Friday, August 5, 2016

SEASONAL FOODS: Cherries


Is there a fruit happier than the bright red cherry? It decorates flirty dresses and bags, tops sundaes, plops in fizzy drinks like the Shirley Temple. And at the same time, is there a fruit more luscious and seemingly forbidden, aching to be popped off of its stem and into your mouth, leaving a wine-dark juicy stain in its wake? I won't get into the cherry as euphemism, but suffice it to say cherries are a beloved fruit, versatile in both sweet and savory preparations, and an absolutely delicious seasonal food. And, bonus: cherries happen to be great for you.

First, a little history. Cherries and cherry trees as we know them are native to the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, with several species in the U.S., a handful in Europe, and the remainder in Asia. The cultivated cherry (as well as fellow stone fruit, the apricot), is recorded as having been brought to Rome by Lucius Licinius Lucullus from northeastern Anatolia (also known as the Pontus region, or Asia Minor) -- most of modern day Turkey's Asian land, in 72 BC. Today, Turkey is still the number one producer of cherries in the world, with the U.S. as number two, followed by Iran, Italy, and Spain in 3rd, 4th, and 5th positions worldwide. In America, sweet cherries (prunus avium) are grown mostly in the western part of the country -- Washington, Oregon, and California. Tart cherries (prunus cerasus) are grown mostly in Michigan, Utah, and again Washington state. (Anyone who has bought cherries in supermarkets in the U.S. has seen the widespread domination of Washington state cherries -- and rightly so. They're delicious!)

As for nutritional value and benefits, sweet cherries are rich in beta carotene, potassium (a blood pressure reducer), and vitamin C. One serving of sweet cherries (about 1 cup) contains 90 calories and 3 grams of fiber. The catechins and flavanals in cherries contribute to the fruit's healthfulness as well.
Cherries are rich in anthocyanins and quercetin, bioactive compounds which studies indicate may work in synergy to combat cancer. This power pairing may also prevent some genetic mutations that can lead to cancer, and keep cancerous cells in check -- particularly breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancers. They are also anti-inflammatory, and provide cardiovascular benefits as well as mild fat-burning capabilities. (Note: tart cherries contain these elements but sweet cherries contain three times as many, found in the cherry's skin). And, the riper the better, as darker, ripened cherries contain more antioxidants.

Cherries also help with gout, a form of arthritis caused by an excess of uric acid in the blood which causes inflammation and swelling. Growing research shows that consuming cherries (both sweet and tart), and drinking tart cherry juice, lowers uric acid and inflammation. In the same way, cherries' anti-inflammatory properties ease joint pain as well as muscle soreness. Good news for those watching their sugar intake: cherries have among the lowest glycemic index (22) and glycemic load (3) values of all fruit. And, since tart cherries are rich in melatonin, a compound that regulates the body's natural sleep-wake patterns, the fruit and its juice act as natural sleep aids and improve the quality of that sleep.


Before you drift off to dreamland, though, let's discuss the fun stuff: that is, all the ways in which delicious cherries can be consumed!
We all know and love cherry pie, which just may be second only to apple as the most American of pies. (The George Washington-cherry tree legend also reinforces the fruit's American appeal). There are many forms of desserts, pies and pastries that are excellent with cherries, including tarts and crostate, cherry clafoutis, black forest cake, and cherries jubilee. But cherries also work wonderfully in savory dishes, sauces, and even cocktails. From the oxblood bing cherries to the yellow-blush Ranier cherries, look for a firm skin without blemishes, and a green stem as a sign of freshness.

Cherries happen to pair well with meats, and make a wonderful sauce for duck breast, seen here with a cherry port sauce. Cherries add a fruity note to a barbeque sauce in place of the tomato base found in many bbq sauces. Pitted diced cherries also make an interesting base for a salsa. I like to make one with red onions, chopped pistachios, fresh mint and basil, which I pair with grilled meats and sausages in the summertime. 
I also make an interesting savory pasta dish with cherries: first I prepare a veal ragu in bianco, meaning there are no tomatoes in this ragu, simply onions/celery/carrots. I cook the the veal ragu for a coupe of hours over low heat, and at the end, while I'm cooking the pasta, I toss in some chopped cherries along with some freshly chopped sage or rosemary, parsley and chives. It may sound strange, but it's one of the best pasta dishes in my repertoire

Of course, cherries are great as a plain old fruit, and as a part of fruit salads and plates. Served cold, they pair really well with melons. As for drinks, I love a sour cherry spritzer, because not only are they refreshing, but they're also helpful in regulating my sleep patterns. I love cherries with mint, so they're a natural in a summery mojito. 
And they also work well with dark liquors, so using cherry syrup or fresh dark cherries smashed with some bourbon or whiskey topped with club soda and a lime is good when you're in the mood for something with a real kick. Kirsch is a cherry liqueur delicious on its own and as a part of many mixed drinks. And of course, the original cocktail fruit was the maraschino cherry, an integral part in many classic cocktails recipes. Finally, let's not forget the beloved chocolate covered cherry. The classic is a cherry set inside a chocolate shell, and when you bite into it, the syrup in which it sets oozes out. I love a good cherry-chocolate pairing, but my preference is for a rich, baked chocolate mousse cake. In my version, a mousse-like chocolate cake batter is baked and then topped with an almond-scented whipped cream, and finished off with dark chocolate-dipped fresh sweet cherries. It's decadent, and dark, and perfectly sinful: just how I like my desserts.

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!

GHANAIAN-INSPIRED YELLOWTAIL SNAPPER

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
www.getty.edu

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
www.innovativedining.com/restaurants/sushiroku 

Koi
730 N. La Cienega Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA  90069
(310) 659.9449
www.koirestaurant.com

Casablanca
220 Lincoln Blvd.
Venice, CA  90291
(310) 392.5751
www.casablancarestaurant.net