Lion's Mane

 

Mane

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?

 

2 comments

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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Another Paris Meal to Love

Blackboard
If I lived in Paris I'd be at Au Passage a lot.  Casual, comfortable, raucous and delicious, this little wine bar/bistro is the perfect place to fall into when you're hungry but not in the mood for an enormous, expensive deal.

The menu, as you can plainly see, is written on the blackboard. What you can't see is that it changes throughout the night.  Order fast - or what you want will have disappeared, replaced by who knows what. Toward midnight (they're open late) there may be very few dishes still on offer.

What the food shares is a basic simplicity. The chefs - one Brit, one Aussie and a young woman from the Phillipines - have worked with chefs like Fergus Henderson and Heston Blumenthal, so it's an informed simplicity that gives you dishes like this superb little rectangle of cod served with carrots two ways:

Cod

These excellent shrimp (the oysters are also superb) Gambas

Raw scallops, sliced and topped with homemade XO sauce:

XO

or just a plate of excellent saucisson seche, with bread, butter and pickled banana peppers.

Saucisse

There are a couple of larger dishes, including a hefty shoulder of lamb and one of the most irresistible little chickens it has ever been my pleasure to eat:

Coquelet

The little coquelet was gorgeously cooked, still moist, with a bowl of tiny potatoes and that wonderful aioli to slather across it. 

Pommes de terres

Different potatoes - floppy fresh frites - came with a square of pig's head, steamed to creamy softness, boned, breaded and fried into delirious deliciousness:

Pig head

Lovely vegetables too, like this plate of chard with a gently poached egg:

Blettes

There's an affordable winelist, filled with wines from small producers.  And graffitti like this to pass, as you walk home, through the 11th arrondissement.

Mistique

 

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Paris Notes: Ledoyen

Napoleon, it is said, met Josephine at Ledoyen.  I don't know if that's true, but it certainly could be. For years I've stared longingly at the lights of this grand old building, set in a park just off the Champs Elysees, and thought it looked like the most romantic restaurant in the world. 

Then I heard that Yannick Alleno, whose food I've always admired, had taken over the three-star kitchen.  When a celebrated chef takes on an institution - as the reviews are coming in - is always the perfect time to go. The entire establishment is on its toes. 

They certainly are. The service, from the moment you enter that gracious building, could not be more welcoming or solicitous.  You walk up a regal stairway into a large windowed room of extraordinary calm, the tables widely spaced, looking out at tree level. It is like entering a stage set: you instantly feel as if you have become, if just for the moment, a person of great privilege.

And then the food begins to arrive.  A few highlights:

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One of many precise little bites: an interpretation of oyster (that's oyster leaf, which truly tastes like an oyster), a leap of textures and flavors that plays with your head. This is a small savory ile flottante that announces, right from the start, that this chef is using classic techniques in wildly inventive ways.

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Pillows of beef tartare: the wagyu is from Gunma, the prefecture in Japan known for the sweetest, tenderest beef. Scattered throughout are little explosions of black sesame. On top, cool curls of cucumber and burnet leaf. 

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Gorgeous, isn't it?  Mackerel sashimi stuffed with a puree of shiso and set in a gorgeous hibiscus aspic. Japan filtered through a French sensibility. One of the things I love about Alleno's cooking is the way he gives humble ingredients - mackerel, squid, butternut squash - the same attention as luxurious ones like lobster, wagyu beef and foie gras.

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The polar opposite: France filtered through a purely French lens. This extremely unattractive dish was all about the mouth, but I have never had better foie gras. A huge, soft, rich cushion, poached in Riveslates (a sweet fortified wine), and paired with an equally unbeautiful (and equally delicious)  sugar-crusted poached pear.  "I can't possibly eat this much foie gras," I cried when the plate was set before me.  It turned out I was wrong.

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Who could resist a dish called "crab wrapped in calamari leaves"? The "leaves" turned out to be a kind of pasta made of pureed calamari, wrapped around crab and set in a potent grapefruit chutney whose bitterness had been tamed by almond milk.  It wasn't my favorite dish of the night, but I was intrigued by the flavors. 

