cassole/cassoulet

cassouletIf you’ve read this blog for a while you’ll know that cassoulet ranks as something of a minor obsession of mine. Named for its traditional cooking vessel, the cassole, a deep, round earthenware pot characterized by slanting sides, this rich, slow-cooked, casserole of meat and beans has its origins in Languedoc. Especially the towns of Toulouse, Carcassonne, and Castelnaudary, which each claim ownership of the dish and invoke minor variations on what is essentially a peasant stew assembled out of leftovers: Toulouse substitutes a local garlicky saucisson, while Castelnaudary trades duck confit for the more traditional mutton, and in Carcassonne, as I learned onboard le bateau yesterday, duck gets replaced with partridge. In the end it’s six of one: all are made with white beans, confit, sausage, and additional meats. And all soothe the soul on a cold winter’s evening like good comfort food is supposed to do. The only hitch yesterday was the weather. A heavy stew isn’t quite as inviting when the thermometer inches up into the 80’s. Not that I let that stop me.cassole

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in waterclosets lie secret codes

Or not-so-secret as the case might be at Jones Wood Foundry, a new gastro pub on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the bathroom walls are scrawled not with graffiti, but recipes for classic British comfort foods like Mulligatawny Soup and Sticky Toffee Pudding. It seems WC is now shorthand for What’s Cooking. What that means for Toad in the Hole, I can only imagine.

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live blog: hey, pie face

Yet another new transplant on David Letterman’s Late Show stretch of Broadway, Pie Face is an Australian fast-casual cafe specializing in savory pies with a flaky pastry crust and authentic fillings like chunky steak, minced beef & tomato, bacon, egg & cheese, and Thai chicken.  For all you Downton Abbey fans, think of them as the chain gang version of a Cornish Pasty, the half-moon shaped pie popular among the working classes for its unique pocket-friendly shape – and that it could be eaten without cutlery. (for my Latin readers: empanadas) Available as a Stack Box, which means topped with gravy and a “smash” of spuds & peas, this is the kind of comfort food destined to wreck resolutions. What really frightens me in this carb-free world, however, is the appearance on the menu of sausage rolls, an infinitely more satisfying cousin to the pig-in-blanket. A guilty pleasure of mine heretofore restricted to accompanying the occasional plate of chips and beans while in Ireland, I fear that – situated a scant street away from my office – sausage rolls might prove to be my undoing.

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playing with fire

BlueFire Grill is by far one of highlights at La Costa. Under the assured hand of Chef de Cuisine, Greg Frey, the casually upmarket restaurant serves a more modern take on locally inspired cuisine –  emphasizing seafood and seasonality. Baja Ceviche is a standout, mixing halibut, stone crab, and persian cucumber in a carrot and citrus reduction. So, too, is the Fritto Misto, enlivened with a togarashi-flecked crust and smoked garlic remoulade. Pacific Chinook Salmon is as you’d expect: crisp-skinned and perfectly cooked. The addition of cauliflower sauce and a winter squash gratin turn the dish into the SoCal equivalent of comfort food – as perfect for a chilly January night as a favorite cashmere sweater. (Special diets are surprisingly well-served, too: almost half the menu is either vegan or vegetarian while nearly everything can be prepared gluten-free.) Dessert doesn’t disappoint either. A chocolate caramel creme fraiche tart is decadent and rich, while two scoops of blackberry Cabernet sorbet make for a refreshing end to the meal – as well as a clean finish on the palate.

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cassoulet bonne femme

Many home cooks get gun-shy when it comes to French food, having neither the time nor expertise to execute a multi-pan exercise in precision. Yet as Wini Moranville makes clear in her new book, “The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day,” Americans needn’t be afraid of French cooking. They just need to learn the bonne femme style. With a focus on fresh, tasty ingredients and a generosity of spirit, this is French cooking without fuss or fear. Now that the typical bonne femme works outside of the home just like her American counterpart (and now that French men, like their American frères, are often in charge of getting dinner on the table), Moranville’s emphasis is on easy techniques and speedy preparation in a book which shows everyday chefs that it’s possible to feast like the French, without breaking the bank or spending all day in the kitchen. A sterling example of how her recipes reflect the way real French families eat today is this Pork and White Bean Cassoulet Ce Soir, an any night stove-top take on cassoulet, the famous southwestern-France stew of white beans simmered with sausage, pork, and duck confit. While not the three-day extravaganza of a true cassoulet, this version is nevertheless a perfect expression of the book’s everyday spirit. I tried it this weekend so I can promise you it offers a good helping of the warmth and comfort that cassoulet brings – easily done in just a day.  With a crusty loaf of bread and a spicy bottle of Gigondas, it proved the perfect foil to the coming threat of snow.

2 cups dried Great Northern beans, rinsed and picked over

8 cups water

2 to 2 1/2 pounds bone-in country-style pork ribs, cut in half crosswise

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped (about 3/4 cup)

1 small onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)

3 large garlic cloves, minced

1/2 teaspoon dried herbes de Provence, crushed

1/2 cup dry sherry

3 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained

12 ounces sweet Italian sausage links, cut crosswise into six pieces

1. Soak the beans in the water overnight; drain and set aside. (Or, place the beans and the water in a large Dutch oven. Bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour. Drain and set aside.)

2. Season the ribs with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven. Add the ribs and cook, turning occasionally, until brown on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes Transfer to a plate. Cook the bacon in the pan until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain.

3. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan. Add the bell pepper and onion and cook, stirring, until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and herbes de Provence and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

4. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the sherry and return the pan to the heat. Bring to a boil and boil, stirring to loosen any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until the sherry is reduced by half, about 1 minute. Add the beans, bacon, chicken broth, and drained tomatoes to the Dutch oven; top with the ribs. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover tightly, and simmer for about 1 hour (the ribs will not quite be done at this point).

5. After the ribs have cooked for about 45 minutes, heat the remaining 2 teaspoons oil in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the sausage pieces, turning as needed to brown evenly, for about 5 minutes (the sausage will not be cooked through at this point).

6. After the ribs have cooked for 1 hour, add the sausage pieces to the Dutch oven, pushing them down into the stew so that they are submerged. Bring back to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the sausage is cooked through, the ribs are nearly tender, and the beans are tender, about 15 minutes more.

7. Uncover the pot and increase the heat so that the stew comes to an active simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is reduced, the ribs are tender, and the stew has thickened, 10 to 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

8. Serve in wide, shallow bowls, with a piece of sausage, a piece of pork, and plenty of beans in each bowl.

 

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put it in your mouth and suck it

More crow. Located smack in the center of the Gaslamp, Brian Malarkey’s see and be seen Searsucker is not unlike, um, seersucker: comfortable and worn, with just enough style to make you sit up and take notice. Though the menu does not specifically focus on seafood, the “sea” in Searsucker pays playful homage to the “Top Chef” Finalist’s love of the ocean while at the same time embodying the personality of his cooking – mischievous, fun-loving, authentic. Divided into categories like Bites, Smalls, Greens, Ocean, Ranch and Farm, the food is both serious and fun – not to mention seriously fun. A high-meets-low mix of comfort foods prepared with unexpected ingredients and approachable, unpretentious dishes, all paired with local craft beers and a noteworthy wine list that’s chock-a-block with pleasant surprises. (when was the last time you saw an affordable bottle from Sardinia?) Like a smoked trout salad with grapefruit, radish and avocado; marrow bone with fleur de sel and onion jam; octopus, cress and saffron aioli; and spicy shrimp over bacon grits. I’d have loved to have tried one or two of the appetizing-sounding entrees but all those starters (and sides like fresh shucked corn with chile and roasted Brussels sprouts) got in the way. Yet that’s one of Searsucker’s finest selling points: have it your way. Graze, nibble, drink, feast, whatever – you’re in excellent hands, suckers.

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la gastroteca

Lest you think Madrid has little more to offer in the way of gastronomic delights than tapas, cod balls, and the House of Ham, remember, please, that the Spanish are responsible for the whole molecular gastronomy craze.  The city has its fair share of fine – and experimental – dining; it’s just that – to a New Yorker anyway – it’s not nearly as engaging as Spanish comfort food. In the open kitchen of Córdoba-born chef Juan Carlos Ramos, however, those two concepts enjoy a felicitous liaison. La Gastroteca de Santiago deploys the freshest ingredients in homage to traditional Spanish cooking with experimental twists and international influences along the way. It’s an exemplary combination served up in an intimate and bijoux designer space on the Plaza de Santiago: pate with warm toast and olive oil, seafood paella, roast suckling pig, chocolate mousse.  Plus, you can make it a relative bargain and bypass the pricey a la carte blackboard specials in favor of the equally adventurous prix fixe.

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cock a doodle doo

Marcus Samuelson’s new Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, is a mix of soul and comfort foods under the spell of neighborhood traditions as well as the chef’s vaunted Swedish and Ethiopian backgrounds. That means Fried Yard Bird soaked in buttermilk for three days then served with hot sauce and a shaker of berbere, the Ethiopian spice mix.  A trio of cheeses – gouda, cheddar and comte – spike the hearth-baked mac ‘n’ greens.  Black vinegar cauliflower is served cold, enlivened by sumac, toasted pine nuts, and a brush of vinegar that borders on molasses.  Smoked collards get a surprise bite from the addition of mustard greens and kale.   In short Samuelson pulls off an impressive balancing act, contrasting the full-fat flavor that makes comfort food so satisfying with an unexpectedly appetizing dose of Scandinavian bitter (or the sharp tang of African heat) The only mis-step comes during desert:  lemon sorbet was too-tart an accompaniment to the otherwise pillowy sweet potato doughnuts dusted with cinnamon sugar. Velvety-rich Black and White Mud in a chocolate wafer crust, however, was much like the rest of Red Rooster:  something to crow about.

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sunday supper

JCT Kitchen & Bar in trendy West Midtown’s Westside Urban Market gets its name from a nearby sign for the junction of railroad lines that once carried livestock into the city of Atlanta. Emphasizing traditional foods and European techniques, Chef Ford Fry’s restaurant couldn’t be more appropriately named.  As homey as it is upscale, this is Southern farmstead cooking in an elegantly casual atmosphere you wish grandma’s house had.

The light-filled restaurant feels like a Southerner’s answer to the French bistro, with a menu that’s reminiscent of family favorites tweaked by ingredients from regional fields and farms. “Farmstead is a culinary term currently used in artisan cheese making, where the dairy comes from the same farm where the cheese is made. I like the word because it indicates hand-crafted food and the use of local farms; it speaks of seasonal, fresh ingredients,” explains Chef Fry. “It describes a philosophy of food. We want to use local products and make all the goods ourselves.”

Signature Southern dishes include fried chicken, shrimp and grits, braised short ribs with “pot roast” vegetables, and chicken & dumplings that’s actually red wine-braised chicken with gnocchi sautéed in brown butter – just don’t call it coq au vin.  Sunday nights play host to an old-fashioned Sunday Supper, with a “meat and three” menu that is ridiculously priced at only $24.  It begins with warm biscuits and deviled eggs. Then choose from five meats like sweetwater catfish and hickory roasted pork loin and nine home-style vegetables for the table. Also included is JCT’s farm stand salad plus the luscious pie or cake of the moment.

Sorry,  I just can’t resist:  this is one junction where it all comes together.

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best brussel sprouts ever

Are you sensing a theme here lately?  Honestly, we’ll get back to travel soon enough.  It’s just this darn cold spell that’s hit New York has me lately wanting nothing more than a good curl-up on the couch with comfort foods of my own devising.

Inspired by a recent late-nite snack of roasted brussel sprouts with lardons down at Odeon, I got the hunger to make my own.  This oft-maligned vegetable is one of my favorites, but roasting seemed a little too predictable for me.  Childhood memories of mushy, over-boiled “baby cabbages” are probably the chief reason why many adults remain gun shy on the humble sprout, so I wanted to make sure they would still have sufficient bite, too.  In a cast iron pan I rendered a few strips of bacon cut into lardons until they were golden brown and set them aside to drain.  Keeping the hot bacon fat on medium-high heat, I tossed about a pound of trimmed and halved brussel sprouts.  Letting them cook for a minute, I thought a nutty component would be a nice addition.  I was out of walnuts – which seems to be the traditional roast pairing – so in went a good handful of coarsely chopped pecans.  A few cloves of finely minced garlic, too, to give it a little kick, and a big pinch of salt. I needed to braise the sprouts and get all those yummy brown bits off the bottom of the pan, so to deglaze I added some heavy cream and let it reduce by half before adding the bacon back in.  To finish, a few tablespoons of maple syrup to counter the sharpness of the sprouts and complement the pecans along with a generous squeeze of lemon juice. Total time:  10 minutes.  The sprouts retained a great crunch and if I do say so myself, the pecan/maple/garlic/lemon combination was a fortuitous stroke of genius: savory with just a hint of sweet, I could have easily gobbled them all.  And not a mushy one in sight.

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