Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Eating with the Seasons in Italy

I met Ashley and Jason Bartner on line. We connected through our love of cooking, good food, and travel. I read about their new life in Italy and I am very jealous. Not that I want to trade places--I love our life in Pacific Palisades--but I would definitely enjoy a long weekend or even a month staying at their farm house in Piobbico in the Marche region, just below Emilia-Romagna and east of Umbria on the Adriatic Sea.

They were generous enough to send me a description of their life and a few recipes which I can't wait to try
. fyi: A "glug" is roughly 1 tablespoon.

After years of travel and eating our way through every city, state and country we visited, we decided to share our love for food with others in an unique way in the Marches, Italy and opened La Tavola Marche Agriturismo & Cooking School. We took a leap of faith and traded in the hustle bustle of life in NYC to slow down in every aspect of our lives & started growing our own food in the Italian countryside!

Jason is a professional Executive Chef & I am a customer service/hostess extraordinaire and currently write a monthly column for Italia! Magazine. During our travels to Italy, we felt at home & really enjoyed the diversity of recipes in each region combined with the atmosphere of staying on a working farm or agriturismo - plus the Italians & their passion for life & good food!!

We love connecting our guests to the people, land & culture of this little known-region through the food! That is exactly why we decided to work for ourselves & open an inn, farm & cooking school in Italy! We were ready for a change...Why not?! We thought we were just crazy enough to pull it off! It took us a year & a half from our first trip to Italy to living here! And we've never looked back ~


Slow Food & slow living is huge for us! Here we live it everyday- we have slowed down in all aspects of our food & life here in Italy! For us, Slow Food philosophy translates to celebrating traditional Italian country living by eating locally & seasonally and becoming s self-sufficient as possible. This is a complete shift in our 'previous life' in the States.

We are so lucky that our neighbors & friends have taught us the ropes: from age-old family recipes to plucking chickens! It's all new to us and if we can do it - so can you! In the winter Jason makes sausages & salami by hand & hangs them to dry in the rafters of the house and in the summer months, since I can't cook, I contribute by creating home made liquors! It is such a kick to create these homemade treats!We jar, jam & preserve fruits & veggies in the summer extending their season -we even make our own homemade liquors! The most full-filling aspect is that we grow our own fruits & vegetables - from apple, cherry & plum trees surrounding the house to our enormous farm garden with over 600 onions, 400 tomato plants, loads of lettuces, spinach, garlic, cucumber, pepper, eggplant, melons, zucchini, pumpkins, radishes & more!!

Wild game, mushrooms & truffles as well as strawberries, blackberries, asparagus, wild dandelion greens & much more are collected from the woods behind our house! We are really excited because this spring we are adding CHICKENS! And this coming from two city kids! Our neighbors are in awe by "young Americans" with the most beautiful garden! Locals stop by to eye the goods & leave with an armful of gifts from the garden!!

The most incredible part for us is being accepted into the small farming community of Piobbicowhere we live, making a world of difference in our their experiences. As always in Italy, the conversations turn to food as neighbors pop in to say hello & see what's cooking! At first the thought of an American Chef cooking traditional local dishes did not blow over well - they figured all he could do was hamburgers & hot dogs! But that has all changed!

Now Jason is thought of as kin in the kitchen - grandma's are always sharing their secret recipes and he is trusted with cooking for big holidays & family events - for Italians! As testament - opening day of hunting season was celebrated at our farmhouse with a feast of wild game with a huge group of hungry local hunters!

We just love sharing this experience/connection to food with our guests - we specialize in Cucina povera (peasant cooking) with farm to the table cooking classes. Each cooking class starts with a walk through the garden to collect the night’s dinner.

Jason is so very proud of what he has created & loves sharing that with our guests - and it seems to be contagious! Many guests return home with a longing to eat locally, start a garden, join a CSA & all around become more connected with the food they are eating & understanding where it comes from!


Here you will eat what your fed, there is no menu options & the guests love it! This gives us the freedom to work with what is at the height of the season & best looking at the market each day. Guests are surprised by every dish, with whispers of 'what's to come next...' Jason enjoys the time he spends at each table explaining the dish, it's history & ingredients or where the meat is from. It helps connect them to the food they are about to eat.

"We hope our guests take home a taste of la dolce vita, the simplicity of good cooking, great stories to share, and an appetite to return."

RECIPES FROM OUR FARMHOUSE

I wanted to share 2 recipes that are easy to recreate, tasty and represent our area in the winter.

Yield 6 servings

Time 10 minutes

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 carrot, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
6 chicken livers, trimmed
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Scant 1/2 cup dry white wine
2 egg yolks
Juice of 1 lemon, strained
4-6 whole-wheat bread slices, lightly toasted
Sea salt & pepper

Method

Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the carrot, onion and celery and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Dip the chicken livers into the vinegar, pat dry with paper towels and add to skilled. Pour in the wine and season with salt & pepper.

Cook, stirring frequently, until browned. Remove the chicken livers from the skillet and chop finely, then return them to the skillet and cook for 2 minutes more. Beat together the egg yolks and lemon juice in a bowl. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the egg yolk mixture.

Spread on slices of lightly toasted bread. Serve immediately.



Yield 4 servings

Time 2 hours

Ingredients

4 pieces of osso buco--veal shank
A nice size carrot, chopped finely
A nice onion, chopped finely
A couple cloves of garlic, smashed & remove the skin
1 bay leaf
Any aromatics you like - rosemary, we used juniper berries because we have them in the woods
A little flour for dusting
Sea salt & pepper
A good handful, about 5 oz, of canned tomatoes, skins removed or fresh tomatoes with skins & seeds removed
Olive oil
Butter
White wine, a couple of glugs
Half a cup of water or stock

Method

Salt & pepper the osso buco & then dredge in the flour. In a good size casserole or roasting pan, on med-high heat, add a glug or 2 of olive oil & a pad of butter.

Sauté the osso buco for 2 minutes on each side.

Then add the vegetables & continue cooking the osso buco, turning frequently until it is nice & colored.

Add the white wine cook until the wine is reduced by 2/3. Add the tomatoes, aromatics, crack of pepper & salt, water or stock & bring up to a simmer.

