Archive for May, 2008

A Break

Things here at Artichoke Heart will be quiet for about the next week and a half, as I’m heading out of town for another quick trip to Singapore. I need to recharge my blogging batteries anyway, so this break is coming at the right time. Have a good week!

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Vanilla Beanery and Chicken: Pollo Papantla

Elaine Louise\'s Pollo Papantla

I first discovered my love for the vanilla bean about a year ago, when I made Jamie Oliver’s torta di more. His recipe required the real deal, not the small bottle of extract from my spice cabinet. After splitting the long pod and patiently scraping the seeds away from its skin, I was soon enthralled by its aroma and flavor. From that moment, whether I made torta di riso or panna cotta, I automatically reached for a real vanilla bean instead of extract.

Then last month I came across Elaine Louie’s One Pot recipe for pollo papantla in the New York Times. The article described a Mexican dish of chicken legs simmered in a sauce of orange juice, cider vinegar, garlic, cayenne pepper, and finally, vanilla bean. The recipe was adapted from Zarela Martinez of Zarela restaurant in midtown Manhattan. She advises that the dish is almost better on the second day, when the flavors have soaked into the chicken.

The vanilla bean was cultivated by the Aztec Indians, who used it to flavor their cocoa-based drink called xocolatl. It is native to tropical America and is produced by a specific orchid that opens only one day per year. Mature pods take almost a year to mature, and they then endure a 3 to 6 month curing process that includes a boiling water bath and repeated sweat sessions while wrapped in blankets. Their fermentation process sounds oddly familiar to a day at the spa.

From my past experiences I’ve found that these One Pot recipes make enough food to feed a small army. So instead of 6 chicken thighs I used 4, and I slightly reduced the rest of the ingredients as well. I cheated and used Tropicana instead of fresh orange juice; I just couldn’t deal with squeezing fresh juice from a sack of oranges on a weeknight after work. 

The chicken emerged from the pot sweet and smoky, browned and savory. By the second day the vanilla and citrus flavors had indeed sunk into the poultry’s flesh, leaving little extra sauce after I warmed up the chicken. In retrospect I probably didn’t need to reduce the amount of sauce in the recipe. While the chicken was not dry by any means, a little sauce to sop up would have been nice. Regardless, my little bean didn’t let me down.

Recipe for Pollo Papantla (adapted from Elaine Louie’s April 30, 2008 recipe in the New York Times)

  • 4 chicken thighs, legs split from the thighs
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/3 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 3/4 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 1/4 cups orange juice (no pulp)
  • 1 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped from the pod
  • chopped cilantro, for garnish

Rinse the chicken under water, then pat dry with paper towels. Season both sides with salt and pepper. Heat canola oil in a large skillet or deep sided Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the chicken pieces skin side down, and brown on both sides. This takes about 5 minutes per side.

When chicken is browned, pour excess oil and fat from the pan. Sprinkle cayenne and a little more pepper over the chicken as evenly as possible, to your taste. Add garlic, sauté for 1 minute. Add vinegar, butter, and orange juice. Add scraped vanilla beans, and then add the pod itself. Stir all of the ingredients together.

Cook the chicken skin side up, uncovered for about 20 to 30 minutes. Baste occasionally with the sauce, which will gradually reduce into a thick glaze. Garnish with cilantro, and serve with tortillas or rice. If you are eating this the next day, warm up the chicken in a covered pot at 350 degrees in the oven for about 15 minutes. Serves 2-3 people. Enjoy!

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Lost in Yonkers: Dinner at X20

Spaghetti Chittarra from X20 in Yonkers

Whenever I tell someone that I grew up in Yonkers, I inevitably hear the following questions: “Are you talking about Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers? Have you read it?”

No, I’ve never read or seen the play. But the city in which it’s set is undergoing a renaissance. Back when I was in grammar school, Yonkers was primarily known for its bitter desegregation struggles. Downtown was characterized by its gritty and industrial atmosphere, not its restaurants. But in the past few years, new bars and restaurants have slowly emerged, adding exciting dining options to this long-neglected riverfront neighborhood.

No other eatery has epitomized this renewal more than chef Peter X. Kelly’s X20, a year-old contemporary American restaurant situated on a historic pier near the heart of downtown Yonkers. Kelly is a hometown boy, raised in a nearby housing project. He is well known in the area, with three highly-esteemed restaurants in Rockland County. My parents, my sister Melissa, Jim, and I headed to X20 on Saturday night for my mother’s birthday, and experienced Yonkers in a whole new way.

The steel pier hosting the restaurant extends over the Hudson River, offering spectacular views of the Palisades and not-so-far-off Manhattan. As I walked into the spacious 2nd floor dining room with its 25-foot ceilings, I simply gasped at the incredible panorama. Next I marveled at the generous space between tables, the gracious and professional staff, and the manageable noise level that allowed my family to speak and hear each other with ease. 

Osso Bucco from X20 in Yonkers

The ample menu of intriguing meat and seafood options obviously aims to please a variety of palettes. After much struggle I finally settled on the spaghetti chittarra for my appetizer ($14.50). A small tangle of perfectly cooked spaghetti tossed with light crabmeat, toasted breadcrumbs, and green onions exuded freshness and springtime. As a pasta lover, I easily could have eaten a full-size serving. But I needed to leave room for my second course of red-wine braised osso bucco, which was served with a barley risotto, shaved root vegetables, wild mushrooms, and a handful of fava beans ($30.00).

While my spaghetti chittarra epitomized the arrival of spring, the osso bucco was hearty, rich, and slightly too much food for me. The tender braised meat and savory risotto created a comforting combination of flavors, and if I had tried this dish on a cold and wintry day, I’m sure I would have loved it.

I ended my meal with a piece of classic red velvet cake ($8.50). And as I watched my mother blow out her candles, I thought how nice it was to come home to Yonkers and see positive changes in the city; I vowed to do it more often. Perhaps next time we return we can try Dylan, X20′s low-key sushi bar.

And, just in case you were wondering, Jim and I accidentally took a few wrong turns on the way back to Brooklyn. I guess you can say that on Saturday night we were indeed lost in Yonkers.

X20, Xaviar’s on the Hudson, 71 Water Grant Street, Yonkers, New York  T: 914-965-1111

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My Cookie of the Month: Gorayba

As I’ve already mentioned, one benefit of my knock-down, drag-out hummus competition was that it required several trips to Atlantic Avenue’s Middle Eastern food shops. At Sahadi’s I slowly wandered among the imported, exotic foodstuffs. I also spent some quality time ogling the piles of pita bread, cookies, and sweets at the Syrian Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop

Of course I never left either store empty-handed. But let’s concentrate on my visits to Damascus, where I bought sweet, sticky baklava, in both walnut and pistachio varieties. Intricate bird’s nest pastries currently await me in a white paper bag on my kitchen counter, almost too pretty to eat. I stocked up on light, airy, white and whole-wheat pita bread. I also purchased an unfamiliar shortbread cookie that I couldn’t bring myself to save for later: gorayba

I knew I had to try these bracelet-shaped butter cookies from the moment I saw them behind the glass display case at the pastry shop. They practically begged me to buy them, bring them home, and enjoy them with a hot cup of tea. 

Gorayba are usually defined as Arabic cardamom shortbread cookies, made on special occasions and found throughout the Middle East. Sometimes almonds or pistachios are placed at the intersection where the two ends of dough meet. According to Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, it’s important not to overcook the gorayba (also spelled ghorayebah). They must remain quite white in color, because their flavor changes greatly if they even slightly brown.

Some recipes say that the addition of cardamom is optional; I’m not sure I tasted it in the cookies I recently bought. Roden’s book also suggests hazelnut, nutmeg, and cinnamon variations. In any case, these cookies are memorable for their buttery, slightly sweet simplicity. Jim says his Greek grandmother used to make a similar cookie called koulourakia, but we have to investigate this more fully. And I have to make another trip to the Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop, as I’ve eaten all of my gorayba.

Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop, 195 Atlantic Avenue, between Court and Clinton Streets, in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.  T: 718-625-7070

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