Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Forget the cherry on top, we want a cherry on the bottom...of the glass.

With summer upon us our thoughts turn to summer cocktails and those "white" or "light" liquors. Gin & Tonics, Mojitos and Margaritas take over for Manhattans and Sazeracs. But do not forget about our brown liquor friends. Because right now, at greenmarkets around the city, it is cherry season. Specifically sour cherry season. And why does this matter? Because I just found out how easy it is to make your own Maraschino Cherries.

I am a big bourbon fan and the Manhattan is my favorite cocktail. The finishing touch of the Manhattan is the cherry, and it always struck me that your standard Maraschino always added a touch of a Shirley Temple to a Manhattan. Not a good thing. The cocktail revolution of the past few years confirmed that for me. As bars and bartenders started ramping up their offerings, they looked not only at the liquor they were serving but the the other parts of the cocktail like ice, bitters and garnishes. Homemade bitters, cocktail onion and cherries have become essential staples of the best cocktail bars. You don't have to make your own bitters at home, but it is worth it to make your own cherries. It is easy and will will take that Manhattan to a new level.

A quick note about this recipe. This is not trying to recreate the bright red, sickly sweet Maraschinos you are used to. There are recipes out there for that. These cherries are for cocktails, not Shirley Temples and ice cream sundaes. There is no sugar in them so they are more sour than sweet. They are a deep, dark red and they are delicious. Your bourbon will thank you.

Home made Maraschino Cherries:

This recipe is for a pint of cherries but you can easily double it if you buy a quart of cherries (I did).

Ingredients -

One pint sour cherries

3/4 cup maraschino liqueur (I used Luxardo, you can use Stock as well or any other brand you can find)

Recipe -

Wash cherries then remove stems and pits.

(This is the most time consuming part. If you don't have a cherry pitter you can use a toothpick. Insert the toothpick in the cherry where the stem was and run it around the pit, then pop it out. It takes a few to get used to but you will get the hang of it.)

Gently warm the maraschino liqueur in a sauce pan over medium heat.

When it begins to simmer turn off the heat and add the cherries. Stir. Allow the mixture to come to room temperature.

Decant the cherries and liquid into a clean jar with a tight fitting lid. Done. Easy.

Store in the refrigerator. They will be ready in 2 days but they get better with age. They should last up to a year, or until sour cherry season comes around again.

Add bourbon, sweet vermouth and bitters. Enjoy!

Monday, June 25, 2012

NOLA in Williamsburg

It was hot in NYC last week. Record breaking hot. It was 97 degrees with 1000% humidity so it felt well over 100 degrees. This is the kind of weather we expect occasionally in August but not in June. When this weather hits we tend to stay indoors. But I decided to embrace the heat on Thursday. By now you know how much I love New Orleans and 100 degrees with full humidity is what they call a cool summer day down there. So jumped on the L to Williamsburg to get my NOLA on.

First stop, a return trip to Juniper. Juniper is the great Cajun restaurant I wrote about recently. What could be better on a hot summer night than eating great cajun food? I was hoping they still had their Jambalaya on the menu. They did.

Generous amounts of sausage, mussels, shrimp and chicken studded this version of the Cajun classic. The perfect balance of heat and spice (the hallmark of Juniper) make this a yet another reason to make a pilgrimage to Juniper. This was the start I needed for my evening (I also shared the catfish sandwich again and it was just as good the second time.)

With a belly full of jambalaya I was ready for the main event. Anders Osborne at Brooklyn Bowl.

Brooklyn Bowl is modeled after the legendary Rock 'N' Bowl in New Orleans. It is a great, massive space with a carnival like atmosphere. The main room is a big space with a nice stage for shows. The full bar is stocked with a nice selection of Brooklyn and local beers. Blue Ribbon does the food, delivering top notch versions of classic comfort food (fried chicken) and cajun food (oyster po' boys). And yes, there is a full bowling alley. There are those who grumble that it is not a great place to see shows but I love the place. The Alabama Shakes show I saw there was their best, so much for it not being a great live venue.

