Off to Boston for the New Year's holiday weekend.
Will I be starting off the year right?
Stay tuned to find out...
I am still full.
Christmas dinner at John and Elisabeth's was amazing. It put my dinner parties to shame. (And that's hard to do!)
First up was Champagne and a series of nibbles that included homemade Gravlax on Toast Points with Herb-Flecked Creme Fraiche (pictured above), miniature Wild Mushroom Risotto Cakes still warm from the saute pan, and slivers of John's own salty-cured Duck Proscuitto (pictured below).
Yet this was only a warm up session for the meal to come...Next, John brought out Andouille Sausage Souffles, hot, puffy, and emitting an aroma that could transport you from Brooklyn to N'Awlins in one whiff. Still, it wasn't enough for our chef. In true Big Easy fashion, he decided to take the dish up a notch, topping each of the golden souffles with a mound of shrimp sauteed in a buerre blanc.
To me, that could've been dinner right there - and a mighty memorable dinner at that. But, no. All of this was simply a prelude to the evening's main course: Lasagna.
This was no ordinary specimen. Elisabeth had been inspired by Bill Buford's cooking memoir "Heat" and crafted the pasta sheets herself. Not to be outdone, John made teeny meatballs that he stuffed inside, along with spicy Italian sausage, fresh mozzarella, creamy ricotta cheese and a rich, vibrant tomato sauce.
I wouldn't have put it past this couple to have made the cheese too, but I guess it would have been hard to keep the necessary cows in their one-bedroom walk-up.
Store-bought cheese aside, the resulting pasta dish was masterful, each forkful denser than the next. A few bites into the gooey, gorgeous Italian treat and I was grateful for John's side of Sauteed Broccolini, its crisp greenery off-setting the Lasagna's heft.
Speaking of heft...
Yes, it's my Chocolate-Almond Layer Cake. Thankfully though, for all its butter, chocolate and other sundry ingredients, it's fairly light on the tongue. The cake layers were airy and moist, and it proved a perfect counterpoint to the deep cherry bubbles of the Brachetto d'Acqui dessert wine I had brought for the occasion.
So, will I eat again? I have a feeling the answer to that question is "yes." But I can only hope that once again it's at John and Elisabeth's table.
It might not look pretty from the outside, but I can promise you that it is a thing of great beauty on the inside: housemade almond paste from my favorite Middle Eastern grocer, Oriental Pastry & Grocery on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue. This stuff is potent. Honey-colored, delicately sweet and profoundly nutty, it is the ingredient that puts my Almond Buttercream over the edge.
The purpose for said buttercream? A Christmas cake of course! I've been invited to my friends John and Elisabeth's home for a Yuletide celebration and I volunteered to bring dessert. So, all morning I've been hard at work whipping up a Dark Chocolate-Almond Layer Cake.
Guess it looks like I'll be bypassing Chinatown this holiday. That said, I don't think I'll be feeling blue for the lack of Lo Mein. The spread at John and Elisabeth's is sure to be a humdinger. John is professional chef who used to work at Le Bernardin. I can only hope that my dessert lives up to the rest of the meal...Enough false modesty! I might not have worked at Le Bernardin, but I know this cake is a full-on, dark cocoa, Amaretto-accented winner.
For those of you still at home wondering what to make for dessert, here's a link to the baseline Chocolate Cake and Chocolate Ganache recipes I used. Ultimately, I filled the cake's center with the aforementioned Almond Buttercream and bedecked the sides with toasted almonds. And here's my recipe for Almond Buttercream. You can most certainly use almond paste from your neighborhood supermarket, but I must say, if you can swing by Oriental Pastry & Grocery for their exceptionally intense, made-from-scratch version, it's worth the trip!
2 sticks unsalted butter (softened)
2/3 cup confectioner's sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 1/2 tsp. almond extract
2 TBSP. Amaretto
3 TBSP. almond paste
3/4 tsp. salt
zest of half an orange
Cream butter. Mixing on high speed, add sugar a little at a time, alternately adding milk. Cream well. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix thoroughly.
