The City Cook's Ten Favorites For 2008
What is it about lists? Many of us love them, I guess as a way of sorting things out, whether it be favorite movies, best Motown songs from 1968, or most popular baby names. I'm not immune to the fun of narrowing down, so we've decided to make The City Cook's list of favorite ingredients and merchants, first premiered last year, an annual feature.
Here's our list of favorites for 2008. The items are not in any particular order and most have been already mentioned on The City Cook in the past year. But if you're a home cook in New York City, we didn't think you'd mind being reminded about some local treasures.
This Italian sparking wine is a value priced alternative to Champagne and much more costly California sparkling wines. Most bottles cost under $12, although there are some premium Proseccos that bump up against $20 per bottle. Although Prosecco doesn't have the body or the complexity of Champagne, the price difference makes it easy to overlook its shortcoming. Drink it very cold unmixed or else as the primary ingredient in a mixed Mimosa (half-and-half with orange juice), a Kir Royale (with a teaspoon of Crème de Cassis, a black currant liqueur), or make your own cocktail with the addition of a favorite liqueur or fruit juice.
2. Neal's Yard Colston Basset Stilton
Many call Stilton the "king of cheeses" and with its pale yellow body and blue-green veins, this rich and creamy English cow's milk cheese arguably deserves its crown. Neal's Yard Dairy is an English cheese company that represents about seventy cheesemakers from throughout England and Ireland, helping the producers bring their cheeses to market through shops in London, sales to restaurants, and by distributing to a select number of cheesemongers here in the U.S. In New York we're particularly lucky to have several shops that carry Neal's Yard cheeses, including their superb Colston Basset Stilton from Notinghamshire. Look for it at Zabar's, Bedford Cheese Shop, and Dean & Deluca. An extraordinary cheese at about $25 per pound.
3. Duck Breasts at Quattro's
Quattro's Game Farm is a family-owned and run operation located in Dutchess County, just north of Poughkeepsie. They sell their free-range and heritage breed chickens, duck, geese, turkeys, pheasants and venison, plus duck and quail eggs, every Saturday at the Union Square Greenmarket. While everything they raise and sell is of superb quality, my favorite is their duck breasts. Smaller than those from the easier-to-find D'Artagnan (which are also good), Quattro's duck breasts are from birds that live a free-range life and eat a diet free of additives and drugs. Their flavor is rich but not too gamey and the breasts come sold in pairs in little plastic bags. They freeze beautifully and with an easy pan sear and quick finish in the oven, Quattro's duck breasts can be the centerpiece to one of the best meals you'll ever cook -- or eat.
Never cook a duck breast before? It's surprisingly easy -- see our recipe.
4. Wine Sampling at Union Square Wines
Union Square Wines, located at 140 Fourth Avenue at 13th Street in Manhattan, just below Union Square, is one of the city's best wine stores. It has a very large international selection at all prices, a generous discount for wines by the case, periodic sales, free delivery, and a robust web site. So do many other wine stores across the boroughs.
But what's unique to Union Square is their "Savvy Sippers' Club." Similar to a credit card awards program, it lets you trade points (earned by with purchases -- five points for each dollar spent) which are exchanged for access to self-service wine tasting machines that they call the "Enomatic Wine Experience." Together, these machines contain 48 wines, including one machine with chilled white and rosé wines.
Taking wine courses and going to tastings is the best way to learn about wine, but let's face it -- the tough decision comes when you're standing in the store and ready to buy. Union Square has solved that problem by letting you have a sip before you choose.
5. Piquillo Peppers
In his most recent book, Made in Spain, José Andrés includes piquillo peppers in several of his appealing and big flavored recipes. I had never before heard of or cooked with piquillo peppers, but now thanks to Chef Andrés, they've since become a pantry staple for me. Piquillos are mild, a little sweet, and are much like a miniaturized turbo-charged plain red pepper, the kind we buy for salads.
What to do with them? These peppers come already peeled and cooked, and are each about 2-inches long. Simply purée in a blender or food processor with their liquid until completely smooth. Add a little olive oil and a generous pinch of salt and warm the emulsion in a saucepan and you will have an instant sauce that is a rich red color, a mildly vibrant taste with no heat, and perfect to pool around a plain piece of fish or a piece of broiled meat.
