Best Med Diet Dish at...Flex Mussels

WELL, YOU GUESSED IT, mussels—steamed in all sorts of flavored broths, some even quite distinctively Mediterranean, but all qualifying as a great Med diet seafood dinner made with fresh ingredients. How about San Daniele, with prosciutto, caramelized onions, white wine and garlic, or Spaniard, with chorizo, sweet peppers, Spanish olives, red wine and tomatoes? Yep, there’s even Mediterranean, with shrimp, kalamata olives, fennel, lemon, anise and oregano. The list goes on and on—there are more than 20 choices ($17-20)—so the only way to eventually make a decision and not drive your dinner companions crazy is to tell yourself you’ll be coming back another day—and another.
 
The menu has non-mussel Med choices, too, including arugula or bibb lettuce salads, a whole fish, even chicken with dandelion greens. We started the meal with raw oysters, incredibly fresh and tasty. (The owners started out in Prince Edward Island and know their seafood.) The crusty whole wheat bread is perfect for mopping up the broth. I hear executive pastry chef Zac Young (Top Chef) makes some amazing desserts. Next time! Good wine list (we had a nice Grüner Veltliner with our mussels) and an excellent selection of beers from around the world.
 
Plus a $20 deal every night from 5:30 to 7: If you don’t mind sitting at the counter or bar (and why should you—the chairs have backs, the design vibe is very cool), you can dine on all-you-can-eat Classic (white wine, herbs, garlic), Fra Diavolo (San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil) or PEI (lobster stock, drawn butter) mussels, plus fries and one draft beer for $20. (For the deal—no reservations accepted, no sharing.)
 
Flex Mussels
154 W. 13 St (between 7th and 6th)
New York, NY
212.229.0222
info@flexmussels.com 
 
Also at:
174 E. 82 Street (between 3rd and Lexington),
New York, NY 
212.717.7772     
 
 

At the Market This Week

JUST LIKE HAVING KIDS makes you feel the years pass in a particularly poignant way, so do weekly visits to the farmers’ market. I was feeling downright sad last week as the tomatoes dwindled and I had to face it, summer was over. But this Saturday, a visit to Union Square Greenmarket reminded me that fall has its pleasures, too. Not only did I find a few pounds of nice end-of-season San Marzano plum tomatoes at Cherry Lane Farms, but the whole market was a riot of color and productiveness. Peppers sweet and hot, winter squash, glorious specimens of savoy cabbage, carrots, beets, kale and collard greens, broccoli. It was hard to know where to start—or stop. 

Meatless Monday: Eggplant Emergency

 
A FRIEND CALLED TO SAY that house guests had come laden with farmstand fare this weekend, and the whole crowd had eaten lovely meals from it. Trouble is, not enough lovely meals, because now Monday was here and she still had a small boatload of eggplants sitting on her kitchen counter. What to do?
 
Well, in case any of you have had a similar culinary challenge (haven’t we all?), here are some ideas:
 
Think Turkish. Turks love eggplant and have dozens of different ways to cook it, many involving olive oil and tomatoes. One of the most famous dishes is imam bayildi, or the imam fainted, which is eggplant stuffed with tomatoes and onions. Clifford Wright, author of The Mediterranean Feast, gives the scoop on the name—and a recipe—here. Perfect for Meatless Monday. Or any other day for that matter.
 
Another famous Turkish eggplant dish is karniyarik, also a stuffed eggplant. I’ve made it quite a few times recently but I’ll go into that more another day because there’s too much to talk about already and besides, one of its ingredients is lamb.
 
So, back to Meatless Monday. As the eggplant rush gathered force at the end of the summer, I began making a dish with pomegranate, yogurt and tahini. I found the recipe one day when I was in the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library, browsing through some of the many cookbooks I don’t own. They have quite a collection, and what a splendid setting it is for transporting yourself to other places. The Lebanese eggplant recipe is from Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon, by Claudia Roden, an Egyptian-born cookbook writer who is credited with having revolutionized Western attitudes to Middle Eastern cooking with her classic, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, published in 1968. She’s a lively passionate writer, so I look forward to delving more deeply into all her books.
 

Today’s Meatless Monday treat at our house is this Algerian Eggplant Jam, from Joanne Weir’s From Tapas to Meze: Small Plates from the MediterraneanIt makes a delicious snack or appetizer on crostini (toasted baguette) or crusty bread.
 
Of course, one of Mediterraneanista’s enduring favorites when it comes to eggplant is ratatouille. I usually make a big pot, because there’s nothing tastier or easier for quick lunches or dinners, and you can always mix it up, so to speak, by serving it with grilled Italian sausage one day and couscous the next. Or you can try one of ratatouille’s many cousins, each with its own distinctive style.
 
