Saturday, April 21, 2007

No fresh food? No problem!

Even though it was quite the long day and the end of quite the long week, I knew I wanted to cook for K tonight, if only because it's been nearly two weeks since I prepared a dinner of any kind. Unfortunately, I also haven't purchased groceries in at least that long and last week was so hellish that I even forgot to pick-up the last CSA delivery of the season (and our last with Prince George CSA). Sure, I could have just gone downstairs and picked up some groceries, but K and I live in a 5th floor walk-up and I had already gone up and down to walk my dog (and couldn't pop in for groceries then because of draconian health department codes).

So, faced with the challenge of cooking a two-course meal from my pantry and freezer, here's what I came up with:

Seared Scallops with Saffron Anchovy Butter
I decided it was time to polish off the last 7 bivalves from Trader Joe's' frozen Wild Japanese Scallops, but I wanted to create a brand-new recipe for the sauce (and one which didn't use truffle butter, truffle salt, or truffles of any sort!). I made the sauce first so that I didn't overcook the scallops while rushing to finish the sauce. I melted some butter and dropped some warm-water softened saffron and finely chopped (jarred) anchovies in it, whisking until the anchovies dissolved (yes, Virginia, fish do dissolve!). I stirred in some dry Vermouth and let the alcohol cook out. I whisked in some horseradish cream and some capers (in their brine). I set it aside in a condiment cup under tin foil and seared the scallops (dredged in a li'l bit of flour, sea salt, and black pepper) in butter. After both sides were browned, I poured the sauce in the pot and sauteed the scallops in the rich fishy goodness for a few seconds before plating it.

Rotelle w/Sundried Tomato & Chicken Sausage Sauce
Forget authenticity! While I usually try approach Italian dishes from a fairly traditional stance, trying to use ingredients that I know (from my father's cooking, from visiting Italy, or from watching Mario Batali) have some history of being paired together, an empty fridge meant I'd have to get creative. So, I began my dad's standard tomato sauce the usual way: some olive oil, some red pepper flakes, some dried Italian seasoning, some garlic, and some onion. Sauteed for a bit and then threw in some rehydrated and chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Once they absorbed most of the fat, I deglazed with some Vermouth and let it cook off. I poured in a can of diced tomatoes and after they cooked for awhile, mashed some of the larger chunks. I warmed the pre-cooked chicken sausage in the sauce a few minutes before serving, and poured the smokey deep tomato flavors over some store-bought rotelle and topped it with shaved parmesan.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Birthday Bash

Spent the weekend eating and imbibing to commemorate my birth.

