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Fideua up close.

Fideua up close.

Celebrating anything at the home of my sister Calico and her family in the New Haven suburb where they live is always über festive, from their annual elegant Bastille Day sit-downs to their rollicking Oktoberfests.

But last night’s dinner to celebrate Calico’s half-century mark was something special indeed, with plenty of amazing food, drink and merriment.

Glasses of Jaume Serra Cristallino Brut cava, pistachios, beer nuts, and rosemary-spiked marcona almonds started things off right.

Ceviche to start. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

Ceviche to start.

Then the table was set with a perfectly balanced tangy and smooth gazpacho and small plates of a zesty ceviche of monkfish, scallops and squid, gilded with avocado slices.

Appetites piqued, we moved on to enjoy Mig’s fideua, a sort of Catalan paella with toasted pasta instead of rice.

Fideua, a pasta-based cousin of paella. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

Fideua, a pasta-based cousin of paella.

This one was well-crafted and bursting with clams, mussels, and shrimp and a rich saffron garlic flavor.

Garden bounty on the side.

Garden bounty on the side.

Sides included a beautiful nasturtium salad and tomatoes fresh from the garden. My favorite Spanish red Marques de Caceres was on hand, along with an assortment of other fine examples.

Miles. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

Miles.

Dessert was a collection of several excellent Spanish cheeses served with quince paste, digestifs from chartreuse to calvados to pear williams to Branca Menta. Finally there was a soft moist and delectable almond cake made by the chef.

Almond cake with ice cream.

Almond cake with ice cream.

I was happy to see my mother on hand for the occasion, as well as my nephew Miles home from his sophomore year at UConn Storrs. Happy 50th, Calico!!

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Beer and (falling) water

On a fine day at The Roundhouse at the Falls in Beacon, you can sit outside on an expansive patio overlooking a dramatic waterfall and consume good beer and tasty tidbits, a perfect way to while away a lazy summer afternoon. Today a friend and I did just that, beginning with a couple of pints of golden brew, both selections murky,  with hints of coriander and orange, and nods to Belgium. Slightly more golden in hue than the other, the Clown Shoes Clementine was a Belgian-style white ale (witbier) from Massachusetts ($7), refreshing, crisp and nicely balanced. The other was a nice light dry lemon-yellow Hennepin from Ommegang in upstate NY ($6) .

Shoestring Fries and Crispy Chick Peas from the patio menu at The Roundhouse at the Falls in Beacon. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

Shoestring Fries and Crispy Chick Peas from the patio menu at The Roundhouse at the Falls in Beacon. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

Irresistible crispy shoestring fries drizzled with melted smoked Gouda and scattered with lemon zest and roasted garlic ($5) were perfect with the beers, as were coppery-colored chick peas deep-fried and dusted with non-spicy chorizo spices ($5). A creamy mascarpone-enriched mac and cheese studded generously with chunks of lobster was next ($12).

 

Mac & Cheese (with mascarpone and lobster). Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

Mac & Cheese (with mascarpone and lobster). Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

Service from friendly Edward–and others–was absolutely perfect. Rain showers kindly waited until all was consumed, and after driving most patrons indoors, it dispersed, and out came the sun again.

Tapas in Tivoli

Luscious 18-month-old jamón serrano at Panzur. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

Luscious 18-month-old jamón serrano at Panzur. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

Good Spanish restaurants aren’t a dime a dozen in the part of the Hudson Valley where I live. The only one in the area–El Castillo Español–closed not long ago, so I was happy to hear that Rei Peraza, whose cooking I enjoyed at El Hotel Rhinecliff a few years ago, had opened a tapas place with his own distinctive stamp in Tivoli, an offshoot of Red Hook in northwest Dutchess County. No tortilla española or shrimp al ajillo here; it’s all about imaginative nose-to-tail stuff. But you can’t skip the jamón, Spain’s funky hearty sweet version of prosciutto, and we didn’t either. My kid’s a pescatarian, but quality cured pig leg is where she draws the occasional line.

The other day, with slightly more time and cash in my pocket than I’m used to, I swung by Panzur with my 11-year-old daughter for a tapa or two. I worked in the kitchen of that space for one long week about 12 years ago in one of its many previous incarnations, but it looks markedly different. Two eating areas with a central bar opened things up and made for an interesting division of the space, and bold art on the walls offers a modern lift.

You can’t have just one tapa and there were many temptations on the menu, rarities like rabbit rillettes and potted pig head, seasonal items like ramps and fiddleheads. Everything sounded delectable;  I would love to go with a big group and try lots of things.