Finally, you can never go wrong with Martha Rose Shulman’s suggestions in her Recipes for Health column at NYTimes.com. The recipes are conveniently organized by ingredient, and she often spends a week on different ways to prepare a single vegetable or grain. Here’s some of her eggplant repertoire to the rescue. 

Haiku on a Year in the Life of a Restaurant

A GOOD MEAL is poetry. So perhaps it’s not so surprising to find a chef-poet. On the occasion of Union Square Café’s 25th anniversary, chef Michael Romano has written some haiku:
 
autumn chill
distant wood smoke
truffle dogs are digging
 
long-simmered stew
aged red wine
streetlights on at five

 
Now doesn’t that awaken your senses in the most lovely way? Find the rest of the year here.
 
 

Does Your Market Have Live Opera?

MUCH AS I LOVE NEW YORK CITY’S GREENMARKETS, the farmers’ market closest to my heart will probably always be Montreal’s Jean-Talon Market, perhaps because it’s the first one I got to know as a grownup doing her own cooking. I’d learned the farmers’ market habit early from my parents: Most Saturday mornings we headed to the market in the small southern Ontario town where I grew up. When I lived in Montreal I don’t think I realized how special Jean-Talon Market was, although I loved shopping there.
 
Marché Jean-Talon is located in Montreal’s Little Italy. Perhaps that helps explain this.
 
 
Thanks to Bruce for passing this on. And to the Opéra de Montréal for the fine performances.
 
The market has been operating since 1933 and in summer it has some 300 vendors, mostly farmers from the surrounding country. But it’s open year-round, thanks to enclosed sheds, with shops selling cheeses, spices and all the beautiful products of the Québec terroir—fish from the Gaspé, organic meat and game, mushrooms, you name it. (The market has a long tradition of selling organic products.) Definitely worth a visit if you’re traveling that way.
 
 
Some imported produce is sold at the market, too. (Those winters get long.)
 
 
When you go, don’t overlook the neighborhood’s Italian coffee bars and shops. And be sure to book dinner at Kitchen Galerie, a tiny and very special restaurant overlooking the market, whose chefs prepare the meal from what they’ve found at the market that day, doing all the shopping, cooking and serving themselves. Délicieux! (Sorry, no pictures—I was too busy eating.)
 
Jean-Talon Market
7070 Henri-Julien Street, between Saint-Denis and Saint-Laurent
Montréal, Québec
 
Kitchen Galerie
60 Rue Jean Talon Est
Montréal, Québec
514.315.8994
 
 
 
 

Oh, for Love of Farro

WENT ON A LONG BIKE RIDE last weekend, across the George Washington Bridge and onto River Road in New Jersey. We decided to go south this time and make a lunch stop at Mitsuwa, a Japanese grocery store that’s always fun to visit. (Mediterraneanista likes a change of pace from time to time.) Turns out the annual Hokkaido Food Festival was in full swing, so we lunched on crab, corn and pumpkin croquettes and finished off with a Hokkaido dessert—a fabulous strawberry cream puff from a bakery named Arles. (How did they know?)
 
 
After lunch, I went up and down the aisles and aisles of Japanese specialties—a hundred types of saki, sushi-grade tuna, pristinely fresh whole mackerel and pike, thinly sliced pork belly and beef. Then there were the items I wouldn’t even begin to know how to prepare.
 
 
So I came home from Mitsuwa with—a bag of farro. Yes, the store has an Italian section, with quite a selection of grains and beans and there it was, a bag of Bartolini farro at a price I couldn’t resist and compact and sturdy enough to carry home on a bike. (I suspect that cycling 25 miles for a bag of farro is not going to be an everyday thing, though.)
 
I’ve been on a bit of a farro kick these days; even did a guest blog post on it for Oldways, the nonprofit that convened a lot of the early scientific/culinary conferences on the Mediterranean diet and continues to raise public awareness of its benefits in really smart ways. I’m trying out different farro soups now that fall is here. I’ll keep you posted. 
 
Mitsuwa Marketplace
595 River Rd
Edgewater, NJ 
201.941.9113
 

Tomato Sauce, Batch 2

LAST WEEK READER JOHN FROM TORONTO passed on his great you-can-do-this method for making tomato sauce, which he learned from a Sicilian friend in London. He made another batch this week and sent some photos. The tomatoes he’s using look so beautiful and not at all like the giant hard waxed Romas you often come across in grocery stores. (I learned this week that Italian families in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, source their Romas in central New Jersey. Need to tap into that pipeline!)
 

