Saturday, May 15, 2010

Back to Blogging, and Brunching

Homemade Brunch

I have to thank you, readers -- it is because of you that even after three months of neglect, I refuse to abandon this blog. Over the past months, many of you have expressed that while you remain loyal to my work over at, you miss "my" blog, and I have to agree. Thanks for keeping up with my writing and for encouraging me not to give up this outlet where I can write about whatever I want in my own voice. Even if I'm busy with the work I get paid for, I'm going to do my best to keep posting here on a more regular basis.

Mise en Place going temporarily idle doesn't mean I haven't been cooking! I've made some great meals recently for friends, family, book club. I got a new wok which led to a couple weeks of only Asian food -- it is amazing! Our little kitchen is getting a pretty good workout.

Last Sunday, I was very lucky to have my whole family in town for Mother's Day. My sister Hilary and I decided to make brunch for Mom -- so much better than joining the crowds for crappy prix-fixe restaurant menus.

We hit Whole Foods on Saturday before the parents got to New York and bought everything we needed, then woke up semi-early (after a wonderful dinner at Recette the night before) to cook.

The Baker

Hilary made some raspberry-walnut-cream cheese muffins that she found in Cooking Light. I was out of flour and we got whole-wheat at Whole Foods, because that's what I normally keep around at home. I promised to take the blame if the muffins turned out badly with whole-wheat flour. Fortunately, they were delicious: Moist and nutty with great bites of fruit.

Raspberry-Walnut Muffins

Having looked at Mother's Day content for the past month or so at work, I was inspired to make one of Food Network's crustless quiches. I wanted the brunch to be relaxed and wasn't about to cook eggs to order, so this seemed like a good dish for my small crowd. I even bought a pie pan for the occasion. Sprinkling the bottom of the pan with grated parmesan or bread crumbs makes an ingenious mock-crust that keeps it from sticking. I didn't use any of the specific fillings provided by FN, instead choosing my own combo of broccoli, garlic, a little cheese (parmesan and sharp cheddar) and a shake of cayenne for kick.

Crustless Quiche...just out of the oven

So far, this brunch was vegetarian, so I picked up some turkey bacon (although I think only Zack would have truly missed the meat!) In culinary school (where bacon is plentiful), I learned never to make bacon in a skillet ever again. Who needs hot grease splattering everywhere? Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and lay out the strips, then cook them in a 400 degree oven until crispy (about 10-15 minutes). This method yields perfectly flat, crispy slices every time. It worked just as well for turkey bacon.

Fruit Salad

I also made a fresh fruit salad with mango, pineapple, strawberries and mint. Since I'm not much of a baker, variations on fruit salad are my go-to dessert. The mint really perks it up and makes ordinary fruit into something a little more exciting. I squeeze a little lemon juice over it, but no other embellishment needed.

The parents arrived around noon and we all dug into the brunch spread. It seemed to go over well, with everyone going for second pieces of quiche and extra muffins. (Hilary made the extra batter into a mini-loaf, which I'm saving in my freezer!)

As much as I love restaurants, cooking for family is even better. I think every Mom appreciates being cooked for by her kids. This one did!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ode to Mardi Gras and the Saints!

Unless you literally live under a rock, you've probably heard that the New Orleans Saints won their first-ever Super Bowl last weekend. What you may not know? I was there!

We came home from Miami and Zack immediately DVR'd every minute of Super Bowl coverage, so it's been on non-stop, allowing us to bask in the glory. Although my football knowledge has increased immensely in the past year and a half (since I've had a certain roommate...), I'm still less intrigued by the play-by-play breakdowns of the game and most excited about the parade and interviews with Drew Brees and his wife and baby. Still, watching that Tracy Porter interception over and over again never gets old.

Anyway...this tangent IS actually going somewhere food-related. New Orleans has obviously been insane since the Saints returned to town, and to top off all of that excitement, today is Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras. Food is a huge part of New Orleans culture, so we had to make something to celebrate.

