Friday, January 29, 2016

8-2-Eat: Winter Bean Recipes

Smoky Pinto Bean, Red Wine and Bacon Soup

8-2-Eat is my food-focused list series. A perfect Friday distraction. Beans taste particularly good in the winter, when they can be simmered and flavored as a main star or side to a number of ingredients. Here are 8 ways that I like to enjoy them.

Smoky Pinto Bean, Red Wine and Bacon Soup. This recipe, from the New York Times' Melissa Clark, is the best bean soup I've ever had. It's absolutely incredible. Splurge for Benton's Smoked Country Bacon for this one and you won't be disappointed.

Apple-Fennel Soup with Beans and Sausage. It's not the cannellini beans the broth that really makes this soup, a puree of apple, fennel, onion, garlic, celery, ginger and sage.

Pasta e Fagioli Soup
Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Bean) Soup. Adapted from a recipe by the late and ever so talented Italian cook Marcella Hazan, this soup, which uses cranberry beans, is much better than what you'll get at that "Italian" chain restaurant.

Spicy Beans and Pepperoni on Toast with Fried Eggs. A delicious and easy way to incorporate navy beans into breakfast.

Spelt Soup with Escarole and White Beans. Beans, greens and grains are a perfect winter soup trio. Here, cannellini beans team up with the heirloom wheat-grain spelt and bitter green escarole.

Quick Black Bean Soup. This is a longtime favorite. Although the version that requires an overnight soak and simmers all afternoon is wonderful, this much quicker version that uses canned black beans is good too and ideal for a weeknight dinner.

Salmon with Beans, Kale and Bacon 
Broiled Salmon with White Bean, Kale and Bacon Ragout. There are a lot of soups on this list, but beans can be used in other ways. Here, cannellini beans, bacon, garlic and kale form a side for broiled salmon.

Chili. Whether chili should contain beans is a subject of debate. Sure, if you're making a traditional chili con carne, perhaps not, but there are lots of other types of chili where I saw beans are more than welcome to join the party. Try them in BBQ Turkey Chili, Cincinnati Chili or Thai-Style Chili, a mashup of chili and tom kha gai soup.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Smoky Farro, Bacon and Brussels Sprouts Bowl

Smoky Farro, Bacon and Brussels Sprouts Bowl

After a weekend of roughing it due to Snowzilla, it's time for some good eating. This is simple, easy winter fare that's like a "choose your own adventure": pair a chewy grain (farro), with an indulgent meat (hickory-smoked bacon), a roasted vegetable (Brussels sprouts) and a nut (pecan). You could make all sorts of substitutions to the aforementioned formula and end up with a great meal.

Smoky Farro, Bacon and Brussels Sprouts Bowl

12 oz. Brussels sprouts, root ends removed and sprouts larger than about 3/4-inch cut in half
1 tbsp. olive oil
Salt, to taste
1 cup farro, rinsed
3 cups plus 1 tbsp. water
6 oz. thick-cut hickory-smoked bacon, such as Benton's, strips cut in half
1 yellow onion, diced
1/2 cup pecans
Pinch of hickory-smoked sea salt
1 tbsp. honey

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Add sprouts to a large bowl, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and toss to coat. Transfer to an aluminum-foil-lined baking sheet, turning sprouts so their cut-side is down. Roast until browned, about 25-30 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer to a large bowl.

2. Combine farro, 3 cups of water and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the farro is tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and transfer to the large bowl.

3. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Cook the bacon until browned and crisp. Remove from the pan and set aside on a paper-towel-lined plate. Drain off the hot bacon fat, leaving about 1 tbsp. in the pan. Add the onion and sauté until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the onion and bacon to the large bowl.

4. Toast pecans in a small skillet over medium-low heat until they are fragrant, tossing occasionally to prevent them from burning. Sprinkle with the hickory-smoked salt and drizzle with honey. Stir, then add the 1 tbsp. of water and stir. When the water has evaporated enough to make a honey-syrup that evenly coats the nuts, remove them from the pan and transfer to the large bowl with the other ingredients. Toss the ingredients together and serve in shallow bowls.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Mad About the NoMad Bar (New York, N.Y.)

The NoMad Bar

Three years ago, we visited The NoMad for dinner. We had an excellent meal of roast chicken for two, as well as some pretty decent cocktails.

At the time, The NoMad had two bar spaces: the bar in the back of the dining room, now referred to as the "elephant" bar because of its statues and the nearby library space. Although the restaurant had a tremendous amount of buzz, the bar proved to be just as popular if not even more acclaimed. The NoMad Bar received a James Beard Award nomination for Outstanding Bar Program in 2013 and then won that award the following year. As Eater tells it, the popularity of the bar was such that hotel guests (The NoMad is a hotel after all), were unable to relax at the bar. So they expanded, creating a new third bar space, The NoMad Bar, a beautiful wood-paneled space with a large bar, booths, standing tables and a second floor of additional tables. It's the sort of setting that exudes class and good taste.

