Friday, December 30, 2016

Paris -- Great Meals at Two Old Favorite Restaurants

We recently returned to two of our favorite informal restaurants in Paris: Sardegna a Tavola and Chez René.

We have never found an excellent Italian restaurant in Paris, despite many people telling us that they know a real one. The pasta is nearly always overcooked and oversauced, and the French, despite  their great culinary heritage, just don't get Italian food. We are spoiled by New York, I guess. Our solution is to go to Sardegna, a fantastic Sardinian place in the 12th arrondissement, not far from the Gare de Lyon, which, while not Italian, satisfies the same cravings. This week we were four and shared a wonderful meal consisting of this amazing burrata, followed by two pastas and a tuna and artichoke dish from heaven. When the burrata arrived, I said it looked like it would be the best we had ever eaten. And it was.

Burrata at Sardegna a Tavola
Our other great meal was at Chez René. When I discovered the place last year, the waiter told me that they have the best pot-au-feu in Paris, served on alternate Thursdays (blanquette de veau is the star the other weeks), and I have been trying to get there on the right night ever since. We finally made it last night, and three of us ordered the rich, beefy pot-au-feu, which is rated second in Paris by Le Figaro (Drouant is rated Number One). It is delicious, huge, satisfying and a screaming bargain at 17 euros. And I learned a trick from one of our dinner companions, whose family is from Normandy, which is to serve it with a little crème fraîche in addition to the traditional mustard, coarse salt and cornichons. I had no camera with me so swiped this little picture (sorry about the poor quality) from the Internet to give you an idea.

Pot-au-feu at Chez René
Even if you don't like pot-au-feu (or, like J, can't eat beef), all of the classic cuisine at Chez René is excellent, the place is lovely, if in a bit of a time warp (in the same location on the Boulevard St-Germain since 1957), and the service just right.

In the suddenly cold and damp Parisian weather, these types of dinners warm the body as well as the soul.

Bobby Jay

Monday, December 5, 2016

Baking Bread

I have been baking bread pretty often over the last few years, and it has become almost a ritual. (Indeed, I did a post on this topic in January 2015.) As in all things, practice makes better, and I have become fairly accomplished. I derive great satisfaction from producing a beautiful and tasty country loaf even though I can buy spectacular (and better, to be honest) bread from the She-Wolf Bakery's stand at the Sunday green market on Columbus avenue between 77th and 81st Streets.

My most recent effort, a fermented oat loaf from Chad Robertson's Tartine Book No. 3, was this gorgeous loaf.

Fermented oat bread
But this is the culmination of a journey that began with the no-knead bread from Jim Lahey's iconic My Bread. Lahey invented a way to make delicious country-style bread that is dead simple and works every time. You take a tiny amount of yeast, flour, water and salt, mix well and leave for 12-18 hours, then shape (no need to knead) the loaf and let it sit for or a couple of hours and, finally, bake in a Dutch oven at high temperature, removing the cover in the middle of the process.

You get a lovely and deliciously earthy loaf.

Lahey's no-knead loaf
Lahey's no-knead loaf with three seeds
The only drawback is that his crumb is, in my opinion, not dense enough, so the bread is very light. But also, it's too easy.

I then heard about Chad Robertson, whose Tartine Bakery in San Franciso is a legend, and his first book, Tartine Bread. Robertson dispenses with yeast altogether, using natural levain starter. This is like sourdough starter in that it consists only of flour and water exposed to the local wild yeasts until it begins to ferment. Good French bread in France is made with levain, not yeast, so this is nothing revolutionary.

Once it gets going, the starter must be "fed" often, preferably every day; this means discarding 80% of the starter and replenishing with flour and water. When you are going to bake, you take a tiny bit of starter, add a bunch of flour and water, leave overnight and then incorporate in your bread. There follows a detailed set of steps: letting the mix sit, then turning it every 30 minutes for four hours, shaping again, letting it sit for 3-5 hours, then baking in a Dutch oven in a very hot oven for nearly an hour. From start to finish, my last effort took 22 hours although there is very little active time. Robertson's highly illustrated description of this process takes up 25 pages of Tartine Bread. Of course there's lots more commentary and there are many variations, such as country rye, polenta, ___ and __ breads, as well as pizza dough, baguettes, etc.

Try as I might, I could not get starter to start from scratch, even after two one-week tries. So I cheated, and bought sourdough starter from King Arthur, which I then treated the way Robertson suggests, and got nice levain starter.

