Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dark Days Challenge Final Week: Pan-seared Scallops over Roasted Beets and Bacon

Yesterday I finally set out to recreate the scallop and beet dish I enjoyed at Gramercy Tavern last month. The journey began with a stop at the Union Square Greenmarket for bacon from Flying Pigs Farm. Jesse and I are both bacon neophytes. My parents never ever cook the stuff because they think any fat at all will kill you (even good fat like avocado). So we found ourselves a bit overwhelmed, both my the claustrophobic crowds at the Greenmarket, and by the assorted selection of bacons - smoked bacon, shoulder bacon, loin bacon, Canadian bacon, fully cooked bacon. Part of the problem was Jesse's confusion about what bacon is. He was worried that smoked bacon was already cooked and not what we were looking for, not realizing that it is the curing and smoking process that makes a slice of pig into bacon. Eventually, this problem was sorted out after many questions, so we purchased some regular smoked bacon from their happy pig farm and went on our way.

Our way being an hours-long trek in and around shoe stores in Manhattan looking for the perfect new sneakers for Jesse. (Isn't it usually the guy who finds himself being dragged around while his girlfriend goes shopping? Not in our relationship.) By the time we got home, my feet were killing me (I probably needed new shoes more than Jesse but have an aversion to shopping) and I was exhausted. I threw the beets in the oven, and then we headed to our favorite beer bar, Spuyten Duyvil for an aperitif. A nice warming glass of a mild Sirah for me, and a big bottle of Green Flash Imperial IPA for Jesse (so bitter and hoppy it smelled like a field of grass), along with a little cheese tasting was just what I needed to take the edge off. Spuyten always has a nice selection of cheeses, which they serve with wonderfully soft and airy bread. I love this bread, I adore this bread, and I aspire to someday be able to make it myself. It tasted perfect wrapped around a little piece of Midnight Moon, a dense, nutty, aged goat cheese.

Onward to dinner. While the beets continued to roast, Jesse fried up a few strips of bacon and then seared the scallops in the bacon fat. When I asked him how he knew how long to cook the scallops, he replied "I just know - I come from the sea, I am a merman!" in true Sir Fishmonger style. The bacon and roasted beets were sliced and diced and mixed together, and topped with the tender little scallops. It wasn't quite the same as Gramercy Tavern, which used a yogurt to thicken the beets into a sauce - I thought this step unnecessary, and I was right because it was truly delicious anyway. Gramercy Tavern also grilled their scallops, but I wanted to put that bacon fat to use and cook the scallops right in it. The recipe, provided at bottom, could not be simpler, and the bacon bits provided a perfect salty, tangy crunch to the sweetness of the beets and scallops.

After dinner, we headed to Chelsea Brewing Company for further alcohol imbibing at the Manhattan Cask Ale Festival. To get there, we had a sketchy-as-hell-I-don't-get-Chelsea-or-why-people-think-it's-cool-to-go-to-clubs-next-to-sketchy-parking-lots walk from the subway to the Chelsea Piers. But once inside, the place was bustling with people and beer. For those of you not in the know, cask ale is unfiltered beer allowed to mature naturally in a cask, producing smooth and complex beers without annoying carbonation. They had something like 25 beers to choose from. Standouts included Sixpoint Apollo (Jesse is in love with any and all Six Point beers) and Southampton beers.

That's Jesse grimacing at the taste one beer that was really awful - it was called Wicked Willie's and it tasted like a shot of bad whiskey and a PBR brewed together.

That's me enjoying something more delightful, Doc's Draft Cassis Cider, which of course I had to get because it's brewed in my hometown. I liked it better than their regular cider because it was a little sweeter.

And with that, we headed back out into the grunge of Chelsea and the subway toward our home after a long day.

Pan-seared Scallops with Roasted Beets and Bacon
4 small beets
1 tbsp olive oil
4 strips bacon
1/2 lb scallops

Preheat the oven to 400. Scrub the beets and place them in a pan. Drizzle olive oil over them, cover pan with foil, and roast in the oven for about an hour until you can easily stick a fork in them.

Meanwhile, after the beets have been roasting for about 45 minutes, lay the bacon in a large pan and cook over medium low heat, turning every so often until both sides are browned. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels to drain off some of the fat.

Cook the scallops in the bacon fat over medium-low heat, for about five minutes on each side. Do not overcook, as this will make the scallops tough.

