Friday, October 29, 2010

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Last week I turned thirty. 

I have always looked forward to getting older but there was something about this particular birthday that depressed me. Not the number, I love that I'm through with my twenties. The problem was, I couldn't throw a party. Two is a party in the room Chris and I live in so there was no way I could spend a few days cooking wonderful little dishes and invite people over for food and a good time unless we did it in shifts, and that's no fun. And every restaurant or bar I thought of had so many restrictions, weird owners or expensive drinks, I couldn't be bothered. So over the course of the week I celebrated here and there with family and friends, was thoroughly spoiled with kitchen related items, and that was that.

However, Chris being the wonderful husband that he is, had picked up on a little hint I'd dropped a few months earlier, that wouldn't it be nice to have a meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Holy Shit.

If you have never been, you should go, and if you've been, how long did you wait before you went again?

Blue Hill at Stone Barns is Dan Barber's restaurant located right on the Stone Barns farm, a sprawling 80 acre farm 25 miles north of Manhattan. The farm provides educational outreach and a farmers market to the public, and the restaurant sources all of it's ingredients from Stone Barns farm, Blue Hill farm (Dan Barber's farm up in Massachusetts) and other local, Hudson Valley farms. This place is a locavore's dream.

I didn't take pictures of the food because I find that to be a little like texting while driving. This is the kind of meal you save up for and only have every few years, if that, so I snapped as many pictures as I could right before the first amuse bouche arrived and then let myself be whisked away into a food wonderland.

I will try to describe the whole meal we had. But it's almost impossible. So I'll breeze through in hopes of whetting your appetite because if you like food, and I'm guessing you do, you just have to go experience the restaurant for yourself. 

I think my thirties are off to a good start.

There is no menu at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, instead you get to choose between a six course or an eight course Farmer's Feast of local and seasonal ingredients. Chris and I chose the eight course meal and told our waiter we had no restrictions, meaning we would eat whatever they put in front of us.

We were very hungry when we were seated at 5pm and I'm not sure if the wait staff picked up on that but we were presented, one by one, with seven or eight different amuses bouches; fennel soup, vegetables on a fence, salsify with panchetta, pork terrine with chocolate, thinly sliced cured pork with parmesan crisps, grilled snow peas, kale chips, veal bone marrow with bread crumbs and I know I'm forgetting a few more. Halfway through, Chris wondered if we were already on the fourth or fifth course and would we still be hungry after the meal? I gently pointed out that they had not even begun the courses. This was just the seduction. 

Because Stone Barns is foremost about education, the staff at Blue Hill at Stone Barns incorporates that into the meal. So in between courses someone would arrive with a basket of eggs and talk about the chickens, or a platter of charcoal made from pork and veal bones, corn cobs and wood from felled trees, and describe how their flavors had infused the soup we just ate. There was never a dull moment and I mean that in the best possible way.

Our first course was a plate of thinly sliced beets, briefly pickled in herb infused vinegars, sprinkled with toasted pine nuts and grated with egg yolks that had been cured with salt and sugar. The second course was a smoked tomato soup that was poured over a bowl, cradling small spoonfuls of caviar, wild mushrooms, plums, a parmesan crisp and something else. By this point I gave up trying to remember everything. The soup was heaven. The third course was the most flavorful piece of wild sea bass I've ever had, nestled in a bowl of pea shoot puree. 

Everyone gets an egg at BHSB and the fourth course was a slow poached egg, rolled in bread crumbs and lightly deep fried, resting pastorally on a bed of slivered beans with a smear of sweet potato puree on the side of the bowl with a finely sliced chicken heart on top. Before the next course arrived we were presented with a basket of piping hot potato and onion bread, perhaps some of the best bread I've ever had in my life, with a small stick of fresh butter and two flavored salts, one shitake and one tomato to accompany it. 

The fifth course was a butternut squash pasta with a smear of balsamic reduction. We were getting quite full. And the sixth course, which just about killed both of us, was a piece of fatty lamb's neck on a bed of vegetables. Dan Barber wrote a wonderful article about cleaning your plate, which I had done with every course up until now. I wanted to eat that lamb's neck like nobody's business but my body was saying, no more! And so I left half on my plate. 

And then came dessert.

The seventh course, which was quite refreshing, was a trio of small glass cups. One cup had a spoon of greek yogurt sitting on blueberry compote, sprinkled with granola. The center cup was utterly divine, a pear sorbet with a honey and eucalyptus granita on top, and the third was a barely sweet concord grape jelly with a spoon of fromage blanc ice cream. Finally, the eighth and last course was an apple cake with a soft meringue on top for each of us and a slice of dark bitter chocolate cake with a spoon of apricot sorbet to share. We could only taste the final course we were so full. And then they brought a plate of maple fudge and dark chocolate, and after that a plate of concord grapes, honeycomb and more fudge and dark chocolate. Throughout the meal we had wine and some coffee to finish.

Chris and I were giddy the whole time, I felt utterly spoiled and now I'm dreaming of what spring must taste like on the farm. Thanks hon, I'll have to take you next time.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bright Vegetarian Chili

I think food should look as good as it tastes. And if it doesn't taste good it might as well look good. But food that looks awful and tastes wonderful is a crying shame. And food that looks awful and tastes awful is unfortunitley in the majority.

This is how I feel about most bowls of chili. I can respect a beef chili that requires ample stove time, allowing the meat to fall apart and melt between your teeth but when it comes to vegetarian chili most bowls I come across are a uniform brown with barely recognizable, mushy vegetables. 

I was in a friends home last week and noticed a pot of chili he had made that was bright, cheerful and delicious, an autumnal burst of color in a bowl, probably the result of needing to get dinner on the table fast, and it was absolutely brilliant. It flipped my idea of chili upside down. 

So, with the constant sound of baseball and football crowds cheering in the background and a briskness in the air, this past weekend I threw a few things in a pot, and about half an hour later had a mean chili that is as pretty as it is good. Let it refrigerate overnight and it gets even better. Tortilla Chips, some nice orange cheddar, sliced avocado and a cold beer and I almost don't care who wins the game. Almost.

We are in Chili season after all, which I'd say starts with October Baseball and ends sometime after the Super Bowl, and if you live in the city like me and are dying to jump in a pile of leaves, this gets pretty close. 

Bright Vegetarian Chili

2 tbs. olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbs. tomato paste
1 tsp. cayenne
2 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. ground chipotle chili
small pinch bhut jolokia (optional)
2 tsp. whole cumin seeds
1 large carrot, quartered lengthwise and sliced into 1/8" pieces
1 red pepper, sliced into 1/2" strips and chopped into 1/2" pieces
1 14.5 oz. can of crushed tomatoes with liquid
3/4 cup vegetable broth
1 eight oz. can organic kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 eight oz. can organic barlotti beans or pinto beans, drained and rinsed

Heat the olive oil over medium heat, add the onions and saute for about five minutes. Add the garlic and cumin seeds, cook a few more minutes until fragrant. Then add the tomato paste and evenly coat the onion and garlic. Add the cayenne, paprika, chipotle and bhut jolokia, continue to stir until well combined and then add the carrots and peppers, saute for 10 minutes. Then add the tomatoes with their liquid, the beans and about 1/2 cup of vegetable broth. Cover and cook another 10-15 minutes just until the carrots are tender but still have a little bite. Add more broth if too dry and a pinch of salt if needed. Serve immediately.

I didn't actually measure any of the spices as I made this so I've approximated them in my recipe. Feel free to tinker, this version has quite a kick.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Padma Lakshmi's Spiced Candied Pecans

There is a dog I know. A beautiful golden retriever who will stop traffic as she lays flat on the sidewalk in submissive longing for a belly rub or a sniff. Hearts soften, small yappy dogs grow quiet and entranced children gently stroke her silky coat until I grow impatient and tug her to her feet.

But this dog also has an insatiable appetite. Food: her reason to live. She has eaten my entire sandwich, dragged leftovers from the garbage, pulled cookies off the counter, and stared me down at every meal. And once we engaged in an epic and rather loud struggle over a giant, rotten chicken bone as I knealed on the filthy curb, my fingers slick with dog slobber, trying to pry chicken bits from her clenched teeth. Oh yes, people stopped and stared. Even the jaws of life would have been useless, Maggie was victorious from the start, and all I could do was sigh as she swallowed a huge mouthful of gristle and bone, completely oblivious to what I knew would be a rough morning for her the next day. She was immensely pleased.

These spiced maple pecans are like Maggie's chicken bones to me. I will eat them until I get sick and just try to pry them from my fingers. Make them but don't tell anyone, or if you do, make double. Slice a good apple, pour some good whiskey and If you have a dog, you'll definitely want to tie them up.

Spiced Candied Pecans from Padma Lakshmi's Tangy, Tart, Hot and Sweet

One cup whole pecans
1/4 cup maple syrup (I like grade A dark amber)
1/4 tsp. chili powder

Preheat the oven to 375 (a toaster oven works great). Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Arrange the pecans on a baking sheet in a single layer. Try to keep the individual nuts from touching each other. In a small bowl whisk the chili powder and maple syrup together with a fork. Now drizzle the syrup over the pecans. Try to coat the nuts completely by sliding them around on the baking sheet so all the syrup is used. Place in the oven. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the syrup has just begun to brown or blacken; don't let the nuts burn. Remove and immediately arrange the pecans on a dish, making sure they do not touch one another; if you leave them in a pile they will cool into a brittle.

I just mix the pecans, syrup and cayenne in a bowl and turn out onto the baking sheet, and I cool the nuts on a Silpat by an open window. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Denise's Kale, Beans and Pasta

Sometimes the best recipes are the ones you learn in a friend's kitchen. Maybe they made the dish up, maybe it was torn from the pages of a magazine or perhaps it's from a famous cookbook, but in the end it doesn't really matter. Their taste and temperament has turned out a dish that almost seems an extension of themselves, and years later even after you've made the dish enough times that you could call it your own, that particular combination of ingredients still takes you back to their kitchen.

For me, there is nothing more relaxing than watching someone else cook, making note of measurements and seasoning, exchanging perhaps painful or wearying stories from the day that can now be laughed at, and feeling the kitchen windows get steamy as dinner time approaches.

The above dish is a simple meal I learned to make at my friend Denise's house. When I was in college, I'd babysit for her boys and look forward to her home cooked meals. She and her husband have a beautiful apartment right by metro north with a thin buffer of trees separating the kitchen window from the train tracks, so in the evenings as Denise cooks, the soft whoosh of commuter trains rumble by reminding you how nice it is to be cozy and at home.

This recipe is so easy and delicious anyone could make it. You could certainly take the more laborious route and soak and cook dried beans, chop fresh tomatoes and make your own pasta and stock, but if you're in a rush opening a few cans and bags is just as good, and what I do.

Sometimes when I find my own cooking situation immensely frustrating, especially at the end of a long day, it's the recipes from my mother and friends that bring a little of their kitchens into mine, and the rumbling subway or clanging garbage trucks outside my window could almost be mistaken for a speeding train on a cold fall night.

Denise's Kale, Beans and Pasta

1 yellow onion finely, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch kale, stems removed, washed and chopped
1 14.5 oz. can of chopped tomatoes, drained
2 carrots, halved and sliced into quarter inch thick rounds
2 cups vegetable or chicken broth 
1 15 oz. can of navy beans
2 cups dried pasta like orchetta, bowties or fussile 
salt + pepper
olive oil

Heat a pot of salted water for the pasta and cook until al dente, drain and set aside (rinse with cool water to prevent it sticking together and to stop the cooking process). Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium heat and saute the onion until translucent, add the garlic and carrots, saute about five minutes more. Add the tomatoes and chicken broth, cover and cook about ten minutes. Then add the kale and beans and cook covered until the kale has wilted and the carrots are tender. Season with salt and pepper. To serve spoon some pasta into a bowl and ladle the kale and beans on top. Grate some fresh parmesan on top.

it has been a while since I've watched Denise make this and she may have added about a one tbs. of tomato paste to the onions right before adding the garlic and carrots and if you have a bottle of wine on hand it couldn't hurt to add a splash. There may have been a bay leaf thrown in the mix or some chopped parsley at the end but the above recipe will make a very nice dish. After you've tried it, feel free to make it your own.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mixed Vegetable and Farro Soup

Perhaps I've given the wrong impression.

Over the past few months people have asked me, do you really cook every day? How do you do it?!

Well, let me clear this up, I do not cook every day, and in fact the past few weeks have been like this: I run around the city all day, my eating habits deteriorating with every panini and piece of cake I pass, skipping meals, gorging myself on sweets, forgetting to drink water, and then arriving home around eight to a fridge filled with half rotten vegetables, and a computer whose only use-of-late is looking up take-out menus. This all leads me to feel depressed, tired and cranky.

So, I have to ask myself, what happened? I know where to buy good food and I know how to make it but why don't I do it?

Several weeks ago I was in Philadelphia eating Thai food with my friend Liz and she was lamenting her own eating habits. She's in the process of training for a marathon and even though she knows a slice of pizza is not a decent meal, it still winds up on her dinner plate far too often. 

Then, the other day I was watching the Dr.'s, which always seems like a ridiculous show to me because the doctors all look like models and sell a colonoscopy like it was oxiclean, and they were each sitting with their favorite "bad food" in front of them, pasta, ice cream sundae, cake, etc. And while they were talking about how sugar has the same effect on the brain as crack, they were eating away, flirting and batting heavily made-up eyelashes. 

After rolling my eyes at their tans and four inch heals, I have to agree that sugar is a powerful substance. Usually when I notice I'm cooking less, it's because during the day I'm eating a lot of white flour and sugar in all sorts of combinations and then at night I just crave more. As a result I feel lethargic and fall into all kinds of unhelpful behavior, including not wanting to cook.

I have read a lot about food and everyone has their own idea of a healthy diet. Eat all organic, eat real foods, eat local, eat low fat, eat low carb, eat raw, re-alkaline your body, reduce candida, count calories, count fat, eat on a smaller dinner plate, don't eat after dinner, drink only juice for a week, eat macro, eat vegan, eat only what you grow and on and on. But the most helpful idea for me, when I'm feeling out of whack and I start getting sick and lose interest in my cookbooks is, eat mostly plants. 

Somehow this simple little mantra, shakes up my eating habits, guides me back to the kitchen and gets me feeling better. For me this does not mean eat salad for every meal, or that if you go out to a fabulous restaurant pick at a side dish of broccoli rabe all night, but it does make me think before I eat. And before I know it, I've got fresh vegetables in the fridge, I'm stopping by Angelica Kitchen for lunch rather then eating a piece of pound cake from Starbucks, or I'm getting a cocktail of green juice from the health food store that I've forgotten is right around the corner.

There is a lot I can do in my bathroom with regards to cooking but the one thing I envy about people with kitchens is their freezer space. I think that freezers are little miracles to the working, stressed out people of today who wish they had more time to cook but lets face it, just don't. So Liz, I know you don't have a lot of time, but I do know you have a fantastic new knife perfect for chopping vegetables and a decent freezer. So here is my suggestion to eating better, in addition to eating more plants, on a Sunday or whenever you have a couple of hours, make a pot of soup or two or some chili or a stew, buy some single or double serving Tupperware, fill them up and freeze the hell out of them. That way when you come home tired and hungry with only condiments and sludgy containers of take-out in your fridge, all you need to do is look up, pull a frosty hunk of homemade soup from your freezer and warm it up. 

You don't need to cook every day in order to eat home-made food. 

Mixed Vegetable and Farro Soup (Food + Wine, October 2010)

3 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
2 celery ribs
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 medium leek, white and pale green parts only, thinly sliced
1 cup farro or wheat berries
1 tbs. tomato paste
2 quarts water
1 fifteen ounce can borlotti or pinto beans, drained and rinsed
2 large carrots halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise 1/4 inch thick
1 1/2 cup frozen peas
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tbs. thinly sliced basil

In an enameled cast-iron casserole, heat the oil. Add the celery, onion and leek and cook over moderately high heat, stirring a few times, until softened, 5 minutes. Add the farro and tomato paste and cook, stirring until the grains are coated and shiny, 30 seconds. Add 1 quart of water and the beans and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat for thirty minutes. Add the carrots and the remaining 1 quart of water. Cover and cook over low heat until the carrots are tender, 30 minutes. Add the peas, cover and cook until tender, 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, top with basil (and I grated some good Parmesan cheese on top).

the above photos are of cranberry beans also known as borlotti beans, canned or fresh work equally well.