Friday, December 30, 2011

What to Do With All Those Holiday Food Gifts

It happens every year.  January to November friends don’t share so much as a potato chip with you then all of a sudden in one month of holiday giving your kitchen counter is filled with every food gift under the sun.  There are cookies and quick breads, infused vodkas and hot chocolate mixes, and a jam and jelly to match every farmer’s stand fruit.

What is one person supposed to so with so much food all at once?  And where are all those cookie bakers when you really need them?  A good homemade chocolate brownie sure would taste good during March and the final bleak days of winter. 

I’m not sure you will convince anyone to start giving IOUs at Christmas for Springtime food gifts, but at the very least you can make the most of what you have been given and make sure it doesn’t go to waste. 

Chocolate:  Chocolate is chocolate, even if it originally came wrapped in foil and shaped like Santa.  Enjoy some holiday catharsis while smashing up some pieces of dark and milk.  Voila!  You have chips and chunks perfect for baking. 

Jams and Jellies: I’m not much for toast in the morning but those jams and jellies tied with ribbon are good for most than just a morning spread.  Melt down a plum jelly and thin it out with vinegar and maybe a little booze and you have a great glaze for pork loin.  Or try my new favorite use for my mom’s pepper jelly: dollop atop crostini spread with young, tangy goat cheese.  It makes a wonderful and easy appetizer for everything from a fancy New Year’s Eve get together to a casual January book club meeting.

Quick Breads: Ever since I tasted The French Laundry’s banana bread and foie gras torchon, my eyes have opened to the potential of quick breads beyond breakfast food.  If you are having a champagne toast at midnight tonight, consider squares of banana bread or ginger bread topped with store bought foie gras pate as a simple and surprising appetizer.

Cookies: One word.  Re-gift.

Infused Spirits:  Use it now or run the risk of that peppermint vodka still taking up precious bar space at next year’s holiday festivities.  Mix up a punch bowl full of a signature cocktail using that infused vodka for tonight’s party and let your guests help you clear another bottle off the shelf. 

Seasoned Popcorn and Nuts: Put it out at a party.  Take all the credit. 

Here’s to a Happy New Year, and a January with fewer food gifts lingering around the house. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Monday, December 26, 2011

Best Bites of 2011- Cooking Edition

After an epic three days of Christmas cooking I am finally coming up for air.  Between the seafood chowders, chocolate pecan pies and standing rib roasts I’ve had time to reflect on some of the best cooking I’ve done this year.  Whether over an open fire in the bush or in a borrowed kitchen in Manhattan, whether putting a $40 clay pot to work or working with every odd bit of a homegrown pig, it has been a good year for cooking.

Here are some highlights in no particular order.

Chicken Thighs with Meyer Lemon, Fennel, and Olives:  Where does one start when throwing a dinner party for your spry grandfather and his nonagenarian friends?  I started with my grandfather’s Meyer lemon tree, heavy with fruit in early April.  I thought I had an appetite.  The old folks took down a whole Dungeness crab appetizer then licked clean their plates of chicken thighs roasted with the lemons, fennel, and olives.

Etosha Paella
Etosha Paella:  Boyfriend John gets all the credit for suggesting the heavy cast iron Dutch oven rental along with the standard mess kit for our Namibian car camping adventure.  We put that pan to use right away with a dish we called Etosha Paella- curried lamb sausage cooked with rice, red peppers, onion, olive oil, and lots of garlic over an open fire under a blanket of stars in Etosha National Park, the Serengeti of Namibia.  

Clay Pot Beef for Tacos: At one of the first appearances of the clay pot, cubes of beef simmered away in peppers, onions, garlic, and chilies for hours until the beef could be pulled apart into shreds.  We filled tortillas with the mixture and topped with salsa.  This was just the beginning of clay pot love.

Eggplant and Roasted Garlic Soup
Eggplant Soup: I love my mother’s garden.  One of the only bad things about moving away from California is that I no longer will be able to partake of her summer bounty.  But I got one last shot the last time I was in Hemet with eggplants she had just harvested.  Eggplants roasted side by side in the oven with heads of garlic.  When the garlic cloves were golden and sweet and the eggplants fully collapsed, all went into a pot with chopped onion, thyme, oregano, and chicken stock.  Blended to a puree it was the sort of simple garden dish I could have eaten all summer long. 

Soft Shell Crabs with Lemon Chive Vinaigrette and Arugula: Staying with friends in Manhattan while we looked for a place to live, one night John and I cooked for them as a way of saying thanks.  I expected our hostess, a proficient cook herself, to be a tough critic.  Little did I know that soft shells crabs are a family favorite, one that they never really eat at home.  We were beyond grateful to have a soft landing and friendly welcome in a new city, and we whipped up a mid summer meal worthy of that gratitude.

Fregula with Clams and Chorizo:  There are two amazing things about our new apartment in New York. 1. The open kitchen.  2. Its proximity to Chelsea Market.  I put both of these features to good use one night while John was out of town.  My girlfriends sat at the counter watching me cook up a dish of Sardinian fregula from the Italian store in Chelsea market with clams from The Lobster Place and vegetables from Manhattan Fruits. 

