Friday, December 29, 2006

Committee returns from hippie Christmas; probably totally smells of patchouli

Our Christmas wasn’t what I’d had in mind, for several reasons:

I didn’t count on taking off without wishing all of you happy holidays, but the advertised “high speed internet” at our rented cabin eluded me.

The “fireplace” was a wood stove with glass doors that hadn’t been cleaned since ever, and because the catalytic converter was broken we had to feed it hunks of wood every two hours rather than every twelve.

The “fully equipped kitchen” consisted of four propane-fueled burners and the saddest little toaster oven I’d ever seen. Four burners sounds promising, but they were feeble, they might as well have been powered by Fred Flintstone’s feet; it took an hour to boil water for pasta.

The “terrific claw-foot bathtub” had a shower-head attachment, but only persons 4' tall or less would be able to wash while standing; we are a little taller and it was like bathing in a bucket.

The “work of numerous local artisans” touted by the owner is best represented by the unique piece below, which was hung in the pantry (apparently on account of her curious sense of modesty).

uhhhhh . . .

What do you mean you're not familiar with the mythic vajayjay bird?

Then there was this, which I call "Minge Panic."

minge panic

There was also a deer pelt room divider (four deer skins!) that freaked us out a little bit.

a corner of the cabin we rented

We nonetheless managed to have a pleasant holiday. It was far too warm and unsnowy for cross-country skiing so we went for a hike at the Tivoli Bays nature preserve.

Christmas Eve hike at Tivoli Bays

We accidentally wandered off the trail — it was covered with leaves — and exited the preserve at Bard College rather than at the entrance where we'd parked the car. Below is the college's rather spectacular Fisher Performing Arts Center, designed by Frank Gehry.

Fisher Performing Arts Center, Bard College

You can see more of the building here.

We found our way back to the car without any help from the locals; thanks again Mr. Runs-back-in-his-house-at-sight-of-unarmed-strangers-in-driveway.

Our Christmas Eve truffled chicken could not be cooked in the toaster oven; some of them are large enough to roast a small chicken but the one at the cabin was suitable only for toast for two. I suppose it's just as well; my planned menu had already been scratched due to capricious last-minute shopping. We decided to simply pack up the car and stop by Gourmet Garage to fill our cooler on our way out of town, and they didn't have truffles; I picked up a nice-looking chicken and a small tub of D'Artagnan's white truffle butter instead, plus a few other staples. (More on this tomorrow; I think it's important to bring a few basics when you'll be cooking elsewhere for a few days).

Fortunately we were able to secure a reservation for Christmas Eve dinner at Madalin's Table, the restaurant at the Madalin Hotel in downtown Tivoli, or as close as one can get to "downtown" in a town too small for traffic lights. I did not realize until a bit of googling just now that the hotel was featured in a recent article in T, the New York Times travel magazine, although it hadn't yet opened at the time. The restaurant has since been reviewed in the paper as well.

Madalin Hotel, Tivoli NY

Madalin Hotel, Tivoli NY

Dinner was very good, notwithstanding that one of the owners was very cranky and didn't like the fact that we'd even been given a reservation; the policy apparently is reservations only for parties of 6 or more, and he wasted no time in letting us know about it. The other owner cheerfully brushed him aside and made sure we were seated promptly, and all was well.

The amuse-bouche of braised pheasant with a cranberry relish and finely-chopped almond could have used a bit more moisture, but our appetizer of cornmeal-dusted fried calamari was just right. I had a grilled shell steak and my friend had lovely crisp-skinned and juicy roasted chicken. We'd had champagne before we got there so I don't have further details about the food, sorry. I do remember that the coffee we had afterward was superb, the best I'd had in a long while; there were three or four choices on the menu, all single-origin beans roasted by Monkey Joe Roasting Co. of Kingston, NY. It was served in a french press and it was just perfect.

On our way home a couple days later we stopped at the Red Hook Village Diner, where a sign above the counter proclaims that the coffee is "Eight O'Clock brand." I remembered eating at this diner once years and years ago while visiting a friend at Bard; the breakfast isn't remarkable — at least, mine wasn't — but the diner itself, built in 1927, is charming.

Red Hook Diner

Red Hook Diner plaque

My scrambled eggs and bacon weren't memorable, but it is nice to be given a choice between homefries and hashbrowns, and to be served toast that's already buttered; I wish more restaurants did the same. Lunch or dinner here would at least be worth trying, and maybe dessert too; I noticed a big, homemade-looking cake under glass.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

merry Christmas exiles

Me with Christmas crazy-eyes, 1976.

There hasn't been any mention of Christmas menu-planning here at Tiny Banquet because this year's festivities will be exceptionally low-key; we're renting a cabin in upstate New York and don't have ambitions beyond getting crunk by the fireplace and maybe doing a bit of cross-country skiing.

We'll be just two people and a little dog so our Christmas Eve roast beast and Who-pudding will have to be on the small side. I'm thinking I'll make a roast chicken with slices of black truffle under the skin. I hate that truffles are a cliché of good eating, but they are in season, and I once had chicken prepared this way and it was ridiculously good. It was years ago at Restaurant Hélène Darroze and I wish I could say more about it, but apparently I also had plenty of wine with it and my memories are hazy. Anyhow, there will be hopefully be some potatoes roasted in goose fat on the side, from this recipe or this one, and maybe some braised endive, or something else green and not-crisp. For dessert there will be something soft and light that doesn't require last-minute attention, possibly poached pears or some sort of custard. Leave recommendations in the comments if you have any; I probably won't be doing my ingredient-shopping and final-decision-making until Saturday morning.

