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Archive for June, 2009

Over Father’s Day, my family traveled from north and south to meet in the mecca of kosher food, art, recent landscape architectural feats, and a Middle Eastern beach in the middle of a park in the biggest urban city in the US. After a delicious vegan dinner Saturday night at Blossom in Chelsea to pay homage to my lil sis’ dining preferences, we went to one of my favorite high-end kosher meat restaurants in my old haunt of the Upper West Side.

Mike’s is called a bistro, and if I have to have one issue with this restaurant, it would be its nomenclature. “Bisto” indicates to me an informal, inexpensive, neighborhood joint with wine flowing. Mike’s is indeed all of the aforementioned, save inexpensive.

A little digression about bistro history:

The rustic, unpretentious atmosphere associated with Parisian bistros reflects their origins. Most of the first bistros started out as cafés-charbons, shops that sold coal and firewood for heating, where neighbors could meet for a class of wine or cup of coffee. When the owners of these simple wine bars, usually workers from the Aubergne region in central France, began to offer a few modest dishes served family style to their guests, the bistro tradition was born. These first bistros were places for working people to eat quickly around Les Halles, the historic market district of Paris. By the mid-1800s, neighborhood bistros had popped up in almost every district of the city. Along with the laborers came artists and intellectuals, attracted by delicious, inexpensive [emphasis mine] meals.

For Parisians who lived in apartments with limited or nonexistent kitchens [um, sound like NY?], the closest thing to a home-cooked meal could be found at neighborhood bistros. And because the same patrons returned night after night, these restaurants offered more than old-fashioned country cuisine – they were also places where Parisians could escape the anonymity of the big city. In France, bistro cuisine is often called cuisine de grand-mère. The simple salads and steaks, braised stews and meats, and comforting, homespun desserts served in most bistros are the kinds of dishes you would expect to be served by a French grandmother.

…There are several theories about the origins of the word bistro. The most picturesque story traces the word back to the Russian soldiers who marched into Paris after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Legend has it that the hungry soldiers dashed into the city’s wine-shops and cafés, shouting “Bistro! bistro! — Russian for “Quick! quick!” Other sources suggest that the word was derived from bistouille, slang for a mixture of eau-de-vie and coffee , which was served in early cafes.

Sharon O’Connor’s Bistro (Menus and Music)

OK, you get the idea. I’m just not sure that there are many laborers (are Wall Street guys considered “laborers”) or artists who will be frequenting Mike’s “Bistro.” Perhaps I’m being too much of a purist when it comes to my French culinary terminology and I should grant Mike a little bit of poetic license. I mean, for New York kosher, it is not the most expensive place to have a meal. But when you tell your family that you’re going a bistro, they don’t expect to pay over $70 per person at the end of the evening (is it really gauche for me to mention $$ here? sorry…). Granted, the appetizers are large (see pics below) and many could serve as an entire meal.

On the positive side (and our experience as absolutely positive…and I did tell my family that dinner would be a little pricey) , we ate quite well, and no one left hungry. The menu is small but diverse and you get the sense that, unlike most kosher steakhouses that seem to think that a sushi bar is a requirement these days, Mike creates dishes that reflect a perspective and don’t try to be everything to everyone. In his own words (or at least those that are on the website), he “creates and executes a contemporary, internationally inspired, Glatt Kosher (OU) gourmet menu with seasonally-inspired nuances.” The service was attentive without being overbearing. In the past when I’ve eaten here, Mike has come around and greeted me at my table lending to the family atmosphere. Many of the dishes are slow-cooked, comfort foods aligned with “‘cuisine de grand-mère,'” and the wine list was fairly extensive and well-priced (we ordered a bottle of Spanish Ramon Cordova Rioja). It’s just that in my mind the word “gourmet” and the price tag seem a bit at odds with the word “bistro.”

We were fortunate enough to eat in the atrium – a greenhouse-like room at the front of the restaurant filled with natural light, affording me the opportunity to snap a few quick photos of some of my favorite dishes (yes, I did try almost everyone’s food) without annoying all my family members by letting their meals get cold.

So now I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

olive oil with basil chiffonade

olive oil with basil chiffonade, served with fresh, warm rolls

A couple of our appetizers:

Chipotle Spiced Bean Chili -- black rice, avocado, crispy corn tortilla, cilantro

Chipotle Spiced Bean Chili -- black rice, avocado, crispy corn tortilla, cilantro (vegetarian)

Handmade Gnocchi -- duck and chicken confit, roasted portobell mushrooms, fresh thyme, duck jus

Handmade Gnocchi -- duck and chicken confit, roasted portobello mushrooms, fresh thyme, duck jus

Missing appetizer pictures:

- Baby Spinach Salad — dressed in a warm (veal) bacon & red wine vinaigrette, boiled egg, tomatoes, red onions, chives

- Roasted and Marinated Beet Salad — candied walnuts, fresh citrus segments, orange beet vinaigrette, shaved endive

A few of our entrées:

Braised Boneless Short Ribs -- barbecue glaze, cauliflower mash, braised kale, celery root sauce

Braised Boneless Short Ribs -- barbecue glaze, cauliflower mash, braised kale, celery root sauce (I ordered this...a bit too fatty for me, but my mom loved it)

Black Angus Rib Eye Fillet - crushed potatoes, red-wine onion relish, green beans, chives (my favorite dish, but my dad ordered it and didn't want to share much!)

Black Angus Rib Eye Fillet - crushed potatoes, red-wine onion relish, green beans, chives (my favorite dish, but my dad ordered it and didn't want to share too much...hey, it was Father's Day, so I only took a little bite or two...)