Cambodian Beef Curry
Cambodian Beef Curry:  Diminutive in size but huge in flavor, the spices John brought me back from a trip to Cambodia turned out to be one of my favorite 30th birthday gifts.  Black peppercorns, white peppercorns, and sinus clearing red chili powder blended with lemongrass, garlic, ginger, and coconut milk for a fragrant, and very spicy, Cambodian Beef Curry. 

Rabbit Ragu: What can you make with a $7 domestic rabbit from Western Beef in New York City?  A lot it turns out.  In our case, at least 6 meals of delicious ragu spooned, tossed, and slathered on many kinds of pasta.

Pernil Style Pork Shoulder
Sir Hamsalot: It is possible that no one pig has brought so much delicious joy to so manypeople.  This year I had the pleasure of enjoying one of his shoulders classically roasted by my friend’s father and I did the other shoulder Pernil style a few months later.  We had ribs slathered in hoisin sauce and thick smoky bacon.  I’ll be using the rendered fat as cooking lard for months to come.

Sonoma Bouillabaisse: Before the pies, roasts, and stockings filled with candy, it was nice to get the holidays off to a flavorful, somewhat healthy start. I made the broth for my west coast bouillabaisse from Dungeness crab shells, then built flavor into the stew with lots of fennel, white wine, and a pinch of saffron.  A couple of waxy potatoes for heft, then every kind of good looking fish I could find- crab legs, clams, shrimp, and escolar.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best Bites of 2011- Restaurant Edition

Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles in Soup from Xi'an Famous Foods

It was a good year for lamb.  And spice.  Whether eating cross-legged at a street vendor in Indonesia, using newspaper as a plate in Sri Lanka, or sampling the latest creation from celebrity chef Jose Andres in Las Vegas, it was a year full of memorable bites.

In no particular order.... 

Head on prawns, a la plancha, anchovy butter, tarragon. The Bristol, Chicago

It had been about eight years since my last time in Chicago.  January in Chicago lived up to my weather expectations (bone rattling cold) and food (fantastic).  Even after a mind-blowing meal the night before at 16 filled with every high end food imaginable- truffles, caviar, Waygu beef- it was the shrimp at The Bristol that left the biggest impression of the trip.  Packed with deep flavor from the fatty head and the prawns came dripping in luscious herbed anchovy butter.  I licked my fingers.

Spaghittusu cun Allu Ollu e Bottariga.  La Ciccia, San Francisco. 
The meal that started it all- my obsession with Sardinian food that is.  Trying to break out of our Cali-Italian dining rut in San Francisco, I booked a table at this specifically Sardinian restaurant in Noe Valley for my boyfriend’s birthday.  The restaurant and the cuisine excel in creating complex flavors with simple ingredients.  Spaghetti with spicy oil and bottarga, or mullet roe, topped with golden breadcrumbs tattooed my tastebuds with the memory of truly excellent regional Italian cuisine.
On my Sardinian obsession: All Roads Lead to Sardinia

Duck Tongue Tacos. China Poblano, Las Vegas.
I’ll admit I was highly skeptical of this Chinese-Meets-Mexican concept at the new Cosmopolitan Hotel.  I should not have doubted Jose Andres.  His team deftly managed hand made dumplings in one corner while turning out hand pressed tortillas in another.  Sometimes the two cuisines met in the middle as with the bold flavors of the duck tongue tacos.
For the story on my meal at China Poblano, click here: From China to Mexico By Way of Las Vegas

Egg Hopper with Sambal. Night Market Stall in Kataragama, Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka had already been wowing me for days with mouth numbing curries, melting dal, fresh fish, and endless preparations of vegetables.  But I was after a taste of the legendary egg hopper, a bowl shaped pancake made of fermented batter filled with a scrambled egg and spicy sambal chili paste.  At a festival in Kataragama, a woman with a huge smile dished up her specialty and wrapped it in newspaper for us to eat on the drive home.  Easily one of the simplest and most memorable bites and meals of my year.
On Hoppers and Curry Rice: To Create Trust First Eat the Fire

Oryx, Springbok, KuduNamibia.
It is too hard to choose just one of these bites.  Therefore this is a tie between all the wild game we ate in Namibia.  At Joe’s in Windhoek.  Oase Guesthouse in Kamanjab.  Erich’s in Swakopmund.  And Sossusvlei Lodge in Sesriem.
More on wild meat in Namibia: The Pride of Namibia

Polenta with bacon lardon, Bagnes cheese, and tomato sauce.  Croix de Coeur, Verbier, Switzerland.
No one told me about how good the food can be in Switzerland- the wine, the chanterelles, and Oh My, the cheese.  Also, I’m not sure I really grasped just how organized the trail system is in the Alps with convenient rest stops for food and drink seemingly every few miles.  At the end of a 9-mile trail run we celebrated with mediocre pasta and an over-the-top delicious plate of polenta.  It came out sizzling in a cast iron pan, topped with a chunky marina sauce, melted cheese from the valley below and thick slices of bacon lardon.  It may have been August but that is a wintry comfort food I would eat any time of year. 

Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles. (Pictured above)  Xi’an Famous Foods, New York, New York.
I have fond memories of a solo trip to China many years ago, particularly of the food I ate in the Northern city of Xi’an where the spices of the East meet the hearty hand cut wheat noodles of China.  Xi’an Famous Foods does justice to the city for which it is named.  A sinus clearing, steaming bowl of spicy cumin lamb noodles brought back a flood of memories with every slurp.

Mie Goreng with LambBorobudur, Indonesia.
We escaped our plush hotel one night and its unadventurous tourist food for real local experience.  Sitting cross-legged on plastic mats, the hotel’s restaurant manager had brought us to his personal favorite restaurant in town normally patronized only by locals.  He ordered for us- plates of satay and mie goreng were washed down with warm beer from the convenience store next door.  The spice from the mie goreng- thin rice noodles stir fried with lamb- was so potent that we coughed and our eyes watered even from several meters away from the wok at the street side stall.  Our eyes watered still, this time with happiness, as we asked our guide to order seconds. More on Indonesian street food eating: Eating the Street and the Street Bites Back

Salsa. El Banco, Puerto Vallarta.
It is hard to choose a favorite part of this spectacular retreat on the Mexican coast far away from the crowds of Puerta Vallarta.  If I had to choose one thing, it might be the salsa whipped up daily by the villa’s chef.  We managed to overcome my lack of Spanish and her lack of English when she taught me how to make this salsa of blackened chilies simply by watching her work.  I now can have a little taste of Mexico whenever I get the urge.
Find the recipe for Olinka's Salsa Here: For Heat Loving Gringos

Herbs, Flowers, Foraged Greens, Curds and Whey. Forage, Salt Lake City, Utah.
“Forage” was certainly a buzzword of 2011 in the world of food, but this restaurant was enough ahead of the trend to actually name this small, sleek establishment after one of the methods through which these young chef/owners procure their food.  A simple salad of herbs and flowers from their backyard greenhouse and foraged greens from a nearby park was topped with milky whey and salty curds.  It sounded strange, looked beautiful, and tasted hauntingly of the land from which the dish came.
For a detailed account of my meal at Forage, click here: And the Winner Is...

Lasagna. Bianca, New York, New York.
Not new for me, the lasagna at Bianca was special precisely because it is an old familiar friend.  Our first night moving into our new apartment in New York after living in California for over five years, it was to Bianca we went to celebrate with paper thin sheets of pasta layered with béchamel and meat sauce- possibly the best lasagna anywhere in the world.

Stay tuned for the best of my year in cooking.  

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Tea Cocktail to Lift Holiday Spirits

Tea is the perfect caffeinated boost for festive cocktails in this most spirited of seasons.

Tired of Red Bull induced heart palpitations? But still looking for a pick-me-up in your evening cocktail?  Try tea instead!

This season can be tough to survive.  Party hopping late on weeknights, follows with tired workdays and rolls right into crazy family time.  Keeping up the energy for all that celebrating can be difficult without a little help.

But the energy drink and vodka thing is so college.  For more gentle stimulation, tea mixes the perfect dose of caffeine with some serious flavor that works well with a variety of spirits. 

Spicy black teas like chai contain all those “pie” notes- clove, cinnamon, nutmeg- that we have come to associate with this time of year.  But I’m partial to the lighter flavor and milder dose of caffeine found in green tea. 

To use tea in a cold cocktail, all you need to do is brew double the strength you would if you were drinking tea straight- that is two teabags or two teaspoons of full leaf tea per eight ounces of hot water.  The extra strong tea ensures it won’t dilute too much over ice. 

For my softly buzzing green tea cocktail to lift my holiday spirit, I like to use a green tea infused with pomegranate, a fruit very much in season this time of year.  Vodka or gin makes a simple spirit base to which I add lime juice and an herb infused simple syrup for a punch of flavor.  Rosemary and bayleaf steeped syrup work wonders in this drink and leftovers can be saved for future cocktail experiments.  For garnish, a sprig of herbs, twist of lime, or even a few pomegranate seeds make for an elegant presentation on a simple and festive drink. 

Now there’s a cocktail that gets my heart all a flutter, in a good way. 

Pomegranate-Rosemary Green Tea-Tail
Makes 1 Cocktail

Herb Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 sprigs rosemary
2 bay leaves

2 tea bags or 2 teaspoons full leaf Pomegranate Green Tea
8 ounces hot water
1 ½ ounces vodka
½ ounce lime juice
Garnish: Lime wedge, Rosemary, and/or pomegranate seeds

Heat sugar and 1 cup water in a small saucepan.  Bring to a boil and stir until sugar dissolves.  Remove from the heat.  Transfer syrup to a small airtight container.  Add rosemary sprigs and bay leaves.  Close lid and place syrup in the refrigerator for a minimum of overnight. 

To make cocktail, pour eight ounces of hot water over tea or tea bags.  Let steep for three minutes.  Discard tea leaves or teabags.  Let liquid cool to room temperature.  In a highball glass, mix vodka, lime juice, and ½ ounce of the herb syrup.  Fill glass with ice.  Pour cooled tea over mixture and stir.  Garnish with a fresh rosemary sprig, lime wedge, or pomegranate seeds. 

