Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ecstatic About Escarole

I love escarole. Absolutely LOVE it. I am going through a phase where I am bored with regular lettuce, instead opting for bolder and firmer greens. Radicchio, arugula, frisee and chicory all make me happy, but lately it is escarole that really makes my taste buds dance.

Escarole is the M.V.P. of the chicory family. At first glance it looks like a firm head of green leaf lettuce, but it has so much more to offer than that. Gutsy and bold, escarole can definitely hold its own on center stage, yet it is gracious and versatile enough to be an excellent supporting player when necessary.

It is gorgeous as the main star of a perfectly composed salad, which is probably my favorite way to enjoy it. It makes for a mouthwatering bruschetta when slivered and sautéed with olive oil and garlic, generously piled onto grilled bread and topped with toasted pine nuts. Yet it is equally delicious in a soup (especially a hearty vegetable soup with white beans and a hunk of parmesan cheese thrown in for flavor), where silky emerald ribbons of simmered escarole contribute a depth to the overall dish. It is like finding the perfect date, one who is savvy and well-rounded, utterly at ease at both a formal black-tie event as well as at a very casual relaxed affair.

I found the most beautiful head of escarole at the Fall Festival farm stand on Sunday, and I have been making a series of salads with it this week. Would you just look at this beautiful specimen?! When I removed the rubber band around its leaves, it made itself quite comfortable and sprawled out all over my cutting board.

(It reminded me of my hair on a humid day: it can be carefully contained, but once it is loosened from its restraining elastic band, it goes crazy! Look at my profile picture if you need further proof of this.)

Alissa came over the other day to help me out with this considerable head of escarole. We’d had a decadent afternoon, celebrating the beginning of her birthday week by escaping to a movie theater to watch “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”. It was cold twilight when we emerged from the theater back onto Broadway, yet we were floating on visions of the most delicious Spanish sunshine with daydreams of fleeing the concrete jungle for blissful Barcelona.

Since we had eschewed the overpriced stale movie popcorn and were both ravenous by the end of the film, I offered to make something involving this crazy bunch of escarole I had at home. Now I know that might not sound like the most thrilling proposition, especially when you’ve just spent the previous two hours enjoying a smoldering Javier Bardem and a fiery Penelope Cruz on the big screen! But you might feel quite thrilled yourself if you tasted this salad too, one which falls into the category of “So Simple Yet So Incredibly Satisfying”. If you have great ingredients to work with and use the freshest produce available to you, it’s easy to prepare dishes that answer to that description. We’re talking four main ingredients (escarole, shallots, mint, and almonds) and three supporting ingredients (olive oil, white wine vinegar, and fresh lemon juice) to highlight the flavors and tie it all together. Check out what happened:

The star of today’s post, my beautiful majestic head of escarole, was shredded into ribbons, then cut crosswise into smaller bite-sized pieces before being placed in a large salad bowl. Shallots shaved into paper-thin rings got a short soak in a spoonful of wine vinegar, just to take the edge off of them. Slivered almonds are always lovely, but they became even lovelier when lightly toasted. Fresh herbs are one of the easiest way to add an additional layer of bright flavor to any dish, and I thinly sliced a few mint leaves for this particular salad. Once the shallots had a few minutes to soak and were removed from the vinegar, my four main ingredients were ready to play.

These flavors were so fresh and bright, they didn’t need much else except a drizzle of great olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and a sprinkling of sea salt and freshly ground pepper to tie them all together. When you're dressing a salad, I would encourage you to taste as you go, using the recipe as a guideline for the amount of olive oil and lemon. Start by adding a smaller amount, since you can always add more if necessary but you can’t take away. You want the escarole leaves to glisten with the finest film of olive oil, lightly coated but not laden down with oil. The lemon juice adds a necessary acidity, a brightness that only enhances the flavors of the salad. Taste as you go, adding more olive oil and lemon juice if you think it needs it. I gilded the lily a bit by shaving some fresh Pecorino cheese over the top, which is a fabulous addition but not strictly necessary.

