Oddly enough, the first thing I did when I arrived in New York City was to go to the grocery store. In fact, I somehow managed to visit some sort of grocery store each of the three days I was there during my last-minute whirlwind 48-hour visit.
The first grocery visit was not by design, but rather by circumstance as my flight arrived a full hour early into JFK. My friend Nora, who has recently embarked on an adventure into the world of professional cooking, suggested that we meet at the grocery store since she still needed to pick up a couple of things for the coming evening. Nora has helped shape a few of my food sensibilities—my love of ricotta, the use of lavender in a culinary context, and the many ways to roast pig parts, to name a few. We met at the Essex Market in the East Village, which is not a traditional grocery store, but rather a collection of small privately owned stalls with different specialties—vegetables and fruits, fish, meat, cheese, chocolates, bread, dry goods, etc. It actually reminded me quite a lot of the market I used to frequent when I lived in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin. Our destination this night was Saxelby Cheesemonger, a small corner stalls with only 10-15 cheeses, all hand picked by the young cheesemonger herself, where we sampled a delicious stinky cheese from Three Mountain Cheeses, and bought some smooth, creamy fresh ricotta for Nora’s favorite beet appetizer. One more stop at the bakery for some fresh bread, and we were on our way.
Back at the apartment, Nora set about preparing her favorite beet appetizer with a culinary bravado unmatched by anyone I know. We soon had a scrumptious snack to stay our hunger until dinner—roasted beet wedges served over fresh ricotta sprinkled with toasted chopped almonds and other fixings, and finally drizzled with honey, accompanied by fresh bread on the side. The earthy beets played very well with the fresh and clean taste of ricotta and sweet kiss of honey. My stomach is growling now just thinking about it.
Nora’s Roasted Beets with Ricotta
Note: this dish depends heavily on the quality of your ricotta. Don’t skimp! Try to find fresh hand-packed ricotta at your local cheese shop, if that’s available to you. In the Bay Area, I love Bellwether Farms Ricotta cheese available at the Rainbow Grocery, and various cheese shops.
5-6 small beets, approximately 1-1.5 inches in diameter, peeled, cut into quarters. (note: you can substitute 2-3 larger beets; simply cut into eighths instead of quarters)
1 t. olive oil
1 c. ricotta
scant ¼ c. almonds or almond pieces
1 T. honey
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Toss beet quarters with olive oil to coat, and spread evenly on a baking sheet. Roast for 45 minutes or until beets are easily pierced with a knife, stirring every 15 minutes. Allow beets to cool for 15 minutes.
In the meantime, toast almonds in a dry skillet over medium heat until they give off a strong nutty aroma, about five minutes. Remove from heat and coarsely chop.
Mound ricotta in the center of a serving dish and drizzle with honey. Sprinkle toasted nuts, a good pinch of sea salt, and a few grinds of black pepper over the top. Arrange roasted beets around the ricotta. Serve with fresh bread or crackers. Enjoy!
The second grocery trip was with my lovely hostess Laurie to the famed Union Square Green Market, a year-round open-air farmer’s market that takes place every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. The way I like to approach the farmer’s market is to do a preliminary walk through to see what available that week, what catches my eye, etc., and then make my purchases in a secondary walkthrough. I rarely make a shopping list—unlike a conventional grocery store that carries the same types of produce at all times of the year, the offerings at a farmer’s market change with the season, and even with the week. Instead of making a list I just buy what is abundant at the time. I’ll sometimes do a third walkthrough to see if I missed anything or if that item I was wavering on speaks to me again, and also because I simply love wandering through farmer’s markets. They’re loud (listen to a piece I created made from field recordings at the Rotterdam Farmer’s Market) and they’re alive with fresh foods and human energy. I love seeing people actually talking, interacting, and showing interest in each other. Typically, a purveyor is proud of the food they’re selling, and are excited to talk about it and share recipes and preparation ideas with their customers. Also, it gives customer’s a chance to learn about heirloom foods often available only at the market—what’s a jerusalem artichoke, and how do I prepare it? Are pasilla peppers spicy or sweet, and what can I do with one? Do purple potatoes taste different from white potatoes? What’s a fingerling? Over the years I’ve learned a lot by simply engaging in conversation with the people selling me my food.
Gritty bustling New York City and bucolic green farmland are pretty disparate concepts to me. I think this is why I was so impressed with the Union Square Farmer’s Market. There was a huge selection of local vegetables and fruits, artisan cheeses, breads, and most every other food item you can think of. I was particularly impressed by all the purveyors of sustainably raised meats—lamb, pork, beef, poultry, even bison! I was very tempted by some hand-made lamb sausages, but I figured they wouldn’t do well on my cross-country flight the following day. In a city as dense as New York, it’s refreshing to know that it is very possible to eat locally and seasonally.
Laurie and I decided on a large delicata squash, some white onions, multicolored carrots (red, yellow, and white), fresh bread, thyme, and a figurative dark horse—honey chevre. These would be made into an appetizer to bring to a dinner party later than night. Baby candy cane (chiogga) beets just missed the cut. So, with a full bag of food on my arm, we traded the bustle of the market for the bustle of the sidewalk, and enjoyed catching up with each other while wandering through the crisp and cold afternoon.