However, my first levain loaves, although they tasted good, were a flat. Somehow my levain did not have enough oomph.

Tartine olive bread
Over time, my results improved. Here are two plain country, semolina and country rye loaves, all of which looked and tasted awfully good.

Tartine plain loaves
Tartine semolina loaves with three seeds
Tartine country rye loaf
Once the world had digested his first book, Robertson released Tartine Book No. 3, in which he uses a high percentage of whole wheat, explores different flours, including heirloom varieties (like emmer, spelt and einkorn), and additions of whole grains in various states (flaked, rolled, ground), including fermented or unfermented porridge and other hard-to-find (or make) add-ins. A real challenge!

So far I have made several breads from Book No. 3, including the one first pictured above and this oat porridge bread, and all have come out well.

Tartine oat porridge bread
Is homemade levain bread worth the effort? Clearly not, especially in these days where good bread is so abundant. But as a challenging hobby, definitely yes!

Happy bread baking!

Bobby Jay

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

As I have for quite a few years now, I prepared Thanksgiving dinner for the family yesterday. I generally try to cook some things that are proven hits, mixed with some new ones that seem promising. Sometimes I try the new ones before the holiday, like these hasselback style butternut squash with bay leaves,

Hasselback style butternut squash
sometimes not.

This year's hors d'oeuvres consisted of bar nuts, courtesy of the Union Square Cafe Cookbook and now Food52 Genius Recipes, my renowned (if inevitable) ricotta, sun-dried tomato and lemon zest crostini,

Rcotta, sun-dried tomato and lemon zest crostini
shrimp with toasted garlic, from Tyler Florence (no photo), spinach and dill hummus, topped with dill, toasted pine nuts and olive oil, from Food and Wine, served with my own pita toasted with za'atar and sumac,

Spinach hummus with dill, toasted pine nuts and oil; pita with za'atar
and cheese gougères, from Clotilde Dusoulier's Chocolate and Zucchini, with a food processor technique for mixing the chou pastry from Jacques Pépin's Essential Pépin.

Cheese gougères
For the main event, I made turkey breast, porchetta style, from a recipe in The New York Times, with chicken sausage and stage stuffing from Kenji Lopez-Alt's masterpiece, The Food Lab. The turkey started out like this, after I broke it down and stuffed the breast and also the boned-out thighs,

Turkey, with porchetta style breast and thighs, before cooking
and turned into this:

Turkey, after roasting
Sides were the hasselback style butternut squash pictured above, a very mustardy and spicy cranberry mostarda, from Food and Wine, and hashed Brussels sprouts with lemon and poppy seeds, from the Union Square Cafe Cookbook.

Hashed Brussles sprouts with lemon and poppy seeds
Finally, desserts: Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake, from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table and now Food52 Genius Recipes,
Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake
and and incredibly gingery, light and moist Fresh Ginger Cake, from Davis Lebovitz's Ready for Dessert, served with crème fraîche.

Fresh Ginger Cake
No one left hungry.

Bobby Jay

Sunday, November 13, 2016

France -- Cool Old Products

When I went to Europe after my sophomore year of college, I was overwhelmed by a lot of things, most notably the art that I saw in museums and churches, the churches and old cities themselves, and generally the length and presence of the history of the numerous countries and civilizations I encountered.

Since then, I love to see products, especially food products, that have long histories. Better still if the same brand has been in existence for centuries.

Here are a few that I found during a recent trip to France.

Each of these products has a lot of history -- culinary and regional -- and a stylish box to match. But for me, the best find of the lot are Les Macarons de Joyeuse. The card inserted in the box recites the following legend (my translation so bear with any awkwardness):
Joyeuse, a medieval town, owes its name to the emperor Charlemagne, who in 802 named it after his beloved sword, lost during a hunting party and later found at the site where our towns walls stand today.

On September 24, 1581, Duke Anne of Joyeuse, a favorite of King Henry III, married Marguerite of Lorraine, the king's sister-in-law. There followed fifteen days of grandiose celebrations organized by Catherine de Médicis, the costliest in the history of France, at which a number of hitherto unknown refinements were introduced: the first court ballet, "Circe, or the Comic Ballet of the Queen," was presented, and during the banquets a new pastry made with almonds from Italy, macarone, was served. Seduced, the duke introduced his duchy to these "macarons," of which the taste and tradition have been transmitted to the present day.

In 1867, the Joyeuse pâtissier André Maurice Pellier adapted the recipe to a new baking method It is this secret recipe that the Maison Charaix is still using today in an artisanal manner, selecting only natural ingredients in order to retain the taste of the original macaron.
And it works. Every time I have one, I feel the presence of Anne of Joyeuse, Henry III and Catherine de Médicis. And I feel joyeux. No Oreos these.

Bobby Jay

Giant Cannelé de Bordeaux

Giant cannelé de Bordeaux
For years I have loved eating and making cannelés de Bordeaux, which I learned at Ateliers des Chefs in Paris. These wonderful fluted confections are caramelized on the outside and contain a vanilla rum custard interior. The contrast between the textures is the thing.

Generally they come in three sizes, small (about 3.5 cm high), medium (about 4.5 cm high) and large (about   5.5 cm high). I make the small ones because I like the high proportion of crispy caramelized exterior to soft interior that they afford. Contrary to those who say you need to use copper molds, I make mine in inexpensive silicone molds with great results. Here's an example of my usual cannelés:

Recently, however, we went to Michel Trama, an inn and two-star restaurant near Toulouse, and were served a gigantic cannelé suitable for at least four persons (although J and I nearly polished it off ourselves).

I determined to make this. The first order of business was to find an appropriate mold. Hunting around in Bordeaux, I soon realized that there is no official cannelé pan of this size, but we found a kugelhopf pan (for making an Alsatian cake of the same name) and carted it home. The hollow middle means that the dough is never more than about 7 cm thick, and generally less, not so far from the 5.5 cm of a large normal canelé.

Recognizing that the cooking times for my minis would not work at all, I guessed: a clear failure. So based on what I learned, I guessed again, and this time nailed it. The result is above: a crispy exterior and delightful custard inside. I am looking forward to serving it at a post-Thanksgiving dinner party for six in just two weeks.

Bobby Jay

Monday, October 10, 2016

Tarte Tatin with a Twist

I made Tarte Tatin for guests the other day, and it was probably my most successful effort to date. I used the official version from the Confrerie des Lichonneux de Tarte Tatin for a classic beginning (see my post of January 16, 2016 for the recipe and illustrations). Just before covering with the puff pastry crust, I added raisins soaked in orange flower water, an idea found in Paula Wolfert's excellent The Food of Morocco. Ms Wolfert states that she tried in the book to avoid "nouvelle cuisine Morocaine" but could not resist the combination of Moroccan tastes with a French classic. And it worked! The orange flower water, raisins and buttery caramelized apples were a perfect combination.

Tarte Tatin with orange flower soaked raisins
And here's a close-up that I shot with my new macro lens (which I am enjoying using):

Tarte Tatin with orange flower soaked raisins - close-up
Not easy, but then not impossible either, as  you can see from the recipe, and a stunner every time.

Bobby Jay

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Takoyaki in New York

It is no secret that I love takoyaki, a kind of omelet ball that is stuffed with a tiny piece of octopus that is found all over Japan and especially in Kyoto but that is also apparently a favorite for Japanese people to cook at home for their families. I did a post on the subject in 2011, showing our friend Hitomi Kondo going through the process. I even helped in shaping the balls. Here is the almost finished product before saucing:

Nearly finished takoyaki balls
The takoyaki that Hitomi made for us, like every version that I have had until recently, was a firm ball with a firm piece of octopus inside, served with bonito flakes sprinkled on top and a special thickish sweetish sauce that resembles tonkatsu sauce. I say until recently because a couple of weeks ago I experienced a new take on takoyaki, in New York of all places. While waiting to get into Ramen Totto (see post of earlier today), I noticed Takoyaki Bar (also run by Totto) right next door, and resolved to return as soon as possible. Which I did.

Takoyaki Bar by Totto
To my surprise, the takoyaki here was very soft, almost impossible to hold with the traditional toothpicks they are served with, and had a very tender morsel of octopus inside. A wonderful new (for me) take on this iconic street dish served, as it should be, in a paper box, placed into a plastic external box.

Takoyaki Bar's takoyaki
For those squeamish about octopus (the tako in takoyaki), the restaurant makes takoyaki stuffed with bits of chicken (an oxymoron, of course). Not having any problem with octopus, I passed on this, but it does make it easier to go with a group, which might include octopodophobes.

Give it a try.

Bobby Jay

Really Good Ramen in New York

While living in Tokyo for nearly three years, I developed a love for ramen, Japanese noodle soup originally based on Chinese precedents but adapted by the Japanese and turned into a much-beloved dish that can be found all over Japan, with local variations, generally at simple restaurants or even standing counters at stations, on crowded streets and in shopping malls.

Until fairly recently, ramen was hard to find in New York, but in the last few years there has been a ramen explosion. The great Tokyo-based Ippudo, which specializes in Hakata ramen, with broth make with long-cooked pork bones, has a couple of establishments. The famous Ivan Ramen, which was created by an American ramen fanatic who spent years in Japan perfecting his craft (and has written a book on the subject), has received considerable notoriety, and less-famous ramen shops are springing up everywhere. One of the best is Jin Ramen, at 82nd and Amsterdam, and I am partial to Tabata, at Ninth Avenue and 40th Street, which is run by Malaysians who trained in Tokyo for many years and make some highly seasoned and not totally traditional versions (excellent spicy tan tan ramen).

In August I came across Totto Ramen, which has three locations (248 East 52nd, 366 West 52nd and 464 West 51st streets). I was thrilled to find that their ramen is really excellent.

Totto Ramen's extra spicy miso ramen - note big glob of sauce next to the egg
The place on West 52nd Street is unprepossessing, but always packed with eager slurpers. You wait on line, while they take your order and when you are seated, the correct noodles miraculously appear.

Totto Ramen: taking orders from waiting customers
And the noodles are worth even the considerable wait. First, the noodles are just the right texture, springy but not exactly al dente. I had extra spicy miso ramen, and the sauce was deep and rich as well as VERY spicy.

About a block away is the newest Totto Ramen, a lovely restaurant where I didn't have to wait on line, and there is room to breathe

Totto Ramen, 464 West 51st Street
The ramen is the same as at the West 52nd Street branch, and here I opted for the chicken paitan, or simple chicken ramen. Not as exciting as the spicy miso (and probably better with pork instead of chicken), but I wanted to try what is billed as the restaurant's signature dish.

Chicken paitan at Totto Ramen
If you like ramen, or don't know whether you do or not, you will be happy at Totto Ramen.

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Simple Summer Soup: Watermelon Gazpacho with Feta Crema

It's the end of summer, but the corn, melon, tomatoes and, depending on the weather, Tri-Star strawberries, have another month or so to go. Inspired by some great tomatoes,

Watermelon and tomato gazpacho with feta crema
I made this watermelon and tomato gazpacho the other day, using the recipe recently published by Bon Appétit. It was excellent. You can use Bon Appétit's recipe, as I did, or substitute any watermelon gazpacho recipe (or even a traditional gazpacho) that you like and add the feta crema, which is what makes it special: chopped toasted almonds, sour cream, milk and feta. Since it was so simple, I decided to kick things up a notch by serving the soup in really wonderful bowls that Joan, a dealer in Japanese contemporary ceramics, found during one of her many trips to Japan.

 Enjoy the summer while you can!

Bobby Jay

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Bobby Jay Sandwich: Summer Surf and Turf

Bobby Jay Sandwich: smoked trout, ricotta, tomato, etc. on sprouted rye
Inspired by a wonderful dense sprouted rye loaf from She-Wolf Bakery that I found at the Upper West Side Sunday farmers market, I made this sandwich for lunch today. I spread hand-packed ricotta on thin slices of the bread, added very thin slices of jalapeno pepper thin slices of red onion, thin slices of super ripe heirloom tomato, flakes of lemon pepper smoked trout and chopped dill. A big success, and a nice concept, but what made it better than good was the bread from She-Wolf, the Brooklyn bakery that makes the best bread I have found in New York.

And here it is:

She-Wolf Bakery's sprouted rye loaf
This would alos be fine with smoked salmon, of course. The key is to use the best and freshes ingredients you can find.

Bobby Jay

Monday, August 8, 2016

Bobby Jay's Corn Soup Revisited

Bobby Jay's corn soup with olive oil
Four years ago, I posted my recipe for corn soup, which I had spent a lot of time developing. It is rich -- essence of corn -- despite the absence of anything but corn, a tiny bit of butter, a small amount of minced onion and a jalapeno pepper. Since then I have refined the recipe some and expanded the array of add-ins that I suggest in the note. In addition, I have experimented with using a pressure cooker and found that it is even richer due to the better extraction of flavor from the corn cobs that the superheated pressurized water permits.

So here's the updated, improved recipe for my own corn soup. This is a perfect time to try it, with wonderful sweet corn abounding at farmers markets everywhere.

Bobby Jay’s Corn Soup


·       5-6 ears of corn (5 medium, an extra if small)
·       1 medium onion, diced
·       1 jalapeño pepper, finely diced (seeds and interior membranes removed), more or less, depending on how hot the jalapenos are and your taste
·       1 Tbs butter
·       4 C water
·       2 Tbs chives, finely chopped
·       Best quality olive oil
·       Salt and pepper


1. Put the most delicate ear aside. Take kernels off remaining 4 ears of corn. Cut the cobs into thirds.

2. Sauté onion and jalapeño in butter with a little salt until soft. Add corn kernels and sauté another minute or so, just to warm through.

3. Add cobs and water. Bring to boil and simmer, covered, for 30-40 mins. [Better still, for an even richer, creamier soup, do this in a pressure cooker, bring to temperature and cook for 20 minutes.]

4. Remove cobs and puree the soup with a hand or standing blender. (I use a blender because I like it very smooth, and the added corn will provide texture.) Taste and season with salt and pepper to taste. It may need a fair amount of salt to cut the natural corn sweetness.

5. Separately, bring a pot of water to a boil. Take off the heat, add the last cob of corn, cover and wait 7 minutes. (Or cook it however you like to make corn, including in the microwave.) Remove kernels.

6. Serve soup in individual bowls. Garnish with kernels from the last ear of corn, chives and a few drops of olive oil.

Can be served cold or hot. If cold, chill and garnish just before serving.

Serves 4


Instead of chives, I often garnish with one of the following:

·       Chopped toasted or untoasted pumpkin seeds and a few drops of pumpkin seed oil or pistachio oil
·       Chopped pistachios and pistachio oil
·       Chopped hazelnuts and a few drops of hazelnut oil
·       A very tiny quantity of truffle oil
·       A dollop of crème fraîche
·       A little hot sauce or (preferably green) chili powder, or some adobe sauce from canned chipotles with adobo
·       Small chunks of avocado and olive or pistachio oil
·       White miso, about a rounded teaspoon per cup, whisked in before serving

This soup is really easy to make and virtually impossible to screw up, especially if you start with farm-fresh corn.

I hope you enjoy.

Bobby Jay

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Paris -- An Amazing Lebanese Feast

While in Paris, J and I and our friends Mimi and JoJo were treated to an amazing Lebanese feast at Rimal, one of the best Lebanese restaurants to be found there (at 94, boulevard Malesherbes, in the 17ème arrondissment). The meal was a family celebration organized by our friend Tania, and included Tania's delightful mother Aida, her sister Ruby and her niece Carol, along with some Kuwaiti friends.

Tania planned the meal with Roger Sfeir, the Maître d' at Rimal, who is a kind of legend within Paris' large Lebanese community, as well as Tania's admired friend Fady Khouri, one of Rimal's owners, whom Tania correctly describes as a "grand gentleman."

The meal reflected Middle Eastern principles of entertaining, i.e. way too much food, and lots of special dishes. Here are photos of many of them, taken by Tania, who is not merely a great cook but also an accomplished food presenter and photographer. (The names in captions were provided by Tania, generally French spellings of Lebanese names. You may find anglicized spellings if you try to learn more about this items.)

Garlic tomatoes
Arayess (minced meat, herbs, onions in pita, grilled)
Kebbé nayé (Lebanese veal tartare)
Shanklishe (strong crumbled cheese balls with herbs)
Fatayers (spinach triangles)
Kabab karaz (an exceptional Aleppo specialty)
Kebbé  boulettes and walnut eggplant mix

Makaneks (special Lebanese sausages)
Ra'a'ates (feuilleté "from Heaven")
Cream and rose "chewy" ice creams
Karabiges (pistachio filled pastry brought from Beirut)
Natef (resemblng pine flavored marshmallow)
The ambiance was indeed familial. Aida, in particular, was beaming the whole time at the array of guests and enjoyed every second of making us all happy, and particularly those of us who are somewhat new to Lebanese food.

Aida with Roger and Jo-Jo
See? It worked!

A content moi
What a wonderful memory!

Bobby Jay