top 100: recette

I’d been dreading this moment since I started the Top 100 project. Mind you, I knew it would arrive; I just never imagined it would arrive so quickly, the subtle realization that as it is in the theater, each night’s kitchen performance is unique – and that remains an essential part of the thrill. Some nights the stars align, defying explanation – let alone codification – to deliver magic on a plate. Other nights – blame the full moon or just an off night – the effort is strenuous and entirely respectable, if not necessarily worth a standing ovation. The meal I eat tonight – despite a restaurant’s striving for some degree of consistency – will rarely, if ever, be the same meal you eat. So let’s just leave  it at this: the stars did not align at Recette the other night. That’s not a knock on Jesse Schenker’s food, which is urbane and thoughtful to a fault at times. (You could do a whole lot worse in this city, believe me) Yet I arrived expecting something ineffable.  What was served was pretty. But for a $300 price tag, entirely too practical.

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when citrus meets summer

Hazard a guess as to how many limes it takes to make a single liquid cup of juice? Twenty four. Good thing then that I happened to have on hand a five-pound bag of Persian limes that I didn’t know what to do with. (As someone recently said while noticing the strategically placed Costco satchel in my kitchen: Wow, that’s a lot of limes.) I say good thing because a friend who’s obsessed with all things Food Network just passed on to me the most curious of recipes:  Chia Limeade.  That’s right, chia as in Chia Pet or chia seeds, a nutritional supplement I happen to have gone bonkers for over the course of the past year. Take note: it’s not just for sprouting green fur on the clay cast figurines of poodles and frogs anymore. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the seeds are native to Mexico – Chiapas is named for the seed – and were once used as a form of tribute among the Aztecs due to their high nutritional content. Modern research shows the humble seed also aids the body in slowing down the metabolism of carbohydrates – meaning a spoonful of chia goes a long way in leveling blood sugar spikes as well as hunger pangs. What I never imagined was that it could also make a refreshing summer beverage. Limeade by definition is a proportionate mix of sweet and sour and the addition of chia – which forms a protective gelatinous coating around itself when exposed to water – adds a nice texture of slippery crunch. Bottled it looks curiously like a science experiment. Yet served up over ice in a tall glass muddled with mint leaves, it’s a healthy, tasty addition to the summer repertoire – well worth the effort of juicing your way through two dozen uncooperative limes.

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five-spice pork wraps

I tend to view recipes found in catalogs with a jaundiced eye. Essentially they exist only to sell you something from the catalog. Something frivolous and decidedly non-essential like a tagine, for example. Or a spice blend you’ll dutifully use once before relegating to the back of the cupboard – hidden behind that tagine no doubt.  The pictures are always pretty, yet the recipes themselves never seem all that trustworthy. So perhaps it was the absence of a glamorous photo in the current Williams-Sonoma catalog that piqued my interest in the Five-spice Pork Wraps.  I needed something for a party that I could make in advance then quickly reheat and leave on a buffet for guests to serve themselves and this seemed ideal. Braising the pork shoulder a day in advance was key. I allowed it to cool before shredding the meat, skimming any excess fat, and covering it in the fridge.  Like a good stew, the day-after effect only intensified the complexity of sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and salty that makes five-spice such a sensory explosion. Served D-I-Y-style with butter lettuce leaves for wrapping, steamed jasmine rice, scallions, bean sprouts, papaya relish, chopped peanuts, cilantro, hoison sauce, and sriracha it was addictive as well, pairing perfectly over the course of an afternoon with the whiskey which flowed and flowed.

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masaledar in memoriam

When friend and journalist Linda Perney died in late December, she left behind unfillable shoes.  Generous to a fault perhaps, she assigned this unproven writer his first-ever story, calling out of the blue one early December morning with a turn of phrase I will never forget.  I need a favor, she said, could you go to Paris for a week and eat and shop and then just write it all down? All-expense paid, of course.  Uhhh, naturally I said yes.  And yet another travel writer was born. Years later she joked that I’d probably take a press-trip to Perth Amboy if there was a promising spa or restaurant involved and I had to remind her that she more than anyone was responsible for creating the beast.

She loved a good story, and more to the point she recognized a good story – even if it took some serious editing to wrangle it out of a steaming heap of self-conscious, purple prose. (Guilty as charged.) I remember feeling bereft when she left the Daily News.  Not only because my freelance pipeline would most assuredly dry up but because my education under her would be interrupted.  You see, other magazines and papers would print essentially what I wrote, making the occasional edit for space considerations.  Linda would edit for style, substance, and clarity. It didn’t matter how thrilling or brilliant I thought my sentences were, if they weren’t in service to the story they were out.  It sounds trite but it’s true: all the really important stuff about journalism I learned from Linda.

After her memorial service in Manhattan last week, the ushers handed out a program which contained reminiscences by various friends and colleagues, photos, a map of “Linda’s New York.” Inside the back cover was a recipe, which made me smile. (Linda was an amazingly confidant and carefree cook, too.)  Even in death, she had more to share.

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naughty chicken realized

It was pointed out to me over the weekend that perhaps posting an untested recipe – no matter how amusing – involved a bit of hubris on my part.  Point taken, reader.  So last night I decided to put it to the test, first rubbing sage butter underneath the skin of a five-pound organic chicken. Next, I loaded up a non-stick bundt pan with fingerlings, parsley, and small onions dressed in salt, pepper and olive oil.  Before impaling the chicken I did something the recipe neglected to mention:  laying a piece of foil over the hole to force the drippings back into the well of the pan. It roasted for a little over an hour.  After resting for fifteen minutes on a plate tented with foil it was perfectly tender and succulent.  (Apologies for the lack of an “after” photo – you’ll just have to trust me on this one.)  The potatoes were a little underdone however, so I spread them onto a baking sheet and put  them back into the oven for another  ten minutes.  Straining the collected pan juices, I put them into a saucepan with some white wine and reduced it by half.  Thickened with a little butter and corn starch it turned into a velvety gravy that made a great complement to this lascivious bird.  I am innocent no more.

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