Things I Love

July 10, 2013

Fennel Pollen

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I wish you could smell the fragrance of this gorgeous yelllow-green pollen, which is filling the air as I sit here.  This jar's not new – it's been sitting in my spice cupboard for more than a year – but the scent is so powerful and fresh I can easily imagine myself onto a Tuscan hillside, with fennel spilling down the mountainside around me.

Fennel pollen, with its warm anise aroma, is a wonderful addition to a spice cupboard; it has an untamed wildness that improves so many dishes. Dust it onto chicken as it goes into the oven, or onto lamb chops just before serving. Sprinkle it into a pasta sauce to make it brighter. Fennel pollen loves goat cheese, it goes gorgeously with a bit of orange zest, and it's a great addition to an olive oil pound cake. It tames broccoli rabe, too, adding a sweet sultry note to the bitter greens. 

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A Quick Fast Dinner for a Sultry Night

July 9, 2013

It's so hot tonight, and a friend just walked in with some green garlic she pulled from her garden. I love green garlic, love it's sweet, slightly sticky nature. Looking at the beautiful bulbs with their faint lavender hue, I suddenly remember that I have a small stash of wax-wrapped bottarga (dried mullet roe) hidden in the refrigerator. 

And suddenly the perfect meal materializes. 

Bottarga is a bit like uni, a rich burnt-orange roe with a seductive texture. But where uni is soft as custard, bottarga has a dense, chewy intensity. Shave it into little curls and it has one texture; grate it into crumbs it has another.  So why not both?

Spaghetti with Bottarga and Bread Crumbs

Boil a large pot of water for pasta.

While a pound of pasta cooks, gently saute a couple cloves of thinly sliced garlic and a fat pinch of crushed red peppers in about a half cup of good olive oil just until it becomes fragrant.

Take as much bottarga as you can afford (classic recipes call for 6 ounces for a pound of spaghetti, but bottarga’s so expensive, and so powerful, I tend to use about half that much) and shave half of it into thin, delicate curls. Grate the rest.

When the pasta is just al dente, drain and toss it with the olive oil mixture and some finely chopped Italian parsley.  Toss in the bottarga, along with the zest of one lemon and a good handful of homemade bread crumbs and serve. 

This is rich; it will serve, 6 as a smaller first course.


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Wedding Menu Modern

July 7, 2013

Francis Lam and Chrisine Gaspar were married last night, in the most moving wedding ceremony I've ever attended.  We gathered on a New York rooftop for the vows, and their love for each other shone so brightly that I'm pretty sure the skyline grew momentarily blurred for all of us.

Afterward we trooped downstairs for a menu prepared by some of America's most celebrated chefs. The food was wonderful, but what really struck me was that looking back, say fifty years from now, this menu will speak volumes about how we were eating in 2013.

This dish, by Grant Achatz, Dave Beran and Eric Rivera, was the first to hit the table:

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It's grilled octopus with cauliflower. Doesn't look like much, but it danced joyfully about in the mouth, a little waltz of flavor and texture.

This was the second:

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Swiss Chard with chocolate and Chinese black bean, it was fresh and utterly surprising.  


Next came this:

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"Oyster salad" it featured salsify, which is sometimes known as "oyster plant" because the cream-colored root has a flavor so surprisingly saline you could be convinced that it came from the sea. 

We went on to braised seaweed with tofu and pumpkin, another little dance of textures, and broccoli rabe with dried tomato and lemon, a refreshingly bitter mouthful.  That was followed by quinoa with mushrooms and chickpeas, courtesy of Andrew Carmellini and Zach Dunham.

I imagine you're getting the theme: the food was walking along a vegetarian path, with a few deviations (extraordinary roast pigs and ducks from Yi Lee).

The menu offers a remarkable snapshot of the way America is eating at the moment. It's not just that the food reflects the differing backgrounds of the bride and groom – his Chinese ancestry, her Portuguese – but also how many of the guests eschew meat and worry about gluten. The result was a menu that was ethnically diverse, primarily plant based, borrowed from many cultures – and utterly original.

There was nothing traditional about the service either: it was done Chinese take-out style, a raft of little white boxes arriving on the tables with each course.  This dish, my favorite, was the exception: it came in little plastic tubs.

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Danny Bowien's pea shoots were in a pumpkin broth so deliciously intense that, despite the weather (it was 90 degrees outside),  I couldn't stop eating it. I also loved the schmaltz rice he and Angela Dimayuga made;  it looked innocent, but the rice was laced with chicken fat, sparked with lime and zinged with little rounds of radish.  

The wedding cake?  Surely you weren't expecting a multi-tiered white confection with a tiny bride and groom on top.  What we got were more little white cartons, each containing a salted chocolate buckwheat cookie (gluten-free) nestled beneath the perfect culinary marriage of China and Portugal: rich, flaky, utterly classic egg custard tarts, the dim sum that arrived in China via Macau, courtesy of the Portuguese.

Leaving we were each handed another little white take-out container.  This is what it held:

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Pimento cheese from Chef Ashley Christensen. It made a fantastic breakfast.

Merry marriage Francis and Christine: may your life together be as delicious as the wedding feast.



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My Father the Designer

July 5, 2013

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       A show of my father's book designs opens at Columbia University on Monday, at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. During the last few years of his life Dad spent weekends going through his library, annotating the thousands of books he had designed (his career started in 1926 and he was still working on the day he died in 1980).  He put down everything he could remember about the design decisions, the author's reactions… anything that came to mind.  
       The cards have been digitized now, so you can read about Gertrude Stein's response when he put her photograph right on the cover of the book (not the jacket). I believe that was the first time photo offset printing was used in that way.  You can find out Kurt Vonnegut's reaction to Dad's design for Cat's Cradle (Dad loved that book),  and how he took litle scraps of notes from Marshall McLuhan's to design The Mechanical Bride. And, of course, there's Ulysses.
      Although Dad designed both the book and the jacket early in his career, it continues to be his most famous design.
      My father was a modest man; he revered authors and writing, and thought of himself as "a mere craftsman."  But I think he'd be very proud of this show.  Curator Martha Scotford has done a remarkable job.  Wandering through the books, I just kept thinking how much I miss him. 

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Chocolate Covered Cherries

July 3, 2013

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I loved chocolate-covered cherries so much as a teenager that I had a secret pact with a friend; we sent them to each other every month. Today the candies strike me as cloyingly sweet, but the combination of chocolate and cherries continues to haunt me. This morning in the market I was loading my basket with armfuls of Bing cherries, and suddenly saw them in a whole new light. I had a quick taste memory of chocolate cherries – and then I wondered why I'd never tried making my own.

Everyone dips fresh strawberries into chocolate, but cherries are better in every way. The texture is so much more appealing, the flavors are more compatible, and they even come equipped with a convenient dipping handle. I suppose it's fear of pits that's kept chocolate-covered fresh cherries from becoming a summer standard.

Once you’ve tasted these, that might change. They’re wonderful. And easy. I can't think of a better way to celebrate the Fourth.

Chocolate Covered Cherries

¼ lb 70% dark chocolate (I used Scharffen Berger’s bittersweet bar)

a handful of Bing cherries, (I am sure you can use Rainiers, but I love the deep flavor of Bings)

Wash the cherries and carefully dry them, storing them in the freezer until you’re ready to dip.

Slowly melt the chocolate (in a metal or ovensafe dish), over simmering water, stirring lazily and  infrequently so you don't streak it. Once the chocolate has completely melted, give it a little time to relax and cool down.

When the chocolate is just comfortably warm, remove your cherries from the cold and dip them in, one by one. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment and transfer to the refrigerator until you're ready to indulge. 

Eat happily, being careful of the pits.

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