Remove from stove & place in a 350 degree oven, uncovered for about an hour & half or until the centers of the bone have melted away & the meat is falling away from the bone.

If you need to add a little more water or stock towards the end, do so.

Serve over polenta, potatoes or rice to soak up the juices.



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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Keeping it Easy with Chicken Two Ways

Just because you want an easy-to-make meal doesn't mean you have to spend a lot or give up nutrition and flavor.

If you read the labels of prepared, canned, or frozen meals, you'll notice how much salt is added, not to mention additives with unpronounceable names. Learn a few seasoning tricks and one or two simple cooking techniques and you'll have a home cooked meal on the table in 30 minutes or less.

Adding a few herbs and spices makes an every day meal a treat. You can buy chicken parts or, to cut costs, cut up a whole chicken yourself. It's easy to do. Trimming off excess fat and skin ups the health-quotient.

Both dishes can be made ahead and reheated.

Garlic-Parsley Chicken Breasts

With one pan and practically no effort, you'll have a healthy meal on the table in 30 minutes. Serve the chicken sliced on top of buttered pasta, steamed rice, or roasted vegetables.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

4 chicken breast halves, boned, skinned, washed, and dried
1/2 cup Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch of pepper
1 tablespoon sweet butter

Method

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in the saute pan. Dredge the chicken breasts in olive oil seasoned with sea salt and black pepper

Put the breasts in the heated pan, top with parsley and garlic, drizzle with olive oil, and bake for 30 minutes.

Slice the breasts and plate. Use a rubber spatula to remove the drippings, garlic, and parsley and spoon onto the slices before serving.

Mushroom-Vegetable Chicken Ragout

Braising takes a little more cooking time, but very little effort and it adds a lot of flavor. In only a few minutes the meat and vegetables lightly brown, bringing out their natural sweetness. Now all you have to do is add water or stock, simmer until tender, and you'll be serving your family the most delicious comfort food ever.

While the braise simmers, put on the timer. You're free to do whatever else you want. Play with the kids, watch a little TV, read a book, or coodle with your sweetie. When the timer goes off, call everyone to the dinner table, sit down and have a feast.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 60 minutes

Ingredients

2 chicken legs, skin removed, deboned, roughly chopped
2 chicken thighs, skin removed, deboned, roughly chopped
2 chicken wings, tips removed, cut apart at the joint
4 garlic cloves, skins removed, finely chopped
4 shallots or 1 medium yellow onion, peeled, roughly chopped
2 carrots, washed, peeled, cut into thick rounds
1 bunch parsley, washed, stems removed, finely chopped
1 large Yukon Gold potato, washed, cut into chunks
4 shiitake or brown mushrooms, washed, thinly sliced

Method

Heat the olive oil in a large sauce pan, season with sea salt and pepper, saute the chicken until lightly browned. Remove from the pan, drain on paper towels, set aside.

Saute the garlic, shallots, mushrooms, carrots, parsley, and potatoes until lightly browned. Return the chicken to the pan. Add 3 cups of water. Simmer for 45 minutes until the meat is tender. There should be 1 cup of broth. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Continue simmering another 10 minutes.

Serve with steamed spinach or broccoli.

Variations

Instead of using potatoes, serve over rice

Add spinach leaves

Add cut up celery

Home Made Matzo Ball Soup for Passover

Making Passover dinner takes a bit of planning, but it doesn't have to be a chore. If you're cooking for a big group, hand out assignments so you don't do all the work. If your kitchen is large enough, invite people over to help. Cooking the dinner with friends and family can be as much a part of a celebration as the meal itself.

Everyone wants to save money these days. But keeping an eye on food costs shouldn't mean cutting corners on quality and flavor. Avoid buying packaged or frozen meals and you'll be way ahead of the game. Besides saving money, you'll be eating healthier food.

For me it's not Passover without matzo ball soup. But soup is only as good as the stock. Canned and packaged chicken broth are very high in salt content and, in my opinion, have an unpleasant flavor. It's much better to make your own.

The broth can be made days ahead, kept in the refrigerator or even frozen. Also, when you buy the chicken, buy a whole one, preferably a free range or organic chicken, and cut it up yourself. Whole chickens cost under $2.00/pound, while chicken parts range from $3.50-$8.00/pound.

Cutting up a Chicken

If you haven't done it before, cutting apart a whole chicken is easier than you think. Having a sharp boning or chef's knife is essential.

To remove the wings, thighs, and legs, slice through the meat and separate at the joints. Cut the wings apart, reserving the tips for the stock. To debone the breasts, glide the knife along the side of the breast bone. As you cut, pull back the breast meat, continuing to slide the knife against the ribs.

For health reasons, I remove the skin and fat from the breasts, legs and thighs. Add the skin and fat to the stock. If you're going to debone the legs and thighs, add those bones to the stock as well.

Drizzle olive oil on the breasts, legs, thighs, and wings. Put them into an air tight container and refrigerate. If you want to freeze them, put the pieces into a Ziploc style plastic bag, squeeze out the air, seal, and freeze.

Here's another tip about freezing the chicken. When you put the pieces into the plastic bag, make sure they don't touch one another. That way, if you need only one piece, say a breast, you can leave the other pieces frozen until you need them.

Chicken Stock

When my mother and grandmother made chicken stock, they added onions, celery, and carrots to the water. I don't because I want the stock to taste of chicken. If I want other flavors, I add them later.

Yield: 2 quarts

Time: 60 minutes

Ingredients

Skin, wing tips, carcass, and bones from one 4 1/2 pound chicken
4 quarts water

Method

Put the wing tips, skin, carcass, and bones into a large pot with the water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 60 minutes. Skim off and discard the foam. The volume will reduce by half.

Strain the stock. Pick off any meat from the carcass and reserve for later use in a salad or a chicken-vegetable soup. Discard the bones and skin.

Refrigerate overnight to easily remove the fat solids. If you're rushed for time and need the stock right away, float a slice of bread on top of the stock to absorb the fat.

The stock can be kept in the refrigerator in an air tight container for a day or two or in the freezer for months.

