A Persnickety Christmas

Lobster Joy12 Screaming babies, 11 awkward pat-downs, 10 long delays, 9…okay okay, you get the idea. Traveling at the holidays isn’t exactly fun. Mechanical failures and belligerent passengers seem to be relentless fixtures of my travel experience, but I soldier on as best I can. For Christmas, it’s the white snow and frigid temperatures of Madison, WI that I return to. And although I’ve only lived in DC for two and a half years, my stalwart Midwestern endurance of cold has utterly vanished. It was COLD. Luckily, most of our activities were inside (after successfully convincing my mother to turn up the heat to…wait for it…a balmy 68 degrees), and involved a lot of baking and cooking.

There were two big meals to prepare for, and although it was only my brother, my mom and myself, we went all out! My brother, as usual, was the brave leader in our culinary endeavors. For Christmas Eve, it was to be the Feast of Seven Fishes (we only managed five, but that’s beside the point), and for Christmas Day–roast lamb. Christmas Eve went swimmingly (get it – fishes…swimmingly…ha!), but there was some major drama for the Christmas Day meal. Our brains must have been addled by the meal the night before. But, I think you’ll understand why….

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a traditional Italian Christmas celebration that generally consists of seven seafood dishes. Dane, in normal fashion, marched into the seafood market with my credit card and emerged with $70 worth of lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels, and monkfish. I admit, I was hesitant about all this fish…give me a nice piece of salmon anyday, but this feast was a real departure from my norm. But I converted quickly. What came next was a beautiful shrimp and lobster platter with homemade cocktail sauce, and a lobster risotto topped with a hefty piece of monkfish and surrounded by a broth of clams and mussels. Delicious!

Shrimp & Lobster platterRisotto with MonkfishWe finished the evening with my mother’s profiteroles and a viewing of Scrooge. There’s a running joke about how long it takes for one of us (or all of us) to fall asleep during this movie–whether we’ll make it all the way through the Ghost of Christmas Present to see the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Future or fall asleep somewhere in the middle. Well, I failed miserably this year and barely made it out of the scene with Jacob Marley at the beginning of the movie! (Watch it, kids – great stuff!)

Christmas in WI

Christmas morning was lovely, with the snow sparkling in the dazzling sun. We had apple muffins, cookies and tea and unwrapped our gifts together. In afternoon, we commenced our preparations for the big meal: roasted lamb with brussels sprout/cauliflower gratin (a repeat from Thanksgiving because it’s so good) and a beautiful salad with pomegranate, pecans, and blue cheese. Since we were roasting the lamb, we had set it on a roasting rack in a glass dish in the oven at a temperature of 425 degrees. About 25 minutes in (and with our brussels sprouts and cauliflower roasting in their own pans), my brother decided to add some broth to the meat. Warning: do not pour cold broth into a glass baking dish in a 425 degree oven. Why, you ask? Because the dish will shatter into a million pieces, that’s why! It’s true folks, the dish verifiably exploded and we were left picking pieces of (tempered – thank goodness, no shards for us) glass out of the oven and the cauliflower for a good 30 minutes. Luckily, no one panicked too much (and we can’t just go out for Chinese, since I can’t actually eat it), and we ended up popping everything back in the oven. Surprisingly, everything was perfectly cooked!

Roast LambSalad and GratinChristmas Day always ends with Cassata cake, a Sicilian cake that we’ve made every year since…well…since I started forming memories of eating good food! It was a great spread, and we were delighted to be eating leftovers in various ways for the rest of the visit! I hope everyone had a great holiday season, and are living it it up in 2013!!

Vacation Series Part III: Farm to Table

My vacation was coming to a close, and my wallet was hurting just a bit. Luckily, we had planned a trip to the farm for my last full day in New York. As much as I love dining out, there is an extraordinary amount of value and appeal to picking out ingredients and building a meal from scratch in your own home. Even better? Traveling directly to the source of your food, talking with those that have grown or raised it, and selecting the best specimens from an array of fresh, local foods. Others write much more eloquently than I on the value of slow, local, organic, biodynamic, etc etc. I don’t feel qualified to comment on such a socially-complex and politically-charged arena, but I do know that I, as a consumer, am thoroughly enamored of the idea and, ultimately, my luxury in choosing locally-sourced food literally at the farm where it was grown.

