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Hurricane Sandy

Firstly, I want to extend my personal sympathy to all our students, colleagues and neighbors that were bruised and battered by this devastating storm. The ICC was very lucky. Our school suffered only minor damage. We were closed for a week, most of SoHo and lower Manhattan being without power for that period of time. We had to destroy three tons of spoiled food as we could not enter the building to save and share what we had. And even as I write this, we are still experiencing power outages. This was all minor though, compared to our friends, families and residents in the hardest hit areas of New York City, New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut.

My own family was affected in the Rockaways in Queens and I went there to help in my own small way. I was incredulous at what I saw. I grew up in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn and Breezy Point and the Rockaways are my old stomping grounds and where I used to surf. OMG! Nine feet of raging water swamped this barrier island. Electrical fires broke out and burned blocks of homes. The Fire Department had to watch helplessly on the other side of the Marine Park Bridge as the raging waters would not allow their trucks to pass.

One thing can be said of the people of Rockaway. They are a tight community, they are strong and resilient. The street that experienced the plane crash of November 2011, just after 9/11, was one of those also ravaged by Sandy’s winds, water and the fires. But as I said they are resilient and they exemplify the best of human spirit: helping each other, strong community, national pride, sharing what little they have left and in some cases, selfless heroism.

The shrine pictured above is across the street from my brother’s house (which by some miracle is still standing). His neighbors all survived thanks to a make shift rope of extension cords and sheets, a young surfer in a wet suit with his surfboard who ferried people across twenty feet of rapid water. All 18 survived.

Some houses are standing, some are not. I was so impressed with the fortitude of the people I met. The foodie that I am, I could not just bring precious gasoline but also a cooked, still warm turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes and homemade apple pies. My friends at Strawberry Ridge Vineyards in Warren, Ct. gave me a case of Popolo, their delicious red wine, which brought some cheer to this meal in the middle of Sandy sadness.

It was a cold day but sunny. The houses had no heat and electricity, and won’t for months. We managed to take an outdoor table, with a sheet for a tablecloth, and took a moment to eat together. It probably was their first real meal after the storm. They christened it “Thanksgiving.” The camaraderie was amazing, as was the joy in sharing this brief respite, this communal meal. We ate, we laughed a bit, we forgot for a moment where we were. The guy in the sock hat said it was like we were in Aspen. Bruce and Janet with wine in hand, smiled and talked about the future without their house across the street. I marveled at their strength.

I have worked with food most of my life. I have never seen it give more sustenance than it did this one afternoon. We in the food industry should never forget the power of a well cooked meal. This one experience in Rockaway, after Sandy, has truly taught me after all of these years just how much food nourishes the soul.

I love summer cooking and that means feeding a crowd. I am lucky enough to have a weekend place outside the city to do just that. I don’t want to sound boring but I do love making the same dishes year in and year out. The first is paella. People tell me it rivals ones in Valencia (of course they are mostly Americans), but with our new Spanish program, I am sure I will find out that mine needs improvement!

Anyway, I started making paella when Colman Andrews visited one weekend. He casually threw olive oil, tomatoes and grated onions in a flat pan and left it to slowly melt together for hours. He then picked chard, beans, zucchini and peas from the garden. After some chicken pieces and chirizo pieces were browned off, he added the veg. I watched as he covered it all with Spanish paprika (pimenton), and finally added the famous Bomba Spanish rice (you must use Spanish rice for paella, it absorbs differently). He then waited a bit and added saffroned chicken broth, made sure everything was evenly spread and noted that it should not be touched until done, which is about 45 minutes. After that time the rice was tasted to make sure it was cooked through. I find paella so easy to make, I have really equipped myself: I have an outdoor paella cooker and a pan that can feed 100! The most important element is to get two or three of your guests out there cooking with you!