Sauteed Duck Breast -- duck confit leg, sweet and sour red cabbage, yam fritters, cranberry port sauce

Sauteed Duck Breast -- duck confit leg, sweet and sour red cabbage, yam fritters, cranberry port sauce

Braised Lamb Shank -- crushed yukon potatoes, freshly ratatouille, rosemary lamb sauce

Braised Lamb Shank -- crushed yukon potatoes, freshly combined ratatouille, rosemary lamb sauce (Linda is still raving about that ratatouille)

Breast of Veal (daily special) - unstuffed roulade towering over mushrooms, peas, and potatoes

Breast of Veal (daily special) - unstuffed roulade towering over mushrooms, peas, and potatoes

Soup du Jour - Carrot Sesame (vegetarian)

Soup du Jour - Carrot Ginger (vegetarian)

We sealed the deal with a few light and refreshing scoops of fresh sorbet — lemon, strawberry, and raspberry, if memory serves correct — and left dinner with nary a complaint.

My father was happy to treat on his day, saying, “Bubbie would have been glad to bring us all together here.”

Mike's Bistro on Urbanspoon

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TLV in NY

This year Tel Aviv celebrates her 100th birthday.

TLV at 100

I found this video on the website of the Israeli Consulate of New England. It depicts the “other side” of Israel that the media rarely shows – largely the fun club scene of Tel Aviv.

And this past afternoon, the Israeli Tourism Ministry and various other Israel and local NY groups supported a Tel Aviv beach party in Central Park. I happened to be in NY where my family converged for a Father’s Day celebration, so I popped over to see what was going on. There was a DJ playing music (I missed the live bands)…

- 046 crop DJ

… El Al trip give-aways …

hands up for free RT airfare to TLV

… a few tons of sand dumped in front of the half-shell and covered with New Yorkers, Israelis, confused bystanders, and babies thinking this was just another normal day…

baby on "beach"

just standing around

I just took off my shoes and felt the sand run through my toes a bit.

me and my shadow

There were a fair number of sponsors, including El Al airlines, Aroma Espresso Bar that has two branches in the City (one uptown, one downtown) …

Aroma on UWS (W72)

…  and a hotel chain with a shelf full of tour guides of the city in various languages.

books on TLV - in French ("24 heures...), on design (Bauhaus architecture), etc.

books on TLV - in Spanish and French ("24 heures"), on design (Bauhaus architecture), etc.

I couldn’t walk very far without running into friends (including Neima, Shimon and Ruby) … and then had to run meet my family for dinner.

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csa lunch box

Marinated white turnip and lemon balm over romaine

After a bit of hemming and hawing over the winter, I took the plunge and went with a CSA for the summer. I picked up my first share last week and it included several vegetables that were a bit foreign to me.

Heaven's Harvest CSA share

According to the Heaven’s Harvest website, the share this week consisted of: scallions, Hakurei turnips, summer squash, sweet potatoes, red chard, romaine lettuce, baby bok choi, collards, lemon balm, chives (boo – no chives for me!), and strawberries.

As I was heading down to New York for the weekend, I prepared a little lunchbox for my trip using the fresh bounty that I had.

I researched the white hakurei turnips and learned that they don’t require peeling. Recalling the first time that I made jicama cilantro slaw and inadvertently bought a large turnip (yes, this was well before I had developed into the sophisticate that I am today…I kept exclaiming, “my, this tastes quite earthy!”), I figured a modified slaw would work well with the delicate turnips. So, I did a quick 45-minute marinade of julienned turnips in lemon juice, salt, pepper, extra-virgin, and chiffonaded lemon balm, and then threw the mix over hearty romaine lettuce.

marinated white Hakurei turnips with lemon balm, romaine lettuce


I next prepared some chard, also chiffonaded, and then quickly sautéed in olive oil with salt and thrown atop a whole wheat wrap slathered in hummus.

sauteed chard with hummus on ww wrap


Finally, I rinsed and dried the strawberries and repacked them in their container.

And then I threw everything into an old salad greens container next to a bottle of water, and rushed off to South Station.

lunch box for my trip to NY

As I was heading down to New York, I prepared a little lunchbox for my trip using the fresh bounty that I had.I researched the white _____ turnips and learned that they don’t require peeling. Recalling the first time that I made jicama cilantro slaw and inadvertently bought a large turnip (yes, this was well before I had developed into the sophisticate that I am today…I kept exclaiming, “my, this tastes quite earthy!”), I figured a modified slaw would work well with the delicate turnips. So, I did a quick 45-minute marinade of julienned turnips in lemon juice, salt, pepper, extra-virgin, and chiffonaded lemon balm, and then threw the mix over hearty romaine lettuce.

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beef chewing gum

Willy Wonka: Don’t you know what this is?
Violet Beauregarde: By gum, it’s gum.
Willy Wonka: [happily, but sarcastically] Wrong! It’s the most amazing, fabulous, sensational gum in the whole world.
Violet Beauregarde: What’s so fab about it?
Willy Wonka: This little piece of gum is a three-course dinner.
Mr. Salt: Bull.
Willy Wonka: No, roast beef. But I haven’t got it quite right yet.

- Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) as quoted by IMDb

About 6 weeks ago, I received a package of Holy Cow Kosher beef jerky after I tweeted the vendor with my interest in trying it, offering to share my opinions with this new market entrant.

The marketing material on the package gives some pretty high expectations: “American’s favorite Kosher beef jerky!” ??? And, I’m not even commenting on the incorrect capitalization of “Kosher” <sigh!>.

package close-up

I was a little disconcerted by the actual package because there seemed to be a fair amount of moisture surrounding the meat (apologies for the glare – this was the best picture I could get). I thought jerky was supposed to be very dry.

jerky close-up

But, hey, I take my job as a food taster seriously. I didn’t want to trust just my taste buds … I wanted to get balanced opinions from a wide range of friends coming from different backgrounds. Waiting for the right occasion took a little while, but it finally arrived – my good friend Sacha was finally back in town from DC and threw a late night barbecue.

Lots of meat. Hungry people. A little beer and scotch flowing. Let the opining begin.

I arrived shortly before 11 pm with my 2 oz bag of Holy Cow jerky poking out of my purse between my wallet and cell phone. After eating a hamburger, I busted the bag out and explained our task for the night, dispensing brown nibbles to all attendees. The comments came fast and furious.

