Archive for June, 2007

Cooking from the CSA: Kohlrabi

kohlrabi-003a.jpgSo this week our CSA share contained a vegetable that looked like it was from another planet. (Dennis, thanks for the warning!) Light green and bulbuous, with large leafy fronds reaching up towards the sky (and possibly its original galaxy?), this edible globe was identified as kohlrabi. OK. Big help. Now what on this earth was I supposed to do with it?

Some quick reading provided a basic introduction to this curious vegetable. It’s defined as a form of cabbage from the mustard family, and what I would identify as the bulb is actually the stem of the plant. Not very popular in the United States, kohlrabi is actually more well-known in Europe, where some varieties are used in cattle feed. Now if that’s not a recommendation for an appetizing side dish, I don’t know what is. Moo.

A search for recipes informed me that kohlrabi is actually pretty versatile. It can be eaten raw, steamed, or even stir-fried; I found many recipes recommending its use in slaws. Guess what? It also comes in purple.

Inspired by the positive stir-fry-and-slaw-speak and ready to make dinner, I hunkered down under the sink and wrenched out our mandolin. I peeled the stem of the kohlrabi, and slid it across the julienne blade into thin, even slices. Determined to power through our weekly share without any leaving any vegetables to spoil, I also chopped up some bok choy. Then I minced some garlic, got out the sauté pan, threw on a splash of vegetable oil, and away we went into a swirl of experimentation. When the kohlrabi looked sufficiently browned and the bok choy wilted, I doused everything in fresh lemon juice.

The final result wasn’t otherworldly. The kohlrabi slices, white and dense, had a clean, turnip-like flavor to them, and the bok choy was as bitter as ever, but the overall effect was rather bland. I’ve spiced up the recipe below with more lemon juice, which should help. But if this alien kohlrabi ever wanders into my kitchen again, I’ll be ready. I know what you are now.

Recipe for Kohlrabi and Bok Choy Stir-Fry

  • 1 kohlrabi stem, peeled and sliced into thin, even strips
  • 1 bunch of bok choy, washed and chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, mincedkohlrabi-009a.jpg
  • dash of red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 2 lemons, halved

Warm a sauté pan or a wok over medium heat, and add the vegetable oil. Once the oil is hot, add the chopped garlic and red pepper flakes. When garlic is browned, add the kohlrabi slices. Stir occassionally. After a few minutes, when the kohlrabi has started to brown, add the bok choy. Season with salt and freshly-ground black pepper. When the bok choy has wilted, remove the pan from heat and transfer vegetables to a bowl. Add the fresh juice of 2 lemons, mix, and serve.


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The North Fork, Part II: Wineries

long-island-004a.jpgAs mentioned in my previous post, Jim and I spent last Saturday touring the vineyards of the North Fork, cruising around Routes 25 and 48 in the midday sunshine. While Long Island wines have traditionally struggled for prestige, their quality has slowly improved over the years due to renewed interest and investment in the area’s natural resources. We set out to see what the excitement was all about.

Shinn Estate Vineyards, located on Oregon Road in Mattituck, was our wine find of the day. Owned by Barbara Shinn and David Page (who also own the popular restaurant Home in Manhattan), this charming vineyard and its friendly staff immediately put us at ease while simultaneously impressing us with their wines. During our tasting, Barbara Shinn was also manning the counter of the airy tasting room, chatting with customers, pouring tastings, and offering driving and biking directions to weekend tourists. Talk about making people feel at home!

Jim and I shared a flight of three wines for $6.50 (believe me, with a few tastings already behind us, sharing a flight was the way to go). We had heard about Shinn’s 2006 “first fruit” Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon from the friendly folks at Sherwood House Vineyards around the corner, and were floored by its crisp taste of chilled grapefruit; it really woke up our drowsy palettes. The 2006 Rosè evoked flavors of not-too-sweet strawberries for us, and the 2005 “wild boar doe,” both smooth and spicy, amused us with its clever name. 