Makes enough for filling one cake. Triple recipe, if you plan to use as the main frosting for a layer cake. But do heed my warning: It's powerful stuff and could easily overwhelm, if not used in moderation.
And so the onslaught of Asian food continues. Tonight's edition - Vietnamese at Brooklyn Heights' new Kim Paris Vietnamese Grill.
Accompanied by my adventurous pals Les and Phyllis, we entered the second floor restaurant with trepidation. The place was dark and empty - but then again it was Christmas eve at 7pm. Besides, the joint did look clean and there weren't many other options open on the block.
We started in with a platter of crackling crisp Cha Gio (pictured above), fried spring rolls filled with shrimp, crabmeat, mushrooms, glass noodles and taro, served with tangy nouc nam sauce alongside. We made quick work of them, washing it all down with glasses of Vietnamese Iced Coffee, deep, dark and sweetened with rich condensed milk.
So far, so good.
Then the entrees arrived. That's when it went downhill. Our order of Ginger Honey Prawns was a sad jumble of shrimp, chunks of onion, bell pepper and shaved pickled ginger - the latter ingredient seemingly swiped from the sushi joint next door. Yick! A noodle dish called Banh Hoi wasn't much better - disappointing chicken bits on skewers, sitting atop a paltry portion of lukewarm angel hair. Only the Grilled Pork Chops marinated with lemongrass was worth eating, but even the chops didn't quite have the chops to inspire a return visit to Kim Paris.
Needless to say, I'm thinking a trip tomorrow to Chinatown might be required. After all, it is a Judaic Christmas tradition!
As we head inexorably towards December 25th, we of The Chosen People can't help but notice that restaurants are already beginning to shut-down for Christmas. So tonight, when asked to pick a dining spot for a festive gathering, I knew that Asian was the way to go. My first instinct was to suggest somewhere in Chinatown, but then my friend Muncie threw a curve-ball my way - the Upper West Side.
Aargh! I don't spend a lot of time on the UWS, so my Zagat-like superpowers aren't of use in that nabe. I had to turn elsewhere for advice. Thankfully, Regina Schrambling of Gastropada came to my rescue. Via her blog, she recommended Land Thai Kitchen as an authentic hot spot on Amsterdam.
Within moments of entering Land Thai, fresh out of the pouring rain, I wondered if Regina had been wrong about this place. It was crammed and the hostess didn't seem gracious in the least. That said, the place was packed at 5:30pm - definitely a good sign. My rain-drenched posse and I decided to hold tight and wait it out for a table.
Once the drinks arrived - creamy, sweet Thai Iced Tea served in oversized bowls - we had a strange feeling that we were in for something special. Then the waitstaff began to bring the food...
Light as air shrimp mousse wrapped in crisp, fried wonton skins, with tart kaffir lime curd for dipping...
...a special of sea bass stewed with thai spices and served with jasmine rice...
...and a searingly spicy version of the stalwart Thai noodle dish - Pad Thai, graced with plump shrimp...
Enough to make up for the tight quarters and so-so service? Utterly satisfied, sipping coffee at the end of the meal, my companions didn't think it was a tough call - absolutely.
I agreed with them. And moreover, now I can't wait to see what other Asian meals await me this holiday season.
As those of you who have been longtime VittlesVamp readers know, I like to go all out for my birthday.
This year was no exception. And since my b-day fell on Saturday, I decided to embrace Friday night and all day Sunday as part of the celebration.
The birthday mania kicked off on Friday evening with a "trip back to Spain," in the form of dining with three friends at Murray Hill's Pamplona restaurant. We began with a bottle of Tempranillo and a flurry of tapas, moaning in particular over the Pincho de Chorizo y Gambas, which paired spicy sausage with delicate shrimp, mounded atop crunchy toast points slathered in creamy goat cheese. As our main we asked the chef to prepare the classic dish of Paella for four. We weren't disappointed with our pick. The rice was tender and fragrant with saffron, garlic, roasted red pepper and onion, graced with chucks of braised short rib, thick slices of chorizo and gorgeous seafood. We capped off the meal with a dessert plate that featured addictive cinnamon-sugar dusted Churros and quickly hailed a cab to make it to the next stop on the birthday express: Pegu Club.
