Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Feast for the Ages

Dear Boo,

Uggghhhh errrrrrr duurrrr mmmmm nneeeeeeehhh
I'm sorry.

This meal may have actually rendered me speechless.

Okay. Here we go. My birthday, as you know, is mid-April. And as you know, this one was a rather big, entering a new decade one. The Mother had implored me to let her plan a family dinner to celebrate, but April and May were monumentally busy months, and June just slipped away too quickly. So we found ourselves in July, three months later, me one-quarter of the way to my next birthday, and you having one of your own! Mom wanted to take everyone out for a steak dinner in the city, but having just rented a place in the country for the summer, it seemed a waste to not take advantage. Here's where I hatched my plan. The Boyfriend and I had already talked with Chef Josh and Lady Kate about coming out to spend the weekend with us some time this summer, so why not kill two Cornish hens with one bushel of stone fruit, and ask Josh if he'd cook? The idea was pitched, the Mother was hooked, and Chef Josh agreed.

On Friday, the Chef picked us up with a trunk full of baby gear for his little lady, tucked between coolers containing a couple of pork butts soaking in a molasses brine. Somewhere between the off-roading detour for lobster rolls and the last minute jaunt for woodchips for smoking the pork, I began to catch a whiff of just how magical this weekend would be.

At around 8am Sunday morning, the day of the party, while the rest of us were still recovering from our dinner of pulled pork, mac and cheese, and grilled corn, the Chef went out shopping for dinner. Upon his return, bearing packages of all sizes, shapes, and colors, he set to work organizing the menu. It wasn't until I stole away to gawk at this scrap of paper that I realized what a treat we were in for. I mean, look at it. It's a thing of beauty.

"I'm thinking Mediterranean," Josh had said, as my head practically fell off my neck from all the vigorous nodding in agreement. Yes, please.

Let's take a visual tour.
The table. 'Scaped by none other than party-planner extraordinaire, Lady Kate, with hideous New Year's Millenium plates unearthed from the back of the cabinets and insisted-upon by the Boyfriend and Chef Josh.

Upon everyone's arrival, a meat and cheese platter was put out on the table in the living room, effectively drawing the crowds away from the kitchen, a feat hard to achieve with our family.
Next, cocktails stirred up by the Boyfriend, with a mix of watermelon, grapes, muddled mint, a healthy dose of Cacha├ža, a drop of simple syrup and a splash of soda. All topped off with lime. Everyone protested half-heartedly that they were too strong, before guzzling them happily.
When we sat down a few minutes later at the dining room table, bathed in the warm afternoon sunlight, giddy with anticipation and intoxicated by a mix of boozy watermelon slices and the incredible smells wafting from the stovetop nearby, we were met with our first courses: Marinated Beets with Burrata and Herbs, and Lamb Tartare with Oil-Cured Olives and Lemon Labna.
I ask you, how can something so simple taste so good? Or better yet, how can something so simple, that I could probably make myself (unlike most of the other dishes we ate that night), taste SO MUCH better when made by someone with actual skill? Well, I guess I just answered my own question. The beets were slick with oil, acidic from the vinegar, and in a pairing made in vegetable heaven, nestled under a cloud of creamy burrata, the soft curds mingling with a scattering of bright herbs. Even the Mother, who is a lifelong despiser of beets, had seconds, proclaiming she had never had a beet that tasted remotely like this. I like to think it was because of the superb job I did peeling them as Chef Josh's sous chef.

The lamb tartare. One of my favorites of the evening, and a dish that the cousins lovingly referred to simply as "the Labna", or "Lab". I haven't always been a fan of steak tartare, but this was a whole different animal (ahem)--rich and flavorful with olives (again, sliced by yours truly, which I think you'll agree made all the difference) and herbs, and topped with a generous dollop of labna, or yogurt cheese that Josh made--MADE--by draining yogurt through a coffee filter, and then mixing with lemon zest, salt, and olive oil (i think?). I could eat it by the bucket.

After everyone had seconds or thirds, against Josh's gentle warnings that there was much more to come, arrived the Tortino di Calimari.