Dane, Nolan and I had a laughably easy, and beautiful, commute out of the city to Blooming Hill Farm—only about an hour away. Blooming Hill is not just a fantastic farm; it represents a truly inspired business model. The on-site shop caters to hip New Yorkers—it’s just rustic enough to seem authentic (the feral cats sleeping in the pile of corn were legitimate), but it has been meticulously designed with subtle touches of “barn-chic.” Vintage milk bottles are lined up behind the prepared foods counter, and reclaimed barn doors provide structure and a bucolic aesthetic. It was well done–visually stunning.

Lining the tables are fresh, ripe and almost ridiculously gorgeous examples of the farm’s produce. An entire table is devoted to fresh herbs—a lush forest that borders crates of deep purple plums and yellow peaches. Bunches of garlic hang from the ceiling, and the gigantic faces of sunflowers cheerfully smile at you while you pick out the perfect kale and heirloom tomatoes.

The trip would not have been complete without an order at the small in-house restaurant; we ordered both the red and white pizza—tomato, mozzarella and basil, and homemade ricotta, fennel and roasted garlic, respectively. One may not expect delicious pizza from a farm, but the freshness of the ingredients made for some damn good eating.

It was not until we returned to the car with our bounty that we started discussing what kind of dishes we would prepare. We had picked out beautiful food, and we wanted to let the ingredients determine our meal. It was decided that we would visit a new butchery on the upper West Side for a perfect slab of ribeye to complement the produce that we had collected. We were not disappointed with Harlem Shambles Butchery, and the bowtie-clad butchers (the art of butchery seems to have gone a bit rogue) chose for us the most perfect cut of meat.

After procuring a few bottles of wine and gin to accompany the meal, we returned to Dane’s apartment. With the ribeye (quickly seared on both sides, just enough to leave a deep pink center) as our main, we decided to roast sweet purple, orange and white carrots with herbs in a cast-iron pan, throw together a reduced kale salad with pecorino, and slice the fat, colorful heirlooms tomatoes to serve with purple basil and a bit of sea salt. After Nolan and I were caught munching on a particular blue cheese we found in the fridge, Dane quickly commandeered it to create a blue cheese butter to accompany the ribeye.

A few gin and tonics, and a couple glasses of wine later, we had laid out the meal. I can only say that though each dish was deceptively simple, the outrageously flavorful ingredients made each dish really luxurious and wildly appetizing. Dane, as always, did most of the cooking, but I made a minor contribution in the form of dessert. We had chosen some midnight blue plums at the farm, and a quick combination of lemon juice, raw sugar and cinnamon with the sliced plums delivered a perfectly tart and sweet plum compote to top vanilla ice cream. One should never skip dessert.

The morning after, I made the trek back to DC. Spying the pathetically empty fridge, I promptly went out to purchase a microwave pot-pie for dinner. It’s really all about balance—one day you’re eating a locally sourced meal, meticulously prepared by your faux-chef brother, and the next, you may just be popping a microwave dinner in. Vacation ends, and the real world sets right back in again.

Vacation Series Part II: “Not a First Date Cheese” – A NYC Dining Guide

After my sojourn in the woods, I made my way via Megabus to New York to spend time with my brother and connect with a few old friends along the way. Although my brother is a staunch Manhattan loyal, we spent a surprising amount of time in Brooklyn, and my first meal there, in a cleverly-named wine bar in Park Slope, Brookvin, was a hearty parade of cheeses, meats and appealingly fresh and rustic shared dishes.

After just barely seizing the last table in the place (another not to open up for 2 hours!), we ordered a red (for me) and a deep purple rosé (for my brother), and greedily scanned the menu.

With garlic dill pickles to munch between sips, we asked the waiter about my dietary restrictions. With a sharp eye on the menu, he knowingly talked out a few potential issues—the oil they used (olive oil), nuts in a few dishes (tree nuts only), and assured me that no corn or beans would touch our plates. I honestly wasn’t too worried about my restrictions based on the simplicity of the small menu, but was pleased with their casual, yet open and understanding attitude. The meal progressed in a gluttonous fashion, with us digging into a beautiful plate of tangy soppressata (cured in house) and a garlicky, wildly offensive, pungent cheese that made it clear that Brookvin was not a place to foster young love. In fact, since I can’t remember the name of the cheese, we might dub it the “Not a First Date Cheese.”

