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Has it really been a week? Things have been busy around here… For the past week or so, I took a break from coming up with new and delicious recipes to prepare for something that, well, seemed like a good idea at the time! Let’s recap…

I’ve gotten pretty into running since finishing up culinary school earlier this year as a way to fill my newly freed-up weekday evenings (and balance out all the Pistachio-crusted beignets and Cheesy Stuffed Peppers I eat all weekend long). As such, thought it would be a good idea to motivate myself by signing up for an organized race event. After running a 4M in April, a 10K seemed the next logical step, and so I wound up spending most of last week try to run far, and fast, and freaking out that I would trip over my own feet or cramp up and fall over on race day.

Race day was Sunday. Thankfully none of those things happened. The race went relatively well, though I think that’s due in large part to the amazing group of runners that were running 10Ks, half-marathons, and marathons alongside me for the RxR Long Island Marathon. This completely inspirational group of people kept me motivated, excited, and having a blast throughout the entire six-point-two miles – especially the seventy-one year old man who beat me by over a minute! He ran ahead of me for most of the race and every time I looked up to see the back of his tee-shirt, which read, “I’m old and slow – get over it!” I couldn’t help but laugh. It was truly a great experience!

In addition to thousands of other runners and hilarious old men, these cheesy chicken enchiladas are also to thank for fueling Sunday’s success. My parents and I whipped these up, along with a refreshing, limey bowl of guacamole, homemade white flour tortilla chips (these beat out every other chip I’ve ever had!) and a light corn salad. It was a Cinco de Mayo meal to go down in history – so delicious, especially with a cerveza served along side – but then, I learned last summer how amazing these enchiladas are. You’ve gotta try them out!

So, as usual, it takes me a while to get to my point. My point is this – even though I’ve been running instead of recipe developing, I’ve still been doing a heck of a lot of cooking (and not just enchiladas)! Except this time, I’ve been relying on my Google Reader – my link to the food blogosphere – to find the best tasting recipes around. And two of them in particular were just two good NOT to share – so here they are!

First up is this incredibly luscious, slightly spicy, extremely exotic Thai Chicken Curry recipe from Saveur magazine. The recipe comes from the Las Vegas restaurant Lotus of Siam, which many consider to make the very best Thai food in the entire U.S. At home, I make Thai red curry dishes at least once a week (blame it on my coconut milk addiction) because they can be light in fat and calories while still packing huge flavor, and are easy to make with whatever veggies and protein you have on hand.

I was completely surprised, though, that this restaurant-caliber curry recipe was so easy to make! In fact, the simmering-broth method actually proved to be easier than how I have been making curries for weeks now. By simmering the coconut milk and curry paste together, the broth thickens and the flavors meld, giving you a rich, spoon-coating sauce for the chicken and vegetables. Full disclosure: I used Thai Kitchen’s red curry paste instead of Panang curry, as the recipe suggests (I couldn’t find it), and added in some red bell peppers, but the dish still came out beautifully. We served it along with a Spicy Thai Brown Rice Pilaf (recipe to come). Even if the idea of making Thai Curry seems overwhelming to you, I encourage you to give this recipe a shot. It’s straightforward and relatively foolproof – a great way to segue into Thai cooking!

The second fantastic recipe I wanted to share is this Lightened Up Vegan Sundried Tomato Basil Pesto from Angela over at Oh She Glows. Holy freaking yum! This popped up in my GReader yesterday morning, and even though I hadn’t even made it to lunch yet, I immediately started drooling and scribbled down the ingredients on a post-it to pick up after work. Adam and I were planning to have a date-night dinner and this seemed like the perfect dish (the boy loves his pesto)!

Well, this recipe did not disappoint. Not only did the pesto come together in a flash – five minutes! – but the flavors and consistency were dead on. This has all the basil, garlicky goodness of a traditional pesto, but with an excellent added tang and sweetness from the sundried tomatoes. The walnuts are a creative and well-matched spin on pesto’s traditional pine nuts, and with a few sprinkles of nutritional yeast, you definitely won’t miss the parmesan cheese. It also goes quite well with a glass (or two) of Pinot Grigio, I might add.

Pesto is actually one sauce I usually steer clear of since it can often be loaded with extra fat and calories from cheese, nuts and oil – but this pesto was light and super packed with flavor, meaning a little goes a long way! Angela’s recipe made about 3/4 of a cup (as stated on her blog), and I found this to be about six servings – two tablespoons was more than enough per serving of pasta. We tossed the pesto-pasta with some roasted asparagus, sauteed mushrooms and spinach, and pan-roasted chicken breast – what a delicious dinner. Thanks Angela for the awesome recipe!