Thankfully, Zack's parents sent us a "Who Dat" care package full of Zatarain's mixes. We invited a few friends over for a big pot of jambalaya. I made it from scratch once in culinary school (Louisiana day in American Regional), but many New Orleans faithfuls agree that jambalaya is just one of those things that is just as good (or even better) using a boxed mix.

I decided to go semi-traditional and use chicken breast and andouille chicken sausage as my proteins. I pre-cooked the meats and set them aside, then boiled water with a little vegetable oil and dumped in the rice, spice mix, and meat. I added a little extra seasoning, just salt and pepper. You let that simmer for 25 minutes covered. Open the lid, and I had some seriously authentic-looking (and tasting) jambalaya.

I'm tempted to break out my recipe from school—all I remember is the large number of spices involved—and do a taste test of that vs. Zatarain's. We had no complaints!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Ultimate Power Lunch

That's Andrea, looking very cold outside of Del Posto!

One of my New Year's resolutions is to cook more and eat out less. New York is so expensive that even at casual neighborhood restaurants, our bill ends up surprisingly large. But there are so many amazing places to try in the city...what's a foodie to do when attempting to be frugal?

The answer? Do lunch! Some of the best (and priciest) restaurants in town have amazing lunch deals that allow you to sample their menus at a fraction of the dinner cost. Last week, Andrea and I dressed up a little and headed for a "ladies who lunch" date at Del Posto. (For the record, Eleven Madison Park, Jean-Georges, and Perry Street have similar deals that we hope to hit up in the future!)

Del Posto is Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's Italian fine dining spot, which happens to be located just across from the Chelsea Market building (home to Food Network). Recently, Batali and co. instated a prix-fixe lunch menu steal: 3 courses for $29. Sure, this is not cheap for an everyday lunch, but I had been to Del Posto for dinner before with Zack and his grandparents, so I knew that this caliber of food for under $30 was highway robbery! I've paid almost as much for a salad at Gia Pronto.

Del Posto is spacious and classic; there's dark wood, warm colors, and a 2nd floor wrap-around balcony overlooking the main dining room, making it feel a bit like a (very fancy) cruise ship. We knew we were dining in style when they presented those little stools for our purses to sit on. It's more formal than Babbo, more formal than Batali's Osteria Mozza (where we just had a fantastic meal in LA), but not in a stuffy way—it's still an Italian restaurant, after all.

After reading a review of the lunch deal, I knew to come hungry. With all the little extras the chefs send out, it's actually a lot more than three courses. The first extra course to arrive on our table was a selection of three one-bite amuse bouches: a demitasse of straciatella soup (a perfect first bite on that frigid afternoon), a tiny risotto ball, and a little pastry puff filled with mortadella. Each was full of flavor and got us very excited about what was to come.

Next up: what has been deemed The Best Bread Basket in New York. Had we been unaware of the raves that this bread has received, we may have restrained ourselves to make room for the next courses. But we had to do it justice and at least try each kind. The grissini—Italian for breadsticks—were truly the best I've ever had, crispy on the outside but still a little chewy within, with an amazing olive oil flavor. The focaccia is also a revelation, light and herby and not loaded with oil like many versions are.

The bread is served with whipped butter and whipped lardo, which Andrea avoided because she doesn't eat pork. All of the breads are sublime on their own, but I tried a little lardo on the olive bread and it was quite delicious, infused with rosemary and decadence.

Once we'd nibbled on each bread offering, our appetizers arrived. We shared the lobster salad and the roasted autumn vegetables with robiola sformato and toasted hazelnuts. The salad offered a very generous serving of lobster meat (huge, meaty chunks of tail and claw) tossed with a wonderful agrodolce sauce and broccoli rabe. There was a little dab of olive sauce artistically placed on the rim of the plate, which I didn't really get. I tried some of it with the lobster and I didn't think it added much to an already perfect dish.

