29 Apr 2009 06:40 am

To the average Joe and Jane, a ramp is little more than a sloped road. It’s an incline. A way to get from Point A to Point B — without having to take the stairs. To foodies, however, ramp means more than road. It means dinner, too.

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If you’ve never heard of them — let alone eaten them — ramps are mountain vegetables, grown most often in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia and North Carolina. They’re a member of the onion family, like leeks, and like so many favorite foods they come around just once a year. Luckily, that time is now, as the season’s first leeks tend to make their way from the mountains to the markets in March and continue to do so throughout April and into May.

 

Because you don’t have much time to try this delicious piece of green, a quick primer is probably in order. Here’s what you need to know:

 

  • Where ramps come from: Native to eastern North America, ramps, also called wild leeks, are related to onions and garlic. Scientists know them, however, as Allium tricoccum. Although there are many hypotheses, no one knows for sure how ramps came to be called ramps. One popular theory suggests they were named for the English folk name Ramson — son of Ram — since the plant appears during the sign of Aries on the zodiac calendar (and perhaps, unofficially, because Ramson sounds like ransom, which is appropriate since Mother Nature holds ramps hostage for all but a few months out of the year). However they got their modern name, ramps are probably much older than the English language, as the use of cultivated leeks — their closest relative — can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt. Even if they’re new to you, therefore, ramps are actually quite old. In fact, Native Americans used them as medicine, to treat coughs, colds, pain and itching. So if taste isn’t enough, you can be sure that ramps are really, really good for you.

 

  • What ramps look like: In the wild, ramps grow from bulbs, like tulips do, and eventually get up to 12 inches tall and 2 inches wide. Like green onions, they have an onion-like bulb of white — about a half inch around — at the bottom, from which sprouts a bunch of leafy greens. The leaves themselves are flat and feather-shaped, with a rash of slender, maroon-colored stalk connecting the white on the bottom to the green on the top.

 

  • How ramps taste: The easiest way to identify a ramp isn’t to see it. It’s to smell it. Ramps smell like a combination of onion and garlic, only much stronger — so strong that kids were once rumored to eat them so that their teachers would send them home from school in order to escape the lingering odor on the children’s breath. Although raw ramps are pungent, cooked ramps are much milder; they smell more like garlic, but taste more like onions — but earthier.

 

  • How ramps are prepared: You can use ramps as a substitute for any recipe that calls for onions, garlic, leeks or scallions. You can use them cooked or raw, in soups or in casseroles. In their native Appalachia, however, they’re most commonly fried along with potatoes in bacon grease, or scrambled with eggs for breakfast. The possibilities are endless.

 

There’s a lot more one could learn about ramps, but the clock’s ticking quickly away on all things spring. Besides, your palate’s the best teacher there is. So quit clicking and start cooking, before the summer sun melts the ramps away for another year!


27 Apr 2009 06:49 am

It is a scientifically proven fact that Brazilians are the sexiest people on the planet.   You know this is true.  Try listening to that song, “The Girl from Ipanema” without picturing the most beautiful young girl in the world, wearing the tiniest bikini imaginable and swaying down the beach in Rio.  It is virtually impossible.  I have a 1960’s era recording of that song that I sometimes flip into the CD player on my way down to Chima, the chic Brazilian churrascaria in Fort Lauderdale.  It’s Astrud Gilberto singing in that sexy whisper of a voice about the beautiful girl that makes all the boys go “ahhh”, and it always puts me in the right mood for a swank Brazilian night on the town. 

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Before I say anything further about Chima, I’m going to stop here for a minute for a quick lesson in Brazilian Portuguese.  Certainly it would be impolite to jet off to Rio without first learning a few words of the language.  The first vocabulary word is churrascaria.  A churrascaria is a Brazilian steakhouse, like Chima.  Chima serves Rodizio, which is a type of service where passadors (waiters) roam the dining room floor, offering slices of fine cuts of freshly roasted meats, from skewers that they carry from table to table.  The passadors at Chima offer diners 16 delicious cuts of meat, including Filet Mignon wrapped in bacon, pork loin with parmesan cheese, and picanha nobre, a Brazilian cut of meat also called baby top sirloin.  There is often a fish dish as well, usually salmon, but for the most part, Chima is for meat lovers.  Come hungry.

