Insanely Delicious Fresh Figs

I had a wonderful meal a few nights ago, at abckitchen in New York City, sponsored by the California fig advisory board. I am crazy about figs yet know very little about them. Dried figs were what we ate at home; fresh figs were a luxury. While we were a table of "Eves" the other night -- no "Adams" -- we ate like queens and I never imagined fig season would be welcomed with such open arms. Fresh, perfectly ripe, Black Mission figs dotted the menu that I shared with a round table of food editors from Oprah, Reader's Digest, Weight Watchers, et al. It was the ultimate girl's night out. I loved the black mission figs draped with prosciutto and set in a nest of balsamic-spiked wild arugula; I swooned over the honey-glazed turnips with figs, rosemary and lemon, and really enjoyed the individual baked Alaskas with fig ice cream and cinnamon spice cake. Clearly the chef, Dan Kluger, loves figs, too. The ancients considered figs to have magical, medicinal powers, an idea supported by scientific evidence that figs were cultivated, in Jericho, more than 11,000 years ago.The great writer Lawrence Durrell once said about olives, "a taste older than water." The same could be said about figs.

California produces 100 percent of the country's dried figs and 98 percent of its fresh figs, of which more than half get shipped to Canada. The season begins mid-May and extends, surprisingly, all the way to mid-December; mid-August is when it's in full swing. In fact, more than 20 years ago, the first day of my new job working for the legendary restaurateur, Joe Baum, on August 15, I prepared a "birthday breakfast" for him -- one of my homemade Venetian wine cakes (made with olive oil, red wine, rosemary and lemon) and chose, one by one, 24 perfectly ripe fresh figs from the Union Square Farmer's Market, near our office. The figs had been warmed by the sun and were a stunning accompaniment to the cake and coffee. It was one of my favorite "fig memories." At dinner the other night, we asked, one by one, to share our favorite fig memory. It was lovely to hear the responses: from eating them off a tree on a honeymoon to a wistful sharing of a father's fig tree that bloomed only after he had passed away. One woman at the table had never had a fresh fig and was deemed "fig virgin" of the evening.

Apparently there are five primary varieties of figs grown in California, yet there are hundreds and hundreds of species grown around the world. The five in the U.S. are Black Mission, calimyrna, kadota, brown turkey, and sierras. And there is a newer variety known as "tiger fig" with a green-striped overcoat that revels a raspberry-red interior. I liked the way that Karla Stockli, the CEO of the fig board, described the figs -- as though describing the nuances of wine! Black Mission figs with purple-black skin and deep earthy flavor are likened to a cabernet. Calimyrna, with its pale yellow skin and buttery, nutty flavor are (you guessed it!) chardonnay-like; Kadota has similar notes to sauvignon blanc; brown turkey with a light purple skin and floral notes are likened to pinot noir, and sierra with their light-colored skin and fresh, sweet flavor are Riesling-esque.

And it's good to note that three to five fresh or dried figs provide 5 grams of dietary fiber (or 20 percent of the daily value.)

The photo here is a recipe for fresh figs that I created a decade ago for my book, Desserts 1-2-3 (which landed on the L.A. Times "Hot List" and chosen as one of the best books of the year by Food & Wine Magazine). Dipped in a thin coating of melted chocolate and yogurt, my husband named them "figs in nightgowns." I will share the recipe tomorrow. They are insanely delicious.

A Chef Among Chefs

I've been around the New York restaurant scene for more than 30 years and few names come up with as much respect and affection as that of Floyd Cardoz. I couldn't believe I never met him until I went to North End Grill a few days ago to celebrate the birthday of a great friend. It was a girl's lunch out -- white wine (one from Greece and another from Austria), a torchon of foie gras with rhubarb-tangerine preserve and grilled brioche; soft-scrambled eggs with bacon and ramps, a salad of escarole, endive and radicchio tossed with blood oranges and Marcona almonds, linguine with flaked halibut, fava leaves and citrus gremolata. There were outstanding "Thrice-Fried Spiced Fries" peppered with mango powder, paprika and cumin, and, for dessert, an awesome butterscotch pot de crème with chocolate streusel and "single Maltmallows" (homemade marshmallows perfumed with scotch), and a sexy rendition of chocolate mousse coupled with candied macadamia nuts and black currant sorbet. So why am I telling you all this, other than to make your mouth water? It's because the menu tells the story of a chef's journey -- from the bold, iconic, three-star, Indian-inspired Tabla, to the new American-style grill recently opened in New York's Financial District, by Chef Cardoz and Danny Meyer. It isn't an easy act to follow -- your own -- and even harder when you know all eyes are upon you: Those of the most jaded New Yorkers, and maybe more importantly, those of your disciples, including some of the city's bold name chefs including Ben Pollinger from Oceana and Dan Kluger of abckitchen. This is a chef who is "totally present" to his new surroundings and his new-style cuisine: Nary a nod to the pantry he left behind except, perhaps, for that dusting of mango powder on those addictive fries.

