Blanca in Bushwick

It came time to plan an outing for a milestone of a birthday, I started from a very short list. I first started with some regions and got it down to New Orleans, San Francisco and Napa, or New York. It didn’t take long to hone in on New York but still there was some more work to be done. I’ve always pined for a Thomas Keller meal, but Per Se and the French Laundry seem just out of reach for me. Three summers ago, I had one of my all-time favorite meals at Blue Hills at Stone Barns and have always imagined what they would do in different seasons, so this was the fallback plan. The backup plan if we weren’t able to secure reservations to a pretty new place called Blanca which sits in the ramshackle compound of Roberta’s a pizza place for those in the know out in Bushwick. And with a little bit of effort (none of my own doing, thanks to my companion who manned the phone) and luck we secured 2 of the 12 seats available for my birthday night. And for a month the anticipation grew and grew as I read the handful of reviews and reports from the past year since it opened.

They ask that you check in at Roberta’s, then lead you through what looks like a cross between a construction zone and a junkyard. But then you arrive at a separate building that is at once austere, serene, yet fully comfortable. Clean, cream colored walls, cushy leather backed stools at the counter facing the steamy, smoky both hi- and low-tech (and always calm) kitchen, and Sticky Fingers blaring from the turntable.

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Then the relentless begins. I won’t even begin to describe every dish. I couldn’t if I tried. When trying to recount after the fact, at first I forgot some of my favorite dishes. That’ll happen when your head is swirling deep into a tasting menu of 25 or so courses that come like clockwork over the span of 3 hours. Oh, but before I mention a few of the dishes, let me mention the service.

It was perfect. The right combination of attentive, informative, conversational, and absent. There and helpful when you need them, and helping someone else when you don’t. Like a great host at a party. The service really is part of the whole package, creating a really relaxed and fun environment.

But now back to the menu highlights.

It started with a slew of seafood dishes including a plate of 5 different raw preparations, each one better than the next. Needlefish, geoduck, herring, horse mackerel, and sea perch, each with their own garnish. A real microcosm of what the kitchen excels at. There were lightly breaded and fried veal sweetbreads with lime that were definitely the best sweetbread preparation I’ve ever had. Deep in my memory banks, I’m recalling perfectly tender squid, though I’d be hard-pressed to remember what else was on the plate. Shortly after that there was possibly my favorite savory dish of the night, thinly sliced strips of barely grilled Wagyu in a sweet kohlrabi broth that reminded me of sukiyaki. The paper thin, fatty beef literally melts in your mouth as you eat it. At some point deep in the middle of the evening we were presented with the simplest presentation of the night. A giant king crab leg still in its shell and a large dollop of plankton butter. And a hot towel to clean up with. A perfect dish for a kitchen that tries (and succeeds) so hard to present the most elegant and exquisite dishes and plates and presents them in the least stuffy way possible.

There was a string of pasta dishes, including hand-rolled pici with squab and a single ravioli filled with nduja – a spreadable spicy salami. There was a course that was just bread and butter. But of course, it was 4 different breads and homemade butter. After about 15 courses, I thought this was going to be the end of me, but it actually invigorated me for the home stretch.

In between some key transitional courses, there were some palate cleansing sorbets and granitas. Most notably, a celeriac gelato with lime gelee that tasted exactly as you’d expect and want. And a buttermilk sorbet with Meyer lemon marmalade.

For the meat courses, there was a chicken dish that we watched all night as the whole bird – head and feet included – spun around in the oven for an hour, then was grilled on a yakitori grill – meat and skin separately and served on polenta. Obviously, the skin was the best part. And then another Wagyu dish for the ages. Aged New York strip cooked rare and sliced, served with radish, and a sauce enriched with melted beef fat.

Finally dessert was the real surprise of the night. Following a cheese course of runny La Tur atop a lemon jelly, there were just a couple of similarly presented dishes but they might have been two of the strongest dishes of the night. The first is a contender for my all-time favorite dessert and absolutely one of my favorite dishes of the night. An orange sorbet sat atop a rye “foam” that reminded me of a zabaglione with crunchy rye berries sprinkled on top and a surprise dollop of caramel along the bottom. Totally amazing and wholly new. This was followed by an almost equally strong dish of apple ice with a thick sunchoke puree, dehydrated sunchoke chips, and some sort of sunchoke dust. Both desserts were complex, not single-note sweet, and completely unlike anything you’ve ever had before.

