Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rraci’s Ristorante: Worth the Trip

pssssss… do you want to know the best-kept secret in Putnam County? I’ll tell you.

But first, come a little closer.

That’s right, don’t be shy… A little closer…

RRACI’S RISTORANTE IS WORTH THE DRIVE TO BREWSTER FOR SO MANY … Hmmm? What’s that? Please don’t shout? Oh, right, gotcha. Rraci’s Ristorante is worth the drive to Brewster for so many reasons: you’ve got authentic, homemade pasta (I’m loving all these Italian places popping up that are actually making their own pasta), generous portions, stupefyingly creative desserts, reasonable prices, and practiced, ninja-like service. (If anything, go for the ninjas.)

My mom alerted me to the genius taking place at this Italian restaurant after two memorable meals—the first had blown her away, while the second confirmed her initial rating of “excellent.” My mom has high standards when she dines out, so my antennae did a little ping! when I heard her review. Then my dad mentioned celebrating a birthday there (he rarely comments on food, so when he said he really enjoyed his meal, I started to get a little itch). Then, two friends emailed me saying they couldn’t believe I still hadn’t visited. “Enough!” I cried. “Someone take me to Rraci’s!”

My mom didn’t need much of an excuse to return, so a few weeks ago, she brought something up about a “late birthday present” (my birthday was in April), and off we went to Rraci’s.

A preference would’ve been to sit on the private, well-maintained outdoor terrace on the day of our visit, but because weather looked iffy (big surprise considering the summer we’re having), we were seated by a window right next to the patio. Inside, the décor was elegant and dark. Servers floated by, some softly speaking Italian to one another, while Josh Groban sang from the speakers … but this last part has to be filed under “complaints.” My apologies to those who say Josh possesses the voice of an angel, but the music sounded so… produced. I would’ve preferred something more rustic to match Rraci’s traditional setting, like one of those opera recordings where you can still hear the scratches in the record … does that make sense? No? You love Josh Groban? Excellent.

Let’s get to the food:

To start, there was the Malfatti, a house made spinach and ricotta dumpling with light tomato sauce ($10):
It was as soft as a cloud.

Next, there was homemade pasta. My mom had been raving about Rraci’s meats, partly due to the custom-made broiler used to sear the meat at 1500 degrees (a temperature declared perfect for sealing in juices and producing flavorful proteins). But there was homemade pasta on the menu, I worried. What to choose, what to choose?

Rraci’s very thoughtfully offers half-orders of pasta for $10. We were able to share two half-size orders, and then tack on one meat entrée. Take a look:

Half-order of Cavatelli, with sweet Italian sausage, broccoli rabe, and freshly-chopped tomato ($10)
Half-order of Pappardelle, with duck meat ragu in tomato sauce ($10)
And the meat: Costoletta d’Agnello, or, broiled rack of lamb ($28)
Both pastas were exceptionally well-made. And can you believe those are half-sized portions? The cavatelli was the winner. It resembled a light gnocchi.

As for the rack of lamb, look at that generous portion. There are 10 pieces on our plate! 10! The meat was indeed tender and flavorful. While my mom wasn’t disappointed, she did mention that the other times she had ordered the lamb, it had been more seared. I suspect it’s because it sat so long while we were taking our pictures and divvying up the food, and not due to any gaffe in the kitchen.

Service as a whole was accommodating yet unobtrusive, to the point that my mom and I began referring to our servers as ninjas. It wasn’t until my tenth sip of water that I realized my glass was still completely full, yet I hadn’t once seen my server refill my glass. It was particularly remarkable to me because Rraci’s is a very large restaurant that employs a sizeable number of servers. They float about, yet still manage to remain inconspicuous. (Except for one guy who couldn’t be inconspicuous because he reminded me of James Bond.)

For dessert, my mom told me I had to try the Key Lime Pie:

“Where’s the Key Lime Pie?” I asked.

I assure you: the pastry chef is not on drugs (that I know of). That alien-looking thing was instead the best Key Lime Pie I have ever tasted. Throw out any preconceived notion of what you think Key Lime Pie is, and let Rraci’s show you what it should be. The meringue is lightly toasted, and the graham cracker crust is a sweet, crumbly suggestion under a refreshingly tart (yet not lip-puckeringly so) key-lime filling.

Then there’s the Ricotta Cheesecake:
This dessert may look less acid-induced than the key-lime—just a cheesecake with a splash of raspberry on the side—but amidst the moist, fluffy ricotta was a hint of something tropical. It took me three bites before I put my finger on it: passion fruit.