Matzo Ball Soup

Yield: 6-8 servings

Time: 30 minutes

For the matzo balls, we use a mix, but if you want to make them from scratch, Mark Bittman has a very good recipe.

Ingredients

1 box matzo ball mix (no soup), Manischewitz, Rokeach, or Streit's
Other ingredients per the directions on the packaged mix
2 quarts chicken stock

Method

Prepare the matzo balls per the directions on the box. Make them large or small as you like. Remember that the size of the matzo ball will double as it cooks in the salted water. 1 box of mix will make 24 small matzo balls or 12 large ones.

Put the chicken stock into a large pot. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the matzo balls from the salted water to the stock. Heat over a medium flame. Because the matzo balls are delicate, don't let the stock boil.

Serve hot.

In my next post I'll talk about what to do with all those wonderful chicken parts.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fine Dining Southern Rhode Island Style

In recent posts, I described a trip to Rhode Island where I was introduced to a community of talented chefs who are making the state a go-to place for anyone who enjoys good food. I knew I would find good restaurants in Providence. What surprised me was the number of accomplished chefs working in the resort towns in the southern half of the state.

Newport is Rhode Island's best known tourist destination. Located on the southern tip of Aquidneck Island, the city is home to Cliff Walk and the world-famous mansions built at the end of the 19th century with their distinctive architecture and opulent details. Its sheltered harbor and many beaches make Newport a destination for anyone who enjoys sailing and water sports. The city is family-friendly as well, with dozens of affordable restaurants on Broadway and Bowen's Wharf in the harbor.

One Bellevue (One Bellevue Avenue, Newport, 401/847-3300) is located on Historic Hill, overlooking the harbor.

Chef Kevin Theile's menu changes with the seasons and emphasizes local produce and seafood. For him, "Local is a big deal. When people travel to New England, they're looking for seasonal New England seafood." So it's no surprise that most of the seafood on his menu is caught in nearby waters, including Maine lobsters, sole, shrimp, bay scallops, tuna, crab, clams, and oysters. As he proudly says, "Right off the docks, right out of the water," right onto your plate.

Chef Theile tells a story about a recent gastronome's tour of New York he took with his sous and banquet chefs. Most memorable, he said, was a meal at Mario Batali's Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca. An "awesome experience," he said, because they feasted on ingredients they love but could never serve at One Bellevue: head cheese, pigs' feet, lamb brains, rabbit, and goat. "Newport," he said, "is a tourist town, not a culinary scene and people want familiar food."

That was a refrain I heard frequently on my tour of the state. Rhode Island is a tourist destination and tourists enjoy food that doesn't challenge their culinary boundaries, but that doesn't stop chefs from occasionally pushing the envelope.

With his starters, Chef Theile hews closely to expectations with a seasonal menu. When I visited he featured fall ingredients: seared bay scallops with apple wood smoked bacon, crab cakes, autumn vegetable and roasted squash risotto with crispy Granny Smiths and Swiss chard, roasted butternut squash soup, New England clam chowder, caramelized Vidalia onion soup with Crispy bread and melted Gruyere cheese, warm spinach salad, classic Caesar salad, local oysters, and a shrimp cocktail. Eating any of these first courses and you know you're in Southern New England and you're happy.

The comfort food entrees follow familiar paths. The grilled Flat Iron steak with sour cream-chive potato pancakes, citrus glazed half chicken with pancetta whipped potatoes, or blackened pork tenderloin with barbecue pulled pork will satisfy all the meat-and-potato diners who want their food well-prepared and mouth-watering.

But for those who want some cross-cultural surprises, he offers Southern New England ingredients treated with a French and an Asian flair: grilled lobster accompanied with cipolini whipped potatoes and ginger sesame harciot vert, chili rubbed tuna with wasabi potatoes, apple and Swiss chard salad, and grilled shrimp and bay scallop pad Thai.

Located at the end of Cliff Walk and looking every bit like one of the nearby Newport Mansions, the Chanler Hotel (117 Memorial Boulevard, Newport, 401/847-2244) has 20 guest rooms furnished distinctively with European designs. No two rooms look alike. Meticulously detailed, all the rooms are luxurious, even the eccentrically appointed Gothic room with its dungeon-like design.

Taking up most of the ground floor, the Spiced Pear looks like the dining room of an exquisitely appointed Mediterranean villa. From its vantage point on the cliff, the restaurant has a sweeping view of the brilliantly blue water below. In the colder months, the dining room occupies a cozy room facing the open kitchen. In summer, diners can also sit outside in the covered patio and enjoy the cool breezes off Rhode Island Sound.

Executive Chef Kyle Ketchum describes his menu as "contemporary New England cuisine". If you love lobster, start with the lobster bisque, then go on to the delicately flavored butter poached Maine lobster, served with sweet creamed corn, English peas, and mushrooms. A chilled seafood plate has oysters sharing the plate with a shrimp cocktail. In the summer, local produce is featured in dishes like the heirloom tomatoes in a panzanella salad that includes tiny cubes of hearts of palm along with cucumber pearls and Fourme d'Ambert blue cheese.

Acknowledging that his guests do not live by seafood alone, chef Ketchum serves beautifully composed plates of American kobe beef with potato gratin, Moroccan glazed Muscovy duck breast with porcini mushrooms and sauteed spinach, kobe beef short ribs, and Berkshire pork with creamy Parmesan polenta.

His vegetarian tasting menu takes advantage of seasonally available local produce and includes a delicious chilled clear tomato gazpacho, chanterelle mushrooms with English peas and gnocchi, and risotto with truffles and sweet corn.

If you'll allow yourself the calories, chef Ketchum will delight your sweet tooth with the eye-pleasing Tahitian vanilla bean souffle or his acrobatic chocolate trio that couples a wedge of chocolate truffle cake, a dark chocolate terrine, and a pistachio and dark chocolate brownie with a Bailey's Irish cream float topped with whipped cream.

Twenty minutes from downtown Newport, the 35 room Castle Hill Inn & Resort (590 Ocean Drive, Newport, 888/466-1355) sits on a hill overlooking Narragansett Bay. The day we drove out to the restaurant, a rain storm pelted Ocean Drive, the solitary road that circles the island. The lobster skiffs that fish the waters had taken refuge in sheltered coves to avoid the storm.

