Gashora Girls Academy

My first exposure to Rwanda beyond hazy memories of page three news stories came at dinner with good friends Soozi and TJ McGill. Casually, as if telling us about the PTA bake sale, Soozi mentioned that she was building a girls school in Rwanda. So, it was really incredible to be in Rwanda and able to visit the finished project some two years later. 

The school was far nicer than I expected. A boarding school that will ultimately have 270 female student residents, it sits on about 12 acres on a gentle slope to a small lake.  From the outside, The school is reminiscent of any small new-ish private school built in an American suburb.  Low slung, nicely designed buildings surround a central courtyard. While we were there the maintenance crew was working an creating a large outdoor chessboard.

Once inside, it is clear you aren't in Bellevue. All the buildings have concrete floors, and while the classrooms are pretty rudimentary, even without the students being there (Christmas break) you feel a sense of earnestness. The students here are chosen from all over the country and are the best and brightest regardless of means and background.  They all desperately want to learn to better themselves and their country.

Approximately 2/3 of the property is a farm run by the school growing some crops for sale and vegetables for the kitchen of the school.  I guess some things are the same everywhere, for when the woman in charge found out I was a chef, she asked me if I had any good recipes for kale or zucchini. 

The school is trying to figure out a product they could sell to help sustain the school.  We had a quick brainstorm sorted through some possibilities, and landed on sunflower oil.  So, look for delicious GGA sunflower oil in an African-looking bottle at metropolitan market soon!


Wow.  Just returned to the hotel at 7:30 pm following an adventure filled day that started at 4 am...

Let's start with the drive out to the park where the gorillas are pretty much kept under lock and key by the Rwandan government. 

It was our first time out of Kigali, and it is really different.

So many people on the road at daylight carrying goods to market all over the country.  On top of their head, in carts, even on a large wooden bicycle.  Thousands of people out in the rural countryside, up and at 'em.  5 am, break of day, a human traffic jam of activity.  And with the exception of the rare ancient motorcycle, no vehicle traffic at all.

The countryside is lush and cultivated to the last available square inch.  Potatoes, corn, sugar cane, firewood, peas, beans; all were in evidence.  I had read that Rwanda is one of the most densely populated food sheds in the world and today's two hour drive put that squarely on display.

The villagers who live at the base of the trail to the gorillas are very poor, 3rd world farmers who grow plots of vegetables for sale at market.  When you walk through the village it seems that it is a populated entirely by children. They swarm the car with a chorus of  "hello", which seems to be the only foreign word they know.  A singular highlight for me was using my iPad to take video of the children and then play it back for them to watch.  It seemed quite certain from their reaction of sheer joy that they had never seen themselves on video, and quite probably  had never seen any video of any kind. I could have done this for hours. 

There are 80 people per day who are permitted to go see the gorillas. They are divided into 10 groups of 8 and go as a group to see 10 different "families" of gorillas. The families are in locations that vary from 15 minute hikes in, to approx 3 hour hikes.

My group, being all pretty fit hikers, was selected for one of the longer hikes.  But the payoff was we got to go see one of the strongest families, which had 19 members including three of the silverback adult males. So, we set off across the foothills. The first half hour or so was a very pretty hike through high mountain farmland. 

Then we crossed over into the National park. The border to the park was demarcated by a large steep ditch that was used to protect the villagers and their farms from the mountain buffalo.  It was at this point that I fully noticed the uniformed guard with an ancient AK 47.  Apparently he was there to protect us from said buffalo. Normally guns make me very nervous, but it was certainly calming to know we had a guy with an automatic weapon as we headed into the forest/jungle for the rest of our journey to see the gorillas.

Once across the ditch, the  trail changed. About a third of the remaining two hours was tight paths in flat, open fields where the overgrowth featured a lot of stinging nettles but the path was fairly dry. The other two thirds was steep with trees overhead and ankle-deep mud covering the entire trail.  At first we tried hard to stay as clean as possible by leapfrogging to the best parts of the trail, risking a fall and a back full of mud. Ultimately, we all gave in to the eventual demise of our footwear and simply slogged right through.

Finally we reached the gorillas.  Incredible.  Well worth all the slog to get there. The gorillas are 100 percent vegetarians and quite comfortable with human visitors.  We were able to stand and observe them in groups as close as 5 ft away. The silverback, or number one ranking male, is the ruler of the group. Our family consisted of three silverbacks, five adult females and a variety of juveniles from one year old through ten.  The juveniles were acting just like a pack of human children, play fighting and wrestling around and the silverback was a little like a cranky Dad who became irritated when they made too much noise. They are really remarkable animals who exhibit a lot of human characteristics.  After a strictly time-kept hour we had to depart. I know our group could have spent many hours there, fascinated by the gorillas and luxuriating in our close access to them.

