Tuesday, September 30, 2008

That culinary couple

I'm always on the look out for other food-minded couples, so when a wonderful friend told me about the Culinary Couple, I knew I had to get in touch. Emily and Nick write up their homey, comforting adventures in the kitchen on their blog, and do adorable things like challenge each other to their very own Iron Chef competitions.*

I was able to chat with the Culinary Couple last week about cooking with your significant other.

What is the best thing about being a culinary couple?

We both feel fortunate to have found a mate who can share a love for food. Food is woven into every part of our lives and our relationship. It’s in celebrations at fancy restaurants and experimentations in the kitchen. It’s in holidays with family and dinner parties with friends and quiet dinners over candlelight. We take pride in being a young couple that is not afraid to test our culinary boundaries.

How has cooking and food helped shape your relationship?

To us, cooking isn’t just about preparing delectable dishes. It’s about making memories in bites bursting with flavor, taking pleasure in other cultures, and sharing a bottle of wine while sautéing, stirring, and simmering.

We learn lessons together in the kitchen. We experiment and laugh at our mistakes. We tell secrets while savoring bowls of homemade soup and share dreams while eating strawberries in the warm sun.

Now, and in the future, we will always find time in our busy lives to enjoy a meal together.

I find that one of the best parts about cooking in a team is that you push each other to test your culinary boundaries with new ingredients and techniques that might seem a bit ambitious or scary when cooking for one. Do you find this to be true for you all?

It’s true that we wouldn’t attempt many of the meals we do without each other. Besides the fact that it’s much more fun to share a meal, we’ve introduced each other to new flavors and ingredients.

Emily has shared her love for mushrooms, shrimp, and cherries, and Nick has introduced her to blue cheese burgers and authentic German cuisine. He makes a mean Wiener Schnitzel!

Together we’ve experimented with pumpkin and pomegranates and avocados. We’ve tried escargot, duck, and Chilean sea bass. We have no fear when it comes to testing our taste buds!

What would a perfect day in the kitchen look like?

For now, we have to settle for an apartment kitchen with a four-burner stove, a small refrigerator, and limited counter space — but we make it work. It feels like home when the kitchen table is speckled with flour and pots crowd the stovetop and sweet smells drift from the oven. While one chops, the other stirs, and it doesn’t matter that we’re constantly bumping into each other. We sip beer and set the table while listening to music. It’s casual and comfortable and cozy.

We dream of one day cooking in a gourmet kitchen with stainless steel appliances, a double oven, a spacious island, and a gas stove. But for now, our apartment kitchen is just perfect.

What are your all-time favorite books to turn to for culinary inspiration?

We look to the Web for inspiration more often than print cookbooks. Some of our favorite sites are allrecipes.com, foodnetwork.com, and smittenkitchen.com. Of course, we also have a collection of cookbooks including several versions of Betty Crocker, a few written by Rachael Ray, and one that showcases the best Amish recipes. And our coffee table is always stacked with food magazines like Bon Appetit, Taste of Home, and the latest from Wegmans.

Favorite cooking shows?

We love the thrill and spontaneity of the Iron Chef. We marvel over the chefs' abilities to convert simple secret ingredients into pieces of art — both to the eye and to the tongue. We even adapted the television show into our own competitive version! So far we’ve challenged each other to Battle Limes, Battle Peanuts, and Battle Apples.

We also enjoy watching Bobby Flay grill from his Brooklyn brownstone and Jamie Oliver offer tips from his garden.

Do you have a go-to weeknight dinner?

We love all pasta, but our favorite is simple whole-wheat spaghetti topped with an easy and flavorful homemade sauce. The sauce is a combination of sautéed garlic and onions and canned stewed tomatoes. We add lots of oregano, crushed red pepper, and fresh basil. Sometimes, if we’re really hungry, we add chicken or sausage. The longer it simmers, the better it tastes. This is our go-to meal because we always have the ingredients on hand, and it’s just so yummy!

