Archive for October, 2008

Cold Stuffed Grape Leaves (and an Engagement)

I know, I know. I thought I was back on the path to blogging regularly, but somehow two weeks have gone by without a new post. Between worrying about the election and traveling many miles on the weekends for various family commitments, I’ve been pressed for both time and energy. But in the midst of all the craziness, I have some good news: My sister Melissa and her boyfriend Nedim are engaged! You may remember these wacky kids from several restaurant adventures I’ve written about, as well as an exhausting ravioli dinner last year. Needless to say, I am thrilled for the happy couple.

Last weekend my parents threw a party to celebrate the engagement, and my mother asked Jim and I to contribute an appetizer. After some thought, Jim suggested that we make a dish inspired by Nedim’s Turkish heritage. I immediately agreed, so we pulled out Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food and started flipping through the pages.

We had a few criteria for our appetizer, beyond its necessary Turkish roots. First of all, Jim and I knew that my mother would be busy preparing the rest of the party food in the oven, and we wanted to stay out of her way. We needed to stay out of her way. (Trust me.) Our appetizer had to travel well, as we would be transporting it from our home in Brooklyn, and it had to be unobtrusive in my mother’s kitchen. We decided that a cold dish would be best.

We quickly settled on making Roden’s cold stuffed grape leaves, which she also calls dolma. The word dolma actually refers to any stuffed vegetable dish of Middle Eastern origin, but grape leaves are one of the best known. Meat dolma are hot, while vegetarian dolma are usually served cold or at room temperature. After buying some preserved grape leaves at Sahadi’s, Jim and I settled in for an exciting Friday night at home, rolling and stuffing about 70 leaves with a fragrant mixture of rice, tomatoes, onions, parsley, mint, cinnamon, and allspice.

While the process of preparing the grape leaves was time-consuming, it actually wasn’t stressful or exhausting. Jim and I had fun methodically stuffing and rolling the cigar-shaped tubes as the evening wore on. Once rolled, the leaves were cooked in a bath of olive oil and lemon juice, resulting in the glistening surface and smooth texture typical of this traditional mezze. Jim and I tasted one that night, biting through the delicate layers of supple, slightly briny leaves to the cool, silky rice and Middle Eastern spices within. While the coating of olive oil, lemon juice, and sugar imparted a luxurious sweetness to the rolls, the secret to this recipe was the mint; it infused the leaves with a zesty lightness that I adored.

I’m pretty sure that everyone at the party enjoyed our contribution to the appetizers, including my sister and her fiancé. I was surprised by how many people referred to the leaves as dolma, as I had never heard the term before reading the recipe. My cousin’s Greek husband even said they were the best he ever tasted. So, welcome to the family, Nedim. I hope you liked them as well!

Recipe for Cold Stuffed Grape Leaves (adapted from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food) This recipe makes about 70 grape leaves, perfect for a big party or celebration.

For the filling:

  • 2 1/2 cups Carolina long-grain rice
  • 6 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 1 very large white onion, finely diced
  • 4 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 tablespoons dried mint
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • salt and pepper

For the pans/cooking time:

  • 2 or 3 plum tomatoes (sliced)
  • 8 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 1/3 cups extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • Juice of 2 lemons

Bring a full kettle of water to a boil. Place the preserved grapes leaves in a large bowl, and try to separate the leaves as much as possible. Pour the boiling water over the leaves, making sure that the water reaches between the layers of leaves. Let the leaves soak for 20 minutes. Drain. Using fresh, cold water, change the water twice. Set aside.

Put another kettle of water on the stove to boil. In another large bowl, pour the boiling water over the rice. Stir well, then rinse the rice under cold water. Add the tomatoes, onion, parsley, mint, cinnamon, and allspice to the rice. Stir. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

At this point, you are ready to stuff the grape leaves. Remove a leaf from the bowl and place it on a flat surface, vein side up. Blot it dry with a paper towel if it seems too wet. Place about 1 1/2 small spoonfuls of the rice mixture in the center of the leaf, near the stem end at the base of the leaf. Fold the stem end over the filling. Fold the sides of the leaf in towards the middle, and the roll the leaf upwards. Make sure the sides of the leaf continue to fold inward as you roll the leaf upwards. Repeat with the rest of the leaves. Set aside.

Mix the olive oil with 1 1/2 cups of water. Add the sugar and fresh lemon juice. Stir. Set aside.