The Inn looked all the more lovely and romantic in the rain.

The restaurant occupies the sun room of the converted mansion. Open on three sides to a view of the water, light poured in even on a rainy day. Chef Jonathan Cambra, like his fellow Rhode Island chefs, emphasizes local seafood and seasonal produce on his menu. The clams in his New England clam chowder and in the saute combining littlenecks with Portuguese sausage and fennel are from local waters, as are the raw Matunuck Farm oysters he tops with a Bloody Mary sorbet and black pepper gelee.

While the menu lists familiar dishes like bacon and eggs, a lobster roll, and a grilled cheese sandwich, chef Cambra prepares them with upgraded ingredients. The bacon is actually pork belly, the lobster roll uses a tarragon dressing instead of plain old mayo, and the grilled cheese is made with a selection of Narragansett Creamery cheeses on Sicilian bread. Even the hash he serves with his eggs isn't your cafe-variety hash. His is made with lobster.

Desserts come in all varieties. From Belgian chocolate tarts to napoleons, hot fudge sundays with homemade ice cream, banana splits, and a refreshing raspberry consomme.


My personal favorite was the artisan cheese tasting, with a well-chosen accompaniment of caramelized nuts, delicious honey, and apricot puree. By the time we finished lunch, the rain had stopped so we could take a walk on the expansive lawn. Looking across the Bay we could make out the mainland where we would be going next.

A trip to Rhode Island should always include a stop on Block Island. Ferries leave frequently from Point Judith and New London. Looking very much like a Norman Rockwell painting, Old Harbor is one of those rare places where time appears to have stopped. There are no high-rises here. Turn of the century four-story hotels like the National dominate the skyline. Walk a few blocks inland to Spring Street and you'll find Victorian houses that have become B&Bs like the Hotel Manisses and the 1661 Inn (Spring Street, Block Island, 401/466-2421).

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that there is only cafe-style food on the island. Among the dozens of local restaurants, Eli's (456 Chapel Street, Block island, 401/466-5230) is deservedly well-reviewed because the food is fresh, reasonably priced, and well-prepared. But the best place to eat on the island, bar none, is in the Hotel Manisses Restaurant (Hotel Manisses, Spring Street, Old Harbor, Block Island, 401/466-2421).

Chef Ross Audino takes local sourcing one step farther than his mainland colleagues. During the summer, 70% of his vegetables and 100% of his herbs come from the large garden behind the restaurant planted by Justin Abrams, the hotel's owner.

Because of the temperate island climate, chef Audino has fresh lettuce well into the fall. That is, he has lettuce until the week after Labor Day when, like clock-work every year, he wakes up to find that the local deer have descended on the garden and eaten what was left of the crop. Justin speculates that after Labor Day when most of the tourists leave, the deer feel its safe to come out of the hills to forage for food.

Not only are the blue fish, striped bass, clams, littlenecks, tuna, mussels, lobster, and swordfish served at the restaurant fished from local waters, but because Block Island is a tight-knit community, the chef knows the fishermen personally, like Joe Szabo, an old-timer who fishes for local swordfish.

The summertime dining room extends outside into a spacious brick lined patio that looks out on the herb garden at the back of the building. When the weather cools, diners happily stay inside, starting off with a drink at the bar and one of the appetizers: Maryland style crab cakes, tuna tartare with delicious cubes of extra firm fried tofu and ginger mayo on top of a wakame seaweed salad, grilled scallops with ratatouille, fried cod cheeks, and freshly shucked Moonstone oysters.

Chef Audino also puts the local seafood to excellent use in his entrees: gnocchi with lobster meat, pan roasted bass & local littlenecks, striped bass with spinach-shallot foam, and grilled swordfish with lobster mashed potatoes (yes, that's lobster-mashed potatoes and they are delicious).

The menu accommodates vegetarians with a grilled garlic, marinated tofu with house-made mozzarella. A beet salad configured into a tower of savory deliciousness, includes toasted almonds, sweetened mascarpone, and a reduced balsamic vinegar.

For meat-eaters, the menu is a lot of fun. A smoked beef brisket sandwich with crispy onion rings and a large plate of barbecued St. Louis ribs on a bed of jalapeno & cheddar spoon bread from the bistro menu are delicious. The ribs are full of flavor and, literally, finger-lickin' good because they are brined, dry rubbed, slow braised and then finished in high heat so the moist, nicely fatty meat gets a thin crust on top. The addition of a demi-glaze on the grilled Hereford filet mignon on the main menu creates a similar melt-in-your-mouth salty-sweetness and can be ordered either with mashed potatoes or the French fries which are fried with garlic cloves and rosemary leaves.

Desserts range from an apple crumble with an excellent nougat ice cream, carrot cake, Bailey's chocolate mousse flavored with Bailey's and whipped cream, a seven layer chocolate cake with mocha ganache, and a lemon cake with strawberry sauce. All of which were good, but I think that if I were going to leave room for anything, it would be for a couple more of the St. Louis ribs and a handful of those French fries.

Before you leave Rhode Island, you should make one more stop before you go home: the coastal city of Bristol.

Located on the eastern side of Narragansett Bay, mid-way between Providence and Newport, Bristol has small town charms, New England style. The small craft harbor is encircled by a bike and walking path. The small town shops remind you of a time before-we-had-malls.

Walking toward the harbor on State Street, you might pass by Persimmon (31 State Street, Bristol, 401/254-7474) without noticing the intimate, tastefully decorated dining room inside.

Opened in 2005 by chef Champe Speidel and his wife Lisa, Persimmon has gained a large following among tourists and locals, including chefs throughout the state. Working with local purveyors, like all Rhode Island fine dining chefs, chef Speidel's kitchen turns out exquisite plates of extraordinarily delicious food.

His attention to detail would rival any upscale restaurant in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Reading widely in his hundreds of cookbooks, chef Speidel looks for techniques and flavor combinations that he believes will engage his customers. He explained that it is "really easy to get complacent in a small restaurant, but you have to push yourself, always try to do more."

The seasons energize his cooking.

