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Thursday
Jan132011

Nothing Elementary About ABC Kitchen



The other week I took a quick trip to ABC Kitchen for the very first time. Please hold your WHAT-TOOK-YOU-SO-LONG's, as I honestly don't have a good answer. Finally, an opportunity presented itself and I was able to squeak out of work on time AND snag a choice spot at their bar.

I was flying solo for this adventure, and I generally like the experience of dining out alone. I can concentrate on the food a bit more (I find John's constant chatter about his hair distracting at times). The only drawback is that I sample fewer dishes. Consequently, this will be a mini-review. (As an aside, I suppose I could have ordered an 8 course meal all to myself while sitting at the bar, simultaneously sipping all their drinks, but that would probably have attracted a lot of unnecessary attention).

First, a word about the ambiance. ABC Kitchen is a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. I couldn't stop looking around me. The style of the first floor of ABC Carpet & Home has been organized into a restaurant with fantastic results. The weathered wood rafters are offset by textured and pristine white walls, while intricate light fixtures dangle delicately from above to create some impressive mood lighting (that is extremely bad for food photography in the evening).


The menu is organized into the usual categories (such as appetizers and entrees) but also includes a Market Table section, which is ABC's version of a small plates selection. I decided to order from this list and chose the following:

The Crab toast with lemon aioli: The quote I got from the bartender/waiter on this dish was, "This is my favorite thing on the menu, and I don't like crab."  SOLD!

Crispy delicata squash, maple syrup and grated goat cheese: I didn't actually need a hard-sell on this one, but I was waffling between this and some other choices, so to throw me back into the squash camp, my waiter said, "This dish has everything: salty, sweet - with a little drizzle of maple syrup and tang from the cheese."

I also ordered a basil ginger fizzy drink that was exceptionally refreshing, even in the wintertime.



Photo by Amy Cao, AmyBlogsChow.com

The Crab Toasts arrived: four chunky slices of just-browned sourdough with fresh, white mounds of crab meat piled on top. The crab meat itself was incredibly mild-flavored, with just a hint of sweetness. The large chunks (as opposed to stringy shreds) of meat allowed me to really sink my teeth into this one. And the lemon aioli provided just a hint of tang, which you could augment by squeezing some of extra lemon wedges provided along side. It was an incredibly light dish that I could envision passing around at a summer BBQ (stand by for test kitchen experiments on this one).

I left no crab behind, and was subsequently greeted by my new love: crispy delicata squash. A light drizzle of maple syrup served as the stage for bangle-bracelet-sized squash rings ensconced in a fine, crispy shell.  The grated goat cheese provided just a touch of smooth, creamy saltiness, making this an achievement in both texture and flavor combination.

Like I said, I was in love. I glanced sideways to see if anyone would notice me licking my plate. Finally deciding that would be bad form, I settled for tweeting out to the world, "I am in love with a squash." I think that was my most popular tweet ever, judging by the responses. People wanted details (which I gladly gave them), and one even requested to know the name of my love, the squash. This last request left me feeling a little cheap: I never asked it's name. I was waaaay too involved it dragging it's delicate fry overcoat through the syrup and then adorning it with tiny crumbles of cheese before devouring it.

Well, this just means one thing: I will need to go back. Hopefully it'll give me a second chance. And a third...

Oh, and if you want to follow us on Twitter so you can continue to hear about the squash love affair (why wouldn't you?) you can do that here.

*Photo of dining room from nymag.com (I put it in that fancy floral background, which is an illuminated piece of art outside ABC Kitchen).

Overall Experience: The Godfather - The Perfect Game


Wednesday
Jan122011

An American in Rome – An Interview with Katie Parla 



As many of you may know by now our mom (aka Marmo) organizes culinary trips and tours in Italy through her company Gourmet Getways. The fascinating people she's met and resources she has accumulated doing this is quite outstanding. I was lucky enough to accompany her on her last recon-mission to Rome and had the opportunity to meet up with Katie Parla, a food and art historian and sommelier who has been living in Italy since 2003. Katie is a freelance writer and provides customized, private tours for small groups.