One friend, somewhat prone to (melo)drama, and who admitted to not liking beef jerky in the first place, spit the jerky out and called it “stale plastic in bargain basement teriyaki sauce…like a dog chew toy…” Granted, I’m not sure why he knows what a dog chew toy tastes like, but I’ll leave that for another discussion.

Another non-jerky eater described the flavor as “weird” but was impressed that the ingredient list was all pronounceable with only one preservative.

Our final jerky novice was similarly not impressed, handing her piece to her husband after one tentative bite, dismissing it as “tasting like poop.”

Her husband, on the other hand, our first jerky pro, felt that the meat “was already a little too moist and loose already…had a good taste but went too quickly… it should require a bit more work to loosen it up.”

Sacha, our most voracious meat eater and consistent traveler, said that there was absolutely no comparison between this jerky and what he calls the gold standard, Jeff’s Gourmet dried beef jerky sticks that he buys and eats on airplanes.

The self-described “ultimate cheapskate” who spent time in Texas and therefore should know a thing or two about jerky called the meat “something like a Japanese candy” and eventually had to throw it out despite the starving children in Africa.

Finally the most experienced jerky connoisseur, having actually made jerky with roommates while in Yeshiva in Israel, described the Holy Cow jerky as having a texture that immediately brought to mind “fleishig” chewing gum. Again, not boding well for jerky.

Now, a note on the jerky’s texture. The company’s website states:

Through our revolutionary production process, we’ve mastered the art of Jerky making. The result is truly fantastic flavor with a lean, tender finish – never brittle and dry. Moreover at Holy Cow! Kosher, we never use artificial ingredients, No Trans Fats or unnatural preservatives. If you’re looking for 100% quality, you found it.

So, they seem happy with their “tender finish” but our consensus was that “brittle and dry” is really the way to go with jerky.

The précis for Holy Cow!:

- Nice use of natural ingredients
– Poor texture, too moist for jerky
– Mediocre taste
– I would not buy this again, especially because there are better options out there

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kibbutz herb salad

kibbutz herb salad close-up

At the first non-traditional tikkun leil Shavuot that I attended at the Manhattan JCC a few years ago, I took home two principles, one general, one specific. The first was that Jewish learning need not be limited to textual study – this clearly stuck with me as I taught a dance class at my own minyan‘s recent Shavuot evening of learning. The second was how fabulous incorporating fresh herbs into a green salad can make it taste.

Growing up as a dancer (or pretending I was a dancer is probably more accurate) who always watched everything I put in my mouth with trepidation, salads were more a necessity than something to look forward to and savor. And the salads I ate were pretty boring and almost always the same: iceberg, carrots, cucumber, mushrooms, maybe some pepper. Throw on some non-fat ranch dressing from a bottle. Voilà — dinner! As I look back now, all I can think is si triste…so sad.

Now I look forward to salads as an explosion of fresh flavors, with diverse and interesting greens and a few additional veggies to be highlighted with just a splash of freshly made dressing. That fateful Shavuot night captured the essence of this type of salad for me. The woman who taught the class (and please forgive me, but I can’t recall her name) described the salad as a traditional one made on kibbutzim (the Hebrew plural of kibbutz) — collective, usually agrarian, communities that settled in pre-Israel Palestine — using fresh herbs and vegetables grown by the kibbutzniks.

I now have my own window sill garden and I  like to use as many of my own home-grown herbs as possible. I have basil and mint, but no matter how hard I try, I cannot grow cilantro.

my window sill garden

For those looking closely, yup, that’s a little critter climbing up the mint pot (an idea that I got from Monica down in Atlanta – mother to Meira and Maman to Caroline’s kiddos; I bought this little guy in Israel).

I just bought a tomato plant – grape tomatoes to be exact – and it’s so exciting to see the little yellow blossoms fall off as the green bulbs emerge. I can’t wait to seem the little tomatoes pop out.

grape tomatoes, not quite ready

Kibbutz Herb Salad

This salad has become one of my favorite refreshing summer classics and I make variations on it for almost every meal that I go to because it just screams fresh summer to me. The original salad was prepared with the three herbs that I use here – mint, cilantro, and basil – along with goat cheese, toasted pine nuts (pignoli), and sun-dried tomatoes. I can’t recall what greens were used, but I almost always use a mix of arugula and baby spinach – the red leaf lettuce here is milder, but worked quite well. I don’t like pine nuts very much and immediately substituted toasted slivered almonds (you must toast them to draw out their flavor). I usually use fresh or slow-roasted tomatoes and sometimes add some feta or a firm chèvre.

Serves 1 – adjust for appropriate number of guests (amounts in parentheses are for a crowd…aka, a dinner party of 8 such as the one I had a few weeks ago)

 

- 2-3 large handfuls of greens (I used red leaf lettuce here, but often use a mix of baby arugula and spinach) (for a crowd: 10 oz. package of baby arugula, 10 oz package of baby spinach)

- a small handful of each green you plan to use: ~ 10 large basil leaves, ~ 20 small mint leaves (Sam, leave this out), a handful of cilantro (super-tasters, leave this out) (for a crowd: ~25-30 large basil leaves, ~ 50 small mint leaves, tons of cilantro)

- 1 tomato (for a crowd: 4-5 tomatoes or 10 oz slow roasted grape tomatoes)

- 1 handful (~1/4 C) sliced almonds (for a crowd: 1 C sliced almonds)

- 1/2 lemon for juicing (for a crowd: 1-2 lemons)

- 1-2T extra virgin olive oil – the best you can find – info on a recommended one below (for a crowd: up to 1/4 C )

- salt and pepper

Toast the almonds on a dry pan with a pinch or two of salt over low heat. Shake the pan and watch the almonds carefully because you want them to brown but not burn. Once you can smell them, remove from heat. Let the almonds cool while  you prepare the rest of the salad.

