Friday, June 27, 2008

Just Your Average Day at Per Se and Nobu

Running through Central Park in autumn, hailing a taxi and asking the driver to "step on it," sipping champagne on a terrace overlooking all of Downtown... some experiences are just so New York. You feel like they couldn't happen anywhere else in the world. I had one of those experiences recently when I was invited to media luncheons at Per Se and Nobu 57--on the same day. What could I do but attend both?

The Per Se event was for chef Thomas Keller's forthcoming book Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide. It began with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at 11am. Just another Wednesday morning for me, you know. Around 11:30 the other journalists and I were ushered into the restaurant's private dining room for a demonstration of the sous-vide technique, in which you submerge food (lamb, watermelon) that has been vacuum-sealed in plastic into a container of water that's been raised to a specific temperature, using an "immersion circulator." What can sous vide do for you? It gives the "perfect" medium-rare in a squab breast. The same temperature throughout an entire cut of meat, not just at the center. A voluptuous texture in salmon. Potatoes cooked perfectly, without their exterior overcooking. And so on. For a super-high-end kitchen like Per Se's, this is a no-brainer. For a home cook, not so much; the equipment is really only available to professionals right now, although Mr. Keller said Kenmore and Viking are working on building products that will allow home cooks to use sous vide someday. After listening to the dreamy Mr. Keller expound on the virtues of sous vide, we sat down to lunch so we could judge for ourselves. Indeed, the Salad of Compressed Summer Melons was vivid and intense. The Nova Scotia Lobster Roll poached in butter was sublime. We ate, oohed and aahed, and then I had to go. Nobu 57 was calling.

On my way out of Per Se, a waiter handed me an insulated bag. Inside: a piece of vacuum-sealed lamb; packets of garlic, herbs, salt and sauce; and a recipe. I haven't tried it yet, but I have to say this was the coolest goodie bag from a luncheon I've ever received.

A 10 minute walk across 57th Street and I was at Nobu, where I bumped into Uncle Carl. He loves the place and eats there regularly. We hugged and I ran upstairs to the private dining room, where another group of journalists was just sitting down to lunch. This event was for Nobu Miami: The Party Cookbook, and apparently everyone had just spent the past hour downing sea urchin mojitos and other strange and potent cocktails. They were pretty tipsy, and when the waiter presented our table with a platter of Branzino with Florida Orange Ponzu, they lunged at it. I managed to snag a piece, and while under ordinary circumstances I'd say this was an absolutely delicious piece of fish, its tempura coating sticking perfectly thanks to its sake base, the meat melting in my mouth... after Per Se it felt a little bit like a let-down. Still, the Flounder Sashimi Salad with Yuzu, Honey and aji Limo Dressing was quite tasty, too, and with Dom Perignon 2000 flowing, could I really complain?

I crawled into a taxi around 2:30. In the span of three hours I had listened to some of the world's best chefs talk about their craft. I'd eaten their amazing, wonderful food. I shmoozed with the hoi polloi of the food writing world. And it was a total New York experience.--S

Sunday, June 22, 2008

You Had to Have the Big Salad

When I spotted an article in July's Food & Wine about Laurent Gras, an athletic chef who goes on 100-mile bike rides and won the magazine's prestigious Best New Chef award in 2002, I was psyched. Runner's World regularly profiles chefs who run, but their recipes sometimes let me down: too much emphasis on carbs and protein, and not enough emphasis on taste. So I was keen to try one of Gras's dishes. I'd picked up some fresh shelled peas and radishes at the greenmarket, so I was already well on my way to building the Crunchy Vegetable Salad with Sautéed Peas and Radishes.

Warning: this is no get-home-and-you're-eating-10-minutes-later salad. The recipe's head notes suggest 50 minutes. I'd say give yourself a good hour and 15--if you're going to follow the instructions to a T. Yes, blanching and peeling cherry tomatoes (or worse, as I did, tinier grape tomatoes) is not the easiest task. Nor is cooking and peeling fava beans (an ingredient I skipped entirely). The peas take a two-minute bath in boiling water, too; then they go into a sauté pan with radishes, olive oil and salt. And I used jarred artichokes instead of fresh baby ones, since I couldn't find them at the market or the two grocers I went to.

