Monday, August 31, 2009

Up On The Avenue

Paul heroically rode his bicycle from Penn Station to Montauk this past Saturday, despite the hurricane that was passing over Long Island at the time. I on the other hand hitched a ride (in a car) with the wife of one of the other ride participants. As the two of us had a bit of extra time on our hands once on the eastern end of the island, we stopped off in East Hampton to ogle beautiful houses (there were many worth ogling) and to walk along the beach before heading out to Montauk. I believe I saw more loafers, khakis and sweaters tied jauntily around shoulders that day than I have in all of my days leading up to that one combined. So perhaps that is why I felt compelled to head up to Madison Avenue, another locale with a high loafer/sweater/khakis concentration, on Sunday for a wander along my favorite stretch.

I tend to stay downtown for the most part, but I do often enjoy the civilized, well groomed atmosphere of the Upper East Side. And although Fifth Avenue affords a bucolic view of Central Park and Park Avenue, with orderly compounds of wealth and privilege lining either side of the street, provides an odd sense of comfort, I prefer the pedestrian traffic and retail options on Madison. Although it is not the sort of place that I tend to stumble across a wonderful new establishment with any regularity (especially now when there seems to be vacant storefront on every block), I always enjoy going back to my favorite spots over and over again.

I've decided that 92nd Street is the northern boundary on "my" retail district, since Blue Tree, a quirky household/clothing/shoe/children's toy/jewelry store sits just below it.

Owned by the actress Phoebe Cates, the store is one of those places that seems to specialize in no one thing, yet every piece of inventory is impossibly cool. And you also get the feeling that the items they carry are, if not one of a kind, at least will not be seen in every home or on every woman in the neighborhood. And for that reason it works perfectly as a go-to spot for gifts and as an excellent spot to browse when you're in need of a bit of inspiration.

Just south, on 85th Street, is Dean & Deluca.

Obviously Dean & Deluca is neither a hidden gem nor even a singular location. However, I have to admit that I love this particular location, and really only tolerate the others.

The flowers here are bountiful,

I come across various baking supplies that I can't find anywhere else (pearl sugar and golden maple sugar for instance), the produce is perfect, the baked goods and chocolate confections are plentiful, and I have the entire panoply of Mariage Freres tea at my fingertips.

I adore the Marco Polo variety and have an unnatural affection for Casablanca. As they have canisters of virtually each one there for the sniffing, you too can go in and determine your favorites.

After indulging my penchant for divine but overpriced tea I like to indulge my penchant for independent bookstores at Crawford Doyle Booksellers just south of 82nd Street.

I have no idea how long this store has been in existence, but I will say that it appears to harken back to a time when the money in this neighborhood was old and the pursuits of the rich tended more towards the intellectual rather than the frivolous.

The store is small and the inventory is thus in some manner limited, but it doesn't feel that way in the least. I come across more books that I have never heard of and yet yearn to read here than nearly anywhere else, and they stock a few choice design, fashion and photography books, all of which I covet intensely. If you are into early editions, the upper floor (or rather mezzanine I suppose, floor is a bit of a strong word for it) is full of them.

At this point I often need a bit of a refreshment, just a taste of something lovely. It can be hard work beating my way through the leisurely walkers and strollers lining the sidewalk you know. Thankfully, near 78th Street lies the inimitable La Maison du Chocolat.

I believe that my first taste of a truffle from this purveyor occurred at this very shop, and oh what a momentous day it was. The chocolates are dainty in size (the size of two small bites I would say, which in my book is perfection), the chocolate coating is thin enough to require no effort to shatter, and the centers taste intensely of pure cocoa, perfumed delicately with whatever flavoring the great chocolatiers have settled on. Although I don't consider their macarons to be my favorite in New York (Le Madeleine takes that crown), their chocolates are simply unparalelled (although Kee's comes in a close second).

If you are in need of something more serious than chocolate, pop into Bemelmans Bar, the watering hotel at the Carlyle Hotel on 76th Street.

I can't say that this would necessarily be my choice for a cocktail on a warm sunny day. After all the room is largely windowless, and with the low lighting and jazz pianist and, it's all a bit sultry for mid afternoon. For that reason I tend to find myself here at cocktail hour more often than during the day. However, the murals on the wall, painted by the illustrator of the wonderful Madeline books, Ludwig Bemelmans, are just whimsical enough to excuse any hard drinking during teatime. And as a plus, for the ladies out there who enjoy the charms of silver foxes, this is most certainly their version of a salt lick.

Fortified by either chocolate or booze, the Whitney Museum is often a welcome next stop.

While not everyone likes the Brutalist style in which this museum has been built, I welcome it, especially in the sea of architectural banality that is Madison Avenue (why this is I don't know, but there is not one attractive building, save possibly the Ralph Lauren store, on this stretch of the avenue). The museum exhibits American Art, generally relatively modern. One of the best exhibits in recent memory, Alexander Calder's wire sculpture, was hosted here, and their permanent collection is always something I enjoy. Plus which the size of the museum is quite manageable, so popping in for a half hour or so never feels like cheating.

And to sate my ongoing tea fixation, I like to stop by Ito En. You may recognize the name from those bottled unsweetened cold teas that you can find in sushi stores and some take out restaurants, but I assure you, the flagship store is much, much, more than that.

I am told that they carry more than 100 different varieties of tea, although I believe I have only tried about ten or so. But they are unlike any others I've had. They carry wonderful little spheres of white tea that unfurl in hot water, as well as unbelievably delicate, grassy green teas, and stronger, fortifying black teas. The store itself is gorgeous, as are the teapots and other paraphernalia that they stock. Expensive, but one of those indulgences that is unquestionably worth it.

