My ‘Chef for a Day’ Experience in New York City – Part 2

August 23, 2013 Menu No Comments

Last week I introduced you to Camaje Bistro and Lounge, and to chef/owner Abigail Hitchcock, as I shared with you highlights of my day in the Camaje kitchen. Today I am going to share with you the fun stuff…the menu and the tips and tricks that were passed on to me! Before we go any further, let me explain to you why you will not find step-by-step recipes in this blog post. My day in the kitchen was kind of free-form. As Chef Abby was guiding me along, we didn’t focus on specific measurements to the tee. While some ingredients needed measurements, a good portion of the seasonings were eyeballed and adjusted to taste. This was actually very comfortable for me. I’m Italian – nobody in my family follows exact recipes! Chef Abby also told me right from the get-go to absorb what I could that day, even if it wasn’t what I was used to doing. If I were to decide to try it another way on my own time, all the better. I encourage each of you to do the same, not only with recipes on my blog, but with all recipes in general. With that said, let’s head back to the Camaje kitchen!

Our meal for the day was broken up into three courses: an appetizer, a main course and a dessert, along with a fine bottle of wine to complement the meal. All courses were selected by my wife when the reservations were booked, so fresh ingredients hand picked by Chef Abby from the farmer’s market were all on hand that day. I had a hand in preparing, plating and presenting every course, and we were given plenty of time to enjoy each course before I headed back into the kitchen for the following round.

1st Course: The Appetizer

Our first course was Roasted Eggplant and Goat Cheese Napoleon. Chef Abby had me start the day’s duties by slicing up a beautiful Italian Eggplant (the short, bulbous variety that are a light purple and white tye-died color) into 6 even pieces, about 1/2″ thick.Right off the bat this was a bit different for me. We cook eggplant often, but I always prefer to remove the skin and slice the eggplants thin. Curious and excited to see where we were going with this this, I sliced away, then brushed each side with canola oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, then into the oven it went. The next step was to mix equal amounts of goat cheese and cream cheese, along with some finely chopped chives and some fresh thyme. A little heavy cream was whisked into the mixture to slightly thin it out. Once the eggplants were done roasting, and were golden brown on both sides, we assembled by alternating layers of eggplant and layers of the cheese, until each plate was three layers deep, served over a spring mix salad. My first dish out of a professional kitchen was a hit! The roasted eggplant and the creamy cheese filling melted in your mouth. Honestly, I could make an entire meal out of this dish alone. While I am still a fan of thin-sliced eggplant when preparing cutlets, the thicker and meatier slices were definitely the way to go with this dish!

 app

2nd Course: The Entrée

Our second course was Sautéed Wild Salmon with a Lemon & Herb Beurre Blanc and Market Vegetables. Because salmon doesn’t take long to prepare, we started with the vegetables. Chef Abby picked up some nice purple potatoes, which she had me slice in half, then drizzle with some oil, salt and pepper, then place in the oven for a nice roasting. If you never had purple potatoes, they are a fun addition to your plate if you are looking for presentation. The outer skin is a very dark purple color, and when you slice them open you find a fantastic purple swirl that holds up when cooked (kids also find them fun to eat!). We then sliced some fresh leaks, fennel, smashed garlic and tomato, seasoned with some salt and pepper and sautéed it in oil until the veggies were soft and their flavors were married together.

Next up was preparing the salmon. Chef Abby gave me the choice of grilled or sautéed. Since grilling is my usual choice for salmon, I went with sautéing so that I could take advantage of learning some new tricks. The prep was very easy, simply seasoning each side of the filets with salt and pepper, then placing them skin side up into a searing hot pan with some oil. Once the flesh side was cooked (about 5 minutes), we flipped the filets and put them skin side down. You’ll notice that the skin will start to curl once heated. After a few minutes, we flipped the filets to skin side up again, then placed the pan into the oven. The fish will continue to cook in the oven, without having the oils burn off. The outside ends up well done and slightly crisp, while the inside remains moist and full of flavor.

