Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Annals of Addictive Condiments: Lok Lak

Continuing on the themes of “spices making great souvenirs” and “addictive condiments from other countries”, I was giddy with excitement last weekend when my friend Elsa handed me two small containers from her recent trip to Cambodia.  Inside container one: kampot black pepper, my favorite.  Inside the other was a spice mixture labeled “lok lak.”

Elsa, though relatively new to traveling in the developing world, has seen a lot in just the past few years.  She admits to not being much of a cook so it is was all the more surprising to hear her gush about her love for lok lak, one of the better known dishes of Cambodia. 

Admittedly, I can’t remember eating lok lak either of the times I have been in Cambodia, getting hung up instead on spicy pork stir fries and fish amok.  But as Elsa described the dish of seared, sliced beef with a peppery lime juice dipping sauce, I realized it sounded quite a bit like Vietnamese “shaking beef”. 

Bu Luc Lac, or "Shaking Beef"
Indeed, a bit of research revealed that that lok lak was most likely a variation bu luc lac, brought over to Cambodia from Vietnam by colonialists sometime in the mid twentieth century.   

But even if the origin of the dish is not truly Khmer, at least the ingredients can be.  Equal parts salt, palm sugar, and Cambodian black pepper mix together with lime juice and minced garlic to form and condiment that (yes, Elsa) is really addictive. 

Cambodian recipes call for stir-frying beef or chicken with soy and ketchup but I decided to stick to the traditional Vietnamese roots with a variation on Shaking Beef I’d done in the past.  But it wouldn’t have been the dish it was without that purely Cambodian spice mixture.  All that separates these two deeply loved dishes from two neighboring countries are a couple of letters and the world’s best black pepper.  

Shaking Beef
Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4

2 lb. rib eye or filet of beef, fat trimmed off
2 T. vegetable oil
½ large onion
3 cloves garlic
2 T. soy sauce
1 ½ T. rice wine vinegar
1 ½ T. white wine
2 tsp. fish sauce
1 tsp sugar
Cooked rice

Heat a wok over high heat.  Trim fat off beef and cut into bite sized pieces about 1 inch by 1 inch. Season beef with salt and pepper.  Thinly slice red onion and garlic then toss with the beef. In a small bowl mix soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, rice wine, fish sauce and sugar.  Heat vegetable oil in the sauté pan until smoking.  Add beef in 3-4 batches, careful not to crowd the pan. Let sit on one side without touching for 1-2 minutes until browned.  Flip to the other side and brown for an additional minute.  Remove to a plate and repeat with remaining meat.  When all meat is browned, add reserved beef and any juices back into the wok along with soy sauce mixture.  Saute for an additional two minutes until meat is warmed and liquid reduced slightly.  Garnish with cilantro leave or sliced green onion.  Serve with steamed rice and lok lak.

Lok Lak Dipping Sauce
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp palm sugar
1 garlic clove
3 T. fresh lime juice

Mix ingredients together and serve with stir fried beef, chicken, pork, or shrimp.

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, February 23, 2012

Hey Ramen Head! More Ways to Get Your Soup Noodle On

Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles in Broth, Xi'an Famous Foods
Hey there, Noodle Heads, great news: there is more to the world of noodles in soup than just ramen. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for ramen.  But there seems to be a ramen shop on every corner these days.  And after so many meals of heavy pork broth and curly wheat based noodles sometimes I’m looking to switch it up a bit.  Lucky for me, in New York at least, there are plenty of other joints where I can pull up a stool, grab a set of chopsticks, and starting slurping noodles in aromatic broth whenever a craving hits.  Here are just a few:

Soba:  I wish I could clone Cocoron in the LowerEast Side.  I love soba, I love their health conscious menu, and I love that they are open until the wee hours of the morning.  (My soba cravings seem to intensify the later and later I’ve pushed my bedtime.)  Of course, I like to balance health with, well, pork.  So I take my gluten free buckwheat soba and ask the cheery folk at Corcoron to ladle on bonito broth, sprinkle on some seaweed for green, and pile on sliced pork and kimchee for extra flavor.  Moderation in everything.