What’s the best special occasion dinner you’ve made together?

Valentine’s Day 2008 — it was our first valentine’s day together, and rather than paying $100 for a fancy fare, we created an impressive and delicious meal of our own. After watching “No Reservations,” we poured glasses of wine, tuned the laptop to Pavarotti, and began to cook. We seared scallops and added them to wild mushroom risotto. This was served after an appetizer of white asparagus and heirloom tomatoes with warm shitake dressing. And for dessert we made a heavenly chocolate hazelnut lava cake.

*I have a not-so-secret wish to challenge the Culinary Couple to an Iron Chef competition! Wouldn't that be fun?!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The words we eat

I have an enormous crush on Garrison Keillor. My mother swears he looks like Dwight from the Office, but I find him to be adorable.

Everyday, a version Keillor's Writer's Almanac is emailed to me (usually at 4:00 AM -- who is the poor American Public Media intern emailing this out at 4:00 AM?). There's a poem at the beginning, and then little tidbits about writer's on their birthdays, anniversaries of historic events -- that sort of thing. It provides a nearly perfect five minute break in the afternoon with a cookie and a cup of tea.

All this week, they've been writing in celebration of the anniversary of the Norman invasion of 1066 and what that defeat meant for the English language. And today, it's all about the French food and cooking words that entered our vocabulary as a result of the English defeat.

Read it here.

Now I just need decide how to super. Beef? Pork? Mutton?!

Monday, September 22, 2008

The perfect thing

When you're moving, it's customary to eat icky delivery pizza and cold chinese food, or so I've heard. Thanks to my fantastic mom, I didn't have to suffer one bit this week in the kitchen.

Last weekend, my parents drove to the city from Connecticut to drop off some old family furniture, stock up my brand new fridge, and take Peter and me to a nice dinner in our new neighborhood. For a moving weekend, it was pretty fantastic.

On Saturday night, we ended up at a table in the garden of Franny's and then at the Chocolate Room for dessert. It was a lovely welcome to the neighborhood.

But it was the homemade food that really made the weekend. My mom makes fantastic breakfast casseroles, and she brought one with new potatoes, spinach, sausage, eggs, and cheese to have for brunch on Sunday. And she also gave me one all time favorites to have on hand this week while unpacking -- chicken and rice casserole. It was a more knock-out version than usual because she added roasted red peppers, mushrooms, and then covered the top with almond slivers. It's so gooey and comforting, and it's something I never make for myself. It was the perfect thing.

Mom's chicken and rice casserole

You will need:
1 cup uncooked rice
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup cream or whole milk
1/2 soup can water
4 chicken breast halves
1 cup mushroom, sliced
1/2 cup roasted red peppered, sliced thinly into strips
1/2 cup slivered almonds

Boil 1 1/2 cups of water, add rice, turn down the heat to medium and cover until the rice has absorbed the water. There will be some bite to the rice. Stir in a few tablespoons of butter and set aside. In another pot, boil water and add chicken breats. Cook until done. Cut chicken into bite sized pieces. In a pan, saute mushrooms in butter until tender, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, combine flour and butter in a small sauce pan. Stir until it forms a roux. Add cream, stir until combined, and remove from heat. In a large bowl, combine the rice, chicken, mushrooms, roasted pepper, and the cream sauce. Add this to a large casserole dish and sprinkle almond slivers on top. Cover and bake at 350 for 30 minutes.

*This casserole isn't really much to look at, so I didn't bother to take a picture. Plus, I'm not 100% sure where my camera is among all these boxes and crates. But trust me, it's fantastic.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Manhattan Vally/Morningside Heights favorites

Well, in this week of packing and taping and driving and unloading, I've progressed quite nicely from feeling nostalgic about leaving our current neighborhood to being just plain antsy to settle into the new one. Still, it feels like the right time to compile a little list of neighborhood favorites. While it's still fresh, and all.

