Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Birthday Cake by Steve

As I mentioned, my birthday was Saturday. Steve surprised me by offering to make me a birthday cake. He let me pick any kind of cake and he'd make it. From scratch. I gave him the chance to make it from a box, but he said he'd do a scratch cake. Even though I've never seen him bake anything, he's not a bad cook, so I figure he could handle making a cake. Cakes are pretty straight forward in their preparation.

I picked a chocolate cake recipe from Baking by Dorie Greenspan and a vanilla frosting with orange from the America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book.

Then I put my feet up and watched the Red Sox-Yankees game while he got to work.

I missed getting pics of him making the cakes, but here they are cooling. He weighed the cake pans as he was filling them to make sure he got the batter evenly distributed. Usually I just eyeball it.

After the cakes cooled, he made the frosting, frosted the cake, and then decided to get fancy. He reserved about a cup of the frosting and dyed it light orange. Then he got out my pastry bag and used it to pipe some decoration on. How utterly surprising this was to me!

The finished product was cute, pretty, and tasted great. Thank you Steve!

Dinner at Citi Field

Since this blog is about food and related topics, I'm only going to cover the food portion of my visit to Citi Field last night.

We arrived at Citi Field at 6PM, and after taking a few pictures of the outside and Jackie Robinson Rotunda, we wound our way on the field level to the high-end food court behind center field. Once there we had the following selections:

-BBQ from Blue Smoke
-Burgers, dogs, shakes, fries from Shake Shack
-soft rolled tacos from Verano Taqueria
-Belgian-style fries at Box Frites
-Pizza and pastas with fresh ingredients such as mozz and basil
-ice cream
-imported, craft, and specialty beers

We got food from two places, Blue Smoke and Verano Taqueria. For ballpark food, I thought both were pretty good.

From Blue Smoke, we ordered the pulled pork sandwich. The line was long but the counter is run efficiently so it moved pretty well. The food is ready to go and boxed so all the cashier has to do is pick up the right box. This worried me as this sort of set up often leads to lukewarm food and soggy buns. Not the case last night. The sesame seed bun was nice and fresh and toasty, not soggy at all.
The pulled pork was piled on generously but not so much that it would have been falling out the sides while we ate making a mess. The flavor of the meat was good but I could have used with a dab more sauce. Served with crisp, garlicky pickle slices and one wet nap. How thoughtful even though I didn't need it after the sandwich.

I did need it after the tacos we had from Verano Taqueria. We ordered the taco combo platter, which isn't a platter but a box containing three tacos, one of each on the menu.
We had one grilled skirt steak, one green mole chicken, and one carnitas. All topped with adequate doses of fresh cilantro and chopped white onions. Three kinds of salsas were served on the side in neat little to-go containers as well as a lime wedge. I liked all three tacos - the chicken was the spiciest, the beef nice and charred, and the carnitas melted away. Often with soft rolled tacos, the corn tortillas will split or get soggy. These were hearty corn tortillas that stayed whole, didn't get soggy, and actually had taste.

We washed everything down by splitting a Blue Smoke Special Ale (by Brooklyn Brewery). We took a break after the sixth inning and got a Carvel ice cream to split.

Now you might be wondering what did all this cost. It is NYC after all, and food tends to be on the pricey side. Well, I really didn't think the cost was all that bad considering the quality of the food we had. The prices are certainly much lower than they run across the subway tracks at the tennis center. (Where I'll be this September for the US Open! But I'll be taking my own food.) The pork sandwich and beer at Blue Smoke were $9 and $7.50. For comparison's sake, regular, domestic Bud Light was $6 for a regular, $7.50 for a large. The taco combo was $9.75. Yes, in Texas, that would amount to highway robbery for three tacos, but it is NY. The ice cream I thought was the overpriced item of the night at $6 for the helmet cup.

Other food items we saw but didn't have the stomach to try this trip: corn on the cob with queso fresco, Belgian style fries, grilled sausage, po'boys, lobster rolls ($17!!!!), and good old Nathan's hot dogs. I love Shake Shack, but with the Madison Square Park location right outside the Flatiron building, it's accessible on a daily basis. The Shake Shack lines were also the worst of the restaurants and stayed that way all night. I would have loved a shake, though.

Today should be the last hot day before it cools off and some rain returns to the area. Dinner this week are going to be meaty - steak and the leftover white beans from Union Square Cafe, chicken burgers, chicken tikka, and sausage calzones.

Good eating to you!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Dinner at Union Square Cafe

My birthday was Saturday. Unfortunately, I had a headache all day which meant the planned dinner at Union Square Cafe was pushed back to Sunday. USC is one of my favorite restaurants here in NYC for several reasons - 1) the service doesn't get any better than this 2) the food is always rich, slightly unexpected, and fresh 3) the ambiance is relaxed, not stuffy, but casually elegant. I like to eat at the bar here. Rather than just give you a fork and knife like so many other "eat at bar" establishments do, USC puts down white linens, give you a full place setting, and starts you off with fresh breads, butter, and herb & citrus olives. You get treated the same way you would if you were sitting at one of the dining room tables.

