Articles in People

Waiters, whose every move is choreographed, serve diners at Ultraviolet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

I arrived in Shanghai dreaming of dumplings but instead was invited, by a generous friend, to a quixotic culinary experience that took much time to digest. Ultraviolet is a high-end restaurant-cum-theatrical show. It’s a self-described “multimedia experience” staged for a moneyed audience of 10 in a closed room whose environment is meticulously controlled.

The group was led into the dining hall and held captive at a large table for what seem like an eternity, like an existential scenario from a Buñuel film. A couple dozen tiny, refined plates from a never-changing menu were prepared and served, one after another, by waiters whose every move was carefully choreographed and scripted. Each dish, paired with a drink, was accompanied by projected images, music, even piped-in aromas, all feeding on a philosophical theme. The exhausting show took hours. Awards have been garnered — for the food anyway — which, by the way, is very good in a global, Noma/Bullí sort of way. The theatrical aspect is more dubious. It skirts the edge of ridiculous while managing to keep its intellectual head above water.

Chef Paul Pairet’s creation

A dish unleashes a cloud of white gas as it is served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

A dish unleashes a cloud of white gas as it is served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

It’s no accident that talented French chef Paul Pairet has brought this over-the-top evening of pseudo-avant-garde sensory incitement to Shanghai, one of the most unashamedly commercial cities in the world. Here, in the center of shopping and money, it makes sense. “Why not?” cry critics and gastronomes alike.

All encompassing, audience-involved theater is nothing new. From Strindberg’s difficult-to-perform “A Dream Play” to Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” a theoretical, unrealized experiment in avant-garde spectacle in which the performers would attempt to assault the senses of the spectators, artists have been attempting to expand theater beyond the stage. But never has audience participation been brought to this level, at least in a restaurant. The attempt to juxtapose high-end dining and individual introspection was, at times, jarring.

A parade of images

The table at Ultraviolet is, naturally, shrouded in a purple hue. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

The table at Ultraviolet is, naturally, shrouded in a purple hue. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

While we ate, a parade of images, meant to evoke collective memory, were projected on all four walls. They ranged from spooky to comforting to, at best, beautifully and playfully nostalgic. Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating scene from “The Gold Rush” was shown in its entirety while wintry dishes were served. Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” was recalled during the “picnic.”

Walls were plastered with hundreds of images of Asian dry noodle soup packages (evincing laughter from the several Asians present) while a high-falutin’ version of that fast-food classic was served. Moving images on the wall made the room seem to rise and fall: At one point we dropped into a Dante-esque netherworld as the scene around us fell away. I’m not sure if the bourgeoisie, whose foibles were often brought to the fore — Chaplin, a running leitmotif of fast food — was being patronized or burlesqued. But one did have the sense that this Frenchman is well aware of what he is doing, deconstructing and commenting on the classic multi-course meal.

Then there’s the food

A faux breakfast is one of the many tiny, refined plates served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

A faux breakfast is one of the many tiny, refined plates served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

What do I remember of the food? Little more than theoretical insider jokes that tasted good. One of the very first courses was entitled “Paloma” — it was a light sweet-sour salad of pomelo served in a vitrine which, when lifted, unleashed a cloud of white gas — the dove of peace? The Mexican song “Cucurrucucu Paloma” was heard in the background.

Next a single oyster, dressed with caviar, pepper, lemon and sea foam, was offered while the walls become a calm ocean. At a “picnic,” for which the table was covered with synthetic turf, a dish named “fish Tupperware,” dressed in mayo, recalled simple American/English food, while projected images harkened back to a long-forgotten country outing of the 1920s. Henry Mancini’s campy theme from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” accompanied a faux American “breakfast” — a fitting, albeit ironic, paean.

Pairet, who is obviously trying very hard to do something new, an admirable but nearly impossible goal nowadays, has been quoted as saying that “pretension is my worst enemy” — in which case the enemy lurked behind every carefully constructed shadow. He tries hard to pair food with feeling, to create “edible theater.” I appreciated the effort. I enjoyed the evening immensely, and ate and drank very well indeed, but instinctively resisted the artifice intended to carry me to higher (or lower, for that matter) emotional planes.

In this sense, the experience did not coalesce. Critic Richard Gilman (who happened to be my father) wrote, referring to the avant-garde theater of 50 years ago: “It may be that nothing will come forward as new, unassailable creation. It is surely true that any art comes to find that its own historical momentum becomes the enemy of its renewable prowess.”

I’m not sure if we are heading down a creative cul-de-sac in the increasingly global gastronomic world. I hope not.

Main photo: Waiters, whose every move is choreographed, serve diners at Ultraviolet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

The author wishes to thank Jeffrey Merrihue and www.foodiehub.tv who sponsored this trip to China and Ultraviolet.

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Green and yellow plantains at Carniceria Mimi in Canas, Costa Rica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

I was intimidated by plantains. Having eaten them in Latin American restaurants, I knew they were good when served with roast chicken, rice and beans. But seeing them in the market, I had no idea how to cook them. A trip to Costa Rica changed all that when a chef demonstrated how plantains are easy to prepare and delicious.

Like bananas, their sweet cousins, plantains are naturally fibrous and a good source of potassium.

Although they look like large bananas, they are not edible unless cooked. Primarily starchy, especially when green, plantains also have a stiff, bark-like peel. Delightfully easy to cook, plantains are used to create delicious side dishes.

Available all year round and grown primarily in the southern hemisphere, plantains are cooked in a great many ways — steamed, deep fried, sautéed, boiled, baked and grilled. The same fruit is prepared differently when it is green than when it is yellow or black. The first time I visited a Mexican market in Los Angeles, I noticed bunches of very large bananas with mottled yellow and black skin. I thought the blackened fruit was spoiled. In point of fact, when the peel turns yellow and then black, the starches in the fruit have begun to convert to sugars.

Plantains, yellow or black, will never be as sweet as a banana, but when cooked in this ripened state, they produce a deliciously caramelized side dish or dessert.

In his kitchen at Villa Buena Onda, an upscale boutique hotel on the Pacific Coast in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Provence, Chef Gabriel Navarette demonstrated in a cooking video how easy it is to prepare plantains. In fact, they are so easy to cook, now that I am home, I make them all the time.