Last was the Beurre Blanc sauce. This is a quick and delicious sauce that is made up of a finely chopped shallot, fresh lemon juice, white wine, salt and pepper, fresh herbs (we went with the classic basil and parsley combination) and chunks of cold butter. You simply sauté the shallots in the wine and lemon juice until the liquid is almost evaporated. At this point you want to lower the heat and add the butter a few cubes at a time, whisking until blended. You want the butter to soften, but not cook in the pan. Melted butter is not the objective here. Season with salt, pepper and the fresh chopped herbs, and you end up with a heavenly, creamy and delicious sauce. Because of the delicate nature of this sauce, it can’t be made ahead of time. Once the sauce was done, we plated the salmon over the vegetables and topped with the sauce.

We eat salmon at home…a lot. Its our go-to fish. And I’ve prepared it a number of ways, my most famous being stuffed with pesto. This dish that I made with Chef Abby…off the charts! There is nothing like cooking with fresh ingredients, and this dish could not have proved that point any more. Chef Abby encouraged me to taste while seasoning throughout the entire cooking process, which no doubt made for better judgement and preparation. Two courses down, two thumbs up!

 entree

3rd Course: The Dessert

I’ll admit, this part of the meal is what I was waiting for all day. The choice that Daria selected for us was Caramelized Banana and Roasted Chocolate Crepes. Everything about this dish screams ‘winner’. I’ve made caramel sauce before, and anyone could slice bananas in their sleep. But making crepes? Lemme tell you…this was the biggest challenge of the day for me. A crepe, for those that do not know, is like a very thin pancake. You make a batter out of flour, eggs, milk, and sugar (if you are making sweet crepes). For savory crepe recipes, try leaving out the sugar and allowing the savory flavors to stand out. Unlike pancakes, you need to work fast. Very fast. Using a hot pan coated with oil or butter, you ladle the batter into the pan, and then you move the pan around to make an even, thin layer. After about 15 seconds, when the top starts to dry and the bottom becomes a golden brown, you shake the pan to loosen it and with a flick of the wrist, you give it a flip. You can use a spatula if needed…but Chef Abby made sure that we didn’t need no stinkin’ spatula. Chances are the first crepe you make will be a dud…as was mine! Luckily, the batter that we made was enough for a good 4-6 crepes. By the third crepe, I pretty much had it down. We then made a basic caramel sauce (heated butter and sugar), added in our bananas, and finished it off with some melted chocolate. We then gently folded the caramelized bananas into the crepes, plated them and topped with powdered sugar. Although a few of the crepes may have broken mid-flip, with just a few creative folds nobody would know the difference. If I said this dessert was off the charts, I would be lying. It was miles beyond the charts. No, I am not kidding, and yes it was THAT GOOD. Rich, decadent, gooey….HEAVEN.

 dessert

Bonus: The Tips and Tricks!

As I said in part one of my Camaje recap, not only is Chef Abby a creative and knowledgeable chef, she also takes high interest in and has a thorough, educated understanding of the science of foods. Aside from guiding me through the A-MA-ZING meal mentioned above, Chef Abby was very gracious throughout the entire experience to share a few tips and tricks, such as:

• Avoiding teary eyes when slicing onions or shallots: most people, including myself, tend to shed a few tears when slicing onions. What causes this? The liquids that are extracted from the onion when rough-chopped (quickly rocking the knife over the onion, when mincing). This method, while quicker, is actually squashing the onion and is extracting the juice from the onion, which then helps produce tears in our eyes. Instead, try to delicately slice the onion, making sure to cut straight through instead of mincing. Also, be sure to keep the root end of the onion in-tact. This helps keep the onion together a bit more, and prevents it from falling apart while slicing. The onion may start to spread a bit, but can be kept under control with your fingers.

• Getting the smell of garlic off of your hands: when Chef Abby asked how I handle this, I confidently said “you use some lemon juice”. Nope. While the lemon juice does mask the garlic aroma, it doesn’t remove the scent. Next time, try rubbing your hands on your stainless steel sink, then rinse with water. Voila! No more garlic scent on your hands!

