Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hoity Toity!

Last week was Westchester County's Restaurant Week, during which many local restaurants were featuring special prix fixe menus at a discount. A friend gathered a large party, and made dinner reservations at Xavier's X20 a high-end restaurant located in the upper level of the Yonkers pier. The proprietor of X20 is Yonkers-born chef Peter X. Kelly, who has gained a measure of fame by winning on the Food Network's Iron Chef.

The setting of the restaurant is dramatic- a renovated Victorian-era pier that juts into the Hudson River less than ten miles north of midtown Manhattan. The views are dramatic, with the George Washington Bridge providing a brilliant foreground to the Manhattan skyline- even the Yonkers water treatment plant, about a quarter of a mile south of the pier, provides a dramatic spectacle of twin methane flares, which the river reflects in glorious fashion. The decor of the restaurant's interior is best described as "restrained elegance", the huge windows which afford views of the surroundings provide all the excitement.

The special Restaurant Week three course prix fixe meal cost a mere $28. The dinner was accompanied by warm homemade breads, a choice of torpedo-shaped dinner rolls or warm, rich blue cheese biscuits (these were positively addictive, and given out with the generosity of a soft-hearted grandmother). I started with a warm wild-mushroom custard, garnished with chives and crabmeat- the earthy flavored mushrooms giving a lusty "oomp" to the luscious custard, which was tempered by the briny notes provided by the morsels of crabmeat. I followed the custard with a perfectly cooked half duck, accompanied by crisp snow pea pods and buttery Spätzle. The richness of the duckmeat was nicely cut by a sweet-tart cranberry sauce. Dessert (after the richness of the meal, it was almost an afterthought) for me was a molten chocolate cake, a well-executed, not-too-sweet confection. The featured wines were products of Hudson Valley vineyards.

Service was impeccable- the waitstaff was attentive yet unobtrusive, quick to refill water glasses or generously provide the house-made bread (have I mentioned that the biscuits were particularly addictive?). During the meal, Peter X. Kelly circulated throughout the dining room, greeting his customers warmly. A gracious host, he indulged patrons who wished to be photographed with him, and carried himself with the easy, self-assured air of a man who has achieved a remarkable degree of success through hard work, talent, and a geniunely hospitable disposition. He also comes across as a man with a great sense of humor- a vintner, his "wine cellar" bears the name "The Silenus Room".

All told, the dining experience at Xavier's X20 was second-to-none. The restaurant, with it's breathtaking views, exquisite food, and romantic atmosphere, is a perfect venue for a meal celebrating a special occasion. Valet parking is available, and the restaurant is within easy walking distance of the Yonkers station on the Metro-North Hudson Line.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Feast of San Giuseppe

March 19 is the Feast of St. Joseph, a saint who is especially venerated in Italy. Traditionally, sweet morsels known as zeppole are consumed on the feast day, which (like St. Patrick's Day) is considered a day exempt from Lenten fasting and abstinence. Zeppole can be found in two forms, the most common is a fried fritter which is typically dredged with confectioners' sugar. This form, which dates back to antiquity, is often a featured menu item in pizzerias in the Northeastern United States, which typically use pizza dough to make them.

The more refined form of zeppole, also known as sfinge, are fried pastries made with pâte a choux, and filled with cream or custard. This form of zeppole probably originated in Eighteenth-Century Naples. Most bakeries make both cream and custard filled varieties, but why force yourself to choose? You know you want one of each.

The simple type of zeppole can be commonly found in pizzerias, and is a staple at carnivals and fairs. The second type can be found at any worthy Italian bakery, in my neck of the woods, Delite Bake Shop on Yonkers Avenue and Artuso's Pastry Shop on McLean Avenue make particularly good ones.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Corned Beef and Cabbage

This post concerns an all-American Jewish/Irish combination that is utterly delicious...

Uh, er, um... I was going to write about corned beef and cabbage, which has come to be associated with Irish-American foodways, and specifically the celebration of St. Patrick's Day. Corned beef, though, is not a traditional component of the Irish diet, but an ingredient that came to be used by Irish emigrants to the United States.

The original template for corned beef and cabbage was the traditional Irish meal of bacon and cabbage. Beef consumption in Ireland was largely limited to the upper class- cattle were typically employed as dairy cows, most beef would have been either exported, or consumed by the rich. Pork was the meat of the common people. Irish bacon, as opposed to the typical bacon found in the states, is typically cut from the back (much like Canadian bacon), not the belly, of the pig, and the pork is cured, but not smoked. The bacon is then traditionally boiled whole, and cabbage is added toward the end of the cooking time. Alternatively, Irish bacon can be sliced into rashers, which are typically fried as part of a full Irish breakfast.

In neighborhoods such as Manhattan's Lower East Side, immigrants of many backgrounds lived in mixed communities. Irish emigrants to the United States found that the bacon they were accustomed to was unavailable. Corned beef, typically beef briskets cured in brine, was readily available, however. Being brined, it was a common feature of Jewish charcuterie- to this day, any Jewish deli worth its salt prides itself on its corned beef almost as much as its pastrami. Perhaps taking a cue from their Jewish neighbors, the emigrants utilized corned beef (which must be cooked for a long time until tender) as a substitute for the bacon they used to boil with their cabbage, a tradition which continues to this day.

Tinned corned beef, typically imported from Argentina, has become a staple in the Caribbean, where it is known as bully beef and consumed for breakfast.

For a change from the usual corned beef and cabbage, try getting back to the Irish roots of the dish by using boiling bacon, which can be readily found at The Butcher's Fancy on McLean Avenue in Yonkers (where it retails for $4.99 a pound), or Prime Cuts on Katonah Avenue in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx.

Postscript: After your corned beef (or bacon) and cabbage dinner, by all means use any leftover cabbage to make Colcannon, which, in its simplest form, is a mixture of mashed potatoes and cabbage. Personally, I prefer to use a mixture of kale and cabbage in this dish, as the dark green adds a nice visual touch to the dish, and I include scallions (I find that leeks are a pain to clean thoroughly, though I do love them).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bergen Beefsteak

Last Saturday night, I attended my first Beefsteak in Fair Lawn, New Jersey- a fundraiser for the local ambulance corp organized by the Fair Lawn Rotary Club (it was their 18th annual Beefsteak and Tricky Tray). Four of us traveled from southern Westchester to North Jersey, where we met with the remaining member of our party, who traveled from northern Westchester. We seemed to be the only Beefsteak newbies in the St Leon's Armenian Church hall. The regulars were a really nice bunch, who made us feel right at home and taught us some Beefsteak pointers. This was a family event, not a rowdy crowd of burly, surly longshoremen.

The Beefsteak (please note, the linked site is a PDF) has its origins in late 19th Century New York City social and political groups (political machines, unions, fraternal orders...) which would sponsor great, rowdy feasts to raise funds and court supporters. These events disappeared from the New York social scene, although a revival has been underway in recent years.

The Beefsteak never went out of fashion in New Jersey's Bergen County, although the bewildering variety of meats in the late 19th and early 20th Century beefsteaks has given way to beef tenderloin, served on sliced rounds of Italian bread (some buttered, some left as is). This particular Beefsteak was catered by Giresi's of Lodi, NJ. As well as the beefsteak, a raffle known as a Tricky Tray.

Before the meal, the Tricky Tray started- the various raffle prizes were set up on long tables, each prize accompanied by a two-quart deli container, into which one would place a raffle ticket. The meal began with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, led by the son of one of the Rotarians, followed by a verse of God Bless America (singing being a common feature of the Beefsteak)- then the feast began in earnest.

At the onset, a small fruit platter and a vegetable platter were set on the table. A pasta course (ziti with marinara sauce) followed, but this was merely a preliminary. Once the pasta course was cleared, the beef tenderloin arrived, and arrived, and arrived. Shiny silver plates, with neatly arranged open-faced sandwiches... at first, everyone at the table took two, then passed the tray along. This pace continued for the first four or five trays, then the less ravenous would slacken for a spell. Before serving a tray, the waitress would ask the table if they preferred sandwiches with or without buttered bread (it was about a 50/50 split over the course of the evening). These little sandwiches were accompanied by copious amounts of waffle-cut fries, and a continuous stream of beer and wine. Being a newbie (and also, I must confess, an extremely frugal person -read cheap- who'd never leave something uneaten on my plate), I consumed the bread, while the regulars would, in traditional fashion, stack the rounds of bread into towers in the center of the table.

This example is crowned with a pickled hot pepper:

The undisputed champion of the night, though, was this young man, who fashioned an architectural marvel out of his table's rounds of bread:

The steak onslaught was followed by a perfunctory dessert- a swiss-roll styled chocolate cake with ice-cream filling (too bad it wasn't a thinly-pounded flank steak with a hamburger filling), and a most welcome cup of coffee. Dinner was followed by the raffle results- I am happy to say that my friend Joe won a huge basket of beach toys that his son will go nuts for. The best gift won by the table, however, was this wonderful item:

Yes, it is what you think it is.

After the meal, we all staggered out of the church hall, filled to the gills. I have to say that, having read the old New Yorker article, I had half-expected a greasier, grittier event... one in which wives and girlfriends would silently weep, or sit stone-faced as their husbands or boyfriends shoveled great big handfuls of dripping chops and steaks into their mouths without pause, but those Tammany Hall days are no more. In fact, there were even napkins on the table! So, fear not, you can take your significant other to the event with no reservations.

Needless to say, I did the vegetarian thing the next day, and have laid off the red meat so far this week.

Note: I ran out of space in my inbox, so I was unable to send the picture of the actual sandwiches to my e-mail account in time for this post. I will put up a picture of these little beauties as soon as possible.