Tomato Galette with Creme-Fraiche Crust

Holy crap, a blog post. My apologies for being so, well, @#(*@# late with posting anything. Working for yourself means working when you can, and happily (I think this is happy…) that’s been almost every day for a long time. I don’t claim for a minute to have all the various aspects of my job sorted out properly, but I am making hay while the sun shines, so to speak. Which leaves so little time and focus for cooking that even my butter got moldy. How sad is that! Continue reading

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And at long last…Alinea

40…
Forty…
XL…
Quarante…
Vierzig…

There are many ways to say the words, “I am turning 40,” and I’m sure there are many more ways to express the emotions that accompany such a birthday. But I have another word to offer. And that word is…

Chicago…

But before we fly halfway across the country together, let’s stop to acknowledge that a great deal has happened since the last WFIH post of 2011. For example, the New York Football Giants overcame the odds of a challenging early season to plough their way through (in order): the New York Jets, the Dallas Cowboys, the Atlanta Falcons, the Green Bay Packers, the San Francisco 49ers, and yes, once again, the New England Patriots. From Christmas Eve to the first weekend in February, Ed and I couldn’t have been happier, especially as the victory over Green Bay arrived on the very day he turned 40.

My 40th fell on Presidents’ Day and I can’t thank my parents enough for the 1971 mathematical stylings that allowed me to have a much-needed day off. The big day itself involved sleeping in, a fantastic late lunch at Worcester’s Armsby Abbey (where WFIH partner Bob & I celebrated his 42nd last summer), a cocktail at Mezcal Cantina and, finally, take out pizza from our favorite local hangout, Fresco’s in Upton.

Fast forward a week and a day and Ed and I found ourselves on an early morning United flight to the Windy City to celebrate in style. Now I realize there are some who might question the wisdom of Chicago as February vacation destination. And that’s understandable. But despite the fantastic weather we experienced while on the shores of Lake Michigan, we weren’t there for the scenery. We were there for the food.

Jumping in the way back machine to the spring of 2008, Ed and I spent a weekend in New York with my oldest friend, Courtney, and her fiancé, Phil. I took the train down a day before Ed and bought a copy of The New Yorker to read on my journey. It was in the midst of those sophisticated pages that I first learned of Chef Grant Achatz and the trials and tribulations he faced in opening his first restaurant, Alinea (the full article can be found here). I went on to read about all things New York City searching for fun ideas for the weekend, but Grant and Alinea were firmly lodged in the back of my brain.

The next month, I traveled to Chicago for a conference and decided to ring up the fine folks at 1723 North Halsted to make a reservation. I give them credit that they didn’t actually burst out laughing at my naïveté. Especially when I called them the next day. And the next. Unable to convince them that as a party of one, I didn’t actually require a table but would be perfectly happy to stand with plate in hand (hee!) in a corner, I managed to have a fabulous experience at Moto while in town, but I vowed to return and conquer this culinary beast, currently the #1 restaurant in the United States and the #6 restaurant in the world.

So in December of 2011 when my Facebook/Flickr/Twitter triple threat & virtual friend Christine Lee Zilka announced that she had secured a reservation at Alinea I became a) jealous and b) curious. If she could do it, could I? I commented on her FB post and she indicated that they seemed to have more availability than usual and that I should call. So I did. And it WORKED!

Fast forward again to our arrival in Chicago where we stayed at the dazzling W Lakeshore Drive and immediately headed to Frontera Grill for lunch. I had been there in 2008 and was thrilled when Ed gave me Authentic Mexican by Rick Bayless for Christmas that year. Best guacamole ever and if you’ve never had vanilla ice cream with cajeta (goats milk caramel), well then you’re just missing out. This time we dined on taquitos de pollo ahumado and enchiladas de pato al pasilla — both fabulous, especially when washed down with the tequilas recommended by the very friendly, talented and loyal (he waited on me in 2008) barkeep.

From there we headed to Millennium Park for our obligatory photos with the Bean (aka Cloud Gate) before we started to grow both tired and chilly. We ducked into Terzo Piano at The Art Institute for a glass of wine and some recommendations on fun things to do in town before heading to the Hancock Center for what can only be described as drinks with a view. Then back to the hotel where I took a power nap before rejoining Ed for some late night snacks in the lobby bar.

The morning of our Alinea dinner dawned warm and sunny as I headed for my mani/pedi at Bliss Spa Chicago. Heading back to the room and rousing Ed, we left for an afternoon of exploring at The Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium (I have since become fascinated with penguins to the point of obsession, but that is a story for another time. And probably a different forum). It seems that a complete museum experience these days can’t come without a special movie feature, and while the mummy movie at the Field was a bit cheesy, the penguin movie at the Shedd was, if nothing else, ‘interactive’. I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of 4D movie-going, but we were in a theater full of children and by the time it was over, the idea of a quiet, adults only dinner was exactly what the cruise director ordered.

So back to the hotel for a shower and shave before dashing off to the big event. I had been warned by a colleague who had been there that there are no indications outside 1723 North Halsted that indicate a restaurant within, so best to know the address when you get in the cab (i.e. “Hi, we’re going to Alinea,” simply isn’t going to cut it). And she was right. We made our way through rush hour traffic and arrived five minutes early for our 6:00 pm reservation, pulling up to the curb of a chic but otherwise unremarkable building. Leaving the cab, we opened the door to the best meal of our lives. The first challenge involved finding the front door. The door attached to the building looks more like the door to a back entrance with a large industrial lock, so we actually wandered about half a block in each direction before returning and opening what turned out to be the right door. It lead to a dimly lit hallway which ended with glowing lights on one side and a Star Wars-esque sliding steel door on the left. One ‘whoosh‘ and we were through.

Names were given, coats were taken and we were whisked up the glass staircase by a young maitre d’ who had clearly been through the process so many times as to kindly and politely ignore our gawking. We soon found ourselves ushered to a corner table in a small room with unassuming taupe walls and a few interesting light installations that I didn’t notice until halfway through the meal. A bank of tables along the wall, two rounds for six and a small service bar completed the room. And that’s where the Champagne came from.

With the arrival of the Champagne and the sommelier came the only choice we had to make that evening — did we want the expensive wine pairing or the really expensive wine pairing? You see, there’s only one menu at Alinea and that is the 19-course tasting menu (though as we were celebrating our birthdays, we each received a special 20th birthday course as well). So we opted for the merely expensive wine pairing and then we were off to the races.

First up, char roe. Delicate fish eggs balanced atop of trio of flavors including pieces of young coconut, a carrot gelée and a yuzu curry sauce. Courses two through five were served together on a piece of driftwood draped with fresh seaweed, and included one of the night’s more curious dishes — the oyster leaf. No oyster in sight, just a bright green leaf dressed with mignonette sauce that tasted exactly like the mollusk for which it was named. From there, a king crab salad, a mussel with saffron and chorizo and a razor clam with shiso and soy. I’ll admit that I had been somewhat worried about this course when I read the description on the restaurant’s website (I tend to be very picky about my seafood), but it was fresh and delicious and quickly consumed.

From there, a ‘Woolly Pig’ arrived at our table. One of the interesting things about Alinea is the unique serving pieces that have been designed by Martin Kastner, a designer/sculptor from the Czech Republic. This particular course is served at the end of a long steel pin attached to a small round base placed in front of the patron such that the food is sitting at mouth level. A tiny bite consisting of ham, fennel, orange peel and a calamari tentacle, it is designed to be plucked from the pin in one smooth motion, no hands required.

Once the driftwood was cleared but before the arrival of the pig, one of our team of waiters dropped by with a small science project of sorts. A small gas burner was ignited below an hourglass structure that contained water in the bottom half and a mixture of ingredients in the upper. Once the water came to a boil, steam was forced into the ingredients but eventually returned to lower half as a perfectly cooked broth. Following the departure of the pig, the broth was poured over what looked like a small cube of fried tofu, but was actually a scallop than had been pureed and reformed to a tofu-like texture. Scrumptious.

Seven courses in and apparently it was time for a palate cleanser, but why opt for sorbet when you can have your guests use large glass straws to slurp hibiscus-infused beet juice of the the ice sculpture that had been previously serving as a centerpiece? Slurrrrrrrrp…..

Course number nine presented the final seafood offering of the evening, a whole roasted black bass served with a mint pesto and an eggplant and green olive caponata. This was unquestionably the most traditional course of the evening, though I never would have thought to add chocolate shavings to the caponata. We could have easily stuffed ourselves on this one but managed to exercise some much-needed willpower in face of all the courses yet to come.

Course ten brought us face to face with one of Alinea’s classics, Hot Potato Cold Potato. Served in small wax dishes that are crafted at the restaurant daily is a cold potato soup. Inserted through the side of the dish is a small metal pin bearing a minuscule chunk of parmesan, a tiny cube of butter, a sliver of chive and a warm potato ball that was been cooked in butter. A slice of black truffle tops the entire affair and while cupping the bowl in your left hand, you remove the pin with your right, dumping all the  ingredients into the soup before consuming everything in one tasty swallow.

And continuing on a theme of ingredients culled from the ground, we moved from potatoes to mushrooms. Officially titled ‘Wild Mushrooms’ on our menu, our server explained that the goal was to give diners the experience of foraging for mushrooms in the forest. And to aid in the illusion, the dishes were served atop pillows of pine and juniper scented air such that as the weight of the plates deflated the pillows, we were surrounded by the scents of the forest.

Then to a dish that might have been inspired by the famed PF Chang’s appetizer, the lettuce wrap. This was perhaps the most interactive course from the diner’s perspective, as we were given the tools to construct a small metal cradle in which our pickled cabbage and venison wrap would be built (another of Kastner’s designs), prior to adding another seven condiments and sauces including a Jell-o-like substance made of beer. Larger than the majority of the courses and somewhat too chewy for my liking, this is the one course that I simply tried and then set aside. And apparently this is something that doesn’t happen at Alinea very often, as it sent our waiters into a frenzy of questions trying to determine exactly what I hadn’t enjoyed about it, as well as multiple offers to remake it, all of which I declined knowing that I still had eight courses to go.

Course thirteen was another Alinea classic, the black truffle explosion. Mainly, one small ravioli filled with what can only be described as black truffle essence, so much so that guests are warned to press their lips tightly together lest a dining faux pas occur. Heavenly. Course fourteen was an eight flavor dish inspired by Joan Miró’s painting Still Life with Old Shoe.  Each of the eight flavors was presented in its own spoon, artfully arranged by one of our waiters. Oh, and there was also a lavender-scented silver vessel in which to place our empty spoons as we finished with each one.

Course fifteen involved melted brie stuffed with anjou pear and onion, served on the end of a burning cinnamon stick. Course sixteen was another palate cleanser of five mini preparations of ginger, each with a separate flavor and smaller than a chocolate chip. Course seventeen, titled ‘Winter in New Hampshire’ was a delightful peppermint ‘snow’ served over actual pine branches and rocks kept cold with liquid nitrogen. Course eighteen, helium-filled balloons of green apple taffy, were floated over to our table before being inhaled, consumed and commented upon with some rather silly sounding giggles. And course nineteen was our special birthday addition, Alinea’s ‘Cake and Ice Cream’ for each of us.



 

 

If there is one down side to a restaurant that has one set menu for all of its guests, it is that unless you are the first table of the evening, there aren’t as many surprises since you are able to watch other diners at all stages of the meal. Which meant that when Chef Achatz himself arrived at our table to plate the twentieth course, I had known he was coming. But that didn’t mean I was any less excited. Paying less attention to the ‘painting’ he was creating on the special silicone tablecloth that had been laid down just for this meal, I concentrated all my energy on keeping from quivering in my seat and appearing just as star struck as I actually was.

And so we finished off the remnants of our dark chocolate piñata, had an irl meeting with Christine Lee Zilka and her friend Jennifer at the bar next store and finally made our way back to our hotel with full bellies and souvenir menus. Thank you, Chef. The memories of your fabulous meal will last us a lifetime.

 

 

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Christmas Eve Cuisine

So with less than eight hours remaining in 2011, it seems a good time to reflect on the events of the year, both the good and the bad. For the bad, we all know the economy is still in stagnation, it was a year of unprecedented natural disasters and Ed and I were fortunate enough to come through 2011 largely unscathed.

And for the good, I had a job change that turned out to be much better than anticipated, we celebrated 10 years of marriage with a fabulous trip to Jamaica and then there was the food, much of which has already been written about here. Since my last appearance on WFIH (embarrassingly not since October), I experienced  four separate Thanksgiving celebrations (turkey, turkey, turkey & crab cakes) and my personal favorite eating holiday of the year, Christmas Eve.

While Thanksgiving has a fairly standard menu to follow and New Year’s Eve is often composed of Chinese food and Champagne, I see Christmas Eve as a fabulous time to experiment and this year was no exception, both in terms of ingredients and recipe sources:

 

By gearing up with groceries from Wegmans and getting a head start on the cooking Friday night, everything ran so smoothly that I was even able to escape from the house to watch the first half of the Giants Jets game before returning to the kitchen to ensure that dinner would hit the table in a timely fashion.

 

 

 

 

A complete series of photos from this meal can be seen here.

Only a few blips along the way, and even those were minor — most notably, the method of cooking phyllo dough for the dessert resulted in a large blackened, crispy sheet of disaster, so I sliced some pie crust & baked it using a Silpat instead. Much better.

And after stuffing ourselves on Christmas Eve, we then enjoyed what has become our traditional Christmas Day lunch (game hens, green beans & potato pancakes) before finally setting down to a meal of French bread, assorted cheeses and a big pot of Italian sausage and tortellini soup. A fast, simple and deliciously satisfying way to end the holiday.

And now it’s time to take a brief nap before heading out to raise a glass of bubbles (and a forkful of General Gao’s) to the new year and all the things it has in store, including milestone birthdays for Ed and me that we will be celebrating in style with dinner at Alinea at the end of February. That’s sure to be meal (and a blog post) for the record books, but until that heavenly night arrives, I’d like to wish our friends, family & followers the best for a happy, healthy & food-filled 2012.

Cheers!

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Holiday Baking Survival Tips

Just in case you’ve been in denial as much as I have, guess what – Christmas is in a week. Chances are, food, and possibly baked goods, are in the works for some of you. Here’s a few tips, gleaned from my own mishaps and adventures, that may help streamline and take the edge off holiday baking. Please feel free to add your own and make any suggestions!

  • Align those ducks. The French call it mise-en-place, which basically means, get all your ingredients and equipment out, measured, and ready to go before turning on the stove, oven, or mixer.
  • Figure out what you’re making, and make a nice list of what you need – AKA read the recipes BEFORE leaving for the grocery store. He said, as he googled the recipe from the middle of the baking aisle today.
  • And while you’re at the store – should storage and budget allow- buy extra ingredients, he said, after making two trips today for more eggs. Flour, sugar, butter – even fresh eggs – all keep for a while. Running out, or screwing up and needing extra – is very annoying.
  • When you get home – just leave the butter out. 9/10 recipes want it room temperature, this way it’ll be ready to go.
  • Use parchment paper for baking cookies.
  • As much as possible, clean up as you go. I tend to hand-wash measuring cups and spoons once whatever I am making is done/in the oven so they’re ready for the next recipe.
  • If you get any yolks in the egg whites, start over. Not even a Kitchen-Aid mixer on high speed can fix it.
  • Make anything ahead of time that you can. Many cookie doughs even require refrigeration – make the dough one day, the cookies the next. Ganache, pastry cream, even cakes can be made ahead of time.
  • Get and use a digital scale, a candy thermometer, and a bunch of silicone spatulas.
  • Relax. Talking to myself, here. But seriously. Most people will eat desserts even if they are ugly. Years ago, a friend of mine made a Key Lime Pie to bring into the office. She dropped it taking it out of the oven, and brought it in anyway. We called it Key Lime Casserole, and ate it all. It was delicious. My great grandmother (or was it my great great grandmother?) used to make fudge – and I have the recipe. It was called spoon fudge or rock fudge, depending on how it came out. (I have since solved the fudge issue with the candy thermometer.)

That’s what I can think of for now. I made mini eclairs, pastry cream, toffee bars, and cocoa bourbon balls today. I should do something with the extra egg whites left over from the pastry cream – there may be giant meringues in my future! Or I could not worry about it which may be easier all around.

Good luck with any holiday baking you do – I bet whatever you make will be delicious!

 

 

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Happy Anniversary, WFIH!

Bob and I would like to take a moment to thank our fans and followers on this, the first anniversary of With Fork in Hand. On the verge of our 40th post, we appreciate your contributions to our culinary journey & look forward to another year of food, friends, and of course, forks.

Grab yours!

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You don’t have to be Abe Froman*

Halloween is coming up, and among other things, that serves as a reminder to avoid scary food! With all the press lately about what’s really in a lot of what we eat, I like to take control when I can and make my own. Something historically scary (thanks, Mr. Sinclair) are sausages. What’s in those things, anyway? Who can say. However, when you make your own, you know what’s in them. Pork, garlic, sage, ginger, salt, pepper & water.

Continue reading

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The Wonder of Wegmans

I don’t remember where I was when I first heard that Wegmans would be opening a store in Massachusetts. Driving to my friend Kelly’s house over the past year, I was apathetic to the billboards advertising its arrival. After all, a grocery store by any other name…right?

Wrong. Continue reading

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Vive le Scoobie & Vive la France!

Last Saturday was a gorgeous pre-autumn weekend in New England. The evening temperatures were low enough to leave the windows open and forego the A/C. I dug out my suede boots and paired them with a fantastic wrap dress. And the October issue of Food & Wine (i.e. the French issue) had just arrived.

As I perused F&W on Friday night, I mentally began planning a fantastic French feast for Saturday and the next morning I waved goodbye to Ed as he left to run errands while I scribbled out a grocery list. Duck? Oui. Things to be cooked Lyonnaise? Bien sur. Dessert containing a classic & controversial spirit? Quoi encore? Continue reading

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Rain, Rain, Go Away

For all intents and purposes, I am a New Englander. My family moved to the great state of Maine when I was 4 years old and with few exceptions, I’ve never left. College in Rhode Island and a resident of Massachusetts ever since, I like New England. I feel safe in New England. I explain to Ed that I won’t leave New England because bad things happen in other places. Like hurricanes (Florida). And earthquakes (California).

So as I was sitting in my office on the 15th floor of a building in Cambridge, MA this week, keeping an eye on the weather forecast that included the possibility of a hurricane this weekend, I was surprised to feel a gentle…sway. Glancing up, my door was moving back and forth on its own as I moved to join the rest of the 15th floor residents gathered at the window to witness the remaining few seconds of the 5.8 earthquake that emanated from Virginia and was rumored to be felt as far north as my beloved state of Maine. Continue reading

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Wicked Easy Fresh Tomato Sauce

First off – I don’t have any pictures. My bad – this is so quick to make, I didn’t have the time. :-)

Sauce purists, or those who worship at the kitchen of Mr. Keller, may cringe and shy away from this method, but this makes a quick and tasty fresh tomato sauce, great for pizza, pasta, or anything else you want to sauce up – with little effort – in maybe 15 minutes.  Continue reading

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