Uncategorized

257 274 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

A Virtual Dinner Party: Lamb Ragù

About a quarter of a century ago, I went to Sardegna…the one and only time I’ve visited this island in the Mediterranean, but one that I swore I wanted to go back to…and I will.

One summer, a few years after we both graduated, my best friend from college, a Roman girl told me she had rented a small cottage on the West Coast of Sardegna.

“It’s the un-chic side of Sardegna,” she said. “Not the Costa Smeralda…” which is an obligatory pit-stop for the jet set and their magnificent yachts as they cruise the Mediterranean in the summer.

“Why don’t you come visit?” she suggested. “You’ll have to fly into Caligari and take a taxi.”

Why not? I thought and booked myself on a flight to Rome and onwards.

As the taxi trundled north to the address that was not much more than the name of a farm and a general area rather than a ‘street address,’ I was amazed at the scenery. It wasn’t anything like what I’d imagined. It was wild.

Along the coasts, gigantic cliffs plunged into a sea so blue that it redefined ‘turquoise,’ and inland, when the road took us there, the hills were craggy and rugged and the valleys green and rich with local vegetation, the air redolent of the scent of herbs that was reminiscent of the Languedoc region of Southern France.

Shepherds snoozed under the heavy foliage of trees as their flocks foraged for fresh, sweet grass, whilst a strong wind swept through, cooling the effects of the hot summer sun. As we got closer to the house, a flock of flamingos rose up into the sky in a perfectly choreographed formation that took my breath away.

I honestly can’t remember exactly where the cottage was, but it was charming and the view and place made up in spades for what it didn’t have in the more modern comforts of life.

Besides the scenery, what has stayed with me from that trip were some of the meals we had: one a pasta dish made by the farmer’s wife when I arrived, mallerodus, a local pasta, in a simple sauce and lots of pecorino cheese; two, the lunch on the boat that we took to see the coast, was another simple pasta in a red sauce, made by one of the crew. Why is it that pasta in Italy just tastes better?

But the third meal was at an agriturismo, an Italian table d’hote, the dinner table of a local farmer.

At this agriturismo, the table was outside under the star-filled, inky sky of a summer night. I remember it was hot and humid and the air was quite still. Candles lit the area and the smell of wax mingled with the scent of wildflowers.

The table was laden with platters of antipasti and cheese and hot, homemade bread. There were pitchers of cold water and bottles of a homemade rose wine. The pièce de résistance was the incredibly beautiful sucking pig that everyone thought was the star of the show.

But for me, it was the pasta, the primo piatto that came before the pig that I have never been able to forget, the layered flavours of the lamb ragù creating an indelible memory of a dish that I recreated years after the trip, re-building it step by step from the flavours I remembered and the few pointers given to me by the farmer’s wife.

Three years ago, I was in East Hampton for some much-needed time off and my very close friend, K, came to visit. And as we sat drinking a Sicilian rosé by the pool enjoying the August sun, talking about places we’d visited and hoped to go back to, Sardegna was one that came to my mind and I told her about that meal at the agriturismo.

Inspired, I conjured up the dish, feeling a little bit like a witch stirring her cauldron, relying on my palate and olfactory memories from so many years ago. We had it that night, sitting outside, the table lit by candles, a couple of bottles of wine to keep us going and crickets chirping in the bushes. And…I have to say, it was pretty darned good and came very close to being exactly what I had eaten twenty-five years prior.

Last week, following the success of our first FaceTime virtual dinner party, my friends, K and L, suggested we do the lamb ragù next. Problem was that I had never written down the receipe in East Hampton, but, unbeknownst to me, K had taken notes as I cooked. So, we decided to go for it…K, L and I cooked on FaceTime, took a break to take our respective dogs out as the ragù simmered in three kitchens across Manhattan, and came back to it, served it and sat down and ate it…alone, yet together.

Wine was copiously consumed, L decided on a Marsanne from Yves Cuilleron, K a greco di tufo from Campania and I had a monica from Sardegna.

We ate too much and we drank too much and talked far too much, but this time, we didn’t have to get in cabs to go home. We were home.

Not yet sure what we will do next week, but there was some talk of Mongolian steak…

Stay tuned!

 

Meantime, the ragù receipe is below.