I also like sitting at the bar because the bartenders at USC are great. They are extremely knowledgeable and helpful. I think you probably get more interaction to with the bartenders than you would with your waiter at a table. The bartenders are there when you need them and not hanging around interrupting your meal or conversation.

Last night, I ordered a bunch of things to try. The bartender told me that even though the menu has appetizers and appetizer sizes available for the pasta dishes, that I could order quarter portions so I could try even more items. Yay! Here's what I got:

Warm Garlic Potato Chips
Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Toasted Brioche, Glazed Belgian Endive and Blood Orange Salad
Chilled First of the Season Asparagus soup with Creme Fraiche
Caramelized Onion Risotto, Balsamic-Roasted Spring Onions, Chives and Parmigiano Reggiano
Capellini with Flaked Halibut, Broccoli Rabe, Garlic, Chili, White Wine and Rustic Breadcrumbs
Fagioli alla Toscana – White Beans with Rosemary, Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and Pecorino

Steve had tastes of everything I ordered but he opted for an entree rather than lots of little dishes and got the Grilled Smoked Cedar River Shell Steak, Vin Cotto-Glazed Grilled Radicchio and Whipped Potatoes.

For dessert, we ordered the USC’s Banana Tart, Honey-Vanilla Ice Cream and Macadamia Brittle.

After all this we waddled to the subway.

Everything was very good. My favorite was the risotto. Carmelized onions are one of my favorite things and this was rich with them. Served in a miniature copper paella-type dish, it was topped with a halved caramelized shallot. Yuuuummmmmmm.

The Capellini and halibut dish was very light and fresh, but a little heavy on the raw garlic. If I attempted to replicate this dish at home, I would leave out some of the garlic. This dish also had a surprising addition of heat thanks to some red chili.

The foie gras was delectable and cooked perfectly, as usual, but I thought the blood orange marmalade "salad" was a little too sweet and if I got too much of it on my fork, overwhelmed the foie gras. Rather than flip through the 39-page wine & spirits list, I let the bartender select my wines for the evening. For the foie gras, he poured me a Sauternes-like sweet white wine to have with it (Cadillac Chateau Reynon). For my entrees he poured me a deliciously grassy and light white called Mâcon Fuissé, J.Pierre & Michel Auvigue, Mâconnais 2006. That might mean something to someone somewhere, but all it meant to me was yummy.

We also loved the white beans. Little did we know that a side order of these was really enough to feed four people. Needless to say, we took our leftovers home and they will be great with little toasted rounds or just by themselves.

Dessert was also excellent and you know I'm not partial to banana based desserts. We were so stuffed we couldn't finish the last two bites.

We arrived at the restaurant a little after 5:30 for early dinner. I also know that dining at the bar at USC is very popular although I didn't know what it would be like on a Sunday night. Turned out that the bar filled up by the time we left and seemed to be populated by locals as all the tourists were gone for the weekend. Several people were dining alone at the bar - it's the kind of place where one can do that. Apparently several regulars were there as well since the bartenders greeted them by name.

Union Square Cafe is not hip or trendy. It's not one of the hot places in the city right now. But it remains popular because of the down-home feel and excellent service. I'm always pleased with the food I get there, too, but I know there have been criticisms of it's food recently. It's been around since 1985 and is the first restaurant in the Danny Meyer restaurant kingdom.

I've eaten at several other Danny Meyer places - Shake Shack, Blue Smoke, Eleven Madison Park, and Tabla, and I've enjoyed every one of them. Tonight, I'll be out at new CitiField and I think we are going to dine at the Blue Smoke outlet there. Will be curious to see what menu items from the restaurant they deemed stadium friendly. Or maybe we'll eat at Tabla's Floyd Cardoz's Verano Taqueria. Or maybe we'll just got hot dogs and peanuts, it is a baseball stadium after all.

Friday, April 24, 2009

I'm back! Lot's of food tales to tell.

After being preoccupied by a work event for several weeks, delayed by my healing finger, and overcoming all-around laziness, I am back to tell you about my recent adventures in food.

Going all the way back to the end of March was the Second Annual Village Voice Choice Eats event. I went with other members of TNTE club. Basically, this event was packed to the gills with dozens upon dozens of well-reviews NYC restaurants (many of them new and trendy places) offering up sample bites from their menus. Our $35 tickets got us in to sample the wares. It was really fun and I loved trying so many things, but I wonder how well these chafing dish bites really represent the quality of the food. I am guessing the format actually hinders the quality, but it does give one a good sense of flavor and style. My favorite thing was not from a chafing dish. It was a bourbon cupcake from Peaches Market. Don't you love that name? While I didn't really taste much bourbon, I loved the bite-size unfrosted cupcake that was topped with little crunchy bits that may have been peanuts but I'm not sure. I went back for seconds at the end of the night, but they had long run out of them.