Pork and Kimchi Soba at Cocoron, NYC
Pho: New York is no Los Angeles when it comes to Vietnamese pho.  Vietnamese restaurants in New York seem to throw more of their weight behind well-executed banh mi leaving the bowls of rice noodles and rare beef that is the national dish of Vietnam as an afterthought.  But with much research, I’ve found a few places worth seeking out if only for the pho.  V33 Golden City in midtown does a respectable pho complete with fragrant, star anise laced broth.  What’s more, they score points for doing it well even on delivery.  Pho Bang is worth the Chinatown trek.  For less than $8 one can feast on a large bowl of the stuff with all the trimmings and spice it up to taste with the many condiments laid out on the table.

Xi’an Noodles: This might not be a category of noodles anywhere outside the city of Xi’an in China, with the exception of Xi’an Famous Foods in New York City. This mini chain of restaurants pays homage to the city for which the restaurant is named, mixing the spices of the Middle East that arrived in Xi’an via the Silk Road, with the wide hand pulled wheat noodles common across Northern China.  The spices with the noodles in rich both makes for one satisfying bowl of Asian noodle soup.

Cocoron                                  61 Delancy St., New York
V33 Golden City                    14 E. 33rd St., New York
Pho Bang                               157 Mott St., New York
Xi’an Famous Foods             Multiple locations, New York

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, February 21, 2012

Yes, You Can Cook Indian

Indian food can be intimidating.  Mysterious sauces, unidentifiable seasonings, potent odors.  But oh is it delicious.  Yet I’m afraid the intimidation factor keeps a lot of people from cooking it and more inclined to eat out. 

Long before Padma Lakshmi was making Indian look sexy on Top Chef, Madhur Jaffrey was helping a generation of home cooks realize that cooking Indian at home for non-Indians can be as sensuous and maybe even more satisfying than having someone cook it for you. 

Madhur Jaffrey’sIndian Cooking is my go-to resource when thinking up a lamb curry with a side of saag (spinach) for a weeknight dinner or a spread of yogurt marinated chicken and green beans when having company over, like I did last weekend.

If the combinations of lentils, rice, flat breads, and meats confuse you, rest assured Jaffrey has that covered.  Each recipe comes with suggestions of what to serve it with.  For instance, a recipe for “Lamb with Spinach” suggests serving it with a side of fried eggplant and a yogurt dish- it is a godsend for menu planning. 

As you become more proficient in the sauces and curries, a few things may become apparent.  1. In some ways, Indian sauces require less work.  For the most part, the sauces go in the blender so less time is required for the precise dicing of vegetables as you may do with more European dishes.  2. Many dishes can be prepared in advance, a boon for the host or hostess.  For instance, in “Chicken in a Butter Sauce” both the chicken in its marinade and the sauce (minus the butter) can be made a day in advance then assembled for cooking just as guests arrive.  3. If you are catering to a mixed group of veggies and meat eaters, this is the cuisine for you.  Side dishes alone can make a complete meal for a vegetarian leaving more Tandoori chicken for everyone else.  That’s what I believe is called a win-win. 

There’s a reason Jaffrey’s books remain some of the top selling books on Indian cooking almost four decades since her first book was published.  For the cost of one take out order, or 3-4 bottles of pre-made sauce, you could hold in your hands a simple step-by-step guide to creating a world of Indian cuisine at home.  Having friends over for a delicious Indian food feast that is simple and crowd pleasing, that’s not just sexy, it's timeless.

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, February 18, 2012

The Popcorn of Sri Lanka: Roasted Chickpeas

Salmon, Arugula Salad with Roasted Chickpeas
As John and I walked out of a Hindu festival in Sri Lanka last summer, carefully stepping around pilgrims with their possessions spread across the sparse grass lawn, a smell stopped us in our tracks.  It smelled like… popcorn?  Surrounded by one hundred thousand Sri Lankans, some who had journeyed by foot over three hundred miles, if we closed our eyes and just breathed deeply through our noses we could have been in an air-conditioned movie theater in Manhattan. 

When it comes to the smell of popcorn, John is Pavlov’s dog.  It took me a few moments to realize we had separated as I followed close behind our guide who was attempting to get us out of the festival before the mass exodus began. 

