Monthly Archives: July 2006

I ♥ Cheap Eats from New York Magazine

Once a year, the local city magazines in most metropolitan areas do an issue about the least expensive places to get a good, quality meal. I always find them to be great reads. They are also a means to discover the range and variety of what a town has to offer in the way of ethnic and creative cuisine.

This week’s (July 31-August 7) issue of New York Magazine, which arrived in my mailbox last week, is their annual “Cheap Eats” review. In it, they look at places to get a meal for under $25.00. From the outside, that might not sound like anything close to a possibility price-wise in a city like New York, what with the highest of the high-end dining establishments located here like Per Se, Masa, Alain Ducasse, etc.
Because, however, this is a large, diverse community, with many different incomes, there is a plenty of room for producing interesting and tasty meals that don’t make too large of a dent in one’s checkbook or require sacrificing rent for a night out on the town. The profiles of these restaurants are usually filled with interesting tidbits, and I often find some leads on places to mentally add to my “to be tried” list or am reminded of places that I’d eaten at once upon a time to which I really should return.
This year, I was thrilled and pleasantly surprised to see quite a few of my stand-by, Go To restaurants featured. If you can get your hands on the issue, the food photography is mouth-watering, at least to my eyes, or maybe I was just really, really hungry at the time I was reading the magazine. As with anything else inNew Yorkopinions as to what should have made the list will vary, and this is not something to be tackled on an empty stomach! The magazine provides their evaluation criteria in the article. Here are some of my thoughts on their choices (rankings ran from 1-101):
Shake Shack (#17)
Ranked among the 4 Star restaurants and snagging the number 1 slot in the burger category, I have no argument with this one. I would have liked to see it a bit higher, but think that maybe it was demoted a little for its infamous line. As with many popular NYC attractions (Shakespeare in the Park, movie night at Bryant Park, anything at Central Park) faithful patrons have devised all sorts of elaborate strategies for how to avoid waiting in what seems like an interminable queue just for an addictive Shack Burger, fries, and the frozen custard flavor of the day. There’s now even a camera installed so that hungry devotees can check online to schedule their arrival so as to avoid the crowds.
Thanks very much to them for having their 2006 opening day preview on my birthday this year. It was so worth it, and I even have the card to prove that I was there among the early-birds.
Otto Enoteca Pizzeria (#24)
I visited this ristorante a few months ago and wrote a review about the food and drink that we had on that excursion. I still haven’t managed to make it back to try the pizza, but it is on my list of things to do when I can round up some folks who’d like to try it with me.
Via Emilia (#41)
My heart skipped a beat and I started to hyperventilate when I thought that this Northern Italian gem had been lost forever. The part of the block on Park Avenue Southwhere it was located has been cleared to make way for some new building – my money is on the usual condos. Turns out, they managed to relocate about a few blocks away and while I haven’t had a chance to visit their new digs yet, I’m just waiting for the first cold snap so that I can indulge in their luscious tortellini con panna or ravoli di zucca and maybe wash it all down w/ some Lambrusco. Although the owner is fromModena, it wraps me in warm memories of my years inBologna and the food is nearly as good as being there in person.
Rickshaw Dumpling Bar (#71)
When the line at Shake Shack is really just too long and my patience too short, this other neighborhood joint is my backup dining destination for theMadisonSquarePark area. Dumplings are a great meal in my book. These come in all sorts of interesting flavors (the standard Pork, Peking Duck, and Chicken & Lemongrass are among some of the options) with matching dipping sauces (like plum and peanut). Paired with a side salad or soup, they make a wonderful, inexpensive, filling lunch break. While their chocolate ones got lots of press, I wasn’t really a fan.
Sip Sak (#78)
Meze are another sure-fire way to tame an appetite. I had eaten Turkish food when I lived in London, but had to wait several years until it followed me back here to the States. It was worth the wait. A drink with friends at the rooftop café at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, followed by a group dinner sharing the meze sampler plus a few other dishes at Beyoglu (the original uptown restaurant by the same owner as Sip Sak), and Saturday night out in Manhattan comes in at the bargain price of about $35.00 per person (depending upon how much one drank at the Met).
Republic (#97)
On one side ofUnion Square, is this delicious noodle bar with all sorts of flavorful, Asian-spiced menu choices. Although inside the restaurant, the long communal tables and deafening acoustics make it difficult to have intimate conversations, the noodles more than make up for it. Besides, when your bowls arrive, you’ll be too busy slurping up the long beauties to talk to your companions anyway. A meal and some locally-grown organic veggies bought at the Greenmarket will make up for everything else you put into your body during the workweek.
Buon appetito!