Although The NoMad Bar is accessible via a curtained hallway between the Elephant Bar and Library, it also has its own entrance, as well as its own menu, a list more akin to pub fare than the gourmet dishes in the dining room. It also boasts a massive cocktail menu, an enticing list mix of classic drinks, new creations and large-format "cocktail explosions," punch-like creations served from a giant goblet-like glass container with a spigot. It serves eight, takes two bartenders to make and costs over $100. And they sound pretty awesome. If ever we're there with more people, we're getting one. Credit for these creations goes to NoMad's bar director, the talented Leo Robitschek.

We visited The NoMad Bar after dinner, so we stuck to drinks and loved every one we tried. I've mentioned before that the Manhattan is our favorite cocktail right now; however, I hadn't yet had a really good one while actually in Manhattan (the one I had last summer at Colicchio & Son's Taproom was, unfortunately, not as good as I'd hoped). Thankfully, The NoMad rectified that oversight, as the Manhattan was absolutely perfect.

The NoMad Always Betz on Black cocktail
Always Betz on Black

Our favorite drink was Always Betz on Black, a drink that also appears on the Eleven Madison Park bar menu, made with Irish whiskey, rum, Islay Scotch, sherry, cold-brewed coffee and Angostura bitters. It's a dynamite good winter cocktail, all smoky, roasty and dark. Along similar lines was the Gentlemen's Exchange, a potent mix of rye, Suze, Foro amaro, sweet vermouth, cold-brewed coffee, absinthe and angostura bitters.

The NoMad Dr. Feelgood cocktail
Dr. Feelgood

For something a little brighter, I tried the Dr. Feelgood, made with mezcal (my favorite spirit at the moment), sherry, Suze, génépy (an herbal liqueur), avocado, lemon, lime and jalapeño, beautifully garnished with a rolled slice of cucumber and a spicy rim. Another excellent drink. Our first night ended with North Sea Oil, another smoky creation of Islay Scotch, aquavit, Cocchi Americano and triple sec. Did you catch that mention of a "first night?" Yeah, we went back a second time. It was that good. Any luckily we were able to get a table both nights because the place was really busy both Monday and Tuesday nights. Despite that, we received good service, with someone nearby always coming by at the right time to let us order another drink.

People-watching at The NoMad Bar is also fun. We saw a family of foreign tourists with kids (yes kids in a cocktail bar), a young couple that couldn't keep their hands off each other and a trio of well-dressed twenty-something guys that ordered one of those cocktail explosions and left after drinking maybe a third of it. Seriously, who drops that kind of money on cocktails and then doesn't drink them? (Wall Street types maybe?) We were tempted to rush over and bring the thing to our table to finish.

Although most of our best drinking in New York takes place in the East Village these days, we were happy to discover that The NoMad Bar is an excellent place for good cocktails further uptown. With most cocktails priced in the high teens, The NoMad Bar is by no means a cheap place to drink, but it certainly is a satisfying one. I just hope we can get a table next time.

The NoMad Bar, 1170 Broadway (through The NoMad Hotel and restaurants, also a separate entrance on 28th Street), New York, N.Y. (NoMad district, north of the Flatiron). (212) 796-1500.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Cocktail: Hot Toddy

People are calling today the "big dig," as the east-coast snowstorm has now passed and it's time to start cleaning up. One of the advantages of living in an apartment instead of a single-family home is most apparent on days like today.

Still, I know a lot of people are going to be outside shoveling snow today. It's brutal work. When you're done, in addition to being worn out, you're cold and possibly soaked depending on how well your clothing and shoes are waterproofed.

So you'll want something to help warm you up and make you feel better. And for that, there's the Hot Toddy. This classic winter warmer is also good for you if you have a cold--apparently even scientifically proven, at least according to this source.

There are variations on how to make a Hot Toddy, but the basic formula is a brown liquor (whiskey, brandy, rum or Scotch work great--I bet even tequila would do the trick) with honey, lemon and hot water. If any cocktail can be considered a "comfort food," it's this. 

Hot Toddy

1/4 cup boiling hot water
1 tbsp. honey
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 oz. bourbon whiskey (may also use any other type of whiskey, brandy or rum).

Combine water and honey in a tempered glass or ceramic mug and stir until the honey is dissolved. Stir in the lemon and bourbon. Serve warm. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Lunching with Snowzilla: Making Due with What's on Hand

If you're like me and millions of other East Coast dwellers this weekend, you're snowed in. Restaurants, if you can walk to them, are probably closed. Markets are closed and completely wiped out of food anyway. In short, you gotta make do with what's in the fridge.

In the days leading up to this weekend's big storm, we stocked up as best we could, but I also view this as an opportunity to clean out and use up a few things that might have otherwise gone to waste.

Take today's lunch. Feeling like something other than a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, I looked through the fridge to see what odds and ends might yield a decent lunch. I found half a cucumber from a salad I made earlier in the week, some celery and scallions left over from kung pao chicken, half a block of feta cheese from last week's salad, my husband's mostly empty tub of hummus and a almost-empty jar of sundried tomatoes.

Together with a few new items--a fresh loaf of bread, a tub of arugula and a few other condiments and seasonings--I turned this motley crew of scraps into a delicious vegetarian lunch, a cucumber, hummus and feta sandwich and an arugula, celery and peanut salad, both of which were quite tasty.