• How to chiffonade basil: while we were preparing the herbs for our sauce, Chef Abby asked if I knew how to chiffonade basil. When I told her that I wasn’t familiar with the term, she asked what I do to slice my basil. I said “well, I grab a few leaves, roll them tight like a cigar, then make thin slices that produce ribbon-like cuts”. Turns out I knew how to chiffonade basil all along!

• Select your oils accordingly: olive oil always seems to be the go-to oil when preparing meals, especially Italian meals. While rich and flavorful, olive oil has a low heat tolerance, thus will burn and smoke up when added to a high heat pan. Canola oil has a high heat tolerance, and is the better choice to use for high heat cooking.

• Cleaning leaks: when leaks are plucked from the ground, they tend to carry lots of dirt within their folds. To help remove the unwanted dirt, simply soak the leaks in cold water for a few minutes. The dirt will fall from the leaks and will pool up in the bottom of the bowl like wet sand.

• The wonders of Fleur de Sel: translated to “flower of salt”, it is a hand-harvested sea salt that falls under the variety of finishing salts. Used as a seasoning accent when plating rather than when cooking (just a small bit is needed), it adds a candy-coated texture when added to moist foods. We added a pinch to our sliced tomatoes in our salad. BOOM! Like magic, the tomatoes had a beautiful crunchy exterior. Again, just a bit goes a long way.

 

So there you have it, my friends. A recap of one of the most fun and fascinating days that I am sure to never forget, thanks to my wonderful wife, Daria, and my new friend, the gifted and talented Chef Abigail Hitchcock. I am sure that I am leaving out some details here, as there was so much to info that I absorbed. Hopefully my story and pictures have helped give you an idea of the wonderful experience that I had.

And if you are wondering, yes, Chef Abby did indeed pass along the recipes that were used to influence the day’s meal. I consider them a special gift and will treat them as such, therefore I chose not to post them word-for-word. But if you ask nicely, maybe I’ll invite you over and personally make one of the dishes for you. However, I make no promises on prerfectly-shaped crepes.

 

Camaje Bistro & Lounge is located at:
85 MacDougal Street, New York, NY 10012
Phone: 1 (212) 673-8184
E-mail: info@camaje.com

For more information on Camaje Bistro, click here.

To read more about Chef Abby, click here.

To view a preview video of Camaje’s Dark Dining event, click here.

 

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My ‘Chef for a Day’ Experience in New York City – Part 1

August 16, 2013 Menu No Comments

This past June, for my milestone 40th birthday, my wife Daria went above and beyond and surprised me with a gift that would be equivalent to a sports fan’s opportunity to play ball at spring training, or a musician’s weekend at rock & roll camp. My gift was to be chef for a day in a New York City restaurant. After much anticipation, the big date finally arrived this past weekend, which not only meant that I would get to do some serious cooking, but that Daria and I would get to enjoy a nice weekend get-away.

Now I know that it would be cliché to say that the experience was simply amazing…but that is truly how this trip turned out. Pure joy, fun and amazement. But I do write a food blog, and you are here to read all of the details, so I’ll do my best to share with you as much as I possibly could. Because there are a lot of wonderful memories (and photos) to share, I thought it would be best to split the details up into two posts. In this post I will tell you all about the restaurant where I cooked, and introduce you to the chef who shared so many wonderful tips with me and made my big day one that will never be forgotten. Next week, I’ll follow up with a recap of the menu that I helped prepare and will share some fun kitchen tips that were passed along. Now let’s head over to Camaje Bistro and Lounge!

