Friday, September 26, 2008

New York, part 2

I am not a breakfast person. Large waffles smothered with syrup and whipped cream make a great dessert but often make me sick at breakfast, and pancakes are at about the same place. I love a good omelet, but I'm allergic to eggs (egg whites, actually, and not if they're in things like cake, just if I'm sitting down to eat some fluffy, creamy scrambled eggs). What's left? Biscuits and gravy. Heavy. Granola? Good option, but I make that at home. French toast? See waffle. Have I reached the end of your standard menu? Pretty much, which is why going out for breakfast is not typically my suggestion. Still, Heidi wanted a good breakfast in New York, and I was right there. I'm not so jaded I can't hope there are still good possibilities for a morning menu; I just didn't know them yet.

Two of my friends that visited New York this spring insisted we try Norma's at the Parker Meridien Hotel. So glad I trusted their advice. It was fabulous! Really, truly, inspiring. This was the one nice restaurant we went to that I really had little information about, so I didn't have overblown expectations. I don't know who came up with the menu, who runs the show, to whom I owe the pleasure of my visit.

We were seated in a very nice room with lots of suits and formally-dressed waiters. (I say waiters because I'm pretty sure we didn't see any female wait staff the entire time we were in New York.) Menus were presented by the host, which were quickly followed by our waiter pouring freshly squeezed orange juice into our tall, elegant glasses. We started reading the menu – something that is usually a short task for me – and only stopped ourselves when we were conscious of taking so long to decide. Soon after our menus had been swept away, another server brought us samples of the smoothie of the day, orange banana. It was little perks like these that put their service over the top and made a good visit with excellent food a really great visit.

Heidi ordered the Light and Lemony Griddle Cakes with Crispy Crêpe Strings and I ordered the Artichoke Benny (which, unfortunately, is missing from the online menu!). The griddle cakes taste nothing like any pancake I've ever eaten. They're moist the way a crêpe is moist, thick like a pancake, sweet and buttery like a cake (but not like the frosting), and lemony like fresh lemonade. It was topped with a luscious whipped Devonshire cream, a delight that was almost unnecessarily, and not even thoroughly consumed. (My daughter will be appalled!)

My breakfast was a lovely entrance into the food possibilities awaiting me in New York. Two perfectly poached eggs each sat atop a freshly carved and cooked artichoke heart, sitting on a bed of sautéed spinach. The entire dish was placed on cubes of steamed or boiled potatoes and turnips, lightly buttered and salted, and topped with a porcini mushroom sauce. The mushroom sauce, spinach, turnips, and potatoes went so extraordinarily well together that I am looking forward to making a side dish out of those items in the future. The eggs and artichokes were also wonderful, though I admit I reluctantly ate only half of my egg white.

While we were enjoying our breakfast, we heard bits of conversation here and there from our close neighbors. Heidi afterward told me a piece she'd heard from the lady next to her.

Waiter: Freshly squeezed orange juice, madam?
Lady: I'll have a diet coke, please.
Waiter (horrified and shocked look on his face): A diet coke?
Lady: Yes. I cannot start my day without a diet coke.
Waiter: I'll see that you get one.

Also, the neighbors to my left were speaking in some sort of a French accent. As the man was reading some of the items out loud to the lady with him, he came across something with Gruyère in it. I (later) remarked to Heidi that I'd never heard the word spoken in a way that made it seem so simple to pronounce. I guess it makes sense, being a French word and all.

We happily paid our bill and stayed a moment to chat (and take a moment to let it all sink in) while the staff refilled our orange juice glasses. I know I sound so naive, but really, when have you ever had your freshly squeezed orange juice glass refilled after you've paid the tab? I would have sworn it was heaven.

We didn't just go to New York to eat, though that may have been a primary objective, so we spent that morning visiting Filene's Basement, Anthropologie, and learning the ins and outs of the subway system before going to Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill for lunch, where I quickly changed from tennis shoes to brown flats, feeling quite conspicuous.

Mesa Grill was exciting to me, being an admirer of Bobby Flay. Michael Symon has said Bobby Flay is one of the most under-appreciated top chefs, which did not surprise me in New York, where the food is very much about subtle flavors and French technique. Mesa Grill is about bright, bold flavors and presentations. But, because of this, it also stands out as a nice contrast and compliment to continental restaurants across the city. Looking back, I think I may have appreciated it more on the second day, when the delicate character of other meals would make such strong food stand out. As it was, this meal was delicious in every way, but not unfamiliar, as I enjoy making and eating Mexican/Southwest cuisine on a somewhat regular basis.

