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.

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