Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Ultimate Surprise Birthday Dinner at Brooklyn Fare Kitchen

I confess, I've never had a surprise birthday party in my life. So when my man planned one for me this year, I hadn't a single suspicion, it was so off my radar. All I knew was that he was taking me to a "surprise dinner" on Sunday, and my only concern was what to wear (because I trust his choice in food).

All dressed and ready to go, Damien poured my favorite Lambrusco from my home town of Reggio Emilia, then he suggested we have a toast on the roof, where we have a spectacular view of the Statue of Liberty. Given I had dragged him up to the roof the previous night, at 1:00a.m., I didn't really want to go up again. It was cloudy, and the humidity was typical of August on the East Coast—swamp like and sticky.

Yet, for some mysterious reason, I could see in his pleading eyes that he really, really wanted to go up, so I conceded.

When we got to the roof I saw a group of people already hanging out, nothing out of the norm, everyone in my building takes in the view, so I didn't really look at them too closely. Then they all rushed towards me and shouted "Surprise!"

My head spun, it was so unexpected that it was more of a shock than a surprise. I was so thrown that it felt like mental whiplash. My brain had to shift gears without using its clutch. All I could think was "Is the apartment a total mess? Do we have drinks for everyone? Food! Do we have food?!"

We all came back down to the apartment and popped some Champagne to toast my birthday. Overwhelmed and totally thrilled that this was indeed a surprise party, and it was for me, I quickly forgot my immediate concerns. And, I learned that we were all heading to dinner together.

Brain working overtime, I started to guess where we might be going. Then, in our cars on route, I had a growing suspicion when we turned onto Chambers Street, heading for the Brooklyn Bridge, that we were going to our friend César Ramirez's new place, Brooklyn Fare Kitchen. Damien and I had been there just the second weekend it was open, but I forgot my camera, so I didn't write about it back then. I'm making up for that omission now.

When we all reconvened outside Brooklyn Fare Kitchen, everyone was surprised, they'd never seen anything like it. Even those of my friends used to gastro dining had yet to see a venue like this. I've eaten at many Chef's Tables and done plenty of Tasting Menus, but Brooklyn Fare Kitchen takes these concepts to a whole new level.

The normal menu usually consists of about seven courses, but Damien had booked the whole kitchen for my birthday, and Cesar surprised all of us with a few extra dishes, bringing the total to eleven.

The meal started with a Canapé of Iranian Hibiscus, a chilled shot of refreshing hibiscus liquid topped with hibiscus foam, perfect for cleaning the palate and perking up the humidity-zapped diners.

Our next course—Veal Brains with Sauce Gribiche—was a bonus for my birthday, so it isn't on the regular menu, which, by the way, changes rather frequently. A few friends not used to eating offal couldn't help but to cringe, yet, once they popped the tiny, perfectly fried Veal Brains into their mouths, they were more than glad they didn't let squeamishness stop them from trying something new... and fabulous.

The third course, simply called "Tomato" on the menu, was well more than just a tomato. In César style, a style I've loved for years, since he was the Executive Chef at Bouley in Tribeca, a "tomato" was transformed into myriad manifestations of an Insalata Caprese—including a frozen tomato marshmallow—and served in a show-stopping manner. Knowing the best of the best, César chose an Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale from Reggio Emilia, aged 20 years, to drizzle over his creation. After seeing the actual plate, one friend joked, "After eating his 'Tomato,' I can't wait to get to his 'Mango!'"

Our fourth course was also on the regular menu, a Kona Kampachi with Ponzu sauce and crispy fried leeks. César knows how to cut fish like a Sushi Chef, resulting in slices of Kampachi that were as soft and supple as butter. This was perhaps my favorite course of the evening, though it's more than difficult to say with everything being so good.

The fifth course, another special birthday bonus, was Bulgur, Black Rice, and Egg with Summer Truffles. The yolk was just warmed and still runny, and the white had been hard boiled then emulsified, producing a texture akin to custard. The smoothness of the egg was coupled with the crunchiness of the crispy black rice, and blanketed in the flavor and aroma of summer truffles. Simple perfection.

Typical of the deceptively unassuming Brooklyn Fare Kitchen menu, the next course was "Roasted Scallops with Parsley Mousse." In reality, it was a dish of roasted scallops, fresh Oregon-raised snails and langoustine, topped with a thin slice of pork belly, served on a parsley mousse. Now, I love escargot, I even tried to make some with my big sister when I was six years old, with snails we gathered from our back garden. The meal was a complete failure, but not so with César's fresh snails—of course. Truth be told, I have never had a snail so tender. Not in the U.S., not even in France. And, the addition of the pork belly provided the perfect fat needed to pair with such lean proteins.

The seventh course, another birthday bonus, was Japanese Snapper with Fava Beans, Corn Purée and Summer Vegetables. Melted over the snapper was a square of caramel that enhanced the natural sweetness of the fish itself. And the vegetables, though tiny, weren't one second overcooked. I've been served too many floppy, flavorless vegetables to take César's for granted.

Course eight, from the regular menu, was Steamed Fois Gras with Tofu and Dashi Sauce, and a hint of Shiso. I didn't know you could steam Fois Gras, but that's why I'm no César Ramirez. The result was a silky, perfectly cooked little piece of fatty liver heaven.

By this point, even those of us with enormous appetites were starting to feel a bit full. But with food this amazing, nobody was ready to stop. A good thing too, because our Fois Gras was followed by a stunning item on the regular menu, Maine Lobster with Fresh Horseradish, Cooked Beets, Beet Sauce and Beet Caramel. Having just talked with one of my friends about how we didn't like beets, but how I had had some that I did like, I turned to her and said, "Oh yeah, I remember, César made me beets I liked, so you have to eat this!" She, and I, both liked the beets, and the beet caramel atop the whole dish was a huge surprise to everyone, both for its flavor and its technique.

The final savory course, tenth overall, was a Veal Loin with Italian Kale from the menu. On our plates, it was more than just that, and included Tete de Veau with Mushrooms and Sweetbreads. I love fried sweetbreads, and César's were done to perfection, crispy on the outside, billowy on the inside. Again, even those who had never had sweetbreads tried them, and they began to understand that in the hands of a chef like César Ramirez, anything can be delicious—brains, organs, liver, beets—you name it. The veal loin was a rare mini-medallion married to a purée of blackened onions. Beyond yummy.

At last, and after some serious efforts to make room for dessert in our stuffed tummies, we finally got to the "Mango" on the menu, a creation of sous-chef Juan Leon. As my friend quipped earlier, it was more than just mango. The dessert was a parfait of sorts, served in a stemless wine glass, with layers of Mango cream, chunky mango compote, and thin slices of pound cake, topped with a torched wafer-thin layer of dried mango "caramel." No birthday cake necessary! But everyone did take the opportunity to sing.

More than just a surprise birthday dinner for myself, the evening ended up a celebration of food, friends, new culinary experiences, and, of course, the talent of César Ramirez and his sous-chef Juan Leon. At one point in the evening a friend said, "This has got to be the best birthday dinner going on in all of America tonight!"

You don't need a birthday excuse to head on over to Brooklyn Fare Kitchen. It's a gastronomic experience unlike any other. Sitting in the kitchen at the chef's actual workspace, being served by the chefs themselves, and having them articulate their dishes and answer questions, makes for an intimate and relaxed atmosphere, topped off with food from the stratosphere.

Though its ten seats are booking up almost two months in advance, it's well worth the wait. Lacking a liquor license, it's BYOW (for Wine), making the $70 prix fix menu a bargain. Just remember to bring enough wine to share with the chefs! Oh, and I'll hear none of that "I don't go to Brooklyn" from you Manhattanites. I used to joke about needing my passport to go to Brooklyn, but I made it to Brooklyn Fare Kitchen not once, but twice in two months. And I'll go back for sure, again and again, because the menu never stays the same. Indeed, with the theme "Food Under Construction," Brooklyn Fare Kitchen isn't a one-off experience.

Open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, Brooklyn Fare Kitchen seats maximum 10 people. The Prix Fix menu is a steal at $70 per person, and it's BYOW.

EDIT, July 2010:  Brooklyn Fare Kitchen's days and prices have changed, and it's no longer BYOW.  Call to get on the waiting list!  : )

To make reservations at Brooklyn Fare Kitchen, please call 718.243.0500. Brooklyn Fare Kitchen is located at 200-3 Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201... Just across the street from the A, C, and G stops at Hoyt-Schermerhorn (just three stops into Brooklyn, people).,0

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Yummiest, Juiciest, Easiest BBQ Pork Ribs Ever

I must give credit where credit is due. This recipe for Pork Ribs is my version of a recipe I got years ago from Executive Chef Derek Emerson, owner of Walker's Drive-In in Jackson, Mississippi. I haven't changed the fundamental techniques, I've just given it my own personal twists, which means that you can add your own personal flare to it as well, and still have the same, excellent results. These pork ribs are sooo good that I have had both a vegetarian and a Jewish friend who doesn't eat pork both break down and eat them. They just couldn't stand hearing all the "YUM"s, and "Oh"s all around and not try them!

This recipe is super easy, and though it takes some time, it's not a lot of active time. Because of the technique, you can make the ribs well in advance of your guests arriving and simply finish them off without any hassle. You can take the rib recipe for itself, but I've also shared how you can turn your ribs into an entire meal out of the same pot, and that's always a beautiful thing.

What you'll need:

Organic Pork Ribs (Berkshire and Niman Ranch Pork are my faves, one full rack of St. Louis Style ribs serves two people, look for the most marbled ribs you can find)
3 Medium Yellow Onions, roughly chopped
2 Large Carrots, peeled, roughly chopped
3 Celery Ribs, roughly chopped
2 Granny Smith Apples, washed (in warm water if they're covered in wax), halved
Whole Black Peppercorns
Whole Juniper Berries
Fresh Rosemary and Thyme
BBQ Sauce (my fave for this particular recipe is "Bone Suckin' Sauce")

In a large stock pot, bring the vegetables, apples, peppercorns, and juniper berries just to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium-high for a strong simmer and allow the liquid to reduce for about 2 hours. In the last half hour, add the rosemary and thyme.

You can use whatever vegetables you like, just don't skip the onions and carrots, or the apples and thyme. Like with any vegetable stock, you can use leeks, scallions, garlic, parsley—just be sure the flavors you choose will go well with pork. Choosing your ingredients is how to make this recipe your own!

When you have a flavorful liquid, add some coarse Kosher salt to the pot then add the rack(s) of ribs to the water. On medium-high heat, simmer the ribs for about 45 minutes, skimming the muck off the top of the liquid. The ribs will be cooked through completely, but leave them in the pot until you've finished your BBQ sauce, or for as long as you need, turning the heat down to the very lowest setting.

After cooking the ribs for about 30 minutes, take about one cup of the liquid from the stock pot and put it into a small saucepan. On high heat, reduce this liquid by about half. Then whisk in the BBQ sauce. Leave this sauce on low heat until ready to use.

As it's BBQ time of year, most of you will want to finish the ribs off on the grill. But if you live on the East Coast like me, it rains a fair bit in the summer, so you can also finish the ribs off in a broiler whenever the weather isn't being cooperative with your plans.

Have the BBQ or broiler all ready to go on high heat. Remove the ribs from the stock pot and place them on a large dish or jelly roll pan for preparation. If you're using the broiler instead of the BBQ, line your jelly-roll pan with heavy duty aluminum foil before placing the ribs on it.

Generously smother the ribs with your prepared BBQ sauce, immediately (if they sit out, they dry out). If grilling, place them bone-side down on the grill first, turning once, finishing up with the meat-side down. If broiling, broil the bone-side up first, then flip the ribs to broil the meat side. Whether in the broiler or on the grill, slather on more of your BBQ sauce when you flip the ribs. Remember, your ribs are already cooked through, you're just grilling / broiling them to get a nice, flavorful char on the meat.

Every summer I save the liquid each time I make these ribs. I freeze it, labeling it "pork stock," and I add the frozen stock to the liquid every time I make ribs.

If you would like to make an entire meal out of this single pot, you'll also need:

Small Potatoes (washed, unpeeled, left whole)
Corn on the Cob (husks and silk removed) or Artichokes (trimmed and cleaned)
Dental Floss

Small, whole potatoes, about 2" in diameter, will take about 20-25 minutes to cook. Add them to your pot after the ribs have been in for about ½ hour, and cook them until they slide easily off of a paring knife inserted in the middle. You can leave the potatoes whole for serving, or you can turn them into mashed potatoes (but then you'd have to use another pot). When I leave the potatoes whole for serving, I put some of the stock in a gravy boat so my guests can pour a bit over their potatoes if they like.

Corn on the cob only takes about 3-5 minutes to cook in boiling water. When you take your ribs out of the pot to put them in the broiler, turn the heat back up to high on the stock pot, and add the corn when you flip the ribs. To check the corn for doneness, pull one out of the water with tongs and pierce one kernel with the tip of a pairing knife or one fork prong. If the kernel squirts out some juice when pierced, your corn is done.

My thanks to Chef Derek Emerson for this recipe! He shared it with me ages ago, and it's still the best easy rib recipe I know. Hope you feel the same too!