Go to Rraci’s and be blown away by authentic yet simultaneously innovative cuisine, invisible filling-of-water-glasses magic tricks, and the all-around good times you will experience.

3670 Route 6
Brewster, NY 10509
(845) 278-6695

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Does Jimmy Fallon Now Have His Own Panini at ‘wichcraft?

(Spoiler Alert)

However, last night on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Fallon did call out Macdaddy of the culinary world Tom Colicchio on how he never competes in Top Chef quickfires. Instead, Fallon says, Tom is merely “yelling at people and judging them.” Awesome. Below is a clip from last night’s show, where Fallon and Grand Pooh-bah engage in a 60-second cook-off to see who can create the best panini.

Colicchio goes so far as to put his high-end sandwich chain ‘wichcraft on the line, saying that if Fallon’s panini reigns supreme, he’ll start offering it on the menu. Not bloody likely. But entertaining.

Oh, and yes. Yes, this site is a shrine to Tom Colicchio.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sharon's Anchovy Pasta

Today I share with you the first dish I ever learned how to make, and one of my favorite comfort foods. It reminds me of hot summer days when I was a kid, when our whole family would remain outdoors until the sun set, then come in, tired and sweaty, wanting to eat immediately.

The dish is easy, there’s no real recipe, and you’ve probably got all the ingredients in your kitchen right now. (…whoah.)

Do you have garlic, fresh basil and fresh tomatoes? If so, you’re set in terms of fresh ingredients.
(I suspect all of you know what garlic, fresh basil and tomatoes look like. But I’m particularly fond of this photo, so I’m throwing it in.)

Do you have pasta? Any old pasta will do, but I prefer angel hair in this case. What about anchovies? Awwww, don’t make that face. Anchovies are awesome! They add a smooth, salty finish, and fuse with the tomatoes to take away some of the fishiness. And don’t get fancy-schmancy—those $1 tins at the supermarket are fine (I like the flat fillets packed in oil).

OK, you’re ready. Behold...

....Sharon’s Anchovy Pasta! (That’s right Mom, I’m taking all the glory for this one):

Boil angel hair pasta (about a box, maybe a little less). While it is boiling, saute a few cloves of chopped garlic in extra virgin olive oil, then add some chopped tomatoes. Add the pasta, and then add one tin of anchovies (the oil in the tin makes for a nice sauce). Toss until well mixed. I prefer to add two cans of anchovies for the flavor and the oil, but test as you go—two might be too fishy for you (at first). If you don’t want to add two cans of anchovies, just add a little extra extra virgin olive oil so the pasta doesn’t get too dry. Add a few leaves of fresh basil, and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Done!
Give my pasta a try (seriously, carbonara’s got nothing on this dish). And if you don’t like it, what have you wasted? About six minutes of your time and $5 in ingredients? It’s still my go-to dish when I come home late and don’t feel like cooking. And I still crave it when I do feel like cooking.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Aquavit: NYC Restaurant Week, Summer 2009

Last night, my co-worker Tia and I made our highly-anticipated, first New York City Restaurant Week Summer 2009 voyage. Our destination? Scandinavian “haute” spot Aquavit.

Aquavit’s been on my list for some time. Chef/co-owner Marcus Samuelsson has such an interesting story: born in Ethiopia and orphaned at an early age, he was taken in and raised by a young Swedish couple. It was while observing his grandmother—a professional cook—during his childhood on the West Coast of Sweden, that Samuelsson first developed a passion for Scandinavian cooking. At the tender age of 25, Samuelsson became executive chef of Aquavit, and went on to become the youngest chef to receive a three-star review in The New York Times. He is now a multiple James Beard winner, a noted humanitarian, and über-chef extraordinaire. All hail Samuelsson!

Aquavit made its first appearance on Tia’s list merely two days ago when she learned that the restaurant took its namesake from a Scandinavian liquor, essentially a very strong, spiced vodka, distilled from grain or potatoes, then aged and flavored with different ingredients. “Scandinavian moonshine,” Tia would whisper happily in anticipation whenever she passed by my cubicle.

The restaurant is three areas in one. You’ve got the casual Café upfront; a hip bar/lounge with backlit jugs of Aquavit prominently aligning shelves; and the business-elegant Dining Room in back.

On Thursday night, Tia and I were seated at the back of the Dining Room next to a semi-private table containing a large group of very important-looking, impeccably dressed and extremely beautiful foreigners. Scandinavian royalty, we wondered? Tia caught my eye and discreetly pointed to the most striking fellow, who was deep in conversation with a man standing above him. I followed her gaze. But the man standing above him, with smooth, coffee-colored skin, and warm, kind eyes, was the one who caught my attention. My jaw dropped in delight.

