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Recipe Box: Ratatouille

When I was flying back from New York the other month, I watched a couple of episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown on the plane, including the episode he shot in Newfoundland. (If you haven’t seen it, do. It’s hilarious and oh-so-Canadian.)

A world without Anthony Bourdain is all the poorer, I thought as I looked out my window somewhere over the American Midwest. The celebrity chef, travel writer, and TV personality died six months ago today. I had this sad anniversary in mind while working on my last post about Le Bernardin. Eric Ripert was a close friend of Anthony’s, and he appeared on his shows many, many times. They were together in France, filming an upcoming episode of Parts Unknown, when Anthony died.

The first Anthony Bourdain show I ever watched was an episode he filmed in Provence for No Reservations. My sister had recommended his show to me; I had never heard of the guy and had absolutely no expectations. But I went to YouTube, clicked on the episode — and have been a fan every since.

One line of dialogue in the episode about Provence always stuck in my memory. Anthony was preparing a meal for his new Provençal friends and he was quite nervous about messing it up. He set his dish of ratatouille down in front of them, they tasted it, nodded politely, and then said, “It’s true that your ratatouille is very handsome.” After much laughter, Anthony asked what he got wrong. They replied, “You didn’t miss anything. It’s just … not a ratatouille.”

I remember laughing out loud at that point. Food is so much a part of the travel experience, and we try our best to replicate what we eat elsewhere when we are back home again, but most of the time we fail. It’s never quite the same. Rewatching the episode now, after the dozens of Anthony Bourdain TV shows I’ve watched since, I marvel at his self-awareness. It’s a rare quality that few celebrities (and, to be honest, men) possess.

A traditional dish from the south of France, ratatouille is essentially stewed vegetables. Like many French dishes, its origins are simple: it was a way for peasants to use what they had readily available in their gardens.

Last summer, I made a lot of ratatouille. It was a very good year for zucchini at my local farmers market and every weekend, I came home with bags of the stuff — all shapes and all sizes. And whenever I saw my sister, I was given bowls of tomatoes and handfuls of basil and thyme from her garden. What better dish to make than ratatouille when you have more fresh vegetables and herbs than you know what to do with?

This recipe is based on several versions, including Anthony’s. Vary the quantities according to your own preferences. I like to use cherry tomatoes, but if you use full-size tomatoes, you probably want to peel and seed them. If your squash are on the larger size, quarter the slices. Make sure your eggplant is on the smaller side as you want each cube to have a bit of the skin. And, most importantly, cook each vegetable separately to help retain their shape and texture.

I’m sure what follows is also “not a ratatouille,” but in my humble opinion it tasted all right.

Bon appétit!

Ratatouille

olive oil
1 medium red onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 medium eggplant, cubed
1 large red pepper, seeded and diced
2 medium zucchini, sliced
1 yellow zucchini, sliced
several sprigs fresh thyme
one handful fresh basil, shredded
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

1. In a large, high-sided frying pan, heat several splashes of olive oil over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic. Cook until soft, then remove from the pan and spread out on a cookie sheet to cool.
2. Wipe out the pan and repeat with the cherry tomatoes. When they are beginning to soften, smush them with the back of a wooden spoon to release their juices. Cook a little bit longer, then season with salt and pepper. Transfer them to the cookie sheet, keeping them separate from the onions and garlic.
3. Repeat with the remaining vegetables, wiping out the pan, seasoning with salt and pepper, and transferring to the cookie sheet each time.
4. When all the vegetables have cooled to room temperature, combine them in a large mixing bowl. Add the thyme, basil, and balsamic vinegar, and adjust seasoning if necessary. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 3 or 4 hours before serving to let the flavours blend. Serve reheated or at room temperature.

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Dishing: Le Bernardin

While in New York the other month, my sister and I treated ourselves to lunch at Le Bernardin. This New York institution has maintained its three Michelin stars for the past 14 years and, just last week, it was named the world’s best restaurant by La Liste, a Paris-based ratings organization.

The world’s best.

Hee. It was quite the lunch.