Rinse and dry all greens and herbs. Cut everything into  strips. Cut the red leaf into thicker strips that are still bite-sized (when I use arugula and baby spinach, I just rip everything, removing and stems). Chiffonade the basil and mint. Chiffonadeing results in a pretty thin strip and comes from the french word, chiffon – a rag – and the verb, chiffoner – to provoke (but no one ever talks about the verb… I found this one on my own!). To chiffonade, stack all of your leaves, roll them up, and slice through them with a sharp knife in quick parallel cuts. Chop up cilantro if using.

For more information on the chiffonading technique, check out this little article I found on foodista: Chiffonading on Foodista

Chop tomato.

chopped and chiffonaded greens and veggies, toasted almonds

Mix greens and herbs in large bowl. Pour a little bit of excellent olive oil into one hand and massage into the greens (keep second hand dry so you can add salt and pepper). This ensures that all the leaves are dressed without being drenched. This is the methodology that the Israeli chef shared with us and I always use it for this salad. I really like this tactile methodology.

Unio Extra Virgin Olive OilA note on extra virgin olive oil. Since my last trip to California, I have been on a search for a great olive oil that tastes like olives and I found one! While I have written a draft of a post about my search as well as some emerging thoughts on whether cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil actually requires a hechsher, it’s not quite ready. But, I can’t resist sharing with the amazing Spanish oil that I found (it does have a Spanish hechsher: Certified Kosher by the Federacion de Comunidade Israelites ) that actually tastes like olives and is made from arbequina olives native to the Catalan region of Spain on the French border. It is called Unió and is easy to find at Whole Foods (~$17 for a 750ml bottle).

This olive oil is amazing just served on the table in a little dish to accompany bread. I save it for dipping and salad dressings and do not cook with it.

Right before serving, add tomatoes and squeeze half a lemon over the greens. Toss with a few pinches of salt and a few turns of pepper. Throw the now-cooled toasted almonds on top and toss again. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary.

kibbutz herb salad

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photo by Barry Munger, downloaded from http://www.thehighline.org/galleries/images/tags/barry+munger

photo by Barry Munger, downloaded from http://www.thehighline.org/galleries/images/barry-munger

Last Monday (June 8, 2009), Section 1 of the NY High Line opened and my sister, RySq was asked to serve as one of the greeters for the ribbon-cutting event as a volunteer with the Friends of the High Line. This afforded my talented lil sis — a budding architect,  photographer, graphic and jewelry designer, and all-around talented creative person to take pictures of this historic event and to be a fly on the wall. She has been talking about this urban planning and landscaping project for years since we both moved to New York in 2004, she to start her architecture career, I to continue in health care. So when her interest came full circle, I was so proud.

bench detail, photo by RySq

bench detail, photo by RySq

Ry shared over 200 frames and summarized her own thoughts on opening day in an email to friends and family (she rarely uses caps):

only the first phase [of the high line] has opened from gaansevort to 20th street. there are so many interesting moments … it really was  a treat to get up there and see it under construction the last few months and meet the founders of the organization. very inspiring that people can work together to make a difference in their community like this. the high line has truly transformed the entire far west side of chelsea for the better i think.

Ry heard Mayor Bloomberg speak with the press, and Diane von Furstenburg, an early supporter of the High Line with her flagship studio in the Meatpacking District, echoed a sentiment from a 2-minute video (where she described the High Line as “a green ribbon that follows the river into the sunset”), “‘the High Line is like a green ribbon running through the city… and I like ribbons … therefore I like the HighLine…‘”

DvF studio as seen from the High Line (picture by RySq)

DvF studio as seen from the High Line, photo by RySq

In looking through some other “High Line Stories” to be broadcast by the Sundance Channel, I found one featuring Adam Gopnik, New Yorker writer and author of one of the first books that I read about an American in Paris, an essay collection called Paris to the Moon about his 5-year sojourn in Paris. In his 2-minute vignette, he shares his thoughts about the High Line after having written an article about it in 2001:

‘It’s a sort of classic romantic subject: the ruins of industry,’ I thought as I say that it was a documentary of something passing. I did not imagine that it was really the foundation of something new. It seemed about as improbable a notion as anything could be that they would actually turn it into a park like the Promenade Plantée in Paris which is exactly like what this will become. And that is it’s an old abandoned railroad that had been turned into a long skinny high park. So when I wrote that piece, the effect was what had seemed to be merely a quixotic scheme suddenly seemed like a sane, rational, and necessary piece of urban planning. What were needed were new green lungs for the city to breathe with.

Sundeck, photo by RySq

Sundeck, photo by RySq

"Pavement Meets Horticulture" - photo by RySq

Pavement Meets Horticulture, photo by RySq

On the High Line website, there are numerous galleries of photographs, including this one of the “High Line in Operation” with black and white photos such as this one of a train chugging along the West side of lower Manhattan.

One of these iconic photos has even been incorporated into an Anya Hindmarch tote as part of the High Line Merchandise Program, whereby local designers including DvF, Trina Turk, and Zero + Maria Cornejo (who created a gorgeous abstract loop scarf) designed commemorative products, some proceeds of which support the High Line.

Anya Hindmarch tote

Anya Hindmarch tote

When Ry gets excited about something, her enthusiasm is infectious. And I often try to learn about what is inspiring her (like when I took a class on Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Architecture to round out my Freshman year pre-med load to give us a common lexicon), of course, adding in my own special touch. So when my sister introduced me to the High Line a few years ago, I became interested in “NY Export: Opus Jazz the film” – a film of a Jerome Robbins ballet, NY Export: Opus Jazz (that originally premiered in 1958 and was more jazz dance than ballet, often referred to as “an urban ballet in sneakers”), performed by NYCB dancers in locations all over NYC, including on the last untouched area of the High Line.