“…That’s Marcus Samuelsson!”

(“So?” some of you may ask. “Samuelsson is the chef—of course he’s gonna be at his own restaurant.” Except not really. Spotting Samuelsson at Aquavit would be akin to running into Anthony Bourdain at Les Halles, Mario Batali at Babbo, or Bobby Flay at Mesa Grill. It just doesn’t really happen that often. These chefs have so many projects, it’s impossible for them to be in the kitchen every night. So we were impressed. And a little giddy.)

Samuelsson disappeared into the kitchen, not to be seen again for the rest of the evening, but I suspect his presence had something to do with the top-notch service we experienced. Cause it was on.

Drinks, of course, were homemade Aquavit. Individual glasses are $7. We opted for a flight of three ($17).
I know I just finished telling you it was on, but, well... it was on in a moment. From left to right you’ve got: the unbelievably nasty Fig & Cardamom, the Nyquil-tasting Lingonberry, and Horseradish (which actually really did taste like horseradish) coupled with what could only be 100 percent pure alcohol.

Safe to say I didn’t enjoy Aquavit the beverage. But I didn’t really expect to like it. I can’t handle hard liquor and if I’m being honest, I don’t enjoy it. I just wanted to try it is all…is that ok with you?

Moments later, a choice of rye, white, or flat bread was offered to us, along with this:
Yep. That’s popcorn. Tia and I stared at it for a moment.

“I guess Erin could’ve come with us after all,” I said thoughtfully, remembering the face our mutual buddy Erin made when I told her we would be sampling seafood (Erin doesn’t do seafood). I popped a few kernels in my mouth.

Crunchy. Buttery. Cheesy. …Popcorn: available at your local movie theater.

Ballsy. I liked it.

The next thing we knew, appetizers from the Restaurant Week menu ($35 for three courses) were placed before us. This was perhaps the one misstep of the evening—I would’ve liked a few more seconds to finish my bread and contemplate that popcorn before we got our first course. I think our servers realized this, and the pacing ceased to be an issue for the rest of the evening.)

First up was the Herring Plate:
And mercy, what a generous plate it was! In the center, you’ve got Västerbotten cheese and boiled potatoes. On the outside, clockwise, starting with the bottom right, you’ve got: curried herring with apple and chives; vodka lime herring with salmon roe and dill; pickled herring with horseradish and black pepper; and matjes herring with red onions and sour cream.

I ordered this because I’m a sucker for samplers, even though I suspected from the get-go that I wasn’t a fan of herring (In my limited experience, I’ve found the pickling to be too powerful.) The first bite of the pickled herring confirmed this. The next three, however, were pleasant surprises, especially the vodka lime. The salmon roe, such a potent flavor, difficult to pair with anything due to its salty and fishy taste, perfectly balanced the pickling. I really enjoyed this dish.

Over on Tia’s side, was Chilled Corn Soup with smoked salmon and beets:
This tasted of summer and sweetness and a hint of the ocean. Again, very enjoyable.

For entrees, I got the Swedish Meatballs with lingonberries, cream sauce, and mashed potatoes:
I’ve been reading some smack online about these meatballs—that IKEA’s are better, that they are too dry. Pure smack is all it is. These meatballs are great! Faintly spiced, incredibly moist. And the mashed potatoes were some of the creamiest I’ve tasted. Perhaps the most amazing aspect about this dish was how deliciously sweet the lingonberries could be here, yet so foul in the Aquavit.)

I was even more impressed with Tia’s dish: Seared Salmon with fennel, tomato vinaigrette, and asparagus:
This dish brought back to mind Samuelsson’s appearance on Top Chef: Season 5, when contestants were asked to prepare a mock “Last Supper” for a panel of superstar chefs (Lidia Bastianich chose roast chicken, Susan Ungaro wanted shrimp scampi, Wylie Dufresne opted for Eggs Benedict, and Jacques Pepin wanted him some squab and peas.) Samuelsson, in typical Norseman fashion, asked the super-talented/super-arrogant Stefan Richter for salmon, spinach and potatoes.

