WastED: a Culinary Revolution In the Making

I ate garbage for dinner the other night – and I liked it. What’s more, I paid for it. Welcome to WastED, a Manhattan popup designed to do what its name implies: educate about waste, and in this case, food waste.

For a short two weeks, the restaurant Blue Hill in the West Village transformed into sustainable food haven for all things edible. Food scraps that normally get thrown out (the stems, the bones, the skins, the pulps, etc.) are transformed into palatable dishes. The message you receive isn’t overtly political or preachy; it’s just delicious and innovative. What’s more, each night featured a different big-deal chef from a cast of heavy-hitters like Sean Brock, Grant Achatz, April Bloomfield, Alain Ducasse, Dominique Ansel and many more.

The menu itself is a hilarious read about a motley crew of vegetal misfits. On it you’ll find descriptions like “unfit potatoes,” “reject carrot mustard,” “yesterday’s oatmeal,” and “second-class grains.” There’s even “dog food,” which is actually a meatloaf made of ground up meat offcuts that the company usually uses to make a gourmet dog food.

The ambiance supports the cause. Swaths of curtain-like tapestries adorn the walls, which are essentially drop-cloths farmers use to shield their crops. Even the tables have been constructed from a mixture of compostable and other materials.  When asked about the ramifications about a mushroom allergy, the waitress says it won’t be a problem with the food, but that the tables are partly made of mushrooms. Upon inspection, the interiors do indeed have a spongy, Styrofoamy texture.

After ordering a Boiler Maker comprised of “bourbon, flat beer syrup, and spent coffee ground bitters,” we are inducted into this most out of the ordinary meal with an earthy, rustic brown bread that the waitress flipped onto our table with sleight of hand and a burlap napkin. The bread, we are told, is made with leftover beer mash – think the grains that are used to make beer – and accompanied by whipped lardo as a spread and liquid beef tallow, which to our surprise she pours from the candle giving our table a lovely glow.

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Next it’s onto the first of five courses. “Dumpster Dive Vegetable Salad,” comprised of pistachios, peelings of damaged storage apples and pears is fresh and delicious with the creamy tang of the dressing, the crunch of the nuts, and the intriguing foam made from leftover chickpea water (you know, the stuff you normally drain from the can).

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Next comes the “Rack of Black Cod,” the remnants of a poorly fileted fish that normally would be chucked out, though a fair bit of meat still clings to the bones. The fish is tender and pleasantly oily, and complements the delicious, faintly sweet “carrot top marmalade” – a judicious use of the part of the carrot that’s usually thrown away (I’m more mindful of this now – last night I used the green tops of my carrots as a garnish rather than sourcing a whole separate herb).

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Mario Batali is the star power supporting the concept on this particular night, and we (okay, I) gape in awe as he strides purposefully toward the kitchen, flaming red hair pulled back, clad in his signature orange clogs and followed closely by an entourage of videographers and microphones. His contribution is the third dish, a cannelloni of faux ragu with pigs ear Bolognese. It’s phenomenal, and a testament to why this man dominates the Italian scene in New York City.

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Next up is the “Juice Pulp Cheeseburger,” made from the spent vegetal byproduct acquired by lots of juicing. It’s served with “cucumber butts, bruised beet ketchup, ReConsider cheese and repurposed bread buns,” and while hearty and satisfying tastes much like your run-of-the-mill tofu-esque veggie burger.

You find your fork wandering to your companion’s plate, where the combination of “pork belly, carbonized pig bones, Cornell dropout squash, and waste kraut” is a powerful and delicious lure.

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What to do about the dessert conundrum? Will it be Charred Pineapple Core with candied mango skin and lime leaf ice cream or the Milk Oat Ice Cream Sundae? The sundae wins out, with sweetly savory candied vegetable pulp (that yes, tastes good – like a sweet beetroot syrup), a funky fermented cherry, and caramel with walnuts and almond biscuit. If it were permissible to lick the rim of a sundae glass in a restaurant, it would have happened.

It’s a new era of eating.

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Slam Dunk for Podunk

This is the real deal. It’s not well-known, like the Russian Tea Room, lauded for its butter-squirting chicken and presumably the tea, but it’s light years better. This is why you need to seek out locals when visiting someplace new; the tourist traps tend to be just that: traps. Podunk in the East Village is half the price and twice as charming.

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The woman who owns the tearoom relies on word of mouth and has gained such a loyal following that when she broke her wrist last year the college students, book-clubbers and other regulars volunteered for more than 10 weeks to help her out. Without their generosity of spirit, she would have had to close her doors.  

