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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Still Love Cafe Capriccio

I know that Scott has previously talked about Cafe Capriccio, but we went again and it is really such a great place. First off, they make in house a range of items including ricotta, mascarpone, mozzarella, and bacon. These items are all really great, and add to how special this place really is.

I feel the parking in that area can be a little difficult, especially if Billy Joel is playing at the Times Union Center or something. We never seem to pay attention to small facts such as those when we make reservations places, so often I feel it is better to park in a place where you know there is parking and walk. So I parked by the New York State Museum, and it is only about 3 blocks from there (of course there were spots closer, but that is just bound to happen I guess). Since it was a year anniversary of Scott asking if I would marry him and me saying "Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure?" at that very restaurant it all seemed very romantic. So I thought it was a good time to break in the shoes I am going to be wearing for our wedding in three weeks. Of course, since it is a neighborhood where people seem to like to hang out on the stoops of their building I probably got about 25 comments of "You look nice, but aren't those shoes a little high?" in a three block walk.  I wanted to turn around and yell at the whole street "I know! I want to look hot in my wedding photos, what is the problem? A girl can't walk down your street in heels, really?" But then I would be the crazy one. I know for a fact if I walked around my own neighborhood no guys would talk to me no matter what I was wearing, but I think that is part of the charm of Albany that some of our best restaurants are in really colorful neighborhoods (like New World Bistro).

Anyways getting past my eventful walk into the restaurant, we got one of those adorable circular booths so that we could order one plate of spaghetti and both eat off of it like "Lady and the Tramp". Very romantic. We started with two Tanqueray martinis that were perfect and served in very stylish glasses. For appetizer, I got artichokes with roasted red pepper which were served on arugula with a kind of lemon vinaigrette. It was really refreshing, and the artichokes were really great. Scott got Amatriciano pasta for an appetizer with their house made bacon, and it was really out of this world. For the main course I got the ravioli special. This was, if I can remember correctly, a red pepper pasta with house made ricotta and portobella mushroom filling with a tomato basil cream sauce. Completely amazing. Scott had chicken with lemon, oregano, and olive oil. I think it had potatoes and asparagus too which were great. I don't know how they got it so crispy on the outside, and yet so, so juicy on the inside. I've made chicken a lot and never once had it taste that good (perhaps their pan is hotter when they first brown the chicken). Anyways, seriously the best chicken I can remember ever trying. I might also mention that their wine list has some really nice Italian and Californian reds by the glass.

We don't usually get dessert, but when we came for Scott's birthday they brought us over a free tiramisu, and it was so amazing that we were tempted to try something else this time. We got a "bourbon infused chocolate pate" which was called French Silk. Mmmmm. It made us remember how we'd been to a lot more expensive restaurants in New York City where we never once liked the dessert (it would often come with a prix fixe menu). There is something about their desserts where they are ambitious in the right ways. It is not about sculpting sugar or coming up with a crazy combination just to prove it can be done, it is about real ingredients and classic combinations. It also wasn't a huge dessert portion either. I will never understand places like the Outback where they give you a sundae as big as your head after you just finished off a huge steak. A few bites of something sweet is all you need to change gears and be off on your way.

Cafe Capriccio is a real gem. There are things done here that are better than at Mario Batali's Babbo. Not only is it cozy and romantic and everyone there is super friendly and knowledgeable, but I would argue it is the best restaurant in Albany. They make things in house, and things taste real, like the are supposed to. I find the bread is usually a good measure of an Italian restaurant, and here it is like all the rest of the menu: good, fresh, no more complicated than it needs to be and yet really remarkable. I wouldn't be surprised if many a marriage proposals were spoken here. Or in our case written in a poem to a stunned girl who would have to go back again in order to remember what the food was like.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Health and Safety in the Kitchen





My coworker came in my office the other day and started talking about her garbage disposal. It was jammed so she put her hand in there, and my boss said she also had recently stuck her hand in her garbage disposal since she had a nail stuck in there (somehow). I said "What? Didn't you guys see every horror film in the 1990s? The ghost is going to flip the switch!!", which was, of course, ridiculous on my part. But the point remains that the modern kitchen contains many possible hazards. There are sharp knives, and duller knives (which could be even more dangerous because they they are more likely to slip while in use and cut the cook). There are raw eggs, raw chickens, food processors, 500 degree pizza stones, toasters, long haired women (possibly even dog or cat hair in the air), and hand held mixers that could accidentally turn on while you are pushing the chocolate chip cookie dough out of the beaters (unless you unplugged it first of course).