Other memorable stops of the day included Macari Vineyards, where we prefered their Chardonnay and dessert wines, and Bedell Cellars, whose outdoor patio had the atmosphere of a busy Manhattan bar instead of a low-key stop on the Long Island Wine Trail. In addition to enjoying their gorgeous outdoor space, we liked their Main Road Red vintage as well.

Besides sampling these wines on our tour, we also learned about the differences between steel versus oak fermentation, the benefits of American versus French oak (everyone seems to have an opinion about which is better for the wine, and many do not agree), and at Bedell, how new saplings are grafted onto pre-existing vines. Finally exhausted from tasting and learning, we broke for lunch at the classic Cutchogue Diner, and indulged our hungry stomachs. After a morning of refined wine tastings, my grilled cheese and fries never tasted so good.

Shinn Estate Vineyards (pictured), 2000 Oregon Road, Mattituck  631-804-0367
Sherwood House Vineyards, 2600 Oregon Road, Mattituck 631-298-1396
Macari Vineyards, 150 Bergen Avenue, Mattituck  631-298-0100
Bedell Cellars, 36225 Main Road, Cutchogue 631-734-7537
The Cutchogue Diner, Main Road, Cutchogue 631-734-9056

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The North Fork, Part I: Anniversary Dinners


This past weekend Jim and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary (That’s right, another year! We still got it!) on the North Fork of Long Island. We rented a fun PT Cruiser to take in the scenery: farm stands selling strawberries, rhubarb, and greens; charming Victorian homes mixed in with newer, more suburban models; leafy trees shading the narrow roads; farms, wineries, and watery marshes. In addition to all this relaxing exploration, we also had two wonderful meals at area restaurants.

The North Fork Table and Inn: With its white walls and tablecloths, hardwood floors, and individual flower pots of herbs atop each table, The North Fork Table and Inn presents a modern yet rustic atmosphere for a special, celebratory meal. Like many of the nearby establishments, this restaurant supports the local farms and fishing communities of the North Fork whenever possible, and also showcases Long Island’s up-and-coming wines. I started with an assortment of roasted baby beets ($14). A medley of yellow, pink, and red beets were smoothly tossed with goat cheese from the Catapano Dairy Farm, as well as crunchy, salty pistachios and a sherry vinegar dressing, creating a intriguing interplay of textures and flavors. My main dish of lavender-seasoned California squab ($34) didn’t overwhelm me with lavender flavors, but the dense meat was sweetly enhanced by fresh figs, tart belgian endives, and a delicate white turnip purée. Jim’s duo of beef ($38), a roasted strip loin and a shortrib streudel, was one of the most creative entrées of this type he’d ever had. For dessert we shared comforting sugar and spice doughnuts, dipping each into warm cinnamon cream ($10) while I finished my glass of Pinot Noir from Castello di Borghese, one of the few wineries we had missed during our afternoon tour. The most embarrassing moment of the evening (because there always has to be one) occurred when our kind waitress, noticing my barely-hidden notepad, offered me a menu as a souvenir. Later on, when I was away from the table, she asked Jim if I was a chef. His reply: “No, she just really enjoys her food and likes to remember it.” And it’s true.  57225 Main Road in Southold, New York  11971  631-765-0177

The Frisky Oyster: Since most out-of-towners desert the North Fork by Sunday night, Jim and I pretty much had the dining room of The Frisky Oyster to ourselves. The low-key lighting, soft, brown banquettes, and abstract raspberry wallpaper, combined with a modern, slightly techno music soundtrack, impart a sleek feel to this Greenport favorite. Mexican and Asian accents influence the restaurant’s contemporary American menu, and help celebrate Long Island’s natural bounty. We started with the tuna tacos ($14), sparkling with the addition of crunchy shaved papaya. The piping hot heirloom tomato fondue with warm goat cheese ($13) had us dipping all the toasted ciabatta we could find and more. My seared sea scallops ($27) went wonderfully with its tangy pea shoot salad, as well as my glass of Channing Daughters Sauvignon Blanc, but the accompanying spring pea risotto cake was a little too heavy for my taste. Jim’s penne pasta with tasso ham, spring peas, and scallions ($24) was both bacony and spicy, his favorite combination of flavors. We ended the meal with a refreshing vanilla bean semifreddo and macerated strawberries, and wondered what to make of the macerated fruit trend we had encountered throughout the weekend. It had appeared the night before as well, in the form of macerated apricots. What was going on here on the North Fork?  27 Front Street in Greenport, New York 11944  631-477-4265