Extra labor notwithstanding, this is a great salad. Its combination of cooked and raw ingredients is quite satisfying, with a zing from lemon zest and a lemon vinaigrette. We didn't even miss the favas, and while I know jarred artichokes pale in comparison to fresh baby ones, they really did the job just fine. We ate this salad for supper along with a zucchini frittata and some country wheat bread. Big salad, big(ger than usual) effort, big payoff.--S

Crunchy Vegetable Salad with Sautéed Peas and Radishes

1 c cherry tomatoes
1 lb fava beans, shelled
1/2 lb fresh peas, shelled
1/4 c extra-virgin olive oil
2 T fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt
4 baby artichokes (I used one small jar of marinated artichokes)
4 medium radishes, quartered
1 bunch watercress (6 ounces), tough stems discarded
1 t finely grated lemon zest

1. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Fill a bowl with ice water. Cut a slit into the base of each tomato and blanch them in the boiling water until their skins start to split, about 15 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to the ice water to cool, then drain and peel.
2. In the same water, cook the fava beans until just tender, 2 minutes. Remove and let cool slightly, then peel. Blanch the peas until just tender, 2 minutes. Drain well.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk 3 tablespoons of the olive oil with the lemon juice and season with salt. With a paring knife, trim the artichoke stems and snap off the tough outer leaves until you reach the light green inner leaves. Using a serrated knife, cut off the top third of the artichokes. Trim the bottoms and stems. Cut the artichokes in half lengthwise. Using a teaspoon, remove the chokes, if any. Thinly slice the artichokes lengthwise, add them to the dressing and toss to coat. Add the peeled tomatoes and the fava beans and toss again.
4. In a medium skillet, heat 1 1/2 teaspoons of the olive oil. Add the radishes and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 2 minutes. Add the blanched peas and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Season with salt.
5. In a medium bowl, toss the watercress with the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons of olive oil and the lemon zest and transfer to plates. Top with the artichoke salad and the radishes and peas; serve.

Recipe courtesy of Food & Wine

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Grilled, Cheesy Comfort

For a bunch of Jersey Italians, my family eats a lot of quesadillas. My sister and I would eat them as after-school snacks, cheddar cheese microwaved to greasy perfection between two rubbery tortillas. My mom still makes them for Saturday lunches sometimes, on a grill pan on the stove, topped with chunky salsa (a step up from the watery Old El Paso stuff we ate as kids). Quesadillas are comfort food to me, a sort of grilled cheese "lite," without so much bread and with the tomatoes on top, instead of inside.

So it's not surprising that I am a huge fan of Peter Berley's Black Bean and Zucchini Quesadillas. I've been making them ever since they appeared in his 2004 book, Fresh Food Fast. They make a fabulous meal, encompassing all the food groups in one dish and fulfilling all the requirements for a tasty dinner: gooey, salty, spicy and--something my childhood quesadillas did not offer--crunchy.

Here's the drill: you toss grated zucchini (water squeezed out) with black beans, grated Monterey Jack, chopped scallions and some jalapeno. You spread that mixture onto a flour tortilla, top it with another tortilla, and heat the quesadilla on a skillet, flipping so both sides get toasty. Top with salsa, sour cream, avocado slices, what have you. Tonight I threw together a quick plum tomato, cilantro, jalapeno and scallion salsa.

This is an ideal summer meal for when you've got more zucchini than you can handle and are sick of zucchini bread. It leaves you full but not stuffed, making it a perfect meal for the night before a long run, I've found. Whatever filling remains makes excellent leftovers. Make another quesadilla, eat it with tortilla chips, or just nosh straight out of the Tupperware. Comfort, indeed.--S

Black Bean & Zucchini Quesadillas

This recipe supposedly serves 4; I think you'll get at least 6 servings.

2 lbs zucchini, coarsely grated
1 1/2 t coarse salt, plus add'l to taste
2 (15-oz) cans black beans, drained
12 oz grated Monterey Jack cheese, coarsely grated
2 scallions, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, w/seeds, finely chopped
8 flour tortillas (8 in. in diameter)
Evoo for brushing the tortillas

1. In a colander, toss together the grated zucchini and salt with your hands. Squeeze the zucchini to remove a lot of its liquid.
2. In a large bowl, combine the zucchini, beans, cheese, scallions & jalapeno.
3. Brush 4 of the tortillas w/oil on one side. Turn over the tortillas so the oiled side is on the bottom. Divide the bean mixture between the tortillas, spreading it to the edges. Top each w/a plain tortilla and brush the top w/oil.
4. Warm a large skillet over medium heat. Place a quesadilla in the pan and cook until the cheese melts and the tortillas are golden brown, about 3 min. per side. Repeat w/the remaining quesadillas. (Better to have two skillets going at once). Serve w/salsa.