I ordered the Ancho Chile-Honey Glazed Salmon with Spicy Black Bean Sauce, Tomatillo Salsa, and Roasted Jalapeño Crema. The salmon was glazed and blackened, intensifying the warm flavors of the ancho chile. The black bean sauce was delicious; I could have had nothing for lunch but a bowlful of that and been content. I really liked the tomatillo salsa. When I've had or made fresh tomatillo salsa in the past, it's always been blended, and this was diced. The tomatillos were fruity and soft; I'll have to try this method sometime.

Heidi ordered the Grilled MahiMahi with Roasted Pineapple-Cascabel Chile Sauce and Caramelized Pineapple-Green Onion Salsa. The fish was very tender and the flavors were delicious. Surprisingly, we didn't taste any heat from the chiles, but certainly the entrée was not worse off for that. Even better than the fish, though, was the rice it was served with. It was soft and creamy but not heavy, and the flavors were a light contrast to the sauces and onions, but still intriguing. It was a treat. I was pleased when I came home to see the recipe for this rice in my cookbook, and I'll make sure I blog about it in the future when I make it.

Getting full but not too full, we decided to split a dessert, an excellent move as we didn't even finish it. The Chocolate Brown Sugar Soufflé Pudding with Pecan Flatbread Crunch was a great choice. The pudding was creamy and fluffy, and the pecan flatbread was completely new. I tried forever to figure out how to describe it. It tastes very much like pralines. The main flavors are toasted pecans and brown sugar, and if it had been sold in bags I would have bought several. I don't know where to start, even, to recreate them, but I'm sure I'll try. The pudding was also served with a size of what I believe was toasted pecan whipped cream. It was so nice with a bite of the chocolate pudding.

We started the afternoon by walking over to Chelsea Market, a place we'd heard we needed to go but new nearly nothing about. This was unfortunate. While the entrance was strikingly peculiar, the market was cafe-style restaurants, bakeries, a small restaurant supply store, a small produce market, and a small Italian grocer. We were in no situation to appreciate it, having eaten two very good and very filling meals already that day. We did grab a few small rolls to sample later from Amy's Breads and a caramel brownie and turtle brownie from Fat Witch Brownies. When we did eventually nibble at them, they were all delicious, especially the brownies. (I may try adding a layer of caramel to my brownies!) The Food Network is also stationed there, but there were no signs, and I'm guessing they don't take to people strolling in off the streets. Maybe if we'd gone around the outside of the building?

In any case, we were tired and had time to spare, so we headed back to the hotel, where I went for a short swim to burn a few calories before dinner. Such exhausting work.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

New York, part 1: Jacques Torres Chocolate

My dear friend Heidi and I ran off to the Big Apple last weekend for 2 days of indulgence. We left our children behind with our good and encouraging husbands and set our minds on what we could experience in such a short time. Just to cut the suspense, I'll tell you right now: it was a lot. We squeezed as much as we could out of our weekend and slept a total of 11 hours over 3 nights (granted, it was really good sleep, the kind you can only get on perfect mattresses, crisp sheets, and no children within earshot).

Neither of us had ever visited New York City prior to this trip, so this heightened the anticipation, and we each felt like the stereotypical small town girl walking into the big city, excited and naive. It was an unavoidable sensation, but delightful in its own way.

We had three main goals: have fun, eat a lot of good food, and do a little shopping. And go see Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre. Four...we had four main goals. And we happily accomplished them.

It may seem simple to write a blog about my experience, but, as you know, I do like to go on and on about food, so I will not attempt to do too much at once. Instead, I'll just do little installments until I've taken care of everything. And, except for today, I'll just start at the beginning and go through each meal.

Today, however, I'm starting with what may have been the best episode. I'm talking about the Jacques Torres chocolate shop. You're probably aware of my love for good chocolate, so this opportunity was an absolute delight. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we went back a second time – the only place to score that ranking.

Jacques Torres has three locations, all in New York, and two in Manhattan. The nearest location to us was also their newest, on Amsterdam between 73rd and 74th. One of the treasures of visiting New York for the first time was jumping on the subway to go to a district, walking out of the station, and seeing something completely different than wherever we'd just left. Our stop at Amsterdam and 72nd was the most pleasant of all these surprises. It is a beautiful area of New York City with amazing architecture (which really can be said of most of the city) and a very clean feeling to the streets. It felt energetic to be there, but still quaint with its wrought-iron fencing and garden area around the station entrance.

The chocolate shop is small and non intimidating. It has a little counter for drinks and a separate counter for chocolate truffles, pastries, and cookies. The walls are lined with ready-to-purchase delights: white, milk, and dark chocolate bars; mendients (more on those in a sec), malt balls, chocolate pretzels, chocolate gingerettes, chocolate macadamia nuts, hot chocolate, cookie mix, brownie mix, and chocolate for baking. There are two stores I would have gladly purchased the entire contents of while there, had I the ability, and this was one of them. (You'll have to read my future posts to know the other.)