Cucumber, Hummus and Feta Sandwich
Makes 2 sandwiches

4 slices whole-grain bread
2-4 tbsp. hummus
2-3 scallions, chopped
1/2 cucumber, thinly sliced
1/4 cup crumbed feta cheese
2 tbsp. sundried tomatoes, cut into small pieces
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Toast the bread, then spread two slices with a generous 1 to 2 tbsp. of hummus. Top with scallions, slices of cucumber, crumbled feta, sundried tomatoes and a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper--plus the other toasted slices of bread.

Arugula, Celery and Peanut Salad
Serves 2

2 cups arugula leaves
2-3 celery stalks, sliced at an angle into 1/8-inch thick slices
1/3 cup unsalted roasted peanuts, chopped
2-3 scallions, chopped
1/2 tsp. Aleppo pepper
1 tbsp. rice vinegar
1 tsp. honey
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine the arugula, celery, peanuts, scallion and Aleppo pepper in a large bowl. Whisk together the other ingredients, pour over the salad and toss to coat with the dressing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Getting Serious about Mezcal

Cocktail: 6666 Miles
6666 Miles Cocktail

It's time to get serious about mezcal. The days of dismissing it as a second-rate spirit with a dead insect in it are over. Mezcal producers have become much more sophisticated, and high-quality mezcal is proliferating at good cocktail bars and liquor stores near you.

Leading the pack is Del Maguey. Rather than operating as a single distillery, Del Maguey works with a collection of small-scale producers making mezcal using traditional methods in various villages around the Oaxaca region of Mexico. According to the company's website, each of its mezcals is made by a family-run producer in a small village. Thus, Del Maguey markets most of its mezcal line as "single-village mezcals," which are also certified by the USDA as organic.

The company celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. Ron Cooper started it in 1995 with the intention of expanding the availability of artisanal mezcals produced through traditional means. Cooper himself is clearly very passionate about mezcal--there's a great interview with him on the Del Maguey site. But he also has a background in art, which is reflected in the beautiful and unique way Del Maguey packages its mezcals in green bottles each with a different colorful illustration. Some of these works were designed by Ken Price, an artist friend of Cooper's who died in 2012.

Del Maguey definitely has a cool factor. Its mezcals are prominently featured on the bar shelf at the renowned East Village bar Mayahuel (their spirits menu boasts 13 of the company's mezcals). Del Maguey even teamed up with José Andrés recently to make a ham-flavored mezcal. What they don't have...a worm larva in their bottles, a practice I've read came about to mask the flavor of inferior mezcals, which Del Maguey certainly are not.

Our recent visit to Mayahuel is what sparked my renewed interest in mezcal. I've been a fan of their Vida mezcal for sometime, but wanted to try some of the other types. These can be harder to find, but I am seeing them more often in liquor stores, including in D.C. at Eye Street Cellars, a relatively recent addition to Mount Vernon Triangle, which carries a good selection. I picked up several bottles there recently.

Del Maguey mezcals
Vida is a great place to start with the Del Maguey line. It's smoky, but not intensely so like some mezcals. It's very clean and refreshing. It's a wonderful choice for cocktails, both because it's easy to get ahold of and mixes well. Vida can usually be found for around $35, which makes it an affordable mezcal (they can get quite pricey), particular for something of this quality. Vida comes from San Luis Del Rio.

Moving into something a little different, there's Chichicapa, named after the village where it's made (most of the Del Maguey mezcals, except for Vida, which means "life" are named for the villages where they are made). It's not as smoky as Vida, but has a spicier, more complex flavor.

Lastly, we tried Creme de Mezcal, which is a little different, since it's 90 percent mezcal and 10 percent agave, making what some would call a "mezcal liqueur." The agave's sweetness further smooths out the mezcal, making this a very sippable concoction. I could see this being very useful for crafting mezcal cocktails without needing the addition of agave or simple syrup.

So how does mezcal work in cocktails? Rather well actually. I love that they combine the characteristics of a good tequila with the smoky nose akin to a peaty Scotch. Mezcals are a natural to pair with citrus, but they also work with other fruits, like pears, as well as coffee, chocolate and herbal flavors. They also mix well with other spirits--tequila, obviously, but also rum. I recommend tasting your mezcal before mixing it, since some mezcals work better with other flavors (I find that the smokier mezcals can be more challenging for mixing).

Oaxaca Old Fashioned
Oaxaca Old Fashioned
One of the best-known mezcal cocktails is the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, which was created by Phil Ward for Death & Co. The Oaxaca Old Fashioned is brilliantly simple: replace the Old Fashioned's whiskey with mezcal and use agave nectar instead of of sugar. Although the original recipe called for Angostura bitters, using mole bitters introduces yet another Oaxacan flavor. Death & Co. also originated the Naked & Famous, a drink similar to the Last Word made with mezcal instead of gin.

Of course Mayahuel makes many amazing mezcal cocktails. Among them are the Division Bell, a sunny take on a mezcal cocktail with Aperol, and the Smoked Palomino, a citrusy mezcal-sherry cocktail.