The place is petite and charming, and the blog on Web site paints a picture of the atmosphere: Echoes of the tea lady’s inner musings are recorded in her prose, along with snippets of conversation she overhears as she navigates the closely packed tables serving warm, flaky scones and pouring more hot water into swirling tea leaves. It’s a gastronomical and anthropological slice of life in New York.

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As for the food? Ladylike fingers of crustless cucumber sandwiches are layered with sweet butter, mild and perfect in their simplicity. The cakes are delightfully crumbly, begging to be slathered with the accompanying sweet cream and jam. The cookies are like your mom used to make, and the cheese biscuits are little savory wafers of satisfaction. Oh yeah, and the tea is pretty good too.

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Guinness Chocolate Cupcakes with Bailey’s Irish Cream Icing

I love holidays, big and small. Some come with a great deal of obligation, like Christmas and Valentine’s Day, and I jump on the bandwagon and celebrate accordingly, making Christmas cookies or candies and something chocolatey for Valentine’s Day (a chocolate soufflé with raspberry sauce this year).

I adore Thanksgiving and start planning my menu weeks in advance. As a kid I got uncharacteristically competitive with the chocolate Easter egg hunt, and as an adult I just couldn’t quite let it go… so now my better half and I devise a chocolate egg hunt for each other each year.

But there’s something to be said for the holidays that are just silly and fun, and don’t require a whole lot of commitment. On Cinco De Mayo you best believe you’ll find me salting my margarita rim. Halloween is my all-time favorite, and I could wax poetic for pages about caramel apples and pumpkin flavored everything.

So of course I love St. Patrick’s Day too, the one bright spot during March — that fickle month that toys with my emotions. One day it’s sunny and you only need a light jacket; you might even spy some tender green stems poking out of the earth. The next you’re pulling out your wool coat and boots again, after you were sure they were banished to the back of the closet til next year, as snowflakes swirl around you. You’re such a tease, March.

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I like parades, wearing green eyeshadow, and beer; I enjoy making the traditional soda bread and corned beef with cabbage and potatoes that morphs into corned beef hash for breakfast the next day, but I love these Guinness chocolate cupcakes with Bailey’s Irish Cream icing.

Guinness Chocolate Cake

*Adapted from Epicurious

Preheat the oven to 365.

Send your better half to the store if he drank the Guinness earmarked for cake. You know who you are.

Melt two sticks of butter with 1 1/3 cups of Guinness in a pot; when the butter is melted, whisk in 1 ½ cups sifted cocoa powder. Stir in 2 tsp. vanilla extract. Let cool slightly.

Sift together 2 cups of flour, 2 cups of sugar, ½ teaspoon salt, and 1 ½ tsp. baking soda.

In a large bowl, whisk together two eggs and whisk in 1 ½ cups of sour cream.  Whisk the beer/chocolate mixture into the sour cream mixture quickly, in a steady stream. Fold in the dry ingredients, then fill a paper-lined cupcake tin almost to the brim with batter. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Bailey’s Irish Cream Icing

Soften 8 ounces of cream cheese and 4 tablespoons of butter. Cream them together and sift in 2 to 2 ½ cups icing sugar. Cream together, then stir in a teaspoon of vanilla extract and about 4 tablespoons of Bailey’s. Resist the temptation to start digging in with a spoon.

When the cupcakes are cool fill a piping bag fitted with a star tip (or a large Ziploc freezer bag with one of the corners snipped) with the icing. (If the icing is too soft, you may want to stick it in the fridge while the cupcakes finish cooling.) Start at the outside edge and pipe with even pressure, swirling toward the center.

Dust with green sugar or edible glitter.

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NYC Restaurant Week Part 3: Lunch at Brasserie

Restaurant week has come and gone. It was a fleeting three weeks where you could get dinner at participating restaurants for $38, and $25 at lunch, both for three courses.

Stop #3 for me was Brasserie, located in Midtown East. It’s hard to shovel in three courses in 60 minutes during a weekday lunch hour, but I rallied.

I once read somewhere that thick, chunky, soups – you know, with noticeable whole vegetable pieces – were considered peasant food. I happen to like them, but the French seem to be fond of the puree. When I ordered this potato and leek soup, I envisioned the rustic version with potato pieces peeking out, skins still on.

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This was the other variety: pleasant and silky smooth, lacking that textural oomph and flavor that the peasant variety provides.  But to be honest I couldn’t tell you if it was potato or rutabaga. It was just generally pleasant and vegetal. The pine nuts on top? Weird. What are they doing here?

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This rendition of coq au vin wasn’t the best I’ve ever had (the best, of course being following Julia Child’s recipe to a T), but hearty and satisfying with the rich wine gravy and tender chicken. The mushrooms clearly weren’t sautéed and cooked down to concentrate their earthy flavor, but let’s not split hairs here.

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The best came last: These beignets were crisp, sweet, and light and airy enough to eat the whole plate even after the substantial coq au vin. Slathering them in chocolate sauce doesn’t hurt either. There aren’t too many ways sugar-coated fried dough can fail me.

Yes, you have to take restaurant week with the proverbial grain of salt. Some places may try to cut corners, some may try to serve you trumped-up leftovers.  But you can’t beat the price, and it’s still a chance to dine in otherwise unattainable restaurants, and for that alone I’ll take the gamble again this summer.

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NYC Restaurant Week Part 2: David Burke’s Kitchen

It’s not restaurant week anymore, but David Burke’s Kitchen thinks the tradition is so fabulous that they’ve extended it through March 13th.  Just to reiterate, this magical event occurs twice a year, during summer and winter, and what’s even better is it’s not actually a week, it’s THREE. For $38 at dinner and a mere $25 at lunch, you can enjoy three courses at participating restaurants.

Moving on to Restaurant #2 in this mini-series is David Burke’s Kitchen in SoHo. I really enjoyed my first David Burke experience, where we ate wacky dishes like candied bacon on a clothesline and s’mores cake. 

But while the descriptions at Kitchen made me drool, the execution felt lacking. I began to feel the initial sparkle of restaurant week dim a little and view it anew as perhaps an unscrupulous mirage.  Might it not necessarily be a humble and economic way to try restaurants you might normally be intimidated by, but rather a vehicle for said restaurants to get you in the door, feed you their leftovers-turned-“specials” and ply you with alcohol to up the bill? I started to feel a bit suspicious at Kitchen.

I ordered the Lobster Dumpling soup, hoping it would be reminiscent of the same dumplings at David Burke’s Fabrick, which were plump and resplendent with sweet lobster meat and tropical flavors of coconut, Thai basil and papaya.

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For the soup, the menu listed “melted celery,” celery root, black truffle, roasted chestnut, and brussels sprouts. But it was all just kind of “meh” in a thin, one-note muddy soup where nothing really stood out. The one morsel of lobster dumpling, tasty as it was, couldn’t make up for what the rest of the dish lacked.

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Pan roasted scallops with pickled onions, cheese and squash were perfectly fine, but didn’t hold a candle to the perfectly seared, meaty scallops at Jane earlier in the week (review forthcoming).

It was the toasted coconut tart (not pictured) that caused our smiles to droop, with its thick, gummy filling and cardboard-like shell. Upon alerting the wait staff, they looked dutifully abashed and admitted that with the numbers of people that restaurant brings in, not everything is necessarily made from scratch, and yes, some shortcuts are taken, such as the bought-in coconut tart shells.

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Though the person who had ordered the tart claimed he didn’t need or even want dessert (he’d just ordered it because all restaurant week menus are three parts: appetizer, entrée and dessert), the waiters, to their credit, simply insisted on sending out this “monkey bread.” It was like breakfast sticky buns on steroids: a confection held together by caramel and carbs, studded with pecans and rich roasted banana flavor that ended meal with a positive impression after all.

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And for the two of us remaining, we went for the cheesecake lollypop tree for two, with all its whimsical trappings. It may not be the best dessert I’ve ever eaten, but it was undeniably fun to make a childhood fantasy come true and pluck treats from a dessert tree.

Next up: The hustle and bustle and nail-biting anxiety of trying to cram three courses into a midweek lunch hour in midtown at Brasserie.

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NYC Restaurant Week Part 1: Butter

It’s restaurant week!!! Unbeknownst to me until recently, this magical event occurs twice a year, in the heat of summer and the doldrums of winter, and what’s even better is it’s not actually a week, it’s THREE. For $38 at dinner and a mere $25 at lunch, you can enjoy three courses at participating restaurants.

In this mini-series of writteninchocolate eating with reckless abandon during restaurant week, we start off with Butter in midtown. Because what’s better than butter?

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These rolls come pretty darn close. Flaky and light, these pull-apart rolls come adorned with a smattering of sea salt and quenelles of the restaurant’s namesake. They were so good we asked for seconds, and basically ignored what would otherwise be a very good piece of regular fresh bread in the basket.

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Mushroom soup: perhaps not so exciting, but when your better half is severely allergic to all fungi, a benign vat of soothing mushroom soup becomes a rarified treat. This didn’t disappoint: Creamy and rich without overpowering the earthy flavors of the mushrooms, of which there were plenty.

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What I would have gotten if mushrooms were a mainstay in my cupboard:  cauliflower salad with assertively tangy dressing that mellows out with the addition of golden raisins, so welcome in their  sweet respite that they don’t offend even a die-hard raisin hater (yours truly). It wasn’t as tiny as it looks.

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Mahi Mahi, perfectly cooked in a buttery (I see what’s going on here), herbaceous sauce over tender, vibrant braised red cabbage with some greenery for good measure on top.

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Crème caramel, a restrained variation of its richer, more decadent cousin, crème brulee. This winter variety, with its candied citrus, pomegranate seeds and toasted almonds was sweet and creamy enough to mollify a raging sweet tooth, but light enough  to enable me to finish the whole thing. Nothing worse than getting full just in time for the best course, amiright?

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The only slight wrinkle on an otherwise smooth as butter evening: uninspired, slightly dry chocolate cake, perked up by some richly smooth dulce de luche ice cream and a pink peppercorn topping for some snap crackle and pop.

Waitstaff is indifferent at best, but hey, you’re getting a deal so just swallow your frustration with your deliciously golden, flaky rolls.

Next up: David Burke Kitchen in SoHo, where cheesecake grows on trees and waiters tell you the truth about exactly how much love went into your restaurant week dish.

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Cajun Salmon with Okra, Collards, and Cornbread

This method and list of ingredients looks rather long, but if you already have barbeque sauce and Cajun seasoning, it’s a snap, and so, so delicious.

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Barbeque Sauce

Our particular barbecue sauce had a base of store-bought, jazzed up with soy sauce, liquid smoke, worchestershire  sauce, honey, brown sugar, hot mustard, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, and a healthy pour of bourbon. Let it reduce slowly for two hours, then taste to adjust seasonings and add salt and pepper.

Store-bought Cajun seasoning would be perfectly fine, but I made my own:

Cajun Seasoning

2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. garlic powder

1 tbsp. paprika

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp. onion powder

1 tsp. cayenne powder

1 ½ tsp. dried oregano

1 ½ tsp. dried thyme

½-1 tsp. dried red pepper flakes – optional, but not really. We are making Cajun after all.

Southern-Style Cornbread

The cornbread is based on Sean Brock’s version, which he serves at Husk and you can drool over on Mind of a Chef. No flour, just cornmeal.

½ package of bacon, diced as small as you can make it.

2 cups cornmeal, good quality stone ground yellow cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/4 cups whole milk buttermilk

1 large egg, lightly beaten

¼ cup maple syrup

  1. Preheat your oven to 450°F. Put a round cast-iron skillet (or other heat-proof pan) in the oven to heat up while you make the cornbread.
  2. Preheat another skillet and cook the bacon over medium heat until crispy, then drain over paper towels and reserve the fat.
  3. In a bowl, stir together the dry ingredients. Once drained, stir in the bacon bits. Add all but a spoonful of the bacon fat to another bowl and whisk in the buttermilk, maple syrup and egg. Make sure the fat has cooled a bit and the buttermilk has warmed up a bit at room temperature so the fat doesn’t solidify again upon coming in contact with the buttermilk. Stir the two mixtures until combined.
  4. Remove the skillet from the oven and add the remaining bacon fat and swirl around to distribute it, keeping the pan over high heat on the stove. Pour in the batter – it should hiss and sizzle when it hits the pan.
  5. Bake for about 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. The top will be yellow but the bottom will be a deep, burnished brown.

Maple Butter

Soften some butter and stir in some maple syrup slowly until it tastes like maple syrup. It really is that easy. Just make sure you add it slowly, so the ingredients have a chance to emulsify. Smear the butter on the cornbread just before serving.

Salmon

Rinse your salmon or other fish pieces (the picture is actually halibut, but when we made this a second time it was better with salmon), pat dry, and oil them with olive oil. Sprinkle on a thin layer of Cajun seasoning evenly and let come to room temperature. Pan-fry in olive oil or bacon fat until medium rare (or however you like it).  If you want, keep the salmon skin in the pan and crank it up to high heat and cover with a lid – because believe you me it will splatter hot bacon grease. Cook until crispy and reserve. This goes great as a crunchy topping on  the fish.

Collard Greens & Okra

Rinse and de-rib the collard greens, then cut into 2-inch wide strips. Rinse and slice the okra on a diagonal, discarding the stems. Cook the okra on medium high heat in olive oil or bacon fat until it begins to soften. Add the okra and cook until bright green and it starts to wilt. Remove from heat and sprinkle in Cajun seasoning to taste.

Arrange it all prettily on a plate and smother in barbeque sauce.

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