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The wood-burning oven at Rafele.

You might say I made the most of my press pass.

Last Wednesday my sister and I, together with a handful of Australians, Brits, Canadians, and a pair from Sacramento, ate up most of New York City’s West Village. Sorry about that.

To be fair, it was the old Italian section of the Village, which at face value sounds as if we were among scuffling men in overcoats worn at the elbows, mourning loudly of Kids These Days, but it actually meant the district in which some of the oldest Italian specialty shops can be found. Which means good eating. But while Italian they may be, our tour guide Naheem pointed out, ‘Today we’re eating like Americans….We’re going to taste our way through it. Now for realsies, let’s go.’

My sister Amanda is the PR rep for Foods of New York Tours. She totally twisted my arm to bring me along on this odyssey*, which started with pizza.

There are 800 pizza places in New York City. We ate at one with a loyal following since 1975: Joe’s. One-ingredient sauce.** Dripless. Firm cheese. Pliant crust. Only four pizzas are baked at once. These are pizza requisites to those of us in the New York tri-state area, but to out-of-area/out-of-country/out-of-bloody continent patrons, what we call requisites can be sadly lacking. Amanda and I wept a little tear thinking of the crap that passes for pizza in other places, because we’ve eaten it, too.

I asked one of the Aussie ladies if the pizza at Joe’s was different from the pizza she gets at home, and her eyes widened and said, ‘Oh, yes–this is amaaaazing!’ I asked how it differed, and she said, ‘It’s not greasy.’

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Peripheral customers.

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The inside-outside counter at Joe’s.

Next we hit O & Co., the olive oil and vinegar purveyor. They do right by olive trees by harvesting their fruit without shaking the trees, and do not use heat to extract the oil from the olives (which destroys nutritional value, to say nothing of flavor). From little spoons we tasted a buttery, thick, late-harvest oil from Provence, then an early-harvest oil that tasted like crushed arugula. Fascinating.

Bread rounds smeared with Pecorino-Romano truffle cream came next, and as I stood munching on my little slice of fungi heaven I remembered that my sister is not a mushroom person. The hushed conversation went like this.

‘You’re grossed out. ”I’m grossed out.’

Cheap balsamic vinegar was next, and tasted like the kind of wedding wine you get in mini bottles with the happy couple’s name in Lucida Calligraphy on the label. It made my eyes water and got me on a coughing fit. The good-quality balsamic vinegar from Modena tasted almost warm, and was sweet, smooth and thick as honey.

We made an impromptu pop-in at Royce’ Chocolate, where we ate chocolate-covered popcorn, green-tea candy-covered almonds, and tiny squares of…I don’t know, but they tasted as if the pastry chefs made butter cream out of powerful milk chocolate, semi-froze it, dusted it with cocoa, and balanced it on a toothpick. A mouth-melter.

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The next sample, from Faicco’s, might have been my favorite, one, because it was the very first rice ball I’d ever had that didn’t taste like hot spackle; and two, because it was so wonderfully crunchy. No bigger than a plum, it was peppery, cheesy, and I need to stop thinking about it. Moving on.

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There. Now it can haunt on. You’re it!

Palma is the romantic little spot we visited next, and is inside a renovated old carriage house. The restaurant is in front, and the owners live in the back. It’s genteel; you can smell the genteel. Naheem joked, but nailed it: ‘You go in, you eat, you say you’re sorry.’

And the details—milk-glass and fat fragrant roses and paint that’s been loved off century-old cabinets. One whole room was sky-lit, and earthy elements of wood and stone and tile were everywhere. I loved all of it before we even ate. The owners make a point to offer dishes from small Italian cities, dishes people don’t usually get to try unless they travel there. When we ate it was from a platter of chopped cauliflower that was vinegary and delicious. And that’s true, I mean it; but that’s all I remember, because the notes I took were about the setting. It’s really that lovely. Go.

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I mean, look at this. A wooden farmhouse table with roses in little glass cups. We met the woman who cuts and arranges all of the flowers. And tiny, colored ceramic cups.

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Right?

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This was the door, heavy and marred and made more glorious with a wooden latch. I was ready to move in and sleep on the floor.