One example of the importance of kitchen safety is a recipe we really enjoy. It is the Vermouth and Sage Chicken from Cook's Illustrated. As with probably thousands of other weeknight appropriate recipes, you brown the chicken, put the chicken in the oven for a while, take out the chicken, let it rest while you make a sauce, and pour in vermouth, chicken broth, probably salt and pepper, sage, and finish with butter. Here is the important thing about this: the recipe says "pan is hot, do not grab it by the handle as you make the sauce". Ha! Of course this is obvious. But both of us made this recipe multiple times and got really painful burns. Silly, amateur cooks! It was almost as if the fact that the recipe mentioned it made it more likely we would do that thing - of course we wouldn't do that, meanwhile too busy being snarky about it to not do that thing, while grabbing the handle to swirl the sauce.

Also, when I first started making bread, I would always grab at what was in the food processor without remembering the little fact that there is a huge, sharp blade in there! There was not much more disappointing to be in the middle of making bread (which may require kneading) and have to go wash a large cut, put on a bandaid and wait for the bleeding to stop.

My conclusion on this issue is that the kitchen can be a very dangerous place. It is very important to be aware of one's surroundings and also timing too (such as that oil is one second away from splattering everywhere, and it needs to be turned down a tad). I think what is important in avoiding injury is actually experience. The more you cook the less you are likely to burn your wrist/slash your thumb/ get your knuckle caught on a zester. I definetely got hurt a lot more in the beginning, and maybe I am proud of the burn scars on my wrist as they prove I learned how to make pizza from scratch.

One other tip I might have is in working with raw meats and eggs. I think if you use a plastic grocery bag on the counter next to you to put your waste in as you go, that saves you touching the cabinet where the trash can might be over and over again. The more you can have next to you while you work with raw meats, the less likely you are to spread potential bacteria all over the kitchen. This is also why I believe it is important to have everything chopped up and right in front of you before you start cooking. If your garlic is chopped up in a little bowl on the counter, you don't have to look for it after you just touched the raw chicken and hope you remember to wash your hands in between.

I will also say though that somehow the more you work with food the more you feel comfortable with it, for better or worse. Maybe in the beginning I thought raw eggs were gross, but now that I think of uncooked eggs in mayonnaise recipes and some cocktails, and I just don't feel as guilty licking the cookie batter bowl (for better or worse).

Obviously though it is important to keep everything really clean, follow expiration dates, and give it your best effort. But I really think as far as personal injury goes, trial and error is the best way to learn. Some times it is difficult when several things in your kitchen are happening simultaneously, but I am sure actually paying attention to your surroundings is probably a good thing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tips for a Successful Party

I went to a clothes swap party last night, and it was really fun. The food was great, and it didn't seem like it had taken a lot of effort on the part of the hostess (whether it did or not, I don't know, but it is good for it to seem that way). It made me think that for a party to be successful it is both simpler than it seems and more difficult than you would think to strike a certain balance. Here are some important things, I think:

Music: It is good to have something set the mood without inhibiting conversation. It's good to have something off the beaten path a bit to show the host's personality, but not so much that no one recognizes it, because the guests recognizing the music can lead to good conversations. Last night's party had some Richard Thompson, and I thought that worked great. If the party ends up switching from wine to bourbon, often things work their way in for irony's sake ("California Girls", "Umbrella"), but we at least want to start out classy.

