Wednesday, May 29, 2013

First Outdoor Dinner???

Not.  I invited a friend to come over for dinner, a drink and a catch up on Monday Memorial Day, or Tuesday - just Tuesday.  We both found the idea of dining outside quite appealing so opted for Tuesday instead of Monday thinking it would be a bit warmer and sitting outside would be more comfortable than in the chilly temperatures of Monday.  Idiots.  Monday was - and probably will remain the most beautiful day of this week.    As I write there's the most wicked thunder and lightening storm that I believe that I've ever witnessed tearing up Hudson right now.  My dog is sitting under my desk panting on my legs.  I just hope the lights don't go out.

Back to the dinner.  Eger Brothers, out at the junction of routes 9 and 23 - Hudson, NY - have heaps of fresh spinach in their bins right now.  That's it.  When I was in the city last week I bought a slab of paneer, the Indian, rennet-free (making it completely vegetarian) skimmed milk cheese used in the classic spinach dish, saag paneer.  A personal favorite.  Best when you can make it yourself with fresh spinach.(there many recipes that call for frozen spinach - which is way, WAY less labor intensive than using fresh - but not the same).

I bought 6 pounds of fresh spinach and spent over an hour, maybe close to 2 hours, ripping spinach leaves from their ribs and rinsing it in batches at least three times . I used some to make Allegra's dinner (that's another story which will appear in my Friday, May 31st Register Star column) and the rest to make a pretty fabulous batch of saag paneer - which fed us two with 2nd helpings each, and lunch and dinner for me for the next few days.

SAAG PANEER - based on Maya Kaimal MacMillan's from her book, Curried Favors (Abbeville Press Publishers, 1996)

Serves 8

1/2 pound paneer - found in Indian and Middle East food shops - or can be made by draining skimmed cottage cheese for several hours in cheese cloth - cut into 1/2-inch chunks
4 pounds fresh spinach, leaves torn from ribs, thoroughly rinsed and chopped
1 chili pepper; Serrano, Thai, or jalapeno - I used a cayenne from last summer that was in the freezer
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced yellow onion
1/4 cup grape seed or another neutral oil
1 heaping teaspoon minced garlic
1 heaping teaspoon grated ginger
1 1/2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes (I used grape tomatoes) or canned, drained
1 heaping teaspoon ground coriander
1 heaping teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
a pinch of ground cayenne (and this depends on the spiciness of the fresh pepper that you use)
1 1/2 cups water - I used excess water from the cooked spinach
1/2 teaspoon garam masala (I used a particularly good curry mix)

1.  If your making your own paneer - you'll need to make it at least 2 hours before serving.
2.   In a very large saucepan, over medium heat, cook the  spinach with the chili pepper until soft - you'll probably have to do this in batches - or keep turning over the cooked leaves as you add new ones - it should all fit into the pot.  Four pounds of spinach will take about 15 minutes or so to cook.
3.   In a large skillet over medium-high heat, fry the onion in the oil until browned.  Add the garlic and ginger and stir for another minute.  Add the tomatoes and 1 teaspoon salt, and fry until tomato pieces begin to break up.
4.   Add the dry spices and stir for a minute.  Add 1/4 cup spinach water and continue frying until all tomatoes pieces have softened and broken up.
5.   Stir in the cooked spinach.  Add another cup or so of spinach water and the paneer and simmer until water is absorbed.  Stir in garam masala and remove from heat.  Taste for salt.

I served the saag paneer  with basmati rice cooked in 1/2 water and 1/2 coconut milk to which I added finely grated carrots halfway through the cooking time.

And, fresh mango chutney.  Those sweet little bright yellow-orange mangoes from Mexico are in season right now.     I cut two of them them into pieces and tossed them with thinly sliced red onions that had soaked for an hour in salted ice water to remove the onion sting, currants, lime zest and juice, a few drops of walnut oil, fresh spearmint (up in the garden from last year) and chives.

I started to make dessert - a sour cherry crostata - but it didn't happen until today - the day after dinner.  Time got away from me.

