Midtown East: La Pecora Bianca

After debuting its first location in NoMad in 2015, the Midtown East branch of La Pecora Bianca opened with some neighborhood buzz in October 2017. I recall chatting about it in expectation with the folks across the street at Somm Time just before opening. In the weeks afterward, it turned into somewhat of a hang for the somms, and it did for us too! The restaurant would feature locally-sourced produce and meat, pastas made with ancient and whole grains, and an Italian wine list. I have to admit that the first thing that caught my eye on the menu was Produttori del Barbaresco by the glass. I had a feeling right then that this could be our kind of place.

We booked a table during opening week. Dining at a restaurant during opening is always interesting, because it’s not a question of whether things will go wrong—they will!—it’s a question of how the staff will handle them. On this night, our only tribulation was a bit of a wait for our table, and for this trouble we were offered a nice cheese plate as we waited by the bar. They passed the test with flying colors!

Since then, Pecora has found its way into our regular rotation. The food here is what you might call mainstream modern Italian. This is neither fine dining, nor old-school, but it’s good, and it leans healthy. We have sampled salads, pastas, fish and seafood, and while there haven’t been any dishes that we dream about at night (hello cacio e pere at Felidia!) everything is good enough to keep us coming back, the pastas in particular. I was pleased to see a bucatini cacio e pepe, previously a special, make it to the regular menu. Arancini have been on the menu since opening. While Pecora no longer offers Produttori by the glass, there is almost always a good Produttori, sometimes a reserve, available by the bottle, along with other solid Brunellos and Super-Tuscans. Cocktail service is good, and they pass the Plymouth gin test.

The main dining area is rather large, on the bright side and with a volume level approaching high (although nowhere near the cacophony of the nearby Smith). These are not our favorite attributes for a dining room, but somehow Pecora makes it all work. This is a very solid choice for entertaining out-of-town guests. Breakfasts and brunches, during which the scene is not as lively as dinner, are also good options.

Details

La Pecora Bianca
950 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10022
https://www.lapecorabianca.com/location/midtown/
(212) 899-9996

What’s fermenting: Easy Homemade (Vegan) Kimchi

You might say I caught the fermentation bug from kimchi.

Salty, spicy, sour, with a slightly crunchy edge, this staple of Korean cuisine makes a deliciously addictive addition to everything from fried rice to tacos to sourdough pancakes to grilled cheese sandwiches.

You can buy small jars of artisanal versions for upwards of $10. I’m here to tell you it’s easy–and satisfying–to make at home.

The active prep time is minimal. But with all the resting/fermenting required, it’ll be four days at the very least until you have kimchi that’s ready to eat. The ingredients are: Napa cabbage, daikon (Japanese radish), scallions, ginger, garlic, salt, sugar, plus a Korean a hot red pepper powder called gochugaru (available at specialty stores such as Kalustyan’s here in NYC and also online). Traditional non-vegan recipes include fish sauce and dried shrimp.

Vegan kimchi ingredients: Napa cabbage, ginger root, scallions, daikon, garlic, salt, sugar, korean chile powder
Vegan kimchi ingredients: Napa cabbage, ginger root, scallions, daikon, garlic, salt, sugar, gochugaru.

Kimchi relies on the same probiotic (human-friendly) bacterium for its fermentation as sauerkraut: lactobacillus acidophilus. The bacteria are naturally present on the cabbage leaves and just need a little encouragement. That encouragement comes in the form of salt and being packed tightly in a container deprived of oxygen. Both of these things kill off the competing (human-unfriendly) bacteria, giving the lactobacillus acidophilus freedom to take over. (If you’re interested in reading more about the subject, I highly recommend books by Sandor “Sandorkraut” Katz.)

I made my very first batch of vegan kimchi three years ago. I’d never tried my hand at making any fermented foods before and, to be honest, felt a little apprehensive about adding dried shrimp to something that was going to be sitting unrefrigerated on my kitchen countertop for over 24 hours. Plus shrimp and the fish sauce were just another two ingredients I’d need to buy. I decided to try a vegan recipe instead, and found a great one from J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats. It’s possible to simply skip the seafood and leave it at that. But he substitutes miso paste to give the finished product extra tasty umami depth.

I’m a much more confident home fermenter now, but am hooked on this vegan version of kimchi (one day I’m going to try the shrimp). I make it regularly, and over the years have adjusted the ingredients and prep method slightly to my preferences. Traditional recipes call for whole Napa cabbage leaves–or, for larger batches, an intact, whole head of it, with the seasonings packed between the leaves (cool video here). But I found tearing the leaves into smaller pieces made them easier to handle every step of the way. They were easier to salt, easier to mix with the chili paste, and easier to pack in–and pull out of–jars.

