My Year of Revision & Fried Chicken

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There’s a good reason I haven’t posted here for 12 months. Or there’s a reason, anyway, which is that I spent most (okay, some) of the year hidden away in a cave (also known as my study) rewriting and revising two novels at once (not an exercise I would recommend) like a madwoman, till I was blue in the face and tearing my hair out, though I tried to keep both clichés and bracketed asides out of my manuscripts.

One of the novels I was revising was The Oakdale Dinner Club, an irreverent comedy of suburban manners about food, infidelity and telepathy – a novel in the vein of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and Maeve Binchy’s Evening Class with a soupçon of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (say what?). It will be published in May, 2014 by Dundurn, and I will be featuring recipes for some of the dishes in the book in this space as the pub date draws nearer.

I did emerge from my revision cave from time to time during the year to travel a bit and eat well, especially when it came to fried chicken.

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While in New York in June to attend a writers’ pitch conference, for instance, I learned about the importance of using the right “comparable” titles in a pitch – FYI, only one should be a classic, one should be recent, and all must have been best-sellers. And after a long day of pitching, I happily consumed a fried chicken supper at Bobwhite Lunch & Supper Counter, an East Village spot (whose website home page, I just realized, is hey, what do you know, comparable to The Oakdale Dinner Club book cover). Bobwhite is my favorite kind of restaurant: it’s unpretentious, ultra-casual, and serves good, real food, like the deliciously moist inside, crunchy-skinned, Southern-style fried chicken, pictured above.

Summer weather or not, I couldn’t leave New York without stopping in for a set lunch of ramen with a side bowl (!) of fried chicken on rice with lettuce, a dab of teriyaki sauce and mayo (!) at my favorite ramen spot Ippudo.IMG_2360

Later in the year, when the revisions of The Oakdale Dinner Club were finally done, and the copy edit proofed and get it off my desk already, I escaped the wintry weather in Toronto for a few weeks in Florida, where I tried fried chicken and waffles at a resolutely downscale strip plaza location of Bay Bay’s Chicken and Waffles in West Palm Beach (the pic is theirs, lifted from their website, I’d gotten out of the habit of photographing my food by then):

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The spicy, crunchy breast of chicken on top of a freshly made cinnamon-scented buttermilk waffle was good enough to get me back there a second time a few days later (though West Palm Beach is admittedly a bit of a desert, food-wise). And when we swung by Miami Beach the next week, I had to check out the cool, comfortable and prettily appointed Yardbird in South Beach, where the cauliflower ‘steak’ sandwich (loved the sliced apples inside) was tasty if a little pricy at $13:

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the reasonably priced fried chicken blue plate special (only $14) was not as crispy as it should have been, and the biscuits were impressively flaky – like I can be after months of revision.

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48 Hour Eating, Theatre-Going and Rainy New York Visit Inspires Epic – okay, longish – Blog Post

The food: 5 meals in 48 hours

The story:

My husband E and I touched down in New York last week for a 48 hour rain-soaked visit, and immediately started eating. Our first meal was a late lunch at Chinatown Brasserie which I’d heard had excellent dim sum. That doesn’t explain why I ordered a prix fixe lunch that was not dim-sum-centric (I’ll blame the stresses of travel and the relentless rain for my faulty decision-making) but look at the pretty appetizer selection of dim sum that I did get, one each of a Curry Black Bass Avocado Tart (especially good), a Vegetable Spring Roll, a Shrimp, Corn & Chinese Chive Dumpling and a Shrimp & Snow Pea Leaf Dumpling.

While we waited – and waited – for our rather blah and P.F. Chang-ish main courses, E engaged the waiter in conversation about the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode (#78 – Car Periscope) filmed at Chinatown Brasserie that had recently aired (not the reason we went there). The waiter said he’d missed the Curb filming day but hey, Meg Ryan had just left the restaurant a few minutes before we arrived.

We stewed on this info tidbit – would we have wanted to see Meg Ryan? – until E’s Steamed Sea Bass with Broccoli & Black Beans (tasty and fresh-seeming) and my General Tso’s chicken (not so good – the chicken had an alarming artificial texture and shape to it) arrived with laughably small bowls of rice.

Our next stop was the TKTS line at the puddle-strewn South Street Seaport to buy next day matinee tickets for Follies. While waiting, E engaged in conversation with another stranger(!).

That night, we saw The Book of Mormon, which I thought was clever, funny and lively. I liked the religion mocking jokes, squirmed a little at the baby raping and clitoral mutilation jokes (I wish I was kidding), and wished for more unironic dancing. But I liked this song a lot, particularly starting at the 2:03 second mark of the vid:

After the show, we took our sodden selves to the Shake Shack on 8th Avenue, lined up briefly in the rain to get in, sat at a crowded communal table, soothed ourselves with burgers and fries, and talked to no one.