Even though much of Bristol's business is summer tourism, the town is a bedroom community of commuters who work in Providence and Newport. Which means a year-round clientele supports his restaurant.

Challenging himself, he prints a new menu every day, featuring what's fresh and local. Keeping his menu in sync with the changing seasons means his customers look forward to the new ways he'll prepare ingredients with a short season, like asparagus, black bass, and tautog. For his loyal customers he balances favorites like the crispy skin Long Island duck breast with new dishes so he'll encourage them to come back several times a week.

When Champe and Lisa opened Persimmon, their goal was to create a small, cozy restaurant that emphasized high quality food and good but informal service.

Champe calls his menu "modern," but he could have as easily called it global, because he borrows freely from world cuisine and American traditional food. Highly skilled, his cooking is witty.


Eight years ago, Lisa took Champe to his first clambake on the beach. He loved the experience of a wood fire, freshly cooked clams, corn, lobster, potatoes, and chorizo. Wanting to recreate the experience back at the restaurant, he created the mini clambake, one of his most popular appetizer.

When the dish is presented at the table, the plate is covered by a glass dome. As the covering is lifted, a scented cloud of apple wood smoke is released and, for a moment just before you devour the sweetly flavored seafood and broth, you're transported back to a summertime beach where you don't have a care in the world.

One of the dishes I enjoyed the most and would have eagerly asked for seconds, was his "two-minute" ceviche of native razor clams, served with Vietnamese Kalamansi lime, chilies, and mint sauce. Never has a Southern New England clam been so well-served.

His menu includes some exquisitely prepared comfort foods. For those who can afford the fatty indulgence, he serves up a perfectly seared Hudson Valley foie gras with oven roasted figs dressed with a duck reduction and aged balsamic vinegar. For another appetizer, an egg slow cooked at precisely 143.6 degrees for one hour, shares an elegant bowl with sauteed hen-of-the-woods mushrooms flavored with a touch of curry oil.

Armed with an inventive imagination, he carefully shapes the flavor profiles of his dishes. Unlike many chefs who give clams and mussels a featured spotlight, chef Speidel uses shellfish as a flavor garnish, using their uniquely sweet-and-salty profile to enhance the qualities, as he did one night, of line caught Cox's Ledge cod wrapped in apple wood bacon and served in a chowder of razor and littleneck clams.

His Pan Seared South Dartmouth Boneless Pork Loin Chop is sweet and juicy, the meat's flavors all the more enhanced by the accompanying ragout of squash, fennel, turnips, and peaches. While he roasts his Long Island Duck Breast to glazed, crispy perfection, he prefers to cook his organic chicken cuit sous vide, giving the meat a velvety texture that is contrasted by the oven roasted potatoes and onions.

The dessert selections run from the delicate (Yogurt and Vanilla Panna Cotta with native Berries) to the sublime (Rich Chocolate Moussse with Dark Chocolate-Hazelnut Feuilletine and Carmel Ice Cream) to the familiar-though-decadent (Warm Peanut and Banana Cake with Banana Ice Cream, Caramel and Chocolate Sauces). All of which are wonderful. But I confess a simple plate of Berkshire Blue Cheese with a wedge of honeycomb dusted with fennel pollen stole my heart that night.

After having so many wonderful meals, and taking everything into account--the simple elegance of the dining room, Champe and Lisa Speidel's friendliness and charm, the execution and distinctive flavor profile of each and every dish--eating at Persimmon was my best experience on a very memorable trip.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Farmers' Market Fresh: Early Spring Tomatoes Roasted Whole or Sliced

Judging by the night time chill, it's still winter, Southern California style. But a walk through the local farmers' markets (the Wednesday Santa Monica and Sunday Pacific Palisades Farmers' Markets) and you'd think it was summertime. Just about everything you could want is in the market, with the exception of fresh corn and pluots.


One of my favorite recipes, and one of the easiest, uses early spring tomatoes to good advantage. Eaten raw, they aren't desirable, but roasted, they're delicious. Some farmers mark down their mottled and misshapen tomatoes so price is an added bonus.

Sliced Tomatoes Roasted with Garlic and Parsley

Use the roasted tomato slices as a side dish with grilled chicken breasts, meat, and seafood or in a salad of alternating slices of tomato and mozzarella, a variation on a classic Italian summer dish.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds fresh large tomatoes, washed, pat dried
1 cup Italian parsley, leaves only, washed, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper

Method

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Mix together the chopped parsley and garlic. Remove the remnants of th
e stem on top of the tomatoes, cut into 1/2" thick slices, lay on a Silpat sheet or a piece of aluminum foil on a baking tray, top with a sprinkling of parsley-garlic mix, drizzle with olive oil, and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Roast 30 minutes or until the tomatoes give off their liquid and the topping is lightly browned. Remove from the oven to cool on a baking rack. Use a rubber spatula to reserve the liquid on the baking tray.

Serve at room temperature.

Variations


Before serving, top with a sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Pour the roasting liquid, a mix of seasoned olive oil and tomato essence, onto the plate, then lay the tomato slices on top.

Arrange the slices on top of filets of fish, such as sole, halibut, or swordfish.

Roasted Whole Tomatoes

Keep this recipe for the summer when tomatoes improve in quality and come down even more in price. The technique is a winner any time of the year.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 90 minutes

Ingredients

3-4 pounds tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper

Method


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the end of the stem at the top of the tomato. Place all the tomatoes on a Silpat sheet or a piece of aluminum foil on a shallow roasting pan. Drizzle each tomato with olive oil and season with sea salt and black pepper.

Roast 90 minutes. When you remove the tomatoes from the oven you'll notice the accumulation of a clear liquid. A small portion of that is the seasoned olive oil. But mostly the liquid is given off by the tomato itself. That liquid or, let's be bold and call it "nectar", is pure essence-of-tomato. Save every drop.

At this point the tomatoes can be served whole as a side dish with grilled or roasted meats. They can also be peeled and chopped for a pasta or a braised meat dish like short ribs. Run them through a food mill and you have the beginnings of a delicious tomato sauce.

If you don't use all the tomatoes right away, they can be placed in an air-tight container and frozen for several months without damaging their flavor.