Recipe courtesy of Fresh Food Fast

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Three to Cool You

I promise to make other things this summer besides ice cream. But until it cools down, there's going to be a lot of frozen dessert making going on in my kitchen. The latest: Three Fruit Ice Cream, courtesy of none other than the great Aunt Betty.

The three fruits here are orange, banana and lemon. Juice from the citrus fruits and a pureed banana join a sumptuous egg-based custard, and the result is a Creamsicle-esque dessert that is indeed quite cool. As a thunderstorm raged outside, bringing the temperature back to a reasonable range, I dug in to the Three Fruit Ice Cream and cooled down myself.

This ice cream is terrific on its own; thick and creamy thanks to six egg yolks, and subtly fruity. If you're feeling ambitious, it'd pair nicely with some chopped pineapple, or slivered or candied almonds, on top.--S

Three Fruit Ice Cream

2 c half and half
2/3 c sugar
6 egg yolks, beaten
1 c heavy cream
1 banana
3/4 c orange juice
3 T fresh lemon juice
1 T grated orange zest (optional)

1. In a double boiler, heat the half and half over barely simmering water until scalded.
2. Whisk the sugar into the egg yolks.
3. Whisk in some of the hot half and half, and then slowly add the egg/half and half mixture to the remaining half and half.
4. Pour the mixture into a medium saucepan continue to cook, stirring constantly until the custard coats the back of a wooden spoon.
5. Immediately place the pot in a pan of ice water and stir to cool to room temperature.
6. Blend in cream. Cover and refrigerate the mixture for 2-3 hours or until thoroughly chilled.
7. When you are ready to freeze the ice cream mixture, purree the banana, OJ and lemon juice in a food processor until smooth. Stir into the custard base with the orange zest, if using.
8. Freeze in an ice cream machine according to the instructions.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The New Fro Yo

I consider myself pretty good at making ice cream. Homemade frozen yogurt, on the other hand, has thus far eluded me. I tried it a few times last year and it was watery, icy and too sweet, consisting of lowfat plain yogurt, sugar and not much else. Thanks to a great article in June's Food & Wine, I now know better.

The article features recipes from artisanal ice cream maker Jeni Britton, who runs three ice cream parlors in Columbus, Ohio. Refreshingly, Jeni does not view frozen yogurt as a "healthy" alternative to ice cream. Use whole milk yogurt, she says (I went with Fage's "Total Classic" Greek yogurt). Jeni also adds a touch of unflavored gelatin to the yogurt, which gives the finished product an airy, whipped texture. (Although some purists take issue with her use of "unnecessary ingredients.") And a half-cup of heavy cream doesn't hurt things, either.

I made Jeni's Strawberry Frozen Yogurt last week, and it was a hit: sour, tangy, gorgeously pink. We were so anxious to eat it that we didn't even let it freeze completely (hence the lumpy photo). Fork, God love him, said it was "better than Pinkberry." Granted, he is not such a Pinkberry fan, but I get his point: this fro yo is GOOD, yo.--S

Strawberry Frozen Yogurt

2 T fresh lemon juice plus 1 t finely grated lemon zest
One 1/4-ounce package unflavored powdered gelatin
12 ounces strawberries, hulled
3/4 c sugar
1/4 c light corn syrup
2 c plain whole-milk yogurt
1/2 c heavy cream

1. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Pour the lemon juice into a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin on top; let stand for 5 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in a blender, puree the strawberries until smooth; you should have about 1 cup of strawberry puree.
3. In a small saucepan, combine the strawberry puree with the sugar and corn syrup and bring to a boil. Cook over moderately high heat until the sugar dissolves completely, about 1 minute. Remove the strawberry mixture from the heat and stir in the lemon gelatin until it melts.
4. In a medium bowl, mix the yogurt with the lemon zest and the hot strawberry puree. Stir in the heavy cream. Set the bowl in the ice water bath and let stand, stirring occasionally, until the strawberry yogurt is cold, about 20 minutes.
Pour the strawberry yogurt into an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
5. Pack the frozen yogurt into a plastic container. Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the frozen yogurt and close with an airtight lid. Freeze until firm, about 4 hours.

Recipe courtesy of Food & Wine