In the meantime, I'll be doing a bit of research on how to tell whether the aforementioned thrillingly-expensive fungi is fresh. Any recommendations on truffle-buying are also welcome! Just keep in mind that my firm is being very coy about bonuses — entirely typical of a place where announcements of secretarial department mutiny go out at 5 pm the night before — so I might end up subsituting chips of cardboard or something.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

last-minute gifts for cooks

I realize it's a little late to post a list of suggestions but some people spent early December buying themselves holiday presents and are just now getting around to shopping for others. Besides, there is too much else to do at this time of year. How often does one have the opportunity to see Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed sing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" at Carnegie Hall? I am not going to feel bad about putting off my shopping; expedited shipping is a marvel, and I am more than happy to cough up a few more pennies for it if it means that I don't have to fight my way through unsightly and slow-moving hordes of tourists in Christmas sweaters.

So, the gifts. Trust me, the cook on your shopping list most likely does not need or want an electric pepper mill, a talking pepper mill, a two-foot-high pepper mill, or any combination thereof. You should probably also stay away from anything labeled "gourmet," unless it is actually the Gourmet magazine cookbook; the word is thoughtlessly bandied about by the same incompetent crowd who can't figure out quotation marks, and they haven't got good taste.

  1. For the urban farmers' market obsessive who is prone to blathering on and on about free range-this and organic-that and clomps around Manhattan in Scottish wellies and is pining for rare-breed chickens of her own — do you know someone like this? — a photograph from the Double Rabbit Farm store ($25) would be a memorable gift. These are giclee prints of photographs by Courie Bishop and James Fitzgerald, young, conscientious, creative farmers doing something I admire in southwest Minnesota.

    Farmland by Courie Bishop and Dreaming Field by James Fitzgerald

  2. For the person who makes you soup: a beautiful Marc Newson stock pot with bakelite handles ($199, but it is jewelry for the kitchen)

    stock pot.jpg

    and a copy of Patricia Solley's An Exaltation of Soup ($12.80 at Jessica's Biscuit). This is not a cookbook that I own but I've wanted it ever since I stumbled across Solley's website,, which is filled with well-researched soup history and appealing, unusual recipes.

  3. For anyone and everyone, a gorgeous Japanese ginger grater in the shape of a tortise or a crane ($20 each) from L.A. shop Tortise. These are hand-made using Edo-period techniques.

  4. For the cutie design-snob who lives on salads but offers her guests good cheese, a salad tool set ($49) and cheese knives ($49) by Aarikka Finland. Both sets are available at Saga Living (St. Paul, MN); they'll wrap 'em up in Marimekko paper at no additional cost but you have to order by Dec. 15th.

    aarikka salad.jpg aarikka cheese slicer.jpg

  5. For a giver of dinner parties, an adorable salt & pepper cellar from Salt Traders ($36).

    It would probably fit in a stocking, as would a couple small jars of their remarkably good salt. Did you try the Danish viking-smoked salt a couple years ago when everyone went bonkers over it? The rosy-pink Flor de Sal Hibiscus ($19.95 for a 5 oz. tin) is a more recent addition to their store; the Sarawak creamy white peppercorns ($4 for a sampler bottle) sound lovely too.

  6. For the design-snob with tree-hugging tendencies, a cast iron "stream" plate from NYC's Moss ($55). It's a beauty, and the ridges mean that deviled eggs and endive leaves and other roly-polies will not wobble away.

  7. For the person who makes you tea, a cast iron Staub tea pot ($108) from Brooklyn shop Bark.

    I have been wanting a Staub mussel pot for ages but this teapot has a sort of Russian-constructivist thing going on that I just love. Note, Manhattanites, that Sur la Table has only the black teapot on their site and it's out of stock, but I think I've seen the colorful ones at their Prince St. store. I think Broadway Panhandler has them too.

  8. For your friend who is still drinking out of the same hideous scratched-up plastic tumblers they've had since college, a set of "lollipop" glasses ($8 each) from Anthropologie, or girl glasses from Fish's Eddy ($20 for a set of 4).

    Is this a Hanukkah gift? Then get the Heroes of the Torah glasses! These are $16 for a set of 4 at Fish's Eddy.

  9. For your foodie friends' baby: "development of a bean" and "honeybear" onesies from Portland, Maine shop Ferdinand ($15 each)

    and a veggie rattle by Bla Bla ($29) from San Francisco's Rose and Radish. Ridiculously cute!

  10. For the cook who is happy to make breakfast at any hour, a sturdy glass cutting board in a cheerful breakfast print ($29) or in the shape of an orange slice ($19.99), both from Monterey Park, California shop Loft Party.

  11. More for the cook's stocking:

    A bottle of Stonehouse California olive oil ($12-16). Lisbon lemon sounds particularly delicious.

    A bottle of Tocca dish soap ($13.50) from The Paris Market (Savannah, Georgia), which smells good enough to dab behind your ears.

    A clever little spaghetti book ($22) to measure servings of dried pasta, from Scandinavian Design Center. They're in Sweden but will ship anwhere.

    A bottle of hard-to-find Fee Bros. orange bitters ($6.95) from The Grateful Palate, which can immediately be put to use in post-present-opening cocktails.