I called to the guide to stop.  Turning around we found John standing in front of a small street cart. 

“Is that popcorn?” John asked the guide. 

“No, not popcorn. And you cannot eat that.  You will end up in the hospital if you eat that.”

Our guide had been helping us find hoppers, a quintessential Sri Lanka street food for days.  It was completely out of character for him to tell us something from a street cart was not safe to eat.

“But it smells like popcorn!”  John insisted. 

“No.  This is chickpeas.  You cannot eat them because they are boiled in dirty water.  I once took a tourist to the hospital after he ate those.  I am sorry but I cannot let you eat it.”

Reluctantly I pulled John away from the chickpeas that smelled like popcorn. As the Sri Lankans lined up to get these bags of legumes roasted in a wok-like contraption, it was hard to imagine that something that smelled so good and so familiar could make us sick.

Roasted Chickpeas, Cauliflower, and Olives
Since that trip I have come to understand that roasted chickpeas might actually be the equivalent of popcorn for the people of Sri Lanka.  They are almost as simple to make as popcorn, they take well to a variety of seasonings, and here in the US they come free of intestinal destroying bacteria.

What’s more, you don’t even need to use water when making them for yourself, so good are the canned chickpeas one can find these days.  I simply pop open a can, rinse the beans well, season and roast.  Over the next 15 minutes a delicious smell takes over our apartment.  I am transported from my kitchen to the foyer of a movie theater, across oceans to Sri Lanka and finally back to my home, where no dirty water can stand between me and a handful of spicy, roasted chickpeas. 

Spiced, Roasted Chickpeas
Time: 20 minutes

1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
3 T. olive oil
½ tsp. smoked paprika
¼ tsp. cayenne
¼ tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 400°F. In a large roasting pan, toss chickpeas with olive oil and all the seasonings.  Roast for 15 minutes, tossing the beans on 2 or 3 occasions during the cooking time.  

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, February 16, 2012

I’m Just Saying: Parm, NYC

Meatball Hero at Parm, NYC.
 To say there has been a lot of buzz about Parm, the off-shoot of much hailed Torrisi Italian Specialties in New York City, is an understatement.  In one of his first reviews on the job last month, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells gaveParm two stars out of four.  That is a lot of stars for what is essentially an Italian-American sandwich shop. 

I’ll be the first to admit that unlike Pete Wells, I have not eaten at Parm multiple times.  But I did eat there last weekend with my brother, and one time was enough for me to understand a few simple things about this shrine to the hero. 

1.     Service. Perhaps in an effort to stay true to its Italian-American homage, service is spotty.  The waitresses, who seem to have a thing for cat-eye glasses and orangey red lipstick, paid little attention to our table save to plop down each plate as it came up.  I will give points to the hostess who managed the flow of food tourists like a seasoned air traffic controller, calling my cellphone at a bar down the street at the precise time she said she would when a table opened up.

2.     Calamari. When it comes to calamari, I like tentacles.  For my taste, this basket had too few.  But what it lacked in tentacles it made up for in a pile of sweet fried peppers mixed with the lightly breaded, but otherwise ordinary, calamari rings.   As my brother and I sparred forks over the last peppers, I almost wished our basket had been filled with just that.   

Calamari, Parm, NYC.

3.     Chicken Parm. Close my eyes, and I could have been at any cheap-o restaurant in the country eating the chicken parm hero, complete with the acrid taste of burnt oil.  You know, that bitterness that comes from a flat top that hasn’t been cleaned well enough, or a vat of frying oil that has seen too many baskets of fried things go through it?  Yeah, our chicken tasted a bit like that.  I’m just saying… that’s not a flavor you expect in from a restaurant team that is supposedly revolutionizing Italian-American food.

4.     Meatball. And then came the meatball. The meatball hero at Parm is not of any restaurant, or planet for that matter, that I have ever encountered.  The sweet, pink, melt-in-your-mouth combination of veal, beef, and Italian sausage is a revelation in meatball making.  Juicy, tender, and pink, the meat literally melted in my mouth like butter with each bite.  I will never look at a meatball the same way again.

