Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Restaurant Review: Café Noir

I was back in New York again this weekend, which is always a lovely change of pace from small-town Connecticut. Ari and I went out with a few of his friends to one of their favorite places, Café Noir in Soho. Neither of us had ever been there, but it ended up being a wonderful choice. Being a Friday night in New York City, it was of course very crowded and we had to wait for a bit for a table. The interior was pretty dark, with kind of a Moroccan/French café feel.
We decided to let Ashley and Jimmy take over since they had been there before, and started off
with a few appetizers. The tuna tartare was fantastic, mixed with tomatoes, and topped with fried tortilla strips. The hummus was pretty good, topped with feta cheese and served with grilled slices of pita bread. The spicy lamb meatballs were also excellent, with just the right amount of spice and served with tzatziki sauce and cucumbers. Last, we had the calamari à la parilla, which I had never tried before. It was delicious -- lemony and fresh and buttery, grilled instead of fried. After all of that and a pitcher of their well-known sangria (also delicious), Ari and I split the Valencia paella, which was fantastic. I haven't had paella too often, but this is definitely the best paella I have ever had. The rice was perfectly cooked and seasoned, with just a little spice. It was mixed with mussels, shrimp, chicken, and chorizo sausage. Everyone else got different burgers, which they said were very good as well. The french fries were pretty good, larger-cut but slightly on the soggy side.
Of course, when I thought I couldn't eat any more, we got dessert. The five of us shared the crème brûlée and the chocolate cake. I have never had crème brûlée that can rival my mom's, especially at restaurants where you risk the top being soggy, but I have to admit this was pretty delicious. The chocolate cake was fantastic -- soft and melted in the middle with the perfect amount of chocolate. This was accompanied by a macchiato for me, the perfect end to a wonderful meal. I will definitely be going back.

Café Noir is located on 32 Grand Street in Manhatten. It is a little on the expensive side, at least for us college students, but their menus and more information is available on their website at
Photo from

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The First Tasting: Argentinian Malbec

For our first official tasting in the apartment, Zoe, Hilary and I ventured to the local liquor store, which actually has a pretty good wine selection. In order to make tasting simpler, we decided to narrow our search down to bottles under $10, and to concentrate on one region. My parents are big fans of Malbecs, practically the national wine of Argentina. These usually pair very well with steak (although they were pretty good with tofu as well). We tried three wines, all from the Mendoza region, and while we all had some different opinions, we could mostly come to a consensus. Overall, an excellent first tasting.

Cabrini Malbec, 2007: Dry and fruity without being overly sweet, with lovely deep burgundy color. Rachel thought it was kind of bitter, but it was actually my favorite. $7.99.

Bodega Norton, 2008: Dryer, thinner, and more acidic than the first. Still good, but definitely not as full bodied as the Cabrini. As Zoe said, "I drank it without even realizing I was drinking". However, her friend Ida actually liked it better, and I thought it did open up more as it sat out. $8.99

Pascual Toso, 2007:Probably the most subtle of the three, this one had more complex flavors than the other two and has actually won a lot of awards. Rachel thought it was quite sweet, with an almost sparkling quality. I thought that it had really nice fruity qaulities, but the finish was a little acidic. A good buy for $9.99 though.

In conclusion, our favorite was actually the Caprini, which by chance was the cheapest of the three. Of course, each person has their own individual tastes, and it also helps to pair wine with certain kinds of food to bring out the flavors. However, cheese and bread are usually a safe bet, especially for reds. I think that tasting is the best way to find your own tastes.
Hopefully we will be able to try to do this every couple of weeks (it helps to have willing friends), and maybe next time we can venture to Italy (my favorite, although perhaps I am biased from studying in Bologna for a semester!).

Stir Fried Green Beans wih Peanut Sauce, Fresh Tofu, and Chiles

This is one of my all time favorite recipes from a really great cookbook, Tyler Florence's Eat This Book. Everything I have ever made out of it is delicious, and I have actually made this recipe four times this year already. It takes about half an hour total to prepare, and also makes great leftovers. We used this to finish off our dinner last night.

Stir Fried Green Beans with Peanut Sauce, Fresh Tofu, and Chiles (Adapted from Eat This Book)

1/2 cup peanut oil
1 1/4 pounds green beans, halved on the bias, or snow peas
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 green onions, white and green parts, chopped, or 1/4 cup red onion, chopped
1 dried red chile, or red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
1 (15 ounce) block of firm tofu, cut in one inch cubes
1 fresh jalapeño pepper, sliced crosswise into rounds
1/4 cup roasted peanuts, chopped

Pour the peanut oil into a large sauté pan or wok and place over high heat. When the oil is smoking hot, add the green beans and stir-fry for 2 minutes, remove to a platter lined with paper towels to drain. Sauté the tofu in the same pan until it begins to brown on the sides.
Add the ginger, garlic, onions, and chile to the pan, and stir fry until you can smell the fragrance of the aromatics. Return the green beans to the pan and season with salt and pepper. In a small bowl, stir together the stock and cornstarch to make a slurry and add that to the pan (I have skipped this step before and it is fine without it too). Add the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and peanut butter. Simmer until the sauce is thickened and the beans are tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Garnish with sliced jalapeño and chopped peanuts, and serve with steamed rice.

Serves 4.

Zucchini Pancakes

I am so lucky to have roommates who appreciate food. Last night, Hilary, Zoe and I made a fantastic (and vegetarian) dinner for a couple of friends. We started off with zucchini pancakes, which I had eaten before like breakfast pancakes, but I had never had a savory version. Luckily, the Barefoot Contessa is here to help.

Zucchini Pancakes (from Barefoot Contessa at Home)

2 medium zucchini (about 3/4 pound)
2 tablespoons grated red onion
2 eggs, lightly beaten
6-8 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
unsalted butter and vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Grate the zucchini into a bowl using the large grating side of a box grater (we didn't have this, so we just julienned it very finely) Immediately stir in the onion and eggs. Stir in 6 tablespoons of the flour, the baking powder, salt, and pepper. (If the batter gets too thin from the liquid in the zucchini, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour.)
Heat a large (10-12 inch) sauté pan over medium heat and melt 1/2 tablespoon butter and 1/2 tablespoon oil together in the pan. When the butter is hot but not smoking, lower the heat to medium-low and drop heaping soup spoons of batter into the pan. Cook the panckaes about two minutes on each side, until browned. Place the pancakes on a sheet pan and keep warm in the oven. Wipe out the pan with a dry paper towelm add more butter and oil to the pan, and continue to fry the pancakes until all the batter is used. The pancakes can stay warm in the oven for up to 30 minutes. Serve hot.

Makes 10 3-inch pancakes.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tarte Tatin

This can be an intimidating recipe, but it is actually not too difficult and it tastes fantastic. It also looks pretty impressive. The one thing to be careful about is the heat of your stove and oven -- I am still not used to ours, so the cooking times were different than in the recipe and the top got a little burned. This is one of my favorite desserts, and definitely worth all of the effort. I took the recipe from (one of my favorite websites, it compiles all of the recipes from Gourmet and Bon Appétit Magazines), but made some adaptations, so my notes are in italics.

Tarte Tatin (from

  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
  • 6 tablespoons chilled sour cream (I used the same amount of Greek yogurt, to the same effect)

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 11 medium-size Pippin apples (about 4 3/4 pounds), peeled, quartered, cored

  • 1 egg, beaten to blend (glaze)
Crème fraîche or sour cream


Blend flour, sugar and salt in large bowl of heavy-duty mixer fitted with whisk attachment. Add butter and beat at medium-low speed until butter is size of small lima beans, about 3 minutes. (If you don't have a mixer, like us, you can also whisk vigourously, which works pretty well) Add sour cream and beat until moist clumps form, about 1 minute. Gather dough into smooth ball; flatten into 6-inch-diameter disk. Wrap dough in plastic; refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Keep refrigerated. Let soften slightly before rolling out.)

Spread butter over bottom of 12-inch-diameter ovenproof nonstick skillet with sloping sides (skillet should be at least 1 3/4 inches deep). Reserve 2 tablespoons sugar; sprinkle remaining sugar over butter. Place skillet over medium-low heat and cook until butter melts, sugar begins to dissolve and mixture starts to bubble, about 3 minutes.

Remove from heat. Arrange apples on their sides around edge of skillet, placing tightly together. Arrange as many of remaining apples as will fit, pointed ends up, in 2 circles in center of skillet. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar.

Set skillet over medium-high heat; boil until thick peanut butter-color syrup forms, repositioning skillet often for even cooking and adding remaining apples as space permits, about 45 minutes (syrup will continue to darken during baking). Remove from heat; wrap handle several times with heavy-duty foil. (This step only took about 30 minutes for me, so watch it closely)

Meanwhile, position rack in center of oven and preheat to 425 °F.

Roll out pastry on floured surface to 12-inch round; place over apples. Cut four 2-inch slits in top of pastry. Press pastry down around apples at edge of skillet; brush pastry with some of egg glaze.

Bake tart until pastry is deep golden brown, about 30 minutes. (Again, I left it in for about 25 minutes) Transfer to work surface; cool 1 minute. Cut around edge of skillet to loosen pastry. Place large platter over skillet. Using oven mitts as aid, hold skillet and platter together tightly and invert, allowing tart to fall onto platter. Carefully lift off skillet. Rearrange any apples that may have become dislodged. Cool tart 30 minutes.

Cut warm tart into wedges. Serve with crème fraîche.

Hooray! Also, thanks to my roommate Hilary for the pictures. Beautiful.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Last weekend I was lucky enough to go to New York, and among the outstanding food I had (as always), was dinner at Max. Ari had heard about the place from his friend, and we decided to see what all the talk was about. It ended up being one of my favorite meals so far this year. The restaurant itself is pretty small, and the kitchen is right in the middle, so immediately you are bombarded with delicious smells. We waited for a little while to be seated, but considering it was the Lower East Side on a Saturday night, I didn't think it was too bad.
They had some excellent specials that night, so we opted to split the figs, prosciutto, and pecorino to start off with. This was served very simply, with no sauce and only black pepper as a garnish, but the figs were juicy and succulent, the prosciutto was lean and sliced perfectly, and the pecorino was deliciously salty. Figs are hard to get in Minnesota, and usually slightly outside the budget of the college student, so I eat them whenever I can. For an entrée, I had the special of house-made goat cheese and sundried tomato ravioli, finished with a cherry tomato and cream sauce. The sauce was seasoned perfectly and made the most of the late-season tomatoes, while being light enough to not overwhelm the taste of the pasta. Ari got the lamb ragù with hand-made spaghetti from the regular menu, which was also fantastic. The ragù reminded me of the one we learned how to make in Bologna, its subltle flavors combining and yet not overwhelming each other. By the end, we were both completely full, so we decided to save dessert for another time and got a black and white cookie instead (perfect).

To drink, Ari decided on the old favorite of Bologna, where we both studied, Lambrusco. If you haven't had this before, it is a sparkling red wine that is usually served chilled, and has a slightly sweeter ant tangier taste than many other reds. We used to buy it for about 3 euros, but it is harder to find here and usually runs around $11 a bottle. It is great with pretty much all Italian food, but of course especially with the specialties of the region.
I decided to try the Nero di Troia, I wine I had never had before, but which sounded similar to Nero d'Avola, one of my favorite grapes from Sicily. This was from Puglia, in the south of Italy, a region not neccessarily known for its wine. However, I was pleasantly surprised, and found it smooth and a wonderful accompaniment to the ravioli. The vintage I had was from 2005, and while I don't know that this is a very common wine in the U.S., it is definitely possible to find bottles under $15. I'll be keeping my eye out.

All in all, it was a fantastic dinner and I will absolutely be returning. For more information about Max, you can go to their website:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Coconut Macaroons

These are one of my favorite kinds of cookies and are really easy -- they take literally two minutes to mix up. Plus, they are actually not too bad for you... and are also really great dipped in chocolate. I tripled this recipe, but it makes 4 cookies as is.

Coconut Macaroons (from
  • Butter and flour for preparing baking sheet and foil
  • 1 large egg white
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/8 teaspoon almond extract
  • 3/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut


Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 300°F. Butter a baking sheet, then line with foil and lightly butter and flour foil, knocking off excess flour.

Stir together egg white, sugar, vanilla, almond extract, and a pinch of salt until combined, then stir in coconut. Divide coconut mixture into fourths, then drop in 4 mounds (about 2 inches apart) onto baking sheet.

Bake until tops are pale golden in spots, 15 to 20 minutes, then carefully lift foil with cookies from baking sheet and transfer to a rack to cool completely, about 15 minutes. Peel macaroons from foil.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

They have vineyards in Minnesota??

As there is currently a lack of wine in my apartment, I have decided to talk about the vineyard that I worked at last summer, Alexis Bailly. Based in a small town in southern Minnesota, it was started in 1977 and makes about 3,000 cases of wine a year. I know, it is hard to believe that there are vineyards in MN, since it is apparently -25 degrees all year round. But somehow they survive, and in fact, the Midwest was recently named the largest wine region in the country. In any case, I loved working in their tasting room this summer and learned a lot.
I would just like to preclude this by saying that while I did work in the tasting room, I definitely still have a LOT to learn and I am not one of those people that can easily identify each individual flavor in wine. It takes practice and time, and mostly I think that since everyone has very different tastes, we all taste different things in a wine. For example, in the wine world, there is of course a lot of talk about "red berries" and "vanilla", but also about "freshly mowed grass" or teh "animalistic taste". While these descriptions can be accurate and helpful, sometimes I wonder if someone is just pulling ridiculous words out of their mind and it really has nothing to do with the wine itself. Tasting, really tasting wine is a subtle and complicated business, but I will try to steer away from such descriptions.
Anyways, most of the grapes that Alexis Bailly and other northern vineyards use are unfamiliar to most since they are engineered to survive in colder climates, and actually the University of Minnesota has a rapidly expanding viticulture program that has developed several varieties. However, here are my favorites:

Seyval Blanc: This grape is actually grown in the Finger Lakes region in New York, but they import the juice and make the wine on site. It has a very light, clean, crisp taste and does not have the very sweet or sour aftertaste that many white wines do, like a lot of more inexpensive chardonnays. Wonderful with fish or by itself and perfect for a hot day. $14.99

Rosé Noir: Another great summer wine, this is a wonderful rosé that is sweet without being cloying, with hints of strawberry and peach. I pretty much drank this all summer. Made of Maréchal Foch and DeChaunac, two French-American hybrid grapes, the skins are removed before they are pressed, resulting in the dark rose color and sweeter taste. $12.99

Voyageur: My favorite, this wine has won a lot of awards in Minnesota and nationwide, and has been called the best Minnesota wine ever. A blend of Maréchal Foch, Léon Millot, and Frontenac (developed by the U of M), it is a complex red table wine, fruity and not too dry. Most of the wine from Alexis Bailly is meant to be drank within the year, but the Voyageur could age for a few years and develop its complexity even more. $21.99

For more information go to:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Butternut Squash Risotto

For my first recipe, I thought I should one of my all time favorite recipes. This can actually be modified to nearly anything you want -- simply replace the squash with different vegetables, such as mushrooms, asparagus, or broccoli. No pictures this time, since I actually made this a few nights ago, but I will try in the future.

For the Risotto:

1 large butternut squash
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, small diced
2 cups arborio or short grain rice
1/2 cup white wine
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup parmiggiano reggiano
salt and pepper

Cut the squash crosswise in slices about 1 1/2 inches thick, and place skin side down on a baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper, and roast for about 45 minutes at 450 degrees, until golden and tender. About 30 minutes into the roasting, start the risotto. Melt the butter in a large skillet or pot and add the onion. Sauté for 5-10 minutes until soft. Add the rice and sauté for a few minutes, stirring constantly, until the grains become translucent on the edges and white spots appear in the middle. Add the wine and stir until it is absorbed. Then, begin adding the stock, 1/2 cup at a time, until it is all absorbed (this will take about half an hour).
By this time the squash should be done. Peel and dice, and when almost all of the stock has been absorbed, add the squash to the risotto. Finish adding all of the stock, and stir in half the parmiggiano reggiano. The rice should be soft but have a slight bite to it. Finish with the rest of the parmiggiano, season with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

The Epiphany

When I was little, I never dreamed of being a cook. A ballerina, sure, or an actress, but the kitchen had never been part of my plans for the future. I can remember making oatmeal cookies with my mom and helping my dad make chili or chicken and rice (a perennial favorite), but my life really changed when I went to France for the first time when I was 16. This epiphany came in the form of a tiny restaurant in Arles, in the south of France, run by a husband and wife team. She cooked, he did everything else. There were about twenty seats in the whole restaurant, which had stone walls, old wood floors, and worn wooden tables and chairs. We went to dinner around 7:30, early for the French, and closed the place down.
At that point, I was still hesitant about many foods, so I decided to play it safe and order a salad. I don't even remember exactly what was in it, but I remember being astonished by the freshness of all of the ingredients and how each one accentuated and yet blended perfectly with the rest of the flavors. My mother ordered salmon, to this day the most perfect salmon I have ever tasted. Brightly colored and flaky, it melted in your mouth. My dad ordered a steak, cooked perfectly medium. For dessert were profiteroles, small pastry balls filled with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce, topped with a cage of sugar strands. It was the first time I have ever had it, and remains the most memorable.
That trip opened my eyes to the possibilities of food. Since then, I have tried to cook whenever possible and learn as much as I can. Last year I was lucky enough to study for a semester in Bologna, Italy, the birthplace of Parmiggiano Reggiano, balsamic vinagar, prosciutto, and tortelloni. This helped further my education in food, and also sparked an interest in wine, which continued this summer when I worked in a vineyard in Minnesota. Yes, there are vineayrds in Minnesota. Most are small, and all have difficulty with the cold, but there are some surprisingly decent wines that are being produced there.

Cooking, at its base, is about sharing. So that is what I would like to do with this blog -- share my experiences and adventures in cooking (and drinking) with you. As a senior in college on a small and somewhat isolated campus, it can be hard to think of cooking ideas that taste good and are also inexpensive. Additionally, I think that many people, especially college students, don't know a lot about wine and are intimidated to learn. So, I will also try to bring you along on my own education in viniculture and viticulture, concentrating mostly on bottles under $15. For my friends and I, a fancy bottle generally means spending over $10, but there are some surprisingly good wines out there for not very much money if you are willing to look. Of course, every person has their own tastes, but a sense of adventure is essential. If you are willing to venture beyond boxed wine, I don't think you will be disappointed.

For now, I will be posting recipes, reviewing restaurants, and tasting wine. Of course, it always helps to have roommates who appreciate good food and who aren't afraid to try new things. Pairing food and wine is tricky, and takes a lot of expirimentation -- but I'm willing to try.