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Archive for October, 2009

Black-footed pigs munching on acorns and aromatic herbs

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Early September I went off to Sydney for the Fine Food fare. This event is not open to the public, it’s Trade Only, and it was good to see so many Kiwi food and drink producers there plying their products, or tasting what the Aussies had to offer.I tended to stick around the Spanish stand because they kept on offering me samples of Iberico ham. After my tenth visit I think they sussed that I was the same person coming back again and again (you probably know the usual disguises for such stunts: glasses on, glasses off, sunglasses on, jacket on, jacket off, hair up, hair down). But it’s gorgeous stuff and I can’t be blamed for being a a pig over pig. And I love the story of the ham as much as I love the ham. Iberico ham comes from a primitive breed of pigs that only exist in Spain. They’ve got black hooves and their legs are slimmer than those of pigs used to produce Serrano ham (Serrano ham is not as expensive as Iberico ham, but it’s still scrumptious). There are three types of these black-footed pigs (cebo, recebo and bellota), and the bellota (say bay-otta) pigs, the best of the lot, feed on aromatic herbs and acorns. You know you are going to love it when they tell you stories like that.

But I reckon you can taste it in the ham – it’s very savoury, and not as sweet as some other hams. The texture of the meat is not as fine and soft as prosciutto, it’s a little coarser, meatier, gruntier!!! Fat is marbled throughout the meat, unlike prosciutto which has a collar of silky fat around the edges of the premium slices. It makes for a very satisfying mouthful of salt, savoury, sweet and fat. Yum!!! You’ll want more. You’ll hop in the queue at food fairs to try it, doning disguises like me, I betcha! And the good thing is, you don’t have to concern yourself too much about the fat content as the fat of Iberico piggies is rich in unsaturated fatty acids that are good for us. Slice away!

New York gets better and better

Monday, October 12th, 2009

Opting for lunch at Sala One Nine, instead of dinner the previous evening, was a good choice because lunch at Tarallucci is a more casual affair (it’s a great stop for a breakfast coffee and croissant, too; see previous blog). Sala at lunch was full and buzzy but not bursting at the seams like the night before. There’s a fading grandeur about the place – crumbling walls, old gold baroquish ceiling, ornate glittering lights and scrubbed wooden floor – which is hip and modern, and even if it is manufactured, it somehow feels authentic. Bread was delivered – a generous chunk partially sliced which brought into play the ritual of breaking bread. Nice. The dark crust was thick and leathery, chewy and wholesome, yeasty, malty, almost like beer. Then came four superb dishes. First, croquettas, golden orbs, crisp-crusted, filled with potato, ham and a melting cheese centre – hot, salty, creamy and crunchy.

A generous dish of alcachofas con jamon (artichokes from Navarra with ham) were gloriously tender, rich and oily (and don’t you love it when someone has got rid of all the prickly bits for you), with the ham providing a nice salty kick, but oilier still, were gambas al ajillo– shelled plump pink shrimps with heaps of chopped garlic and a few dried pointy chillies.

The remaining bread found it’s home in the bath of richly flavoured oil. We were dunking and slurping and purring like kittens when the final dish lomo adobado arrived, a sandwich of crusty bread stuffed with pork sirloin marinated in adobo sauce, gruyere and roasted piquillo peppers. The peppers lent a smoky slightly piquant briny taste to the dish which balanced the sweetness of the pork.

Everything we ate was simply delicious – an overworked word I know, but sometimes it is the only one to sum up the depth of gorgeous flavours, the perfect execution of the dish, the visual enticement and tantalizing smells. Although I am sure we would have enjoyed any number of dishes on the menu and that’s without even going near the ubiquitous tortilla Espanola or patatas bravas (I’m going back for the white anchovies), we could go no further as we had to dash to catch a flight. It was a bit of a speed-feed but all up, one of the best tapas feasts I have had out of Spain. If you’re in New York, don’t miss it. And for a nice little touch, order the same wine as us, a bottle of Cable Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.

Sala One Nine
35 West 19th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenue)
New York Tel 212 229-2300

With groaning stomachs, we sped to the airport and me on to my brother’s place in Boston, to finish the day with a dish of larb (a Thai salad of minced meat, chicken in this case, mint, chilli, and salad greens) followed by a slice of my German sister-in-law Dolores’ famous cheesecake (I’ll post the recipe soon). How’s that for a global 24 hour’s eating? Italian, Spanish, Thai, German. Next day? Diet.

