Monday, December 27, 2010

In The Holiday Spirit!

Take that Sandra Lee.
Nothing says "Christmas Time" more than a batch of my mother's FRUITCAKE COOKIES! She has been making them ever since she can remember, and I've definitely been eating them since before I can remember.  They are seriously addicting, and dangerous - thankfully they're only around on the holidays. And yes, I know, it's fruitcake.  How can someone make anything with the word "fruitcake" taste delicious and not leave you feeling like there's a ten pound cinder block in your stomach?! Mare Bear. That's how.  And beautifully unnaturally colored glaceed cherries in green and red.  Surrounded by candied pineapple (now home roasted sliced - and better!) and a chock full of chopped nuts.

On that note: one year, the cookies took a turn for the worse to become "healthier", completely removing these beautiful little cherries!! SACRILEGE!!!! Fortunately for my sanity and the aesthetics of the cookies, we were able to find some amazing (in taste and color) glaceed cherries from Kalustyan's that had no high fructose corn syrup in them whatsoever.  Saved! Phew.  Mom was nice enough to make me a big batch of fruitcake cookies after Thanksgiving (they really are best after resting in the refrigerator for at  least a week - if you  can resist the temptation), but on this most recent family round, my brother ate ALL of them and there were no fruitcake cookies for me to enjoy on Christmas or the ensuing Boxing Day blizzard! So begins the story of Blizzard 2010 (aka Disaster at work the next day 2010). I walked a half a block to the movie store and walked into the door looking like the Abominable Snowman.  I got in a snowball fight with my doorman. I almost made snow angels on Second Avenue - I was too excited about my cookies BUT I'll be sure to do that next time. On to the important stuff! Glass of wine, Donny Hathaway Holiday Pandora radio, and mise en place for fruitcake cookie components.

Now, unfortunately, I cannot disclose the recipe - or I'd have to kill you. But you do get to see the components and the final product! These cookies look festive, taste festive (smell festive while baking) and are really just outrageously delicious.  

Fruitcake Cookies
Standard cookie batter base
Red & Green glaceed cherries, chopped
Roasted pineapple slices, chopped
Dates, chopped
Pecans, walnuts, and almonds, chopped
Holiday Cheer

Dates & technicolor cherries! I unfortunately had no pineapple, but just as good.



plus some other necessary cookie batter components.
And then the fun part - mixing it all together and still being astounded that all those fruits and nuts can fit into the batter!
This secret mixture needs to take a little nap in the fridge before you cook it - another temptation to resist! The BATTER is good. Dear Cookies: why must you be unhealthy?

Ready for the oven!

Finally. A bite of heaven. And yes, I did say you have to let them rest for a week, but as a chef, you have to taste as you go along. Just to make sure everything is okay. I had to sample a couple actually just to triple check!

yum. that's all fruit, it has to be healthy!
And now these little nuggets of goodness are hibernating in my refrigerator.  If I just keep the door closed, it shouldn't be much of a problem, correct? If you're lucky, you may get to try these at some point (come over in a week?). The recipe will forever remain a family secret! Although, you can get fruitcake cookie recipes online, they are not the same. 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Time! Feast of seven DISHES

Well, needless to say, I have been a failure at posting this past month! Last time I checked, it was Thanksgiving, and now Christmas has almost already passed.  Family, house guests (literally ever since turkey time), holiday parties galore, and general chaos at work seem to be at play here! That being said, I could hardly believe that I legitimately cooked only a handful of times (literally, maybe three times) in the entire month. How is that even possible!? If anyone figures that out, send me some snail mail. But, now that the guests are gone and the holidays are almost over, I've got some peace and quiet to myself to catch up!