Rafele came next, where the chef/owner keeps the food pure and the setting comfortably homey. I’ve never been an eggplant fan; it’s usually over-breaded and as light as an insulated leather utility boot. But this rollatini was filled with buffalo ricotta and mozzarella that was like liquid velvet, and was delicate as a pappardelle noodle. The sauce was made from tomatoes grown on the restaurant’s Catskills farm.

Oh, may the industry’s current fancy with farm-to-fork cooking continue. There are a lot of things we can rightfully complain about in today’s world. This is not one of them.

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Rosemary, squash and painted piggies at Rafele.

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Plein-air artist. Came across a few of them. Natural habitat and all.

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This was wild—the entire facade of a teensy, triangular shaped locksmith’s place. All in keys.

If ever there’s something to leave room for. Milk & Cookies, a little storefront with a wallop of sweet smells, you are my friend. I’d been before. This time, we all got cookies right out of the oven: oat-based chocolate chip. Translation: hearty and fat.

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And butter-staining. Look, it’s smirking.

While we ate cookies, I asked another vacationing Aussie, a young redhead, if she liked the food she’s had in New York so far. She told me that she had a good slice of pizza outside Yankee Stadium (bit of a head scratcher, that), but didn’t like McDonald’s. I politely made a face and said, ‘You didn’t really expect it to be good, did you?’ Her boyfriend said that when they told their friends they were coming to the U.S., they all said they just had to go to McDonald’s. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘It’s all over the world. You’ve had it before.’ They said they’d heard the price was better here. And so it was. But they learned the difference between price and value, I suppose.

Cool little non-food side trips on the tour: This is one of the two alleyways leading out from 86 Bedford, also known as Chumley’s, the notorious speakeasy from Prohibition days (Naheem: ‘Where my Canadians at? That’s when you saved us from ourselves.’). When the place got raided, the cops came through the front door, the owners would yell ’86!’*** and the patrons would tear out the side entrances, into the alleyways, and scatter.

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This is one of the boot scrapers (for mud) on the front steps of many residences, and is a reminder that this area used to be very much the country.

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And this is a slice of spicy, firm-edged soppressata made in house back at Fiacco’s, a five-generation business. We were warmed to hear how this shop fed New York City’s bravest, exhausted and famished in the weeks after 9/11, and how those firemen come back every single day to support the shop. Community goes both ways, and it always will.

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Murray’s Cheese is an institution. I had never been. Place is massive. Cheese caves right there, cured meats drying behind panes of glass.

We were treated to several kinds of cheese (the white variety was very young and unpasteurized, and was so wonderfully, sweetly fresh tasting. It tasted like spring, if that’s possible), with a dried apricot chaser.

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Not a cannoli girl so much, but Rocco’s—43 years in business—did a pretty nice job of it. Everything in this sweet shop is made on site and by hand except for the sfogliatelle, for which we can give them a break. The cannoli shells were fresh and crispy, and the filling was not insipid pudding or icing but proper sweetened ricotta with citron.

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And baby chippies.

Happy exhale.

*Oh, like you just met me.

**Guess.

***This historic remnant is still in use today, when we say to ’86’ something. This needed to be explained to our out-of-town guests. They dug it.

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Those who know me well know I’m a bit of an Anglophile, as evidenced right there in the preceding Englishism. I don’t know why. English literature, English movies, the BBC—I love it all. Yes, the food, too. What exactly do people have against shepherd’s pie, clotted cream so thick you can stand a spoon in it, and fish and chips with malt vinegar? Do these people have no taste? This I consider their problem. Moreover, across the pond a renaissance has been going on for a few years now, one characterized by embracing the local and homegrown, and doing several yummy things with both. So there to the unwashed masses who do the pooh-pooh.*

I’ve never been to England**, which I hope to remedy sooner rather than later, but in the meantime I was excited to try Jenny Davies’s (of Jenny Eatwell’s Rhubarb & Ginger blog; URL below) recipe for a curry as part of my cooking project. Curries are a favorite English takeaway meal. Here in the States—in central New Jersey, anyway—curry isn’t a common thing for takeout (our own expression). I can count my experiences with curry on one hand, delicious though they were, even the one at Whole Foods’s food court. The nearest Indian restaurant is about a half hour away. This is a great sadness in my heart. The below helps to remedy that.

