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Eating Well in Asheville

2 Jul
Photo Credit: Michael Whiteman

Photo Credit: Michael Whiteman

Asheville is a lovely town in North Carolina where hipsters meet farmers, artists meet artisans, street food meets street people, and where adventurous restaurants lure masses of hungry tourists. With an influx of Floridians escaping the heat and New Yorkers escaping the cold, it feels less “southern” and more small-scale cosmopolitan.

On business a few weeks back, I took in both its thriving arts scene and its far-reaching gastronomic offerings. I say far-reaching because (for example) you can queue for a biscuit as big as your fist at Biscuit Head, filled with regionally appropriate salty country ham buffered by a fried green tomato, some cheese, a runny egg and one of seven gravies. But this is no sloucher place — on the menu are: sriracha slaw, smoked chevre grits, kale salad, seitan sausage, brie, and smoked tomato hollandaise. There’s a stupendous marmalade bar with at least a dozen varieties of freshly-made jams to pile onto your still-warm biscuit.

At the other end of the gastro-spectrum is Curate, an always-crowded tapas restaurant run by (now famous) chef Katie Button who rose to stardom after working under José Andrés and Ferran Adrià. You’ll find a deep list of authentically Spanish dishes and a curated assemblage of Spanish sherries and wines. Don’t miss warm octopus with Spanish paprika and silken Yukon gold puree; spicy chorizo wrapped in a crisp potato chip; Moorish-spiced lamb skewer; patatas bravas (a must-have) and Spanish tortilla (a classic potato-and-onion omelet). Curate has an open kitchen with a bar-counter where you can watch a dynamo of cooks turning out small plates and excellent cocktails.

White Duck Taco’s food is equally worldly. Non-traditional fillings include Bangkok shrimp, jerk chicken, Korean bulgogi, duck with mole and banh mi tofu. They’re cheap so order lots for lunch, then walk off your meal by exploring numerous nearby galleries and workshops in the River Arts District. There’s also a branch downtown.

Not easy to find, but so worthwhile is The Bull and Beggar, which abuts the yellow-ish, hipster-ish, biker-ish Wedge Brewery, with an outdoor cinema and food trucks serving creative snacks to the assembled thirsty. The menu at rustic Bull and Beggar looks “frenchified” with terrines, rillettes and shellfish platters, but it is a rock-solid restaurant run by an extraordinarily talented chef. You’ll want one of everything, but we reveled in chef Matt Dawes’ fatted, truffled duck liver parfait; charred octopus with a memorable romesco sauce; seared broccolini with chili and anchovy; beets with fromage blanc and cumin; and roast baby chicken with wild mushrooms, red currants, game chips, upland cress and liver toast. Quirky, wonderful wine list.

Formerly chef at much-lauded Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, where he re-invented Southern cookery, John Fleer now runs Rhubarb in Asheville. Rhubarb specializes in boldly flavored dishes that range across the globe. Roasted oysters with country ham and greens, Mongolian lamb ribs with collard green kimchee, rhubarb glazed duck confit with sweet potatoes Anna and shaved asparagus, and IPA-marinated cauliflower steak with flageolet cassoulet and arugula pesto (Whew! The ingredients just keep coming). Well organized wine list that’s easy on the wallet.

The Bull and Beggar, Rhubarb and many others in town get their vegetables and greens from Evan Chender’s Culinary Gardener, which I wrote about two weeks ago.

Barbecue addicts can’t do better than 12 Bones, on the edge of the arts district. A big smoker out back slowly transforms all manner of protein into redolent and succulent barbecue sandwiches or platters. A go-to sandwich is Hogzilla, a layering of sugar bacon, bratwurst, pulled pork and pepper jack cheese. Although I can’t quite wrap my mind around the concept, blueberry-chipotle is their most ordered sauce.

Here’s how to start a perfect evening: Head over to Battery Park Book Exchange in the Grove Arcade. This quirky used-book store contains a lovely champagne bar with a large by-the-glass selection and comfy places to sit, sip and snack.

Here’s how to end a perfect evening: Climb the stairs to Nightbell, a restaurant-lounge run by Katie Button. Signature cocktails are perfect and desserts are first-rate.