Let's just say that our family, usually a generous bunch who would rather eat a spam sandwich than allow a guest to go hungry, gobbled every scrap of this dish up before the Chef himself could even have a proper taste. Sorry, Josh. It was just that good. Chock-full of artichokes and calamari, it's essentially a big pancake fried to a perfect golden crisp and garnished with a nice balance of shredded bitter raddiccio, and finely chopped fresh tomatoes mixed with garlic and olive oil. As the Mother said, it's hard to say which dish was my favorite since I said it pretty much every time a new plate arrived, but I think this might have taken the cake.

A few more sips of wine, a stretch, a giggle from one of the two adorable babies in attendance, later, and we were ushered to the buffet for the entree portion of the evening.

In no particular order:
Smoky Chickpeas with Pork. A Spanish-style dish with stewed chickpeas, smoky bacon, wine, and a hefty shot of smoked paprika. I could see this as my lunch or cocktail hour tapas snack for the rest of the summer (because yes, sometimes we do that here in the Mouse House). And yes, since you asked, I did chop the onions and slice the bacon. But let's not make a big thing out of it.
Spaghetti di Aragosta. Fresh pasta with lobster, corn, and tomatoes (sauteed in what I think was a reduced Lobster stock). Not even my unfortunate witnessing of the execution of the lobsters, could stop me from taking seconds. This pasta took my trifecta of favorite summer foods and transformed them into something new and utterly delicious--rich and light at the same time.
Seared Swordfish with Capers, Almonds, and Raisins. "How did you do the Swordfish?" Mom asked. "I love it but I can never quite get it right." "Oh, it's easy," Josh said. "You just throw it on the grill and don't overcook it." And therein lies the difference between a home cook and a really talented chef. Perspective. The fish was topped with a sort of Morrocan-esque mix of toasted almonds, raisins, capers and herbs (maybe there was lemon juice in there too?), an incredible mix of simple flavors that explode in such a vibrant way when put together.
Mushroom Risotto. Creamy, starchy, earthy, cheesy, heaven.
Roasted Cornish Hens. While it's kind of hilarious to watch a 6'2" tall man stuffing delicate individual sage leaves under the skin of tiny birds, there's nothing funny about how good this was. Or how much butter went into making it so tasty.
Seared Tri-Tip Steak. Look at that meat. Is that not the perfect color? Our uncle, the King of Gravy, and quite a discerning steak eater, pointed solemnly at the dish and said, "THAT was good." Oh yes it was.

As we cooed unabashedly over each bite, asking each other repeatedly, "But have you tasted THIS yet??" Josh brought to the table a platter of pristine, white filets of sea bass, barely touched with olive oil. It had been prepared whole, stuffed with herbs and lemon slices, and then caked in salt, a classic way of roasting whole fish to flavor it and lock in the moisture. Here it is, mummified:
And here it is, being readied to eat:
A study in the simplicity of preparation, quality of ingredients, and a skilled hand. The purest, unadorned mouthful was velvety soft, moist, and tasted of the sea. Almost a palate cleanser before the palate cleanser....
Palate Cleanser: Coconut-lime Sorbet with Sugared Cilantro. A refreshing and necessary transition before we undid our top button (okay, that happened after the appetizers) and moved onto dessert.
Peach Tart with Basil and Mint. The Boo's ideal summer dessert, wouldn't you say? A light, buttery pastry crust with just barely sweetened summer peaches, topped with fresh basil and mint. It was like a sweet pizza, with the peaches standing in for tomatoes. I'd eat it for breakfast, or serve it as an appetizer with some crumbled blue cheese on top. But with whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, or just plain, it made the perfect ending to a summer feast.

If only it was the end....

Chocolate Mousse. With whipped cream, Naturally.

Let it be known that Chef Josh had initially planned a third dessert, a plum crunch, which was wisely (if reluctantly) forsaken when he remembered that the Mother and the Aunt had baked a birthday cake for the occasion.

Coconut. Three layers. Bliss.
There it is, amid the destruction, flanked by our Aunt's absolutely perfect and totally excessive chocolate cookies, which you can find here.