Opus Jazz 2

Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall in "Passage for Two," photo by Yaniv Shulman (downloaded from earlier version of http://www.opusjazz.com, no longer available)

Opus Jazz

Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall in "Passage for Two," photo by Yaniv Shulman (downloaded from earlier version of http://www.opusjazz.com, no longer available)

The trailer for the documentary compares the original ballet, placing it in 1950s context when it aired on the Ed Sullivan show, with its modern adaptation and reinterpretation , and contains commentary by some of the original and current performers. The contrast of the same moves and lifts then and now is breath-taking against the Robert Prince music and urban backdrops, old and new.

Trailer: Jerome Robbins’ NY Export: Opus Jazz The Film

The behind-the-scenes video provides additional footage of the shooting of the film on the High Line, including capturing a scene in the last moment of sunlight of the day against the setting sun with the coming together of the art, luck, and skill that is film-making.

Behind the Scenes: Opus Jazz The Film

My sister ended her email with some closing thoughts.

the motto:

keep it simple
keep it wild
keep it clean
keep it slow

it is a passive park, designed via competition winner diller+scofidio… one of my favorite experimental  and visionary firms in the city

"Keep it Wild" - photo by RySq

Keep It Wild, photo by RySq

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pomegranate chicken kabobs cooling, ready to pack up

I’m still a little bit confused by New England weather. I mean, I lived here a few years ago when I went to The College (how’s that for subtle?), so I was ready for a long Winter. I was even prepared for the little peek of early Spring followed by a couple more snow storms. But I keep trying to figure out Summer, and I want to compare it to places that I am familiar with. I thought perhaps summer might be a little bit like LA’s “June Gloom”. Or San Francisco where the fog rolls out every morning. But I think it’s just unique with its own, er, charm. I’ve decided that it’s just predictably unpredictable.

All I know is that when I pulled together a last-minute potluck picnic last weekend to celebrate my friend Marina’s coming to town and fully anticipated that it would be held on my living room floor, I awoke last Saturday morning after a week of drizzle to a gorgeous sunshiny day. I even cleaned up my place anticipating a toddler’s grabby hands (or at least took care of the things that reached about waist-level for me).

So my friends and I were blessed with a beautiful day, an outdoor picnic, a bounty of food, and of course a fun afternoon with each other (and I got a relatively mess-free home…at least up to toddler-eye-view).

Here’s the menu, and like I did for my last dinner party, I’ll try to fill out the recipes as I go along.

the prettiest Challah I’ve ever made thanks to a new braiding technique

Guacamole (below)

Corn Edamame Salad (below)

Mayo-free Egg Salad (below)

Quinoa-Mango Salad with Lime-Cumin Vinaigrette (made with Spinach)

Pomegranate Chicken Kabobs (below)

Simple Chocolate Cake

Contributions from friends (feel free to send recipes or include in comments): Green Salad, Wine, Fruit Salad, Halva

Here are the salads that I made.

1) Guacamole

I normally add tomatoes to my guac, but I didn’t have any this week. However, I did have a jalepeno so this one came out nice and spicy.

Mash together flesh of 2 avocados, 1/2 finely diced jalapeno = ~1t (seeds removed – and don’t attempt to put on your contact lenses after dicing like I did!), 1T grated onion (optional), 2-3 generous pinches salt, and 2-3 T lime juice. You can also add some cayenne pepper or cumin.

2) Corn Edamame Salad with Pink Salt

This is a very easy salad that I threw together with things I had in my fridge, freezer, and pantry, adjusting and tasting as I went along. This made about 4-5 C salad and there was about 1/2 C remaining for me to take a picture of the next day (but my pic came out blurry).

Roast 3 ears of corn in oven as directed a few weeks ago. Cut kernels off of cob.

corn cut off the cob

Cook 1 bag (10 oz) frozen shelled edamame — I microwaved in a bowl with 3T water and a pinch of salt for 1-2 minutes. Drain water.

Mix corn with cooked drained edamame and add some quartered baby tomatoes (15-20).

corn edamame tomatoes

Dress with  rice vinegar (2-3T), toasted sesame oil (2T) and a pinch of salt. Serve with Hawaiian pink sea salt. I bought this pink sea salt at Target (I can’t seem to find it on their website any more) and its ingredients are sea salt and Hawaiian Alaea. A quick online search revealed that alaea refers to a harvested Hawaiian reddish clay that contains iron oxide; alaea salt is traditionally used in ceremonies to cleanse, purify and bless tools and canoes and imparts security on the item being blessed, and in healing rituals for medicinal purposes.

Hawaiian Pink Sea Salt

3) The Baking Architect‘s Egg Salad with Mushrooms

Ellie, aka, The Baking Architect, serves this no-mayo egg salad before many of her lunches. She forwarded me this recipe guide in the middle of a busy Friday to help me prepare for my picnic when I realized I had no mayo and was already boiling my eggs. I have put in my own measurements, but you can obviously adapt for whatever sized crowd you have.

Boil 8 eggs. The fail-proof method I learned for perfect boiled eggs is as follows: Prick a hole in the end of each egg with a clean pin. Place eggs in pot and cover with cold water. Bring water to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer for 10 minutes. Drain out hot water and refill with cold water to stop cooking. Shake eggs around in pot to crack eggs. Shells will come off easily when cool, and yolks will be creamy.

Sautée sliced mushrooms (I sliced about 10 cremini mushrooms) with 1 diced onion and a pinch of salt and some garlic powder — or minced fresh garlic (1-2 t) — in plenty of olive oil (3T).

Allow eggs to cool and then dice the eggs in two directions on an egg slicer. Add the mushroom-onion sautée and mix well. Serve cold or at room temperature.

~~~

And now for the chicken:

4) Pomegranate Chicken Kabobs

Since this was a last-minute picnic, I tried to avoid doing a major shopping trip and used as much food as I had in my kitchen as possible. I remembered that I had a fair amount of dressing left over from that salad with beets and ruby red grapefruit that I made for my dinner party the prior week and figured it might make a good chicken marinade. It did and this chicken would also  be great thrown atop the salad if you decided to make the two dishes together. This is a really easy dish to make on a grill, grill pan, or my old stand-by, the George Foreman.

Make pomegranate marinade (see original post for more detail): Whisk together 1/3 – 1/2 C pomegranate juice, ~1T sugar, 6T orange-flavored olive oil, and salt, and taste. Adjust seasoning as necessary.

Cut 4-6 boneless skinless chicken breasts into bite-sized chunks. Soak in marinade in fridge for at least 2 hours.

Thread onto bamboo skewers (I put 4 chunks per skewer and made a dozen skewers, putting a beet on the end of each) and grill a few minutes on each side until fully cooked.

Pomegranate chicken kabobs on the "grill"

I let the kabobs cool a bit before packing them up in an rinsed out salad container for easy transport the next day (I was still hoping for nice weather, and my wish was granted).

These kabobs were a favorite of Mo’s — Jamie and Brad’s toddler — as he wandered around the mini Japanese zen park down the street from my place, navigating the huge “upside-down wok” and fake grass (that we were happy to discover does not seem to retain rain water from previous nights).  They were also a hit with Lola, Dani’s puppy, who kept sniffing at our licked-clean skewers after gobbling up the one chunk that slipped through Mo’s fingers.

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soupe à l’oignon

The East coast seems to have been hit by a fair amount of rain over the past few days. I am accustomed to the summer thunderstorms that we often get in my hometown of DC — that crash-and-tumble excitement, the flashes of light thatbrighten the sky, a few torrential downpours that reveal a rainbow and hidden sun. Less so the Eeyore-inspired drizzle gray of Cantabrigia both new and old that has visited us here for the past few days. Combine that with a pulled muscle in my neck from dance class on Sunday and I need some comfort food.

Cookies? Nah…I want dinner. Mac and cheese? Maybe, but I had bucatini 2 nights ago and I don’t generally eat much pasta. My fridge is unusually bare after having made two big meals over the past few weeks, so I needed to scrounge around. I had just barely enough onions to throw together an onion soup, a meal in a bowl with the rich taste of caramelized onions, warm broth, toasted bread (or stale baguette, which I always seem to have around), and strings of melted cheese. When I was younger, this used to be my favorite dish to order in a restaurant, and the fancy presentation with cheese dripping off the side of a piping hot crock always impressed me. The childhood memory and thoughts of a steaming meal are a perfect recipe for uber-comfort on a weary dreary evening.

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Soupe à L’Oignon Gratinée (ou pas)

This is such an easy soup to make with ingredients that you probably have lying around your kitchen. Onions. Butter. Spices. Leftover dry white wine or Vermouth. Boxed or dried vegetable (or chicken or beef) stock. The homey richness comes from giving the onions enough time to caramelize. I do not use beef stock and still my soup comes out a deep dark brown with an earthy flavor.

Makes ~ 4-6 servings, depending on size of your bowls. I made 4 bowls that turned into 3 full meals (I was really ravenous that first night).

I’ve written this recipe the way that it came together — my apologies for not writing it in “standard recipe format” with a list of ingredients followed  by directions, but this was my thought process as I was throwing this easy soup together and I wanted to preserve the feeling. I’ve highlighted quantities to make your lives a little easier.

Melt 1/4 C butter in a medium or large soup pot.

Slice 3 yellow onions, 1 red onion, 1 shallot (or whatever mild onions you have around the house) into thin half moons. Light a candle nearby to reduce crying.

onions and shallot

every single onion and shallot I had in my kitchen

Caramelize onions in butter over medium heat with 3 generous pinches salt, stirring  every 5-10 minute. This took me about 30-45 minutes. If you burn the onions, it’s not too big of a deal. Just turn the heat down a bit and keep stirring. You want the onions to turn a really dark brown but not to turn to mush. The red onion retained a bit of its purplish color.

onions translucent, after 10 minutes

onions translucent, after 10 minutes

caramelized onions, 30+ minutes

caramelized onions, 30+ minutes

Deglaze with ~1/2 C dry white wine – I used an open Pinot Grigio  that I had in my fridge (this was probably not the driest, but it worked pretty well…and I took a few sips while cooking) – and increase heat until most of the liquid evaporates (can also use vermouth). Make sure to scrape up all the good onion bits stuck to the bottom of the pot.

Add herbs: 1/2 t savory, 1-2 T thyme crumbled through your fingers

Add 4 C broth: vegetable or fake (or real) chicken/beef broth. I am embarrassed to admit that I used some of that powdered parve broth substitute because that’s all I had around. Yup, this stuff is little more than salt and MSG. But the soup still turned out great.

Add 3 bay leaves.

Bring to  boil, then simmer ~30 minutes.

Remove bay leaves before serving.

This makes ~ 5 cups of soup which is great plain or you can serve it gratinée: sprinkle with cut bread crumbs from stale baguette and  shredded cheese.The traditional cheese to use is gruyère but I have never found a good kosher one. I used some Raclette which I had left over from my zucchini tart, and it was a pretty good substitute. I also tried some Ermitage Royal Camembert that I had in my fridge, and this worked surprisingly well.

ready to compose

the broth is really dark

ready for the oven

ready to pop into the oven

 Pop in oven at 350°F for 10 minutes to melt cheese or put under broiler for 2-3 minutes (watch to avoid burning too much).

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baked at 350

broiled, 2-3 minutes

broiled, 2-3 minutes

NOTE: if you want to make this for a meat meal, use margarine (I’ve done it before, it does work out) and obviously omit the cheese. You can make the soup completely parve with veggie stock, or use a meat or chicken stock. You could try melting soy cheese, but I’ve never tried it so can’t speak about how this will taste. I really do like this soup without cheese almost as much as I like it gratinée

