recipe: a variation on vignarola

The last few months have brought many changes, not least among them my return to Brooklyn. Setting up shop in my old apartment means many things: a gas stove (thank god), extra space to entertain and proximity to my beloved Park Slope Food Coop. While I managed to maintain my membership throughout my two year residency in Manhattan, it was less than pleasurable to be so far removed from what has become one of my favorite parts of living in NYC.

The timing could not be more perfect, because spring at the Coop is a spectacular parade of delights. From fava beans to fiddleheads, gourmet chicories to garlic scapes, all of my favorite green ingredients literally burst forth from the shelves. There is also the chance to discover new friends, including the ugly-but-intriguing celtuce.

celtuce.jpg

For those who are unfamiliar, celtuce is most often spotted on asian menus, perhaps in some form of stir fry. Even in New York, I had only crossed it once, but given my affection for celeriac, I couldn't resist grabbing a couple of these knobby-roots-having-a-bad-hair-day. 

Trim off the rough exterior, and the texture is akin to a crisp, tender broccoli stem. The flavor is subtle, a mix of lettuce, celery and a touch of hazelnut. Sauteed or braised, it holds its crispness nicely, gaining a translucence that actually looks rather elegant.

Of course, as is the case with most odd veg, there aren't many celtuce recipes on the internet. But the few article that do exist suggest either raw or stir-fry preparations, and I thought I would attempt something akin to pan-fried. As it so happened, I had also spent the previous evening shelling fava beans, and the limited recipe searches on that end yielded an intriguing option: vignarola.

Traditionally, a braise of artichokes, peas and fava beans with crispy bits of pancetta, vignarola is quintessential Roman spring at its finest. The problem being, of course, that the mise en place for both fresh artichokes and favas is a massive labor of love, and all the moreso when a recipe requires both. Since I'm less patient than the average nonna, I decided celtuce would make a solid understudy for finicky artichokes.

vignarola with celtuce fava and pea.jpg

Flavor wise, it was certainly a gamble, but the structural integrity of the celtuce held up beautifully against the favas and peas. With no pancetta at hand, I started the recipe with a frozen puck of schmaltz (or improvised schmaltz really - just the drippings from a recently roasted chicken). After sauteeing down the celtuce therein, I deglazed the pan with white wine, added in the favas, peas and some white pepper, and braised them, slowly, over low heat for about an hour. The wine I chose was not particularly acidic, so I added a bit of sherry vinegar to round things out. Then I added some umami by grating in a block of mystery cheese somewhere on the manchego-to-parmesan spectrum, because why not. And what do you know...it was really fantastic. It was beautifully green—pale olive, in fact—and captured all the things I love about Italian home cooking. With a little salt, a little fat and some intuition, whatever mishmash is in your pantry can truly turn into a masterpiece.

celtuce, fava and pea vignarola

Note: As with all my cooking, this recipe was largely improvised. I truly believe that's the best way to cook, so my instructions will rely more on sensory guidelines than on definitive measurements.

Ingredients:

  • two heads of celtuce
  • 3 tbsp of schmaltz / chicken drippings
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic
  • 1.5 cups of whatever white wine you have on hand
  • two cups of shelled fresh favas
  • one cup of frozen peas
  • 2 inches, square, of a salty / umami-forward cheese
  • sherry vinegar, to taste
  • salt, to taste
  • white pepper, to taste

Instructions:

  1. Trim the rough outer skin of the celtuce stem, much as you would for celeriac or broccoli. The interior is rather tender, so be careful not to remove too much of the flesh. Slice the remaining stem into thin, 1-inch long rectangles.
  2. Heat up the chicken drippings in a pan and add the celtuce slices. Season with salt and sauté for 5-7 minutes on medium heat, until the slices become more translucent. About halfway through, add thinly sliced garlic.
  3. Reduce the heat and add white wine to the pan. Add your shelled favas and peas as well, with a bit more salt and freshly cracked white pepper. Add just enough water to make the mixture the consistency of a rustic stew (rather than a soup). Cover and stir periodically, simmering over low heat for at least 40 minutes.
  4. As the flavors start to come together, taste and adjust the seasoning with sherry vinegar. Once the acidity is to your liking, grate in your cheese and stir. Continue to simmer the dish for another ten minutes, then taste again to assess the adjustment of flavors. 
  5. At this point, if you're satisfied with the dish, toast some crusty bread. Ladle the vignarola into bowls and enjoy, possibly with a glass of the remaining white wine leftover from your cooking.

 

eater's digest: martha

There are few restaurants where I would advise diners to order both curry and creme brûlée. And yet, at Martha in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I enthusiastically recommend indulging in both dishes.

Having refined his culinary chops at Michelin-starred establishments and underground supper clubs alike, Chef Andres Valbuena serves up a multi-cultural menu that riffs on cuisine from all corners of the globe. What’s more, he pulls this mish-mash off without a whiff of pretension.

Let’s start with the cocktails. As a fan of heavy-on-the-bitters drinks, I was pleased to be steered towards the more subtle Double Trouble: a simple mix of dry vermouth, cocchi americano and orange bitters. It was a diner’s refreshment, perfect for pairing with a variety of plates (a cocktail virtue that is too often overlooked). The Apple Fizz was equally drinkable, with the mineral bite of a dry French cider.

Moving on to small plates, we opted to test out the fluke crudo. On first impression, the portion was doubly generous, paired with hijiki (an “al dente” seaweed with distinct umami flavor) and salmon roe. The dish’s salinity highlighted the fish’s exceptional quality, as well as the chef’s unassuming creativity—a trait similarly infused in the dishes that followed.

Next, a miniature cast iron pan of crispy brussel sprouts, so perfectly dressed that they fit every taste bud’s fancy. The plate-licking combination of sticky honey, funky fish sauce, pickled jalapeño and crunchy peanuts was nothing if not cravable. (In a city full of fresh takes on what used to be an abhorred vegetable, these are easily among the most addictive sprouts I’ve found.)

A steaming dish of congee might have seemed a bit of a curve ball, served alongside two remarkably juicy, skewered lamb meatballs. Yet this savory porridge could easily transfer to a hip Brooklyn brunch—indulgent enough to satisfy those who hit the drink a bit too hard, but subtle enough to please more wide-eyed, curious customers.

Three courses of shared plates deep, we had already encountered enough variety that our palates risked losing their footing. But then, a rock-solid dish of little neck clam green curry arrived—spiced, but not overly rich—to refresh and center our senses. The shellfish themselves were meaty and tender (an ode to local sourcing), while the curry offered heat and focused flavor.

Then arrived the fried chicken, a dish so beloved and contested in today’s restaurant culture that we couldn’t pass up a taste. Its crispy, intensely spiced batter was dressed with a honey-based spin on General Tsao. In fact, there are so many layers of flavor in this creative dish, it merits a culinary dissertation. Among them, my favorite detail, fermented black beans, offered an unexpected pop of earth and salt, hidden among the crevices of fried crust and sticky sauce.

Yet of all the rule-breaking that reigns in Martha’s kitchen, their creme brûlée was maybe Valbuena’s most daring move. Less a custard than an egg-rich spin on melted ice cream, this dessert was sloppy in all the best ways. The shatter of a substantially caramelized crust caused apple shards to fall into a pool of vanilla-laced cream, and we lapped up every bite like we hadn’t already eaten five courses.

In retrospect, it’s hard to make sense of such a shapeshifting restaurant. But the fact that Martha’s menu makes no claims to cultural authenticity is exactly what makes it exciting. Eliminating the boundaries of tested pairings and single region references, each dish becomes an expression of sheer creativity.

It’s a risky pretense—one that could lead as easily to clashes as coherence—but Martha never skidded off course. Just like the innovative residents that have fostered today’s Fort Greene scene, these zany dishes play together surprisingly well.