I also learned the measurements don’t need to be exact. If you only have three scallions on hand instead of six, three scallions will do just fine. Same goes for garlic and ginger–and the hot pepper. You even have some leeway with the amount of salt. As for the countertop fermentation, 24 hours is a basic minimum, but in cooler weather I let it go for about 36. The kimchi will get more and more sour as the process goes on. Once it’s in the fridge, fermentation will continue but at a much slower rate. Feel free to adjust to your own tastes.

Vegan Kimchi

(adapted from J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats)

  • 1 head of Napa cabbage (1-2 lbs)
  • 2-3 tablespoons non-idodized salt (kosher or sea salt)
  • 6 scallions, trimmed, greens separated from white parts, and cut into 2-3 inch lengths
  • fist-sized piece of daikon (Japanese radish), peeled and cut into matchsticks approx. 1/4 inch thick
  • 5 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2-inch knob of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped coarsely
  • 1/2 cup gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder)
  • 2 tbs miso paste (I used low sodium)
  • 1 tbs sugar (I used dark brown but any kind will do)
  • water

Remove core from bottom part of Napa cabbage. Tear leaves into small pieces and place in a large bowl. Add scallion greens and daikon matchsticks. Add salt a little at a time to bowl, mixing to distribute among the leaves. Cover with a cloth and allow to wilt for 6-12 hours. Stir as needed to redistribute salt. The vegetables should release 1/4-1/2 cup water.

In a food processor, combine scallion whites, garlic, ginger, gochugaru, miso, and sugar. Whir for a few seconds to form a coarse paste.

Combine paste with the cabbage mixture in a bowl. Add 1/4 cup of water and either stir with a spoon or knead with hands until the paste is evenly distributed. Taste for desired saltiness and adjust as necessary. Pack into a large jar, pressing down with the back of a spoon to release any trapped air pockets and allow some liquid to rise to the surface until the vegetables are completely submerged. Tighten lid on jar.

Allow to sit at room temperature 24-36 hours. Open jar after 12 hours or so to release gasses. Place in fridge. Can be consumed in 48 hours and keeps for a month or two. Note: Kimchi will become softer and more sour as time goes on.

Midtown East: Tacovision

When we heard that the folks at Crave Fishbar were opening a taco joint in our hood, we were thrilled. Crave is our go-to seafood restaurant in Midtown East, and it’s got a lot going for it: great oysters, a solid wine list, healthy and delicious fish and seafood options, and a really lively dining-at-the-bar scene. So we had high hopes for Tacovision, the team’s new taco bar on East 53rd Street. With the Crave pedigree, we were expecting great fish and seafood options, as well as solid vegetarian and vegan choices. In short, we were not disappointed.

We visited TV—as the cool kids already call it, no doubt—on taco Tuesday. In addition to $6 margaritas, they were featuring a $3 brussels sprouts taco. There are plenty of options for us non-carnivores, with four vegan taco options, and four pescatarian. We went with three of each, and also opted for vegetarian nachos. The nachos were serious business, piled high with kale and cauliflower, beans, and cheese—decidedly not nachos “Flanders’ style!” All of the tacos were great, with the fried cod taking first place in our ranking. The house-made blue corn tortillas were very good. The $6 margs were good too. We ordered them up, and they came cold, an in an appropriately-sized cocktail glass.

With the departures of some good, and some not so good, Mexican and taco joints, Midtown East is currently a little underserved for tacos. Sure, there are solid upscale versions at Pampano and Rosa Mexicano (as well as Maya and Cascabel a little further uptown). So Tacovision has a sporting chance of finding a solid niche. The block of 53rd between 2nd and 3rd is already home to some of our neighborhood favorites: Doug Quinn’s saloon Hudson Malone, underground Japanese whiskey and jazz bar Tomi Jazz, as well as an outpost of the Kati Roll Company. Tacovision is a welcome addition to the block and to the hood.

Details

Tacovision
244 E 53rd St, New York, NY 10022
https://tacovisionnyc.com/
(646) 921-1990

Vincent Price, Horror Actor…Cookbook Author

I’ve always loved Vincent Price’s ghoulish persona as a horror actor. He combined rarefied charm with an uncanny creepiness. But he was also clearly having fun, and he wanted us all to be in on it.