Either way, I was surely able to make up for the lack of cooking with the feast created while my mom and brother were in town for Christmas Eve!  I must say, my mom and I sometimes get carried away with ourselves when we're grocery shopping....a lot.  Especially when we had an absurd amount of money in Dean & Deluca gift cards.  And that means full bellies, great wine, and best for last: leftovers for ME on Christmas Day! Especially great considering I had to be surrounded by silly Waldorf brunch food from six am on.  Christmas Eve day began with a delicious lunch at Le Bernardin - perfect seafood in all forms, and carried over to an afternoon service at St. John the Divine (who knew there was one of the biggest cathedrals in the world up in Harlem!?).  As soon as we got home, it was time to start cook-a-lookin'! Disclaimer: my camera apparently attended holiday parties as well, got drunk and now has the permanent shakes.  Needless to say it is out of commish', with a few cooking photos on it (DEVIL!) - but fear NOT! My lovely brother had purchased the most amazing camera (due to mine's illness) that took absolutely STUNNING pictures, even without natural light.  So, thoughtful as they are, my mom and brother gave it to me as an early birthday present so I could use it for this blog! I am now a proud owner of a Canon S95. Brilliant! On we go:

Thanks to D&D, we were able to start out with an amazing medallion of foie gras with black truffles and a bit of Sauternes from D'Artagnan, with cornichons as accompaniment.  This foie was heavenly - perfectly smooth, and the the truffles didn't overpower the taste of the foie - absolutely worth it as an appetizer! Spread on thin pieces of a crusty baguette, or even these charcoal crackers.  And no, I'm not shamelessly promoting - I wish these people gave me their crackers for free!  These crackers not only look great, especially in contrast with different cheeses, but they have a slight charcoal flavor that really is delicious!  

We were able to use these crackers with some great cheeses as well (clockwise from top) - Morbier, a soft cow's-milk cheese with a thin layer of vegetable ash cutting through the middle.  It's less creamy than a brie or camembert, and a bit more elastic if you will.  An aged Comte - semi-hard cow's milk cheese - a bit sharp, with a great crystallization throughout that gave it a nice crunch - kind of like you find in great Parmesans.  And lastly, my favorite, Barely Buzzed by Beehive Cheese Co.  This cheese is RIDICULOUS! It's rubbed with a mix of ground coffee beans from Indonesia, South America, and Central America, and lavender buds.  The cheese itself has the same texture as an aged cheddar, and has a bit of nuttiness to it, but the rub imparts a flavor that you would never imagine pairing so well with cheese! I've seen this cheese only in Petoskey (of all places) and Dean & Deluca.  If you ever see it, at least ask for a sample!

Next up, crostini time! I couldn't shy away from the epic crab crostini. Still as amazing as ever, this time with tarragon as opposed to chervil. And a new crostini staple in the kitchen - a herbed chickpea mix with balsamic.  Here's an easy recipe for you!

Ceci Crostini
1 c cooked chickpeas (canned is fine!)
2 T minced basil leaves
1/2 t minced rosemary
2 T minced Kalamata olives
1 T olive oil
1-2 T balsamic - depending on how thick the vinegar is - just enough to coat the chickpeas
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced (I used my new handheld mandoline!!)
Sea salt and pepper to taste
Baguette, thinly sliced on the bias and lightly toasted

Mix all ingredients together as quickly as possible - be sure to be careful when adding the olive oil and vinegar so there isn't too much liquid - it may be better to add small amounts of balsamic at a time, mix, and taste as you go on until just coated.  Toast up some baguette slices, or better yet, saute them in olive oil until golden brown, top with the chickpea mixture, and enjoy!


Next up: Sauteed Taylor Bay Scallops with a lemon tarragon broth. Sound familiar? You bet. The family HAD to try it! 

For our final seafood taste, razor clams were in store.  I was going to broil them on a half shell with some bread crumbs, parsley and garlic, but decided against it because I was getting impatient with the clams - to prep them, you have to quasi-shuck them, remove the belly, leaving the foot behind, and separating the shells.  Instead, I completely shucked the clams, cleaning the shells for presentation, preparing them in the simplest way, in typical tapas form:

Navajas al ajillo
15 razor clams, shucked, shells reserved
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 t crushed red pepper flakes (or more, depending on your desired level of heat)
4 T olive oil
2 T minced parsley
Sea salt & Pepper

Heat the olive oil in a saute pan until shimmering but not smoking - add the chili flakes and cook for about 10-15 seconds. Toss in the garlic, and cook for another 10-15 seconds, ensuring that you are constantly shaking the pan and/or stirring.  Toss in the razor clams and saute until just cooked through, only a couple of minutes, depending on the size of the clam itself.  Make sure that the garlic is not burning! Place each clam back onto a half shell, and spoon a bit of the garlic and pepper oil over each.  Finish with a bit of salt, pepper, and the minced parsley, and enjoy!  (I finished mine with black lava sea salt - beautiful.)