I admire this move. It is risky and rewarding. It is not yet perfect but that's the magic of all of Danny Meyer's enterprises (Danny is the owner of Union Square Hospitality Group and the creator of Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, Blue Smoke, Union Square Café, and Shake Shack, just to name a few). He and his chefs "work it" and work it until whatever it is they're doing becomes a "prime number" in the infinite realm of experiential dining.

Many chefs, like many artists, apply their creativity to a singular modality (a particular cuisine) that comes to define them. But today, the emphasis is on the craft of being a chef, allowing for expansion beyond one's own culture or culinary training. Floyd Cardoz began his life in India and graduated in biochemistry. He understands why food does what it does. He has worked in the best kitchens in India and Switzerland and spent five years in the celebrated kitchen of Gray Kunz's Lespinasse. Whether Floyd's "Cod Throats Meuniere" or his "Grilled Clam Pizza" become the next big thing doesn't really matter. Most important to him is the camaraderie, respect and competence he has bestowed upon each person who has ever worked for him. He is a "chef among chefs," they'll tell you, a true Top Chef Master.

Tastes of the Week and Valentine's Day

Feb. 6 through Feb. 13, 2012 Happy Valentine's Day! If you're not going out for a candlelight dinner tonight, why not make one at home? You might enjoy a radically elegant Filet of Beef with Wasabi Cream (recipe below from Radically Simple) or my heart-shaped meatloaf from Little Meals. Share the love.  A St. Amour beaujolais would be a nice wine to drink.  And of course, serve something chocolate for dessert. Perhaps a "Little Black Dress Chocolate Cake" accessorized with fresh raspberries and powdered sugar (or gold leaf!)

Tastes of the week:  In a nutshell, two terrific meals last week at Le Bernardin and at abckitchen. I haven't been to Le Bernardin in years and was eager to see the new design. While I am still partial to the original "look" created by uber-architect Phil George (with the wonderful paintings by Abelard Favela -- a revered artist from Mexico), the new Le Bernardin is arresting in its cool, warm look and remarkable 24-foot painting (I swore it was a photo) of a stormy sea by Brooklyn artist, Ran Ortner. In celebrating my cousin's special birthday, we had the three-course prix fixe lunch with an additional "middle course" of ethereal fettuccine with a truffle bolognese. Sublime. But the most stunning dish was a first course of barely cooked shrimp and foie gras. The most "French" tasting dish I've had in a long while. The rest of the menu -- octopus, red snapper, lobster, were all first-rate as were the desserts -- not too crazy (as so many have become) but intelligently crafted and beautifully executed.

At abckitchen, I had my favorite starter, the kabocha squash and ricotta bruschetta, the famous roasted carrot salad, a wondrous sashimi, and a pizza to share, laden with spinach, herbs and goat cheese.  Chef Dan Kluger has perfect "flavor" pitch.

And then there was the very good guacamole at Rosa Mexicano on East 18th Street. The size of a small neighborhood, the place felt very democratic and alive. The signature dish is the table-side guacamole, made from perfectly-ripe avocados, mashed and tossed with tomato, jalapeno, lime juice and more. I loved that it was served at room temperature (those avocados never saw the inside of a refrigerator.) And while I rarely drink margaritas, no less a pomegranate one, and no less a frozen one, Rosa Mexicano's version rocks. Almost ordered a second. It is interesting that Jonathan Waxman decided to become the executive chef of this upscale chain and no doubt will bring his formidable expertise to the kitchen. I always think of the amazing woman who started it all -- Josefina Howard -- who was among the first to bring sophisticated Mexican food to New York -- in stylish surroundings, with a sexy vibe, excellent food, and those...wonderful pomegranate margaritas. She is greatly missed and one of  New York's great women-in-food.

Happy Valentine's day. Food is love.

Filet of Beef with Wasabi-Garlic Cream (from Radically Simple) serves 6

2 tablespoons olive oil 1-3/4-pound filet of beef, tied 1 tablespoon sugar 1-1/2 cups heavy cream 2 very large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed 1 tablespoon prepared wasabi

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Drizzle the oil on a rimmed baking sheet; roll the filet in the oil. Combine the sugar and 1 tablespoon kosher salt.  Rub into the top and sides of the filet, but not the bottom or it will burn. Roast the beef 25 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer registers 125 degrees for rare. Meanwhile, bring the cream and garlic to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce the heat and cook, stirring, until reduced to 1 cup, about 15 minutes. Push the softened garlic through a press; whisk back into the sauce. Add the wasabi, cook 1 minute and remove from the heat. Add salt. Transfer the beef to a cutting board. Let rest 10 minutes. Gently reheat the sauce. Remove the strings from the beef and thickly slice. Serve with the sauce.