1. Toast on Broadway and 125th. This bar and restaurant also has a location "downtown" on Broadway and 105th, but if, like me, you enjoy eavesdropping on Columbia students' dates, then the original is your best bet. This is a wonderful Friday night cheap date spot for big burgers and a slew of fun beers to try. The blue cheese stuffed burger is particularly good.

2. Voza on Columbus and 106th. When I first came to New York, I had the crazy idea to walk home from Rockefeller Center. It took over an hour, and I never did it again, but it was a great way to see a lot of the neighborhood. I passed by Voza on this walk, and it looked so charming that Peter and I went there for dinner the very next night. It's not life-altering food, but is that what you really want from your neighborhood spot? It is cute and the service is good and (if you're lucky!) they'll bring you a free little appetizer while you're waiting for your food.

3. El Malecon Restaurant II at Amsterdam and 97th. Really, really great rotisserie chicken and fried plantains for really, really cheap.

4. Thai Market at Amsterdam and 108th. I suppose most people have a favorite Thai place in the city, and this is certainly mine. It's clean and quick and the Pad Thai is consistently delicious. It's also a great place to take guests for a fun New Yorker-ish experience without being very expensive. Peter and I have both taken our families and friends, and it's always been a hit.

5. Absolute Bagels at Broadway and 108th. Arguably the best bagel in the city. The everything bagel with fresh herb cream cheese, the sesame bagel with cheddar and bacon cream cheese, the plain bagel with garlic and chive cream cheese. I could go on, but you should really just hop on the 1 train and experience it's awesome-ness for yourself.

6. La Negrita at Columbus and 109th. A great neighborhood bar for going out to when you don't feel like going out (I can't be the only one who feels this way with some regularity...). They have comfy couches and live music and trivia. And, of course, fun drinks.

7. Max Soha at Amsterdam and 122nd. A wonderful pasta place. Also a fantastic spot for spying on those precious Columbia students. The service can be slightly spotty, but when you're bill is so inexpensive and the pasta is so good, all is forgiven.

8. Taqueria y Fonda la Mexicana at Amsterdam and 108th. Delicious, gigantic burritos. Peter requested this be our last meal here. That's probably as good an endorsement as any.

Friday, September 12, 2008

From the tippy top of the Upper West Side

This is our last weekend as Manhattan-ites. Next week, we'll be packing up our books and ice cream maker and lacey curtains and heading across the water for a new apartment in Park Slope. And I'm excited about the move, I really am.

But it's just that so many really great things that happened to me in Manhattan. Like picnics in Central Park, and amazing dinners at Gennaro, and winning lottery tickets to see plays on Broadway. All of these things can still happen when we're living in Brooklyn, I know. But these are the things that have colored my year in Manhattan. Not to mention the countless meals Peter and I have cooked in our tiny Manhattan kitchen.

It was here, living together for the first time, that we grew and played and mastered a lot of culinary feats in the kitchen. And our food adventures were fueled by supplies bought in neighborhood, like olives and cheese from Zabar's, vegetables from the farmer's market at the base of Morningside Park, and the freshest looking fish at our very own fish market.

Peter keeps reminding me that we'll have a fresh crop of favorite things just waiting to color our new life in Park Slope, and I know that he's right. But even as I type this, a fat tear rolled down my cheek and fell onto the desk. (I'm a bit of a sap, I know. You would think we were moving to Burundi, not Brooklyn.)

And so, in homage to our first New York City neighborhood, we're going out for some soul food in Harlem, a long walk through Central Park, and for a bit of gelato. I hope you have a lovely weekend celebrating your neighborhood, whereever you are.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Soup season

I know I might be declaring the official season of soup a bit prematurely, but tonight was definitely an opening ceremony of sorts. For the first time in months, it feels like there's a hint of fall in the air. I took it as a sign. A soup sign.