A final tip about tomato nectar. If you like mozzarella with tomatoes but this time of year the fresh tomatoes don't have enough flavor, drizzle the tomato nectar, slightly warmed, over slices of mozzarella. You're in for a treat.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Lobster Rolls, Clams, Oysters, and Much Much More on the Rhode Island Shore

In the fall I was on assignment to write a profile of Rhode Island. It's been several months since that visit and re-reading the piece I wrote for Peter Greenberg about the food along the shore makes me wish I lived closer to the Ocean State now that the clam shacks are opening again.

Travelers to Southern New England who used to head straight for Boston have learned to stop in Providence at fun, neighborhood hangouts like Thee "Red" Fez (49 Peck Street, Providence, 401/272-1212) and at upscale restaurants like Bacaro (262 South Water Street, Providence, 401/751-3700) with it's encyclopedic menu of regional Italian dishes.

If you've come to the area to enjoy great food, there's more to Rhode Island than just Providence.

Hop in your car and head south.

It's only a short trip to East Greenwich, Wickford, and Matunuck in South County or to Bristol and Newport on Aquidneck Island. If you have a little more time, drive down to Watch Hill on the southern-most tip of the state or go day-tripping out to Block Island and spend the day walking, hiking, biking, and eating.

Everywhere you go, you'll be rewarded with wonderful meals in beautiful settings.

During the summer, stopping at a clam shack when you're at the beach is a guilty pleasure not to be denied. In the coastal towns ringing Narragansett Bay and Block Island Sound, you'll find plenty of opportunities to eat yourself silly.

If you're in Newport, try Flo's Clam Shack across the street from First Beach (4 WaveAvenue, Middletown, 401/847-8141) or better yet head up to Bristol a few miles north and stop at Quito's Seafood Restaurant (411 Thames Street, Bristol, 401/253-4500) where chef Frank Formisano and his mom, Joann, serve up clam strips, fish and chips, fried calamari, lobster rolls, fluffy and light clam cakes, sandwiches with fried fish, clams, shrimp, crab, or scallops, fried oysters, raw clams and oysters, baked clams, casseroles with fish, shrimp, lobster or scallops, French fries, hot dogs, hamburgers, Cole slaw, and clam chowder--red, white, and, because this is Rhode Island, clear as well.

This being Rhode Island, even food at the shore is touched by Italian traditions. At Quito's, the red sauce is homemade from Joann's Sicilian recipe. Littlenecks can be enjoyed raw, steamed with garlic and oil, steamed in a Zuppa sauce (tomatoes and garlic), served over pasta, or in a scampi sauce. One piece of advice, if you're offered a choice of French fries or Cole slaw, go for the slaw. I ordered a double portion, it's that good. Since Quito's is on the bike path, you can take a leisurely walk or bicycle around Bristol Harbor to work off the calories.

Across Narragansett Bay in South County most of the towns hug the coast. Head inland and the area is home to farms, roadside stands, and wildlife refuges. Stay on Route 1 south of Providence and you'll drive through undistinguished towns, but keep your eye out and you'll discover some gems.

East Greenwich has a main street out of a postcard. You half expect to see 1930s Fords and Chevys pulling up in front of the hardware store. The kid friendly Grille on Main (50 Main Street, East Greenwhich, 401/885-2200) is a good place to stop for grilled pizza--now a Rhode Island staple originally popularized by Al Forno in Providence--or the calamari, either crispy or spicy hot with a soy-arrabiata sauce.

Keep driving a half dozen miles south on Route 1 and you'll slip even farther back in time when you take the turn off into historic Old Wickford, a town important during the Colonial-Post Revolutionary period. Contact the wonderfully entertaining Tim Cranston (swamptown@msn.com) and he'll give you a walking tour of the town. You'll hear great stories about lives lost, loves found, and history made.

When you've finished your walk, stop for refreshment at Tavern by the Sea (16 West Main Street, Old Wickford, 401/294-4771), which is actually located on the edge of a picture-perfect pond, complete with white swans and flocks of ducks. Sit outside on the deck with a glass of Ginger Mimosa when it's warm, or, when it's cool, upstairs in the slanted-roof dining room, and feast on bistro food Rhode Island style: stuffed quahogs, mussels in white wine sauce, French onion soup, calamari both ways like the Grille on Main, fat crab cakes that don't skimp on the crab, and excellent Cole slaw. If they're serving slices of Lemon and Berries Mascarpone Cheese Cake, leave room for dessert.

If you want to cook your own seafood, walk over to the retail store at Gardner's Wharf Seafood (170 Main Street, Wickford, 401/295-4600) where they sell the lobsters, oysters, mussels, clams, and fish caught that day.

An insider note: if you're using a GPS to guide your travels, you won't find "Wickford" listed. You'll have to call the town, "North Kingston," even though the locals don't.

The oysters and clams from Rhode Island deserve to be better known. Everyone has eaten bivalves from Long Island, Connecticut and Maine, but if you want a treat, drive west on Route 1/1A past Snug Harbor, then go south on Succotash Road and eat at the Matunuck Oyster Bar (629 Succotash Road, East Matunuck, 401/783-4202).

When owner Perry Raso has time, he'll take you in a skiff for a tour of nearby Potter Pond where he farms the oysters and clams he serves at the restaurant. His oysters and clams are delicious: sweet, briny, and plump. While you're eating a dozen shucked littlenecks on the deck overlooking the estuary or inside the cozy dining room, you can watch the ducks float by as Springsteen plays on the speaker system. The menu offers classic favorites like lobster rolls, boiled or stuffed lobsters, oysters Rockefeller, steamers, cod cakes, fried oysters, a variety of chowders, but there is also a superb dish made with pan-roasted littlenecks and grilled chorizo with white beans and tomatoes. To add turf to all that surf, there are cheeseburgers, grilled ribeye steaks, and baby back ribs in a bourbon bbq sauce with corn bread.

If you're in Watch Hill and it's late in the day, there's a 99% chance you're sitting on the patio of the Olympia Tea Room (74 Bay Street, Watch Hill, 401/348-8211) watching the magic of a sunset.

