11.22.2011

the exception


Is there anything to say about New York that hasn't already been said?

Probably not. But seeing as no one has yet said anything about my recent trip there, I'm going to forge ahead.


We went for the food. And good lord, did we eat well. Practically as soon as our plane touched down, we raced over to Peels, just in time for a late brunch of shrimp and grits and one of pastry chef Shuna Fish Lydon's gluten-free orange and almond cakelettes. We loved it. We especially loved the space - there's some really good restaurant design going on there.



And that pretty much set the tone for our entire trip. We ate great food in beautiful spaces, and ogled all of it. Broiled king crab with aioli at Nobu Next Door. Amazingly fresh, creamy ricotta with figs, raspberries, pine nuts and honey at Prune (not to mention one of the best Bloody Marys I've ever had). A wonderful raw kale and grapefruit salad at Eataly's rooftop beer garden, Birreria. Marinated sardines with pickled beets at Babbo that were absolutely perfect. Incredibly complicated and complex cocktails at Death + Company. (I had the Sweet Hereafter. Highly recommended.) Homemade mallomars from TuLu's. Fancy pastries from Eataly. Baked eggs with creamy spinach at Pulino's. Cipollotta pizza at Palà Pizza. Belgian frites. Salted peanut caramel tiramisu. Jalapeño cheddar muffins. Chocolate soufflé with shiso syrup and white chocolate. Probusto sausage and krauti. Fig sorbetto. More fancy cocktails...







Seriously, the list just goes on and on, and trying to remember it all makes my head spin. (The fact that I am typing this late at night certainly doesn't help.) I was touched and relieved at every turn, finding again and again that it was not only easy to eat gluten-free in the city, but that I had a plethora of choices everywhere we went. I never felt limited or concerned that my needs weren't being accommodated. (Well, there was that one server at Birreria. But he was the exception. You've always got to have one.) But there was something interesting about all that food, something we hadn't expected.

It wasn't better than what we have here in Maine.

Don't get me wrong, it was great, really really great, it's just that the food scene in Maine (especially in Portland and here in the Midcoast region) has practically exploded recently with phenomenal products, restaurants, and chefs. We eat really well here. It was actually incredible for us to realize this, because we'd imagined Manhattan's restaurants as being these cities on the hills that nothing around here could hold a candle to. (An opinion influenced, surely, by the year we lived there, and couldn't afford to eat out anywhere.) True, there are no Per Se's and Eleven Madison Parks around here. And certainly, there are a lot of places in Maine that serve really awful food. But for the most part, for the places we chose to eat at in NYC and our favorite restaurants at home, they're all in the same league. Wow.

After flying back in to Portland, we stopped for one more meal before driving to pick up the boys at my parent's house. (Oh, how I missed them. I was restless and itching to get back to them.) We ate at El Rayo Taqueria, because somehow, in our crazy attempt to hit every place on our list, we had forgotten to get Mexican food in New York. Starving after a hurried morning rushing to catch our flight - and literally running through the airport, being escorted by security - we descended hungrily on chips and salsa and guacamole, fish tacos and grilled chicken tacos, pork tamales, corn on the cob with chipotle mayonnaise and cotija cheese, and Mexican chocolate pudding. It was awesome. Comforting, flavorful, and fresh. Josh knows the manager, so we chatted with her, trading compliments. The owner of one of our favorite wine distributors dropped by on a sales call, so we got to catch up with him and sample some wine. Good food and personal connections, all rolled into one. A great meal.

We are so lucky.

We are lucky also, I think, to realize this right now, as we head into not only a season of gratitude and compassion for each other and our lives, but also the end of the busy season, restaurant-wise. It can be all too easy in Maine, in a tourist town like ours, to bemoan the dearth of customers in January compared to August's highs. But really, despite our appreciation for them, it's not those here-today-gone-tomorrow summer people who sustain us. It's the locals. The regulars, who come in on a cold Tuesday night not because of any special occasion, but because they appreciate good food and are frequent supporters of it when they find it. And it's the growing population of these enthusiastic eaters that has allowed coastal Maine to become a culinary force to be reckoned with. They allow us to do the work we love, with the dedication and passion we feel it deserves, while simultaneously making it possible for us to make sustainable choices regarding where we raise our children and how we live as a family. Thank you.