Day 1 w/fam:
  • Dinner at Grand Central Oyster Bar.
    • GCOB has what is arguably the best shrimp cocktail in New York. 5 lobster tail-sized shrimp cooked to perfection and a tangy cocktail sauce with just a bit of bite.
    • I had an oyster craving and what better place to satisfy it. For some reason I tend to prefer Canadian oysters, so I ordered one each of the Conway Cup (Prince Edward Island), Cortez Island (Cortez Island), Denman Island (British Columbia), Great White (Nova Scotia), Malaspina (British Columbia), Malpeque (Prince Edward Island), Nootka Sound (British Columbia), Ship's Point (British Columbia), and Snow Creek (British Columbia). The sweet and perfectly slurpable Malpeque is always my favorite, but the others were tasty too. I do wish that GCOB offered consumers some guidance with oyster selections...would it kill them to offer 4-6 word descriptions of the 15+ varieties they offer or at least arrange the oysters on the plate in such a way that the buyer can tie a name to a taste for future reference (when I open an oyster bar, each platter will come with a printed card like when you order the wine flights at Metrocafe)?
    • For my 8th raw item, I ordered a single sea urchin. Now, uni is definitively my favorite piece of nigiri sushi (when served at a high quality restaurant, otherwise they're too pungent to actually consume) and I've had raw sea urchin preparations at French restaurants, but I've never actually ordered urchin at a raw bar. I fished around for the tasty parts that looked like uni, but didn't know what to do with the rest of the organs floating around in the shell. Did I miss out on some rare delicacies here?
    • My mom was pleased with her gorgeously seared scallops in puttanesca sauce and my sister had the best fried calamari of her life (I guess it helps that this one was probably made from fresh calamari instead of the frozen stuff they deep fry at most restaurants).
  • Dessert at Chikalicious.
    • This microscopic East Village dessert bar is a must-have New York experience. Chef Chika stands behind her counter with a sous chef or two assembling stunning presentations of some of the tastiest sweets I've ever had. $12.95 buys you a 3-course dessert prix fixe (menu changes daily, but a sample can be found here) and $7 more pairs your choice with a perfect dessert wine (my prix fixe was paired with a sparkly red dessert wine: Les Clos De Paulilles Banyuls 2002 I think). Though the wait is often upwards of 45 minutes to get seated on weekend nights, the maitre'd is so calming that I've rarely grown impatient.
    • Course #1: Dessert Appetizer. Lime curd with Mojio sorbet. Delicate and tangy, just enough to get my taste buds primed for the main event.
    • Course #2: Dessert Entree. Strawberry soup with honey parfait. I've had this before: it's delicious and refreshing but I had my heart set on the lavender marinated kiwi that had sold-out. I actually think the dessert pictured above, the warm chocolate tart with red wine sauce and pink peppercorn icecream might be my favorite as it mingles three seemingly incongruous tastes.
    • Course #3: Dessert Dessert. Petit fours. Coconut covered marshmallows, a little cake, and shortbread cookies. The marshmallows are always the best on this plate, completely distinct creatures from the puffed sugar we roast at campfires.
Day 2 w/friends:
  • Brunch at Alice's Teacup.
    • With a party of 11, we were really gambling in our attempt to get seated as walk-ins when all 3 of their locations were booked solid from 8am-8pm. K and I arrived 90 minutes ahead of when the rest of the party was going to arrive and out our name on the list. The very accommodating staff found a way to seat us just a few minutes after my first 6 of guests arrived.
    • I ordered the "nibble," a tiered tea service that comes with a scone, a sandwich, a pot of tea, and cookies for $22.
    • I chose the fragrant and pleasant Mango Amazon tea, an Indian black tea with mango pieces.
    • The pumpkin scone, served warm with jam and fresh clotted cream, was easily the best baked good I've ever head.
    • The sandwich was simple but tasty, smoked salmon and dill butter on Russian black bread.
    • I ended up giving away most of my cookies, but the little peanut-butter one was heavenly (I am a sucker for all things with peanut butter. Hence, for the evening's proceedings, my friend A picked up a peanut butter pie!)
  • Dinner with delivered Brother Jimmy's BBQ.
    • I know, I know, NYC doesn't have real BBQ, but this comes very close. I don't usually step foot in any of the chain's frat-tastic locations for fear of getting trampled, but I'm happy to order delivery. But careful: it's always slow, very slow, and if you are ordering more than a few dishes, they usually forget one or two items.
    • I always order the same thing: Northern and Dry Rub ribs (the real ones, no babybacks here!), collard greens, and mac & cheese (sometimes I opt for the candied yams instead). The Dry Rub ribs are spicy and smoky and firm and just perfect drenched in Jimmy's house vinegar-based BBQ sauce. The Northern ribs don't need any extra sauces as the meat is so tender, it's practically liquid already (and that's a good thing!). Even my friend C, a Texan transplant, enjoyed them.
    • The collard greens are probably the least healthy possible preparation of what could be a very nutritious ingredient, but damn they're good. Always a bit saltier than I'd like to be, but if I keep some beer on hand, I'm usually fine...
    • There's nothing really special about the mac & cheese except that it's perfect for absorbing the fatty greasy salty saucy flavors from the ribs and greens. The candied yams are really quite good, though: you can actually distinguish 3 or 4 different types of sweetness, and it's a really nice mix of mashed and solid pieces.
    • Although it sounds like pregnancy-fare, E convinced me to go in on an order of fried pickles (frickles) with her and wow I'm happy I did. I think they have now joined the pantheon of my other two favorite friend offerings: Sicilian aroncini and British deep fried Mars Bars.
My birthday extravaganza finally wrapped up last night, over leftovers of Brother Jimmy's, with K's birthday gift: a Personal Wine Curator for my computer. I'm very excited to start using that.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Find a CSA near you