Ingredients:

Olive oil

4 cinnamon sticks
10 cloves
10 whole black pepper

2 bay leaves

8 cloves garlic minced
2 red onions chopped
4 pepperoncini or 3 fresh serrano chilies chopped or 4 dried
2 pounds minced lamb
2 of each sweet and hot sausage, without the casing

Salt

4 fresh tomatoes

Pinch of sugar

3 – 4 sweet potatoes, cut in chunks

A palmful of finely chopped parsley

1 box of a short pasta, rigatoni, fusilli, cavatappi or celentani
Pecorino cheese to taste

 

Method:
Heat a good glug of olive oil, enough to coat the bottom of a pot
Add whole spices to perfume the oil
Add garlic

Add red onion and chili
Add a pinch of salt to make the onion sweat
Once onion is soft, add meats and brown

Salt to taste
Peel the tomatoes, puree, and add to mixture
Add a teaspoon of sugar
Cover and cook on low fire, about an hour.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees
Toss chunks of sweet potato in olive oil and salt and roast, about 25 to 30 minutes until soft.
About 5 minutes before ragù is ready, add roasted sweet potato to the pot.
Top with parsley.

Boil pasta in salted water until al dente.

Drain and return to the pot and add the ragù to the pasta and allow it to mix.

Top with pecorino cheese and serve.

450 675 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

A Virtual Dinner Party: Harissa Chicken

One of the things I love to do is entertain at home.

Cooking for friends, picking the wine, setting the table, choosing the flowers, candles music…it’s all part of what I love to do. And if I’m going to cook for someone, they’d better eat! In fact, in my book of hospitality, the empty plate of a guest is a crime of etiquette.

Before I got back into the world of restaurants and had no time for my friends, I would have dinner parties at least once month, informal gatherings of friends or large Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas get-togethers that involved creating more complex menus, cooking over two days and the best part, choosing the right wines and opening a bottle as soon as I put on my apron! You can’t cook without a glass of wine!

Now, in this time of social distancing, I have, ironically, reconnected with these friends and we get together every couple of days at 6pm, via FaceTime for a drink. A few days ago, one of them reminded me about the dinners I would have for monthly column I used to write. It was a column about wine-pairing, written for people who wanted to enjoy wine without breaking the bank.

My editor would send me a receipe and it was my job to make it and pair the dish with a red, white, rose or sparkling wine, with the caveat that the bottle was under $25.

So every month, I’d invite half a dozen friends and we would all gather in my kitchen for a glass of champagne, the opening aperitif, that was my welcome drink of choice. I would cook, and we would all catch up, nibbling on hors d’oeuvres and enjoying one another’s company.

When the dish in question was ready, we would sit at the dining table and I would present the wines and everyone would taste and sip and I would take notes until I had enough. After that, the diner party would take on a positively raucous edge and indubitably, much more wine was opened than the requisite ones that were to be part of the article.

So I got to thinking…why couldn’t we do the same? Virtually? The suggestion was met with definitive enthusiasm and  we agreed to Friday night to cook via FaceTime.

The opening recipe was Harissa Chicken. A simple roasted chicken with the added kick of one of my favourite North African spice paste.

Just as I was in the kitchen washing vegetables, K and L both texted me at the same time. “What are we drinking?”

Ah! The most important part of cooking is what you have in your glass, that liquid that makes the world look slightly better in the midst of all this instability. Since K and L only drink white wine, I suggested a pinot blanc or a pinot gris, something with a little more fruit that would stand up to the spice in the harissa.

And for myself, I pulled out a bottle of Cour-Cheverney, a little-known appellation in the Loire where the local varietal is the rare Romorantin, an old Burgundian varietal now only grown in Cheverney. On the nose it’s all pear and apple and white flowers and on the palate, it’s delicate, elegant and a touch honeyed, which would be perfect with the chicken.

My harissa chicken receipe is incredibly easy to make: everything goes in one dish. Essentially, the chicken is rubbed with the harissa and salt and laid on a bed of a sort of mirepoix of peppers and onions, themselves seasoned with olive oil and salt. And into the oven it goes for about an hour and a bit.

As everyone’s chicken cooked (on FaceTime), we had a drink together and chatted. When everything was ready, we all sat down at our respective tables. I had my chicken with pita bread, yoghurt with cucumber and an extra squidge of lemon; K had hers with naan and tzatziki sauce and L had hers with coucous.

It was delicious and it was a great evening, even though we couldn’t all be in the same room. So much so that next Friday, we’re doing the same, this time, the receipe that is being clamoured for is a lamb ragù that I learned from a farmer’s wife in Sardinia about 30 years ago whilst on holiday there with a college friend.

The receipe for the Harissa Chicken is below:

Makes 4 servings:

Ingredients:

1 red pepper

1 yellow pepper

1 green pepper

1 red onion

One chicken (if you do a whole chicken, cut through the backbone, so you can lay it flat) or pieces of a chicken, breasts, thighs, drumsticks on the bone

Olive oil

2 tablespoons honey

Salt and pepper

Harissa (can be store bought or see my receipe)

Fresh lemon wedges

Method:

Chop all the vegetables, season well with salt and pepper and toss in lots of good olive oil and a tablespoon of the Harissa.

Place in a baking dish.

Season chicken with salt and pepper and take a good dollop of the harissa, at least 2-3 tablespoons and rub the chicken all over before placing it on the vegetables. Drizzle honey over the chicken.

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.

Place the dish in the oven and let the meat sear…about 15-20 minutes, depending on the oven.

Once a crust has formed, lower the oven to 350 degrees and cook the chicken for about 55 minutes.

Take out of the oven and let rest.

Serve with naan bread, pita bread or couscous.

Squeeze the juice of the fresh lemon on the chicken and dig in.

Harissa:

Ingredients:

(about 2 cups)

8 fresh red serrano chilies

8 dried red chilies (can be chile de arbol, chipotle, ancho guajillo)

2 red peppers

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

4 cloves

4 whole black pepper

6 garlic cloves

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

Juice of half a lemon

Salt to taste

Olive oil

Fresh mint

Method:

Rehydrate the dried chilies in hot water, about 40 minutes.

Chop the heads off the fresh chilies and keep aside.

Chop the two red peppers and roast them in the oven at 450 degrees until the skin is charred and the peppers are soft. Peel off the charred skin and keep aside.

In a skillet, dry roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves and black pepper.

Grind the dried spices in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.

Drain the dried chilies and keep the water.

Combine all chilies, roasted peppers, spices, garlic, lemon and salt in a blender or food processor.

Once coarse, slowly add the olive oil to create a paste. If still too dry, add some of the water from the rehydrated chilies.

Add a few sprigs of fresh mint.

Place in a jar and store in the fridge.

You will need to add a little olive oil each time you use the paste after refrigeration.

 

768 1024 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

The Great Chef, Floyd Cardoz

“I’m so sorry,” sad a tearful voice on the other end of the telephone early this morning.

“About what?” I asked, groggy, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.

“Chef Floyd…” came the response.

“Oh no,” I sagged back down against the pillows. “It’s not possible…”

I knew he’d been ill…but it couldn’t be. Not Chef Floyd.

My thoughts immediately turned to his beautiful wife, Barkha, and his two sons. I knew Justin better than I knew Peter mainly Justin had been part of the opening team at Paowalla, his gorgeous big bright smile, welcoming in the droves that summer of 2016.

I, too, was part of that opening team.

I had been introduced to the great chef, of whom I already knew so much, by the opening GM. I was shaking when I met Chef Floyd, his reputation as a star in the firmament of New York’s culinary scene being so stellar. But Chef Floyd was not in the least intimidating. He was kind and gentle and had the biggest heart.

He hired me as a server and I promised myself to be the best he had. I knew about Indian food and spices and how the addition of even a pinch of something would change the flavour of a dish and how spices would affect the taste of a wine, when paired with it, often leading to pairing wines that were unexpected.

I loved the job and I loved learning even more about food and wine as the months went by and I absolutely adored Chef Floyd and his wife, Barkha, who together created a real family, looking after all of us as they did their own sons.

But the time came for me to leave when I decided to dedicate myself full-time to writing. But I never lost touch with Chef or Barkha and they often, over the past four years, kept asking me to come back in some way, shape or form. I tried, a couple of times, but somehow or the other, the timing was never quite right.

The last time I saw Chef Floyd was when he held a cooking class at Paowalla: he made clams in green coconut curry and a classic Hyderabadi biryani and my greatest honour was to have been there to help.

He was brilliant: a born teacher with his patience, his smile and his self-deprecating humility that was so very endearing.

I am beyond sad that he is no longer. But I know that he will live on in my memory as someone who helped me when I needed it most and taught me so much about food, wine and hospitality. But more than that, he was just a beautiful soul and great man. Thank you, Chef for everything.

 

768 1024 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

A ‘Golly’ Moment

Yes, it is a bit of a ‘golly’ moment in New York isn’t it?

Uncertainty is awful. But, it is a necessary step towards reinvention, which is what I’ve been doing for the past year and a half.

On average, over the past 30 years, I must have reinvented myself a good half a dozen times…an average of once every five years or so. But why?

I suppose I could say that I’ve been acquiring new skills, honing in on existing talents…but that would really be a load of bull feathers.

Honestly, I never intended on reinventing myself. I would much prefer a quiet life in the Cotswolds or the Lubéron. But reinvention seems to be my lot in life.

To be truly frank, I’ve never really had a plan or a career path. 

Opportunities are presented to everyone, every day: it’s part of life. Some recognize them and take them, others watch them go by.

All I’ve done is see them, seize them and taken them as far as they would let me.

I can’t tell you how many times people have been awestruck by the fact that I speak 6 languages, have traveled the world, worked for a rock ‘n’ roll band, been a journalist at a top news network, opened a luxury clothing storage business that is now a staple of Park Avenue matrons and celebrities, danced across Europe as a professional flamenco dancer, wrote and published five books and now a wine director at what was one of the hottest restaurants to open in New York City this year. 

Even as I write it all, I think I’ve just impressed myself! But seriously, all of this was simply because of an idea, an opportunity, and in a couple of cases having the luck of the stars being perfectly aligned in my favour.

Now, as I sit here in my apartment, I wonder what’s next? My most recent avatar was in that wonderful world of wine.

I do not honestly believe the restaurant industry in New York will come roaring back, or actually, perhaps it will, but it will have a different character, a different personality. I don’t know that I will readily see someone spend $9000 + on a bottle of 1990 Petrus as I did a merely couple of Saturdays ago.

Friends of mine in Spain are terrified: one of my best friends, one of the top sommeliers in Madrid, had to take her mother for her chemotherapy today. She had no mask and no gloves and she described the feeling in Madrid as apocalyptic, where the secret enemy lurks on every corner, waiting to engulf you.

Today, when I walked out towards the Park with Baxter, it was too pretty a day to be scared or panicked. Yet, I know the end of the month is coming and that brings with it the spectre of bills. What will I pay with? There’s no money. 

Perhaps we ought to look at what is happening as a reinvention? What comes out the other side, we don’t really know so there’s no sense driving oneself nuts speculating. Let’s just keep our eyes open for the next opportunity.

I thought this morning about what I feel when I’m in my tunnel of reinvention, I don’t struggle, I don’t strain, I allow myself to be. There are an awful lot of disappointments along the way, and yes, of course, I am human and I do worry and I chafe and I rant and rail, but one soon comes to the conclusion that it is futile. What will be will be.

And whilst we may not get what we want on the other end, we will most certainly get what we need.

That…is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind in this time of uncertainty. 

And take this time to reconnect with friends, whether by text, email, facetime, however you want, but reconnect. There are a couple of girlfriends of mine I had not seen in months, mainly because I’d been working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week on this new restaurant opening. And now, for the past week, we get together on Facetime every day for a drink at 6 o’clock and catch up. Another friend, I hadn’t spoken to in a good two years, I reached out to her and when she said, “It is so good to hear your voice,” I almost cried.

Living in New York, working in jobs that rob us of what our lives should be filled with: friends, family, laughter, companionship and support…that for me is something I will change after this is all over. I want to make more time for the people who add something to my life, I want to work to live, not live to work. 

And years from now, when I sit in front of the fire with nothing but my memories, I want to know in my heart that I was a good, loyal friend, not a fair-weather one.

 

768 1024 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

To Be Or Not To Be … A Wine Sommelier

I read somewhere recently that one should be proud of one’s choices…and not necessarily one’s talents.

Hmmm…?

Because choices involve working hard, and the achievements that follow are worth every drop of blood, sweat and tears you put into it.

Let’s just say for a moment you are lucky enough to have a gift, if you work hard, that gift will pay off. Left to its own devices, the gift will wither.

Passion is a gift. To have passion for something is exhilarating, exciting, and so fulfilling.

I didn’t find my passion until I was in my late 30s. Actually, I have two: writing and wine.