Of course I can never pass up a little window shopping at Fred Leighton.

I tend to mourn the state of jewelry to anyone who will listen. Nothing is elegant anymore, everything is just tacky and diamond encrusted, where have all the wonderful designers gone (I exclude first rate establishments like Taffin from this rant)?!!

Fred Leighton succumbs to none of these pitfalls. The jewelry is as gorgeous as it comes. After more than three years I still remember with fondness a pair of emerald dangling earrings that I saw in the window display, about which I had recently read a story in the New Yorker...the baubles had apparently been rescued from a ship wreck of some sort...who knows, and really who cares. They were stunning regardless and had that slight patina of age that I find so exquisite when it comes to expensive jewelry.

And then, to complete my stroll, I always stop into Barney's.

I often stop by the fragrance counter on the basement level (although really, given that in my mind at least, it is one of their crowning jewel departments, I think it should be given higher billing) and lately have been indulging in samples of the great Byredo line. I have always adored Rose Noir and Pulp, but their latest, Blanche, is quickly becoming an obsession. I quite literally could not stop inhaling my inner wrist when I tried it.

And I absolutely always stop off on the fifth floor, where some of the more modern designers are housed.

The other day I found what is the perfect coat, designed by the Row.

The beige ones on the left...it may not look like anything special on the hangar, but once on the body, there is no equal. I was quite depressed to find that it is $2,500. Sigh. I'll have to start saving my pennies.

And I always derive considerable joy from the brilliant colors and prints in the Dries Van Noten section.

A wise friend recently told me that it is very important to fill your eyes with beauty. I couldn't agree more.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Weekly Roundup

With summer coming to an end, it is vitally important to squeeze in one last trashy beach book before the weather turns cool and demands intellectual reading material. Bangkok 8 is it. A compelling mystery/thriller, the book reveals just enough about the underbelly of the Thai drug trade to persuade the reader that the time spent on the book is educational rather than amusing.

Perhaps because I've had precious little beach or pool time this summer, I am loving Carlos Van de Roer's water-centric photos at the moment.

I have developed a bizarre obsession with this serving spoon. Perhaps because when I host dinner parties I am reduced to using horrible big black plastic implements as serving pieces?

And after reading a glowing review in the New York Times of the new book Hos, Hookers, Call Girls And Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, I can't wait to get my hands on it. Come on New York Public Library, put in an order!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Rooftops and Cocktails

I've lived in my apartment building for several years now. It's a lovely place with friendly doormen who actually open the door for me and, if my hands are full, they push my floor for me on the elevator panel. The lobby is pleasingly reminiscent of a Turkish hammam (or at least the mosaic arched ceiling is) and our apartment is adjacent to the access stairs to the well appointed roof deck.


But perhaps because my apartment lacks sufficient closet space, central air and windows in the bedroom, I sometimes forget what a nice place it really is. It takes the perspective of an outsider, a friend walking in for the first time remarking on what a nice building I live in, to remind me of that truism. And as I've been doing quite a bit of entertaining at home lately, I've not only been feeling remarkably connected to my friends, but also unusually positive about my living situation. So as much as I love a truly good restaurant meal, lately I've been preferring whatever it is I can gather together to eat and drink at home with friends.


And frankly, during the week that isn't much...cocktails and finger food on the roof are about all I can muster after a day at work. But no matter, I've discovered that, appropriately done, this low effort route can be just as delicious and satisfying as a full meal.


Based on recent experience, a combination of cheese, meats, crackers, dips, something piquant, something fresh and something sweet will satisfy just about any crowd. Oh, and booze of course.

For cheese I like a soft and a semi-hard cheese (lately it's been Robiola and whatever semi-hard the guy at Di Palo's gives me...Prima Donna works if you don't have access to Di Palo's). For meat I like a salami, a silky prosciutto cotta and if you have non pork eaters, a bresaola. Crackers I don't feel that strongly about. Sometimes I'm very loyal to Ak Maks, other times I like Bretons...but NEVER original water crackers. I cannot fathom why such a boring cracker was ever created.


Dips/spreads...buy, make, whatever, as long as they're tasty and something other than hummus. Although one tip I have discovered is that fewer people than I thought like chicken liver pate if that is at all helpful. For the piquant, I'm currently obsessed with pickled sour cherries but cornichons will do in a pinch. And something fresh? Cherry tomatoes are my current go to, but that is mostly because I got the most unbelievably sweet batch in my CSA box last week and I felt compelled to share them with everyone who crossed my threshold. My something sweet is unfailingly David Lebovitz's Pain d'Amande cookies.


As for drinks...you can of course get fancy and mix cocktails, and assuming a moderately advanced skill level I'm sure that your friends will be quite appreciative. But I find that sticking to a white wine (Gruner, Vinho Verde or Sauvignon Blanc for hot summer weather), beer and a bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling water fits the bill quite nicely as well, and takes a fraction of the effort.


So go forth and impress your friends with your extraordinary hosting abilities and enjoy the added benefit of lifted spirits. No need to mention to anyone that they're getting the "low effort" cocktail party. They'll never know. And even if they did, it wouldn't matter. Friends are friends, and in the end, everyone just wants to spend time together, regardless of how big of an effort is made.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Bit of Sunshine

The world is an uncertain place these days. I have friends that are doing well, who are getting new jobs that they're happy with, expanding their social circles, and finding joy in new experiences. And I also have a fair number of friends who are losing their jobs, wrestling with twenty and thirty-something angst and feeling generally beat down.

So are things improving? All of the country's best and brightest seem to think so, but I'll admit I'm unsure. Regardless, there is little that we as individuals can do other than endeavor to find pleasure and happiness in our own spheres. And as a red blooded patriotic American I feel it is my duty to do exactly that.

