Friday, April 30, 2010

Cooking with the New York Times

RUSTIC SHRIMP BISQUE. I try lots of recipes from the Wednesday New York Times, mostly Mark Bittman's, and I'm now paying attention to Melissa Clark. I bought several pounds of fresh Maine shrimp in January and froze what I didn't use in one pound bags. In a February column for rustic shrimp bisque Clark told how her parents made their own shrimp-shell stock and glaze. Who would do something so time-consuming? Hmmm. So last week I moved shrimp from the freezer to the refrigerator and when they were thawed enough to separate without breaking, I took the shells off. Turns out it's easy to shell shrimp when they are very cold. I knew I was on a worthwhile project almost as soon as I began. 

The shells are sauteed in butter and salt for a few minutes; then the liquids are added. First in are white wine and brandy which are cooked down; then come the water and herbs. It's only a fifteen minute simmer before straining. Not difficult at all. Beginning to feel smug. At this point I paused - refrigerated the stock for use later in the day. The short of it: it's a delicious soup, warm, spicy, vaguely Cajun. Fennel, leeks, garlic and celery ribs are cooked until softened and added to sauteed shrimp. Clark uses a handful of rice and a little tomato paste which, once you give it all a whirl in the blender, gets you bisque without adding cream. One important note: she calls for a "pinch" of cayenne. This is too subtle for me -  go for a Julia Child "pinch," not baseball-sized but not lady-like either. And freeze what you don't eat - it gets better.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Downtown: "Pot au Feu" - oh non!

POT AU FEU (44 Custom House St, Providence 401-273-8953) has been around since 1972 and believes itself to be the oldest French bistro in America. Fat chance. That website statement should have provided a clue or two. You enter the semi-subterranean restaurant to the overwhelming aura of French kitsch. My unspoken thought was, this place might be fun. Not. The menu is Disneyworld French - crepes du jour, quiche, sole amandine, coquille st jacque, steak frites - and maybe the Disney kitchens should be doing the cooking. We skipped first courses and ordered the following entrees: roast chicken with rosemary and lemon, marinated chicken livers with white wine, madeira and mushrooms, and veal medallions. First came salads and bread. Raspberry and mustard vinaigrettes both arrived in cruets. Way too much vinegar. With all the fabulous bread in the state of Rhode Island, Pot au Feu serves a lousy baguette. Things weren't looking good. Entrees arrived and all hope was lost - the chicken was on the tough side, lacking flavor, and the veal medallions were miserable, like gravied mystery meat from a school cafeteria. Chicken livers with sauteed onions were a step up. At a point where we should have known better, two of us (the third diner being the wise elder) plunged onward and ordered desserts, an inelegant but decent slice of chocolate pecan pie of the American/Thanksgiving variety and a pot de creme which was dense and dull. Tant pis!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Downtown: "Ten" may rate a 2nd try

TEN PRIME STEAK AND SUSHI (55 Pine St, Providence 401-453-2333) is no longer a flashy newcomer. I remember sitting at the bar in its early days and wondering "can this restaurant survive?" with its hotel-chain prices and on-the-edge address. Well, I still think the prices are on the high side, though modest by the Flemings* standard, and I wonder how it survives. Ten is a nice-looking place, with a kind of modern-but-comfy style. Service is excellent. It has a real bar and if you ask that a pomegranate cosmo be made less sweet it is delivered as asked. I know, just mentioning a pomegranate cosmo invites derision but I can deal with it. On a recent Sunday night it was quiet (the bar across the street was full and thumping however) so maybe that's why the music was cranked up - a kind of electronic continuous pulsing. The Ten website describes it as a Latin sound; I'd call it a semi-annoying techno bar sound. We skipped appetizers because we anticipated Ten's skinny onion rings, which come in a giant crispy mound and are as seductive as they are bad for you. Diner number one tried meat loaf again and rated it excellent (and continued to eat it for two days of leftover lunches). Diner number two thought the meat loaf was 500% better than what was served at DownCity but not inspired - good texture but something missing. Diners two and three stuck to the sushi side of the menu and settled on Roll 10 and Spicy Tuna. Roll 10 is a lobster, salmon, avocado extravaganza and this diner was psyched, in the mood for a flavor blast. That both rolls were only passable was a genuine surprise. How could a high-end steak and sushi place serve ordinary rolls? No exciting hit of freshness, no real taste of lobster or salmon for that matter, and too too cold. The tuna was okay. And while I don't want the rice to fall all over my shirt I don't want it congealed either.  As Otto says in A Fish Called Wanda: DIS A PPOINT ED.

* pricey national chain with, based on my one visit, really good steaks

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Intense Green: Cooking and Traveling

A PLATTER OF FIGS (David Tanis, Artisan Books, 2008). I'm still cooking my way randomly through this super-instructive book. Recent venture: Spinach Cake with Herb Salad (from menu two). Tanis describes this six-egg cake as a cross between a custard and a frittata, but it doesn't taste eggy like a custard or breakfasty like a frittata. It's firm, flips easily from the baking pan and cuts well. Two pounds is a lot of spinach; add two leeks, a little butter and parmigiano, whole milk and spices and you have brilliant green whirling in the blender. Aside from the spinach and leek prep (exact instruction provided, of course), this is the simplest of recipes. Leftovers are great. The accompanying herb salad (arugula, lettuce and endive with six fresh herbs) both tastes and looks good with the spinach cake. Directions for the vinaigrette (macerate the shallot with lemon juice and salt) are given in the usual Tanis detail - works for me. 

SPRING VACATION - GREECE.  There are lots of reasons to hike around Lesvos with good company and local guides: thousands of silvery olive trees, 
wild flowers everywhere, startled sheep, evidence of 
civilizations past (Roman aqueducts, icon-laden monasteries,Turkish baths) and present (washed-up rafts of Afghan refugees arriving in the night, growing preservation efforts, the Teriade Museum), Agean vistas and long late lunches.  The lunches: Greek beer, a little ouzo, a lot of olives, local soft cheeses, fried feta, sauteed eggplant, tomatoes and onions, fresh grilled octopus, yogurt and honey. But worth the trip all by itself is the orange right off the tree.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Broadway/Across I-95

JULIAN'S (318 Broadway, Providence, RI 401-861-1770) is across I-95 from downtown and not on Atwells Avenue, which qualifies it as off the known track for many. Filled on a recent Tuesday night, Julian's draws a young crowd - forty is old here. Venture in even if you have aged out of the general demographic; it's a friendly place. A reservation is good because people often eat at the bar and there isn't much waiting-around space. Well-known for brunch, which is served 9-5 on weekdays (M-F) and 9-2:45 on weekends, Julian's is open for dinner every night. It is famously vegetarian/vegan friendly, offering vegan pancakes, black bean burgers, tempeh sausage cassoulet, etc. Still, meat and fish offerings are prominent - leg of lamb, corned beef, poached sole, as well as steak and burgers. Look at their website to see how these dishes are prepared. For instance: Blue Cheese Broiled Sirloin with beet-turnip gratin, watercress/macintosh apple salad & charred shallot vinaigrette. You get the idea. Recently, mahi mahi was on the specials board and it was perfectly prepared. Burgers (beef or vegetarian) are on very good rolls. Re the beef, be aware -  a medium/rare order was on the "done" side. Most definitely, order a side of smoked onion rings.

A really good thing about Julian's is the place. It feels like a bar that just happens to be about food. The bar is noteworthy on its own because the draft beer options are impressive, 16 choices and not one of them advertises at the Super Bowl. You can order flight samplers and try a few. The bottled selection is far bigger, and apart from a nod to the weak (a famous light beer) and some not-great specialty brews, it is wide-ranging and unusual (prices running from $4 to $35).