The vegetable plate looked like an artist's canvas, we almost didn't want to mess with it. There wasn't a duplicate of anything on the plate: one perfect carrot, a wedge of butternut squash, a baby potato, a tiny little turnip, a surprising bite of apple. The cheese and hazelnuts added lovely richness and crunch. A vegetable plate is usually a throw-away order, but not here.

The three-course menu allows you to order an antipasti, a primi OR a secondi, then a dessert. At a Mario Batali restaurant, there's no way you can forgo the primis, which are primarily pastas. On our trip to LA, our table of seven ordered almost every pasta on the menu at Osteria Mozza, and each one was entirely unique from the next and just as fabulous. There were a few pastas on the Del Posto menu that sounded similar to dishes at Mozza, so I steered away from those to try something new.

Andrea ordered the orechiette with lamb neck sausage, cherry peppers, and broccoli rabe. The broccoli and peppers were pureed into a pesto-like sauce that had the most delicious spicy flavor. Orechiette is one of my favorite pasta shapes (Andrea's too!) because it holds sauce just so perfectly. Every bite has an ideal ratio.

I selected stracchiotte, a pasta I'd never heard of, with frutti di mare and marinara. The waiter explained that stracchiotte were little shells, and these were made with squid ink (hence why each little shell looks like it's painted half black). The whole dish tasted of the sea, and the incredibly fresh marinara finished with a little kick. The shrimp, scallops, and calamari were optimally tender.

We had to leave a little pasta on our plates to make room for desserts. Del Posto's pastry chef, Brooks Headley, used to work at my favorite restaurant in the whole world: Komi in DC. I remembered his delicate sweets fondly (a chocolate ganache with olive oil ice cream stands out in my memory) and was very excited that he'd resurfaced in New York.

Remembering that outstanding olive oil gelato, I ordered a chocolate ricotta tortino that came with it. The presentation was one of the best I've ever seen, with a tiny slice cut from the miniature cake, which is rolled in Sicilian pistachios. Although I couldn't finish the rich, ubelieveably moist cake, there was not a drop of olive oil gelato left on my plate!

Andrea knew she wanted the chestnut cake with warm plums and roasted chestnuts the minute she saw it on the dessert menu. It was a great winter dessert, and the yogurt gelato alongside was almost as good as the olive oil.

Along with our plated desserts, the waiter presented a jewel-box of little sweets. The actual box was really interesting: it was a grater with a drawer underneath that pulled out to reveal more goodies! There were chocolate-covered lollipops of olive oil gelato (more!), little lemon tarts with "grapefruit caviar", teeny tiny bomboloni (donuts), bitter chocolate truffles, and candied grapefruit with caramel. We were stuffed, but how could we not try them?

With that, our wonderful Del Posto lunch came to a close. For once, we were shocked in a good way when we got our check. We had lingered for over two hours and savored every bite of this $30 feast. Now it was time for a long walk!

At present, there are no four-star NYTimes or three-star Michelin Italian restaurants in New York. I've read that with recent renovations and changes to the menu (including this new lunch), Batali and Bastianich aim to achieve these goals at Del Posto. Hopefully the mysterious folks at Michelin and the new Times critic, Sam Sifton, will pay a visit soon—in this critic's opinion, Del Posto deserves those stars!

Del Posto currently has 2 Michelin stars (out of 3)
and 3 stars from the New York Times (out of 4)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Semi-Homemade Meals with Abby and Sara

E-mail conversation a few weeks ago:

Me: And I am more than happy to come help make dinner if you want! It would be fun. So many options w/French food...

Abby: I am TOTALLY Going to take you up on the cooking offer...then I can also be a subject of a blog post. And people don't have to eat microwaveable french fries, which is what I had come up with so far for the French theme.

So now I will be faithful to Abby and make our meal the other night the subject of a post on this illustrious blog.