Decor: This can be very simple, but I think can turn something very normal into something festive. I really enjoy this website. I probably didn't even know what the word "tablescape" meant before planning a wedding, but I feel things you learn while planning a wedding you can use in a variety of social occasions. A few well thought out presentation ideas can transform a whole event. I like some of these ideas. Like getting very cheap soup spoons from an Asian market and serving little scoops of salad on them. Also, I was reading in Martha Stewart Living last night about taking coconut doughnuts and arranging them inside a cake dome, and offering vintage dessert plates from the Goodwill and classy table linens. The article also mentioned ordering pizza, but placing fresh herbs, red pepper flakes in a small bowl, a variety of exotic salts, and a hunk of good Parmesan next to the pizza, so people could add their own toppings to the delivered pie. These ideas turn common foods into party worthy elements. I love a variety of containers for florals, and even fruit and books can be cool centerpieces. Overall, it is important for the look to match the occasion, and I think these can be the kind of thoughtful, personal touches that people appreciate, and can really add to the fun.
Food: This is the most important element. Not only the menu is important, but so is the physical placement of the food. I went to a holiday party where the food was spread out over the entire house. Standing by the firplace chatting? Have some bourbon balls! In the kitchen? Have some cheese. Perfect! What I have also realized is that the food does not need to be complicated to go over well. I think some kind of vegetable tray is important. Maybe some great cheese from here or here. And then something the host actually put effort into that can be eaten without utensils like tarts, crostini, or skewers. Arrange the thing you put effort into, the good cheeses, and the vegetables in a thoughtful attractive way, open some wine, put on some Billie Holiday or whatever you like, and there you are, ready for a memorable get together. It is really not that difficult, but somehow it takes a good amount of thought for it to all go together. If I were really advanced, I would have put one of these on our wedding registry, and I would serve cocktails, but with people driving and many of  them probably having different tastes I can't see that working. When people come to our house they really seem to prefer beer and wine (and usually bring wine).

I think what I have learned is that entertaining is a lot simpler than it seems. The first time we hosted Thanksgiving we did Beef Wellington, three kinds of appetizers, maple glazed carrots, cauliflower braised in white wine and anchovies, butter lettuce hearts of palm salad, baguettes, mushroom bread pudding, pumpkin whoopie pies, chocolate cream pie (which my Dad requested), and it was very ambitious. The next time around we did Thanksgiving we did Beef Bourguignon, Duchesse potatoes, probably a salad, Mario Batali's Rosemary Olive Oil cakes for an appetizer, and that was it. Seems minimalist in comparison, but we weren't hungry at the end, and I think sometimes focusing more on lesser dishes can end with a more successful result.

It can also help if the people you invite have things in common and get along well, but you can't always predict or determine that in advance. So, here is to many memorable get togethers in the future, simple and fun!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Braised Lamb With Peas and Asparagus


We were lucky enough to get an amazing early wedding gift: a beautiful cast-iron Dutch oven. Combined with the fresh asparagus we got from our trip to Indian Ladder Farms and the rainy weather, the condittions were perfect for a recipe I've wanted to try for a while: braised lamb with asparagus and peas from Amanda Hesser's invaluable The Cook and the Gardener. It's a keeper.

I think I can say, without violating copyright laws, that it follows a classic preparation: brown the meet in batches, briefly saute onion and carrot, add flour to make a quasi-roux, add white wine and a bouquet garni, and then braise the lamb in an hour in beef stock. Near the end, add peas and blanched asparagus, and then garlic and parsley.

The end product was fantastic, very rich and deep flavor. It would require using more liquid, but I think white beans could be a nice addition too. Anyway, it's always nice to find something good to add to the repertoire -- a great way to break in our new cookware!

Yellow Rock Cafe at Indian Ladder Farms


Today we went for brunch at the Yellow Rock Cafe at Indian Ladder Farms. I loved the decor (kitschy signs, fresh-cut lilacs) and the tablecloths (mismatched and vintage looking prints).




I had only really been to Indian Ladder Farms before in the fall, but it turns out in the spring and summer they have berry picking, and also still have their cafe and shop open. It is great because the ingredients in the dishes served at the cafe are all from local farms. Everything is really fresh, and very tasty. Scott had the Guilderville, and the menu describes it as: "Our garlic herb wrap stuffed with thinly sliced deli ham, Swiss cheese, sliced ILF apples, and Zaz mustard, and then grilled to perfection." And I had the Helderburger:"Truly an unforgettable hamburger made with all local ingredients. Six ounces of freshly ground, all-natural beef from Morning Fog Farms of Berne, NY, topped with leaf lettuce, locally grown sweet onion, and ripe tomato served on a fresh grilled hard roll. Served with French fries. Fries prepared in zero trans-fat cottonseed and canola oil." It was all delicious. Scott really loved the mustard in his wrap, and my burger was very juicy and properly cooked. It was not busy at all since it is not apple cider doughnut season, and also a rainy day.

Funny enough I totally wanted to have our wedding at Indian Ladder Farms. I said it would smell like the herb garden, and Scott said it would smell like cow waste. I still think that it would have been great, but I do admit going there on a rainy day (which could totally be one's wedding day), does make me realize it was not a perfect idea. Still, I love the direct connection between agriculture and dining. It does not get closer to the source than that. I do realize that as city people we would be sort of posers holding up a lifestyle we don't participate in as a pretty prop.

Anyways, the shop there is really great. I purchase Ric Orlando's book, where he gives away the show with recipes for beloved New World Bistro dishes such as Watermelon Gazpacho (this could make a great summer lunch to take to work), Ropa Vieja, No Crash Risotto. We also bought some pink/green/black Hudson Valley peppercorns, rhubarb jam made by their neighbor, great looking asparagus, and (most importantly) delicious doughnuts.

I also wanted to see the baby animals, but there was an admission charge for children. Not being a child myself, maybe they would have let me in, although maybe that makes me silly for wanting to get in to see the baby animals, who knows.

Anyways, great times! Great lunch! And here I thought this was a fun activity only for the fall. Considering what a long wait it can be to get into somewhere like Cafe Madison for brunch on the weekends, it was fun to have a low-key, fresh, tasty brunch without having to wait or feel crowded in. Brunch at Indian Ladder Farms almost seems like a really great, well-kept secret.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Kitchen Organization

A long time ago I read about Julia Childs's kitchen organization ideas. She kept everything out in the open and quickly accessible.
 I love this philosophy, and since I read about I have thought that having tools at the ready is just as important as having things already chopped up before one starts cooking. It is all part of the mise en place. I have followed this model in a few different ways.

Utensils at the ready in canisters:

Glasses on racks:

Hooks for aprons and pot holders:
And that leaves us with my project for today. One of my friends once said to me when we first got engaged not to put things on our wedding registry we didn't have space to store. Well, we have already received more gifts than we really have space to store. And sure there are some great options for dining room/kitchen storage (that cost a fortune), and maybe one day we may even be able to afford one of these beautiful storage solutions. But in the meantime, I got a cheap bookshelf from Staples, and moving objects over to these opened up the space in a lot of our cabinets. I put our dish towels, napkins, and tableclothes in baskets. I brought all the beautiful Le Crueset pieces and I think their primary colors really add to the decor of the dining room.
We have room for cookbooks and magazines with recipes in them. We have room for vases and candleholders, which I think are attractive enough to be on display even when they are not being used. And besides if one day we get one of those nicer pieces of dining room, the bookcase can be used for its intended purpose to actually store books. I would just love to get one of those ceiling racks for the pots though. Ah, a girl can dream. In the meantime, Bon Appetit!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Whew

I didn't see the offending sign when I walked in to work today, and fortunately Mahar's will be re-opening today.

Pizza Party


I have tried a few different pizza recipes, but the one I really loves is the Pizza Margherita from Cook's Illustrated. First off, you need a pizza stone (in my opinion it is totally worth it since you can also cook a variety of breads on it). Put pizza stone in oven, and put oven at 500 degrees. For the crust, you just whisk yeast into some room temperature water. Then in a food processor you put flour, sugar, salt and process for about 5 seconds. With the food processor running, add the liquid until a sticky ball forms, for a couple of minutes. Divide the ball in half, make into two smooth balls, place on floured baking sheet, cover loosely with plastic wrap sprayed with nonstick cooking spray, and leave them in a warm area of your kitchen for about an hour.

Then, you make the sauce. What I like about this recipe is that you don't have to cook the sauce. This is partially I think because it has you drain the tomatoes of a lot of their juices, and because Pizza Margherita goes well with a tangier tomato sauce. Clean the food processor, process a large can of diced tomatoes (I used Cento), and put them in a mesh strainer over a bowl. Let them drain while you wait for the dough, and stir them tomatoes every so often to get them to release their juices. Then, just before shaping the dough, mix the strained tomatoes with sugar, garlic, basil, and salt.

Dust the dough with flour, transfer the balls to well floured work surface. Then flatten the balls with your palms, starting from the center, and making quarter turns until they are 12 inch circles. Lightly flour your pizza peel, transfer one of the pieces of dough to the your peel, and spread thin layer of tomato sauce with rubber spatula leaving half inch border around the edge. Slide onto stone and bake for 5 minutes. Remove pizza from oven, add one inch chunks of fresh mozzarella.  I used R & G cheese I bought from the Pioneer Market in Troy (the basil and garlic I also got from there and both were really delicious). Return pizza to oven for 5 more minutes.

Transfer to cutting board, sprinkle with basil, salt, olive oil, slice and serve immediately. I love that the crust is crunchy, it doesn't have too many flavors going on, and with the really high quality mozzarella it just tastes so fresh and simply delicious. I have tried it with prosciutto before and that was really good too. I also like it really doesn't use that many dishes, and only takes a little more than an hour. Even for a weeknight it is pretty easy. I made the whole thing while we also watched "The Office" and "Parks and Rec", so that is how little time it took. We also had an Italian red wine with it, and I felt like that really complemented the flavor of the basil.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

It's My Way, Or...

My colleague Robert Farley speaks the truth about the discourse on mint juleps, which of course can be applied to cocktails more broadly:

What I have discovered is that the literature on the mint julep can be wholly characterized by this formula: "Mint juleps are vile, except ones that use [insert bourbon] over [crushed, shaved, cubed, etc. ice] with a bit of [crushed mint, bruised mint] on the [top, bottom] along with [a little/lot] of [granulated/powedered/syrup]. Any divergence from this recipe is a/an [disgrace/abomination/abortion/unholiness] that only a/an [moron/idiot/dilettante/frat boy/sorority girl/tourist/alcholic] would drink."

Indeed.

On the narrow issue at hand, I've never had a mint julep I liked. Or, for that matter, mojito; I think I can say that mint in drinks is a genre I Don't Get.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Wedding Food

Today we are picking out the food for our wedding next month. While I totally trust the venue, I don't have very high hopes. My lack of high hopes was creating by an essay by Julie Powell in this book.

Powell states that: "Hundreds of guests + unreasonable expectations + catering - billions of dollars = rubber chicken. "

She also goes on to say: "Very long names for things should have set off the first alarm bells. The long-name thing is something that works for fancy restaurants. But when caterers employ the trick, it's to try to convince you that they are fancy restaurants rather than what they are, which is caterers. Unlike chefs, caterers do not cook to order. Caterers cook great huge batches of things, then pack them into large tin containers and carry them in vans to church basements or the grounds of local art museums, where they reheat the food on chafing dishes. Many foods can be eaten very satisfactorily this way, but these foods usually have simple names — macaroni and cheese, barbecued brisket. Certainly not Citrus-Scented Wild Rice Salad with Toasted Louisiana Pecans and Fresh Mint."

According to her: "Rubber chicken is just what happens when you want the impossible. When you want to make a meal for hundreds into an expression of who you are. The only way to deal with rubber chicken is to embrace it for what it is — an excuse to bring these people you love together, a way to mark time while everyone you know does the thing they really came here to do: to celebrate this wonderful day, the day that you married the sweetest, kindest man in the world. Honestly? Nobody gives a crap about the food".

So there it is from a very wise woman.  "And relax, remembering that your rubber chicken is fine, but your rubber chicken is not the point. The point is you. And your husband. And your family and friends. Oh, and booze, of course."

The essay in the book also states that if she did it all over again she would just have a boozy affair with martinis and steaks following a city hall ceremony while wearing a funky hat and holding wildflowers. Then, she actually gives the phone number to Peter Luger in the last sentence, which I find totally hilarious and brilliant.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Farmed Tilapia

...is to be avoided. Essentially, there are two three problems. First, although farming may seem as if it's more sustainable, it's actually terrible for the environment. Second, as Schrambling correctly notes, it's very bland. And last, tilapia generally lacks the nutritional benefits of other seafood. Even farmed salmon is much higher in Omega-3 fatty acids:



[New York Times, May 2 2011]

There are better alternatives available -- trout, for example, is much healthier and tastier and generally not a lot more expensive than tilapia.