Note: the syrup will keep for up to a month in the refrigerator for use in this or other cocktails. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Thursday, December 15, 2011

LA Weekend: No Car, Never Better

Tacos al pastor at Los Campos Tacos
Picture this: Los Angeles with no traffic.  No driving up and down crowded streets looking for parking.  No passing on that third glass of wine in anticipation of a long drive home. Impossible, you say?  Sure it is possible.  All you have to do it leave the car behind.

Is it easy to travel around California’s most infamously traffic-clogged spread out city without the use of a car?  Yes and no.  It really depends on where you are staying and what you want to do.

It was in that spirit a couple of weeks ago John and I spent a long weekend in Venice Beach and purposefully decided to do without a car.  We were looking for a beach hotel with proximity to long, ocean runs.   We needed access to great food and some cool bars.  And everything needed to be no more than an easy walk, bike ride, or taxi away.  

Here’s how we did it.


Pork Cheeks at La Cachette Bistro
Afternoon: Arrived at the Hotel Erwin in time to watch the sun go down from our ocean view room.   Located one block from Venice’s famous boardwalk, music wafted up from the street where someone seemed to be playing Jimmy Hendrix at any hour of the day to the beat of the drum circle out by the sand. 

Evening:  Our friends picked us up for a group dinner at the consistently delicious French bistro, La Cachette, three miles north in Santa Monica.  Pork cheeks, cassoulet, tuna tartar, frisée salad, even a vegan plate for one friend all served with the utmost graciousness from the staff.  They didn’t even seem to mind we closed down the place.


Morning: Walked catty corner to the hotel for lattes, full leaf green tea, and New York Style bagels at Collage Cafe.

Afternoon: Ran up the paved boardwalk past Santa Monica pier and back.  Rewarded ourselves with tacos al pastor and jamaica at Los Campos Tacos next to the hotel- as good as any taco stand in LA. 

Tagliarini Nero with Calamari at Tasting Kitchen
Night: Walked up to Abbott Kinney, Venice’s main artery of hipster life.  Pre-dinner, The Otheroom was unusually empty.  Pulled up a stool for an AllagashWhite and a glass of French Sauvignon Blanc.  Up te street, we scored a table in the main dining room at Portland influenced TastingKitchen after only a twenty minute wait.  Feasted on gnocco fritto and burrata, escarole salad, tagliarini nero with squid, and buccatini amatriciana.  Caught a ride home with our dinner companion. 


Seared albacore with yuzu at Wabi Sabi
Morning: Round two at Collage Café plus the New York Times from Beach Market by the Marina del Rey pier.  Sunday paper was totally worth the 1.5 mile round trip walk.

Afternoon: Rented bikes and pedaled up to The Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica for lunch.  The valet parked our bikes in a hidden back area.  No one seemed to mind our slightly sweaty bodies as we tucked into cappuccinos, flatbread pizzas, and towering turkey sandwiches while taking in the epic coastline view from Penthouse, the top floor restaurant.  Continued the bike ride until the sun went down.

Evening: Pretty chilly out so caught a cab ($7) to the far end of Abbott Kinney for a solid sushi dinner at Wabi-Sabi.  Sipped on gold-flecked Bunraku sake while munching on seared albacore sashimi with yuzu.


Morning: Round three of coffees, bagels, and New York Times.  Almost like we were in New York but with better weather and an ocean view.

Afternoon:  Round two of beach run plus tacos and hibiscus drink.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

Fluke crudo at Gjelina
Evening: Met up with some old friends for beers at Larry’s,  a slick new beach bar around the corner from the hotel.  Perfectly empty in December, I could see how this joint with its massive tap beer list and airy rooms is probably packed during the summer season.  Caught a ride to Gjelina on Abbott Kinney.  Ignored their hour wait warning based on experience.  30 minutes and a glass of wine later our party settled into seats by a heater on the patio.  Cured meats, mushroom toast, caramelized Brussels sprouts, cheesy arugula pizza- the courses and the wine kept on coming.


Pork and Fermented Bean Curd at Mao's Kitchen
We bid farewell to Venice by shaking it up- our run was followed by lunch at the appropriately Venice-cool Chinese restaurant Mao’s Kitchen, conveniently located next to the coffee shop and across the street from the taco stand.  Dumplings and stir-fried pork with fermented bean curd hit the spot. 

We walked, we ran, we biked, and occasionally caught a ride.  Happy well-fed bellies, plenty of sunshine and open water, LA was at its best and the car was never missed. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

NYC Asian Eating Weekend, In Pictures

A long weekend of eating in NYC.

Clockwise from top left corner.

1. Spicy Regular Ramen (pork) with thin noodles at Kambi.
2. Crispy Szechuan Lamb at Chinese Mirch.
3. Crispy Spring Rolls at Omai.
4. Lemongrass beef rolls at Omai.
5. Me eating Thelewala Chicken Roll at Thelewala- fried eggs, onions, spices, lime.
6. Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles in Soup at Xi'an Famous Foods (eating while drinking Negro Modelo at The International Bar in the East Village).
7. My brother, Paul, eating the Chapli Roll at Thelewala- minced lamb, spices, lime.
8. Center- Miso Ramen with shredded chicken and fried garlic at Rai Rai Ken

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Monday, December 12, 2011

Kitchen Essentials for Every Aspiring Cook on Your List

Making a base for braised rabbit ragu in a Le Creuset Dutch Oven

Just in time for Green Monday- the latest made up event to spur X-mas sales with the promise of free shipping from online retailers- my list of kitchen equipment I can’t live without.   If you are still making a list, maybe checking it twice, here are a few items that any aspiring cook would be grateful to have in his or her collection. 

