Monday, August 31, 2009

Joseph Ambler Inn Review

This past weekend I exited the city and headed down to Pennsylvania for some intense wedding planning. As Will's birthday was this past month, my mother wanted to take us out to dinner at the restaurant we will be having the reception at in November--the Joseph Ambler Inn--partly to let us get the lay of the land and partly because it's a really nice restaurant. Mom had requested outdoor seating, and as we headed over it seemed like we were going to dodge Tropical Storm Danny as blue skies and warm weather moved in. We had a bit of difficulty getting into the parking lot; they were hosting an outdoor wedding so part of the grounds were closed. This also prevented us from immediately being seated outside; we were told the bride arrived late and it was delaying seating. We were offered a table in the bar area and cocktails, which we accepted. In the name of Karma we wanted to extend good energy toward weddings at this location. I had a Dry Windsor Manhattan, which was very well crafted, though I missed my bourbon.

We were seated about ten minutes later and the ceremony was over but we got to watch the pictures being taken, which was especially nice given our purposes there. It was sort of like time traveling into our future to see the events that will unfold. I'm a lot like Ebenezer Scrooge...not because of the time traveling, I'm just very miserly. The Joseph Ambler Inn is a beautiful estate with several historic buildings and rolling fields. It is surrounded by trees. It's one of the few places in that area that you can dine outdoors without being seated on a parking lot or overlooking a highway. It is quite tranquil and beautiful, perfect for a city escape.

Looking at the menu I ascertained one thing, Executive Chef Pedro Lugo was far more adventurous with his appetizers then his entrees. The entree menu read like that of a standard fancy steakhouse; a lot of common cuts of red meat and popular fishes, prepared in high class but generally crowd pleasing ways. This is a safe idea for the area we were in on the cusp of Bucks and Montgomery counties. A good chunk of the dining crowd in this area are not of adventurous or well traveled palates. Thai food is still rare and highly exotic to the area, so asking people to take a gamble on a dish that will run at an average of $25 is highly unlikely. You have to admire the chef for having a handle on his audience. The appetizer menu, however, leaves room for some flights of fancy. These smaller portions running between $10 and $12 are something a diner would be more willing to take a chance on, especially with a more standard entree following it. One can be adventurous, without feeling like they are risking an entire expensive evening.

My mother and I decided that we, being the adventurous types, would forgo the entrees all together and instead split a range of appetizers creating a small plate menu, allowing us to taste a greater range of dishes. We selected the Veal Meatballs with Melted Leeks and White Truffle Parmesan Cream; the Hawaiian Tuna Sashimi with Daikon Radish Salad and Wasabi Vinaigrette, Sweet and Spicy Sauce; and the Grilled Maine Lobster Tail, which was half a tail over Squid Ink Risotto, garnished with Asparagus Tips. Will, being the hungry male he is, decided he wanted his full portion of steak, and chose the Center Cut Filet Mignon with Caramelized Onion Potato Gratin, Baby Vegetables and a Port Wine and Herb Demi Glaze. My mother ordered a glass of white wine, but Will and I decided we would need a bottle of red to complement this assortment of food. Sommelier Tegwen Ostroff has put together a fairly comprehensive wine list with bottles ranging from $35 to $150. The wine list is split into sections that speak to the character of the wines, and Will and I were excited to see the section "Full of Spice and Off the Beaten Trail" We have been a bit mad about Malbecs lately, and of the two they offer they were out of one, but our server assured us the remaining one, which was less expensively priced, was of greater character. This is how we decided on the 2007 Kaiken Malbec from Argentina, attractively priced at $35. We enjoyed it immensely and it delivered the spiciness it had promised, slightly viscus, full on the nose and had plenty of body. Perhaps a little on the unsophisticated side for such a menu but with the steak and grilled lobster tail it was a great selection for summer flavors.

Starting with the veal meatballs I was impressed with the buttery sweetness of the sauce and the leeks gave it a nice crunch. This was probably the least exciting of the three dishes I ate, but was very satisfying though maybe more of a cold weather dish then an August evening dish. The Ahi Tuna was very well prepared--juicy with a very pure flavor. There were tangerines served along with them, which initially made me apprehensive. I'm also a little put off by "Hawaiian" dishes desperately trying to cram sweet tropical fruits as complements to main courses. Ever since I had a disaster with a pork with mango sauce, the sight of tropical fruit on my plate sends my eyes rolling. The tangerines surprised me, however. Maybe it was the spicy sauce being tempered by the fruit or perhaps the intermingling of the fruit's natural juiciness combined with the tuna, but they were well matched in this dish. The lobster had the hope of being the biggest surprise and turned out to be a bit of a let down. Don't get me wrong, the lobster tail was delicious, but it's lobster tail, so unless the chef doesn't know how to cook one, that's a given. The jewel of the dish was supposed to be the squid ink risotto, which in its jet black textured appearance resembled charcoal--very clever on a grilled dish. This was my first experience with squid ink and while it has a mild earthiness to it, it's really nothing mind blowingly impressive. The whole thing was just kind of mild, a mellow backdrop to lobster, a dish that can be so well supported by an admirable sauce. A google search when I got home revealed that squid ink risotto isn't even that creative of a dish, Food Network has a Bobby Flay recipe for it.

Will's dinner was delightful, a generous cut of Filet Mignon and when paired with the Onion Potato Gratin, made one think of a haute Pot Roast. With the current recession trend of dressing up a lower class of food (New York's fancy burger and pizza trends come to mind) I loved this dish and its comfort food feeling with a tasty cut of meat. I felt that the restaurant should own this fact and advertise it, instead of leaving the diner to discover it on the sly. The only critique I would have is again, this would be delightful on a chilly fall day, but perhaps is less appealing in the heat of August. Will, however, left nothing on his plate so I doubt he had such seasonal reservations.

