Archive for March, 2008

Dinner at the River Cafe

Rock Lobster appetizer at the River Cafe in Brooklyn

My father’s birthday fell on Easter weekend this year, and even though he enjoyed my homemade rice tart, it hardly substituted for a proper celebration. So on Saturday night my parents, Jim, my sister Melissa, her boyfriend Nedim, and I convened at the River Café on Brooklyn’s waterfront to get his party started.

With its magnificent view of the East River, Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Bridge, the River Café has long been known for its incomparable setting. In the past, whenever I visited Grimaldi’s Pizzeria a few doors away, I always strolled down to the River Café after my meal, curious about what kind of experience awaited behind its romantic, vine-covered exterior.

As my family and I admired the view and the gorgeous flowers in the expansive dining room on Saturday night, we were treated to a small espresso cup of creamy butternut squash soup with toasted pumpkin seeds. We then moved on to our three-course prixe fixe dinner, choosing from the French-inspired, seafood- and meat-heavy menu ($95 per person).

Melissa and I started with wild rock lobster tails accompanied by blood oranges and cauliflower purée. The two delicately balanced tails were light, fresh, and infused with gentle citrus flavors. The guys raved about their foie gras appetizers: My father and Nedim tried the sautéed Hudson Valley foie gras, while Jim’s was presented in two different ways, as a classic pressed terrine and as a poached roulade. Mom chose the oysters glazed with a lemon-pepper hollandaise and caviar.

Crispy Duck Breast at the River Cafe in Brooklyn

I liked the look of my second course, a crispy duck breast served with a clever duck meat and potato croquette in the shape of a duck leg. I raised my fork to my mouth, took a bite of the dense meat, and tasted…salt. Melissa, who had ordered the same dish, agreed. After a few bites, the salt thankfully receded a bit, and I directed my attention to the homey croquette. As for the rest of my party, Jim, Nedim, and my mother were pleased with the lobster special, while my father enjoyed his Colorado rack of lamb.

For my dad’s birthday I had ordered a decadent chocolate cake filled with chocolate caramel mousse from the Café’s pastry department. We also sampled a few desserts from the menu, my favorite being the light and creamy goat cheese cheesecake with passion fruit gelée, meringue, and passion fruit ice cream.

Overall, the River Café helped us celebrate my father’s birthday in style, with a very good, beautifully presented meal in an amazing setting. My only complaint is that the service was perhaps a bit too attentive: Throughout our meal, numerous waiters hovered around the table, ready to clear our plates at a moment’s notice. When I heard my sister reprimand one of them for trying to clear her appetizer away before she was finished, I cringed. That waiter should have been warned not to try and take unfinished food from the Grillo family.

As we walked outside after admiring the flowers and view of the Brooklyn Bridge for a second time, Melissa said, “Wow, did we just have an experience?”

Yes, Melissa, I think we did. My curiosity has finally been satisfied.

The River Café, 1 Water Street, in DUMBO, Brooklyn. T: 718-522-5200. Reservations are recommended. Dinner jackets are required.


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Jamie Oliver’s Torta di Riso, with a Twist of Lemon

Ingredients for Jamie Oliver’s Torta di Riso

Jim and I celebrated Easter at my parents’ house over the weekend. As noted in last week’s New York Times article about Easter desserts, many Italians prefer to buy their sweets at the pasticceria rather than bake them at home; my Italian-American family is no different. So I figured that while my mother was busy making her traditional dish of lamb, peas, and eggs, I would add a homemade touch to our dessert options.

(By the way, that lamb dish is a family secret. I promised my mother I wouldn’t share it, so you’ll just have to be satisfied with this tart.)

I turned to Jamie’s Italy and settled on the torta di riso, a sort of rice custard tart flavored with vanilla and orange zest. With its ingredients of Arborio rice, milk, and citrus, it reminded me of the Easter desserts discussed in the Times. At Jim’s request I decided to flavor the filling with lemon instead of orange zest, which made the tart seem even more Easter-appropriate.

While preparing the filling, I was surprised at how similar the process was to making risotto. Instead of slowly adding meat or vegetable broth and stirring the Arborio rice until it absorbed the liquid, for this dessert I poured milk into the pot while the rice simmered. The recipe recommends taking the pot off the heat while the mixture is still quite liquidy, with the milk becoming slowly absorbed by the rice as it cools.

A slice of the torta di riso

My torta di riso emerged from the oven as a smooth, serene sea of lemon goodness. Topped with fresh whipped cream, the tart emitted subtle citrus flavors combined with the texture of silky rice. Should I admit that we ate the torta on Saturday night instead of on Easter? We just couldn’t wait. That’s another characteristic of my Italian family: We love to eat.

Recipe for Easter Torta di Riso (adapted from Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italy)

  • 1 shortcrust pastry, baked until just browned in an 11-inch tart tin with a removable bottom (I followed the recipe on page 279 of Jamie’s Italy. It produces a very sweet, flaky crust, and takes about 2 1/2 hours from start to finish. If you use this recipe, make sure to roll the crust out very thin; I always forget, causing it to come out a little too thick after baking.)

For the filling:

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 vanilla beans, sliced in half
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • zest of 3 1/2 lemons
  • 1 wineglass of white wine (about 3/4 of a cup of wine)
  • 3 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 2 eggs, whisked
  • 2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. To prepare the filling, melt the butter in a high-sided pan at low heat. Remove the seeds from the vanilla beans, add them to the butter, and stir. Cook for 1 minute, then add the rice, granulated sugar, and lemon zest. Turn the heat to medium and add the white wine. Stir until the wine has almost cooked away.

Slowly add the milk while continuing to stir the rice. Simmer the rice and milk mixture over low heat, stirring often, for about 15 minutes. Do not cook the rice all the way through, as it will continue to cook in the oven. It should still have some bite when you remove it from the heat, and the mixture will still be quite liquidy.

Allow the rice mixture to cool slightly. I noticed that at this point the rice absorbs much of the liquid. Mix in the whisked eggs. Pour the rice into the tart case, sprinkle it with powdered sugar, and bake for about 20-25 minutes. Cool. Serve with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. Enjoy!

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Goan-Style Shrimp Curry

Maybe it was that rather ascetic dinner of red peppers with quinoa and goat cheese. Or maybe it was because I was halfway through Michael Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food, and I was struck by his point that many of us are so confused about our diets that we have lost the pleasure in eating. Anyway, all I’m trying to say is that this weekend I wanted to make something rich, fun, and exotic for dinner. And I satisfied that craving with a Goan-Style Shrimp Curry recipe from the New York Times’ One Pot column.

Goan-Style Shrimp Curry from the New York Times

The recipe is adapted from chefs Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur of Devi, an Indian restaurant on 18th Street in Manhattan. I’ve never been there, but after making this amazing curry, I’m definitely putting Devi on my list of restaurants to visit.

A historic city located on the west coast of India, Old Goa was the capital of Portugal’s once vast Indian empire from 1510 until the 1960s. It is located in Goa, India’s smallest state. Because of its proximity to the sea, it enjoys an abundance of fresh seafood; fish curry is one of the area’s most popular dishes. Goa’s cuisine is often strongly flavored with coconuts, red chilies, and vinegar.

The New York Times recipe uses two out of these three ingredients. A tomato-based sauce is quickly simmered with smoky red chilies, fragrant coriander, turmeric, curry, and fresh ginger to impart a mild, mysterious heat. Sweet, rich coconut milk tempers that warmth and slowly creates a gorgeous pink hue as it joins the tomatoes in the pot. A handful of chopped cilantro at the end adds a welcome breath of freshness.

I followed the recipe and used solely shrimp in the sauce, but this curry would work well with a myriad of food combinations, including vegetables, lobster, or scallops. Served over an ample portion of brown rice, my seafood stew emitted hints of warm chili in one bite, the strong presence of ginger in the next.

In the small article accompanying the recipe, Saran recounts how he discovered this addictive dish a few years ago while visiting friends in Old Goa. My most memorable meals are often ones that I have cooked and shared with friends and family. I’m starting to think that it’s the best way to put the pleasure back into eating, whether cooking with quinoa or coconut milk. I’ll have to see if Michael Pollan agrees in the second half of his book.

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Happy Anniversary to the Choke

Jim mixing dough for the pasta 

Today is the first anniversary of Artichoke Heart! That’s right, one year ago today I blogged about making pasta for the first time. This awkward entry was soon followed by writings related to pizzelle and bread baking, trips to Paris, Italy, Singapore, and California, and exercises in book reading, restaurant reviewing, and Jamie Oliver worshipping.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this past year as much as I have. I started this blog looking for a creative outlet and a way to express my enthusiasm for all things food-related. Artichoke Heart has given me all that and more in a year filled with ups and downs, so I am going to continue blogging, for as long as I have ideas.

In the coming months you can expect more recipe testing and pasta making, as well as whatever new food adventures come my way. I’m sure there will be more love for Jamie Oliver. And more Jim! (That’s him up there, mixing the pasta dough.) Oh, I also want to challenge myself more and add some personal profiles to the mix. I just need to summon the courage to actually speak to some of my favorite shopkeepers in the neighborhood. I hope you’ll stay tuned. Thanks for reading!

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Quinoa, Whole Grain of the Incas

Red Peppers Stuffed with Quinoa and Goat Cheese

Remember last summer, when I wrote about my fondness for farro, that ancient, nutty grain of Etruscan origins? Well, a few months ago I decided to spread that love to a whole grain from the opposite side of the globe: quinoa.

Quinoa originated in South America’s Andes Mountains and has been around for thousands of years. It was a sacred crop of the Incas, and for good reason: Quinoa is full of healthy stuff like protein, essential amino acids, and fiber.

After reading about this revered grain, I bought a small box and quickly whipped up Gourmet’s Lemon-Scented Quinoa. Light, nutty, and lemony, the bead-like quinoa was an intriguing new side dish at our dinner table. But something about the texture made me pause; it seemed too spongy, too airy. I couldn’t decide how I felt about it.  

That was around Thanksgiving. Since then, the half-full box of quinoa stared out at me from the kitchen cupboard every time I reached inside for sea salt or honey for my tea. I felt stressed; how would I use it again? I thought of making a quinoa salad, perhaps with some arugula, tomatoes, and walnuts, and bringing it to work for lunch, but I never got around to it.

So this week I turned to Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and found a recipe for red peppers stuffed with quinoa and goat cheese. I mixed the quinoa with less of the creamy cheese than was recommended in the recipe, so the end result was lighter than I expected. And while the charred red peppers added vibrant flavor to the soft quinoa mixture, the dish would have benefited from some minced garlic. I threw in two scallions because I was out of garlic, but I’ve suggested some in the recipe below. 

Just to warn you, you may want to serve something more substantial than a salad with your stuffed peppers. An hour after dinner Jim was still hungry, and made himself a cheese and crackers plate. I can’t say I’m a quinoa convert, but I am hoping I will like it more in time, maybe in something like the salad I mentioned earlier.

So, now that I’ve tried whole grains from both Italy and South America, where should I turn to next? I’m always looking for a new grain, so let me know!

Recipe for Red Peppers Stuffed with Quinoa and Goat Cheese (adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian)

  • 4 red peppers, halved and cored (The peppers we bought were too long and narrow to stand on their own, so I wound up cutting them lengthwise)
  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 4 ounces of soft goat cheese
  • 2 scallions, diced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • salt
  • pepper
  • olive oil

Rinse quinoa in a sieve under running water. Put the quinoa in a pot with at least 2 cups water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil under high heat, then lower heat to a simmer. The quinoa will expand in size and will be ready after about 20 minutes. Drain.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a bowl combine the quinoa with the goat cheese, scallions, garlic, chopped parsley, and some salt and pepper. Sprinkle the red peppers with salt, and then fill each pepper half with the mixture. Lightly oil a baking dish with olive oil and place the peppers in the dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then roast in the oven for about 40 minutes. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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