Friday, May 29, 2009

Confessions, and an excuse to gloat

I have a confession to make. And it’s an embarrassing one, so brace yourselves. I’ve never eaten a croissant. There, I said it.

Even though the flaky pastries have such inarguably French roots, I feel like they’ve become a global phenomenon as the gold standard of breakfast fare. When people hear my news, they almost always predictably gasp at the horror of me never having tried one. The thawed fast food excuse-for-croissants have never even crossed these lips. I could say that I’ve been waiting until I’m able to travel to their country of origin to try one – that the American imitations of such a long-heralded French tradition are abominations, but that would be a lie. I wouldn’t know.

But what I will say is that there is no time like the present, or the immediate foreseeable future, rather, to conquer another culinary great. I’m going to France.

I’m sorry, no. I’m going to FRANCE!! That’s better. My first mission abroad will include France and Spain, and it will include me leaving in about one week. My stomach and I are so excited we both might burst. I imagine wonderful cheeses, and wines, both consumed while sitting in or near an ancient castle (this is when my imagination begins to go wild), but I also imagine croissants. The latter being a more realistic daydream than perhaps dining in a castle, I plan on eating my fill with an elevated pinky finger in Paris, and then in Tours, and then in St. Raphael, and Avignon, and Nice. I’ll stop, I’m sorry, I’m gloating. I simply can’t help it.

I have a week to go and what feels like a million things to get in order, but consider this advance warning for my absence. For now, I will continue bringing recipes and stories, and who knows, I might even be able to bring back a few croissants.

(**Thankyou, Google Image Search, for allowing me to find lovely croissant picture that is better than one I could ever take.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Legal herbs, and a great big pile of vegetables

I’ve been thinking a lot about herbs lately. The legal kind, mind you; leave it to me to daydream about thyme and basil instead of the illicit, much more devious derivative of hemp.

Needless to say, when you live in an apartment, the closest thing you can get to growing your own produce in time for summer is a nice little indoor herb garden. I think I might start my own, and soon, before it becomes too late. Summer produce can hold its own all season long, but herbs always just make everything a little brighter – they function like little taste boosters, the well-meaning accomplices in whatever you happen to be cooking up.

Under some great spell of luck, the owners of the restaurant where I work took a chance on me and my very green culinary aptitude last summer, when I was allowed to work in the kitchen. Among close calls with open ovens, too many band-aids and burned fingers to count, and cheesecake recipes done four times over, there was also the invaluable experience of getting to know the garden that we harvested almost all of our produce from. I especially enjoyed this; not only because it proved a much less dangerous task than honing my knife skills on buckets of onions, but because I became familiar with a world of new vegetables, flowers, and of course, herbs.

After a few weeks of being sent out back with little direction other than “grab a few golden beets” or “we need kohlrabi,” I gradually started becoming efficient. I would no longer bring back weeds when asked for dill or stand in the middle of two rows in the garden, desperately staring, trying to will any and all French breakfast radishes to appear before me. The herbs in the greenhouse, as you can probably imagine, proved to be the most deceiving of all: the scheming plants all looked identical to my untrained eye, all just a general sweep of little green sprouts.

Things improved drastically when I started taste testing. I quickly recognized the familiar flavors like basil, dill, and parsley, and got to know some herbs that strayed from the kitchen classics. One such herb, that I have since found to be quite underrated, is tarragon. It smells only slightly of licorice, and has a flavor that is both bit bitter and earthy all at once; it also happens to work quite will with mushrooms, which is exactly what I decided to do – since I promised you a great bit pile of vegetables to brighten things up around here.

I based my dish loosely on Epicurious’ “Asparagus with Morels and Tarragon,” but I found myself missing quite a few ingredients (and the thick wallet to buy morels), so what resulted is more of a suggested ingredients list:

As much asparagus as you can possibly eat (white or green, or both)

Mushrooms (I would recommend using varieties with slightly more flavor, like Shitake and Porcini, but the plain old button mushrooms would certainly do the trick)

Shallots, minced

Olive Oil


Fresh Lemon Juice

Fleur de Sel and Cracked Black Pepper

I started by trimming the asparagus and cutting it into 2-inch sections, and then I blanched them in a great big pot of boiling salted water. (The more salt, the better – it should smell like the ocean, but not quite as nostalgic.) From there, all that is required is sautéing the shallots in oil until translucent, tossing in your mushrooms, and at the last minute, adding your asparagus and seasoning. I bet this would be even more lovely finished with a touch of cream, or perhaps a poached egg on top.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Colossal Toss Up

I’m trying to decide if being a food critic would be entirely the best job ever, or alternately, the worst.

I’ve been thinking about this, of course, ever since I heard that Frank Bruni was leaving his post as the NY Times critic. If you haven’t heard, he has written a book called Born Round, and in order to promote it he must officially unveil himself; thus, he must step down as the elusive Times critic.

But, who would want a job that prevents you from being yourself, one that requires a disguise in public? Then again, who wouldn’t want a job that pays you to eat at some of the nicest restaurants in Manhattan multiple times and awards you with formidable power on the restaurant scene? I can just imagine telling the Times, quite deviously, that I still wasn’t sure after two visits to New York’s swankiest new restaurant, and that I needed to go again to complete my “research.” But wouldn’t running to the bathroom between each course to jot down notes take all of the pleasure out of an industry whose sole intention is to please? You can see I’m experiencing somewhat of a dilemma. It’s a colossal toss-up.