 

I would say Chima is not for vegetarians, but it is possible to go and just order the salad bar.  I’m not sure why you’d want to, but it is an option for that one vegetarian friend in your crowd who wants to go along anyway. 

 

At Chima, as in many churrascarias in the U.S., diners go to the salad bar for their vegetables, salads, soups and side dishes, and the waiters come to the tables to serve the meats, beverages, and desserts.  Chima places a plastic chip at each place setting.  If you leave your chip black side up, the passadors will leave you alone.  Turn it orange side up, and they will stop by your table one by one, continuously, each offering a different cut of thin sliced meat, until you’ve had enough and turn your coin back over to black.

 

Okay, I’ll stop for a minute again before I lose my foodie readers.  I know what you’re thinking.  You don’t usually hear the words salad bar and fine dining in the same sentence, but it’s not what you think.  This is nothing like the salad bar at that steakhouse out by the mall.  There are no plastic cafeteria trays, and nobody will be shoving past you to get to the factory made croutons with the Monterey Jack cheese before they run out.  Not to worry.  This is the Gucci and Prada set, and Chima’s is a traditional churrascaria salad bar with beautiful smoked meats and fish, calamari salad, caprese salad, and a huge assortment of fresh vegetables, salads, soups, appetizers and side dishes, much more than I can list here.  I suppose Chima could try to figure out how to serve the vegetables at your table, but then you wouldn’t get to walk across the room and show off those brand new Jimmy Choos or Ferragamos you bought for the occasion.

 

By the way, if you came to Chima to see and be seen you’ll want to drop by the lounge, one of the chicest watering holes in town.  It’s just off the main dining, right next to where that drop dead gorgeous Brazilian hostess checks you in and (hopefully) checks you out.  As sleek and elegant as the lounge is though, I usually skip right by it and head for the outdoor courtyard, where you can have a drink under the stars in a beautiful garden setting.  Last Saturday there was a Brazilian jazz duo singing in the courtyard and the ambiance was magical.

 

Right now the lounge at Chima is offering a promotion called “Sip, Swirl and Savor” that includes up to five samplings of fine wines and a variety of cheeses for $10.  The offer is good every Tuesday night from 5 PM to 7:30 PM, through July.  If you go for the “Sip Swirl and Savor” Chima will also invite you to stay for dinner afterwards with $25 off the purchase of two rodizios.

 

Chima’s is planning a special Mother’s Day event too, with prizes for Mom like theatre tickets and a spa day, and free ice cream and coloring activities for children.  This is a great restaurant for the whole family, especially that teenage Olympian hopeful in your household that needs to eat at least 7,000 calories a day and can’t get enough steak.

 

Great food, a chic setting, Brazilian jazz, and a chance to show off those new shoes - sounds like a perfect night on the town, right?  Take it all in, enjoy, and put off the new diet until next morning.

 

Bon Appétit

Rob Lubin

 

P.S.  I have been hearing about a number of Brazilian churrascarias opening around the country and I have been wondering which ones are worth travelling for.  If there is a top Brazilian restaurant in your area, particularly a steakhouse, I would love to know more.  Click on the comment link below and leave me a note so I can give it a try.  Thanks!  RL


22 Apr 2009 02:46 pm

Remember that old tongue twister, “She sells seashells by the seashore?” Well, if “she” is lucky, she’ll use her loot to buy herself a delicious dinner of soft-shell crab. Like seashells and the seashore, it’s one of the hallmarks of summer. And because the season’s so short, it’s worth celebrating while it lasts.

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No one knows this better than the folks who live on the Mid-Atlantic coast. When you sit down at a crab shack on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, they’ll tell you, there are few things more mouth-watering on the menu than a soft-shell crab. The reason: When you do, you’re actually ordering a blue crab that’s gone through a process called ecdysis,  more commonly known as molting. Beginning in May, as the blue crabs emerge from their winter dormancy, and lasting until September, young crabs are molting — or shedding — their shells. It’s part of growing up, like crab adolescence. In order to grow a newer, bigger shell, they’ve got to get rid of the old one. When they do, they’re vulnerable for a period of two to three months while their new shell grows and hardens. Blue crabs caught in traps during this period are called soft-shell­ crabs because their new shells are still soft enough to eat, along with the actual crab meat inside them.