Replacing some or all of the tequila in a margarita makes for a smoky take on a familiar classic. A little chili pepper adds nice heat too to the Margarita on Fire, and Dave Arnold's version of the classic frozen margarita made with mezcal, orange liqueur and chartreuse is a brilliant revision of that summer favorite. I also like this smoky pear margarita.

For a hot drink, warm up on a cold day with Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate with Mezcal, a recipe that comes from Serious Eats' J. Kenji López-Alt.

For other ideas, Del Maguey's website has an extensive list of mezcal cocktails. The Going Back to Mezcali piqued my interest, both because it sounds delicious (and is) and because it's by Donato Alvarez of Sixth Engine in D.C. I changed the garnish a bit: instead of the cold-smoked lime peel, I did a flamed lime peel. Lastly, I concocted the 6666 Miles below, as a sort of nod to the Oaxaca Old Fashioned. Like that drink, I took an existing classic--the Black Russian--and replaced its base spirit with mezcal. I also added some mole bitters. I call it 6666 Miles because that's the approximate distance from Moscow to Mexico City.

6666 Miles
(Photo at top)

2 oz. Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal
1 oz. coffee liqueur (Kahlúa will work; I used a homemade liqueur)
2 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl mole bitters
Bing cherry, garnish

Combine mezcal, coffee liqueur and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass with ice. Stir until very cold. Strain into a rocks glass with ice. Garnish with cherry.

Going Back to Mezcali
Going Back to Mezcali
Adapted from a recipe by Donato Alvarez of Sixth Engine, Washington, D.C.

2-3 slices of cucumber
1 oz. Del Maguey Vida mezcal
1 oz. Yellow Chartreuse
1 oz. Aperol
1 oz. lime juice
Flamed lime peel, garnish (note: the original recipe calls for a cold-smoked lime peel)

Add cucumber to a cocktail shaker and muddle. Fill with ice and add the mezcal, Chartreuse, Aperol and lime juice and shake until very cold. Double-strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the flamed lime peel.


Death & Co. Modern Classic Cocktails (includes recipes for Oaxaca Old Fashioned and the Naked and Famous)

Cocktail Bar: Going Two Rounds at Mayahuel (includes the Division Bell recipe)

Mayahuel Mezcal Cocktails (includes the Smoked Palomino recipe)

Margarita on Fire

Smoky Frozen Margarita

Smoky Pear Margarita

Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate with Mezcal

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Coconut-Curry Chicken with Vegetables and Couscous

Coconut-Curry Chicken with Vegetables and Couscous

I've been on a real cooking kick lately that involves mostly vegetables paired with a lean meat and a grain of some sort. In that vein, I made this Indian-inspired dish last week. It's basically a stew of chicken, onion, carrot, bell pepper and sweet potato served over couscous with raisins and almonds stirred in.

The ingredient list is long, but there's nothing really complicated about it. You could vary the flavors any way you like. I used both curry powder and garam masala--both of which are pretty general terms for Asian spice blends. In fact, I've seen some sources call garam masala a type of curry powder. A key difference is that curry powder usually contains turmeric, which gives it its yellow color. To my taste, it tends to be earthier, whereas garam masala is sweeter. The particular curry powder I use contains coriander, fenugreek, turmeric, cumin, black pepper, bay leaf, celery seed, nutmeg, clove, onion, red pepper and ginger. The garam masala has cardamom, cinnamon, clove, cumin, black pepper and coriander.

Coconut-Curry Chicken with Vegetables and Couscous
Adapted from multiple sources, namely Couscous from The New Middle Eastern Vegetarian by Sally Butcher and Spicy Chicken Coconut Curry by Tyler Florence for Food Network

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. chicken breast meat, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, diced
1 large or 2 small carrots, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 orange, red or yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 garlic cloves, minced
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
1 tbsp. curry powder
1 tbsp. garam masala
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt (or more or less to taste)
Pinch of red chili pepper flakes
15 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
15 oz. can diced tomatoes
15 oz. can coconut milk
2 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/3 cup golden raisins
2 cups water
10 oz. couscous

1. Heat 2 tbsp. olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through but not browned, about 8-10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. Add 1 tbsp. of butter to the pot. When melted, add the onion, carrot, bell pepper, sweet potato, garlic and ginger. Sauté until softened, about 8-10 minutes. Add the curry powder, garam masala, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and red chili pepper flakes, stir to combine, and cook another couple minutes. Add the chickpeas, tomatoes, coconut milk and chicken stock. Increase heat to medium-high to bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 15-20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, heat 1 tbsp. butter in a small (8-inch) frying pan over medium heat. When melted, add the almonds and raisins and cook, stirring occasionally for 2 minutes.

4. Bring 2 cups of water to boil. Place couscous in a bowl with remaining tbsp. of butter and a pinch of salt. Pour the boiling water over the couscous, stir to combine, then cover the bowl with a towel or plastic wrap. After 5 minutes, remove the cover and stir to combine with the butter and fluff. Stir in the buttered almonds and raisins.