Line the bottom of 2 large, high-sided sauté pans or one Dutch oven with the sliced tomatoes. Tightly pack the grape leaves into one layer, on top of the tomatoes. You can create a second layer of leaves if you need to. Slip the garlic cloves in between the rolls if desired.

Stir the olive oil/lemon juice mixture, and pour it over the leaves, evenly dividing the liquid between the pans if using more than one. Place a small plate on top of the leaves to prevent them from possibly unwinding. Cover the pans, set the heat to low, and simmer gently for about an hour. Roden’s book suggests adding small cups of water if the pans run out of liquid, but I did not have this problem. Cool the leaves in the pans before removing the rolls. Once completely cooled, you can refrigerate the rolls. Serve cold or at room temperature. Enjoy!

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Dinner at wd~50

We’ve been rather indulgent here at Artichoke Heart lately. Two weeks ago Jim and I had a wonderful, decadent meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Then, in honor of Jim’s birthday last weekend, we enjoyed an equally intense dining experience at wd~50 in Manhattan, where Chef Wylie Dufresne is known for using principles of molecular gastronomy to create unusual and unique dishes. Always interested in science and technology, Jim had wanted to visit this restaurant for some time.

Similar to Blue Hill, wd~50 treats food as art. But whereas Blue Hill’s focus is on the rustic, seasonal goodness of locally grown food, wd~50′s perspective is thoroughly modern. From the sleek dining room to its open, steel-equipped kitchen and manipulated ingredients, the restaurant’s philosophy is whimsical and experimental. Each dish makes you think while you simultaneously encounter exciting flavor juxtapositions, textures, and sensations. Not everything on the nine-course tasting menu was a success, but each plate had Jim and I wondering about the tricks and meanings behind them ($140).


Take, for example, the “knot foie.”  Smooth, creamy, and surprisingly light, this thin piece of foie gras was somehow twisted into the most delicate of knots. The silky texture was complemented by airy, crispy rice puffs, a riff on the traditional cracker accompaniment you might encounter at a cocktail party. I usually find foie gras too rich, but at wd~50 I dragged every bit of it through the different sauces and then to my mouth. Jim and I were still talking about this course the next day, finally figuring out that the “trick” lay in its intricate shape and how it was achieved without falling apart.


The “eggs benedict” were another treat. Two firm, cylindrical yolks staked their claim to the plate like stately sculptures, paired with two cubes of fried hollandaise coated with english muffin. Delicate bacon chips completed the scene, anchored to each yolk in a vertical balancing act. The flavors of classic eggs benedict were intact, but achieved in a novel and amusing way.


Some of my favorite dishes were the simplest, such as the Asian-influenced Hamachi tartare, served with crispy pear, a tahini sauce, and a grapefruit shallot dressing. Although I didn’t care for the tahini, the clean, fresh flavors of the raw fish prepared my palette for the rest of the evening’s fare.

As I stated earlier, not every dish was a success; sometimes I just didn’t get the joke. Five grilled corn “pebbles,” flavored with lime mayo and scallion, had a grainy texture that I didn’t enjoy at all. The waiter had explained that these tiny spheres were composed from various powders, leading to the unpleasant sensations I was feeling. On a more personal level, the beef tongue served with cherry-miso was an unusual but successful pairing of flavors, but I couldn’t reconcile myself with the fact that I was eating tongue. Jim, however, loved it. 


We also adored all four of the desserts, particularly the jasmine custard, served with banana ice cream and a sauce of black tea. Jim usually can’t stand bananas, but we were both thrilled by the intense flavor and texture combination. We applied the same positive sentiments to a spongy coconut cake paired with smoked cashews and a brown butter sorbet. Surprisingly, pastry chef Alex Stupak transformed some of our least favorite flavors into exciting revelations. 

By going beyond the conventional methods of how food is prepared, Chef Dufresne creates a cuisine that is untraditional and experimental. My husband always likes when our adventures make him think, and between Blue Hill at Stone Barns and wd~50, we’ve had a lot to contemplate lately. It’s all been pretty darn amazing.

wd~50, 50 Clinton Street, New York, NY  T: 212-477-2900. In addition to the tasting menu, wd~50 also offers an a la carte menu. You can also do a wine pairing with the tasting menu for an additional $75 each.

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Dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns

 

If you’ve read other descriptions of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, you might already be familiar with the photograph above. “Oh no,” you probably just groaned. “Not another post raving about this place and its raw vegetables on sticks.” Well, brace yourself: Last week I finally ate at Stone Barns, and enjoyed one of the most beautiful and creative meals I’ve ever had. And those vegetables on sticks? Through their farm-to-table freshness and the artistry of their arrangement, they encompass all that was wonderful about the experience.