I was inspired to make the crostata when I found a quart of frozen sour cherries from last summer. Wow - it'll be cherry time again soon -  best to use these up now and make space for the 2013 harvest.  I did a quick defrost by placing the container in a bowl of water.  Then I cooked the cherries with rapadura sugar, fresh orange peel, a cinnamon stick and a star anise until they reduced to a kind of preserves.    I made the crostata dough, a pasta frolla (a cookie-like pastry dough) with:
2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup sweet and salty almonds or roasted, salted almonds
1/2 cup + 6 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into bits
1 egg
1 tablespoon ice water
a splash of pure almond extract

1.  Add the flour, sugar and almonds to a food processor and pulse until the almonds are broken up - they don't have to be finely ground.
2.  Add the butter, egg, water and almond extract and run the food processor until the dough forms a ball on the blade.
3.  Remove from the processor - divide the dough into two - flatten each piece into a disk and wrap them in plastic film.  Refrigerate until ready for use.  Remove from the refrigerator 15 minutes before using.
4.   Heat an oven to 350 degrees F.  Roll out each disk on a lightly floured surface to about 1/2-inch thick. Cover the bottom and sides of a 10-inch fluted tart pan with removable sides.  Press the pastry into the pan and trim away any excess.  Prick the bottom of the pan.   Fill with the cherry mixture - or a jar of your favorite jam.
5.   Roll out the second pastry disk to the same size.   Cut into 1/2-inch wide strips.  Arrange half of the strips, 1/2-inch apart, over the tart.  Repeat with the remaining strips, placing them perpendicular to make a grid pattern.  Trim away any excess.  There will be leftover pastry.  I usually form a ball, roll it out, then cut out shapes such as circles, flowers, or hearts, and place them on top of the grid in a decorative way.
Make a wash by beating 1 egg with water or milk (I use milk - or almond milk) in a small bowl.  Brush the strips with the wash - sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar.  Bake until the top is golden, 30 - 35 minutes.  Cool on a rack.

Christopher, I owe you a slice of dessert.  And, dinner outside.  Although, pretty soon it'll be too hot and buggy to eat outside.
SUSANSIMONSAYS:  I hadn't to been to one of my favorite NYC restaurants in more than a year.  You can imagine how pleased I was to arrive at Prune and find the chef/owner, Gabrielle Hamilton, in the kitchen, solo.   It was just the right kind of day to eat lunch at this exceptional East Village bistro with it French doors opened to a view onto a park which acted as a buffer between  Prune and raucous Houston Street.  

Gabrielle generously sent out an simple offering  when we arrived-  half of a most perfectly ripe avocado its cavity filled with spicy, sweet and fragrant Spanish olive oil and flaky sea salt.  I could have stopped there.  That is until the sorrel soup - acid enough to make your mouth pucker, not curl ,tempered with a glob of salty whipped was served. Heaven?  You bet.

sorrel soup with salted whipped cream

fried artichokes with saffron aioli


My friend and I shared fried artichokes sunk into sunshine bright saffron aioli, and the "sous chef's" salad filled with a mixture of greens, herbs, beans, roasted yellow peppers, seeds and a pronounced nut oil dressing.
 Remind me to go to mid-town to eat anymore.  There are too many good restaurants downtown.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Few Weeks in May

On May 5th - Cinco de Mayo - it seemed as if we were having a real springtime in Hudson.  Finally.   I celebrated the Mexican national holiday at brunch with friends who served not Margaritas and burritos, but smoked salmon and asparagus topped with an herb-filled cold, cream sauce, and eggs baked in butter and cream.  They said it was French food to honor not the victors but the losers. The Battle of Puebla on May 5th  was a significant victory for the outnumbered Mexican army over the invading  French and gave our neighbors to the south a push towards establishing unity within their country.  The US government aided the Mexican army to achieve their victory and so Cinco de Mayo is happily celebrated stateside as well.  