Neither of us really had any concrete ideas of what we would make as an appetizer, but fortunately most fall flavors blend harmoniously, and I knew we’d come up with something. When we got back to the apartment, I tasted (with great anticipation) the honey chevre that we went out on a limb and bought from a goat’s milk purveyor without sampling it. It was really delicious—creamy, slightly sour as chevre should be, with a hint of sweetness. After tasting the cheese and examining the contents of the cabinets, we decided to toss the squash with five-spice powder, cinnamon, and thyme. Based on our purchases and the cabinet contents, the appetizer would be bite-sized roasted squash, caramelized onion, and chevre bruschetta.
Later at the dinner party, the bruschettas were very well received, and fit in with the autumn theme of the main course. I only wish I’d remembered to take a picture of it all before everything was devoured.
Roasted Five-Spice Squash, Caramelized Onion, and Chevre Bites
Makes about 40 bites.
2 yellow onions, peeled, sliced into thin rounds (1/4 inch or so), separated into rings
2 T. butter
1 large delicata squash, peeled, seeded, cut into ½ inch cubes (substitute a small butternut squash or sugar pie pumpkin if delicata isn’t available)
2 t. plus ½ t. plus 1 T. olive oil, divided
1 t. five-spice powder
a generous pinch of cinnamon
1 t. fresh thyme, stems removed, chopped, or ½ t. dried
approximately 1/3 c. honey chevre, or regular chevre mixed with 1 t. honey to sweeten
half of a baguette, cut into ½ inch slices, then cut into large bite size pieces (i.e. cut the slice in two)
salt and pepper
3 T. chopped pecans (hazelnuts, almonds, or walnuts would also work well)
1 t. honey
In a large skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions, and stir to coat with butter. Reduce heat to medium low, partially cover, and cook for 50-60 minutes until onions are golden, stirring every 10 minutes to prevent burning. Remove from heat and reserve.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a baking sheet with ½ t. olive oil.
Toss squash with 2 t. olive oil, five-spice powder, cinnamon, and thyme. Spread evenly on baking sheet and roast for 35 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes.
Remove squash from oven and transfer to a bowl. Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees. Wipe the baking sheet clean.
Place bread slices in a large bowl, drizzle with 1 T. olive oil, salt and pepper. Stir to coat. Spread bread on the baking sheet in a single layer. Toast in 425 degree oven for 3 minutes; flip slices, and toast for another 2 minutes.
In a small bowl, combine the chopped nuts and honey, stirring with a bread knife or small spatula to evenly distribute the honey over the nuts. Mixture will be sticky a little clumpy
To assemble the bites, spread enough honey chevre to generously cover one side of the bread. Top with about 1 t. caramelized onion, then 1 to 1½ t. squash, gently pressing to secure onions and squash. Top with a generous pinch of the chopped nut and honey mixture. This all works best if you use your fingers (and it’s more fun)! Enjoy!
The third trip to the grocery store happened on Sunday morning when Laurie and I went in search of Umeboshi—pickled plum paste. Pickled umeboshi plums are known as ‘The Great Alkalizer’, and are used frequently in macrobiotic cooking both for flavoring and for medicinal purposes. Our use of the umeboshi paste would be medicinal—a hangover cure to be exact. The aforementioned dinner party lasted until almost 3AM (NYC never sleeps…). Lively conversation touched on everything from legal torts to the farm bill to literary erotica, with wine liberally flowing the whole time. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, but woke up dry-mouthed and with a pounding headache…
As I mentioned before, Umeboshi has an alkalizing effect on the body. Remember the pH scale from junior high science class? Well, the human body has an ideal pH level of about 6.7, which is slightly base. Foods like sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and yes, alcohol, make the body and blood more acidic, whereas foods like whole grains and vegetables make the body more alkaline. Umeboshi, with its alkalizing effect can help bring the body’s pH back into balance after over-consuming acidic or sugary foods. Interestingly, it can also used to reduce the feeling of morning sickness experienced by many pregnant women, caused partially by the more acidic state of the body during pregnancy. Anyhow, I swear by this as a hangover remedy, as well as a general wellness drink, and I usually start my day with an umeboshi-green tea tonic to help keep myself in balance.
The MB Hangover Cure and General Wellness Drink
Note: MB stands for either macrobiotic or ‘Modern Beet’, whichever you fancy
1-2 t. umeboshi paste (available at natural food stores)
1 teabag green tea. My favorite types are Bancha and Kukicha tea, which are made from the roasted stems and twigs of the plant. These teas are extremely low in caffeine, and are a staple in macrobiotic diets.
Add umeboshi paste to a large mug and fill about a quarter of the way full with water. Stir until paste mostly dissolves. Fill cup the rest of the way, add the tea bag, and steep for 5 minutes. Enjoy!
So three grocery trips in exactly 48 hours. That’s a record even for me! In all seriousness though, to be a foodie in NYC is to be blessed. The quality and selection of food I encountered there—the farmer’s market, the traditional italian trattoria where we had dinner on Friday, the natural foods market, the greasy-spoon where we had brunch on Sunday morning—it was ALL good. And unfortunately, as I write this I’m sitting on the runway at JFK, getting hungry, and watching the plane get de-iced. You see, today held NYC’s first snowfall of the year. The pilot announced that there’s a strong head wind, so I’m looking at a six and a half hour flight with only processed airplane food in sight…ugh. The moral of the story is always pack a plane snack, even if you think you don’t want one. Especially when you’re leaving a food haven like NYC.