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I would not have missed this dish for the world; it is a real triumph. Eel souffle in a watercress coulis, accented by little bits of beet and onion. The rich softness of the eel was underlined by the edgy green flavor of the cress, then echoed by the combination of sweet, slowly cooked beet and strong onion confit.  Again, Alleno offers a textural waltz: air and liquid circling around each other with each bite.

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Cepes en civet - it's cepe season in Paris, and this was surely the most impressive presentation we had in any restaurant, the silken mushrooms cooked with orange peel and juniper that coaxed out the deep forest flavor of the mushrooms.  Close your eyes: it's a walk in the woods. 

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I've always been a lobster purist: in the past I've merely wanted lobsters boiled and plunked on the table in the shell. After this, I'm not so sure. This lobster arrived in three takes: the tail so gorgeously grilled in a vinegar made of the coral that it was still tender.

Then there was one claw pureed and stuffed into cabbage:

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the other served with the tomally and a sauce made of the shells pressed with vinegar:

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Lobster has never been so gracefully deconstructed.

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Chicken poached in vin de jura: so simple, but so good. The golden mushrooms a lovely contrast. 

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Ask for a salad, and this is what you get, a beautiful bowl of leaves and flowers. Vegetarians are well cared for here: there is a lovely plate of cepes in parmesan, a fine dish of butternut squash.

Afterwards there is the elegant cheese cart and a parade of desserts.

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The food is intriguing and exciting, but three star dining is about much more than food.  It's a performance, and Ledoyen doesn't let you down.  The ambiance is so luxurious, the staff so convincing that by the time you leave you expect to find a coach and four waiting to whisk you home.

Alas, real life is just outside the door. Here comes your taxi. 

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Paris: One Sad Night

One of the cardinal rules of restaurant-going is this: the better the view, the worse the food.  You just don’t climb to the top of tall buildings, or sit on the waterfront, expecting a wonderful meal. 

Still, when Alain Ducasse is at the helm, you can't help having great expectations. Especially when the Guide Michelin has awarded his place a star. Which is why I happened to be halfway up the Eiffel Tower, eating at Restaurant Jules Verne on Sunday night (a notoriously difficult time to dine in Paris). 

It was, from start to finish, a miserable experience.

First: the room. If you’re seated at the window, you have the view.  If you’re not (we weren’t), you are in a room, dark as a nightclub, facing a black wall, so close to the surrounding tables you can hear them wishing each other happy birthday, transacting business, talking about their homes in White Plains (there are a lot of Americans here).  I felt as if I had been transported back in time to one of those depressing seventies discos. 

This is your first impression of your table. (Turned over, this strange brain becomes a plate.)

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Second: the service. I have never had such bad service in an expensive restaurant.  (There are only two options here: the 6 course prix-fixe at 230 euros, or the 5 course menu at 185.)  We sat for a full 10 minutes before anyone appeared to offer so much as a glass of water. It took forever for the wine to arrive.  The amuse bouche - if you could call it that - was a little dish of stone cold gougeres. When we told the surly waitress that we thought they would taste better hot, she said testily that “they can be served hot or cold, but if you’d like them hot I can warm them up.”  When they returned, barely warmer, she said “if I warmed them any more they’d be too crisp.”  I thought, longingly, of the gougeres at Daniel, made to order, wrapped in a napkin and whisked to the table. 

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Third: the food.  There’s a little note from Ducasse on the menu that says this: “A restaurant in the heart of the Eiffel Tower has always been a dream for me.... I want to share this feeling of happiness and ensure that the experience at Jules Verne remains in the memory of everyone.  More than a restaurant, it is a place of dreams and memories.”

Which is why it makes me so mad. This will be, for many who come here, their first taste of what’s supposed to be great cuisine. Their first experience of a grand restaurant.  And they come away having had sloppy, indifferent service and food that reminded me of nothing so much as first class airline food.  

