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Monday, May 28, 2012

On The Town - Alinea

1723 North Halsted, Chicago, Illinois

To celebrate our fifth anniversary, Baby and I spent an evening of wretchedly wondrous excess at chef Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago while we were wrested away from town for business. Alinea has been consistently listed as one of the top restaurants in the country so we went for it and secured a reservation. To say the least, it was an extraordinary experience full of fanfare in a relaxed, refined setting with an impish staff to attend to us over the hours we spent there poring over 19 courses of wildly inventive dishes that steadily walked a tightrope of molecular gastronomy, reserved elegance, and flights of childhood fancy.

After a brief wait, we were briskly escorted to the dining room proper and attended to by our entirely hospitable, comedic and nimble elves. We started with a hale Champagne cocktail, our bubbling flutes duly addressed by a dose of bitters and sweet vermouth and then lingered over a sole bottle of wine.

Without blathering on in fine detail about everything we savored, here's the menu we were presented with, and a few comments by me in italics:

CHAR ROE carrot, coconut, curry
A wonderful starter, with an evenly balanced shot of curry
OYSTER LEAF mignonette
Surprising, shocking! Although we had doubts initially when we were told it would taste like an oyster, the fresh, meaty Scottish leaf actually tasted like an oyster! It was part of a platter that also involved:
KING CRAB passion fruit, heart of palm, allspice

This trio was presented on a raft of Malaysian driftwood, outfitted with a filigree of seaweed:
MUSSEL saffron, chorizo, oregano
RAZOR CLAM shiso, soy, daikon
WOOLLY PIG fennel, orange, squid

SCALLOP acting like agedashi tofu
As fresh as you can imagine
ICE beet, hibiscus, licorice
Petite cubes served on diminutive spears
LOUP DE MER caponata, mint, panella
Branzino with a wonderfully ripe tomato mixture
HOT POTATO cold potato, black truffle, butter
Utterly mind boggling; a boiler of sorts hovered over a Bunsen burner on the table in infusing mystery before hot soup was prepared and added to a cold concoction. It was downed in one stupefying gulp 
WILD MUSHROOMS juniper, sumac, shallot
Best of the forest
VENISON red cabbage, mustard, paprika
Served with a "flag" of red cabbage to wrap up the meat
BLACK TRUFFLE explosion, romaine, parmesan
We plundered like pigs, sniffing out rich depths
SQUAB inspired by Miro
Art in motion that somehow summoned Miro's mobiles if you paid careful attention, spread on our plates by the hand of an artist's touch
ANJOU PEAR onion, brie, smoking cinnamon
Yup, it came out smoking, like a Hare Krishna sit-in
GINGER five other flavors
I don't remember what all the flavors were but the little bites were served on more diminutive spears
WINTER in New Hampshire
Naturally I glommed on to this, as NH is where I was born. This was glorious; peppermint-infused ice, like snow with wintry candies, served on birch wood cross-sections
BALLOON helium, green apple
It arrived to the table suspended by its own virtue and tasted like green apple taffy, as we pulled it down, inhaled the helium to talk to funny and then ate it 
DARK CHOCOLATE butternut squash, lingonberry, stout
A large chocolate frozen orb arrived, enshrouded in a cloud of liquid nitrogen gas that flooded the table. The waiter spread out a rubber mat, painted it with a mixture involving stout, vibrant butternut squash puree and splashes of lingonberry coulis. He shattered the orb, to reveal its contents: cookies, bits of cake and French toast. We scooped it all into the artwork, using the shards of chocolate as utensils.

Thanks for the photo courtesy of chef Grant Achatz from!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Banana-Coconut Bread...with other stuff

I found this recipe on the Orangette food blog. Having frozen a bunch of bananas, I realized I needed to do something with them sooner than later. I also had some shredded coconut on hand, left over from a recent soiree, so my task was readily at hand--I just had to make my bread. There was also a bag of trail mix with all sorts of nuts and dried fruit that I found in the kitchen so that went in too. The result? Inspired! Delicious! The sprinkling of demerara sugar definitely put it over the top. Do enjoy and take it away Orangette! 

Banana-Coconut Bread
Adapted from HomeBaking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition around the World, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

I have one word for you: demerara. This bread is lovely in its own right, but it owes a good deal of its charm to this very special sugar. Demerara has large, golden grains that sparkle in the light, and sprinkled on top of this banana-moistened batter, it yields a crisp, sweetly craggy crust that steals the show - and that stays crunchy on the second day, even! You can buy demerara sugar online from any number of sources, or look for it in your local gourmet store. I found mine at an upscale market nearby, and I think Whole Foods also carries it. Either way, buy it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to sprinkle it all over the place.

About 3 large, overripe bananas
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/8 tsp distilled white vinegar
1 ½ Tbsp. dark rum
½ cup dried shredded unsweetened coconut
1 Tbsp. demerara or dark brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a standard-size loaf pan.

In a blender or food processor, purée the bananas. Measure out 1 ½ cups of purée. [If you have more than that, try stirring the excess into some plain yogurt. It’s delicious.] Set the purée aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, nutmeg, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vinegar and rum, and beat to mix well. Add the banana purée and the flour mixture alternately, about 1 cup at a time, beginning with the banana and beating to just incorporate. Use a spatula to fold in any flour that has not been absorbed, and stir in the coconut. Do not overmix.

