Jacques Torres Chocolate

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I have a friend whose husband, year after year on Valentine’s Day, goes down to the local Duane Reade and gets her the Whitman’s sampler box of chocolates.  You know these chocolates.  They are the ones that seems stocked to the gills with what looks like pepto bismol colored “truffles”.  The one that forces you to take minuscule bites out of the bottom of each one in the vain hope you will find a chocolate covered caramel.  My friend never even bothers to open the box.  He thinks she loves it.  It is one of those quandries of the long relationship – “do you know me at all?” she wonders, while he muses, “good thing I got one before they sold out! She so looks forward to this.”  Now, any gesture on Valentine’s Day is appreciated, but I think this year I am going to pull him aside and tell him he needs to take the subway downtown and get his wife a real box of chocolates at Jacques Torres.

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Jacques Torres is a fabulous chocolate maker.  His hot chocolate is like, well, hot chocolate – not cocoa powder mixed with water or milk.  It is simply thick, melted, decadent chocolate that comes in varying flavors like Mexican hot chocolate (with a bit of spice), peanut butter, orange, white chai, mocha chocolate….the list goes on and changes quite often.

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He has dozens of freshly made truffles and other chocolate treats – any one of which would satisfy a sweet craving for a long time (and would never inspire someone to nibble the bottom first).

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For those who like to cook at home, I really love that he sells his chocolates in those little discs, called pistoles, making it easy to measure chocolate for a sauce without having to chop up a bar.   I use the 60% bittersweet chocolate to make hot chocolate for the kiddos (well, for me too) and the 70% to make some really big and delicious chocolate chip cookies (I also eat more than my fair share of those as well).

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And yes, you can order some of his products online, but this place is the perfect reason to book those tickets to New York immediately and experience this shop in person, which is so much sweeter than opening a box in your house.  Promise.

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Where it is and Why I’ll Miss It:  There are several locations now with more planned in the future:  look at http://www.mrchocolate.com for updates, but for now you can find him in Dumbo (Brooklyn), SoHo, Rockefeller Center and the Upper West Side; delicious chocolate in so many forms.

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Posted in Brooklyn, Midtown West, SoHo, Upper West Side | Tagged | 1 Comment

Levain Bakery

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You know the type of person who has to go somewhere or see something just to say they’ve done it?

“I went to Paris, Barcelona, Vienna, and London – each for one day”.
“I went to this place that serves the world’s biggest burger and ate the whole thing.”

That ain’t me.  I’d rather spend some time in one city and get to know it a little than frantically hop around from place to place.  I’d rather not eat a disgustingly large overcooked burger just to say I’ve done it.

So, when I tell you the cookies at Levain Bakery are divine, I can understand why you’d shrug and say “oh yeah, that place that makes the REALLY BIG cookies?  Such a gimmick.”  I hear you.  But lordie, lordie, those things are legitimately good, regardless of their size.  In fact, I think the size might be one of the secrets to their deliciousness.  They are always sort of crispy on the outside, but gooey in the middle.

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And the flavors are also so great: oatmeal raisin, dark chocolate chocolate chip, chocolate peanut butter chip, or chocolate chip walnut.  You won’t have a favorite.  You’ll want them all, all the time.

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The other treats they offer aren’t so bad either:

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Where it is and why I’ll miss it:  74th and Broadway; a delicious cookie for 2, or 1 if you skip lunch.

Posted in Upper West Side | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Ceci-Cela

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I knew this place was going to be good when my French teacher recommended it.  The croissants and other treats are to die for, the coffee is ….god, it is terrible.  But the croissants totally redeem the place, along with the quaint and cozy back room where you can linger for as long as you like.

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So take some croissants to go or order a tea and hang.  A really nice respite from the craziness of Soho.

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Where it is and why I’ll miss it:  55 Spring Street; delicious croissants and quite place to relax.

 

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Pasta with Brown Butter, Beets, and Poppy Seeds

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I hear you, beets are not your favorite vegetable.  If you had them canned at the cafeteria or dinner table growing up, you might wonder why they grow them at all.  I am with you.  They kind of taste like dirt (or as some say “earthy”) and if you scour the internet for recipes they all seem to lead to a variation on the roasted beet and feta cheese salad.  But, while dining at Babbo during one Christmas season I decided to ask the server which pasta was his favorite.  He told me without hesitation it was a beet ravioli only available on the tasting menu, but he could get me a portion of it as a main course.  Now, at first I wasn’t completely on board with the suggestion.  After all, pasta with a pound of lobster was also on the menu.  But, if the server at Babbo recommends something, don’t be an idiot.  Order it.  Of the many courses we had that night (shared among friends – each of us swearing to order something different from the other), it was the star.  I hadn’t tasted anything like it since, until I saw a Melissa Clark recipe in the New York Times.  Melissa is a funny girl – she will present a recipe with a degree of simplicity and humility that will make you think at first read it is nothing special. Then you will make it and realize she is like an Olympic swimmer – all grace above the surface while working furiously  beneath.

Pasta with brown butter, beets, ricotta and poppy seeds (or pistachios):

1 1/2 cups whole milk ricotta
1/4 tsp. finely grated orange zest, more to taste
1 1/2 tsp. chopped fresh sage
1 1/4 tsp. kosher salt, more as needed
1/2 tsp. black pepper, more as needed
6 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 1/2 lbs. beets, peeled and finely grated in a food processor*
1 1/2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
3/4 lb. fresh or dried cavatelli or rigatoni
1/2 c. freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
1 tsp. poppy seeds**

* You can also do this by hand with a box grater, but to avoid a mess of red juice, I prefer the food processor.

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** What?  Poppy seeds?  Weird.  Should I use it?  Melissa Clark said to use it so, don’t be an idiot, do it.  Or you can use about a quarter cup of chopped pistachios.

1. In a small bowl, combine ricotta, orange zest, and sage.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

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2. In a large heavy skillet over medium heat, melt 5 Tbs. butter.  Cook until foam subsides and butter is a deep hazelnut color (watch carefully that it doesn’t burn, but make sure it browns – I made an impatient version without letting the butter really brown and the resultant dish was just okay, not spectacular).  Stir in beets and season with 1 1/4 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper.  Reduce heat to low, cover and cook until beets are very tender, 10-15 minutes.  Stir in vinegar.  Add more salt and pepper if needed.

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3.  Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta until al dente.  Drain, reserving 1/3 cup cooking liquid.

4. Put pasta in a large warmed serving bowl.  Toss with remaining 1 tablespoon butter, the grated cheese, and most of the reserved liquid.  Toss well; add remaining cooking liquid necessary for a cream consistency.  Stir in beet mixture.  Season with salt and pepper.  Dollop spoonfuls of seasoned ricotta onto pasta; sprinkle with seeds or pistachios and cracked black pepper.

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Babbo

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Several years ago my husband and I had dinner at Babbo a few weeks before Christmas with some friends.  After that meal, we decided to make it an annual event.  It has become my favorite Christmas tradition.  I look forward to it more than a Christmas Eve viewing of “Christmas in Connecticut” with popcorn and a bottle of champagne, the trimming of the tree, or that long cold Christmas Day walk in the park. If you get the chance to eat there, you’ll understand why Babbo has replaced St. Nick in my heart.  I don’t love Babbo simply because the food is always good: I love it because the food is inventive.  It was here that I first began to understand that Italian cooking is so much more than eggplant parmesan or meatballs and sauce.  You won’t find those things on Babbo’s menu.  Rather, you’ll find grilled octopus, charred beef tongue, and lamb belly.  There are some more mainstream options as well (I don’t want to scare you off!), but you will be rewarded for going out of your comfort zone.