Can a restaurant really thrive off one star-making menu item?  The burnt oil taste of the chicken parm might be forgivable and forgettable was it not so glaringly below the high bar set by the meatball.  But given the enduring popularity of red sauce Italian restaurants in this country, I doubt this one diner’s opinion will keep the hoards away.  That meatball really is something to behold, to hold, and to lustily devour.  But as for the blah calamari and chicken parm, I could find that mediocre standard anywhere you can find an Italian restaurant in this country, probably with no wait and at a fraction of the price.  I’m just saying….

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, February 14, 2012

Take-Out Thai. A Love Story.

Eating Thai in Namibia
I had spent time with John on a couple of occasions, always at events related to Room to Read, the charity he founded and I volunteered with in Los Angeles.  Each time, the next day he jetted off to some other part of the world to raise money for the millions of kids in developing countries in need of an education. 

A few days after our second charitable meet-up I received an email.  He was in Europe but would be going home to San Francisco in two weeks.  Would I like to come up from LA for a proper date?  The catch was he was only in San Francisco for 36 hours before leaving again, this time for a big event in Tokyo.  If we were going to have a real date, I would have to coordinate my arrival with his return.  I took a chance, and booked a flight.

The plan was John would arrive a couple hours before me, enough time to get in a quick run, clean up the house, and shower.  In our pre-date emailing he had let me know he’d booked a reservation at one of his favorite little French restaurants in his neighborhood.  It would be very romantic.

I was nervous.  Flying to another city for a first date with someone I barely knew?  There was a first time for everything.  I bought a new sweater, packed a bag, and hoped for the best.  I had little reason to be worried. From what I knew so far, John was great- smart, funny, handsome, athletic, well read, oh, and he was helping millions of kids around the world to have access to a better life through education.   Just that.

My flight landed early and traffic was light.  I texted John- it looked like I would arrive 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

Some drawn out seconds after ringing the doorbell I heard scrambling from up the wooden stairs.  Down came John... in a bathrobe.  Shaving cream all over his face, one hand holding his lip, he opened the door and gave me a tentative hug.  “I’m so sorry,” he said, the red of embarrassment peaking through his shaving cream splotched face.  “I cut my lip while shaving.  Now it won’t stop bleeding!”  In his rush to get ready before my arrival, the doorbell startled him and he’d sliced off a good chunk of his lower lip.

I laughed.  Maybe not the best response, but it worked, John relaxed a bit as I followed him up the stairs to the main room.  Hand still holding a towel on his lip trying to stop the flow of blood, he deftly managed to uncork a bottle of champagne, pour me a glass, and sit me down by the fire in the living room to wait while he finished dressing.

Over the next forty-five minutes we tried everything to get the bleeding to stop- ice, pressure, and finally a Band-Aid.  And through the entire process, I never stopped laughing. And after too long, he stopped being embarrassed and laughed with me.

By the time the bleeding ceased, we had long missed our reservation at the romantic French restaurant.  With just fifteen minutes until it closed we ordered in Thai from a shop down the street.  And there, sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor in front of the fire with plates of Pad See Ew and Spicy Basil Pork, we had our first real date. 

Over two years later and many Thai dinners eaten together all over the world, that is the best, and most unforgettable, first date I’ve ever been on.

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, February 9, 2012

Taste the Trip: Edible Souvenirs

Cambodian Pepper Green Curry

If you are going on a trip soon and want to bring me back a souvenir, I’ll give you a tip: when it comes to gifts, I’m cheap and I’m easy.  Just ask my boyfriend.

When John went on a work trip to Cambodia last fall just before my birthday, he returned with presents in tow.  I adored the scarf of eggshell blue silk and instantly wrapped myself up in the buttery soft pashmina of ivy and black.  But he saved the best for last: three little jars of spices- white peppercorns, green peppercorns, and red chili powder.

These Kampuchean peppers had the ability to clear sinuses with just one little sniff.  I had never been so keenly aware of the difference in smell between peppercorns until they were brought back for me direct from the source.

