Saturday, September 24, 2011

a good read

Deborah discovers that not all chef's passions are created equal...

It is officially fall!
The humidity is really starting to get to me. My garden is infested with mosquitoes. I must brave the onslaught to harvest a handful of cherry tomatoes. Slap, slap, scratch, pick, pick, scratch. Might as well stay indoors and read.

I am a library junkie and pop in at least once a week to the closest branch in whatever borough I happen to be in. My long daily subway commutes to the three public schools, whose lunches I oversee for Wellness in the Schools, leaves me ample time to plow through many, many tomes.

Recently consumed are back to back readings of two great chef memoirs:
Life on the Line by Chicago restaurant Alinea's chef/owner, Grant Achatz
and Blood, Bones and Butter by NYC restaurant  Prune's chef/owner, Gabrielle Hamilton.

Both chef's books are highly engaging reads, emotionally moving and at times gripping. They cover their lives in the restaurant industry, the influences that inspire them and how they got to where they are now (rich and famous). But it is the differences in their approach that really struck me.
My garden coleus is hanging on till the first frost.

Achatz has achieved professional greatness with his exacting craft and hyper-perfection at Alinea, his fancy pants award winning restaurant that typically serves 25 course dinners composed of mind blowing original concoctions. No I have not eaten there (yet). Achatz's standards are so demanding that the Alinea kitchen feels more like a military command center than a place that feeds people. And aha, the catch is that he is not really trying to FEED people but rather, give them an unbelievable experience that only he can create. I want to go.

Hamilton is an earthy bad girl, stealing and lying her way into her early restaurant jobs. She is a bad ass and super cool. Her passion is about getting her hands dirty in the kitchen, creating something primal and sublime, food that is completely true to its origins, and she is unafraid to make it funky. I love her.

My just picked cherry tomatoes went into the oven smothered with olive oil, feta cheese and a few cloves of whole garlic and a spoonful of sugar to balance the tartness of the tomatoes. They bake at 400 degrees for at least half an hour. I want them to melt down to a gooey wonderfulness to eat on some crispy bread. I am more in the Hamilton camp of cooking.
 Out of the oven, warm and golden.
I want my food to taste great. I want to cook it simply. I want to enjoy its perfectness without artifice. Achatz will dazzle and delight and frankly I am so intrigued after reading his book that I am contemplating a trip to his restaurant in Chicago, but for me it will be an impressive trick, a good show, not a way of life.
 The smell and flavor of this preparation brought memories of pizza in Rome.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Deborah tries her hand on a free-form galette.

The harvest is in! The bounty at the farmers markets is overwhelming right now and this will continue for several more weeks. I have bought my huge batch of plum tomatoes and will be making tomato sauce to pack away for winter. I have bought big batches of apples and will begin to cook them down for apple butter and pie fillings. I am plucking the last of the roses and sunflowers from my garden for casual arrangements all over the house.

It is a late summer odyssey of hunting and gathering the best that nature has provided. I did not expect the gathering to include an animal hunt, but the latest grouping of sunflowers that adorn my dining table had hidden within the petal folds, dozens of tiny inch worms. They began to emerge, crawling across my computer screen as I sat checking email. Hey! Within a day I had to get a long handled broom and start sweeping them off my ceiling. So cute. Listen, nature is nature. I'm taking the good with the not so welcome.
One crop I eagerly anticipate is Italian plums or sugar plums. Every year I bake a tart or two showcasing these handsome egg-shaped beauties with their fetching dark purple skins. In the Wednesday food section of the NY Times this week, food writer Melissa Clark featured a free-form plum crostata that looked fantastic and easy enough to try. I like Clarks recipes; accessible and always based on seasonal ingredients. Crostata, the free-form tart, or galette, as the French and I know it, is a technique I have struggled with in the past. I love the casual looseness of its presentation, but rarely succeed in keeping the crust from falling apart. I make pies and tarts all the time so it isn't the dough per se that holds me back. Somehow when it comes to forming the galette I manage to bust a hole or two on its bottom edge and the juices come pouring out during baking, sticking to the pan and making removing the finished tart a task of prying, scrapping and holding back tears.

I was game to try it again with Ms. Clark's guidance. She warns not to get too attached to the tart's appearance as crostatas are notorious for busting a leak, just expect that as part of the what she calls its "shabby chic" appeal. My first ever galette was for a practical exam I took at cooking school where my artfully arranged apple concoction split a seam in the oven and became GLUED to the pan. I had to present it to the instructor with a whimper. I think I passed with a sympathy vote.
 A food processor makes quick and easy work of dough making.

Clark's dough recipe calls for combo of whole wheat and white flour, a little sugar and an egg. The dough was quick to make and easy enough to roll out. The filling requires little more than the plums and sugar. I added some cinnamon for a little depth of flavor and lemon zest to counterbalance that.

Folding the dough over the fruit proved to be as fraught with error as I always remembered. My dough cracked apart at every turn. I finally decided to place the jigsaw pieces of broken dough where I wanted them to be and then squeezed them together with my fingers to form a single draped sheet. Needless to say the damned thing leaked like crazy in the oven. It came out looking not so terrible and I was able to serve it in reasonable shape. My mother in law who is an excellent baker had never encountered this technique before and she seriously questioned what I was doing, but gamely took a bite and declared it "very good!" I thought it tasted pretty good myself. The whole wheat dough gives the tart a rustic mouth feel while the plums, so tart and juicy, are the stars of the show. Give it a try and try not to cry.