I found a variety of brands at different prices, some of which are in glass jars, but the Roland brand, which comes in a 13.75 oz. can, is $2.99 at Fairway. Puréed with its liquid, it makes about a cup of sauce. Add this sauce to sautéed chicken breasts, a little pilaf or another favorite grain, and a green vegetable and you can have a quick dinner for four for less than $10 -- and one that's special and pretty enough for company.
6. Food Politics -- Obama, Scott Stringer's Conference, CSAs, Greenmarkets
The world of food has changed and lucky for us, it looks like even this grim recession will not turn things back. In 2008 more of us participated in CSAs (community supported agriculture), our Greenmarkets had another boom year, our farmers got more respect, and President-Elect Obama -- an urban guy -- has already shown support for family farmers as well as organic and local agriculture. Michael Pollan's books remain best sellers and a granular, wonkish conference given last month by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer at Columbia University on "The Politics of Food" was over-subscribed by nearly 100%. It appears as if this is not a temporary trend nor is it luxury dabbling by some privileged few. Although there is so much yet to be done to improve our food supply and eradicate hunger, there's now some hope.
7. Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes -- by Jennifer McLagan
This is my favorite new food and cooking book of 2008. When I first held this handsome and tempting book in my hands, I knew it was a stand-out if only because of the audacity of its cover showing a raw chop with more pearl white fat than lean. The book is meticulously written, with a spirited voice that defends and explains this much-aligned ingredient. It is also filled with mouth-watering recipes at all levels of skill. Jennifer McLagan's volume will keep fat in your cooking -- with satisfying and happy flavor.
Speaking of fat -- guanciale is cured pork jowls, a kind of bacon that is more fat than lean. So what's the big deal? Because guanciale is not smoked but air cured, it has a richer, more forward flavor, tasting more like pork and less like the dominant smoky taste in most bacons. The fact that it's from the jowls and not the belly of the pig where bacon is from, this, too, adds to its taste. Because it is mostly fat with very little lean, it is lusciously complex, making it a stand-out ingredient for traditional Roman pasta dishes like bucatini all'amatriciana, and one of my favorite pastas of all time, rigatoni alla grecia, another specialty of Roman cuisine. See our recipe.
I first tasted guanciale in Italy but it is now increasingly available here. In New York you can always find it at Fairway, Murray's Real Salami and Blue Apron Foods in Park Slope. One to look for is by LaQuercia, the splendid Iowa pork producer, makes its guanciale from Berkshire pork. It's about $18 per pound, but you only need a little to transform a dish into pork fat heaven.
9. Simchick's Mediterranean Burgers
In Midtown Manhattan, on the far east side, is one of New York's best butcher shops -- L. Simchick. It is a classic butcher shop, with a cold room where most of the meats are kept, and almost everything is cut to order. The butchers who work there are craftsmen and Mr. Simchick has become a treasured part of the neighborhood for his quality and high level of service. One of his most popular items is their Mediterranean Burger, made from lamb, veal and "secret ingredients," he told me. Whatever he mixes in with the top quality chopped meats, the flavor is more complex than what you expect from a burger. Each burger is 8 oz. and easily broiled to make a quick and very satisfying weekday meal. Buy extras for the freezer. You will thank me.
10. Borgatti's Cheese Ravioli
Borgatti's is worth a journey to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. This pasta shop has been in business for nearly 80 years and they continue to make the best fresh ravioli in New York. The dough is not only tender, with a perfect mouth feel, unlike many fresh ravioli -- it actually has flavor. The cheese filling, a classic combination of fresh ricotta, eggs, Parmesan and parsley, is mild but slightly tangy with enough taste to stand up to your favorite tomato sauce or pesto. Borgatti makes a traditionally-sized ravioli but also makes a jumbo size. Three of these cheese-filled pillows with a spoonful of plain tomato sauce and a dusting of freshly grated Parmesan cheese make a brilliant first course. But I prefer a big bowl of them as the main event. Buy extra because they freeze perfectly.
As more of us are spending time in our kitchens, buying groceries, managing our food budgets, and putting home cooking into our daily lives, please remember that while we may eat for survival, we cook for pleasure.
To city cooks everywhere, a most happy, peaceful and delicious 2009.