Polski Obad przy *Claire’s*

Translation:  Polish Dinner at Claire’s.  Seems perhaps a bit random?  Like where is the kimchi, sichuan peppercorns, or star anice?…not to mention rice!  Yes.  We made a dinner that had nothing to do with Asia.  It was straight up EasternBoris--Natasha European Block inspired.  My friend Sam and I have been tossing around the idea of doing a dinner party, but had kinda lagged on a concept.  We buckled down and decided to create a dinner from food from our neighboring neighborhood.  We spent an afternoon wandering around Greenpoint, sampling sausages, salads and many, many mashed potatoes from a delightful restaurant that threatens to twist the tongue if an attempt at pronunciation is made:  Lomzynianka.  We were inspired, and our taste buds did the talking.  They asserted their primal inclination and directed us to a dish of meat and beets.  Borscht.  You can’t not say ‘borscht’ without taking a cue from Borris and Natasha and pronouncing it like a Soviet gangster.  It’s just too fun.  Get gutteral.  After a few dips of our spoons into the thick tomatoe-y and beet-y broth, we were convinced.   A main dish winner was in the works in our minds.  With an addition of short ribs, the idea of borscht became the food focal point and from there on out, the side dishes just naturally lined up.

We walked around Little Poland and found sausages: liverwurst, kielbasa and blood sausage.  We bought sauerkraut, horseradish, fresh breads and loads of sour cream and mustard.  We munched along our journey, sampling hearty stuffed cabbage (a steal at $1.50 each) and pom poms (a donut/muffin with a chewy and crunchy top, filled with raspberry/blackberry jam and sprinkled with confectioners sugar).  We tossed around side dish thoughts while perusing deli isles scented with smoked trout, pickled herring and cured cucumbers.  Greenpoint opened up new ideas and refreshed old tastes for me (when I was a babe, my father used to pop pickled fish into his and my mouth as if we were snacking on M&Ms ).

We posted flyers in my neighborhood and donned a cheesy name:  Super Duper Supper.  Because that was our aim.  All three of us, me, Sam and Evyatar are keen on cooking for friends, but wanted an opportunity to cook for strangers too.

Borscht

Twenty three people came to my house last Wednesday.  I knew one person, Michal, an old cook friend.  Everyone else was new.  Imagine that!  So excited.  We laid out a spread of charcuterie, and surprisingly enough, the blood sausage was the hit of the meat selection.  We set out rich butters to slather on the ryes, pumpernickel and sunflower wheat breads.  We topped radishes with smoked trout salad and sliced our house cured char.  People mingled and drank (as everyone followed instructions swimmingly well and BTOB–brought their own booze).  We laid a spread of salads and sides on our sensibly fashioned dining room table (two tables angled together at a diagonal so as to accompany the majority of the party.  A sweet little maneuvering on our part if I do say so myself).  The dinner party was on its way.

dinner party

After some wine drinking, food grazing and many an introduction, we asked everyone to sit.  We plated banquet style and served out hot plates of braised short ribs, topped with horseradish sour cream, and a melange of fresh herbs atop a deep purple soup laden with carrots, potatoes, beets, turnips and onions.  We plated ourselves a serving and sat back and watched as people polished off bowls and wiped plates clean.  It’s a funny thought how satisfying it feels to feed people.  I wish I could do it for free all the time!  I get to practice cooking, and people eat up the creations.  Alas, this is not possible to do every time, so the idea of these dinners is a perfect venue where both parties win (i think/hope).sausages

We stuffed people to the brim with cheese babkas and Symphony bar studded brownies, and toasted the evening with a shot of Polish potato vodka: “Na zdrowie!”  Cheers to an evening of fun, food and new friends.

So the next time we have a dinner party, please come by.  There are good people to meet, lots of wines to be drunk, and too much food to eat.  You’ll leave with smiles and full tummies.  And what really is better in life than that?

Bone Up

I went to my friend Sam’s the other day and he proceeded to clog my arteries with this delicious appetizer.  Which actually turned into the meal… because I ate more than one and then felt like a brick.