Pasta alla Liguria and Homemade Pesto

Happy Anniversary to the Greenmarkets! As both the New York Times and New York Magazine highlight they turn 30 years old this week. In a way, it is hard to imagine the city without these culinary resources, they’ve become something of an institution. Specials and the latest seasonal produce are highlighted on blogs, and new arrivals are heralded in the Dining In section of the Times on Wednesdays. The market has even published The New Greenmarket Cookbook (Ed note: this is a 2014 edition, as the previous book is no longer available).

In fact, the markets are such a part of New York life that one of them even played a role in the healing our wounds after 09/11, when it had to leave Downtown Manhattan (along with many of the firms whose employees shopped there during lunchtime). The re-opening of the market that had been at the base of the towers was greeted as a return to something close to normal life and a sign of the city’s resiliency (along with the re-opening of Century 21!).
The market’s own booth at the Union Squaremarket patiently handles queries from anxious foodies asking when the newest arrivals will be there and when whatever is next in season is anticipated. This week’s New York Magazine has a detailed map of the square and all the vendors who are usually there on Saturdays, but my favorite thing to do is just to walk around and take in what is for sale.

There, I’ve picked up wonderful cheeses, delicious handmade sausages, great homemade jams, and lovely freshly-baked bread – for toast of course. Plants and flowers dress up the square and the aroma of lilacs during the spring season makes the trip intoxicating as well. Like lots of folks who visit the market on a regular basis, I have my particular favorite vendors that I search out week after week for their wares.

Many foodstuffs I never thought I would see again once I left Europe, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find there. It’s made the city a great big garden and helped me to keep up my cooking repertoire. Available right at this moment – and soon to disappear – are things like zucchini flowers (see below). Yes, from the vegetable, fiori di zucca as they are called in Italian are usually prepared dipped in a light batter and fried. Not surprisingly, I love them.
Another thing in season and abundance at the moment is fresh basil. Fragrant bunches are for sale at many of the stands, some batches with leaves as big as spinach ones! It’s absolutely gorgeous and it helps to make some of this incredible heat and humidity a bit more tolerable by knowing that this is also a season for such wonderful goodness.
To capture some of this summer sunshine and warmth, I like to make my own pesto. I think that ripe tomatoes and fresh basil smell just like the hottest days in July and August, their peak time. To be honest, it’s often hard to write down a recipe like this, as I usually go by feel and texture and the quality of ingredients on which on can get my hands. As you make this, if you feel you need to add more oil or if you taste it and decide to add more cheese, go for it, that’s what cooking is really about!