I have been so distracted by the beautiful summer fruit at the Greenmarket lately that the flowers had been sorely neglected. I haven't had fresh blooms in weeks! And my apartment was a bit downtrodden about the absence. But last Saturday, I suppose because the melons were few and far between, the dahlias caught my eye.

I couldn't resist this brilliant burst of sunshine for my bathroom countertop. My home is certainly a much more joyful place for it. And, happily, that joy has rubbed off on me as well.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Collectibles

I'm not much of a collector. Until recently I rarely took photos. I am more prone to purging than to hoarding, and I can count the number of sentimental items or trinkets I own on one hand: the very wise and lyrical (handwritten) letter that my dad gave me as I got on the plane to go to college for the first time, a small perfume bottle that my sister brought back for me from Cuba nearly fifteen years ago, an odd little ivory box adorned with several frogs that a friend of mine in elementary school gave me and one iconic (in my family at least) image of each of my parents.

They say that opposites attract, and in this realm that is most certainly the case with me and Paul. He is one of the more sentimental people that I've ever met, and as a result each and every item that he comes across is at some point considered very special. I used to find it charmingly amusing until I was cleaning out a large dresser a while back and came across piles and piles of letters and programs and photos gathered during his ten years living in London. It was wonderful to look through, and allowed me to get acquainted with the person he was before we met. And as he sorted through the stacks and stacks of paper, he was able to reminisce about some very good old days that might not have been quite so memorable were the visual aids not available. So I began to see his habit of collecting as the action of a wise, emotionally evolved person rather than as a quaint eccentricity.

Having seen the joy that going through his collection of tidbits brought us both, I began to see that collections of that sort really ought to be displayed such that consistent consumption is possible. So, as a birthday gift, I set out to put one of his larger collections, that of concert tickets, into a visually appealing form.

And I came up with this:

Four cheap frames,

filled to bursting with every ticket from every concert he's attended since he moved to the United States eight years ago.

They are currently displayed on our hall wall. Not only do I find them visually appealing, but I adore watching him walk past, pause, stare at a section for a moment and smile quietly in recognition and recollection of a particularly great gig.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Bit of Flair

Several years ago I met my parents and sister in Seville for an old fashioned family holiday. We had an apartment in the middle of the old city and armed with recommendations from a friend of a friend who had lived there for some time, we did as you do in beautiful ancient European cities. We wandered, we ate, we marveled, and we took refuge from the blistering heat in cathedrals.


At a certain point, I felt that I needed to be a bit more offensive when it came to the weather. So in a small square tucked away beneath a collection of fragrant orange trees, I purchased a fan from a local vendor.


And of course I never used it.

I came back to New York and carried it around in my purse for several years, always too self-conscious to use it in public. I feared I would look pretentious walking down the crowded, dirty streets of downtown Manhattan wafting a flamenco style fan around.


But then I went to Barcelona this past summer. A stylish, cosmopolitan and extraordinarily chic city. And lo and behold everyone was using a fan! So maybe it wasn't as severe an affectation as I thought. I felt freed.


Back in New York I was whipping it out in humid bars, at sweltering parties and on airless subway platforms. And the momentary breeze a wave of the fan provided was heavenly. I don't know what on earth took me so long to come around.


And now that the brief weather forecast that the New York Times provides each morning on the upper right hand corner of the front page has started to employ my favorite of their descriptors...sultry...my fan is coming in quite handy at all times of the day. And rather than receiving incredulous looks (as I had feared I might) I am of the receiving end of envious gazes (perhaps tinged with incredulity).

Monday, August 17, 2009

Give Us This Day...

Oddly, I'm still making my own bread. Despite the heat, humidity, time constraints and the availability of good bread at retail establishments, I still bake a loaf every week or two. I suppose I like the ritual of it, just as I enjoy my morning tea out of a pot rather than a tea bag, despite the fact that the taste is really the same if I'm honest about it.


For the last six months or so, my bi-weekly/weekly loaf has been one from Dan Lepard's wonderful bread book The Handmade Loaf. But this weekend, inspired by Michael Ruhlman's exhortation to use ratios when it comes to bread baking (and everything else, actually), I went outside my comfort zone and abandoned all of my recipe books. And the result was a triumph.



I think this may be my best loaf ever. High, round, crusty with a tender yet substantial interior texture. What was this miraculous non-recipe? Well, you need a scale, but beyond that it couldn't be easier. 1 part sourdough starter (I used the starter I had on hand, but if you don't have any check out this Ruhlman post, which describes an easy 48 hour method for developing one), 1 part water, 2 parts bread flour and 1% salt by weight.


Now I hewed to the 1:1 water and starter ratio (350 grams of each) and the recommended salt level (14 grams), but I also threw in a few handfuls of wheat germ to give the bread a little gravitas, and then just added enough flour to make a dough. I can only assume it was somewhere in the neighborhood of the 700 grams that would have been called for. I kneaded like crazy once the dough was well formed, until it felt tight and it sprang back when I pressed it, and then I left it to rise in a clean, oiled bowl until it doubled in bulk (yesterday that was about two hours, but it varies pretty dramatically).

Following the first rise I punched it down and then formed it into a boule, which I let rise in a bread basket. I had a few errands to run, so threw it in the refrigerator while I was out. Once back, I left it out at room temperature for an hour to take the chill off. And in the meantime, despite the hellish temperature, I preheated the oven, with my Dutch oven inside, to 450 degrees. Once everything was ready, I dumped the formed dough in the Dutch oven, clamped the lid on so that the bread would rise in a humid atmosphere, and baked it for 30 minutes. Then, to ensure a crisp golden crust, I removed the lid and baked for another 20 minutes. And happiness ensued.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Weekly Roundup

For a renter who is light years away from actually purchasing an apartment, I spend an inordinate amount of time fantasizing about my ideal remodel, with particular emphasis on my ideal kitchen remodel. At Apartment Therapy the other day I came across a feature that I would most certainly not be able to live without were I to be remodeling a kitchen:


Customized knife storage...genius! Although I suppose it would limit the potential for new purchases once your very expensive custom slab is complete and installed.