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Season bones with salt and pepper.  Lay down in a hotel pan and roast at 350 degrees until marrow is soft to the touch and hot all the way through (you can test with a cake tester).  Meanwhile, slice two heads of garlic super thin and just barely cover with olive oil in a small pot.  Add thyme and a pinch of chili flake and place on the stove over the lowest flame possible.  Let it hang out, but don’t let the oil become too hot.  Just enough to warm the the oil through and infuse it with the garlicky goodness.  Grill off some crusty bread, spoon on some of the melty garlic and herbs, slather on marrow and then top with some freshly sliced shallots (a much needed zing and crunch to the luscious and rich concoction).  Refrain from ‘oohing’ too loudly.  Enjoy!

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Tacos Delicioso!

IMG_4876I’m a California girl.  Trust me when I say that I know tacos.  I grew up living off tacos (and I admit to begging my mom for money to ride with my sisters to the local Taco Bell…but that’s besides the point!).  My dad would take us on weekend excursions searching out the most ‘authentico’ taqueria joints.  I remember one afternoon in particular when we drove over an hour north (that’s a long time to sit in the car when you’re a wee kid) to wait in line at a little whole in the wall.  But it was worth it.  My dad brought over plate after plate of tacos con carnitas, pollo, cecina–you name it, we ate it.  Doused in salsa roja and accompanied with pickled jalepenos, I looked forward to spicy afternoons filled with tacos.  Ever since those early days of south of the border food hunts, they have held a special place in my heart.  And I know that most people feel the same way.  A griddled tortilla, piled high with seasoned meats, various salsas y sauces, and crunchy lettuce and cilantro is apt to make any human smile.

But in New York, a good taco is hard to come by.  I’ve had many a decent taco, but not too many outstanding tacos.  I’m ready to say that the tacos I ate today were pretty lofty tacos.  I”m not going to say they were the best I’ve ever had…but they were damn tasty.IMG_4877

My friend Sam swung by my house today and we biked over to Wycoff and Star, near the Jefferson stop off the L train.  We went to the Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermano and waited in line for about 10 minutes.  But every minute was enjoyable…watching the two cooks behind the counter building tacos, quesedillas and tostadas was like watching two skaters dance on ice.  They moved quickly and assembled the items in perfect harmony.  Ice skaters I tell you.  Every item was incredibly fresh.  Perfectly ripe avocados (for an extra 25 cents? yes please!), homemade salsas (obviously) and each tortilla was pressed to order.  I ordered a pollo and cecina taco (salted beef) and think I made ‘oo’ and ‘ah’ sounds after every bite.  On a gorgeous fall day, after a mini bike ride and good company, what can beat a $2.00 taco accompanied with pickled jalapenos for a perky piquant mouth experience?  Nada.

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Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos

271 Starr St
Brooklyn, NY 11237-2609
(718) 456-3422

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Flourish for the Fall

DSC03737I’m kinda getting used to this wild concept of seasons.  I’ve been averse to any temperatures that range outside of warm to hot for the past three years.  I flee New York once winter sets in.  But I have to say that Fall is becoming ever more appealing.  This past weekend, the season was truly celebrated at Stone Barn’s Harvest Fest.  Saturday morning was kicked off with a dozen or so vendors selling their food wares: homebaked apple pies and biscotti, spice roasted nuts, Dan Barber’s ground pork sloppy joes (deliciously seasoned but I could have used a bit more sloppy in the mix), hearty autumn soups, chocolate, breads and savory pies.

A bluegrass band was playing to a courtyard filled with parents and kids two-stepping to the tunes.  Hay stacks were piled everywhere.  And the misty morning put everyone in the eating mood.  I was working with my friends Michael and Diane Otsuka, who are opening their new baking shop today.  They were selling gorgeously crafted mini savory pies.  Diane used to be the chef of formerly acclaimed Verbena.  I hadn’t been living in New York then, so I wasn’t familiar with her cooking.  But I managed to work my way through each of her vegetable pies at least three times over and kept coming back for more.  Her pies packed so much flavor into three bites.  Ratatouille with feta, a mild curried sweet potato, baked beens with kale, and collard greens with garlic and lemon.  It was a whirlwind tour for your mouth through the Mediterranean, with stop-overs in England for a touch of Indian inspiration, and a a final landing in the South for some hardy greens and smoky beans.DSC03726 (2)