Over the next month we found ways to work the peppers into meals in ways both big and small.  The black pepper was coarsely ground and crusted on a flank steak.  Both peppercorns were sprinkled on salads and tossed with potatoes before roasting.  Black, white, and the red chili powder made its way into a spicy green beef curry.  Each time we cooked, we inhaled the aromas of the Southeast Asian jungle.  With each bite, we were transported far, far away from our city apartment. 

Spices are also one of my favorite souvenirs for myself.  Light and portable, they are easy to pack and simple to carry, an important factor to consider particularly if they are purchased at the beginning of a long journey.

They are the gift that keeps on giving, a literal taste of vacation long after a return home.  A bag of red salt from Hawaii, Kaffir lime leaves from Thailand, a large salt crystal from Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, and most recently, vanilla beans and nutmeg were carried all the way home from a spice farm in Bali. 

Friends will often think of edible gifts for me when returning from exotic trips. Some years ago a friend traveled to Syria and returned with a package of saffron.  It was a rare and beautiful gift from a country now plagued with violence.  I have never been to Syria but I thought of the country often as I bloomed the red threads to season paella and stirred the stigmas into broth adding vibrant color and flavor to bouillabaisse.

When it comes to gifts from travels, it is good to remember that clothing fades, jewelry breaks, and one only has so much room for African drums.  Memories may last forever, but spices, now that is a gift so good you can literally taste 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

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Cheating Allowed: Molino Spadoni Instant Pizza Flour

 I normally scorn cheating in the kitchen.  I shun the artfully packaged pre-cut vegetables that the line the shelves at Whole Foods.  And I have been known to reprimand friends who think white powder that comes in a green canister is actual cheese. 

But for every rule there is an exception and I believe I have just found a rather good one to mine on cheating at cooking.  It is called Pizza Gran Sapore from Molino Spadoni- essentially pre-leavened flour that is designed for simple assembly of homemade focaccia and pizzas.

Anyone who ever bought a Boboli crust knows finding a way to cheat on the pizza dough is nothing new.  Part of it is convenience- a premade crust saves about 40 minutes of mixing, kneading, and rising- but it is also the fickle nature of yeast, that all important bread ingredient.  Yeast is alive so quality means everything. Those little packets of Fleischmann’s on the store shelf could have been there so long the yeast has long since kicked the bucket.  And high quality yeast is often expensive and only available in large quantities.  If you are not baking bread every day, there will almost certainly be waste.  

Enter the discovery of this Italian instant pizza dough flour I picked up at Buon Italia in New York’s Chelsea Market.  The directions were all in Italian, a language I know little more than “ciao”, but I could make out from the pictorial that all I needed to do was add warm water, mix, and roll out. 

Surprisingly, it worked exactly like that.  The dough is breadier than yeasted pizza dough I’ve made in the past but each cup of the flour with about 2/3 cup warm water yielded smooth, pliant dough that pressed out nicely into a 10 inch round.  A couple of trials revealed that due to its more focaccia-like nature, this dough cooked more evenly at a slightly lower temperature (450°F) and for a longer cooking time (about 15-18 minutes) than your average yeast dough.

Fifteen minutes later
Overall, for the effort and outcome it was definitely worth the cheat.  Less than five minutes to mix the dough, ten to let it rest, and fifteen to bake, it was almost less hassle than ordering in.  And if I really wanted to cheat, and only a thin crust New York style could satisfy my pizza craving, Bleecker Street Pizza is only a phone call away. 

Note: A Google search revealed no apparent online retailers of this instant pizza flour.  But the Molino Spadoni brand does appear popular with Italian markets.  Either ask for it at your local Italian market, or try special requesting through Buon Italia’s mail order business.

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, February 3, 2012

From Un-drunk Wine to Luscious Winter Stew

Leftover Beef Stew, Even Better on Day Three
This was a very winey week.  So much so in fact, at one point I realized there were four bottles of partially consumed red sitting around the kitchen that we probably weren’t going to finish drinking.  There was nothing wrong with them per se, not corked or oxidized, we were just done with them.  Palates bored with one we were ready to move on to something new.

I have a few solutions when I find myself in this situation. 