Chef Gabriel Navarette with a plate of patacones. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Chef Gabriel Navarette with a plate of patacones. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

The only difficulty with cooking plantains is finding a market that sells them. Not available in supermarkets in many U.S. cities, markets serving the Spanish-speaking community will have plantains. Seek them out because besides selling plantains, the markets will also be a good source of mangoes, papayas, tomatillos, chayote, fresh chilies, Latin spices and a good selection of dried beans and rice.

Navarette demonstrated how to prepare plantains three ways. He stuffed green plantains with cheese and baked them in the oven. He flattened green plantains and fried them twice to make patacones, thick, crispy chips served with pico de gallo, black beans, guacamole or ceviche. And, he caramelized yellow plantains to serve alongside black beans and rice on the wonderful Costa Rican dish called casado, which always has a protein such as chicken, fish, pork or beef.

Villa Buena Onda, or VBO as it is known locally, is an intimate destination. With only eight rooms, the hotel fells like a private home with a personal chef. The price of the room includes all three meals. Navarette and his fellow chefs make each dish to order.

Navarette studied at Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje, a prominent school training professionals in many fields. He worked in resort and hotel kitchens, moving up the ranks from server to line cook, then as a sous chef and finally as the head chef at VBO for the past eight years.

Cooked yellow plantains. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Cooked yellow plantains. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

What attracted me to his food, as well as that of his cousin Diego Chavarria on the weekend and Rosa Balmaceda in the morning, was that each dish tasted home cooked but was plated in the most beautiful, five-star way.

Aided by César Allonso Carballo to translate, Navarette was happy to show me how to cook plantains. I was amazed at how easy they are to cook.

Cooking yellow plantains to use as a side dish or dessert is the essence of simplicity. Simply peel each plantain, heat a half-inch of safflower or corn oil in a carbon steel or cast iron pan over a medium flame, cut the plantain into rounds or in half lengthwise and then cut into 5-inch long sections, fry on either side until lightly browned, drain on paper towels and serve. All that can be done in five to eight minutes and the result is delicious.

The crisp and savory patacones are slightly more complicated to prepare but not much more so.

Patacones from the kitchen of Villa Buena Onda

Yellow or black plantains should not be used to make patacones because they are too soft.

In the restaurant, Navarette uses a deep fryer to cook plantains. That is fast and easy so he can keep up with the orders, but I discovered at home that by using a carbon steel pan I was able to achieve the same result using less oil with an easier clean up.

The oil may be reused by straining out cooked bits and storing in a refrigerated, air-tight container.

Enjoy the patacones with an ice-cold beer and, as the Costa Ricans say, Pura vida! Life is good because everything is OK.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 green plantains, washed

1 cup corn or safflower oil

Sea salt and black pepper to taste (optional)

Directions

1. Cut the ends off each green plantain. Using a sharp knife, carefully cut along the length of the tough peel being careful not to cut the flesh of the plantain. Pry off the peel and discard.

2. Preheat oil in a deep fryer to 350 F or a half-inch of oil in a large sauté pan over a medium flame.

3. Cut each plantain into 5 or 6 equal sized rounds.

4. Place the rounds into the deep fryer for 3 to 4 minutes or until lightly browned. In the sauté pan, turn frequently for even cooking, which should take about 5 to 8 minutes.

5. Remove, drain on paper towels and allow to cool.

6. Prepare one round at a time. Put the round on a prep surface. Place a sturdy plate on top of the round. Press firmly in the middle of the plate until the plantain round flattens, then do all the other rounds.

7. Place the flattened plantains back into the deep fryer for 2 minutes, or 4 minutes in the oil in a sauté pan as before. Turn as necessary in order to cook until lightly browned on all sides.

8. Remove from the oil, place on paper towels to drain and cool.

9. Season with sea salt and black pepper (optional).

10. Serve at room temperature with sides of black beans, pico de gallo, sour cream or ceviche or all four so guests can mix and match.

Main photo: Green and yellow plantains at Carniceria Mimi in Canas, Costa Rica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for ITC Hotels, champions a greener approach. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Chefs can play an important role in the fight against climate change by helping to reduce carbon emissions and sourcing local foods, even when working in luxury hotels.

Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for the eco-award-winning Indian group ITC Hotels, is a champion for a sustainable, greener approach to dining. He oversees the food for all 11 of the company’s Luxury Collection hotels, many of which have multiple restaurants within them.

Showcasing traditional ingredients

Finger millet and charoli nut pancakes are on the breakfast menu at the ITC hotels, Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Finger millet and charoli nut pancakes are on the ITC hotel breakfast menu in Delhi. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“Each ITC hotel maintains a connection to its region through food and architecture,” he says. “In the case of our local foods, we are working alongside Slow Food to showcase forgotten grains and traditional ingredients that can be sourced nearby. In Delhi, for instance, our breakfast offering includes finger millet and charoli nut pancakes with aloe vera and black currant relish, as well as a complex porridge made from seven ancient grains. You can’t be competitive today if you’re not practicing sustainability.”

Indigenous Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the last in a series. Previous stories:

»  Native cultures push for sustainable food solutions

»  The fight to preserve traditional pastureland

» In India, remote villages hold fast to food traditions

ITC is the world’s largest green luxury company and has achieved platinum-level status with the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The hotels recycle their water and solid waste while producing 70 percent of their energy from wind, sun and other renewables.

Gill, a Sikh and lifelong vegetarian, recently participated in Indigenous Terra Madre, held in Shillong, in the northeastern Indian region of Meghalaya. The event brought together representatives from food-making communities around the globe to share knowledge and strengthen connections. He was there with other Indian members of Slow Food’s Chefs’ Alliance, a network of international chefs committed to biodiversity and local food sourcing.

“Food can feed our minds, bodies and souls, but only if it’s ethically sourced,” he says. “In India we also believe that food can’t be nutritious if it’s not tasty, and that it should be a balance of the six tastes: sweet, salt, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent. You must have some of each at every meal. That’s why it’s important to know how to use spices, working with whole spices and only grinding them as they are needed to retain maximum flavor.”

Luxury and sustainability

The Grand Bharat, just outside of Delhi, is an award-winning ITC destination hotel with four restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The Grand Bharat, just outside of Delhi, is an award-winning ITC destination hotel with four restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Gill has plenty of opportunity to expand these ideas in his busy schedule. In Delhi, where the group has several high-end hotels, Gill works closely with the executive chefs of each hotel, as well as with ITC’s state-of-the art training facility.