Locals like to say that Watch Hill has all the comforts and advantages of Newport without the crowds. The Olympia Tea Room exemplifies what's best about Watch Hill. A long bar takes up one side of the room with dark wood dividers cutting across the dining room, creating romantic intimacy for those who like some privacy with their chardonnay and raw oysters.

Like many restaurants in Rhode Island, the Olympia Tea Room prides itself on supporting local food purveyors. The oysters, clams, scallops, scrod, haddock, sausages, and as much of the produce as the season permits are locally sourced. The menu offers a good assortment of familiar comfort food: ravioli with sage butter, veal stroganoff, grilled lamb chops, spinach salad, Caesar salad, oysters and clams on the half shell, fish and chips, pork chops, steak frite, lamb shank, roast chicken with a mustard glaze, and pasta about any way you'd want--with fresh vegetables, lobster, bolognese, panchetta, sausages and meatballs, or clams. Once you've had your fill of all that good food, take the time to sit outside again for a cup of coffee and enjoy the cool evening breeze coming off Little Narragansett Bay.

If you're on your way to Block Island or you're taking a leisurelydrive on scenic Route 1A, you can stop at Champlin's (256 Great island Road, 401/783-3152) in Point Judith. Head upstairs over the fish market, order your food, and find a good spot on the deck overlooking the harbor where the fishing boats and the Block Island ferries dock. The lobster roll is first rate, as are the fries and clam chowder.

For those with a little more time to spare, Block Island is a short ferry ride from Point Judith. Sparsely populated, with more than 50% of the island set aside as nature preserves, Block Island is a rare treat, a place to slow down and enjoy some quiet time reading, talking, walking, eating or just sitting and taking in the magnificent views. The communities that surround Old and New Harbor have hotels, bed and breakfast inns, and restaurants that cater to both locals and tourists from the mainland.

Overlooking New Harbor, The Oar (221 Jobs Hill Road, New Harbor, Block Island, 401/466-8820) has a bar famous for, yes, you guessed it, autographed oars that cover the walls and ceilings. The restaurant has an open air dining room facing the pleasure craft tied up to the docks. Relaxing with an ice cold beer or glass of wine, watching the sea gulls pass by overhead, it's easy to fool yourself that you're in a tropical paradise but then the waitress brings you your lobster roll with fries and Cole slaw and you know for sure you're in Rhode Island.

In the next post, I'll have news about the upscale dining opportunities on Block Island and in Newport and Bristol on Aquidneck Island.

For more about Rhode Island, please go to:


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fun in the Sun and Great Bargains South of Cancun in Playa del Carmen

To see more photographs of Playa del Carmen and Tulum, please go to the Travel Gallery I posted on the New York Daily News web site.

If you're tired of being rained on or snowed in and you're spending way too much time watching reruns of CSI, now's a good time to think about a vacation someplace sunny and warm.

With Spring Break coming up, if you're researching a Mexican vacation, you have a lot of choices.

Mexico is still recovering from the swine flu scare. As Peter Greenberg reported last year, the fears were overblown and smart travelers should get down to Mexico and take advantage of the great deals offered by resorts. The good news is that with the number of visitors not yet back to pre-scare levels, you can still find great bargains.

THE MAYAN RIVIERA

Easily accessible, the Mayan Riviera on the Yucatan Peninsula has white sand beaches that stretch for hundreds of miles. Located far away from the U.S.-Mexican border, the area has escaped the drug-related violence that has plagued some parts of Mexico. With mild weather between December and May, the peninsula is an attractive destination for tourists who want a taste of Mexico and a good dose of sun and fun.

The Mexican government has been doing its part to lure travelers back to the area. For instance, at the Cancun airport, the government has launched a Tax Back program. If you're shopping at designer stories, you'll pay a VAT (Value Added Tax). Bring your receipts to the airport and you'll be reimbursed for the tax if you spent between $90.00 - $225.00.

While travel to the area is increasing, you'll still find discounts as much as 30% on hotel rates. Resorts compete for customers with offers of free massages, romantic dinners, golfing, snorkeling, and sailing. Wine-paired meals at Chef's Tables, increasingly popular in U.S. restaurants, are also being offered at upscale resorts.

PLAYA DEL CARMEN

Close to the International Airport, Cancun and Cozumel are popular destinations, although some travelers complain that the area has become over-developed. An alternative is to stay an hour and a half south in Playa del Carmen.

Still relatively small, the town has a sleepy fishing village feeling, albeit one with a gated community of luxury resorts and a Walmart nearby.

In Playa del Carmen, it's easy to arrange for rentals and go scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, and paragliding in the crystal clear turquoise water of the Caribbean. Although not officially sanctioned, some beaches nearby allow topless sunbathing. Whether you're fully clothed or not, you'll want to liberally apply sun block to avoid coming home with a lobster-tan.

After weeks of bad weather at home, I happily spent a long weekend at the Five Star, adult-only, all-inclusive, Royal Hideaway Playacar (1-800/999-9182). I appreciated the resort's creature comforts: a poolside bar and restaurant, an infinity pool that looked out over the newly restored white sand beach, 24- hour concierge service, and the basket of fresh fruit in my room that was replenished daily.

ALL-INCLUSIVE RESORTS

Many resorts in the area offer all-inclusive packages. Like being on a cruise, you won't have to check your wallet every time you look at a menu or think about ordering a cocktail.
A word of warning, though, it's best if you understand what is included in "all-inclusive".

Are there limits on food and beverage consumption? Is everything served in the restaurants included? Doing online research is advisable so you can hear what other travelers have to say about the quality of your resort's restaurants.

At the Royal Hideaway Playacar, all-inclusive means that everything is included. The only exceptions are the specialty wine list and eating at the Chef's Table.

During the day, Spices serves a breakfast buffet with a view of the Caribbean. At lunch Spices and the pool side, open air restaurant, The Deck, have Mexican-themed menus.

In the evening, the resort's culinary skills are on full display. The Japanese food at Azia is very good, especially the fresh-tasting sushi. The space used by the Deck during the day undergoes a Cinderella transformation at night, reappearing as the elegant Grill, serving a Mediterranean menu. Among the many dishes on the menu, the grilled octopus salad with potatoes and parsley is authentically prepared, appropriately so, since the award winning Executive Chef, Raul Vaquerizo, is Spanish.