As dinner wound down my mother ordered a decaf and Will and I decided to try the chocolate layered Creme Brulee, highly recommended by our server who, as with the wine, did not lead us astray. A wind blew through the terrace, after a pleasant and warm evening it appeared Danny would not be denied. The rain started softly, barely attracting our attention as we were safe under the covering of the porch. Then the rain grew more insistent, grazing my mother who had the outermost seat. The waiter helped me scoot the table in a foot and we re-situated ourselves, amused at the encroachment of nature as soon as we ventured out of New York. Then the actual storm hit. All other patrons either darted inside or promptly settled up, but we persevered. Laughing and nabbing our drinks and brulee we resettled at an empty table in the direct center of the porch and watched with glee as rain pounded the surrounding area. There are few things more cathartic then a really good rain storm blowing through the trees. Danny had been polite enough not to distract from our food, but now he took full charge of the evening. To us it was a fantastic meal followed by an adventure, which is a great way to celebrate a birthday.

We made it out only slightly damp and no worse for the wear, though the red wine would lead to an impressive headache on my part the next day. Our wedding reception will be a brunch, so while dining there gave me no huge insights on the food, it was nice to see their range. I was told by the waiter that they alter the creme brulee depending on the season, recreating it as they do a good chunk of the menu every few months. This may require further investigation...

Before I sign off I wanted to give everyone a heads up, the conclusion of the Ice Cream Test Kitchen was posted on Friday, but I was in transit from New York so I didn't get a chance to get the word out to all my readers. Please enjoy if you haven't already!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ice Cream Test Kitchen Part 2

For those of you who have been waiting in eager anticipation since Monday, the exciting conclusion of the Great Ice Cream Experiment!

It was time for a new game plan. First off, I bought a big bag of normal sugar, to be used instead of the expensive organic stuff I usually keep on hand. If this was going to be done as often I suspected it might need to for it to be right, I didn't need to be spending extra money per batch just on the sugar. Second, I skipped the "basics" recipes, because they called for creating custard without egg yolks, which I suspect has a lot to do with creating a binding cream. If anyone has ever created a fairly solid ice cream without the yolk, let me know in the comments. I struggled a bit with recipes calling for whole vanilla beans, I didn't want to water down my custard by subbing in vanilla extract, but when I found whole beans it was like $10 for a vile of 3 beans. Serendipity smiled on me though, Megan, a girl I grew up with, shipped me "America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook" as a wedding present. It came with a recipe for chocolate ice cream that, thank god, called for no vanilla bean.
I indulged a bit with a pricey half pound bar of chocolate for the custard because I learned long ago that all chocolates are not created equal and since this was the main flavoring element for the ice cream, I wanted it to be good. This custard was a lot more work then the peach had been. I had to heat the milk and cream to hot, but not boiling, melt the chocolate, but then cool it before I added the egg yolks and sugar, and add a cup of the milk mixture to the chocolate/egg mixture to "temper" it before I could combine the whole thing. So many precise instructions leave many, many places for it all to go horribly and irreversibly wrong. It's such a nice ice cream maker, I wanted to try my very best to make it not explode somehow. Luckily I managed to navigate my way through it without too much difficulty. After the custard chilled completely for three hours, it was the moment of truth, and, in the spirt of Princess Diana 161 (though way less funny), I am presenting an Epicurette in New York multi media first, so you can all see for yourself how it went.

I promise the videos will get better as I learn how A) the camera, and B) iMovie works. If you view the video in YouTube, you will notice the Epicurette In New York now has it's own, subscribeable YouTube Channel, for all future videos!

The next morning, after a night of freezing, it was even better, perfectly formed and scoopable ice cream!

I am a genius, an ice cream making goddess! This must be what Athena would feel like if she could make ice cream. Now I am ready to take on Salted Carmel Ice Cream! And this fall, Pumpkin Ice Cream! And Apple Cider Ice Cream! I'm not getting ahead of myself, right?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Stonehedge Reserve Petite Syrah

Last week Heather and I went to Trader Joe’s wine shop. If you’ve never been, you’re doing yourself a disservice. For decent wine you really can’t beat the prices at Trader Joe’s. They have their own label that goes for about $2.99—three buck chuck as it’s known—but they also have middle of the road stuff and some pretty primo stuff too. Normally we select our wine very carefully. We take the time to come up with a list of options, compare labels, and try to make an educated guess on what wine will bring the greatest amount of joy into our lives. This was not one of those situations. The line at Trader Joe’s was so long that it went most of the length of the store. We decided we would get in line and then pick wines off the shelf as we go. However the line moved pretty fast so we just selected wines somewhat randomly. We were conscious of the type of wine and the cost, but that was about it. Two of them were whites that we enjoyed at a friend’s dinner party, but we also ended up with a red that we saved for later.

We tried the Stonehedge Petit Syrah. The label stood out to me. I think we picked it because we thought it said Stonehenge, like the ancient monument in England. But as it turns out, it’s just a hedge made of stone. I think I was also fooled by the bottle. It’s black with gold etching. It looks kind of mysterious, like it was forged in a volcano or something. It’s misleading—is what I’m saying. Once we finally did try it, I popped the cork and was hit with an intense bouquet. It was really fruity and almost tart. Kind of like a blackberry. I poured it and gave it a few minutes to breathe. Wines have to breathe I’m told. I guess they’ll suffocate or something. I tried it and the berry notes were still there but they were much more subtle than anticipated. They played it very quiet and cool at first. They were the alcoholic equivalent of the guy in West Side Story who tells action to take it easy. That guy was so cool. Anyway, once I was lulled into complacency I was surprised with a pleasant burst of fruitiness with rich tannins and a clean finish.

I’ve read that Petit Syrah goes really well with steak. We did not have steak; we happened to be having ratatouille. (We also ate it while watching the movie Ratatouille. That's a true story.) It was delicious but part of me wanted some protein to complement the wine. I get so spoiled sometimes. A white probably would have gone better with the meal, but it was very good for what it was. Plus the movie Ratatouille complements any red wine.