Our book club read The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Note: this book is critically acclaimed and was loved by many people including my mother. However, none of us really liked it...I could not get into it for the life of me. What gives?) which takes place in Paris. So, naturally, French was the cuisine of choice for our Monday meeting.

Abby and I menu-planned via Gchat at work and decided upon a quiche for our main dish. I found this recipe for a scrumptious-sounding Broccoli Garlic Quiche from now-deceased Gourmet. We vetoed making pie crust from scratch; too laborious for an after-work dinner. Abby informed me that ready-made pie crusts could be ours at the click of a mouse thanks to the urban lifesaver that is FreshDirect.

Abby found a very French-bistro-sounding salad to start with: Endive with Goat Cheese and Bacon Dressing. When I showed up at her apartment early to help cook (knives in tow!), she had all of the ingredients for both recipes ready to go.

I began making the quiche filling right away because it would need 45-50 minutes to bake. I cut up the broccoli into florets and boiled them for a few minutes in salted water, then drained and cooled them. Although Abby does not own a whisk, we made do with her hand-mixer's beater attachment to combine the eggs, half-and-half, garlic, and spices. We added some cheese, but a lot less than this recipe calls for. I poured the filling into the lovely pre-made pie shell and decoratively placed broccoli florets into the egg mixture. Ta-da...into the oven to bake. Making a quiche (with pre-made crust) is oh so easy!

For the salad, Abby began cooking up bacon in a skillet and setting it aside on paper towels once crispy. I used our makeshift whisk to mix together mustard and red wine; once the bacon was cooked, I slowly added some of the bacon fat from the pan. There you have warm bacon dressing! We crumbled the bacon over the endive leaves and tossed it all with the dressing. We didn't end up using goat cheese, but this salad was wonderful with just a little grated Parmesan sprinkled on top.

The quiche came out of the oven perfectly fluffy and moist. FreshDirect's crust was quite delicious too! We enjoyed it with some glasses of wine and steamed haricots verts with shallots and thyme that Abby bought from (you guessed it) FreshDirect's roster of sides. This dinner could be an excellent feature on Sandra Lee's show, Semi-Homemade Meals. We finished with some purchased French pastries, just as the French do!

Book club member Laura B. enjoys a piece of quiche (on a very large plate!)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ina's Meatloaf

I just realized that the titles of this week's post and the one before it sound like an advertisement for Food Network! I guess I am making more FN recipes lately since I now have a personal connection. But I've always loved Ina Garten—her show, Barefoot Contessa, and her recipes. She and her food are both so down-to-earth, approachable, lovable.

Our friends Andrea and Justin came over for dinner last night and I wanted to make something different...mainly, something not chicken. I went to the FN website and searched Ina's top-rated recipes. Sure enough, the whole first page was chicken dishes—if you've ever watched Barefoot Contessa, you know that her adorably dorky husband Jeffrey loooves chicken!—but then I got to Turkey Meatloaf. The comments were all raves, and I was intrigued.

It's been a long time since I've had meatloaf—definitely not in recent memory. But pretty much anything Ina touches is delicious, so I had no doubt it would be good. However, some people are squeamish about meatloaf, so I ran the idea by Andrea—she was all for it. At home, Zack was a little bit more skeptical—not so much about the meatloaf idea but about the use of turkey meat in it. He's still getting used to the lack of ground beef in my cooking repertoire. Still, he was up for giving it a shot.

For sides, I determined that meatloaf just naturally goes with potatoes, which are another thing I don't cook that often. I bought some really nice fingerlings at the Manhattan Fruit Exchange (my favorite spot, as you've probably noticed!) and simply roasted them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and Tony Chachere's seasoning. This is Zack's favorite—he puts it on sandwiches, salads, you name it—and it was excellent on the potatoes. We'll be bringing back a jar of it for Andrea and Justin when we go to New Orleans over Thanksgiving—it's hard to find up here.

Brussels sprouts were my green vegetable of choice. This meal—well, the meatloaf and brussels sprouts—could be themed "things kids hate." I decided to stray from my usual route of roasting the brussels sprouts, mostly because my oven was occupied with the meatloaf and potatoes. So instead I boiled the sprouts until they were pretty tender, then sliced them and sauteed them in olive oil and garlic to make a sort-of brussels sprout hash. It was nice to switch it up a bit and I really loved this preparation.

The meatloaf turned out very tasty—the onion, stock, Worcestershire, tomato paste mixture kept it extremely moist. It was probably not the best choice for a busy weeknight, took about an hour and a half to cook through. (I should have read the recipe more carefully and I would have known!) We caught up and had salad, and then when we did sit down to eat our main course around 9 pm, all of the meatloaf skeptics were converted. It isn't a very attractive dish, but very flavorful and comforting. I never doubted you, Ina.

And then, as if it were fate, INA GARTEN herself walked into the office today. Everyone at FN was just as excited as I was to see her, because apparently she barely ever comes into the city. Would you, if you lived in her amazing house in East Hampton? I think not. She gave me a warm, friendly handshake and introduced herself to ME, as if I didn't know who she was...come on now! We chatted for a couple of minutes—I told her I was a big fan and made one of her recipes just last night. It was a highlight of my Food Network experience thus far.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Channeling Paula Deen

My Southern-inspired meal

Last night, I hosted my fabulous book club at our apartment. We started it shortly after I moved to New York, and at first I'd assumed we'd serve chips and dip at book club meetings, maybe hummus and pita or even a cheese platter if we were feeling fancy. But my friend Lindsay set the bar high at the first meeting at her place. She cooked a full dinner for us, complete with a delectable from-scratch chocolate cake for dessert. For my turn to have the six girls over, hummus definitely wasn't going to cut it.

This month we read a great book, The Help by Kathryn Stockett. It takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. I decided to go all theme-y and make something Southern-inspired. I ran with the very first thought that came into my head: shrimp and grits. It's one of my favorite Southern staples and I haven't had a single grit since I left Atlanta, where they were on the menu at just about every restaurant we entered, from dives to temples of haute cuisine. I'd never made grits myself before, so I wanted to try my hand at it.

Alright, so it wasn't a Paula Deen recipe--I wouldn't feel right doing that to everyone's arteries. Browsing the bank of recipes at Food Network, I settled on one from Tyler Florence, perhaps because I met him a couple of weeks ago and helped prep pumpkin-banana pies for a special he was doing. Tyler's "Ultimate Shrimp & Grits" seemed relatively straightforward.

I wondered at first if I could even find grits in New York, but my friend Abby (a big grits fan from Florida) informed me that they were prevalent. Sure enough, there were several different kinds on the shelves of Gristedes at 21st and 8th, and I settled on the "old-fashioned" variety. I bought a pound and a half of fresh shrimp from the Lobster Place in Chelsea Market, and was pretty much good to go. Most of the other ingredients were already in my fridge or pantry.

Shrimp and chicken sausage simmering with chicken stock, onions, garlic

Even when it's not Paula's, shrimp and grits is not a very low-cal dish. I wanted to lighten Tyler's recipe up a bit, so I used andouille chicken sausage with the shrimp and only a touch of cream in the grits. I also made braised collard greens--another item I found easily in New York, at the Manhattan Fruit Market--without any ham hocks or bacon, which some Southerners would consider a travesty. I bought some turkey stock and simmered the greens in it for about an hour, until they were tender and most of the stock had been absorbed. Then I added a little apple cider vinegar to the greens. They were so flavorful! Abby, who was opposed to collard greens at first, told me that I changed her mind about them.

The secret society i.e. book club enjoying dinner

Since I'm not much of a baker, I decided to forgo an attempt at a Southern dessert. Still on a ice cream sandwich kick (see previous post), I decided to make a riff on them instead. They are well-loved in all parts of the country, after all. As a throwback to college, I bought a box of No Pudge brownies at Whole Foods. You just add non-fat yogurt to the mix, stir, and bake--we made them weekly back at Penn. We were perfectly willing to ignore the fact that No Pudge is not quite guilt-free if you split the entire pan among 3-4 people, but I digress.