My all-time favorite burger: the Shack Burger from Shake Shack, with awesome SS fries

Day 2: Still raining. We visited the Met in the morning (where the roof was closed due to rain, grr) and saw Nora Ephon getting out of a cab on our way to the subway. E suggested I approach and tell her I’d reviewed her book “I Feel Bad About My Neck” in the Globe & Mail. I made my alarmed not-on-your-life face and pulled him away quickly.

We went to Torrisi Italian Specialties for an early lunch, and the sides on display looked so good we over-ordered: we had corn salad, fresh ricotta with olive oil and thyme, and fried cauliflower with our reliably flavourful eggplant parm and egg and potato sandwiches:

Spotted in the small house when we were there: Chef/owner Rich Torrisi taking a meeting at a corner table. Woo! We did not say hello.

That afternoon, we sat in our very good half-price seats, with a predominantly white-haired crowd, to see the new revival of Follies. Mixed in with what I thought were some rather tiresome scenes depicting marriage-related angst were a slew of wonderfully performed (with unironic dancing!) and often tear-inducing songs (gotta download that score), including the exuberant Who’s That Woman, an excerpt of which can be seen here (with tap dancing, yay):

After the show, we made our way through the incessant rain to Ippudo for a comforting and delectable bowl of ramen with a side of rice (yes, we were carb loading) and fried chicken.

The next morning, the rain began to let up just as we headed downtown to Locanda Verde for more comforting and reliably delicious food: a late breakfast of uova modenese (I can’t get enough of the cotechino hash and tomato hollandaise) for me, and a zucchini frittata for E:

No luminaries were on hand at Locanda Verde during our visit, though Beyonce and Jay-Z ate there three days later. When it wasn’t fucking well raining.

Torrisi and the Tonys

The food: Egg, potato and pepper sandwich

The story:

Before going to Torrisi Italian Specialties in Nolita, I didn’t know pepper (as in sweet green or red) and egg sandwiches were a traditional Italian-American food, especially in Chicago apparently, and especially featured around Easter time.

I had heard that the potato, egg and provolone sandwich (with peppers) served at lunch at Torrisi was a sandwich worth going out of one’s way for while in New York. And that the lunchtime Torrisi, an ultra-casual, busy hangout that serves upscale versions of Italian-American sandwiches and antipasti, morphs at night into a much lauded restaurant that serves a prix-fixe-only, no-reservations, changes-daily menu for dinner.

E and I timed our visit to Torrisi perfectly, and got our order in around 11:45 am, before the lineup extended out the door onto the street, and when we could still grab a table. We ordered potato and egg on a roll for me, eggplant parm on a hero for E, and three small antipasti plates to share: cauliflower with breadcrumbs, rapini with chilies, and asparagus with cheese.

Everything we ate was very good and deserving of the high end descriptor. Of the antipasti, I liked the crisp, cheesy and lemony asparagus best, with the sweet browned cauliflower coming in at a close second. But it was the delicious mixture of flavours in the potato, egg, cheese and peppers sandwich that lingered in my food memory and inspired me to try to recreate it when I came home to Toronto.

Torrisi Italian Specialties on Urbanspoon

After some trial and error – and substitution of an aged white cheddar for the too bland Provolone I used the first time I tried making this – I came up with a recipe for the sandwich that tastes almost as good as the Torrisi original.

Egg, Potato, Pepper and Cheese Sandwiches, Hungry Novelist style

4 large eggs, beaten with a splash of milk
2 good-sized Yukon Gold potatoes, cut in 1/2 inch cubes and parboiled until tender but not falling apart
2 roasted red peppers, seeded and cut in strips
1/4 to 1/2 cup grated aged white cheddar
Chalah rolls or slices of chalah bread
Butter for bread
Extra virgin olive oil for frying potatoes

1. Fry parboiled cubed potatoes in large skillet over medium high heat in 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil until browned on all sides. Remove to side plate.
2. Put bread in toaster or split rolls and toast in toaster oven or under broiler.
3. Pour egg mixture into skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring gently to scramble eggs, but keeping the curds large and soft. Just before cooking is complete, stir in peppers, potatoes and grated cheese. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Turn off stove element and allow residual heat in skillet to finish cooking the eggs and melt the cheese while you butter the toast. Pile egg mixture onto hot buttered toast and consume immediately.

Makes 3 sandwiches.

