Thursday, April 24, 2014

Burnt Eggplant & Moghrabieh Soup

We have long taken advantage of Atlantic Avenue's plentiful collection of Middle Eastern shops for our recipes. That is why we were delighted to finally start making recipes from the critically acclaimed cookbook, Jerusalem.

There is no vegetable more prevalent in great Middle Eastern cooking than the eggplant (make our smoky baba ghanoush and you'll understand why). And there is no better accompanying grain than moghrabieh. Moghra-wha? Perhaps deriving its name from Maghreb, the Arab region in North Africa, moghrabieh is extra large couscous. It provides great heftiness to the smoky eggplant soup base.

The key, just like we did with our baba ghanoush, is to burn the eggplants directly on an open fire. Charcoal is best, but you can do it easily right on the stove top (or, less messily, in the broiler). This dish can versatilely serve as an appetizer to any Middle Eastern meal or as a meal all to itself.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Za'atar-Crusted Salmon with Tzatziki

A trip to the Middle Eastern stores on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue yielded a large bag of za'atar, a traditional spice blend of thyme, sesame seeds, salt, and sumac. Sumac is an essential ingredient in Middle-Eastern cooking with a bright red color and a mild fruity-tart flavor, which perfectly matches the lemony undertones of the thyme. The sesame seeds add a nice earthiness and crunch.

Za'atar is an extremely versatile ingredient with many culinary uses, like sprinkling on vegetables and dips, seasoning soups, baking onto pita breads, and roasting with chicken. With so much built-in flavor, it makes a great secret weapon for weeknight meals.

Paired with salmon, the za'atar forms a crust that locks in the juices of the fish and gives it that perfect crispy exterior. The seasoning nicely compliments the salmon's flavor without overpowering it. I serve it with a garlicky tzatziki sauce and some extra fresh dill on top.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Foods of Tulum Mexico Part III: Primal Fine Dining at Hartwood, Tulum's Best Restaurant

Hartwood house speciality - costillas al agave (ribs with a sticky agave barbecue sauce)

I recently embarked on a relaxing and flavorful vacation to Tulum in Mexico. Here is the third entry in our Beyond the Five Boroughs feature on Tulum: a review of Hartwood, Tulum's best and most critically acclaimed restaurant. The first post explored Tulum's surprisingly authentic Italian restaurants, while the second one covered Mexican street food. Later posts will explore beach front dining and Tulum's many other fine dining establishments.

Setting up for dinner service
As it turns out, the best restaurant on my escape from New York was owned by two New Yorkers. The chef, Eric Werner, is formerly of Peasant and Brooklyn's Vinegar Hill House. Werner's wife, Mya Henry, runs the front of the house.

The daily changing menu board (prices in pesos!)
At Hartwood, Werner has created what could only be described as primal fine dining. All of the dishes are cooked in either the massive, roaring 900-degree wood fire oven in the center of the open kitchen, or in a nearby 600-degree grill. (The prep work is done with knives and a blender – powered by a small generator.)

The primal, bold flavors from wood fire at high heat make the dishes seem like they've been made for generations in the Mayan riviera. Contributing to the primative experience, the wooden tables in the open air dining area are lit only with small twinkling oil lamps, creating a transporting feel.

The primal feel – and taste – is further enhanced by the use of large portioned, unbutchered proteins, and whole fish, vegetables, and fruit. Everything would be recognizable to our ancestors; it's just so much better.

The dishes aren't exactly Mexican, but do make exquisite use of local ingredients, as a recent glowing New York Times profile described.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Foods of Tulum Mexico Part II: Mexican Street Food

A "small" order of shrimp ceviche at El Camello Jr.
I recently embarked on a relaxing and flavorful vacation to Tulum in Mexico. Here is the second entry in our Beyond the Five Boroughs feature on Tulum, featuring Tulum's fresh take on Mexican street food and other traditional Mexican dishes, like tacos and ceviches. The first post explored Tulum's surprisingly authentic Italian restaurants. The third post covered Hartwood, Tulum's best restaurant.  Later posts will explore beach front dining and Tulum's many other fine dining establishments.