I admit to finding her lifestyle (or what I imagine it to be) fascinating. Italy has an intense culture: the flavor (both where food is concerned and lifestyle), the art, the history...the rambling ancient and medieval streets that are treacherous to walk on after troppo vino....it can all be very overwhelming. I wanted to get the insider track from Katie on what her life is like as an ex-pat and get some travel tips while I was at it.



*Above Photo: flat bread pizza at Roscioli.

1. What's a typical day like for you in Rome? Do you even have a typical day?
I don’t really have a typical day, but I every morning I grab a slice of pizza bianca (a Roman flat bread), either at Roscioli or Forno Campo dei Fiori. Then I might do some writing or lead a market tour, followed by lunch (often pizza by the slice), then do some writing, meet a friend for drinks then go out to dinner.

2. What's it like being an American living in Rome, and what advice would you give to travelers?
Obviously everyone has a different experience but I really enjoy it. I get to live two realities, that of the Rome dweller and that of the ex-pat. I wouldn’t want to have to be 100% dedicated to the former or the latter, but if I had to quantify it, I'd say I'm 75-25. I would suggest that travelers to Rome give themselves the chance to be a Rome dweller, at least partially, by staying for more than a few days, renting an apartment in a residential area, using public transport, and going food shopping in markets and small shops.

3. Tell us a little bit about the tours you lead and why you take this particular angle.
Well, I have degrees in Art History, archaeological spelunking, and Italian Gastronomic Culture, so my tours are in-depth explorations of these subjects. My tours tend to be interdisciplinary, as it is impossible to isolate single themes in a place like Rome where so many layers intermingle. On a food tour, the discussion might start on artichokes, then turn to botanical archaeology, then frescoes depicting vegetation. It can get nerdy.



* Above photo: Pasta Cacio e Pepe from Roma Sparita.

4. What is your favorite Roman dish and place to get it?
Tough question! Can I have more than one favorite dish? I’d probably say Roscioli makes my favorite carbonara, Roma Sparita my favorite Cacio e Pepe, Checchino dal 1887 my favorite Trippa alla Romana, and Pipeno my favorite Fiori di Zucca.



*Above Photo: a veggie vendor at the Testaccio Market.

5. The local food movement has been gaining ground in the US. Is this an issue in Italy/Rome or not as much (seeing as Italy is not over-run with Walmarts and Mega-Markets)?
While the large chain stores aren’t as prevalent in Italy as they are in the US, there has been a massive rise in the number of supermarkets over the past couple of decades. And in Rome, more market stalls are vacant than ever. A group called Coldiretti is seeking to combat that by promoting the consumption of local produce and other products. They run a weekend farmer’s market near the Circus Maximus and another (called Roma Farmer’s Market) in the old slaughterhouse in Testaccio. Over the past couple of years, some restaurants geared towards locavore eating have been opened. In June, the NYT published an article I wrote on the subject.



6. Tell us a little about being a sommelier and how you incorporate that knowledge into your tours or food adventures in general.
Well, I do have a sommelier certificate but, rather than using it for restaurant work, I lead wine tastings that focus on the cultural history of wine in Italy. I use a selection of wines to teach about grape cultivation, regional difference, and food culture, usually doing tastings at a wine bar or two in the center of town. I do a lot of traveling for food research and try to visit vineyards and speak with wine producers as much as I can. As you can imagine, eating and drinking are inextricably linked in Italy so you cant really study the food of an area without considering its accompanying wine.



* Above Photo: Burrata mozzarella at the St. George Hotel in Rome.

7. What is a little known Roman (or Italian) food that you think is just off-the-hook (so to speak)? And how can tourists get their hands on it, or recreate it?
Well, I don’t know how obscure this is anymore, but burrata is one of my favorite foods on the planet. If you can’t go to Puglia in southern Italy to eat it, Roscioli in Rome carries it. Beware. It is addictive. I have found pretty good burrata at Chelsea Market in NYC.

