Food Talk: Scandinavian Style at Aska

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If most of your Scandinavian food knowledge comes from IKEA’s cafés (meatballs and lingonberry sauce, anyone?), you’re missing out on a sea change. More Scandinavian-inspired restaurants are gracing our shores every day, and as it turns out, there are a lot of healthy secrets in Nordic cuisine: Get ready to try sea buckthorn, smoked fish and…lichens. We talked to Chef Fredrik Berselius of Clean Plates-approved Aska about the New Nordic fare coming to America, and his locavore-friendly version.

Q. What’s the basic philosophy of Scandinavian cooking, to you?

A. Scandinavian cooking is based on simple, wholesome ingredients. Grains, root vegetables, tubers, onions, wild berries and mushrooms. Long winters and mild summers made preservation of food, like drying, smoking and fermenting important for us and [it's] something we still do on a regular basis.

Q. What did you have for breakfast today?

A. Organic oatmeal, muscovado sugar, roasted apple and full-fat local milk. Also, Swedish pastries we make at the restaurant, and dark roasted coffee.

Q. One dish that stuck out to us at Aska is the earthy “fallen leaves” broth. What’s the story behind this rich vegetarian broth?

A. The whole kitchen staff was out picking mushrooms, lichens, and different leaves to use in our cooking. We found very aromatic leaves and brought them back to the restaurant. The first broth we made reminded us of the smells of the forest in a very comforting way. We kept working on it, and started serving it with lichens, wild carrots and other root vegetables.

Q. Though the food may seem foreign, you’re working with many local suppliers. Who’s one that you’re particularly excited to work with?

A. I get most of my seafood from Gabe Stommel of “Gabe the Fishbabe” in Point Judith. She will call me when the boat arrives at the dock and let me know the catch of that day.

Q. Is there a favorite food from your youth that you’ve brought to Aska?

A. Many things, but I am particularly happy to be getting fresh herring right now. I grew up fishing for herring as a kid, and it is definitely bringing back memories for many of us here, both in the kitchen and front of house. We all get excited as the seasons change, and we’re looking forward to warmer weather and seeing more wild greens.

Q. What do you find most inspirational about the food industry right now?

A. The appreciation of vegetables and forgotten ingredients. I really love eating food that does not have animals in it. And I like to look to how people used to cook before there were all kinds of crazy technology and cooking devices.

Aska
Open seven nights a week; Sun-Thurs prix fixe available, $65 (plus $35 for pairings)
90 Wythe Avenue (@ North 11th St.), Brooklyn, NY
718 388-2969

Image courtesy of goodiesfirst

Upper Crust: Alternative Pizzas

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Any true “New Yawker” knows that a good slice is all in the crust. But you seldom hear about the after effects. If they were being truthful, pizza connoisseurs might sound more like this:

“Brah, now that’s a slice.”
“Yeah man, feels like a brick between my throat and lungs.”

For a side of better digestion with that pie, get on the Khorasan (aka Kamut) and spelt bus. Both ancient grains are lower in gluten and higher in protein than traditional wheat, which may be why fans say they not only taste great but go down better. According to The Clean Plates Cookbook, people with gluten sensitivities in particular may respond best to spelt because it contains a different strain of gluten than that in wheat.

Felipe Avalos, Owner

We followed the trend to Brooklyn’s Monk Bar & Pizzeria, which offers exclusively organic flour, semolina, khorasan and spelt crusts. Owner Felipe Avalos (pictured) filled us in:

Q. Why did you choose to offer Khorasan and spelt crusts?

A. When I eat “regular” pizza, I feel this kind of uneasiness, indigestion and acid reflux. Pizza is my favorite food, and a friend of mine in Italy’s food industry was talking to me about Khorasan pizza. I started bringing in flour from Italy, and some original Kamut from Montana. The results have been fantastic.

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The dough is fermented for several days to create the perfect taste and elasticity. Fermentation reduces phytic acid, which may also increase digestibility.