Dutch Oven:  My 5 1/2 quart round Le Creuset gets a workout.  From cassoulets to rabbit ragu to beef bourginon, this heavy-duty pan does a lot of heavy lifting.  Dutch ovens from Le Creuset (along with worth competitors such as Staub) combine the heat retention of a cast iron pan with a slick, colorful, almost non-stick enamel surface.  This dynamic combination of parts is perfect for searing meats on the stovetop before adding liquid and vegetables for a transfer and long braise in the oven. But this pan is so versatile it works as well for making simmering soup, soaking beans, or even deep frying.  A word of warning, these pans get addictive.  It is no wonder they come in so many sizes and colors.

Le Creuset 5 1/2 quart Round Dutch Oven- The gold standard. 

12” Stainless Steel Sauté Pan:  I am partial to All-Clad but there are many fine brands out there.  The idea is you want one good sauté pan with a metal handle that can move seamlessly between the stove and the oven.  Say you have a thick piece of halibut or a 2 inch pork chop.  The stove to oven sauté pan lets you sear the fish or meat on the outside for a nice crust then move it into a hot even for a few minutes to finish cooking through.  Just working on the stovetop risks an overcooked outside or an undercooked inside when using a thick cut.  Working both on the stove and in the oven gets the best of both worlds- crispy skin and moist, perfectly cooked interior.  Also good for: frittatas, casseroles, gratins.

All Clad Stainless-Steel Fry Pan

Chefs Knife and Paring Knife:  The very first cooking class I took the instructors drilled into us students that above all else we needed good knives.  But they assured us a full wooden block set was not necessary.  95% of normal home cooking techniques can be done with just a good Chef’s knife and paring knife.  I am partial Henckels but the market is now flooded with well-made options from German Wüstof to Japanese Global and Shun.  Look for a knife with a full tine- the visible metal portion that extends from the blade into the handle.  If you are trying it out in the store, make sure it feels good to hold in the hand- the handle should feel relatively heavy with a good balance to the blade.  While you are at it, pick up a steel- a knife is only as good as the sharpness of the blade.  I like a basic ceramic steel that works for all standard, non-Japanese knives.  And don’t be afraid of a sharp knife.  As many a chef told me over the years, more accidents come from dull knives than sharp ones. 

Kyocera 9-inch Ceramic Steel Sharpener

JA Henckels International 8 inch Chef's Knife

ICEL 4 inch Paring Knife (note: I have had this inexpensive knife for 7 years and it seems to never get dull)

Happy Green Monday Cyber Shopping!

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

There's Fried Dough, Then There's Gnocco Fritto

Gnocco Fritto at Tasting Kitchen, Venice Beach, CA
What could possibly be wrong with fried dough?  Nothing, obviously.  Fried dough is delicious, particularly when done in a savory Italian way as with my favorite pre-Italian meal snack, gnocco fritto.

Gnocco fritto literally translates into “fried dough” or “fried dumpling” depending on who you ask.   But the reality of this fritter is far more nuanced that the straightforward name suggests. 

Dining at Tasting Kitchen in Venice Beach last weekend, gnocco fritto turned up on their ever-changing menu under the charcuterie section. Here the pastry is a hard-shelled 2-inch square dumpling, lightly salted on the outside with an airy interior.  When bitten into or broken apart, the shell turned out to be a perfect vehicle for stuffing with the excellent prosciutto or creamy burrata that came alongside.  I might not have eaten the dumplings alone, but I could have used a few more to scrape up the last of unctuous cheese off the serving platter.

Gnocco Fritto at Bianca, New York City
Tasting Kitchen’s version was, well, tasty, but my favorite interpretation of gnocco fritto is from Bianca in New York City, a restaurant that specializes in foods from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, a region that prides itself on gnocco fritto.  At Bianca the yeasted, fried dough squares arrive puffed up and golden brown.  Upon biting into these little fried pillows, the fitter collapses into layer up layer of luxurious pastry.  It is a savory, Italian version of French puffed pastry.  And when the dough gets smeared with the restaurant’s stringy stracchino cheese or topped with a slice of salami, the pastry melts in the mouth, cheese, meat, and fritter dissolving together in a sigh of fried dough satisfaction. 

There’s fried dough, and then there’s gnocco fritto.  With a side of cured meats and rich, creamy cow’s milk cheese, what’s not to like?

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Monday, December 5, 2011

Brown White Wine: A Happy Accident in Drinking

A "brown white" wine from Dettori Bianco
I imagine many people have been in my shoes- order a bottle of wine, think you know what you are getting, and something entirely different shows up, opened and decanted before you have time to protest.  Not all accidents are so happy (I’ll save you the story of that $180 half bottle of Bordeaux at Gary Danko for another time).  But sometimes, the accident is an altogether joyous one, as with what happened to me this past weekend, introducing something that is a complete surprise in the best possible way.