If you feel like transporting yourself to the french countryside for an afternoon, head over to La Tartine Gourmand and read about (and see) her perfect summer vacation spent visiting her family, eating flawless fruits and vegetables and baking the most beautiful red currant and almond tart. In the absence of a french holiday, I may have to give the tart a try.

And have you ever wondered what a meal at the infamous El Bulli is like? Adam at The Amateur Gourmet tells us about and shows us the extraordinary experience in extreme detail. I could only make it through the first 24 courses (and I was just viewing on a laptop), I can't imagine how he was able to eat all 30 of them!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Yet Again...

One Kings Lane is really on a roll these days...today they've got these fabulous botanical, sea creature, sea flora, garden, the list goes on...prints.


14 of them for $59. Hard to pass up, no? If you're not a member of the website, feel free to go ahead and use my email address for your reference. In the interest of full disclosure, if you do and then buy something, I get a $25 credit, so go ahead, buy away!

Easy As Pie

When Paul's birthday rolled around a few weeks ago, I opted to cook dinner for him rather than take him out. Partially because we had been out to dinner with twenty of his closest friends the night before so it would have seemed a tad repetitive to go to yet another restaurant, and partially because I figured I could provide a bit more luxury with respect to the food than I would be able to afford at a restaurant.


I had planned to make a veal roast in the manner suggested in A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes (cream, cream, morels, you get the idea, it was amazing), saffron carrots, a green salad courtesy of our CSA box, and his absolute favorite item in the world, the humble potato. Who says he isn't of Irish descent?!


For dessert, I briefly considered a cake, but with the weather so hot and the dinner party so small, it just seemed to be altogether too much.


Now I have quite vivid memories of the fruit pies, tarts and crisps my mother made when I was growing up...we just about lived on them during the summer when peaches and nectarines were plentiful and in the fall when our apple trees were prolific. Due partially to the steamy weather and partially to the good associations with baked fruit desserts, my imagination rushed to that realm almost immediately. How perfect would a birthday pie be?



But you see, I did have to be careful. Paul has many wonderful traits, but his tendency towards finicky eating is one that I occasionally find difficult. But this being his birthday, I honored his abhorrence of large pieces of onion (very small is acceptable), anything involving asparagus and his wariness of stone fruits. What to fill the pie with? I felt raspberries were a safe bet, I'd seen him request a raspberry cocktail at a restaurant recently.


I recalled a recipe that I had found to be intriguing in Serena Bass's delightful cookbook Serena, Food & Stories (you simply must try the meatloaf and accompanying sauce, I insist...it was somewhat of a revelation) for a Raspberry Frangipane Pie. Her introduction described a meeting she held with a group of fashionistas to discuss party menus for Fashion Week. Assuming no one would eat anything, she set the pie out as a token offering. By the end of the meeting it was gone. How could I resist trying such a magical confection?

The pie essentially consists of a crust, fruit, and an almond cream . It was, as I hoped, delicious. The tart edge of the raspberries (I didn't add any sugar) was a perfect foil for the richness of the frangipane. It was lively, unexpected, summery...everything you want in a warm weather dessert. And then the pie got me to thinking...I've had something like this before...what was it...aha! Last summer Clotilde inspired me with the idea of a walnut cream under Italian plums in a tart. And I was obsessed with it until plum season ended. And a year later had totally forgotten about it.

Now I recall what a wonderful guiding principal the idea of nut cream and a complementary fruit is for pies and tarts. The options are endless...peaches with hazelnut cream, strawberries with almond cream, apricots with pistachio cream...and on and on and on.


As my mother counsels, I stick with Martha Stewart's pate brisee for the crust, but I tend to be less strict with the concoctions that fill the tart. I've provided both Clotilde's and Serena's recipes for nut cream here (I love the heavy does of liqueur that Serena advises and the creme fraiche that Clotilde suggests), but they are of course just starting points. Assemble you tart (blind bake your crust first) or pie with a thin layer of cream on the bottom and a generous dose of fruit on top (sprinkle with sugar or don't, I leave it up to you and your fruit), throw it in a preheated oven (375 perhaps?) for as long as it takes for things to bubble, and you'll have perfection on a plate.


Frangipane
From Serena, Food & Stories by Serena Bass


Yields enough for one pie or tart


1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/3 cup sugar
2 extra large egg yolks
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon whiskey, cognac or rum
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract (I omit this)


Put all ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and blend for 30 seconds. Scrape around the base with a rubber spatula and blend for another 30 seconds. Transfer to a small bowl, cover and set aside.


Walnut Cream
From Chocolate and Zucchini by Clotilde Dusoulier

Yields enough for one pie or tart

1 1/4 cup walnut halves
2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg
3 tablespoons creme fraiche
1 teaspoon vanilla, rum or other flavoring of your choice

Combine walnuts and sugar together in a food processor and grind to a coarse powder. Add egg, creme fraiche and flavoring and mix again. Mixture may be prepared up to a day ahead.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Another Peek...

You've seen the innards of my refrigerator. It's a rather intimate place, and I feel that revealing it brought us all a bit closer. In an effort to continue to deepen the relationship, I thought I'd make another personal spot public: my bar.



One thing that strikes me when I look at this photo is that nearly everything represented here was a gift. The Dali print above the bar was a gift from Paul's parents. One day a few years ago I came home to find the bar itself and the Riedel glasses in my lobby. They, along with two cases of wine, were a thank you gift from a very generous older gentleman from Queens. I cannot recall what I did to deserve it, but I'm fairly sure that whatever it was I was not deserving of quite such a generous gift. Now I stock the wine rack with gifts from dinner guests, as my own purchases from the Green Grape and Winesby.com tend not to sit around long enough to be racked.


Thanks to some thoughtful houseguests, we have a vaguely absurd collection of Scotch and Irish (and even one Japanese!) whiskeys, especially considering that we rarely indulge in it.



In Paul's younger days he quite enjoyed a glass of the amber hued tipple, so whenever an old friend from London or Manchester comes to visit they bring one of his favorites. And since he now is more of a beer drinker, they are consumed by visitors more often than by either of us. The collection make us seem like better hosts than we actually are.


Our rum collection is nearly as large as our whiskey collection. Most of these gorgeous specimens are gifts as well, but more often from Paul's clients, many of whom seem to end up in distilleries in Puerto Rico more often than the average person would, and kindly think of Paul while they are in the retail shop



We are always happy to accept such generosity, especially when it is so delicious!


And then there is my "kitchen" section of the bar. Brandies, cognacs, sherries, orange liqueur...all wonderfully drinkable but somehow they seem to end up in cakes, tarts, preserves and pies more often than they do in a glass. Half of them I have pried my wallet open and paid for, the rest are of uncertain origins...various gift bags and whatnot.



And lastly, we get to the "party" section of the bar. The inventory here is mainly due to Paul's shamelessly claiming an untouched rider from someone's dressing room ages ago. That and my sister's generosity with one of her favorite vodkas...Bison Grass.


Neither of us can figure out where the bottle of Dom came from. The champagne fairy maybe? Whatever the origins it is, in this hot, sultry weather, crying out to be enjoyed. And those generous folks who knowingly or unknowingly stocked our bar deserve a hearty toast!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Confronting a Loss

True to my word, I spent this past Saturday mourning the end of the cherry season. As the Cheerful Cherry folks had suspected, this past weekend was indeed the end of the road for the cherries this year. So I dedicated about 80% of my Greenmarket budget to my favorite cherry vendor, and hauled 3 quarts home.


Almost immediately I had them in my largest colander, washed, dried and ready for consumption.



I sat cross legged on my living room floor, colander in front of me, gazing into the deep dark purple tangle of fruit, melancholy as can be. I couldn't stand the thought of no more cherries next week. After experiencing the deep pleasure of a truly good cherry from a local orchard, those big hard specimens in the supermarkets just aren't an option anymore.


So I got to work pitting....I would preserve these perfect little spheres...somehow.



Thank god I had some brainless Bravo shows on the DVR, otherwise I don't know how I would have gotten through it. But I was buoyed by the sheer stupidity of Miami Social and by the prospect of sweet dark cherries in the middle of winter (or perhaps the end of summer). And of course by my occasional snacks (you can only preserve the perfectly unblemished ones you see, all others must be...disposed of).


It's not hard to spot the hand of a cherry pitter...



Soon my task was complete. The cherries were pitted and ready to meet their brandy-soaked fate, which they did gracefully.


Luckily, I had a few left over, not enough to fill an entire jar, so I could not possibly can them. Instead, they are sitting in my refrigerator in a thick liquor infused syrup, ready to adorn lovely desserts, or perhaps just a dessert spoon.



Brandied Cherries
Yields 3 pints

2 quarts pitted, stemmed cherries
1 cup sugar (I went for 1/2 cup per quart, but if your cherries are not as sweet as mine, you may want to up it)
brandy to cover

Sterilize three glass jars and lids, making sure that seals are new. You can either boil them for 10 minutes or simply run them through the dishwasher (I choose the latter, as it is significantly easier).

Toss cherries in large bowl with sugar. Add to large, heavy pot (I use an enameled dutch oven) with 1/4 cup of water and bring to a bare simmer. Simmer for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Spoon cherries into three waiting jars, packing relatively tightly. Divide any syrup that has accumulated between the three jars, being careful not to allow the syrup to fill the jar by more than 1/3. Pour brandy over the cherries to cover, leaving about 1/2 inch at the top of the jars. Seal.

There seem to be two schools of thought with regards to processing. Mrs. Beeton apparently feels that processing is not necessary, as the brandy will sufficiently kill any and all bacteria. In fact, she advocates for simply mixing the fruit and sugar together, ladling into the jars, and adding brandy to cover with no simmering at all! And then storing in a cool dark cabinet for several years (or until you feel like eating them). Others suggest that you process the jars in a hot water bath for 20 minutes. I leave this step up to your best judgment. The preparation of brandied cherries is quite personal after all.

After processing (or not), turn the jars on their head, righting them after 30 minutes. If a vacuum seal does not occur, store jars in the refrigerator. Otherwise they should be kept in a cool dark cabinet until the glorious day on which they will be consumed.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Weekly Roundup

Through a commenter on A Bloomsbury Life, I came across the British retailer Ben Pentreath. There is plenty to ogle on this site, from furniture to textiles to John Derian decoupage plates to fancy notebooks, but it's the china that I just can't get out of my head. Perfectly charming and utilitarian, I'm seriously considering getting one of these:


And perhaps a couple of its friends, just so it won't be lonely.

Thursday is always welcome in my house because it means that the New York Times will deliver the Home section to my door. Today, in an article about a garden in a concrete corner of Gowanus, a blog called 66 Square Feet was mentioned. I'm already officially a fan. The blog covers gardening/gardens/planting in New York, which is really quite inspiring. It can be hard to plant anything here in the concrete jungle, so when someone does it successfully it does seem like quite a feat, and should be shared with the masses.

And if the heat and humidity has got you down, head on over to My Pear Tree House, a blog written by the lovely Jane. She's Australian, so is in the middle of winter. If you really want to get into it, give her winter cold and flu remedy a try...I imagine that iced it would make for quite the refreshing summer drink!

And lastly, for the first week ever, Paul and I didn't finish our CSA box from last week so now that our new one has arrived we are awash in produce. I can barely fit it all in the fridge! I see quite a bit of canning and preserving in my weekend future. Sauerkraut anyone?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

One More Voice in a Chorus of Thousands

I do hate to jump on the whole Julia Child bandwagon, as she has been discussed and deified ad infinitum due to the whole Julie/Julia thing, but I have to admit that Michael Pollan's article in the New York Times Sunday magazine this past weekend got me thinking.


I'm not sure that this was his overriding point, but what stood out to me was Pollan's implication that one of the major differences between food shows "back then" (i.e. Julia Child in the 1960s) and now (i.e. Food Network) is that the ones "back then" were meant to inform and the ones today are meant to entertain. I would agree with that. Every story you hear about Julia Child seems to revolve around the idea that mothers everywhere were newly inspired by her to learn to cook and to do so well.



My own mother, who like so many adventurous, vaguely bohemian women of her generation moved to France in the early 60s, cites her landlady there as a culinary influence (chicken feet are a stockpot's best friend!) more often than she does Julia Child. But she does marvel occasionally at how new the information that the great warbler brought to America was, at how deep our culinary knowledge deficit was and how dire the need for true culinary information was.


In a way it feels as though as a country we're back to that place again. Despite the intense focus on food in popular culture, home cooking is, on the whole, a relatively rare phenomenon when you get right down to it (although I'm not sure it is quite as rare as sources cited in the article believe). Rather than TV dinners we rely on Trader Joe's, the prepared food case at Whole Foods or local takeout spots. We have cooking shows telling us how to impress our friends with a meal made in the shortest time possible, how to feed our families with the fewest ingredients possible...which all seems to imply that cooking is a chore to be minimized, rather than a pleasurable activity to revel in.


Julia Child (and others, I'm sure there must have been at least a few) took clear joy in teaching and seemed to derive inspiration from cooking. She ended her shows happily sitting down to eat what she had made by herself rather than running around serving it to a group of friends, clearly comfortable with the idea of spending time preparing something delicious for herself and no one else. She relished the process of cooking and had no desire to shorten or bypass it. It is this attitude that we as a nation seem to have lost, and presumably is one of the reasons we've allowed our food supply to be hijacked by corporations that don't respect basic things like the integrity of a fruit or vegetable.


Do we have a hero on the horizon anywhere? Julia II? Anyone?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Greenery

Now that the great deluge of 2009 has subsided somewhat, I'm beginning to get a little variety in my CSA box. Gone are the leafy greens, here now are the sturdier veggies...zucchini, eggplant, cabbage and...green tomatoes. Argh. I can figure something out for most of the produce that comes my way, but green tomatoes are tough.

Of course there is the ubiquitous fried green tomato, but as much as I love to eat deep fried things, I enjoy the actual frying considerably less. The last time I deep fried something was two years ago. It was a breaded parmesan thyme pork chop and it was one of the best things I've ever tasted. But my apartment smelled like a fryer for a month afterwards, and it took me quite some time to degrease my kitchen. I'm not in a rush to repeat the experience.

So instead I settled on a gratin.

I was wary of making a dish that was 100% green tomato, so I tempered it by layering in some potatoes.

Normally I would make a gratin in the method of very great Madeleine Kamman -- perfume the inside of a baking dish with a few rubs of a garlic clove, butter the dish, stack potato slices in the dish and douse with heavy cream. Finish off with some knobs of butter on the top and some salt and pepper and bake until tender. But I was worried that the tomatoes would give off too much moisture, and there is absolutely nothing worse than craving gratin and ending up with some sort of soup facsimile.


So bechamel sauce was in order since I figured the flour in it would soak up whatever errant tomato water was released. So with great gratin anticipation I whipped up a batch and got to work layering green tomatoes, potatoes, sauce, parmesan, repeat, repeat, when my phone rang. Paul had gotten a plus one for Arctic Monkeys at the last minute so I finished my layering, threw the whole mess in the fridge and headed out for a night on the west side of Manhattan.


Which made for a perfectly easy dinner the next night! Which was a good thing, since after the previous evening's entertainment I wasn't in the mood for anything that required thought of any sort. I came home, threw the gratin in the oven and I was devouring it in no time. And no degreasing was required.



Green Tomato and Potato Gratin
Serves 6, or 4 generously


2 cups whole milk
2 slices of onion
2 garlic cloves, smashed
aromatics (I used 2 bay leaves, 2 sage leaves and 4 sprigs of thyme, but throw in whatever you like/have)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons flour
4 medium green tomatoes, sliced
3-4 medium sized yukon gold potatoes, sliced
2-3 slices country white bread, coarsely torn
1 cup stock or milk (I used veal stock)
3-4 ounces parmesan cheese, grated


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Add milk, onion, garlic and aromatics to a small pot. Bring slowly to just boiling. Turn off heat and set aside to steep. In a medium pot, melt butter. Once melted, add flour and stir to combine, cooking until raw flour taste has gone, approximately 2 minutes. Whisk in warm milk and aromatics until all lumps are gone. Cook until mixtures thickens (this shouldn't take long at all), and then cover, turn heat to very low, and cook for 10 minutes.


Place bread pieces in milk or stock to soak, and fish out onions, garlic and aromatics from bechamel. Then, in a baking dish cover the bottom with a layer of potatoes. Spread about a sixth of the sauce over the potatoes, shower parmesan over the sauce and move on to a layer of tomatoes, stacking in the same manner, alternating potatoes and tomatoes. End with a layer of bechamel. Squeeze soaking liquid out of bread and scatter the pieces over the bechamel, then end with a blanketing of parmesan cheese.


Bake until potatoes are fork tender. Oddly, I find that the baking times can vary wildly with gratins...anywhere from 45 minutes to 90 minutes. Perhaps your oven is less schizophrenic than mine though? Just be sure not to undercook, there are few things more disappointing than a crunchy potato.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pots and Pans

Sadly, as much as I would like to, I cannot fit another thing in my kitchen. However, if you're just beginning to build up your culinary arsenal (or have a larger kitchen than I do), get thee to One Kings Lane immediately.



There's a sale on of Staub dutch ovens, and the price cuts are deep. I find that of all the items I cook with, my dutch oven is the one that I reach for most often, so if you don't have one already, you must at least consider indulging. Please, let me live vicariously.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Diamonds In My Wallet.

Although picking up business cards of restaurants that I enjoy is not a habit I indulge in at home particularly, I am compulsive about it when I am traveling. And as I found out the other day when I was purging my wallet of duplicate threading salon discount cards, the majority of them end up in the pocket next to my cash, sharing the space with stamps, a band aid and a few yuan that I couldn't be bothered changing when I returned from China two years ago.

As I was shuffling through my collection, I couldn't help but feel that these cards represented not only some of the best meals that I've ever had but also some of best experiences I've had. Many of the cards are from visits that I made quite a few years ago so I can't necessarily vouch for the quality of the restaurants today, but I felt that they were all too special to languish in the dark confines of a billfold, so I am sharing them with the world.

404

Four or five years ago, my extraordinarily ambitious sister decided that she would run the Paris marathon. I believe the plan originally was for her to run it with her boyfriend, but there was a mix up with his application so he was relegated to spectator status (convenient, no?), joining me as a member of Robin's fan club. Anyway, the three of us convened at a bohemian (I'm being polite) pensione in Montmartre to support Robin's effort and to enjoy some time in the City of Lights.

On the day of the marathon Robin awoke early and went off to the start line. Her cheering section awoke later and, after a tartine, croissant and some coffee, ambled over to the Arc de Triomphe, the marathon's terminus. Robin did make it, triumphantly, across the finish line and we had a demi-celebration with the richest hot chocolate I've ever tasted at a small chocolate shop on the Ile Saint-Louis. And then Robin took a well deserved nap back in Montmartre.

When she awoke I convinced her that more than a demi-celebration was in order so the three of us made our way down to the restaurant 404 (69, rue des Gravilliers) in the Marais, which I had read about in some article or book or what have you. We found a low lit Moroccan den, perfect for a bit of mild debauchery.


image from berrysimple.net

After some excellent mojitos, we cared not a bit about the wait. And once seated we knew we were in for an enjoyable dinner. The tagines were lush and fragrant (and vegan friendly, very important for the marathoner) and the North African wine was free flowing and surprisingly good. At our low slung table, under the light of the moroccan lanterns, we toasted Robin's success and then tumbled out into the Paris night.

Restaurant Neptun

A few years ago, one of Paul's oldest friends got married in Prague. As I had a more flexible vacation schedule than Paul did, I had the luxury of an extra week in that part of the world prior to the wedding. Luckily, my sister was living in proximate England at the time, and as she's always up for a travel adventure, was more than happy to come meet me.

I can't recall how we settled on Slovenia, but before I knew it I was meeting up with Robin and Laurie in Ljublijana, the capital. After a few days staying quite literally on the wrong side of the tracks (we were right next to a railway trestle), the three of us decided to decamp to greener pastures, and settled on the seaside town of Piran.

The town was idyllic. The narrow stone streets, lined with townhouses sporting massive wooden doors, meandered up the hills. We passed tiny secret alleyways criss crossed with clothes lines and timid cats. Everywhere in the town had a spectacular view of the deeply blue ocean, and we were able to rent an apartment for 90 euros per night. Life really could not have gotten much better.

Early in our stay we were out wandering about town and came across a charming crafts store. After chatting with the owner for a bit we asked for a dinner recommendation. She asked "You want something waterfront, where the tourists go?". We said no, most definitely not, where do you go to eat? That's where we want to go.

So the Restaurant Neptun (7 Zupanciceva) it was. I have only a vague recollection of what I ate, I just remember that it was seafood and that it was spectacularly fresh. I think it was some sort of flat-ish fish in a butter sauce...sole maybe? And Robin's truffle perfumed tagliatelle was one of those deceptively simple dishes that absolutely blows your mind with its utter delectableness.

To top it all off the proprietors were a family that took such clear pride and joy in their work that you couldn't help but love being there, sitting in the small pedestrian street watching the town go by. It was such a fabulous experience that we went back again, and then possibly a third time as well. Which for me is unusual. I don't even repeat restaurants in New York much less when I'm traveling. But I'd do it again in a minute if I had the chance.

Ulcke Van Zurich

One year after Christmas but before New Year's, Paul and I were in London galavanting a bit before we had to go back to work. A studio in Antwerp asked Paul to come over to take a look at their facility, and since we were so close anyway, we decided to take them up on their offer and take a mini-holiday from our actual holiday.