I guess the moral of the story is to take chances in life—live on the edge. That’s my motto. If we didn’t just pick a wine because we were rushed, we wouldn’t have wound up with a surprising and interesting wine. I encourage you all to do the same. Take a risk. Send your gas bill in a week late. What are they going to do? Shut off your heat? Maybe you can pick a fight with a really big guy. He’ll probably back down and everyone around will be really impressed. Or just go to Atlantic city with the deed to your house and bet it all on red…no black…black’s luckier.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Ice Cream Test Kitchen

This summer I had the experience of a strange female ritual known as "The Wedding Shower." This is a party that your female friends and relatives throw you with the express purpose of giving you stuff. It's not like a birthday where there is at least the pretense that we are celebrating the day of someone's birth, this is a party where the entire idea is you show up and people give you stuff. Not only will they give you stuff, but you are instructed to sign up at your favorite stores and pick out stuff for these people to give you. People don't seem to understand why I can't wrap my brain around this concept. In the pressing task of picking out every piece of cookware I could ever desire, I had settled my heart on a little gadget known as the Cuisinart Ice Cream maker, and after two solid weeks of 90 degree heat trapped in the 5 miles of concrete known as New York City, imagine my delight sitting in my soon to be mother-in-law's living room as I unwrapped the box holding my salvation. I made arrangements to bring it back with me to New York right away.

At first I excitedly flipped through August's Gourmet magazine, planning a dreamy Salted Carmel as my very first recipe. Then I remembered the debacle of the slow cooker when I tried to apply recipes I wasn't ready for to a device I wasn't terribly familiar with, and decided maybe I should start with something very simple. I chose a recipe that came in the ice cream maker's instruction book, a simple vanilla. Regular readers of this blog know how terrible I am at "scaling back." Before long I discovered the "Variations" section of the manual. Dun dun dun. The Peaches and Cream variation sounded exceedingly simple. My mind drifted to my neighborhood's weekly farmers market and all the lovely August peaches waiting for me there. And it really wasn't much more work than the "Simple Vanilla." I would be fine, right?

The first thing one is to do with a new Ice Cream maker is freeze the mixing bowl. I did this right away and with much excitement. The bowl, so the instructions read, has liquid inside that needs to freeze solid. When removed from the freezer, there should be no sloshing noises. At 10:00 the morning I had decided to make my first ice cream the realization hit me. I had never cleaned the bowl. I had opened the box, removed the label, and shoved it in the freezer. "Shit, shit, shit" I muttered, as I removed the bowl. "Shit!" I exclaimed, as my sponge froze to the side of the frosty bowl. A little rincing and defrosting later I got the bowl cleaned and back in the freezer. "Slosh" went the bowl. But I didn't need it for about 2 to 3 hours. It would be ready by then, right?

The variation that was going to turn my simple vanilla ice cream into peaches and cream ice cream involved marinating the peaches in lemon juice and sugar, draining out the juice and adding it to the vanilla custard. The peaches themselves would be added in the last five minutes of ice cream making. I thought it odd that I was adding this juice without reducing any of the liquid in the original custard, but that's what the instructions said. At 1 p.m. I removed the bowl and shook it. "Slosh" went the bowl. I looked at my mixed ingredients. I decided the bowl felt pretty cold to me, and besides, there was no turning back now. On went the machine and in went the custard. I set the timer for 25 minutes and left my new favorite toy to its devices (what is it with me and puns lately?) 25 minutes later I peeked in and found.... soup. No thickening, no freezing, just soupy cream, mocking me. It happened to be another 90 degree day. It happened that I had spent much of the afternoon trying to figure out the nexus that is New York real estate in my attempt to secure an apartment with a dishwasher. It happened that my patience had worn particularly thin. I dumped the soupy custard in a tupperware and threw it in the fridge. I washed out the bowl and crammed it in the very back of my freezer. "Slosh" went the bowl. It earned it a very dark look.
That night I got home and shook it again. "Slosh" went the bowl.

The next morning I got it out and gave it a shake "Slosh" went the bowl.

I headed off to work leaving Will with the task of figuring out why our freezer hated me. While there was no dial in the freezer, he did find one in the fridge and turned it up from 3 to 5. When I got home that night and gave the bowl a shake... there was a tiny noise that signified a particle or two might still be loose, but I felt pretty confidant the bowl fit the description of frozen. I rejoiced, set up the maker, and got the custard back out of the fridge. Machine running, custard poured in, I set the timer for 25 minutes and left it alone. Well, I might have stared at it. A little. 25 minutes later it was a bit more congealed, but still basically soup. Upon closer inspection of the recipe, I noted that it's title was actually "Peaches and Cream" and not "Peaches and Cream Ice Cream." Hmmmmm. Will and I sat down with our peaches floating in a rather delectable cream, and I threw the rest in the freezer. The next day it had frozen into a very tasty solid, though still a bit ice crystally to be considered proper ice cream. Experiment #1 was chalked up to be a failure, albeit a delicious one.

I buckled down to do some research. I realized I really had no idea what the ice cream was supposed to look like when it came out of the machine, as I had never seen anyone use one before. I hoped onto "The YouTube" to see if anyone had posted a video of ice cream creation. It was then, reader, that I found the best thing the internet has to offer. A home chef who has been making videos of herself cooking for years. She goes under the handle of Princess Diana 161. She is from Jersey. I mean, she is REALLY from Jersey. And about five seconds in, in the most perfect Jersey accent ever, she uttered the phrase "OK, you guys know, I'm a QVC whore." I was hooked.

Best. Video. Ever. Am I right? And in addition to the wonderful entertainment this brought me, I also learned that when done correctly completed ice cream would end up looking like soft serve, but not soup. Planning was going to be required if I was going to do this right.

