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Monthly Archives: February 2010

Empanada Boy Meets His Empanada Mama

I realized the other day that, apart from the moniker of my husband and trusty sidekick, Empanada Boy, empanadas have never actually been featured on this site. So when EB’s friend Foiegrasman suggested we meet up for a late dinner in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, I decided to remedy the situation with a visit Empanada Mama. As the name suggests, this is a restaurant with half of its menu devoted to dough-pocketed goodness— some more traditional than others. We met Foiegrasman and his boyfriend Veal Balls (an explanation of the name follows shortly) at the restaurant at 9:30 pm, but still had to wait about 35 minutes before we got a table for four. In the meantime, we drank $7 tinis, margaritas and glasses of vinho verde— all remarkably well-priced for New York City.

We were pretty hungry by the time we sat down and proceeded to order, yuca fries, plaintain chips and guacamole, veal and rice balls and loads of empanadas (around $2.50 to $3 each). Foiegrasman even threw in an arepa for good measure. The chips and fries were the first to arrive. As it turned out, we probably didn’t need to order both. Needless to say, we devoured them anyway. The plantain chips were thinly sliced lengthwise so as to show the shape and structure of the fruit’s profile. They were crispy, slightly sweet and slightly salty. We asked for the spicy guacamole, and it did have a kick (though not a very overpowering one). The yuca chips were like french fries, but with much more of their own innate flavor. Their exteriors were perfectly fried, and they proved pretty addictive.

After chowing down on the nontraditional chips, our meatballs arrived. These were made with veal and rice and were coated in a savory mushroom sauce. They had been recommended in other reviews I read, and our waitress singled them out, so I was expecting greatness. The meat balls were juicy and filled with flavor. (Veal Balls was so taken with them that he chose to christen himself after them—at least for the purpose of this blog.) I was less wild about the mushroom sauce because I found the flavor so strong it overwhelmed the meat. Still, the dish as a whole was unlike any I’ve tried before.

The final course was the pièce de résistance: the empanadas. In total, we tried seven different varieties with two made from corn flour (traditional Colombian style) and the rest from wheat flour. We didn’t much care for the corn flour ones, one filled with chorizo and the other shredded chicken, not because we didn’t like the shell but because the meat inside was dry and bland. The wheat flour empanadas didn’t have that problem. Among them were: the Brasil (ground beef, olives, sauteed onions, potatoes); the Reggaeton (Caribbean style roast pork, seasoned yellow rice and pigeon peas); chicken and broccoli teriyaki; the Viagra (seafood stew with shrimp, scallops and imitation crab); and the Cuban (slow roasted pork, ham, mozzarella, sofrito sauce). My hands-down favorite, and EB’s too, was the Reggaeton. It was the most flavorful and had the most interesting textural contrasts. It probably also reminded us of the jibaritos we used to eat in Chicago. My next favorite was probably the Cuban, which had a lot going on and was made decidedly more delicious by the creamy cheese. The spicy red sauce and the milder, creamier, green sauce on the table also livened up the breadiness of the crusts. The spinach and cheese arepa that Foiegrasman ordered was notably different from the ones I tried at Caracas Arepa Bar. Where those had an almost pita-like consistency, the corn-flour shell of this one was spongy and pleasantly chewy.

We spared no room in our stomachs for them, but Empanada Mama also has dessert empanadas, which are supposed to be tasty. Next time I want to treat my Empanada Boy to something sweet, I’ll know where to take him.

Empanada Mama
763 9th Ave. (at 51st St.)
New York, NY 10019

Empanada Mama on Urbanspoon

Fine Foods, Indeed, at McKinney & Doyle

Omelet 1As I’ve said before on this blog, there are very few restaurants that I think are worth visiting for brunch. The wait is usually long, the options are usually overpriced and most don’t taste as good as what you can make at home. But, not only would I go to brunch at McKinney & Doyle Fine Foods Cafe in Westchester Dutchess County (thanks to a reader for correcting this), I would also go there for lunch, dinner or an afternoon snack.

The restaurant is a favorite of Empanada Boy’s aunt Spanikopita and his uncle Iceberg, and for good reason. It’s warm, comfortable, makes delicious food and has reasonable prices. Located in the middle of town in Pawling, the front door opens into a bakery where delicious cookies and pastries are sold for take out or a quick bite. The main dining room has solid brick walls and equally solid antique wooden booths. The menu consists of well-made classics like omelets, French toast, fish and chips, lamb curry, grilled pork tenderloin, duck breast, calves liver, haddock and more.

EB and I have been there at least twice for dinner and twice for brunch. The first time we were there, we were chatting at the table when we heard a powerful and strangely familiar voice behind us. We glanced over at the nearby table and saw none other than James Earl Jones himself. He apparently lives in the area, and like many people, frequents Fine Foods. It’s a true neighborhood place, but it also happens to serve great food.

Corned beef hashThe last time we were there, EB’s cousin Vegemite was visiting from Australia with her husband and two young sons. We all piled into the big booth near one window. The kids ordered delicious banana nut pancakes and eggs and toast, while Spanikopita and Vegemite veered toward lunch with the salmon salad. Iceberg ordered what he always does: the Smokehouse omelet made with hickory smoked bacon, peppers, onions and cheddar cheese, served with hash browns and onions. EB went for the chorizo omelet with potatoes, and Vegemite’s husband Biscuit ordered another omelet. I got “Judge Malone’s Corned Beef Hash”—something I could never make at home— served it a skillet with fried eggs and toast.

