Saturday, April 28, 2012

My Favorite Things - New York City

Some cities you can return to time and again and it all feels like the first time... when you fell in love with the place and knew you must return again and again.  For me, the Big Apple is one of those cities.

The Plaza
My first visit was in 1988 courtesy of my employer and as luck would have it, I was introduced to the fabled Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue.  It likely began my appreciation for those grande dame hotels that I still prefer to this day.  Although this trip the old gal was getting a total renovation so I skipped the famous Bull and Bear Steakhouse she houses and instead enjoyed steaks at the famous Peter Luger, which I will talk about in more detail in a moment. As for alternate digs of equal style; of course The Plaza makes for a fine hotel choice in America's most exciting city. 

It was once said, “Nothing unimportant ever happens at The Plaza.” One of America’s most celebrated hotels, The Plaza opened its doors in 1907, amid a flurry of impressive reports describing it as the greatest hotel in the world. Located at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, this luxury hotel was constructed in the most fashionable section of New York City.  Fortunately for me it's also right across the street from my favorite place to shop, Bergdorf Goodman (you thought I was going to say the Apple store, didn't you?  Well that's across the street too, but you can find those everywhere.)

Bergdorf Goodman
The original Bergdorf Goodman department store (above) opened on this site in 1928 (on the West side of Fifth Avenue) but they more recently moved the men's store across the street where I do most of my shopping.  Just around the corner on 57th street I stroll up toward Park Avenue shopping the large selection of boutiques many of which are only available in New York  City.  And one unique shop I never miss is Scully & Scully on Park Avenue.

Herend - One Room of Many
at Scully & Scully
This is a unique shop filled with all types of items for the home and with many gifts and collectibles.  But if you have the 'china gene' like I do, you visit to worship the country's best selection of fine porcelain china.  They have an especially large collection of Herend dinnerware and figurines. I just love the patterns and table settings as they are so elegant and all completely hand painted.  Queen Victoria dined on it, Princess Diana collected it, and I would love to have a full table service of it too! 
After a day of shopping, you can work up quite an appetite and so it's off to dinner next. 

A colleague who was born and raised in New York City insisted that on this trip I try out Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn.  Peter Luger has been named the best steak house New York City by Zagat for 28 years in a row, so it was high time I got out of midtown Manhattan and gave it a try.

The restaurant is known for its long wooden bar, and the Teutonic atmosphere with exposed wooden beams, burnished oak wainscoting, brass chandeliers, weathered beer-hall tables and bare wood floors.  Peter Luger was established in 1887 as "Carl Luger's Café, Billiards and Bowling Alley" in the then-predominantly German neighborhood, with German-born Peter Luger as the owner and nephew Carl as the chef.  While the restaurant has grown and changed hands over time, the atmosphere remains and the menu seems little changed from what it must have been like many years past. 

Steaks here are meant to be shared and the only cut is really a porterhouse. (While there are a few other items on the menu, why bother with anything but the classic.)  You order based on the size of your party.  You can also order several steaks for two if you have folks that prefer different doneness of the meat.  Steaks are served pre-sliced on an inclined plate so that the fat runs down the plate. The edges of the plates are heated to approximately 400F, allowing you to cook your steak further if you so choose.  Classic creamed spinach and German hash browns are all you need as sides to the well-prepared steaks. 

Start your meal as we did with the famous tomato and onion salad topped by the restaurants custom sauce which approximates the taste of cocktail sauce and traditional steak sauce.  This can be used for the salad as well as for the steak.  If you can squeeze in dessert after these large steaks, do enjoy the cheese cake, apple strudel or key lime pie.  We ordered one of each and shared and all were quite delicious.  On a final note, getting into this classic steak house is not easy.  It is a busy place and even on weeknights expect to wait for a table.  Also note they do not take any credit card other than their own so bring lots of cash (or a debit card, as I understand they now accept this as well.)  Dinner can easily run $100 per person, so be prepared.

An Evening at The Met
On most every trip to New York City I also see some theater, attend the opera and take a stroll in Central Park.  Even when going there on business I  try to add a day or two before/after to ensure that I have some time to enjoy all of the classic things that only New York City can provide even though I know I  will come back time and again to America's largest and most exciting city.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Escargot, Dumas and the Romans

Escargot is the French word for snails and when discussed in culinary terms refers to cooked land snails, usually served as an appetizer.  Now I know some of you may turn up your nose at snails, but if you just try these I know you will enjoy them.