And here’s how trendy Asheville is: The menu at Table includes barbecued fish collars, asparagus chawanmushi, and striped bass with nasturtium butter. All Souls Pizza mills it own flour and offers hand-cut rye noodles with fermented turnips and charred spring onions, and smoked sardines with salsa verde. Curate’s menu tells you which dishes are vegan or gluten- lactose- and tree-nut free. At the hot Mexican restaurant Limones, your “Mayan margarita” glass is crusted with chapulin salt, “chapulin” made of dried, ground crickets. Down at a nearby farmers market, Cricket Girl sells cricket-based protein bars and is aiming for veggie packed smoothies thickened with her insect protein-flour combination. Toto… we’re not in Brooklyn anymore.

Olympic Gold: Veal Steaks “Stroganoff” with Shiitakes & Portobellos

20 Feb

AFP 520158322 S SPO SPO RUS -I hope you have been enjoying watching the Olympics as much as I have. I’ve found myself wanting to indulge in a few hearty Russian classics, but how about a new-fashioned Veal Steaks “Stroganoff?” Priyatnogo appetita!

Veal Steaks “Stroganoff” with Shiitakes & Portobellos
(Radically Simple, Rodale, 2010)

Flavors of fino sherry, espresso, and lemon “lift” an old-fashioned dish, generally made with beef, to something lighter and special.

4 thick veal steaks, about 9 ounces each
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 cup heavy cream
6 tablespoons fino sherry
8 ounces baby Portobello mushrooms, sliced
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh lemon thyme
¼ teaspoon espresso powder
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh chives

Preheat the broiler. Rub the veal with the olive oil. Season with the paprika and salt and pepper and arrange on a broiler pan. Heat the cream in a large skillet until bubbly. Add 3 tablespoons of the sherry and all the mushrooms. Cook over high heat, stirring, until the mushrooms soften, 4 minutes. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons sherry, thyme, espresso powder, and salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the mushrooms exude their liquid and then absorb much of the sauce, 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, broil the veal six inches from the heat for 3 to four minutes on each side, until just cooked through. Let rest 5 minutes; thickly slice on the bias. Top with the mushroom sauce and sprinkle with chives. Serves 4

Marc Vetri: A Culinary Bodhisattva

11 Oct

Credit: Vetri Gallery

In this world of bug-chomping, mean-spirited, limelight-loving chefs, comes a new breed of nice, clean-shaven, family guys with no tattoos — who actually feel good about themselves and their customers. Ben Pollinger, the Michelin-starred chef of Oceana in Manhattan is one such guy. His buddy Dan Kluger, of abckitchen, recently deemed New York’s best new restaurant, is another. This new crop of chefs cook for the pleasure of their guests (and thereby themselves) and whose goal is for others to experience culinary enlightenment rather than mirror their own hype. These chefs create a kind of dining “sangha” (community) where all participants feel interconnected, whether to some intrinsic food memory, to the earth, to nature, or to other sentient beings. And while I’m certain there are many who fit this description, cooking under the radar in kitchens all across America, by chance I met the kindest, gentlest chef of all.

Just last week, at a small press dinner in New York entitled “Sounds Good, Tastes Good,” I met Marc Vetri from the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. Vetri is the real deal:  a philanthropic, guitar-playing, accomplished, brilliantly modest chef who owns three restaurants, has two cookbooks, runs a million dollar foundation, and by happenstance embodies the “six perfections” that a Bodhisattva must generate — hence the title of this piece. These are:  generosity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom. Never mind that Marc met his wife at a yoga class (he summoned the nerve to talk to her after one year) and has been known to meditate, but his divining attributes shown brightly through the food that night. We ate the intangibles that separate one guy’s food from another’s. More soul, than craft. More you, than me.  Food Network TV producer and host, Marc Summers, a Philadelphia neighbor, who often has holiday meals at Marc’s home, says “Vetri is the sweetest, most generous soul I’ve ever met. I love the guy. And while you couldn’t pay me to eat a liver, I love his rigatoni with chicken livers.  I wanted to dive in the bowl and swim around.”

Marc’s three Philadelphia ventures — Vetri Ristorante, Osteria and Amis — are considered among the best Italian restaurants in America. A new place, called Alla Spina, is on its way. Mario Batali has called Marc the “best Italian chef in the country.” (Big praise from the buddha himself.)  Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine Magazine, has said when it comes to Marc’s hospitality and philosophy, “It’s all about the cooks and the cooking. No pretension, just genius food.”   James Beard award-winning Vetri, whose grandmother is Sicilian, trained in Bergamo, Italy and himself has trained several chefs who went on to win their own Beard awards. He treats his restaurant family and home family with equal compassion.