While not quite at the level of O’Rourke’s, which serves my favorite corned beef hash in all the world, this was a crispy, fatty treat. I stabbed the egg and let the yolk run over the hash and sopped it all up with bread. Could there be any better meal to start a day? The omelets were all delicious and vibrant, and those pancakes were phenomenal. The little guy who ordered them loved them so much that he sat there long after the rest of us had stuffed ourselves silly to finish every last bite of the thick, fluffy short stack. Yes, this food is that good.

McKinney & Doyle Fine Foods Cafe
10 Charles Colman Blvd.
Pawling, NY 12564

McKinney & Doyle Fine Foods Cafe on Urbanspoon

Szechuan Gourmet Burns the Right Way

Pork BellyMy search for a great Midtown meal continued a few weeks ago when Empanada Boy and I were looking for a place to eat before the ballet. Many of the places near Lincoln Center are overpriced or just plain too expensive. But I remembered reading about Szechuan Gourmet in a 2008 two-star review by Frank Bruni in The New York Times. Bruni singled it out as a true example of ultra-spicy, pepper-infused Szechuan cooking outside the expected confines of Chinatown and Flushing. The restaurant has two, Midtown locations, but I wanted to try the original on 39th Street. EB and I met there after work.

Before I get into what we ordered, it’s worth emphasizing that this food is spicy. And when I say spicy, I mean burning your esophagus, numbing your lips, spicy. But the food can also be sweet or distinctively seasoned in a way that lets you taste and enjoy the complexities before the burn begins. The key ingredient in this heat is the Szechuan peppercorn, the outer pod of which is toasted and scattered throughout this restaurant’s menu.

LambEB and I started with mild, but delicious, appetizer of tender sliced pork belly with a fantastic chili-garlic soy sauce. The succulent flavors of this dish were just layered on: fat, sweetness, saltiness and a bite of scallion here and there.

As is turned out, we were glad we tasted this dish first because the dishes we ordered got progressively dominant in flavor. The next plate our server set down in front of us bore a mound of crispy lamb pieces, coated in a cumin-heavy spice powder. The dusty shell broke away upon biting to reveal tasty morsels of gamy lamb. The heat in this dish came from dried peppers that were scattered throughout. Everything was manageable until I bit into one of those babies. The burn lasted for a while so I didn’t end up eating many of them, and the bold spicing of the meat stood up well to the heat. My one complaint with this dish was that it was very dry. It’s not that the meat was overdone, but rather that there was no sauce or juices to it. I am assuming this is typical of the dish, but I found myself wanting liquids to sop up.

TofuOur final dish was the ma po tofu, which is labeled with four stars (extra spicy) on the menu. Large, ethereally light, cubes of tofu are presented swimming in a pool of fragrant, slightly sweet, sauce. And then it hits you. The heat creeps across your lips and across your tongue, down your throat and into your stomach. The burn is both painful and pleasant. The sweetness of the sauce and the infusion of scallions comes through the heat, creating a symphony of components. We left feeling like we had eaten twice as much as our stomach muscles contracted with the heat of those chilies. Needless to say, it was a battle my stomach would be willing to fight again.

Szechuan Gourmet
21 W. 39th St.
New York, NY 10018

Szechuan Gourmet 56
242 West 56th Street
New York, NY 10019

Szechuan Gourmet on Urbanspoon

Szechuan Gourmet on Urbanspoon

Gourmet, Unbound: February

Chocolate ice creamEmpanada Boy and I love ice cream, and unlike some people, we have no problem eating it in the depths of winter. It’s been in the 20s and low 30s for about a week here in New York, but we have still been craving it. Luckily, we got our ice cream maker out of storage when we moved. For my February tribute to Gourmet magazine, I wanted to make a special, seasonal ice cream flavor, so I hunted down a Feburary 2003 recipe for Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream. This calls for Ibarra chocolate, a widely available Mexican drinking chocolate, which has the sugar and the spices all built in. If ever an ice cream could be wintry, this is it!

Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream

Yield: Makes about 1-1/2 quarts
Active time: 40 min
Start to finish: 2-1/2 hr (includes freezing)

1/2 vanilla bean
11 oz Mexican chocolate (3-1/2 disks; preferably Ibarra), coarsely chopped
3-3/4 cups half-and-half
3 large eggs
Scant 1/4 teaspoon salt

Special equipment: an instant-read thermometer; an ice cream maker

Halve vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape seeds into a 3-quart heavy saucepan. Add chocolate and half-and-half and bring to a boil over moderate heat, whisking. Remove from heat.

Lightly beat eggs with salt in a bowl, then add hot chocolate mixture in a slow stream, whisking. Transfer custard to cleaned saucepan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard registers 175°F on thermometer, 1 to 5 minutes. Immediately pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a metal bowl. Put bowl in a larger bowl of ice and cold water and cool, stirring occasionally.

Freeze custard in ice cream maker. Transfer ice cream to an airtight container and freeze until hardened, about 1 hour.

See my other Gourmet, Unbound posts:
April 2010, Shrimp Scampi Pasta
March 2010, Chicken with Black-Pepper Maple Sauce
January 2010, Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic and Pancetta
December 2009, Walnut Spice Cake with Lemon Glaze