Monday, November 17, 2008

Iron Chef - Bacon

After sampling a particularly delicious dish at Momofuku Ssam Bar featuring Benton's Bacon, I decided to see if I couldn't procure some of this superlative swine myself.  I checked out Mr. Allen Benton's website, and ordered myself four pounds of bacon and a pound of "Tennessee Proscuitto."  

The man and his hams

After a couple of shipping miscues (the UPS guy couldn't figure out what floor my company was on so he had it returned to Tennessee), and some e-mailing with Mr. Benton himself, I had the pungent, piggy product in my hands.  

Knowing how extraordinary this food was, I wanted to share it with my bacon loving friends and make it a truly memorable meal.  Thus, the idea for another iron chef challenge was born.  

One night, ten friends, five courses, all bacon.

For over two months I pondered what dishes would best show off the flavor and versatility of the Benton's bacon.  I solicited ideas from friends, poured over restaurant menus and scoured the Internet for recipes.

Finally I set the date, sent out the evite and started shopping.  Here's how it all went down:

For the first course, I served an amuse bouche brilliantly conceived by my friend Mark: Bacon Wrapped Bacon.

More than just a play on the simplicity of wrapping something in bacon to enhance its flavor, this amuse would be a warning shot, a bacon siren, that things were about to get heavy, in a good way.

To break up the monotony of so much Benton's bacon, I also bought a package of my favorite store supplied product, Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked Bacon.  I cut each slice into thirds and made an equal armed cross out of one cut piece of each brand.  I alternated folding each slice back over the other, a bit of a bacon weave, until I ran out of bacon real estate and was left with what looks like a fat-streaked rose.  I put a wooden skewer through the middle to hold the creation's shape together and popped the 10 skewers in a 375 degree oven for 18 minutes.  When they emerged, they were crispy throughout and the excess fat had melted into a pool in the bottom of the grill pan that was my cooking vessel.  What was left was super crispy layers of phenomenally rich meat that really popped with flavor.  Everyone was moaning (from joy, I think) and palates were primed for the impending porcine party.  We also watched this video to get "in the mood."

Bacon, by any other name, would taste as sweet...

Thankfully these monsters were only one bite each as any more might have been asking for it.

Up next was a salad that I love making during the summer when peaches and nectarines are at their sweet peaks.  The dish consists of grilled peaches and/or nectarines, baby spinach leaves, crumbled candied pecans, dried cranberries, freshly cooked warm bacon bits and blue cheese dressing.  Without fresh peaches or nectarines at my disposal, I used a high quality jarred white peach that filled in decently well for its summer cousin.  This salad is always a hit and on this night, was a welcome bit of green in a dinner filled with heavier foods.

This course actually might have been healthy

For the third course, I had planned to cook up a batch of Bucati alla Amatriciana, my favorite Italian dish.  Consisting of diced red onion sauteed with pancetta, red chili flakes and tomato, it is a dish I serve quite often.  On this evening however, I didn't want to make a pasta as I feared noodles might fill my friends up with 2 courses yet to go.  Thus, I came up with the idea of turning this powerfully flavorful, yet simple sauce into a soup.  

To that end, I browned four slices of Benton's bacon over medium heat in my largest stock pot and removed them when they were cooked through.  To the melted fat which they left in their wake, I added three diced large red onions and a few pinches of red chili flakes and sauteed over medium-low heat.  After ten minutes, I dropped in two 35 oz. cans of San Marzano peeled tomatoes, sans the liquid they are canned with, and mashed them into the onions with a potato masher.  I popped the top on the pot, and let the mixture cook over low heat for 90 minutes.  

When the lid was removed, I returned the bacon to the party (after a rough chop) and let the mix simmer uncovered for another ten minutes.  After a little adjustment of seasoning with salt and pepper, the soup was ready to serve.  

I'm sorry Campbell's. but this was truly a soup that ate like a meal.  Hearty, warm, with a subversive kick from the chili flake, it was the kind of food I long for on a winter's evening.  The flavor was rich with bacon, but that richness was cut by the sweetness and acidity of the tomatoes and the natural sugar in the red onion.  It was my favorite creation of the evening and will be a staple for many NFL Sundays to come.

