Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Guest Chef: Liza Queen!

Before I say anything about dinner, let me just say first that I LOVE LIZA QUEEN.

I think she fucking ROCKS.

The first time I went to her restaurant, The Queen's Hideaway in Greenpoint, it was a rainy Friday night. There was a small group of us, but the restaurant was very busy, so we waited out back. In the rain. With umbrellas.

We even started our dinner out there, in the backyard, under the drizzle. It was fabulous -- completely worth the wait. Even in the rain.

We could hear Led Zeppelin and Tammy Wynette playing on the turntable inside, Liza and Millicent drank PBRs while they cooked on the line, our waitress, Baby, confessed to having just taken a couple of recreational Vicodin... what was not to love?

We ordered one of everything off the handwritten menu, and then ordered repeats of the dishes that we couldn't get enough of, which was pretty much all of them. At the end of dinner, as we were leaving, Liza and Millicent were sitting on the front stoop smoking cigarettes. I told them I had just been fired from Prune, and that if they were ever looking for another server, I wanted to work there. They laughed and said, "Thanks, but we only hire our friends." I told them I could be a friend! I WANTED to be a friend! They laughed some more, said "maybe," and I left.

From then on, every time I went back, I reiterated my offer: I wanted to work at The Queen's Hideaway, and one night I got the call: Did I want to come in and see how they worked? I did.

I had a great time there, both as an employee and as a customer; I loved everything about it, especially the food. When Liza's landlord decided to be a DICK and raise the rent, forcing her to close her doors last October, I was devastated.

My last dinner there (with the ubiquitous Dapper Dan, of course) was at once beautiful and profoundly sad. It was so depressing to step out of the big black door onto Franklin Street and not know when I would get to eat Liza's magnificent cooking again.

There are soooooo many shitty, sorry-ass excuses for restaurants in this city, places where "cooks" open a can of sauce from Cisco, pour it into a pan, and from there it goes onto your plate. And these restaurants survive. They live on, somehow, in mediocrity, and yet, in this same city, someone who cares deeply and puts their heart and soul into preparing beautiful, inventive food can't.

Fucked. Up.

But, eternal optimist that I am, this post does get a little happier.

One day, as I was longing for the Queen's Hideaway, It occurred to me that I could ask Liza to guest chef a Sunday Night Dinner! DUDE! Liza might be convinced to cook In... My... Kitchen.

I asked, and she said, "Yeah, man!"

I sent out the invite, a full two weeks early, and it sold out in 23 minutes. There wasn't even a menu in place -- I told her to just let me know once she had decided what she was going to cook.

Christmas came and went, and I realized I needed to send out a reminder along with the menu. Oops! Got the reminder out, but not the menu.

Even so, and despite a couple of last minute cancellations, people snapped up the seats like Jaws chomping down on those poor teenagers' legs.

Liza arrived completely prepared and prepped, and with everything packed up tightly. I could take a lesson, there. She even brought her own beer!

She quickly went to work, and for the first time ever, I got to be (mostly) a guest at my own Sunday Night Dinner. I did love it, but it felt a little weird too. I am definitely not used to not having ten thousand things to do. I actually got to have entire conversations with people!

The menu:

Horseradish Pickled Beets with Watercress in a Lemon/Gorgonzola/Pine Nut/Duck Liver dressing...

Pickled Cabbage and Carrots with Port Soaked Currants, Parsley, and Crunchy Topping of Duck Cracklin' and Dried, Fried Corn...

Gumbo with Pork Sausage (Salumeria Biellese's Finest!), Duck, Pheasant and Hen served over Anson Mills Rice with French Bread...

and, to finish, Steamed Grapefruit Pudding Cake with Pernod Candied Zest.

Everyone was well fed and happy, a couple of savvy people even got to take a little gumbo home! I am eternally grateful to Liza, and hope she will come back again.

In January, the guest chef will be Millicent Souris-- who I also met at the QH. Yet another brilliant female chef...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Teaching A Man To Fish, SND Style...

My dear friend Christopher, a neighbor and SND Regular-Extraordinaire, had a simple request: Could I teach him how to roast a whole fish? His mother is coming to his place for Christmas Dinner, and she has requested a whole fish.

I love it. I love that he asks, that he wants to learn, and perhaps most of all, that his mother has requested such a specific Christmas dinner. I cannot imagine Tonya telling me what to cook for dinner...

We were both free last night, so he came over at 6:30, and we headed out to my neighborhood supermarket, The Bravo, to get the fish.


Fish at The Bravo?!!

Yes, folks, it's true. Although I am a HUGE proponent of dedicated fish markets (I have 3 favorites on 30th Avenue alone,) The Bravo around my corner has a little fish counter, run by a man named Vishnu.