Now doesn’t this make you want to stop everything and make tomato sauce? 

Eat Less Meat: Sure, But How Do You Get There from Here?

 
BY EATING THE TRADITIONAL MEDITERRANEAN WAY, of course. By now Mediterraneanista’s loyal readers know that the Mediterranean diet includes a lot less meat than many of us are used to. And we know it makes sense, this eating less meat, for all sorts of good health and environmental reasons. But what is less? And how do you get there from here?
 
I remember as a business editor one of the many managerial concepts that floated across my desk was “chunking”—a strategy for managing a big project by, well, breaking it into chunks. If you’re an enthusiastic meat eater who’s interested in moving in the direction of a more Mediterranean diet, “chunking” may be a concept worth reviving. Let’s face it, many of us have eating habits that were formed in households where the dinner menu was Meat Plus (you fill in the blanks, but it often involved potatoes). We may need a little aide-mémoire to adopt a different way.
 
 
So here are some chunks to get you closer to the Mediterranean way:
 
Meatless Monday, which I’ve written about here before, is a great example of a manageable chunk. You have six days to plan for one day of meatless eating. Since standard dietary recommendations call for no more than 18 oz. of meat a week, Meatless Monday works out perfectly. Three ounces a day, which is a portion or serving size, plus one day off. And you get the week off to a good start. (The Meatless Monday organization reports that “studies suggest that we are more likely to maintain behaviors begun on Monday throughout the week.”)
 
Learn to cook two or three meatless main dishes you love, so they become second nature, just the way the Meat-Plus concept once was. Most important, this flips the idea around from denying yourself meat to treating yourself to a different kind of delicious meal—a joy-of-eating concept Mediterraneanista likes a lot. I didn’t start out with the goal of “eating less meat.” I just became seduced by the adventure of discovering just how delicious and satisfying the traditional Mediterranean way of eating could be. Roast vegetables is one of my simplest favorites. If you enter “vegetarian” in the Mediterraneanista search box at right, you’ll find others.
 
Be a vegetarian before dinner. Over the long term, this is much easier to keep top of mind than tracking your meat intake meal by meal. (I don’t know about you, but I find the whole tracking thing gets tiresome pretty quickly, although it can be useful as a way to learn exactly what you are eating or spending now.) Cookbook author and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman has written about how a mostly-vegan until dinner approach works for him in Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. He’s never doctrinaire about it, and makes it seem doable and adaptable.
 
Chef Mario Batali, who offers vegetarian dishes for Meatless Monday at all his restaurants, recently surprised a few people when he said he was working on a vegetarian cookbook and is now “vegetarian all day until dinner, and I try to eat no meat whatsoever on Monday and Tuesday.” Perhaps that helps explain why there’s 45 pounds less of him—and counting. Actually, his cookbook Molto Gusto: Easy Italian Cooking very much reflects a traditional Mediterranean table and includes a lot of fabulous meatless dishes in it already.
 
Make meat a secondary ingredient on your plate, not the centerpiece. That helps the portion size make a lot more sense. Because, yep, as I wrote yesterday, 3-4 oz. is actually the suggested serving of meat to be eaten at a meal. That’s a piece about the size of a pack of cards, a useful way to visualize it, I find, when I’m eyeballing meat purchases for a family dinner or dinner party. Some of you are probably thinking, 3 ounces of meat could look pretty lonely in the middle of a plate. True, if it’s at the center of that plate. Instead, think of a stir-fry, for instance, that’s three parts vegetables, one part meat. Or a whole-grain rice pilaf for four in which ½ pound of ground lamb adds fabulous meat flavor. Last week, I made a Turkish eggplant dish (more about that soon) that used ½ pound of lamb in the stuffing for four eggplants. Delicious!
 
Use legumes—beans, lentils—and grains like farro to give some of the textural and nutritional satisfaction of meat—they’re high in fiber and protein. Throw them in soup or salads or stews. I’ll write soon about how to make this super easy. I’m branching out from my favorite farro salad to learn more ways of incorporating this incredibly tasty grain into more meals, and I’ll keep you posted on that, too. 

Bon appetit—Mediterranean style! 

Sunday Dinner: Baked Mediterranean Chicken with Cherry Tomatoes

 
I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I never get tired of meals that involve cherry tomatoes. And I’m still finding boxes of them at the greenmarket—sweet, irresistible, without the thick skins that so many store-bought ones now seem to have. (On and off, after the local season has finished, I’m able to get really tasty hothouse champagne cherry tomatoes from Canada, sold loose in a box at Fairway. Champagne prices, too—$5/lb—but worth it.)
 
