Monday: Turkey, Rice Soup (aka Creamy Chicken Vegetable Soup) with salted cucumber and grilled bread
Tuesday: Left-over turkey soup with greens and cranberry vinaigrette, grilled bread,
Wednesday: Southwest Stuffed Peppers and Southwest Salad
Thursday: Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, NY
Friday: Arte Café, NYC
Saturday: Brunch – John Dory Oyster Bar, NYC
Julia Wang’s Steamed Branzino and Spicy Pork Tofu with Ginger-spiced
Rice Congee and Haricots Verts
Sunday: Pasta with raisins, onions, celery and parmigiana
Last Thursday night we ate dinner with Ina Garten and her husband Jeffrey. Well, they were at the table next to us and, while I could see that they were anxious to speak, they had the good grace to leave us alone to catch up with Julia and Andrew.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a great and unique restaurant in a picturesque fieldstone building on the grounds of the former Rockefeller Estate (pictured above). We are generally wary of fancy or fashionable restaurants per se – having had less than spectacular experiences at most of them. But Blue Hill provided one of the magical dining experiences of our lives. Of course, we were with Andrew and Julia, which helped (as well as Ina and Jeffrey)
How to describe this great meal? Dan Barber, the anorexic health nut and driven chef/owner, is working to create more natural (sustainable) food supplies and dishes that fit those supplies. So on this property they grow fruits and vegetables and raise cattle, pigs, sheep, etc. It being late Fall, the emphasis in the menu was on squash, which we ourselves have been exploring the tastes and uses of recently. By now you are even more wary, if you are a plebeian Mick from Pittsburgh like me – you need to lighten up. Barber is not a vegetarian, though his menus are long on vegetables and grains, but he is a great and inventive chef.
Our first course (picture immediately above) was a selection of baby lettuces and vegetables impaled on tiny spikes in a nicely finished block of wood. I know, how ‘precious’ you’re thinking. But really, with a just discernible kiss of dressing and salt, these vegetables were a revelation. Baby carrots, offered in a paper cone, like the ones pommes frites are served in, were served next. The presentation made you do two things – ‘pick’ your own vegetables and then focus on the taste of each, separately, not in a salad or stew. The baby radishes, alone were worth the trip. Fresh radishes lack the woodiness and bitter aftertaste of their store-bought (poor) cousins.
We had, by Julia’s count, 19 other courses. Here are a few highlights:
Pate de fois gras on a chocolate cracker (Barber has devised a way to fatten goose livers without gavage, which means that even in politically correct cities, pate de fois gras is now available – a great gift to cardiac specialists.)
Lamb with greens and beef tallow dressing (the head waiter poured the liquid from a bottled candle which had been put on the table as the center piece for this dish – the tallow serving the duty of “wax”). The center pieces changed with the courses – a sack of purple potatoes for the potato pizza – a celery root for the celeriac dish.
Shellfish, including sea urchin in its shell, served to us at a standing table in the kitchen, where we got to watch about 30 chefs and cooks and the chef/owner, Dan Barber, put together the dishes for us and other diners – a fraught ballet of cooking and prepping with waiters, waitresses and assistants constantly dancing in, out and through the crowded kitchen.
Barley brioche – A new strain of barley baked into bread and served with tomato-fennel relish and fresh ricotta. (Barber and his partners are developing new strains of grain in Washington State)
I could go on. The short version is that we had a wonderful weekend with Julia, Andrew and Rusty, our grand-dog seeing a good show– “An American in Paris,” having a late dinner afterwards at a fine Upper West Side joint, Arte Café, and a fine brunch the next day at The John Dory Oyster Bar. But the best dinner of the trip and a future keeper of the week was Julia Wang (Stewart)’s Branzino steamed with ginger, scallions and cilantro and served over Congee (see below).