I'll post some pictures as I get the chance to sort through them.

All in all one of the most interesting and incredible days of my life.

Wheelbarrows and workgroups

The main reason we are here in Rwanda is Father Ganza, a Jesuit who has been attending Seattle University and is the leader of the project to build the secondary school of St. Ignatious in Kigali.

The last two days we have all joined the building crew of the school.  Fascinating, seeing the building methods that are used in a country where labor is $1.50 per day.  There is a concrete mixer and a dirt tamping machine. Other than that it is shovels and wheelbarrows.

So here we are, 17 members of the four Seattle families, joining right in with the  50 or so local workers.  The project is at the foundation stage, and is being built on a hill.  So they pour a concrete wall and back fill it with dirt, which is where we come in. First pick axing the clay rich dirt into submission, then shoveling it into ancient wheelbarrows with shovels that appear to be vintage WW One.  Wheelbarrows wheeled up and over the wall, dump into the hole, repeat.   All of this manual labor has had a strangely should satisfying effect on me and the rest of the group.

The workers all smile and seem to love having us there. They Especially seem to like my 11 yr old Liam who may have found his calling as a dirt workerand shocked us all with his hard work ethos.  

The highlight of today was getting to see the "kitchen" where lunch is prepared for the workers. It consists of a metal roof shack where the roof has been peeled up on one side to act as a "chimney"  Inside there are two women, and an open fire on the ground of the shack that they use to cook.  Three rocks lay on the ground with a makeshift fire in between them.  On top of this large pots are placed for the cooking.

The lunch for the workmen consisted of the following:

1- about three cups of mashed potatoes with just a little salt. Mixed in the cooking water.  Very starchy, with a consistency more like oatmeal
2- about one cup of local brown beans,  in a sauce like lightly dressed baked  beans, poured over the potatoes
3- half of a very large mild avocado

Actually a very nutritious, calorie rich lunch for workers that are really burning through food. 

A great day!  Tomorrow we go see the gorillas.

Brown Eyes Blue

Well, we are here! 

I am not sure quite what I expected but this is not it.

Rwanda is rich, Rwanda is poor. We have seen whole developments of amazing houses that would fit right in in the toniest American suburb.  And we have seen women carrying enormous burlap sacks full of leaves on their head and a baby on their back.  There must be an upper class that has money and lives in those houses, but the workers on our job site make about a dollar fifty a day, some with no shoes.

Our hotel, the Serena, is as nice as any hotel I have ever stayed in.  Service impeccable and a steady stream of suited business men in and out.  Last night someone had what sounded just like an American wedding reception at the pool in the center courtyard. Complete with a standard wedding band that played a pitch imperfect version of Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.

Which seemed like an apt metaphor for this brown eyed country with the dark past that is so hurriedly trying to Americanize.  I hope they like it when their eyes turn blue.

Rwanda for the Holidays

Father Ganza with the kids coming on the trip. (credit: Mercer Island Reporter)
I’m about to set off for a few weeks in Rwanda with my and a few other families. This trip started with my friend Julie Coleman introduced us to Father Ganza, a Jesuit priest and a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He is currently back in Rwanda completing his third Master’s degree through Seattle University and building the new St. Ignatious school. When we met, he compellingly urged us to come to see the miracle of recovery happening there. We’re going to pitch in to help build a room in the new school house.

From there, other opportunities started to crop up seemingly everywhere. We’ll visit the Gashora Girls Academy, the school created by the Rwanda Girls Initiative which was co-founded by my friend Soozi McGill to develop secondary education for Rwandan girls. We’ll also visit Rwanda’s only ice cream shop, opened last June by Blue Marble Dreams, the non-profit side of Brooklyn’s own Blue Marble Ice Cream, and we’ll get to see the dairy farm and co-op that supplies their milk.

Next time you hear from me it will be from the other side of the world!

What's the deal with affinage?

What's the deal with affinage?
There’s a lot of discussion going on in the cheese blogosphere right now about affinage. For those unfamiliar with the term, affinage is the process of aging cheese to bring out different characteristics of the cheese. One who practices affinage is called an affineur, and you can find them in almost any stage of cheese production and distribution. Some cheesemakers do their own aging (Beecher’s does this). Some affineurs, the simplest form of them, are effectively middlemen who buy young cheese from the cheesemakers and, at best, meticulously care for them as they reach the ideal age to be sold to a cheese shop.  They’re also found in cheese shops themselves, as many stores have decided to buy direct from the cheesemaker and doing their own aging.

The question floating around is whether affinage is a legitimate, value-added part of cheesemaking, or if it is just a way for the industry to jack up prices for the consumer. Those in favor of affinage suggest that aging cheese goes beyond the science of temperature maintenance and mold cultivation. For them, there is an element of art and intuition: the affineur is uniquely capable to aid the cheese in its ripening process. That’s one side of the argument, and opinion ranges all the way to its contrary, which says that all the delicate care espoused by the pro-affinage camp is merely a marketing gimmick. Although I’m not sure how interested people are in my opinion about it, I’ll offer my opinion for the sake of spirited debate.  As with most divisive issues, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s not magic, but I think affinage is an incredibly useful part of the industry and its proper growth immensely beneficial.

Ultimately, cheese is a living thing. Each type of cheese has its own life, all of various lengths. How it gets treated before it gets to your mouth has a huge effect on the quality when it gets there. That isn’t to say that how it’s stored provides the majority of the flavor. On the contrary, if we were to have the nature versus nurture debate about cheese, I would staunchly advocate that it’s pretty much all in the nature, the milk and the cheese-making. The nurture side can’t make the cheese any better than it would be, but it can certainly ruin it. The best practices for maturing cheese include temperature and humidity control, and rotation. There is also the skill of knowing when the cheese is at its ideal age to be put out on the shelves to be sold. Not everyone ages their cheese the “best way” for the “best time,” but a lot do a really good job. It’s important to clarify that it’s not all or nothing, it’s not “best” versus “bad.” The key is that cheese is not really difficult to care for. They are fairly durable creatures. After all, everyone does some sort of affinage, even those who buy a block of cheese and forget it in their fridge for a year. When it’s done well, you can tell from the quality of the cheeses that those caring for it have an excellent sense of a cheese’s maturation process. They are very in sync with the trajectory of the cheeses under their care, knowing the ideal point for them to be eaten - à point, as they say.

Great affineurs, at whatever point in the supply chain you find them, play a really important role in the marketplace as both partners and consultants for small-scale cheesemakers. They buy the cheese young and directly from the cheesemaker, and pay close attention to providing a stable environment for the cheese to reach its ideal maturity. Digging deeper into what they do, they are essentially a type of distributor. Before the cheese even gets to their cave, the affineurs provide working capital for the cheesemakers, most of whom would be hard pressed to hold their entire inventory until perfectly ripe. They also relieve the cheesemakers of responsibilities that might be outside of their particular core competencies. The true affineurs are their own kind of distribution channel, who specialize in fitting the cheese to the market. They are more able to identify market trends and opportunities than the small-scale cheesemaker who may be logistically limited to regional farmer’s markets. They can provide constructive feedback for the cheesemakers on how well certain cheeses are performing in the marketplace, helping them valuate their product and improve their processes. They are not the cheese world’s version of negociants, who create entirely new wines from those brought to them. Great affineurs do not create new cheeses from the un-ripened specimens that they purchase; they cultivate them to their full potential.

Everyone benefits from great affinage. The cheesemaker gets more fluid working capital, more expansive market insight, and greater distribution. The cheesemonger gets higher quality products that bolster their reputation and their revenue. The customer, in turn, gets a more diverse selection of even better cheeses.

I'd love to hear what people think about this. Let me know in the comments below!

Red Cabbage Peperonata

With all the cooking I get to do both at home and at work, it’s no surprise that a lot of my guy friends are great cooks too. Let’s just say our football parties are often a celebration of more than one type of pig skin. We’re always trying to outdo ourselves from one week to the next, borrowing ideas from each other and trying to improve on them.  Recently, one of my friends brought an amazing sautéed pepper dish and I was so inspired by it that I built off of it to make a special for Bennett’s.

Red Cabbage Peperonata
Makes 4 servings

1/2 lb  mini sweet peppers
1/2 lb red cabbage
6 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp white balsamic vinegar
4 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp salt
Pinch black pepper

De-stem and de-seed the peppers and rough chop them on a bias.  Chop the red cabbage in roughly the same size as the peppers. Sweet pepper size may vary, so make sure you have about the same amount of chopped red cabbage by volume as you do of the chopped peppers.

Over high heat, heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a large sauté pan until it is smoking. Add the peppers and toss once to coat with the oil, then let sit until they start to brown.  Toss once more and let sit again approximately one minute. Add the cabbage. Toss again and cook until cabbage is browning.

Add the remaining oil, vinegar, garlic, red pepper flakes and oregano and toss again. Cook for approximately one minute, remove from heat and finish with the salt and pepper. Serve immediately or store for later use.
One of the great things about peppers is their versatility. They are such great complements to so many different ingredients that I often have a hard time narrowing down what I want to serve with them! At Bennett’s, we served it with a simple and succulent petite filet and some creamed corn. What will you serve it with? Let me know in the comments!

Pizza is not a vegetable

Pizza is not a vegetable
There are a lot of things sparking debate in DC right now, but there’s one issue that has me really concerned. The spending bill that was passed last week, H.R. 2112, included a section regarding the national school lunch program that will:

-Confirm four tablespoons of tomato paste as a full serving of vegetables
-Prevent limitations on sodium content until further research can be done about its health impacts
-Prevent regulated inclusion of whole grains until the USDA can officially define them
-Prevent further limitations on starchy vegetables like corn and peas

These mean that the already unhealthy school lunch diet mandated by our federal government will continue to reinforce the poor eating habits from which so many Americans suffer: high sodium, starch and carb consumption without the balance of healthy nutrients and vitamins. The first bullet point alone makes a slice of plain, frozen pizza count as a serving of vegetables to our kids as long as it has one quarter cup of processed “tomato” paste on it!

Good nutrition, particularly for our kids, has been a driving value in my personal and professional life. I’m absolutely incensed that the government would try to undercut the well-being of our children for political gains, whether it’s about budget cutting or Big Agra subsidies. This bill is yet another example of how those representing us in government don’t really represent us at all.

I’m going to write my representative to let them know how upset I am about this plan. I encourage everyone to do the same. Let’s make it clear that THIS PRECEDENT IS UNACCEPTABLE. Future school nutrition legislation must reflect our sincere concern for the nutritional health of our school population, not the deep pockets of lobbyist groups.

Below, I’ve drafted a sample letter for your convenience. The best way to get your legislator’s attention is with an actual letter, so please print up a copy and mail it to your congressional representative.

I’d love to hear your input directly, so when you send a letter, please let me know in the blog comments or on my facebook page.

Dear Representative  [senator’s name],
                I’m writing you to express my disappointment in the proposed amendment to the Senate Bill H.R. 2112. The modifications to the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act outlined in Section 743 are explicitly destructive for the health of our youths in public school. With obesity in kids and teens in the U.S. reaching the level of nearly 30%, poor nutritional habits during the formative years are a direct threat to our nation’s health. Cutting costs by redefining health standards is downright insulting, both to our intelligence as constituents and to our responsibilities as parents. What’s more, it suggests that legislative decisions are influenced more by the interests of lobbyists than by the well-being of the citizens. I understand that H.R. 2112 as a whole is intended to balance the budget and keep the government solvent from day to day, but sacrificing the health of our public school student population is not an appropriate way to improve the national finances.

Thank you,

[Your name here]

Flatiron Faves - ABC Kitchen with Jean-Georges

There are some restaurants that just fit you. Everything on the menu seems interesting. The atmosphere feels like something you recognize from a forgotten dream. The whole experience smacks of déjà vu. In restaurants like these, it’s like someone reached into your head, found your ideal restaurant, and made it happen. If I were to make a foray into haute cuisine fine dining, ABC Kitchen with Jean-Georges, would be that restaurant.

Jean-Georges is a titan of the restaurant industry. He’s tossed his toque into just about every culinary ring at one point or another. It was only a matter of time before he undertook the locavore trend. Organic, local, farm-raised, grass-fed, line-caught: the menu reads like a sustainability bingo card. It doesn’t stop with the food either. The menus are made from recycled paper and served on cardboard from ABC Kitchen’s boxes, the furniture is reclaimed, and the placemats are compostable. Don’t let all this get you carried away, though. Although this type of verbiage can often translate to lawn-flavored smoothies or pasta that tastes like burlap, the food at ABC Kitchen is far from those heavy-handed bulgur/wheatgrass concoctions. It’s artfully plated, delicate, and well-balanced, yet somehow maintains a rustic, comfort food quality to it.
Serving Pure Food has always been a priority for me, from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese to Maximus/Minimus. Regardless of the type of food, I want people to be sure they know how it’s made and where it comes from. It’s hard to do that with exotic-seeming haute cuisine, but Jean-Georges is able to do it, and well. I appreciate that and I’m always excited to get a chance to dine there again.

View Beecher's and ABC Kitchen in a larger map

Thank you for following my little walking tour through my Flatiron Faves. Remember that if you’re curious about my other selections, head back to the original post for a list and a map.

Next week, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled recipeblog!

Kurt's Flatiron Faves - Union Square Greenmarket

In my travels, I always keep my eyes out for farmer’s markets. in a new town it can be hard  to know where to get the good stuff, especially when it comes to produce. Really though, that’s just the beginning. A lot of my best ideas for the kitchen actually come to me while I’m watching the motley market-goers pass by those many marvelous treasures.

The Union Square Greenmarket is exceptional because there are so many local sources represented there. I’ve seen food from New York rooftops and suburban New Jersey yards, even Pennsylvania and Connecticut. And that’s really what New York’s all about, isn’t it? It’s that vibrance that comes from so much diversity in such a small area. It really is pretty inspiring.

Do you have any good stories about the Union Square Greenmarket? Or maybe a favorite vendor there? Please share in the comments!

Porcini-Balsamic Glazed Short Ribs

I was recently invited to a wine dinner at DeLille Cellars over in Woodinville, a small suburb of Seattle. The invitation came from my friends Charlene and Greg Steinhauer, who are regulars at Bennett’s. We took a tour of the winery to see how DeLille has managed to continue producing great wine year after year after year. As a fellow business owner, it’s always fascinating for me to see the ways other people are able to cultivate the dedication and enthusiasm that is required to remain successful, particularly in an environment as competitive as the wine industry.

After the tour, we all sat down to dinner and began my favorite part of any evening: great conversation over really good food and wine. As we talked, Charlene told me about how much she had loved the short ribs at Bennett’s and that she wishes that they were on the menu again. When the wine was poured, Charlene raved about the DeLille D2 Bordeaux blend and how it should be on the wine list at Bennett’s. Although separate recommendations, they gave me an idea. We’d never incorporated a drink into the special at Bennett’s before, but this seemed like a perfect opportunity: beautiful braised short ribs with a luscious wine. Judging from the response, we should do these pairings more often!

Porcini-Balsamic Glazed Short Ribs
4 servings

3 cups balsamic vinegar
1.5 oz porcini mushrooms, powdered
3 tbsp salt
1 tbsp fresh ground black pepper
1 tbsp granulated garlic

8-4 oz boneless short ribs

Heat the vinegar in a medium saucepan on medium-low heat, uncovered, until reduced to one third, to about one cup. Remove from heat and let cool.

Mix the reduction with the remaining ingredients in a large bowl until thick, about the consistency of cake batter. Rub the glaze into each of the pieces of short rib. Pre-heat the oven to 550 degrees F. Cook short ribs for about 15 minutes, or until the glaze is caramelized. Reduce heat to 250 and braise for two hours, until soft and tender. Remove from the oven and let rest a couple minutes before serving.

At Bennett’s we served these short ribs with some kale chips and a potato gratin that had artichokes and jalapenos. What would you serve this with? Let me know in the comments about side dish or wine pairing ideas!

Walkabout of BCNY - 4 months later!

Wow! It's hard to believe that it's been a scant four months since the doors of Beecher's Cheese New York first opened to the public. If you've been following me on facebook or twitter for a while, you might remember the "20 Hours And Counting" video I posted those many moons ago. It's been a whirlwind of great food, wonderful guests and all those exciting "first times" that go along with a restaurant opening.
But you don't have to take my word for it. Watch for yourself!

Have you visited the Beecher's in New York yet? Tell me what you thought in the comments!

Beef & Pork Chili

The chili with seasonal greens panzanella, sprinkled with
a bit of Flagship cheese.
There's really nothing like a great chili recipe. It's like a classic rock standard. Any person can mess around with it according to their tastes and come up with some amazing flavors. I've played with a lot of chili recipes over the years. I've never quite been fond of beans in my chili; if you've followed this blog for a while you know my favorite part is usually the meat (often pork). So, of course, for my chili recipe, I started with both beef AND pork and went from there. You might think some of the ingredients seem odd, but this chili is pretttty darn good!

Beef & Pork Chili
Serves about 5 (2.75 quarts)
3/4 lb uncured bacon – pork belly
1 tbsp canola oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and rough chopped
1 poblano pepper, seeded, fine dice

1 large jalapeño, seeded, fine dice
I'm talking about BIIIIG flavor.
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

3 1/2 oz can adobo chipotle peppers, pureed
1/2 tbsp ground cumin
1-1/2 tbsp chili powder
3-1/2 diced tomato (about 5 tomatoes
1 cup lager beer
1 tbsp kosher salt
1/2 tbsp. Maximus/Minimus Seasoning Blend
3 lb beef brisket, whole boneless, trimmed and cut into ¾-inch cubes
1 oz unsweetened dark chocolate, rough chop

1/2 tbsp honey
1 tbsp corn flour

Grind the bacon in a food processor until “pebbly,” not quite a full paste. In a large sauce pan over medium heat, very thoroughly brown the bacon in canola oil until fully rendered, about 20 minutes, leaving no white in the bacon and a deep, dark color is achieved (without burning).
Add all the red onion, yellow onion, garlic, poblano pepper and jalapeño to the pan and reduce the heat to medium, cooking about 20 minutes until vegetables are fully sweated through and softened.

Add the vinegar and cook for about three minutes or until the acrid smell reduces. Make sure to scrape the pan regularly to loosen any bacon or vegetables stuck to the pan.

Add the remaining ingredients except the corn flour, stirring well to combine. Bring it to a soft boil on medium-high then reduce to a simmer. Cook about 2 hours until the brisket is very tender, stiring occasionally to avoid sticking and adjust the heat as necessary. When nearly done, about 5 minutes before, sprinkle the corn flour on the chili and stir thoroughly to avoid clumping, then let cook for the last 5 minutes on very low heat.

Please try this at home! I'd love to hear what you think and what changes you might make!

Kurt's Flatiron Faves - Casa Mono

Some celebrities are infamous for satisfying much more than their wanderlust during their travels. You hear stories of illegitimate children springing up in town after town, suspiciously nine or so months after they’ve passed through the area. There is even evidence that suggests that Genghis Khan is the aggressive ancestor of over 16 million people in Asia today.

Mario Batali is about as far as you can get from Genghis Khan,  but he has something in common with these “prolific” celebrities. It seems to me that everywhere Mario goes, it’s not long before there’s a new restaurant popping up somewhere, inspired by that recent visit. His redwood of a restaurant family tree is unique in that they are all SO GOOD.  It’s difficult to maintain a standard as high as Mario does with what seems like hundreds of restaurants under his purview. He’s got an immense litter of Italian restaurants that seem to proliferate like rabbits.

Casa Mono, my Flatiron Fave this week, is the result of his travels through Spain and his partnership with Joe Bastianich. The Iberian peninsula is famous for its many culinary jewels, particularly jamón ibérico, a special type of ham made from at least 75% black Iberian pig. To digress a little, did you know that the finest of this type of ham is made from a pig that is fed exclusively on acorns?  Amazingly, this all acorn diet means that the fatty flecks in this cured ham is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, which is just about the best type of fat you can eat. Basically it's a cholesterol-lowering cured meat. That's the miracle of pure food, of knowing where your food comes from and what it's made of.

Of course, great ham does not an amazing restaurant make. It never hurts though. My favorite dish there is an incredible frisée salad with crisped ham. It was light, fresh, and crunchy, and somehow didn’t suffer from the blandness that afflicts a lot of trendy frisée dishes. It’s another testament to Mario and his staff’s dedication to keeping things simple and delicious.

View Beecher's and Casa Mono in a larger map

We’re nearing the end of the Flatiron Faves tour. There are only a couple more spots to go. Are there neighborhood places that you think I’ve missed? What do you think of the ones I’ve written about so far? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Pepper Capponata Conchiglioni with Rockfish

Sometimes, once just isn’t enough. Your first visit to New York. A bite of steak. A glass of amazing wine. With things like these, one taste deserves another. Do you ever feel that way with ingredients that you’ve used? Those grapes from last week’s lamb special did that for me. There was something about their sweetness, their depth of flavor. I knew there was so much more I could do with them.

So, I set about to another recipe. This local pepper capponata with rockfish and pesto really turned out well. Try it at home and let me know what you think!
Pepper Capponata Conchiglioni with Rockfish
makes 4 servings

1 eggplant
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large onion
1/2 fennel bulb
1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
pinch of crushed red pepper
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 1/2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1/4 cup roasted grapes

Dill Pesto:
1 tsp chopped garlic
1/2 cup Italian parsley, stemmed
1 Tbsp dill, stemmed
1 Tbsp preserved lemon
1 oz Beecher's Flagship cheese
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of salt
Dash of black pepper

1 1/4 cup conchiglioni pasta

2 lbs rockfish
2 Tbsp canola oil
Salt and pepper to taste
To make the capponata, pre-heat the oven to 350 F. Wash all the vegetables and cut into a medium dice, keeping all ingredients separated. Toss the eggplant in 2 teaspoons olive oil with light salt and pepper.  Roast in the oven until lightly brown and soft, about an hour.

Increase the oven temperature to 425 F. In a large roasting dish, toss the onions and fennel with 1 teaspoon olive oil, light salt and pepper. Sweat in the oven until translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the peppers and crushed red pepper. Roast until soft and lightly brown, but retain shape, about 15 minutes. Add the eggplant to  the dish and stir in tomato paste, red wine vinegar and roasted grapes. Finish by seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

For the dill pesto, simply combine all of the ingredients in a food processor and purée until smooth. Set aside.

Bring a pot of slightly salted water to boil and cook the pasta about 8 minutes. Drain noodlesand mix into the capponata. Do this near serving, so the noodles don't get soggy in the capponata.

Cut the rockfish into four equal pieces and sprinkle both sides of each piece with a little salt and pepper. Heat a little canola oil in a sautée pan and cook fish until done, about 4 minutes a side.

Plate with the capponata conchiglione pasta on one side of the plate and the pesto on the other, then lay the fish near the edge of the pasta so the fish has one end on the pesto sauce. Voilà!

Please, try this recipe out at home and let me know what you think in the comments!

Kurt's Flatiron Faves - Gramercy Tavern

A while ago I found myself touring New York with Seattle culinary legend, Tom Douglas. Tom and I have known each other for a while and I was sure that he would have a laundry list of restaurants in New York that he would want to visit. A creative mogul like Tom would certainly need to visit new places and old favorites for inspiration and nostalgia alike. I was mistaken. There was one place he said he needed to go: Gramercy Tavern.

I don’t blame him.

It’s the granddaddy of Flatiron restaurants. It may be the second of Danny Meyer’s places, but you could easily argue it’s his flagship restaurant. You can sense its prestige from the moment you walk in, but then everything shifts when you’re greeted by the staff. Gracious and unassuming, they don’t make you feel like you’re necessarily walking into one of the top rated restaurants in New York City (which, of course, you are). The food is unmistakably gourmet, well executed cuisine, but all the dishes seem to stem from old favorites and trusty stand-bys. From the door to dessert, that’s Gramercy Tavern to me. Everything looks pretty fancy, but at the heart of it all is comfort and great hospitality.

Next week we’ll cross Park Avenue to check out my next Flatiron Fave, Mario Batali’s Casa Mono!

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Curried Lamb Leg with Roasted Grape Relish and Smashed Chickpeas

I know. Lamb is really cute. But you know what else it is? DEEElicious. It may make some people think of spring lamb, but I think of autumn grills and winter braises. Lamb represents the richer end of the red meat spectrum, so it’s perfectly suited for long marinades and slow cooking. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As much as I love sitting by the fireplace in the depth of winter with a hearty roast, we’re still just crossing the border into fall. Let’s save the deep roasting for later in the year. That doesn’t mean we can’t have succulent lamb now, though!

With a bold marinade, a healthy sear and a little time to finish in the oven, lamb is a great transition from summer to fall to winter.  Throw in a couple of summery flavors and you’ve got this great blend of seasons on your plate!

Curried Lamb Leg with Roasted Grape Relish and Smashed Chickpeas
Serves 4
Chickpea Smash
1 ½ pints Dry Chickpeas
¾ Cinnamon Stick
1 ½ tsp Fennel Seed
Pinch Whole Black Peppercorns
1 ½ tsp Whole Cumin
3 tsp Kosher Salt, divided
2/3 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Pinch Lemon Zest
½ tsp Lemon Juice
1 tsp Freshly Ground Black Pepper
½ cup  Chicken Stock
½ cup Smoked Flagship
Lamb Marinade
3 Tbsp Garlic Clove, very roughly chopped
2 Tbsp Madras Curry Powder
2 ½ tsp  Whole Dried Oregano
½ tsp Cayenne Powder
4 Tbsp Olive Oil
3 Tbsp Seasoned Rice Vinegar
1 ½ tsp Kosher Salt
4 trimmed legs of lamb, 7 oz each

2 Tbsp Canola Oil
Roasted Grape Relish
4 cups de-stemmed, halved red and green grapes

1 Tbsp Canola Oil
3 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil, divided
1 tsp Kosher Salt
2 Tbsp Capers in juice
3 Tbsp Seasoned Rice Wine Vinegar
1 ½ tsp thinly sliced Red Onion
Dash Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Pinch Kosher Salt
1 Tbsp Mint, very coarse chiffonade
1 Tbsp Italian Parsley, very coarsely chopped