Not only does the Hospitality Management Institute have full amenities — from teaching kitchens to lecture halls and IT rooms — but trainees get to fine-tune their skills at the five-star Grand Bharat hotel that opened in 2014 in the countryside just south of Delhi. It is already considered one of the world’s top luxury hotels.

“The Grand Bharat was a dream project. It was designed from the ground up, with lots of space, so we were able to include a large farm for growing herbs and vegetables for our own use, as well as construct windmills and solar power stations to supply its energy,” Gill said. Other projects support women in the hotel business, local farmers and animal husbandry practices.

Chef focuses on modern fusion, traditional cuisine

Naan bread bakes in the tandoor oven at Bukhara restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Naan bread bakes in the tandoor oven at Bukhara restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The food within the hotel restaurants varies in style. The Grand Bharat’s four restaurants showcase modern fusion dishes as well as traditional Indian cuisine, like the succulent Mewati barbecue specialities. At the Hotel Maurya, in the heart of New Delhi, Bukhara restaurant has won numerous awards — including a place in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list — for traditional Indian food cooked in tandoor ovens. Bukhara, which has been open for 35 years, also offers a complex lentil dal that is simmered for 18 hours and some of the city’s greatest naan breads.

Chef Gill is particularly excited about the Royal Vega restaurant in ITC’s recently opened Grand Chola hotel in Chennai. “As a committed vegetarian, I’ve finally had the opportunity to create a high-end vegetarian restaurant, something I had always dreamed of doing,” he said. “Many Indians from all walks of life are vegetarian, yet ambitious vegetarian restaurants are few and far between. So this project is providing me with great happiness.”

Main photo: Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for ITC Hotels, champions a greener approach. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

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The iconic Katz’s Delicatessen is known for its sandwiches -- and a starring role in a movie. Credit: Copyright 2013 Thomas Hawk

Boasting 567 entries, “Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City” serves up a feast of foodie knowledge for the Gotham native and novice alike.

savoring

"Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover's Companion to New York City"

Edited by Andrew F. Smith

Oxford University Press, 2015,

760 pp

»  Click here to buy the book

Edited by Andrew F. Smith and featuring the writing of more than 150 contributors, the tome includes entries on notable foods and beverages, restaurants and bars, historical sites and events, cuisines, personalities and brands from throughout the city’s five boroughs.

“Mention New York City food, and most people think of the white-hot restaurants of the moment, with their media-savvy celebrity chefs, glittering patrons and sky-high prices. Upscale restaurants have long been an exciting part of the city’s foodscape, but they are at one far end of the broad, colorful spectrum of New York eateries,” Smith says in an introduction. “Inhabiting the starry heights are temples of haute cuisine, such as Per Se and Le Bernardin; at the low end are hot dog carts and old-school Mexican taco trucks. In between, over the past 300 years, have been all kinds of eating places: cafeterias, diners, luncheonettes, drugstore counters, fast-food chains, delis, cafes, coffee shops, juice bars, doughnut shops, ice cream parlors, cocktail lounges, dive bars, and corner sweet shops, not to mention theater snack bars, supermarket delis, farmers markets, social club dining rooms, kiosks and vending machines. Today, New Yorkers have more 50,000 eating places to choose from.”

Combining food history with current culinary trends, the text richly explores New York City’s diverse food cultures, as well as its contributions to global gastronomy. A hefty volume that even dons a New York bagel on its spine, it makes for a smartly dressed member of any foodie library sure to be referenced again and again. (Full disclosure: I am one of the book’s contributors.)

Here’s just a taste of “Savoring Gotham”:

Baked Alaska

Although named for the 49th state, baked Alaska had its roots in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2012 VXLA Photo

Although named for the 49th state, baked Alaska had its roots in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2012 VXLA Photo

A delightful amalgamation of dessert foods, baked Alaska is a sponge cake topped with ice cream and covered with delicate peaks of meringue, browned in the oven. Although named for what would become the United States’ 49th state, baked Alaska found its name in New York City. The igloo-shaped dessert was first christened in the late 19th century by Charles Ranhofer, French chef de cuisine of Delmonico’s, one of New York’s most prestigious restaurants from 1837 to 1923. Baked Alaska’s naming was purportedly to honor and commemorate the United States’ purchase of Alaska in 1867.

Eggs Benedict

Eggs benedict may have originated at Delmonico's or The Waldorf in the 1890s. Credit: Copyright 2010 Ariel Dovas

Eggs Benedict may have originated at Delmonico’s or The Waldorf in the 1890s. Credit: Copyright 2010 Ariel Dovas

Whether topped with ham, bacon, salmon or spinach, all signs point to New York City as the origin of brunch favorite eggs benny. While it is unknown for which wealthy Benedict the dish was named, the velvety and savory dish probably originated at Delmonico’s or The Waldorf in the 1890s, though New York’s Hoffman Hotel and Union Club both lay claim to it as well.

Ellis Island Food

The first meal for many immigrants may have been a box lunch at Ellis Island. Credit: Copyright 2005 Wally Gobetz

The first meal for many immigrants may have been a box lunch at Ellis Island. Credit: Copyright 2005 Wally Gobetz

What did the millions of immigrants who entered the United States at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 eat for their first meal on American soil? Most likely they purchased a boxed lunch for 50 cents or a dollar, depending upon the size. Some boxed meals included roast beef, ham, cheese or bologna sandwiches, while others featured foods like a loaf of bread, sardines, sausages, apples, bananas, pies and cakes.

Fraunces Tavern

Fraunces Tavern is still a restaurant, as well as a museum, in the financial district. Credit: Copyright 2011 Dan Nguyen

Fraunces Tavern is still a restaurant, as well as a museum, in the financial district. Credit: Copyright 2011 Dan Nguyen

By the mid-18th century, taverns increasingly served as centers of community life. In fact, General George Washington dismissed his troops at the end of the Revolutionary War at Fraunces Tavern. Built in 1719, the tavern is now a museum and restaurant in the financial district open for Gothamites and tourists alike to visit.

Hellmann’s Mayonnaise

Richard Hellman began his food career between 83rd and 84th Streets in Manhattan. Credit: Copyright 2005 Thomas Edwards

Richard Hellman began his food career between 83rd and 84th Streets in Manhattan. Credit: Copyright 2005 Thomas Edwards

The creamy roots of America’s best-selling mayonnaise are also in Gotham. While Richard Hellman began his food career with his wife running a delicatessen between 83rd and 84th Streets in Manhattan, he also developed the first shelf-stable mayonnaise. He began selling it in 1912 in glass bottles affixed with a label featuring three blue ribbons to indicate its “first prize” quality, which can still be found on supermarket shelves today.

­Jane Nickerson

The New York Times' first food editor was Jane Nickerson, from 1942 to 1957. Credit: Copyright 2009 Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

The New York Times’ first food editor was Jane Nickerson, from 1942 to 1957. Credit: Copyright 2009 Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

Often overshadowed by her successor, Craig Claiborne, Jane Nickerson was The New York Times’ first food editor from 1942 to 1957. Her daily column was titled, “News of Food.” Writing with a strong sense of ethics and news, her reviews paved the way for the Times’ expanding food coverage.

Manhattan Clam Chowder

Manhattan clam chowder is known for being made with tomato broth, rather than milk. Credit: Copyright 2011 Julia Frost

Manhattan clam chowder is known for being made with tomato broth, rather than milk. Credit: Copyright 2011 Julia Frost

Although its name might suggest otherwise, Manhattan clam chowder actually has no real connection to New York City. An important dish in early American cuisine, chowders made effective (and delicious) use of New England’s plentiful seafood resources. Manhattan clam chowder’s defining (and highly contentious) characteristic is its substitution of tomato broth for milk.

Katz’s Delicatessen

The lines are always long at the popular Katz's Delicatessen. Credit: Copyright 2010 Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

The lines are often long at the popular Katz’s Delicatessen. Credit: Copyright 2010 Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

Well-known as the location of Meg Ryan’s famous faux orgasm in “When Harry Met Sally” (1989), Katz’s was founded a century earlier in 1888. Serving sandwiches topped high with cured meats, Katz has been turning swift and savory business ever since. Figures from the 1950s claimed the deli served more than 10,000 sandwiches a day. Today, Katz’s is even open all night long on weekends for those looking to order “what she’s having.”

Main photo: The iconic Katz’s Delicatessen is known for its sandwiches — and a starring role in a movie. Credit: Copyright 2013 Thomas Hawk


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»  For authentic chowder recipes, hold back the bacon

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Chef Nicole Heaney shows her sablefish with apple puree, Brussels sprouts and farro risotto. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Cooking for dinner parties should be fun. If the occasion is a holiday, a birthday or a personal landmark, celebrating at home with a meal cements relationships with friends and family. But when preparing the meal is too much work, the fun goes away.

With relative ease, chef Nicole Heaney shows how to create a flavorful dish featuring a filet of fish that is perfect for entertaining. The key for a dinner party, as she demonstrates, is a little planning.

In the kitchen at Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar in Monterey, California, chef de cuisine Heaney shows how to prepare sablefish with crispy skin in a brown butter sauce. Adding flavor, Heaney pairs the rich, fatty fish with al dente Brussels sprouts, creamy farro cooked risotto-style and savory apple puree to add acid and sweetness.

Key to making the festive plate is the combination of four elements, each of which takes very little effort to create. And of the four, three can be made ahead. The Brussels sprouts, farro and apple puree can be made hours ahead of the dinner or even the day before. Then, just before serving, reheat the three components and cook the sablefish as your guests are sitting down ready for a celebration.

For a delicious vegan and vegetarian meal, leave out the fish and serve the Brussels sprouts, farro and apple puree.

A kitchen with a view

Chef Nicole Heaney preparing sable fish with apple puree, Brussels sprouts & farro risotto. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Chef Nicole Heaney preparing sablefish with apple puree, Brussels sprouts and farro risotto. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar is the main restaurant at the Monterey Plaza Hotel on Cannery Row. Working with executive chef James Waller, Heaney cooks in a kitchen with a view of Monterey Bay. Growing up in Wyoming and working in Colorado and New Mexico, Heaney was an adult before she saw the Pacific Ocean.

She confesses that, even after a year at the restaurant, when baby humpback whales swim close to the restaurant, she joins the other kitchen staff members to rush outside for a closer look from the dining patio. There they watch as the whales breach for a long moment before disappearing in the cold blue water.

Her cooking is influenced by the time she spent in Sedona at Mii amo Café. Preparing meals for health-conscious guests of the resort and spa, Heaney learned the importance of clean, fresh flavors. Fats were kept to a minimum. The kitchen did not use butter or cream. Asian ingredients and techniques were frequently used.

The regime is not as strict at Schooners, but Heaney still creates dishes with distinctive flavors and innovative ingredients like the kelp noodles she uses to make her version of pad thai.

An avid reader of Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” she knows that the more you understand the chemistry of cooking, the better you can control the results. In her video demonstration, she points out the importance of using acid to round out flavors, as in the savory apple puree and farro risotto.

Apple Puree

Apples and onions poaching in apple juice and apple vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Apples and onions poaching in apple juice and apple vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

The apples Heaney uses are grown locally on the Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville, California. She recommends using Gala apples in the recipe. Heaney leaves on the peels to add flavor and color. Because the apples will be pureed, there is no need to cut them precisely.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Final assembly time: 5 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 3 cups sauce

Ingredients

4 large Gala apples, washed, pat dried, peels on

1 yellow onion, washed, peeled and trimmed, roughly chopped

2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup bourbon (optional)

Unsweetened apple juice to cover

Freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste

Kosher salt to taste

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Directions

1. Heat a large saucepan on a medium flame.

2. Cut open the apples. Remove and discard the core and seeds. Do not peel the apples. Cut the apples into large pieces.

3. Drizzle olive oil into saucepan, add onion and apples and sauté together until translucent.

4. Add bourbon (optional). Cook off the alcohol, which may catch fire. Be careful not to singe your eyebrows as chef Heaney once did.

5. Cover with unsweetened apple juice. Simmer on medium heat until reduced by half and the apples soften and begin to break down.

6. Puree in a large blender. Start blending on a low speed and progress to a higher speed until the puree is smooth.

7. Taste and season with lemon juice, apple cider vinegar and kosher salt.

8. If preparing ahead, store refrigerated in a sealed container.

9. Just before serving, reheat. Taste and adjust the seasoning and, if the puree is too thin, continue reducing on a medium flame to thicken.

Farro Risotto Fit for a Dinner Party

Farro risotto with mirepoix of minced carrots, onions and celery. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Farro risotto with mirepoix of minced carrots, onions and celery. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Cooking farro risotto-style means heating and hydrating the grain as if it were Arborio rice. Substituting farro for rice adds a nutty flavor. Heaney prefers her farro al dente but that choice is entirely personal. Many people prefer their risotto softer rather than al dente.