Another great summer cookout is a pig done in the LaCaja China box. It’s pretty easy and takes four hours. The instructions are right on the box! I usually cook a 40-pound pig that easily feeds 30 to 50 people. Aside from brining the pig the night before, all you do is put it in the box. It is sandwiched between some grates to make it easy to turn. You turn it once while cooking. The interesting point with the box is that the charcoal sits on top of the sweat box. Be careful you don’t put too much charcoal at once. I once incinerated a pig that way. Anyway, it is great fun, your guests are impressed and the work is minimal.

Last but not least are the truffles. Summer black truffles are not as flavorful as winter ones, but when you put them in a hot dish, like scrambled eggs they do the job. We had some with lobster salad but they were just too subtle. The greatest fun was the size of them!  Thank heavens they do not cost as much as winter truffles. If for some reason you want to be extravagant, buy them. The size of them are as titallating as the taste and it really makes your guests feel special.

Last but not least is a deconstructed salade nicoise. The creator of this gorgeous salad is none other than the bonne vivante, Serena Bass. Not to drop names, but when both Serena and Julia Child were my house guests, Serena whipped up the salad that you see below. From then on, it became my staple luncheon entree. Just make sure you use very good canned tuna and delicious french style green beans!

Anyway, please share with me any great recipes you do in the summer. My guests just might be getting tired of paella and pork.

Happy summer!

Cesare Casella is a prince of a man!  He is talented, knowledgeable, fun and generous. I didn’t realize how generous until he took me to The Center for Discovery in upstate New York.  The Center for Discovery and The Carrus Institute help disabled people live a full and gentle life.  Located in bucolic Sullivan County, two hours north of New York City,  The Center for Discovery is run under the visionary leadership of Patrick H. Dollard.  Many years ago Patrick realized that food is a key to rehabilitation. Knowing exactly how food is raised, stored and distributed could help the healing process of his patients.  He decided to start a farm. Today the farm employs 1900 people and  has herds of cows, pigs, sheep and chickens. The vegetables are grown biodynamically and the Center even has its own bakery! Many of the buildings are LEED certified and the roster of supporters are a Who’s Who.

Cesare with his passion for all things Italian met Patrick over a Chianina cow. That’s a cow with a Tuscan pedigree. Patrick was in love with them, Cesare had a few in Delaware county.  Cesare wanted a nurturing environment for his ladies and Patrick was happy to accomodate.  It was a marriage made in heaven.  Patrick got more than he bargained for.  He got Cesare, who has helped with the cafeteria, the bakery and the farm itself.  Cesare has brought some of the top New York City chefs to the farm and everyone has fallen in love with the mission.  To see a wheelchair bound teenager flying on a bungee cord is worth a million exquisite tomatoes.  This is a happy farm with some pretty special people and animals!  If you are up in Sullivan County near Monticello, check it out.

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With all the negative shenanigans in Washington and the seesaw world economy, I wanted to do something crazy myself.  So my female family cohort (daughter, sister, cousins) created  a pop up cafe. Pop-up cafe not all that crazy?..how about doing it  in Fourchu on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, way out there in the Atlantic ocean. And on Atlantic time of course!

 Fourchu has 47 full time residents and thousands of delicious lobsters.  The season had just ended and the last 100 pounds of lobster were left in the harbor. We decided to create a pop-up cafe for lobster rolls to raise money for the community church,the new fire truck and the community hall. We put up local signs, were interviewed by the local radio station and had the pop up announced in local churches.  No one in Cape Breton knew what a pop-up was. That Tuesday evening at home, prior to the pop-up opening, we had a ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee, gaelic for party), steaming 30 pounds of lobster, singing, dancing and picking the meat. Our recipe was lobster, Hellman’s mayonnaise, diced celery and chives, salt and pepper.

Wednesday dawned and we got to work.  The cafe was set up in the community hall. The hours were posted from 11am to 4 pm. I brought playing cards so we could amuse ourselves in the slow periods.  It poured rain. Fog rolled in (did it ever roll out?) and we cheerfully got the tea and coffee going. When I left home I protected myself and the lobster from the elements but as you can see the locals do not take the weather as seriously as I do!