So I enter a new chapter of my life noted arbitrarily by the calendar, I am thoroughly nourished and possibly changed forever by this meal, now more than 24 hours and a so-so night’s sleep in the past, that still has my head spinning trying to figure it all out.

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Turkey & Shrimp Gumbo

Sick of turkey yet? Chances are good you’ve gotten through all of your thanksgiving leftovers by now, but if you were smart, you saved that carcass. And there’s still plenty of goodness to mine from that pile of bones.

I made gumbo sometime over the summer, so already had a bunch of foundational items leftover in the freezer. But I’d say some of these are optional, but also mostly easily procured at your grocery. When summer was still on and okra prices were as a low as a dollar a pound, I blanched and froze a couple of quarts of them to eventually end up in a gumbo sometime over the winter. After stockpiling shrimp shells for the better part of a year last year, I also had an ample supply of shrimp stock made from boiling the shells from about 2 pounds of shrimp for more than half and hour. And I still had one lonely andouille link leftover from the first go-round. I even had some leftover pickled shrimp from thanksgiving that ended up in the pot.

But back to that turkey carcass. And a bag full of vegetable scraps – mostly celery, onion, parsnips, and parsley, again leftover from the many thanksgiving sides we prepared. Besides being the base for a ton of stock, you’ll also be surprised how much meat you’ll end up with when your stock is done. Brown the bones, skin, and other turkey scraps in your largest stock pot. Throw in your vegetable scraps and cover with water. I used close to 15 quarts of water that reduced by a couple of quarts by the end. Simmer – somewhere between 180 and 200 degrees – for a long time. I went about 5 hours because I still had dinner to make, but you could go for much longer. Strain it with a fine mesh strainer and strip the bones of all its meat. I ended up with nearly 2 pounds.

But, now onto the gumbo. First off, get a roux going. Equal parts fat and flour that cooks for a while and takes on glorious colors and flavors. I used about 4 tablespoons each of bacon grease and flour and cooked this very slowly for about half an hour, stirring very often. But you could and should go much longer and darker than I did. Then add your stocks and any additional spices (i.e. Old Bay, file gumbo, pimenton, cayenne) and boil for a while till it thickens, at least another 30 minutes. Make sure to whisk in all of that roux. Once it’s thickened up, start adding all of your remaining ingredients – shredded turkey, shrimp, andouille, okra, and anything else you got laying around that might be good in that pot. 5-10 minutes later when your shrimp is cooked and everything is heated through, the gumbo is ready.

Turkey & Shrimp Gumbo

  • 4 tablespoons fat (turkey, butter, bacon grease, whatever you’ve got)
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 3 qt of stock (turkey, shrimp, chicken, veg, water, whatever you’ve got)
  • 1/2# andouille
  • 2# leftover turkey
  • 1# shrimp, cut into bitesize pieces if they’re big ones
  • 1# okra, cut into bitesize pieces
  1. Make a roux. Over low to medium low heat whisk the flour into your hot fat. Stirring often, cook for at least 30 minutes until the roux darkens. The darker the better, but don’t burn it.
  2. Turn the heat up to medium high and whisk in all of the stock and boil it till it thickens. At least 30 minutes.
  3. Once your stock is to the desired thickness, turn down the heat to a simmer and throw in the remaining ingredients to cook or heat through, another 5-10 minutes.

Ricotta and Bacon-filled Kale Ravioli

Another year, another triumph.

My beloved and I have developed a bit of a Valentine’s Day tradition. Either on the day, but typically a weekend day shortly before, we forego the usual formalities of a hard-to-get dinner reservation (which are also often crowded and disappointing) and plan and prepare our own elaborate meal. And there is one course that appears every year – ravioli. With a few years under our belts, experience and creativity are on our sides, so the ravioli course while a constant, is also constantly changing from year to year.

ready for their bath

ready for their bath

Accompanying this year’s ravioli were a first course of La Tur – a soft, buttery mixed-milk cheese – with homemade quince paste and crusty no-knead bread. Next was a mussel and winter root vegetable soup enriched with bacon fat. Dessert was fudgy, from scratch brownies with raspberry frozen custard from our our neighborhood scoop-shop, the Dairy Godmother.

But, ok, the real reason we’re here is to talk about ravioli. For the last several years, we’ve been using various round, square, and of-course, heart-shaped cookie cutters to form our ravioli. And the results, while really good and satisfying, have been, well, maybe a little amateurish, admittedly. So, in an attempt to up the ante, we splurged for a ravioli maker to add a little legitimacy to this operation.

ravioli all in a row

ravioli all in a row

In the weeks leading up to the dinner, ideas are thrown out regarding what we’ll do this year. I wanted to try a flavored pasta, so I proposed using kale as a base. Then, as we contemplated a sauce, we naturally tended toward something smokey and porky. And then, as if it were staring us right in the face, we thought, “what if we put bacon on the inside of the ravs?” And so it was decided. And this was no ordinary bacon. This was Benton’s bacon, one of the best bacons around from Tennessee  that we smuggled back from a recent trip to New York City. Seriously, this stuff is just about the pinnacle of all bacon, but that’s another story.

The operation was pretty simple and along with our new fangled ravioli press, we also employed a food processor for the first time in our dough making. It all just came together relatively quickly. The only laborious part being the rolling of the dough. The end result was by far our finest performance. Not just uniformly shaped and filled, but the filling was simple, but fluffy and exquisitely bacon-y.

we couldn't forget a couple of heart-shaped ones

we couldn't forget a couple of heart-shaped ones

After they were filled and boiled, we sauced them with some rich tomato sauce that was leftover from the summer that reduced on the stove slowly for several hours.

ravioli and tomato sauce

ravioli and tomato sauce

Ricotta and Bacon-filled Kale ravioli

makes about 36 ravioli, about 4-6 servings

the dough

  • 2-3 c. uncooked kale
  • 9 oz. AP flour (more as needed, also keep more on hand for dusting)
  • 3 eggs
  1. Remove and discard the stems of the kale, and cook the leaves in a about 1/4 c. of water in a covered pot until they’re tender – about 20-30 minutes.
  2. Squeeze all of the liquid from the kale and let it cool. You’ll end up with about a cup.
  3. In a food processor, chop the kale and add the eggs and give it a spin for about 20 seconds.
  4. Add most of the flour and process. The dough should start to come together after a minute or so. Continue to add more flour until the dough comes together in a ball but is still the slightest bit sticky.
  5. When the dough is formed, dump it out and pat it into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and let it rest for at least an hour.

the filling

  • 16 oz. ricotta
  • 1 egg
  • 3-5 strips of cooked bacon, crumbled
  1. Put the ricotta and bacon in a bowl.
  2. Beat the egg separately and then add to ricotta.
  3. Mix to combine, then whip vigorously with your spoon for about 30 seconds till the filling fluffs a little bit.

the ravioli

  1. Cut your dough into 6 equal portions and roll out sheets in a pasta machine. They should be as thin as you can get them without tearing. Set each aside in a floured towel.
  2. Fill your ravioli. If going free-form, lay out one sheet of pasta and spoon about a teaspoon of filling equally spaced on your sheet and then lay another pasta sheet over, pressing out the air around the filling and cut out ravioli with a knife or cookie cutters, pressing on the edges of each ravioli to be sure they’re sealed. If using ravioli maker, just follow the instructions provided (like we did.)
  3. Flour the ravioli and return to the floured towels.
  4. Repeat 2. and 3. till you’ve used all of your pasta sheets and filling. You can roll out any scraps of pasta you accumulate along the way to extend your production.
  5. Cook as many ravioli as you plan on serving in gently boiling salted water for about 5 minutes till the pasta is cooked through.
  6. Freeze any leftover, uncooked ravioli.