I've had a lot of memorable meals in my life (probably 80% of them with you). Some are memorable for the food, some for the atmosphere, some for the occasion, some for the company. Others are memorable for the unexpected plot twist (remember that meal in Paris when I realized halfway through my entree that the "fish" I was eating was actually frog?), or, the sheer magnitude (my meal in Florence when I found myself doing the unthinkable--waving away a plate of pasta with a look of horror on my face). I think you'll agree we can add this meal to the list of unforgettable dinners. Getting to watch Chef Josh at work, absorbing tidbits here and there, proudly taking over the "zen jobs" of chopping and peeling and grating where I could, having our family around one table to share some incredible food--the whole process from start to finish, was a birthday gift I'll tuck away for years to come. What a great way to celebrate our 21st birthdays together. :) Let's do it again next year.

What do you say, Chefs?

I think they're up for it.

Love,

The Mouse

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Title Alone

Dear Mouse,


You're Welcome.



Love,

The Boo

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Infused Spirits at Blue Hill and Stone Barns

Walking on velvet green/Distant cows lowing/Isn't it rare/ To be taking the air/Walking on velvet green
-jethro tull

Dear Mouse,

Last week, i had the best meal of my life.







I've been on the road, performing and teaching a bit! since then (Go Chicago Slam Team Go!) and carrying this experience around with me like a tiny torch, waiting for the moment that I could blog. I've been telling the story to anyone who will listen until I feel like a Hollywood screen writer in a pitching food porn. Now I will attempt to do it justice.

Food of the Fairies ... And the Future

One year ago in Maine, Helena turned to me as we were pouring bacon grease over a salad and said "Next summer, for our birthdays, we should save up some money and have dinner at BLue Hill at Stone Barns." She painted a picture of this kind of earthly paradise: part farm, part high-end restaurant serving food from that farm, seasonal tasting menus, rolling hills, etc. And, unlike many plans you make with someone who is cutting your hair after a night steeped in vodka, this one stuck.


We met at Grand Central already quite beside ourselves after a straight four days of text messages about everything from the "July Ingredients" list on their web site to what shoes should be worn to the (fancy) farm. I knew it was going to be a rare night when the guy at the Grand Central wine store uncorked a chilled bottle of sauvignon blanc for us and provided plastic cups for our train ride up the river. (Yes, you can drink on MetroNorth). 45 minutes later we poured ourselves into fancy dresses and glittery accessories and headed (courtesy of Helena's sweet roommate The Doctor and his car) along the winding river to our destination.

"You guys are going to have the Best Meal Ever", was the Doctor's pronouncement as we drove up the enchanted, winding driveway to the farm and the big stone building atop the hill at dusk. Fireflies were appearing in the perfumed air, heavy with grass-scented summer. The lowing of cattle and bleats of lambs followed us in the gathering dark as we approached the courtyard. We looked forward to making their acquaintance and , perhaps, eating them.

As we swished onto the cool stone rectangle lit on all sides by the restaurant's windows, the towering cathedral-like 'event space', and the charming "BHSB Cafe" area (open during the day for snack versions of the treats inside) I could have sworn I heard Life as We Know It receding behind me, its wide oak doors quietly 'whoosh'ing shut as we prepared for liftoff. This is,mind you, before we even ENTER THE RESTAURANT or LOOK at any food. There was but one way to go. Onward.


That's me in the doorway, losing my religion.


THE BAR

We clicked our way reverently through the low-lit, glass-candle -flickering, marble and wood bar area, all eyes upon us (so I imagine; I was wearing a fiery orange mini dress and carrying a gold sequined bag, so maybe it was just they thought I was a traffic light). At reception, they ask you immediately and politely if you'd like them to call a taxi to pick you up later. Why yes, we would.


Perusing the cocktail menu in the bar, I start to get the feeling I am not in Kansas (or even recognizable restaurant-land) anymore. They offer a Pickled Ramp Martini. An Elderflower Royale. "Infused Spirits" in a variety of flavors including: 'Fig & Fennel', 'Oat & Honey', 'Golden Beet' and more. I was paralyzed with indecisive joy. Helena, however, had an agenda. "Do you think", she asked the bartender, her cornflower blue eyes wide within her halo of golden hair, 'you could make us a Pimms Cup"?

A Pimms Cup, if you haven't had the pleasure, is a delicious, cool, fizzy, perfect summer cocktail featuring a mystery scarlet-hued British liqueur, ginger beer (or 7Up), and usually some mint and a cucumber slice. The bartender apologized for not having ginger beer, "But I could make it with fresh ginger; would that be all right?" Why yes it would. It was, of course, the Ultimate Pimms, and they didn't charge us for it. (But dont quote me on that.) Helena was down to the cucumber slice and a puddle of flavored ice and still wouldn't let the server take it from her.