Along with the food was dozens of beer, wine, liquor, and beverage vendors offering up generous pours of their inebriators. My favorite sample of the night was from Allagash brewery in Maine. They were pouring their White beer. It was very nice and I now have a four-pack in the fridge. Not sure if I'll do this event next year or not. It was very crowded and it's difficult to eat, hold a drink, and walk around in the crowded aisles. I would do this again, but I'm not clamoring for it.

Easter weekend is the next memorable food thing I can remember. Steve made Challah bread French toast that I topped with fresh berries and syrup. Challah bread really does make the best French toast and the key to getting crispier toast rather than soggy bread is to dry it out in the oven a little bit before battering it. Yum! We followed this with a small ham with a homemade glaze of pineapple juice & chunks, and brown sugar. Turned out very well.

On April 16, Steve and I went to a special screening of Beer Wars. BW is a documentary about the craft brew movement and how craft brewers are competing - or not - with the big guys like Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors. At only 90 minutes long, the filmmakers couldn't include every independent brewery out there, so the focus was on Dogfish Head (in Delaware of all places), Stone (representing the SD!), New Belgium (Fat Tire), Boston Brewery (Sam Adams), and a one-woman operation called Moon Shot. I liked the behind-the-scenes of the beer industry and some of the facts about consumers, practices, and the amount of money going into promotion of beers was astonishing. But it was an extremely biased and one-sided picture of the "beer wars." It's a classic David versus Goliath story. And you do pull for the little guys while watching the film. When it was over and we were walking to the subway, Steve said, "I feel dirty for ever drinking an Anheuser-Busch beer." I like craft beers and independent breweries - Shiner being my absolute favorite, of course - so that's what I will continue to buy and drink. But I'll admit that once in a blue moon, an ice-cold Budweiser is all I want. It's the junk food of beer - familiar and easy to drink. Right now, our fridge is stocked with independent brews - Green Flash, Shiner, Allagash, Stone, and Sam. Supporting the indepentent brewers is the same as supporting local and independent businesses in any industry. Whether it's your local bookstore rather than Barnes & Noble or Amazon, the mom & pop hardware store instead of Home Depot, farmers markets and butcher shops rather than Kroger.

Anyway, the screening was followed by a somewhat awkward live panel discussion with the filmmaker, some of the key players from the film, and hosted by Ben Stein. It was interesting but I started to get a little sleepy. The live panel was in LA but the feed was sent to theaters around the country that were participating in this one time screening. I really liked seeing a live event that way. Before the movie started, instead of the usual movie theater ads, trivia question and facts, they had custom Beer Wars "ads" and "beertoids" and quizzes. That was very clever and we liked it.

Last Saturday, it was chicken enchiladas. I got the Cook's Illustrated Best Light Recipes cookbook recently, and I've made two things from it so far. The enchiladas and chicken Piccata. The Piccata was a surprise for Steve as it is one of his favorite dishes. Both turned out really well and it's hard to believe they were light versions of classic dishes. They tasted great. The enchiladas were lightened by using low-fat cheese - and less of it - and all breast meat instead of thighs. To compare the "classic" version to the light version, the cookbook included a comparison box:

Serving size 2 enchiladas
Calories: 580
Cholesterol: 110 mg
Fat: 34 g
Saturated fat: 18 g

Calories: 350
Cholesterol: 65 mg
Fat: 10 g
Saturated fat: 4.5 g

I can't wait for us to get a grill because this book is full of great grilling recipes and ideas. My recent issue of Bon Appetit also has a recipe for grilled romaine lettuce wedges that I'm dying to try.

So the grill. Yes, we have shopped and know what we want - an $80 charcoal Weber - but we are waiting for our landlord to finish our roof deck before we buy it. It's killing me to have to wait.

This weekend is going to be warm. I'm so not thrilled. But to help us stay cool, I made some lime Italian ice this afternoon. Italian ice is so simple I feel stupid for never making it before I found a recipe for it.

Italian Ice
adapted from Desserts by the Yard's Lemon Italian Ice

Serves 6

2 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons zest
1 cup fresh juice (strained or not)
6 6-ounce Dixie paper cups or ramekins

1. Combine sugar and water in saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
2. Stir in zest and juice and pour into cups or ramekins. Freeze until solid.

Ta-dah. That is so easy.

I like lime for this recipe but any citrus would work - orange, lemon, lime, sweet grapefruit - or combination of those. I'd like to try a lemon-lime or a lime with tequila and a hint of Serrano pepper. I strained the juice today, but I've used unstrained juice before and it turns out fine as well. All the pulp will float to the top of the cup but it doesn't do anything to affect the taste or enjoyment.

Well, I think I got you all caught up. Hopefully, I won't be gone for so long. Keep eating out there!