Because blue crabs typically only molt in the summer, they’re a limited-time delicacy in places like Maryland, the Carolinas, Florida and Louisiana.  Of course, you can often get “fresh” blue crab all year long from as far away as California. Just be sure they smell fresh; if they smell like ammonia, they’re not, which means you shouldn’t eat them.

Assuming they’re odorless, however, eat up! When you do, you’ll be enjoying not only a taste of the sea, but also a taste of history … especially in Maryland, where soft-shell crabs have been part of the coastal culture since the early 1800s.

Since then, that culture has been captured by a number of Mid-Atlantic locals, including authors like James H. Michener, who popularized the lifestyle and history of crab fishermen — known as watermen — in his best-selling 1979 novel Chesapeake. In it, Michener goes into the grittier details of crabbing, but if you just want to enjoy the flavorful adventure of soft-shell crab, all you have to do is search out a restaurant that serves them right: fried, steamed or the French sautéed meuniere (in the manner of the Miller’s wife — with butter and flour).

However the chef prepares it, you can be sure that soft-shell crab is just as delicious as its name suggests. After all, the scientific name for soft-shell crab is callinectes sapidus, which translates not as “blue crab,” which some Web sites might have you believe, but rather as tasty (sapidus), pretty (calli) swimmer (nectes).  Indeed, if you’ve only seen blue crab do their comical sideways walk on land, you might have never guessed that they’re actually elegant swimmers.

As for the taste: There’s no mistaking the wonderful flavor of a fresh, tender soft-shell crab. So go ahead and sell your seashells by the seashore this summer. But don’t you dare sell your soft-shell crab; instead, eat it, and enjoy!


19 Apr 2009 06:44 am

If you consider carrot cake a vegetable, then you’ll definitely want to check out Spanky’s Cupcakes at the Las Olas Boulevard Green Market in Fort Lauderdale.  Spanky’s is my kind of produce stand!  Last Sunday I rode my bicycle past the market, just to see what was fresh and in season.  Apparently, it’s cupcake season. 

All the usual suspects were there at the green market - the organic produce vendor, the flower lady, the fresh bread guy.  And then there was Spanky’s.  Yes it’s supposed to be a green market, but many people do actually classify cupcakes as produce.  Certainly the key lime cupcake would qualify as citrus, and of course the guava cupcake is fruit based.  I might put Spanky’s coconut-almond sno-ball cupcake in the maybe column, but really who cares?  They’re delicious.  Besides, I’d say judging by the look of the man behind the counter, they’re actually quite good for you.

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Spanky’s is owned by three Fort Lauderdale body builders, so when the vendor told me to try one I couldn’t possibly risk offending him by saying no.  The man looked like he could beat the stuffing out of me!  I had to force myself - what choice did I have? 

Frankly he did not look like a person who eats a lot of cupcakes, but I could be wrong.  If he is, then I want to package and sell that diet, because I’d make a fortune.  I’ve already picked out my book title.  “How I added five inches to my biceps by sitting on the couch all day eating choco peanut butter cupcakes.”  Who wouldn’t try a diet like that? 

Needless to say I went with the double choco cupcake.  It was outstanding.  Chocolate cake, chocolate frosting, and chocolate chips - all the major food groups.  And it’s no wonder it’s so tasty.  Spanky’s chef, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, uses only fresh eggs and sweet cream butter from local dairy farms, Scharffen Berger chocolate, and Nielsen-Massey pure Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. 

Spanky’s Cupcakes is new to Fort Lauderdale, and so far there is no store.  If you don’t catch them at the green market, you can call and order your cupcakes over the phone.  Spanky’s delivers (as all pastry chefs should), so no need to deny yourself.  Just in the Fort Lauderdale area of course.  As far as I know they will not fly up to New York to drop off a dozen red velvets at your suite at the St. Regis.  I don’t want to hear any complaining from my New York readers, not when you have the chocolate devil’s food cupcakes at Amy’s Bread just down the street, and Magnolia Bakery right around the corner.  But if you’re in Fort Lauderdale, definitely give Spanky’s a try. 