I wish! Actually, got on the Air New Zealand flight from San Fran to Auckland, a 13-hour longhaul, and usual story, I wasn’t going to eat until the menu came around. I couldn’t resist the starter of a little square of baked parmesan ricotta cake with a salad of yellow beets, mache (lamb’s tongues), smoked almonds and pomegranate seeds, with a pomegranate molasses and avocado oil dressing. It was so fresh and citrusy with zingy little bits of pomegranate exploding on the tongue, the earthy taste of beets and bite of salty smoky nuts…. And it was all gobbled up too soon. I got on a roll, as is my want, and ordered a Spy Valley sauvignon blanc (I’d just flown Boston to San Francisco on United where I was offered ‘white’ wine, a dubious chardonnay, or ‘red’ which was a malbec, which was, let’s say, drinkable, – Air NZ had a choice of at least 6 wines and the sauvignon was bright, crisp and fruity, a perfect match for the appetizer). I switched to pinot noir for the lamb, and what a great match that made with a slightly peppery lamb loin served pink, with shredded braised lamb shank alongside, sweet potatoes and a spinach custard. You’ll hear me say this often: you can’t expect food in the sky to taste as good as food in a restaurant, because of the practicalities (it’s food in numbers which must be prepared in advance, sometimes partially cooked then blast chilled, which then has to pass rigorous bacterial checks, it’s then transported and kept chilled until just prior to reheating or serving, among many other considerations), but Air NZ gets as close as you can to serving up tasty well made food across their menus, with occasional stunning results. Highly recommended as an airline.

Now for me, it’s a brisk walk around the neighborhood to drink in some lovely spring air…and to stop that padding on the thighs taking hold!!!

New York Dining

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

Last night we decided to eat Indian. It may seem a strange choice for New York, but is it? In a city where you can eat anything, why not dahi puree, peas and paneer or a masala dosa? Off we headed to a place with plenty of recommendations we’d pulled off the internet. Found it easy enough, and in we walked but something made my spine stiffen as we entered. It was 8.00pm but not busy. I was seated yet again on a banquette, but this one was terrible. I was dwarfed by my partner sitting straightbacked on a high chair. With my breasts threatening to rise and fall in a plate of rogan josh I felt miserable. Partner suggested swapping seats. That made it marginally better, except now I had to sit upright like a giraffe while he sloped. I was twitching, like a caged animal, sensing danger. Then the menu came and the reason for my ill ease registered. The smell when I walked through the door reminded me of a hospital, not a restaurant – disinfectant! There were no cooking smells at all. For an Indian restaurant this is unusual: a good one fair reeks of spices, onions, chillies and ginger and a fair commotion can generally be heard coming from the kitchen. As soon as I saw ‘fattoush’ and ‘parmigiano’ on the menu (I kid you not) I baulked. Now fattoush as a salad might eat quite nicely with Indian food – I’ve no idea – but I didn’t want to find out. We excused ourselves politely and fled out the door as another waft of disinfectant filled our nostrils. A backward glance at the chef, arms folded over belly standing in the kitchen with nothing to do, convinced us that we had had a lucky escape.

The rules: if a restaurant is empty at prime dining time, there’s probably a very good reason – the food is bad. If the chef is visibly not cooking in the kitchen it probably means the food is all prepared ahead ready to be microwaved when ordered, or worse still, if you can’t smell food it’s possible the food was trucked in from somewhere else. If the seating is uncomfortable at the beginning of the evening, think of how it will be in one hour’s time. If there are matches on the menu that don’t pique your curiosity and sound bizarre, the chef probably doesn’t know his onions from his scallions, and if the place smells of disinfectant – RUN!!!

Breathing the fresher air out on the street, while waiting for a cab to transport us some place else, I idly puruse a menu posted on a restaurant window right where we are standing. It reads well. Italian. Burrata on the menu. Homemade pasta and lots of fish. We stuck our noses in. It was busy and buzzy. It smelled like my Italian mamma’s kitchen. We wanted ‘in’, but we decided to hedge our bets. We booked a table for 8.30 then quickly walked one or two blocks along to check out a Spanish tapas bar which had been our second choice of the evening. It was pumping, lively and loud, full of the glorious smells of sizzling shrimps, garlic, red wine, and fried croquettes. We wanted in here, too. But we made the decision to book it for lunch the following day as the table offered was tiny and the space crammed, and to return to the Italian spot for dinner. What a great choice. We had lucked in on two exceptional restaurants. Let me share them with you so you know where to get good food next time you’re in New York

Tarallucci e Vino
Union Square 15 East 18th Street New York
Tel 212 228 5400

I could have had the sage fritters with anchovies, or the spinach and red endive salad, capra verde, walnuts, pear and white balsamic vinaigrette, or the crispy fried hazelnut crusted goat cheese, roasted beets and walnut vinaigrette, but I didn’t. I couldn’t resist the burrata cheese – call it an addiction if you like – served with a warm vegetable salad and orange glaze. It was a little bit soupy, with tiny nuggets of zucchini no bigger than a skinny fingertip, slim asparagus, snow peas, fava beans and baby corn. And in the centre, a melting white lava of burrata. To die for?