This past Saturday night my boyfriend ordered a wine he thought we’d like off the unique list at Tasting Kitchen in Venice Beach, California.  It was Sardinian, a region we are loving right now.  But like much of the wines of Italy, we still have a lot of learning to go when it comes to understanding the complex varietals and growing methods of this Mediterranean island.

Mistake Number One: we thought we were ordering red.  Puzzled, we watched as an amber colored, unfiltered liquid was decanted in front of us, quite unlike any wine color I’ve seen before, white or red.

Noting our initial shock, and obvious mistake, the mustachioed hipster sommelier walked us through the story of this unusual wine. 

Dettori Bianco, we learned, is technically a white wine made of the vermentino grape, part of a category of wines sometimes called “brown whites” for their distinctive color not unlike apple cider.  Grown in the highlands of the Sennori commune in Sardinia, this particular wine is made according to the tradition of the region, through a process of macerating the wine in the skins for 2-4 days then drawing off the juice by hand- no crushing allowed.  The wine then ages in traditional cement vats for 2-3 years before bottling.

Our hipster friend’s story was intriguing.  We tentatively swirled and sniffed.  The Dettori had mustiness and raisin-like notes reminiscent of certain fortified wines but without the heat.  Most vermentinos I’ve had are clear and crisp with a nice acidity that pairs well with food.  This particular fermentation method produces a much richer flavor, one that may not pair was well with lighter seafood but tasted excellent alongside a seared tuna dish as it did with a plate of bucatini amatriciana.   

Was the wine a mistake?  Maybe to order, but not to drink.  Not everyday we get to drink a “brown wine”… and like it. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Welcome to Virtual First Class

Prepping Pasta for Next Day's Virtual First Class Meal

If you were sitting next to me in the Economy section of Virgin America flight from JFK to LAX yesterday, it’s okay if you were jealous.  I was flying Virtual First Class while you, my seatmates, were eating stinky French Onion Sunchips. Play your cards right and I’ll let you in on the secret to my supremely comfortable and delicious flight.

For the average peon of travel, economy flights are really the only option, particularly when flying domestically.  But cross-country flights can be a real drag.  At upwards of six hours of flight time not including time traveling to and from the airport and time you need to get there early for check-in, there is simply no way to avoid eating something at some point during the journey.  And as anyone who has ever stood in front of the dismal options of an airport food court or perused the Snack Box menu onboard knows, this meal is likely to be at best filling and will almost certainly leave you depressed at the notion that you actually spent money to eat that way.

Enter Virtual First Class.  I cannot take credit for this title.  A friend of my boyfriend’s coined it for her practice of packing a gourmet picnic lunch to take on board long haul flights where she was flying Economy.  The day before her ordeal, she would stop by the deli and load up on nice salami, cheese, and good crackers.  She would pack linen, some silverware, and even a half bottle of wine in the pre-9/11 days.  Avoiding the grease of a pre-flight meal and the tasteless options inflight, this clever traveler passed her airtime in relative comfort with food that might even have been a notch above that being served at the front of the plane.

I have taken to adapting this strategy for my own.  If it is going to be an especially long travel day I might even go so far as to pack breakfast, lunch, and a snack.  Liquids of course are limited (bye bye to BYO wine days) and refrigeration is not possible, but other than that just about anything goes. 

While my flying companions subsisted on their airport snacks, I brought out one meal after the next during the six-hour flight.  Wrapped tightly in my new birthday pashmina to ward off the plane chill (who needs those scratchy first class blankets anyway?), I nibbled on a breakfast of homemade banana-walnut bread while sipping my favorite green tea from a travel mug and reading the paper.  A few hours later, as lunch pangs set in, I pulled a thin plastic food container from my bag.  Pasta of small shells, chicken apple sausage, lemon, and parsley tasted just as good at room temperature as it had hot off the stove for dinner the night before.  A couple of foil wrapped dark chocolate pieces satiated my sweet tooth.  I was so pleased with my resourcefulness and the tastiness of my Virtual First Class meal, I splurged and purchased a $7 IPA from a San Francisco microbrewery to wash it all down. 

To my seatmates from Virgin America and all others facing cross-country trips this season, no need to pay to fly up front, fly the Virtual First Class way.  Bring some delicious food from home, a nice warm wrap, and good headphones to drown out the talking heads around you and you might just be surprised how a little good food can go a long way to making a six hour flight comfortable. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Soup as Salve for Post-Thanksgiving Blues

Chicken, Kale, Brown Rice Soup

Thanksgiving plus my birthday plus impending holiday celebrations equals an almost involuntary response: the desire to eat healthy this week.  I’ve had some wonderful meals out to celebrate my big day- tagliatelle with frutti di mare at Bianca, duck confit at AOC- and have been showered with gifts from delicious chocolate cake at Bee Desserts to fresh eggs from my friend Vicki’s farm.  I have cooked too- roast chicken and pecan-chocolate pie for Thanksgiving, those farm fresh eggs with butter and gruyere for a birthday morning scramble. 