Homemade Pesto*
Prep time: 30 minutes
Serves: Makes about a cup of pesto
3 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1 large clove garlic
1/4 tsp salt
1 pinch pepper
1/4 cup finely grated fresh parmesan cheese
1/4 cup finely grated fresh pecorino cheese
3-4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
In pre-heated 300o F (150o C, Gas Mark 2) oven, toast pine nuts until light brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. This will release the oils in the nuts. While pine nuts are toasting and cooling, prepare the basil.
Clean basil leaves extra well. You might want to run them through a salad spinner several times to make sure that all the grit (that’s a technical term) is removed from the basil. Alternatively, you could lovingly clean each leaf by hand using a damp paper towel – kidding! You do need to make sure that you really clean it, though. Nothing is worse than biting into pesto and having the dirt grind against your teeth.
In a food processor – I know anathema to some – place garlic clove cut into half, the toasted pine nuts, salt and pepper. Pulse until finely ground.  Add basil leaves. Pulse. It might take several times to finely grind the basil leaves. Carefully push down the basil to make sure that the leaves are meeting the blades. Add one tablespoon of the olive oil. Pulse several times as the leaves become finer and finer. Add remaining tablespoon of olive oil and pulse again. Scrape down sides of food processor. Add cheeses. Pulse to combine. Taste and adjust salt and pepper if necessary.
Store in the refrigerator in a glass container. Top with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. This will help keep the pesto from getting too dry. Do not worry if the top layer seems darker than the part below. Stir to recombine. Pesto will be good for about a week, if it lasts that long before anyone eats all of it.
Serving suggestion:
Below is a quick and easy summertime dish that shows off the pesto well. As you can see from the photo above, it is also colorful and unique-looking. This makes a great warm weather meal as it can be served at room temperature. It also reminds me of bright, sunny summer days spent on the Mediterranean coast of Italy.  Typically, this is made with a type of pasta called trenette. I haven’t been able to find it here in the U.S. so I substitute linguine instead, which is very similar in shape and texture, if a bit thinner. This is one of my favorite dishes to make for entertaining as it is easy to expand it to feed extra mouths.
Pasta alla Liguria
Prep time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4 adults as a first course
1/2 16-oz. box linguine (about 200 grams)
5-6 small red new potatoes per person, cut into quarters
8-10 fresh green beans per person, cut in half
1 Tbsp pesto per person
In large saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add 1 tsp salt. Throw in green beans. Let cook for 3-5 minutes until a fork goes through them easily. With skimmer, remove green beans from pan and set aside either by dividing them onto the plates on which they will be served or in a large bowl.
Add potatoes and let cook 5-10 minutes until a fork goes through them easily. With skimmer, remove potatoes and add to the same plate or bowl as the green beans.
If necessary, add more water to the pan. Let come to boil and add 1/2 tsp more salt. Add linguine and cook until al dente. Strain pasta, reserving some of the cooking liquid.
Put in same bowl or plates as the green beans and potatoes. Add one large dollop of homemade pesto (about 1 Tbsp) and stir to combine. To make creamier, add 1-2 spoonfuls of pasta water and stir again.
Bring to table. This pasta dish does not need to be served piping hot, but it should also not be allowed to sit for too long before serving it. It is possible to cook the green beans and potatoes at the same time as the pasta but do not allow the latter to overcook.
Buon appetito!
*Kitchen Witch Tip:
Basil is heading into its peak season in the summer. To preserve this fresh taste, a trick I learned several years ago is to make pesto and freeze it in ice cube trays. Then, save the cubes in a plastic, sealed bag or container in the freezer. During those cold winter months when dishes need an extra kick, you can pop one into sauces and stews.

Vive La France! – Bastille Day Street Fair

The Weather Channel says that it’s currently 92 degrees Fahrenheit outside (about 30 degrees Centigrade). That’s hot enough to do nothing but just sit around inside watching television and drinking cool liquids. But, to do that today would be something close to culinary sacrilege.

New York summers and street fairs go together like, well, just about anything you can think of to combine. To the uninitiated, these may sound like great fun: food, crafts, vendors, etc. all in a few city blocks. To those who get to live with them, they are experienced with the same measure of ennui and tolerance of the many themed parades that close down Fifth Avenue several times a year. They shut down bus routes, cause detours, change well-laid plans, and cause mounds of frustration.

There is, however, one special fair that takes place each year on a Sunday in mid-July that draws out the folks who most likely don’t usually brave these spectacles. The Alliance Française in New York holds its Bastille Day celebration in Midtown Manhattan, taking over three blocks on 60th Street. Local proprietors, restaurants and many things French are featured.