Better quality ingredients yield a better result. With risotto, that means using quality rice or, in this case, farro. The stock is as important. Canned stocks are available, but they are high in sodium content and can have an off-putting aroma. Homemade stocks are preferable. Any good quality stock can be used — beef, pork, chicken or seafood. For vegetarians and vegans, the farro can be prepared with vegetable broth and without the butter or Asiago cheese.

The cooking time may vary depending on the farro.

Like other whole spices, pepper has volatile oils. To preserve the freshness of its flavor, Heaney prefers to grind the peppercorns just before using.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 30 to 45 minutes

Final assembly time: 5 minutes

Total time: 40 to 55 minutes

Yield: serves 4

Ingredients

64 ounces hot stock, preferably homemade, can be vegetable, beef, pork, chicken or seafood

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 yellow onion, washed, peeled, trimmed, small dice

1 large carrot, washed, peeled, trimmed, small dice

2 large celery stalks, washed, peeled, trimmed, small dice

3 garlic cloves, washed, peeled, rimmed, minced (optional)

16 ounces farro

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

1 bunch Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, leaves chopped fine

1 tablespoon chives, washed, chopped fine

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, washed, chopped fine

1 cup shredded Asiago cheese (optional)

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Kosher salt to taste

Black peppercorns, freshly ground, to taste

Directions

1. In a saucepan, heat stock on a low flame.

2. Heat a separate medium saucepan over a medium flame. When hot, add olive oil and sauté onions, carrots and celery until the vegetables are translucent.

3. Add farro. Stir well and sauté until lightly toasted.

4. Add garlic (optional) and sauté until translucent but do not brown.

5. Deglaze the pan with white wine. Cook until alcohol is fully cooked out.

6. Add hot stock in 6- to 8-ounce portion. Stir well.

7. As stock is absorbed, add more stock and stir well. Do not scald the farro.

8. Each time the stock is absorbed, add more stock until the liquid becomes cloudy and the farro softens.

9. If the farro is being made ahead, when the farro is soft but not yet soft enough to eat, or 75 percent cooked, remove from the burner, allow to cool and refrigerate in a sealed container.

10. If continuing to cook or if reheating, taste and continue cooking the farro until it is al dente or to your liking. Set aside until the fish is cooked.

11. Just before serving, to finish, add sweet butter (optional) and stir into the heated farro until melted.

12. Add Asiago cheese (optional) and stir well to melt.

13. Taste and season with fresh lemon juice, salt and freshly ground black pepper.

14. Just before plating, sprinkle in chopped fine parsley, chives and thyme and stir well.

15. Serve hot and plate as described below.

Caramelized Brussels Sprouts

Caramelized halved Brussels sprouts. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Caramelized halved Brussels sprouts. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Heaney prefers her Brussels sprouts al dente. Some people like them softer, in which case, after the Brussels sprouts are washed, trimmed and halved, blanch them in salted boiling water for two minutes, drain and then sauté as directed below.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Final assembly time: 5 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: serves 4

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 pound medium-sized Brussels sprouts, washed, discolored leaves removed, ends trimmed, halved

Kosher salt to taste

Freshly ground black peppercorns to taste

Directions

1. Heat a large sauté pan.

2. Add extra virgin olive oil and halved Brussels sprouts.

3. Season to taste with kosher salt and black pepper.

4. Stir well to prevent burning. Sauté until Brussels sprouts are caramelized on both sides.

5. If the sprouts are to be served later or the next day, when they are cooked 75 percent, remove from the burner, allow to cool and refrigerate in an airtight container.

6. When the fish is cooking, heat the sauté pan with a small amount of olive oil. Add the cooked Brussels sprouts to reheat and plate with the fish, farro risotto and apple puree.

Crispy-Skin Sablefish in a Brown Butter Sauce

Also called black cod, sablefish is not actually cod. Heaney uses sablefish caught in nearby Morro Bay. She likes cooking the fish because it is almost “bulletproof.” The flesh is difficult to overcook and is almost always moist, flavorful and delicate.

In order to achieve a crispy skin, Heaney has developed a simple technique described in the directions. She recommends buying a wooden-handled fish spatula with a beveled edge, which helps remove the fish from the pan. The spatula is preferable to tongs, which tend to break apart the filets.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 5 to 10 minutes

Final assembly time: 5 minutes

Total time: 15-20 minutes

Yield: serves 4

Ingredients

4 6-ounce skin-on filets of sablefish or black cod, washed, pat dried

1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon sweet butter

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, leaves only, finely chopped

Directions

1. Season each filet with kosher salt and black pepper on both sides.

2. Heat a large sauté pan on a medium-high flame. When the pan is hot, reduce the flame to medium-low.

3. Add the olive oil. Allow the oil to heat.

4. Place the filets into the pan, skin side down. Do not overcrowd the pan, allowing space between each filet. If the filets are crowded together, the skin will not crisp.

Sear but do not burn the skin.

Jiggle the pan. That will help prevent the filets from sticking to the pan. If they do stick, use the fish spatula to gently release them from the bottom of the pan.

5. Add sweet butter to the pan and swirl around the filets.

6. Let the filets cook without fussing too much. The fish is cooked when the flesh is opaque.

7. Using the fish spatula, gently flip each filet over. Swirl the filets into the melted butter, being careful to brown but not burn the butter.

After 30 seconds, use a spoon to baste the filets with the melted butter.

8. At this point, the fish is cooked. Add parsley for color and season with lemon juice.

Put the saucepan to the side.

Assembling the dish:

Plate the fish when everyone is seated at the table.

All of the elements — fish, apple puree, Brussels sprouts and farro risotto — should be hot and ready to serve.

Select a large plate. Using the back of a soup spoon, spread a tablespoon of the apple puree across the plate. Add a good portion of the farro risotto in the middle of the plate, then the caramelized Brussels sprouts.

Gently add the sablefish filet, crispy skin side up. Spoon a little bit of the brown butter on top of the filet, farro and Brussels sprouts. And as chef Heaney says, “That is it.”

Serve the dish hot with a crisp white wine and let the festivities begin.

Main photo: Chef Nicole Heaney shows her sablefish with apple puree, Brussels sprouts and farro risotto. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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With Europe on edge after the bombings in Paris, it is good to be reminded of the joy of sharing a meal with strangers. But what happens when you don’t know anyone at a dinner party, not even the host?