Located in Pocantico Hills, New York, and headed by chef Dan Barber (also of Blue Hill in Manhattan), Blue Hill at Stone Barns is more than just a restaurant. It’s a farm, an ideal, and an artistic adventure. Every effort is made to prepare and produce food culled from its own land, which is situated on a vast Rockefeller Estate. (While most ingredients used in the restaurant are produced on the farm, not all of them are. For example, Blue Hill does not farm its own fish.) Along with our friends Keith and Gabriella, Jim and I explored the farm on Saturday afternoon, intrigued by its greenhouses, herb gardens, and pastures of sheep and turkeys.

We returned later that night for dinner, and were immediately embraced by the soaring, wood-beamed ceilings and golden lighting of the main dining room, located in a sprawling stone dairy barn. As we perused the tasting menu, we realized that it was simply a list of the ingredients available to Chef Barber that evening. Beyond this list, our group had no idea what lay in store in store for us. We threw up our hands and surrendered to the experience, although we were encouraged to tell the wait staff a bit about our food personalities and preferences so that Chef Barber could personalize our tasting.

After a few nervous shrugs and glances between us, Jim declared that we were an adventurous group of eaters. On the evening of our visit, the ingredients ranged from concord grapes, bok choi, and chanterelle mushrooms to Berkshire pork, wahoo fish, and grass-fed veal, among many others. We decided to indulge in the seven-course farmers’ feast tasting ($125 each). In response to our waiter’s inquiry regarding ingredients we preferred or disliked, Jim described his love for arugula, asking to see what Chef Barber could do with his favorite green apart from serving it raw in a salad. I added that I didn’t feel like eating soft-boiled eggs, and Gabriella said she was willing to eat less meat. The adventure had begun.

Then the amuse-bouche started to arrive, as exciting in their presentation as their flavors. Those raw vegetables elegantly perched on steel spikes were crisp, fresh, and simply touched with lemon. Tiny beet burgers, skewers of eggplant coated with pancetta and sesame seeds, bread with fresh butter, lard, and soft, smooth ricotta, were placed on the table in unending parade of farm freshness. And I can’t forget the face bacon, served to us with other Stone Barns cured meats. 

No, you didn’t read that incorrectly, I wrote face bacon. Made from the farm’s own pigs’ jowls, these small, crunchy bits of meat enthralled us to no end. We raised our wine glasses when ingredients were described as being “from the farm,” creating our own amusing drinking game in the midst of the abundance. Arugula quickly made its first appearance with the appetizers, infused into a cup of salt served with our bread. I should note now that Chef Barber conquered Jim’s arugula challenge throughout our meal, mixing this peppery green into grain salads and serving it wilted on the side of our entrées.

After being successfully lured in by the appetizers, the main dishes began. One after another, each dish was a visual and edible surprise. Delicate pieces of barely seared bluefin and wahoo fish started our feast. A vegetable called celtuse, its wide, ribbon-like strands mimicking fresh pasta in a sauce of pine nut butter and yogurt, was a favorite of the night.

I didn’t know what to expect in response to my soft-boiled egg request, but I soon found out: For one entrée, while everyone else enjoyed a farm-fresh (raise your wine glass now) egg dish, I received my own small serving of eggplant parmigiana with zucchini flowers sprinkled across the top. Later in the evening, Gabriella also received a personalized dish as a substitute for one of the two meat  entrées of Berkshire pig and chicken. Now that’s what I call personal attention.

The desserts were delivered in a continuous stream, including baked plums with crispy emmer; a dessert composed from juicy concord grapes; and a curious fruit called the paw paw. Just when I thought I’d had enough, our waiter wheeled out a cart overflowing with herbs and a glass teapot. He called it a tisane, and brewed us a soothing pot of lemon verbena and sage tea on the spot. It was one of the most beautiful displays of greenery I had ever seen.