One more thing I wanted to mention. For those in the NYC area, there’s a great food festival coming up weekend after next (May 19th – 20th) called The Great Googamooga (crazy name, I know)! This food / music / art festival is going to be held in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and will feature over 70 food vendors, beer, wine, and music, as well as prominent chefs, artists, and food personalities who will be doing demos, giving talks, and meeting fans. I believe Googamooga is still giving out the occasional free tickets and tickets are also available to buy. I’ll be attending and blogging about Googamooga – hope to see you all there!

Well, that’s all for now! Stay tuned for some more great recipes coming up this weekend…

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted a full-fledged restaurant review on the blog, namely because cooking and developing recipe is where my head’s been at. But last night I had a meal so insanely great that I literally could not go without mentioning it. In fact, I’ve already bragged about this meal to half the people I know, so it seems pretty appropriate that I document it here.

In a spur of the moment decision, my mom and I decided to grab dinner in the city last night before I head off into the Caribbean for a whole week (yes, I know!!!) on Friday. After each having our own fairly decadent Easter weekend, we wanted to eat out, but on the lighter, healthier side. After a bit of Yelping and Googling, I stumbled upon Candle 79 on the Upper East Side. The neighborhood was right, and I found myself flat-out excited about everything on the menu, something that rarely happens. But with interesting dishes like Avocado-Coconut Tartar, Morel and Ramp Ravioli, and Tofu Vegetable Napoleon, I couldn’t wait to sample a few of the dishes at Candle 79.

Candle 79 is a cozy, two-story restaurant on East 79th street, distinguishable on a mostly apartment-lined street by its deep red facade. Inside the restaurant, the ambiance was very relaxed and calm – almost zen – in the dimly lit main dining room where large framed photographs of fresh produce dotted the walls. A soft-spoken hostess led us to the back of the restaurant, where a frosted  glass wall encasing the kitchen sat at the foot of a winding staircase. Up the stairs we went into a second dining room, right to a table at the front of the room next to a row of windows. Dinner over natural sunlight? Finally, a perk to going out to eat at 6 pm.

Another soft-spoken waitress approached, filled our drinking glasses with filtered water, and delivered our menus. We quickly decided on sharing a few dishes and ordered. Another server brought over an amuse-bouche, which was a crispy, garlicky crostini smeared with a creamy spinach puree. Though I couldn’t identify the other ingredients, I noted that it must be dairy-free given the jurisdiction of the restaurant, and was impressed at the ability to achieve such a rich creamy texture without cheese or cream. But Candle 79′s ability to impress me would only continue.

Our first course was a heap of creamy smokey hummus, drizzled with red pepper oil and served alongside an assortment of fresh olives, a full bulb of roasted garlic, thick slices of carrot and cucumber, and a flaky, melt-in-your-mouth grilled Paratha bread that reminded me of Na’an more than anything else. The dish was an awesome assortment of finger foods and dippable items, all light, fresh, and just enough to inspire a greater appetite. My mom particularly loved this dish and plans to recreate it as an hor d’oeuvre for some upcoming spring parties!

Next up we had the Arugula salad, a fresh bed of greens laden with perfectly grilled spring asparagus, artichoke hearts, baby chickpeas, caramelized shallots, and avocado. The salad was tossed in a highly addictive Ramp Vinaigrette, and as one who loves ramps, and even more so, incorporating seasonal produce into dishes, I loved this touch. The salad was absolutely perfect and I would eat this every day if I could. Note to self: make ramp vinaigrette!

Our third and final course was the Morrocan Spiced Chickpea Cake, and man, did this dish blow us out of the water. The burger itself was a thick, soft patty made of chickpeas and what tasted like sweet potato, with a nice crispy crunch to the outside. It was topped with a thick smear of fig-apricot-ginger jam, and rested on a bed of perfectly poached cauliflower and broccoli florets. All these stacked components rested on in a bath of insane green coconut curry sauce, and the plate was sprinkled with slivered almonds. We almost couldn’t decide if this was more of an entrée or a dessert, so pronounced was the natural sweetness of many of the ingredients. It was all we could do to stop ourselves from licking the plate!

In the end, over matching pots of Vanilla-Cinnamon Rooibus Tea for “dessert,” we both decided that we would gladly go vegan if someone would cook us food like this every day. At Candle 79, not only do you not miss the meat (or dairy), but the flavors are so intoxicating and the food so well prepared, that you feel like you’re being given a treat, instead of being deprived. Best of all, you leave feeling energized and healthy, rather than stomach-achy and weighed down. Even if you’re not vegan or vegetarian (god knows I’m not!), I highly suggest checking out this restaurant – you might be surprised how great you feel after a delicious meal of organic, farm-to-table vegetarian goodness!

Candle 79 is located at 154 East 79th Street at Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10021.

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This weekend will be the tenth and final weekend of my culinary school externship. If you had asked me six months ago if I planned to spend my winter in the hot kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant, I would have laughed and told you that it just wasn’t my plan. But as life constantly teaches us, plans change, and sometimes the things you experience when you’re where you least expected to be can teach you things that you needed to know. Even if you didn’t know it.

I’ve been pretty quiet about my externship on the blog the past several weeks. I won’t lie; a big part of that is the non-disclosure agreement I signed, which means I can’t mention where I worked by name. But I also have enjoyed having this experience without constant, active, written reflection. My tasks, my abilities, my thoughts and reactions toward what I’ve done and learned over the past ten weeks have been constantly changing, and now, with this experience coming to a close, my take-away from it is much more lucid than it would have been after, say, week 4.
 
 
With that, here are the top ten things I learned in the ten weeks I’ve spent as a culinary extern.
 
 
10. The sharper your knives, the less you cry. This isn’t just a great book, and it isn’t just true of chopping onions (though that’s one of the clearest benefits of sharp knives). It may seem tedious, but regularly sharpening your knives will save your butt every single day in the kitchen. I may have learned this the hard way; let’s just say that generally, dull knives = frustrating, forced work = sloppy results. Sloppy results make you look sloppy. So really, if your knives are sharp, you look sharp. It’s as simple as that.
 
 
9. Be early. This is true of most jobs, but especially true in the restaurant world. If you show up on time, you’re actually late. Being fifteen minutes early, even if it means taking a cab instead of the F train, can set the tone for your whole day. And when you’re working a 14 hour shift, that’s a long time to have a bad tone. Being early gives you the time to have foresight, and this value is totally within your control, so use it to your advantage.
 
 
8. Everyone in the kitchen has their own way of doing things. And when you’re an intern, they’re all your boss. So get used to being flexible. Just because things are one way today, doesn’t mean they’re going to be the same way tomorrow. Though this may be confusing at first, it’s not only okay, it’s actually great. This environment will make you more adaptable and resilient, and it’s most likely the source of many great ideas that come out of the restaurant you’re working at. Embrace this ever-changing environment, and you’ll be a lot better off for it.
 
 
7. Proving the people who don’t trust you wrong is the greatest reward. Here’s something I never experienced in the (count ‘em) five business internships I’ve had in my life. Some people flat-out just don’t trust interns. They expect you to mess up in irreconcilable ways, often, and even your smallest misstep seems to prove them right. During my culinary internship, I realized how the pressure this puts on interns is actually a crucial presence in the kitchen. It gets interns to the next level, it forces you to be better, to prove any nay-sayers wrong. And if you can change their minds about you, about interns, it’s the best feeling in the world.
 
 
6. Advil is a miracle worker. Nuff said.
 
 
5. Eggs are your new best friend. There’s one thing, and one thing only, that is going to keep you full and energized for the extremely active 7 hours between breakfast and family meal, and that is eggs. I’ve never loved eggs more than I have in the past few weeks, and honestly I’ve astounded myself with my ability to consume huge quantities of them. But a four-egg omelet with some whole grain toast and an orange consumed at 10 will keep the hunger rumbles at bay until at least 4 pm, at which point, you’re in the clear. When in doubt, a pocket full of dried fruit and nuts will also be a lifesaver.
 
 
4. Stay hydrated. This one might seem super obvious (it was to me), but I was shocked to see how many cooks around the kitchen didn’t keep a bottle of water on hand through out the day, some waiting all the way til right before service (six hours into their shift!) to hydrate. The average restaurant kitchen clocks in at around 75 degrees during prep (higher during service), and on top of your flannel pants, heavy chef’s coat, hat and all the manual labor you’re doing, dehydration happens quicker than you think. When in doubt, take a water break. It really does matter.
 
 
3. Your “limit” is about 50% past than you think it is. Before starting this externship, I frankly had no clue how I was going to handle working 22 hours in two days – on top of a 40 hour work week, no less. This schedule seemed impossibly daunting (especially for a girl who likes a Saturday afternoon nap), but I kept telling myself, as Nike says, “Just do it.” And where I thought ten hours, maybe twelve, of work was all I could handle, I found I was able to make it happen for 16 hours on Friday and 14 on Saturday. And now, I’m fairly certain we’re all capable of more than we think we are. Mind over matter – push yourself, and you might be surprised what you find!
 
 
2. Never make the same mistake twice. A friend gave me this advice early on in my internship experience, and while it made sense then, it’s only now at the end of this journey that I realize how important this message was. We all make mistakes; that’s an inevitable part of life. But learning from them – and learning how to avoid making them in the future – that shows growth. I’ll never forget a moment early on in my internship; the kitchen was swamped, and I was working on tickets for two big VIPs. Though the chef had told me in advance, I completely mixed up which VIP’s wife was allergic to nuts – and sent an hor d’eurve with nuts to her table. It never got out the door, but I was completely embarrassed at letting something so serious slip by. And from that point on, no matter how busy I was, every ticket I worked was triple checked. And it didn’t happen again.
 
 
1. Have a plan, or become part of somebody else’s. Another piece of important and true advice from a friend that has stayed with me as I’ve contemplated my next steps post-externing. In the culinary world, like many other industries, most people have a plan, an agenda, an ultimate goal they’re working for. This is especially true in New York City, perhaps the most opportunistic place on Earth. If you’ve become part of someone’s journey toward their ultimate goal, and they see that you can offer some value in reaching it, you better believe they’re going to try and make you a part of that plan!
 
 
And hey, if your plan matches their plan, more power to you. Sometimes the stars align like that (I think they call it synergy). But regardless of everyone else’s plans and how convincing they might sound, have your own plan. Stick with it. Find a goal that’s important to you, and work towards it. If you’re lucky, the people in your life who have the power to help will see your value and want to help you out. It can be easy to get wrapped up in things bigger than yourself, but if you only get one life, you deserve to make it your own in the way that makes you happiest.
 
 
That, at the very least, is my plan.
 
 

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‘Inoteca in the rain

Last night was a beautiful night. Not in the sense of the weather actually being beautiful, of course, but in the sense of beautiful company, delicate and endearing cuisine, and a warm sense of relaxation. To celebrate the start of my birthday week (girls have such things, don’t ask me to explain), I had dinner with one of my most favorite people on this earth, my college roommate, Lindsey. The oppressive one-hundred-degree New York City heat, which always seems to feel hotter than the same temperature anywhere else would, gave way to aggressive, relentless torrents of rain, and seeking solace within a cozy, warmly lit restaurant among the reassuring buzz of others’ conversations seemed the loveliest way to spend an evening.

While at the University of Maryland, Linds and I shared an affinity for many things; day trips to Baltimore’s Harbor East to peruse the sale racks at South Moon Under and food carts on the streets, spicy tuna rolls from a local “Japanese” take-out spot, and the occasional foreign film. Now, though we live in two different major cities with hundreds of miles between us, there are still certain commonalities that can’t be broken; a love for Anthropologie dresses and travel magazines (and traveling, though her passport has far more stamps than mine), turning any trip (small or large) into an excuse to buy a guide-book, French macarons, and of course, amazing food.

Preferably Italian food.

I am one-half Italian (though my palate is four-fifth’s Italian), and Lindsey studied abroad in Rome for several months during college. She was lucky enough to not just sample, but immerse herself in real Italian food culture, from the heart of Rome where she lived her day-to-day life, to the various Italian cities she traveled to. To my extreme envy and delight, she even visited the famous pizzeria of “Eat, Pray, Love” stardom, Da Michele in Naples. The stories, of both food and culture, have largely contributed to the placement of Italy at the top of my must-visit destination list. But more about that later…

This visit provided an obvious excuse to indulge at a restaurant I’d been hankering to try, but had since been lacking the proper occasion to do so. I engaged in my normal bout of poking around in my arsenal of restaurant search engines: New York Magazine, OpenTable, UrbanSpoon, Yelp, etc. But one spot kept stubbornly inching back into my mind, despite my desire to branch out from the Italian fare I so often quell cravings with. I had vague memories of Cara returning home from a dinner date with a faint glow that I quickly learned was more associated with the quality of the meal than anything else. “You have to go to ‘Inoteca,” she said with a hazy smile. “That may have been the best meal I’ve ever had.”

And so we went. For me, that required dodging through traffic on foot through the torrential downpour, arriving at the hostess stand soaked to the bone, and being pointed informed by the hostess where the bathroom was, in case I wanted to “dry off.” For Lindsey, it required easily hailing a cab as it started to drizzle, and arriving at the hostess stand looking fresh and collected. Typical.

But honestly, once nestled in a corner booth with two long-stemmed glasses of wine before us (white for me, Sangiovese for her), it was easy to forget about the pouring rain, endless heat, and anything else undesirable. Isn’t that the joy of a great meal with great company? The complete and utter escape it offers as you lose yourself in this brief but tangible window of time you’ve allotted to indulge in life’s most simple and basic pleasures – social enjoyment and self-governed gluttony.

‘Inoteca, like many of New York’s trendy and overly frequented restaurants, plays up a “small plates” menu. There are pros and cons to this style of eating: a pro being it enables diners to try a much wider variety of dishes than they would normally be able to; a major con is the price of these plates, while seemingly cheap compared to normal sized portions, add up very quickly and can result in spending much more on one meal than you’d budgeted. Hence the appeal to the restaurant as a business.

We started with a plate of bruschette, small yet thick and tender slices of Italian bread smothered with one of ten toppings. Our selection included some Italian classics like pepperonta, a veritable salsa of sweet roasted peppers, and caponata, a sweet and sour combination of roasted eggplant, raisins, and ripe acidic tomato. Another slice of bread was slathered with the best olive tapenade I’ve tasted; a tangy course spread of chopped green and black olives with excellent bite and a hint of savor. A plump mound of refreshing ricotta and minced tomato drizzled with green olive oil embraced another.

The winner for me, though, was far-and-away the mascarpone-fig bruschette. The round of bread was topped with a smooth cap of creamy mascarpone (pronounced maz-carp-oh-nay) that was so smooth and rich it was more like a layer of freshly churned sweet cream butter. For a bread and butter lover, this was pretty much a shoe-in. The sweet, dense slightly-dried fig in the center of the bruschette provided just the right amount of resistance and chew against the softer textures of the mascarpone and fresh bread. Washed down with a cold, tart sip of dry white wine, it was all I could do to refrain from kissing my fingers and gesturing a “bellissimo!” to the room.

To round out the meal (is really that gastronomically incorrect to have a meal of just bread, wine and condiments?) we ordered the romaine grigliata (grilled romaine salad) with a roasted garlic dressing. While I’m still not sure how I feel about grilled romaine – it reminded me a bit of a soggy salad that had been left out in the sun – the roasted garlic dressing was loaded with sharp parmesan, and I couldn’t get enough of the cheesy garlic goodness. Despite the questionable textures, the dish tended to work and we devoured every last bit, including the pickled red onion garnish.

For the main course, we shared the tagliatelle with roasted pork ragu (the pork was from a local farm, no less). Upon reflection, I’m fairly certain I would have enjoyed this pasta dish far more if I had not been stuffed to the gills with nearly half a loaf of bread, the cheese equivalent of half a cup of butter, and enough parmesan garlic sauce to ruin a lactose-intolerant’s week. That being said, the tagliatelle was fresh, dense and perfectly aldenté which I always find impressive with fresh pasta, and the pork ragu nailed the classic Italian sauce balance of savory, sweet, and slow-cooked. Have I had better pasta dishes? Probably. But in technique and execution, this pasta dish held its own in a city-wide sea of Italian trattorias.

It was with an extremely full stomach and elated mood that we left ‘Inoteca and dove back into the pouring stormy night. I snuck a glance back in at those dining, and observed the happy couples and groups of friends enjoying their company and a meal. That’s what I take away from ‘Inoteca – a place where socializing and enjoying great food are both paramount, yet of equal focus. This isn’t a “scene” where the food is showy but under delivers and all you care about is whether your picture will make it on Page 6. And it’s not a place where you need to sit in silent awe and reverence of your meal, any conversation centering on an avid analysis of each bite. It’s good, solid, delicious Italian in a comfortable, homey environment where easy conversation organically flows. Which is exactly how I picture it being in Italy.

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