5. Serve the couscous in shallow bowls topped with a generous helping of the coconut-curry stew.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Spicy Roasted Cauliflower and Chicken Quinoa Bowl with Onion-Apple Puree

Spicy Roasted Cauliflower and Chicken Quinoa Bowl with Onion-Apple Puree

Cauliflower and quinoa have been "trendy" for years now, but that doesn't mean they aren't delicious. It certainly doesn't mean that they shouldn't be part of a good effort to eat healthier. The year is still pretty "new," so if you've resolved to eat better this year, a dish like this is a good place to start.

Despite how popular quinoa has been in recent years, it is, frankly, a little boring. I do two things to make it more interesting: 1) I've been buying "rainbow" quinoa, a mix of white, red and black quinoa that makes the seed more visually striking, and 2) I toast my quinoa before I cook it, which gives it a nuttier flavor.

And roasting cauliflower is the best way to cook it. We enjoyed a wonderful side of it at Kat & Theo recently. It really takes away that slight bitter pungency and replaces it with someone wonderfully savory and slightly sweet.

Beyond those two ingredients, this is a versatile dish you could prepare many ways. I went with chicken, red pepper and toasted pumpkin seeds and a good spice profile. The sauce of sautéed apple and onion pureed with lemon and honey adds a good rich sweetness without overpowering the ingredients.

Spicy Roasted Cauliflower and Chicken Quinoa Bowl with Onion-Apple Puree

1 head of cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets
5 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 pinches of chipotle chili powder
Salt, to taste
3/4 cup quinoa, white, red or rainbow, rinsed
1 1/4 cup water, plus 1 tbsp.
3/4 lb. chicken breast cutlets
Pinch of ground cloves
1 onion, diced
1 apple (I used pink lady), peeled, and cut into thin (1/8 inch) pieces
1 red bell pepper, cored and cut into 1/4-inch wide slices
1 tbsp. honey
2 tbsp. lemon juice (1/2 lemon)
1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
Sriracha (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 425 F.

2. Toss cauliflower florets with 2 tbsp. olive oil, 1 tsp. ground cumin, a pinch of chipotle chili powder and salt, to taste. Spread in an even layer on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and roast until browned, about 30 minutes, tossing the florets a bit after the first 15 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

3. Set a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the quinoa and toast until they quinoa pops and allow to pop for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add 1 cup water and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot, reduce heat to low, and simmer for about 18 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and keep covered for another 10 minutes. Remove the lid and stir to fluff. Set aside.

4. Heat 2 tbsp. olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add the chicken breasts, season with 1 tsp. ground cumin, a pinch of chipotle chili powder, a pinch of ground cloves and salt, to taste. Cook chicken until lightly browned, about 5 minutes, then turn over and continue cooking the other sides about 5 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan, leave the oil and other drippings in the pan and increase heat to medium-high. To the remaining oil, add the onion and apple, season with salt and sauté until lightly browned, about 5-7 minutes. Set aside.

5. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add the red pepper, season with salt and sauté until lightly browned, about 6-8 minutes.

6. Transfer the onion and apple mixture to a tall container. Add 1 tbsp. honey, 1 tbsp. water and 2 tbsp. lemon juice. Puree the mixture into a chunky puree using an immersion blender. Alternatively, transfer the ingredients to a food processor and pulse until it forms a chunky puree.

7. In a large bowl, combine the roasted cauliflower, cooked quinoa, sautéed chicken, sautéed bell peppers, apple-onion puree and pumpkin seeds. Stir to combine. Serve in large bowls topped with a squirt of sriracha (if desired).

Monday, January 11, 2016

Dining Notes from New York, January 2016

We've visited New York enough times now that we have a number of favorite spots. It's easy to go back to them. But during our recent trip, I wanted to focus on visiting new places, so we headed to a trio of "hot and new" type places plus a taqueria that I've been wanting to try for years. We also made a return trip to last year's favorite bar, which further strengthened our view of said bar as our favorite.

Timna - Not Your Typical Middle Eastern

Middle Eastern cuisine has been popular for while, but Timna does a good job expanding its flavors beyond the usual ingredients. A helping of the kubaneh bread is an essential starter. The buttery, pillowy bread--similar in flavor and texture a soft brioche--arrives in a flower pot for you to tear off little pieces to swipe through the creamy labaneh (strained yogurt) and chunky tomato dip. Chewy farro grains arrive topped with an assortment of vegetables, including beets and wonderfully charred zucchini, dressed with tahini and sweetened with a little date molasses.

For our main entrees, I chose the wild fish, which our serve said was tilefish. The flaky white fish was perfectly cooked and accompanied by spinach, chickpeas and artichokes. Chris opted for the pumpkin and ricotta ravioli, which arrive with more artichokes and pumpkin seeds. Both of these dishes were good, although I liked our starters better. We finished with the chocolate pudding with caramelized banana slices, shaved coconut and an enticing whiskey-nougat ice cream.