During a recent evening in Brussels, I rang the doorbell of a complete stranger’s home promptly at 7 p.m. His ground-floor apartment was in an art nouveau-style row house built in the 1930s. The door opened, and Maher, an Egyptian political science Ph.D. candidate 
at Ghent University, gave me a warm welcome. (He, like other hosts of such dinners, chooses not to publicize his full name.)

I was the first to arrive for his “Egyptian Evening” (dinner and a movie), and as I took off my coat in the entryway, I resisted the temptation to blurt out that famous quote from “A Streetcar Named Desire”:

“I’ve always depended on the kindness (and in this case, the cooking skills) of strangers.”

BookaLokal — a new dining experience

This "Sumptuous Spice: An Indian Home-Cooked Dinner" in Boston cost $35 per person. The hostess, Raka-Larissa, Indian-born and raised in London, now lives in Boston and is a biological scientist by day and a passionate home cook by night. One recent out-of-town guest wrote a long review of her "Sumptuous Spice" dinner on Raka-Larissa’s BookaLokal page, noting, “It was apparent that the food was cooked with love.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Angel Leung

This “Sumptuous Spice: An Indian Home-Cooked Dinner” in Boston cost $35 per person. The hostess, Raka-Larissa, Indian-born and raised in London, now lives in Boston and is a biological scientist by day and a passionate home cook by night. One recent out-of-town guest wrote a long review of her “Sumptuous Spice” dinner on Raka-Larissa’s BookaLokal page, noting, “It was apparent that the food was cooked with love.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Angel Leung

Maher is just one of nearly 1,000 BookaLokal hosts in 47 countries, in more than 100 cities around the world. BookaLokal is a group dining website. To sign up for a dinner, go to bookalokal.com, choose which city you wish to dine in, browse the dinners, choose one and pay online.

The site was founded in 2012 in the Brussels kitchen of Evelyne White, a 32-year-old harpist, travel enthusiast and former investor from New York. I got to ask her a few questions before the dinner. Here’s what she told me about this unique dining experience.

How did you come up with the idea for BookaLokal?

Evelyne White: “I was inspired by the success of ‘sharing’ companies like Airbnb. If people can open their homes to strangers, why not open their kitchens and dining room tables?”

How does BookaLokal differ from other group dining sites?

Evelyne White: “BookaLokal has the widest range of hosts, from amateur hosts to professional chefs. Whereas some of our competitor sites only allow top chefs to join the site, we believe the best experiences can sometimes come from people like you and me, who are just passionate about hosting and meeting new people.”

Engaging hosts

This "Chocolate Making Class" held in Washington, D.C., cost $60 per person. Guests learn about the history of chocolate and how to make their own truffles and chocolate lollipops from Ismael, a professional chocolatier and culinary and pastry chef who speaks Arabic, French and Spanish. One reviewer, who attended on Valentine’s Day, called it a "great date night." Credit: Copyright 2015 Meira Neggaz

This “Chocolate Making Class” held in Washington, D.C., cost $60 per person. Guests learn about the history of chocolate and how to make their own truffles and chocolate lollipops from Ismael, a professional chocolatier and culinary and pastry chef who speaks Arabic, French and Spanish. One reviewer, who attended on Valentine’s Day, called it a “great date night.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Meira Neggaz

This was certainly true of Maher, who is also the former editor-in-chief of The Daily News Egypt. He was an engaging host who gently steered us through the evening as if we were all old chums. We were a cozy group of eight in all (if you include one guest’s toddler), who hailed from countries such as Egypt, Portugal, Turkey and America.

Meals made with love

At the "Egyptian Evening" dinner in Brussels (which cost a mere $17 per person), guests served themselves at the buffet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Diane Fresquez

At the “Egyptian Evening” dinner in Brussels (which cost a mere $17 per person), guests served themselves at the buffet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Diane Fresquez

The homemade dinner, served buffet-style, was simple and delicious: baba ganoush and pita bread; vegetables (peas, zucchini and carrots) cooked in tomato sauce and flavored with pepper, cinnamon and lemon juice; and kebab halla (beef cooked in creamy onion sauce) served with rice.

Learning experiences

For the "Egyptian Evening" dinner, guests and host ate while watching "Ana Hurra" ("I Am Free"), an Egyptian feminist film from 1959. Credit: Copyright 2015 Diane Fresquez

For the “Egyptian Evening” dinner, guests and host ate while watching “Ana Hurra” (“I Am Free”), an Egyptian feminist film from 1959. Credit: Copyright 2015 Diane Fresquez

After serving ourselves, we settled down in the darkened living room to eat our dinner in front of “Ana Hurra” (“I Am Free”), an entertaining, thought-provoking Egyptian feminist film from 1959, which Maher projected on his living room wall.

Maher isn’t the only host with creative dining ideas: From a recent look at what’s offered on the BookaLokal website, choices include “Dinner Served on a Vintage Boat, Docked in the Amalfi Harbor,” Amalfi, Italy ($55); “Pig Roast and Comfort Food,” Washington, D.C. ($50); and “Dinner Inspired by Famous Food Quotes,” given by a former opera singer in New York City ($100).

A variety of venues

In addition to dinner, some hosts provide a variety of other eating and drinking experiences, such as “Seville Tapas and Wine Tour,” Spain ($50), and “Indian Buffet and Bollywood Dance Lesson,” Belgium ($42).

Worried about language barriers? Languages spoken by each host are listed on their profile page. Maher speaks English and Arabic; Ester, who lives in Rome, speaks Italian, English and Spanish.

“Our hosts come in all shapes and sizes,” said White. “We have culinary students, experienced host families, supper club organizers, and people with a passion for sharing their culture and connecting with new people.”

What are BookaLokal’s plans for the future?

Evelyne White: “Although BookaLokal started as a social dining site (a place to meet new people), we are seeing increased interest in private dining. If a host serves amazing Portuguese food for groups of six to 10 guests, why not book the host for a dinner with your own group of 10 friends?”

After the Egyptian film, we helped ourselves to more wine and Egyptian black tea (with cloves), and had a relaxed discussion about the film, women’s rights and Egyptian politics. Talking with people you don’t know within the confines of dinner at a stranger’s house is oddly liberating — perhaps similar to the surprise and delight of striking up pleasant conversations with strangers on an airplane. BookaLokal is a great dining choice for tourists visiting a new country, expats living abroad, and anyone interested in being inspired — and maybe even transported to another culture — by good food and stimulating conversation. As the Egyptian evening came to an end, I was reminded of another quote, this one from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savairn’s book “The Physiology of Taste” (1825):

“Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests conduct themselves like travelers due to reach their destination together.”