At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, art and food intersect to create an enthralling and unique experience. I know it may sound pretentious to describe a meal in these terms, but for me, it was true. Every detail, from the beautiful porcelain plates decorated with plant and animal life, to the rustic candle holders, dark wood accents, and overflowing plant arrangements in the dining room coordinated perfectly with our abundant and beautifully plated farmers’ feast. Combined with Stone Barns’s practice of cultivating as much food as possible on their own land, everything came together to offer an extremely personal and artistic meal. That’s how those vegetables on sticks represent the Blue Hill at Stone Barns experience: fresh, honest, and creative.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns, 630 Bedford Road, Pocantico Hills, New York 10591  T: 914-366-9600. A five-course tasting is also offered for $95, and on Sundays there is a four-course tasting lunch for $68. Make your reservations one to two months in advance.

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Reading the Dining Section

My Wednesday evenings are always the same: I walk down into the subway station and check to see if my Brooklyn-bound F-train is making its slow, creaky way though the tunnel. (It usually isn’t.) I find a spot among the crowds of cranky commuters, open my purse, and pull out the New York Times dining section while I wait. Eventually my train arrives, and the 40-minute ride home gives me ample reading and relaxation time with the weekly food section, the only me time I’ve likely had all day.

I’ve followed this pattern for several years. And although the Times also posted its food content online on Tuesday nights, it was easy to wait another day so that I could physically flip through the recipes and articles during my commute. Honestly, I looked forward to it all week. 

But then the Times decided to mix things up a bit. It recently announced that the paper would start posting its dining section articles on its website throughout the week, essentially rendering the physical newsprint section obsolete. Most of its articles would be released before Wednesday, some almost a week before the section was printed. 

When I first heard the news, I was surprised at how conflicted I felt about it. Don’t get me wrong, in the greater scheme of life it’s not a big deal. But this shift in the Times’s schedule made me realize how much I valued my once-a-week ritual with the paper. It also made me think about how I received information in general. News moves fast these days; like many others, I check the New York Times website as soon as I get to work in the morning and throughout the day, and I’m usually aware of the day’s headlines as soon as they happen. I have an RSS feed that imports new content from my favorite food blogs, and of course, I’m a food blogger myself. I should welcome this development with open arms, congratulating the Times for recognizing the archaic nature of printed news matter.

But I can’t do it. Maybe I’m being too sentimental, but I value my time with weekly food section more than the up-to-the-minute nature of the Internet. It’s similar to how I anticipate and then savor a wonderful meal. Overall, much of the dining section content is not time-sensitive, unless there’s a holiday coming up or a seasonal recipe I’d like to try. Even in these cases it’s usually safe to let a few days go by. I’m sure I’ll use the online archive when I have some time to kill, but on Wednesday evenings you’ll still find me waiting on the F-train platform, paging through the New York Times dining section. How about you?

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Hiding Behind Dessert: Lemon Olive Oil Cake

Let’s face it, things are a mess right now. The economy is in shambles, our leaders can’t agree on a solution, and the world is basically in chaos. Plus, have I mentioned that the sun hasn’t come out since last week?

As the rain poured down on Sunday I decided to cook my way back into cheer and comfort. I started with a recipe for Lemon Olive Oil Cake, reprinted on Serious Eats from the new cookbook Olives and Oranges. Even a cursory look through the Artichoke Heart archives will prove my culinary affection for the powerful pairing of olive oil and lemons. Whether featured in a rice salad or fried zucchini flowers, these Mediterranean staples are the embodiment of sunshine and happiness. I bet even Wall Street would agree.

My obsession with this dessert actually dates back a few weeks. I first saw a version of it in the September issue of Food & Wine, which included a gorgeous photograph and recipe for Olive Oil-Thyme Cake with Figs. But my enthusiasm quickly waned when I saw that the recipe required both pastry and bread flour and came with a long page of instructions. I’m not lazy or cheap, but I just didn’t feel like investing in two different kinds of baking flour when I don’t bake very often. (I also didn’t feel like carrying home a ton of ingredients from the grocery store. OK, so maybe I am a little lazy.)

A week or so later I came across the simplified recipe for Lemon Olive Oil cake on Serious Eats. Except for a springform pan, I already had all the ingredients and tools I needed at home. All I had to do was pull that darn mixer out from under the sink, combine the ingredients together, and my simple, Italian-inspired dessert was ready in an hour.

Now, that piece of cake in the photograph above may look like a bland little poundcake, but oh my, does it make up in flavor what it lacks in appearance. The combination of good quality, extra-virgin olive oil, lemon rind, and tangy whole-milk yogurt creates a simple yet explosive dessert that emits sunshine with every slice. I’ve been eating it for dessert after dinner and for breakfast all week, hiding from the front page news behind its soft, spongy texture and satisfying crumb. Believe me, it works. I feel better already.

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