The draw for me on Thursday was Anders Osborne. Anders was born in Sweden and moved to New Orleans over twenty years ago. He has fully immersed himself in the music and culture of his adopted hometown and with his distinct voice, blistering guitar playing and strong songwriting Anders has become one of the leading artists in that town. Blues, rock and heavy doses of  swamp are the signatures of his sound.  His 2010 release American Patchwork was my record of the year and his newest record, Black Eye Galaxy, is a strong follow up.

Anders Osborne has also become one of the best live acts in a town full of them and his show at Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday was no exception. I have seen Anders a lot and I can say he has become one of the most constantly strong performers there is. His new album, Black Eye Galaxy, is one of his heaviest to date and his set on Thursday followed suit.

Backed by a crack band Anders played a tremendous 2 1/2 hour set. He was eventually joined by another guitarist, keys, sax and harmonica and performed songs from the new album, his catalog and some choice covers. It was the kind of set you see on a nightly basis in New Orleans but rarely here. To watch an artist stretching out, jamming, playing, joined by friends and going as long as the crowd wants is all you can ask for and one of the great pleasures in life. By the time I hobbled out of Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday I was exhausted and soaked, my legs ached and I was completely happy. It felt like another great night in New Orleans, except that I got to take the L train home and sleep in my own bed. It doesn't get much better than that.

Juniper - 112 Berry Street between 7th & 8th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Brooklyn Bowl - 61 Wythe Avenue between 11th & 12th Street, Willamsburg, Brooklyn

Anders Osborne - myspace -

Monday, June 18, 2012

Happy Father's Day

Father's Day tends to be a bit of a consolation prize. We know it is all about Mother's Day (deservedly so). But this year Father's Day was a good one. The only thing I ever want on Father's Day is the ability to take it easy and have no plans, no responsibility. This year, my wish came true.

I was allowed to sleep in. I was greeted with hugs and kisses and cards from my girls. I didn't have to battle for the TV. It was a beautiful day in NYC so after a leisurely morning we went outside and we wandered a bit, running into a lot of friends. The whole family went to see Men In Black 3 which was really, really good (better than expected). We hit Amarino Gelato after the movie (pure heaven). Then I got to run out to Williamsburg for a friend's open studio show while the girls went shopping for dinner. What an excellent day.

Father's Day ended on as good a note as possible. My amazing wife Karen asked me what I wanted for dinner. My choice. Despite the inundation of Father's Day recipes I had been getting all week I was not interested in steak or Manburgers or any of the supposed meals a "dad" wants. I knew what I wanted. I wanted to pretend I was back in Tulum. I wanted it to be summer. I wanted fish tacos.

One of the little blessings of where we live is that we actually have a greenmarket on Sundays. This is made even better by the fact that my favorite fish purveyor, Seatuck Fish, is at this greenmarket. I was thinking clams for an appetizer (a nod to summer on the East End end of Long Island) and fish tacos (tuna instead of the usual white fish). No tuna, no clams. No problem. We went with mussels and scallops instead. Yeah, buddy. Summer is here.

The mussels were sweet and fresh. Karen made them with some white wine, onion, garlic and butter (the secret weapon). I would have been happy if we had stopped there. Fantastic.

I had been in Trader Joe's early in the week and to my surprise and delight I discovered that they carry Narragansett beer and that Narragansett now makes a Summer Ale.

It went beautifully with the mussels.  Narragensett Summer Ale and Long Island mussels. This is summer.

As for the main course, Karen added some fresh shrimp to the scallops:

She made a mango-avocado salsa:

And I made a seafood taco:

Happy Father's Day indeed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

At long last - great Mexican food in New York City.

Despite being the best food city in the world, New York has always had one big hole in its food resume, great Mexican food. Forget traditional Mexican food, even our Tex Mex offerings disappointed. There were always one or two good places (Gabriella's) that people would travel to, but that was it. I am sure there are fans of Benny's Burritos and Mary Ann's that would disagree with me. I admit, I would convince myself that we had good Mexican food in New York, but then I would travel to Austin or LA and learn how wrong I was.

A few years ago the Times wrote a piece about how much good Mexican food there was in NYC that people never got to eat. The article detailed the elaborate Mexican meals that the Mexican kitchen staff in some of New York's top restaurants would make for themselves before tackling haute French cuisine for the restaurant's patron. Soon after reading that article I was in my local diner and the wait staff and busboys (predominately Mexicans) were all sitting down to lunch. I walked by them and discovered they were all digging in to plates of enchiladas with salsa verde. There are a lot of items on my diner's menu, that is not among them.