For those of you who have been wondering how you can find a CSA of your own, just go here.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Vroom vroom

Tonight, K and I had a late working dinner at our neighborhood Italian joint, Vespa. The inlaid picture really doesn't do the decor justice at all as the entire restaurant is fabulously decorated, with vintage movie posters in a variety of European languages and well-chosen works of art from local artists.

We've been to Vespa three or four times before and have always enjoyed their fresh, seasonal, and authentic Italian menu and attentive knowledgable service. (Important sidenote: as a first-generation American of Italian descent, it has always been incredibly difficult for me to shake my Calabrian father's general disdain for all Italian restaurants outside of Italy. I grew up watching my dad repeatedly send food back to the kitchen, and so disappointed was he by one London Italian restaurant's take on his native cuisine, he went so far as to demand that the chef come to the table and prove his Italian lineage.) Though there is an exorbitant difference in their respective prices and qualities, I will say that Mario Batali's Babbo and Vespa are the only Italian restaurants in New York with which I have had any luck (Falai had some nice dishes but was really overpriced and the service was a little too aloof for my taste). Since K and I have usually popped into Vespa just before their kitchen closes on weeknights, this Friday prime-time visit was the first time we were able to get a sense of the place's regular clientele. Despite the restaurant's frat-tastic 2nd avenue location, the other diners were refreshingly classy, hip, and international (but not intimidatingly so).

Though K might be happy to return just because the place is a Euro oasis in the 2nd avenue dessert, it's the food that keeps me coming back. And I tried to take pictures of the food, I really did, but I just couldn't stomach (pun definitely intended!) the idea of defiling the restaurant's great vibe with my definitively unslick camera-work. Next time I'll just ask if the chef can send me home with a CD-Rom filled with hi-res shots of his food :)

So, here's what we ordered (everything to share):

Grilled Octopus Salad with Chick Peas and Yellow Tomatoes
Oh, don't let anyone tell you that octopus and calamari have anything in common. When prepared well, calamari is light and refreshing, reminding one of a sweet sea breeze. Octopus, on the other hand, takes one down into the sea's depths with its rich meatiness. Vespa's chef manages to pull so many wonderful homie flavors from the magnificent mollusks, charring the outside and leaving the inside tender. The acidity of the tomatoes and the crunchiness of the chick peas worked wonders with the dish, as well.

Bressaola with aged meat, parmesan, palm hearts, and truffle oil
Has there ever been a menu entree with the word truffles that I haven't ordered? Probably not. (Full disclosure: I had my first truffles by accident while living in Orvieto, Italy one summer. I had never even heard of these fabulous fungi until I observed an Umbrian restaurant devote significant pomp and circumstance to the ritualized truffle-shaving on one of their diner's pasta courses. A la Meg Ryan, I simply ordered what he was having. Tasty and (pre-Euro) only about $10 for the pasta and wine.) This dish was nice, though I liked it much more than K did. For my own part, I would have liked a few more palm hearts and a little bit less parmesan as the dish was salty enough with the aged meat. Rather than eat it is as an appy, I might have preferred to have a couple bites of this as part of a larger antipasti platter.

Ravioacci with parmesan and celeriac, with leek cream sauce and pancetta
Great homemade pasta (small ravioli) in a delicate cream sauce with nice salty crunchy bites of pancetta. I couldn't distinctly taste the celeriac, but everything I could taste was yummy so I can't complain.