In the end, for me, enjoying meals at restaurants wholeheartedly, rather than mixing business with pleasure, trumps wigs and sunglasses. Because who wants to suppress all forms (visceral and otherwise) of reaction to delicious food so as not to be noticed by suspicious matire’d’s? Not I, that’s who. I’d like to retain the right to moan or giggle or even curse when I taste something extraordinary. To me, that's the best part.

What does everyone else think?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Drink sidebar, and something pink

I’ve been working at an upscale restaurant for a few years now, and as such, I’ve learned a thing or two about wine. I’m no sommelier, to be sure, but I can direct a discerning costumer in the direction of a Pinot with “more fruit,” or something that would accompany scallops. I may not know exactly what all of it means, but I try. Of course, if all fails, it comforts me to know I always have the “well, I’m not yet 21 so I can’t tell you how it tastes, but let me get our sommelier for you” line up my sleeve in dire emergencies.

Since the Still River Café is located in what very recently used to be one of the two last dry towns in Connecticut, you can imagine the town’s disgust when someone not only wanted to open an upscale restaurant there, but wanted to serve alcohol in it as well. A long story cut dreadfully short, we are only allowed to serve beer and wine – and only to customers who are eating in our restaurant. Even still, I get tables asking for scotches neat and martinis extra dirty almost every night.

I also get tables almost every night that very dramatically fake wine tastings. Here’s what I mean: “Tasting the bottle” is standard protocol in our restaurant; we pour a sip, the diner tastes it and then gives us the go ahead to pour the rest of the glasses. Let me assure you, if I was ordering a fancy bottle of red to go with my meal I’d want to pretend I knew what I was doing, too. But those who swirl for a good two minutes and stick their noses so far into the glass they threaten it’s fragile glass walls should perhaps think about toning it down. And try to not have food in your mouth. A kindly word to all of those who feel on the spot when asked to taste wine:

Not all of us know how long is enough to let wine breath, or to do the obligatory swirl in the glass before it is tasted for the first time. Not all of us even know if wine is a bit “off” or if it tastes as it should. This is universally understood, I promise you. To fake successfully and subtly, all that is required is a quick swirl, a quick sip, and a quick nod to your server.

One drink that both does not (always) require anything more than wine and certainly doesn’t warrant an oxidizing swirl is white sangria. You can make white sangria with almost any fruit your heart desires or your local grocery carries. Perfectly summery, it can always have a customized taste; the one I made is just barely sweet, with still enough of a bite to render it almost a sophisticated cousin of the wine itself. (So I was told, of course.)

Here is the recipe, adapted from Gourmet’s “Herbal Sangria,” although it’s more like a suggested list of ingredients: feel free to swap out the grapes for blood oranges or grapefruits, or anything else that strikes your fancy.

“Rough Blueprint for Delicious Sangria:”

1 – ½ bottles leftover white wine (or freshly opened, if you insist)
1/3 cup simple syrup (simply, 1/3 c. sugar and 1/3 water simmered until sugar is dissolved)

About 10 rosemary sprigs (I’ve also used thyme, and I like to infuse this into the simple syrup)

¼ c. lemon juice
1 c. green, seedless grapes
1 tsp. cardamom pods, crushed

They suggest making the simple syrup first (I just add the sprigs to infuse), and then in a separate bowl, muddling the grapes with a potato masher. Once that’s done, add cooled simple syrup and everything else (here is where I add blood orange juice). Let it chill for at least 8 hours and serve over ice. Enjoy on a porch, and preferably a porch swing, on a nice warm night.

Something Green

I need to make something green.

Yes, the cake with flowers on it was a step up from the murky, brownish-green lentil pile I delivered to you in my opening act, but I have yet to deliver a dish as colorful as it tastes. Plus, I’m going on vacation soon and green does the body good (unless it’s mint chocolate chip ice cream).

Stay tuned for something along the lines of asparagus soup, or perhaps just a big pile of vegetables.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fair Weather Cook?

It seems I'm not living up to the grand mission statement I posted at the beginning of this blog's creation. I said that you'd see mostly savory foods on here, that I don't love to bake, and now, I've decided to show you a cake recipe second. A cake. Not even a slightly savory dessert - one with pistachios or salted caramel perhaps - but a classic, sugary, buttery, cream cheesy, lemony layer cake. But oh, it was delicious.

Even though you might think me a fair weather cook at this point (what with my crossing party lines so early in the game) in my defense, it was my brother's birthday. And birthdays always call for cake, always. Also, since my brother is one of that weird breed who doesn't like chocolate (I think they're all lying just to stay trim, it simply can't be true) I had to veer from my standby decadent birthday cake in search of something much less chocolatey. My mother (I will give credit where credit is due) stumbled on the recipe for this lovely lemon cake - light, springy, and citrus-scented. It was right up the alley of one who (pretend) hates chocolate. Now, I will stop with all of the parentheticals (although they are fun) and deliver the cake that I promised.

Here it is, all pretty and yet to be cut into:

There is no reason to rewrite the recipe, when it is already written out on another lovely blog here.

Friday, May 8, 2009

I haven't forgotten...

To you (three) who I hope might be checking my young little blog, I want you to know that I have not forgotten. My wrists are afflicted with carpel tunnel as I come to the end of dreadful finals week (I'm cramming for my last one now), but I will be back soon, with plenty of recipes to share!