To be continued.... on Friday. Stay tuned!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Shameless Self Promotion

Hello readers! Just a few notes and reminders to the general readership. First, thank you for everyone that has been reading and commenting; I love getting that email that new comments are on the blog!

I wanted to take this chance to let everyone know how connected Epicurette in New York is.

For those who want to get my foodie thoughts, but are just hassled by the thought of having to read more the 140 characters, never fear, Epicurette is has a twitter feed!

For those who have lovely thoughts, recipes, and restaurant recommendations but are too shy to leave a comment for all the internet, you can now email it to me at!

And for those of you wondering about the Foodbuzz Featured Publisher badge on the left, I am indeed part of their program and have a profile on Foodbuzz. If any of you also have Foodbuzz profiles feel free to buzz and friend me!

A bit of business, if anyone read the Monday Brining post and were disappointed that I did not provide the recipes I used, I agree it was an egregious oversight. Links to the recipes at Epicurious have now been happily embedded.

And, as a bit of a Friday Treat, a link to a lovely recipe I tried last night, Goat Cheese Stuffed Roasted Tomato. It was a recipe for 12, and I was 1, so I had to 1/12 the recipe, which was a bit of a challenge, especially as it called for 1 egg. How do you 1/12 an egg? After patrolling a few Vegan websites, I discovered that 2 tablespoons of corn starch can be substituted for an egg, so I threw in a pinch of that and it worked out perfectly. Apparently Vegans are good for something after all. Before and after pictures are below.

Have a great weekend all!


Wednesday, August 19, 2009


McDonald’s recently came out with a new line of coffee beverages to meet the ever growing need people have to pump themselves full of caffeine. I suppose the goal is to compete with Starbucks. They market the new line of coffee as McCafe. I am constantly amused by McDonald's marketing. They just take a word and add "Mc" to it and get a new word. It's not a nugget, it's a McNugget. It's not a muffin, it's a McMuffin. I think the McGriddle amuses me the most.

“This bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich is good, but it seems too heathy?”

“What if instead of english muffins, we used Pancakes?”

“I like it but something’s missing.”

“What if we injected the pancake with sugary syrup?”

“Find a way to etch our logo right into the sandwich itself and we got ourselves a hit.”

I haven’t been in a McDonald’s for quite some time. Don’t get me wrong, I am not above eating things that are bad for me. If Heather weren’t around I would be living off a steady diet of:

Pizza—if you add pepperoni, all four food groups are represented, right?

Doritos—how many different flavors can they spray on a chip?

Capri Sun—If I can get the straw through that little plastic spout.

What makes McDonald’s (and the other major fast food chains) unappealing to me is their particularly egregious business practices. I’ve seen too many documentary films to stomach fast food. I recently saw Food Inc. at an independent movie theatre and a lot of the imagery of animal abuse and poor working conditions is heartbreaking. Some other good resources are documentaries like Super Size Me and books like Fast Food Nation and Don’t Eat This Book. Above all I just don’t want to hand over my hard earned money to a corporate system that stresses quantity over quality. I'm sure this all reeks of East Coast Liberal Elitism. Well I apologize. I guess it's just the type of media I'm surrounding myself with. If you think I'm annoying, you should spend some time with Heather. She's twice the food snob I am.

Against my better judgement, I wanted to try McDonald’s line of premium coffee drinks just to see how they measured up. I wouldn’t let myself do it though. I figured if I caved and spent the buck or two on the drink, McDonald’s would just use it to euthanize a kitten or bludgeon a panda to death with a giant Big Mac. It’s an irrational assumption but it seems like something they might try.

While scanning through my weekend circulars, I came across an ad for McCafe with several coupons for drinks including a free latte or mocha and a free iced latte or mocha. I logically worked through this new development and came to the conclusion that if I used the coupon and got the drink, my conscience would be clear. I wouldn’t be giving McDonald’s my money; if anything, they would lose money. Not much, but some. I ran this theory by Heather (she’s more contemptuous of fast food than I am) and my logic checked out. QED.

After work, I strolled into the nearest McDonald’s (1st ave. and 69th st. Manhattan) and stood in line. The place was particularly chaotic. I felt the urge to walk out but if I did that I probably wouldn’t come back. You only have one chance to win me over McDonald’s; make it count. I finally got to the front of the line to the surly lady taking orders. I can’t say I blame her. I can’t imagine she’s making much more than minimum wage. It didn’t help her mood any that I’m just some punk coming in with a coupon, but I didn’t care. I’ve been waiting fifteen minutes for my iced latte and I’ll be damned if I’m not getting it. So I order.

I’ve worked with automatic espresso machines before but I found the one they used to be very strange. Not only does it spit out the espresso shot, it also spits out the milk. The lady just filled my cup with ice and pressed a button and out came my latte—perfectly measured and ready to go. It even spit out the little bit of froth that comes on top. McDonald’s fascinates me. They will take lattes and cappuccinos, which are traditionally craft beverages, and streamline the process to the push of a button. It represents the good and bad of America.

The lady handed me my free beverage. I thanked her and bid her good day. Then I tried my drink. It was fine. It didn’t knock my socks off, but it was fine. It was on a par with something you would get a Dunkin Donuts. The thing that took away from the experience was the fact that I was drinking through a regular McDonald’s straw—the kind with the circumference of a dime that are designed to bring sugary soda and shamrock shakes from the cup to your face in record time. I tried to sip slowly and analyze objectively but the straw made it hard.

The whole experience was pretty much what I would expect from McDonalds. I give them a lot of credit for their ad campaign but as a coffee consumer in their key demographic, I don’t want to go out for coffee to a place that reeks of burgers and fries. I still have another coupon for a free hot beverage, but I’ll probably just let it expire. I’d rather spend my money at a smaller place with a more skilled staff that knows a thing or two about crafting a decent beverage.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Pork Chops in a Maple Brine with Roasted Pear Chutney

Trying to find a good recipe for Pork Chops, which happened to be on sale last week, I ran across a recipe for Maple Syrup Brine with a Roasted Pear Chutney. It's been a few years since I've brined, I did it once or twice with success before I absolutely ruined a few chops with an overly salty brine and have shied away ever since. I do not take well to serving a pork chop that tastes suspiciously like a salt lick. This recipe did have a few things that intrigued me though, including the maple syrup ingredient. While in PA last weekend my mother had given me some farmers market syrup she had picked up. Because it's just Will and I in the apartment and I rarely cook breakfast (before coffee my culinary skills involve toasting and that's about it) I had been concerned about my ability to find uses for such a tasty syrup. A rich brine seemed like the perfect "solution." That's right, it's a righteous pun. Deal with it.

There were other advantages to brining. Since both the brine and the Pear Chutney need to be created the night before, I could cook it in the later hours of the evening, when the sun had gone down and my apartment cooled off a few degrees. It was an elaborate and time consuming bit of cooking which I don't usually tackle on a weeknight. Before moving to NY when I lived at home I usually only cooked on the weekends and would make complex meals. When I moved, these were the recipes I knew best and didn't calculate in the full time job when attempting them. According to the people I love I get a tiny bit cranky when my blood sugar plummets, and I nearly risked my relationship and my cookware making mozzarella stuffed meatballs at 8:30 on a Tuesday night with Will hiding in the bedroom and ground meat all over the table before I finally figured out that not every meal could be created on a weeknight. The brilliant part of the brining plan was I had already eaten a simple sausage sandwich and none of the food was for the same night, making the weeknight cooking a much lower pressure and higher blood sugar situation.

So that's how it came to be that at 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday I was standing over my "non reactive" pot. Who are these people buying the "reactive" pots recipes feel the need to warn you about? The nice thing about brine is that it's generally a "Throw things in pot, stir, boil, cool" kind of directions. There was a lot of chopping and measuring involved, but no sauteing or roasting or extra work to speak of. As per the comments on Epicurious, I halved the salt, didn't concern myself with the Juniper Berries (which I don't happen to keep on hand), and added a bit of Bourbon. As I had nearly killed the bottle, I threw the remaining shot in a glass, added an ice cube and a mint leaf and enjoyed a nice southern summer treat as I cooked. Cooking is better when you have a drink in your hand, which is one of the reasons I keep Will around and let him eat my food.
Once the brine was all set and cooling on the table, I turned my attention to the Roasted Pear Chutney. This involved, unsurprisingly, roasting the pear. In 87 degree humid weather. Dammit. The kitchen already felt downright gross so instead of turning on the oven to roast a single pear, I flicked on my brand new toaster oven, a wedding shower gift from my childhood friends the Jacobsons. I peeled the pear, cut in half, and tossed with lemon, sugar, ground cinnamon and ground cloves. I was a bit weary of the recipe as my kitchen now smelled like a Christmas cookie in the middle of a heat wave in August...but I plowed ahead. The onion mixture was simple enough, though it called for

golden raisins and currants, neither of which I had thought to buy, so I skipped them and crossed my fingers. Thank god I had lined the roasting tray of the toaster oven with foil. The extra sugar sauce that dripped off the pear became a black smoking goo within 15 minutes, and while the pear was fine, it would have been a hell of a thing to subject my brand new cookware to.

At 10:30 p.m. everything was covered and in the fridge, and I was drenched in sweat and exhausted. Of course, exhaustion doesn't necessarily mean sleep. Insomnia racked me and I got out of bed and surfed the internet until three in the morning, which left me a bit cranky when I rose the next morning and set about the task of actually plunking the pork chops into the brine. I really, really hate dealing with raw meat before coffee. I'm perfectly fine with smooshing ground meat with my bare hands or butterflying

a chicken after, say, one in the afternoon. Let's just say handling a giant raw pork chop at 8 a.m. isn't my favorite way to start the day. I plunked the chops into the brine and, after the damn things started to float on me, weighed them down with a butter knife.
Sticking it back in the fridge I muttered something about how I swear to god I'm going to turn Kosher, and then settled in with toast and coffee.

At 6 p.m. that evening I stumbled into my apartment and collapsed on the bed, four hours of sleep did not make for the most invigorating day. Thank god I had done 90% of the work on dinner the night before or I would be calling my friends at Dominos. Will and I were getting worried we called them too much when we started receiving "Valued Customer" coupons in the mail... but then some friend of ours told us that their delivery guy recognized them on the street and knew them by name. I'm sure the people who deliver for Dominos are solid upstanding citizens of high moral character, but that's far from the point. I just don't want to feel like a fatty. That hasn't happened to us yet, so I guess we're still okay.

I proceeded to nap until Will got home around seven and then I decided I had better start cooking the massive pork products. Well, first I had Will make me his patented Raspberry Lemon Cosmo. Then I got some laundry together. Then I had a piece of baguette with cheese and read a magazine while Will tackled some of the sink of dishes I had created the night before. Okay fine, so maybe it was close to 8 p.m. before I actually chopped potatoes and got them cooking, and another half hour before I got the grill pan going. I was tired! The directions, which were of course written for an out door grill and not my teensy Queens kitchen, instructed the chef to have one part of the grill on high heat, and another part on medium. The chef is to sear both sides of the chops on high heat, and then transfer to the medium heat part and cover the grill. I regarded my singular grill pan with trepidation. I solved this problem by

searing, and then removing the chops entirely to a plate, turning down the flame, and then holding the grill pan in midair for a minute while it cooled the hell down. Grill experts could probably tell you ten things wrong with this system, but luckily I haven't talked to them. Once the chops were back in the pan I covered them with a lid from an old cheap pasta pot that is ventilated. I threw out the pot a long time ago when the bottom rusted (ew), but I discovered this method while grilling Turkey Burgers, so I've held onto the lid. I'm so handy. I'm also very attractive and funny, but that's off topic.