Tucked away below ground-level in the East Village, Timna is a handsome little restaurant decorated with slate blue paint and roughed-up exposed brick and lit with low honey lighting. Service here was fine, not problematic but not exceptional. The restaurant has received a number of accolades, including being named last year's best new restaurant by USA Today. I would definitely recommend this place, although it wasn't our favorite of the week.

Kat & Theo - Tasteful and Cozy
[2019 update: Kat & Theo has closed]

Another night, we popped into Kat & Theo, a beautiful space in Flatiron serving comforting classics from American and European influences.

Needing something green, we started with a frisee salad, which was simply adorned with crispy lamb bacon and radish slices. We went meaty for our mains: I had the tender lamb shank, which came with farro and roasted vegetables. Chris had the flatiron steak, which was cooked a just-right medium-rare and served with vegetables.

Both of our meat dishes were very good, but our side of cauliflower stole the show.  The roasted florets are draped with a sweet fig and pine nut sauce, which made for a perfect accompaniment. Our dessert, a deconstructed carrot cake, was also quite tasty.

Kat & Theo also has an interesting cocktail menu. I sprang for the Coco Rosie, which had a lot of good flavor with its cardamom-infused rye, rum, currant liqueur and coconut. Unfortunately, this drink was served in a tall glass but with a regular-size straw.

Service here was among the best we enjoyed during our week in New York, mostly due to friendly who made the evening go quite smoothly.

L'Amico - Buzzy and Busy

Last of the "hot and new" places was L'Amico, a somewhat lazy pick, since we were staying in the Eventi Hotel where this Italian hot spot is located. The restaurant is an attractive corner space in the hotel building, warmly lit with good views onto the street. It's also quite bustling--vacant tables didn't stay that way long, and most of the people around us looked to be having a great time.

I thought all our food was good, but nothing really stood out as particularly memorable. I preferred our starters to our entrees. Creamy burrata arrived flecked with the unmistakable scent of shaved truffles, and the Brussels sprouts salad was nicely composed with hazelnuts, salsify and pance (like bacon). The charred kale pizza was bit overcooked--the charred kale itself was great, as well as its pairing with caraway, onion and pecorino and robiola cheeses--but the crust was burnt in places. I love a well-charred pizza crust, but this crossed that unfortunately line into ashy territory. Fusilli wth spicy sausage, bitter greens, pine nuts and pecorino was a satisfying pasta dish.

Also noteworthy was the Brooklyn Bound cocktail, which nice enhanced the flavors of the classic Brooklyn cocktail--usually made with rye, dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur and bitters--with Italian Punt e Mes and Ramazotti, plus Luxardo maraschino liqueur that's been infused with star anise. Lastly, I've read that the service here can be spotty, but am pleased to report that we experienced no issues with the service, which was friendly and efficient.

Empellón Taqueria - Our Best Meal of the Week

The best meal of the week was not from one of these newcomers, but Empellón Taqueria, hands down. Everything about our visit clicked: food, drinks and service. We arrived a little early, and it was pouring rain outside. Did that phase Empellón? Not at all. They happily seated us and quickly got us started with some guacamole and a round of margaritas. I'm a sucker for a good mezcal margarita, and Empellon's is nicely done, including a rim of smoked salt. If you like your margarita a little spicy, the spicy cucumber is also a great one, done with blanco tequila, fresh cucumber, jalapeño tincture and chile salt.

The guacamole was excellent--freshly prepared (not by the table but in the kitchen where food is supposed to be prepared) and served with really good corn chips and two salsas: a spicy red and the creamy smoked cashew. We also enjoyed a starter of smoked plantains, which arrived not in the sliced-and-fried format I was expecting but formed into crisp little cups filled with mashed plantains topped with a dollop of fresh crema. Because I think playing with celery and peanuts can be interesting, we also ordered the celery root vegetable starter with toasted peanuts, which reminded me a bit of the roasted celery with peanut sauce I made last year.

Of course, this is a taqueria, so we did our part to order a selection of tacos, all of which were really good. The Sunday special tacos of cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork) topped with pickled onions and cilantro arrived first, whetting our appetite for more. It was soon sated by the equally delicious Brussel sprouts tacos and, perhaps our favorite, the skirt steak tacos, which were stuffed with tender steak, onion and mojo de ajo, a spicy garlicky gravy. We capped this wonderful meal with a helping of chocolate flan served with Mexican cinnamon ice cream--a great way to end a great meal.

Service at Empellón was uniformly excellent. The hostesses greeted us warmly as we arrived (early) in from the rain. Our server was friendly and efficient, the bar provided our drink orders quickly and nobody removed a plate from our table without asking first, which I really appreciated.

With this dinner, Empellón Taqueria replaced The Black Ant as our new favorite Mexican restaurant in New York. It was so good, that I will make a point to revisit its sister restaurant, Empellón Cocina, which we visited in 2012. At the time, we were disappointed, although I thought a number of the dishes were really interesting (including the cashew salsa, which I made at home). Perhaps they or we were having an off night, so I think a second look is in order. I also want to visit Alex Stupak's newest Empellón, Empellón al Pastor, which focuses on al pastor tacos while also having a number of other tacos on the menu (and drinks of course).

