Tastes of the Week

June 4 through June 11, 2012 This was a crazy week of eating, press events, and socializing. How did we ever do it when we were young travelers -- eating two meals out, day after day. I really crashed at the end of the weekend when all I could do was eat animal crackers. Ha! What made me think of animal crackers?! I think it was a trip to my second carousel this month. This time it was at Prospect Park. (Several weeks ago it was the new carousel in Dumbo.)  We were there to celebrate the 100th birthday of the beautiful carousel, complete with a beautiful "carousel cake" made by Hudson Cakery (located in Weehawken, NJ.)  The cake was delicious and all around it were small horses made out of a kind of hard sugary fondant.  The excursion through Prospect Park and a visit to the Vale of Cashmere was courtesy of the Prospect Park Alliance, which continues to restore the park to its former Revolutionary glory. It is still glorious, however, and frequented by families, dogs, frisbee throwers, bikers, capoeira dancers, marathon runners, barbecue-ers, sightseers, drummers, and carousel goers.

Taste highlights: Wonderful, homemade string cheese!, compliments of Laurie Sandow, who, with her friend Midge, twisted many braids of the delicious cheese and was thoughtful enough to share some of it with me.

Freaking good fresh figs, compliments of the California fig advisory board. A "fig feast" at abckitchen.  Standout: honey-glazed turnips and fresh figs with rosemary and lemon.

A trip to Sunset Park, Brooklyn to Ricos Tacos at 505 51st St. (near 5th avenue) for tacos al pastor (marinated pork), tacos especiales with crispy tripe, and huarache grande (a sole-shaped flour tortilla) topped with ground meat and cheese. We'll be going back for the carnitas burrito which looked big enough to feed four.

A Lebanese banquet of mezze at ilili on 5th avenue. Chef Philippe Massoud has brought Lebanese food to "four-star" status.  We especially loved the "sliders" (ask for them -- they melt in your mouth), mouhamara w. walnuts, sundried peppers and pomegranate molasses, the shankleesh (a salad of feta, tomato, onions and za'atar), washed down with an excellent (and rather inexpensive) white wine from Lebanon, Masaya blanc, 2010.  

A fabulous lunch at Gramercy Tavern with star chef Michael Anthony.  Loved the fourchu lobster "salad" and monkfish with nettles -- one of the most sublime fish dishes I've ever had.

A lovely "media" dinner sponsored by Olive Oil from Chile at chef Todd English's restaurant Olives, located at the W Hotel near Union Square.  Standouts: the extra-virgin olive oil mini martini, Hudson Valley foie gras potage. olive oil tres leche cake with caramelized honey ice cream (and figs!  'Tis the season.)

Enjoy your own special tastes of the week!

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.

Tastes of the Week

May 7 thru May 14, 2012 One of the best French-style onion soups I've ever had was shared with 70 others at the Zen Mountain Monastery when I arrived on Friday night. The place, altogether mysterious and tranquil, is a real life Buddhist monastery, complete with strict meditation sessions and communal meals in a welcoming dining room. The chef, who is also a senior monk with many responsibilities, cooks three meals a day for the residents and many guests who come for retreats. The food is delicious. Sankai, the chef, comes from Belgium and describes his soup as more Flemish than French. I am waiting for him to share the recipe (it's in his head at the moment and he has never written it down). Sankai is deserving of a story of his life -- which I hope to write at some point -- as it's a compelling path of a young man's journey from a Benedictine upbringing near Antwerp to life as a Zen monk in Woodstock, New York. Sankai loves to cook and it shows in all the food he prepares. He is a firm believer that the emotions of the cook are transmitted during the preparation of a meal and so if he feels angry or agitated he simply "steps out" of the kitchen until that mood passes.  Something for all of us to think about in our own lives. Highlights of the weekend meals included a glorious quinoa salad with slivers of sorrel, mint, peas, scallions and radishes; fresh beet salad with feta cheese, fennel and blood orange, and a tantalizing chickpea tajine with roasted butternut squash, carrots and onions, flavored with cumin, caraway and coriander seeds, cayenne and paprika. And while some of the dishes have a lovely complexity, others are stunningly simple such as his vinaigrette made with red grapes, good olive oil and red wine vinegar. Three ingredients: It made me smile.  When asked which three cookbooks are most often at his elbow, he replied, "Twelve Months of Monastery Soups," the "Vegetarian Times Cookbook" (most useful, he said, for its organization), and "The Joy of Cooking" where he cuts all the sugar in half. Other adaptations include a recipe for cornbread from "Joy" where instead of flour he substitutes a comparable amount of cooked quinoa. One of my housekeeping chores during my weekend stay was sweeping the large homey kitchen. A meditation in itself.

Last week after the lengthy James Beard Awards at Lincoln Center was a food fest for 1000. While I'm not sure of the actual number of guests, it felt like there was enough food to feed us all. Chefs from all over the country came to cook their hearts out for the award winners, nominees, and the food community at large. Much of the food was really outstanding, served in divine, diminutive portions, inspired by a James Beard recipe of the chef's choice. My favorites:  Jonathan Waxman's Shaved Asparagus & Kale Salad with Caesar dressing and croutons; Nora Pouillon's Mini Cheeseburgers with Dill-Mustard Mayo and Micro Lettuces on a Whole-Grain Pumpkin Seed Bun (inspired by Beard's book "How to Eat Better for Less Money"); Alan Wong's Skewered Lamb Sausage with five-Spice Greek Yogurt, Pickled Red Onions and Jalapeno (inspired by Beard's lamb kebabs in "American Cookery"):  Keith Luce's Farm Egg Custard and Long Island Duckling with Nettle Puree and Spring Alliums (inspired by "Beard on Food"), and Angela Pinkerton's Port-Infused Prunes with Citrus Creme and Candied Violets (inspired by Menus for Entertaining.)  I must say I left feeling pretty inspired...and full.

Last week also marked the birthday celebration for food writer Erica Marcus at abckitchen with Brian Lehrer from WNYC and Steve North from the CBS Morning Show. What didn't we eat?  The caramel ice cream, popcorn, chocolate sauced sundae was a knockout.

Had a wonderful meal at the home of Debbie and Larry Freundlich. Debbie is a fabulous home cook and we loved the super-fresh asparagus soup deepened with garden peas; duck breasts with prunes and wonderful roasted potatoes, sorbet and chocolate oatmeal cookies topped with a few addictive grains of sea salt.

And my husband and I had the true pleasure of sharing a meal with Miles and Lillian Cahn, the creators of Coach (yes, the handbag company) and Coach Farms (the goat cheese company). They are legends in each industry. We had lunch at St. Ambroeus on Madison Avenue. Fabulous bread and superb coffee. Lunch was pretty good, too. Lovely beet-filled ravioli, homemade pasta bolognese. (Very, very expensive.  So glad we did some "sharing").

Enjoy your own tastes of the week.  Be mindful and you'll double the pleasure.  More about "The Sacred Art of Eating" by Roshi Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, another time.

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

June 27 through July 3,2011 Lovely meals at abckitchen and Hell's Kitchen(44th and 10th) -- Mon. and Tues. respectively.

Great charcuterie from the Brooklyn Larder (especially the funky chorizo) at the book party of Alex Prud'homme (grand-nephew of Julia Child). Alex, who wrote the sensational book about the love affair of Julia and Paul Child named "My Life in France," just wrote a very important tome called "The Ripple Effect" -- about the global importance of water.  Beginning now, he advises us (and the world) to be mindful of what is to become our most valuable resource.

At a lovely picnic dinner, overlooking the Hudson River, across from West Point, our hosts Peter and Bill (along with friends Diana and Bryan), served a beautiful chicken salad with lettuces from the Cold Spring Farmer's Market, a lovely brown rice salad, and a fresh corn salad.  But it was dessert that made me swoon. A bowl of enormous raspberries mixed with tiny cream puffs filled with ice cream and showered with powdered sugar.  It was elegant as all get-out.

The 3rd of July brought a simple summer lunch -- after all, we are borrowing a friend's house in Garrison, NY and brought up a limited number of ingredients. Our makeshift meal included summer tomatoes and cucumbers, enlivened with a lemony vinaigrette with fresh thyme (and thyme flowers), served with dense grilled bread (actually they were slices of delicious square wholewheat rolls from Key Food!), thickly spread with a combo of boursin cheese and fresh goat cheese. Grilled chicken with za'atar on a bed of arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, oil-cured olives and steamed wax beans. Dessert?  The plumpest, moistest, Medjool dates (the size of a linebacker's thumb) brought home just the other day by my husband from his trip to Abu Dhabi.  With it, shards of very good Parmigiano-Reggiano. Not bad at all for a rained-out parade day.  The combination of the dates and parm was truly outstanding and a radically fabulous way to end a meal.

Tonight we are going to our friends' house, also in Garrison, who are making one of their favorite recipes -- which happens to be mine -- but I'm dying to try their version. It's a three-ingredient pot roast made with pounds of red onions and dry vermouth.  Can't wait.  Thank you to Diana Carulli and Bryan Dunlap.

And Happy July 4th to all.