I’ve worked with Michael for the past few years, occasionally crossing paths in our part-time catering careers.  He is so passionate about cooking and creating the perfect product.  About a year ago, he started telling me about his plans to open a business where he and his wife could once again work together (they used to co-run the kitchen at her restaurant).  I am so thrilled that they have come up with such a delicious product to sell.  And not only are they selling savory pies, but Michael has been working on creating breads with alternative flours.  I sampled every loaf he had to offer on Saturday and loved every bite…and I’m not a bread girl.  I don’t crave it, I don’t need it, I usually don’t love it.  But I kept finding myself inching back towards the cutting board and not so sneakily finishing off the scraps and ends that had been pushed to the side! So maybe I do enjoy breads after all…DSC03721

Celebrate Fall and the launch of Flourish Bakery.  It’ll get you in the mood.  Bring on the pumpkins, the sweaters, the cider…and please throw in a bean pie for good measure!

http://www.flourishbakingcompany.com/

And for a little more background, check out Florence Fabricant’s write up:  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/30/dining/30bake.html?_r=1

Things I learned at Starchefs

A mini list of things that come to mind after three days of demos and discussions.

1) To make a super crispy, wafer thin skin on a duck breast, freeze the duck by placing breast skin side down on a flat piece of dry ice and weigh it down for  25 mins.  Poke skin with pin or a pet brush (composed of many tiny metal spokes) to rupture membrane.  Same effect as scoring.  Place on a hot plancha and sear until perfectly browned.  Finish in oven.  Wow.  duck breasts

2) For a crackling concept that will blow your mind:  remove skin from rack of pork bones.  Dehydrate until 13% water remains.  Grind skin to 5 mm granules and then adhere back on pork rack with tapioca starch slurry.  Freeze  rack in nitrogen.  Dip in warm water for a second.  Fry until mini cracklings cover loin.

3) By covering crystalized salt in oil, you preserve the crunchy texture when you season because the salt will not dissolve with water contact.

4) Beer floats are actually a delicious concept

5)  Pierre Gagnaire (whom I adore and slightly idolize) was given a market basket today and ended up creating 6-7 dishes.  Two of the dishes tasted exactly like Taco Bell’s Nachos Bell Grande.IMG_4796

6)If you mix sugar, vinegar and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and heat til 160-ish, and then dip something into this mixture (like prunes in the front), and then place in a kryo-vac, the air molecules expand and you are left with fluffy, puffed, crunchy, aerated charcoal-y looking things (in the back).IMG_4786

7) Jose Garcia and sous chefs Reuben and Brad demonstrated how to recreate a simple summer pleasure.  Mini corns can be reproduced by  shaving the kernels off the cob (about 10 mini corns needed per recreated corn), mixing them with methyl cellulose, and wrapping set corn water in the center (agar?), in oiled parchment to form the perfect shape.  Grill to finish.mini corns

8)  You can flavor alcohol with things such as bbq sauce, and then remove the solids by adding liquid nitrogen.  The liquid nitrogen also removes any water that is in the unadulterated alcohol, so some must be replaced if being used as a sipping alcohol.

9)  Chef Paco Torreblanca made gorgeous desserts and talked about how simplicity was his new direction.  He made gorgeous, uncomplicated flourishes. He started with white chocolate that he brushed on to the back of a sheet tray with a comb,  let it set in the fridge, and then brought it out to warm a bit.   He then took a small side spatula and dragged about an inch and a half of width down across the horizontal lines, creating many delicate flower garnishes.  So technically beautiful and simple!

10) Dave Arnold and Nils Noren demonstrated how to anesthetize a fish (sprinkling an illegal anesthetizer into the water!) and drain the blood.  By putting the fish to sleep, the fish doesn’t struggle when caught and therefore the muscles don’t contract and damage the flesh to the fish.  By sticking a thin wire up the spinal cord, you cut spinal connections and slow down the onset of rigor mortis.  And if you eat the fish immediately after letting out all the blood, the flesh is crispy and snappy. dave and fish

There are so many things to comment on, but these were a few that really stuck out and made an impression.  I’m already counting down the days until next year…

Why Not Tip The Cooks?

IMG_4580I sat in the van, squished in the back between two other cooks, at 1:30 am on a Friday night.  I was returning to New York from a party I catered in Connecticut.  I was beaming.  My smile probably looked like the Cheshire Cat, all grin and teeth, while my eyes were trying their damn’dest to roll to the back of my head.  I worked fourteen hours at an ultra luxe wedding and the ride to and from the event was an added three hours.  That doesn’t include time to or from my house.  So I’m just going to call it an eighteen hour day.  But I was happy.  “Why?” you may ask.  Because I received a whopping $50 tip.