Since it was the beginning of Alissa’s birthday week, we opened a celebratory bottle of Punkt Genau, a sparkling Gruner Veltliner from Austria. I have a handful of friends who are part of the "I LOVE Sparkling Wine" club, of which Alissa and I are both founding members. Whether it comes from France, Italy, Australia, California, or in this case, Austria, we simply love bubbly wine! I discovered this particular wine in January of this year, and it was one of the great revelations of my wine year. Since Gruner Veltliners tend to be still white wines, this sparkling beauty is the only one of its kind, redolent of green apples, minerality, green melon and honeysuckle. I have ordered cases of Punkt Genau from Astor Wines over the course of the year, and each bottle has been an effervescent delight.

The Punkt proved to be a felicitous choice for the evening, as this happy bubbly wine truly enhanced the lively flavors of the escarole. We both kept laughing over how excited we were about this SALAD! It’s one thing to be thrilled about gorgeous oysters, or the most beautifully prepared piece of fish, or any number of decadent chocolate desserts. But an escarole salad?! I told you it was a more thrilling proposition that you might have expected! Alissa kept saying, “I wish you could include an audio clip on your blog of me moaning over how much I love this salad!”

In honor of today’s birthday girl, I am including the recipe for this favorite escarole salad. (Here’s to you, Alissa, wishing you many escarole salads and beautiful bottles of sparkling wine this year along with every other happy birthday wish!)

You can substitute chicory for escarole in this recipe with equally happy results. This makes a good starting course for 4. However, if your names are Louise and Alissa, this recipe might only provide 2 large servings!

1 small shallot, peeled and sliced crosswise into paper-thin rings
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
6 cups escarole, leaves washed and spun dry
2 to 3 tablespoons freshly chopped mint leaves
¼ cup toasted slivered almonds, or more to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice (about half a lemon)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Pecorino cheese, for grating (optional)

Place the sliced shallot and vinegar in a small bowl with a sprinkling of salt. Let sit for five minutes while you prepare the other ingredients.

Slice the escarole leaves into thin ribbons, then cut cross-wise into bite-sized pieces. Place the chopped escarole in a large salad bowl. Drain the shallots from the vinegar and add them to the escarole, along with the chopped mint leaves and toasted slivered almonds.

Drizzle the olive oil over the salad and toss gently, using just enough oil so that all of the escarole leaves are lightly coated. Add the fresh lemon juice, a sprinkling of sea salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Toss gently and taste for seasoning and balance, adding more lemon juice and/or salt&pepper if needed. Divide equally between four salad plates or bowls. If you are using the optional Pecorino cheese, grate a little on top of each salad serving. Go crazy.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fall Festivities

If you have read some of the previous posts on Kitchen Fiddler, you know that I derive great pleasure from beautiful produce, especially when it’s from a good farmer’s market. I love seeing fruits and vegetables proudly displayed by the people who nurtured them from seedlings and tended them with care as they grew. A visit to a farm stand sparks my culinary imagination much more vividly than walking the produce aisle of a grocery store ever does, for the possibilities somehow seem greater when I encounter that which has been harvested just hours before. With that in mind, can you imagine my glee yesterday when a little farm stand arrived right in front of my apartment building?!

As I walked out of my building early yesterday morning, there were parent volunteers from the local Montessori school setting up for their Fall Festival, an annual event which takes over my entire street the last Sunday in October. I headed down the block towards Broadway, walking past the people from Bialas Farms in New Hampton unloading the bounty from their truck. But when I encountered this delightful display of miniature pumpkins and gourds, it halted me in my tracks. And I couldn’t stop smiling.

This autumn quartet was the first photograph I took that morning, and if that had been the only picture I snapped, I would have considered it a successful morning. But look at what else I found!