THE MENU

I better get cracking lest this become The Return of the King of blog posts, so let me just say this: The 'Menu' at BHSB is a list of seasonal ingredients, or "what the chefs are working with right now", and a choice of two tasting menus. Some of the items on the list - I am being wholly serious - I had never heard of. I felt like we had shot light years into the future, where people eat things like "firecrackers", "Claytonia", "sweet cicely", "red fyfe", and "bright lights chard". I mean, what?


You choose either an 8-course Menu, which involves 2 desserts and, I imagine, a tapeworm, or a 5-Course Menu. They'll ask if you have allergies, or strong dislikes, then they take it from there and just bring you things. You can choose, for an additional fee, to have a wine pairing with each course. We went with the 5-course tasting menu; no wines.

There are, alas, no photographs allowed at BHSB (we took the ones in this post surreptitiously and it wouldnt have done the food justice). So, just to help give you an idea of the experience:




AND, WITHOUT FURTHER ADO:

AMUSE-BOUCHES

"Sweet Cicely Spritzers" (tiny, cloudy, fizzy beverages tasting of lemon and mint) with local baby vegetables from the farm. A tiny chorus line (radish, mini green tomato, mini zucchini) bathed in salt water and presented on metal prongs stuck into a block of wood. They looked like they might start dancing any moment, so I made sure to eat them all.

Lightly Fried Wax Beans


Lightly Fried Zucchini Skewer coated in sesame seeds (and pancetta, which you could taste but not see. Invisible Meat = Food of the Future.)


Slices of fennel salami and cured pork shoulder accompanied by towering , crunchy, savory, 'Red Fyfe' flatbread.

FIRST COURSE

Chunks of seared? mullet, a fish I would never have ordered, which is one of the benefits of putting yourself in their hands. Complicated, intense sea flavor. Accompanied by a corn salad with chanterelles and mustard sauce. (From here out, Helena and I are repeatedly whispering the menu to each other in order to memorize).


SECOND COURSE

A poached egg, brand-new as of that morning, in a bath of bright green pea-and-pistachio broth.


THIRD COURSE
Gnocchi with ricotta, fennel seeds? and lettuce foam (lettuce foam).
Also, a basket of fresh, crusty 'onion bread' with little pots of colorful flavored salts - carrot (orange), beet (purple), and asparagus (green). Sprinkle some on your bread with homemade butter and experience a cloud of beet (or carrot) flavor. It's magical. (Food in Cloud Form = The Future).


INTERIM COURSE
Wave of Nausea
, accompanied by temporary dizziness and clamminess of the hands. Experienced first by me, then Helena. We both recovered rapidly. I can only assume we were overwhelmed by sensory stimuli and joy. When dining intergalactically, there can be some issues with the altitude.

FOURTH COURSE
Pork.
Rich, fatty, salty medallions with braised dark green lettuce and eggplant puree/caponata type deal.

FIFTH - DESSERT
A 'Sacher Torte', which, I will admit, up to the writing of this post I heard as "Soccer Torte"... mystery solved ... which was a tiny, deep chocolate rectangle of cake with a layer of raspberry jam under the black icing. Accompanied by a dollop of lighter chocolate mousse foam covered in crunchy toasty chocolate shavings and golden cherries scattered over.
Also (my favorite thing the whole night) a bowl of tiny summer fruits from the farm: tiny teensy raspberries, tiny flavorful alpine strawberries, wineberries..?? and golden, sweet-tart SUGARPLUMS which are everything their name promises. Like an apricot and a plum and the best peach had a baby and named it sugar. You betcha visions are still dancing in my head. (Growing childhood fantasy in fruit form: the Future.)
AFTER

Oh yeah, just another sprig of sugar-coated red currants and a few more cherries with your coffee.

And that was Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
I'm not gonna lie; it costs a lot, especially for two actor/writer/teacher/musician types. But, really, for what and where it was... and the incredible, seamless, flawless presentation and service (no pretension, nothing overdone, EVERYthing perfect) I think it made sense. And setting the money aside for something so special, planning for it in advance ... and then getting there to find it completely lives up to expectations is just a great, great thing. and it wasn't just the food. The food could only have been more fresh and local if, say, we had BEEN the chickens ourselves. Every detail added up to a seamless, dreamlike, beautiful experience I'll remember forever. Farewell, New Planet; I hope to beam up to you again some day. (The Winter Menu, perhaps???)