8. What's a fantastic off-the-beaten-path Roman museum or site or nook 'n' cranny that is often overlooked?
There are so many! I am always shocked how few people visit Palazzo Massimo alle Terme with its spectacular Roman sarcophaghi and fresoces. Santa Prassede is another favorite place that is often overlooked and has amazing medieval mosaics. The Parco degli Acquedotti just off the Via Tuscolana is certainly off the beaten track and is a very cool public park with aqueduct ruins that lumber through the countryside. Palazzo Valentini under the Provincia building next to Piazza Venezia is super cool. Two villas decked out in marble mosaics and wall veneers were uncovered in 2007 and recently they have been open to the public. I went there last week and was the only visitor.

You can learn more about Katie, her writing and tours here.

And here is another article Katie wrote for the New York Time Travel section: In Rome, Really Local Food.

Thank you, Katie!

Oh and spelunking? That's just cool. Speeee-lunk.
Tuesday
Jan112011

Spiffy Spasso (A review of Spasso restaurant)



This week's review is of Spasso on 551 Hudson Street in the West Village.  We were excited to check this place out - it is brand new, and its opening seemed to be coupled with lots of press, emails, and early signs of support from peeps in the know.  Did it live up to the hype?  I would say that it came close.

The interior is sharp.  A big marble bar greets you upon entry (the bartenders at Spasso make a nice drink - we had a few). Nice hardwood floors and crisp, soaring ceilings outline what is a busy and buzzing atmosphere.  This was a little surprising to me, since it had been billed as some ultimate romantic nook.  Yes, there is dim lighting, but the scene appears far too energetic (chaotic?) to be an ideal date spot.  Not to say it is date atrocious either. I will call it - date doable. Fair? (Elana, no offense)

Sis and I are jammed into a tight (even tight by cozy west village standards) table, having to move it around a bit to navigate our loud, and very near-by neighbors.  Also, we are shouting a bit to communicate, which isn't uncommon in an Italian family, but in this case it's a prerequisite to have a conversation.



Not withstanding the above, all of the food we have was very well made and artfully prepared.  They start us off with some airy, well crusted bread and olive oil; can never go wrong here.  Elana orders a Ribollita soup with pancetta, kale and ricotta.  It's very light, with a sophisticated tang due to the meat.  I order baked cannelloni with some shaved eggplant.  It's served in a small, iron square dish which gives the perimeter of the meal a nice crust.  Sauce is solid here as well, and the pasta is crisped but not too burned.  Nice job.

For a second dish, Elana orders Ricotta Gnocchi in a duck/tomato sauce.  This is tops for the night.  The gnocchi has great consistency, and there appears to be a salty, bacon presence throughout the dish.  I scrape up the remnants of Elana's dish when she is not paying close attention.  I had Pork shoulder which was cooked nice and slow:  the pork fell apart and was tastefully fatty and salty.



For Dessert, Elana had some heavy but wonderful doughnuts, served with a dark chocolate dipping sauce.  I had some coconut panna cotta with sliced pineapple, which was very well done.

The service here was ok. It was not uncommon for the waitress to be grinding up on me a bit when serving our neighbors.  Also, at what seemed like precise, 30 minute intervals, a plume of smoke would migrate from the kitchen area and fog up the entire restaurant.  But Spasso is new, so perhaps a mulligan is appropriate for these faults, as the food was pretty darn good.

As seen below, the bathrooms were pretty nice.  Full length mirrors, crazy artwork, and your own private water closet.  Did I mention full length mirrors?



Overall, Elana and I had a positive experience at Spasso.  It trails a step behind some of the other smarter, edgier Italian joints in the immediate area, such as Dell'Anima - both in the quality of the food and the polish of the atmosphere and staff - but I get the feeling Spasso has not reached its full potential.