During our stay we had tastings at the upscale Las Ventanas and the Chef's Table. The exquisitely prepared, wine paired meals are worthy of fine restaurants in Paris, London, New York, or Madrid. An appetizer of scallops with Mole and Coconut Foam shared the plate with a delicate piece of grilled Foie Gras and a velvety creamed Corn Soup. A single ravioli with braised lamb inside luxuriated in a pool of tomato essence.

When it came time for dessert at Las Ventanas, we were treated to a plate of cheeses paired with fruit: Camembert/Strawberries, Goat Cheese/Grapes and Almonds, Aged Parmesan/Kiwi, and Blue Cheese/Green Apple and Honey. But that wasn't all. There was a serving of home made ice creams, sherbets, and macaroons.

Extravagance is the name of the game at the Chef's Table. Ginger ice cream encapsulated in a crispy tempura casing sat in a sweet green tea creme, topped with a black sesame crisp. The piece de resistance, however, was a sculpture made of chocolates, marshmallows, honey lollipops, and gummies made of passion fruit and vanilla.

PLAYA DEL CARMEN

With so many creature comforts at the resort, I was tempted to do nothing more strenuous than relax on a poolside chaise lounge and turn the pages of a good novel while sipping a Pina Colada. But I didn't come all this way just to see hotel grounds.

One fact to understand about the Mayan Riviera is that the area was largely undeveloped before the Mexican government turned Cancun into a tourist destination. Before that there were only a few, scattered fishing villages that stretched south to Tulum.

The peninsula is still experiencing growing pains. Demands on the electrical grid can cause resorts to cut back on air conditioning and brown-outs are not unknown.

Since the area is devoted entirely to tourism, there are very few local farms. Which means the produce, tropical fruit, and even the seafood served at the hotels and in the restaurants is likely to come from other parts of Mexico, the United States, or as far away as Japan.

Culturally, with the exception of the local Mayans, everyone else is from somewhere else in Mexico. That means if you want to immerse yourself in indigenous culture, you are better off visiting other areas in Mexico. If you want to experience the richness of Mexican cuisine, you'll be happier in Mexico City, Veracruz, or even Los Angeles.

You can track down local treats, if you look carefully enough.

We stumbled across Juana Marcela Perez Hernandez' Artesanias de Chiapas (Calle 10 entre avenidas 1 y 5), a small store--more of an open air stall really--packed with handmade artifacts from her home state of Chiapas. She sells purses, articles of clothing, wallets, and wall hangings, but what caught our eye was the army of hand woven animals and people that spilled onto the side walk. You can haggle over price, but Juana sticks to her guns and in this case you pay for what you get. I love the three figures I brought home.

On the corner of Fifth Avenue and Benito Juarez, a block from the beach, you'll find half a dozen taco carts serving freshly made tortillas filled with aromatic meats like pork steamed in banana leaves, marinated chicken, and fried fish with pickled onions. Here you'll line up with locals who know that there is no better way to start the day than standing next to a taco cart, balancing a hot-off-the-grill taco in one hand and an ice cold drink in the other.

Because walking around makes you hungry, you might also want to stop at one of the many bars and open air restaurants along Fifth Avenue or Avenue Juarez. At El Sarape Grill (Ave. Juarez and 20th Street), you can enjoy a Mexican beer and snack on a shrimp cocktail served with crackers or feast on platters of grilled meats with bowls of refried beans and guacamole.

If you want to drink like a native, ask for a Michelada, a Chelada, an Ojo Rojo, or, if you're brave enough, a Vampire. They all start with a light beer like Sol, but like a geometric progression, they quickly multiple the flavors by adding lime juice, beef stock, tomato juice, and vodka.

While there are plenty of sweets to tempt you, the best in my opinion are the ice cream bars called paletas. Made with fresh fruit or vegetables, they are distant cousins to the American popsickle. Some are made with milk, others just with fruit, sugar, and water. They are all delicious. You may not find a cucumber or avocado paleta to your taste, but you'll certainly enjoy one made from fresh coconut, vanilla, strawberry, pineapple, or watermelon. To really understand the meaning of sweet-heat, have a paleta made with mango and chili pepper.

Walking around town, casual is the word of the day. Wear flip flops, shorts and t-shirts wherever you want. Although the brief rain showers make carrying a light-weight raincoat or small umbrella a good idea, the locals just take cover in a doorway and wait for the rain to stop. At night, there are plenty of restaurants and bars along Fifth Avenue where you can eat, stop to listen to music, have a drink, and hang out with friends.

ECO-PARKS AND ARCHEOLOGICAL SITES

Several eco-parks are within easy driving distance of Playa del Carmen. Xcaret Park appeals to kids and adults with an elaborate menu of water slides, artistic performances, and ecological displays that include a swim in an underground river and snorkeling in a lagoon. At Xcaret, contact with nature and Mexican culture is safely controlled as it is farther south at the smaller Xel-ha. While it's farther away, if you want a more authentic experience with the local flora, visit Sian Ka'an Biosphere.

If you are on the Mayan Riviera, a visit to an archaeological site is essential.

Tulum is closest to Playa del Carmen, about an hour and a half south. Even centuries later, the ancient city's outline is easy to see. Master mathematicians and astronomers, the Mayans laid out their temples and houses with precision. When you visit, join up with a tour group or hire a private guide to hear the history of this wonderful site. If you have the time, visit the much larger Mayan temple complex of Chichen Itza, three hours inland. In either case, bring a light-weight raincoat in case it rains.

To read other travel posts, please go to:

Rio in the Summer
The Houston Food Scene
Farmers' Markets
Chef Albert Roux's Newest Restaurant Opens in Texas
Saudi Arabia's Neighbor to the East, Doha, Qatar
Briefly in Seattle
A Photo Gallery of Rhode Island
How Rhode Island Has Changed
Rhode Island Travel Gallery, New York Daily News
Renting a Villa with Friends in Sonoma
Sparks, Nevada for the Nugget's Rib Cook-Off, 2009
Who Judges at a Rib Cook-Off? Me!

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