***

As I was making the soup, I put on one of my favorite albums – a South African band called Mafikizolo‘s first recording called “Sibongile” that I bought when I was in Cape Town a few years ago. (Apparently, this CD has been discontinued and I can’t find mine; I have it loaded on my ancient 20 gig iPod that is on its last legs. I’ve backed it up, but if it dies, my music may be gone forever…sad Zahavah.) Sibongile means “Thank you, God” in Zulu, the album was released after two of its members survived a bad car accident. I love that they wear retro ’50s outfits and can pull off hats with panache to go with their swingy bluesy vibe, have a broad range of styles (some of their more recent music — not what I’ve uploaded here — is more clubby with a techno beat), and take pride in their roots (from what little I know) with references to townships in their recent album title and their music.

Here are some of my favorite songs from this album (the first three songs) that I play to chase away the clouds.

“Gugo’thandayo” – check out the stylin’ hats

 

“Marabi” – very toe-tapping, cheerful with a nice relaxed rhythm

 

“Ndihambe Nawe” – a little bit more of a percussive beat

 

Here is a newer song that I just dicovered:

“Emlanjeni,” meet you at the river

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seal the deal

The Baking Architect's Cheesecake with Blueberry Cream, decorated with crystallized pansies

The Baking Architect's Cheesecake with Blueberry Cream, decorated with crystallized pansies

Over Memorial Day weekend, my friend Tammie and I went to New York for the long weekend. After catching Matthew Broderick in The Philanthropist on Broadway (poor reviews in the NYT, but I enjoyed the banter, character development, and word play), eating at Clubhouse Cafe (buffalo burger with chipotle; simple steak frites; chocolate tart) that shares its butcher with Le Marais across the street, we headed downtown to meet up with some of my friends from my UWS days.

When winding down at around 5 am (take that, Boston!) after zipping from East Village to Meat Packing back to East Village in Sharon’s car (so rare in the city!), my friend Neima introduced the phrase “seal the deal” to so perfectly capture how I often feel — the need to eat a little tiny sweet, even if it’s just a spot of tea to finish off a meal. We ended the evening by toasting with little Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

sealing the deal with Neima

This became the theme of the weekend. The next morning after brunch (with Romy too), Tammie, Yoni, Thierry, and I dropped by Magnolia Bakery on the Upper West Side for a little more sweetness.

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"Wouldn't life be sweeter if cupcakes grew on trees? Until then we can help..."

"Wouldn't life be sweeter if cupcakes grew on trees? Until then we can help..."

After a little retail therapy downtown, I headed to Brooklyn with Meira to help out our friend, Ellie, aka, The Baking Architect, whom you’ve  briefly met with her “Persian Delights” mishloach manot for Purim and her too-fussy-for-me “Irish” butter cookies, with a charity event. She and her sister Yali have been raising money for Yad Eliezer‘s Kol Kallah (translation: “voice of the bride”) program for several years – a fund that assists newly married couples in Jerusalem in establishing their new homes.

So, on the Sunday of Memorial Day, when many people were relaxing by their newly opened pools, or going to barbecues, or checking out the sales (um, guilty, in the morning), Ellie was rushing around the newly built home of her friend Suri, and organizing the cake and table decorating sessions that her sister, Yali, and 2 of their friends, Shevi and Miriam were giving

When Meira and I arrived at 6:30 to help set up for the 8 pm event, the buffet table was already set and there was almost nothing left to be done. Ellie had done it all.

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Throughout the evening, there were four concurrent sessions, but since Meira and I, as the two B-school grads took it upon ourselves to oversee the Chinese auction (I felt a little bit like a booth babe), and we took our jobs seriously, we only allowed ourselves to attend one session. Given that I know Ellie as an architect, art historian, and designer by profession, and the Baking Architect by avocation…

Amaretto Petit Fours by The Baking Architect, ellie.levi@gmail.com, 347.922.8956

Amaretto Petits Fours by The Baking Architect, ellie.levi@gmail.com, 347.922.8956

… and that I had been drooling over her confections up for auction the entire evening …

Cheesecake with Lemon Curd, decorated with fondant sunflowers

The Baking Architect's Cheesecake with Lemon Curd, decorated with fondant sunflowers

The Baking Architecht's Triple chocolate cheesecake, decorated with crystallized pansies

The Baking Architect's Triple Chocolate Cheesecake, decorated with crystallized pansies

… I had to go to her 15-minute session:

How to Decorate Cheesecake

How to Decorate a Cheesecake (specifically, Crystallizing Pansies)

I attended Ellie’s session and am summarizing her tips for decorating a cheesecake, including very clear instructions on how to crystallize pansies that she adapted from Martha Stewart Living Magazine (this is the closest I could find online).

One of the problems in baking a cheesecake is that they often crack and fall after you take the out of the oven. Ellie talked about turning this problem into an opportunity, for example filling the crater with lemon curd, a strawberry sauce, or a chocolate ganache. She discussed making or purchasing fondant, coloring and rolling it out, and then cutting it into little flowers or other shapes to decorate cakes or petits fours in a very uniform way. One downside to fondant is that it can be expensive to buy all of the specialized equipment.

Crystallizing pansies can be done with with minimal investment, is a unique and very showy way to decorate desserts and while a bit time-consuming, you don’t need many to make a bold statement. In addition, you can store them for a long time (Ellie showed us some she had from a previous year!).

pansies, including some from a year ago

crystallized pansies, including some from a year ago

Supplies for crystallizing pansies:

- Pansy plant with firm petals

- 2 new small paint brushes with soft bristles

- 1/2 c superfine sugar (if you don’t have superfine sugar, you can make some by pulsing granulated sugar in the food processor until it is the consistency of a very fine grain – the key here is that you want the sugar crystals to be all the same size [to the naked eye…no science here] Over-process and you’ll get powdered sugar. Under-process and you’ll get non-uniform crystals that are too big)

- 1 egg white diluted with 1 t water