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Cooking from the CSA: Bok Choy

bokchoy012.jpgSummer seems closer than ever, especially now that we picked up our first batch of vegetables from the Carroll Gardens CSA this past weekend. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and every other week from now until November, Jim and I will receive a selection of seasonal organic vegetables and fresh flowers from the Garden of Eve farm on the East End of Long Island.

This is the first year we’ve joined the CSA, and I’m very excited about it, for multiple reasons. Not only are we supporting local farmers (always a good thing, as explained by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma), but I’m looking forward to becoming a better cook by simply having to cook more at home. Not to mention that I’ll be confronted with some vegetables I probably would not have chosen if making my own selections at the grocery store.

For example: bok choy. This week’s shipment was a bounty of greens, including kale, spindly arugula, butterhead lettuce, tangled pea shoots, mixed greens, and a large, leafy, bitter bunch of bok choy. We also received some radishes and asparagus. My fridge has not looked this well-stocked in ages, and we are even splitting our pick-up with another family! It’s kind of a stressful feeling, looking into the refrigerator only to see piles of food that must be cooked and eaten quickly before it all goes bad. It’s really not supposed to be this nerve-racking.

But back to the bok choy, commonly known as Chinese cabbage. I think I had cooked it perhaps one other time in my life, sautéed in olive oil with red pepper flakes. But I wanted to do something different last night, and so I found this recipe for Stir-Fried Sesame Bok Choy.

The whole operation took less than 5 minutes, from warming up some sesame oil in my wok, adding some minced garlic, ginger and red pepper flakes, and stir-frying the chopped and cleaned bok choy leaves with some soy sauce, chicken broth, cornstarch, and a dash of sugar. I topped the leaves with some toasted sesame seeds, and that’s it. A new side dish of bitter greens, courtesy of the neighborhood CSA. My roast chicken was proud to share the table with it.

So here’s to a summer of fresh vegetables! Tonight I’m tackling the kale. Any ideas? Most of the recipes I’ve seen suggest sautéing it with bacon. Mmmm, bacon.

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Restaurant Review: Spirito

I knew I had found a great Italian restaurant when I started planning my second visit midway through my first. That’s what happened when I first ate at Spirito, a new Italian restaurant in Park Slope.

I had rushed over as soon as I heard that Giovanni Caveggia, formerly a co-owner of Gradisca, one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Manhattan, was now a part-owner of Spirito. With its fresh, authentic Italian food, a friendly and attentive staff, and easygoing atmosphere, Spirito is my new neighborhood favorite. I may have to take the bus to get there, but I’ll pretty much do anything for a great plate of pasta.

Spirito is located on quiet strip of 9th street between 4th and 5th Avenues, unfortunately next door to a McDonald’s. But all thoughts of McNuggets and fries disappeared as soon as I entered the restaurant, with its exposed-brick walls, dark-wood bar, and candle-lit space. A red Vespa rests above the doorway, proudly enhancing the Italian spirit of the room.

But during the spring and summer, Spirito’s relaxing outdoor rooftop is the place to be. On our first visit, we started with a carpaccio of mango with prosciutto di parma ($10), a refreshing and sparkling combination of ingredients, and a crunchy, light fritto misto of calamari and artichokes ($9). During our second visit a week later we tried the grilled tomino cheese with string beans and truffle oil ($11) and the tuna tartar with avocado ($11). The string beans were perhaps a bit overwhelmed by the strong, nutty cheese, so the tartar was our favorite that night, its hint of spiciness cushioned by the smooth mix of soft, fresh fish and creamy avocado (pictured above).

On both of our visits, the pastas were excellent, cooked perfectly and obviously made with the freshest vegetables and meats available. Jim ordered the smoky bucatini all’amatriciana ($13) both nights we ate there; once he discovers a dish he likes, he sticks with it. On my first visit I went with the cavatelli with eggplant ($12). The hearty cavatelli were sturdy complements to the delicately cooked eggplant and tomatoes. I was surprised by the lightness of the orrechiette with lamb ragu ($13.50) on my second visit, as I was anticipating ground meat in the sauce. Spirito’s version unexpectedly employs thinly-cut, soft chunks of lamb, its flavor enhanced by the sweetness of tomato (pictured below).

When we ordered the warm chocolate cake ($7.50) for dessert, we were warned that it could take about 15 minutes, as they needed to make it from scratch. The time needed for this dessert intrigued me, and besides, I was more than willing to sit on the deck a little longer. 

Our decadent chocolate cake arrived in a small, ceramic flower pot, with powdered sugar on top. This deep-dish dessert, with its rich, molten center, was an amusing and creative end to our meals.

And as an added treat, I discovered a family connection at Spirito, as I sat at the bar during our first visit and chatted with Caveggia. After a few moments of conversation about our Italian backgrounds, he exclaimed:

“Are you kidding me? Your mother is from San Severo? So is my grandmother. San Severo is one of the two roughest towns in Italy. I can’t believe your mother is from there.”

I swelled with pride, hoping that the reputation of my mother’s hometown made me appear tough, as well as Italian. I’m not really sure it worked.

So, as I said good night to Caveggia after our second meal at Spirito, we talked about how my mother needed to come next time, so that they could meet and talk about his grandmother’s and her hometown. Any excuse to go back is more than fine with me.

287 9th Street (between 4th and 5th Avenues in Park Slope, Brooklyn) 718-832-0085

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Cooking with Mom: Fried Artichoke Hearts

My family is obsessed with artichokes. Fried, stuffed with breadcrumbs, sautéed with pasta, baby- or full-size, we’ve done it all. My husband even refers to them as “grillochokes,” in honor of the Grillo’s intense love for these pointy vegetables. Look at the name of this blog, for heaven’s sake. Lately artichokes have been on display everywhere in my neighborhood, slyly beckoning me with their green-hued freshness.

When I could no longer resist them, I decided to call in the big guns: my mother. I needed an intense artichoke tutorial, and with her Southern-Italian background and years of artichoke experience, she’s the ultimate authority on the subject. I left the agenda up to her.

As my parents walked through our apartment door on Sunday, Mom declared that we would make fried baby artichoke hearts. A crafty decision on her part, as Jim is not as big a fan of the humble choke as the rest of us. But by frying them Mom greatly increased the possibility that Jim would partake in our artichoke feast. As I said, she’s quite crafty.

We got down to business. First she cut off the pointy top of one of the baby artichokes she had brought with her. (Yes, I am 33-years-old and my mother sometimes buys me groceries. Let’s focus on the cooking, shall we?) Then she stripped away most of the leaves until she reached the tender heart.

We split the heart in half, and scraped away the fuzzy center. As we moved from choke to choke, we set them in a bowl of water with some lemons, so that they wouldn’t turn brown before we finished cleaning the rest of them. I had read about this step many times but had never done it because I am lazy. But it really works. It just goes to show, Mom always knows best.

As we labored over the chokes, my mom told me about my grandfather’s vineyard back in San Severo, Italy, where her family used to grow artichokes and eat them as a treat before they moved here. I also learned that my father’s Sicilian family constantly ate artichokes when he was growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, so we most likely inherited our obsession from them. Who knew?

After we finished cleaning and cutting all the artichokes, we drained them, dried them off, dredged them in flour, and fried them up. 

As the artichokes drained on top of a paper towel, we sprinkled them with a little salt, and finally….we tasted them. They were light, fresh, and tender, almost silky in their texture. Jim had cooked up some fantastic steaks stuffed with a gorgonzola pesto that went wonderfully with our chokes. Even Jim enjoyed them, and had multiple servings. He will deny having an artichoke-related breakthrough, but we all know what happened. There were multiple witnesses.

We ended our dinner with Jamie Oliver’s Torta di More, a tart filled with sweet mascarpone cream infused with grappa and topped with blackberries. I had wanted to make this ever since I received Jamie’s Italy for Christmas, and it was as good as it looked in the picture. Even better, in fact.

So that was our artichoke-infused Sunday. Some veggies, some steaks, a tart, and some family history. A very nice way to spend the day, in my opinion.

Recipe for Fried Artichoke Hearts

  • 9 baby artichokes
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • flour (enough for dredging)
  • salt
  • lemons
  • water

Start by cutting the top off of the artichoke, creating a flat surface showing the concentric rings of leaves spiraling out from the choke. Then strip away the tough outer leaves, continuing until you reach the softer leaves of the vegetable. You will wind up with more leaves in your garbage pail than left on the vegetable. You can test the softness of the leaves by biting them (my mother’s trick). If they are soft and chewy, you’ve gone far enough. Scrape away the outer surface of the stem as well. We left the stems long, but you can trim them shorter if you like.

Cut the choke in half, and scrape away the soft, stringy center. Then cut the heart into quarters, and place it in a bowl of water with cut-up lemons. Squeeze some lemon juice into the water as well. Repeat these steps with the rest of the artichokes until all are finished.

When all the artichokes are cleaned, drain them and dry them in a dishtowel. Fill a deep-sided sauté pan about 1/2 full with olive oil, and start heating it under medium heat. Dredge the artichoke quarters thoroughly in flour. When the oil is hot, add the artichoke hearts in small batches.

Turn the chokes every once in a while, frying them until they are well-browned. This can take about 5 to 10 minutes per batch. When they are done, drain the oil onto paper towels. Sprinkle with salt, and serve immediately. Serves 4 as a side dish. Enjoy!

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Book Review: Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass

No matter how much wine I drink, and no matter how much I read about wine, it’s always somewhat of a mystery to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love wine, and feel that I appreciate it, but I wish I just knew more, that I could feel confident in describing what I’m drinking beyond such repetitive words as “blackberries” or “citrus.” 

Natalie MacLean’s recently-published book, Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass, leads the way towards a better understanding of wine through an enjoyable and amusing combination of fact and storytelling. MacLean is an accredited sommelier who first began writing about wine while on maternity leave with her son, and she publishes a free newsletter called Nat Decants through her website.

Instead of writing a didactic treatise on wine and its extensive history, MacLean takes the reader on a series of adventures in the United States and France, exploring different vintages and relaying her personal experiences in the field. As MacLean picks grapes in California, works a day in a New York City wine store, and tours vineyards in Burgundy, she creates vivid and often humorous visions of her adventures while weaving in factual information along the way. In one of my favorite chapters, she visits with the heads of several French Champagne houses, introducing the reader to the surprising fact that many are still women, a legacy from the many widows who took over the vineyards after losing their husbands to war or sickness in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the midst of her adventures, MacLean describes the differences between New and Old World Wines, talks about how critics such as Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson influence the wine market, and provides helpful tips on pairing wine with food. With her smooth, flowing writing style and easy sense of humor, MacLean makes the wine world much more approachable to any level of wine lover. Both the novice and the more advanced drinker will enjoy the introduction to the world of vineyards, winemakers, and vintages MacLean explores.

Would we really want MacLean to completely demystify wine? I don’t think so. Part of what many people savor about wine is its inherent mysteries, and the joys experienced in personally discovering a previously unknown combination of flavors and aromas. MacLean’s Red, White, and Drunk All Over doesn’t take anything away from this excitement; in fact, it encourages you to go out, grab a glass, and drink a wine you’ve never tasted before.

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