The culinary culture we crave, that we have been working towards for the past decade, and the small-town, family-oriented community we feel is best for our kids, they both overlap right here. We truly have the best of both worlds. As we head into the cold and dark of the coming season, I will remember this often, with gratitude.

Understanding all this will help you put into context what I'm about to say next.

We did have one dining experience in New York that blew us away. I don't even want to call it a meal, because it was so much more than that. It might have been the best restaurant we've ever been to.

We had dinner at Gramercy Tavern.

I don't think I can write adequately about this. The entire thing was phenomenal, from the way we were greeted when we arrived to the tiny amuse bouche (one of three) of curried chicken served in a Brussels sprout leaf to the kitchen tour the manager led us on at the end of our meal. The whole time, Josh and I couldn't stop spouting off superlatives. The service was impeccable. The timing of the courses was fantastic. Our server was better than any we've met before. And the food . . . oh, the food. I sort of lost my mind (and my vocabulary!) over the food. I remember saying, when I took the first bite of my pork loin and belly entrée, "This is perfect. This tastes just exactly as it should." There was no need to say any more. We ate a surprising lobster salad with apples. Beef tartare with root vegetable chips and one pristine, glistening egg yolk. Josh had a special of fresh pappardelle bolognese, with meltingly tender braised beef. The already-mentioned pork loin, which was served pink (truly, we are all over-cooking our pork) and accompanied by spicy, vinegary carrots, tender leek hearts, and creamy wedges of white sweet potato. Oh, and crispy, ridiculously flavorful pork belly and a scattering of pork rinds. Needless to say, I was in a hazy, pork-induced oblivion for a while there. I did manage to raise my head just long enough to taste Josh's duck dish (breast and confit), but quickly turned my attention back to my own plate. I hate to overuse the word, but it really was perfect, in every sense.

It didn't matter that we were full; dinner at Gramercy includes dessert. I wouldn't have left without tasting some of pastry chef Nancy Olson's creations anyway. So I had the peanut butter semifreddo, which was a delightful study in contrasts. The kitchen sent out the pear sorbet sundae. We ate Harbison cheese, from one of my favorite artisan cheesemakers. I believe Josh had the apple upside down cake, but to be truthful, I had stopped paying attention to what he was eating a while ago. The steady march of food and drink to our table was overwhelming, in the most heady, opulent of ways, and by the end it was all I could do keep up my end of the conversation. And then, as if they hadn't already done more than enough, Josh was handed two smartly packaged muffins, to bring back to the hotel for the next morning. There were sincere apologies that the pastry kitchen had no gluten-free baked goods to send me into the night with. (I wasn't feeling left out. I had my muffin from TuLu's waiting for me).


I have fallen head over heals in love with Gramercy Tavern.

If you take away only one thing from this post, let it be this: eat at Gramercy Tavern. If ever you are in The City, eat at Gramercy Tavern. Eat at Gramercy Tavern, so that, for those few hours of that one night, you can have the experience of being fully, totally enveloped and seduced by true artistry.

That is New York.

The more I thought about how to describe our Manhattan vacation, the more I realized that it was all about artistry. The food, the architecture, the sidewalk musicians, the fashion, the faces, the history, the public art - everywhere we turned, we were face-to-face with art, with beauty. The only way for me to really explain that is with visuals, so I'm leaving you with some (ah, ahem, maybe a whole lot of) images from our trip. And if you scroll way, way down to the end, you'll even find a recipe, inspired by one of the dishes we ate in New York.

Speaking of recipes, 'tis the season for lots of menu planning, recipe searching, and festive gatherings. If you're looking for inspiration, might I direct you over to Williams-Sonoma's blog, The Blender? They're compiled a Virtual Thanksgiving Potluck (although I think it's application covers much more than just Turkey Day), featuring an array of seasonal recipes, including four of mine. Personally, I think that spicy sweet potato soup might make the rounds at our house next week, when we just can't bear the thought of Thanksgiving leftovers showing up in one more meal.

Have a wonderful week, friends. Thank you for being here.






























Lacinato Kale and Grapefruit Salad
Serves 4-6


Maybe it's because I was still recovering from our Gramercy Experience the night before, but my eyes immediately honed in on the raw kale salad when we sat down at Birreria. Crisp, dark greens, tart citrus, and the nuttiness of Parmesan work together to create a dish that tastes great, but better still, tastes like a great thing to give to your body. I loved it so much I had to recreate it when we got home, and it's going to grace our Thanksgiving table in a few days. But if raw kale and grapefruit are a little too untraditional for your family, might I suggest that you break it out once the holiday meal has passed, and a little detox feels like just what you always wanted. The original salad was dressed with an anchovy vinaigrette, but I found that the elusive richness of sesame oil makes a great substitute.

2 bunches Lacinato kale (also known as Tuscan or dinosaur kale), stems removed and leaves chopped into bite-sized pieces
2 large grapefruits, segmented (a great how-to video can be seen here), juices reserved
4 Tbsp fruity extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp sesame oil
6 or 7 Tbsp fresh grapefruit juice (depending on how much your grapefruits yielded, and also how tart you like your vinaigrette)
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Parmesan-Poppy Frico pieces, for garnish (see below)

Combine the chopped kale and grapefruit segments in a serving bowl.

In a small mixing bowl, combine the olive and sesame oils. Slowly drizzle in the grapefruit juice, whisking constantly, to emulsify. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Gently toss the kale salad with the grapefruit vinaigrette. Top with pieces of Parmesan-Poppy Frico, and serve immediately, with extra frico to pass around.

For the Frico:
This is more a method than a recipe. Simply grate a bunch of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (or other hard cheese) with a microplane or the small holes of a box grater over a silicone baking mat-lined sheet pan. Pat the cheese down and spread it out into a thin layer, filling in any large gaps with more cheese. Generously sprinkle poppy seeds over it. Bake in a 350º oven for 3-5 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and just the edges have begun to brown. Cool completely, then use a thin metal spatula to lift the frico off the baking mat. Break it into smallish sized pieces, and store in an airtight container at room temperature if not using immediately.

11.02.2011

as it should be


You know how sometimes you'll stop by a favorite blog and find a post that starts out, "I've been trying to write this post for a while now...?" And then the author talks a bit about the writer's block s/he's been suffering, or the conflicting feelings s/he's been wrestling with about broaching a particularly touchy subject, or even all the extraordinary busyness of ordinary life that has conspired to keep him/her away from the computer.

This is that post.

Except that this is very much not that post.

My excuse for not having written this sooner is not one that I ever see brought up in other blogs. At least, not the blogs I read.

I have been having trouble getting this post to you because I keep falling asleep.

No, I do not have narcolepsy, or mono, or even an inordinately exhausting life.

I simply have a child with a bedtime routine that routinely puts me to sleep, as well.

Every night, I lay down with Wylie until he falls asleep. And snuggling with my little boy at the end of the day, in a cozy bed in a dark room, is apparently exactly what my body needs to trigger my own sleep mechanisms, despite my best efforts to stay awake. If I wake up at all, it is often not until 10:30 or 11pm; too late to begin writing for a mama who needs to be up at 6:45 the next morning. Sometimes I wake with a start when I hear the front door shut and the dog start doing her excited, tail-wagging wiggle dance; Josh has arrived home, so it must be closing in on midnight. Definitely too late to write.

To compound the problem, evenings are the only time I get anything that resembles a block of kid-free, uninterrupted time to write. Preschool ended up not being a good fit for Wylie right now, so he's back at home every day, and my promising pastry assistant is no longer working at the restaurant, so the little bit of daytime freedom that was opening up for me has abruptly disappeared.

I'm actually okay with this, usually. Decisions were made that were in the best interests of all involved, and I'm enjoying having, for the first time in both of our lives, regular periods of one-on-one time with Wylie.

But at 11 o'clock at night, groggy and grumpy that I have missed yet another night of "me" time? That's when I realize that part of this system is broken.

Wylie and I need to find another way to get him to sleep. One that is nurturing, efficient and unobtrusive to Kalen (they share a room), but that allows me to stay alert and awake and productive past the kiddo bedtime hour.

I'd like to propose a trade. Not with Wylie, necessarily, although wouldn't it be wonderful if he was rational and mature enough to barter his way to a mutually agreeable bedtime routine? No, I'd like to trade with all of you. Josh and I have talked about some strategies that we think might work, but really, we're just stabbing at the dark here; Kalen's transition was under very different circumstances. I'd love to know how other families have transitioned their little ones to independent sleepers, especially when said little ones are really not so little at all anymore, and are in fact around the ripe old age of three.

So, you tell me all your secrets and tricks, and in exchange I'll give you the recipe for perfect cinnamon cream cheese ice cream. Perfect because it's quick and easy, and stays smooth and creamy in the freezer for weeks, but also because it tastes perfect. The cinnamon is warm and cozy — as it should be — not high-pitched and biting like a Red Hot®, the way some cinnamon ice creams I've had are. And the tang of the cream cheese makes you realize that this is a real, sophisticated Flavor, not merely some cinnamon garnishing vanilla ice cream.


In fact, this ice cream may be the only one you need as we approach the holiday season, with so many pies in our future waiting to be à-la-moded, and baked apples and cranberry-pear crisps wanting to get in on the action too. Just another nod to its perfectness.

At the end of the week, Josh and I are heading off on whirlwind four days of eating our way through lower Manhattan. Yes, that's right, folks: a kid-free vacation. One that involves air travel and reservations at fancy restaurants and late-night drinks. It's a bit mind-boggling to imagine myself doing such adult things, for days in a row, after so many years of being a constant parent. Mind-boggling and exhilarating, for sure. And when we get back, after the pain of missing my children has worn off, the Wylie-Tara Sleep Project will commence. For now, simply making the commitment to change what has become a well-worn (and worn out!) habit is enough for me. But very soon, I'll need some concrete plans.

Here I am, ready and waiting for your suggestions, friends. And, to prove to you how serious I am, I'll go ahead and keep up my end of the bargain: The Recipe.


Cinnamon Cream Cheese Ice Cream
Yields 1 quart

This recipe is really just a variation of my Vanilla-Brown Sugar Ice Cream recipe, with a few tweaks here and there. And while the tweaks may seem minor, the end result is a different product altogether. Where the original ice cream tastes of the simplicity of my childhood summers, this version is all grown-up, with extra tang from more cream cheese and the richness and heat of quality cinnamon. For me, if I'm going to be eating ice cream in the colder months, atop my slice of apple pie or alongside a fudgy brownie, this is the one I want.

360 gr/12 fluid oz whole milk
360 gr/12 fluid oz heavy cream
120 gr light brown sugar
8 gr light corn syrup
¾ tsp vanilla extract
¾ tsp best-quality ground cinnamon
large pinch kosher salt
55 gr cream cheese, room temperature, in a small bowl

Have ready a metal bowl set over an ice bath.

Combine everything but the cream cheese in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir with a wooden spoon to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a fast simmer and simmer for 5 minutes. Transfer to the metal bowl in the ice bath. Whisk a small amount of the mixture into the cream cheese until the cream cheese has dissolved, then whisk the cream cheese mixture into the ice cream base. (I find an immersion blender works especially well for fully incorporating the cream cheese.) Once the ice cream base has cooled, transfer it to the refrigerator and chill until very cold, up to overnight.

Strain the ice cream base into your ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions. Pack the churned ice cream into glass storage containers (or use a metal loaf pan), press plastic wrap or parchment directly onto the surface, cover tightly, and freeze. Ice cream keeps for up to 3 months.
 
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