Now…the writing is a solitary existence…but wine…that’s a different story…

At Somm Time, I am so often reminded how much I love working with people who are as passionate about wine as I am…but honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with more passion for or knowledge of wine that my colleague Ciprian Toma. His knowledge is encyclopedic: every time I suggest a little-known wine from a tiny winery tucked away behind the fields somewhere in deepest, darkest Andalucia, he’ll say, “Oh I know that wine…”

What?

Or some obscure Cabernet from Georgia that he had me taste, matured in clay kvevris…or…well the list goes on and on.

I feel so privileged to work with someone like Cip because I learn something every single time. His way of talking about wine opens my mind and my palate beyond my personal likes and he does that with all the guests who come through the door. “Spend a little time with the wine,” he’ll say to someone who may be on the fence about a brand new orange wine…or an all-natural trousseau from the Jura in Eastern France. “You will love it, I promise.”

And when Cip likes a wine…it is a rather grand performance, worthy of a Shakespearian play. He walks around, gesturing, gesticulating, shaking his head, pacing the room, looking up at the sky, throwing his arms in the air…and no words…at least not until the second sip.

Clearly, he is not the stiff, pompous sommelier who takes himself overly seriously, of which there are so many running around New York City. One I recently met reminded me of Lurch Addams. It is wine after all…not brain surgery. And wine is meant to be a celebration, so go ahead…enjoy it…the Cip way!

Originally from Transylvania in central Romania, he started life as a political journalist, followed by public relations, finally finding his way to New York City, where he started tasting wines, mostly Italian and discovered he had a “thing” for wine…certainly a nose, a palate and a passion that led to a sommellerie diploma.

I feel a certain camaraderie with Cip, and even though I don’t know him very well, I know enough to realize that he is a serious fellow with a keen sense of humor and we have alot in common respective to the roads we have traveled, switching around before we got to where we were meant to be.

Nonetheless, I have huge respect and admiration for someone who has realized what he loves and goes for it, full throttle.

Once you figure out what you love, it really lights up your life and it will make it easier to succeed.

And one last thing…Cip really loves the desert!

401 600 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

Of Avatars Past

New York…my city, my home, my sanctuary. It’s where I’ve lived since 1982. 36 years, the better part of my life.

One of the reasons I love it is because here, I can be who I want to be. It is here that I have reinvented myself time and time again: going from journalist to flamenco dancer to wine sommelier and now, a writer.

The transition from one avatar to the other was seamless, the various worlds not really intruding on one another: friends and acquaintances changed, vistas changed and just like the city, I moved on. Until this week…:

Within the span of a few days, I bumped into two people I knew and worked with at CBS News.

“Kim…the couple at Table 42 wants to talk to the sommelier,” someone said to me as I walked into the dining room.

I nodded and headed over. As I approached the table, I looked at the couple. Sitting on the banquette, he looked very familiar. Just before I approached, I looked in the computer to see who it was. ‘Bill Whitaker.’ Good Lord, I thought. Bill Whitaker used to be a correspondent for the CBS Evening News based in Los Angeles during my tenure there and now a correspondent for CBS News’s 60 Minutes.

As we discussed the merits of a Chassagne Montrachet over a Puligny Montrachet and which would be better with a whole grilled branzino, I wondered if I ought to tell him who I was.

“We’ll try the Puligny,” his wife acquiesced to my suggestion. At which point, I introduced myself.

“Mr. Whitaker, if you would permit me a personal comment,” I started, and told him who I was.

At first, he looked shocked. But then suddenly, he bounced out of his chair and gave me a huge hug. “Well!” he said. “I can’t believe it! Kim Akhtar!”

We talked for a few and caught up quickly as I asked him for a few headlines on people we both knew.

Later that night, I dropped my iphone and cracked the screen. The following day, standing in line at the Apple Store, a woman looked at me, cocked her head and mouthed, “Kim?”

I nodded eagerly.

“Pat Shevlin!” I squealed and ran over to give her a huge hug. “What a wonderful surprise.”

“How are you?” she asked.

“I’m fine…what about you?”

“I’ve retired,” she said to me.

We talked for several minutes promising to have a reunion of sorts over the summer.

I walked out of the store and as I walked up Park Avenue, I got to wondering: I hadn’t seen Pat or Bill in over a decade and then suddenly I see them both within a week…and it really was wonderful to see them. Apart from all three of us looking older, in the short time we had together, we picked up from where we left off and brought our acquaintance into the present. And it was lovely to see them.

And that is what is amazing about New York…you just never know what’s around the corner…it could be a sliver of your past or a glimpse of your future.