I’m certainly familiar with the yellow&white sweet corn which is one of the great joys of summer. However, this was bi-colored corn from a totally different palette! Have you ever seen rosy colored husks such as these? And who knew corn could have dark green kernels like this?!

I actually came home with golden beets, but these radishes were so photogenic that I had to share them with you.

My mind began to race with endless recipes involving butternut squash and roasted onions.

It felt magical to have the first glimpse before anyone else arrived, and I wanted to soak it all in.

Golden autumn light gently bathed the apples, making them glow.

Winesaps, Jonagolds, and Macouns all seemed to cry out, “Pick me, pick me!” So I did!

Unusually enough, movie snacks were also being sold at the farm stand. Peanuts in the shell and popping corn were very inviting.

It was an incredible way to start the day, walking out the door in a half-groggy state but being immediately awakened by one visual delight after another. Artichoke flowers kept company with the mini pumpkins and that crazy corn, making a very exotic and colorful trio.

By the time I returned home several hours later, the Fall Festival was in full tilt. My street was bustling with children decorating pumpkins and having their faces painted. I saw kids concentrating hard on their cupcake-decorating and candy necklace-making, and I had a good laugh as I watched some little ones playing Go-Fish, purposefully trying to reel in rubber duckies from wading pools. Winnie the Pooh had a busy afternoon being photographed with toddlers sitting on his lap while Spider Man and Big Bird mingled amongst the parents and children.


It was great to see so many happy families enjoying the glorious day, but the best part for me was definitely the stunning array of fall delights from Bialas Farms. (They set up a weekly stand on the corner of 97th Street & Amsterdam on Friday mornings.) Talk about a feast for the senses! I’m happy to report that quite a few of those autumn beauties made it upstairs into my kitchen, and I am already having a wonderful time coaxing the best flavors from these simple ingredients. I will leave you with photographs tonight, with promises of recipes to come as the week progresses. Come back soon, for I know you're going to love what I'm making this week!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Truffle Masterclass: Bittersweet Caramel Sea Salt Truffles

Starbucks came out with a salted caramel hot chocolate this fall. I’ve heard some people puzzling over this combination, but it sounds delicious to me. I’ve ALMOST been tempted to go into one of the four Starbucks stores within ten blocks of my apartment (!) and try a cup for myself, even though I don’t like to patronize the ubiquitous ultra-corporate coffee chain. I also have a mental block with Starbucks because I never manage to phrase my order to their liking, and I hate being corrected when all I usually want is a double espresso. (I once encountered a snippy-but-hilarious barrista who corrected my request for a large cappuccino. “Uh, we don’t have ‘Large’ here,” he said, making quotation marks with his fingers in the air. “Our three sizes are ‘Huge’, ‘Ridiculous’, and ‘Oh my God!’”)

Since I’m not about to darken the door of a Starbucks anytime soon, yet the salted caramel hot chocolate sounds so appealing, I’ve come up with a much more interesting solution to the dilemma. It would be my extreme pleasure to introduce you to my Caramel Bittersweet Truffles With Sea Salt this evening.

In a word, they’re lovely. Oh so very lovely indeed. In fact, they’re much more than lovely. They’re downright divine. The bittersweet chocolate ganache is deepened with luscious caramel notes. As if that weren’t enough to make the chocolate sing, the sea salt adds another layer, keeping your taste buds interested and ensuring that you are not lulled into sweet complacency. This truffle is one decadent and delicious ménage a trois of flavors.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fiddling Around In The Kitchen With Mac

I have had a hilarious week taking care of my seven-year-old nephew Mac while his parents are away, and the days have been just packed. Mac lost both of his front teeth this past week, so we went to Ben&Jerry’s to celebrate the new big gap in his mouth. There was an incident in which poor Mac accidentally took a trip to the district school bus yard, but it all turned out fine in the end and we have gotten a TON of mileage out of this misadventure. It has been a fabulous week of story-telling, and he has practiced reading aloud in different accents, which cracks me up. We have watched our favorite movie “What’s Up Doc?” twice (the wacky 1972 screwball comedy with Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal, and Madeline Kahn), providing our own spirited commentary which makes me laugh just as much as the movie itself! And we have definitely been fiddling around in the kitchen together.

Mac and I have a history of being in the kitchen together. He insisted on helping me make his birthday cake the year he turned four, and from that time he has been my little helper on many an occasion. He loves the movie “Ratatouille” and proudly refers to himself as my “Little Chef”. Here are a few cooking tips from Mac:

A garlic press is an effective and fun way to grate cheese. This works well for a semi-hard cheese such as cheddar, making it ready to add to hot cooked noodles for a quick and yummy macaroni&cheese.

It’s really fun scrambling an egg with an old fashioned springy whisk. This whisk doubles as an excellent radio antenna when balanced carefully on top of a tower of Legos.

Celery with peanut butter tastes even yummier when you add peanut butter chips on top.

And making chocolate cupcakes together can be a real riot. They’re even better when you use great cocoa powder. (We found my favorite Valrhona cocoa on sale at Whole Foods, oh happy day!)

Mac likes to measure and then level off the dry ingredients with a knife.

It’s important to keep your hands far away from the beaters when the mixer is on, no matter how badly you want to taste the batter. But a measuring cup with a long handle makes a good hat.

One of the perks of being the Little Chef is that you get to lick the beaters.

And the bowl.

It was really difficult waiting for the cupcakes to bake, and THEN there was the indignity of having to wait even longer for them to cool. But it was worth it, because the cupcakes were absolutely delicious!

Makes about 12 cupcakes (or more if you can keep your fingers out of the batter)

Louise’s Excellent-Yet-Easy Chocolate Cupcakes
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ cup whole milk

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.

Beat the butter with an electric mixer until soft. Add the sugar and continue to beat for 3 minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and unsweetened cocoa powder till they are well combined. Add a third of the dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture, beating just till combined. Scrape down the sides and beat in half the milk. Continue alternating the dry and wet ingredients, scraping down the sides after each addition, and ending with the last third of the dry ingredients.

Fill the muffin tins two-thirds of the way full and bake for 20 to 22 minutes. The cupcakes are done when the top springs back when lightly pressed in the center. Transfer the cupcakes onto a rack to cool. When they are completely cool, frost with Mac’s Very Vanilla Frosting.

Mac’s Very Vanilla Frosting
½ cup (1 stick) softened butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 to 4 tablespoons milk

Beat the butter and 1 cup of the sugar with an electric mixer till well-combined and very fluffy, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the remaining cup of sugar, mixing at first on low and then increasing speed. Beat in the vanilla and add 3 to 4 tablespoons milk until the frosting is of a spreadable consistency.

Frost the cupcakes using a small knife or offset spatula. To pipe the frosting, you can make a quick piping bag by filling a small Ziploc bag 2/3 of the way with frosting, twisting it closed, and snipping off one corner of the bag with scissors to create a little hole for the frosting to come out.

Mac recommends topping these cupcakes with vanilla frosting and decorating them with peanut butter chips and/or chocolate eyeballs, available at Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven. Serve with a tall glass of milk.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Birth of CocoaRoar

It’s funny how an idea can take hold of you. Sometimes it is gentle, politely tapping you on the shoulder to get your attention. Some ideas knock you over with the force of a hurricane. And other times it is a simple moment of clarity, an inevitablility, and you know that you MUST follow through with it. I had a hilarious idea a year ago and decided to see it through. And because of that willingness to pursue it, I ended up making more than 5,000 chocolate truffles within the space of six months.

This adventure began when I was invited by Kristina to attend a chocolate tasting and lecture with her a year ago tonight. (I think she knew that out of all of our friends, I would be the most enthusiastic about such an event!) As I listened to the different chocolatiers talk about their journeys through a life in chocolate, and I kept thinking, “I can do this. I would like to do this too.” My imagination began to fly in all sorts of directions as the evening progressed.

By the time we had moved on to the actual chocolate tasting, a thousand-watt light bulb went on in my head and I knew what I had to do. In between bites of chocolate samples and sips of wine, I turned to Kristina and said, “You know what? I think I need to go into the chocolate business for the month of December. Is that crazy?”

"Oh, you absolutely have to do it! For a long time we've all been saying you should do this! We all LOVE your truffles!" she exclaimed, and we both burst into laughter. I could not have asked for a more wonderfully enthusiastic response, and we immediately clinked our champagne flutes to the beginning of a new adventure. I consider October 15th to be the night that CocoaRoar was born. (Kristina received the first unofficial batch of CocoaRoar peanut butter &sea salt truffles a few weeks later for her birthday, which were cropped out of this self-portrait but are shown below in an individual close-up.)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Christopher Walken and the Goat Cheese Soufflé

The title of this post may seem like an odd juxtaposition, but it actually refers to my first extended conversation with Christopher Walken on this day in 1999. And no, I’m not making this up.

Many of you may be wondering how someone like me would have an opportunity to discuss anything, much less a soufflé, with the likes of Christopher Walken in the first place. The short answer is that we worked together in 1999-2000 on my first Broadway show, “James Joyce’s The Dead”. As for the longer answer? Let me give you a little background to set the scene.

A play entitled “The Dead” starring Christopher Walken suggests something rather dark and disturbing, since this is an actor quite well-known for playing psychologically unstable characters. But this wasn’t even set in a funeral parlor, as this play-with-music was based on the poignant final story from James Joyce’s The Dubliners. “The Dead” presents the thoughts and actions of one man (as played by Walken), on the night he and his wife attend a party given by his two aunts. It is a story of lost love, emotional paralysis and the power of memory, and a heartbreaking revelation leads to a moment of real epiphany at the end of the play.

But before that painful realization, there was a party where everyone sang and everyone danced. Most of my fellow musicians were off stage behind a scrim, but there was actually a part for a violinist on stage, as played by yours truly! For seven months I got to transform myself into a late 19th century Irish lass night after night, accompanying and interacting on stage with Christopher Walken, Blair Brown, and Marni Nixon, among other brilliant actors. There was a beautiful score by Shaun Davey (who wrote the music for "Waking Ned Devine”), and I absolutely loved playing those jigs, reels, and some achingly lovely Irish folk songs. Those seven months were some of the happiest of my life, and I STILL get totally choked up thinking about what a special time that was and how much I loved being a part of that world.

But as for the goat cheese soufflé discussion with Christopher Walken? It took a little time before we got to that point, as I think it’s fair to say that I was a bit shy around him at the beginning of the play’s run. It totally cracked me up when he introduced himself as “Chris” on our first day of rehearsal together, but I had a hard time separating the man hanging out in the green room with all of us from the one I’d seen on the big screen all these years. I kept having flashes of him as Diane Keaton’s crazy brother Duane who has a death wish in “Annie Hall”, as the heartbreaking solider who plays Russian roulette in “The Deer Hunter”, and who can forget him as Captain Kunz delivering the infamous “your daddy’s watch” monologue in “Pulp Fiction”! I wanted to have something a little more interesting to say than, “Hey Chris, how’s it going?” but I hadn’t found a good opening yet.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

In Praise of Unconventionally Great Key Lime Pie

I have a handful of friends who request a specific dessert from me for their birthday each year. Rob loves my carrot cake, which I have baked for him on many a birthday. My little nephew Mac almost always asks for a chocolate birthday cake with vanilla frosting because, according to this particular 7-year-old, “chocolate cake and chocolate frosting might be just a little bit too rich!” And Jorge has insisted upon my ginger key lime pie for the past four years.

I made this for the first time four years ago after watching a Barefoot Contessa television program during which she made a frozen key lime pie. I had always loved key lime pie of any variety, but this frozen version seemed so appealing that I needed to try it for myself. In lieu of making a graham cracker crust, I used gingersnaps to give the pie an added kick and I decreased some of the sugar, but otherwise I followed the recipe as written.

I was eager to share it with friends, so I decided to host a little dinner party on my roof deck. Since this happened to be the week when the 2004 Republican National Convention had descended upon New York, I figured we were all in need of some cheering up while avoiding midtown Manhattan like the plague! It was a beautiful balmy late August night, the perfect evening to sit on the roof and drink rosy chambord margaritas with dear friends while enjoying blue corn chips with smoky chipotle guacamole, a chopped southwestern-style black bean and corn salad, and grilled tequila-lime chicken. The hungry cast of colorful characters included Jorge, Ed, Alissa, Laura and Tom, and in typical fashion, it was a spirited evening with much laughter and story-telling, with the occasional political rant peppering our lively conversation.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A Last Hurrah For Tomatoes

I’m reluctant to admit it, but autumn is finally here. I spent September trying to stretch out the summer as long as I could, but now that it is October, I have made an emotional commitment to wearing socks with my shoes and putting on my leather jacket when I leave the house. I have a cute little pumpkin sitting on my table. I’m looking at apples with much more interest, and I was happy to see a variety of pears make a recent appearance at the farmer’s market. For the first time in nearly six months, I feel the urge to have a slow-simmering soup on my stove, especially now that I have a beautiful new basil-green Staub French oven to cook it in. My ice cream cravings have not exactly subsided (honestly, when do those EVER subside?!), but I’m now contemplating bread puddings and fall fruit crisps alongside my ice cream.

And yet I promised you photos of my recent heirloom tomatoes as well as a fabulous thing or two to do with them. It seems a bit unfair to tempt you like this when such beautiful tomatoes are quickly disappearing from the markets. I promise to share more recipes on this subject in a timely fashion next August when they are in season again. But for now, would you please accept these photos as a fond farewell kiss to the late summer? Thanks, I knew you would.

Shall I remind you of what I found last week?

Aren’t they gorgeous?! I love the different names alone: Green zebras, Aunt Ruby’s Green German, Black Krim, Yellow Brandywine. There were also a few Livingston’s Gold Ball tomatoes who were a little camera-shy and didn’t come to this particular photo shoot, but they were certainly ready for their close-up once I added them to a salad. (I really wanted to get my camera in there.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Still-Life With Italian Plums, Heirloom Tomatoes and Lemon Verbena

I have found that a good way to cheer myself up on a drizzly late September day is by going to the local farmer’s market to look at beautiful produce. Seeing an array of freshly harvested fruits and vegetables automatically sets my culinary imagination racing, which is an effective way out of the rainy-day doldrums. A cloudy grey sky heightens the intensity of the colors at the market, practically throwing them into visual relief and making them seem all the more vibrant and bursting with possibilities.

This past Saturday was a most dreary and wet day, one in which I wanted to stay home watching Paul Newman movies all afternoon while eating my favorite microwave popcorn and ordering Indian food. Unfortunately that wasn’t option for me as I had to play two performances at “South Pacific”, but that did put me in close proximity of the Lincoln Center Saturday farmer’s market. And as you might imagine, I took one look at the crazy assortment of heirloom tomatoes and my mood quickly began to lift.

Look at all of these beautiful globes in a riot of colors! I came home with several heirloom tomatoes and Italian prune-plums, with a large sprig of lemon verbena thrown in for good measure.

Apples have tiptoed into the markets recently, keeping polite company with the late summer harvest. They are waiting their turn in the wings while the final bounty of summer has one last hurrah, but within another week or two, they will take center stage themselves. Picking season will begin in earnest and market stalls everywhere will boast apples and pears of all shapes and sizes, banishing the memories of stone fruits, tomatoes and corn from our minds until next summer.