Aquavit’s salmon is served medium-rare. It doesn't look it in the photo, but the middle is sushi rare. The mild-mannered, endearingly polite Samuelsson was probably more disappointed than he let on with Stefan’s overcooked salmon on Season 5, considering how rare Aquavit’s salmon ventures. But it is absolutely exquisite. So unbelievably fresh, not at all fishy, like it was retrieved from the ocean hours before dinner service and rushed to the table. The seasoning was light, the texture velvety—it conjured up childhood memories of frolicking on the beaches of Göteborg without ever setting foot on Swedish sand (I know. It was weird). And that skin —so flavorful and crisp, almost like it was peeled from a rotisserie chicken. Masterful.

Here’s a look at dessert:

Chocolate Mousse with peanut powder and grape sorbet:
Isn’t that a work of art? I wondered why the dish seemed so familiar and soulful, and then it hit me: “It’s a take on peanut butter and jelly!” I exclaimed to Tia. Her face lit up in wonder as if I had just computed Pi to its last digit. (We were both pretty tanked from the Aquavit at this point…. yes, we drank it anyway.)

Tia’s “Artic Circle,” a goat cheese parfait, passion fruit curd and blueberry sorbet:
This was a little sweet for me, but I did appreciate how the tang of the goat cheese balanced the dish. Tia was a huge fan. We took a short rest over dessert, and when a server came to clear our plates, Tia seized her spoon to guard the last bite of melting parfait. The server smiled and kept on walking.

As a treat (and a true Restaurant Week first for me), our waiter returned with two complimentary gift certificates ($24.07 each) toward our next dinner at Aquavit.

Aquavit has been a fixture of Manhattan since 1987. Walking in last night to find a relevant and exciting dining destination, proficient service, and clean and inspired flavors (and ballsy— don’t forget ballsy), was at once a comfort and delight.

Woot, Aquavit: you delivered.

65 East 55th Street
New York NY 10022
(212) 307-7311

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

MORE Blueberries for Sharon

I know you just got a recipe for blueberries, but blueberry season is almost over. So I’m not going to hoard my blueberry recipes. I’m going to give you my recipes now. And when I say “my” recipe, I mean Cook’s Illustrated’s “Best Blueberry Muffins” recipe.

I was fascinated by the small black and white photograph in the May/June 2009 issue of Cook’s Illustrated that demonstrates how loading more blueberries into your muffin batter isn’t the solution to getting a moister muffin. Adding more berries merely causes all those little guys to settle to the bottom of the muffin. The trick, Cook’s Illustrated declares, is to incorporate blueberry jam, and swirl the jam through the muffin batter. Your blueberries stay equally distributed and the jam creates a lovely, moist, “best” blueberry muffin.

“By jove,” I shouted. “I must make the best blueberry muffin immediately!”

Before you make the Best Blueberry Muffin (cause it’s more work than regular blueberry muffins.. and regular blueberry muffins are pretty great, too), some disclaimers:

1. If you want to include a topping, Cook’s Illustrated has some options: I assumed the one included in the recipe (sugar and lemon zest), would be the best. It wasn’t; it was too sweet, and had a processed, store-bought taste. The streusel, however, was really good. I’m only including the streusel recipe below because… let’s face it… this is my blog.

Here’s a picture of both of the toppings. The superior streusel is on the left:
2. I sometimes get a little ticked off with Cook’s Illustrated’s exact amounts and precise steps. I’m not convinced they make a whole lotta difference. I’m a big fan of Kathleen’s Bake Shop, where the recipes are always delicious, and you’re in and out of the kitchen in one, two, three.

3. A disclaimer to my disclaimer: If you’re looking for a good blueberry muffin recipe, this is a good one. It’s just a few extra steps.

Cook’s Illustrated Best Blueberry Muffins (with Streusel Topping… none of that sugar and lemon zest nonsense)
Yields 12 muffins

Preheat oven to 425 degrees (oven rack should be adjusted to the upper, middle position).

Spray a standard muffin tray with nonstick cooking spray.

For the jam: In a small saucepan, over medium heat, simmer 1 cup blueberries and 1 teaspoon sugar. Mash the berries until they are broken down and the mixture has thickened and reduced to ¼ cup (about 6 minutes). Remove from heat and let the mixture cool to room temperature.

For the muffin batter: In a large bowl, whisk 2 ½ cups unbleached, all-purpose flour and 2 ½ teaspoons baking powder.

In another bowl (so many bowls….), whisk 1 1/8 cups sugar and 2 eggs until thick. Slowly whisk in ½ stick of melted butter (cooled slightly) and ¼ cup vegetable oil. Whisk in 1 cup buttermilk and 1 ½ teaspoon vanilla.

Fold egg mixture and an additional cup of blueberries into the flour mixture and mix until just moistened. Lumps and spots of dry flour are not a concern, Cook’s assures us.

Pour the batter into muffin cups. And here’s that special step for the moistest, “best” blueberry muffins: Spoon a teaspoon of the cooked berry mixture into the center of each batter mound. Use chopsticks to swirl the berry mixture into the batter with a figure-eight motion.
For the Streusel topping: Combine 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar, a pinch of salt and ½ cup plus 3 tablespoons unbleached, all-purpose flour into a small bowl. Drizzle mixture with 5 tablespoons unsalted butter and mix until evenly moistened.

Sprinkle streusel on muffin batter.

Bake 17-19 minutes.
Let me know if you think the jam-swirling action makes for a better, moister muffin. And if you’re a fan of the streusel.

Until next blueberry season!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Oishii Asian Fusion

Duck Fajitas, Asian Style; Oishii, Mt. Kisco

Is it me, or is there a glut of Asian Fusion here in Westchester? And are any of these fusion dishes being fused particularly well? I have my doubts, especially when I see fusion menus starting to resemble Cheesecake Factory-sized binders (page 1: sushi; page 2: the ubiquitous Pad Thai and Sesame Chicken; page 3: sauces and noodles, etc.). Why won’t some of these restaurants hunker down and produce, say, the best Vietnamese or Mongolian food in Westchester instead of offering lots and lots of “pretty good” stuff from all over Asia? Cause… I dunno, Asia’s a big place.

I suspect I’ve just written a terribly unmerited lead-in to Oishii in Mount Kisco. I’m not picking on Oishii. And I’m not telling Oishii to make Mongolian food. It’s that just that I had mixed feelings on meeting my friend Danielle there, because I don't know if I've ever seen Fusion done exceptionally well.
Oishii is the former Mt. Fuji Japanese restaurant (right next to the Dunkin Donuts on North Bedford Road), now under new management and renovated. I had never been to Mt. Fuji, so I can’t tell you what’s different, but Oishii is pleasant-looking enough, and I get the sense that a lot of money was put into the renovation. The bar has that modern neon blue glow, ambient beats resound, and tableware is attractive (the placemats are these thin, straw-like Jackson Pollock-esque creations). It’s quite comfortable and simultaneously contemporary. There’s also a sense of earnestness that might need to be toned down. On the night of our visit, Danielle and I were flipping through the massive menu, not quite sure if we wanted to share dishes or split sushi. While we were discussing this, clearly still holding our menus and pointing to items, our server came over, not once, not twice, but five times to ask if we were ready. What was most bothersome was that the servers were keeping a watchful eye on us from only a few feet away—it would’ve been incredibly easy for us to signal someone merely by looking in their general direction, and then have them come over, rather then have the waitress keep coming back to our table and making us feel rushed.

In the end, we ordered a lot. (Maybe that’s why the menu is so large. Maybe they’re geniuses for creating such large menus.)

Danielle arrived before me; while she waited, she snacked on some edamame ($5). This was nicely salted and well-cooked, but $5 was wayyyy too high for a bowl of beans. This ain’t Manhattan, fellas.

Speaking of "too high," check out my $13.95 Spicy Tuna Tartare:
Aside from the price, I liked this. The tartar was fresh, and the mango, goat cheese and pumpkin seed oil went well together. The roe was a little overpowering, especially the large size that was used, but it by no means ruined the dish. Was it worth $13.95? Nooooooo.

Danielle got a Philadephia Roll ($6)—Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese:
I rarely get Philly Rolls, and I forget how much I like them. This is one of the better Phillies I’ve had. (The menu also very clearly and thoughtfully marks “cooked” rolls for customers squeamish about raw items.)

We also shared Duck Dumplings (steamed) ($9):
A welcome surprise to see duck as an option for dumplings—usually, it’s pork or vegetable. The meat was quite tender and juicy. I would order these again.

For entrees, Danielle ordered the Chicken Pad Thai ($9.95)
A moderately-priced option, but underseasoned, and none of that terrific gumminess you want when you order pad thai noodles. Passable, but by no means memorable.

I ordered the Duck Fajitas Asian Style ($16.00)
I really liked the sound of this dish, like there would be a lot of interesting, exciting fusing going on. The duck was served with shiitake mushrooms, chives and scallions, and the pancake wraps were similar to spring roll wrappers. For the most part, this dish worked. Again, the duck was very tender, the mushrooms meaty. I added rice into the pancake wrap, which helped balance the soy sauce/ saltiness, which was a little heavy. But this was enjoyable. And clever. More like an Asian burrito really, when I added the rice.

For dessert, it was mochi ice cream in both red bean and green tea flavors.
In Japan, mochi is traditionally a glutinous rice exterior with a sweet, red bean filling. Here, the filling was replaced with the flavored ice cream. I thought this was a wonderful idea—it’s the first time I’ve had mochi (one of my favorite snacks) paired with ice cream instead of bean, and by golly, I liked it. You betcha I would order this again.

Fusion may not always be my thing, but scattered throughout the pages and pages of Oishii’s menu, are some generally interesting-sounding dishes like Thai Coconut Curry Casserole, Indian Tuna (lightly fried ahi tuna with masala dressing), Yellowtail Jalapeno, and Pumpkin Soup; not to mention the plethora of Special Rolls available. The duck dishes really worked on the night of our visit, and aside from the ever-present servers, the setting is pleasing and modern.

Oishii Asian Fusion
176 North Bedford Road
Mt. Kisco, NY.
(914) 666-2348

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Melt Sandwich Shop: Could be Love

If you recall the ending to Top Gun (spoiler alert… if you live in a tree house in New Guinea), when Maverick tells Kelly McGillis he “doesn’t know” how their budding love is going, “…but it’s “lookin good so far”—that pretty much captures the state of things between me and Melt Sandwich Shop in White Plains. In layman’s terms? I know I’m falling in love, but I’m playing it cool… cause I’m Maverick.

Look at this beautiful sandwich:
You’ve got grilled tilapia inside homemade flatbread, topped with mango salsa, jalapenos, cilantro and red onions ($6). It’s actually even tastier than it looks.

But, as is the case with so many corner establishments that start out strong, only to crash and burn in my heart soon after, I only hope that Melt can sustain the genius I see in its flying.

No doubt they are making damn fine sandwiches (and pizza) at this small take-out shop (there are only about eight seats to eat in), but it feels relatively soon to be weighing in—Melt has only been open a little over a month, and time is needed to spot and address any kinks that are sure to make a blip on the radar. This isn’t meant to sound shady, like I’ve already spotted a whole bunch of blips—what I mean instead is, I’m actually a little afraid for the three to four kind souls currently handling production in this itty-bitty shop. Afraid. Because I just can’t fathom how their set-up will handle the crazy demand I predict in the very near future.

Why do I foresee a mad rush? For one, Melt has already gained regular, devoted followers. While I waited for my pulled pork grilled pizza ($8) last Friday, a fellow walked in, suspicious girlfriend in tow, and pointed to the menu listed behind the counter. He excitedly began to explain the concept: 1.) choose a bread (short, flat, or long), 2.) choose a meat from the daily selection of smokes and roasts, and 3.) choose a sandwich combination (like “french onion,” “bacon cheddar,” “philly,” Cuban,” or “spicy”). Dude behind the counter didn't need to say a word. This fellow was a Melt marketing machine. Another time, a different guy came in with his lady friend, announced “I’m back!” and alerted the folks behind the counter that their pizzas were “all the rage” on Chowhound. That same visit, an elderly woman approached the counter and quietly placed her order, “Corned beef, same as always.”

Same as “always”? But, but… this place opened a month ago!
Above you have the Cuban: pork loin, hickory smoked black forest ham, swiss cheese, pickles, spicy Dijon mustard on grilled, homemade flatbread ($7). And herin lies the other reason Melt is set to explode: the flatbread is so wonderfully charred and soft—almost gummy. Do yourself a favor and be sure to order your sandwich on flatbread. The short and long rolls aren’t homemade (although I hear Melt is working to change that), and while soft and fresh, they just don’t hold a candle to the flatbread. Here’s a look at my friend’s sandwich on a “short” roll: grilled chicken with white cheddar ($6):
Very good—the chicken was wonderfully grilled with absolutely no fat, the cheese pleasantly sharp. But the bread? Nothing special. Good, just nothing special.

And what about those “all the rage” pizzas?
This is the already-famous Pulled Pork pizza ($8). Yes. Yes, it is that good. Again, we’ve got that gummy grilled dough, a tangy, chipotle barbecue sauce, sweet red onions, fresh tomatoes, aged white cheddar, and tender, slow roasted shredded pork. Phenomenal. I almost want to tell you not to waste your time with the sandwiches, but I won't because both offerings really are top-notch. It’s whatever you’re in the mood for.

I’ve also experienced the Pomodoro pizza: sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil, whole milk mozzarella, and pomodoro sauce. ($8)
Nice, but all I can think about is how I need another pulled pork pizza immediately.

And there you have it. I’ll post an update in a few weeks to see how the shop is doing. I hear delivery is on the near horizon.

Stay yummy, Melt. Don’t lose that loving feeling.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go embarrass myself with Goose for a while.

Melt (website coming soon)
277 Mamaroneck Avenue
White Plains, NY 10605
(914) 358-1364

Monday, July 13, 2009

Blueberries for Sharon

I love blueberries. LOVE em. In my cereal, in muffins, pie, buckle (we’ll get to that momentarily), jam, straight off the bush. Blueberries, blueberries, blueberries. I heard on the radio just last month that mice put on a high-fat diet (cheeseburgers, fries, etc.) still lost belly fat if they were also fed blueberry powder… but don’t quote me on that last part. Sometimes I hear bits and pieces of news stories when I’m driving home from work and then piece two unrelated stories together later in conversation. (Not on purpose. I just do.) But I digress.

Yesterday, my mom, grandmother and I took a drive to Wappingers Falls in Dutchess County, NY. There’s a little farm called Secor Strawberries, where, upon arrival, you are handed small plastic pails and then sent off into the fields to pick your own—psych—blueberries! Yeah, they should look into changing their name over there.
Picking your own berries is loads of fun; your bucket fills up in no time. And don’t let any fool tell you it's dangerous. Because it's not. No one ever decides to step into the blueberry bushes rife with poison ivy when the paths are so well-marked and poison ivy-free. Or venture far into the bushes so that the bees get angry and begin to chase you. ... Only idiots do that.
My adventure in the fields was quite reasonably-priced. I got a half-sized pail for $5.00. And talk about fresh produce—the berries were sweet and ripe, the flesh softer and less thick than the freshest ones I’ve bought from a supermarket. And plump. Downright chubby, even.
Sweet, plump blueberries mean Blueberry Buckle at our house. It’s one of those go-to desserts, a cinch to make because you can just plop everything into one pan. And it looks so rustic once you slice it.

The recipe comes from one of my favorite dessert cookbooks of all-time, Kathleen’s Bake Shop Cookbook. My mom and I have tried a good deal of the recipes in the book, and all have been sensational, the chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies especially. Uncomplicated, classic stuff. Darned if I know why this plastic comb book is up to $115 new on Amazon now, but no matter… I’m gonna tell you how to make the Buckle right here and now.

Blueberry Buckle
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 9-inch square pan.

For the cake batter: Cream ½ cup of butter and ¾ cup granulated sugar. Add 1 egg, ½ cup of milk, 2 teaspoons baking powder and ½ teaspoon of salt. Mix. Stir in 2 cups of all-purpose flour (one at a time), and then fold in 2 ½ cups of your little blue treasures. Pour the cake batter into the 9-inch pan. Set aside.
For the topping: In a medium-sized bowl, combine 1 cup of firmly packed dark-brown sugar, ½ cup of butter, 2/3 cup all-purpose flour, and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon. Then mix it all with your hands—yeah, baby!—until it’s nice and crumbly. Sprinkle on top of the cake batter.
Bake for 45-50 minutes.

And that’s it. Really. That’s all it takes to make one of my favorite desserts of all time.
And don’t forget to check out Secor Strawberries! Strawberry and pea season has just ended, and right around the corner is sweet corn. Then pumpkins! But I actually have another place to tell you about for pumpkin picking...

...but first I've gotta ice these bee stings and tend to this itching.

Secor Strawberries
63 Robinson Lane
Wappingers Falls, NY 12590
(845) 452-6883 (Daily picking information)
(No web site)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Top Chef Returns!

Get ready for Quickfires, Restaurant Wars, gratuitous Glad® product placement and…craps?

Top Chef Season 6 debuts on Bravo, Wednesday, August 26th, at 9:00 p.m., and this time Tom, Padma, Gail (and Toby!) are in Vegas, baby! Expect poker/blackjack witticisms to fly alongside Judges Table critiques. Me? I’m already going full-tilt, especially after checking out the new meat on Bravo’s web site.

The pickings are fierce this season. Our 17 contestants (we’ve got brothers!) hail from across the U.S. and include: a two-time James Beard nominee, the chef de cuisine of Eric Ripert’s 10 Arts in Philadelphia, the chef de cuisine of Jose Andres’ Bazaar in Beverly Hills, and a slew of graduates from Le Cordon Bleu and the Culinary Institute of America. Sole representation from New York is self-taught, 29-year-old Ash Fulk, sous chef at Trestle on Tenth. Ash: you’ve got some stiff competition. But no pressure. Just give ’em that New York ’tude, and don’t let ’em walk all over you. (...and don’t be a d.b., either.)