CAMAJE

Camaje Bistro and Lounge is a French-American restaurant located on MacDougal Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. The restaurant has been in existence for a very impressive 16 years. For my Philadelphia friends, this area of New York is very similar to what Passyunk Avenue has become over the past few years – a lively street packed with inspirational and creative restaurants and shops. Owned and operated by Chef Abigail Hitchcock, the restaurant is a quaint and cozy spot with a menu that is made up of seasonal, local and organic (where possible) foods, a solid beer and wine list to complement the menu, and tasty desserts (including the ice cream) that are all made on the premises. Aside from its traditional menu, Camaje offers a variety of special and personalized events, including  hands-on group and personal cooking classes, kids cooking classes, wine dinners, private parties, and, what I found most intriguing, Dark Dining events. The Dark Dining events are choreographed feasts where the guests are blindfolded, thus relying solely on their taste and smell to absorb and appreciate the meal. Live music often accompanies the meal to further enhance the mood, which takes the experience of dining to new sensory heights. I’m sure you can understand now how I quickly fell in love with this place!

From the moment that we arrived at the restaurant, we felt welcomed and at home as we were greeted by Eddie, the restaurant host. We were a few minutes early, which gave us a chance to look at the impressive bar menu. While I would have loved to enjoy a Rare Vos on tap prior to cooking, I figured it would be a better idea not to imbibe before handling cutlery, especially while in someone else’s kitchen. A few moments later I finally got to meet Chef Abby, my guide and coach for the day, who was just as hyped and enthusiastic as I to head to the kitchen and get to business. This would allow Daria some time to relax on the restaurant’s comfortable sofas in the open window area to do some quality New York City people-watching. As the night went on, and I had to excuse myself from our table to head back to the kitchen for the later courses, my wife would find herself making friends and conversation on the sofa with the other restaurant patrons.

camaje1

The front entrance and dining room of Camaje Bistro and Lounge.

 

IN THE KITCHEN WITH CHEF ABBY

As you could probably imagine, I was very excited and a bit nervous to be spending time in a professional kitchen along side a professional chef. Over the years I have developed very close friendships with professional chefs who I admire deeply. But to be working in a kitchen with a chef…in a New York restaurant kitchen of all places…intimidation would be a good word to use. But let me tell you, the second that Chef Abby and I started talking and she got an understanding of my interests and skill level (and the fact that I have a food blog), all of my hesitation and nervousness were wiped away. For the next hour and a half, Chef Abby and I worked together to prepare our meal for the night. What made the experience really enjoyable for me was Chef Abby’s enthusiasm and knowledge, and her interest in what I thought and had to say. There was never a moment of “I’m the teacher, you’re the student”, but rather a comradery that made me feel welcomed and comfortable in her kitchen. While each step and process was explained and demonstrated, she allowed me to jump in when ready and run with the ball. She also showed genuine interest in my history: asking what type of cutlery and cook-ware I prefer to use, what type of garden I have growing in my yard, what kind of meals I like to plan, and how I get our kids involved in the kitchen. She also spent time telling me fun and interesting stories about her history: what encouraged her to start cooking, some fun stories about the restaurant business, and what famous people she has run into over the years (hey, I was a tourist in New York…I had to ask the touristy questions). Chef Abby’s knowledge and expertise expands into the science of foods and cooking, so I also picked up some interesting tips and tidbits (how to get the garlic smell off of your hands…and it doesn’t involve lemons, how to avoid teary eyes when slicing onions). I even got to offer up a tip or two that I picked up over the years, and Chef Abby was happy to hear them. She was also very excited to help me document this entire experience for my blog. She would often grab my camera to photograph me as I was chopping, stirring and flipping. I honestly could not have had a better experience in the kitchen.

camaje2

Left: Chef Abby and myself in the Camaje kitchen. Right: My pals, Camaje staff members Eddie and Ernie.