Mayahuel - Still New York's Best Cocktail Bar
[2018 update: Mayahuel has closed]

Lastly, we popped into Mayahuel for a drink before dinner one night in the East Village. We visited Mayahuel last summer and were smitten with the bar's unique take on mezcal- and tequila-focused cocktails. Our more recent visit further cemented Mayahuel's status as our favorite bar (in New York or elsewhere). Once again, each drink we had was amazing--tasty, interesting and well-made. The best place to sit in Mayahuel is at the bar, since you can watch the bartenders work with their arsenal of spirits, mixers, garnishes and equipment. They are a very exacting, knowledgable and friendly lot.

Last time we were there, I tried the Dijahbone, which was unique because it was made not with mezcal or tequila but sotol, another Mexican spirit that is slowly emerging in the U.S. I was excited to see that Mayahuel has expanded their use of sotol into its own category of drinks on the menu, with five choices at present. The Chance Seeding blends sotol with sherry, apple, Velvet Falernum and line, with the cheesy funkiness of the sotol playing so well with the apple. We also really enjoyed the Mamasita, a sort of Negroni riff with tequila, sweet vermouth, Campari, maraschino liqueur, a touch of mezcal and whiskey-barrel-aged bitters. Best cocktail of the night--and the entire trip--was the Six Shooter, a fantastic dark and smoky drink made with mezcal, two kinds of rum, Punt e Mes, Rammazotti and orange and Angostura bitters.

After our dinner, we tried to get into Amor Y Amargo, but it was packed, and Death & Co had a 1 1/2 hour wait. So we found ourselves back at Mayahuel to finish our evening with yet another round of amazing drinks. Although I think of Mayahuel as a bar, it's a restaurant too--next time, we'll definitely be staying for dinner (we had a bit of a preview--I couldn't resist ordering some churros with chocolate, which were amazing).

Empellón Taqueria, 230 W 4th Street (at W 10th Street), New York, NY (West Village). (212) 367-0999. Reservations: Open Table.

Kat & Theo, 5 West 21st Street (at 5th Avenue), New York, NY (Flatiron). (212) 380-1950. Reservations: Open Table.

L'Amico, 849 6th Avenue (between 29th and 30th Streets in the Eventi Hotel), New York, NY (Chelsea), (212) 201-4065. Reservations: Open Table.

Mayahuel, 304 East 6th Street (near 2nd Avenue), New York, NY (East Village). (212) 253-5888.

Timna, 109 St. Marks Place (between 1st Ave and Avenue A), New York, NY (East Village). (646) 964-5181. Reservations: Open Table.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Black Eyed Peas with Bacon and Chard

Black Eyed Peas with Bacon and Chard

Do you believe in luck? Many people don't; I don't really--except that I sort of do. Like a lot of people, I know that many things in life happen by chance. I believe "luck" is when those are things you want to have happen. Like winning a contest, unexpectedly running into an old friend or being the last person to snag something special.

Certainly the number of things we do for luck attests to our belief in it. We kiss the Blarney stone, knock on wood and hunt for four-leaf clovers.

Then there's the practice of eating black eyed peas on New Year's Day. It's a tradition many Southerners observed, which I hadn't heard of until just recently, having read an article about it in the New York Times Food section.

Black Eyed Peas

There are quite a few explanations for the practice, many of which date back to the Civil War and some go back to ancient times.

Although it's not a tradition I'm tied to, I'm certainly not one to turn down a good bowl of pork and beans with greens, which is what I made, inspired by the accompanying recipe by Kim Severson, as well as another Times recipe by David Tanis, I made my own version of the dish. Their dishes call for using dried or fresh peas, as well as ham hocks. They cook for several hours, which I'm sure is delicious, but I wanted a faster recipe--something you could make midweek to enjoy black eyed peas any day of the winter, not just on New Year's Day. So I use canned black eyed peas and bacon, specifically the hickory-smoked bacon from Benton's that I love so much.

Black Eyed Peas with Bacon and Chard
Inspired by recipes by Kim Severson and David Tanis for Black Eyed Peas

1/2 lb. thick-cut hickory-smoked bacon, cut into 1/2 pieces
1 large sweet or yellow onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp. red chili pepper flakes (use more or less depending on your taste for heat)
1 bunch (about 1 lb.) Swiss or rainbow chard, leaves removed and cut into 1-inch wide strips, stems discarded
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
15 oz. can black eyed peas, drained and rinsed
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1 bay leaf

1. Cook the bacon in a Dutch oven or other large soup pot over medium heat. When browned and crisp, remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate. Reserve 2 tbsp. of the hot bacon fat in the pot (use the rest for something else, like thin and crispy cornbread).

2. Add the onion to the pot and cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Ad the garlic and chili pepper flakes and cook another couple minutes until the garlic is fragrant. Add the chard leaves, season with salt and pepper and stir to mix with the other ingredients. Allow the chard to wilt a bit, then add the cooked bacon, black eyed peas, chicken stock, allspice and bay leaf. Increase heat to bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for about 15 minutes.

3. Ladle the soup into shallow bowls and serve with cornbread and an old fashioned (recipe below).

Old Fashioned Cocktail

2 oz. bourbon whiskey
1/4 oz. simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Orange peel garnish
Maraschino cherry garnish

Combine whiskey, simple syrup and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass with ice. Stir until very cold, then strain into a rocks glass with a single large ice cube. Squeeze the orange peel over the drink, rub it around the rim of the glass and drop it in. Add the cherry and serve.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Restaurant: Convivial (Washington, D.C.)

It's easy to see what comes in through the front door, but sometimes it's what sneaks in through the side door that really grabs you.

Take the recent openings of Momofuku CCDC and Convivial. The former may be getting the most attention, but the latter is getting the most praise. And deservedly so. While we enjoyed our dinner at Momofuku, what we ate at Convivial was more memorable.

Fans of Mintwood Place--Cedric Maupillier's lauded Adams-Morgan restaurant--will be pleased to learn the chef has once again struck gold. The excellent food, friendly service and stylish surroundings all hit the right note at Convivial. There are similarities between the restaurants, but key differences too. Like Mintwood Place, Convivial is an inviting space, but where the former restaurant's interior is more "classic," Convivial's is more contemporary--decked out in light and dark woods and huge glass windows courtesy of of HapstakDemetriou+ design firm.

Also similar: the incredible food, although the focus is different this time. Where Mintwood Place is an eclectic mix of American and European influences, Convivial's is more French-focused. Yet the food still has the homey vibe you get at Mintwood Place. The menu is easy to navigate, divided into nibbles (small starters), cold dishes and hot dishes, with the latter two categories further subdivided into vegetable, seafood and meat dishes.

Our "nibble" of choice was the latke, a plate of four little coins of fried potato goodness topped with a crunchy celery root slaw and dry-cured lamb (think prosciutto). A small but definitely satisfying snack to begin the meal.

Top: Leeks Dijonnaise; Bottom: Socca

From there, we sampled a couple of the vegetable dishes. Leeks Dijonnaise finds leeks prepared at the sweet spot where they are cooked just enough to be tender and a bit crisp but not so much that they become mushy. Adding further texture are little bits of crispy crouton and fried capers to round out the fresh-tasting dish. Socca--a chickpea flatbread--topped with a crunchy shower of fried beets and little citrus wedges was also quite good.

Top: Ravioli; Bottom: Coq au Vin Fried Chicken

Our warm entrees were just as satisfying. If you like ravioli (and who doesn't?), Convivial makes a splendid sausage version with chestnuts and mushrooms that finds the pasta pockets cooked to just the right chewy texture. I'd heard--and our server pointed out--that their fried chicken "coq a vin" is becoming their signature dish, and I can see why. It was a knockout. Chris and I were talking earlier in the night about how fried chicken in restaurants is often disappointing. Not so here. The preparation of boneless chicken thighs looks a bit like General Tso's Chicken, yet it tastes nothing like that sweet-and-spicy American-Chinese staple, sauced as it is with a wine reduction and served with potatoes, onion and bacon. You do get that nice interplay though between a crispy breading just starting to soften from the sauce poured over it.

Top: Key Lime and Speculoos Pie; Bottom: Milk Chocolate Crème Brûlée
Usually when we eat out, we choose one dessert and share it. But at Convivial, we sprang for two. I'd heard the key lime pie made with a crust of speculoos cookies was good, so I had to try it. It wasn't just good, it was amazing. The lime custard was silky smooth yet firm enough to hold its shape and its flavor was the perfect balance of tart and sweet. I also loved the use of kiwi wedges, which provided both a counterpoint flavor and a visual nod to cut limes. The speculoos crust was also a nice departure from the usual graham cracker crust. And the milk chocolate crème brûlée? That was very good too: chocolatey, but not too strong, with a chocolate meringue and ground cherry garnish.

The cocktails at Convivial were also nicely done. The menu offers a short selection of classic drinks. I started with a Vieux Carre, which is listed on the menu, a blend of rye whiskey, cognac, Benedictine herbal liqueur and sweet vermouth. After than I really wanted a Manhattan, so I asked a roving manager-type who offered to bring us another round if they could make a good one. He promised that they did and offered to let me see the bar "bible," a much longer list of cocktails than what appears on the dinner menu. How fun! I was committed to the Manhattan, so I declined to see the "bible" (although I should have let him bring it, just for curiosity's sake). The Manhattan was excellent--the best I've had in a restaurant yet.

Service at Convivial was good. The hosts greeted us warmly, even though our lost cabbie meant we were about 15 minutes late. We also developed a great rapport with our server, who gave us a good overview of the menu when we were first seated. Runners were a little too enthusiastic about clearing plates, but not so much that unfinished items were removed without us wanting them to be (I do wish restaurants would leave bread on the table--it's often wonderful for swiping through main-course sauces).

According to Webster, "Convivial" means "of or relating to social events where people can eat, drink, and talk in a friendly way with others." With food this good, there's no excuse not to be in a friendly mood while dining here.

Convivial, 801 O Street NW (at 8th Street NW), Washington, D.C. (Shaw). (202) 525-2870. Reservations: Open Table.

Convival Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato