2015 Gift Guide, Day Four

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Steam Me Up

This traditional Japanese rice pot somehow makes rice taste better.  And it goes easily from the stove to the table, where it sits looking serenely ceramic and incredibly lovely.

But that's not why I love  it so much. These days I find myself steaming foods  - from vegetables to seafood to dumplings - with increasing frequency. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a great steamer? Like most steaming enthusiasts I've got a cupboard filled with bamboo steamers, and I like them fine.  They're useful. They're cheap. But they take up a lot of space and they're nearly impossible to clean.

If you have a conscientious eater on your list, someone who’s low on time and eager to steam, check out this beautiful rice cooker from Shed. It’s not cheap ($180), but its a truly beautiful object, a little piece of kitchen sculpture.  And it's incredibly easy to clean.

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Three

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Truly Fabulous Fruitcake


I know, I know - everybody hates fruitcake.

But not this one. Baked to order of locally sourced all-organic ingredients, this is the fruitcake you've always longed for.  No red and green cherries - just lots of great dried fruit and nuts (it weighs two and a half pounds.)

Robin McKay first made these fruitcakes for her partners' English family.  This year, for the first time, she's been persuaded to make more for her friends.

Order now, from www.robinskitchenview.com and you'll have fruitcake in time for Christmas. You won't be sorry.

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Two

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One Great Apron

If you're going to wear an apron, it should do more than simply look good. The Contra Apron, does. Made of waxed cotton, it's heavy, water-resistent, comes in three colors and has a pocket exactly where you want one.  

Looks pretty good too!

Tilit makes aprons for all the coolest restaurants (Blue Hill, Empellon, Shuko, Hungry Cat, M. Wells, Bar Primi - the list is very long).  This apron was designed for the staff at Contra, and it's made to look good no matter what disaster befalls you in the kitchen.  It's just part of the line of kitchen clothing, which includes aprons, chef's jackets and pants. Give the company enough time and they'll even customize aprons to your exact specifications. 

 

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2014 Gift Guide: Day One

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This year, it seems, everyone is in a pickle: fermentation is all the rage.

But the truth is, pickles are pretty easy.  Sauerkraut, on the other hand, presents a challenge. You need to weight the cabbage down, a trick most home-fermenters accomplish by jerry-rigging a tippy tower of bowls. There’s also the problem of finding the right vessel: even a small jar of kraut requires you to start with something bigger (and heavier) than a milk jug. 

That's why I think so highly of these fermentation crocks. If you have a true food warrior on your list, you can be pretty sure they're dabbling with pickles.  And any home pickler would be thrilled to find one of these beautiful crocks from Mudslide Stoneware sitting beneath the tree. They come in various sizes and colors, each one fitted with ceramic weights. (And if your friend's not into pickling, they work really well for yogurt.) 

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Pretty (Easy) in Pink

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One of my favorite party foods is muhammara, the dip made of red peppers, walnuts, garlic and pomegranate molasses. Much as I love the sweet and sour flavor, it's the color, I think, that most appeals to me; having something so flashy and sassy sitting on my counter always makes me happy.

So when I saw the recipe for David Leibowitz's beet hummus it stopped me cold; the color is so similar.  Why, I thought, didn't I think of that?

David's recipe is really simple - and really good for you.  It's almost half beets.  Garlic and lemon kick in a little punch. And right behind that is the seductive tanginess of pomegranate molasses.

Thanks, David, great idea. 

Beet Hummus
From David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen

12 ounces cooked, peeled and diced red beets 
2/3 cup cooked, drained chickpeas (use canned chickpeas if you like)
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
6 tablespoons tahini (buy the best that you can; some brands are awful)
2 teaspoons salt, plus more if you feel like it
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice 
generous pinch of cayenne pepper or smoked chile powder (I used urfa pepper)
1½ tablespoons pomegranate molasses

Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and whirl it around until it's nearly smooth. Dip in a finger and adjust salt or lemon to your own taste. That's it.

This will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.  David says it keeps in the freezer for up to 6 months; not sure I'd try keeping it that long.

 

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Such an Easy Appetizer

 

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Made a mushroom tart the other day that was so easy - and so delicious - I thought I’d pass the recipe on.

Saute 3 minced shallots in a tablespoon of butter. When the fragrance begins to rise from the pan, add 12 ounces or so of ordinary mushrooms and saute until they’ve surrendered all their juices. Keep cooking until the liquid has evaporated.  (At medium heat this will take 20 to 30 minutes.)  Add salt and pepper, then a good slug of cream sherry, and cook, stirring, until the sherry has cooked away.  Set aside to cool. 

Preheat the oven to 400. 

Plunk a package of defrosted frozen puff pastry (I use Dufour) onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Spread 12 ounces of well-drained ricotta (I like Bellweather Farms basket ricotta, which is pre-drained), across the pastry, then cover it with the mushrooms.  Grate a small blizzard of parmesan cheese across the top and put it into the oven for about 25 minutes.

This will serve 8 people as a cocktail snack.