Most of Tulum's superb collection of high quality restaurants are located along the beach road, which makes it all too easy to enjoy all your meals a quick stroll from the beach.  If you have a car, which we recommend, take a short drive past the checkpoint with friendly men with friendly automatic weapons, and explore Tulum Town, about a 20 minute drive from the beach. 

A selection of Antijitos at La Chiapaneca
The food is not as good as some of the outstanding restaurants on the beach road, but, naturally, the prices drop considerably. And you can sample the cuisine that locals and adventurous travelers alike can enjoy together. 

Two spots that should not be missed are El Camello Jr., a raucous local seafood shop and restaurant, and Antojitos La Chiapaneca, a taqueria serving phenomenally inexpensive al pastor tacos. Or try them both in the same meal for a little surf 'n turf  they're certainly cheap enough.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Foods of Tulum Mexico Part I: The Italian Restaurants

Acqua Pazza - olive oil poached red snapper fillet at Posada Margherita
I recently embarked on a relaxing and flavorful vacation to Tulum in Mexico. Here is the first entry in our Beyond the Five Boroughs feature on Tulum, featuring two of its surprisingly authentic Italian restaurants. Later posts explore beach front dining; fine dining; Hartwood, Tulum's best restaurantand traditional Mexican street food.

Tulum, nestled in the Riviera Maya, about 75 miles south of Cancún, is known mostly for its pristine beaches, eco-friendly boutique hotels, and general low-key, relaxing vibe. The tranquil beach road boasts a dozen or more excellent restaurants, which make good use of the Yucatán's fresh seafood and plentiful fresh produce and herbs. Mexican flavors naturally abound.

That is why I was surprised to find that there are also two excellent, authentic, and creative Italian restaurants: Hemingway and Posada Margherita.

Monday, March 10, 2014

French Classics at Sel et Poivre

Duck a l'orange with wild rice at Sel et Poivre
It's not easy to find traditional french dishes in New York these days, so I was eager to try Sel et Poivre, a family-owned restaurant claiming to offer "a taste of Paris on Lex". A press dinner organized by the restaurant gave me that opportunity (portion size may vary from what is pictured here).

Open since 1989, Sel et Poivre is a neighborhood gem that obviously has a regular clientele. The setting is more upscale than the standard bistro, with candles on white tables and elegant sconces on off-white walls with wood paneling. The restaurant was busy on a Tuesday night, with a mix of older couples, younger groups, and families enjoying some French favorites. We noticed two customers contently dining solo.

The restaurant offers all the classics you would expect to find at a traditional French bistro. There are bowls of French onion soup, dishes of garlicky escargots, and servings of moules mariniere with frites. Entrees include trout almandine, frogs legs a la provencal, and duck a l'orange. The wine lists offers a mix of French and international wines, with a generous selection of wines by the glass.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Hand-Made Moles from Puebla at El Maguey y la Tuna

Fish Tacos with Assorted Hand-Made Moles at El Maguey y la Tuna
It's always a great day when you find a restaurant dish that is truly worth a trip. And so it was a great day when I found myself enjoying the mole poblano at El Maguey y la Tuna, a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant on the Lower-East Side.

Mexican hot cider served with tequila
I was at a press dinner held for a small group of food bloggers and other press, and all of a sudden the cameras had stopped clicking and the notes had stopped being scribbled. There were sounds of clinking silverware and contented sighs.

The mole had been made by hand over the course of days, following a secret family recipe that I am sure involves a long list of various kinds of chilies, nuts, seeds, spices, and Mexican chocolate.  It had a great combination of sweet and spicy, without too much of either one; just a fantastic, complex, rich flavor. The chunks of chicken it came with were secondary to the beautiful sauce.

Sitting across from me, the Restaurant Fairy boldly summoned a big bowl of it for us all to go after with spoons. The rest of the table murmured its approval.