Martha
184 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn
718-596-4147

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

eater's digest: take root

 Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

There are many labels you could apply to the tasting menu at Brooklyn's Take Root: farm-to-table, sustainable, seasonal. But these increasingly popular, conscious-consumer terms still miss the mark. For while this intimate—verging on tiny—restaurant is all of those things, it is, most importantly, attentive. Attentive in the sense that Chef Elise Kornack has an uncanny awareness of her ingredients and, in turn, encourages diners to take note of her unusual culinary perspective.

Amuse bouche

If it sounds like I'm gearing up to make a bold claim, I am. My meal at Take Root was the most texturally perfect series of plates that I've ever tasted.

Starting with the amuse bouche. A play on carrots and circles, combining caviar-like spheres with crunchy disks and a delicate puree. It was a leitmotif of flavor in a tiny bowl, a question of what is a carrot, and yet, easy to enjoy without considering any of this. The lingering flavor of incredibly fresh mint made this dish doubly worth the while.

Egg

Then came a soft boiled egg with paprika mayonnaise, pickled onions and mustard seeds, rustic bread and home-whipped butter. I've never been a big fan of deviled eggs, but I appreciated the contrasting textures of this more challenging deconstruction, particularly the mustard seed. As for the aerated butter, that deserves its own rave review.

Squid

Next was an appetizer of tender rings of calamari, delicate peppery arugula and crisp lady apples with creamy cranberry beans. It was mild, but still dynamic—the type of dish that is best appreciated on a fresh palate.

French onion soup

Then came a surprise course, an evolved French onion soup. The deeply flavorful, strained broth and wafter-thin pain de mie toasts with a smear of midnight moon gouda was a revelation. Food this thought-out is typically outside of the realm of craving. But if you asked me what I'd like to eat every day for the next month, I'd choose this soup.

A pause to recognize one of the other truly impressive parts of dining at Take Root—their playlist. Curated by Elise's partner, Anna, the mix of Joni Mitchell, Madeleine Peyroux and Alexi Murdoch (to name a few) perfectly fit the mellow space and pace of the meal. In a city where so many restaurants prefer rock and hip-hop, it highlighted Take Root as the exception, a more subtle escape from New York's hectic pace.

Egg noodles

Back to the menu, hand-rolled egg noodles arrived in a delicate sauce of sweet corn milk. Dotted among the coils were briny salmon roe, adding a savory counter flavor to the sweetness of the dish. The following course was a striped bass with shatteringly crunchy skin, tender baby eggplants and meyer lemon hollandaise. Despite its mix of unexpected ingredients, the dish was perfectly balanced. Neither the aerated hollandaise or creamy eggplant overpowered the flavor of the wild bass.

Striped bass

As the evening slowly unfolded, we reached the chicken course, which featured multiple cuts from the same animal. Feather-light croquettes deflated beneath their remarkably crispy crust, while the surprisingly gamey breast proved surprisingly moist. The liver mousse was my favorite of all, creating a funky contrast with the essence-of-grape intensity of the halved concords scattered around the plate.

Fleisher's chicken

For dessert, Elise presented an almond semifreddo—a reminder of what almond should taste like, with a light, silky texture to boot. And I couldn't get over the beautiful hue of the elephant heart plums, dragging the ragged, ripped sponge cake through the intensely colored, sweet-tart plum coulis.

Almond semifreddo

Though some dishes were more experimental than others, the multi-course tasting fit together like a patchwork quilt. With no national or cultural cuisine to stitch them together, Elise's unique perspective on cooking tied together the disparate dishes. The experience is unusually personal, clearly revealing the chef's hyper-focused palate and culinary intentions.

In a day and age when "foodies" troll reality TV and read Food Network Magazine for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of their favorite chef, it's refreshing to remember that much of what we want to know can be communicated on the plate. Like any great novelist or painter, true chefs need only provide the bearings inherent to their work. And while Elise and her partner Anna are happy to tell you more, the best part of the meal might be that they don't have to.

Take Root
187 Sackett St, Brooklyn
Thurs-Sat, 8pm seating