Black fried squid. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

Black fried squid. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

I was craving cephalopods and unfortunately the octopus brick I’d seen on the online menu was out of date, so we had black fried squid, a tasty and visually arresting dish. Dark super crispy morsels (I love that they’re called squid, not “calamari’) were showered with alliums and dusted with smoky pimentón powder. On the side was a large long schmear of luscious deep dark squid ink allioli. I would bathe in that stuff. Fortunately the waiter snatched the plate away before I dipped my bread into every last speck.

I had a glass of sparkly cava, a crisp Catalonian Mont Marcal Brut Reserve Penedès 2010, and my daughter some black currant tea tivoli 2013, which came with lots of lemon and agave syrup, a nice touch. For the two drinks and tapas it set us back about $55 including tip. When my ship comes in I want to go back and make my way through the menu.

African sun in a bowl

Here’s a “Ravenous” column of mine from a few years back:

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A funky wooden spoon made of aromatic wood sticks out of the utensil crock on my counter, too intense-smelling for stirring any old wimpy soup. I don’t know what kind of wood it is, but I got it years ago at an African store on Ninth Ave. in Manhattan and it still smells so pungent, so heady, so good, that I only use if for African or Brazilian stews, something with lots of garlic, dried smoked shrimp, chunks of exotic tubers and bright orange palm oil. But mostly I just take it out and smell it for the fun of it and wish I could go to Africa.

With a landmass four times the size of the United States, Africa is beyond our wildest imaginings in size alone, and thus impossible to sum up. Its name evokes scary thoughts mostly: safaris, savages, starving children, vicious wars, apartheid, all manner of strife and suffering. But when it comes to its resources (historically raped and plundered), its culture and music (roots of our own) and its food (also roots of our own, more than we realize), Africa is endlessly rich and alluring, irresistible to try to discover in whatever measure we can.

African spoon. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

African spoon. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

It’s not the only continent I haven’t yet set foot on, but probably the one I want to see the worst. Not that I could “see” it, in a visit, or a hundred. It’s so gigantic that I could study it for ten lifetimes and not begin to know it. So until that first and maybe only, too-short trip, I’ll just keep listening to its music, reading what I can, and of course eating Africa, which means not just cooking recipes for African, Caribbean and “soul food” dishes, and seeking out restaurants serving those foods, but realizing that when I eat a plate of fried chicken or beans and rice or a slice of sweet potato pie, that I’m eating something that began in Africa.

The food of Africa and the diaspora where Africans went and took their foodways with them is so vast and so varied it can’t be categorized, so I won’t try, but I’ll tell you about some of the more interesting and the most delicious dishes, the things that I’ve cooked or tasted and the things I hope to cook or taste someday.

Like the baobab tree that’s common throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa (all parts of it used for nourishment), you’ll find throughout much of the continent certain elements wherever you find African eaters and cooks: peanuts/groundnuts used for oil/snack/foundation of soup or stew with meat, smoked dried fish and small animals (check out that store on Ninth Ave.), grains like cornmeal, hominy, millet and teff, fruits like bananas, melons, coconuts and mangoes, squashes, greens, cabbages, eggplants, okra, an emphasis on vegetables more than meats with a staggering variety that includes all kinds of beans and huge starchy tubers with exotic textures unknown to us, some gelatinous and some stiff, sometimes boiled, sometimes dried and reconstituted.

Perhaps least exotic to us of Africa’s many cuisines are the Mediterranean dishes of Northern Africa, from countries like Morocco and Egypt, whose preserved lemons, olives and almonds seem not so strange. We love the hearty tagines and stews over fluffy, tiny specks of couscous, the zesty kebabs, the appetizers and dips that are similar to the familiar Greek food. There’s that sweet b’stilla that’s high on my to-make-some-day list, a chicken potpie with almonds and cinnamon wrapped in phyllo dough and dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

Graphic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Graphic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Moving southwest across the Sahara we get to the region from whence the ancestors of most African-Americans and African-Caribbean peoples came from, where fish is a big part of the diet, where hot peppers are relished and the palm tree is plundered for plenty of palm wine and palm oil. Here is Senegal, home of the tasty lemony, oniony Chicken Yassa and the national dish Thiebou Dienne, a festive many-ingredient rice and fish stew. My favorite (and basically only) TV show is No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel, and for last Monday’s show he was in Ghana, at a “chop bar” dipping balls of rice goo into a rich orange spicy tongue stew and later eating barracuda on the beach, washing it all down with lots of beer and palm wine.