Vishnu The Fish Man.

I adore Vishnu, because he is basically running his own business within another business, and he takes it very seriously. Generally I have found the Bravo to be über-helpful and responsive whenever I have asked them to stock a specific item (D&G Brand Jamaican Ginger Beer - for Karl), but Vishnu truly goes above and beyond. He will get absolutely anything you ask for if he can. His fish are fresh and gorgeous, he takes great pride in his job, and he is aaaaall about customer service.

Even though this fish market is technically not a small or independent one, I can't help but want to keep him in business. So I shop with him whenever I can.

I had been by earlier in the day to get the ingredients for the Syrian Kibbe Soup, and had scoped out the pretty red snappers - the perfect choice for a first roast fish. When we returned, I noticed that they were a little smaller than I had hoped, but that was OK, we would get two of them.

"Well, Stanley... It's another fine mess you've gotten us into. Hmph."

We brought them home and I became the teacher. I taught Christopher to roast fish using a technique I learned at Babbo, and with fennel oil that I learned at Prune. Frankly, after you have had the whole fish at either on of these joints, you will never have to go anywhere else for it unless you want to make it in your very own kitchen-- which you should!

We washed them and patted them dry, and rubbed them inside and out with salt, pepper and olive oil.

Then Christopher cut some thin lemon slices, about 3 for each fish. I had gotten a medium sized fennel bulb, which we sliced thinly and stuffed into each fish with the lemon.

The rest of the fennel got tossed with salt, pepper and olive oil and put in a separate little roasting pan, and parked in the oven with the fish.

I had some leftover crimini mushrooms, so we sauteed those in butter and a little leftover white wine. (see a pattern here?) Those got tossed into the rice cooker with 1.5 cups of wild rice, to simmer away for about 40 minutes.

I had a little escarole left from earlier in the day, and radicchio from last week, so I bought another head of escarole, washed it thoroughly and tossed it into a hot pan with crispy sauteeing garlic, olive oil and chili flake. Bitter greens with garlic and chili is a standard here-- and with roasted fish it is perfect.

Roasting a fish takes 18-23 minutes in a 450 degree oven. Yup, 20 minutes. That is it. Your fish guy does the hard work of scaling and cleaning-- all you have to do is give it a salt/oil rub, put in a little fennel and lemon if you want, and call it good. You know it is done when the flesh no longer looks opaque, and you can flake a bit off off with a fork.

You pull it out, let it rest a minute, and then use a spatula to pull it onto a plate. If you have oiled it properly on both sides, there will be very little sticking to the pan.

Teaching Christopher to filet the fish completely took me back to the first time I learned to do it, on the floor at Babbo. Boning fish was very popular and very public in that restaurant; at the time, we did it on the center table in the middle of the dining floor -- a little theatrical conceit. I had never boned a fish before, and one of the more senior waiters, Chris Cantanese, walked me through it. As I mangled some poor man's Branzino, intimidated beyond the pale, I was almost crying at the prospect of having to go back to Mario Batali to explain that I had fucked up his fish because I'd lied about knowing how to bone one when I'd been hired. Just then, Chris gently leaned over and whispered, "Tamara -- would you treat a lover like that? Stop a second and touch that fish like you would caress a lover."

It stopped me dead in my tracks. I was completely embarassed, but also instantaneously knew what I was doing wrong. And every fish after that was beautiful, including the harder ones like Dorade.

This Christopher was a far quicker student than I was. Maybe that is because he is meticulous and deliberate in his movements. Watching him on his first attempt was beautiful; it is an art, boning a fish, and when someone is graceful, it is very soothing to watch.

Cut down the center spinebone, flip back the filets to show the spine, break off the tail and pull out the spine bone, set it aside with the head, pull out the finicky little stomach bones, pull out (gently) the top and bottom fin bones, squeeze some lemon, a little salt and a little olive oil with toasted fennel seeds and you are finished.

Dinner was served, much wine was drunk, and a man learned to fish. A great day!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Lunch for a Sick Husband on a Cold Day, Or, How Karl Learned To Stop Kvetching & Love Syrian Lemon & Vegetable Soup With Meatballs...

"If they didn't have enough oil, why didn't they just invade another country?"

So last night, I was invited to my first Hannukah party ever. Yes, EVER. I know, none of the people present could imagine that was true, but I assured them it was. It is!!

Miss Noelle and Mr. Myron were the excellent hosts, and there were beautiful Latkes and Goulash with egg noodles (butter and caraway!!) and... homemade Jelly Doughnuts.

All I really have to say for myself is that I tried not to embarass both myself and my hosts with how much sour cream I put on my excellent, crispy latkes, and I pray that no one ever teaches me how to make my own jelly doughnuts. I cannot fathom how that knowledge might impact what is already a losing battle over the size of my ass... Please Jesus, just let me settle for the once-a-year Hannukah invite.