We were greeted by the warmest hosts in Belgium, who not only fed us the most fantastic lunch in the world and bought us an embarrassing amount of Leonidas chocolates, but also put us up in a hotel next to a wonderful restaurant named for a legendary prostitute: Ulcke Van Zurich (Oude Beurs 50 - 2000).


image from realtravel.com

Paul and I walked into the dark, vaguely Mediterranean styled restaurant and sat at one of the heavy wooden tables. We opened the menu to see...Flemish. A language with no resemblance to any other language I know.

The neighboring table must have seen our utter bewilderment and kindly stepped into translate. And out of the mouth of a Belgian woman came the accent of the northern english. I was amused, Paul was ecstatic to find the closest facsimile of a fellow northerner possible given our location. A resident of Leeds for a brief period (long enough to learn English at least), she counseled us to order side vegetables, as "they don't do veg on the main plate like they do in England", and recommended meat, as that was the specialty of the house. Her companion agreed.

No arguments here. I had a succulent cut of lamb, Paul I'm fairly sure had steak, and the four of us had a brilliant conversation, the likes of which occurs only while in a foreign country talking to people you have absolutely no connection with.

After eating our fill of meat, simply but perfectly prepared vegetables and some sort of baked fruit dessert, we made our way down to a jazz club that our new friends had recommended, and whiled away the night drinking the best beer I've ever had and listening to live jazz played by craggy old musicians, one of whom was the subject of a portrait hanging on the wall...him naked, with nothing but his sax.

La Cabrera Norte

Two years ago Zenia and I made our way down to Buenos Aires for a week of eating, lounging, wandering and more eating. It was bliss. We stayed in a charming spot in San Telmo, checked out the movable milongas throughout the city, and ate perfect steaks more nights than I care to think about. One of those nights was at La Cabrera Norte (Cabrera 5127), the newer cousin of La Cabrera in Palermo Viejo.

In an effort to conform with the local custom of eating in the middle of the night, we arrived at the restaurant at 9:30, which is the dining equivalent of 5:30 in the United States. Despite our early arrival, the wait for a table had already begun. But no matter! We sat languidly out on the sidewalk in the warm evening air sipping complimentary champagne. Why nobody offers this in New York I'll never know. I could have sat there for ages and not been perturbed simply because I had gotten one free glass of booze. It doesn't take a lot, just a token gesture, to make people feel good about an otherwise annoying situation.

Anyway, we eventually were seated and were brought what can only be described as a small wooden trough full of complimentary dips and salads. Delicious Argentinian wine, recommended by the most charming, knowledgeable waiter soon followed. And then, of course, the steak. I can't say that it was the best steak we had in Buenos Aires (that honor oddly goes to the tourist trap Cabana Las Lilas), but it was delicious nonethless, and several times better than the best steak you've ever had in the United States. And I would be surprised if the whole meal cost us more than $30.

Zenia and I both sat in what can only be described as pure contentment. Wonderful, honest food, served by a enamoring man and shared with and old friend whose previously frequent company had recently been missed, the evening was tinged with a sort of magnetism.
I've heard that over the years the portions here have gotten smaller and the prices have gotten larger, which would certainly diminish the conviviality of the place. I fervently hope this is not the case, as I rarely come across establishments that have such a palpably festive spirit as La Cabrera.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Welcoming Old Friends

The heavy rains and relatively cool summer this year have delayed some of the gems of summer for longer than really has been bearable here in New York. But it seems that we have turned the corner. Berries, tomatoes, peaches...they're all here!

Peaches and tomatoes are perhaps an odd combination for my fruit bowl, but I've been counseled that once you put a peach or a tomato the refrigerator it is forever ruined.

I cannot be sure of the veracity of this statement, but I do as I'm told regardless and keep them together in a vessel on my kitchen counter for the brief period between purchase and consumption.

After returning home from the farmers market this morning, I cut into my first heirloom tomato of the season with great trepidation. You see, I grew up detesting tomatoes. For years I was only ever exposed to mediocre specimens, and a mediocre tomato is truly awful.

Finally, when I was about fifteen or so, my mother threw a dinner party to which she invited the great Terry Paulding, a wonderful friend, fabulous cook and great appreciator of fresh produce. She kindly contributed to the meal a platter of sliced heirloom tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella. I was intrigued by the unfamiliar color palate of these odd specimens, so partly out of curiosity and partly out of a compulsion towards politesse when seated at a dining table, I confronted my nemesis the tomato.

And it was fantastic. I vowed then and there never to eat a less than spectacular tomato again. And I have largely hewed to that vow.

So would this first tomato of the season be one of those spectacular specimens? Almost. Dressed with my favorite olive oil and dusted with Maldon sea salt, it made for quite a nice lunch. It was not transcendent as I had been hoping that it would be, but then after ten months sans tomato, the reality could never live up to my memory. And the first of the season are never the best, so let's hope for improvement, shall we?

But the peaches made up for the minor tomato disappointment. Sweet and fragrant, they were truly the essence of summer. My lunchtime dessert, peaches and blueberries splashed with half and half and then drizzled with honey, could not have been more satisfying.

But in the midst of all of this bounty and joy there is one dark spot. I asked my favorite cherry vendors (The Cheerful Cherry at Union Square) how much longer the season would be lasting. The answer? One more week! Possibly longer, but not much.

I have an unnatural obsession with these little orbs, particularly the ones from the Greenmarket. They are just so rich and dark and sweet that I sometimes feel as if I am drinking a beautiful red wine rather than eating fresh fruit.

So I'm clearing my schedule next Saturday. I will go to the Greenmarket, buy as many quarts of cherries as I can carry, and sit on my living room floor with a massive bowl of them, eating as I weep, mourning the loss of the best fruit in the western world. And those I cannot consume will be preserved in brandy, so that my despair may be lessened at a later date.
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