Main photo: The “Dinner at the Artist’s Home and Studio” in Amsterdam ($37 per person) featured ciabatta with salmon, crème fraîche, horseradish and dill; lasagna with pancetta and artichoke; and affogato al caffè. The hostess’s apartment is on the ground floor facing the IJ harbor, and when the weather is nice, she serves dinner outside on the quay. Credit: Copyright 2015 www.petrahart.com

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Red O Restaurant Thanksgiving succotash made with corn, poblano chilies, butternut squash, onion, cotija cheese, cilantro. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Thanksgiving is the best of times. Friends and family gather together to celebrate one another and the season. And yet there is the nagging problem of devising a menu that protects tradition but still surprises. Chef Keith Stich has an answer. Use the flavors of Mexico. In his kitchen at Red O Restaurant in Santa Monica, California, Stich demonstrated how to spice up a traditional succotash by adding Mexican ingredients.

The Santa Monica restaurant is one of a dozen restaurants and bistros opened by chef Rick Bayless, well known for his many awards, cookbooks and television appearances. When Bayless was looking for a chef to help him expand his Southern California operation, he searched for chefs who shared his passion for Mexican cooking. Stich was selected for a cook-off in Chicago at Bayless’ Frontera Grill.

Inspired for succotash fusion

Chef Keith Stich, Red O Restaurant Santa Monica with his Thanksgiving succotash. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Chef Keith Stich of Red O Restaurant Santa Monica, with his Thanksgiving succotash. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Growing up, Stich loved eating Mexican food. As a young chef, he specialized in the preparation of steak and seafood in restaurants in Colorado and California. He learned to cook dishes with strong, clean flavors. For the competition at Frontera Grill, Stich had to prepare one entrée. Four chefs competed. Stich would win or lose the job based on whether Bayless liked his lobster enchiladas.

The competition among the chefs was tough. But Bayless was impressed. He hired Stich to open Red O in Newport Beach. In a competitive setting, the restaurant did very well. After Newport Beach, Stich was asked to open the restaurant across from the Santa Monica pier, a prime tourist destination, and as corporate executive chef to oversee all three of the Southern California restaurants with more planned in the future.

Celebrating fresh, seasonal ingredients

Boiled and grilled corn kernels are used to make chef Keith Stich's Thanksgiving succotash at Red O Restaurant Santa Monica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Boiled and grilled corn kernels are used to make chef Keith Stich’s Thanksgiving succotash at Red O Restaurant Santa Monica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

As the seasons change and the cooks come up with innovations, Stich proposes new dishes to Bayless either over the phone or in person. Sometimes he’ll fly to Chicago and prepare the dishes in the Frontera Grill kitchen. Once Bayless signs off on the new dishes, Stich updates the Red O menus on the West Coast.

Making everything from scratch is an essential part of the Red O identity. Fresh limes and oranges are juiced in-house. All the salsas and sauces are made fresh. The produce comes from local purveyors and the farmers markets. In that sense, the West Coast cooks have a distinct advantage over their Midwestern colleagues. Leafy greens are available in abundance in January at the farmers markets in Los Angeles long before they appear in the Chicago markets.

Adding a Mexican twist to a classic

Chopped butternut squash and grated cotija cheese go into chef Keith Stich's Thanksgiving succotash at Red O Restaurant Santa Monica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Chopped butternut squash and grated cotija cheese go into chef Keith Stich’s Thanksgiving succotash at Red O Restaurant Santa Monica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

To create a flavorful side dish that would go well with traditional Thanksgiving dishes, Stich used butternut squash, the quintessential fall vegetable, as a substitute for beans in succotash. He gave the dish a flavor boost by adapting the restaurant’s street corn side dish. To the squash he added dry-salty cotija cheese, earthy poblano peppers and spicy cilantro.

So this Thanksgiving as you help yourself to slices of turkey, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, roasted sweet potatoes and green bean casserole, now you can add spice to tradition with a large serving of Mexican succotash.

Street Corn and Butternut Squash Succotash

Thanksgiving Succotash, poblano chilies, butternut squash, corn, onion, cotija cheese. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Thanksgiving succotash features poblano chilies, butternut squash, corn, onion, cotija cheese. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Given how busy Thanksgiving Day can be, an advantage of Stich’s succotash is that all the elements can be cooked the day ahead and refrigerated in airtight containers. Just before serving, when the turkey is resting and the gravy is simmering, the succotash can be given a final sauté on the stove and served with the other dishes.

Poblano chilies and cotija cheese are available in Latin markets. In order to achieve the Mexican flavor profile, the chilies cannot be substituted with green bell peppers; nor can the cotija cheese be replaced with feta cheese.

Because corn season is ending, Stich suggests buying fresh corn now if possible, boiling the cobs as directed, cutting off the kernels and freezing in corn stock, which is made as described below. Cover the kernels with the stock, seal and freeze. The stock will protect the kernels from freezer burn. The day before using, defrost the containers. Strain out the kernels and use them as indicated in the recipe. Reserve and refreeze the corn stock to use in soups and stocks.

When fresh corn is not available in the markets, frozen corn may be substituted, but not canned corn.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Final assembly time: 5 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3 ears of yellow corn, shucked, washed

1 small butternut squash, washed, seeded, diced, yielding 1½ cups

1 small red onion, washed, peeled, trimmed, diced, yielding ½ cup

1 roasted large poblano chili, washed, charred, seeded, cleaned, yielding ¾ cup cooked

2 tablespoon grated cotija cheese plus ½ tablespoon as garnish

½ tablespoon fresh cilantro, washed, leaves only, finely chopped

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon canola oil

Sea salt to taste

1 tablespoon micro cilantro (optional)

2 tablespoons sour cream or Mexican creama (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat a grill.

2. Boil the corn on the cobs in water uncovered for 30 minutes.

3. Remove the corn from the water. Using tongs, place the corn on the hot grill. Turn frequently until the outside is slightly charred.

4. Place the grilled ears of corn into a bowl of water with two cups of ice cubes.

5. Once the corn is chilled, use a sharp knife and cut off the kernels. As much as possible, keep the kernels together in slabs. Set aside and if not using until the next day, place in an airtight container and refrigerate.