A few notes about the below to accompany Jenny’s always-charming language:

I edited lightly, and parenthetical additions following dashes are mine. It looks like a lot, but Jenny simply broke down each step for us. I listened like a good girl and spread out the process as she suggested, though—a wise idea. Loved seeing the basmati rice get longer instead of fatter like ordinary rice! Should have used a red chile, but Trader Joe’s didn’t have one, so I used a nebbishy jalapeno. Had to add red pepper flakes to the final product to make it spicy enough for me. I didn’t know what a donkey carrot was; Googled it, even asked a friend who works with Brits to make inquiries, both to no avail. And not having a donkey lying around, I couldn’t ask one to clarify. So I just used two big carrots. Didn’t use a tomato because this time of year in the northern hemisphere, they taste like a squishy wet nothing.

The result was a warm, flavorful, comforting dish that makes you feel as though you are taking very, very good care of yourself for once…and you are.

CURRY BAKED CHICKEN, VEGETABLE CURRY WITH RICE AND PEAS   (Serves 3 with leftover vegetable curry)

Ingredients:

3 boneless skinless chicken breasts

3 tbsp plain (Greek) yoghurt

1 tbsp mango chutney

1.5 tbsp curry paste.

3 tbsp sunflower oil—(I used olive)

2 onions, sliced finely

2 fat garlic cloves, chopped finely

1 hot red chilli (seeds are optional)

1 donkey carrot, peeled and diced

3 tbsp curry paste

2 tbsp tomato puree

2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced

6-10 mushrooms, washed and quartered

6 baby red peppers (or one red pepper, cut into pieces), top & tailed

250ml coconut cream—(about 1 c)

1 tsp chicken stock powder or a low salt chicken stock cube

Enough water to just cover the contents—(I used chicken stock instead of the powder/cube and water)

3 heaped tbsp red lentils

3-4 cauliflower florets, broken into small pieces

3-4 broccoli florets, broken into small pieces

1 large ripe tomato, quartered (or smaller) into wedges

A large handful of fresh coriander, chopped.—(In the U.S, we call this cilantro)

1 cup of uncooked basmati rice

Sea salt

Half a cup of peas—(defrosted, or freshly shelled).

Method:

1.  In the morning, mix together the yoghurt, chutney and curry paste in a large bowl.

2.  Trim the chicken breasts of fat and gristle, then score lightly across the top to allow the above marinade to more easily penetrate the meat.

3.  Add the chicken to the marinade and mix gently to ensure every little bit of chicken is covered in marinade. Cover with cling film and refrigerate until 30 minutes prior to cooking.—(I placed this in a Pyrex dish and covered with foil instead, then later put it in the oven as is.)

4.  To make the vegetable curry (which I recommend should also be done in the morning), heat the oil in a large, deep saucepan. Add the oil.—(Medium-low heat works.)

5.  Add the onion – and a small pinch of salt – and cook for around 10-15 minutes until golden brown, but not burned. Add the garlic and stir quickly, then add the chilli and stir.

6.  Next, add the carrot pieces, which will help to cool the pan and so avoid burning the garlic.

7.  Next add the curry paste and tomato puree and stir well to combine with the rest of the ingredients.  Cooked until the oil is released – just a few minutes.

8.  Add the potato/mushroom/red peppers and stir well to ensure they are coated with the curry mixture.

9.  Add the coconut cream, stock powder and water and stir gently to combine. Do not add any salt at this stage, but if you’re yearning to – add a little black pepper instead!—(Jenny, I like you.)

10. Stir in the red lentils and let everything simmer gently together for around 20-30 minutes until almost cooked.

11.  Finally – for this stage – add the cauliflower, turn off the heat, cover and leave to cool.—(I put mine in the fridge.)

12.  Several hours later and when you’re ready to prepare the dinner proper, begin by turning on the heat under the vegetable curry and pre-heating the oven to 200degC/400degF/Gas 6. Line a shallow baking tray with silver foil (optional – but it helps with the washing up!) and place the chicken onto the foil. Spoon any additional marinade over the top of each chicken breast. Place into the oven for 25-35 minutes or until the juices run clear if pricked with a knife.

13.  Three-quarters fill a good-sized saucepan with water, add a pinch of sea salt and place it on a high heat, to boil.—(2 c water worked for me.)

14.  Put the dry rice into a sieve and run it under a hot tap until the water runs clear. Once the water in the pan boils, add the rice and cook – simmering – for 7-9 minutes. 2 minutes before the rice is due to be ready, add the defrosted peas.

15.  As the rice is cooking, the vegetable curry should have come up to temperature. Remove the lid and allow the sauce to reduce a little as you add the broccoli, tomato and three quarters of the fresh coriander. Stir from time to time, to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.

16.  Once the rice is ready, drain and return to the warm pan. You can add a little of the chopped coriander for some extra flavour, if you like.

17.  Once the chicken is done, serve with the vegetable curry and green pea rice – with an added flourish of a sprinkle of chopped coriander for garnish.

Cheers, Jenny!

jennyeatwellsrhubarbginger.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/curry-baked-chicken-with-vegetable.html

*I’ve argued this point before, the one about eating what the locals eat.* It fails not.

**I have been to Scotland, which soaked into me like butter on a hot scone; and flying home passed over Ireland which, even from the sky, is an ethereal green. Someday I will get there. Wales, too, and not just to see Cardiff, though that’s an obvious draw.

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Last week I decided I was going to make hot pepper oil, something I had never made before.

Hot pepper flakes from the supermarket come in a little jar. I shake some into my pan of waiting olive oil and turn on the heat to medium.

The kitchen is at one end of my apartment and my PC is at the other. (This is the part where I blame the arbitrary layout of my apartment to the initial failure of this recipe.) I head down the hall to check how my mutual fund is doing (Okay, it wasn’t so much the mutual fund as email. Actually, it wasn’t so much email as Facebook) and within a few minutes smell a really off, chemical, burning odor. I run down the hallway to pull the pan and its tiny black dots floating in oil off the heat.

Right, now what do I do with this pan of hot oil? I want to try the recipe again, but all of my other pans are in the sink, and I could pretend I want to wash them, but I’m not feeling imaginative.

So the next steps look like this:

1) Congratulate myself for thinking to pour it into the empty cider carton in the trash.

2) Curse myself for having such lousy aim, as 90% of the yuck splashed outside the carton as I poured, hissing like the Kraken after it devoured most of Crete and adding the smell of molten plastic to the already appealing smell of burnt oil.

Sigh. Hot pepper oil recipe, take 2. Here is what worked:

I buy whole dried hot red peppers at a specialty store, which are as long than your thumb and half the width. They don’t give off that bizarre chemical smell; instead they just smell spicy. All right so far. I grind them up, put them in the saucepan and add the oil. The ratio of oil to flakes is up to you, depending on how much you want to end up with and how spicy you like your oil. It takes experimentation (which has been well, and painfully, documented in this blog).

I set the heat to the lowest setting and stay in the kitchen for once. The oil should never boil; the red pepper flakes should instead move around in it like they’re learning Tai Chi, or are doing a fight scene imitation from The Matrix.

Once you smell the pepper, it’s done.

Let the oil cool off the heat—completely. Then take a funnel and sieve and set them over your bottle or jar or whatever you want to use to store your oil. Pour the hot pepper oil carefully through the sieve and funnel. It will be a lovely goldeny orange color.

Attach your nozzle or lid and you’re done. Store it in the fridge if you have a lot or aren’t going to use it right away. The counter top is fine to stash a small amount or if you’re using it right up.

This is my everyday saute oil for vegetables (especially broccoli, cauliflower, greens or sliced butternut squash), for sauteing an onion before making soup or risotto, for drizzling on top of your lentil stew or pasta. Garlic is its best friend; other good acquaintances are toasted Italian bread, sausages and the tomato in any guise.

Of course it loves goofing off with its first cousins, roasted sweet bell peppers or frying peppers. Scrambled eggs cooked in red pepper oil will make morning time far less dreary. It gives brightness and power to almost anything you pair with it. Plain olive oil will become yawnworthy to you.

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