This got me thinking, though... about a cookbook I bought after visiting Aaron's mom Debbie in Evanston a few years ago. It was my first time to Evanston, and he was taking his then-girlfriend (my friend Nicole) home to meet his mom for the first time. (It went fine -- they are now engaged...) Debbie had a great cookbook collection, and one book that really interested me was Jewish Cooking In America by Joan Nathan. It was chock full of all of these fucking excellent Old World recipes that no one (no one that I know, anyway) makes, these days. Or if they do, they aren't inviting me over when they are making them. (hint hint.) Syrian, Turkish, Moroccan, Russian, German, Hungarian... you get the picture. Beautiful, immigrant grandmother food-- not necessarily difficult, but sometimes time consuming. One of these recipes involves a few of my favorite things: Lemony Vegetable Soup with Dried Mint and Kibbe Hamda (meatballs) served over a little rice.

My husband woke up this morning with a terrible head cold and went back to bed. As he was sleeping away, I decided this was exactly the day to make this soup, so I popped over to the store and grabbed some ground beef and a head of escarole.

Everything else I had in the house: Celery, potato, onion, garlic, rice, lemon, and some allspice. I added escarole because it's such an excellent partner of both meat and lemon, and also, some dried oregano because, well... because I felt like it.

I pretty much followed her recipe, making the meatballs with the ground rice and stuffing them with reserved ground meat, allspice and celery leaves.

I should have salted the whole thing more, though. I chopped up onion, garlic, carrots, potatoes, and celery and simmered them for 20 minutes, then added dried mint, a pinch of oregano and lots of lemon-- juice of 2 lemons and simmered for 10 more minutes.

Then I brought it to a boil, added the meatballs and escarole, covered and boiled for 10 more minutes, and voila. Lunch.

I also made some rice to pour it over. It was nice and brothy but still very substantial, and so aromatic. Next time, I will either use all ground lamb and add a little nutmeg, or 1/2 lamb and 1/2 beef. I will also not overwork the meatballs next time... I also think it might be nice with a little bit of chili flake or aleppo pepper - just a touch. The heat would brighten up the whole dish, especially with the added zesty influence of the lemon.

And the sick husband? So happy. The soup, and a glass of eggnog and he toddled back to bed feeling full and loved.

As Borat says. "Success!"

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Zora Kicks Take-Out Ass On The Brian Lehrer Show!!

Oh Happy Day! Zora was a guest on Brian Lehrer this morning, and had some wise words to say about the beauty of home cooking. Visit it here: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/episodes/2008/12/17 .

I give her major props for not coming unglued when Kate of The City Cook suggested buying a rotisserie chicken premade from the store-- we only advocate that as an absolute end of the line option, since it is SO EASY to make your own.

The revolution begins.....

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Someone's in the Kitchen With Dinah.... and it's Jamie Oliver!

That's right... Jamie Oliver came to dinner last Sunday! This time last week, I was waking up, freaking out, and getting hives on my face and neck, (oh nerves!) and wondering how we were going to change our menu to accommodate the unfortunate, all-day rain...

The original plan was to head to Astoria Live Poultry on 33rd Street, just north of Ditmars, meet Jamie for the first time (on camera) and select a live lamb. Then we were going to send Jamie off to Ali at Kebab Café with the brains, balls and organs, bring the butchered lamb back to my joint, tie it to our *new* grill/spit operation, and turn, turn, turn slooooowly for five hours over an open flame...

Jamie was going to drop by our place when the lamb was almost done, talk to us while we cooked, and then eat dinner with us. The guest list was smaller, since the camera crew needed room to move around, but everyone attending was quite enthusiastic.

The rain made us scrap our original plan (kind of hard to roast a lamb when you can't keep a fire lit) so, on the fly, we decided to do lamb 3 ways:

Roast the legs with herbs, pomegranate molasses and anchovies, (right out of our cookbook!)

Braise the shanks and shoulders with white wine, cumin and saffron...

and then batter coat and deep fry the loin chops and rib chops with rosemary, lemon and garlic (right out of Sara Jenkins' and Mindy Fox's new book Olives and Oranges.)

I forgot how scary/exciting it is to cook something on camera that you have never made before! I spend a lot of time making things for the first time, but it is an entirely different story when it is going to be immortalized for all time!

There was Escarole Salad with Roasted Pears, Pomegranate Seeds and Candied Bacon,

Rice Pilaf with Dried Cherries and Fennel Seeds,

Super Bad- Ass Garlicky Yogurt,

We also made our standby, Gurhan's Eggplant Salad, in the broiler and on the stove this time instead of on the grill.

and to mop it all up, Baked Apples with Honey Nutmeg Ice Cream and Boozy Raisins.