Movie Equivalent - Heat
Monday
Jan102011

BYO Bundt – What I Eat After a Night Out



It's 3am and I've just returned home. I'm hungry. Not just hungry, I've worked up the kind of appetite that only results from a night out. I know, I know – how juvenile. Zip it.

The apartment is dark, illuminated only by the refrigerator light. I hear tiny little paw steps – Toby is checking in on me and throws me a reproachful glance as I peer into the depths of the fridge looking for....what is it that I want?

I want cake. More specifically, I want chocolate, pecan, sour cream bundt cake It's Marmo's recipe made with 2 sticks of butter, almost 3 cups of sugar and chunky strata in the middle and along the bottom of bittersweet chocolate chips and chopped pecans.

This is an anytime cake. And by anytime, I mean anytime of day and anytime of year. However, I've eaten it most often in the summertime (I'm fantasizing about warmer weather), down at the Jersey Shore, wandering home at the end of an evening out.

The cake will be sitting on the counter top, loosely tucked in for the night with a piece of tin foil, just allowing me to glimpse a few stray chips and nuts that have freed themselves from the mother cake and are resting helplessly on the platter...waiting...

Occasionally I can be civilized, cut myself a generous slice, locate a fork and sit down at the table to discuss the evening's adventures with a group of friends, neighbors, or who's ever rolled in off the street attracted by the smell of baking butter and chocolate. Sometimes, I've just grabbed chunks off of it with my bare hands, all dignified-like.

It's insanely satisfying: dense (like the hamburger of cakes) with a nice crunch supplied by the pecans and a shot of richness from the chocolate. It's the perfect cake for, well...for drunk eating. There I said it.

It being January, many of us are coming off a long holiday season of liquid indulgences. And those kinds of indulgences frequently lead to me searching in vain for this cake.

What follows is the recipe for Marmo's Chocolate Pecan Sour Cream Bundt Cake. A warning: don't make it too often unless you have either an NFL team or a pack of famished raccoons to feed because you'll eat the whole thing by yourself, with or without impaired judgment.

This cake also freezes well so you can make some for now and save some for 3am...I mean, later.

What You Need:
3 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups sugar (Note: I actually cut it down to 2 1/2 and it worked for me)
1 cup sour cream (the full-fat stuff)
2 cups chopped pecans
Bittersweet chocolate chips (you can use semi-sweet, milk, or white chocolate if you prefer)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
6 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Either a large (3 quart) bundt cake pan or a set of mini ones.

What To Do:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease (with butter) and flour a 3 quart bundt pan.



In a bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking soda.

In another bowl with an electric mixer (or you can use a food processor), beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the sour cream and vanilla and mix well. With the mixer on low speed, gradually add in the flour mixture until just combined.



Pour about half of the batter into the prepared bundt pan and sprinkle with half of the chocolate chips and half of the pecans. Pour the remaining amount of batter on top of this and sprinkle with the remaining chips and nuts.



Bake in the middle of the oven for 1 hour 20 minutes (smaller bundt pans will require less time), until a tester (like a toothpick) inserted into the cake comes out clean. Cool in the pan for an hour, and then invert onto a platter. Dust with confectioner's sugar if you like (optional).



* Note: I used mini-bundt cake pans that have a fun pattern etched into them. Makes these little guys look quite dignified (one of us should). Small cakes can also be given away as gifts so you don't eat them all on your own.

Friday
Jan072011

Behold! The Bread Brick and a Successful Pizza!



Those of you following us on Twitter may have noticed frequent updates on my bread starter. You may have read this post where I detailed my grandiose plan to cultivate my own bread baking yeast for making a superior pizza dough...and for world domination. Pizza dough first, though.

So I began. I found some instructions on the web, including Slice's Starter-Along blog series, and I commandeered a Tupperware container festooned with candy canes from my friend Stacey. I mixed my flour and water together and I waited.

....and waited...