Between the two trips to the store, I purchased (to bring home) a couple of chocolate bars, a 2-lb. bag of dark chocolate disks, a box of hand-picked truffles, and a small bag of mendients. Mendients (which I'd not heard of before visiting the shop) are small squares of chocolate each topped with a pistachio, an almond, and candied ginger. They are small-bite size, and like getting a taste of a good truffle at a discount. I purchased them when we first visited the shop, and then went all out for a box of chocolates upon returning, as I preferred them to the well-known (and somewhat garish) Teuscher chocolates I sampled at Rockefeller Center. Though it wasn't the price that swayed me, I was thrilled to pay a mere $1.50 per chocolate for such quality. And, really, all the contents of the shop were very affordable – another plus.

While there, Heidi ordered the frozen hot chocolate and I ordered the classic hot chocolate. Incredible. I wouldn't so much call mine "hot chocolate" as maybe "drinking chocolate", but I appreciate their lack of pretension in naming it. It's quite thick, very intense, and amazingly, beautifully rich. I would even say it's the best hot chocolate I've ever had. The frozen hot chocolate was irresistible; with conflicting emotions Heidi finished it off, though it upset her empty stomach. You can buy a bag of the hot chocolate mix there. Heidi did, and she said that it did indeed taste just like it did there. The ingredients are just chocolate, milk powder, and cornstarch. And if I have a list of ingredients, you can bet I'm going to get to work replicating.

It didn't take me long. I worked on it today, and I'm very happy with the result, so I'll be sharing that recipe with you at the end of this post. If you like eating really good chocolate, it's like that but better. I could really go on and on, but it would get old and it would be much better if you make it yourself. But I will add a note about the recipe: I used a chocolate that is about 62% cacao, and so I included a teaspoon of cocoa in the recipe to make it dark enough. If you use a chocolate that is over 65%, you might just try it without the cocoa first, as it will likely have the right depth of chocolate. My husband and daughter have both already had it and love it.

I also purchased in the shop two other delights. The first was an almond paste-filled pastry. I think the pastry was pâte à choux, which is what is used to make éclairs, or it may have been a puff pastry. I know they're completely different, but it was a bit confusing, and it seemed like a crossover between the two. Not possible, I know. In any case, it was delicious. I also had a chilled chocolate chip cookie (your choice of chilled or warm), which was, I promise you, the very best chocolate chip cookie I've ever had. I brought five home. It was buttery and chewy and heavy on the chocolate. The form of chocolate they use is called a fève, a wafer about quarter size that is very thin, and this is the bag of chocolate I purchased there, specifically for recreating the cookies at home. The benefit to this form is that each bite can have a great deal of chocolate in it while still having a luxurious amount of buttery, chewy cookie.

Lucky for all of us, the recipe for this cookie and an accompanying article was posted in the New York Times earlier this year, and I'm also including the recipe here. The salt content looks high. When I made them a month or two ago, I really liked the extra salt on top, but by the next day, there was no distinct saltiness, just a well-balanced cookie. If you try it, I hope you enjoy it. I do still really like my other chocolate chip recipe, but I'll be making this one again soon to see if I can get it to be as nice as my experience in New York.

To view a printable version of the following recipe, click here.

Drinking Chocolate

1/2 t. cornstarch
1 t. cocoa (or 1/2 t. cocoa if the cacao content of the chocolate is over 65%)
1/4 c. finely chopped bittersweet chocolate, at least 60%*
1/2 c. whole or lowfat milk

Stir together the cornstarch, cocoa, and chocolate. Whisk into the milk in a mug. Heat the mug in the microwave on high for 1 minute and 30-40 seconds, stopping to whisk every 20-30 seconds, until thickened slightly, melted, and smooth. Serve.

This recipe can be doubled, tripled, etc., and made on the stovetop (carefully).

*To measure the chocolate, I place the cornstarch and cocoa in the bottom of a 1/4 c. measuring cup, then add the chocolate on top, pressing and crunching it down to get it very compact.

To view a printable version of the following recipe, click here.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
adapted from Jacques Torres

2 cups + 2 T. (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
1 3/4 cups + 2 T. (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1 1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate wafers, disks, or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content

1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.

4. Scoop 6 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.

(note: 2 oz. cookies (about 1/4 c.) are also a nice size. About 8 fit on a tray.)

Yield: 1 1/2 dozen 5-inch cookies.

Note: Disks are sold at Jacques Torres Chocolate; Valrhona fèves, oval-shaped chocolate pieces, are at Whole Foods.