- wax paper

Pansies are technically edible in the sense that when they are not sprayed with pesticides, you can eat them. Apparently they taste like grass (I refrained from tasting). Since they have not been sprayed, of course, you do want to check carefully for bugs, especially under the overlapping petals and leaves. To guarantee that no pesticides are used, you could probably grow your own.

Prepare the flower: Cut a pansy flower from the plant as close to the stem as possible while keeping petals intact and check for bugs. Use one brush to clean off any dust or dirt on the pansy petals.

Prepare egg wash: Mix water with egg white in a cup.

Paint the flower: Dip the other paint brush in the egg white mixture and cover the back of the pansy flower. Quickly sprinkle superfine sugar onto pansy by rubbing crystals between fingers over the flower. Repeat process on the front of the pansy, being careful to cover overlapping petals. Do this one flower at the time. You can use tweezers as directed by Martha, but Ellie said that eventually this gets in the way and it’s easier and quicker to just use your fingers. DO NOT be tempted to just dip the flower into the sugar — this will result in a very thick coating and will not yield a pretty, glittery flower. Ellie made one flower, while speaking, in less than 3 minutes.

Dry the flower: Set pansies on wax paper and allow to dry about eight hours. Pansies will turn brittle when dried, and can crack, so be sure the do not stick to the wax paper when drying by shifting their position after 10 minutes, and then after another hour or so. You may have to add more sugar to wet areas.

Storage: Crystallized pansies should last for one year, stored in between layers of bubble wrap of wax paper in a container stored in a dry, cool place.

pansy in hand

***

If you are interested in learning more about Yad Eliezer’s Kol Kallah fund, or would like any of these other recipes, including some great parve (non-dairy) cheesecake bites (recipe by Chaya Unger) or the amaretto petits fours pictured above, or these fabulous cheesecakes, contact The Baking Architect at Ellie.Levi@gmail.com or 347.922.8956.

Recipes for "big spenders" at Kol Kallah charity event

Recipes for "big donors" at Kol Kallah charity event

The Baking Architect's Cheesecake with Blueberry Cream, decorated with crystallized pansies

The Baking Architect's Cheesecake with Blueberry Cream, decorated with crystallized pansies

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close-up in the shadows

To accompany that fabulous roast last week, I made a whole bunch of other dishes.

Challah - looked pretty, tasted bad (oh well!)

Carrot-Ginger-Orange Soup

Arugula and Herb Salad with Tomatoes and Almonds

Haricots Verts with Garlic and Dill

(the Moroccan Roast)

Pomegranate Chicken – tasty but ugly

Whole Wheat Couscous with Onions

Simple Chocolate Cake

Berries and Grapes


I could never have done it all without the help of my fabulous friend Tammie whom you may recall I rely on for music recommendations and fun nights out.

She showed up about 3 hours before dinner in a little black dress, threw on an apron, and asked to be put to work. Now, I’m a little proprietary about my kitchen and it’s sometimes difficult for me to give up control, but Tammie is so pleasant to work with. She could not have been a more willing participant, happy to help however she could, jumping right in and constantly asking what else she could. Tammie donned a pair of perfectly fitting surgical gloves that I had left over from my old days in the hospital to peel beets (and then refused to take them off…they protect the nails, you know?), stirred pots, tasted dishes and made seasoning recommendations, helped put away the magazines that always seem to litter my living room, made me jump in the shower when it was clear that I might never dress for dinner, and made sure the evening went by flawlessly. By the time the guests arrived, the table was ready to be set and all the food were waiting to be served. We had a great time prepping dinner, hanging out in the kitchen, catching up on the week, and I was able to really enjoy my food and dinner guests rather than worrying about last minute details as I sometimes do.

This was one of my favorite dinner parties ever. Thanks Tammie.

Salad with Beets and Ruby Red Grapefruit

spinach beet grapefruit salad panorama


Adapted from Williams-Sonoma New American Cooking: The Southwest by Kathi Long. We cheated and used pomegranate juice instead of fresh pomegranate and didn’t have any seeds for the salad, but it was beautiful and tasty without. Tammie pretty much made this entire salad on her own while I rushed around and did other things.

Serves 6-8 (with enough leftover dressing to marinate chicken shish-kabobs for a picnic…more details on that to come).

8  beets

kosher salt to taste

2-3 T extra virgin olive oil

1/3 to 1/2 C pure pomegranate juice (I used POM; original recipe called for 1 large and 1 small pomegranate, the former to be juiced, the latter to be seeded…I’m just a little lazy)

6 T orange-flavored extra virgin olive oil

NOTE: I use O blood orange olive oil – no hechscher on the bottle, but for those questioning its hashkachah, 1) I  bought it in an all kosher grocery store in Miami, Sarah’s Tent under supervision of “Kosher Miami” – the Vaad of Miami-Dade and 2) wait for my exegesis on cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil…it’s in the editing stages. I have contacted O regarding their kashrut status, but have not heard back from them. If you don’t have orange-flavored olive oil, you could probably substitute extra virgin olive oil + fresh orange zest

sugar to taste (I used ~1T)

2 large ruby red grapefruits

Several handfuls of baby spinach, rinsed and large stems removed (original recipe called for 2 bunches of watercress, tough stems removed)

Prepare beets. Trim any beet greens, leaving 1 inch of stems. Place unpeeled beets in a saucepan with water to cover by 3-inches and bring to a boil. Add salt, cover partially, reduce heat to medium, and simmer until tender, about 40 minutes. Drain and let cool slightly, then peel and cut each beet into 6 wedges. Wear gloves to prevent staining your fingers. Toss with 2-3 T olive oil in bowl, sprinkle with salt and set aside.

Prepare grapefruit suprêmes. I have described this methodology for cutting citrus segments from their membranes in an earlier post and Tammie picked it up really quickly.

Make dressing. Whisk 1/3 – 1/2 C pomegranate juice, sugar, orange-flavored olive oil, and salt together and taste on a piece of spinach. Adjust seasoning as necessary.

salad components, ready to assemble

Assemble salad. Arrange spinach, grapefruit sections, and beets on individual plates or large platter or bowl and drizzle lightly with dressing.

close-up

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