You're the inspiration... (sadly no one photographed the actual dish I made)

For our fourth plate of piggy goodness, I decided to have a little fun.  I wanted to showcase just how good this bacon was by offering it in very traditional ways.  To do that, I made a course I decided to call "Bacon All Day."  The plate consisted of three mini sandwiches, none of which was particularly novel.  I made a mini bacon egg and cheese biscuit, a hot peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich and a bacon cheeseburger slider that I augmented by adding bits of bacon inside the burger patty.

Three Little Pigs

These simple sandwiches were hopefully able to convey how different and delicious Allen Benton's bacon is than that typically consumed in these common sandwiches.  While I probably should have tried to go a little lighter (perhaps a BLT rather than the burger), I think the point was made.  Everyone had a different favorite, but all agreed that the star was shining brightly in its bacony glory.

For my last act, I took the suggestion of a good friend from high school who used to live in Los Angeles named Tristan.  In L.A., he told me, there was a restaurant famous for its bacon cheesecake, which consisted of of a layer of bacon slices set between the crust and cake on an otherwise standard cheesecake.

Being a lazy and poorly equipped baker, I ditched the idea to splurge for a spring-form pan and copy the cake to a T and decided instead to use the recipe as a jumping off point for my own creation.  

I purchased a frozen NY Style Cheesecake from Trader Joe's and let it sit out on the counter for four hours until the cake became malleable.  At that point, I sprinkled crumbled bits of extra crispy Niman Ranch Bacon (the Benton's is perhaps too flavorful for this application) and crushed honey graham crackers over the top of the cake.  I then kneaded the crumbs and crumbles into the cake until there were bits of both in every bite.  Next, I rolled the mixture into bite sized balls and stored them in the ice box until about 20 minutes before they were ready to serve, when I let them sit out on a counter to soften up.  My friends and I really enjoyed the classic mixture of sweet and salty, but it was my coworkers who were most impressed when I brought in left-overs to sample the following day.  Comments ranged from, it's not that bad to "it's almost better than sex."  I wish I were making this up.  I'm not.  

Now you can have your pudding while you eat your meat.

All in all, we went through about 60 slices of bacon that evening, each serving its own delicious purpose.  

Here's what bacon lover and attendee Victoria had to say:

"The meal was nothing but decadent and sinful.  Of course, I knew this going into it, so I prepared well with a pair of stretchy pants.  My favorites were the amuse bouche (bacon wrapped in bacon) and the bacon breakfast sandwich, which haunted me in my dreams last night. I think the high I was feeling from this meal caused me to say some lascivious things to Smith, so I'd like to make a public apology to my fiance."

Afterwards, I actually hurt all over. 

It was worth every last bite.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Recession Specials

If you haven't noticed, the economy is not doing so well.  One positive outcome of tough times tends to be unusual good deals, both in the stock market and in your super market.  

Restaurants have a particularly tough road ahead of them as dining out is one of the easiest forms of discretionary spending to curb.  To curb the curbing, many restaurants in New York are offering great deals to get you in the door.  Here's New York Magazine's list of some of New York City's best recession specials:

5 Ninth: $24 three-course lunch (one of the best dining deals in the meatpacking district).

21 Club: 3-course prix fixe menu at lunch for $35, and dinner $40 when seated by 6:30 p.m.

Abboccato: new selection of chiccetti (small plates for sharing); $26 three-course lunch on weekdays.

Allegretti: $28 three-course lunch.

Apiary: $35 three-course Sunday dinner, featuring options like pan-seared halibut with broccolini and spicy eggplant, and pumpkin crème brûlée.

Bacchus: $25 three-course dinner with plenty of options.

Bobo: Everything is $20 or less on the new den menu.

Café Loup: Nightly $28 three-course dinner.

Casa Havana: Recession Special breakfast includes two eggs, ham or bacon, French fries, toast, and coffee for twenty cents.

’Cesca: Half-price wine on Mondays; $31 three-course dinner before 6:30 on weekdays.

Chanterelle: Three-course lunch for $42, which includes tea or coffee and a tray of chocolate truffles.

Community Food & Juice: Burger and a beer for $15.

Craftsteak: The new bar menu features options like fried mac and cheese and crispy pork belly, all for $15 or less.

davidburke & donatella: $24.07 three-course lunch with shockingly luxurious dishes.

David Burke at Bloomingdale’s: $24.07 three-course dinner.

Demarchelier: Two-course dinner with wine for $26.

Dennis Foy: any appetizer and entrée for $27.

Dovetail: $38 three-course Sunday supper, featuring dishes like sweetbreads and duck goulash.

Eighty One: $42 two-course seasonal dinner all night on Sundays and from 5:15 to 6:15 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Eleven Madison Park: $38 two-course lunch; new à la carte bar menu.

The EU: All entrée prices have been reduced by approximately $10.

Fiamma: $50 three-course dinner from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Fleur De Sel: $29 three-course lunch.

Gotham Bar and Grill: $31 three-course lunch; options include grilled steak.

Gramercy Tavern: $14 soup and sandwich in the Tavern room at lunch, options include a lobster roll and borscht.

Grayz: $27 three-course lunch.

Japonais: The Restaurant Week menu is still being served from 5 to 7 p.m. every night.

Jean Georges: $28 two-course lunch, plus free marshmallows (possibly the best deal in town?).

Johnny Utah’s: $19.95 three-course lunch; two-for-one drinks at lunch.

JoJo: $24.07 three-course lunch; $35 three-course dinner before 6:30 p.m. and after 9:30 p.m.

La Bonne Soupe: $23.95 three-course lunch and dinner.

La Petite Auberge: Four-course dinner with coffee for $28.

Le Cirque: $45 three-course lunch in the dining room; $28 two-course lunch in the café.

Megu: $55 three-course dinner.

The Mermaid Inn: The menu includes new wallet-friendly items such as a lobster po' boy.

Mia Dona: $24.07 three-course lunch (don't miss the bigoli); happy hour from 5-7 p.m.; 25 percent discount on gift cards worth $100 or more.

The Modern: Every bottle of wine in the Bar Room is now $50 or less.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar: $28 three-course lunch, features favorites like pork buns and spicy rice cakes.

Nougatine: $24.07 three-course lunch.

The Orchard: BYOB with no corkage fees every Sunday night.

Ouest: $34 three-course dinner before 6:30 p.m.

Pamplona: $15.95 two-course lunch; $21.95 three-course lunch; more shareable, wallet-friendly items at dinner.

Payard: $31 three-course lunch; $37 three-course dinner before 6:45 p.m.

Perry St: $24 two-course lunch; $35 three-course dinner before 6:30 and after 10 p.m.

Persimmon: $37 tasting menu.

The Smith: $12 burger and beer every Sunday night.

South Gate: $24.07 three-course lunch.

SushiSamba: $35 three-course dinner.

Tabla: $27 Autumn-inspired three-course lunch; $35 chef's three-course lunch.

Tailor: Enlarged bar menu now includes items like chicken-liver pâté; Monday night special of huitlacoche corn dogs with a beer for $12.

Tempo: $32 three-course dinner Sunday through Thursday; lots of options.

Union Square Cafe: Recently added 100 new bottles of wine under $75.

Vero Panini & Wine Bar: On Monday nights, order a glass of wine or a beer at the bar and receive a free panini.

Vong: $24.07 three-course lunch.

Wafels & Dinges: The price of the WMD (the Waffle of Mass Deliciousness, which includes unlimited toppings) has dropped to $6.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Glory of Pumpkin Butter

To say that I’m a big Trader Joe’s fan would be an enormous understatement.

I shop there about twice a week, talk to friends and family about the wonders of their stores even more often and eat something procured from their shelves just about every day.

Of all the wonderful items they stock, there is one that I sing the praises of more often and more loudly than any other. That item is pumpkin butter.

Per Trader Joe’s flyer, “Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Butter doesn’t actually contain butter, but it does have a distinctively rich, butter-like consistency – partially attributable to its fruit pulp to sugar ratio, which is higher than that of jam or preserves.”

In other words, its creamy and rich, yet only contains 40 calories per serving (along with no fat, no cholesterol, no sodium, low sugar and a 1/5th of your daily vitamin A).

Besides consuming it straight out of the jar (which I do on occasion), I use pumpkin butter in a variety of conventional and unconventional ways to spruce up otherwise staid staples.

Just try to resist...

Some of the basic ways that pumpkin butter can be used include typical applications such as spread on toast, waffles or biscuits. The fruit flavor and thick texture elevate these everyday edibles into memorable breakfasts and snacks.

While I enjoy these standard uses immensely, what gets me really excited about this product is its versatility. Here are my three favorite ways I’ve used pumpkin butter to add something extraordinary to various dishes.

Pumpkin-Ginger Glazed Grilled Mahi-Mahi

A little bit of salt, pepper, and ground ginger rubbed on the mahi-mahi filet, a few minutes on the grill (or in a grill pan) and a dollop of pumpkin butter added on for the last 3 minutes of grilling to serve as a glaze, and you’ve got yourself a delicious and inventive sounding entrée with minimal effort. This combination also works great on grilled chicken breasts.

Right about now would be a good time to slather on some pumpkin butter

Pumpkin French Toast

As you made your mixture (eggs, vanilla, milk, salt, sugar) that you normally used to soak your bread in, toss in a tablespoon of pumpkin butter to add a little zing to the dish. A light spreading of pumpkin butter on the finished product also does that trick; double up if you dare…

Add it right to the batter

Pumpkin Sauce

After 30 seconds or so in the microwave, a pumpkin butter of lower viscosity will emerge and makes a great topping for vanilla ice cream, cheesecake, or your fingers.
Stir that microwaved pumpkin butter in with an equal volume of cream, and you’ve got yourself a pumpkin cream sauce that will marry wonderfully with the noodle of your choosing.

A photo of my pantry

I'm certain that there are many more ways to enjoy this fantastic product, and if you know of any, I'd love to hear about them.  

In the meantime, give these applications a shot.  I think you'll be quite happy with the results.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Howard's Salmon

I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel through Europe the summer after I graduated college.

I spent a couple weeks with my family in Italy, a month backpacking through London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Munich, Zurich, Barcelona and Paris with my close friend and his girlfriend and three weeks working at a sleep-away camp near Nantes in France.

My campers in Nantes

After the camp was over, I returned to Paris to live for a week at the house of my father’s best friend since childhood. That friend, Howard, had taken a similar post-graduation tour of Europe in the 1970’s. On that trip, he found a lovely woman in Paris, married her and never left.

While I could go on and on about the wonders of the food culture in France and the many simple culinary pleasures in which Parisians partake on a daily basis, I write today to discuss a recipe I learned not from any of the wonderful restaurants or pastry shops I patronized, but rather from the American living in Paris himself.

Come and get your love

The dish in question involves an incredibly popular fish, a highly underused kitchen appliance and perhaps the fewest number of ingredients and steps involved in any great recipe. Ever.

In contrast to the hundreds of types of mild, flaky, white fleshed fish swimming the world’s waterways, salmon are uniquely colored and flavored. Their bright pink flesh is bursting at the gills with natural oils that give the fish its famous flavor.

The broiler (that thing on the “ceiling” of your oven) is an often overlooked way of cooking that basically functions as an upside down grill. The heat descends directly from the flames and cooks the food sitting beneath it at a distance that can be controlled by the position of the oven rack.

In Howard’s Salmon recipe, the preparation is as follows:

Take a salmon fillet (preferably even in thickness), sprinkle kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper over the top and rub it into the flesh gently. That is all.

Salt, pepper and a little bit of love

Put the fillet on a baking sheet or in a cast iron pan (or anything that can take the direct heat) lined with aluminum foil and place your oven rack on the top level. Turn the broiler on the "high" setting and slide your pan underneath the flames so that the fillet is centered under the contraption, ideally about 4 inches from the flames.

4 inches from the broiler, give or take a few centimeters...

Next comes the most difficult step.

Watch it.

Just sit there, keeping your eye on the flesh, and watch the fish.

After about 5-7 minutes, the top of the fish will begin to brown. Turn the broiler to the “low” setting and wait until the top of the fish is a rich mahogany color. Right before its about to start burning, pull the fish out of the oven.

That’s it.

The natural oils in the fish rise to the top of the fillet as the heat rains down from the broiler. These oils interact with the flames and constructively fry the exterior of the salmon, giving it both a pleasantly crispy texture and rich flavor.

The oil also serves as a barrier to prevent the moisture from inside the fillet from escaping during the cooking process. The flesh will be tender and moist, yet cooked through perfectly to a medium done-ness.

Serve it immediately or park it in Tupperware to chill for up to three days before serving cold and you’ll enjoy some of the most simple, delicious salmon of your life.

When it's golden brown, its perfectly cooked

I like to serve the salmon with a homemade Dijon honey mustard dressing constructed as follows:

4 Tablespoons Hellman’s Mayonnaise (there’s no substitute for Hellman’s, trust me I’ve tried)
3 Tablespoons of any good Dijon mustard
2 Tablespoons of honey
½ Teaspoon (each) of garlic powder, chile powder (I prefer ancho, but any will do), curry powder, kosher salt, fresh ground pepper

Mix to combine.