I was too embarrassed to take photos of Babbo’s interior, but it is truly beautiful.      When you enter there is a long mahogany bar with a few tables in the front (These are set aside for people without reservations – get there when doors open and you might have a shot at one).  There are more tables in the back and then an upstairs level with more seating.  In the center of the bottom floor there is always a beautifully decorated Christmas tree propped on a table or a huge vase of flowers.  The effect is so elegant and breathtaking.  What makes it awesome is that it contrasts with the menu and music, which are totally rock and roll.

If you arrive early for your reservation, do what my husband I do: head across the street to the North Square Restaurant and Lounge.

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This quaint little restaurant is owned by the hotel next door.  Tell them you would like a drink at the back bar and they will lead you to this cozy little room with a tiny bar where you can have any fancy cocktail you desire.  We are always the only two at the bar and it is great to have time to talk about that amazing  meal to come.

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ICE (Institute of Culinary Education)

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Mixed Fruit Tart

I love to cook.  It is my therapy.  I do it in a room the size of most people’s walk-in closets with one child on my hip and the other tugging on my shirt.  This environment doesn’t always inspire creativity or give me any real pleasure (“ready for another bean and cheese quesadilla for dinner, girls?”), so I love that there is honest-to-goodness school in the City that opens it doors to us commoners and teaches us how to cook.  There are a lot of classes offered at the Institute for Culinary Education – some seem more intense than others.  Personally, I am not looking for anything laid-back – I want something that an actual ICE student might attend.  I want someone to tell me when I’ve done something wrong.  I want to feel like i have really learned something.  I want to cry (well, no I don’t want to cry, but I want to think about crying).  Several years ago I took ICE’s Fine Cooking Skills Level 1 and had the best time.  This year, as a birthday gift, I took Level 2.  It was even better than I remembered.  The instructor, Chef Loren, was not interested in coddling us.  After whipping some cream by hand, my arm aching, I asked if it was the right consistency.  He looked down, furrowed his brow, and said “class, what do soft peaks look like?  They should look like……(searching for someone else’s work)….this.  This (pointing to mine),  is a hard peak.  Sometimes you can save it by adding more heavy cream, but this (gesturing to my over-whipped cream disdainfully) is beyond repair.”

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Filleting Sea Bass

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For $600 you get a total 25 hours of instruction over five days, food and wine included.  I took my classes on consecutive Saturdays, which gave me time away from my kids without having to pay a babysitter.  For the first hour you sit and read through recipes while the chef instructor answers any questions you have or more fully explains things.  Then, for three hours, you team up with a few others and cook like crazy.  It is chaos.  It is intense.  It is like Top Chef (well, no, because our food doesn’t taste that good but you get the idea).  Then, for the last hour, you sit and enjoy your food with a glass of wine or two (and sometimes with mojitos if you are lucky enough to get Chef Loren as an instructor).  For five Saturdays I returned home slightly buzzed and totally inspired.

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Breaded cutlets stuffed with goat cheese; salade grande ferme

Where it is and Why I’ll miss it: 23rd between 5th and 6th; Cooking classes from the real deal.

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Bank Street Book Store

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Every time I step into the Bank Street Book Store I can’t help but believe I will spy Meg Ryan behind the counter, looking adorable (read: pre-plastic surgery), and ready to fall in love with Tom Hanks, because I swear this store must have inspired “The Shop Around the Corner” from the movie You’ve Got Mail.  It is a really beautiful store that will inspire children to read and you to open your wallet.  The first floor houses all the young children’s books and really adorable yet educational toys.

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The top floor has books for young adults.  Although Bank Street Book Store is small compared to some of the other big retailers, it somehow manages to stock every great book you have ever heard of.  Better yet, if you mention a child’s age and interest, any salesperson will be able to recommend to you a fabulous book you haven’t heard of (just like Meg Ryan could in the movie – wink, wink.)  They have book signings, puppet shows, and story time every single day.

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Let’s hope the Bank Street Book Store has a happier ending than the Shop Around the Corner – it really deserves to.

Where it is and Why I’ll miss it:  Located at 112th street and Broadway; beautiful and plentiful book store for children.

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