Link to :

Italian plum Galette or Crostata by me

-written by Deborah

Monday, September 12, 2011

never say never

Last week found me traipsing around the southern coast of California. It was a pleasure to escape the rainy, soggy East Coast and experience life in the land of sunshine.
Sunflowers at the Solana Beach farmers market in sunny California.
Miles of beautiful, accessible coastline define this area.
A wooden pier that juts far out into the Pacific ocean. It seems so improbable to this Atlantic coast girl.
What struck me so deeply about this coast line is how accessible it is to the general public. It is possible to drive right alongside the coast for miles and miles enjoying constant sea views. On a whim you can pull up to any beautiful beach and FIND PARKING! What? That is crazy. Anyone who has tried to hit the Hamptons or the Jersey Shore in summer can relate to my astonishment.
You can choose between busy surfer beaches or long stretches of solitude.

So what are they eating in the land of coastal bounty? The Mexican influence is felt here with Tijuana less than an hours drive away. I sampled some great fish Tacos at a casual restaurant on the pier in San Clemente. Hot sauce and salsa are as available as mustard and ketchup at every roadside eatery.
Freshly brewed herbal teas were hard to resist for this tried, thirsty visitor.
No bargains to be found on heirloom tomatoes but the amazing taste seemed worth the price.
Cactus paddles! How cool. I did not have a kitchen at my disposal so I could only fantasize about what I might do with them.
We had some great meals at the restaurants we stopped in along the way. Among the most memorable meals was the rich and deeply satisfying eggplant Parmesan at Vigilucci's in Carlsbad; Del Mars famous waterfront restaurant Jake's red lentil mulligatawny soup with pickled zucchini garnish and the French inspired menu at Paon Restaurant and Wine Bar's with its Yellowfin Tuna Tartare and an Indian Spiced Prawn Salad.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reseve in La Jolla offers breathtaking views on all its hiking trails.
Hike down these steep bluffs, many areas provide staircases, and sprawl out on the wide sand beaches.
Swami Beach in Encinitas, CA
The entire time we traveled up and down this stunning coast the locals kept bragging about their great weather and how it NEVER rains, but for a few very specific weeks in the winter. Well, great! On our last day as we lounged on the beach the clouds began to gather and to our very trained east coast eyes we knew to pack up the beach towels and get off the sand. Sure enough the sky opened up and we stood under our "sun umbrella" giggling as we watched an incredulous So Cal population experience in collective disbelief the watery deluge. In between the showers we managed a last stroll along the STUNNING Swami Beach in Encinitas. Lush vegetation hugs the bluffs of this protected cove making this a very special place worth seeking out.
A trip to southern California is sure to please with its great food, beaches and hiking. Be sure to pack your umbrella!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

An Experiment


While Deb was away this past week, I thought I'd try my hand at some kind of spontaneous post for our blog. Not sure what I would write about, I conveniently received an invitation to a barbeque, which got me thinking. I needed to bring something. I have been really into making this delicious, simple yet impressive cucumber, tomato and feta salad with mint. When I presented the idea to my friend and hostess, Beth, she informed me her husband would not eat cucumbers. I really wanted to take advantage of the spectacular Heirloom tomatoes I have been buying at Whole Foods.

But several weeks ago, I grilled some string beans which I had marinated in an Asian-style vinaigrette, and they came out fabulous. So, I got to thinking. Why not combine the grilled string beans with some Heirloom tomatoes? Writing this blog with Deb over the past two years has instilled in me a quiet sort of confidence. I've been able to go with my instincts when cooking, rather than always following a recipe. I have more fun this way.

So, I began by tossing some string beans with olive oil, soy sauce, lemon juice, chopped garlic and minced ginger. (mistake #1 -  Later on, I realized later that I used a touch bit too much olive oil). While I let the beans sit, I washed and sliced some beautiful Heirloom tomatoes and left them sitting in a large bowl.

Heirloom tomatoes, ready to go.

I heated my veggie grill pan on the grill. When it was ready, I threw on the beans in two batches. I like to let them cook for about 2 minutes, letting them char in spots but also allowing them to maintain their crunchiness by not overcooking them. (mistake #2 - I did overcook them a little). When they were done, I let them cool to room temperature, and added them to the bowl with the tomatoes.

Grilled string beans

When all was said and done, I was disappointed in the outcome. The beans seemed a little too cooked, and the olive oil was too pronounced. What to do? My vision did not match the results, and I have to say I was hesitant to bring this dish. So, I figured it couldn't hurt to try and remedy the situation. I began by throwing the entire concoction into a colander, to drain out the olive oil. After putting it back in the bowl, I tossed in some salt and rice vinegar to try and add a little "pizzazz" and brightness. I tasted, and added, tasted, revised.

The final result. Would it be successful?? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder I guess.

I decided to bring the dish, hoping for the best. This is the shocking part: my friends who had the barbeque are "foodies" in the truest sense of the word, as are their friends. When dinner was served, I heard two people commenting on how delicious the beans and tomatoes were! I couldn't believe it! I was flabbergasted.

So, the lesson for the novice is this. Once you have the confidence, and learn to improvise a bit, you will feel great! I am by no means experienced in the kitchen. But a love of food and cooking, combined with a certain amount of confidence is a recipe for success!