Archives for posts with tag: dining out

Yesterday, we drove up to Saratoga Springs, New York, for a quick getaway, a mini-vacation, a brief respite from the everyday.  We haven’t planned much—our idea is to keep it simple—and spent yesterday afternoon walking up and down the main street in town, Broadway, and taking a nap (I never claimed to be the life of the party) before going out for a delicious pasta dinner at Wheatfields (highly recommended).  The heat wave finally broke and we were actually able to eat outdoors.

One of the things we did plan was a visit this morning to the gardens at Yaddo, an artists’ community founded in 1900 by a wealthy couple who, sadly, lost all four of their children.  Without heirs, they decided to convert their estate into a sanctuary where young artists, writers, composers and other promising creative types could work without interruption or concern for such mundane matters as room and board.

Most of the 400-acre property is off-limits to those who have not applied to the organization, been reviewed by its trustees and found qualified for residency.  However, the gardens, which comprise a formal rose garden and more rustic rock garden, are open to the public on a daily basis.  The gardens are tended by the volunteer Yaddo Garden Association, several of whose members were busily at work during our walk-through.

We were a bit late for the roses which probably peaked about a week ago.  Nonetheless, most of the bushes were still in bloom, even if the flowers were becoming a bit ragged.  I am always amazed by the sheer variety of roses whose flowers exist in seemingly infinite combinations of color, size, shape and scent.  My favorites are the more delicate pinks and peaches, especially the clusters of diminutive tea roses.

The rose garden is carved out of a stand of spruces which shield visitors from the unfortunate presence of the Thruway, only several hundred feet to the east.  Unfortunately, the trees are not dense enough to attenuate the constant drone of trucks and automobiles racing by at 70 miles per hour.  One has to use some effort to imagine oneself at the turn of the last century when the surrounding countryside was less populated and much quieter.

The rock garden, located west of the rose garden and divided from it by a classical colonnade, is somewhat more serene and much more shaded (fewer trees were removed to create it, apparently).  The flora here are much more familiar to me (in appearance if not in name) and include an impressive array of hostas, most of which were in full bloom.  The dense canopy of the woods must have protected them from the merciless sun of the last few weeks.

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Another reason to eat dinner in a restaurant occasionally, besides the expertly-prepared food, quality wines and convivial atmosphere (i.e., the fun of it) is that it is a good way to glean menu ideas and learn about unfamiliar ingredients (or familiar ingredients used in unfamiliar ways).  Tonight, at The Dutch in New York City, Rachel and I enjoyed a delicious spring dinner that highlighted the season’s early vegetables and provided inspiration for future meals at home.

We started with “Stracciatella Toast, Artichoke, Broccoli Rabe” (the menu employs the trendy practice of naming dishes with a terse list of components), which was basically a version of crostini or bruschetta (I think only native Italians know the difference).  A slice of rustic bread was grilled, topped with melted mozzarella and a jumble of fresh and sautéed vegetables.  It seemed both hearty and light at the same time.

We followed that with “Snap Pea Salad, Poppy-Tarragon Dressing, Green Garbanzo”, composed of the named vegetables as well as a mixture of leafy greens.  I’ve never seen green garbanzo beans before but will have to track them down.  They were like a cross between fresh peas and fava beans and added a similar bright green color, texture and flavor to the salad.  I suspect that they would make a tasty variation on hummus.

We could easily have stopped there.  We’ve been finding lately that after starters and/or a salad, our appetite is almost sated, especially if there has been wine and a bread basket.  The main dishes (which tonight were “Skuna Bay Salmon, Pastrami Spice, Crispy Potato, Beets” and “Colorado Lamb, Farro, Asparagus, Favas, Sweet Birch”) almost become superfluous and often end up in a doggie bag (although not this time).  And forget about dessert.  If we were to recreate this meal at home—and this is likely—we would limit the menu to the crostini and salad.

Restaurants, like food magazines and the fashion industry, are a bit ahead of the actual season.  For instance, our Sugar Snap peas are only at the seedling stage.  Professional kitchens may source their vegetables from southern suppliers or, if procured locally, patronize farmers who grow crops in greenhouses.  However they do it, I can’t say I mind getting an early taste of what is coming.  It extends the season and gives us time to prepare before our homegrown vegetables are ready for harvest.

We’ve never done much to celebrate Easter.  Growing up, the focus was on a family get-together with a spotlight on the food:  lots of candy, of course, and ham for dinner.  But now I live on the opposite side of the country from my family and few of my friends observe Easter rituals (or those of Passover, either).  We rarely do a social gathering anymore or anything, in fact, that might be considered traditional.

One year, we spent the afternoon helping friends move furniture.  I don’t recall why they decided to do this chore on a holiday but once we got their vehicle loaded up, they headed off to deliver the cargo (somewhere, presumably, not closed for Easter).  That left us hungry for dinner but too tired to cook.

We decided to swing by one of the restaurants in town and because we didn’t have a reservation, we ordered a couple of pizzas to go.  While waiting for them to bake, we sat at the bar and I had a glass of wine.  The proprietress thought I might like one of the Pinot Noirs that is not usually sold by the glass but opened a bottle for me anyway.  That’s hospitality!  It was a delightful—if unconventional—way to observe the holiday.

Another year, we decided to go to a movie.  When we got to the theater (co-located at a shopping mall), we found it and all of the other stores shuttered.  Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas, Easter seems to be the holiday when everything closes.  We ended up back home.

So instead of planning a formal gathering or going out, we’ve made Easter weekend a celebration of spring and the rebirth of the garden.

Last week’s New York Times Dining Section included an article about dinner kits, one of the latest trend in convenience foods (“Everything but the Cook”).  It’s an interesting idea:  After browsing menus on a website, the customer orders dishes online.   The next day, a box containing recipes and all of the necessary ingredients—pre-measured and individually packaged—is delivered to the door.  All of the prep work has been done but the customer does the cooking.  The concept falls somewhere between the traditional approach (plan, shop, prep and cook) and ordering in (choose, telephone and wait).  Services like FreshDirect and Peapod fall to both sides, providing either the ingredients (in normal supermarket quantities) or prepared foods (just like take-out).

Dinner kits have some definite advantages.  For people who feel they are too busy to cook, they can raise the quality of the food in a higher proportion than the additional time required to prepare them.  Less food is wasted because only what is needed for the recipe is included in the kits.  And the expansive selections and detailed instructions can help broaden a cook’s repertoire and increase cooking skills.  A dinner kit is also a relatively low-risk way to explore a new cuisine or ingredient.

Of course, one cook’s asset is another’s liability.  The cost of dinner kits is higher than cooking from the larder (no economy of scale) and is more comparable to eating in a restaurant.  The use of pre-packaged ingredients greatly increases the amount of packaging, much of which is not recyclable (I suspect that a lot of polystyrene is involved).  Pre-measuring makes the recipes less flexible—if the cook decides a dish needs more smoked paprika, he or she is out of luck—and means that the food is handled by more people, increasing the risk of contamination.  Further, depending on the cook’s baseline skill set, nothing may be learned from cooking this way.

More significantly, though, the dinner kit concept opens up a debate about what constitutes home cooking.  Few would argue that ordering delivery from a restaurant is any different from eating it out, even if the dishes arrive unheated.  But if they arrive unassembled as well, do they cross the line into the realm of the homemade?  Or is something lost from the home-cooked experience when half of the work has been done by others?

I think it is less a question of what is done and more about how it is done.  For example, a multi-course meal prepared from scratch might not qualify as home cooking if it is performed perfunctorily or without any thought for or involvement of the diners.  Similarly, a dinner out can have significance to and emotional resonance for the guests if the host puts some conscious thought into the choice of restaurant, makes an effort to add to its warm, convivial atmosphere and takes whatever other steps are necessary to insure a positive experience.

The key ingredient, of course, is love.  The more of it that is thrown into the pot, the less the other ingredients matter.  It helps to start the process with attention and thoughtfulness, in the same way that sautéing a mirepoix forms a flavorful basis for soup.  And adding playfulness, adventurousness, or even nostalgia can spice things up, whether it takes place in the home kitchen or at a restaurant.