Monday, July 25, 2016

QUICK BITE: The Milanese

Back in the days when I was toiling away in the kitchen at San Domenico NY, we used to have some regular VIP clients who would come in and order "off menu" as it's called -- requesting favorite dishes that were neither daily specials, nor a part of the restaurant's written menu. These items are usually part of the culinary canon that the restaurant represents. In the case of San Domenico, it was Italian classics, mostly hailing from the north of Italy, like our executive chef. Our most (in)famous VIP client to order off-menu was one Signor Bulgari, of the world-renowned, Rome-based Bulgari jewelry house.

Bulgari holds a special place in the hearts of Romans, in particular. The brand is known for its impressive jewels and even more impressive price tags. I've heard, on any number of occasions, Romans referring to something that was shockingly expensive as being Bulgari: as in, "so I picked up these little Sicilian tomatoes and a bag of organic arugula da Bulgari..." It is Roman slang for saying that the precious gem of an item you purchased was paid for through the nose...but probably worth the indulgence. So, the irony of cooking for Signor Bulgari, off-menu, making his favorite dishes -- a big plate of sliced San Daniele prosciutto, a dish of Maria's famous caponata, and a platter-sized, paper-thin pounded veal Milanese topped with the aforementioned gorgeous cherry tomatoes and arugula -- was not lost on me. The fact that he would boorishly push open the swinging doors to the kitchen from the dining room, asking where his food was after having to wait an entire ten minute stretch, post-order, and that he'd fight the waiter on the bill claiming overcharge on most visits, is just the icing on the torta: the man whose surname is synonymous with pricey didn't like to pay our prices on his special orders. Ha. But luckily, we always knew when he was coming. Forewarned is forearmed. And after a perfectly-prepared Milanese, all is right with the world. Even with Signor Bulgari.

The Milanese is a go-to meal of mine at home, as well. It's comfort food in cooler months, just on its own with some hearty side dishes, but it's at its best now: as in, during the summer months when the tomatoes are bursting with sweetness and taste of the sun, and the peppery bite of the arugula is matched by that of the olive oil drizzled atop this salad, which is then cut with some real balsamic vinegar from Modena. That's the stuff, right there. The veal (or chicken, or turkey) is pounded extra thin, dusted with flour and dipped in organic eggs, and the breading -- this is key -- is a mix of bread crumbs, panko, herbs, and grated parmigiano cheese, which forms a thin, molded crust and keeps the meat juicy within. You need to cut this with a steak knife because it deserves precision. This should not be torn or shredded, but treated with reverence. Because it's deceptively simple, and when prepared well, like most Italian classics, the Milanese is a thing of beauty.


Monday, July 11, 2016

RECIPES: Ghanaian-Inspired Yellowtail Snapper

It started with a conversation to alleviate the drudgery of prep work in the kitchen of San Domenico NY many years ago. I was filleting some black bass, methodically removing pin bones, careful not to stick myself with the spiky fins (as I'd done before, which caused my entire hand to blow up to twice its size and sent me to an emergency doctor. Fun!) When doing prep work in the kitchen, I sometimes asked one of the dishwashers to help me, because they were friendly and fun and they were interested in cooking professionally some day. My attitude was always "the more the merrier" when in came to kitchen work. So I started chatting with Mbulli, the Ghanaian dishwasher who was helping me with my task. And we started discussing fishing, and fish preparation. So I asked him how he might prepare a whole fish like the sea bass we were working on that day -- or any fish he might have at home in Ghana -- and he told me, very simply. "I would make it with chilies, and citrus like orange, and cilantro." And that stuck with me. I always thought that idea sounded fantastically refreshing, and I vowed to myself to make that preparation one day.