The Mexican landscape has improved a lot over the last few years. From La Esquina to Rockaway Taco, a number of chef's have tried hard to improve the level of New York's Mexican offerings. One of of the earliest of these chefs was Roberto Santibanez. Mr Santibanez is a native of Mexico City. He trained at Le Cordon Blue in Paris then returned to Mexico City where he had a number of acclaimed restaurants. He moved to Austin and ran Fonda San Miguel which led to his being named "Best Chef" by the Austin Chronicle. In 2002 he was hired as Culinary Director for Rosa Mexicano and started making his mark on the New York dining scene.

Mr Santibanez has returned to running his own restaurants and has opened two restaurants, both called Fonda, one in Brooklyn and one in the East Village. I recently ate at Fonda Manhattan and I can honestly say that the Mexican restaurant I have been waiting years for has finally arrive in New York, and in my neighborhood to boot.

Set on Avenue B between 3rd and 4th Street, Fonda separates itself from the pack by bucking a number of the trends of our culinary moment. Fonda sets you at ease and lets you know you are in for a good night before you even have your first bite of food.

Fonda takes reservations. The supposedly equitable trend of not taking reservations, which is really just a badge of honor for "hot" restaurants, does not exists at Fonda.

Fonda is a pretty restaurant. It has taken a typical box and turned it into a warm, fun, welcoming space. It is not a well curated mishmash of flea market finds. It is not Mexican kitsch with Mexican wrestling masks or Day Of The Dead dolls everywhere. The restaurant embraces color, but does in a tasteful, subdued way. The walls are painted a warm, pink hued red. A few well chosen pieces of artwork, plants and flowers give the room a more informal feel. A white fence along one wall in the back is a cute nod to the idea of a back patio.

I had no idea what the people at the table next to me were talking about. This is because Fonda, despite its smallish space, feels like a big restaurant. We have all been in restaurants lately that proudly feature communal tables and small tables jammed together so that you are knocking knees with the person next to you and shouting at your companion over the din. Fonda goes the opposite way. Another restaurant would try to squeeze in double the number of tables at Fonda. Fonda lets you stretch out, relax and be comfortable.

The front of the restaurant is dominated by an attractive, very oversized bar. This signals a dedication to good drinks and the ability to enjoy them with out being jostled. It also means you can be very comfortable having your dinner siting at the bar.

The night I ate at Fonda we were seated in the back room. This is where most of the seating is. We were a group of five and instead of being squeezed into a four top we were given a table for six that any other restaurant would have said was a table for 10-12. A big, comfortable banquet ran the length of the back wall on one side of the table and the other side had large, comfortable chairs. I am a big man and I cannot remember that last time a restaurant seated me in a chair that didn't feel like it was for a toddler or was going to collapse under me.

As much a I love the space, it means nothing if the food at Fonda doesn't deliver. It does.

We started with guacamole, of course.

There are people who swear by Rosa Mexicano for their guac alone. Considering that was Mr. Santibanez's doing he has a reputation to live up to and Fonda doesn't disappoint. The guacamole is served in the traditional stone bowl, made to order, and it is delicious. One nice touch is that in addition to house made tortilla chips the guacamole is also served with small, warm tortillas. Mini guac sandwiches. Yes.

Drinks. Fonda has a nice selection of Mexican beers and tequilas and a festive menu of margaritas and cocktails. I started with a Tamarindo:

Silver tequilla, tamarind nectar, orange liquor, fresh lime juice and house made Pasilla rim. Fresh, festive and refreshing, the Tamarindo puts a smile on your face and makes all the day's tensions drift away.

Fonda's menu gives a a broad overview of Mexican cooking. This is reflected in the diverse selection of appetizers which should not be missed, as you will see below. Whatever you do start with the Melted Cheese with Grilled Chorizo.

Melted Cheese with Grilled Chorizo. Do I really need to go into detail? A square cast iron skillet comes to your table with melted Oaxaca and Chihuahua cheese studded with Mexican chorizo and tomatillo-serrano salsa and soft corn tortillas on the side. This is cheese fondue as the Mayan Gods imagined. It is addictive and you will find yourself scraping up the last, crusty bits on the bottom of the pan and rolling them into tubes and to crunch on.