A well balanced meal! Plus, something about lamb and bacon on the same menu seems dirty and yet sooooo right...

Anyway, cheers to Zora for looking for/thinking of the "chicken-fried lamb chops" as we called them. They were gooood...

I am happy to report that Jamie is EXCELLENT. A very kind, generous and funny guy-- who cusses MORE than I do! I hope he will come to dinner again sometime, when the cameras aren't rolling...

The dinner was taped for a documentary with the working title "Jamie's American Dream" and it will be aired on Channel 4 in the UK in the Spring or Summer of 2009.

Don't worry... we will keep you updated...

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Date Night! (With Pork Shoulder)

From the draft archives..... You know, that time when I was writing the book and just could *not* manage a blog too. I know, lame, but hey-- honest. Hopefully by the time I get to write another book I will be better at managing my adjectives~!!

Here's the invite: Hello again, hungry kiddies! I have had my smelling salts and recovered from the conventions. I am lucky enough to have a well placed mole in Anchorage, so if you have pressing questions about Sarah Palin that you feel are not being addressed in the media feel free to ask me... I am sure we can get the real answer. Astoria is in the full grip of Ramadan, which basically means the dates are huge, gorgeous, and everywhere, and most people on Steinway street are cranky until the sun sets. And you? You are back to work! But wait... you can still put your feet in the grass.... in the Love Shack's Back Yard! SND Next Saturday, Sept 13th. Karl will even be there! A couple of nods to Ramadan and improbably, a tribute to my favorite of all meats... PORK. Chilled Red Pepper Soup with Sumac and Lemon Yogurt *** Steakhouse Salad with Tomatoes, Red Onion, Blue Cheese and BACON Vinaigrette *** Summer Squash Gratin *** Roast Pork Shoulder with Figs and Dandy Greens *** Braised Rice Soubise *** Date Shakes!! As usual, the first 20 peeps get the seats, so rsvp as soon as you know. I do run a waitlist. Please, no cancellations after Friday @ 5pm. I look forward to breaking bread with you! In Love and Garlic, Tamara (Mrs!!)

Zucchini Gratin. So simple, and sooo delicious. Slice up zucchini, toss with a salsa verde (the Italian kind-- basil, mint, parsley, thyme, rosemary, garlic, anchovy, olive oil and a touch of lemon in the cuisinart until a smooth paste), and layer with a little guyere or fontina, parmesean, and bread crumbs that have been toasted in butter on the top. Bake it for 1/2 hour on 350. So so good-- even people who don't LIKE zucchini love it! A spring/summer/fall staple.

This dinner was accidentally very rich. Between the braised pork, the rice soubise, (a soupy rice with onions, butter and stock-- I even left the cheese OUT because it seemed like a bit much!), the figs and the dates... whoa Nellie. When I plan a menu that is this rich I make sure to add EXTRA dandy greens. Believe it or not, at times like these, they can be refreshing! Seriously! Plus, when you put them under a braised meat they become "dressed" by the sauce of the meat and slightly wilted, taming their aggressive bitterness.
MMMmmmmmm. Date Shakes! Dates, Whole milk, vanilla ice cream, and dark rum! Blender it up! Yeah, man.
Braised pork shoulder, one of the best cuts of meat for bang for your buck, In our neighborhood, it is sometimes only .89/lb. UNDER a buck a pound!! It takes time, but you can steal that while you are sleeping!!! No really. Put the shoulder in a big pan with a tight fitting lid, some stock, water and or wine, spices, and pop it in a lower temp oven (225-250) and go to sleep! When the delightful smell or your need to pee wakes you up at dawn, take it out, go back to sleep, and round about the time you get up for real, it will be cool enough to put in the fridge until you get home from work and are ready for it. Additionally, the day of flavor development can only help.

Figs. Magical figs. These were just cut up and tossed with the dandy greens, salt and pepper. Hot pork juice sauced and wilted it all!
This red pepper and sumac soup feels like a year round recipe. It is bright but substantial, and finished with a lemony/garlicky yogurt. Greek yogurt here- always. Pre-strained, thick and delicious-- so much better than even whole milk yogurt.
Steakhouse salad with bacon vinaigrette. Slab bacon, cut into a dice and fried, taken out of the pan and then cider vinegar and a little sugar tossed in. All poured over a romaine salad with shaved red onions and sliced persian cucumbers. Yeah. Pretty much anytime you can add bacon to a salad it is a good plan.
This was one of the last dinners in the yard... how does summer end so quickly???? Next summer we will be in a different yard... a little sad, a little exciting. I will hope for more space and better soil. All the better to grow my tomatoes, beans and sorrell!!