I think that, without any proof whatsoever, this fair just might have the most great food per block of any of the ones to which I have been. Skip the kebobs, take a pass on the sausage and onion sandwiches, never mind the griddled corncakes with mozzarella, here are some photos of what you could have been eating today had you been in New York:
Crème Brûlée



Someone had sandwiches and sweets

French Fries – um, not so sure why this stand is here…
Fruit Shakes – these guys are at every street fair!
But the longest line in the whole fair was here (Mar this photo is for you):
North African Grill Table
So, how was I able to choose what to eat, given all these great choices? Well, I had a bit of an advantage in that I’ve been to this festival just about every year I’ve lived inNew York. That means that I sort of knew what to expect and how to pace myself.
Rather than jumping in to sample everything right away from each stand that looked appealing, I walked west from Lexington (the start) to Fifth, got the lay of the land food-wise, and then walked back, making my selections along the way. I had decided in advance that I would limit my spending to $20.00 for my total food bill.
This is what I ended up getting. I don’t think that I restricted my choices too much:
Crêpe with Shredded Duck
Brioche with Orange Flower-flavored Cream
Tuna Niçoise Sandwich
At the end of my mini-feast, I was left with $4.00. Hmm….what could I get with that? It was too little to buy a single lottery ticket to try to win a trip to France. The sweet crêpes would have put me a bit outside of my budget. Then, I remembered – aha! – Payard.
A New Yorksweets lovers stand-by, Payard on the Upper East Sideis a standard-bearer. Ladies take tea there, children stand with their noses pressed against the glass cases staring at all the sugary goodies, trying to choose what they will have to eat after school. There’s even a scene in a now-defunct HBO show where a character is trying to pick what to have from all the pastries she sees. (Hint: she pours dishwashing liquid on a chocolate cake to keep from eating it.)
I had bought the brioche in the photo above for $4.00. Just look at this picture of all those from which I could select, each for that same sum:
I asked the person selling them about one of the tarts. “All of zees you can get in the store,” he said, “Buut, zis one, zis one, we maade ezpecially foor touday.”
“That sounds great,” I responded.
“I maade eet myself, today, zis mornigk,” he replied, with what seemed to be a little extra, personal flourish.
“I’ll take one to go,” I said. A sweet and a flirt, not a bad thing on a hot summer’s day! Bon Appétit!
Cherry Claufouti

The end of strawberry season – Fragole con Panna al’Aceto Balsamico

*Sniff* I can’t believe it’s here already. The end of the season has come and I completely missed them. I’m not talking about baseball. I don’t mean hockey. I’m not even referring to the World Cup. No, the season I am talking about is short, sweet and red. It is enticing, sometimes decadent, and very, very delicious.

The last of the farmers’ market strawberries have come and gone. Each year, as with asparagus, there is the fervor among the food set, especially those who try to eat as seasonally as possible, to hunt out and obtain, for as many weeks as is feasible, locally-grown, tangy-sweet, juicy strawberries.  I know that this might seem strange as you think, “What is this about? I see strawberries all the time. They are in my local grocery store year-round.” Those specimens you see in the plastic containers during the winter are a far cry from the ones to which I am referring. They could almost not even be the same fruit.
It is amazing to me that I have become such a convert, with all the zeal and ardor that implies.
In general, I don’t like strawberry-flavored things. The person who picks off the chocolate and vanilla from the Neapolitan ice cream, that would be me. Strawberry milkshakes, yuk, no thanks. Strawberry NESQUIK® – bleah. Twizzlers®, nope.  Fresh, seasonal strawberries, however, make my mouth water. I become obsessed this time of year, waiting, scoping out the markets, eager to catch the new crop. I cannot be tempted by the ones “as large as my head” (to quote one of my sisters) that one finds most months of the year.
So, what caused this transformation? I became a convert to the sweet possibilities of strawberries when I lived in Italy during my first year of graduate studies. There, at the market stalls past which I walked between my apartment and the school, these ruby red gems of spring appeared just in time to provide a distraction from final exams.
During that year, I had come to learn more about how to eat seasonally and was willing to be open to sampling this fruit again, having been turned off for years by bland, watery produce. Someone brought them to my abode for a snack during our studies. I whipped up a little fresh cream, dusted it with a touch of sugar, and delicately dipped a fresh, ripe strawberry into the bowl.

I bit into it and, WOW. Robust, full, fruity, flavor just exploded in my mouth. Juice dripped down the sides of my face. Strawberry taste, the kind that seems too artificial to be real, was everywhere, complemented by the rich, fluffy cream. It was as though a taste light-switch had gone off in my brain. I was in love, or something very close to it.