Love,
The Boo

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Triumphant Week

Dear Boo,

Before we head into this holiday weekend, I wanted to tell you about two important things that happened this past week. One, our favorite chef, good friend and fellow food blogger, Chef Josh, is the latest in the line of esteemed Chopped Champions! Last Tuesday the Food Network aired his episode of the chefly cooking competition in which, unsurprisingly, Mr. Grill A Chef himself grilled those other contenders into charred, smoking submission. If you missed it, you can watch it when it re-airs on July 16th at 8pm on the Food Network.

And secondly, just as excitingly, though surprisingly, not aired on national television: I made this pie. It was delicious.
If you're a food blog reader, or a NY Times dining section reader or a Bon Appetit subscriber (RIP Gourmet), you may have noticed that everyone and their mother is having a conniption over sour cherries and their magical ability to transform into delectable preserves and pies. From the rooftops you can hear the cries of "they have such a short season!" and "get to your farmer's market NOW before you miss them!" Usually I am entirely deterred by this alarmist mentality (as are you). It's just too precious for me, and reminds me of car commercials which every SINGLE time claim that NOW is the best time to buy. Oh really? Better than last month when you said that same thing? Crap--someone get me to my local Hyundai dealer STAT!

But this time, I fell for it. I was shopping for a dinner with our cousins and I spied a crate of these tiny little garnet gems at the greenmarket and before I knew it I was spending way too much on a bag-full. I drew the line at buying what our cousins call a "unitasker", a cherry pitter, which would have sped things up considerably but then sat in the drawer for the rest of the year, laughing at me and crying "Didn't you HEAR they have a short season?"


The apartment was hot as hell. The pie dough stuck to the roller, got goopy with perspiration, refused to cooperate. The cherry pitting took forever and gave me a shoulder cramp. But the pie. Oh, the pie.

Let's just say that when served a slice a day later, post-refrigeration, the actual MOTHER of the CHOPPED CHAMPION declared it the best cherry pie she'd ever had. Period. BOOYAH.

Love,

The Mouse
Classic Sour Cherry Pie (adapted from Bon Appetit)

Crust:
2 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
5 tablespoons (or more) ice water

Filling:
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 cups whole pitted sour cherries (about 2 pounds whole unpitted cherries)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (if using sour cherries)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon (about) milk
Vanilla ice cream

For crust:
Whisk flour, sugar, and salt in large bowl to blend. Add butter and rub in with fingertips until small pea-size clumps form. Add 5 tablespoons ice water; mix lightly with fork until dough holds together when small pieces are pressed between fingertips, adding more water by teaspoonfuls if dough is dry. Gather dough together; divide into 2 pieces. Form each piece into ball, then flatten into disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes. Do ahead Can be made 2 days ahead. Keep chilled. Let dough soften slightly before rolling out.

For filling:
Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 425°F. Whisk 1 cup sugar, cornstarch, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Stir in cherries, lemon juice, and vanilla; set aside.
Roll out 1 dough disk on floured surface to 12-inch round. Transfer to 9-inch glass pie dish. Trim dough overhang to 1/2 inch. Roll out second dough disk on floured surface to 12-inch round. (At this point, Bon Appetit will have you make strips to create a lattice top, but f-that. You just hand-pitted 2 lbs of cherries. A standard crust will look just fine, thank you.) Transfer filling to dough-lined dish, mounding slightly in center. Dot with butter. Lay top crust over filling; trim dough strip overhang to 1/2 inch. Fold bottom crust up over ends of strips and crimp edges to seal. Brush crust (not edges) with milk. Sprinkle crust with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.
Place pie on rimmed baking sheet (I highlight this because it's so crucial to you not wanting to die when you discover your oven floor coated in molten syrup) and bake 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375°F. Bake pie until filling is bubbling and crust is golden brown, covering edges with foil collar if browning too quickly, about 1 hour longer. Transfer pie to rack and cool completely. Cut into wedges and serve with vanilla ice cream.