Below, the judges weigh in:

I am a huuuuuuuge Top Chef fan—I watch it religiously. The only teensy problem I foresee this time around is that I no longer get Bravo. I canceled cable a couple of months ago in a fit of rage after an exorbitant bill arrived once my “Triple Play” had expired. I figure I’ve got a little over a month to remedy this situation. Do I suck it up and spring for cable, or do I look into one of those “Season Pass” thingees from iTunes? (Not sure how quickly new episodes are added to iTunes. It’s a gamble: I don’t want to come into work Thursday morning, still waiting for the previous night’s episode, to my coworkers saying, “Dude, did you see the Quickfire last night? They made deep-fried Oreos!!!” Or “Tom Colicchio totally saved six contestants from a grease fire ...with one hand! …and made a tarte flambée with the other!” Or “Padma literally lost her shirt playing Hold ’Em.”)

Regardless of delivery method, I’ll be watching. And blogging my Top Chef thoughts weekly.

Oh, it’s the MOST wonderful tiiime of the yeaaar…….

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Beni imo!!!

Pop quiz, hotshot: What is the best homemade ice cream in the whole world?

Answer: Beni imo!!!!

Beni imo is an Okinawan sweet potato. It is available in dried, purple flakes in Asian specialty shops, although it’s incredibly difficult to find (we have relatives who ship it to us from Okinawa when we’re desperate). Sweet potato may not sound appealing, but it doesn’t really taste like sweet potato, or even, say, a sweet potato pie. Beni imo, rather, has a taste all its own. It’s hard to describe, but I’d put it somewhere between cake-batter, and… a carnival. And who doesn’t want a carnival in their mouth? Exactly.
This past weekend, my mom and I prepared this wondrous treat. It’s actually quite simple, as long as you have two uncommon items in your kitchen: beni imo flakes and an ice cream machine.

“So, what did you name this contraption?” I said to my mom teasingly, lugging her ice cream machine out of the closet and placing it on the counter. I was referring to the KitchenAid mixer she had recently dubbed “Angelina” due to its intense beauty. I figured she had named all of her appliances by now. “Val Kilmer? You know, ‘cause he’s Ice Man? …That’s how he flies? Ice cold, no mistakes?” I laughed at my own joke.

My mom eyed me warily. “It doesn’t have a name. It’s an ice cream machine.”

“Oh… right.”

Preparation begins the same as regular vanilla ice cream.

Pour 1 ¾ cup whole milk (we actually used 2% milk, and our finished product was still extremely rich) and 1 ¾ cup heavy cream into a pot to simmer. In a separate bowl, mix 4 large egg yolks and ¾ cup granulated sugar with a hand mixer (Angelina shot the hand mixer dirty looks), until the consistency is similar to mayonnaise, about 2 minutes.
Take 1 cup of the hot milk/cream from the simmering pot and, with the hand mixer on a low speed, add it to the egg mixture in a slow, steady stream. When thoroughly combined, pour the egg mixture back into the sauce pan. Stir.

In a new bowl, combine a separate, additional ½ cup of warm milk with ½ cup of beni imo flakes and stir until smooth (it should be similar to the consistency of instant mashed potatoes). Add a little extra milk if it’s lumpy. Pour this mixture into the simmering milk and cream. Stir until smooth over medium heat until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. When it is thick, add 1 ½ teaspoon of pure vanilla extract.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl. (If your mixture is lumpy now, pour through a strainer). Cover it with plastic-wrap and chill completely in the refrigerator (overnight is best).

Once the mixture is thoroughly chilled, you’re ready to bust out that ice cream maker. Pour the mixture into the freezer bowl, and flip that puppy on.
Now comes the best part of making beni imo ice cream: you must sample the ice cream with a spoon (or your finger) while it is churning. It is off the hooooooooooook. The texture is similar to cold, cold cake batter. Just don’t let your mom catch you; moms are really weird about these things.

The ice cream should churn for about 20 minutes. And voila! You have just created beni imo ice cream.
“Hmmmm,” my mom said frowning, as she transferred the finished ice cream into Tupperwares. “I could’ve sworn that the recipe made more the last time.” She stopped, and looked at me suspiciously. I was already licking the mixer. (That’s right, don’t let anyone tell you I am not the best sous chef ever; I am James Beard Nominee material.)

(And readers, if you get word of a web site where you can order beni imo flakes, let me know! If I find one, I will post it.)