Scrape the batter – it will be thick – into the prepared pan. Smooth the top, and sprinkle evenly with the demerara sugar. Bake for 50-65 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool on a wire rack for about 20 minutes; then turn the loaf out of the pan and allow it to cool completely.

This loaf will keep, sealed airtight, for three to four days, although it is best, I think, on the second day.

Note: You can use frozen bananas here too, and with beautiful results. Whenever I have overripe bananas sitting on my counter, I throw them – skin and all – into the freezer for safekeeping. When I want to bake with them, I pull them out a few hours before, put them in a wide, shallow bowl, and let them thaw. When they have softened fully, I tear open the skin and let the soft, slippery flesh spill out. Be sure to save any juices that come out with it; they’re very flavorful and can be puréed along with the flesh.

Yield: 1 loaf

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Me & Martha

Giddyap! The Kentucky Derby strode heartily past on May 5th, coinciding with Cinco de Mayo. So we called it Derby de Mayo! I threw my Derby party, replete with icy mint juleps, shrimp and grits,
chicken mole, Benedictine sandwiches, and tomatoes with biscuits. This year my friend brought a perfectly peachy peach cobbler to delightfully devour, found in Saveur magazine. Although I didn't win any money on the horses (discrete betting is always permitted), I feel I won something much richer. I recently had the breathless privilege of meeting Martha Stewart and in this captured picture I am telling her about how I've made the shrimp and grits recipe from her classic Menus for Entertaining cookbook for my Kentucky Derby parties for 17 years now. She looked absolutely stunning and was entirely gracious. Look at her silver shoes! She nodded thoughtfully and agreed about the shrimp and grits recipe, saying, "Yes...that's a good one." My guests over the years certainly agree too.

The galloping, gallant horse I'll Have Another was the triumphant winner in a most amazing race and continued on to a follow-up victory at the Preakness. Here's hoping the Belmont will bring a Triple Crown!

My grand Derby top hat, cut with a swath of scarlet chiffon, hung up to rest...

And the chicken mole before it completely vanished!


Of course, the shrimp and grits, simmering before being served.

The decimated table, having once been filled with the spread, oceans of bourbon and bottles of wine! I spread open the recipe for the Benedictine sandwiches from Saveur magazine, as well as my storied copy of Ms. Stewart's Menus for Entertaining on the table for decorative purposes along with a glorious bouquet of peonies and white hydrangeas. Who brought the Coca-Cola?

My etching below is a tribute to the run for the roses that I made several copies of to line up and suitably outfit a runner for the table. "A rose is a rose is a rose..."

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Play Reading - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Recently my friends and I took on Edward Albee's dastardly play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We delighted in the vitriolic exercise, taking a break in between acts to actually eat, as the four characters  never do, choosing liquor instead for their grueling sustenance. Baby and I splayed a bunch of bottles on the table, and we encouraged our guests to go forth during the proceedings and help themselves to it as we plunged headlong into the play, which takes place in a single, devastating, booze-fueled evening.


I drew the sketch above, and made copies for our guests. We've got Martha in the aggressive foreground with George's eyeglasses nestled in her bosom; "slim hipped" Honey is in the upper left poised over a large glass of brandy with frigid cubes of ice in her belly; and Nick, "the stud", her husband, shirtless, but still wearing a collegiate tie.  

Tonight's Retro Menu
Pigs in Blankets
Caesar Salad
Rotisserie Chicken
Powdered Sugar Orange Banana Pudding Cake

Friday, May 11, 2012

Next Magazine - Flaming Saddles' Frito Pie

Partner up with Jacqui Squatriglia’s little bit of down-home Texan cookin’, now served up at her gay cowboy bar in Hell's Kitchen, Flaming Saddles.

Frito Pie
1 bag Frito Scoops
German brown mustard
1 cup Jacqui’s Flaming Saddles chili (see below)
1 cup Velveeta cheese, melted
¼ cup sour cream
1 jalapeño pepper, sliced raw
1 fried egg

For Jacqui’s Flaming Saddles Chili:
2 lbs of coarsely ground Angus 80% lean beef
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1 15 oz. can of beef broth
1 Tbsp onion powder
2 tsp garlic powder
1 Tbsp paprika
5 Tbsp mixed chili powders (mild and hot)
2 tsp garlic salt
Fistful of bread crumbs
½ tsp cayenne
¼ tsp black pepper

  1. Gray the meat in a frying pan and drain grease.
  2. Slow boil meat in beef broth for 45 minutes with one can of distilled water.
  3. Mix in spices and tomato sauce and medium boil for 45 minutes.
  4. Toss in bread crumbs.
Frito Pie:
  1. Fill a deep plate or pie plate with Frito Scoops, covering evenly, about 2–3 cups and drizzle with mustard.
  2. Ladle chili over chips, covering.
  3. Pour Velveeta on. Follow with a dollop of sour cream.
  4. Place a fried egg on top, and add salt and pepper to the egg to taste. Top with jalapeños.
For presentation: Serve with a smile!

Flaming Saddles is located at 793 9th Ave, New York, NY, 212-713-0481. Go to for more info.

First published in part in Next magazine
Photo credit: Gustavo Monroy