Thursday, August 20, 2009

Huevos Rancheros

I've written here before about my tendency to become affixed on certain things for periods of time. Though sometimes protracted, these fixations are ultimately fleeting moments in my greater culinary life. However, from the period until the obsession starts until the craving is fulfilled, those fleeting moments can feel like far, far longer. Once a dish is in my head, I must have it, lest I never move on. Until that food passes through my lips, all other food is sub-par; yea, that foie gras brulee could be sublime, but if it was a cripsy, oozy grilled cheese I wanted, I will not be fully content.

Oftentimes, I can have a version of the dish and move on, but sometimes I need the idealized version of my obsession. Until I have that perfect dish, just as I've built it up in my compulsive, deranged mind, I will not - nay, I cannot move forward.

Lately, huevos rancheros have been the object of my desire. Why? I cannot tell you exactly, but the combination of toothsome, spicy black beans atop corn tortillas, covered with the liquid gold of a just-punctured over-easy egg, speckled with salsa fresca and a smokey, haunting salsa was something I just could not get out of my head.

Usually, huevos rancheros would be something I could very easily put together, in about twenty minutes flat. But popping open a can of beans was just not going to result in my perfect huevos rancheros. No, it couldn't just be any black beans, certainly none from a can would do. It had to be the fresh black beans I had purchased at the Union Square Greenmarket after the Times had touted their freshness and flavor.

What that meant is that my idealized version of the dish was not just something that could be thrown together willy-nilly after getting home from work one night. I couldn't just change out of my dress, grab a can opener, and have dinner ready in twenty minutes (at least the first time). Sure, the shortcut route was one I considered on various occasions when I got home late and tired and really, really wanted those huevos rancheros in my belly. But I never gave in; I just knew, deep down, that only huevos rancheros made with those beans would do. And dried beans, even when they're fresh and don't require overnight soaking, still need quite a while before they become tender enough to eat (at least enjoyably).

But when a cloudy summer Sunday sent me packing back from the Hamptons earlier than anticipated, I knew I had my chance. I had the time to both prepare my beans and turn them into the base for, well, for a lot of things, but immediately for my huevos. [And before I start hearing comments about "well, why didn't you just make the beans when you got home late one night, and then you would have had them ready to use later that week?" - there was no shot in hell that I was not making huevos rancheros as soon as I had spicy, salty, toothsome beans at my disposal, ready to go. That is all.]

And so I rinsed the beans, put them in a pot and added water so that the water level was about an inch over the beans, deciding to forego the "bring to a boil, let soak for one hour and rinse" step in lieu of just allowing them to cook a little bit longer.

Then I made my pico de gallo, chopping up some tomato (mercifully, finally in season, though blighted, tragically), onion, garlic and jalapeno and dousing it with some fresh lime juice as the beans boiled away on the stove.

And before long, I had my huevos rancheros, and they were everything I wanted them to be, and so, so much more. The months (literally, it had been two months spent with huevos on my mind) that I had waited seemed to wash away; all memories of my deprivation gone as I gleefully pricked the jiggly yolk with the tines of my fork, taking far too much pleasure in the destruction of one of nature's more perfect little packages. But I knew, as I watched that canary yellow liquid drizzle down over the beans, over the cheese, that I was going to be able to move on, and happily. I dragged forkful after forkful of those glorious beans through the unctuous cholesterol-laden goodness, relishing in not only the taste of my huevos rancheros, in the wonderful harmony of fresh ingredients, but also in my will power, in my devotion to my huevos ideal. I had not broken down and given in to something that I knew would not please me. I allowed myself to continue building it up, and it was totally, undoubtedly, worth it.

I want to talk about those beans - man, the Times knew what they were talking about. These were the best black beans I had ever eaten. Their texture and taste surpassed any that I had ever eaten from a can, and any that I had made from dry up to that point. While dried beans tend to have a better texture than canned (not to mention that you can control the sodium content and they are not suspended indefinitely in that filmy liquid), it is fully impossible to know just how many days, months, years those bags of Goya Frijoles Negros have spent on the supermarket shelves. I think it's safe to assume it's typically a very, very long while.

While I'd heard so many sing the praises of Rancho Gordo beans, I just could not validate the expense of having pricey beans shipped to me from across the country. But once I saw the Cayuga Organics stand at the Greenmarket, I had my chance to try some fresh beans at a far lower (albeit still higher than supermarket) price. Later in the week, I threw those beans into some tacos, and ok, just ate them out of the tupperware in the fridge. But the point is that the couple of hours it takes to make the beans the first night opens you up to their use in an infinite number of deicious ways later on.

And I can say now, with full conviction, that the freshness certainly makes a difference. The flavor and texture of these beans surpassed anything that I'd made in the past. They were wonderful, and are the new standard against which I will measure all black beans in the future. Sorry, Goya. [Still love ya, though, and I will undoubtedly return to you when tight for time].

Huevos Rancheros

In their simplest, most traditional form, huevos rancheros are just simply cooked eggs over tortillas with a smokey, red salsa, but those were not the huevos of my dreams. The dish is one that is open to interpretation, and can be made to suit your tastes and your whim. Add some guacamole (as I did later in the week), ditch the beans, add more cheese, fry the eggs right on the tortilla, keep them sunny side up, hell, go crazy and scramble them if you really want (not in my house, though). This dish is so easy to tailor to what you want and what you have that I find few times when I would not gladly call it my dinner. And it's healthy, too.

I prepared my beans from dried, boiling them in some water with a clove of garlic, which I'd crushed, about a quarter of an onion, a bay leaf, a few dashes of cumin and a pinch of red pepper. I added salt towards the end of the cooking process. There's a debate in the cooking world about whether salt should be added to beans as they cook. The antis say that the salt will break open the skins of the beans as they cook, and will destroy their shape and texture. Others say that the salt adds flavor, and with no discernable effect on their texture. As I love flavor, especially of the salty sort, I added salt, and my beans were none the worse for wear. I did add the salt as the beans were nearing doneness, though, to ward off any possibility that the skins would be torn to shreds.

I make a quick pico de gallo for one by cutting about a half a tomato and an equal volume of onion into small dice. I add to that a bit less than a clove of finely minced garlic and about a half a jalapeno, with a few of the seeds and the ribs added in for some extra heat. I roughly chop some cilantro and throw that in, add the juice of anywhere from a half to a whole lime, depending on how much juice each half yields, grind over it some salt and pepper, throw it in the fridge while the rest of the meal comes together to let the flavors mingle, and it's ready to go when I need it.

I feel a bit silly even posting a recipe for this, since it is open to endless variations and is so incredibly simple.

Serves 1

2 Corn tortillas
1/2 cup black beans, either prepared from fresh, or canned, rinsed and drained
1 ounce cheese of your choosing (I prefer cotija or a melty, sharp cheese)
Pico de gallo, as desired
Avocado or Guacamole, as desired
Cilantro, as desired
Sour cream, as desired

If not using freshly cooked beans, heat them up in a small pot.

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the corn tortillas, and, flipping frequently, allow them to heat through. Feel free to crisp them at the edges if desired. Remove the tortillas to a plate. Pile about 1/4 cup of black beans atop each tortilla.

In the same skillet, add some butter to lightly coat the bottom of the pan and crack in the eggs. Once the whites have set a bit, flip the eggs (or leave them sunny-side up) and allow to cook for about 30 seconds on the other side. Once the eggs are cooked to your liking, slide them out of the skillet onto the piles of black beans. Top with cheese as desired, and add some salsa (I love tomatillo salsa) and add whatever accoutrements you feel like. I love pice de gallo, some sour cream, cilantro, a few slices of avocado and some chopped radishes, which I think add a fresh, bright, peppery crunch to the dish.

Dig in, and enjoy.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Convivio has been on my radar from the moment it opened. It was highly anticipated, as it opened in the space that had previously housed L'Impero, and with renowned Italian Chef Michael White at the helm. The reviews it garnered soon after opening made it clear that this anticipation was warranted. Frank Bruni, the soon to be ex-restaurant critic of the New York Times, bestowed upon Convivio three stars, a rare "Excellent" amidst a sea of "goods."

It was only until recently that I had the good fortune of dining at Convivio. It's a bit out of the way for a weekend dinner, since I tend to dine before going out and don't often (read: ever) find myself out and about on a Friday night on the bumping streets of Midtown East. It's also expensive, and I've had little reason for celebratory meals lately. However, Restaurant Week solved both of these problems. Convivio is much closer to my office than to my apartment, and its restaurant week lunch special, at $24.07, was not going to break the bank.

We had 1:30 reservations, and the late afternoon sunshine flowed into the restaurant through the street-level windows. The light, however, didn't really do the space many favors. The d├ęcor was stark and the sun's rays did nothing but draw attention to the sharp edges and unadorned whiteness of much of the space. I would imagine the space does not seem as severe in the evening, as I feel the restaurant would benefit from a softer light and the glow of candlelight.

We ordered from the restaurant week menu, but decided to supplement our meals with a few items from the reasonably-priced sfizi menu. The sfizi are small snack-sized portions that are meant for sharing among the table. We went with the Carciofi (artichokes flavored with mint and pecorino), the Cozze (mediterranean mussels with chile, scallion, capers and topped with bread crumps) and the Funghi (grilled mushrooms cooked in vin cotto).

Of the three, the funghi were the clear favorite of the table. Even avowed mushroom-haters could not resist their amazing depth of flavor and the beguiling spice lent by unexpected red pepper. The wine provided a richness that made it seem as if we were eating something far more sinful than mushrooms.

The artichokes were flawlessly executed, though the taste of mint was not as pronounced as I was hoping. The nutty pecorino that draped the artichokes lent a salty complexity to the earthy artichokes.

The mussels were delicious as well. It was spicy, but the flavor of the chile was felt more than its heat, which did not overwhelm any other element of the dish, as if bringing your taste buds to attention in order to best enjoy the other flavors going on. The bread crumbs provided a wonderful textural element, countering the squishiness of the crustacean with a good deal of crunch. This sfizi was very generously portioned, particularly considering the price.

The entire table ordered the same appetizer, the stracciatella - creamy burrata cheese with zucchini and basil pesto. It was a good thing we all ordered the same dish, since any person who had made the mistake of ordering another dish would have been forced to listen to the rest of us repeat, about seven hundred and thirty two times before the dishes were removed from the table, that this was among the greatest things we'd ever eaten. And no, I don't think any of us would have shared. I should preface this by saying that I am borderline obsessive when it comes to burrata. I must be restrained, oftentimes physically, from ordering it every single time I see it on a menu. Not that there's anything wrong with ordering it every single time I see it on a menu, but I am seeing it more and more these days and such a habit is good for neither my wallet nor my waistline. If you're unfamiliar with burrata, it is essentially a thin skin of fresh mozzarella cheese that houses a bevy of rich, salty, thick, gooey, curdy deliciousness that toes the line between cream and cheese more delicately than anything else I've encountered. It has an incredibly short shelf life, since it takes only a day or so before the insides turn, and is therefore difficult to track down. Suffice it to say that if mozzarella is a Honda Civic Coupe, burrata is an Aston Martin V12 Vantage.

Convivio's rendition was no different. To this point, the best burrata I had encountered was at A16 in San Francisco, where it was topped with a wonderfully fruity olive oil and just enough sea salt to cut through the richness of the cheese. Convivio's version may just top that one. The basil pesto provided a fragrant, floral brightness, while the delicate strands of zucchini lent some more textrure and freshness to the dish. The crostini, an olive-oil soaked little number neatly perched alongside the glorious pool of milkfat, could have not done its job of transporting cheese to mouth any better.

For the mains, most of us ordered the grouper, which was served with a sweet pepper caponata and a roasted pepper crema. The grouper was perfectly cooked, but I found the flavors to be a bit lacking. The caponata was fresh and wonderful, and the roasted pepper crema had the smoky undertones of roasted peppers. It needed perhaps just a bit more acid, since the flavors felt a bit muted, and a touch more lemon might have allowed the rest of the elements to perk up.

I also had the chance to taste the orecchiette, which was handmade and served with crushed pomini tomatoes, basil and capped with a generous dollop of ricotta ala olio. The orrechiette were flawless - the little ears toothsome, but not gummy, cooked to a perfect al dente so that they retained the perfect amount of bite. The tomatoes were fresh and bright, and the cheese, oh that cheese, cut the acidity of the tomatoes with a salty, creamy richness that elevated the dish from pasta into pasta that dreams are made of. This is clearly Michael White's wheelhouse - the simplicity of the dish belied the obvious skill, care and talent that went into making it. It was seriously delicious.

For dessert, I had the affogato, which is essentially a grown-up ice cream float. Freshly brewed espresso, strong and delicious, is poured atop zabaglione gelato and topped with a vanilla bean whipped cream. It tastes exactly how it should, which is to say, rich, complex and delicious. And strong, of course.

The other dessert option was the cioccolato e caramelle, a valhrona chocolate ganache on a bed of salted caramel, both neatly contained in a perfect little pastry shell and accompanied by vanilla gelato. The girls who ordered this were both excessively pleased. It was a bit too rich for my tastes, but the caramel was wonderfully gooey, the chocolate expectedly sinful.

Restaurant week menus are not always indicative of a restaurant's quality, since many tend to take shortcuts or cut corners in an effort to make up in volume for what is lost in revenue. I was more than pleased with my restaurant week lunch at Convivio, and would return in a heartbeat for some more of the excellent sfizi or appetizers, and especially to try out some more of the pastas (the malloreddus - saffron-scented gnochetti with crab and sea urchin in particular is calling my name…). I consider a restaurant week menu successful if it makes me want to return to the restaurant to find out more, and to try some more dishes from the menu, to see what the chef can do. To this end, this was a remarkably successful restaurant week menu, as I am already looking for a reason to come back for the (admittedly not that expensive) $69 prix fixe dinner menu. And considering that this was the first meal after my half a loaf of challah incident, after which the mere thought of food was enough to make me want to hurl, I think that says a lot.

This meal took place a few weeks ago already, and I feared my tardiness would make much of this entirely irrelevant as Restaurant Week was slated to end on July 31. BUT now that Restaurant Week has been extended through Labor Day, you can still take advantage of some great deals!

45 Tudor City Place (b/w 42nd and 43rd)
(212) 599-5045
Participating in Restaurant Week for lunch and Sunday dinner