6. If the kernels are to be frozen, place the cobs back in the hot water. Boil another 30 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by half. Set aside to cool. Then place the cooked kernels in an airtight container and cover with the corn stock. Seal and freeze.

7. Peel the butternut squash, removing the outer skin, seeds and fibers inside. Discard. Using a sharp knife, cut the squash into ¼-inch dice.

8. Add the kosher salt to a pot of water. Bring to a boil. Add the diced squash and cook quickly, approximately 45 to 60 seconds or until fork tender.

9. Prepare an ice bath. Strain the cooked squash and place into the ice bath to chill. Set aside and if not using until the next day, refrigerate in an airtight container.

10. Place the poblano chili over a high flame on the stove burner. Char the outside, turning often to evenly blister the skin. Remove and place under running water. Rinse off the blackened skin. Cut open the chili. Remove the stem and all the seeds and discard. Cut the poblano into ¼-inch dice.

11. Finely grate the cotija cheese. Set aside and if not using until the next day, refrigerate in an airtight container.

12. With all the elements cooked and prepped, all that is needed is to combine and lightly sauté the ingredients. Heat a large saucepan. Add the canola oil.

13. Sauté the diced red onion until translucent and lightly browned. Add the poblano chili, stir well to heat, then add butternut squash and corn kernels until all ingredients are hot.

14. Sprinkle the cotija cheese on top and heat until the cheese melts. Mix in the chopped cilantro.

15. Transfer the succotash to a serving bowl. Garnish with more grated cotija. Decorate with dollops of sour cream or Mexican creama (optional) and micro cilantro (optional). Serve hot.

Main photo: Red O Restaurant Thanksgiving succotash made with corn, poblano chilies, butternut squash, onion, cotija cheese and cilantro. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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A best-seller inspires the urge to declutter a kitchen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Joe Whittle Photography

Six small offset spatulas. A stainless steel falafel maker. A Tiffany bowl weighing as much as a bowling ball. A set of measuring cups with broken handles. This was just a random sampling of the miscellany populating my kitchen countertops on Day One of a decluttering extravaganza.

By the time I’d pulled out my every culinary possession from the shelves, cupboards and drawers, I was stunned by the flea market collection I’d amassed in the dozen years since a complete kitchen remodel.

If you recognize this decluttering spree as one inspired by the KonMari method sweeping the nation, you’d be right. The only caveat is that as a professional cook and cookbook author, clothing — the category the best-selling Japanese author Marie Kondo puts at the top of her “start here” list — was not exactly my biggest issue. Instead, I had shelves stuffed with cookbooks from past writing projects, scrappy old cookware and a motley collection of chopsticks in need of retirement, just to start.

As I contemplated the state of my kitchen, I realized that the American “cooking room” represents a culturally unique problem compared wirth the Japanese kitchen. Often the largest room in the house, the kitchen is as much a social gathering space as a functional space — not to mention a convenient storage space for culinary and everyday items alike. In short, our kitchens are a complete mess!

So, here’s how I adapted this international organizing expert’s advice and cleaned up my act.

Five categories for kitchens

One of the premises of Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” is that decluttering room by room is a common pitfall. Her foolproof strategy centers on bookcleaning according to a list of clutter-prone categories (clothing, books, papers, and so on.) But, as there was no category for my set of Perrier Jouët champagne glasses, warped cutting board or dusty soup tureen, I was forced to take some liberties — a lot of them, in fact.

Taking stock of all the items unique to kitchens, I constructed a top-five list — appliances, pots and pans, dishes and glassware, knives and utensils, and cookbooks — for a decluttering action plan.

Appliances

Array everything you own with a plug on the counter and count them up. Does the number surprise you? Now, give away every single one that does not inspire you to whip up something in it you haven’t made in a while. (I consider this the culinary equivalent of Kondo’s decision-making question, “Does it bring you joy?”)

Pots and pans

It’s likely you cook most meals in the same two favorite pans. There are your keepers. Toss out the redundant and the worn out, unless it’s cast iron that just needs some TLC. Save your one good pasta/soup pot, preferably with a steamer insert, plus a saucepan. Commit to buying open stock cookware (never sets) of your most beloved brand forever more.

Dishes and glassware

Unless you’re hosting monthly pop-ups at your place you probably have more serving pieces, including plates, bowls, coffee mugs and juice glasses than your family needs. Keep your favorites. Consider, like I did, putting your wedding china to everyday use.

Knives and utensils

Whittle the amount of knives down to what is used most and fits best in your hand. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

Whittle the number of knives down to what is used most and fits best in your hand. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

Line up your knives and select the one you reach for without thinking, the one that also feels good in your hand. Ideally, this is a chef’s knife or utility knife. Add in the best paring knife you own, then get them both sharpened. (This is all you need unless you practice a bit of home butchery.) Similarly for cooking utensils — spatulas, spoons, whisks — we all own more than we need. Whittle down to the essential.

Cookbooks

With Internet recipes at your fingertips, cookbooks now have a different role in our lives. I honed my collection from hundreds down to dozens, holding onto only those I wanted to read or browse in my hands. As for the host of recipe files and clippings, those belong in Kondo’s “sentimental” category, so save those for a rainy day.

The strategy

With a plan, a kitchen is transformed. Credit: Copyright 2015 Joe Whittle Photography

With a plan, a kitchen is transformed. Credit: Copyright 2015 Joe Whittle Photography

By following this list methodically, I quickly eliminated tired, outmoded, unloved and otherwise useless belongings while rediscovering the joy inherent in Le Creuset Dutch ovens, a few good knives and a solid cutting board readily on hand. All that newfound linear feet of shelving breathed with space and light. And so did I.

Due to the vast quantities of kitchen belongings covering every free counter, chair and floor space within minutes, I used liquor boxes, which are just the right size for gathering cluttered items in the same category and don’t get too heavy. They’re also easily moved, so you can clear space on the dining table to eat a meal. Still, I recommend blitzing through this project. And bank on ordering takeout.

Once I’d conquered these top five categories, I was inspired in subsequent days to winnow the spice cabinets, then the cooking oils and the host of forgotten dry goods. But these areas are for extra credit only.

There is just one obligatory final task before you sit back to enjoy a well-earned glass of wine in your favorite stemware: Throw out all of your oven mitts as well as the dish towels with stains, holes and burns and buy new ones immediately. No questions asked.

Main photo: A best-seller inspires the urge to declutter a kitchen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Joe Whittle Photography

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