Saturday, October 24, 2009

Consider the...portobello mushroom

In my limited study of human nature, I have found that when it comes to mushrooms, there are three types of people: those that are essentially mushroom-phobic and won't try any kind (Vronsky, I am talking about you), those that love mushrooms, any sort, any preparation, and then there are those that like them when the mood strikes, but still l-o-v-e portobello mushrooms.

I myself fall squarely into that third category. I like button and shiitake's in a stir-fry or at a restaurant where obviously they are integral to a chef's vision of a dish, but I don't seek them out of my own volitions, with one big exception: the large, steak-y, flavorful portobellos.

Portobellos are really just large "crimini" or brown mushrooms. When they mature and grow nice and large (approx 4-6 inches in diameter), they are call portobellos. When they are babies, they are simply called brown mushrooms.

Yet something happens when these "criminis"mature. Their flavor becomes much more intense, giving us a rich, earthy flavor with a firm texture that makes portobellos so popular.

They are excellent in polenta, and I've had portobello fajitas, which were excellent. You can bake them and stuff them with couscous, onions, and perhaps a bit of celery, or quarter them and put them on a kebab alongside red, yellow, orange and green peppers and onions (a good way to please any vegetarians who might be attending your cook out).

Portobellos are rich in potassium, vitamin B, protein, and amino acids, yet low in calorie and fat-free. And don't even get me started on the all of the "magic" powers mushrooms in general are supposed to possess. From Chinese grandmas (who know everything about this sort of thing) to hippies and alternative healing gurus (who know less, in my opinion, but can be right from time to time), mushrooms are where it's at. They've been touted as "anti-cancer" and even my stupidly expensive Yves Saint Laurent eye cream purports to have an extract of some special Chinese mushroom that will help keep those pesky little eye wrinkles at bay. This remains to be seen. If only I could find this special mushroom and eat it (sauteéd with some olive oil and garlic no less), imagine the wonders!

And besides, it is way more fun to eat and prepare mushrooms than to rub it on your face. Ew.

To wit, here is my favorite way to prepare portobellos. It is not terribly elaborate, but easy to do with limited resources and a tiny kitchen.

Take two portobellos and lightly wash them. Top chefs and gourmets say all you need to do is shake them to loosen any lingering dirt and debris, but living in NYC, where odd germs and pathogens coat every part of this fair city, a wash can never go amiss. Don't scrub too hard though, or you'll loose flavor.

Slice into about 3/4 inch horizontal pieces. Toss in a large bowl with about two pinches of sugar, one part soy sauce, 3 parts olive oil, and a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar. Mince a clove of garlic and toss in.

When slices are completely covered, let sit while you heat a pan greased with more olive oil. When it is hot, toss in and start to sauteé, Keep tossing and when the slices start to "blacken" in towards the center, do one more good go round in the pan, and then remove. The slices will continue to cook once removed from the heat.

Serve with a starch of your choice (I like rice as it will mop up that black portobello suace nicely), and for show, put the mushroom slices on long leaves of romaine lettuce. You can make lettuce wraps with them, and it is actually quite tasty.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Veggies, veggies, and more veggies

Ah, Deutchland. You have many virtues, especially in the arena of goulash soup, anything to do with potatoes, breaded meats, sausages, and lingonberries. And your beer is pretty gosh darn excellent too. However, your ability to provide me with fruits or vegetables, that have not been covered in butter and/or "yogurt dressing" (aka mayonnaise with some paprika in it), needs a bit of work.

Now that I am back in NYC, city of culinary diversity, I am trying to make up for all the greens and spices I had to do without while abroad. That means honey crisp apples and juicy pears, carrot ginger soup, grilled sweet corn, and french green beans (steamed and then tossed in olive oil and a Provençal spice mix--I like the combination of rosemary, thyme, tarragon, basil, fennel, and lavender). I even have a mind to whip up some cauliflower tomorrow.

Yet fruits and veggies alone do not a complete meal make. You need to have a "protein," something that will stick to your ribs. I think a good stir-fry with tofu served over rice is a great way to have a complete vegetarian meal. It is quick and easy to make and even Vronsky, an avowed tofu-hater, will eat this:

You need extra firm tofu, half an onion, 1-2 red peppers, 1-2 yellow or orange peppers, celery, snow peas, and cashews.

Before you start prepping your veggies, put your rice in your rice cooker so it will be ready by the time your stir fry is done.