Which leads me to today, where the aftermath of gluttony has joined forces with the fear of more holiday season indulgence to come.  This state of guilt and pre-guilt usually leads me to one eating solution: soup.  I want to feel soothed, fill up my belly with lighter fare, and pack in a huge dose of flavor in the process.  This soup however, though healthy, should not taste like any dieter’s soup.

I had chicken bones leftover from Thanksgiving, but not quite enough to make a full pot of stock, so I set out to enrich store bought stock instead. Browning the bones in a little oil then add them to a pot of premade chicken broth (this works for any poultry bones) is a great way to add flavor to generic chicken stock without adding much fat.

Next I went to the depths of the vegetable bin, hoping to use up odds and ends leftover from recent, more elaborate cooking.  This was the time to put that stray carrot to work or the half and onion sitting in a plastic bag.  Kale is one of my favorite soup greens, the hardy leaves stand up well to a long simmer and come packed full of vitamins and fiber- roughage whose taste is far from rough.  Cubed sweet potato, diced red pepper, sliced mushrooms, just about anything goes. 

With a richly flavorful stock and a heap of veg, all that was left was some protein and carbs to make my soup feel like a complete meal.  A little decadent meat can go a long way.  Think two sweet fennel sausages in a pot of soup that feeds 4-6 people.  But of course, leftover shredded turkey, or chicken in my case, also does the trick.  If there is not already tons of potato in the soup (I had one unused sweet potato in mine), I’ll add a small scoop of brown rice or even some leftover bread cubes to help thicken up the pot.

Rich broth plus plenty of vegetables plus a little protein plus some starch equals a guilt-free and filling post Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas meal.  A week of healthy soup and I’ll be back in form for round two of holiday eating indulgence. 

Chicken, Brown Rice, and Kale Soup
Time: 60 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

2 T. vegetable oil
Chicken bones
8 c. store bought chicken broth
1 bay leaf
2 thyme sprigs

1 half medium onion
1 clove garlic
3 cups thinly sliced kale
1 ½ c. diced sweet potato
3 T. olive oil
1 tsp dried oregano
2 cups shredded, cooked chicken
1/3 cup long grain brown rice
salt and pepper

Heat vegetable oil in a large soup pot over a medium high heat.  Add chicken bones and brown on all sides.  Add chicken stock, bay leaf, and thyme sprigs to the chicken bones.  Bring pot to a boil then reduce to a simmer.  Let simmer for 20 minutes then strain off broth.  Discard bones and herbs.  Return strained reinforced chicken stock to the stove to keep warm for the soup.

While stock is simmering, prep vegetables.  Cut onion into a small dice.  Mince garlic.  Remove woody ribs from kale then shred the leaves.  Peel and dice sweet potato.  Heat olive oil over a medium flame in a large soup pot.  Add onion and cook till softened, about 3-5 minutes.  Add garlic and cook for another 2 minutes.  Stir in kale with a bit of salt and pepper.  Keep stirring till slightly wilted, about 3 minutes.  Add sweet potato, oregano, shredded chicken, rice, and reinforced chicken stock.  Bring soup to a boil then reduce to a simmer.  Season with a bit of salt and pepper.  Cover with a lid and let simmer for about 30 minutes, until rice is tender.  Adjust seasoning if necessary with additional salt and pepper. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Monday, November 28, 2011

Food Gift Cyber Shopping: Direct From the Little Guys

I may not have been among the 226 million Americans who went shopping this past holiday weekend, but today is a different story.  Today, Cyber Monday, is a great way to get online deals and a reminder that one of the most comfortable, least stressful ways to Christmas shop is on your computer, from the comfort of your own home.

Food gifts from cookies to cheese are perennial holiday favorites, particularly when shopping for office gifts.  Sites like Williams-Sonoma and Dean andDeluca are gold standards, always there you with the requisite Tower of Treats or box of petit fours to give to secretaries.  This year Tasting Table’s shopping section is making a big push for a slice of the business and year-old Gilt Taste is in the game too with edibles ranging from gourmet macarons to gluten-free vegan brownies. 

Regardless of the offers of free shipping and special discount codes, I’m always in favor of supporting the small producer, buying direct, and giving a unique food gift to friends or colleagues in the process.  Thanks to the egalitarian World Wide Web, even the most humble candy maker in Spokane, Washington making the world’s best soft peanut brittle can take an order online and ship wherever you want it to go.  Be sure and reward yourself for clever, carefree shopping by putting a little something extra in the virtual shopping basket, destination you. 

Chocolate Honey Cakes from Bee Desserts:  I have known the proprietor of Bee Desserts for years, when her Brazilian café was serving caipirinhas and burgers and desserts were more of a personal addiction than business venture.  But Claudia struck gold in my opinion a few years back when she started to manufacture these pint-sized cakes.  With the look of a Ding Dong or brightly colored hockey puck, the cakes unwrap to reveal a hard chocolate casing surrounding a moist interior cake sweetened with honey.  With five to a box, there is more than enough to pass around an office.  Best part is these freeze well, potentially prolonging the sugar rush well past Christmas Day.  Favorites: Classic Chocolate Honey Cake and Almond Honey Cake.