A decade and a half later, on a recent trip to see my family in south Florida, I was out fishing with my younger brother -- quite an accomplished recreational fisherman -- on his new boat, along with his fishing buddy James. We went out late afternoon in the early summer, as the sun cast a pinkish glow on the water and the humidity broke just enough to make the July air tolerable.  And though the catch wasn't as bountiful as we might have hoped, it did yield us a gaggle of very delicious, fresh fish, including three decent-sized yellowtail snappers -- a local fish I adore. Normally, we'd take the fish home and either make a ceviche or sushi out of it, if the particular fish was best enjoyed raw. Or, we'd cook it either simply fried or pan sauteed with accompanying veggie sides. But on this occasion, I was headed back to New York the following day, and the fish would keep if I carried them back on ice in a cooler...which is exactly what I did. My brother and his friend had been patient with me when seasickness relegated me to a beanbag on board, sniffing mint to quell my nausea: they caught the fish and insisted I take the catch. So I told them that the yellowtail were destined for a preparation about which I'd been daydreaming since that afternoon in the San Domenico kitchen. I would invite some friends over and attempt to make Ghanaian-inspired yellowtail snapper.

Back in my Manhattan kitchen, I set to making a dinner for a hot New York City summer night (perfectly authentic to the climate in which this dish might be consumed)! I paired the fish, roasted whole quite simply with salt and pepper and a little oil, with a sauce I made on the side. The ingredients are simple: orange, jalapeno and scotch bonnet chiles, garlic, shallot, and cilantro. I added a splash of vinegar and lime juice and that's pretty much it. I paired it with coconut rice, and some balsamic-honey roasted carrots, and laid the fish on some watercress. It was spicy, and delicious, and has now officially become a part of my fresh fish repertoire. Thank you, Mbulli!


Serves: 4-6 

Remember to handle the chile peppers with gloves on, to avoid burning face, eyes, mouth, etc.

2-3 small whole yellowtail snappers, approx 3-5 pounds, gutted, scaled, and cleaned
5 oranges, cut into supremed segments
4 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 scotch bonnet chile, seeded and veined, and sliced finely
1 jalapeno pepper (or other mild chile pepper), sliced finely
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 lime: zest and juice
2 TBSP. white balsamic or red wine vinegar

- In a cast iron skillet or on a roasting pan lined with parchment paper -- either one lined with a shmear of canola oil -- place the whole fishes, which have been seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. (You can also stuff the bellies with fresh herbs like parsley and cilantro, as well as slices of citrus, if desired). If cooking in the skillet, sear fish on one side over medium-high heat, for about 5 minutes, and then flip them and place into a 325 degree oven for another 20-25 minutes. If placing directly on a roasting pan, place into that same oven but add 5-10 minutes of cooking time.

- Meanwhile, In a saute pan, place all the remaining ingredients together and simmer over medium-low heat until the flavors begin to meld, about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

- When the fish is done cooking through, you will be able to easily pull out the pelvic fin -- the little bony fin underneath the fish, in front of its belly. You can also try sticking a small, sharp knife into the thickest part of the fish and if the blade comes out warm to the touch, the fish should be done as well. The entire fish should be firm.

- Serve the fish whole on a platter with the orange-cilantro-chile sauce on the side. This pairs nicely with a rice made with coconut milk, roasted vegetables, and a crisp green like watercress.

Monday, June 27, 2016

ESCAPES: L.A. Eats Part 2: Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Santa Monica & Venice

We're not talking cutting edge here. This is a dining round-up comprised of restaurants that have been open for quite some time now. So it may not be about the latest iteration of avocado toast from Sqirl or the hottest new entry from the Animal guys. But we are talking about beautiful food, innovative food, and in other cases just simple, soulful food done well: five examples of restaurants in L.A., center and west to Santa Monica and Venice Beach, each offering their own spin on dining as people-pleasing experience.

The Getty Center itself is an amazing spot where one can both escape and overlook the city. The architecture and design of the grounds is reason enough to visit, regardless of what's on exhibit within these curved, soaring walls. The gardens and landscaping are another draw, and the setting on high makes this day trip-worthy. But best of all, particularly if you're a lover of expertly-prepared, refined cuisine in gorgeous spaces? The Restaurant at the Getty Center. Here, I enjoyed lunch in the sun-soaked dining room with my former-pastry chef, always-culinarily curious-friend Deb. We feasted on a light, modern bouillabaisse, beautifully stacked in a shallow bowl. We tucked into a rich but light cannelloni with ricotta, laced with carrots and squash blossoms and enoki mushrooms, topped with fresh greens. And we went for one dessert between the two of us, because really, how could we not try at least a little something sweet? 
Our choice was a tempting, moist banana cake and mousse topped with caramelized bananas and drenched in a decadent dark chocolate sauce. We were definitely slowed down after the lunch, but we'd been smart to see most of the museum and its grounds before digging in, so all we really needed to do was wander through one wing looking at photos, before heading home for an afternoon nap.
The airy dining room of the Restaurant at the Getty Center

Next up? No trip to modern day L.A.'s food world would be complete without a stop at Jose Andres's The Bazaar. The place is surreal. You walk into the hotel lobby of the SLS Beverly Hills, designed by Phillipe Starck, and immediately feel like you've been swept away through the Looking Glass into a bizarre-o Wonderland for food chemists and tinkerers. And essentially, that's what Andres is. Like Ferran Adria' before him (who was also a mentor), Andres plays with his food, but in the most refined and delightful way, fully bringing all the senses together to taste, smell, see, feel. Only a chef with a sense of humor, playfulness, and confidence would serve the puffed sugar air that is cotton candy, and use it on his savory menu, to encapsulate a nugget of foie gras within. The menu is peppered with quotation marks and asterisks. Mussels are "en escabeche," there is a deconstructed Philly cheese steak that becomes thinly sliced raw or lightly-seared wagyu beef on cheesy "pillow bread", and even the most ubiquitous of classic Spanish dishes, the torta espanola (basically a thick egg frittata loaded with potatoes and onion) is re-imagined as a tortilla de patatas "new way" with potato foam, something called egg 63, and caramelized onions. And of course, there are the olives served three ways -- one of which is famously liquefied and then encapsulated in an olive skin-like skin. Though it's now a standard dish in the molecular gastronomy canon, it still thrills to bite into the "olive". We skipped the basics in the cheese and jamon categories (of top quality, I'm sure, but there is more exciting eating to be done here), and went for the slightly exotic dishes, along with ones that just sounded plain delicious. I loved the twists on Spanish and Mediterranean food, like the examples above, plus any iteration of ceviche/tartare/raw fish deliciousness always makes me giddy when I know I'm in great chef hands.
The meal ended up being a feast for the taste buds and we stuffed ourselves to the gills -- though not before being redirected to the dessert bar for a super-sweet ending to the meal. The place looked like something out of Willy Wonka or "The Nutcracker" -- it was over-the-top in its confectionery pastel wonder. We stumbled out after dessert in a diabetic coma that overtook any of the bubbly we consumed with dinner! It was a great experience and something in which we all should partake at least once.

I headed out to Venice Beach because it was a new experience for me (fortunate enough to have seen Venice, Italy countless times before I'd ever seen the Californian version!), and because my cousin was playing a music gig out there: motivation to make the trek west. We walked the coastline, noting the kitschy surf shops, spotting "Muscle Beach" made famous in the 1980s, and passed many a hawker of medical marijuana cards asking us if we suffered from headaches, wink wink. We finally settled in to meet up with another local friend of mine from our days in Rome. We had beers on the beach as the sun lowered in the sky, and eventually went to dinner at a decades-old standby for Mexican(ish) food -- not, as the name might imply, Moroccan cuisine -- called Casablanca.
As in white house. But mostly named after the movie. Confusing, I know. Anyway, the place is famous for their  awesomely potent margaritas, shaken and mixed in front of you from the guy with the margarita cart. There were also a few older Mexican ladies making homemade tortillas for diners to watch. (The whole city of L.A. knows something about showmanship). The obligatory mariachi band was there too, of course. We enjoyed the standards of Mexican menus in America -- guacamole and freshly-fried crispy tortilla chips and salsa, enchiladas with refried beans and rice, and seafood and veggie fajitas. They were all very decent versions of these standards, and we left satisfied and fortified for my cousin's performance, which was (of course) fab. I was able to see the charms of living on the "west side," as locals call it, with access to the coast line and all of the lazy living (in the best way) that goes along with it.