Because this was a three-course meal, I had to excuse myself from Daria to head back into the kitchen in between courses. Most of the evening’s food prep was done during the first round in the kitchen, so all that was left for the remaining courses was some last-minute prep work and reheating, and of course the plating of the food. I’m a designer by trade, so the presentation was also very important to me. At this point Eddie’s shift was over and hosting duties were handed off to Ernie, a 12 year veteran of Camaje who was just as funny, welcoming and personable. Eddie eventually returned to jump into some of the other restaurant duties, so he and Ernie both kept a good, fun vibe going in the restaurant. After we finished up our three amazing courses and enjoyed our last sips of a delicious bottle of organic Argentinian Malbec, Daria and I were able to relax and just soak up the cozy, warm, friendly vibe that Camaje offers. We could’t thank Chef Abby and her staff enough, and although Daria and I didn’t want the night at Camaje to end, we both knew that sometime soon we would be back to enjoy another fantastic evening with Chef Abby and friends.

Working in the kitchen and enjoying dessert.

Working in the kitchen and enjoying dessert.

 

Next week: a full recap of the menu, along with some fun kitchen tips and tricks that I learned from Chef Abby!

 

Camaje Bistro & Lounge is located at:
85 MacDougal Street, New York, NY 10012
Phone: 1 (212) 673-8184
E-mail: info@camaje.com

For more information on Camaje Bistro, click here.

To read more about Chef Abby, click here.

To view a preview video of Camaje’s Dark Dining event, click here.

 

In case you are wondering, here is a quick recap of what else we enjoyed during our weekend visit to New York City:

A nice room in the Washington Square Hotel  Live jazz band in Washington Square Park  Seeing Paquito D’Rivera at the Blue Note Jazz Club  Blue Note Martinis at the Blue Note  Breakfast at the Chelsea Market  A Sunday morning stroll through the Jefferson Market Memorial Gardens

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Grilled Cinnamon Sweet Potato Chips

August 1, 2013 Appetizer, Entrees, Menu No Comments

There is nothing more rewarding about summer cook-outs than to be able to prepare your entire meal, start to finish, on the grill. One of my favorite side dishes that I like to make on the grill – whether I’m serving chicken, meat or fish – is a good, old-fashioned sweet potato. Now, if you’ve cooked sweet potatoes on the grill, you know that a little extra time and patience is needed. Just as if you were baking them in the oven, you are sure to be looking at a good 30-45 minutes before the potatoes are perfectly cooked and are ready to eat.

To cut back on some of cooking time, I came up with a little trick that I now use whenever we are planning to grill sweet potatoes. By slicing the potatoes first, then tossing the slices with some olive oil and spices, you end up with delicious, crispy sweet potato chips. They are easy to prepare, cook within 15 minutes, and they are a fun dish that even your kids will enjoy. I prefer using spices and flavors that really enhance the natural taste of a sweet potato – cinnamon, brown sugar and a little maple syrup are what I like best. You can serve them along side a main course, or enjoy them on their own as a crispy grilled snack!

Grilled Cinnamon Sweet Potato Chips
Makes approx. 2-3 servings

2 nice-sized sweet potatoes, scrubbed (peeled or unpeeled, your preference)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 tbspn brown sugar
1 tspn cinnamon
1/2 tspn salt
2 tbspn maple syrup

You will also need a lightly sprayed grilling basket or a grill pan, just as I suggested using in my Grilled Tomato Basil Salad recipe.

Preheat your grill to medium-high heat.

Using a sharp knife, carefully slice the sweet potatoes into thin slices, about 1/8″-1/4″ thick (you do not want them to be paper-thin). Place the sliced potatoes into a large bowl. Drizzle the slices with olive oil, enough to lightly coat each of the slices. Add the brown sugar, cinnamon and salt; stir well. Drizzle the mixture with the maple syrup; stir well again.

Place the grilling basket or pan onto the grill over direct heat. Carefully pour the chips into the basket, stir well using a wood or metal spoon or spatula. Close the grill lid, but check and stir frequently to avoid the chips from burning. Once the chips start to brown and blister, carefully move the basket to an indirect heated area of the grill. Continue to cook and stir until the chips are evenly cooked and slightly crispy, (approximately 10-15 minutes total cooking time). Carefully remove the chips from the basket with a spoon. Plate and serve.

Be sure to use a grilling basket to help evenly cook the potatoes.

Be sure to use a grilling basket to help evenly cook the potatoes.

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