Until they have a store (let’s hope), you can reach Spanky’s Cupcakes at 954.630.0016, or you can visit their web site at www.SPANKYSCUPAKES.com.

I have added Spanky’s to my list of cupcake stops, but I have still not named a favorite.  We Take the Cake in Fort Lauderdale is definitely on my top 10 list, and I’m also a big fan of Amy’s and Magnolia in New York.  Friends tell me I need to try the cupcakes at South End Buttery in Boston, so I’ll be heading up there in May to give them a try and will report back.  If you have already found the perfect cupcake, please click on comments below and let me know.   I’ll publish your suggestions in a future post and we can compare notes.

Bon Appétit,

Rob Lubin


14 Apr 2009 04:01 pm

On April 15th for lunch and dinner at David Burke at Bloomingdale’s, davidburke townhouse and David Burke Prime as well as for dinner at Fishtail by David Burke and David Burke Fromagerie the individual who pays the check will receive a gift certificate in the amount of double the tax on the check.  The gift certificate has to be redeemed at any Burke property by tax extension day on October 15th.  Burke will also give back to more than the diners.  He will match the total amount of tax billed on April 15th and give Share our Strength’s Taste of the Nation a check in that amount!


13 Apr 2009 06:18 am

Sometimes I’ll get to thinking that I know a lot about food, then something like Kopi  Luwak comes along and I realize I’m just a big rube after all.  For those of you in the know on Kopi Luwak, this is your cue to feel superior.  Personally I had no idea until last night, but here it is.  Kopi Luwak is the Indonesian coffee bean that is picked out of the, umm, feces, of the Asian Palm Civet.  I’ll stop now for a moment while you re-read that sentence.  Yes, that’s right, it’s from civet feces.

I would not have believed it myself if I had not seen it on the coffee menu at 3030, Chef Dean Maxx’s outstanding ocean front restaurant at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort and Spa in Fort Lauderdale.  When you dine at interesting and innovative restaurants, you get interesting and innovative coffee.

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Last night, after a fabulous dinner at 3030 - the fresh local Pompano was brilliant - our server came by with the coffee and dessert menu.  As I flipped the pages something caught my eye.  Hmmm, I wondered, why would a single cup of coffee cost more than the prix fixe lunch menu at Le Cirque?  Did it come with its own Nespresso machine perhaps?

At this point in our meal our friend Tom began to tell the story of a special type of coffee he had heard about, made from some kind of cat, well, feces.  While we were laughing uproariously at this little joke the server came by, and I had to ask.  “What makes a single cup of coffee worth $45?”   “Well” he replied, “It’s Kopi Luwak.  It’s brewed from beans recovered from Asian Palm Civet droppings.”

Ahh, but of course!

Apparently, the Asian Palm Civet, which is found in Sumatra, Java and Sulawes, loves to munch on ripe coffee beans.  And, lucky for the rest of us, the Asian Palm Civet has a little trouble actually digesting the beans, so they come out the other end somewhat still intact.  And just as ripe, no doubt.

Now here is the part where I tell you about the most disgusting food service job in the world.  After the beans have, shall we say, passed through the civet, workers go around and pick out the undigested beans from their, uh leavings.  Really.   The civet likes to mark its territory, so it seems they’re pretty easy to find.  Once the beans have been collected they are lightly roasted at a low temperature to preserve the unique flavor and smoothness.  For my part, I’d want them to raise the temperature a bit - maybe roast them at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit,  then I might consider it!

But as it turns out there are a lot of people out there willing to pay good money to drink warmed over civet droppings - oops, I mean fine Indonesian Kopi Luwak.  I probably would too, if I had not done the research - and if 3030 had not been fresh out last night.  It sure makes you wonder how bad the recession really is when 3030 is running out of $200 per pound Kopi Luwak.  Could this be a promising sign of a stock market recovery?  A leading economic indicator perhaps?  One can only hope!