Remove the beets from the oven and let cool a few minutes. Peel the beets under cold water running in the sink, and then cut into small slices. Tear the bacon into little bit-sized pieces. Mix the bacon in with the beets, and top with scallops. Pair with a dry white wine (our white was too sweet). Bon appetit!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Dark Days Challenge Final Week: Braised Lamb Shoulder Chop, Smashed Potatoes and Celery Root, and Bitter Greens

Lamb again? you're thinking. I know, I've gotten myself into some kind of rut, between all the lamb, and and potatoes, and roasted beets, and the staples of cooking through a winter that just won't end. It will be April in two days, and yet it's still been too cold to go for a bike ride (in my opinion).

Since it's still acting like winter, I figured I might as well cook like it by warming up the apartment with some braising action after work last Wednesday. This time around, I was dealing with lamb shoulder chops, which are a cheaper and tougher cut than the lamb rib chops that I grilled up the other week, so I figured they would benefit from a tenderizing braise in the oven. I diced onions and garlic and sauteed them in a large pan with olive oil over medium heat. Since the pan was large enough and the lamb chop small enough (only about .65 lb - part of my ploy to save money and eat less meat), I also browned the lamb at the same time. I added about 2/3 cup red wine, salt, pepper, tarragon, and thyme to the pan, and let it come to a simmer to reduce the wine a little. Then I transfered it all to a casserole dish and put it in the oven at 375 for an hour and a half.

I had enough time to take a shower, put on my comfy pajamas, and begin a glass of wine before I needed to start preparing the smashed potatoes and celery root. My inspiration was Alice Waters' recipe for celery root and potato puree in her holy-grail-of-seasonal-cooking-book, The Art of Simple Food. I was lucky enough to find this book on the shelf at the library last week and it's now on the (extremely) short list of books I deem worthy of owning. You see, I don't really like owning books or movies. It seems like a waste of money, space, and environmental resources. I much prefer taking things out from the library when I want to enjoy them. But, The Art of Simple Food is an encyclopediac resource of the building blocks of cooking that I would love to have on hand year round. I surely won't be able to absorb much before I have to return it in a couple weeks.

This was my first foray into cooking celery root, or celeriac, which is a kind of celery prized for its large root rather than its stems. It really did have a faint whiff and taste of regular celery. Alice Waters wanted me to peel it, slice it thinly, throw it in a pan with 3 tbsp butter, and let it cook covered for 15 minutes until tender. However, I get scared cooking with a lot of butter, so I cooked it with 1 tbsp butter and about a 1/3 cup water. It browned a little, but I like to think that added to the flavor. Meanwhile, I cooked blue and red potatoes (hence the pinkish color in the photo) in salted boiling water for about 15 minutes until tender. Then Alice Waters wanted me to push all the veggies through a ricer to puree them. But since I don't have a ricer and I wasn't in the mood to have to wash my food processor either, I just mashed them all with a fork, leaving some chunks, added a little milk and butter, and called it smashed potatoes and celery root instead.

I served the lamb and onion over large dollops of the smashed stuff, and then spooned the braising liquid on top. On the side, we ate a salad of local bitter greens (baby kale and mustard) with a balsamic vinaigrette and toasted (more like burned) almonds. It doesn't look very pretty, and the dish wasn't anything to coo over. It was just an average meal. The sweetness of the braised red wine covered up the elegant celery flavor so much that Jesse said he didn't taste celery at all. And the flavors of the dish altogether were pretty muted. I actually noticed that the red wine, Barbera d'Alba, was too spicy and overpowering in comparison, and my wine palate is usually never that discerning.

Later that night, I had to change back out of my comfy pajamas into hipster clothing for an absinthe open bar down the block. I do not recommend this is a way to try absinthe. The bartender was pushing half-full shots of watered-down pale green absinthe at us. It tasted like a watery licorice liquor that went down easy, but wasn't very exciting.

On another side note, I do recommend watching this Laurie Anderson video. I don't know much of anything about Laurie Anderson or her music, except that my uncle played in her band in the 80s, but I accompanied Jesse to see her perform selections from her new album Homeland at Carnegie Hall last week. I thought half the songs had a very boring feel, with ambient accompaniment and her weak voice singing the same refrains over and over again. The other half were much better - more like spoken word with music - very witty and engaging and relevant to the state of America today, and also very liberal, especially for Carnegie Hall. The highlight was "Only an Expert," which offers a critique of how the American populace sucumbs to the whims of "experts," whether those be big companies, media, or politicians. Check it out on YouTube here.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Dark Days Challenge Week 10: Grilled Lamb Leg Steak, Broccoli, and Oven-Baked Fries; Chocolate Bananas

Continuing with the lamb theme, I made sure to go to the 3-Corner Field Farm stand at the Greenmarket last week, figuring it would be one of their last weeks before the lambing season begins. It turned out I was right, so I indulged and bought ground lamb as well as lamb leg steak. After reading on Farmgirl Fare that lamb leg steak is her her favorite cut of lamb, I figured I had to try it. Instead of the whole leg of lamb, which is popular this time of year for Easter dinners, it's a slice through the leg with one small bone running through it and cooks up more quickly.

My cut of lamb leg steak was nice and thick though, so it certainly took its time on the grill. Before cooking, I marinated it using rosemary and garlic, traditional flavors associated with lamb. I mixed together 1 tsp fresh rosemary, 2 large diced cloves garlic, lemon zest and juice of half a lemon, 2 tbsp olive oil, salt, and pepper; then rubbed the lamb around in the mixture on both sides and let it marinate for an hour. Jesse grilled it on low, to be sure not to overcook it, for about 12 minutes on each side, leaving it medium-rare. I actually wished the rosemary and garlic flavors would have been stronger in the final cooked lamb, so I recommend amping up to 1 tbsp fresh rosemary and 3 or 4 cloves garlic. However, my rosemary plant has been suffering sad and spindly looking indoors all winter and I was afraid to snip too much off of it. I'm just hoping it survives another month till I can put it out on the deck along with the other herb plants I'm planning to grow.

The grilled lamb leg steak tasted surprisingly like steak from a cow, just slightly more tender. Jesse voted that he liked lamb steak better than bison steak because the lamb is juicier and more flavorful, but I actually preferred the bison better for its tenderness and leanness.

To go with the lamb, we made our usual oven-baked fries. Also, I committed a locavore sin. With all of these weekend trips, I haven't had a chance to go to the Greenmarket on a Saturday, which is the only day I can find vegetables besides potatoes and onions. I really wanted something green to accompany the dinner, so I caved and bought broccoli at a nearby grocery store. I chopped the broccoli, stems and all and sauteed it for a few minutes with garlic. Then I added my balsamic-mustard sauce that I often cook kale in (1 tsp mustard, 2 tsp balsamic vinegar, 2 tbsp water, salt, pepper, and thyme) and covered the pan hoping it would sort of steam and soften the broccoli. However, the stems especially never really softened, so I recommend slicing the stems thinly or parboiling the broccoli before cooking it in the balsamic-mustard mixture.

After dinner, Jesse surprised me by disappearing into the kitchen and coming back with a couple bananas and a bowl of chocolate chips melted in the microwave. It was a delightful treat I'd never heard of before: dunking a banana in melted chocolate and continuing to dunk it as you go (warning: do not eat this with anyone who has a fear of double dipping). No this was not local, but I think it would also work well with apple slices. And isn't he sweet for thinking of it?

Northampton Take Two: The Dirty Truth

Following the aforementioned ruin of last weekend, I was hoping for a little more relaxation and enjoyment this weekend. We returned to the Northampton area in Massachussetts to pick up Jesse's car, now fixed, and I figured this time around we would know what we were doing and have a better time.

Well I was wrong. I chose a cheaper motel for this trip, the Amherst Motel, and I do not recommend staying there. The heating was inconsistent, making it hard to sleep, and there was no hot water in the morning. While the owner who greeted us was plenty nice, and I would rather support a family-owned business than a chain hotel, just say no. There are plenty of other hotels in the area that will fill your needs better, such as Howard Johnson, where we stayed the previous weekend.

Then I didn't think to make a dinner reservation, so we wandered around Northampton hearing the same response of a 45 minute wait at every place, until we finally ended up at a sushi restaurant called Osaka. Which was fine, just not what we were in the mood for. I rarely have to make reservations in Brooklyn, so I forget that you might need them in a place that's not gasp!a big city.

Salvation came the next morning at brunch. Once again, we were thwarted by a 45 minute wait at what I had read was one of Northampton's most popular brunch spots, Sylvester's. So we decided to amble around and see if we could find a way to eat sooner. Luck came upon us when I saw the sign above - brunch! kegs and eggs! outside an unassuming place that ended up being The Dirty Truth Beer Hall. As we walked in the door we noticed a small Beer Advocate poster that ranked the place as one of the best beer bars in the country. It was then we knew we were at the right place. They had more taps than we'd ever seen behind a bar - 42 to be exact - and a huge blackboard listing great beers such as Allegash, Victory, and Bear Republic.

We really regretted not knowing about The Dirty Truth, or its sister bar, the Moan and Dove in Amherst, the night before when we had a few lackluster beers before dinner at both the Amherst Brewing Company and the Northampton Brewery.

I believe they have served dinner for a while, but this was The Dirty Truth's first day open for brunch! Jesse enjoyed a simple omelet, while I had what was called "Caitlin's Sandwich", featuring a firm fried egg, tomato tapanade, chevre, and spinach, on crisp whole grain toast. It was delicious, filling, and the kind of breakfast sandwich I would love to make at home. I didn't get a chance to have a beer, as it was too early in the morning for me to be in the mood, but I thoroughly recommend checking out this beer bar and gastropub if you are in the area. (To my sister Michelle who goes to college nearby - I am very sorry you have to wait three more years before you can enjoy this bar).