Q. Any plans to offer gluten-free options?

A. If you want to do it the right way, you really need to have a separate facility. What I’m trying to do is offer the best option. Kamut (Khorasan) is called ‘the wheat you can eat,’ because it’s so virgin, if you will. [Historically,] it hadn’t been harvested or cultivated in so long, and hadn’t been modified in any way shape or form.

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Kamut and spelt breads post-fermentation. “After we bake our bread you can keep it in your home for four or five days and it’s still soft. It doesn’t get hard and stale like most store-bought breads, because of the whole fermentation process.” – Felipe Avalos

Q. Do you have a secret formula for your crusts?
A. It depends on the flours we are using. The combination of how much water, oil, sugar, and salt we put into it, how long we knead it, how long we think it needs to ferment—all depends on the flour. But even the flour that will come from one same manufacturer will be totally different from shipment to shipment.

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Giuseppe Cangialosi, Executive Chef

Q. So how do you know when it’s ready for the oven?
A. We smell it, feel it, taste it, and at the end of the day the proof is when it comes out of the oven…but we’ll already know when it’s in the mixer.

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(Author’s note: After eating an entire Monk personal pizza, I walked a brisk half mile with zero indigestion, and a new favorite NYC slice.)

Monk Bar & Pizzeria
291 Kent Ave. (@ S. 2nd St.), Brooklyn, NY

718 782-8810

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Images by Laura Mordas-Schenkein

A Rooftop Chat with Chef Jacques Gautier of Palo Santo

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Moments after arriving at the Brooklyn townhouse that is home to Clean Plates-approved Palo Santo, I was staring at a steep ladder: Chef Jacques Gautier was leading me to his rooftop garden.

We passed rabbits he breeds, stepped over aromatic herbs and one shaky step at a time climbed to reach the sunny rooftop. As Chef Gautier weeded the chives and pointed out where he composts organic waste, we chatted about the brilliance of tortillas made to order, volunteering with NYC schools and how the body craves what it needs. Continue reading

Bright Farms: Bringing Fresh Produce to Brooklyn

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Is Brooklyn becoming the new epicenter of the local food movement? It’s possible: Bright Farms’ CEO Paul Lightfoot, a host of politicians, Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz and chef Mario Batali (both clad in Crocs) gathered recently to announce a new project: The world’s largest rooftop greenhouse. Continue reading

On Our Radar: Arthur on Smith

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“I like to joke that if you’d put my father in the kitchen with Thomas Keller, you would have gotten the food at Arthur on Smith,” says Chef Joe Isidori of his new Carroll Gardens restaurant, which opened at the end of March.

Isidori’s late father is the Arthur of the Smith Street restaurant, and one third of its three generations of chefs. The last third is Isidori’s grandmother, who taught him how to make pasta. Though inspired by his nonna’s kitchen, Isidori eschews the ‘from grandma-to-table’ label. “‘Grandma’s cooking’ makes most people think of just basic comfort food ­­– baked ziti or meatballs,” he explains. “She was a professional chef who made serious, well-executed food.” Continue reading

On Our Radar: Talking with Neal Harden of M.O.B.

From the walls down to its custom plates, Maimonide of Brooklyn (M.O.B.) feels inspired, well thought out and carefully executed. [Editor's note: In fact, it just received the Clean Plates seal of approval! Read the full review.] But would you expect anything less from Cyril Aouizerate, the philosophical Frenchman behind the über-hip hotel chain Mama Shelter? His vision of avant-garde vegetarian food for carnivores came to life when he partnered with so-over-Michelin chef Alain Senderens and executive chef Neal Harden, formerly of Pure Food & Wine. Harden stepped out of the kitchen to tell Clean Plates about the M.O.B. philosophy, the restaurant’s eponymous comic book and how brunch just got better for vegans. Continue reading

A Conversation with Francine Stephens of Franny’s

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The evening before I spoke with Francine Stephens about her upcoming cookbook and plans for a new restaurant, an interesting tidbit caught my eye. Frank Bruni, the former New York Times food critic, tweeted about Clean Plates-approved Franny’s : “‘Salad’ doesn’t cover the arugula and mustard greens at Bklyn’s Franny’s. So fresh. So perfect. Love this place.”

In addition to serving up delicious pizza in their Prospect Heights restaurant – read our review here – husband and wife co-owners, Francine Stephens and chef Andrew Feinberg, have a real commitment to sustainable practices. Check out this page on their website to learn how they created an environmentally responsible business.

Francine Stephens, chef Andrew Feinberg and their children

Francine Stephens, chef Andrew Feinberg and their children

The menu at Franny’s changes every day; if you were to sit down and dine tonight, what you order?
I would need to have the spicy salami and the arugula, mustard greens, and chicory salad – it’s so fresh and perfect right now. Then I’d probably have the spaghetti cacio e pepe (spaghetti with cheese and cracked black pepper), a classic.

It’s a major talking point that you don’t cut your pies. Any comments?
They don’t cut their pies in Naples; pizza there is always served whole. We took our cue from the originators. I don’t think it’s so complicated: Here’s a knife, here’s a fork, do your thing. I will say though that in the last month we got larger, flatter plates that make it easier than ever to cut your pie.

Why do you think Franny’s has remained so popular over the years?
Our menu is honest to who we are and customers appreciate that honesty. I think the most important thing is that the experience is consistent. Customers know what they’re going to get every time.

I’ve heard about a cookbook and a new restaurant. Can you share any details?
It’s a large cookbook with amazing photography. Food from the book will be exactly like the restaurant: The recipes were incredibly well-tested. It is going to contain the best of the last eight years and include all sections of the menu. As far as what’s next for the restaurant, Franny’s is moving to a different location and we will open a new restaurant in the original space, Marco’s, focused on what my husband is interested in cooking now.

If you had to name one underrated dish you wish people would order more, what would it be?
The extra virgin olive oil and sea salt pizza. It’s all about tasting the dough.

Images courtesy of Franny’s.

Take The Lid Off: Brooklyn Salsa

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Matt Burns has come a long way; what began with 8th grade salsa experiments has transformed into a booming, sustainable business: Brooklyn Salsa. He gave Clean Plates the inside scoop on the company’s “condimovement,” conscious methods and how to salsa power your suds. Seriously.

How did it all start? Was The Pure your first salsa?
In 8th grade I got a dishwashing gig at a small taqueria in my hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. My prep work was frying chips and blending fresh salsa. I had just gone vegan; salsa became an addiction and creative culinary outlet. There were no hard rules; a few tomatoes, a handful of cilantro, squeeze a lime, dash of salt, jalapeno, a little onion — boom! Salsa. Fast forward to 2008: my roommate had finished his MBA and was ready to launch something. I was making salsa and feeding the people. It happened. Continue reading

Interview with Locanda Vini e Olii Chef Michele Baldacci

Chef Michelle Baldacci photo by Catherine de Zagon

Michele Baldacci grew up in Florence as part of a family that made every meal fresh. As chef at Clean Plates approved Locanda Vini e Olii — an Italian restaurant in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn located in the former neighborhood pharmacy — Baldacci still creates every meal by using the best, seasonal ingredients available. Beyond this foundation of freshness, the chef aspires to expand diners’ horizons: “We aren’t serving safe food here,” he says. I recently sat down with Baldacci to chat about his vision for the restaurant, that famous duck dish, advice for home chefs and more.

How is Locanda Vini e Olii different from other Italian restaurants?

We want to expand the horizons of our diners. A restaurant that is part of the community can do that. We can serve one unusual or unexpected item, and once people trust us, they will continue to try new things. I don’t want to serve the obvious dishes, even though some of them I love to eat. We aren’t serving safe food here. I think it’s a great time to be serving food that can be somewhat unfamiliar — it’s getting easier to serve this kind of food. People are looking for things that are interesting and new, but still within a tradition they are familiar with.

Your duck entrée — grilled duck breast served with chickpeas and a shallot, fig marmaladehas gotten a lot of attention from the media. What’s the secret behind this dish? Continue reading