There are differing schools of thought on what makes Kopi Luwak so special.  I have read that an enzyme in the Asian Palm Civet’s intestines breaks down a protein in the coffee that renders it incredibly smooth.  Then there is the school of thought that says it has nothing whatsoever to do with the civet’s digestion, but that the animal simply knows intuitively how to find the ripest coffee beans.  And as we all know, the ripest coffee beans make the freshest coffee.

So there you have it - the straight poop on Kopi Luwak.   Something new to try when you’re tired of the usual, uh, stuff.

Bon Appétit

Rob Lubin

Note- All kidding aside, the story of Kopi Luwak was absolutely fascinating to me, and it sounds delicious, once you get past its provenance.  I would be most interested in hearing from readers who have tried it and can report back on the taste.  As I mentioned, 3030 was out the last time I was there, so I did not get to check it out.  If you have experienced this unique coffee or you’d like to share your own unique coffee story or preference please, click on comments below and let me know what it’s really like.  Thanks!  RL


08 Apr 2009 03:54 pm

Personally, I make no apologies for being a Francophile.  Or, perhaps more to the point, a Franco-foodie.  To me everything tastes better with a French accent.  After all, why have French fries when you can have frites?  And who needs pepper steak when steak aux poivres is on the menu? 

For pure French cuisine there is really is nothing quite like the classic Bistro, where the preparation and serving of traditional French dishes is elevated to high art.  Happily, if you live in New York you don’t need to hop on a plane to enjoy your cuisse de canard or tarte tatin.  Not since internationally acclaimed chef Alain Ducasse opened Benoit, the classic French Bistro on West 55th Street in the heart of Midtown. 

 

benoit

 

In France, the bistro experience is often casual, an inviting neighborhood restaurant serving traditional dishes but always in the most refined way. 

There is an elaborate vase at the entrance to the dining room at Benoit that symbolizes to me all that is special about the French Bistro experience.  An art nouveau fantasy of wading birds and flowers that reaches all the way to the ceiling, it is over the top in a way that only the French can make to seem mundane.  This is the essence of the French Bistro, and of Benoit - traditional French cuisine made to extraordinary standards of quality and freshness, and impeccable service and refinement rendered in the most inviting and unfussy way.   It is the extraordinary rendered ordinary, and the ordinary rendered extraordinary.

The New York incarnation of Benoit is an authentic descendant of generations of bistros that forged this delicious union of French cuisine and conviviality.  The original Benoit opened in Paris in 1912.  It was purchased by Alain Ducasse in 2005 and quickly became one of the hot tables in a city of hot tables. 

The New York Benoit opened in 2008 in the former location of the legendary restaurant La Cote Basque.  Its menu is true to the traditions and techniques of classic bistro cuisine.  Classic appetizers such as pate en croute,  duck foie gras, and escargots are all on the menu, along with traditional main courses such as duck a l’orange and steak aux poivre.  Also on the menu is one of my favorite French desserts, vanilla millefeuille.  I say one of, because I love all French desserts, and have been known on occasion to walk into a French patisserie for a quick snack, only to walk out a few minutes later with a shopping bag full of goodies.  I take the philosophy that life is short, so try a little of everything, and always order dessert.

That was the philosophy of our little dining group when we visited Benoit last Friday night.  We tried the quenelles de brochet, which was light as a feather and loaded with rich flavor from the classic Nantua sauce, and also the roast chicken with garlic cloves and French fries (je m’excuse, I meant to say frites!).  Although in France frites are generally served with fresh mayonnaise, our very French waiter was most deferential to our American palates, offering a side of ketchup before I even had the chance to ask (I took the mayo anyway). 

Here is a little insider tip on dessert, by the way.  Be extra nice to your server.  If he likes you he may let you try one of their off-the-menu desserts, like the chocolate cake I had with passion fruit cream filling and mango sorbet.  It was incroyable.  Or perhaps I should say formidable.  I can never remember the difference!  Well let’s just say it was the piece de resistance.  You won’t be disappointed.

Benoit will be open this Easter Sunday 4/12/09, from 11 A.M. to 8 P.M.  In addition to their a la carte menu, there will be special house made candies for the kids, and live accordion music at the bar.  Happy holiday and bon appétit. 

Rob Lubin


 
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