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The foie gras: a cold little rectangle of pate, with a sweet fig jelly, a slim slice of duck, and a finger of fairly stale toasted brioche.  All I could think about was the fine slab of foie gras I’d eaten the night before at Ledoyen: warm, rich, perfectly cooked and paired with a caramelized pear.  I wished everyone around me could have tasted that, and understood why there's so much fuss about foie gras. 

The best course we had was a single sea scallop in a watercress veloute, topped with a few grains of excellent caviar.  The scallop was perfectly cooked, the veloute was mildly flavorful, and that caviar was a superb little mouthful.

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The worst course was called truffled macaroni au gratin with pearled veal jus.  It was five long stands of macaroni, very tough, stuck together with some cheese and topped with tasteless bits of meat. It was very much like something you’d get on an airplane.

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If you opt for the 7 course, you get both fish and meat.  The fish was a filet of sea bass, the skin and scales left on, but not crisped, so the overwhelming sense was something tough and gelatinous. Artichokes were  still clad in their indigestible outer leaves. There were a couple of mingy cepes on the plate too.

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The meat choice was actually pleasant - roasted saddle of lamb, surrounded by inocuous vegetables.  Still.... it was an easy option. 

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Dessert: very acid preserved lemon with basil sorbet.  And then a little chocolate pastry, which was the best thing we had all night. Saving the best for last.

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They had run out of the first wine we ordered, and when I asked for a suggested replacement the sommelier pointed to a far more expensive wine.  The wine we did order was going through a second fermentation, and when we mentioned that the sommelier frowned and said repressively, "This wine was chosen by M. Ducasse himself."  The bread was sad.  The light on our table (see below) kept going out;

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“Oh,” the waitress said, “the battery is tired.”  

It seemed like a fitting metaphor for the entire evening.

The ride down the Eiffel Tower, however, was an undeniable thrill. 

Up next - a truly lovely meal at Ledoyen.  And a trip down south to Lyon, to Maison Pic, to Michel Bras. And then a few more meals in Paris.....

4 comments

More Paris: Clamato

Flatbread

Everybody loves Septime, the small restaurant in the 11th, which is just about the hardest reservation in Paris.  I couldn't get in, so I was thrilled to find that their little "fisherie" next door doesn't take reservations.  We got to Clamato at noon on Sunday, eager to be first in line. (We weren't.)

It's a terrific little place, very simple, with a delicious version of Clamato (basically a Bloody Mary with clam juice), homemade Tabasco sauce, and the best looking waiters you've ever seen.  Loved everything we ate, but this flat bread at the top, slightly sweet, topped with fresh white cheese and trout roe was my favorite.

We had oysters, of course:

Oysteres

and a wonderful ceviche:

Ceviches

and this irresistible merlan, impeccably fried and extremely meaty, with it's backbone removed:

Fried

 and lovely scallops:

Scallop

 Lovely vegetables too, including this eggplant, in dashi, with little frisks of dried bonito waving from the top, like underwater sea anemones. 

Dashi

The room is cheerfully casual, the soundtrack terrific, and the clientele makes you feel like you've wandered into the most happening place in Paris.  Children wander in and out, babies coo, and everyone looks happy. But the food itself has an admirable precision; everything feels beautifully sourced and extremely well thought out.

The menu changes daily, so there's no excuse not to come again. 

4 comments

Paris: An Unexpectedly Great Meal

Livarot

Isn't this the most delicious looking round of cheese?  It's a perfectly ripe Livarot, at the wonderful wine bar, Legrand Filles et Fils in the Palais Royal neighborhood. Excellent selection of wines, terrific cheeses. But probably not the perfect place to stop for a bite between an afternoon of major meat at Desnoyer and dinner at Verjus. Can't say I arrived at dinner with an enormous appetite.

But that soon changed.  You're going to have to forgive the following photos: the light was dim, and in my enthusiasm for the flavors, textures and sheer exuberance of each dish, I didn't spend a lot of time capturing images.  The food looked lovely, but it was so intelligently put together that I couldn't help concentrating more on the way it tasted than how it had been put upon the plate.