Last week’s dinner was a fabulous throw-back to experiences of another generation.  Hors d’oeuvres (homemade fennel salami and artichoke mostarda, gutsy caponata, and even gustier bread), were served “family style” as guests meandered with a glass of wine getting to know each other. The seated dinner was served around one long, farm table that sat 24 generously, in a West Village dining spot owned by The Little Owl group. The meal was one of the most authentically Italian imaginable — both rustic and perfect. Ethereal tuna-ricotta fritters, lusty meatballs, the aforementioned pasta with chicken livers, and the best “plin” — a stuffed pasta from Piedmont — I’ve had.  The roasted lamb shoulder tasted like it came from a salt marsh, the fish braised in olive oil was an exercise in radical simplicity (my mantra), and dessert — an olive oil cake with amaretti semifreddo and chocolate sauce — was a crowd-pleaser. Thankfully, all of the recipes can be found in Marc’s new book, Rustic Italian Food from Ten Speed Press which is hot off the press this month. But the real dessert was the music that followed. Singer/song-writer Phil Roy sang his heart out while Vetri played “sous-guitarist” to his good sounds.

But perhaps it is Marc’s charitable efforts that affords him the Bodhisattva award. Just this past summer, Marc gathered some of the country’s best chefs to come to Philadelphia to raise $800,000 for Alex’s Lemonade Stand (for children’s cancer research.) In 2009, he founded the Vetri Foundation for Children, whose mission is to “support the development of healthy living habits for underserved youth.” The foundation recently launched the “Eatiquette” program whose destiny is to have every school in America serving a fresh, family-style lunch. A kind of eating “sangha” (community) for kids. You see, for Marc, it’s never just about the food. It’s about the people who eat it.

Labor Day Food

2 Sep

The irony about Labor Day is that it has come to signify a day of relaxation, fun, stress-free cooking, and wistful end-of-summer feelings.  The first Labor Day was celebrated in the US in 1882 by the Central Labor Union of New York after being mandated a national holiday by President Grover Cleveland as a reconciliation with the labor movement.  Who knew?  While no longer commemorated in the way prescribed in the holiday’s proposal:  “A street parade to exhibit to the public the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations, to be followed by a festival for the workers and their families,” its meaning, like so many other national holidays, has lost its essence.  No matter.  Today its symbolism is one of seasonal transition and, for those of you living on Society Hill, it’s no longer fashionable to wear white.

But for the rest of us, living elsewhere, we barbecue, shuck corn, cut up watermelon, and make cold soups.   I had one of the best cold soups just last night at the home of Jerry and Beth Adler.   Jerry, is a journalist par excellence (Newsweek editor for eons — who recently wrote the definitive article about the molecular gastronomist Myhrvold for Smithsonian magazine — a must-read) and Beth, is a scholarly city planner.   They always have great dinner parties and it feels like a party even when it’s just the four of us.  Last night’s menu included Jerry’s wonderful, original cucumber soup (recipe below), dry-rubbed ribs, grilled zucchini, summer corn, and glorious heirloom tomatoes, graced with avocado and nuggets of mozzarella.  Dessert?  Ronnybrook ice cream and a delicious fruit salad that included fresh figs and mango. A crisp white Protocolo from Spain and a flintly Sancerre.   Dark and stormies, to begin (Dark rum and ginger beer).  Divine.

Divine, too, was another party — this time for 12 — at the home of another special hostess, Saralie Slonsky — considered the doyenne of health-care pr in the country who now teaches a master class at New York University in public relations.  Esteemed guests included New York’s food maven Arthur Schwartz, and a young journalist, Max Falkowitz, who writes about spices and ice cream for Serious Eats.   Presaging Labor Day by just a few days, the dinner was the stuff the upcoming holiday is made of:  superb guacamole, smoked trout mousse in tiny cucumber cups, fresh shrimp rolls (like lobster rolls!), grilled skirt steak with a poblano pesto, more heirloom tomatoes, the best and simplest cooked spinach I’ve ever had, and a new potato-and-fresh herb salad.  Dessert included a homemade amaretti torte with summer berries, walnut cookies, and macaroons from Laduree (!) generously bought and brought by Mr. Falkowitz.  The meal was catered by Freya Clibansky and her assistant, Chef Annie Wright (daughter of the iconic designer Russell Wright.)   Thank you, Saralie!  And thank you, Freya and Annie!