Tonight I’m using cherry tomatoes in a chicken dish that is full of Mediterranean flavors and a cinch to make. That’s another reason it’s a Lazy Mediterraneanista favorite. The key is to have the basic ingredients in your pantry or fridge, ready to go. Extra-virgin olive oil, yes, but lemons, olives and capers, too, are staples of so many Mediterranean dishes. I always keep a supply of pitted (!) Niçoise olives, which I find at Zabar’s, and capers (often from Fairway). That way, I can have this meal ready pretty quickly. I timed myself the last time I made it: 30 minutes flat, from prep start to table.
 
A note about portions: The recipe calls for 2 chicken breasts, which—if you’re taking the Mediterranean approach—will serve 4 to 6 people, depending on the weight of the chicken parts. Do I sense raised eyebrows? Well, I weighed the chicken I’m using today—believe it or not, each piece was anywhere from 8 oz. to 12 oz. (God knows what they’re feeding those chickens.) A half- or three-quarter pound chicken breast is definitely not a single serving of meat—more like 2 or 3 servings each, when you use the 3 oz. food pyramid portion size, or the well-known deck-of-cards measure. But in a Mediterranean meal, you will fill most of your plate with something other than meat. Or have a couple of other non-meat courses as well. So no chance of starving!
 
I often serve this dish with a heap of roasted root vegetables. Tonight we’re having quinoa and sautéed greens. I also like it with small steamed new potatoes and a green salad. I sometimes double the recipe because it’s good reheated, too—for a 10-minute dinner the next day.
 

Tomato Sauce—Yes!

 
Reader John writes:
At this time of year all over Toronto, a huge harvest of Roma tomatoes hits the streets. In all the Mediterranean neighbourhoods, every corner store has bushels and bushels (and bushels) of ripe, beautiful Roma tomatoes, filling the sidewalks and ready for processing. Having done a bit of this myself I can only marvel that people drive away with 2 or 3 bushels at a time. That’s factory work! My modest efforts, however, still provide me with a winter’s worth of great tasting tomato sauce for pasta. I learned how to make the sauce from a Sicilian friend while on holiday in London, not the likeliest place to discover these things. It’s more a method than a recipe and has served me well over the years.
 
Buy a small amount of tomatoes (20 to 30, depending on size). The idea is to avoid scaring yourself into inaction. Wash them and with a very sharp knife, dice them finely (1/4" or so). This makes it unnecessary to peel the tomatoes. Place them in a large pot and heat as slowly as possible, stirring until enough juice is released. Add finely chopped garlic, fresh basil, salt and pepper to taste. Add a finely chopped carrot or two (1/8" cubes) for taste and colour. Add a very generous dollop of your best extra-virgin olive oil. Stir gently and enjoy the aroma while cooking for a couple of hours at an extremely low temperature. Adjust the seasoning, perhaps adding a pinch of sugar if it tastes too sour.
 
After cooling I put them in small containers (like a single serve yogourt container) and freeze them. Perfect Friday night dinner! Thaw the sauce in a microwave, serve over pasta and enjoy with spinach or a salad. Fresh, pure and simple.
 
Each year I make 2 or 3 small batches within several weeks, partly not to get intimidated by the work and partly to vary the taste slightly. It’s easy and very rewarding, both during the cooking and during the eating.         
I’m inspired!  John’s sauce sounds delicious and I like his anti-intimidation tactics. Get me some tomatoes! I haven’t found reasonably priced Romas in bushel basket quantities in NYC, but I’m sure I must just be looking in the wrong places. Anyone know where to buy? 
 
My (English) mom and (Polish) dad used to bottle Roma tomatoes, especially after we kids left home, when they had more time for such things. They usually broke up the work over a few days, my mom was telling me recently, working in a two-person assembly line, peeling the tomatoes and bottling them whole, ready to use in all sorts of recipes. The supply lasted through the winter, and I was the beneficiary of a few jars whenever I went home or they came to visit. I still remember the summer-ripe taste.
 
I was reminded of this recently when my son Chris, who spent the summer doing moving jobs in Toronto, told us how he was feelin’ the pain because so many of the Italian households he was moving had cold storage rooms in the basement (as in, the level reached by a long, steep, narrow staircase)—filled with the vital supplies of a Mediterranean kitchen: preserved tomatoes (how about 10 boxes, each filled with 12 Mason jars?), massive tins of imported olive oil, big glass containers of wine at various stages of production. Even a curing ham hanging from the rafters in one place (more interesting than heavy, especially since the owner offered the movers samples before they left). Ah, Italia.
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