Snails have been eaten since prehistoric times as is evidenced at archaeological sites around the Mediterranean.  And while the name may now be French, the Romans are known to have considered escargot an elite food, as noted in the writings of Pliny.  The earliest recipes I found were the five listed in Alexandre Dumas’ Le grand dictionnaire de cuisine published in 1873.  He says "The only distinction gourmands make between snails concerns where they are picked.  Those found on grapevines are the most sought after and the best.  The Romans were so fond of them they built special enclosures in which the snails were fattened on wheat and old wine to make them more digestible." So while we think of them as being one of the most recognizable symbols of French cuisine, they are really not as ubiquitous as we imagine even in France. They are readily available in almost any food store in France, but they usually occupy only a small amount of shelf space. Paris bistros and brasseries will often list them on their menus as escargots de Bourgogne, which I have prepared and discuss below.
Roman Snail Tile - Aquileia Basilica
Remember, not all species of land snails are edible or desirable, so best to leave your selection to a skilled purveyor if you are using fresh.  The classic French preparation technique purges the snails digestive system (by feeding them quality foods) then removing them from their shells by cooking in hot water/broth. Thankfully today farm-raised snails are typically fed a diet of ground cereals making the purging process unnecessary. They are then cooked again by placing them back into the shells together with butter for serving. Additional ingredients may be added such as garlic, thyme, parsley and pine nuts. Special snail tongs (for holding the shell) and snail forks (for extracting the meat) are also normally used, and they are served on indented metal trays or special serving plates with places for 6 or 12 snails.

Most restaurants use canned snails for this dish and you can too.  Note however that most canned snails come without shells, and for a proper appetizer you'll probably want to purchase shells for the presentation which are usually available from the same company that cans the snails.  A quick search of Amazon does indeed locate the snails, shells, specialized dish and forks for this service.  Check your snail packaging carefully to determine if you need to purchase the shells separately.
Julian's Escargot Before Baking
As with most things, the canning process cooks the snails so your preparation can be brief and easy as they are ready for use right out of the can.  Simply drain the canning liquid and rinse them.  I like to make a compound butter of finely chopped herbs (usually parsley), shallots and minced garlic, along with some salt and pepper.  You can do this easily with your mixer or by hand.  I  stuff a little of the compound butter well up into the shell, then add the canned snail closing up the opening with more compound butter.  I typically do this well in advance of dinner, but on the same day, and then refrigerate them. 

Specialized snail dishes are ideal, but they can be served without this if you have dishes in which you can arrange the shells so they stay upright, as shown in the photo.  They are easy to pop into a hot oven for service at the table in under 5 minutes, heating them without letting the butter brown.  Be sure to provide some crusty bread for dipping of the sauce.

Ready to Eat!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Chicken Cacciatore

Or ‘hunter style’ chicken as it translates in Italian, is a classic dish of braised chicken cooked in a light tomato sauce with mushrooms.  While its origins may actually be in Italy, the dish has long been popular in America.  There are any number of variations on the central theme but they all are similar, some using white instead of red wine, with or without olives, etc.  The recipe below comes from my sister to which I provide some additional details on the actual cooking procedures.

Julian's Chicken Cacciatore
I think you’ll find this recipe provides a very flavorful sauce and is excellent when tossed with your favorite cooked pasta.  The recipe feeds six adults, but you can easily adjust it up or down.  Also don’t feel you must use these exact ingredients.  Do what good Italian cooks have been doing for years and use what you have on hand and happen to prefer.

3 chicken thighs and 3 chicken breast halves, skin on and bone in (increase to serve more.)
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoon olive oil
3 garlic cloves chopped
1 lg. red bell pepper sliced
1 lg. red or Spanish onion sliced
16 oz. mushrooms sliced
1 cup red or white wine
28 oz. diced tomatoes with juice (canned or fresh)
1 cup chicken broth
1 ½ teaspoons Italian seasoning
Handful of black olives, pitted
1/3 cup finely shredded Parmesan or Romano cheese (plus more for serving)
Chopped basil for serving

1/2  pound pasta (or up to a pound for a hungry crowd)
olive oil

Preheat oven to 350F. 
Heat olive oil in a large Dutch Oven or skillet and dredge the chicken pieces in flour.  Brown the chicken on all sides, about five minutes per side.  Remove the chicken from pan and pour out all but one tablespoon of the drippings.  If the flour has burned in the pan, remove all of the oil and wipe out the pan and add fresh oil.  Sauté the onions for 3-4 minutes then add the red peppers and cook another minute longer, stirring frequently.  Add the mushrooms and sauté for another 2 minutes then stir in the garlic.  Add the wine and cook until reduced by half, then add the chicken broth, tomatoes and Italian seasoning and bring to a simmer. 

Return chicken to the Dutch Oven or transfer the mixture to a large covered roasting pan or casserole with a lid topped by the browned chicken.  Stir in olives.  Cover and bake for 45 minutes.  Bring pasta water to a boil and cook pasta to a firm al dente, having it ready about when the chicken is done.  Test chicken to ensure doneness (a meat thermometer should read 180F) and remove from oven.  Transfer chicken to a platter and tent with foil.  Return sauce to stove top and bring to a simmer.   Add grated cheese and stir until melted in.  Transfer firm pasta to the sauce, stir in and cook for 2-3 minutes or until al dente.  Serve with chicken, sprinkling the entire dish with more shredded cheese and chopped basil.

Plated Chicken Cacciatore

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Lemon Bundt Cake and History of the Bundt Pan

Perfect for Spring, this is one of the ten great cakes every cook should have in their repertoire. It’s buttery yet bright, and the sweetness is balanced by the flavor of fresh lemon.  It keeps well, travels wells and if you make it in pound cake form you can keep one cake at home for yourself!
I made the Bundt version at Kevin’s request for his birthday, and it went well with my Italian dinner party theme.  When served I was asked why the cake is called a “Bundt” cake.  Bundt cake of course, gets its name from the ring-shaped pan in which it is baked. 
Nordic Ware's Original Bundt Pan
The Bundt pan was first produced in 1950 by Nordic Ware founder H. David Dalquist at the request of the Minneapolis Hadassah Society. The society's members were looking for a modern pan suitable for making a popular German/Austrian coffeecake called bundkuchen. Traditional pans were either too-fragile ceramic or too-heavy cast iron. Dalquist made an aluminum version, adding a "t" at the end of the German word "bund" and trademarking it.  When a Bundt cake won second place in a Pillsbury-sponsored baking contest in 1966, a Bundt pan craze ensued. Since then, more than 50 million pans have been sold by the Nordic Ware company.

The central cone in a Bundt cake pan ensures that a dense cake batter--like the luscious buttermilk and lemon-flecked one here--cooks evenly and thoroughly.

Julian's Bundt Pan
This lemon Bundt cake recipe is adapted from Ina Garten, of Barefoot Contessa fame.  I’ve modified it mainly with the addition of the Italian liqueur, Limoncello and candied lemon peel both of which further boost its lemon flavor. So I call my version... 

Julian's Double Lemon Bundt
Double Lemon Bundt Cake
    Adapted from ‘Barefoot Contessa Parties!’
 Yield: 2 loaf cakes or one Bundt

 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
 2 1/2 cups sugar
 4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
 1/3 cup grated lemon zest (6 to 8 large lemons)
 3 cups all-purpose flour
 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
 1 teaspoon kosher salt
 3/4 cup plus 3 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
 3/4 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
 2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted.

1. Heat oven to 350F. Butter and flour two standard loaf pans or a 12-14 cup Bundt pan. Do not use food spray. You must actually butter and flour the pan.

2. Cream butter and 2 cups sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Mixing at medium speed, add eggs, one at a time, and lemon zest.

3. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, combine 1/4 cup lemon juice, buttermilk and vanilla. Add flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to butter and sugar mixture, beginning and ending with flour.  Stir in the chopped candied lemon peel.   Divide batter evenly between pans, smooth tops, and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until a cake tester comes out clean.

4. Remove to a rack and let cool 10 minutes.  Using a bamboo or similar skewer, poke about a dozen holes through the cake(s) (still in the pan(s)).  Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons Limoncello.  Wait 10 more minutes and turn the cake(s) out onto a parchment lined cooling rack.  Using the bamboo skewer, poke another dozen holes into the top side of the cake(s) and sprinkgle with 2 more tablespoons of Limoncello.  Let cakes cool completely.

 5. For glaze, combine confectioners’ sugar and remaining 3 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice in a bowl, mixing with a whisk until smooth. Pour over top of cakes, and allow glaze to drizzle down the sides.

With Lemon Curd Sauce and Whipped Cream

Lemon Curd Sauce
While not necessary, I used a purchased lemon curd which I thinned slightly with water and used as a sauce on the plates. 

Candied Lemon Peel
If you can’t find candied lemon peel at your local stores, it is simple to make and a good way to use up the lemon peels often left over when baking and cooking.

3 lemons
2 cups water
2 cups white sugar, or as needed

1. Cut lemons into slices, and remove the fruit pulp. Scrape off as much of the white inner layer as you can, this part is bitter. A spoon or butter knife will work well.

2. Bring water to a boil in a small pan, and add lemon peels. Boil for about 5 minutes, until tender. Remove peels from water, and stir in sugar. Return to a boil, add peels, and boil until transparent. Drain, and allow to dry before storing. Liquid may be reserved and used as lemon simple syrup.