Soak beans overnight. Rinse and sort well. In a wide stockpot, cover beans with cold water.  Create a cheesecloth satchel with the spices, except the salt, and add to the pot.  Bring to a boil, lower heat to medium and cook until done but not mushy, about 1 hour. While cooking, remove starch as it rises to the surface. The last 15 minutes of cooking add 2 teaspoons of the kosher salt. Strain the beans and reserve 1/3 cup of the cooking liquid.  Combine beans, reserved liquid and olive oil in a food processor and mix coarsely, leaving plenty of chunky texture. Put mixture in a large bowl and mix in lemon, ground pepper and remaining salt. Transfer it all to a large pan and combine with chicken stock and Smoked Flagship cheese over medium heat until cheese is melted, stirring regularly.
Combine the garlic, curry powder, oregano, olive oil and kosher salt for the marinade. Add the lamb and toss to coat well and marinate for 3 – 8 hours. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F and heat a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Once hot, add 2 tablespoons of canola oil but don’t let it get hot enough to start smoking. Remove lamb from marinade and put it in the pan, searing until a nice, caramelized crust forms, about 3-4 minutes. Turn the legs over in the pan and cook for a few more minutes. Transfer lamb to the oven either in the same pan or an oven safe dish and finish for about 4 minutes, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 130 degrees F. Remove from the oven and let the meat rest for about 5 minutes.
Preheat oven to 200 with convection fan on high. Toss with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1 teaspoon of salt and the canola oil. Pour onto a baking sheet and bake. Check at an hour that they’re not over-cooked. It will likely take about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove grapes and toss them well with all remaining ingredients.

Plate by spooning about ¾ cup of the chickpea smash into the middle of the plate. Spoon 3 tablespoons of the relish alongside the chickpeas. Cut the lamb in two on a bias and place on top of the chickpeas, next to the grape relish. 

I recommend making the roasted grape relish while the lamb is marinating so you don’t have to worry about conflicting oven temperatures. The pictures here are with the lamb sliced, but in playing around with it, I decided I liked the two big chunks of lamb described in the recipe better. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Kurt's Flatiron Faves - Veritas

Welcome back to my little Flatiron tour! I hope you enjoyed the recipe I posted last week. Make sure to let me know if you try it! I’d love to know how it turned out for you and what little tweaks you may have added.

Back to New York! From 22nd Ave, we make our way back down Broadway to take a left onto 20th. En route, we find ourselves across the street from Beecher’s itself. That doesn’t mean we’re anywhere near done though! We’ll be coming back to Beecher’s from the south at the end of our tour.

That this week’s restaurant, Veritas, follows last week’s visit to Almond, makes sense not just geographically, being just off of Broadway on the north side of 20th, but also thematically. As you’ll remember, Almond had an atmosphere of comfort that I really enjoyed because of the great way it translated the neighborhood French bistro into an urban, Big Apple living room.

Veritas was a really big deal when it opened in 1999 to rave reviews and a three star review from Ruth Reichl in the Times. Over time, its reputation waned from being an exciting scene for new food to just another expensive New York restaurant.

I guess my return to New York was well-timed, because the whole restaurant was apparently re-imagined last November, which is when Chef Sam Hazen took over the food side of things. I’ll have to admit, I didn’t actually get a chance to dine in the restaurant itself – I just spent time in the bar.

Similar to Almond, what struck me was the warmth and friendliness of the staff, which I almost didn’t expect given the more haute cuisine style of food it seemed to offer. The “haute-r” you get in the culinary world, the more difficult it is to avoid that exclusive pretention that has historically stigmatized really creative chefs and dedicated kitchens. Some places fight this perception tooth and nail, which often ends up in a contrived sense of pseudo-informality.

Veritas seems to take the opposite approach. The tooth and nail strategy is replaced by keeping it simple: engaging staff and a warm, welcoming atmosphere surrounded in unobtrusive earth tones. I should note that I’m not the only one who thinks they’ve done well in their transformation. Sam Sifton of the Times recently bestowed another three star review of Veritas as well.

From one haute New American restaurant to another, next week we’ll cross the street to Gramercy Tavern, the second of Danny Meyer’s restaurants on my list of neighborhood favorites.

Have you been to Veritas? Or any of the other places on my list so far? I’d love to hear what you think about them in comments, especially specific dish or drink recommendations! See you next week!

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My Flatiron Faves

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Lover of big ideas and bold flavors. Food should be like family and friends: honest, fun, and fulfilling.

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