Tag Archives: Mistral

Beard Awards: Big-time Semi-finalists from NJ; Food Photography Lesson; Marvelous Meyer Lemons

Jersey Chefs Up for National & Regional Awards

I was thrilled to see 3 Garden Staters on the national lists and another 3 up for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic among the semi-finalists for the 2014 James Beard Awards, which were announced earlier this week.

Maricel Presilla

Maricel Presilla

Marc Vetri

Marc Vetri

Congrats to Maricel Presilla and Marc Vetri for their nominations as Outstanding Chef in the U.S. – Presilla for Cucharamama in Hoboken and Vetri for Vetri in Philadelphia. But because he crossed river this year with Osteria in Moorestown Mall, I’m claiming him for NJ! I can’t stop myself from including another name here: Gabrielle Hamilton, who’s nominated for her work at her NY restaurant, Prune. But since she was raised in Lambertville, I’m labeling her NJ, too.

Ben Nerenhausen & Scott Anderson. Courtesy PrincetonInfo.com

Ben Nerenhausen & Scott Anderson. Courtesy PrincetonInfo.com

Congrats also to Ben Nerenhausen of Mistral in Princeton, who is nominated for Rising Star Chef in the U.S.

Congrats, finally, to these 3 who are among the 20 nominees for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic region: Scott Anderson, Elements; Joey Baldino, Zeppoli; Lucas Manteca, The Red Store. What’s particularly gratifying to me is that all 3 restaurants are in the southern half of the state – Princeton, Collingswood, and Cape May, respectively – which has long played second fiddle to the more populous metropolitan areas up north.

A dandy showing! Good luck to all.

Want to improve your food photography?

Lord knows I need to! We’ll get the chance on Sunday, March 9th when professional photographer Frank Veronsky of Princeton Photo Workshop presents “Shoot It & Eat It” at Tre Piani in Forrestal Village. During the 3-hour class, guests will first photograph and then down a 3-course dinner. Click here for details and to register.

My Meyer Lemon Madness (with recipes)

(Adapted from my “In the Kitchen” column in the Princeton Packet of 2/28/14)

Meyer lemons 006

A few years ago I fell hard for sweet, floral Meyer lemons at San Francisco’s Ferry Building Farmers Market. At the time they weren’t regularly available around these parts, so my San Fran-based daughter, witness to my infatuation, thoughtfully gave me a dwarf Meyer lemon tree for Christmas. My sapling arrived months later, complete with excellent instructions for potting and growing, from Four Winds Growers based in Winters, CA.

Meyer Lemon brochure 002Here in Zone 7 the tree must winter indoors. It took three growing seasons, but this past summer mine produced 5 big beauties (pictured above) that ripened just before the first frost. (A 6th was still small and green; more on that later). I was so excited, I planned an entire dinner party for 4 guests around those 5 lemons.  For inspiration I turned to this L.A. Times article: “100 Things to Do with a Meyer Lemon.”

Here’s my menu:

Meyer lemon feast 013Nibbles & drinks: Marcona almonds; hefeweizen beer with slices of Meyer lemon
Main: Roasted monkfish with Meyer lemon salsa; basmati rice; zucchini and sliced Meyer lemons
Dessert: Meyer lemon-almond cake with Meyer lemon Chantilly cream

As you can tell, I stretched my quintet as far as it could go. I even used the lemon leaves for table decor. ??????????

Amazingly, the dinner did not result in Meyer lemon overload and, with one exception, was wildly successful. Beer and Meyer lemon is a match made in heaven, although it takes a few minutes for the lemon to assert itself. I chose monkfish for its dense, meaty, snow-white flesh, but found the salsa, which contained shallots and olives as well as the fruit, bitter and overpowering. Next time I’ll substitute the compound butter I’ve included in the recipe below. On the other hand, the combination of thin rounds of zucchini and even thinner ones of lemon sautéed together in olive oil was a revelation! I may never make zucchini without lemon again.

??????????Without a doubt, though, the Meyer lemon-almond cake, a variation on one of Claudia Roden’s, stole the show. It has the texture of a tea cake and is as simple to make. It’s good on its own, and its flavor even deepens overnight, but I felt compelled to gild the lily by adding Chantilly cream flavored with Meyer lemon.

??????????

As to the fate of that last green fruit left on the tree: It continued to grow indoors, albeit at a greatly reduced pace. Just as it became full, ripe, and ready for plucking, this recipe from Bobby Flay for Meyer lemon potatoes the New York Times. It turned out to be the perfect coda to my Meyer lemon season.