1.     Dump the bits down the drain.
2.     Push the wines on unsuspecting guests while you open up a newer, more desirable bottle for yourself.
3.     Cook with it.

I don’t like waste and my friends are savvy enough to figure out if I was pushing off mediocre, several day old wines on them so Option 3 it was.  Lucky for me, these long winter months are just the sort of days that beg for meats braised in red wine.  I dusted off my Julia Child tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and got to work on beef bourguignon.

Anyone who has watched Julia Child’s classic PBS cooking shows knows the queen of American French food was anything but fussy.  But when it comes to beef bourguignon, I’m even a little less precious than her.

Beef Stew- Day One
Rather than going through the business of draining off the cooking liquid, discarding the aromatics- onion, celery, carrot, garlic- then reducing the liquid by itself only to put the beef back in when it is thick and viscous, I just keep it all together.  After 2-3 hours of cooking, thinly sliced onions have melted down to silken, sweet strands so no need to discard that.  The carrots and celery are a matter of taste.  I don’t mind the mushy carrots but many people do.  In that case I just cut them large enough they are easy to pick out with tongs.

In fact, I so don’t dislike veg in my beefy, winey, winter stew, I actually add more toward the end of cooking.  All the root vegetables that don’t do much for me in normal cooking life- rutabagas, parsnips, kohlrabi- are magically transformed in this dish to sweet, tender-crisp cubes that, if they don’t add much color, make a nice flavor and textural contrast to the buttery beef.  When the beef is molten and the newly added veg just cooked, I take off the lid on my Dutch oven, crank up the heat for a few minutes, and let the liquid bubble down till it’s nice and thick.

As an added bonus, dishes like this actually benefit from time lounging around the refrigerator or freezer.  So if I’m cooking for one or two, no need to worry about waste, I just pack it up and store it for a snowy day. 

If there is one extra Julia step worth taking, it’s the addition of some nice, fat cubes of bacon, what the French call lardons.  I happened to have some bulk pancetta from the local Italian market lying around and this worked just fine.  Browned at the beginning then saved to sprinkle over the finished stew at the end, it was a touch worth the extra five minutes of effort.

As for all that wine, I did pretty good work.  Three partial bottles made their way into the pot where, as if they were touched by the fairy godmother of the kitchen, they magically transformed- limp, discarded drinking wines became a glorious, full-bodied sauce coating cubes of fork-tender beef, sweet root vegetables, and salty pancetta.  I think Julia would have approved.

Not Quite Bourguignon- Beef and Wine
Time: 2.5-3 hours
Yield: 4-6 servings

4 ounces thick cut bacon or bulk pancetta
2 lb. beef stew meat cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large onion
1 large carrot
2 celery ribs
3 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
1 T. chopped rosemary
1.5 T. flour
1 cup chopped tomatoes with their juices, canned
3 cups red wine
2 cups beef broth, water or chicken broth
2 medium parsnips
1 large or two small kohlrabi
2 T. butter
4 oz. cremini mushrooms
Egg noodles

Cut bacon or pancetta in thick, 1 inch pieces.  Heat a large Dutch oven on the stove over a medium flame.  Add bacon or pancetta and let cook, rendering the fat for about 10 minutes until pieces are browned on all sides and crisp.  Remove bacon or pancetta and let drain on paper towels.  Leave fat in the pan.
While bacon is cooking season beef cubes on all sides with salt and pepper.  Turn the heat up slightly, and add half the beef to bacon drippings.  Brown on all sides.  Remove first batch of beef to a plate and repeat with second batch (add additional oil if necessary). 

While beef is browning, roughly slice the onion.  Peel carrot and cut into several large pieces.  Cut celery into several large pieces.  When second batch of beef is browned remove that to the plate along with the first batch.  Reduce heat to medium.  Add onions, carrots, and celery to the meat drippings in the Dutch oven. 

Peel and crush garlic.  Add garlic, bay leaf, thyme and rosemary to the vegetables.  Sweat veggies for about five minutes total until onion is softened.  Add beef back into the pot with the veg and sprinkle over the flour.  Stir the mixture to coat the flour over everything.  Cook for just about two minutes stirring frequently.  This will cook the flour taste out of the flour.  Add the wine and crank the heat to high.  Use a wooden spoon to scrape the bits off the bottom of the pan.  Add the beef broth (or water or chicken broth), the tomatoes, and a little extra salt and pepper.  Bring the mixture to a boil then reduce the heat to medium low.  Put a lid on the pot and let simmer for 2 hours, until the meat can be cut with a fork. 

About 45 minutes before the meat is done, peel parsnips and kohlrabi.  Cut both into pieces about 1 inch by 1 inch.  Add these to the pot after the meat has been simmering for about 1. 5 hours. 

Clean mushrooms and cut into halves or quarters.  Heat butter in a large sauté pan over a medium flame.  Add mushrooms.  Sauté until browned on both sides, adding a bit of salt and pepper at the end.  Toss the reserved bacon in with the mushrooms and set pan aside. 

When meat is soft and root vegetables are tender but not overcooked, discard bay leaf and celery and carrot if desired.  Remove the lid.  If liquid is not reduced to a desired thickness, turn the heat up to high and boil it down till thick.  Adjust seasoning as desired with salt and pepper.  While stew is finishing, chop parsley and cook egg noodles according to package directions.  Toss cooked and drained noodles with a bit of butter.  Reheat mushrooms and bacon.  To serve, spoon stew over noodles, garnish with mushrooms, bacon, and chopped parsley. 

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, February 1, 2012

When the Wine Chose the Food: Casa Lever

Brunello di Montalcino, Poggio Antico, 1990

 We chose the restaurant.  They chose the wine.  The wine chose the meal.  That is how dinner went down last Friday at Casa Lever in New York.

We’ve all had those nights where we look at the menu and instantly feel a pang of desire for the fish dish.  Maybe it’s a nicely charred whole branzino.  Perhaps it is a meticulously prepared black cod in an envelope of paper-thin potatoes à la Daniel Boulud.  Or maybe it’s just a simple Colorado trout with cornmeal crust.

And against our better judgment, in addition to that light white fish, we also long for a hearty red wine.  Sometimes we give in, to the detriment of the wine and the fish, neither tasting exactly as they were intended.  But we eat happy nonetheless.

Friday was not one of those nights.  The wine won, and we were happy for it.

To celebrate John’s birthday, friends Dave and Elsa were taking us out to dinner.  Knowing that all parties involved love Italian food, and fresh off a rave review from a trusted friend, we suggested Casa Lever in midtown.

The last time I stepped foot in that restaurant space it was called the Lever House, a restaurant famously lampooned for its Star Trek circa William Shatner interior.  With its resurrection as an Italian restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised by the change of space.  The pod-like booths still line the left wall but the colors have softened, warm woods and gentle lighting make the restaurant genuinely inviting. 

Whole Wheat Gnocchi with Filet Mignon and Cherry Tomato Sauce
Dave is a lover of Italian wine so the list went right to him.  As fate would have it, one of the bottles on the list came from a winery where our dining companions had experienced one of the most memorable meals of their life.  After consulting with the sommelier in hushed tones, a bottle of the 1990 Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino was ordered up.  For fondly remembering the past and creating new happy memories, this would be a special bottle for the whole table.

To pair with a Sangiovese of this age, with a rounded mouth of dark fruit and a smooth lingering taste on the palate, there would be no fish entrée.  As intrigued as I was by the spaghetti with Santa Barbara sea urchin, crab, and peperoncino, it would have to wait for another visit.  This wine called for meat. 

I have to thank Dave and the wine for my main course selection.  Were it not for Dave’s wine choice I might never have ordered the whole wheat gnocchi, a dish that defied the imagery that “whole wheat” conjures of dense, health food. These morsels were fluffier than any pillow I’ve ever laid my head on.  But it was the sauce that truly complimented the nuance and depth of the wine- bits of filet mignon, seared just till cooked but still tender, were tossed in with an intensely concentrated sweet tomato sauce balanced with the sharp bite of grated Pecorino cheese. 

I am not often one for giving up control on a meal, but this time I was happy to oblige.  If Dave could choose the wine and the wine could choose the food, I might never drink hearty reds with fish again. 

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