The moral of the story is, when going on a trip, make sure to a. check out Beer Advocate for good bars in the area, b.make a dinner reservation once you've found a good restaurant, and c. don't skimp on the lodgings.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Dark Days Challenge Week 10: Fluke, Turnip Fries, and Braised Green Cabbage

After a long busy week, we went away last weekend in search of relaxation. Instead, we ended up with a torrential downpour and a broken-down car. So when we finally found our way home on Sunday evening, I was glad that the ingredients for dinner were already waiting for us in the fridge. I had picked up a fluke from the Union Square Greenmarket on Friday before we left and planned to serve it with a few turnips and a wedge of old cabbage. With Jesse's help and a bottle of red wine, dinner came together easily and fairly quickly, like a well-oiled machine.

Jesse and I certainly love our oven baked fries, but having used up all our potatoes earlier in the week, I decided to see whether turnips could also be turned into fries. I prepared the same as potatoes: cut three medium-sized turnips into wedges, tossed them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and a dash of cayenne pepper, and then roasted them at 425 for 40 minutes, turning them over after 20 minutes to let them brown on each side. The turnip fries turned out good, but not as good as potato fries, just a little softer and blander. Mostly, they work as a healthier low-carb alternative.

Then I set to work on the cabbage, slicing it thinly and sauteeing it in butter with onions and garlic. After it softened a bit I added my favorite sauce combination - salt, pepper, mustard and a splash of balsamic vinegar - with enough water to cover the cabbage halfway. The flavors of the cabbage came out fragrantly garlicky and just right, but I should have cooked it longer. After about 15 minutes of simmering, the cabbage was still crunchy, and I realized I should have started it at the same time as the turnips to reach a softer texture.

I had intended to get flounder at the Greenmarket, but they recommended fluke at the stand instead. According to Jesse, fluke is also known as summer flounder, while regular flounder can be known as winter flounder. He was surprised that they caught fluke so early in the season - I guess that's global warming for you. Fluke is larger and the eyes are on a different side of the body or something like that, but it tasted the same to me. I wanted to steam the fluke atop the cabbage, as I've done before successfully with flounder, but because the filet was so large, Jesse thought it wouldn't cook through that way. He sauteed it in olive oil instead, with a little salt, pepper, and old bay. I love how fish cooks so quickly and simply, and is yet always delicious. Once plated, our dinner looked so blandly white. Yet beneath the white exteriors loomed a flavorful and nutrition-packed meal.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Dark Days Challenge Week 9: Grilled Lamb Rib Chops with Fries

I bought the cutest lamb rib chops at the farmers market last weekend. Just look at how little they are on the plate. But it was actually the perfect amount of meat to eat without feeling stuffed. I marinated them for an hour in a mixture of garlic, balsamic vinegar, water, mustard, salt, and pepper, and then Jesse grilled them. I had never had lamb chops before and they were so fun to eat. They are bone-in,
so we just picked them up and gnawed at them like cavemen. We also enjoyed oven roasted Adirondack blue potato fries on the side, with our favorite mayonnaise and vinegar dipping sauce. I could eat those fries allll day. Afterward, we had a sliced roasted beet for "dessert" because it took so much longer to cook than the potatoes.

I really think eating locally and seasonally has expanded my food repertoire. Eating meat used to mean cooking with boneless skinless chicken breast, or turning ground meat into hamburgers or pasta meat sauce, without ever thinking outside the box. Eating vegetables used to mean throwing carrots, peppers, onion, and broccoli in a stir fry. Now I realize there are so many more options out there. It's much more


Jesse's mom was nice enough to gift me saffron rice, which is cool because saffron itself is so expensive I would never be motivated to buy it. So of course the first thing I thought to do with the fabulous yellow rice was to make paella. I have to be honest and say the only local ingredients in the paella were the seafood, onions and
garlic. I splurged and bought frozen peas for the occasion, because I felt like the dish really needed that green pep. Or maybe I'm just longing for spring...

Now I have no idea if I made paella authentically, but it definitely tasted great. First Jesse steamed a half dozen clams until the opened. Meanwhile, I sauteed some sausage and scallops together until they browned slightly. Next, I sauteed onions and garlic in olive oil until softened, then added rice, peas, the water reserved from the clams, a splash of wine, and some vegetable stock and let it simmer until
almost cooked. Then I added back in the clams, scallops, and sausage, and we feasted. I can't wait to do it again, next time maybe with more clams and calamari.