So, after all that, at nearly 9 p.m. (which, I suppose, makes this a 26 hour meal for those keeping track) we sat down to Grilled Maple Brined Pork Chops, Roasted Pear Chutney, and Roasted Red Potatoes. The Pork Chops, thank god, were delicious. They were juicy, they had a deep oaky salty flavor without being overly salty, and I didn't even burn the outside, which I've been known to do on a grill pan. The potatoes are fool proof, so they were tasty as always. The Roasted Pear Chutney, well... it was very very vinegary. The white wine vinegar completely dominates the dish. If you tried the pork with a bite of pear you could still get some of the pear's sweetness, but none of the spice I worked so hard to put on. The onions were completely overpowered, which might have to do with the fact that I was supposed to use a red onion, which has a stronger flavor, but since I really don't like red onions that much I'm not sure that would have made it taste "better" to me. Maybe those raisins and currants would have saved the dish, but I don't see how they would have made an impressive dent in that vinegar. I might try it again someday but the chops were perfectly wonderful without it, and even the recipe refers to it as optional.

After all the work and patience and waiting, I reconciled my relationship with brining and had a (mostly) satisfying meal on the table. Now if I can just get over my fight with blanching, my coldness towards basting, and the outright silent treatment I've been giving deep frying, there may be harmony in my kitchen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Beer Garden

Last week, Heather and I went to Studio Square for the second time. Studio square is a huge beer garden in Long Island City with indoor and outdoor seating, a large contingent of German and Domestic beers, and an area where you can get food like sausages, burgers and sushi. The first time we went was a little crowded because it was on a Friday so this was the first time that we got to spread out and enjoy ourselves. On our first visit to this beer garden it seemed like there were lots of good places to sit, but when we would go to sit down, someone would inform us that the seats were taken. Damn it! High school all over again. Rather than assert ourselves and sit down anyway, (at one point there was a man saving an entire picnic table) we decided to piss, moan and write a scathing blog about it. Take that, guy in backwards mets cap who will never read this blog. Revenge tastes pretty sweet.

We did finally find a place to drink our beer. They have this area that’s about as high as a bar but there’s a fire pit in the center. This was really cool at times but I thought that if the wrong gust of wind came by, I would lose my eyebrows. We only stayed for one round so my eyebrows stayed intact. This past trip was much better. Heather and I are more of a low key weeknight crowd. We easily got a burger, sausage, beer, sangria and table.

The beer at Studio Square comes in unique measurements. They have pitchers—which are not that unusual—but they also serve beer by the liter and half liter. I found this strange because we don’t really use the metric system in the United States. I would say that beer by the liter would go over big in England, but do you know how they measure beer over there? By the pint. I hope the irony is not lost on the good people at Studio Square. I ordered a liter of Racer 5 IPA and man was this thing huge. It was served in a cartoonish large glass that puts a 22-ouncer from Fridays to shame. It costs thirteen dollars, but it’s a buck cheaper than getting two half liters. Heather said I looked ridiculous holding this mammoth beer but I didn’t care. I have so few pleasures in life. I wish it were socially acceptable to carry a liter of beer everywhere I go. I know that’s a thing that alcoholics say but hear me out. I don’t want to drink massive amounts of beer all day. I just want to have it as a crazy prop.

We’ve only been to one other beer garden in New York called Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden. This was not a great experience for us. There was a distinct lack of organization in this place. It took us a really long time to even get a beer because the line was so long. (Thank God there was a line at all.) We really wanted to get food too but the only way to get food was to get a table and have waiter service. We talked to a waitress and she said that there was a big table about to leave, but what she meant was that they were going to pay and stay for a really long time. There was no way we were getting a table. Why can’t we just line up somewhere and get the food. There seemed to be a window that was fully capable of dispensing food. In my opinion, the sign of a bad business is when the customer has a pocketful of money he’s willing to throw at an establishment and can’t for one reason or another. Heather e-mailed the place to complain and got no response so to hell with them I say. I’d rather go to Studio Square and not switch trains.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Learning Lessons from Julie & Julia

About a year and a half ago a woman in my office recommended the book, Julie & Julia. It was a great book, especially as I had just moved to NY and the book described the trials and tribulations of cooking really fancy food in a tiny Queens kitchen, and having meltdowns as her worried husband made her Gimlets. Let’s just say I identified. It also tied in the world of Julia Child, a woman who I have only a vague recollection of cooking on PBS, and my mother talking in a garbled voice about her “impeccably clean” kitchen, a reference that Julia apparently made often after she received a letter about how she didn’t behave sanitarily enough while cooking. I think the idea of Julia Child is amazing, even if I don’t remember a lot of her show. She was not the tiny, perfectly coifed idea of a home cook that they present on the Food Network today. She was a somewhat homely but passionate cook, who really loved food in a way I don’t think any current TV chef does.

And on top of that, she was a spy during World War II, which is a fact that just makes every “Iron Chef” look like an absolute poser. Oh your so tough, you can cook with a surprise ingredient, but are you a fucking SPY???? I didn’t think so. Shut up and sit down Bobby Flay. While I’m on the subject of the Food Network, I don’t believe Giada eats any of that food, the skinny bitch. And I know it’s not an original thought, but Rachel Ray is really annoying. Paula Deen can be a bit much, but I admire her copious use of butter. I miss Emeril with his insane enthusiasm and his girth betraying that he really ate the food… but this is all a blog for another day. The point is that Julia Child could take any one of them in a knife fight, I’m pretty sure of it. Admit it, we would all love to see Julia “Throwdown” Bobby Flay to the ground and yell “I’ll cut you, bitch!” I think he has it coming.