I decided to make the corn, tomato, and basil chowder featured in last week's New York Times dining section. It's a perfect end of summer recipe, using all sorts of farmer's market ingredients that we won't be able to enjoy in just a few short weeks. But the recipe allows you to play a bit more tricks with all the goodies -- no plain corn on the cob or tomato salads for this dish (much as I adore both of the those things). Like all nice chowders, this one is thick and hearty, even without cream or milk. The perfect warm supper for the first cool night of the season.

Corn, tomato, and basil chowder
Adapted from the New York Times

You will need:

5 beautiful ears of fresh corn
2 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
4 cups of chicken broth
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 pound red potatoes, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
A handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup chopped basil
Juice of 1/2 lime

Slice corn kernels off cob and place in a bowl. Run back of a knife along each cob to remove additional corn pulp Add pulp to bowl and reserve the cobs. In a large soup pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add in onion and garlic. Cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add broth, reserved cobs, 1 cup of water, and 1 teaspoon of salt to the pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add potatoes and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove cobs. Stir in the corn, tomatoes, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper. Simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in basil and lime juice. Let soup cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Peter Lugar's

Yesterday afternoon we found ourselves in Williamsburg at the Radegast Hall & Bierbarten with friends. The torrential rain kept us there drinking fun beers for a while, and before we knew it, it was dinner time and Peter happened to remember that we were only  a few blocks away from Peter Lugar's Steakhouse.  We figured that the rain might keep enough people away that we could hop in without a reservation. 

It's surprisingly well-lit and casual, which was fine by us since we were wearing shorts (that happened to be completely soaked).  The waiter's have a reputation for being a bit brusque, but our server was quite nice.  He did start by telling us exactly what to order, but it sounded so good we didn't really deviate from his suggestions.

We started with the tomato and onion salad.  It's quite good, especially with their steak sauce spooned on top, but I think we've been so spoiled with truly amazing tomatoes lately that it didn't really sing for me.  Next he brought over a long piece of the thick cut bacon.  Now this sang.  It's salty and crispy and the fat does this incredible melt in your mouth trick that I've never experienced before.  Life changing bacon (if bacon had the ability to change lives, of course...). 

The steak for two came out next on a scorching hot plate.  We told our server that Peter liked his steak medium rare and I liked medium, and he when he said, "No problem!" I wasn't quite sure he was going to resolve this issue.  But when he set the platter down, he quickly picked up a few pieces and put them on the side of the plate -- they sizzled like they were going into a hot skillet and browned up a bit to a perfect medium.  He wouldn't tell me how they got the platter so hot, but when we got home, a show on the top steak houses in America happened to be on the Food Network (Peter Lugar's was chosen as the best).  I saw a shot of them pulling the plates out the massive oven with the meat already on top!  There's clarified butter and delicious steak juices floating on the platter, and he spooned right on top of our plates. 

The sirloin pieces were meaty with the great little lines of fat running throughout; the fillet pieces were buttery and so, so soft.  We got the creamed spinach to go with it, which was truly the perfect companion because it was a different taste without taking up too much room in the stomach.  Because trust me, you want as much space in your stomach as possible for this meal.  

Saturday, September 6, 2008

On a sticky day

I'm a big fan of open face sandwiches, especially when they're topped with eggs. We had a lazy (and sticky!) Saturday morning, and this was the perfect lunch. 

Open face sandwich topped with a poached egg

You will need: 

2 slices of nice bread (if it's a little stale, all the better)
1 ounce goat cheese 
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium tomato, chopped
1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup fresh basil, torn
1/2 cup arugula
2 eggs
salt and pepper to taste

Toast the bread lightly and spread generously with goat cheese. Set aside.  Pour olive oil into pan and add tomatoes, mushrooms, and basil. Cook uncovered over medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes.  Stir in arugula and remove from heat. While vegetables are cooking, heat 1 inch of water in a pan. Let it come to a gentle boil and crack the eggs directly into the water. Let cook for about 3 minutes -- you want the yolk to be very runny.  

Spoon the tomato, mushroom, and arugula onto the toast. Remove the poached eggs from the water with a slotted spoon. Tear a few leaves of fresh basil on top and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  
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