It doesn't end there! We had small portions of pork and veal agnolotti (a typical holiday filling), as well as a ravioli filled with parmesan, and prosciutto de Parma - all tossed with a homemade amatriciana sauce.  This sauce is from Amitrice in Abruzzo - a spicy tomato sauce that shepherds had in the evening after a long day in chilly weather.  It is classically served with bucatini, but I felt that it would be perfect with these little packets of goodness - and was it! Amatriciana sauce is generally made from guanciale, onions, tomatoes, red pepper flakes and pecorino.   This one was finished with a nice, full bodied, jammy red wine to round it out and add to its complexity, and a spice-rubbed guanciale was used instead of the pepper flakes.  Absolutely outstanding.

Ok, it really is almost coming to an end. I told you it was a feast!  Our final dish was a seared, spice-brined Magret duck breast with an apple-pear mash.  I generally marinate duck with an orange juice, balsamic, some spices, etc. but this time decided to brine it overnight with some very Christmas-y spices.  Some duck breasts have an enormous amount of fat on them - while the fat is amazing, it's sometimes necessary to trim it down a bit (as was the case today).  Once you've trimmed it, but still have at least 1/4 inch of fat, gently score the fat crosswise - then brine!

Frankincense & Magret Spice Brine
2 cups water
1 smashed garlic clove
1 cinnamon stick
3 cloves
1 allspice berry
1/2 t thyme
1 t rosemary
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 t ground coriander
6 peppercorns
4 juniper berries
1 star anise
1 bay leaf
1 one-inch thick slice each of lemon zest and orange zest
2 T kosher salt
1 T brown sugar
1 Magret duck breast

Bring water to a boil with all ingredients and ensure that the salt and sugar dissolve.  Add a few ice cubes to help cool down - let the mixture come to room temperature.  Place duck breast and cooled mixture in a ziploc bag, seal, and refrigerate at least 24 hours. 

When ready to cook the duck, remove it from the brine and pat dry. Place the duck fat side down in a cold pan, turn the heat on to medium, medium-high (you don't want to burn the duck), and let it slowly come to temperature.  Cook on this side until the fat has rendered and is crispy and golden brown. Flip the breast over and cook again for a few more minutes - to your desired temperature.  I like my duck rare, especially if it's a great product such as Magret.  Once you are through cooking, let the duck breast rest off of heat for at least 10 minutes - this will allow the juice to distribute evenly throughout the meat, and you won't lose them when you slice it.  

Before cooking the duck, we made the mash - just peeled, diced apples and pears cooked over semi-low heat.  They have enough water content that they don't necessitate and liquid to begin with.  Just keep stirring occasionally, and it will turn into an applesauce of sorts.  Season with salt and pepper - we even added a little cinnamon/clove water that we had simmering on the stove to give it a bit of spice.  We added some poached pears, Bayley Hazen blue cheese, and Mugolio pine bud syrup to the dish and voila! (And the obligatory salad as well).

The flavor of the duck from the brine was absolutely OUTSTANDING.  It did use a lot of very strong herbs and spices, but it just penetrated the duck breast, leaving it extremely tender and giving it a a subtle complexity - perfect with the apple mash, pear and Bayley Hazen.  This dish was the epitome of the holidays, and the brine was stunning - a definite go to for duck at anytime!

As you can probably tell, I was pretty stuffed from this feast - and everything was absolutely delicious and held their own as separate courses. It was a great variety of cuisines, flavors, textures, and techniques. 

