Saturday, August 11, 2007

Grill, baby

Have you ever grilled lettuce? Sounds kind of strange, but it's actually surprisingly tasty. And, as you probably know by now, I have been kind of obsessed with grilling these days. Grilling takes romaine lettuce from plain and flavorless to tender and smoky. Crisper, crunchier lettuces lend themselves better to grilling, like romaine, radicchio and endive.

Jason and I love Asian flavors, so we decided to try an Asian-style marinade I read about in Bon Appetit (it calls for tuna, but we went with shrimp). On the side, since we'd already fired up the grill, we threw the lettuce on next to the shrimp. Topped the salad with a light Asian vinaigrette and made some sauteed sweet corn on the side. Lovely.

Grilled Lettuce with Asian Vinaigrette
serves 4
For the lettuce:
2 hearts of romaine
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat (indoor or outdoor, gas or charcoal) grill to medium-high. Cut a thin slice off of the root end of the lettuce if brown, making sure to keep most of the root intact. Cut each heart in half lengthwise and brush each cut side with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and lay each half, cut-side down, on the hot grill. Grill about 2 minutes, covered. Remove and cut into strips or leave whole, serving one half per person.

For the dressing:
Juice and zest from half a lime
2 teaspoons unseasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
2 to 3 teaspoons soy sauce
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil

In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine all ingredients. Shake vigorously until everything is well combined. Store leftovers in jar up to one week.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Color Purple

The plums in the market right now are so lush, the skin so purple it's almost black. I love the flavor dichotomy of ripe plums — the first bite of skin and fruit is tart, but as you get closer to the pit, the flesh gets sweeter. There are 2,000 varieties of plums, but only about 20 types are generally sold in the U.S., several of which were available at Publix. I grabbed a few classic purple ones, red ones, a green one and even a red-flecked pluot, which is a cross-breed of a plum and an apricot.

I got home and realized that, on impulse, I'd gotten far too many and they'd probably be overripe before I could eat them all. I decided to cut them into chunks and mix them with some cantaloupe, some fresh lime juice, mint and a touch of sugar for a salad. The combination of the flavors and textures of the different plums made for a lovely mix. The smaller, green ones are tart and firm, while the darker ones are sweet and softer. The melon added another layer of flavor, while the lime and mint added some depth. You could certainly sub out the cantaloupe for honeydew, and add in some peaches, blueberries or any other summery fruit you think would work well. This keeps well in the fridge — I ate it for three days and it was just as good (if not better) the second and third day.

Plum and Melon Salad
makes about 2 1/2 cups
1 or 2 medium purple plums, pitted and cubed
1 small green plum, pitted and cubed
1 medium red plum, pitted and cubed
1 pluot, pitted and cubed
1/4 t0 1/2 cantaloupe, peeled and cubed
Juice of one small lime
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon fresh chopped mint

Combine everything in a large bowl, toss to coat fruit in juice and sugar. Cover and refrigerate at least 1/2 hour. Stir before serving. Keeps up to four days, refrigerated.

Summer's Last Stand

If you've read this blog before, you know I have a serious love affair with pasta. Same goes for summer. So on my own for dinner last night, I decided to combine these loves in a light, perfect-for-hot-weather supper. To me, the flavors of shrimp, corn, lemon and dill blend seamlessly, and tossed with pasta, it was my nod to the last few weeks of summer.

Summer Pasta
serves 2
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
12 to 16 medium shrimp
3 ears of fresh corn, kernels cut off
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 lb fresh or dried linguine (any pasta would do, really)
1 tablespoon lemon zest
3 tablespoons fresh chopped dill
Juice from one lemon

In a large nonstick skillet, heat butter and olive oil together over medium-high heat until butter starts to bubble. Add shrimp and corn to skillet and add salt and pepper. Meanwhile, cook pasta per package directions. (If using dried pasta, start cooking pasta before you start the shrimp and corn.) Cook corn and shrimp, stirring often, until shrimp are opaque and just barely firm. Lower heat to medium, add zest and dill, and toss to combine.

When pasta finishes, drain, reserving 1/2 cup of cooking liquid. Toss pasta with corn mixture, adding pasta water a few spoonfuls at a time until everything is combined. Off the heat, add lemon juice and toss once more to combine. Serve topped with additional fresh dill, if desired.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A Food Tour of New York

I just got back from New York City, a place I visit first largely for the food. I don't have hundreds of dollars to spend at Per Se or Nobu, mind you. I just love that whatever you're in the mood for, you can find a restaurant that makes it, and makes it well. Sushi, Italian, sandwiches, hot dogs, cupcakes...the list is endless.

Vanessa, my willing dining partner, and I made it our mission to find cheap eats that deserve high marks for value (meaning the restaurant could charge more, but it doesn't.) We did quite well on our mission. Following is a peek at our love affair with inexpensive New York dining.

thursday night
Republic in Union Square is a place I discovered when I lived in the city for a summer. I try to go back every time I visit for the fresh, inexpensive Asian food. We shared some small dishes — salmon sashimi salad (my all-time favorite...raw salmon, cucumbers in a spicy mustard dressing), fried wontons (perfectly crisp), and veggie dumplings (full of a delicious assortment of Asian veggies). We also washed them down with Republic's delcious summery cocktails (a tequila mojito for me, Asian sangria for Vanessa). Delcious and under $20 a person. Not bad!