ROASTED MONKFISH WITH MEYER LEMON COMPOUND BUTTER
Serves 4.

1-1/4 pounds monkfish, in one piece (tuna can be substituted)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 cloves garlic, sliced very thin
Salt & pepper, to taste
For the Meyer lemon compound butter:
1/2 stick butter, softened to room temperature
Zest of 1 Meyer lemon
1-1/2 teaspoons flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme, leaves only
Salt & pepper to taste

  1. Make the compound butter: Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Mash and stir until well blended. Set aside.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat an oven-safe baking dish with oil.
  3. Make a series of small incisions on both sides of the fish, and insert a sliver of garlic into each cut. Rub or brush fish with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  4. Place fish in prepared dish and roast in preheated oven for about 15 minutes, or until just opaque and cooked through. Slice fish into thick, diagonal slices and serve with compound butter at room temperature.
    Serves 4.

Chefs’ 1st & Best Food Memories; 2 Reviews: Montclair & Bernardsville

Happy New Year and, if you’re on the Eastern Seaboard, Happy Snow Day!  A good occasion for cozy reading by the cyber fireside – especially the following recollections by luminaries of the Princeton food scene about their earliest food influences.

From Disney World to Lahore, Pakistan: What Food Experiences Made Big Impressions on Future Foodies

(Adapted from my column in the December 16, 2013 issue of the Princeton Packet)

Each year my final In the Kitchen column is a compilation of answers to a question I pose to a different group of Princeton-area chefs and restaurateurs. The theme is always personal and often lighthearted, such as “My Craziest New Years Eve Ever.” (I just may have to reprise that 2005 gem next year.) This time around I asked two veterans of and two newcomers to the dining scene for their first and/or best food memories.

Newcomers are Ben Nerenhausen, chef at the critically acclaimed Mistral, which opened in May, and Lisa Shao. Shao has owned Hamilton’s Szechuan House for three years, but just weeks ago debuted Peony Pavilion, her Japanese and Asian fusion restaurant on Farber Road (in the space where Sunny Garden reigned for years). The vets are Jim Weaver and Jessica Durrie. Weaver’s restaurant, Tre Piani, celebrated its 15th year at Forrestal Village earlier this year, while Durrie’s Small World Coffee kicked off its 20th anniversary celebration in December. Below, in their own words, are this quartet’s reflections.

Mistral-Logo

Ben Nerenhausen, Mistral, Princeton: While I’m not sure if it’s my best childhood memory, I sure know it’s one of my most memorable.  It happened while we were living in Lahore, Pakistan. I must have been around eight or nine years old at the time, and we had some local friends of ours who invited us out to one of their favorite places for lunch.

We arrived in the neighborhood, which was in one of the poorer areas of town and parked our car. We met our friends who told us from here we would continue on foot. They proceeded to guide us through the maze of side streets and back alley ways, all of which seemed to get smaller, shorter, and dirtier. We finally arrived at our destination. My family and I looked around quizzically. “Where’s the door?” my father asked.  Our friends pointed to a dark staircase that disappeared through an archway. “It’s upstairs” they replied. So our journey continued… After about three rickety flights we finally arrived.

There were no lights. There was no electricity. The soda placed in my hand was warm. Around us were maybe four or five dusky tables set with silverware, napkins, and bowls. In the corner of the room bubbled an enormous vat which smelled of fragrant spices and chilies. We sat down, and immediately warm naan and chapati were laid on the table. The “chef” – or at least the guy standing over the cauldron – began ladling the contents into our bowls. “What was it?” I thought. In my bowl was what appeared to be a boiled hoof surrounded by a bright red broth, thick with gelatin. “Goat” our friends announced emphatically.

Now, over the years I have come to love goat; it’s one of my favorite meats to work with. But for my eight-year-old self, the hoof sticking out of that bowl was a bit of a shock. I picked at the meat. The jelly and collagen stretched and melted away. A wave of panic and disappointment washed over me. I was hungry! I hadn’t eaten breakfast! In my desperation, my eyes fell on the broth. “Aha! There’s no sticky, melty goo in there,” I thought. I cautiously dipped a piece of bread into the savory jus and took a bite. It was amazing! The flavors from all that cooking, the richness of the broth, the complexity of flavors!  I was ravenous, and I quickly sopped up all of the broth in my bowl. To this day I have a fond nostalgia for the flavors and food of this part of the world, and experiences like this one have helped to shape me into the chef I am today. A little more adventurous, a little more appreciative, and a lot more happy.

Peony Pavilion Chilean Sea Bass

Peony Pavilion Chilean Sea Bass

Lisa Shao, Peony Pavilion, West Windsor & Szechuan House, Hamilton: One of my fondest childhood memories of food is a home-cooked dish that my mother used to make for me. It was simple goodness, was satisfying, and always cheered me up. It was fresh farm eggs scrambled with ripe, juicy red tomatoes, a splash of soy sauce and topped with bits of green onions that looked like confetti.

All the ingredients came from local farms in Szechuan Province – an agricultural-rich region – and purchased that day from the market by my mother. I loved the sound of my mom cracking and scrambling the eggs, their mouth-watering fragrance, and finally the beautiful colors presented to me on my plate.

This is my first recollection of when my passion for art, culture, and food began to blossom. Music and dance followed soon thereafter and whenever I heard music I would start to dance, at home or in front of crowds. I still dance today and I also serve my son my favorite dish from my childhood days. I have found that owning restaurants has enabled me to express my love for the arts in a much broader sense to many more people every day. (It is why I have included over 200 photos of the famous 16th century Chinese opera into the interior design of Peony Pavilion.) Being surrounded by and sharing great food, art, and music makes me very happy.

locavore_adventuresJim Weaver, Tre Piani, Forrestal Village: My childhood food experiences were pretty vanilla, but we did get a few fun things from time to time. My earliest memories are of cooking with my grandmothers and learning how to make such masterpieces as scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, and chocolate milk!

I can say I was ruined for life when it came to a couple of items that I did enjoy very much, but I was more like eight or ten years of age. In my town one of my best friends had apple, pear, and peach trees. Eating those crisp, tart apples off the tree was amazing. Come to think of it, when I was even younger we were at Disney World and my father walked me into an orange grove and picked a couple of the fruits. They were like eating candy! Today, I cannot enjoy most of the fruit that you find at the supermarkets or out of season. (If you read the chapter on tomatoes in my book, Locavore Adventures, you’ll learn that fruits have been engineered purposefully to not have the “bite” like they were meant to have because most people prefer bland! UGGGGGGH!!!)

My other experiences were eating super-fresh seafood on Cape Cod where we spent summers. Fishing in either freshwater ponds for bullhead catfish or pickerel, cleaning them in the backyard, and frying them up with cornmeal at my grandfathers side was always a treat. We also went clamming and then enjoyed them within an hour of harvest. Saltwater fishing was also typical and we used to catch ridiculous amounts of wild striped bass – some over 60 pounds each!  Incredible fish, still illegal to buy or sell in NJ due to dated laws and the [lobbying of] recreational fishermen. I was privy to Wellfleet oysters long before they were in vogue and today when it comes to oysters – which I adore and would eat raw long before I could summon the courage to eat a tomato – I cannot eat them unless they are super fresh. Even a few days out of the water and my palate can taste it. Ruined for life!!

Small World Coffee Cafes

Small World Coffee Cafes

Jessica Durrie, Small World Coffee, Princeton: My Dad’s job [he worked for General Motors] took us to Italy in 1969 when I was three-and-a-half years old. We moved into an old farmhouse outside of Rome with eleven acres of vineyards, orchards, vegetable gardens, rabbits and chickens. It was all taken care of by an old farmer, Carlos. During the summer those trees and vines were bursting with fruit. We ran free on this property, and had a big bell to ring so we would know when to come home for meals. I remember the smells of the fields, especially the wild fennel.

One of my favorite activities was collecting pinecones and picking out the seeds, which I would crack with a rock so that I could extract the delicious kernel, a pignole. I’m sure my older siblings showed me how to do this! I also remember the local neighborhood store where we could buy bread smeared with slices of gianduja. I remember afternoons at our babysitter’s house, where the smell of cooking in the kitchen was a constant: tomato sauce, pesto, homemade pasta, pine nut brittle.

As much as all of these memories are so strong and wonderful, I also have to say that when we would go back to the States for “home leave,” my siblings and I would rush to the 7-Eleven, near our beach rental at Stinson Beach in California, and binge on American candy and a Slurpee!

Reviews: Escape in Montclair & Bistro Seven.Three in Bernardsville

Sometimes a restaurant critic just gets lucky. These two are winners.

Escape, Bryan Gregg’s modern takes on Southern food, opened in Montclair earlier this year. Here’s my review, from the December issue of New Jersey Monthly.

That same issue includes my review of Bistro Seven.Three, the latest Mediterranean restaurant from a team of seasoned Bernardsville restaurateurs.