He brought that same generous sense of fun to his work as a cookbook author. In 1965, he and his British-born, costume designer wife, Mary Price, published the first of what would be several celebrity cookbooks: A Treasury of Great Recipes.

The globe-trotting couple collected house recipes from chefs at their favorite restaurants across Europe, the United States, and Mexico. There are many NYC stalwarts from years gone by (The Four Seasons (RIP), Trader Vic’s (RIP), Sardi’s, Gage and Tollner’s (RIP, but returning soon?)). Everything is adapted for the 1960s American home cook. The ingredients are simple and the recipe headnotes are encouraging (“If you can lay brick you can frost a cake”… ok, maybe not the best example). The Prices vividly describe the history and ambiance of each restaurant in before getting to the recipes. Full menus are reprinted too (can you believe sea bass at The Four Seasons used to cost $4.65?)

Vincent Price Cookbook Gage and Tollner's
The Prices visit Brooklyn’s storied restaurant, Gage and Tollner’s

I snagged a vintage copy online about 10 years ago for around $20–roughly the same as what it listed for back in 1965. It’s a lush volume: gold-embossed, padded cover (think Ottolenghi’s oh-so-huggable Plenty), with two sewn-in satin ribbon bookmarks. Very deluxe.

I was tickled to learn the book was re-issued in 2015 for its 50th anniversary. No more cushy cover, but now with a preface by the late Prices’ daughter, Victoria, plus a foreword by Wolfgang Puck. A well-deserved return from the publishing grave.

Vincent Price Cookbook Mobile Home Entertaining
The Prices entertain guests on the go in their elegant mobile home

By the way, are you getting a Halloween pumpkin this year? Chester and I got one, but haven’t carved it yet. Once we do, we’re going to put the seeds to good use. Here’s a recipe for pepitas à la curry that Emilio Gonzalez, then owner of Sobrino de Botín in Madrid, shared with with the Prices during one of their visits. The original specifies commercially hulled pumpkin seeds (aka pepitas), but we’re going to give whole seeds a try.

Pepitas à la Curry (Curried Pumpkin Seeds)

(adapted from A Treasury of Great Recipes by Mary and Vincent Price)

  • 1/4 cup curry powder
  • 1-1/4 cup warm water
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 1 tsp salt
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 2 cups pumpkin seeds (original recipe specifies commercially hulled pumpkin seeds, aka pepitas)
  • a few tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 225

In a saucepan mix the curry powder, 1/4 cup of the warm water, garlic, salt, and lime juice. When smoothly blended, add the remaining water and heat, stirring constantly until liquid simmers.

Add the pumpkin seeds and simmer, but do not boil, for 5 minutes. Drain (you can save the curry mixture to use again for another batch, adding more water when you do).

Spread pumpkin seeds on a cookie sheet. Dot with butter and sprinkle with salt. Toast in a very slow oven until crisp.

Happy Halloween!

What’s fermenting: Union Square Greenmarket Sauerkraut

Friday was a gorgeous day in New York, perfect for our weekly visit to the Union Square Greenmarket. Who knows how many more days we will have like this? Traditionally, end of harvest is the last chance to ferment, can, and store food for the rough season ahead. Even though we already have plenty on hand, we stopped off at the Oak Grove Plantation stall to get another beautiful batch of chilis for this year’s fermented hot sauce production. We also picked up some green and red cabbage, and bolero carrots for our latest fermentation project, sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is not exactly a staple of ours, but Nora has been making excellent homemade kimchi for a couple of years now, and we thought this would be a good time to branch out.

I grew up in a very Polish household. Every house we lived in had either a proper root cellar, or various nooks in the basement where my mother squirreled away mass quantities of canned foods and homemade treasures: dill pickles, jams, and always a giant vat of sauerkraut. You may think that the Polish national dish is pierogi or cabbage rolls, but in fact, that honor goes to bigos. Bigos is a hunter’s stew made sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, and various meats. Growing up, it was served at pretty much every formal dinner my parents had with their various friends and relatives. I never really cared for it as a kid, and haven’t really had the opportunity to try it since becoming a pescatarian over twenty-five years ago. We will try out some vegetarian bigos recipes in coming weeks. I am also really dying to try a vegetarian Reuben sandwich recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 head green cabbage
  • 1 head red cabbage
  • 4 carrots
  • Sea salt