Cheese and More from Beehive Cheese CompanyI first fell for the cheese from this Utah producer after one bite of Barely Buzzed, a cheddar-like cheese with the rind rubbed with coffee and lavender.  After visiting their tasting room recently, I discovered this little company does more than just cheese.  To go with the cheese Beehive does a small production of rusks, a triangular cracker made with whole grains that pairs exceptionally well with a range of cheese from the local salt and honey rubbed Seehive to Smoked Apple Walnut.  Beehive is also a huge promoter of other local artisans making everything from salami to chocolate, much of which they sell in their cute, yellow tasting room. The Party Box on the Beehive website is a good way to give a taste of everything from the region- rusks, Creminelli salami, Pepperlane Jalapeno Pepper Preserves, chocolate from Chocolot, and of course, cheese.  Favorites: Rosemary rusks, Barely Buzzed Cheese, Seehive Cheese.

Soft Peanut Brittle and Butter Toffee from BruttlesIt is remarkable I ever discovered this gem of a classic candy store in Spokane, Washington considering people who have lived there for years don’t always know about it.  The signature candy of this old fashioned shop is their soft peanut brittle.  The store shelves are lined with jars of saltwater taffy and foil wrapped chocolates.  But one cannot leave this store, online or in person, without trying the individually wrapped Bruttles.  An offspring of the popular soft peanut brittle, the best way to describe this unique candy is that it is like a homemade Butterfinger.  I have never tasted anything quite like it.  The sampler box is a nice way to try their full range of classic candies.  One thing is for sure, if you give the gift of Bruttles, you probably don’t have to worry about anyone else giving the same gift, at least this year.  Favorites: Bruttles, soft peanut brittle, butter toffee

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Friday, November 25, 2011

Getting Out, and Over the Turkey

Khao Soi Kai at Pok Pok, Portland, Oregon

While the rest of you are dreaming of turkey soup and late night sandwiches, I am fantasizing about an entirely different Day After Thanksgiving experience: eating out.  After a day heavy with starch and sugar, I wake up Friday morning craving anything other than Thanksgiving food- light and luscious sushi, crispy beef tacos, a bowl of fragrant laksa.  The best part is, particularly if you find yourself in a big city on Friday, the restaurants are empty, the usual crowds dispersed to the countryside to be with family or to the mall for Black Friday specials.  Now is the time to eat well, eat ethnic, and eat out.

Tonight, we eat at Nobu Fifty Seven, part of our “Staycation” in New York City.  It is not often you can call Nobu on a Friday night, hours before your desired dinner time and get a table for two no problem. 

I imagine this ease of getting into popular restaurants extends to other big city dining destinations.  If I had found myself in another American metropolis today, here are a few very popular restaurants serving food that is light years away from Thanksgiving cuisine, where you might just be able to snag a last minute table hours before dinnertime.

Ping and Pok Pok, Portland:  My excitement over this Portland-based mini chain of South East Asian themed restaurants can hardly be contained, and I am not alone given the lines that normally form just to get into these two restaurants.  Not specifically true to any one country, the menus span the region taking some liberties with dishes like Vietnamese style chicken wings at the otherwise Thai Pok Pok but ultimately the group of restaurants authentically represent the flavors of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia with even a tip of conical hat to Yunnan, China.  One taste of the Nonya style green beans at Ping, bathed in spicy coconut sauce and sprinkled with fried shallots, and Aunt Susan’s green bean casserole will be a distant memory.

Brasserie Beck, Washington D.C.:  If I was in DC and had some calories to spare after Thanksgiving, I’d head to Brasserie Beck.  This K Street restaurant is typically packed during the week with suits from downtown, but on a holiday weekend I imagine it clears out.  I’d start with a tart Belgian sour ale to cleanse the palate, a welcome change of pace from the flowing red wines of yesterday.  From there I’d move onto a platter of mussels plump and served up in a sizzling cast iron skillet.  Fennel and chorizo would be a bold and flavorful combo particularly nice when paired with a towering cone of crisp fries.  After so many spuds boiled, mashed, and baked, those French fries sure will taste good.

Rivera, Los Angeles:  There may be taco trucks on every corner in Los Angeles, but Latin-themed restaurant Rivera is not of that genre.  At trip to Rivera tonight comes with the benefit of almost no traffic, most people having skipped town earlier in the week, and the chance to leisurely sample from Chef John Rivera Sedlar’s ambitious menu of Latin dishes spanning three continents.  A bowl of posole gets hit with truffle and oregano.  Banana leaf wrapped pork shoulder is done pibil style but cooked à la molecular gastronomists, sous vide.  Rivera is a far cry from the taco stand and even further removed from turkey memories of yesterday.  And the Friday night of a holiday weekend in downtown LA, you might even find street parking. 

Pok Pok, 3226 SE Division Street, Portland, Oregon
Ping, 102 NW 4th Ave., Portland, Oregon
Brasserie Beck, 1101 K Street NW, Washington, DC
Rivera, 1050 S. Flower St. #102, Los Angeles, CA

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell