Sunday, June 28, 2009

Snap, Crackle, Pop and a Restorative Broth with Soba Noodles

Restoration Farm is bursting with sweet, crisp sugar snap peas. What to do with the abundance of bright green crescents to highlight their snappy crunch that crackles with the excitement of early summer?

My solution is a broth of soba noodles and fresh summer vegetables – many from Restoration Farm - that is simmered just long enough to heat the broth without sacrificing the tantalizing crispness of those just-picked sugar snap peas that are destined to be a memory by the time the blazing summer heat arrives. Radishes add a dash of color, and slivers of fresh ginger add bite, and since the broth is barely heated, the vegetables retain their freshly picked goodness.

Broth of Soba Noodles and Snap Peas from Restoration Farm

1 handful of freshly-picked snap peas
1 garlic scape cut in slivers
3 medium radishes, sliced paper thin
1 small piece of ginger, cut in slivers
Several leaves of red lettuce, shredded
2 cups chicken broth
A dash of rice wine and a dash of soy sauce
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook ¼ pack of soba noodles in boiling water about 6 minutes. Rinse with cold water and drain.

Add the snap peas, garlic scapes, radish slices and ginger to the broth along with the rice wine and soy sauce. Heat until just simmering. Add the cooked soba noodles and add the lettuce last, stirring until just wilted.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Street Sweets – Tailgating the Treats Truck

Sometimes, catching up with truck food is pure serendipity, like suddenly discovering an open parking space in Manhattan. Sometimes you are alerted to a truck’s “dining hours” on Twitter. And, sometimes you’re lucky to stumble upon a fleet of food trucks, parked in formation.

So it happens as Mad Me-Shell and I conclude our fine dining experience at Rickshaw Dumpling Truck. There, just “two doors” down, is the caloric-fueled Treats Truck. It’s slogan – “Not too fancy, always delicious.”

Now, if ever there were a food truck built to my personal specifications, the Treats Truck is it. Gleaming silver, with red and blue lettering - and resembling an old-fashioned bakery delivery truck - The Treats Truck is a euphoric sugar rush on wheels. In fact, the truck is named “Sugar.”

You’re probably wondering how two people can even contemplate treats when they have collectively consumed 18 dumplings and a side of noodles. It’s simple. Humans cannot live by dumplings alone. The American writer, Ernestine Ulmer perhaps put it most poetically – “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.”

Ulmer is right. Life can be tough on the street, so thank God for the Treats Truck. A spoonful of sugar, and all that. We cue up, eyeing the treats in the bakery case window. Mad Me-Shell says she’s not hungry, but she’ll buy a treat for our colleague Zany who is slaving away at the office. Yeah, sure.

We take a moment to drool over the selection of retro and comforting treats, a sugared landscape of cookies, sprinkles and vanilla cream filling. We ask the attendant what her favorite treat is. She says she tends to go through phases, but recommends the Caramel Crème Sandwich, which is somewhat of a classic that helped establish the Treats Truck’s delectable reputation. We make our selections, which are carefully packed into clean white paper bags – just like a bakery, but you don’t have to take a number.

Throughout the afternoon we nosh on The Classic Crispy (which does actually go to Zany) and a Chocolate Chipper …

And, a Caramel Crème Sandwich, Chocolate Sandwich Cookie and Peanut Butter Sandwich with Raspberry Jam Filling …

I split up the cookies so we can do a sampling. My assistant refuses - she’s got dinner plans. But, within seconds she is in my office and we are sharing the silky and luscious Chocolate Sandwich Cookie. As, for Mad Me-Shell and her efforts to abstain – all I can say is, no willpower. How could one resist the brown sugar goodness of the caramel crème, or the delicate crumb of the plump peanut butter sandwich?

Talk about a sweet drive by!
©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Chasing Truck Food – Rickshaw Dumpling Truck

The fascination with truck food has reached a fevered obsession. I hear rumors of a “dumpling truck” on the streets of Manhattan and immediately head for Mad Me-Shell’s office.

“We must find this mythical dumpling truck!” I insist, like some kind of addict seeking a fix.

A few quick taps on her keyboard and Mad Me-Shell produces the answer – Rickshaw Dumpling Truck at 45th Street and 6th Avenue. Their slogan – “We believe that dumplings taste better in the street.”

“How did people eat before the Internet?” muses Mad Me-Shell.

We all but sprint down 6th Avenue. During our speed walk, we have some time to reflect on the virtues of truck food. What about it, exactly, has so completely consumed us? And, why don’t we get the same kind of rush from a street cart vendor, of which there are hundreds in Manhattan?

Mad answers unequivocally. “I don’t eat street meat.”

Growing up in the suburbs, food wasn’t mobile. It came from the kitchen. Perhaps the appeal of truck food is the inherent mystery of a sparkling vehicle that magically appears on a street corner bearing food. Maybe it’s the artisanal quality of the food, made on the premises. Or, maybe it’s the low overhead, affordable prices and no need for a reservation. After all, there’s always a table available on 6th Avenue.

We turn the corner of 45th Street, and there stands the mystical, raspberry-colored Rickshaw Dumpling Truck, opened for business. It’s like encountering Shangri-La in the mist for the very first time. There are probably 20 or more smartly dressed urban professionals in line and we cue up behind them. A chalk board lists the specials of the day, and there’s a nice shade tree protecting us from the harmful rays of the sun.

Here, I must note that Rickshaw Dumpling Bar has a bricks and mortar location in the Flatiron district. The truck is kind of a mobile brand extension, for those of us who are too lazy to hop a subway downtown. If you’re not already starving, check out their website for key moments in dumpling history.

I order their signature menu item - Classic Pork & Chinese Chive Dumplings with cabbage, ginger, scallion and soy-sesame dipping sauce, as well as a side of Chili Sesame Noodle Salad. You get six hot dumplings in one of those smart white cardboard takeout boxes. Mad Me-Shell goes for broke and requests both an order of Classic Pork as well as Chicken & Thai Basil with spicy peanut dipping sauce. The whole order is wrapped up in spiffy brown paper tote bags – all the accoutrements of takeout, but with instant gratification.

We take a seat under some nearby trees. Mad offers me a taste of the Chicken & Thai. The dumplings are succulent and the peanut sauce has a smooth and spicy kick.

Mad is indeed “chopstick proficient.” I am a klutz (maybe it’s all those people on the street staring at me), but within due time I develop a “stab and lift” technique that manages to get the dumplings into my mouth.

At this point, I completely forget my table manners. “Are you sure you have room for 12 dumplings?” I ask Mad Me-Shell.

A slight chill engulfs 45th Street.

“Uh, that would be ELEVEN dumplings,” she points out, indignantly. “You ate one of mine.”

I decide to focus on my Chili Sesame Noodle Salad.

My alfresco faux pas aside, we agree that the pork dumplings are indeed a classic. And, the Chicken & Thai Basil is nothing short of high cuisine. You can see the steam rising off the plump, glossy, pillows. The dumplings are fresher, hotter, more tender and flavorful than anything I’ve consumed in a restaurant. With truck food, consumption is almost instantaneous. Your entrée never idles on a warming tray, waiting to be delivered to the table.

Clean-up is a breeze. Everything goes back into the brown paper bag and dropped in a nearby trash can. And, no haggling over the tip. The hike back to the office is helpful in suppressing any potential for a dumpling coma, so we’ve had an outstanding meal, and a little exercise.

Who needs full-service dining, anyway?

©2009 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved

Thursday, June 18, 2009

To the Waffle Mobile, Boy Wonder!

I spot the gleaming, canary-yellow truck returning to the office from lunch one day. There sits the renowned Waffle Mobile - right in my own neighborhood. I thought it was nothing but an urban legend.

The very sight makes my pulse race. The Good Humor truck and the Book Mobile feel like prehistoric symbols of transportable goods and services. This 1968 Chevy Box truck is the real deal, bringing authentic Belgian waffles and dinges to neighborhoods all over Manhattan. Founder Thomas Degeest calls himself “Special Envoy for Wafels” with the Belgian Ministry of Culinary Affairs. The truck serves two kinds of authentic Belgian waffles. Dinges is Flemish slang for “whatchamacallits” and refers to the range of waffle toppings available.

I return to my somewhat beige office, but thoughts of the brilliantly-colored Waffle Mobile persist. It rapidly becomes an obsession, so I look for accomplices for a lunchtime expedition. I enlist Zany and Mad Me-Shell, my partners in culinary crime. "We have to go!" says Mad Me-Shell, in her typical “point-me-in-the-direction-of-the-grub attitude. Zany is more reticent. “Aren't waffles for breakfast?” she asks. We first try to explain that waffles are truly appropriate for any meal of the day, and mention the classic combination of Chicken and Waffles. Zany is horrified. This is going to take a little time...

We finally convince her not to waffle and she signs on for the excursion. On the way to lunch our colleague “Marie Antoinette” decides to tag along. It takes her a couple of minutes to tune into truck food etiquette. “Do they take credit cards?" she asks. We are now a quartet of Wafflites in search of sustenance...

We approach the vehicle. “It smells like breakfast,” Zany points out. A helpful young man in a white apron is on duty at the griddle. He smiles down at us from the window, spatula in hand, eyes wide with waffle wonder. I ask if he is the Waffle King, himself. He demurs. He is but a “Waffle King surrogate,” more of a “Waffle Nobleman.” His name is Aimar, and he graciously helps us navigate the wonderful world of waffles. There is the Brussels Wafel – the “mother of all wafels" – which is light and crispy and first served at the 1964 World’s Fair. Then there’s the Liege Wafel, which is soft and chewy. Scanning the menu board, I suspect that the truly authentic spelling of “waffle” drops one “f.” It certainly looks more authentic …

Mad Me-Shell starts with a Mini-Wafelini appetizer …

I order a sweet option - a Brussels Wafel with Strawberries, Banana and Maple Syrup …

Mad Me-Shell goes all bold and savory for her main course – a Brussels Waffle topped with a generous helping of spicy barbeque, cole slaw and a pickled cucumber. Aimar tells us the entrée is so daring it isn’t even on the menu:

Zany gets into an extended conversation with Aimar, quizzing him on the various options for dinges. She finally leaves the truck window carrying an order of Liege Waffle with Nutella, strawberries and bananas. She has made a new friend. “We’re on a first name basis,” she says. “He knows my name is Zany and I call him Waffle Man.”

We adjourn to a nearby public space to stuff our faces. Make that, “dine.” My waffle has a crisp golden exterior and a light and luscious interior. Zany has gone into a pleasant sugar shock with all that Nutella but try as she might, she is having trouble getting out of her three-meals-a-day mindset. “I feel like a little kid, like I shouldn’t be eating this for lunch,” she says. She is also a little perturbed by Mad’s barbecue selection. It just doesn’t feel right to her.

Yet, Mad Me-Shell is having a culinary epiphany, praising her barbeque entrée. She is worshiping the merger of “tart cole slaw, sweet waffle, and spicy meat.” I take a taste and immediately decide to head back to the truck for a second sitting. Aimar sees me coming and smiles. “Don’t be bashful,” he tells me.
Marie Antoinette joins me in an order of barbecue. Always health-minded, she points out that we have enjoyed a very balanced lunch that includes all the major food groups – grains and breads, fruits and vegetables, milk and dairy, and meats. Mom would be so happy to hear that.

We can’t wait for the Waffle Man’s next visit. He has brought a ray of electric-yellow sunshine into our ordinary lives. And, now, we're preoccupied with chasing truck food. We have gleefully discovered there are any number of large vehicles zigzagging across Manhattan and doling out all types of tasty morsels of food. So, the quest continues, but occasionally I'm having these strange urges to crack open an ice cold can of 10W-30 with lunch...
©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Season of Greens – First Pickup at Restoration Farm

I’ve looked forward to the day like a 4-year-old anticipates Christmas. It’s the first CSA pickup at Restoration Farm.

The shimmering green lettuce entices me as I approach the distribution tent. There will be many salad days ahead. The board is precisely lettered with a list of the first yields of the season. There are tidy, beautifully-formed heads of lettuce, red kale, garlic scapes, arugula and mizuna greens and sweet crisp emerald-green snap peas. The produce is all clean and neatly ordered with care. The sense of excitement is evident among the other members who are picking up. Head grower Caroline Fanning is there, relaxed and chatting with members, although she is apparently days away from giving birth. It feels like a little community celebration. We are all connected through this first picking.

I stroll down the path to look over the activity in the fields ...

Volunteers are bent over tilling and weeding the fields. Yes, the weeds have arrived, but the first pickup has been welcomed with a glorious day.

The lettuce will be first on the menu for lunches and dinners. The kale is blanched and frozen for a future stir fry. I am determined this year to waste as little as possible and savor all that comes my way.

The season of greens is welcomed with a composed luncheon salad of lettuce, arugula, mizuna, chopped egg, tuna and kidney beans. The lettuce is only hours from the field, and it snaps with with all the history, community, care and good will nurtured at Restoration Farm.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Strawberry Ice Cream Cake

It was the ultimate request. Could I make an ice cream cake to celebrate my brother’s completion of his Master’s degree?

“He will be happier than any little kid when he sees it!” my sister-in-law tells me.

How could anyone deny an appeal to rejoice in adult achievement with childlike pleasure? And, he is my “little brother,” after all! We are linked by lineage and love of Carvel Ice Cream.

Thus begins my education on ice cream cakes. I’d never made one, and had no idea how.

Ice cream cake is right up there with the best of legendary retro cakes – a most whimsical and mythical creation. How was it invented? Did Herman Melville conceive of Fudgie the Whale as the first ice cream cake? Indeed, not. There are all sorts of theories. Ice cream cake could be a cousin to the English Trifle, which features layers of cake and custard. The Victorians were wild about ice cream, and created works of art using ice cream molds that were sometimes lined with sponge cake. Empirical evidence would suggest a link to the ice cream sandwich, as well. You can read plenty more on ice cream lore, but if you read too long, the cake might melt!

Creating an ice cream cake is less about a recipe, and more about a creative theme and sculpting and layering skills. After much consideration and study, I decide on a strawberry short cake theme, quite appropriate for a summer celebration. There are many helpful guidelines online, and I learn a few useful techniques along the way. You also need to plan ahead and make room in your freezer, no small task in my house!

Basically, you need layers of cake and ice cream, with compatible flavors. The idea is to create a pretty layered pattern of colors and textures when the cake is sliced. Delicate ice cream flavors match well with white and butter cakes. Stronger ice cream flavors hold their own with chocolate cake. Pound cake is considered a good choice because of its firm texture.
I select a recipe for rich butter cake from "Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook" and match it with a quart of Haagen-Dazs Strawberry Ice Cream. You need three 9-inch layer cake pans, two for baking the cake and one for molding the layer of ice cream. While the cake is baking, let the ice cream soften and line one of the circular pans with plastic wrap. Spread the softened ice cream in the pan in a single layer and wrap well. Freeze for several hours. You will have a solid nine-inch disk of ice cream that becomes the middle layer of the cake.

I split each of the cooled cake layers in half, and spread seedless strawberry jam between. Then you carefully stack the three components, sandwich style – first a layer of cake and jam, then the ice cream disk in the center, and the second layer of cake and jam on top. Wrap tightly in plastic and freeze overnight. I place an open, 9-inch springform pan tube loosely around the cake to keep it steady as it freezes. It really needs a good solid 12 hours in the freezer.

On the morning of the party, combine 1 teaspoon of unflavored gelatin with two tablespoons of cold water in a heat proof cup. Allow gelatin to soften for five minutes, and then place in a simmering water bath until the gelatin has melted and is a clear amber color. Remove from the water bath and bring to room temperature. In a chilled bowl, whip two cups of heavy cream with 6 tablespoons of confectioner’s sugar. Add the cooled gelatin as the cream begins to thicken. The gelatin adds stability to the whipped cream. Quickly frost the cake and place it back in the freezer for several hours. Garnish with whole strawberries before serving. A sharp knife will glide through the frozen layers, but rather than sawing, press the knife down for best results.

I feel like I’ve earned my advanced degree in ice cream cake, and it was worth it to see the look on my brother’s face. I dedicate this post to him. Congratulations, John!
©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Chinese Takeout at Home – Chicken Fried Rice

We never ordered takeout at our house when I was growing up. We were much more of a do-it-yourself style family in the kitchen. When we partook of Chinese food, it was a rare treat, and was usually enjoyed in the restaurant. I was probably well into my college years when I first experienced the vicarious thrill and immediate gratification of having food delivered directly to my door.

Now, years later, the takeout thrill has passed and I’m comfortably back in do-it-yourself mode (Some behaviors are just genetic). But, there is a certain exhilaration that comes with making your own takeout-style meal at home. I was skeptical, but this recipe for Chicken Fried Rice, discovered in the 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking really delivers that authentic takeout taste, in about the time it takes to dial the phone and find your wallet.

Chicken Fried Rice (Adapted from Joy of Cooking 1997 Edition)

4 eggs beaten with ½ teaspoon of salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 to 4 cups cold cooked rice
Soy sauce to taste
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
½ cup sliced scallions
1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 to 2 cups of cooked diced chicken

Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large, non-stick skillet until very hot. Add the eggs and stir in the pan to cook quickly. When the eggs set, remove them to a separate bowl. Add remaining oil and heat until hot. Add the rice and ginger and stir to coat with the oil for about three minutes. Season with soy sauce to taste. Add scallions, peas and chicken and heat through. Remove from heat and stir in the cooked eggs.

Give it a try. You certainly won’t have to worry about your dinner getting cold on the trip from the restaurant to your house.

© 2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, June 04, 2009

A Luscious Moment at Butta’ Cakes, Greenport Cupcake Factory

I have this secret fantasy. If I had the ability to choose any profession, I would love to be Cakespy. Imagine traveling the world in search of the perfect cupcake? Think of the danger, the intrigue, the icing and the extraordinary sugar highs!

So, when I happened upon the just-opened “butta’ cakes” at 119 Main Street in Greenport, New York, it was like that defining moment in an Alfred Hitchcock movie when the reluctant hero must decide whether to leap into action.

I immediately asked myself the question, “What would Cakespy do?”

First, take pictures. Then, eat!

Owner Marc LaMaina serves up high-fashion, fantasy cupcakes at an unassuming storefront in the bustling seaport town. In keeping with the factory-style theme, cupcake varieties sit on wire stands and are labeled simply with black magic marker on the glass display case.

The Lemon Cupcake stands tall adorned with a dollop of frothy butter cream and a shocking yellow piece of lemon jelly slice candy. LaMaina’s style is subtle, not saccharine. The cake is deliciously tender and the icing is velvety smooth, without being cloying. Other insanely enticing options are Coconut and Oreo Cookie. It was a tough choice, but believe me, I’m going back for more!

And, if Cakespy is interested, I’d be more than willing to attend cupcake boot camp and become a full-fledge member of the team.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 01, 2009

Strawberry and Goat Cheese Ricotta Crostini

I can’t quite shed my goat cheese obsession. The visit to Catapano Dairy Farm has me dreaming of simple and elegant ways to use goat cheese that will highlight it’s incredibly fresh and creamy flavor. I brought home a container of tart, almost fluffy ricotta goat cheese from Catapano Dairy Farm. Ah, what to do?

Lately, I’ve been consulting “The Flavor Bible” by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg to better understand harmonious flavor combinations and affinities. The encyclopedic volume lists pages of optimum flavor matches. There it is in black and white. Ricotta cheese and strawberries are one perfect marriage.

Talk about a light and stylish dessert! Pearly-white goat cheese ricotta is spread on golden slices of semolina bread and then dressed with a layer of ripe, succulent, sliced strawberries. That’s it! Pair it with a glass of chilled ice wine or Moscato D’Asti for a magical summer treat!
©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved