Saturday, July 21, 2007

Saint Martin: the simple food

Let's face it: when you and your hubby are spending a week in the half-French, half-Dutch island of Saint Martin your hotel room has a kitchen and this is the view from your balcony,

you'll take a lot of meals out on your private terrace:

We'd buy eggs and juice and cereal and nutty Dutch cheeses (an amazing gouda and a moist mimolette) and bread and croissants and exotic jams from the market or the grocery store (though, oddly enough, we found very few boulangeries on the French part of the island, very unlike in mainland France) and have every breakfast overlooking the Caribbean. I also cooked a few dinners at the hotel (and heated up several days' worth of leftovers one night)--we didn't dine in Saint Martin's gourmet restaurants every night! Every trip deserves picnics.

And then when this
and this
are typical daytime sights, you have little desire to leave the beach and go to a fancy restaurant for lunch!

(Although you'll probably be tempted to order a passionfruit daiquiri or two to sip on the sand after your, say, fourth swim of the day.)

We took advantage of several beach bars and lolos for simple meals. A lolo is basically a shack with picnic table-style seating and a grill--no kitchen, no dining room. Huge tubs hold whatever the day's side dishes happen to be (coleslaw, beans and rice, etc.), while raw meat is on ice--chicken, fish, shrimp, pork, lobster. You order it, they grill it. Done. Good.

These photos are from a lolo in Grand Case on Restaurant Row. We also ate at a lolo-type place in Marigot, the capital city, which boasted goat curry as the local favorite. (I opted for the chicken curry, which consisted of rice covered with a thick and not-too-spicy stew, not a Thai or Indian-style curry.)
Another simple lunch that stands out as one of the best meals we had on the island was one that we really earned: we had spent an hour and a half on a zipline/ropes course tour of the rainforest canopy.

The tour was exhilarating and nerve-wracking and panic-inspiring and sweaty and wonderful. I loved the zipline bits, flying over mango trees and chickens at Loterie Farms, a nearly 300-year-old plantation in the center of the island!

And I loved the meal we had afterwards at the the site's open-air Treetop Cafe. The lentil balls in this picture may not look appetizing, but trust me, with their date-tamarind sauce, they were plenty satisfying (especially after feeling like I had just risked my life swinging from one tree to another). And isn't the plating whimsical? Those side dishes encircling the lentil concoction are sweet and sour cabbage, mashed sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, and plantain beignets. Trust me, it was rare to find such an inspired vegetarian dish on that island! After all, a foodie can't order fish every time she goes out to eat.

Not that Mr. Tart had any compunctions about overdosing on the seafood; his crabcakes in a spicy pepper jelly with roe were both humongous (twice as thick as a hamburger patty and nearly as big around) and delicious.
We washed all this hearty food down with Ting, a Jamaican grapefruit soda (very sprightly!). Other fun nonalcoholic drinks we sipped on the island included a strong and spicy ginger beer and some imports from mainland France, like sweetened black-currant flavored water, Oasis fruit punches, and of course the mainstay Orangina. (But our favorites were still the daiquiris!)
All in all, our tropical vacation was a tasty and relaxing combination of all sorts of beaches and all sorts of eating, punctuated by good books, some hair-raising drives in the rental car, dips in the hotel pool, and many opportunities to hear people speaking French as they discussed lobster, wine, politics, and dogs--perfect for this foodie French teacher!

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

enough with the raspberry sauce!

Sometimes something good--something sweet and beautiful--can go terribly, terribly wrong.

Raspberry sauce is a good idea. Who can complain really about sweet berries pureed, removed of seeds, drizzled decoratively on a plate? And if it's topped by rich chocolate cake and whipped cream? Nobody's going to complain about that.

But then the chocolate cake, cream, raspberry sauce becomes part of every restaurant menu on the planet. It starts getting a little tired. Blackberry sauce maybe? Cake with flour? A little variety would be nice.

You try not to complain until the raspberry sauce until it starts showing up in places it shouldn't: drizzled on top of creme brulee, turning the crisp sugar topping into mush; underneath a beautiful bread pudding full of cardamom and golden raisins.

Hey, just because you have a bunch of raspberry sauce in the kitchen doesn't mean you should put it on every dessert!

You start complaining, just a little. It's like you can't escape the raspberry sauce.

And then. . . the raspberry sauce appears underneath a mcmuffin sort of creation with eggs, ham, and cheese. What?! I'm sorry but raspberry sauce does not belong on this plate. (a meal at the B&B we're currently staying at)

This is the last straw for me and the raspberry sauce. I'm starting a boycott. I'm going to carry signs. I may even ride my bike naked through city streets just to get someone to pay attention. Stop it with the raspberry sauce!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Who knew that you could do all that to a lobster?

The food that really stands out from our recent visit to Saint Martin was the very high end and the very low end (like visiting the open-air market). Both types were memorable and made our mouths water!

Apparently many young chefs just out of French cooking school head to the Antilles to work in the gourmet restaurants that populate the French -speaking islands, then with that experience under their toques, return to France to open up their own restaurants. (In fact, on the plane to St. Martin, I was reading the charming From Here, You Can't See Paris, about American author Michael Sanders who moves to a tiny French village anchored by a tiny museum and a renowned (but not Michelin-starred) restaurant; turns out the chef extraordinaire trained right there on St. Martin!)

As a result, you can eat very well on the French side of the island (probably on the Dutch side, too, but we never made it over there, though the entire island is just 37 square miles). We happened to be staying a five-minute walk from Restaurant Row in Grand Case (a village about 15 minutes from the capital of Marigot). Imagine walking in sweltering heat up and down a long street of hundred-year-old Creole-style houses that have all been turned into airy restaurants, each with a bilingual menu posted by the steps, offering gourmet dishes with local seafood and other ingredients flown in from France or the US. We were there in June, the off-season, which meant that while a handful of the restaurants were closed, the others were uncrowded. We could leisurely check out the menus and then choose a place to eat and walk right in, usually getting seated on the porch or on the balcony above the water! (In the high season, you need reservations just to get a table.)

Unfortunately, I didn't carry a camera around much of the time--sandy beaches and fancy restaurants not being conducive to them--so I don't have many pictures to share. But to give you an idea, above is a painter's rendition of Restaurant Row. Below is Il Nettuno, an Italian restaurant facing the Caribbean (photo from their website--and if you think it looks inviting now, try it after sunset!).

We had lobster ravioli and red snapper here, followed by gelato and complimentary glasses of grappa with coffee beans floating in them, all very good. Here's the fish:

Another rich and seafoody meal along Restaurant Row--with yet another order of lobster ravioli, these even more luscious than those at Il Nettuno--came from L'Escapade, where we feasted on sea bass with mushroom and asparagus ravioli (Mr. Tart) and a Thai-influenced soup of sorts with huge shrimp, huge scallops, and lobster tail in a lemongrass-coconut milk base (me). I wanted to lick the bowl! And then dessert: chocolate mousse, dense and puddingy, for him and a combination of two of my favorite French desserts for me: chocolate profiterole crepes. The crepes became the wrappers for the cream puffs (profiteroles), with ice cream inside and several sauces (one fruity, one chocolate) drenching the ginormous puffs. (This is the one dish we tasted in St. Martin that I think I could attempt at home without a recipe!)

(This photo, courtesy L'Escapade's website, doesn't do justice to those decadent puffs. But it still makes me want to lick the plate.)

Mr. Tart's favorite restaurant on St. Martin, though, was Le Cottage. He still raves about the food, the atmosphere, the sommelier, and wishes that we had had time to go back before we left the island! But who wouldn't, after experiencing their Five Course Lobster Tasting Menu?! Picture this:

Lobster bisque...

Lobster and pineapple carpaccio (the lobster not raw, but sliced mandolinely thinly along with the pineapple) in a passionfruit and lime marinade, accompanied by arugula salad in a savory tuile and--get this--a foamy shot of the Caribbean classic Ti-Punch, a coconut planter's punch with spiced rum...

Lobster ravioli in coconut milk (can you tell we like this sort of dish?) flavored with galangal and tiny minced vegetables, served with a Granny Smith apple and coconut salad...

Roasted lobster meat in homemade squid ink fettucine, served with the carapace of the lobster standing up proudly like a Caribbean erection...

And then dessert, which thankfully didn't imply an Iron Chef-esque attempt to turn the theme ingredient into a strange sweet or ice cream: four small scoops of delicate sorbets (peach, strawberry, lemon verbena, and rose) whose bottom halves were dipped in a chocolate sauce that solidified and cupped them so that they could be placed on a long rectangular platter painted with more chocolate sauce in the shape of musical staff, forming the base of chocolate muscial notes, with a tuile cookie guitar and a puff pastry treble clef thrown in for good measure (pun intended). Wow.

Again, the website photo looks flat (okay, that pun also intended) compared to the real thing!

Oh, and the house cocktail is Champagne with lychee liqueur and red fruit liqueur. Very sprightly! I nibbled on my generous hubby's lobster dishes when not eating my appetizer (marinated escargots alongside a baby zucchini whose flower, still attached, boasted a mushroom mixture) and main course (a vegetarian concoction of caramelized onions and spinach and tomato concasse, stacked layer upon layer, each section separated with a parmesan crisp).

What struck us most about the gourmet restaurants in Grand Case was that they were entirely non-stuffy, non-pretentious, non-intimidating. As it was the off-season, the proprietors stood on the steps and called out to the tourists as we walked past, offering free cocktails, inviting us in, or simply greeting us. No one dressed up--not the patrons, not the servers, not the sommeliers. (We even showed up at the Sunset Cafe restaurant for lunch in bathing suits and then ate 20-euro mussels!) True, the bottled waters were served in a white wine ice bucket--but that reflects the weather rather than the snootiness of the establishment. And while the meals were pricey, at least the portion sizes were American rather than French.

Stay tuned for my final St. Martin post about the opposite end of the food spectrum: passionfruit daiquiris on the beach, stewed goat, grilled lobster at a shack, and lentils in the treetops....

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

a new addition to the food movie canon

Just in case you haven't seen it already, I just want to say: go see Ratatouille! I think it's now my favorite animated feature (dare I say it slightly edges out Triplets of Belleville?), and it's up there on my list of favorite food movies, right alongside Big Night, Babette's Feast, etc. The script is intelligent, the animation is gorgeous -- actually, it just might be my favorite movie this year, animation or no. It felt like a work of art rather than a kids' cartoon cash cow. The audience applauded at the end. How often does that happen in a movie theater?

The Pixar animators took cooking lessons so they would understand how chefs move in the kitchen, how they handle their knives, that sort of thing. Another thing they say they struggled with in the early stages was making the animated food look really good. The solution? Bring Thomas Keller of the French Laundry on board as a consultant. There's a pivotal scene where a notoriously cranky food critic has a Proust's madeleines sort of moment with the title dish - Thomas Keller determined what that very important ratatouille would look like (read more about that here). Apparently he also voiced one of the minor characters, which I didn't realize when I saw it. (Ferran Adria of El Bulli voices one in the Spanish version.)

Also, there's a scene along the Seine in Paris that made me want to go back there, right now. The animators got the City of Light exactly right. What a great movie.

Which leads me to a question -- what are your favorite food movies? I could use some new ideas for rentals ...


Monday, July 09, 2007

In winter, the NY Times brought us the infamous No-Knead Bread, the bread that became the darling of the food blogging world. And now, in another moment of the sublime made easy, they bring us: butter!

I don't know why this hasn't already shown up on every food blog in creation. Patterson's instructions are easy-peasy. Read the article for details, but the basic process is 1) Beat cream 2) Drain buttermilk 3) Knead butter. It took 15 minutes and it's truly amazing butter. I want to eat it by the spoonful. I just might.

This approach is not really about saving money. The cream cost me about $6 (although I probably could have got it cheaper). For my money I got 2 cups of butter and 2 cups of buttermilk. Patterson gives a few recipes for the buttermilk--they all look great. I haven't tried anything with the buttermilk yet, but I'll let you know.

Now that you are done reading, don't waste time for comments. Just make some butter!

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

an easy, luscious summer dessert

The farmers' markets here in D.C. are starting to explode: The first honest-to-goodness dirt-grown tomatoes, the sweet corn, and the peaches all made their debut at my local market today. The peaches I bought were ripe but still firm, and I found some locally made mascarpone, so I made this based on something I remember reading about in the Washington Post food section. We had it with a very tasty dessert wine (Bonny Doon Vineyards' Muscat Vin de Glaciere) that I'd been saving for the right accompaniment:

Grilled Peaches with Mascarpone, Basil & Tupelo Honey

Slice peaches in half and remove pits (for grilling, it's important that the peaches not be overripe); rub a little olive oil on both sides. Preheat the grill; meanwhile, chop some basil and mix it into some mascarpone cheese (enough to put a dollop in each peach half). Put the peach halves cut side down on the grill; grill two or three minutes on each side. The peaches should be fragrant, lightly charred and heated through, but they shouldn't start to collapse. Put a dollop of the basil mascarpone in each peach half, drizzle with honey and top with a little more basil.

It was just Mark and me tonight, but this would be a fabulous dinner-party dessert for when it's too hot to turn on the stove and you want to impress guests with something that tastes much more sophisticated than it should.

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Dinner at Komi

Last weekend, Mark and I celebrated our anniversary with dinner at Komi. I don't know if I mentioned this in my account of our January meal at Komi, but the waitstaff and other front-of-house people there really are fantastic. Johnny Monis' food may be amazing, but that's not the only special thing going on at Komi. You know how at a lot of restaurants of this type, the unspoken message is "you don't deserve to eat here and you can't understand what artistes we are; be grateful we're serving you at all"? Well, at Komi we were actually greeted warmly at the door. The attitude of the servers here is more like, "We love food, and we know you probably do too, or you wouldn't be here." They are true professionals. We asked our server lots of questions, and he always had well-informed answers. We even chatted briefly about The Omnivore's Dilemma (when I asked where they get their quail eggs from).

Anyway, the tasting menu begins with the mezzethakia, a flight of eight or so amuse-bouche-sized treats. You don't order them off a menu -- it's a series of surprises, which makes it my favorite part of the meal. We started with a couple of house-cured olives, and they were so much cleaner-tasting than most. The brine wasn't especially salty or vinegary, so the taste was like a really good, fruity olive oil --an apt flavor with which to begin a Mediterranean-influenced meal. Next came wedges of radish topped with a bit of butter and salmon roe, the salty component in a riff on the French radishes-with-butter-and-salt thing. (Mark's came with thin shavings of garlic scape instead.) Oh, and with these first couple of mezze, we were served a Greek sparkling wine. Next came the mascarpone-stuffed date I've been craving since January. Still heavenly.

At about this point we were poured a really good Spanish albarino (sorry, I don't know how to add the tilde character in Blogger), along with two small grilled Padron peppers and a shot-glass-sized serving of gazpacho. I *think* our server told us there was roasted beet in there. Whatever it was, I heartily approve. After that was some octopus, a thin slice of avocado, and a quail egg atop black lentils. Next came a corn fritter with anchovy aioli (Mark's had saffron aioli, and I think his was better, but then I do love saffron). Then a little pita sandwich with oxtail and tzatziki (I remember this one from last time, only this time it also had beet in it). And finally, a bit of watermelon topped with whipped feta, the only mezze I wasn't crazy about. I just don't know about watermelon and cheese. There were a couple other wines during the mezze course; Mark took surreptitious notes, but now that I've waited so long to do this post, these notes are cryptic. I know we had wines from Santorini (who knew there was any part of Santorini used for anything but tourism?) and the Piedmont region of Italy because the notes tell me so. Oops.

Next, the pasta course. Mark had something with gorgonzola (and with it, a merlot/grenache blend); I had fava bean agnolotti with chorizo and garlic scapes and a curry emulsion (served with a gewurztraminer). It was good, but I thought the chorizo overwhelmed the delicate favas just a little.

My entree was roasted squab with asparagus, morel mushrooms, morcilla sausage and trotters, served with a Spanish rioja. When ordering, I inquired as to what trotters were. The short answer? Pig's knuckles. The magic of Komi is that I didn't care. They were delicious (they were part of a fritter). And now I'm cursing these notes, because all Mark wrote down about his entree was this: "Vegetables." And he's gone to bed now, so I can't inquire. (Perhaps tomorrow he'll weigh in in the comments section and share more details.)

Next we were given a little taste of olive oil gelato: so simple, so unexpected. If you've ever had really good olive oil, you understand what a great flavor that is. (And now we've come full circle from the olives we started the meal with!) This was a prelude to dessert: coconut panna cotta for Mark, a cornmeal crepe with mascarpone for me.

And they still bring out lollipops with the check: this time, lime and juniper flavored -- "like a gin & tonic," our server said. And indeed, it did taste like a G&T: a whimsical end to another amazing meal from Monis & Co.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

at the market: cherries

My life is all about cherries these days: brandied cherries, cherry pie filling (stowed away in my new freezer), dried cherries, cherry sorbet, sour cherry syrup (a recipe from July's Gourmet). With such a short season, they should be enjoyed--shoved into my mouth as quickly as possible--while they last. My fingers have turned a brownish-red from all of the cherries I've been handling.

My favorite concoction, though, from all of the cherry mania is a cherry green olive tapenade. The tapenade came about because I was wondering whether my new cherry pitter would also make a good olive pitter. Then I started thinking about how olives and cherries have basically the same texture. How would they taste together?

I searched for a tapenade recipe with cherries and olives, but I didn't find anything. A bad idea, perhaps? Oh well, I figured I had nothing to lose but a few cherries. And a few pricey olives.

I always feel a little proud when my kitchen experiments turn out. This one still needs a little tweaking and I have to admit that I didn't keep track of the amounts I used, but here's the basic idea.

Green Olive and Cherry Tapenade

Green Olives (I used lucques)
Bing Cherries
Toasted Pine Nuts
Lemon Juice
Olive Oil

Chop everything up (using amounts you find satisfactory). Toss in lemon juice and olive oil to taste. Serve with bread or make a make a sandwich with a little cheese.