I will pick Julia’s brain to get the recipe – in the meantime, and in the absence of any recipes or even published menus from Blue Hill, here is a recipe which you need to make your own – Creamy Chicken Vegetable Soup – a mixture of two recipes from Julia Child: Clear Chicken and Vegetable Soup and Rice and Onion Soup Base. It creates a hearty, creamy chicken soup with no cream at all and is something we have often, when we’re under the weather, or over the weight. (This is how we used the left-over turkey from Thanksgiving, but typically I would use fresh or left-over chicken. You can find this in The Way To Cook, but you have to combine the recipes and remember to use just half the liquid, so I’ve translated it for you.):
If using fresh breasts, cook them with the vegetables from the get-go. In this case, the turkey already being cooked, we added it toward the end.
You will need at least one Dutch Oven and one large pot. You will be cooking two soups and then pureeing one and pouring it into the other.
Put 1 Cup each of yellow onion, celery, leek and carrot – all diced – into a Dutch Oven and cover with 4 cups of chicken stock. Add 1 bay leaf and 1/2 C of dry white wine (Dry Vermouth is good here). If you’re using fresh chicken breasts, toss 2 – 4 half breasts (boned and skinned) in as well. Bring to a boil and turn down immediately and simmer for 4 minutes. At this point, if your using fresh chicken, take it out and cut it into bite-sized pieces (it will still be pink but will cook through during the rest of the process) and return it to the pot, cover, turn off the heat and let it sit for at least 20 minutes for the ingredients to flavor each other. If you’ve got left-over chicken or turkey, toss it in and let it sit.
Meanwhile, in a large pot or another Ducth Oven, saute 1-2C of sliced onions in 2 Tbs of butter over medium heat (about 7 minutes or until translucent and soft), add 1/2 C raw white rice and 4 C of Chicken Stock and simmer for 20 minutes (until the rice is tender). At this point I use a hand-blender to puree the rice in the soup, but you can also puree the soup in a stand-alone blender. But be careful and puree in small batches – this stuff is hot and when the rice breaks down the starch makes the mixture molten enough to give you a good burn.
Now pour the pureed rice and onion base into the chicken and vegetable soup and stir. Season with salt and pepper, reheat (we put in 1 C of thawed frozen peas at this point, if we have them) and serve with crusty bread and a green salad. We usually serve salted cucumber slivers as a garnish and extra vegetable. (halve a cucumber, scoop out the seeds and julienne – then toss with a little salt).
Andrew and Julia got Beez to eat a piece of glazed donut at their favorite breakfast place (Greek-owned, home-made donuts, spinach and feta omelets, “My dears” standing in for the “Hon” we’re used to at Pittsburgh diners).
Drinks at Stone Barns: Julia had a vodka, strawberry and oolong tea cocktail and Bill had a Gibson with a pickled ramp. Pickled ramps are good – Gibsons are better.
Art – If you have not been to The Frick Collection (Upper East Side), please check your schedule and see if you can get there before the end of the week. It will get too crowded after that. It is one of the great private art collections in the world, much of it housed in its original residential setting. There are Duccios and other early Italians and Goths to charm the heart and mystify the head. There are wonderful Gainsborough ladies, and idiosyncratic, fierce Romney lairds, brilliant Vermeers and wonderful Dutch landscapes and Constables “Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadow” and gorgeous Titians (and swelling, full-faced Rubens which I avoid) and then, a revelation – the “Fragonard Room.” I had always considered Fragonard too French to live, but then I had always seen his work reproduced in small plates in Art Survey type books. Frick reassembled a room of Fragonard panels (perhaps 15’ high by 9’ wide) that invites you into an enchanted garden. The ladies and gentlemen and even the children are still dressed in silk, with perfectly coiffed hair, and the drama is all about young love, boldness and modesty, but within those bounds and in delightful gardens set amidst over hanging trees Fragonard creates an enchanted place which you can take a good day to explore. Once again, the French surprise. And, you will note, it took a Pittsburgher to show those New York swells how to assemble a great art collection in a livable space. Go see this.