After polishing off the satisfyingly stinky appetizers, Dane and I plowed through a plate of roasted cauliflower, guanciale, celery, thyme, caper berries, egg, and whole seed mustard. I’ve never seen an egg so perfectly cooked (and considering it’s Brooklyn, I imagine that said egg came from an urban chicken coop down the street), and the subtleness of the roasted cauliflower was perfectly enhanced with the explosive flavor of the caper berries (imagine capers blown up to about 5 times their normal size) and the guanciale—chunks of thick Italian bacon (probably also cured in house).

A meticulously layered tartine followed with a perfect combination of bacon jam, heirloom tomato, arugula, and shallot. A simple dish, the tartine was a celebration of the outrageously ripe, sweet heirloom tomatoes and the peppery small-leafed arugula. And not to fear: we weren’t exactly going dry during this meal—the array of reds and rosés scattered over our table was quite impressive. To end the night with a bit of sweet, we shared the sourdough bread pudding with whiskey ice cream and bacon caramel sauce. I’m not sure I have the words to describe this dessert, only to say that although the whole thing sounds a bit too hipster-reinvents-ubiquitous-British-dessert and borders on the popular meme, “bacon goes with everything,” the dish was really extraordinarily yummy.

After some much needed sleep, I actually returned to Brooklyn the next day to explore Williamsburg with a dear friend of mine. Although we made a less-than-inspired choice for our lunch, the Van Leeuwen Ice Artisan Ice Cream Truck parked outside more than made up for it. Van Leeuwen offers an assortment of luscious ice creams that are uncomplicated, yet sinfully delicious odes to real flavors like ginger and vanilla. If you spot a truck, I’d suggest the espresso, but I can’t wait to try the Earl Grey…I’m more of a tea drinker in real life anyway.

After parting, I made my way to a Midtown bar to meet up with Dane and a friend of his. We had discussed making the evening into a food crawl of sorts, with various stops to get a broader swath of cuisines under our belt. It didn’t work out exactly as we had hoped (the Japanese restaurant had a wait of over an hour), but we managed to chow down on Mexican, American and French food, and imbibed beer, margaritas, gin & tonics, and wine all in the course of about 4 hours. Not too shabby.

My one real Persnickety-worthy tidbit of the evening was our brief visit to the bar of Angelo Sosa’s new venture, Añejo Tequileria. A margarita (sweetened with agave) quickly in hand, my dining companions ordered fresh guacamole. Alas, the corn chip was the only available accompaniment. When I explained the problem to the bartender, however, he shocked me with his response: “Don’t worry, we’re gonna send someone out to get some tortillas for you.” Mind you, the place was packed, business was booming, and I was just one small fry in a sea of voracious corn chip eaters. But they took the time  to venture out to a bodega and pick me up something I could eat. But, wait for it! I’m not done. Not only did they go fetch flour tortillas, they also plunked them into the deep fryer and generously salted them, until the tortillas transformed into evilly greasy, crispy heaven that I used to scoop out fresh, limey guacamole to my heart’s content. We tipped well, to say the least.

While naively waiting for our table at the Japanese place, we downed some G&T’s at a divey bar just off Times Square, and wandered around a laughably overpriced clothing store. However, once it was clear that we would not be having sushi that night, we made a dash to a nearby theatre bar where we could relax in the quiet and enjoy some piping hot truffle mac & cheese and some lovely calamari with a chipotle sauce. Nothing too crazy, but it was yummy and filled our bellies!

Our last stop of the evening was a charming French restaurant down in the West Village—The New French. Although Dane promptly ordered a burger (rare) with frites, I was ready for dessert and ordered cheesecake. Already past 11, the kitchen was winding down, and the food came out at random times, as did the drinks. I was served my painstakingly sliced and severely unadorned (not even a slice of strawberry!) cheesecake first with a glass of sparkling rosé. It was really appealing, despite its simplicity. The relaxed, almost lazy, mood of the open-air bistro was just right for winding down. And a fat mug of decaf coffee capped off the culinary (and alcoholic) crawl that was our Friday night in NYC.

Come back soon for the final Vacation Series Post…a trip to the farm!