Archive for July, 2007

Until mid-August…

I’m leaving tonight for a business trip to Verona, and then a quick jaunt down into Puglia to visit with family. I probably won’t post again until mid-August…arrivederci!

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My Morning at the Carroll Gardens CSA

Onions from Garden of EveAt 9:25 on Saturday morning I found myself sitting on the stone wall of the Community Garden at 2nd Place and Smith Street, drowsily sipping a cup of coffee. Five minutes later a large white truck pulled up across the street, and a man wearing an orange baseball cap called out “Good morning!” from the driver’s seat. It was time to wake up. My shift at the Carroll Gardens CSA had officially begun.

My CSA requests that all members volunteer for one distribution shift during the season. This past Saturday was my turn. The morning began with unlocking the garden and transferring last week’s empty crates to the truck. I learned the basics of how to sign in the members while the rest of the volunteers carried heaping crates of produce off the truck. (I’m not lazy, I swear. I just have a bad back!) After setting up a tent to shade the veggies, we were ready for business.

As members started strolling into the garden around 10 am, it immediately became clear that everyone (unsurprisingly) loves their fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers from Garden of Eve.

It was also obvious that many of the members are sick of zucchini, which has been in season throughout the month of July. This week everyone could take six of them. For some people, that may have been six too many.

Even though I didn’t personally know anyone who came to pick up their food, it was fun to feel like part of the same community, even for just two hours. Together we shared in the excitement of the season’s first sweet corn and peppers, and delighted in this week’s batch of colorful marigolds.

Marigolds and flowers from Garden of Eve

“Start at this table and take three cucumbers, two peppers, two onions, and four ears of corn. Cherries and peaches are straight ahead, then come to the tent for more greens,” I repeated somewhat endlessly. All I needed was a microphone and a brightly-colored umbrella, and my dreams of becoming a tour guide would have been fulfilled.

I asked some of my fellow volunteers what made them join our CSA. Most liked the idea of receiving local, organic produce for both health and environmental reasons. Others spoke of the creative aspect that the CSA shipments inspire through their mystery contents:

“The CSA provokes me to make something good out of ingredients I’m not familiar with, such as such as pea shoots or kohlrabi,” ” said volunteer Jonathan Taylor. Suzy Pasette from Fort Greene also cited the lack of easily accessible, good supermarkets as one of her reasons for joining.

By noon we were out of zucchini but swimming in sweet corn. It must be very difficult for the farmers to figure out the exact amount of food for each week’s distribution. I’m going to stick to my strategy of arriving within the first hour, just to be sure I get a little bit of everything.

Locking up the garden and going our separate ways at the end of the shift felt somewhat bittersweet. Now that we understood the process, it was time to leave. A new group would have to learn it all again next week. Good luck to the next team of volunteers!

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Restaurant Review: Pó (Brooklyn)

po2.jpgOn Sunday night my family clamored into on Smith Street. We were there to spend Mom’s bowling money. Every year we take advantage of her mad skills and cash in her prize money with a decadent family dinner. With its warm setting and fresh Italian fare, Pó proved itself worthy of our annual celebration.

Open since mid-June, Pó Brooklyn is the sister restaurant to the Manhattan outpost of the same name. Mario Batali has long since come and gone at the original Cornelia Street location, but current chef Lee McGrath asserts his own successful interpretation of seasonal Italian cuisine at both locales.

Despite its small space, Pó evokes openness and sunshine, encouraged by mustard-colored walls, exposed brick, and off-white wood trim. Surprisingly restrained music made conversation easy. Well, easy for people who don’t constantly talk over each other, but that’s just us.

While my father selected from the extensive Italian wine list, we enjoyed the complimentary white bean bruschetta, light and cool, perfect for a warm summer evening. Jim and I then split the meatballs with tomatoes and asiago cheese ($10). Gentle and soft, those meatballs were smoother than Mom’s bowling ball heading for a clean strike.

A benefit of eating with family is that everyone shares their food. (Or steals from each other’s plates, however you want to look at it.) So I sampled my mother’s shaved fennel salad ($9), a refreshing mix of fresh fennel, bitter watercress, black olives, and tomatoes. We all picked from Dad’s tasty orrechiette with sweet sausage and broccoli rabe ($15), barely leaving the poor man with anything for himself.

My sister Melissa and I both ordered the white bean ravioli in a brown butter sauce ($13) for our main course. Delicate triangles of autumn-hued pasta filled with smooth white beans created a subtle exchange of sweet and tangy flavors. But Jim’s homemade gnocchi with fresh tomato, mozzarella and basil ($16) was my favorite dish of the night. The firm simplicity of the gnocchi gave full expression to the freshness of the accompanying ingredients. 

The surprises of the night were discovered among the contorni, especially with the fregula ($8), a toasted pasta salad with roasted corn and scallions that fairly exploded with crisp flavors. Jim, who had threatened to hoard his sautéed dandelion greens ($7), finally relented and allowed the rest of us to delight in their bitterness.

I had saved room for the “Pó Sundae,” composed of fresh mint gelato, cinnamon spiced pine nuts, and chocolate sauce ($6), and it more than fulfilled the sundae cravings I’d harbored for the past week. I distracted myself long enough to taste Melissa’s panna cotta with amarone cherries ($6), a firm, creamy slide of freshness.

And so we left Pó with our cravings satisfied and stomachs filled. Dinner was a gentle, elegant experience overall, filled with good food, friendly service, and relaxing atmosphere. For me, Pó is a little too refined to be considered a casual neighborhood joint; Frankie’s Spuntino already fills that need for us. But for very good Italian food (and generous portions of it) in a lovely space, it’s one of the best options on Smith Street.

And Mom, keep up the bowling. I’m already working on where we’ll go next year.

276 Smith Street (between Sackett and Degraw Streets in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn) 718-875-1980

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Thoughts on “Ratatouille”

Much has already been written about Disney’s Ratatouille, the animated story of the sensory-gifted rat Remy and his culinary adventures in the Parisian restaurant called Gusteau’s. I finally made it to the theater this past Saturday, but since I am a little behind the times on this one, I’ll just offer up a few random thoughts instead of a full review.

The film exhibits an amazing attention to detail regarding everything from the authentically-rendered Parisian cityscape to the scuffed-up pots and pans in Gusteau’s kitchen. In addition to the artistry of the film, the story of Remy, a rat who wants, who needs to cook no matter the obstacles, is touching and fun. It’s also easily understood by anyone who has ever pursued a creative goal. Near the beginning of the movie, Remy states, “If you are what you eat, I want to eat the good stuff.” These are words to live by, even if they do come from a rat (but a very cute rat).

Two moments in the film stand out to me more than others. The first is when Colette, the only female line cook in a kitchen of shady male characters, mentions how difficult it is for women to enter the professional kitchen, and how hard she has worked to be accepted at Gusteau’s. From what I have read, her story is all too familiar and true.

But for me, the most affecting moment of the film arrives when Anton Ego, the spindly-legged, miserable food critic, eats his first bite of Remy’s elegant take on ratatouille. With this first taste, the critic is whisked back to a memory of himself as a child, standing on his front stoop in tears, then quickly comforted with a dish of steaming homemade ratatouille. When the smile from his childhood spreads across his face as an adult, the wondrous power of food and cooking is summed up perfectly in this moment.

Besides simply sating hunger and providing sustenance, food also encompasses memories and feelings under the surface of these physical needs. Remy struggles to convey this point to his rat brethren throughout the film. In the end, everyone enjoys food in their own way, whether they are rats or humans. Perhaps we’re not as far apart as we think. (But I think that’s a topic for another movie.)

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Kitchen Gadgets: Brown Sugar Saver

Brown Sugar SaverTell me if this sounds familiar: You have a free afternoon in front of you. Maybe it’s cold and rainy outside, maybe not. In any case, you have decided to spend the afternoon in the kitchen, making a pie or some cookies from scratch. You think to yourself, “What a relaxing and productive way to spend the afternoon!”

All of the ingredients are ready to go. Until, that is, you reach for the box of brown sugar, and notice that the crystallized granules have hardened into a solid rectangular mass.

A gentle knock of the box against the counter doesn’t seem to help. One more time? Bang! Nope, nothing.

You reach for the rolling pin and hit it against the sugar brick a few times. When that fails, you pull out the mortar and pestle and try to grind some sugar off the block (yes, a mortar and pestle does come in handy sometimes). You start to wonder why the hell you ever wanted to cook anything today. Out comes the metal hammer. OK, now you know you’ve lost it. The sugar has won.

I have enacted this scene more often than I can count. (Should I be telling anyone this?) But now I am hoping to leave it behind with the help of the Brown Sugar Saver we bought at Sur La Table the last time we were in Pittsburgh. Made by JBK Pottery in Canada, these ceramic disks come in a variety of designs, such as hummingbirds and maple leaves. Ours is a cheerful sun. Supposedly the Brown Sugar Saver keeps all sorts of foods from drying out (dried fruits, cakes, marshmallows, popcorn kernels) and can even soften already-hardened sugar.

It’s hard to believe that a small ceramic tile will keep our brown sugar from hardening, but after reading some reviews, I am feeling hopeful. Last night we followed the instructions and soaked the disk in water for 15 minutes. Then we added it to our jar of brown sugar. The instructions state that the Brown Sugar Saver needs to be re-soaked after three months. By writing this post, at least I’ll remember how long it has been since we placed it in the sugar jar!

Does anyone else have experience with this simple kitchen product?

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The Carroll Gardens Farmers Market Arrives…Finally!

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When Jim and I left our apartment at 9:15 on Sunday morning and strolled over to Carroll Street between Court and Smith, the neighborhood was empty and silent.

Initially this might not seem odd, as 9:15 is pretty early for weekend social activities. But the situation didn’t change much all day. When I went to the laundromat around 1:30 pm, I actually had my pick of the washing machines. No fighting for space, no waiting for dryers. The next best thing to leaving the city for vacation is staying in the city while everyone else is away on vacation. The sidewalks are less crowded; we can all walk a little slower. And I can do my laundry whenever I want.

But back to our morning meander on Carroll Street. All of the vacationing residents missed a truly exciting event: the arrival of the Carroll Gardens Farmers Market. From now through November, our neighborhood will finally host its own small market every Sunday, featuring produce from local farms. Between this and the CSA, my vegetable-and-fruit-related needs will be completely taken care of through the fall.

The market barely stretched a half-block, but the few stands present offered almost everything we needed. We picked up a container of fresh Hodgson’s Farm blueberries and some breakfast pastries from Bread Alone. Hodgson’s Farm also had a colorful plethora of plants for sale, which inevitably left me hungering for a garden of my own.

Our last stand-stop of the morning was at W. Rogowski Farm, where we were impressed with their abundant selection of greens. In addition to investing in our weekly purchase of arugula, we were curious about a purple-hued bunch of leaves called amaranth. Its color was so unusual that I had to buy it. Based on the advice of the kind man running the stand, I am planning to mix it in with the spinach we received from the CSA this week. He also said that we could fry up the plant’s flowers in breadcrumbs; could this perhaps turn into another panko-related project?

I had to restrain myself from scooping up the beautiful swiss chard, collard greens, beets, and purple basil also on display. There are only so many days in a week. And what in the world is salt wort?

It would be nice to add a cheese vendor, or fish and meat vendors to the mix, but we’ll just have to wait and see what the future brings. For now, the market is off to a promising start. Welcome to the neighborhood!

Carroll Gardens Farmers Market, located on Carroll Street between Smith and Court. It will run on Sundays from now through November.

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Cooking from the Past: Farro Salad with Peas, Fava Beans, Arugula, and Grape Tomatoes

farro-002a.jpgI save a lot of stuff. Old maps, movie tickets, postcards from friends, they hide out in my apartment, awaiting rediscovery. Of course I also collect recipes. Every once in a while I flip through my Han Solo binder, stuffed with computer printouts and torn magazine pages, and pull out a recipe I’ve made in the past but have since forgotten.

(OK, I used to be a Star Wars geek, but ONLY because of the original three movies, NOT the new ones. Just clarifying.)

So on Sunday I brought out a special Tuscany issue of Bon Appétit from 2000, and turned to a recipe for a farro salad that I made way back then. Farro, also known as emmer, is often referred to as an “ancient” grain, as it was used by the Etruscans before the diffusion of wheat. I hadn’t enjoyed the dish very much the first time around, but now, after a few years of distance and an increased interest in whole grains, I was ready to try it again. 

After purchasing a bag of farro perlato at the Italian specialty store around the corner, I started by soaking the grains in cold water for 20 minutes. I am not sure what effect this has, but Jamie Oliver says to do it, and that’s good enough for me. After draining the farro, I cooked it in boiling water while I prepared my vegetables: grape tomatoes, raw peas, slightly cooked fava beans, and arugula. At the last minute I decided to sauté some garlic and throw it into the mix. I also dressed the salad with a lemon and olive oil dressing instead of using the suggested red wine vinegar.

The final result (besides being way too much food for two people) was a nutty and light combination of ingredients. The sweet grape tomatoes and crunchy raw peas popped with spring flavors, while the fava beans added a smooth accent to the inherent chewiness of the grain. The arugula held its own and fulfilled its peppery promise. Also, the lemony dressing, mixing with the sautéed garlic and some basil, infused the salad with subtle accents of citrus freshness.

Jim and I tried to make a dent in the mountain of farro I had produced. We didn’t get very far. Even though I’ll be eating this salad for lunch all week, farro will indeed make another appearance at our table. And it won’t take another seven years to do so.

Recipe for Farro Salad with Peas, Fava Beans, Arugula, and Grape Tomatoes (Adapted from Bon Appétit magazine, May 2000)

  • 2 cups of farro
  • 1 cup of shelled fava beans
  • 3/4 cup of fresh peas
  • 12-15 grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch of arugula, leaves separated from stems, washed
  • 5 leaves of fresh basil, chopped 
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper

Start by soaking the farro in a bowl of cold water for 20 minutes; drain. Place the grains in a pot with 6 cups of water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and simmer for 20 minutes, partially covered. While the farro cooks, quickly cook the fava beans in boiling water for about 3 minutes; drain and set aside. Sauté the garlic in a splash of olive oil, until it just starts to brown. Set aside.

When the farro has finished cooking, drain it well and place in a serving dish. Let the farro cool for about 15 minutes, stirring periodically, before adding the favas, peas, and garlic. Mix well. Prepare your dressing by whisking together the olive oil, lemon juice, and a dash of salt and pepper. When you are ready to serve the salad, add the tomatoes, fresh basil, arugula, and dressing. Season again with freshly-ground black pepper. Mix well. Enjoy! Serves 4 as a side dish with possible leftovers for lunch!

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