Pappardelle with Scallops, Mushrooms, and Asparagus

Wow! Outside of Italy (and Babbo), I don't think I've had a better pasta dish (sorry Dad!). The scallops were perfectly seared, the mushrooms (they weren't buttons, or baby bellos, but I couldn't put my finger on the species) were meaty, and the asparagus held its own with a great crunchy texture (though it was cut into narrow enough strips that the texture blended well with the rest of the dish). And the homemade pappardelle itself...I enjoyed that almost as much as the scallops (and I enjoy few things as much as well-cooked scallops). It was at once perfectly al-dente and melt-in-your-mouth creamy.

At the end of the day, I feel great about dining at Vespa if only because I've never left there saying, "Oh, I could have made that myself and it would have been much cheaper!" While it's true that 70% of the quality of an Italian meal is determined at the market itself (ingredients make the meal!), Vespa's certainly doing something very special with the last 30%. Their menu changes seasonally so we'll definitely be back to make our way through the rest of the early spring offerings before summer rolls around.


After a season of trekking 60 blocks downtown for our ecofriendly CSA grub, K and I decided to go even more local with our food, and chose a CSA just a few blocks away. It's called the Carnegie Hill/Yorkville CSA, and it has a really great online presence, allowing us to order all of the CSA add-ons directly from their website, as well as download harvest reports, weekly share info, and recipes.

We're excited.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Anyone for the Anyway Cafe?

E, K, and I mixed business and pleasure at the East Village's Anyway Cafe tonight for some "French and Russian cuisine." I'm a sucker for any place that has horseradish-infused vodka and caviar on the menu!

We had a nice cozy corner table and shared a pitcher of said horseradish vodka and a really fabulous appetizer platter (the zakuski, a steal at $13!) which featured tasting portions of a carrot salad, beet salad, liver, eggs with caviar, house-marinated gravlax, some sort of trout pate, and a mesclun salad. Though neither K nor E cared for the liver, I was happy to have my April liver-fix. The horseradish vodka complemented the platter nicely.

For dinner, I ordered "Pelmeni Filled with Salmon & Caviar in a Light Cream Sauce," E had "Smoked Chicken & Mushroom Julienne with Mashed Potatoes," and K took the "Crepes with Wild Mushrooms & Ricotta Cheese." Though everyone was enthusiastic about their orders, as it often the case (either because I order brilliantly or because I decide to fully embrace my order with enthusiasm regardless of how successful it is), I liked my dish the best. Thin dumplings filled with delicate (and not overcooked!) salmon, resting in a light and buttery citrusy, creme fraiche sauce (with some dill, I believe), and topped with a generous serving of salmon caviar. While I much prefer raw salmon to cooked salmon (and the opposite with tuna, though by cooked I mean lightly seared) and while I'm never one to order ikura at a sushi bar, there's something about pairing poached salmon with those little squishy orange explosions of salty fishiness that makes me like both quite a bit.

While all in all, the meal came to about $30/head, one has to remember the total included about 8 shots of good vodka (so roughly 2.67 shots each, which we sipped like the dignified diners we are) and a fairly incredible variety of flavors courtesy of the tasting plate. The service was great and our waiter kept the baskets of Russian black bread (with dill butter!) coming to the table. (This does, however, beg the question: if I have a lukewarm or unpleasant dining experience, am I going to post it on the blog? I don't think so. I mean, the blog is a place for me to record positive memories, be they recipes or restaurants, so I can return to them when I get the urge; it wouldn't really help me to bash a restaurant, and anyone who's reading the blog can, I'm sure, find bashes of any truly bash-worthy restaurant on and places like that.)

While I'm not quite ready to put Anyway Cafe on the sidebar yet, I will definitely come back here the next time we're trying to be adventurous and stray from our other East Village standards.