This is the food of Labor Day.   Enjoy.

Jerry Adler’s Wonderful Cucumber Soup

16 ounces Fage 2% plain Greek yogurt (or other thick yogurt)
2 large cucumbers, peeled, seeded and chopped
1/3 cup packed cup chopped cilantro
1/3 packed cup chopped dill
2 to 3 medium cloves of garlic
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, light toasted and ground
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
additional cilantro for garnishing
freshly made croutons, made from a baguette (sauteed in butter or oil)

Place the first 8 ingredients in a blender or food processor and process until smooth.  Chill until very cold.  Garnish with additional slivered cilantro and warm croutons.   Serves 6

Cleaning out the Fridge

24 Jun

For the last four days I have been involved in a “secret project”– one that has required lots and lots of cooking and food photography. Sixty-two photos to be exact! My days have begun at 5:45 a.m. and have lasted up to 16 hours, at which time, the dishes would be washed (we have no dishwasher!), the shopping lists made for the next day’s shoot, and a final sip taken from a big glass of red wine. My house and kitchen, turned into a “studio” with simple lighting, an array of white plates, a cornucopia of fresh ingredients, and a very credible photographer whose work has graced the pages of magazines, books and food products for decades.

Part performance art, part circus, it required the best of spirits and the steady hands of an assistant, and at certain times two! — both of whom work as personal chefs. The rhythm to get so much done in a day was at times cool jazz and at other times a symphonic movement which could have been titled Heroica! (Beethoven). If the Marx Brothers had a theme song, that, too, might describe the mood, as we spliced and diced and chopped, steamed, broiled and sauteed, churned ice cream, and sipped and slurped the strongest iced coffee you can imagine. As a frame of reference, in advertising, getting three shots done a day is good work; in publishing a book, seven or eight shots is considered fabulous. We were pushing 16, if you do the math. The reward? Beautiful images and a refrigerator so full that it was getting warm. My fridge ‘runneth over! Up again at 5:45 a.m. this morning to sort out the wheat from the chaff, and to re-jigger odds and ends into dinner. That is, dinner for a week! Ground meat was turned into a meat sauce (I had lots of fresh tomatoes, basil and red onion), my gratin dauphinoise was re-layered with thin slices of roast chicken and asparagus; a multitude of vegetables from the farmer’s market were steamed and tossed with fresh fettuccine as a kind of room-temperature salad for lunch today; leftover poached pears, raspberries, fresh orange segments, roasted grapes and slivers of caramelized pineapple turned into a healthy dessert for tonight’s meal.

But nothing topped breakfast this morning — a slice of my husband’s dense homemade rye bread spread with leftover scallion butter (used for a creamy corn soup) and sprinkled with salt. I encourage you to visit your fridge and to visit a website called “expendible edibles” for inspiration. You may want to fry the carrot tops lurking in the vegetable drawer and scatter them atop a nice carrot-ginger soup. It’s time again to make lemonade out of lemons or better yet, make refreshing agua fresca from leftover watermelon, honeydew or cantaloupe. Recipe below (for carrot tops, too!)

Fried Carrot Tops

1/4 cup lacy green carrot tops
3 tablespoons olive oil

Wash the carrot tops and dry thoroughly. Heat the oil in a small skillet until hot. Carefully add the carrot tops and fry for 30 seconds. or until crispy and still bright green. Transfer to paper towels. Sprinkle very lightly with salt. Stays crispy for several hours.

Agua Fresca (adapted from Eat Fresh Food: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs)
This doesn’t require much sugar; just let the fresh fruit flavors shine through.

1/2 large ripe cantaloupe or honeydew (or leftover pieces)
1/4 cup sugar slices of lemon or lime

Remove any seeds from melon. Cut into large pieces and put in a blender with the sugar, 1 cup of water and a pinch of salt. Process on high until very smooth. You will have 3 cups of liquid. Put it in a pitcher and add 3 cups of cold water. Cover and refrigerate until cold. Pour over ice and garnish with lemon or lime. Add more sugar (dissolved in hot water), if needed. Garnish with pieces of melon, if you wish. Serves 4

Two Movies That Made Me Hungry

15 Jun

Midnight in Paris and Passione.  French and Italian.  The first, a delicious confection. The latter, a lusty stew. The first, written, produced and directed by Woody Allen is charming and uproariously clever, a look-see into Paris in the 20’s, where the Fitzgeralds and Picasso and Salvador Dali mingle with the protagonist (no doubt, Mr. Allen) who is vested in 2009 but rooted in his fantasies. The more you know about Paris during that time, the more you will enjoy it, as much of the pleasure comes from the anticipation of the characters and events.  The latter, written, produced and directed by John Turturro was a musical soul-catcher, depicting life in Naples today built note by note, and dance step by dance step, into a Neapolitan version of Rent in which the protagonist experiences life in the moment through a historical lens.  The main character here is the music of Naples, narrated by Mr. Turturro, who shows both his intellect and insight, and an extraordinary ability to…dance!