My mind was already racing to the grocery store, where I could buy several different flavors of yogurt, maybe a quart of milk, an indulgent snack of ice cream sandwiches, and maybe a few ears of corn from the farmer’s market.  Fifty dollars meant that I wouldn’t have to eat only family meal from work every day.  I could buy cereal!!!  My eyes, at this point, had no interest in staying open.  So I began to dream dreams of rice pudding and fudge sundaes.  Until the cook next to me started expressing her anger…

I feel like I’ve had a lot of these talks lately.  I keep catching up with cook friends, either in the early morning hours over a cup of coffee before work, or at night over a pint of coffee stout in the late hours after work.  So many conversations come back to the topic of money.  Because as a cook, we don’t make a whole lot of it.  And to be quite frank, I usually could care less about money.  I work for free too much; I offer my time and minimal skills whenever I think there’s an opportunity where I could learn from someone, sample new foods, see new techniques–pretty much anything that is going on within the food industry that seems appealing/entertaining/thought provoking, I am there.  Gratis.

But money, unfortunateley, is how life works.  And I’ve realized that if I’d like to continue traveling like I do, I must make more of this green stuff.  I don’t like the idea of working to make money, but I’m trying to be practical.  But as of late, I’ve gotten a bit frustrated over the pay scale within the restaurant industry.

My friend is the pastry sous chef over at Eleven Madison Park.  You know, the restaurant that just received four stars from the New York Times food critic.  She makes less than double a week than what I used to make working there as a cook.  She lives her life in that kitchen.  She’s in a land where ordering, scheduling cooks’ work weeks, coming up with dessert ideas and constantly churning out thousands of macaroons a week take up every moment, every thought, every bit of her life.  Shouldn’t this kind of work merit wages that reflect it?

Some friends have been working a six day, roughly 80+ hour work week for the past year.  Most of my friends who I work with now make $10 an hour.  And one of the chefs I work with just divulged that only two years ago, he was making $7/ hr as a sous chef.  I don’t much care about the money, but I’m starting to look at this job with one squinty eye.  How the hell can we work at some of the best restaurants in New York, and struggle to make ends meet?

The cook in the van laid it out for me.  She hated three things about our job.  First- male ego in the kitchen.  Okay, I agree.  It can be a bit ridiculous, but I think I can usually handle this (I may be lying through my teeth right now..).  Two- the hours.  Yes, we work long hours.  And they’re not easy hours.  But that is our job, so this statement kinda rolled off my back.  Three- the pay.  At first I thought, “Well, this is what we signed up for.  We happen to be emotionally invested in something that is minimally lucrative..”  Until she threw in the resounding retort “We’re the ones in the kitchen, busting our asses [excuse my French, but it is a quote] for long hours to create delicious food, while the servers bank roll on our hard work and passion!!”  I never quite looked at it that way.  I know there are inequalities in this world.  Like teachers.  And basketball players.  The pay scale doesn’t really work for me there.  And I’ve always just looked at front of the house and back of the house as two different players.  But when this cook threw in the word passion, I paid attention.  We do this job because we love it.  And if you don’t love being a cook, I can’t understand why you would ever choose it.  It’s hard, it’s tiring; you could be making better money filling up a trucker’s tank with fuel.  But a server…  We all know that most of them serve just to make money.  Most are actors, models, or in some other struggling field.  Most aren’t pursuing serving with a passion (yes, Danny Meyer’s restaurants may be the exception).  Their mindless pursuits for cash are earned off the kitchen’s sweaty brows.

After the four star review, reservations at EMP have obviously gone up, and so have the servers’ wages.  I’m told that it’s not uncommon for them to pull in roughly $2000 a week.  Compare that to the cook that’s sweating over the meat roast station for eight hours at a time, coming in to work 3 hours early (and not getting paid for those hours), scrubbing the kitchen from top to bottom after service, not leaving til 1 or 2 in the morning…and doing that 5 or 6 times a week.  Net result?  Roughly $400 dollars. Not to mention, your social circle basically reduces down to whoever you’re friends with in the kitchen.  Good luck on keeping up that relationship, or attending that baby shower.  Or buying a sweet gift for your baby bro’s birthday.  See my point?

Why hasn’t someone figured out how to level the playing field a little?  I know, I know.  Being in the kitchen means we “don’t have to deal with the customers.”  All servers will say this and roll their eyes.  Like they’re going into combat every night and barely surviving the ordeal.  With how they explain it, you’d expect them to come back with war wounds:  torn clothes, ratted hair and a missing tooth or two.  Yes, we don’t have to deal with picky customers.  But does that mean we shouldn’t be rewarded a bit for our hard work?  For our creativity?

When a food critic sits down in a restaurant, the decor is noted.  Service is critiqued.  Could the lighting be dimmer yet still appropriate?  Is the music too loud or considerately ambient?  Why thank you for not dripping that red wine on the white table cloth!  But really, the grade comes down to the food.  No restaurant is going to receive four stars if the food isn’t on the wow factor.  Eleven Madison didn’t only get bumped up to four star because of the dining room and the service.  The food elevated it there.  The food at Jean-Georges keeps it at four stars.  So why not pay a little love to the ones producing?

All I’m saying is isn’t it time we reconsider how the industry operates and stop coming up with excuses to not share the wealth?  Show the cooks a little love please.

Arthur Bryant’s BBQ

arthur bryant'sI’m really posting these pictures because I want to relive the moments I spent in Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque.  I had been in Missouri for three days and hadn’t had any real mid-west food (if we’re not counting beer).  We had gone to a chocolate shop/factory where I ate too many chocolate covered peanut butter filled pretzles, but that’s not real mid-America fare is it?  Well, maybe it is…

On our last day in Missouri, we finally got down to the good bits and went out of our way to eat at Arthur Bryant’s.  We had heard it was some of the best bbq in Kansas City, and perhaps the great state, so we decided to munch it out for ourselves.  I prepped myself with a massive first meal so I’d be ready for a hearty lunch.  The reasoning works in my head, okay?  Breakfast for myself  included oatmeal with peaches, a BLT (with homemade bacon and appenzell cheese) a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a creme brulee stout beer.  Excessive maybe.  But I was about to go above and beyond for lunch.

mmmWe arrived after an hour and a half of speedy driving and a few karaoke moments shared with R. Kelly.  Brook walked right up to the cashier and ordered beef brisket, a pulled pork sandwich, burnt ends, beans and a plate of fries.  He’s a pro.  He’s done this before.  I, on the other hand,  stood at the window, gaping, as the sandwich assembler lifted a door behind him.  He shone a light into the pit and illuminated a bevy of beautiful roasts, smoking away over a massive grill.  My friend nudged me in the ribs to make sure I was taking in the full enormity of the situation.  I was staring at all sorts of cuts from ribs to shoulders to butts.  I momentarily considered launching myself over the counter toward the pit of porky goodness…and then realized there were bank-like glass shields separating me from the sandwich man.  They’re probably there in the first place because some fool (with the same foolish thoughts as mine) actually followed through with the ‘grab the pork and run’ idea.  Instead, I held my breath and watched as the meat was cut, then basted with a paintbrush dripping with red sauce.  I grabbed the three meat laden plates and headed to the cashier to pick up the fries and three 42 oz. cokes.  Yes, I said 42 oz. cokes.  I think they super sized the McDonald’s super size!massive brisket

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We sat down and tried to share the dishes equally.  But that didn’t last long.  A free-for-all ensued and I ended up focusing on the burnt ends.  I also thoroughly enjoyed the pulled pork, but the beef brisket was a touch dry.  Even with the three bbq sauces for backup dippage, the brisket remained my least favorite dish.  I crunched a few pickles (neon green, just the way I like) and ate my fare share of fries.  They were a stunning accompaniment to the beef.  Skins on and thick cut–what more can you ask for from a fry?  We ate the meat, the cheap white bread that soaked up the juices and polished off every piece o’ potato.  But I couldn’t finish the coke… No room for liquids when there’s that much meat in the mix.

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I was full to the maximum.  No room to even look at the food magazines that were in the car.

But I did have room for a Venezuelan hot chocolate with house-made marshmallows, and a few pieces of salted caramel chocolates…

What.  There’s always room for chocolate!