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Dirty French

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Dirty French is a frustrating restaurant.  The staff is so lovely you worry they’ve all been indoctrinated into some new cult of niceness you have yet to hear about. They smile. They banter. They enthuse about the food and wine. And they’re determined to make sure you have a good time.

If you order the right things, you definitely will.   

Start with the "millefeuille" pictured above. It’s a brilliant dish.  When it arrives you think it's layers and layers of flakey, buttery pastry. Touch it with your fork and you continue to be fooled: the outside is that crisp.  Only when you have taken a bite, and your mouth has flooded with the flavor of mushrooms do you understand the trickery.  This is pure thinly shaved mushroom - layers and layers of the cool fungus, buttered and shaped inside in a mold. 

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But what’s even smarter is that this imitation of a French pastry is served with a Thai green curry so intense it plays with your head. You don’t know where in the world you are.  But you do know that this is fabulous food from a talented chef.

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 Go on to the “duck a l’orange” and you’ll be even happier.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a duck as delicious as this one, the skin crisp, the meat dense and rich, with a thrillingly meaty flavor. The hint of orange, of spice, is a nice touch, but this is duck so wonderful you gladly eat it naked. 

Finish up with the beignets - which are really closer to zeppole than anything invented in France, and you will go floating out the door. 

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There are other impressive dishes here as well.  The flatbread  that begins the meal is warm, fragrant and floppy, served with soft, seductive sheep’s milk cheese. The oyster show is a little hokey - the servers stand there explaining each of the offerings - but the oysters themselves are cold, crisp, filled with clear briny liquor.  The frisee aux lardons, which comes with a skewer of blazing gizzards and a perfectly poached egg, would pretty much make a meal. 

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But you could easily order a meal that leaves you scratching your head. I’ve rarely met a clam I didn’t like, but the clams almondine came close. A take on clams casino, the warm chewy clams were smothered in the awkward embrace of some nuts.  They were not happy there. 

The lamb carpaccio is soft and pleasant, but the flavor of the lamb vanishes beneath the blizzard of spices.  

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And that chicken and crepes.... Served for two (although it would probably feed four, mitigating its $72 price), arrives in two services. The first is a sizzling pot of gorgeously tender breast swimming in deliciously mustardy fat (is that foie gras in there?) The chicken is tender, like velvet in the mouth, but the point of wrapping it in the few mingy little crepes kind of gets lost. There are so few crepes - and they don’t do the chicken any favors.   

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Then the dark meat arrives: it is crisped, infused with Asian spices.  You taste fish sauce and lemongrass, and then you stop thinking altogether and just tear into the meat. This is about as good as chicken gets.  You could wrap it in those crepes, I suppose, for a kind of Peking Chicken. But the crepes are gone by now, and anyway, the chicken is so damn delicious on its own.

But the brook trout?  Despite the ornate topping, fairly boring. 

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The bouilliabaisse?  Spicy, dark, with a fine broth and the felicitious addition of octopus.  Still, it struck me as rather polite, compared to the raucous effect of the better dishes.  

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But it's early days, and this is a restaurant with such exciting potential I find myself longing to go back, to see what the chefs are up to, how the dishes are developing. The Torrisi boys (Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi) are tackling French tradition in the same way they took on Italian American food: with talent, intelligence and imagination.  They're looking back while moving forward. 

 

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Hurray for Hozon!

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I’ve known about David Chang’s food lab for some time, but I've never really known what takes place behind those closed doors.  It seems that unlike other flavor companies (Givaudan comes to mind), who are asking “how can we mimic real food with synthetics?" Chang and his team are moving in the opposite direction. They're trying to tease even more umami out of ordinary raw ingredients. It’s a tantalizing project. 

When I heard about Kaizen Trading Company, the food lab’s first real product line, I was eager to find out more. They've been introducing koji, the natural fermentor used to make miso and soy sauce, into other grains and legumes (chickpeas, sunflower seeds and rye). The result? Miso-like pastes of astonishingly depth called hozon, and a rye bonji (in the style of soy sauce) that has a tantalizing sweetness; I would gladly drink it straight from the bottle. 

But what to do with hozon? My first attempt (after simply gobbling it up by the spoonful), was to substitute it for miso in one of my favorite Japanese dishes, nasu no dengaku.  I ended up with that same seductively soft flesh infused with something more complex than ordinary miso.I can't wait to try hozon in other dishes: I've been thinking about that misobutter corn I've always loved so much at Saam Bar.  

Hozon isn’t yet available to consumers (except via Quinciple), but I'm hoping they'll hurry this great product into production.

(I used small italian eggplants for the photograph above, but only because I couldn't find any Japanese eggplants. They'd work better.)

Hozon Eggplant

4 Japanese eggplants
Salt
Vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons hozon or miso 
1 Tablespoon sake
1 Tablespoon mirin
1 Tablespoon sugar

Preheat the oven to 425.

Halve the eggplants. Using a sharp knife, score each cut side deeply, making sure not to cut through the skin. Salt well and let sit for 15 or 20 minutes. 

Dry the eggplant thoroughly. Brush a fair amount of vegetable oil on all sides of the eggplant and arrange them, cut side down, on a baking sheet. Roast until the flesh is completely tender, which should take 15 or 20 minutes. 

Meanwhile, prepare your glaze by mixing together the hozon, sake, mirin and sugar. 

When the eggplant is perfectly roasted, turn it over in the pan and brush on the glaze. Turn on the broiler. 

Broil the eggplant for one minute and then pull out to check. You want a golden color--for the glaze to be lightly caramelized; if it is not quite golden, return it to the broiler for another 30 seconds or so.

 

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Lion's Mane

 

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If we had stopped to put gas in the car, we would have missed it. But it was almost sunset, and I wanted to get to one of my favorite produce stands before they took everything in for the night. Et Cetera Farm is just a little cart by the side of the road, but on it you can find ginger, greens, purple carrots, tomatoes and eggs. They make their own kimchi and grow what must be the only rice in Columbia County.

We were thumbing through nubs of resplendent young ginger when an old truck pulled up next to the stand and the driver emerged holding something the size of a baseball; from far away it looked like coral or sheep’s wool. As he drew closer the wind wafted toward us, sending out the unmistakable scent of mushrooms.

“It’s called lion’s mane,” he said.

“Where did you find it?” I asked, stupidly.

“In the woods somewhere.” The man gestured around at the landscape, his eyes shifting.  I blushed; I'd forgotten the first rule of mushrooms: never ask a forager where he finds his treasures. 

As the man traded the mushroom for vegetables, the farmers glanced my way. "Have you ever tasted this?" they asked.  When I shook my head they broke off a little piece and shyly handed it over.

At home, a little nervous, I looked it up.  Apparently this is a safe and easy mushroom; nothing poisonous remotely resembles its shaggy beauty.  I brushed away small bits of dirt with a mushroom brush and tore the lion’s mane into pieces the size of a fingernail.  Melting a little olive oil and a bit of butter, I gently sautéed the mushroom until it turned golden. By the time it hit the table, our fantastical mushroom had shriveled to fifteen micro-bites. I savored each one, amazed at the whoosh of forest flavor filling my mouth. 

My problem now: where do I get more?

 

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More France

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Beautiful, right?  Maybe it's because Anne-Sophie Pic is the only woman chef in France with three Michelin stars, but her food is the loveliest I've seen.  Hard to imagine a prettier way to present seasonal vegetables in a green tea- infused broth - or a more delicious way to conceive an essentially  simple dish.

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 This was equally delicate, and equally delicious.  Squid, tenderly cooked, and served with two kinds of tomatoes.  Some were real, others spherified into an intense vanilla-laced liquid.  Served in a rum-laced consomme, it had a tropical intensity so profound  you instantly imagined warm breezes wafting through the rather staid Maison Pic. 

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Those were two of the dishes on the daily lunch special, which began with this marvel - foie gras creme brulee, topped with lemon cream and a tiny crisp of apple.  I could have stopped right there and gone home happy.  

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Other hits in a long lunch included these "berlingots" (the little leaf-wrapped dumplings take their name from a pyramid-shaped classic French candy) filled with Banon cheese in a watercress broth spiced with ginger and bergamot.  

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Chef Pic has a penchant for floral flavors - rosewater and jasmine abound in her dishes - and these tender little langoustines luxuriate in a buttered broth with hints of apple, cinnamon, celery and anise. It made me wonder if there is perfume in Pic's future.

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The cheese cart is encyclopedic, and so wonderful I wanted to taste every one of the 25 cheeses.  With great restraint I limited myself to these:

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The wine list is impressive too, especially if you're eager to try local vintages.  The viognier was fresh, and so delicate it reminded me of  how little the viognier made in America resembles what is made here in the Rhone. A wonderful food wine - as were a few of the inexpensive Village wines we sampled from the list.   Afterward there were a couple of gorgeous desserts:

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The famous white millefeuille, and this lovely large cookie, each bite different than the one before. 

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From Valence it's a mere 35 minutes on the TGV back to Lyon. You might opt for one of the many bouchons, like the hip, raucous Bouchon des Filles, which is run by women.  Here you indulge in hearty meals that are the polar opposite of Pic.  

It will begin with a hefty slab of pate de foie gras:

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Then the waitress will plunk a series of bowls on the table. Help yourself to lentil salad, to carrots with mackerel, to head cheese and leafy greens - as much as you care to eat.

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Then, if you're smart, you'll go on to quenelles - pike mousse in a rich shellfish cream sauce:

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Or kidneys.  Or the local andouille sausage. Afterward there will be cheese, including the local speciality tete de canut (silkworker's head) with its many herbs. And there are still desserts - many of them - to come.

Too much?  The 25 euro prix fixe meal at Bouchon des Filles is a terrific lot of food.  Perhaps you'd prefer to wander along the Quai St. Antoine until you come to one of the seafood restaurants along the river. We had this wonderful array at Jols.  

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It's not a celebrated restaurant, but it made us very, very happy.

 

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About this journal
Where am I eating? What's for dinner tonight? And what books have I been reading? For a look at what's going on in my life lately, take a look at this journal, which I try to update on a regular basis.