For lunch, we had a hankering for good Cuban, so we braved the close quarters of Cafe Habana in the west village. Small and tight, Vanessa tells me the space is where they filmed the Lenny Kravitz video for Again. It's tiny, but the food was incredibly good. Grilled corn on the cob with lime, chili powder and creamy cheese and a hot, crisp Cuban sandwich, stuffed with tender roast pork, ham and melty Swiss cheese. About $10 a person.

As a snack, we just had to try the California-based celeb-favorite, Pinkberry. Frozen yogurt (actual yogurt, frozen, not at all ice cream like) with fresh fruit (I got raspberries) is a great snack on 100-degree days. It was fresh and delicious, and yes, total swirly goodness.

Our dinner spot was also housed in a teensy space, but the food was worth every elbow bump. 'Ino, a charming neighborhood place also in the west village, serves a dizzying array of panini, tramezzini (small, cold sandwiches) and seasonal bruschetta. I went a little crazy for all the options, and ordered two pieces of bruschetta (they were only $2) — one with pea puree and pecorino, and one with white anchovies topped with arugula oil. Heavenly. Followed by a panini with bresaola (like prosciutto, but beef), asparagus and pecorino, and a glass of dry Italian rosato, it was a great meal. And it only set me back about $22.

It's only just begun...

For a great burger, look no farther than the super-casual, shoebox-sized (I'm just now noticing the trend of tiny spaces and great food) Burger Joint inside the otherwise very fancy-shmance Le Parker Meridien Hotel in midtown. With just 3 food items on the menu (hamburger, cheeseburger, fries), it's simple and fabulous. The burgers are perfectly cooked to order and the fries were crisp and hot. Yum.

After our carnivorous lunch, we stopped by th Union Square Greenmarket, which is one of my favorite things to do in New York. We stopped and sampled peaches, fresh currants, sweet cherry tomatoes and the most incredible blueberries I've ever tasted. The samples, of course, were free. I also got a cup of ice-cold mint tea sweetened with maple syrup for $2. Fabulous.

Dinner brought us back to the west village for some thai food at Galanga. While good and inexpensive, it was nothing to write home about. (Or to blog about, for that matter.)

Any New Yorker will tell you that Sunday brunch is as much a part of New York culture as taking the subway. We Southern girls were craving a good bowl of grits and some cornbread, so we ambled over to Great Jones street downtown to the (also tiny) Great Jones Cafe. The brunch menu features simple, straightforward breakfast classics like huevos rancheros (what I got), pancakes and biscuits and gravy. The Southern-style side items were actually delicious, even though were were made in Yankee territory. $12 for brunch is a steal in this city.

Snacktime rolled around, and after a long day of train riding and a visit to Brooklyn, I knew just the place. I have an unnatural obsession with buttercream frosting, and only one place in the world makes it exactly how I like it. Made famous by an appearance in Sex and the City, the Magnolia Bakery in the west village makes the best cupcakes in the world. The crumbly yet moist cake and mounds of buttercream frosting are otherworldly, in my opinion. The confections couldn't be simpler, and yet people wait in half-hour-long lines just to grab a few. At $2 a piece, it's simply ridiculous to get only one. It's also ridiculous to consider eating more than one at a time, so save the second (and third...and fourth...) for later.

Dinner was at a delightful, cozy spot on the upper west side called Kefi. This place serves authentic Greek cuisine at fabulous prices (think under $20 for a fish entree — and on the UWS no less). Vanessa, who recently visited Greece with her family, and I decided to share some of the mezze (small plates), because they just looked too good to pass up. I am a salt fiend, so the warm feta with olives, capers and anchovies seemed like it was made just for me. Served with warm pita, it was a perfect, salty start. Vanessa's Greek salad was piled high with fresh veggies, tons of olives and big caper berries. Big, tender meatballs in a spiced tomato sauce and grilled octopus were the main event for us. Vanessa said the octopus was better than that she had in Greece, and I was inclined to believe her. It was tender, seasoned perfectly and just delicious. I could have eaten all eight tentacles, but had to settle for one. Even with a glass of crisp Greek white wine, tax and tip, I still made it out spending less than $30.

After a long, humid walk in Central Park (and a Beyonce sighting...), I headed straight for one of my very favorite New York spots — Gray's Papaya. If you're of the 'if I've had one hot dog, I've had them all' school of thought, you've obviously never been to Gray's Papaya. Now, these aren't fancy or gourmet. In fact, they're just the opposite. The place is small, kitschy and bright and you have to stand to eat, but the skinny dogs are cooked on a super-hot griddle so that the skins snap when you bite into them. The buns are warm and crisp and the whole package is sublime. The tropical drinks are housed in aluminum coolers, and I always get the namesake Papaya. It's frothy and sweet and faintly reminiscent of fresh Papaya, but it's just the "so-bad-it's-good" way to complete the meal. Two dogs and a drink sets you back only $3.50. I can't think of a more perfect New York lunch.

Back on the upper west side for dinner, my friend and UWS summer resident, Davey took me to Josie's, which serves healthy food like organic produce, eco-friendly seafood and free-range meat, poultry and eggs. We both got fish, and my organically raised, hand-farmed salmon was prepared perfectly with sweet potatoes and mango salsa.

I heart New York.