I took my mother to see the movie Julie and Julia over the weekend, and there was the perfect generational gap there, me from Julie’s generation, her from Julia’s (or at least from a generation that watched Julia’s show. She is much younger then Julia herself, who died a few years back in her 90’s.) I endured the occasional nudge from my mother as Julie lay spread eagle on her kitchen floor sobbing over a dropped chicken, not that I have ever overreacted to a cooking incident. I enjoyed the film, the shots of France, the interpretation of the life of Julia Child, and the near pornographic shots of the food. Will, with his academic idea of a story arc and his library of Joseph Campbell and Robert McKee, kept asking who the villain was, what was the great adversity that needed to be overcome, and what were the stakes. Apparently boys don’t find “personal accomplishment” to be a satisfying cinematic climax. He would no doubt prefer a movie about the hypothetical Flay/Child knife fight. Side note: Never flay a child. You’ll go to jail. As with the book Julie and Julia though, I found the story to be wholly satisfying because I identified with it. Both of the main characters set out to find something that they loved to do because it fulfilled them, and it turned out to be something that changed their lives entirely for the better.

I’d be lying if I said that “Epicurette in New York” wasn’t partly influenced by the book Julie & Julia. I have a lot in common with the Julie in the book, and not just in our apartment locations. Early in the book, Julie is on a subway platform and spots a homeless person losing her shit. “The only two reasons I hadn't joined right in with the loon... were 1) I’d be embarrassed and 2) I didn’t want to get my cute vintage suit and dirtier than it already was. Performance anxiety and a dry-cleaning bill; those were the only things keeping me from stark raving lunacy” I've had that day, and from that moment on I knew this character and I would get along. From the book I learned two things. 1) Food writing doesn’t just have to be restaurant reviews and tips on recipes, itcan be really funny, and 2) It is infinitely funnier when something doesn’t go as planned. Perhaps it is the book that gave me the courage to write about my self taught cooking, despite the fact that sometimes my muffins don’t rise, and I may or may not have exploded a dish or two. Literally.

When I read Julie Powell’s book I didn’t pity her or laugh at her when the dishes went awry, I laughed with her as a fellow combatant of young women vs their kitchens and their ingredients. Watching the movie, I discovered a kinship with Julia as well. The entire reason Julia went to cooking school is that she loved to eat so much. When trying to discover what she thought she may like to do, creating food was a natural choice for her because she loved to eat it so very much. This is a concept I understand intimately. Moving to NY we had no money (not much has changed) and I walked past so many restaurants with such amazing food. I could pout about my misfortune, or I could do something about it, and so cooking became something that improved my life as well. Maybe I was a junior staff member doing administrative work, but at night, at home, I could create something wonderful, and then enjoy it. I could taste it, smell it, share it with loved ones, and so created my own sense of accomplishment. No, it’s not a story that includes explosions and a dastardly villain twisting a long thin mustache, but it’s my story, and so it makes me happy. By the packed theatre this weekend, I think there are other people with similar stories, and I bet it makes them happy too.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mojito—I don’t think it’s a gay drink

The mojito has made it’s way into the mainstream of drink society and I couldn’t be happier. There are fewer things better than chilling out on a hot summer day with your favorite gal and a tall mojito. The sweetness of the sugar (1/2 to 3/4 of an ounce of simple syrup,) the dynamic interplay of the rum and lime (2 oz and 1/2 oz respectively,) and the vibrancy of the fresh mint (eight to ten leaves muddled and a sprig for garnish,) the effervescence of the club soda (fill to top of mojito or pilsner glass and stir.) The drink originated in Cuba and gained popularity in the United States with the film remake of Miami Vice. Actually I don’t think anyone cares about Miami Vice. I don’t know exactly what made the mojito popular in the U.S. I guess the real question is what took so long.

A little while ago, Heather and I were at at a monthly event at the club SOB’s called Basement Bhangra where they play Bhangra music and give you a crash course in Indian dancing and then turn you loose with your new found skills on a dance floor filled with strobe lights and lasers. The hook here is free mojitos early in the night to get things going. What ends up happening is that I forget most of what I learned and just start acting like a spaz. Heather too. We do this until the crowd get too big and invades our personal space. Dance clubs aren’t very big on personal space I’ve noticed. We get there early enough to avoid the large cover charge and head straight for the bar where we proceed to say things like, “Where’s my mojito?” and “Give it to me.”

What they gave us was a blue frozen concoction that was reminiscent of a Blue Raspberry Slurpee you would find at the 7-Eleven. Needless to say—but I’ll say it anyway because brevity is not my strong suit—we were a little disappointed. We tried it and it seemed to be sugar, ice, and peppermint schnapps (or some other mouthwash tasting liqueur) mixed in a blender with some blue food coloring. Come to think of it, maybe it was blue because they actually used Scope. I suppose there could have been rum in there but there was so much mint that I couldn’t tell. When the bartender came around again, we asked for a mojito. When he saw that our plastic cups were mostly full we looked him in the eye and said, “a real mojito.” He nodded, flashed us a knowing smile and made our drinks. They were carefully crafted and well balanced. As I enjoyed my drink I glanced down at my blue monstrosity and wondered how the former could be confused for the latter.

As with anything that gains popularity in the United States, I’ve seen a few mass marketing attempts. There are mixes that have the lime, mint, and sugar in it. There are mixes that even include the rum. Orbit has a line of gum called mint mojito (a bit redundant considering that a mojito already has mint.) At the restaurant where I am employed, they serve a virgin sparkling mojito with ginger. It’s pretty good but when you take the rum out, it has no balls. It’s more of a sparkling lime-aid.

If you ever get the opportunity, gentle reader, to whip up a pitcher of mojitos for a party or small gathering, you will be the hit of said party. I’ve done it before and it goes over well. Sometimes when I’m drinking a mojito, I look at all the leaves and lime floating around and I imagine that it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon—that somewhere in space, on a distant planet, there’s a river that flows with mojito and all somebody had to do was go dunk my glass into it’s ever-flowing mojito waters and bring it to me. God bless you space river. Of course this thought usually occurs to me by mojito number three or four.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Slow Cooker Red Beans and Rice

On the weekends I like to cook a big meal, something I can break down into portions and take in for lunch over the course of the week, and freeze for future consumption. I’m broke, and therefore frugal. This summer I’ve been trying to make these meals in the slow cooker. This has the benefits of holding a lot of food, doesn’t throw off much heat, and once the food is in it requires no attention from me so I can piss off and do what I please all day—a great combination.

Last weekend’s somewhat ill fated attempt was to cook a whole chicken. Cooking whole poultry has always been a bit of a challenge for me; you always want that pretty presentation that an intact bird gives, but getting the damn thing to cook evenly is nearly impossible, given the thickness of the breast meat and the thinness of the limbs. Also I keep forgetting to buy kitchen string and it turns out normal string will burn through and snap pretty quickly at 375 degrees. I put in a lot of research before attempting to create a bird without the oven. The recipes did not reach a consensus amongst themselves. Several said to cut the chicken down into pieces, but I felt the point was to do it whole, so I went with the few I found that gave instructions on that front. A great source here was the blog A Year of Slow Cooking, a woman that used her crockpot everyday for a full year, she did the whole chicken thing at least twice. Then there was the big dilemma: The recipe book that came with the crockpot called for me to leave the skin on, and brush with butter. Many websites I found regaled the horror of doing so—apparently the fatty skin simmering for hours on end does not produce a pleasant smell or presentation. This being the case I found myself last Saturday, kitchen scissors in hand, going about the task of cutting all of the skin off a raw chicken at nine in the morning. Concentration called for me to get my eyes, and therefore nose, damn close to the thing while I worked. As I wish to keep this blog an appetizing place to visit, I did not take a picture. Realizing that the wings are mostly skin I attempted to hack them clear off the bird, and when that mangled project did not work (ever try to rip bone out of the socket of an uncooked bird? It’s HARD) I decided it might be okay to just leave them on. Also Will was threatening to take away my scissors, because, by his description, I was wielding them in an unsafe manor and screaming at an already dead animal.

After plunking the bird in the crockpot and, per A Year of Slow Cooking’s advice, covering it in lemon slices and rosemary, I flicked it on low and left it alone for 6-8 hours. A handyman was coming to do some work in the apartment that day so for several hours, I couldn’t leave. The point of slow cooking is that you can leave for awhile, and therefore are not hanging around for the many hours that the scent of food fills your home. Herbs and chicken are fragrant, and I was snacking far more then usual. As soon as the workman was out the door I was packed up and headed for the coffee shop, the chicken and I needed some time apart.
In the end, I made another mostly dry chicken. The juices fell to the bottom of the pot and kept the leg meat very tender, but the breast meat dried out more then I would have liked. Still edible, but not juicy. I was surprised when I went to lift the chicken out of the pot, the entire thing fell apart on me. Oh sure, now the bones come apart.

Determined to get the hang of this appliance, this past weekend I made a childhood favorite, Red Beans and Rice, using my mother’s very German-American, Not-Very-Spicy-Except-For-A-Green-Pepper recipe. She has always cooked it using a pork shoulder, and simmered for hours in a Dutch Oven which sounded like slow cooking to me. My mother has a tendency to give me her recipes assuming I know the ingredients and portions as well as she does, which usually involves several follow up phone calls on my part to straighten out everything. I’ve gotten recipes from her that simply include the instruction “add butter.” How much butter? Your guess is as good as mine. I swear to god, one of these days she’s going to give me a recipe for sugar cookies that simply says, “make sugar cookies.”

This particular recipe had the ingredient “pork butt.” It took several phone calls to find out that she meant a skinless, boneless pork shoulder of about 1-1 1/2 pounds. Gah. Using a little more then four cups of water, a chopped green pepper, a chopped onion, a bay leaf, and about three cloves of diced garlic, I turned my attention to the pork butt. Again, as I was working on a slow cooker adaption, I tried to do some research. As it turns out, the dish I had been eating my entire life is not a completely loyal interpretation of what most people think of as Red Beans and Rice. That’s right, my mother lied to me. Historically it was made with leftover ham bones from Sunday dinner as part of the New Orleans Creole tradition. Many recipes today still call for a ham hock, or in some cases smoked sausage. For many today it’s a completely vegetarian dish. I found exactly zero recipes that called for pork shoulder in red beans and rice. This lead me to research pork shoulder as cooked in a slow cooker, which pulled up many a pulled pork bbq recipe, usually involving about five pounds of meat. This was getting frustrating. The best advice I could find was that to cook the meat in a slow cooker, cutting it up into pieces was probably the best bet (though not all recipes agree here either.) I cut the shoulder down into two inch chunks, trimmed as much fat off as I could, threw it in the pot and banged on the lid. See you in eight hours, bastardized red beans and rice. I’m getting a latte.

Red Beans and Rice in the Slow Cooker
Adapted from my Mom

- 1 bag of red pinto beans, washed
- 1 Green Pepper- Diced
- 1 Large Yellow Onion- Diced
- 3 Garlic Cloves -Diced
- 1 Bay Leaf
- 1 and 1/2 pound boneless pork shoulder
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 4 cups of water

Place all ingredients in a slow cooker. Cook on low for 6 hours, until meat falls apart.

When the lid came off, I felt a little mixed about my results. The taste was about right, but because evaporation doesn’t happen much in a crockpot, it was much more watery then it should have been, so the flavor was a bit diluted. I’m actually still considering throwing the leftovers in the dutch oven and letting it simmer uncovered for about half an hour to try to thicken things up.

As I try to find harmony with my crockpot, I should probably look into working with recipes that have been designed for the device, instead of trying to adapt recipes to an appliance I’m not entirely comfortable with yet. Even the maddest of mad scientists take baby steps before they go off the deep end. Then again, my mother’s spaghetti sauce recipe is also supposed to simmer for hours….