Yet since we are talking about two of the world’s most notable food cities, one could not help find the references, though there were few.  In Midnight in Paris, Maxim’s was portrayed as Paris’s socio-gastronomic apex, whereas in Passione, Taverna Dell’Arte, the restaurant of one of the leading characters, Don Alfonzo, was in shadow, a mere suggestion of the dining culture in Naples.  The B-roll in each city provided but a glimpse of the culinary clichés we love:  outdoor cafes in Paris and covered outdoor markets in Naples.

I went to see Midnight in Paris with my husband.  It was one of the few dates we’ve had without our 15 year old daughter.  We, in turn, went to see Passione with our daughter, and with the man who knows more about life, food, and the culture of Naples than anyone — maestro Arthur Schwartz and his partner, the scholarly Bob Harned. What a joy to dance in our seats together.

If there are two food books that exemplify these movies, they would be Dorie Greenspan’s wonderful new, and award-winning book, Cooking Around My French Table, and Arthur’s encyclopedic, Naples at Table.  Read them both, see the movies, prepare a meal, buy the Passione soundtrack (available soon), and invite me to dinner.

Women with Beards

12 May

Mina is one of my favorite singers and I have always loved this album cover. I wonder if she cooks.

There is much chatter about women in the restaurant industry or, rather, the lack of them.  Since my early days as one of the few women chefs in New York (late 1970’s/early 1980’s), this has been a subject that rears its head every few years.  Has the glass ceiling been shattered?  Have women earned a competitive place alongside their male peers in upscale restaurants?  Is it possible to differentiate food created by women from that of  men?   It depends who you ask, but swirling speculation and empirical evidence aside, Monday night’s James Beard Awards showcased women in the brightest of lights.   A terrific article by Sumathi Reddy in the Wall Street Journal, posted moments after the awards, summed up the “women wins”:  Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef of Prune (in New York’s east village); Saipin Chutima of Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas (best chef Southwest), Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (best chef Southeast), Angela Pinkerton of Eleven Madison Park in New York City (outstanding pastry chef), and in the wine category, Belinda Chang of Danny Meyer’s Modern (outstanding wine service).

With a note of sarcasm in her acceptance speech, Ms. Hamilton said “Wow, I didn’t know you could win a Beard Award for opening a can of sardines and serving it with Triscuits.”  Hmmmm.  Would a guy say that? Prune has a one-star rating from the New York Times as opposed to the numerous two and three-star offerings from the other nominees, including the very awesome April Bloomfield — whose simple brilliance is in evidence at the Breslin, the John Dory, and the Spotted Pig daily.  But a perusal of all the restaurant and chef categories at the Awards shows some statistical shortcomings.  Out of five choices in each category, there was only one woman, Barbara Lynch of Menton in Boston, who was a nominee for Best New Restaurant.  One woman, Suzanne Goin of Lucques in Los Angeles, for Outstanding Chef Award, one woman as Rising Star Chef — Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar, and, out of 50 nominees for regional best chefs, there were only six women* represented.  And true to the industry’s norm, there were three women out of five nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef Award.

Many more women (including me) were represented at the media and book awards and there were lots of women “guest chefs” cooking for the receptions.  And there were wonderful women chefs on stage, including Traci des Jardins and Susan Feniger, and major kudos to Emily Luchetti who organized the entire outstanding event. As past president and a member (for three decades!) of the first professional organization of women in food, wine and hospitality, Les Dames d’Escoffier, I can faithfully say that we’ve come a long way yet still have a long way to go.   But first we must continue to celebrate the industry’s extraordinary women — for our contributions are womanfold.

*Krista Kern Desjarlais of Bresca in Portland, Maine; Maricel Presilla for Cucharamama in Hoboken, New Jersey; April Bloomfield, The Spotted Pig in New York City; were nominated, three of the six won in their categories.

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