Saturday, December 4, 2010


I've probably stated it before, but I LOVE sea urchin. Especially from the West Coast - and yes, there really is a difference.  East Coast urchin, meh, but West Coast - mind blowing!  Heck, it even LOOKS better.  The mom was still in town, and as per usual when people visit and I'm working, they're left to their own devices for entertainment.  Luckily, when I finished work the first thing I heard was, "I have a surprise for you!"  Surprise, you say? I like surprises, but only if they don't disappoint me (logical, right?).  Needless to say, this was the surprise.   Santa Barbara urchin is one of those hard to come by items - one, because it's so perishable, and two, because it's so delicious all those Californians want to keep them for themselves!  Needless to say, I'm glad that the mom knew this was a necessary purchase. 

West Coast urchin are not only (generally speaking) bigger than East Coast, but spinier and darker in color.  Most Easterners are an algae green color with shorter spines - as you can see, the Westerners have long, prickly spines with a great purple hue to them. Also, I'm entertained by the fact that it always reminds me of Surf's Up (seriously, a great movie) and this scene: Ivan the Urchin

Needless to say, urchin are delicious, albeit difficult to handle. I give a hand to whoever it was that decided to break these guys open and eat the deliciousness within.  When it comes to fresh urchin - the less, the better.  Just a few accompaniments to amplify the flavor of the ocean you get from the roe (or tongues, as they like to call them).  I used to be horribly terrified of urchin after tasting a particularly bad one - THEN, I read Jeffrey Steingarten's piece on them and it gave me a gigantic craving.  Fortunately, I was visiting my brother in California, and it just happened to be urchin season - and I've never turned back again.  It has a smooth, creamy texture, and it tastes just like the ocean. To be truly factual, they taste of what they eat - loads of kelp.  Here's a fun fact - the urchin's only predators are humans and sea otters! At least two of us discovered the little gems inside these monsters.  Brilliant!

If you ever stumble across fresh Santa Barbara urchin and you're not terrified of spiny, pokey things - get this.  To open the urchin, it's easiest to cut it with a pair of scissors - start at the mouth (it looks kind of like a beak) and cut outwards. From there, cut off about the top quarter of the urching and gently remove.  It really is a lot easier than you would expect!

Once the top is off, rinse out the insides - it would be best if you were sitting on the back of a boat and could just use the sea water to rinse, but unfortunately, that is not an option for me!  The 'tongues' will still be attached to the wall of the urchin so you don't have to be TOO gentle.  

Once you've rinsed a bit, gently take out each individual tongue from inside, hold it in your palm and gently rinse any of the remaining brown liquid from it - removing any other parts besides the roe, leaving you with a bright orange piece of deliciousness.  For presentation purposes, clean out the inside of the urchin and place the tongues back where they came from.  Urchin really do have beautiful shells!

Enough of that! It's time to get down to some tasty business.  I took the tongues and squeezed the juice of one lemon over them, a bit of olive oil, and gently tossed to cover, being careful not to break up the pieces.   I let them sit for a few minutes in the lemon-oil mixture while I toasted some olive oil brushed toast over my range.  Once they are nice and golden, place one urchin tongue atop the toast, shave some lemon zest over top, sprinkle with sea salt and pepper, and garnish with cilantro.  To die for! 

With seafood, it may seem cliche to squeeze lemon over top, but in all actuality, it's brilliant.  The acidity and brightness of the lemon juice actually amp up the flavor of the sea in fish.  The best part about urchin is (obviously) eating it - not just for the flavor of it, but the fact that when you bite into it, it turns into creamy goodness - the consistency of a melted brie almost.  It has an extremely velvety texture as well even though it may not look it at first sight.

Velvety goodness. You can't get much better than that!  As much as I love this straight and raw, I'm urged to try cooking it - Joe Bastianich told me of a linguine recipe made with a slightly creamy tomato sauce that he finished with a bit of urchin - probably great considering his mother is Lidia.  Nobu has a recipe for a flash-tempura urchin - wrapped with shiso & nori, then tempura'd. Chances are, I won't get my hands on another one of these for quite some time, so I've got some space for decision-making.