Chef  Braden Perkins combines flavors in fascinating ways.  The 7-course prix fixe meal (68 euros) began with this ceviche of bass on a bed of fresh hummus made of cranberry beans.  Had you asked me ahead of time if I thought hummus belonged in ceviche, I would have given you an emphatically negative answer.  And I would have been wrong. The textures were completely harmonious, the silvery smoothness of the fish underscored by the grainy texture of the beans.  What really pulled the dish together though was those lightly charred snap peas, which changed the flavor profile of the plate.  Wax beans and radishes frolicked through the dish, adding lovely little bits of crunch.

Ceviche

This next course pretty much blew me away:

Pasta

Wonderful little strands of squid, looking just like pasta, topped with pasta that looked like something else. Dark green with nettles, the strands of pasta were tangled into a sauce of piquillo peppers;  crushed marcona almonds were strewn through every bite. This was such a pleasing disht that I was deeply disappointed when I looked down and realized there was nothing left.

I thought that would be the high point of the meal.  Then this arrived:

Mushrooms

Braised porcini (cepes), topped with a salad of raw sliced mushrooms.  Here the flavors were underlined by the sweet woodsy taste of hazelnuts, the savage wildness of strong arugula and a bit of burnt lemon powder.  Those little black dots dancing across the plate?  Dehydrated mushrooms. 

So far this food had been extremely delicate, but it was about to become more forceful. And here it comes...

Carrot

an impeccable little rabbit sausage.  Most sausages are bursting with fat or dry as dust; this one was simply filled with flavor.  A brilliant use of rabbit, the taste of the meat was enhanced by pickled grains of mustard that popped inside the mouth, the earthy sourness of mustard greens and the gentle sweetness of blackberry.

  Duck

Terrible picture; my apologies. This duck breast was wonderful: cooked rare, slightly smokey, and served with celery root and a sauerkraut made of red cabbage pricked with caraway. 

  Granita

A pre-dessert: granita of apples perched on a strangely wonderful panna cotta that tasted like winter in the forest. Such an interesting pairing: the sweetness of the apples, the prickly sharpness of the pine. 

  Lemoncake

Salted lemon cake - just a square, in froth of lemon creme anglaise with blackberry sorbet melting across the top.  What’s lovely here is the utter lack of cloying sweetness: the perfect coda to a really impressive meal. 

The room is lovely, the service sweet, and all over the room people were murmuring happily, loath to leave their tables.

I can't wait to go back.  

 

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First Taste of Paris

Hugo

This is Hugo Desnoyer, the celebrity butcher of Paris, hand-chopping steak tartare. He just won Le Figaro's contest for best tartare in the city.

And no wonder.

His pristine shop out by the Bois de Boulogne is a lively place; when someone comes in for a large order, one of the butchers brings out whole sides of meat and cuts off what is ordered. The cases are filled with all manner of prepared foods - from meat-stuffed peppers to sausages and salads. They even have their own gorgeous line of caviar.

You can watch the action from one of the twelve seats at the tall tables in front, while you sip wine and eat that amazing tartare.  Perhaps you'd prefer your hand-chopped meat to be veal:

Tartare
Or perhaps this carpaccio of beef: I've never had better.

Carpaccio
If cooked meat is your pleasure, there are many choices.  This ribeye (for 2), was mine:

Ribeye

The meat was great - the fat even better.  And those bones!

I went to Desnoyer right from the airport (well, I did drop my luggage off first).  It was quite a start to a marathon few days of eating.

Up next: a great wine bar, and one of the best (and best bargain) meals I've ever had in Paris. 

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Brisket and Bourbon

John

"You're killing me!" Susan Orlean wrote to BBQ Pitmaster John Markus; she was on the other coast, which meant missing another spectacular dinner at his house.  

I, on the other hand, was more fortunate.  And as the evening approached, things got better. And better still.

"The Maysville guys are coming to cook," John wrote a week ago.  "Don't bring anything."  And then, in a final email a few days later he added, "They're bring bubbly, whites and reds, so don't bother bringing wine." What he neglected to mention was the Pinhook Bourbon they also had in tow.