Slice onions and peppers to your preference of thickness. I actually like them on the thicker ends of things. Chop celery and cut tofu into bite-sized cubes.

Heat pan with olive oil, until it starts to steam. Put in tofu and onions first, as they take longer to cook. Once in pan, toss with soy sauce so that tofu will brown up nicely.

Once onions begin to turn clear, put in celery, snow peas, peppers, toss in a bit more soy sauce and continue to toss until everything cooks and you get that nice stir-fry flavor.

At the last second, toss in the cashews. Take rice out of cooker, plate, and then put your stir-fry on top. Easy squeezy, and a good meal for groups!

[You can add other vegetables to this mix as well--broccoli diced up into florets is really nice, as are button mushrooms or even some shaved carrots. A good way to deal with leftovers that might no longer be crisp enough for salads]

I've also had a few requests for a good mushroom recipe. Will post my favorite one for portobellos tomorrow!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Auf wiedersehen!

I am off to Germany for work all through the week and won't be posting. Instead, I will be busy hob-nobbing with other literary types at the Frankfurt Book Fair and harassing our foreign agents to get us more deals. I really want our Brazilian agents to help make one of Pegasus' books a best seller there, and then I can go to Rio. It's going to happen! (Even if only in my mind).

Frankfurt is not my ideal Germanic destination (I would much prefer Munich or Berlin), but it's a fun town and all the fair-goers congregate at this stunning belle epoque hotel, "The Frankfurter Hof" for champagne, beer, and more schmoozing. Two years ago at this same event, I was propositioned by a German millionaire and a Knight of the Holy Grail (no joke–he had a crest and everything; apparently the holy grail now resides in Valencia, Spain. Who knew?). They were, of course, both looking to publish their respective books.

Last year, I stuck close to Pegasus' French agent, the ever elegant Michele, who is one of the grand dames of the international publishing scene. She can go anywhere in the world and when greeted, she extends her hand palm down to be kissed. Baller. Needless to say, she was very good and shooting a scathing side eye to any lurking declassé folks looking to interrupt our reverie.

I will drink plenty of good beer and eat lots of delicious sausage, schnitzel, saurkraut, and pastries while I am away and regale you with tales of the various meals that contributed to the nice little flotation ring I will be returning to America with.

Auf widersehen!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The greatest deli on the mail!

I know I have mentioned Zingerman's Deli before, but to reiterate, it is one of my favorite restaurants, no, one of my favorite places, in the entire world.

It is a bold claim, but if you are ever in Ann Arbor, Michigan, make sure you stop by. You will not regret it. My friend Mike may have introduced me to Spanish food, but I feel he owes me one now too for insisting he try Zingerman's the minute he set foot on the Michigan campus for grad school.

Zingerman's is not just a delicatessen, it is an experience. Every type of bread, every make of salami, coffee blend, sauce, vinegars, chicken breast, farmhouse cheese, estate-bottled olive oil, and tomato is chosen and/or created by Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig for freshness and flavor, and it pays off, with FOOD & WINE selecting it as one of the "Top 25 Food Markets" in the entire world. Yowza.

The have a wide array of custom sandwiches and other deli fare–you can view the full menu on their website (it is like food porn to me). I maintain that their best sandwich is the #11, J. J.'s Pastrami Special, which is Zingerman's own pastrami on grilled rye bread with Swiss cheese from Switzerland and roasted onions. Add spicy mustard to taste. As is the case with my mother's spaghetti sauce, I have a hard time eating pastrami sandwiches any place else, although the Astro Diner on 6th and 56th is quite nice. I do have to request the onions, however--that does not come standard, and just the level of the ingredients is not quite the same.

Pastrami sandwiches (and really, all sandwiches) from any place else in the world also do not come with Zingerman's coveted "new pickle," which I now happily have a stash of in my fridge, thanks to the aforementioned Pickle Day here in NYC.

My father loves Zingerman's even more than I do. He had just graduated from Michigan's law school when it opened in 1982 and was clerking with judge in Bay City. He always made time for little weekend visits to Ann Arbor to stock up on breads, cheeses, meats, and other goodies from Zingerman's, and I am sure his visits only increased in frequency when my mom became pregnant with me and embraced all the accompanying cravings. Every year we journey to the shores of beautiful Lake Walloon up in the northern part of the state, and my parents insist we spend a few days in Ann Arbor prior. I know it is partly because they enjoy visiting their old alma matter where they met (my dad likes to point out the little bench in the law quad where he and my mom would have lunch between classes, aw), but I have a sneaking suspicion it is also so they can fill up on Zingerman's food.