South Africa has an interesting culinary history, too, with lots of occupation by lots of different peoples. You find dishes with an obvious Dutch influence and sambals and pickles and chutneys from the Malay influence. For a cooking demo this fall at the NYS Sheep and Wool Festival I made a bobotie, a killer South African pie of curried lamb (originally game) topped with a custardy crust.

I’ve cooked a lot of Ethiopian food, a cuisine I’m particularly fond of. I’ve learned you can sauté three pounds of chopped red onions in a pan with no fat, that spiced butter is sublime and that giant pancakes only need to be cooked on one side. I could write a book on it (and someday might) but suffice it to say that many Ethiopian dishes consist of lip-tingling stews called wat that you pick up with pieces of huge spongy pancakes and that if it weren’t for some frisky Ethiopian goats we might not be drinking coffee right now.

photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Visitors to the Caribbean who eat only on cruise ships or in all-inclusive resorts really cheat themselves by not eating local food, which is similar in many ways to the food of Africa and really wonderful, based on fresh seafood and local fruits and vegetables. In parts of South America as well, namely Surinam, Guyana, French Guiana and much of Brazil, the cuisine is descended from African food, too.

Cuban black beans and rice, Puerto Rican pigeon peas, Jamaican kidney beans, soups thickened with okra or callaloo greens, hot peppers spicing up vinegar, rum or peanut butter, cornmeal coo coo (a starch of Barbados), numerous fish stews, crispy fritters made with salt cod or bananas and Brazilian black bean belly-bustin’ feijoada are all Caribbean and South American flavors with that African influence.

And it doesn’t end at the border. Plantation slaves made their masters healthier by cooking them the vegetables they were used to eating themselves. Louisiana Creole dishes owe their heritage not only to Europeans but to involuntary African immigrants. I grew up eating Southern food, a tradition based on (to oversimplify a bit) a large variety of vegetables with bits of tasty pork scraps, a tradition founded in large part on the African influence, and I like to cook that way often. The tasty Hoppin’ John I cooked for New Year’s Day this year (for luck and prosperity) of rice and cowpeas (like tiny brown black eyed peas but nutty rather than mushy) has its origins in a mix of beans and rice that sustained slaves en route from Africa. Tonight I’m boiling kale and collards with smoked turkey wings, serving the succulent “pot likker” with cornbread for dipping, a nourishing southern dish with African roots, too.

marcocooking

My own precious piece of the continent. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi

Three years ago last Friday [now nine years ago–Ed.] at Newark Airport a beautiful Ethiopian toddler with big brown eyes and a white cotton costume embroidered with rich colors got off a plane holding hands with young woman who had brought him here. I picked him up and kissed his cheek and he became my son. Months earlier, when the wait for him had started, Africa and its endlessly fascinating culture and food had begun its journey into my heart, but now it’s assured that it won’t ever leave.

Other inspiration for this week’s column:

I have many books about Africa and its food but these are a few of my very favorites, highly recommended:

Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking by Jessica B. Harris (Atheneum, 1989)

The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent by Jessica B. Harris (Simon & Schuster, 1998)

African Cooking by Laurens van der Post, (plus its spiral bound recipe book, which is very hard to find) (Time Life, Foods of the World, 1970)

Wonders of the African World by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Knopf, 1999)

Also worthy of note is The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa (Wiley, 2006) by superstar chef Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit in New York City, who was born in Ethiopia, adopted and raised in Sweden. In this book he makes African food hip.

And to listen to while you cook: Putumayo CDs: Congo to Cuba, African Odyssey and African Playground.

More brewed goodness

Last week I visited Keegan Ales in Kingston, NY, and had this to say in Almanac Weekly: Something’s Brewing.

Keegan Ales is now offering Sunday brunches from 1 to 4 p.m. with brisket and egg tacos, breakfast burritos, cornbread, grits, and more, in addition to their regular pub menu. Adding to the ambiance you can see works by brilliant artist Dumb Won, a.k.a. Paul Heath.

It’s ale good

Moules Witte

Moules Witte at Ommegang Brewery’s cafe in Cooperstown, NY: mussels steamed in spiced wheat beer with cream, truffle oil and shiitake mushrooms. Photo by Jennifer Brizzi

Lately, rich domestic craft brews studded with spice have spoiled my taste for the mass-market Canadian stuff I usually like. A pricey treat when bought in the Hudson Valley where I live (3-4 hours southeast), Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY, makes Belgian-style ales that are surprisingly affordable, not only at the brewery’s café but in town as well.

Recently I traveled to Cooperstown for the first time, a place perhaps best known for the Baseball Hall of Fame. I thought I should stop by, since I was there anyway, but as baseball is not my favorite sport (although I confess I have a soft spot for the Mets), I came up with excuses not to go ($20 a ticket, hungry cats waiting at home, that sort of thing).

Even without a visit to The Hall, I found Cooperstown a charming village set on a splendid lake, well worth the trip.

Brewery OmmegangA late afternoon arrival at the Ommegang Brewery (caveat: the website is graphically pleasing but hard to navigate), set amidst fields a few miles out of town, meant a lupper (or is it linner?) for hungry bellies. Too late for a tour, my friend and I settled for a feast on the sunny but bare-bones patio outside the brewery’s café, and soon went from starving to stuffed. And happily quenched as well, thanks to some Ommegang Abbey Ale, BPA (Belgian Pale Ale), and Three Philosophers.

The brewery, as one approaches.

“In most restaurants a $6 glass of wine is vinegar, but a $6 beer is world class,” say the Ommegangers on their website, and it’s true. The brewers seem to be continually at work on discovering all the delightfully different ways that quality beer can go with food or be cooked into it.

We started with sumptuous hand-cut frites, a la Belgique, in a tall cone, perfectly double-fried and irresistible. There is a choice of seven dips, some with beer added; we picked garlic aïoli and truffle-soy aïoli, both luscious.

But better still were Moules Witte, mussels swimming in a heady mix of Witte Ale (wheat, coriander, orange peel) with cream and shiitake tidbits. We also indulged in crab croquettes and finally a charcuterie platter that arrived last, when we were full, but was too delightful–in look and taste–to skip.

charcuterie

A custom charcuterie platter: (back to front) walnuts, dried apricots, honey on the comb, jambon de Paris, a luscious berry jam of unknown provenance, cornichons, prosciutto di Parma, craisins, hazelnuts, Tilsit, and crusty bread.
Photo by Jennifer Brizzi

Also on offer are salads, sandwiches, waffles, sweet and savory crepes, and best of all, affordable Ommegang on tap. My favorite is the Abbey Ale, Ommegang’s first:  dark ruby, rich, and fruity yet dry.

Ommegang Abbey Ale. Photo courtesy of Ommegang’s website

The BPA is a pale ale with citrus notes, nice but it just pales (pun intended) next to the Abbey.

Ommegang also makes Rare Vos, an amber ale I have yet to try, Hennepin, a gingery golden ale (okay), that wheat Witte, and Three Philosophers (another favorite: dark, strong, malty and cherry-tinged due to the addition of 2% Belgian kriek), plus limited edition ales. At the cafe many Belgian imports are available, too, as well as three-beer flights for the indecisive. I would have loved to save room for the ice cream made with Three Philosophers, but was, alas, too stuffed.

There’s always next time…. I can’t wait to go back.

***

Stay tuned for a report on Keegan Ales in Kingston, Ulster County, at this site after June 22, 2012.

Spring’s spears

This column originally ran in Ulster Publishing’s newspapers on June 2, 2005.

 

“Power, wealth and asparagus are the most powerful aphrodisiacs.”
–Zsa Zsa Gabor

Image: Tina Phillips / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Most of the year I don’t buy asparagus because it’s so good right now, harbinging spring’s turn to summer. At its best, asparagus on the tongue is like the color green on the eye, with a flavor like no other vegetable. Both fancy and farmy both, it goes with everything and can be cooked just about any old way, as long as the timing’s right. Asparagus isn’t so good undercooked and crunchy, nor is it when stringy and mushy from too long on the fire. But when cooked correctly it talks back to your mouth gently, with the slightest crispness, barely tender, sweet and perfect.

In Latin languages, nouns are male or female, and in Italian most vegetables are feminine, but il asparago is a masculine word. Whether for its mild urinary-tract-irritating qualities or its form, it has historically been considered an aphrodisiac. Nuns banned it from the tables of girls’ schools 200 years ago because of the potential effect of the firm stalks on the appetites of the young pupils.

I haven’t yet had asparagus every kind of way. And there are a lot of ways. Its sweet greenness pairs with many other flavors, and cooks nicely with many kinds of heat. I haven’t yet had fat white German asparagus swimming in custard and covered with crumbs. I haven’t had skinny curved wild asparagus served raw. I haven’t yet tried it cooked inside two zipable plastic bags and simmered in boiling water for three hours, suggested by a poster on eGullet.com and named by another one a “redneck sous-vide.”

I have never peeled its skin off with a paring knife before cooking it, nor tied it in kitchen string and steamed it upright in a tall narrow pot so that the tips merely steam while the stalks boil below, like I have read in too many cookbooks to count.

I have never had it with sauce maltaise, an orangey eggy hollandaise said to be perfect for it. I have never reserved the stalks for “another use” and served just the tips with brains or sweetbreads, as Child, Bertholle and Beck recommended in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, 1961).

I have never had purple asparagus.

I have never made guacamole out of it as Gourmet magazine recommended in its May 2003 issue. I’ve never made Asparagus in Ambush, whose name sounds much more promising than the actual dish: asparagus in custard in hollowed out rolls. I’ve never had asparagus coated in beer batter or panko and fried. I don’t think I have ever even made asparagus soup. But I would like to try all these things, because I love asparagus.

In season and freshly cooked it needs little gussying up to be scrumptious. Its classic partner is egg, in a quiche, frittata or timbale (molded custard), or mixed with or tucked into or topped with eggs hard-boiled, soft-cooked, scrambled or fried. Any manner of egg goes with asparagus. But it goes, too, with stronger partners like bacon, horseradish, mushrooms or goat cheese. And it pairs well with other vegetables that are in season at the same time, like ramps, morels or fresh fava beans.

Last week I found some fresh-picked asparagus at Gill Farm Stand in Hurley (Rt. 209 as it heads south out of Kingston) for $1.49 a pound [Ed: this was 2005], and was told it should keep popping up until around Father’s Day. I cooked some spears by James Beard’s favorite method, putting them in a shallow pan with salt and water to cover, topping with a lid and cooking them until they no longer smelled raw, a little knife went in with only the slightest resistance, and they passed the ultimate test: a sacrificial spear tasted just right. I made a little vinaigrette by stirring a dab of Dijon with a goodly splash of red wine vinegar and adding a little fresh chopped parsley and dill, snipped chives, extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper, which I poured over the cooked spears. When the asparagus is that good, this is easy and tasty whether you eat it still hot from cooking, room-temp-warm or cold out of the fridge.

What was left, about three-quarters of a pound, I made into an Italian frittata the next day—skip this part if you are already a frittata expert: I cut it into inch-long pieces and sautéed it, seasoned with salt and pepper, in olive oil until barely tender. Then I stirred six eggs with a splash of milk, a splash of Tabasco sauce, grated pecorino romano cheese, and more salt and pepper. Then I tossed the mixture with the asparagus, splashed some more oil in my 10-inch cast iron skillet, and on low heat, poured in the whole mess and cooked it, turning the pan now and then, until the edges were set but the middle still runny. Then I put it under the broiler for two minutes, until the top was golden brown. This is excellent hot for dinner with crusty bread and salad, or cold out of the fridge the next day in a sandwich made with more crusty bread, or just plain as a snack out of the plastic wrap you wrapped your leftovers in.

This week I bought some more asparagus, at twice the price, across the river at a farmers market where I also found ramps (wild leeks). I browned butter in a 12-inch cast iron skillet, along with olive oil, threw in the ramps which I had trimmed of their roots and soggy parts and chopped coarsely (I admit I was a wild leek virgin, not sure what to do with them). When they had cooked down and caramelized a bit I threw in diagonally sliced asparagus, cooking more and throwing in some chicken broth and lemon zest as I went along. This mixture once cooked I tossed with Barilla penne, a splash of milk and a fair amount of grated pecorino, and served it for lunch on the patio with a fine Chilean white wine brought by a guest. I don’t know if they have ramps in the Mediterranean but I felt like I was there. And it was a marriage of cousins—ramps are onions and asparagus is a member of the lily family, which includes onions, garlic and their ilk—but it was sublime.

I have some stalks left, so fresh that the violet-tinged buds at their tips are tight still, and I am torn about what I will do with them. I’m leaning toward a risotto, or maybe just steaming or roasting them and topping them with a sauce gribiche of hard-boiled egg yolks mashed up with oil and vinegar, adding salt and pepper, chopped gherkins, capers, fresh parsley, tarragon and chervil, the egg white slivered into fluff and tossed on top. This, too, I have never done with asparagus.
But it will have to be tomorrow, not the day after, because like corn, asparagus’ sweetness turns to starch fast. The fresher the better.

Should you eat asparagus with your fingers or your fork? Should you peel it? Should you pick fat or skinny spears? That’s up to you. But if not lust-provoking, it does provide vitamins A, C, E, calcium, phosphorous and potassium. And it doesn’t really make your pee smell—that’s a genetic component of your personal olfactory nerves that makes you perceive it—the rest of us don’t even notice.

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