Oysters

It was an amazing meal.  It started with these oysters, cooked on hay, topped with brown butter and shallots.  I'm not a big fan of hot oysters.  Let me amend that: I've never been a fan before.  But these - briny Island Creeks - were perfect.  Hot shells, but inside them the oysters were still firm, just lightly warmed so that the flavors really popped. Amazing.

Chefs

This is the chefs, Kyle Knall and Micah Mowrey, cooking chicken beneath a brick on the uberWeber.  (The largest Weber grill I've ever seen, it was a gift from Adam Perry Lang.)  The chicken, incidently, was remarkable; tender, smoky, and served with salsify.  It actually stood up to the brisket, which I would not have considered anywhere within the realm of possiblity.

Many different kinds of wood were employed in the smoking of the meat; John has an entire library of woods, and he can tell you why you want to use each one. We talked.  We nibbled cheese and fantastic Maysville-made charcuterie.  We sipped chilled tomato soup, still sweet, but with the slightest hint of tartness, a reminder that we're on the brink of fall. The light began to fade.

Table

We sat outside - Indian summer - completely magical.  The food was so abundant it's hard to recall every bite. I remember smoked trout. That amazing chicken. Delicata squash, surrounded by leaves, topped with shards of cheese. And this wonderful tangle of flavors: 

Beans

extraordinary beans, all local,

Farro

And this, another vegetable medley: farro, herbs, salsify, carrots, and remarkably sweet beets.

Grilled peaches. And then, of course, the brisket, the deckle rich with fat, the flat smoked to a gorgeous ring:

Brisket

Even now, two days later, I can recall the way the smoke infused each bite and how the meat seemed to literally melt when it was in my mouth. 

Afterward there were many desserts, including a chocolate concoction somewhere between pudding and mousse.  And then this, which pushed the entire evening over the top:

Images

It was a perfect evening, at summer's edge.  A few months from now, when snow is covering the ground, it is this night that I'll remember. 

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A New Favorite Fall Food

Bean in_out

There’s something perversely satisfying about a pile of decaying shelling beans. They don't look like much - all black freckles, and yellowing skins - but when you pull them apart you find shiny beans the color of pearls. 

In years past, shelling beans came and went with little fanfare. But this year's different: nearly every farmers market stall is bursting with fresh legumes. Fresh cannellini, fresh black-eyed peas…I've even seen fresh black beans. Somehow it was these sad-looking canary beans that captured my imagination. Native to Peru, where they're called mayacobas, they resemble especially buttery cannellini beans. Eaten raw they're reminiscent of tarbais, the traditional cassoulet bean. Cooked, they make a really wonderful dip.

A few notes: You want the ugly, slightly yellowing beans (they're the ripest), but avoid the slimy ones. When they're too far gone they start to rot. Be sure to use good olive oil; it's a dominant flavor in the dip. Add whatever fresh herbs you favor, but not so many that they mask the gentle flavor of the beans. Myself, I like the slight zip that comes with a small sprinkling of scallion and chives. 

Dip

Fresh White Bean Dip

1 pound fresh canary shelling beans, shelled

Salt

1-2 cloves garlic

Good olive oil

Parsley

4 Chives

2 Scallions

1/4-1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1 lemon wedge

Pepper

Shell your beans, making sure to discard any individual beans that are beginning to rot. Put them in a heavy pot, cover them with water,  bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer for 30-45 minutes, or until they're completely tender.  Add salt at the end and turn off the flame. (I find that salting beforehand makes for a slightly tougher bean.)

While the beans are cooking, mince the garlic, chives, and scallions. Finely chop the parsley. 

Strain the beans, saving the cooking liquid. Toss them into a food processor, add a splash of the cooking liquid and a good glug of olive oil and blend, adjusting the consistency with the cooking liquid. Add another good glug of olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Add just enough garlic for it to enhance, and not overpower, the beans. Squeeze the lemon wedge over the beans, add a quarter teaspoon of vinegar and taste to see if you want to add more. 

Stir in the herbs, adjust the seasoning, and serve with a little bit more olive oil splashed across the top. This is great with crusty bread or focaccia. 

Makes 4-6 appetizer servings.

Open bean

 

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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.