Today, however, I can satisfy my Zingerman's joneses with their mail-order program. While I also have the wide array of gourmet food shops in NYC at my disposal, the prices through this mail order are very fair, and as my schedule grows increasingly hectic this fall, I have less time to spend hours poking around foodie shops. The mail-order catalog cannot provide me with my beloved sandwiches, but it can provide me with artisan cheeses from around the world, custom blended cocoa mixes, wild honey, coffee and tea, Great Lakes chesire, beautiful breads, and more. You can even order "Zingerman's Big Box of Meat." I mean, if that does not convince you that this place is money, I don't know what will.

Visit to satisfy your every gastronomical whim.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

An Alphabet for Gourmets

Monday was a sad day. Hot off the heels of Pickle Day, I heard some crushing news: Gourmet Magazine was closed by Condé Nast in light the magazine empire's continuing financial struggles.

Working in publishing, I truly do understand the delicate financial situation and tough business model inherent to the business. That said, I loved Gourmet. Not only was the incredible Ruth Reichl at the helm as editor in chief (former food critic of the New York Times and author of excellent books like Garlic and Sapphires and Comfort Me With Apples), but Gourmet was one of the few places left that published true food writing in the style of M.F.K. and other greats alongside more standard fare like recipes and critiques and chef profiles.

M.F.K. Fisher wrote for Gourmet for many years, and one of my favorite pieces of hers that was published in the magazine was the series "An Alphabet for Gourmets." Perhaps someday I will do a mini-series running through the alphabet on my own, but for the moment, her choice for the letter "A" resonated with me, and is perhaps my favorite "letter" in the series.

A is for Dining Alone.

It is clear from so many of M.F.K.'s writings that she loves sharing the pleasure of a good meal with those she cares about, whether she cooks it herself or is in the company of "another" at a restaurant. Yet as she progresses in her career and becomes increasingly well-known, she finds herself in a lonely position atop a culinary pedestal. Friends who would normally invite her over for dinner now no longer do so, and excuse themselves by saying that they simply wouldn't dare cook for her. And dinning out with company becomes an increasingly stilted affair, as the "other" feel inclined to critique and analyze every nuance of her reactions to the food, what she orders, how she sits, to the point that she must reconcile herself with dining alone.

Dining alone is a tough thing. And I am not talking about eating off your knees in front of the television and shielding yourself from your "alone-ness" with the appearance of busyness, be it with the TV on, tidying up, or even eating on the go. Not this does not have a time and place, but this is not "dining" to M.F.K. It is merely eating to live, and she is someone who has always, in true gourmet fashion, lived to eat.

Dining alone means relishing your meal while enjoying the company of ones own self and the passel of thoughts and musings residing just below the surface of the mind. This can be quite intimidating. Not to mention all of the perceived social stigma that accompanies a person dining alone. Often, the sight of a lone diner evokes pity, when it really should evoke admiration that someone is so secure in themselves that they can go out and enjoy a good meal and their own company.

As Fisher herself says in her essay:

'“Never be daunted in public,” was an early Hemingway phrase which had more than once bolstered me in my Timid Twenties. I changed it now: “Never be daunted in private,” I said resolutely…"

It is a good mantra, and over the past few years, I have increasingly come to enjoy dining alone, although admittedly I sometimes still hide behind the "shield of busyness" and bring along a manuscript I am editing, book, or magazine to ward off any advances or interruptions to my solitude. I have come to find that when I am stressed, confused, or have the blues, a glass of wine and a hot meal at a nearby bistro is just the thing I need to sort myself out. That feeling of being alone in a crowd is the perfect setting for self and gastronomical reflection, and while I still prefer the company of another, there is something to be said for never being daunted in private.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Happy International Pickle Day!

Today is international pickle day. I love pickles, so I am actually headed down to the Lower East Side where pickle lovers and vendors from around the world will be congregating, at least until 4:30. Apparently there are not only people dressed as pickles, but music and all sorts of fun and games. Should be a grand time.

I love sweet pickles, which are harder to find than regular dill ones. The best pickles I have ever had are the "new pickles" from Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor. I hope they have a booth so I can stock up...

Pickle is also just a funny word. Pickle, pickle, pickle.

UPDATE: I am totally going to Pickle Day next year and recommend you do, too. Not only was it a hilarious pickle-themed afternoon, but they totally DID have my favorite kind of pickle, and so I have bought a giant tub of them. I even found a new "new pickle" maker (does a person who makes pickles call themselves a "pickler?) here in NYC so I don't have to worry about finding a way to get them from Ann Arbor to here. The Zingerman's new pickles are still the best, though, but the ones from Garden of Eden and 2nd Ave. Deli are an excellent alternative as well.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Babbo is my new sweet baboo

On Tuesday, Vronsky and I went to dinner at Babbo with a friend of ours to "pay him back" for writing an introduction to one of Vronsky's books. This was much nicer than paying him a real advance, as we also got to partake. I will say, however, it was probably about as expensive in the end.

But you know what? That's just fine, because Babbo is a New York culinary landmark, and I have been fascinated by Mario Battali's work ever since reading Bill Buford's fantastic book Heat years ago. I know I've mentioned this book before, but here it is again. Buford, formerly of the New Yorker and founder of Granta Books, quit his gem of a job at the magazine (!) and goes to work in Battali's kitchen at Babbo. There are no shortcuts on the New York food scene, and Bill starts out as a "kitchen slave" chopping vegetables and taking out the garbage, slowly working his way up to line and pasta cook, which is no small feat. He then travels to Tuscany and "interns" with a Tuscan butcher and learns the ancient tradition of Tuscan cooking. In fact, even the use of cutlery originated in Tuscany and spread to the rest of Europe when one of the de Medicis traveled to France and took forks and a whole new way of preparing food with her.

It was in this region that Battali (and Buford) hand-roll pasta on oak boards, using no water, just the egg of a wild chicken, which is so rich that the yolk is almost red compared with the commercially farmed eggs we are used to. They learn how to make their own salumi and prepare sweet breads and cheeses. The entire process has such a delicious lyricism to it, and Buford's description of all this wonderful food made my stomach grumble.

Needless to say, I had constructed quite a fantasy as to what to expect when I finally had the chance to dine at Battali's flagship, the mecca of his vision. I am pleased to say, it lived up to its expectation and more!

The three of us decided to be super decadent and ordered the tasting menu with wine pairing.

First up, was duck bresola with parmigiana and aceto manodori, which is essnetially duck bacon and a sort of Parmesan cheese custard on the side. Divine. I wish I could have duck bacon instead of regular bacon for the rest of my life. No exaggeration.

Next up was parpardelle with chanterelle mushrooms and thyme. Here is where that hand-rolled pasta comes into play. It is so smooth and has such a velvety texture, it complemented the flavor of the mushrooms perfectly. Vronsky doesn't really like mushrooms, and I love them, so I got double the pleasure!

Then we got duck tortellini with sugo frito, which is a fresh tomato based sauce. It was incredibley rich and I am glad we only had a few squares, as I wanted to make sure I saved room for what came next: pork tenderloin with pumpkin fregula and a black truffle vinaigrette. Whoo wee did they save the best for last.

The pork was perfectly seared–juicy and flavorful with a tiny bit of awesome chew gristle on the end. And the fregula was light and airy in texture which contrasted nicely with the earthy flavors of the pumpkin and truffles. I really wished there was more of this dish, and hope it is still on the menu when I go back so I can order it as a full entree.

Next came the cheese course, which was goat brie with fennel honey. I love any and all cheeses, and this one was excellent, especially with the fennel honey. I should learn how to make it or at least where to buy it so I can eat all my cheese with it in the future. I even ate half of Vronsky's cheese when he went to the bathroom, oops.

And THEN we had dessert. Three of them. First was a gelo alla siciliana, which was essentially a cold watermelon puree that was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. It was a odd cross between a smoothie and a gelato, and I loved it.

Next came a chocolate tartufino, which was heaven for Vronsky, a chocolate lover, but I preferred our final dessert, the sweet plum belizia with cinnamon fior di latte. I adore fruit-based desserts, and this one was excellent. Plus, cinnamon makes anything better.

By this point, the three of us are so stuffed that we can barely get up out of our seats. We had planned to order some celebratory glasses of prosseco, but I had no room in my belly by that point. Thank the lord I was wearing a dress and not pants or even a skirt without enough give. If only someone would design a stylish skirt or trousers with an elastic waist, I would buy it in a heartbeat and reserve it for all Babbo dining adventures. Fancy!

Visit for reservation information. It takes forever to get through to someone and you have to plan a month out, but it is well worth it. Hit the phones!