Just about. The pointy little bread rolls brought to the table first hadn’t just been reheated, they had been cooked to order and were magnificently crisp and the sesame seed focaccia tasted of gorgeous fresh sesame seeds (as opposed to rancid ones). These were served with a fresh green and fruity thick olive oil. My dining companion ordered the carpaccio of beef with braised fennel, arugula, mustard vinaigrette with a parmesan mousse and a sliver of croquante. The mousse was much firmer than expected, very buttery, but the lingering flavour of aged parmigiano, without any fustiness, made up for it. The dish as a whole was overwhelmingly savoury, sending all the umami taste buds into a frenzy.

Mains were duck pasta, made with layers of pasta sheets and rich chunks of duck sauce – pronounced ‘divine’ by dining partner (he didn’t share, mind). I ate all my lamb, too, a roasted rack with fava beans, roasted cherry tomatoes and a fresh buttery oregano emulsion. Rich and tasty, the meat was cooked to medium-rare, although a little rarer near the bone. As good as it was, American lamb (and I generalize because I can) does not compare with New Zealand lamb, the latter being sweeter, less fatty and not as gamey. We had to pass on the cheese course, but next time we’ll leave room as the choice of sheep, cow and goat cheeses, served with the likes of acacia honey, green tomato mustard, pumpkin ginger compote, Lambrusco jelly, lavender honey and plum or pear mustard sounds like a delicious meal all on their own.

Details about our Tapas experience next!

Dinner, Santa Monica again

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Rustic Canyon - roasted baby beet salad

So many places to eat, so few nights…but the decision was made and off we went to the Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen, 1119 Wilshire Blvd (tel 310 393 7050). I wasn’t sure what we were in for but one dish I ate sent me into raptures and was instantly memorable. As is often the case, the small plates or appetizers on a menu can hold more appeal than a meat-laden assortment of entrees which are largely big pieces of meat with extras. To be fair, Rustic Canyon, has some nice offerings of local sea bass with caponata, whole roasted trout with escarole, currants and pinenuts, pan roasted ‘Jidori’ chicken – which I learnt means a chicken probably given a name at birth, spending its days running free scratching for worms, and generally living a molly-coddled life so it can end up on a menu at $26.00 somewhere.

But it was the roasted baby beet salad that I was after because I was on a mission to eat burrata. Wikipedia tells me burrata is a fresh Italian cheese, made from mozzarella and cream. The outer shell is solid mozzarella while the inside contains both mozzarella and cream, giving it a unique soft texture. But I can tell you more than that: it is the softest silkiest spun ball of num-num you’re ever likely to eat (you can see I’ll never get a job with Wikipedia!). My salad was layered with chioggia beets, that’s the gorgeous little ringed slice of beet you see on top of the salad in the pic, quartered baby red beets, slivered celery and a few celery leaves, which, are nice, in moderation (too many and they taste bitter), sliced crunchy apples, and little nuggets of toasty salty walnuts, and hidden in the middle melting layered globs of burrata. And no, I don’t share. This was all doused with a tangy honey and rosemary vinaigrette. Heavenly. Yes. Beautifully balanced with acidity and hint of sweetness. Yes. All gobbled up, platter licked clean. Yes.

Rustic Canyon - grilled pork chop

My dining companion ordered cappelletti pasta stuffed, and I mean STUFFED full of potato and burrata, topped with a pale rosy-pink sweetish ragu. All rather light, luscious and lovely. Then he ordered the grilled pork chop with slices of roasted pears sitting on little mounds of celery root puree, and chanterelle mushrooms. The pork was cooked perfectly – pink to the centre, juicy and tasty. I followed my salad with ‘mezzaluna’ pasta shapes, stuffed with a filling of sweet butternut which spilled out like liquid gold, and tossed with brown butter and crispy sage. All delicious, no dessert required. The only grizzle was with the wines, some of which we tried by the glass before switching to a half bottle, but the proverbial match made in heaven eluded us this time.