c fresh orange juice
Orange glaze (see recipe below)

1. Preheat the oven to 350. Grease an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaf pan.
2. Cream the butter. Add the sugar gradually, beating with an electric mixer until light. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, and the grated orange zest.
3. Sift the flour with the baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and add the dry mixture to the batter alternately with the orange juice, beginning and ending with the flour. Gently mix in the pecans.
4. Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold them carefully into the batter.
5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, set on the center rack of the oven, and bake for 50 to 60 minutes.
6. Spoon the hot glaze over the bread as soon as the bread is removed from the oven. Cool in the pan on a wire rack.

Orange Glaze
Enough glaze for 1 cake

1/4 c fresh orange juice
1/4 cup sugar

Combine the orange juice and sugar in a small saucepan and simmer gently for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until a light syrup forms. Remove from the heat and keep warm until using.

Recipes courtesy of The Silver Palate Cookbook

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Original

85 Ave A (6th Street)
New York, NY 10009
(212) 505-6524


I moved into the East Village in 1990, sharing a small, $600-a-month illegal sublet with my friend Jon on 11th St. right next door to the venerable Italian bakery Venierio's. Every morning, I awakened to the smell of cake.

It wasn't quite as idyllic as it sounds. Many nights I was rocked to sleep by the sound of snapping rat traps in the courtyard. And the apartment was built like a bad Boy Scout project. The neighborhood, too, was far from the hip, expensive, boutique-laden neighborhood it is now. Back then, it was dirty, a little dangerous, and the further east you went, the more edge it had. Tompkins Square Park was still a homeless encampment. Junkies slept in our doorway. But compared to today's East Village, I have to say, it was awesome.

One evening, in 1992, Jon came home raving about a new sushi restaurant on Avenue A called Takahachi, and took me there the next night. We were blown away by the size of the sushi--indeed, they were the biggest pieces we'd ever seen, as well the quality of the fish, the best of any sushi we'd had in the city yet. The California rolls used only real crab. The chefs made their own soy. And the specials and deals were terrific, including a sushi-for-two plate that was so enormous it was often tough to finish, and came with a free handroll of your choice, all for just $22, perfect for a young, struggling writer.

Fifteen years later, I've been forced out to Williamsburg. But Takahachi remains, and Spoon & I are Takahachi regulars. We've befriended the chefs. I get bottles of plum wine from the restaurant at Christmastime. And as an OC (original customer), I received a 10th anniversary sake set from Takahachi in 2002. We've delighted in turning friends on to this place over the years, and they too have become regulars. Fifteen years is a long time for any restaurant to survive, much less one in the rapidly gentrified East Village. Takahachi has done it the old-fashioned way: with top quality ingredients, innovative chefs, great service, affordable prices, amazing consistency and a commitment to its customers, who since about 1994, have had no problem waiting outside for up to an hour to get a table.

You can't go wrong with anything on Takahachi's menu. Here's how we do it. First, we like sitting at the bar with the chefs. For one, they always try out new stuff on us, and we're all too happy to oblige. The fish is lovely to look at, and watching the chefs work is great entertainment. The specials are the way to go. Every night, the chefs throw out something incredible, and over the years they've really opened our eyes with the scope of ingredients they use without sacrificing the integrity of Japanese cuisine.

Tonight, we started with crab shumai, a staple on the menu, and a special dish called Tako Green; it's octopus on bed of red onion with a spicy green sauce. Tako Green isn't often on the menu, but the chef makes it for us--what a guy! We followed that with a special sashimi plate of chu toro, medium fatty tuna; and a special called Jala Hama (photo, left), yellowtail sashimi with red onion and shaved jalapeno with a soy ginger dressing. For our main sushi onslaught, we stayed with the hamachi/jalapeno theme of the evening with a special roll; and a few pieces of sushi: salmon, yellowtail and some uni for me. Takahachi has great uni. They won't serve the uni from Maine one gets at lesser sushi bars, only the sweet, California variety, one of my favorite flavors in the world. We had beer and Sake, and a banana spring roll dessert, all for $75. This wasn't our best Takahachi meal: some specials have defied description. But as usual, it was excellent.

For reference, Takahachi is not in the same league as, say, Nobu or Gari. The room and its woodplank/white plate service is pretty plain. But as far as the kitchen is concerned, it's not terribly far behind either, and you could eat four or five full meals at Takahachi for the price of one at either Nobu or Gari. If you like and know Japanese food in New York, the quality of the food is comparable to Tomoe, Yama and Hasaki, and much more affordable. The pieces are large, though not as large as they once were and not unwieldy like the slabs served at Yama. It's cheaper than Hasaki, which is also excellent. Tomoe is magnificent, sublime. And, worth the long waits. There aren't many rooms that Takahachi beats for decor but the cramped Tomoe is one.

It's not enough to say Takahachi is our favorite restaurant. We're proud of Takahachi. We're happy he's been successful enough to open a second restaurant on Duane Street, and grateful that ours has remained home to us for so long with such a high standard of excellence. How many restaurants can you say you've been going to for 15 years that still can surprise and amaze you with each visit?--F

Sunday, April 22, 2007

On Ramps

Crocuses, robins and allergies are all harbingers of spring I'm familiar with. But one sign of the new season I've been missing out on is the wild leek, also known the ramp. I noticed magazines trumpeting their early spring arrival. So yesterday ramps and I met our destiny. I spotted them at the greenmarket at Union Square with my friend Deena, and we both bought some. The saleswoman/farmer gave us some tips on cleaning and cooking them, and off we went.

Ramps grow on forest floors, and their season lasts between three and five weeks, in April and May. They look like mini-scallions, white bulbs and tender greens with complex roots that twist and curl. Like leeks, ramps are very earthy and require some pretty intense washing. Then you have to trim them, snipping off the root and peeling off the little membrane wrapped around their bottom halves. Everything that's left, from bulb to leaf, is edible.

Mario Batali tosses sauteed ramps with spaghetti; Emeril Lagasse pickles them. I decided to try the farmer's suggestion and go the pasta route. I sauteed them in garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes and a sprinkling of kosher salt. As they sizzled, I cooked some fresh linguine and then added the drained pasta, plus a little pasta water to the frying pan with the ramps and garlic. Once the linguine was heated through and all flavored, Fork and I dug in. We also enjoyed a nice, crisp Caesar salad (with cousin G's excellent dressing recipe).

Look for ramps at your local greenmarket over the next few weeks. They're delicious, sort of an onion-garlic hybrid, as Fork says a cross between a green onion and a green garlic. And, yes, Tic Tacs for dessert.--S

UPDATE: (4/26/07)
New York has officially gone ramps crazy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Why the French Don't Suck...and We Sometimes Do

Anthony Bourdain is what we in show business would call a quadruple threat: a skilled chef, an excellent writer, a lively TV host and a superb cultural critic and bon vivant. If you can't catch him smoking and drinking live on his own barstool at Siberia (also one of my favorite bars) you usually can see him smoking and drinking on his TV show NO RESERVATIONS. True to form, he started off his show in Paris by getting loaded at an illegal absynthe bar.

In Paris, Bourdain stayed in the same hotel room where Oscar Wilde's toxic corpse was found, visited the old Les Halles and some remarkable restaurants that cut to the heart of French cuisine: while the greedy royals were taking all the select foods for themselves, the people of France made culinary art from the nasty bits. In France, Bourdain observed, meals are a dialogue between the Cook and the diner. In France, he noted, food is important.

Which brings us back to the good ol' USA, and the Food Network, where revenue is important. More to the point THE FABULOUS FOOD NETWORK AWARDS! Blogging on Michael Ruhlman's blog, Bourdain posted a hilarious yet quite serious critique of the awards. "You have to ask yourself WHAT were they THINKING?," Bourdain writes. "So some brain dead douche bags from Ad Sales and "creative" got together and cooked up this hybrid, fur-bearing catfish of a beast, this jackalope of a High Concept. Fine. That's what they do. But who green lit this monstrosity? Did no one raise their voice and and say, "Boss...boss..Can we really DO this to our talent?"

First and foremost, Bourdain is a chef, and his empathy is rightly placed with his fellow kitchen colonels. How must it have felt for Rachel Ray to feign enthusiasm while presenting the award for "Best Appliance"? he asks. "Do Emeril and Bobby, who, whatever you think of their shows, BUILT that fucking network, deserve to be pimped out with such casual disregard? Does anyone deserve to run the Gauntlet of Shame that was the red carpet, forced to waddle past the California Raisins and Tony the Tiger and a bunch of other corporate Big Heads? ...Emeril always the good soldier, sweated dutifully through his obligations, wondering privately, no doubt, what he had done to deserve this."

Would this ever happen in France? It's disheartening to me that on one hand, Bourdain had to devote a TV show In Paris to convincing American viewers that the French, one of the greatest food cultures the planet will ever know, "don't suck," while having to write about the crass, ass-backwards pimping out of food as entertainment embodied by the Food Network in the U.S. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for food, chefs and the kitchen as entertainment, but when it revolves around just that--food, chefs and the kitchen.

"There's a famous story where Robert Mitchum walks into studio head David O Selznick's office, pulls down his pants and takes a crap on his white carpet," Bourdain writes. "I hope Emeril is pinching a loaf right now."--F

Friday, April 13, 2007

Voulez-Vous Diner Avec Moi

I have bad news for Parisians, and great news for Americans.

Disneyland Paris is relocating to Des Moines, Iowa.

Kidding! Here's the news: Pudlo Paris, a Zagat-like annual guide to nearly 1,600 Parisian restaurants, bars, pubs, tea salons, cafés and gourmet shops, which until now has only been available in French, has been translated into English and will be published in the U.S. this summer. The New York Times calls Pudlo "the restaurant guide" to Paris, and BonjourParis says "Many French rely on Pudlo and his simple 1, 2 or 3 plate ratings rather than Michelin." Sorry, Frenchies, your secret is out.

Sure, there are plenty of guides to Paris restaurants in English. But there's something très insider about Pudlo. For one, real French people use it. Unlike the American version of the Michelin Guide, its restaurant and food descriptions are hardly generic ("the top quality meat carries local produce certification, including the sausage aligote and the charcuterie"--how's that for specific?). And where else are you going to find a guide that highlights what it deems Paris's "Bistro of the Year," "Baker of the Year" and even "Hostess of the Year"? Bon voyage et bon appétit.--S

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Spice Girl

Check out the what one of my office pals, Louisa, brought back for me from her recent trip to India. No, it's not a selection of slides of the Taj Mahal. Nor is it one of those multi-pack of postcards they sell at every major tourist attraction in the world. It's a variety of Indian spices--18 in all! Coriander, star anise, mustard seed, clove, cardamom, fenugreek, cumin, turmeric, "ani" seeds, red "chilly," something called "nutmace"... the list goes on. I was beside myself with curiosity. After lunching with Chris Kimball, founder and editor-in-chief of Cook's Illustrated, at Union Square Cafe that afternoon, I decided I'd find a recipe from Cook's using at least three of the spices in my new spice portfolio. The result: Chicken and Rice with Indian Spices. It called for a cinnamon stick, turmeric, coriander and cumin--all of which were included in my gift.

The result was a piquant, tasty dish. I couldn't distinguish between the turmeric or coriander, though I could detect the cumin. And Fork and I agreed the cinnamon was more present in aroma than taste. All in all, though, a pleasing combo. Who knew when I woke up Tuesday morning that I'd be using a web site I'd never used before, to find a recipe that included ingredients I'd never even considered using?--S

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Buona Pasqua

I love candy as much as the next person (okay, maybe a little more), but my favorite Easter treat isn't jelly beans or marshmallow chicks. It is a savory pie stuffed with prosciutto, salami, pepperoni, mozzarella, parmesan and ricotta cheese, known as Pizza Rustica. (Though some members of my family call it "Cement Pie," since an old version of the pie contained a dozen hard-boiled eggs, probably single-handedly raising each of our cholesterol by 50 points.)

When I was growing up, my mother and her sisters would congregate at somebody's house on Good Friday afternoon, pour themselves each a glass of wine, and churn out five pies, one for each sister and her family, and one for their parents. Over the years we've tried a few different recipes (in addition to the original cement one). But the one I made last year, and shared with my aunts this year, is my favorite: in addition to the meats and cheese, it includes chopped spinach and roasted red peppers (and skips hard-boiled eggs entirely). It's colorful when you slice it, and at least gives the illusion of being vaguely healthy (notice I said illusion).

It's a pretty simple recipe, made more so if you have a few extra sets of hands helping you, as well as the aid of a food processor. You make a basic pastry dough and divide it in two pieces, one for the bottom and one for the top. Once you've laid the bottom piece of dough into a springform pan, you layer in the ingredients, alternating between spinach, mozzarella, ricotta (blended with parmesan cheese and three egg yolks--you knew they'd show up somewhere), peppers, prosciutto, pepperoni and salami.
Top with the other piece of dough, and bake.

My mom, Aunt Ann and I whipped that baby out in an hour on Friday afternoon. When we served it as an appetizer at Easter dinner it went over like a cement brick landing on a jelly bean: a smash hit.--S

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Once and Future Classic Cookbook

Over the past six years or so, I've probably looked at hundreds of cookbooks. Working in publishing facilitates this, naturally; my job has afforded me the luxury of writing about great works of culinary education, like The Gourmet Cookbook, and it has also subjected me to mining the sorry excuse for a cookbook that is a Suzanne Somers collection, trying to find some redeeming quality.

So when I saw an article in the April issue of Gourmet singling out recent cookbooks that writer Cynthia Zarin believes have "staying power," I was of course interested. "It seems like a new cookbook is published every few minutes," Zarin writes. "Which of the most recent crop are destined to become classics?" And what, you may ask, makes a cookbook a classic? My definition of a classic cookbook is one that serves as a standard of excellence in its genre, that will endure and be pulled off the shelf for consultation for years to come.

Here's Zarin's list (in alphabetical order):

1. Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon by Claudia Roden
2. Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan
3. Breakfast, Lunch, Tea by Rose Carrarini
4. The Improvisational Cook by Sally Schneider
5. In Search of Perfection by Heston Blumenthal
6. Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto's Kikunoi Restaurant by Yoshihiro Murata
7. The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater
8. The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt and Ted Lee
9. The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa by Marcus Samuelsson
10. Vegetable Harvest by Patricia Wells

I remember flipping through Samuelsson's book and mainly being struck by the vibrant colors and overall high quality of the book itself, though I can't say I ran home to try the recipe for Ethiopian bread (though I also must say I haven't seen too many gourmet African cookbooks, so I can see how this one could qualify for "classic" status). I heartily second Zarin's mentions of both Baking and The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. Greenspan's collection of desserts is fabulous; her almond biscotti came out wonderfully both times I made them, and the book is a pleasure to leaf through. The Lee brothers, meanwhile, have created a terrific volume on Southern cuisine. I learned tons from their book, not the least of which was how to make good old fashioned sweet tea.

Now, to the real reason I posted Zarin's list: so I could offer up my version of the most-likely-to become-classic recent cookbooks. Drumroll, please:

1. Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan
2. The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman
3. The Bon Appetit Cookbook by Barbara Fairchild
4. Bones: Recipes, History, and Lore by Jennifer McLagan
5. The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker
6. The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt and Ted Lee
7. A Passion for Ice Cream by Emily Luchetti

There you have it, seven cookbooks recently published (I dug as far back as 2005) that I think will become classics. Fire away with your suggestions!--S