29 March 2009

Portrait in a new (food) economy: Matthew Wexler

It can feel a little crushing if you're caught too close to the fall-out of this economy, like a bad hangover. This is why the effervescent spirits (the alka seltzers for this hangover) of those few entrepreneurs still emerging as if nothing's wrong capture my imagination.

One such character I met as he left his managerial job at the Food Bank For New York City's offices, just as I found my way in. Matthew Wexler has bid adieu to the 9 to 5 grind and immediately stepped into a new world of freelance work as a personal chef and marketer extraordinaire. More zen than brazenly confident, his fearlessness is centered on a desire for quality of life. He cares about being able to go to the Union Square Farmer's Market during the weekday so that he can meet the producers. He plans to spend time exploring the many niche Asian markets in Queens among the burgeoning immigrant populations. Most of all, he's going to enjoy himself.

He is associated with Good Commons, a eco-friendly, relaxation heavy, gastro retreat in Vermont. Guests can request him as their personal chef, lured by his promise to deliver comfort food with inspiration from around the globe. The owner, an old friend, actually inspired him to go to culinary school in the first place, and continued to be an inspiration as he kicked into gear his own, alternative career.

As I finish interviewing him, Matthew hands me his new card. It is brilliant, and I immediately want to steal the idea for myself: a substantially smaller him, grinning ear to ear with chocolate ringing his mouth, a greedy fist clenching what looks to be a glazed profiterole. Below the photo, a very simple job decription. Food Enthusiast.

Donate to the Food Bank

The state of the economy is such that it permeates every topic and every conversation, especially since I began to work at the Food Bank For New York City. They experienced a food shortage last year as wholesalers and grocery stores began tightening their belts, and this year donations are down.

If you're looking for a worthy cause to donate to, is a compellingly efficient charity. Nearly 96 cents out of every dollar donated goes directly to support their programs and provide food to 1,000 food bank, pantries, and soup kitchens around the city. For every dollar donated, 5 meals can be provided to New Yorkers in need. Donate here.

23 March 2009

How to get creative with the kitchen cabinet

A friend asked how I create meals on the spur of the moment with a limited pantry. It's a good question, one I've considered at length.

- Read lots of cookbooks, cover to cover.

- Get comfortable with basic techniques and recipes: risottos, soups, omelets, boiling water...

- Pay attention to classic flavor combinations. This is the surest way to ensure success when experimenting. Tomato and basil, pork and apple, and garlic and parsley to just scratch the surface. I'd love to hear readers' favorite combos.

- Most importantly, you can't be too hard on yourself, because ultimately it's a hit or miss endeavor. You'll get better at the techniques and flavors, but only if you get started in the first place. Here's a tip: never combine fig and blue cheese on top of pasta. Don't know what I was thinking that night!

19 March 2009

Pea Pesto!

A pasta aficionado like myself should not have waited so long to spread this gospel:

If it's winter or you don't have a garden full of basil, don't give in and buy the jarred stuff. It's always depressing compared to real Genovese pesto. Instead, make pea pesto!

Peas, parsley, onion, lemon. It all never tasted so good.

- put on a big pot of water to boil
- sauté finely diced yellow or Spanish onion in olive oil w/ salt & pepper until golden in another wide pot.
- pour in a pound bag of frozen peas (NOT sweet garden peas - too sweet for pasta), stir and break up until nearly cooked through on its own steam
- water should be boiling now (put a lid on it to hurry it up), salt well, and add a pound of your favorite pasta shape
- just before the pasta is done take up to 3/4 cup of the cooking liquid and pour it over the peas. Turn the pasta off.
- add a big handful of loosely chopped flat parsley, juice of 1-2 lemons, and a lot more salt and pepper to the mixture
- *special equipment notice* use a handheld immersion blender (or a food processor or regular blender in a pinch) to purée the pea mixture very well. Taste for seasoning.
- transfer to the pasta to the sauce with tongs or a slotted ladle (the bit of extra liquid is good for the sauce)
- serve pasta with a good snowfall of parmigiano reggiano and a bit more fresh, coarsely ground black pepper

18 March 2009

Flatbread 101: Bread that is Flat

I'm fascinated by making things from scratch as much as I can. It is my life's greatest tragedy that I live in New York City instead of on an organic farm on the Amalfi Coast or somewhere in Provence. Not even having the logistics for a window box really cramps my style, if you know what I mean. I've always wanted to learn to make truly great bread, but so far have been intimidated by the amount of counter space and time necessary.

Enter this wonderful recipe for flatbread found in the River Cottage Family Cookbook. Easily created within 45 minutes from start to wash-up (and 15 of those minutes you're resting), these taste better than anything I've had at any Lebanese or similar Middle Eastern restaurant.

Eat it naked and warm or with nearly any topping. Perhaps you'll like it with a homemade hummus: purée a drained can of chickpeas with a bit of sesame or olive oil or tahini and two very juicy lemons. Add parsley before you purée and garnish with chopped tomatoes to make it pretty. Or roll a flatbread around a salad of chopped tomato and cucumber (seeds removed), served with feta cheese (or any cheese like it), chopped parsley, a bit of red wine vinegar (or more lemon juice), and a bit of olive oil. Make a sandwich with a smear of hummus and top it with any leftover meat.

River Cottage Flatbread

To make 8:

- 1 and 2/3 cups all purpose or white pastry flour (plus extra for dusting work surface)
- 1 heaping teaspoon of salt
- 1 Tablespoon olive or sunflower oil
- 2/3 cup warm water

1) Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl. (Sifting means shaking through a fine-mesh sieve)

2) Add the oil in the measuring cup with the water and pour the liquid into the flour in a thin stream with one hand while using the other hand to stir it.

3) Form the flour and water into a soft ball of slightly sticky dough (you may have to add a little extra flour or water to get the texture right). Rub off any dough that sticks to your hands

4) Sprinkle flour onto a work surface and start kneading the dough by pushing the heel of your hand (where the palm meets the wrist) into the dough to stretch it. Fold it over, give it a quarter of a turn, and then stretch it again. If the dough starts to stick, simply sprinkle it with more flour. Keep kneading for 5 minutes, until the dough feels smooth and plump. Again, the longer and more aggressively you knead, the better the dough.

5) Cover the ball of dough with the upturned mixing bowl and let it rest at least 15 minutes (longer is better but not strictly necessary)

6) When ready, roll the dough into a sausage shape and divide into eight pieces. Flour the work surface again, and with a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a very thin round roughly the size of a small plate.

7) Get a frying pan very hot over a high heat, and then turn the flame down to medium-low.

8) Shake off excess flour from the rolled-out piece of dough and put it in the pan for about 30 seconds to a minute each side, until bubbles form. Roll out each piece of dough individually and cook one at a time.

09 March 2009

New Mexico: a menu

From Mexico to New Mexico. My 2 favorite New Mexicans put together a truly stunning dinner party this weekend. The food was killer, but what impressed me just as much was the concept. They created a symphony of a menu. Some people say success lies in writing what you know. I say, cook what you know. They certainly did, with a classic menu of enchiladas, rice, black beans, tomato and spinach salad (interesting: no dressing, and the better for it), and of course, Angela's famous chocolate chip cookies. Pay careful attention to this photo essay on assembling Frank's enchiladas. Note to us gringos: there's no tomato in enchilada sauce. Admittedly, he cheated a bit by using a prepackaged seasoning mix, but it consists mostly of paprika, chili, onion, and garlic. First fry the corn tortilla in a bit of oil, then submerge it in the sauce before assembling it in the pan. After each layer of tortillas, add a good handful of cheddar and asiago cheese (the mixture is crucial to my mind). Frank divulged that his enchiladas have become even better since he's doubled the amount of cheese. No surprise there.

04 March 2009

Eating seasonally is easy in Mexico City

Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
80° F | 42° F
80° F | 42° F
78° F | 46° F
80° F | 50° F
Scattered Clouds
80° F | 48° F
Clear Clear Clear Clear Scattered Clouds

03 March 2009

Mexico City, 16:01

March 3, 16:01

It's essentially an octopus and shrimp stew. So good. The crab was fried simply, topped with shallots and cilantro and served with very very thin tortillas. Truly excellent. And a simple tomato and basil salad to finish. I am satisfied!

Mexico City, 15:39

March 3, 15:39

The best yet: octopus and shrimp tacos. The seafood in a clinging, spicy deep red sauce, with slivers of avocado to give a little calm in the sloppy spicy delight. I never knew octopus could be so tender. My fried soft-shell crab just arrived. More later...

02 March 2009

Mexico City, 12:29

March 2, 12:29

Hello! I'm just sitting digesting a heartbreakingly good breakfast and thought I'd continue the updates! I just ate toasted local bread spread with refried beans and topped with melted cheese, served with a fresh tomato salsa. (Note: every country has its own version of cheese on toast). Carrot, beetroot, and papaya juice, and stunning coffee. In a huge atrium of a restaurant. Thinking more on the crab yesterday, I think you're right. Shrimp would have been better. There is nothing you can do with crab that's better than cracking it open and picking every last fibre of unadorned meat out, in my opinion.

01 March 2009

Mexico City, 22:59

March 1, 22:59

I received your email while eating dinner in the 55-year-old restaurant my driver insisted I come to instead of the 'nouvelle mexican' hipster bar I asked for. And I am glad! Just had more guac (I figure try it everywhere) which wasn't half as good. I like it lumpy, clay-like and with a surprise kick. This is sloppy and had too much lime juice in it, so the avocado becomes just a material, not a taste. But I guess everyone has their own recipe. They brought me fried cheese with salsa verde and tacos to diy - delicious - and I'm just tucking into a cheese-stuffed pepper topped with tom sauce. Good, not great. But the true winner here is the margarita. Served in what's essentially a shot glass, heady, sweet, almost creamily dense. Divine! I'm staying at the W and am saving some space for their molten- middle chocolate-chili cake when I get back. Mole sauce is top of my list but only seems to come with meat sadly. Anyway, shall eat before all is cold. Check out my hotel though. I have a hammock in my room. A HAMMOCK.

Mexico City Food Correspondent

Friend and fellow blogger extraordinaire, Erin Newby of O-Absalom, sends us dispatches from the Federal District's food scene. Unfortunately her camera's broken. Fortunately, she's a lyrical writer with a degree in English from Oxford under her belt. It really shouldn't be any problem to imagine these dishes. Her favorites, you will see, often center on guacamole, margaritas, and seafood. This is all a lead-up to a guest blog she will write upon re-entry in New York, so stay tuned!

March 1, 17:38

Just arrived and went for lunch at a place the concierge recommended. Amazing! Star was the zucchini flower quesadilla, along with the spicy, delicious guacamole, and there were also some wonderful crabmeat tacos that had been cooked in banana leaves. And a zesty, sweet margarita, or course!