In Santa Monica, there are lots of offerings. Sushi Roku is a modern, Americanized (but not too much) Japanese restaurant specializing in fun, original sushi, sashimi, and maki. I always ask my L.A. friends if we can go there one night for dinner, because I still hold steadfast to the belief that sushi is better on the U.S. west coast. Something about the Pacific shared with Japan, I suppose. The dining room is funky, modern Asian chic and the menu is full of interesting flavor combinations, both for raw fish lovers, and those who only order off of the "cooked" menu at a Japanese restaurant. It's hard not to over-order as my eyes always seem to be bigger than my stomach here. Of the same ilk, but in West Hollywood -- and therefore a bit more dressy-appointment dining, is KOI. Like half of the places in this neighborhood, we have one in New York (two, actually). But again, the west coast thing with sushi. And this mini-chain of restaurants has outposts as far-flung as Bangkok and Abu Dhabi. As expected, the Asian-inflected cocktails here are delicious. And then, this is the kind of place where you order champagne to drink throughout the meal, just because. We indulged in tartares and lobster tacos, shishito and edamame, and sushi galore. Whatever specials they were featuring, we ordered them. We were half a dozen women who wanted to try everything! The only thing was, they were going home after dinner, and I was meeting another college friend of mine for a late night out on the Sunset Strip, heading to music clubs and terrace bars galore. It was a long one, but it was my final night in L.A., and I wanted to make it last.

The Restaurant at The Getty Center
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles, CA  90049
(310) 440.6810

The Bazaar by Jose' Andres
465 South La Cienega Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA  90048
(310) 246.5555

Sushi Roku
1401 Ocean Ave
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 458.4771 

730 N. La Cienega Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA  90069
(310) 659.9449

220 Lincoln Blvd.
Venice, CA  90291
(310) 392.5751

Thursday, May 26, 2016

QUICK BITE: Delicious Equation: Veg + Nut + Fruit

It's a simple matter of addition: this + this + that = maximum deliciousness. For side dishes -- and increasingly, for vegetable-based dishes that stand on their own, without a protein "main" -- my formula is pretty simple. Just remember this:

Vegetable + Nut + Fruit

That's all. Quite simple. But the way in which you can use your imagination, the colors of the spectrum, the seasons, local ingredients, even items that are only around for a few weeks a year...this is what keeps the formula interesting. And, it's what keeps your palate alive and happy!

This formula always works for a composed salad. The example at left is a mixed greens salad topped with roasted beets (veg), hazelnuts (nut), and roasted grape tomatoes (fruit!). Other favorites include the classic mesclun with walnuts (or pecans...toasted, or candied), blue cheese, and pears or apples. And we can't leave out my Sicilian favorite salad of shaved fennel, blood orange, and olive salad, made better by the addition of almonds or pine nuts. Actually, anybody who knows me (and how eggplant-crazy I am!) knows that my favorite Sicilian ANYthing is caponata, which of course abides by this veg+nut+fruit rule: eggplant and other vegetables married with olives (yes, a fruit) and raisins and pine nuts.Which brings me to another point: any vegetable or vegetable medley made in the Sicilian/Jewish-Italian vein, which almost always includes the originally-Arab pairing of raisins and pine nuts, automatically adheres to the above principal. So, sauteed Roman greens -- chicory or spinach or any kind of bitter or wilted green, served with raisins and pine nuts...check. Fits the equation. That's right: maximum deliciousness. And yes, one of my favorite all-time salads and items of Vietnamese fare, the shredded cabbage-chicken-pomelo salad qualifies, as it's sprinkled with either roasted peanuts or sesame seeds. And damn, is it tasty!

So, an addendum: seeds can be stand-ins for actual nuts. They're usually just as healthy, and can sometimes lend a subtler touch to a dish. So sprinkle in the sesame and sunflower seeds, plop on the pepitas and the poppy seeds -- you'll up the ante on flavor, texture, and nutrition. Those dishes with a riot of color usually contain the most vitamins, minerals, nutrients, antioxidants, and flavor. What's become a real crowd favorite of my dishes? The more exotic and colorful of my creations are gaining in popularity, and with good reason. My Moroccan salad of organic roasted rainbow carrots and beets with Moroccan-spiced vinaigrette, mint, parsley, pomegranate, and nigella seeds is refreshing for summer. And I'm loving charred brussels sprouts with a Persian touch: with pistachios and pomegranate arils tossed in an olive oil and pomegranate molasses glaze. Half the fun is in experimentation. The other half? Eating! (Experimentation + Eating = Tasty Fun).

Class dismissed. Now, go play around in the kitchen and make some delicious veggie dishes to start the summer off on the right (healthy) foot. Happy Memorial Day, everybody! (and buon estate to my lovely Italians!)