Le Bernardin specializes in seafood, which seems like a natural choice given that the restaurant’s founders, Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze, grew up in Brittany, on the French coast. This brother and sister opened their first restaurant in Paris in 1972, calling it Les Moines de St. Bernardin after a song their restaurateur father used to sing about an order of monks who loved to eat and drink. When Gilbert and Maguy moved to New York in 1986, they simplified the name of their new restaurant to Le Bernardin.

Eric Ripert, who was only 26 when he joined the restaurant in 1991 as Chef de Cuisine, took over as Executive Chef after Gilbert’s sudden death in 1994. He is now a partner in the restaurant. When I got home from New York, I read Eric Ripert’s book, On the Line, which describes the inner workings of the restaurant. Want to know what I learned?

Le Bernardin is a machine.

In order to serve some 1200 dishes every day, 800 pounds of fish are delivered first thing in the morning. All of it is butchered on site — a process that takes six hours. To make 240 sauces each week, the restaurant goes through, per day, 10 pounds of shallots, 5 pounds of garlic, 10 pounds of ginger, and 30 pounds of butter.

(Thirty pounds of butter!?!!)

One neat thing about Le Bernardin, by the way, is that the day’s leftover food is donated to City Harvest, an organization that feeds one million New Yorkers each year.

Le Bernardin is on the ground level of a non-descript office building in Midtown Manhattan with screens hiding the interior from the street. If you didn’t know where to go, you wouldn’t know it was there. But once you are inside, it’s as if you’ve entered another world.

The service was seamless. We lost count, but my sister and I think there were at least seven people waiting on us. And because all staff are full-time, there are no actors moonlighting as servers at Le Bernardin. Instead, you are surrounded by professionals.

The menu consists of three parts: Almost Raw, Barely Touched, and Lightly Cooked. For the three-course prix fixe that my sister and I ordered, we were instructed to order one dish from the left side of the menu (Almost Raw and Barely Touched) and one dish from the right side of the menu (Lightly Cooked). I had Barely Cooked Scallop with Sea Beans and Bonito Butter Sauce and Pan Roasted Merluza with Stuffed Zucchini Flowers and Brazilian Shrimp Moqueca Sauce.

I apologize for the lack of photos. I was too overwhelmed with what I was seeing and tasting to pull out my camera.

When it came to my third course, however, there was no question that I had to document the moment. This is a Golden Hazelnut Sphere with Frangelico Mousse and Praline Ice Cream.

Yes, that is gold leaf on the hazelnut sphere.

I don’t know if New York’s streets are paved with gold, but this I do know: its pastries sure are.

Christmas at the Met

It’s December tomorrow.

Already.

Seriously, how is it possible that Christmas is just around the corner??

My last post was about New York, so today I’m posting again about that city. Here is a photo I took when I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art two years ago to check out their Christmas tree. This is an annual display in the Met’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. Surrounding the tree are figurines from a Neapolitan Crèche dating from the Baroque era. The detail of these figurines is exquisite.

New York at Christmas time is magical — almost (but not quite!) as magical as Paris. Two of my closest friends are in New York this weekend, taking in the Christmas spirit, and I’m so pleased they get to experience the magic for themselves.

Everybody should, at least once.

Through My Lens: Empire State Building From the High Line

A month ago today (a month? already??), I flew home from New York City. Here’s a photo I took from the High Line while I was there.

I love visiting New York. It’s one of those cities I return to every chance I get because there’s just no place like it. New York has all the energy. All the energy.

I was surprised when I stopped to count and realized this last visit was my fifth time in the Big Apple. What was also a bit of a surprise — when I stopped to think about it — was that it took five visits to make me realize that New York is not an easy place to live.

I guess I’ve never stopped to think about how, in New York, you do the kind of things that make up a life. Like where you buy your groceries. Where you walk your dog. How you cope with a minuscule apartment (because apartments in Manhattan are ti-neeee!). Or how far you might have to commute when you work in Manhattan but can’t afford to live there.

That’s not to say the Canadian cities I know best (namely, Vancouver and Toronto) don’t have their problems. But as I rode the A train all the way from Manhattan to JFK to catch my flight home, it hit me that all those exhausted faces I was looking at had to ride that overcrowded train every single day.

I won’t describe my week in New York as relaxing — New York is never relaxing when you’re trying to squeeze in as many museums and performances and restaurants as possible. But it was a good break from my work and my life.

As all weeks away should be.

Robbie Burns in Central Park

Robbie Burns

Look who I bumped into during my walk through Central Park last month. It’s the Scottish Bard himself, Robbie Burns. And seeing that today is Robbie Burns Day, I thought I would share the photo with you.

This bronze statue has stood on Central Park’s Literary Walk since 1880. The reason the poet looks so anguished is he is portrayed while writing a poem to one of his loves, Mary Campbell.

Apparently Robbie Burns had quite a few loves. Some of them at the same time.

Through My Lens: The Whitney

The Whitney

This photo shows some more of the art you can see in New York. At left is a photo by Richard Avedon and to the right is a painting by Guy Pène Du Bois. The sculpture in between is by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an American sculptor and art collector.

When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney offered her collection of work by American artists to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was refused. So she turned around and opened her own museum. The Whitney Museum of Art, which focuses on American art, opened in 1931 in Greenwich Village. It has had a number of homes since then, but its latest, a purpose-built building at the south end of the High Line, opened in 2015.

The Met, the Frick, and the Guggenheim

The real reason I went to New York last month had more to do with me wanting to visit another Met.

That would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Met Exterior

I’ve written before about my love–hate relationship with the Vancouver Art Gallery. Which is why, after a rather trying visit to a popular exhibition at the VAG late last summer, I lamented to the friend I was with that I needed a proper art fix at a proper world class art gallery. Preferably in a city like Paris. Or London.

Or New York.

The Met Interior

A few hours later, as I was pondering my meltdown outside the VAG, I suddenly remembered that (1) I had enough points for a plane ticket to New York and (2) it had been far too long since I had visited my friend in Brooklyn.

A few emails back and forth, a few online bookings, and, within a few days, a few plans were in place.

And a few months later, just a few hours after touchdown at JFK, I was standing at the entrance to what most people rate as one of the top art galleries in the world.

Diana at the Met

The first time I walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on an earlier visit to New York, I did have a wee bit of a momentary breakdown. Its size almost did me in. I knew the Met was big ― I just didn’t realize it was that big. But within seconds, I shrugged off my frustrations. When you’re playing art tourist and you’re in the largest art gallery in the Western Hemisphere, there is no time to waste.

The trick to large art galleries is to get a map, and quickly zero in on what you want to see, picking a floor or wing to focus on. Don’t even thinking of trying to see it all. And don’t be afraid to ask for directions. Those gallery guards know their way around.

I tend to gravitate towards European Painting no matter what art gallery I am in. But if the Old Masters put you to sleep, not to worry. The Met has everything from Greek, Roman, and Islamic art all the way to present-day contemporary art. And if you’re there in good weather, don’t skip the roof garden. It has an amazing bird’s eye view of Central Park.

Knights at the Met

If oversized galleries aren’t your thing at all, then go to the Frick. The Frick was the perfect antidote to my morning at the Met. It’s so small you can see the entire gallery in a little more than an hour depending on long you linger in each room. Which is what makes it so delightful. The Frick is my idea of a perfect art museum, actually, as I truly believe art should be consumed in small doses before it all becomes a blur.

The Frick Exterior

Henry Clay Frick, an industrialist who made his money in Pittsburgh steel, built the museum in 1914 as a private home for his family, although he fully intended it to be turned into a museum after his death. Many of the rooms remain furnished and decorated as they were when the Fricks lived there, including how and where the paintings are hung.

The collection focuses on European paintings, and has an entire room of Limoges enamels ― something I knew nothing about, but they are quite impressive. Old man Frick was quite the collector. How on earth did he get his hands on three Vermeers is what I’d like to know, given there are only about 35 in existence?

The Frick Interior

The Met and the Frick are both located on Fifth Avenue (aka Museum Mile). Still on Fifth Avenue, but further north, is the Guggenheim. This museum is worth a visit even if it is just to have a look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s amazing architectural design that is as much sculpture as it is building.

The Guggenheim Exterior

The Guggenheim focuses mainly on art from the last 150 years or so. I enjoy the Impressionist works and there are always interesting temporary exhibits.

The Guggenheim Interior

Spending a long weekend zipping from art gallery to art gallery may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine, and I can’t wait to get back to New York for another art fix.

The Met at Night

Live at the Met

Lincoln Centre

One of the reasons I wanted to spend a long weekend in New York last December was so I could strike one off my bucket list.

That one would be attending the Metropolitan Opera at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Here’s a pro-tip: If you’re going to go see the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, take along a native New Yorker. And here’s another: If you’re going to go see Nabucco by Verdi, take along an Italian.

I was lucky enough to get to do both.

My New Yorker friend and I made plans to meet for dinner across the street from Lincoln Center. And so, after a long day of sight-seeing, I made my way uptown, making sure to leave myself plenty of time to pick up our tickets from the Will Call window, and so I could take some photos. But I was taken aback when I saw the playbills outside Lincoln Center.

Nabucco Play Bill

“Plácido Domingo is singing tonight,” I told my friend when she arrived at the restaurant. I had paid absolutely no attention to who was performing when I had purchased the tickets online some months before.

“He’s directing,” she told me. “He doesn’t sing anymore.”

“Oh,” I said. Well, that made sense. Slightly deflated, I gave myself a shake. What did it matter who was performing? I was in New York City and I going to the opera.

But after we made our way across the street to Lincoln Center, walked up the grand staircase, found our seats, and opened our programs, we soon realized our mistake. Plácido Domingo was performing, in the title role. And conducting was the legendary James Levine. We were in for a memorable, you might even say, historic evening.

Metropolitan Opera House

Over dinner, my friend had told me about the political significance of Nabucco for Italians. Composed in 1841, it was Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera and his first big hit. But he almost never wrote it.

While Verdi was composing his second opera, his wife died, only a few years after their two young children had died. The opera bombed. Devastated, Verdi declared he was done composing.

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

But a friend persisted in showing Verdi a libretto he thought was worth a look. It was about the Jews after they were conquered and subjugated by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II (in Italian, Nabucco). Verdi’s attention was caught by a single line of text in the libretto, “Va pensiero, sull’ ali dorate” (“Fly, thought, on golden wings”). This line, inspired by Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept”), became the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.

And that chorus, my friend told me, became a rallying call for the oppressed Italians during the unification of Italy. Many consider the chorus to be an unofficial Italian anthem that lamented how the Italian people were occupied by other forces (namely, the Austrians) on Italian land. The Italian audiences would cheer and holler until the opera companies repeated the chorus as an encore.

Metropolitan Opera Curtain Call 1

Which is also what happened that night not four weeks ago when my friend and I heard Nabucco performed live by the Metropolitan Opera. In post-election America, the significance of the encore was not lost on us.

Nabucco was first performed by the Metropolitan Opera in 1960. The performance we saw was the 329th time that James Levine and Plácido Domingo had performed together, over a period 45 years. (And here’s a fun bit of trivia: none of the other soloists performing that night had been born when those two began their professional relationship.)

Metropolitan Opera Curtain Call 2

I’ve written before about how my love of opera intersects with my love of travel. What I had forgotten until I started writing this post was how it had been my mother who had introduced me to opera. She had an album of opera choruses and would play it, full volume, on our brand new component stereo. That album was my introduction to “Va pensiero, sull’ ali dorate,” and the tune has stuck in my head ever since.

Long before I began attending live opera performances, I used to listen to CBC Radio Two’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, which is a live broadcast of the Saturday matinee performances at Lincoln Center. I don’t know why I stopped listening to them, but today I made a point of tuning in.

This afternoon’s broadcast was Nabucco. Live from the Met. I closed my eyes as I listened to “Va pensiero, sull’ ali dorate” and was instantly transported back to New York. Not in body, obviously, but certainly in spirit.

I expect it will be that way every time I hear the chorus from now on. As I told a friend after I got back from New York, seeing Nabucco live at the Met was pretty much a religious experience for me. I don’t want that feeling to ever go away.

new-york-2016-14Metropolitan Opera Curtain Call 3

Merry Christmas!

Rockefeller Center, New York City

Rockefeller Center, New York City

Through My Lens: Central Park in Winter

Central Park Ice Rink

The other cool thing about visiting New York City in the winter? All those wonderful outdoor ice rinks.

Like this one in Central Park.