11 am brought no one at first but by noon we were sold out.  And then the fun started. We had to keep going to the harbor to get more lobsters.  People came in from all over the island. (Fourchu is 40km from the nearest quart of milk or tank of gas!)  We made delicious freshly baked ham sandwiches and grilled cheese. We also baked home made brownies and oatmeal raisin cookies. We went through close to 100 pounds of lobster, 135 hot dog buns and four large loaves of bread.

I used the playing cards to keep track of tables and we had tickets stacked up in the community hall kitchens. In chef parlance, we got slammed.  But since it was raining and this was Cape Breton, everyone drank tea, laughed and had a ball.  By 3 pm we were sold out of everything. Neighbors in Fourchu even ran home to supplement the bread and desserts. We raised over $1500 in a matter of hours.  In the middle of the ocean on a rainy day…not bad for Brigadoon!

For those of you new to my blog, you might not know about my obsession with lobsters.  My grandfather was from a small lobster village on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.  I spent summers there as a child and now try to spend as much time as I can on ancestral Cann’s Point, adjacent to the village of Fourchu. In fact, I am sitting there as I write this post.

A couple of years ago a fisherman friend, Gordon MacDonald, mentioned that people from all over Nova Scotia came to buy Fourchu’s lobster right off the dock.  He said the village had the best tasting lobster.  I laughed but then started to seriously observe my tasting of lobsters from Fourchu to New York City.  My gosh, was he right! I invited a group of New York chefs to Cape Breton to taste my village’s lobsters. You can read all about that here in Departures. Now I had to find a way to get our lobsters to New York. We had been working on that challenge for a couple of years when lo and behold, I arrived in Fourchu last week and found that Gordon and Malcolm MacDonald had figured it out.  They had a refrigerated truck, the documents in hand, and 3,000 lobsters ready in the harbor to be packed up and sped down to the Big Apple.

I watched and cheered as the lobsters were loaded.  Twenty one hours later they were in New York with Aqua Best, and tonight and next week Fourchu lobsters will be on menus at Oceana,Ed’s Lobster Bar and Blue Hill.  At the FCI on Tuesday night August 2nd, we will feature them on L’Ecole’s menu.  Make your reservation quickly…there are only 3,000 in town.  Canada has strict conservation of lobsters and will only allow a 10-week season for the Fourchu lobsters.  If you don’t get one that made it to town this week, you’ll have to wait til next May. Lobster season just closed up here.

Poached Fourchu Lobster, tomato confit, zucchini, Taggiasche olives, lobster-basil jus, Oceana Restaurant, NYC, Executive Chef Ben Pollinger, Photo by Noah Fecks

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When I started raising chickens twelve years ago I learned a lot about them. Firstly, and most importantly, I never realized that egg laying was seasonal. I also learned what being “hen pecked” is all about! Over the years I’ve had some jealous hens. One year I had Polish hens with fancy plumed feathers standing straight up out of their heads. But not for long. It seems the other girls in the coop were jealous and pecked those heads to scabby caps. Ugly. Watch out if there is a hen in the coop showing any sign of weakness. The other hens peck at it.

Aside from their pecking social habits, keeping chickens is wonderful and rewarding. A fresh egg is ambrosia. On a visit to my home a while back, Chef Michael Romano found out I raised chickens and his eyes lit up. After he heard that, all he wanted to do was make fresh pasta. He did and it was scrumptious!

Michael Romano making pasta

But now to the seasonality. Hens in the winter need to conserve body heat and so produce fewer eggs. When spring arrives the egg production soars! The very first eggs of a young laying hen are small and get larger as the spring progresses. They love to eat greens in the spring and as the antioxidants rise in their diet the yellow of the yolks deepen in the egg. As the summer progresses, their diet includes more insects, and the color wanes. In July and August as the heat increases, the egg production slows and is almost cut in half by the fall.

Commerical producers of eggs keep the hen environment “neutral” all year with heat, light bulbs and grain feed so the chickens do not know the delight of the seasons. It is worth finding a truly fresh egg and tasting the difference. Many farmer’s markets are now selling them. Buy’em! They are worth it but remember…they aren’t around for long.

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