Tastes of the Week

Tastes of the WeekJan. 16 through Jan. 22, 2012

Trend of the moment: Escarole -- you heard it here first. You will find it braised, grilled, steamed, stir-fried, in salads, shredded, roasted, stuffed...everywhere.

I just love, love, love Bon Appetit's "faux shrimp" cocktail made with -- no, not surimi -- but with a head of fresh cauliflower, in the new February issue. Not sure why it tickles me so, but I can't wait to try it. The recipe comes from Chef Kevin Roberts from "The Black Sheep" in Richmond, Virginia. According to the chef, it is a dead ringer for the real thing: Cauliflower florets are briefly poached in water seasoned with crab boil spices, onions, garlic and lemons, and then served with cocktail sauce. The recipe alone is worth the price of the mag.

We were entertaining out-of-town guests this weekend and decided to go to Junior's in Times Square for a certain kind of New York experience. Before going, New York food maven Arthur Schwartz mentioned that the hamburgers were awfully good. Would never have imagined but my burger was fabulous! A perfectly-cooked rare cheeseburger with smothered onions. Juicy beyond all get out, great flavor, affordable. Good beets, pickles, slaw and a very nice waiter. And while the cheesecake at Junior's is excellent -- and certainly famous -- we were lunching with another famous baker... Anne Kabo from Margate, New Jersey.  It is her recipe for cheesecake that is featured in Radically Simple. Check it out; it's sublime.

Am enjoying a crate of honeybell oranges sent to me by my friend Evan Nisenson. The oranges come from Florida and are seductively sweet, intensely perfumed and actually silky in texture. I can think of no finer gift in the middle of winter and I am very grateful. I eat at least one a day. (And I share them, too.) The season is almost over (Jan. 30th) so hurry, hurry.

The finest "bruschetta" in the world is found at abckitchen. It is chef Dan Kluger's kabocha squash and goat cheese seasonal offering -- and that is almost over, too. Hurry, hurry.

Had a lovely authentic "tea" at the Colony Club with a dear friend who is a member. Fireplaces and a wonderful harpist. It reminds me what a wonderful way this is to entertain and so I think you should consider it. Little sandwiches, wonderful scones and clotted cream, tiny pastries. Tea.  (Currant-oatmeal scones based on a recipe from Joanne Rosen, lawyer and baker extraordinaire- under January 2012 recipes)

Instant party: Go to Barbounia (corner of Park Avenue South and 20th Street) and order the grand mezze of dips and spreads with freshly-baked Middle Eastern bread (more like Turkish pide than pita) and olives. Drink some Greek wine or a Spanish txakoli (from the Basque region) like we did last night.

Good friends told us that they had an amazing meal on Saturday night at the Gentleman Farmer on Rivington Street on the lower east side: Rabbit cassoulet; venison bourguignon, and a lusty cod dish with a root vegetable puree. Ostrich, wild boar, snails, are available, too. 20 seats only.

Dying to go back to Tony Zazula's Commerce restaurant (we had our Thanksgiving there) and to Drew Nieporent's Corton. Also eager to try Danny Meyer's newest venture -- North End Grill with super-star chef Floyd Cardoz at the ovens. I want their Grilled Clam Pizza now!

Happy tastes of the week to you.

Fast Track: Cars and Food

In my 35 years as a professional chef, I have come to know a lot about food. But I know nothing about cars and so was especially interested in the riveting juxtaposition of great chefs and great cars at a dinner celebrating the 125th anniversary of the automobile. In 1886, we were probably eating many of the same things cooked for us at the Beard House on Nov. 8th, 2011 -- fresh beets, gulf shrimp in courtbouillon, tapioca, suckling pig and turnips, and some version of chocolate cake -- but for the lucky us at this Grand Prix dinner, both food and cars were re-imagined. The event, hosted by Mercedes Benz USA, brought together some of the country's most illustrious chefs to cook a hi-test dinner for a crowd generally unknown to me. Who were they?  Men and women who write about cars!  Some, like me, who write about food, were tickled pink to talk about motor oil instead of olive oil. To discover what drove people to drive the cars that they do; to share memories of first cars instead of first meals, and to revel in the knowledge that cars and food are inextricably linked. How exactly?  Matthew Rudy, one of my dining partners for the evening, put it pretty eloquently:  "Great cars and great food are the same in an important way. They both give this immediate, visceral pleasure. You know you're not just getting to point B, or eating because it's dinner time. You get pulled out of every day for an hour or two." He went on to say that he had "tremendous respect for people with the skill and craft to build cars and meals with such sophistication and attention to detail."  Rudy, who is a senior editor for Golf Digest, including its monthly Long Drives automotive travel column, has written dozens of cover stories, ghostwritten 15 books about golf, business and travel, and is hankering to open a wine store any day now.

Another bridge between food and cars?  According to Christine Quinlan, deputy editor at Food & Wine, car companies are becoming the largest advertisers in food magazines! Last year, the Association of Magazine Media posited that, "Automotive manufacturers are continuing to invest in magazines because magazines and the Internet are considered the most influential source of information for brands especially in the final stages of purchase decisions." And who was the biggest winner of those auto ads in 2010? Food Network Magazine.

There is the obvious connection, as I see it, to lifestyle and aspiration, but whereas Nascar says fast food to me, Mercedes Benz says "slower" food --  hence the all-star line up of languorous dishes and libations. Even the cocktails were custom-designed by renowned mixologist Julie Reiner from Lani Kai in Soho, and the revved-up wine pairings were inspired -- from the 2007 De Forville Barbaresco (from Piedmont) to accompany Dan Kluger's Roast Pig with Smoked Bacon Marmalade and Braised Turnips (from ABC Kitchen), to the not-too-sweet 2003 Chateau Pajzos Tokaji 3 Puttonyos to partner with Karen DeMasco's remarkable Chocolate Brown Butter Cake with Roasted Pears and Hazelnut Brown Butter Gelato. Karen is the beloved pastry chef at Locanda Verde, with good reason.  (I wonder what she drives.)

For several years, Mercedes Benz has partnered with the Beard Foundation in an effort to preserve and celebrate America's culinary heritage as it seeks to link the idea of culinary innovation with automotive innovation. Aha! Clearly there's a precedent:  Michelin tires are "hand-in-glove compartment" to the famous Michelin restaurant guide.

So what else did we eat as we chatted like Car Talk hosts around our table? A first-class first-course from Daniel Humm (11 Madison Park) of "wheels" of perfectly poached and lightly pickled beets with chevre frais and caraway and John Besh's extraordinary Redfish Courtbouillon with Gulf Shrimp and Blue Crab Pearls, made from little tapioca orbs soaked in crab liquor (from restaurant August in Louisiana.) The hors d'oeuvres were pretty nifty too:  including Kluger's now-famous kabocha squash and ricotta bruschetta, and egg shells filled with chive oil and smoked sturgeon foam from four-star chef Daniel Humm.

There was a gorgeous Mercedes convertible parked outside the Beard House on West 12th Street that evening. But in case you were wondering, I took a yellow taxi home.

And The Winner Is...

There are many reasons to enjoy the James Beard Awards.  The big one, held last night at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, is a tribute to the hospitality industry, to its star chefs and sommeliers, to the country's best new restaurants and most beloved older ones; to lifetime achievement awards, and to those who are feeding our planet in deeply nourishing ways -- from Farmer Lee, to the guiding lights behind FareStart, a Seattle-based nonprofit that provides culinary job training and placement for homeless and disadvantaged individuals, who deservedly won this year's Humanitarian Award.  It is also a nod to the ingenuity of the many chefs who fed the thousands of us last night, cocktail-party style, with an impressive assemblage of sophisticated and delicious small bites reflecting the "melting pot" that now defines us.  I drank the best tequila I ever had, tried a kickass rose wine from Bedell Cellars, and sipped a supple grenacha from Spain between breaks.

It's a long night, after all, "the Oscars" of the food world.   There was a sense of jubilation all evening, but for me, one of the most anticipated categories was best new restaurant.   And the winner?...ABC Kitchen!  I was thrilled as it was my favorite new restaurant this year.  I have been dozens of times, experiencing something delicious and also intangible each time. As a farm-to table restaurant with the majority of its ingredients coming from nearby farms,  it is the mission that drives the food -- green in every way imaginable -- done in contradictory elegance and sophistication. While Jean-Georges, whose restaurant it is, has always been my hero, ABC's chef, Dan Kluger, is an up-and-coming star.  He is the very best of the new generation of chefs -- tattoo-less in fact -- centered, smart, and affable, who possesses an amazing palate.  Dan runs counter to the 'bad-boy' persona of so many young chefs today because he possesses real confidence and skill.  He's a breath of fresh air.

But the real creative spirits behind the restaurant are, in fact, Paulette Cole and Amy Chender, who intuited the food world's next step and conjured up a magical dining room to showcase the artistry of the planet -- from its natural resources to its edible gifts.  Paulette is the stunning visionary behind abc home and Amy is its beautiful COO.  They are mindful of the earth and continue to foster the majesty of Dan's food.  Their mission statement, running the entire length of the back of the menu, should be required reading.   I am so pleased for them.  And for Dan.  But hey, reservations may be hard to come by.