Dessert is made easy when you own an illustrious ice cream  parlor on Warren Street 

Right on the heels of my first outdoor meal of 2013, I jumped on Amtrak headed towards New York City to meet one of my oldest friends, Nally Bellati who had just arrived from Italy.  Our plan was to meet at Uniqlo on 5th Avenue and 53rd street - I mean, where else?   Nally took the E train from Chelsea and I got on it at Penn Station - and don't you know, there she was standing in the car that I was about to board. It was NOT planned.  Uniqlo, the Japanese give-away fashion spot was filled with tempting colors and we were seduced into many purchases but wound up returning everything.  Our mid-town plan was made so we could see our friend, designer Christopher Young's stunning, Gatsby-themed windows at Tiffany.  The whole city is quite Gatsby mad right now.

Crispy Swedish Bread, Danish Rye  Bread, Brown Butter, Sea Salt

Cardamom Panna Cotta

We were both  hungry and couldn't quite figure out where to eat - it's always a problem in mid-town  for me.  I don't have a business expense account(!), and also tend to favor ethnic food when I'm in the city.  In the end we decided to return to the reliable Aquavit.    The restaurant calls itself a Scandinavian country dining experience.  However, this Michelin-starred place with its Arne Jacobsen chairs puts quite a sophisticated spin on "country dining".  The original food concept comes from the great Swedish chef, Marcus Samuelsson.  While no longer involved with the restaurant - Samuelsson's imprinteur   is clearly evident.   The restaurant serves a thoroughly satisfying prix fixe lunch.  Both Nally & I ordered the cruditĂ©s salad  served with a shower of crushed sunflower seeds, salmon, pale and subtle, napped with cauliflower puree, and a fine twist on panna cotta infused with cardamom and filled with almond paste.

And the main event was still to come - A big party at John Derian to celebrate his collaboration with the French ceramic company, Astier de Villatte (go to their link right now - it's extremely witty).
John's new shop - yup - another one, at 8 east 2nd street, right in between the his shops at #s 6 & 10 - was decorated like a French, country farmhouse  complete with straw-covered floors, and the piece de resistance - aside from John's beautiful designs on Astier de Villatte's very sturdy but delicate plates, mugs, vases, urns, compotes, was Livia Cetti's  jaw-dropping flower arrangement - paper flowers cut from hand-painted paper.

Cream of Asparagus Soup - recipe on Register Star column

Poached Eggs on Roasted Asparagus

Rhubarb Compote (sweetened with orange jam) on sliced Pain Viennoise topped with Roasted Cinnamon and Passion Fruit Ice Cream

Then Nally, and her husband, Manfredi came to Hudson for a few days.  Food was involved, of course - I've written about our at-home meals in my weekly column - Susan Simon Says (what else?), Food for Thought - which you can find here .  Once you get there click on Columnists and scroll down to mine.  Thanks.   We also had fine meals at Le Gamin, and Wasabi in Hudson - and at The newly reopened, resplendent in red and pink stripes, The Red Barn, in Ghent.  Nally says that
The Red Barn's mussels are deeeeeeeeeeee-liscious.


And then back to NYC for a dinner given by James and Mark to celebrate the publication of their Brooklyn apartment in New York magazine's special issue, design hunting, and the magazine's longtime design editor, Wendy Goodman.   James and Mark chose the Indian restaurant, Panna II in the East Village  - not for its food - apocryphal, maybe - but the word on the street is that all the Indian restaurants in the east 6th street area, between 1st and 2nd avenues share the same kitchen- no matter - the atmosphere trumped any food concerns.  The tiny room was a forest of Christmas lights, chili pepper lights, Christmas, Halloween, Easter and birthday banners.  Mark and James had arrived before the guests to cover the tables with shocking pink linens - "Pink is the navy blue of India", Diana Vreeland famously said - a copy of the magazine, place cards carried like bejeweled rajahs and ranees on the howdahs of  elephant holders, and cake pops made by Big City Little Sweets decorated in themes found in the couple's Park Slope apartment completed the table setting.

Whew.   May isn't over yet.   More to come

Great time at lunch with Nally and Louise Fili at Gramercy Tavern.  But, I must say - that Gramercy Tavern seems to be a shadow of its former self.  Oh, the rooms are still pretty and the attentive  Danny Meyer service still reigns- no complaints.  But, what happened to the food?   Greasy carrots, overcooked fish.  Nope.  Too many good restaurants in NYC to run back there.