There is nothing like that first bite, not really. It’s like the first crush, the first time you succeed at doing something new, the first time you hold someone’s brand-new baby. It’s that special, especially, if you’ve spent a large part of your then-lifetime wishing you could enjoy something that others find so delicious but that you just can’t. Now, you are let into the secret society of strawberry-lovers.
At the same time, I am now part of the strawberry-obsessives club as well. I shun them out of season. Chocolate-dipped ones offered to me in February are turned down with a crinkle of my nose (a habit I have for things I find distasteful). No, my tastebuds know the premium article. They will not be led astray.
It has been many years since I was able to enjoy the Italian springtime fragole or fragolone (as the larger ones are called). The ones from the Greenmarket in New York bring back cherished memories of those warm days and even warmer friendships of the time. I developed this recipe to capture the English fondness for strawberries with cream along with a particularly Northern Italian use of balsamic vinegar. It is, of course, best when the berries are in peak season.
Fragole con Panna al’Aceto Balsamico*
Prep time: 15-20 minutes
Serving Size: 4-6 depending upon how greedy they are
1 lb. Strawberries
1 cup Heavy Cream (or English double cream)
3 tsp Balsamic Vinegar
1 tsp Vanilla Extract
2 tsp Sugar
Chill metal bowl in freezer for 10-15 minutes. If using beaters, also chill those for best results.
In the meantime, delicately rinse off strawberries and pat dry with paper towel. Green tops can be removed, depending upon how they are to be served, or left intact to allow for dipping. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Set aside.
Pour in heavy cream. By hand or with machine, whip cream into soft peaks. Add remaining 1 teaspoon sugar, vanilla extract and vinegar. Whip again. The cream will be a taupe-y sort of color. Serve berries with cream.
Kitchen Witch Tip:
It is perfectly permissible to use sugar substitute in place of sugar. You may want to adjust the amount you use downwards as the substitutes can sometimes be sweeter than the real thing.
*Mea culpa
I do my own cooking and food photography so I wanted to be sure that for sake of trust, I upheld full disclosure as to the prep for this recipe. So that y’all could see what this dish looks like, I confess that I had to cave and use organic strawberries I found at the grocery store. I stand by my point – they don’t match the taste of the locally-grown farmers’ market ones – but at least you can see what a nice presentation this dish will make if you can still get your hands on some of those.

Name Change – From Banking to Blogging to The Experimental Gourmand

You may notice that there’s yet another break in the sequence in which I usually post, especially as I took a hiatus a while back. I’ve been debating changing the name of this blog for a while and decided during my “six-month self-review” – triggered most likely by the fact that we’ve been going through these at work as well lately – that I should just take the plunge and not hesitate any longer.  I’ve decided to call this blog The Experimental Gourmand instead of “From Banking to Blogging.”

Today is a bank holiday in the United States. As I couldn’t afford to take off yesterday, it is sort of weird week for me. Saturday and Sunday were filled with the usual scramble to get errands done. Yesterday was really quiet, even more so than the day after Thanksgiving, and lots of places seemed closed. The financial markets closed at 1:00 p.m. and, in one of the major perks of working in the industry, some of us got to leave a couple of hours later, several hours before my usual departure time. Ahhhh, I did miss that when I was temping for non-financial companies.

What getting home when there was still plenty of sunlight did, was give me time to deal with the pile of magazines and papers on my floor. You know the one. It starts to take on a life of its own, growing, spreading, until really you think it should be paying rent in your room. It looked much larger earlier in the day. O.K. Maybe the rest of you have a more ordered existence than I.

In the pile were some great notes and recipe ideas. I also discovered some thoughts for the blog that I’d scribbled on various pieces of paper. It made me realize how much this concept I’d discussed a little more than six months ago over coffee with a friend has evolved more into something that does what the title now suggests: explore experimenting with food and enjoying various tastes.

It is my hope that the new title doesn’t scare anyone away and, in fact, draws some of you “lurkers” (the term for those who read but don’t post – I didn’t make that up, btw) out to post your comments and ideas. Cooking and eating are about experimenting and trying new things and new recipes. I hope that my photos and tips will inspire you to do just that.