Also worth going out of one’s way for in New York are the current crop of musicals on Broadway that have been nominated for the Tony Awards, which will be given out this Sunday, June 12. Here’s a taste of Catch Me If You Can, a show that I quite enjoyed for its newness, Rat Pack era sensibility, tuneful score, real live Broadway dancers doing lots of actual Broadway style dancing, the cute and talented Aaron Tveit, and especially for this show-stopping number featuring Broadway live wire and Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz:

Eggs Akimbo

The food: egg dishes to love

The story:

While in New York recently, my husband E and I went to Colicchio & Sons in Chelsea for brunch on a Saturday after a walk on the High Line.

We made a reservation for noon but there was no need. The large two-storey room – lavishly decorated with, among other things, a floor-to-ceiling glassed-in display of bottles of wine – was empty when we arrived. As soon as we sat down, the over-attentive waiter asked what kind of bottled water we would like to start with – still or sparkling, and when I said that tap water would be fine, his lip definitely curled.

Undeterred by the lip-curling and his hovering, we ordered a meaty “BLT-E Sammie with Pork Belly, Oven Roasted Tomato, Lemon Mayo and Fried Egg” for $16 (above) and a vegetable-centric “Ricotta, English Pea and Caramelized Onion Frittata with Wildflower Honey & Arugula” (below) for $12.

Both these assemblages tasted as delicious as they sound, with the elements in each dish being of impeccable quality. Especially the succulent and tender pork belly in the open-faced sandwich and the fluffy, creamy ricotta that was layered between the arugula and the frittata.

To gild those two lilies, we also ordered sides of roasted vegetables ($5) and wood-fired potatoes ($6). They came from a large wood-fired oven situated on one wall of the main dining space, and were a nice savoury complement to the egg dishes.

Back home in Toronto a few weeks later, I was inspired by the memory of that frittata with ricotta to make my own version of some creamy stuffed Chard and Saffron Omelettes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes From London’s Ottolenghi.

The original Ottolenghi recipe calls for swiss chard and creme fraiche. I substituted arugula and Greek yogurt (sweetened with a tablespoon of honey) for those ingredients, but I otherwise adhered to Ottolenghi’s methods, including cooking some diced potatoes in saffron water to give them an enticing golden hue and saffron flavour. The herb-flecked omelettes made a lovely light meal that I will make again in the coming months to hold me over until I can return to New York to eat the good food – and drink the good tap water – at Colicchio & Sons.

Colicchio & Sons on Urbanspoon

Bests of 2010

The story:

Some time last month this blog surpassed the 100,000 views mark, which may be a small potatoes number for some of the big-time food bloggers, but strikes me as astonishing and worth celebrating.

In honour of passing that milestone, and with a nod to the year that just passed, here’s a roundup of some of the best things I consumed in 2010, at home and away (drumroll, please):

Best Nourishing Meal to Cook Up on a Cold Winter’s Day:
Roasted Vegetables with Boeuf Bourguignon Sauce a la Julia Child

A passel of roasted vegetables with a dark, winey, beefy sauce (and some actual beef) makes this a truly satisfying winter dish. There’s a pot of it simmering in my oven right now, as I write this, for my dinner tonight.

Best New York Restaurant Meal That Makes Me Want to Go Back At The Earliest Opportunity: Breakfast at Locanda Verde

Fresh ricotta with truffle honey and orange toast at Locanda Verde

The fresh ricotta with truffled honey was amazing, and so was everything else we ate there.

Best Home Repertoire Recipe: Buttery Cheese Straws

These savoury cheese straws, heated up, make a perfect late night snack. And now I have to make some this week.

Best Rich, Extravagant Dessert: the molten chocolate cake at Perry Street

This dessert provides the kind of rich, chocolate taste bomb that makes me dream up a wide variety of excuses to eat it.

Best Simple but Sophisticated Dinner Party/Potluck Dish To Impress Your Friends With: sesame-encrusted salmon

A good summer dish, but it goes over well in other seasons too.

Best Restaurant Meal Where I Least Expected It : this one was a tie between pizza at La Madia in downtown Chicago :

where I ate an excellent Neapolitan pizza in a hip, happening restaurant, and a burger at Rok Brger in Fort Lauderdale:

that made me want to try more of the gourmet burgers available in Toronto in the hopes of finding one as good.

Best New Year’s Not Really A Resolution:

I look forward to eating some more great food in 2011.

Long live Jean-Georges

The food: molten chocolate cake and other Jean-Georges-ian delights

The story:

On a recent visit to New York, E and I went to Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Perry Street restaurant and had the prix fixe “Fall Promotion” lunch (now offered year-round, according to the Jean-Georges website).

The large ground floor room in a Richard Meier-designed building that overlooks the Hudson River contains lots of white leather and glass, and was virtually empty at lunch. The vibe was more formal than I usually like, but the staff were polite (no upturned noses or pressure when we didn’t order drinks or wine), and the deal – three generous courses of high-end, well-crafted food for $26 – is unbeatable.

We started with the Crispy Calamari with Yuzu Dipping Sauce and Sesame, and the Fresh Made Burrata with Grilled Sourdough and Figs:

I loved the upscale presentation and the premium quality/taste of those dishes. The appetizers were followed by an amuse-bouche of soup (leek? celeriac?) with a black truffle swirl. I’m not a big black truffle fan, so my bouche was not amused, but I appreciated the gesture.

For my entree, I had the spiced organic fried chicken with yogurt mashed potatoes, spinach and a honey lemon vinaigrette. The boneless piece of chicken reminded me of the Japanese dish tori karaage. It was tender and tasty and I loved the citrus vinaigrette with it, but for Asian-style fried chicken in New York, I think I prefer the Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar version.

E had the grilled yellowfin tuna burger with bonito mayonnaise, shiso (I adore shiso) and yuzu pickles (served with homemade potato chips) which he pronounced delicious.

For dessert, we both had the marvellous molten chocolate cake, and we walked out happy.

Perry Street on Urbanspoon

Back at home, I found out Jean-Georges Vongerichten was the inventor of molten chocolate cakes, and that his relatively simple recipe is widely available online.

So for E’s birthday this month, I tried out a gluten-free version of the recipe (substituting rice flour for the 2 tsp. of flour required) during a week-long stay in a Florida vacation condo where we’d gone for a brief escape from the Toronto winter.

I brought ramekins and Valrhona chocolate in my suitcase, amassed 1/4 cup of sugar from many (30?) sugar packets that I picked up in the hotel coffee shop, hand-whisked the eggs and sugar (the condo kitchen was not equipped with an electric beater), mixed up the cake batter in an extra-large measuring cup (no big bowls either), and had a whale of a time inverting the hot ramekins and lifting them gently to release the cakes. Three of the four cakes that resulted came out looking like this (but tasted fine nevertheless):

But the last one looked AND tasted pretty damn good, all things considered:

Best Cauliflower Ever

The food: Crispy Cauliflower with Almonds, Capers and Raisins

The story:

I have mixed feelings about cauliflower. Partly because if you roast it, your house stinks for hours afterwards, kitchen exhaust fan or no exhaust fan. Then there’s the whole gas-inducing aspect of it to consider.

But when it’s good – which, for me, tends to be when it’s browned, crisp-edged and caramelized – it’s delicious in a popcorn-y, roast potato-ish way. But with more nutritional benefits than those starchy foods.

I’ve blogged before about a regular dish in my home-cooking repertoire, Indian-style cauliflower with potatoes and peas, and just recently I had a very nice battered deep-fried rendition at Balaboosta in New York.

But the best cauliflower dish I have ever eaten is cauliflower with almonds, capers and raisins made from a recipe credited to Michael Anthony of the Gramercy Tavern restaurant and published in the New York Times.

The NYT piece tells a charming story about the chef creating the dish for his girlfriend in a successful attempt to convert her to the ranks of cauliflower lovers. The technique for it is a little fussy but the result is a mouth-pleasing combination of textures and flavours that takes cauliflower to a whole new level of awesomeness.

Cauliflower with Almonds, Capers and Raisins Adapted from Michael Anthony, Gramercy Tavern

1 head cauliflower, trimmed of leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons fresh soft bread crumbs (I used Panko, and the trick is to NOT use too many)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons whole almonds (again, use this amount and not more)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons golden raisins
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon finely chopped parsley
1 teaspoon finely chopped tarragon
1 teaspoon finely sliced chives.
(I used only parsley of the fresh herbs and the dish was still amazing though it would undoubtedly be more amazing with the tarragon and chives as well.)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut cauliflower from top to bottom in flat 1-inch thick slices. Place a large ovenproof skillet over low heat and add 1 tablespoon butter. When it has melted, add bread crumbs and toss until toasted and golden brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer crumbs to a plate and wipe out pan.

2. Return pan to medium heat and add 1 teaspoon olive oil. Add almonds and toss until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer almonds to a plate, let cool, and cut each almond into three pieces; set aside.

3. Wipe out pan and return to medium heat. Add remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and cauliflower slices. Saute until lightly browned on both sides. Transfer pan to oven and roast until tender, about 12 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over low heat, melt remaining 1/2 tablespoon butter and add raisins, vinegar and 1 tablespoon water. Simmer until raisins are plump and soft, about 5 minutes; drain and set aside. In a small bowl, combine almonds, capers, raisins, parsley, tarragon and chives. Season with salt and pepper and toss to mix.

4. Arrange roasted cauliflower on a serving platter. Spoon almond-herb mixture evenly on top and sprinkle with toasted bread crumbs. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4 servings