And then stuff started to happen. Bubbles mostly. And then some foam. And then both! Take a look at the progress in the images below:



By photo #5, thinks looked like they were really cooking. Not only were there bubbles and foam throughout, but the consistency had changed. It was almost like it had been whipped - less cake-batter-like and more foamy throughout. Fascinating, no? Exactly.

Soliciting no professional opinions but my own (non)sense, I decided it was time to make bread. I harvested some of the yeast for pizza dough, and then another batch for some bread. The pizza dough needed to chill in the fridge for a few days and I was keen to see if this whole thing was going to work, so I jumped right into the bread making process.

Also, if you recall, it snowed about a million and two feet on Sunday the 26th of December into Monday the 27th, and I needed something to do between carrying my dog Toby out to the street to pee (he is too short to climb the snow drifts).

So I made the bread. I used this recipe. Let me just say I've made bread before. Quite successfully, thank you very much. But this was a miserable failure. I'm not blaming the recipe. I blame John. No, I'm kidding, he wasn't even there! In hindsight, one of a few things went wrong:

1. My starter really wasn't ready, even though I thought it was: the bread refused to rise.

2. I didn't weigh my ingredients because I don't have a kitchen scale, so the proportions were incorrect.


3. The planet alignment was all off that day, and I should really try this again when Neptune is in a more favorable house.

Even knowing that something was terribly wrong, I decided to put the non-risen bread in the oven anyway. What resulted was the densest, least attractive brick of a loaf of bread that I have ever seen. It was difficult to cut with a serrated knife. I could have hammered nails with it. The loaf was about 2" high.

I began to laugh. A lot. And then I tasted it, and I stopped laughing because it wasn't very good. How could it be?

HOWEVER! As I was failing miserably in the regular bread department, there was something happenin' in the fridge with the pizza dough. Magic, that's what.

Days later, as instructed by Slice's recipe here, I removed my pizza dough from the fridge and it's olive oil coated Ziploc bag. It was surprisingly easy to stretch out. And the cold from the refrigeration made it easier to handle. It even gave me the ability to stretch it a little thinner without breaking the dough.

Needless to say, I was intrigued. With unnecessary amounts of glee, I ran around the kitchen assembling sauce and collecting toppings (mozzarella cheese and basil). I fired up the ol' oven and pizza stone and made this:



This is, hands down, the crispiest, tastiest crust I have ever managed. In addition to being crispy, the outer crust retained the characteristic chewiness of Neopolitan style pies. And there was flavor! Hot damn and hallelujah!



Why was the pizza dough a success and the sourdough loaf a failure? I have a few educated guesses:

1. Proper planet alignment.

2. The extended rise time of 48 hours (even slowed down due to refrigeration) was actually needed. My starter wasn't broken, it was just slow! It needed some extra time.

3. The additional fermentation time also added flavor, because the yeast was hanging around for a longer period of time (2 days).

A few things to note:

While cold, oiled pizza dough is MUCH easier to handle and shape, it tends to stick to the pizza peel a bit more. I would recommend dusting the bottom of the dough with a little semolina flour and making sure you can easily slide it on and off the peel before assembling everything and then getting it stuck on there. Not that that happened to me or anything...

The cold dough took a bit longer to cook. This just makes sense, but I'm telling you anyway. You could always take your dough ball out of the fridge a few hours beforehand so you can bring it to room temperature. Either way, keep a sharp eye on things while they're cooking.

Here are some detail photos:





A few other tips:

I used La Valle cherry tomatoes for the sauce with a splash of red wine vinegar (as instructed by the most recent edition of Cooks Illustrated Magazine). I blended the tomatoes and vinegar in the food processor with garlic, salt, pepper and a dash of cayenne (for fun). The red wine vinegar gave the sauce that kick that I have been trying to achieve for a while.

For cheese, I used mini mozzarella balls. I cut them in half so they melted into little blobs.

And don't forget the FRESH BASIL!!!