Abby's excited about the return of PB chip No Pudge

One of our favorite No Pudge additions back then was peanut butter chips, so I bought those too. I used a large baking pan to make a thin sheet of peanut butter chip brownies, let them cool, and then cut small brownie circles with a thin-rimmed glass (a cookie cutter would've worked better but I don't have any). I placed the brownie circles into the freezer for a few minutes and let the ice cream (Ciao Bella vanilla gelato again) soften a bit; then I made the sandwiches the same way as last time and left them in the freezer overnight. I'm not sure if I like the cookie or brownie ones better, but they are both definitely staying in my "easy dessert" repertoire.

I got one of the highest compliments I think I've ever received for my food when my friend Rebecca said it was "the best meal I've ever had." Exaggeration or not, totally made my day and I love you Rebecca!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Great expectations

Since I've been through culinary school, cooking for people comes with high expectations. Which stresses me out. Twice in the past week, I've been invited over for wonderful meals where the cook has expressed intimidation about cooking for me, because, in their words, I'm a chef. As any self-respecting cook will tell you, graduating from culinary school does not make one a chef—especially not me, who had no intention of becoming one to begin with! I still cook simple, unfussy, relatively homey food...I just have a few techniques under my belt now, so I have more confidence (and consistency) when preparing it.

My Dad was our new apartment's inaugural dinner guest. He and my Mom were both in town the weekend prior and took us to a memorable meal at Gramercy Tavern—my Mom and I had the outstanding vegetarian tasting menu, which I heartily recommend to carnivores and vegetarians alike. After that great (and large) meal, I wasn't looking to try anything fancy at home a few days later. But naturally, I still wanted to impress—at least a little. After all, my Dad was the benefactor who put me through culinary school.

I made my pretty-much-signature creole-spiced chicken with lemon-caper sauce, which I've written about here before. I had a box of really good Italian polenta from work (great perk: lots of freebies to take home!) which I know my Dad loves, so I cooked it with some chicken stock, a little pecorino cheese, and thyme. Then I made the Ina Garten broccoli that Zack and I love so much. We started with a big salad of romaine, hearts of palm, red peppers, grape tomatoes, delicious sugar snap peas from the Manhattan Fruit Market, and some toasted slivered almonds for crunch. Zack dressed it with his own "signature" balsamic vinaigrette.

Except for the fire alarm going off yet again, the dinner went off wonderfully, with both guys (Zack and my Dad) going for seconds. Don't get mad at him, Mom—this was a pretty healthy meal. However, I'll admit that the awesome dessert I made (above) wasn't particularly low-cal. This was inspired by my friend Andrea, who had us over for dinner a couple of weeks ago and ended the meal with homemade ice cream sandwiches that I was still thinking about the next day.

Though I love trying interesting ice cream (and fro yo) flavors, Andrea used simple vanilla and the results were so outstanding that I decided to do the same. When's the last time you had a classic ice cream sandwich between two chocolate chip cookies? It brought me back to visits from the Good Humor man during childhood summers at the pool—but these were so, so much better than the good ol' chipwich. See, look how happy they are! I think (hope!) that the meal met our dinner guest's expectations.

The night before our dinner, I made a simple chocolate chip cookie recipe and flattened the dough out on the pan so the cookies would be a little thinner than usual. For the filling, I bought Ciao Bella vanilla bean gelato at Whole Foods. Wish I could say these were totally homemade, but let's be real—I don't have room for an ice cream machine even if I had one. I let the gelato soften up, spread it on the cookies, made sandwiches, then wrapped each one individually in foil and popped them in the freezer. We've been treating ourselves to bites of the leftovers all week now.