Method

  1. Clean cabbages and retain some of the outer leaves.
  2. Scrub and trim 4 carrots, do not peel.
  3. Shred each cabbage into a large mixing bowl.
  4. With a peeler, shred the carrots into the mixing bowl.
  5. Mix to evenly distribute the cabbages and carrots.
  6. Weigh the shredded cabbage and carrots, add 2% salt by weight.
  7. Let sit for 5-10 minutes.
  8. With both fists, take handfuls of the mixture and squeeze, to release the moisture. Keep doing this until water flows from the cabbage like wringing a wet sponge.
  9. Tightly pack mixture into Mason jars or sauerkraut crock.
  10. Take some of the outer cabbage leaves and use as a ‘lid’ inside the jar or crock. Push down to make sure all is submerged by the brine.
  11. NB: if using a lidded Mason jar, you must periodically loosen the jar or open the lids to allow gasses to escape. Fermentation will be at its most vigorous for the first few days.
  12. Periodically taste. After a few days, it will be crispy and fresh tasting, for weeks and months after that, it will develop sourness and deeper flavors. Eat it when you like it!

Notes

The main vessel we are using to ferment this is a 1.5L vintage Le Parfait Super Jar that Nora found at the Housing Works Thrift Shop. We closed the lid when we packed it, and by Saturday evening, the gas buildup was substantial, opening the lid released a violent spritz of purply brine. After that, we have mostly been keeping the lid loose. When first shredding all the cabbage, it seemed like it would be an enormous volume, but that went down after the squeezing step, and went down further after packing into the jar.

Looking at recipes, a 2% salt by weight appears to be a common target. For folks like us, who are watching our sodium intake, that may be a bit too much. Sandor Katz recommends salting to taste.

Homemade Yogurt the Sous Vide Way

I’ve always been wary of unitaskers in the kitchen, those one-trick pony gadgets that get used for a few short weeks or months before falling into back-of-cupboard oblivion. But after watching a demo video on America’s Test Kitchen, it was clear a sous vide machine could offer big multitasker potential.

If you’re not already familiar, sous vide machines (aka immersion circulators) are devices that warm up water to a set temperature, and hold it steadily for a slow, precisely-controlled cook. The latest generation of machines are small–about the size of a stick blender. You can use them with any large container you have on hand to hold the water bath (dutch ovens are a go-to choice). Depending on the recipe, the food goes into a waterproof (plastic or silicone) bag or a jar.

Because they maintain such a reliably precise temperature, they’re easy to use. No stirring or flipping necessary. And no scorching or overcooking. Just preheat the water, set the timer, and the machine does the rest.

Right out of the box, Chester dove in and was soon making perfectly cooked shrimp for shrimp cocktails, poached eggs simmered right in their shells, and dried beans cooked so gently their skins stayed intact. The only dish that got mixed reviews was salmon: Chester loved it for its lightly cooked tenderness, but I found myself craving something crisper-edged and more well-done.

I’d been meaning to try my hand at homemade yogurt for a long time, but didn’t have a dedicated yogurt maker (unitasker), and hadn’t gotten around to investigating work-arounds like thermoses, heating pads, pre-heated ovens and the like. But the sous vide machine made my first attempt easy.

The only ingredients you need for yogurt are milk and a few tablespoons of plain yogurt with live cultures.

For the milk, I chose whole, non-homogenized, but lowfat would work well too. For the yogurt, I looked for something without additives (many brands add thickening agents), containing just whole milk and bacterial cultures.

The basic steps are simple: preheat the sous vide, warm the milk, cool the milk, whisk in the yogurt, place the mixture in jars in the sous vide bath, set the timer and wait.

I checked on my yogurt-in-progress a couple of times as it sat in its warm bath, and was amazed at how quickly the bacterial cultures got down to business. The milky mixture began to show signs of setting within the first hour. By the time I checked again, 8 hours in, it was definitely yogurt. I tasted a little and it had a familiar creamy texture, but was still a little bland. I let it go another few hours until it took on that classic tangy flavor.

Sous Vide Yogurt

  • 1 quart milk
  • 3 tablespoons plain, full fat yogurt

Fill a large dutch oven or other large, flat-bottomed container with water until it reaches the level of the sous vide jet. Preheat to 110F.

Gently heat the milk in a saucepan, stirring constantly until it reaches 180F. Turn off heat and immerse the saucepan in an ice bath until the temperature of the milk drops to 110F. Whisk in yogurt. Pour mixture into jars (I used two 32-ounce wide-mouth mason jars, filling each half way, level with the water line, then combined them into a single jar when the yogurt was ready). Screw lids on jars, securely, but not too tight. Set timer for 12 hours. Remove from water bath and stir. Chill in refrigerator.