Next up try the Duck Zarape:

I am the first to admit I am not an expert on Mexican cuisine, but I am fairly certain that duck is not a traditional ingredient. If I am wrong, please let me know (because I love leaning new things about food, but mostly because I love duck, and I now love Mexican duck).

Two soft corn tortillas are filled with delicious, juicy braised duck then covered in a rich, thick roasted tomato-habanero cream sauce. This is pure decadence and you need to make sure you have extra tortillas to sop up every last drop of the cream sauce.

For me, few things are better than the seafood you can find on the Yucatan Peninsula. In particular I love the ceviches you can find in little seafood shacks up and down the coast. Fonda represents for the Yucatan with its Fish Salpicon:

Simplicity and beauty personified. Chopped Whitefish (breaded and fried I believe, a little twist on the usual ceviche that adds a nice crunch) with lime juice, onions, Serrano chiles and cilantro with soft corn tortillas and a green salsa on the side. This is the best way to channel Tulum in NYC that I know of.

Time to refresh my drink. This time I went with the Sandia, similar to the Tamarindo, but with watermelon juice in place of the tamarind nectar. Yeah buddy. (I like to get little fruity with my drinks in the summer. You got a problem with that? I didn't think so).

The only question remaining is do the main courses at Fonda live up to what come before. Yes indeed. Again, there is an array of traditional dishes and a few modern spins to make everyone happy.

Three different types of enchiladas cover a wide spectrum. For a modern twist try the bright, colorful and flavorful Pescado Al Guajillo.

The dish features a pan-seared fillet of the catch-of-the-day in a passion fruit sauce with potatoes and asparagus. Gorgeous on the plate and on the palate.

Cochinita Pibil, a traditional Yucatan dish, is an achiote marinated pork shoulder, slow baked so it is tender, juicy and deeply flavorful. This is really southern pulled pork. Mixiote de Pollo is bone-in chicken cooked in a parchment pouch with banana leaves, roasted tomato achiote sauce and avocado leaves. Mexican chicken stew for the soul.

All of the above are delicious and great choices. But the night I was at Fonda there was a special on offer that was going to be my personal litmus test. Pollo w/ Mole Negro.

Chicken with a dark mole sauce is my single favorite Mexican dish. I have tried it everywhere. I have had mediocre mole, good mole and a few great moles. I have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit in Mexico and the best mole I have ever eaten was in Mexico City. It was many years ago. I cannot remember the name of the restaurant, but it was in a beautiful hacienda with a center courtyard and fountain and was fairly formal. They were famous for their mole. I have finally found a mole that stands up to the one I found in Mexico City.

Tortillas are stuffed with chicken and covered in mole sauce. Fonda adds some cheese, shredded cilantro, sesame seeds. But the only thing that matters is the mole sauce, and Fonda nails it. Their mole is deep, dark and rich. There are hints of rich dark chocolate and spice. The depth of their mole is like looking into the abyss. Jump in.

There are desserts on offer, but we were to full to try them. Fonda exceeded my expectations. While only a few blocks away Empellon is being covered and written about in breathless prose, Fonda goes about its business of delivering an experience of comfort, joy and the varied flavors of Mexican Cuisine. The staff could couldn't be more friendly, professional and welcoming (no hipsters, tattoos, skinny jeans or watch caps in sight).

With Fonda Roberto Santibanez is spreading the Gospel of Mexican food. This is a master of Mexican cooking at work. That hole in New York's food reputation is officially closed.

Fonda Comida Mexicana (Manhattan) - 40 Avenue B (between 3rd & 4th Street)

Friday, June 8, 2012

The first signs of spring here in New York are the same elsewhere. Leaves and buds on the trees. Early flowers blooming. Sidewalk tables and chairs appearing at restaurants. But for those of us trolling the Greenmarkets, the first signs of spring are actual fruits and vegetables that haven't been sitting in a root cellar all winter. This takes a little more time.

For me, spotting one particular item is the starting gun for spring (and summer!). That great totem of spring is Rhubarb!

As soon as it shows up at the Greenmarket in Union Square I buy a bag load. One of the many great things about rhubarb is it freezes well. So I buy a lot and freeze it for future use. That way I have it all summer.

Once I have my rhubarb, the anticipation begins for the ultimate spring fruit, strawberries. Strawberries and rhubarb are my favorite duo. I love them in cakes, pies, crisps, cobblers, jams and compotes. They work so well together, complementing each other in taste and texture. And, finally, here in NYC, we have strawberries!

Strawberries and Rhubarb in hand, I had to make a dessert. Here is one of the simplest and delicious desserts you can make, and you will look like a star. Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp.

The beauty of the crisp is there is no dough to make. I love making pies, but on a sunny Sunday sometimes you need something quick and simple to whip up. Plus, the crisp really lets the fruit stand out. They are the stars of the show. A few simple ingredients are all you need. And it is easy to adjust up. Unlike a pie or a cake, you have a little more leeway here. The original recipe here called for 8 ounces of both strawberries and rhubarb and 8x8 baking dish. Way to small for me. I wanted to use an oval baking dish so I upped the fruit to 10 ounces and jacked the other ingredients a hair. It worked fine. You could boost this to 12 ounces of each fruit and still have a great dessert. It is hard to mess up what is essentially fruit, sugar, butter and some oats.

So here is the recipe. I promise it is simple and very, very good. Enjoy.

Strawberry and Rhubard Crisp:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Position your rack in the middle of the oven.

In a bowl combine:

10 ounces strawberries hulled and halved (quarter if the are big)

10 ounces rhubarb, trimmed, cut into 1/2 inch pieces (1 inch if you want more of the texture of the rhubarb)

A little over a 1/2 cup sugar (leave it rounded when you scoop)

1 1/4 tablespoon cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon coarse salt (I used sea salt)

Stir the ingredients until they are well combined. Pour them into an oval baking dish (I used an 8x11"). You do not have to butter or flour the dish in any way.


In a bowl combine:

1 1/4 cup rolled oats (That tube of Old Fashion Quaker Oats is fine).

A little over 1/4 cup all-purpose flour (leave it rounded)

5 ounces/tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/8 teaspoon coarse salt (I used sea salt)

Stir until combined and a just a little clumpy. Sprinkle it evenly over the fruit to cover it.

Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes. Juices should be bubbling and the topping should be a nice golden brown. Remove and let cool slightly. You can make this ahead of time and reheat for a few minutes. Devour with vanilla ice cream, fresh whipped cream or on its own.

The bounty of spring in a baking dish. This is as good as it gets. I promise you.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Stop in - Tiny's Giant Sandwich Shop

It was a beautiful day in NYC yesterday, the perfect day to wander down the L.E.S. and meet a friend for lunch. So I did. My good friend Matt and I connected and headed over to Tiny's Giant Sandwich shop on the corner of Rivington and Norfolk. New ownership has spruced up the place to make it even more comfortable but not to worry. Tiny's Giant Sandwich Shop still delivers great, inexpensive food, especially the sandwiches.

Great Sandwiches are Tiny's thing. Hot or cold, house specials or design your own, there is a sandwich to please everyone. Tiny's also offers a nice selection of salads. The addition of a high-powered espresso machine means good coffee is now an option as well as sodas (your standard fair as well a Boylans and G.U.S and their own house made sodas). Lemonade and Ice Tea round out the options. 

The space is comfortable and welcoming. Tiny's takes advantage of the corner spot with full windows on each side which makes the room sunny and bright as well as making it feel bigger than it is.

As for my lunch. I tried the house made Raspberry-Rhubarb soda. It was nice and refreshing and leaned more sour than sweet.

On the sandwich front I went with the "Spicy Rizzak":

Turkey, bacon, melted cheddar, tomato, onion, spicy chipotle mayo on a toasted sesame semolina hero. Wow. Warm, crunchy, chewy, cheesy spicy goodness. This deserves a spot on any top sandwich list. 

The list of sandwiches is extensive. I will be back to try many more. There is a curried chicken sandwich special there right now with my name on it.

Tiny's Giant Sandwich Shop - 129 Rivington Street (corner of Norfolk Street)