Buon appetito! (and now I have to return to the Italy-Germany game to root for my Azzurri – yes, that is a link to ESPN, probably one of the only that will ever happen on this site)

Salad Days – Shrimp-Grape-Almond Salad and Raspberry-Rum Fizz

It’s hot. It’s bloody hot, but at least it’s dry. After lots of rain this week, it’s now really hot outside, just in time for a holiday weekend. Better yet, I feel as though my apartment traps heat so there’s no real escape. This is the time of year when it is just excruciating to cook. Anything that causes the temperature to rise inside is to be avoided. Greens wilt. Appetites dwindle. Nothing seems appealing.
Supplemented with some other items I had in the house and a few things I picked up on the way back to my apartment, I threw together a light supper, in tune with the weather. The Shrimp-Grape-Almond Salad is inspired by one that I used to eat at a restaurant near where I went to graduate school in Washington, D.C. It is light, fresh and full of great tastes. My hope is that it helps you get through this torrid summer as well.
This is also the time of year when really great produce is available and loads of wonderful fresh fruit is coming into season. I took advantage of the nice weather to check out the newest edition to the farmers’ markets in town. Nina Planck, who used to run the Greenmarkets in New York City, has set up two markets. One of them is on a thin triangle of land on Lafayette Street between Spring Street and Kenmare Street. This is the one that I visited today.  The newsletter they sent around said that some of the showings would be lighter as the heavy rain this week caused damage to some of the crops. Nina’s folks came up from Virginia to lend a hand this weekend. Next time, I’m going to try the other market on 6th Avenue between Bleecker Street and Houston Street.
Although, as the photos show, there were some nice veggies available, I didn’t find what I really wanted there, so I ended up at my usual – the Union Square Greenmarket. Unfortunately, it was later in the afternoon, my having been distracted by the England-Portugal World Cup match, so many places were closing up. I did pick up some salad greens and my first fresh local raspberries of the season.
Raspberry-Rum Fizz
Prep time: 10-15 minutes
Ingredients (use these proportions per person):
1/4 cup Red Raspberries, pureed
1/4 tsp White Sugar
1 shot Light Rum
Sparkling Mineral Water
Fresh whole Red Raspberries to garnish
Measure out 1/4 cup raspberries per person. Put in food processor and puree until liquid. Add 1/4 tsp sugar per person being served. Puree one minute more.
Place fine-mesh sieve over clean glass or ceramic bowl. Empty contents of food processor into sieve. With wooden spoon or rubber scraper, push contents through sieve. Do not try to make seeds and large pulp pieces go through the sieve. The liquid is what is wanted.
Measure out one tablespoon raspberry puree per glass. Add one shot of rum. Fill glass two-thirds full with sparkling mineral water. Garnish the rim with one whole raspberry dipped in sugar.

Shrimp-Grape-Almond Salad

Prep time: 30 minutes

Ingredients (use these proportions per person):
6 jumbo Shrimp per person, peeled, deveined
1 cup Mesclun or other mixed greens
1/3 cup Red Grapes, cut in half
1/4 cup Slivered Almonds, toasted
1/4 cup crumbled Goat Cheese
3 Tbsp extra-virgin Olive Oil
1 medium clove Garlic, super-finely chopped
Lemon juice
Whole wheat pitas
Heat griddle pan over medium high heat. (unless you decide to grill them on a barbecue) Peel and devein shrimp, unless bought prepped. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook shrimp until pink on one side, flip over and cook until opposite side is also pink. These should take about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
At the same time, in pre-heated 300o F (150o C, Gas Mark 2) oven, toast slivered almonds until light brown. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. Put garlic, pinch of salt and 1/8 tsp pepper in bowl. Add 1 Tbsp lemon juice and 2 Tbsp olive oil. Whisk together until thickened and turns a light yellow color.
Mound mesclun in center of plate. Dot grape halves, almonds and cheese on top of greens. Place shrimp around the plate. Drizzle with lemon-garlic dressing. If wanted, serve with grilled pita bread and store-bought hummus (or in my case from the local Mediterranean restaurant).
Variation: Substitute shrimp for grilled chicken and red grapes for green.
Buon appetito!