Tastes of the Week

April 8 to April 16, 2012 Several years ago, the revered restaurant San Domenico located on Central Park South moved to East 26th Street across from Madison Park. Owned by father-daughter team, Tony and Marisa May the place was a bit of an enigma -- modernistically designed by Massimo Vignelli, cavernous, and re-named SD26.  My husband had gone for lunch several times, and enjoyed it, but it wasn't until last Friday that I decided to check it out. I had a splendid time, and the risotto was one of the best I've ever had. It certainly was one of the healthiest! Made without the requisite butter and cheese, Mr. May's "new-style" risotto is instead "mounted" with extra-virgin olive oil and stirred until every grain of rice is perfectly cooked, toothsome, and voluptuous. Prepared with fish fumet and white wine, with a touch of garlic, scallion, and herbs, we tried one version with periwinkles (tiny sea snails) and another topped with pencil thin asparagus; the epitome of Spring. It's easy to be skeptical, but easier to be wowed by the pristine quality of the result. We began our meal with paper thin slices of bottarga (a southern Italian delicacy of dried tuna roe) sprinkled with lemon zest and droplets of Sardinian olive oil; and followed our risotto with olive-oil poached cod with polenta taragna, baby calamari & squid ink, accompanied by a few glasses of very good Arneis (a white grape variety from the north of Italy.)  Bomboloni (custard-filled doughnuts), panna cotta with balsamic reduction and strawberries, and zabaione millefoglie with wild berries and caramel sauce, finished our "girl's night out" with great satisfaction. Tony's chef was a fabulous woman, Odette Fada, who for many years was the only three-star female chef in New York. Together we invented olive oil ice cream before anyone did (sometime in the 1980's) for a press event sponsored by the International Olive Oil Council. Today the chefs at SD26 are a trio of very handsome young men; the culinary equivalent of the "three tenors" all hailing from interesting places in Italy. Their food speaks for itself.  I look forward to many more meals at SD26, especially when the outdoor seating opens up and I can pretend I am, once again, dining al fresco en Italia.

We ate lots of delicious things during the two nights of Passover. But perhaps the most delicious, and unusual offering, was a two-ingredient haroses, which got everyone's attention.  It is a Persian version of the symbolic recipe served, with matzoh, to represent the mortar used in Egypt.  Generally is it an amalgam of chopped apples, walnuts, cinnamon, bound together with sweet wine. But this new (or very old) haroses is made with only date honey (or date syrup or date molasses) and lots of finely chopped walnuts.  It is sticky and tar-ry and wonderful to drizzle on almost anything. My approximate recipe is 2 cups date molasses (or date honey) stirred with 3 cups of very finely chopped walnuts. Date honey is the honey mentioned in the Bible (not honey from bees) and can be found in any Middle Eastern market. I will now make it is staple in my pantry. We also enjoyed Arthur Schwartz's wonderful potato kugel and a long-simmering tzimmes made with sour prunes, carrots, sweet potatoes and a generous, succulent chunk of flanken.

Cultural nourishment included the simulcast of Manon Lescaut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (starring Anna Netrebko); and a movie about the artist Gerhard Richter at the Film Forum -- one of my favorite places in the city. They pop their popcorn in peanut oil.

We also ate our first "frozen dinner" in decades:  "Butter Chicken" which we bought at Costco. Butter chicken is a very famous dish in India. This was a great version and we served it alongside a mound of basmati rice and drank tea. Not bad for a weeknight dinner.

May your coming week be filled with great tastes and nourishing experiences.

Maple-Walnut Espresso Torte

There are many nights of Passover to celebrate and time to eat more cake.  No doubt many of you have had your share of sticky, wet coconut macaroons, fluffy angel cakes, chocolate matzoh buttercrunch, and flourless chocolate cakes.  But here's another to try, even if you're not Jewish.  Something light and nutty and perfect for Easter dinner, too, served with diced ripe pineapple and crème fraîche, or dense vanilla-flecked ice cream strewn with raspberries.  Perfect little raspberries remind me of nature's gum drops. The same ingredients that go into the cake -- espresso, cardamom, lemon, and real maple syrup -- are used to make the aromatic elixir that gets poured over the cake after baking.  Even if matzoh meal is not an ingredient usually kept in your cupboard, you will find it amply displayed in the supermarket.   Who knows?  It might even inspire you to make matzoh ball soup -- once the provenance of Jewish households -- it is a staple on many a deli menu sprinkled across America.  I have always meant to try making this cake with flour, too, but have not as yet.  I will let you know how to accurately swap out the matzoh meal another time.  But now, do enjoy this special cake as is.

During Passover, I like a slice with my strong morning coffee and another slice with my afternooon tea.   So far, this Passover, I have eaten many delicious new things, too.  A fruit salad with lychees, hawthorne berry brandy, bits of sliced oranges with their rind, mango, honey and much more.  I told my herbalist friend (also a bee-keeper), who made it, that I was sure these were the flavors favored by Cleopatra.  The taste was something so exotic that I can't stop thinking about it!  Also exciting was the Iraqi haroset prepared by my friend Debbie --made with only two ingredients, date molasses and walnuts, it brought a new dimension and conversation to the meal.  Last night at our tiny Seder for three, we dribbled it on matzoh and, bereft of Gold's horseradish, we dabbed it with wasabi!  New traditions begin.

Maple-Walnut Espresso Torte with Lemon-Espresso Syrup You can serve this with non-dairy whipped topping that is kosher-for-Passover and garnish with walnut halves.

2/3 cup plus 1/4 cup sugar 2 tablespoons plus  1/2 cup real maple syrup 5 teaspoons instant espresso powder 2-1/4 teaspoons ground cardamom grated zest and juice of 1 large lemon 8 ounces walnuts, about 2 cups 1/2 cup matzoh meal 4 extra-large eggs

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Oil an 8 or 9-inch springform pan.  In a small saucepan, combine 1 cup water, 2/3 cup sugar, 2 tablespoon maple syrup, 1 teaspoon of the espresso, and 1/4 teaspoon of the cardamom.  Add 2 tablespoons lemon juice.  Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves, then simmer 5 minutes until thickened.  Cool.

Process the walnuts and matzoh meal in a food processor until finely ground.  With an electric mixer, beat the eggs, the remaining 1/2 cup maple syrup, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt on high for 4 minutes.  Add the remaining 4 teaspoons espresso, 2 teaspoons cardamom, and lemon zest; beat 3 minutes.  Stir in the walnut mixture.  Pour into the pan.  Bake40 minutes, until firm to the touch.  Pour 1/4 cup syrup over the cake; let cool.  Serve in wedges, drizzled with the remaining syrup.  Serves 8

Passover at Gracie Mansion

I had never fully prepared a Passover Seder until I was 24 years old and my first one was a doozy.  As the first chef to Mayor Ed Koch in 1978 and living at Gracie Mansion, I was asked to make the Seder for Hizzoner and his family.  I called everyone I knew, including my mother who made very delicious but extremely hard matzoh balls which my family loved but I doubted the Mayor’s family would.  What to do?  I asked the Mayor for his recipe!  He suggested putting seltzer in the mixture, telling me that would make them light and fluffy.  I recently consulted my 25-year old diary for the rest of the menu, and here it is: Friday, April 21, 1978  Passover Seder at Gracie Mansion 15 guests – 5:00 p.m.

Crudites with Curry Dip Kosher Rumaki Chopped Liver with Plum Tomatoes Matzoh Ball Soup (with seltzer!)

My Mother’s Pot Roast with Dry Vermouth & Bay Leaf Slow-Roasted New Potatoes Sweet Potato, Prune & Glazed Carrot Tzimmes Haricots Verts with Lemon Matzoh, Leek and Herb Kugel

Sponge Cake with Strawberries A selection of homemade Macaroons Passover Candy Coffee Service

This year, however, I won't be cooking.  We are guests at two different Seders -- the first night with the Cohens in West Orange (I will be bringing a flourless chocolate cake in honor of my daughter's 15th birthday the day before) and the second night at the Shinders in Manhattan, with lots of teenagers and lots of ruach (spirit!)  I will be bringing my Cauliflower-Leek Kugel.  I know that the food maven, Arthur Schwartz, will also be making it for his Seder.

But today I bring you a recipe I created for Bon Appetit that many readers have told me has become a new tradition in their homes. I originally made it with tamarind paste but was told that it wasn't kosher for passover.  Interesting.  There is much discussion about what is and isn't appropriate for Pesach!  Enjoy!

My Sweet-and-Sour Brisket with Shallots & Dates This can be prepared two days ahead; its luscious flavors improve with age.

1-1/2 cups orange juice 6 large soft pitted Medjool dates 4 large peeled garlic cloves 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves 5 tablespoons olive oil 2 pounds onions, thinly sliced 16 large whole shallots, peeled 2-1/2 cups chicken or beef broth 5-pound flat cut (also known as first-cut) brisket, trimmed of all but 1/4-inch fat 1-1/2 cups tomato puree 16 very small red skinned potatoes, scrubbed

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Put first four ingredients in food processor or blender and process until smooth. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large wide ovenproof pot over medium-high heat.  Add onions and whole shallots and cook until onions and shallots are deep golden brown, about 20 minutes.  Transfer shallots to a small bowl; set aside.  Add broth to onions and bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits.  Pour into a large bowl.  Add remaining oil to the same pot.  Season brisket with salt and pepper.  Add to pot and brown well, about 5 minutes per side.  Turn brisket fat side up.  Return onion mixture to pot.  Add orange juice mixture and tomato puree.  Bring to a boil, stirring to blend sauce.  Cover pot; bake 2 hours. Add shallots and potatoes.  Cover, bake 1 hour.  Uncover; bake until brisket is tender, occasionally spooning sauce over meat, about 1 hour longer.  Let rest 30 minutes.  Scrape sauce off brisket.  Transfer brisket to a board and thinly slice across the grain.  Return to the pot with the sauce and heat gently.   Serves 8

A Kugel for Passover and Easter

With Passover and Easter just around the corner, here is an exciting side dish that fulfills the requirements for both celebrations.  I developed this cauliflower-leek kugel with its vibrant almond-herb crust for Bon Appetit when I was writing the "Entertaining Made Easy" column.  While kugels are typically "Jewish," and most often connote "sweet," this kugel is savory and, according to the editors at Bon App, tastes remarkably like artichokes!   You can find the slightly-altered recipe on Epicurious, but the recipe below is the original, where the almonds are more finely chopped and the filling more compact.  Part pudding/souffle in texture, it is a perfect offering for Passover as the dish is parve, with no dairy or any leavening in it.  The cauliflower "mash" is thickened with matzoh meal.  It is also perfect for Easter as the flavor screams "Spring" with its fresh burst of dill and parsley.  It is a wonderful accompaniment to roast lamb and equally delicious nestled up to pot roast or a golden roast capon.   It also fulfills the "entertaining made easy" requirement as it can be easily prepped and assembled and baked up to two days before serving.  I am imagining it now, on my palate, with rosy slices of garlicky-minted lamb and a puree of carrots flecked with fresh lemon thyme for Easter.  For Passover, I am licking my lips as I think about my slightly sweet-and-sour pot roast made with sticky dates.  Either way, try it.  You'll like it.

Cauliflower-Leek Kugel with Almond-Herb Crust

1 large head cauliflower, about 2 ¼ pounds or 1 ½ pounds florets 4 large leeks, about 1 ½ pounds 5 tablespoons olive oil 3 extra large eggs, beaten 5 tablespoons matzoh meal ½ teaspoon salt 1 small clove garlic 1/3 cup whole shelled almonds with skins ½ cup packed flat parsley leaves ½ cup packed dill fronds

Wash cauliflower. If using whole head, trim leaves and cut into florets.  Cook, covered, in a large pot with ¾ cup water until tender, but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Toss periodically and if necessary, add small amount of water.

Trim dark green leaves from leeks.  Cut remaining leeks down their lengths into quarters.  Then cut across the leeks into ¼”-1/2” pieces. Wash thoroughly.  Heat 3 tablespoons oil in large skillet and add leeks with their moisture still clinging.  Cook over medium high heat, stirring, for five minutes, then lower heat and let cook slowly until soft and slightly brown, about 20 minutes.  Stir often.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Drain cauliflower and put in large bowl.  Mash with fork into coarse pieces.  Do not make mushy.  Toss well with leeks, beaten eggs, matzoh meal, salt and freshly ground black pepper.   Pour into 8 ½” soufflé dish.

Put garlic and almonds in a food processor: pulse frequently until finely chopped  and place in a medium bowl. Put parsley and dill into food processor and process until finely chopped; do not overprocess into a puree.  Add to almonds and toss with 2 tablespoons oil and 1 tablespoon water.   Distribute herb mixture over cauliflower then gently press down to flatten.  Bake 50 minutes.  Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes.  Cut into wedges or spoon from soufflé dish.  Serves 8