Attempting to ward off the pain that was about to approach at the strike of midnight, I had asked several buds to join me at this swank cocktail lounge for drinks and revelry.
A good plan indeed.
Several Earl Grey MarTEAnis and Whiskey Smashes later, and I realized that turning another year older might not be so bad - especially if I had good pals and good cocktails to help soften the blow.
Midnight came and went. I bid adieu to the swank lounge and entered my big day with a smile on my lips, a slight buzz and a handsome male companion by my side.
Hmm...Not bad at all...
The "real" day held many pleasures as well, a trip to the Russian Baths most definitely being a highlight. A few hours with a couple of gal pals - Queen Celeste and Joy - sauntering in an out of baking hot saunas and steam rooms, dipping into an icy plunge, floating in a indoor swimming pool and kicking back in a bubbling jacuzzi, and the years were melting away.
Fresh from the Russian Baths, we took our youthful exuberance further uptown to the popular East Village hot spot The E.U. to join a few more gal pals for a proper fete. From the still-warm-from-the-oven Pretzel Bread brought to our table to the sparkling flutes of Cava to the perfectly grilled Octopus to the luscious Quince Tart with Cinnamon Ice Cream pictured above, it was a marvelous dinner. Drinks at a nearby club just gilded my already tipsy lilly.
To complete the weekend, Sunday was a much more low-key affair - but not without its charms. A half-hour of luxurious, relaxing, foot rubbing attention at Angel Feet with my friend Leah proved to be the perfect late day respite. And, with our tootsies well-coddled, we braved the rainy weather to sidle up to the bar at Employee's Only for a proper cocktail and a gab session.
Within a few sips though, all the partying and relaxing took its toll. It was time to head home for a good night's sleep.
What can I say? At my age, beauty sleep is important!
Not talking about any sort of economic forecasts from Condeleeza Rice. Nope. Just going for the Uncle Ben's variety.
According to today's Wall Street Journal:
The global commodities boom that has lifted prices of everything from gasoline to gold is now elevating rice -- a staple food for half of the world -- to its highest level in nearly 20 years.
Rice's surge has complex consequences for the global economy. Used in everything from sushi to burritos to Rice Krispies, the ubiquitous grain is suffering poor harvests and tight supplies in some of the biggest rice-exporting and rice-consuming nations, just as demand grows in places like India and the Philippines.
The higher price is a boon for some farmers and investors. But at the same time, it is expected to contribute to a protracted bout of food-price inflation for the foreseeable future, which could widen the rift between the world's haves and have-nots.
Sealing the deal that rice is the "next big thing," the article goes on to say that now non-traditonal players, like hedge funds, are starting to trade in rice.
Hedge funds trading in rice? Hafta wonder if they place more value on brown rice versus white...Hmm...And, how much is that leftover Chinese Pork Fried Rice in my fridge worth?
Inpiration comes in many forms. For me, inspiration hit this weekend while screening the DVD of the arts-house film Waitress, a tale of love gone wrong and sublimation baking. As I watched Keri Russell's character whip up pies by the dozen, I couldn't help but want to sublimate some of my own hopes and desires in the name of pastry goodness.
The fruits of my labor are pictured above: an old-fashioned, double-crust Apple Pie. It's pastry is golden and flaky, encasing a treasure trove of honey-sweet Golden Delicious and tart Granny Smith apple slices, dusted with cinnamon, nutmeg and a hint of heady clove.
Waitress might not have been a brilliant movie, but it sure does inspire a brilliant pie.
Needless to say though, I have to wonder what I'll be inspired to bake after I see the film version of Sweeney Todd...
'Tis the season - for gift giving and receiving. Bizarre to admit it, but I can't come up with a kitchen gadget that I truly need or desire. Nor do I want to add a cooking class or particular foodstuff to my wish list. However, there are a few tasty tomes that I long to find under the menorah or by the b-day cake:
I know. I know. Books? You may think they are more akin to lumps of coal than sugarplums, but if they jingle my bells, so be it!
That said, gifts of expensive jewelry are always welcome too!