Thursday, April 29, 2010

Pea Risotto and Share Our Strength

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Earlier this week, I attended Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation – Princeton, a benefit to held eliminate childhood hunger. Since 1992, Taste of the Nation has granted more than $743,000 to needy people in the Princeton area.  This year’s event raised funds for Mercer Street Friends, Food Bank of South Jersey, HomeFront Inc. and Isles, Inc.

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Ticket holders got a chance to sample food and drink from a host of local restaurants, caterers, and markets. One of the dishes was a pea risotto which I recreated at home. The recipe is at the end of this post.

Here is a sampling of the evening’s offerings:

Assortment of goodies from McCaffrey’s supermarket in Princeton; chefs from New Brunswick’s Due Mari making pea risotto; Enoterra in Princeton presented sweet potato puree with Scottish Salmon ceviche


From Emily’s cafe in Pennington – a trio of crostini – broccoli rape pesto, rosemary and white bean with candied bacon, and smoked salmon; and polenta cake with bacon balsamic chutney and risotto cake


Entertainment too!

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From Griggstown Quail Farm in Griggstown; smoked pheasant with mesclun salad and hard-boiled pheasant eggs; a basketful of pheasant and quail eggs

There were plenty more offerings of food to choose from – too numerous to display here. But we had plenty to drink too.  Beer, wine and the hard stuff – lots more to choose from than the pictures show.

I saw a lot of familiar faces including Dorothy Mullen, who helps kids in the Princeton School System create their own thriving gardens on the school grounds.

A special thanks to Christo from ChezWhat? for giving me the opportunity to attend the event.

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Now for the pea risotto step by step:

Start by cooking peas in chicken broth for a couple of minutes – the same broth you will use to cook the risotto.

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Drain the peas and put half of them, along with some chicken broth into the blender and puree.

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Saute some minced shallots in butter and olive oil:

April 2010 627 Add the rice and stir until coated – a minute or two is all you need.

April 2010 629 Add the white wine:

April 2010 630 Add chicken broth, a little at a time, always stirring:

April 2010 631 After about 15 minutes, add the peas and continue to cook for about five more minutes, stirring, stirring:

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Add the pea puree (I also added pea shoots, which you can totally skip. They wilted immediately and disappeared into the risotto)

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Test the rice for doneness. It should be fully cooked, but not mushy. Turn off the heat, and mix in 1 T. butter and the parmesan cheese.

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Add another sprinkle of parmesan cheese and a bit of chopped chives and enjoy:

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Pea Risotto

Makes enough for six people

Printer Friendly recipe

2 cups frozen or fresh peas

hot chicken broth, homemade is best but canned is fine – about 4 or 5 cups

1 1/2 cups arborio rice

1/4 cup chopped shallots

3 T. olive oil

1 T. butter

1/2 cup dry white wine

dash of white pepper

1 cup parmesan cheese

1 T. butter


Cook the peas in the chicken broth for about two minutes. Remove and set aside one cup of the peas. With the other one cup, put them in a blender with about 3/4 cup broth and puree. Keep the rest of the broth warm on the range.

Heat the olive oil and 1 T. butter in a heavy pan and add the shallots. Sauté until limp, do not brown. Add the rice and swirl it around a couple of minutes. Add the white pepper and wine and stir, then add a ladle at a time of chicken broth, stirring all the while. Continue to cook about 15 minutes, adding more broth each time to keep the rice from getting dry. Add the peas and cook another five minutes. Add the pea puree and stir. If you like your risotto a bit soupy, stop here. If you cook it too much longer, it can overcook and get too mushy. Turn off the heat and add one T. butter and the parmesan cheese. Serve with chopped chives and more parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.


Monday, April 26, 2010

It’s Greek To Me

Greek cookies 2

Regular readers of this blog know I am part of a gathering of women who meet each week to chit-chat in Italian (Sometimes I think it’s just a ruse to indulge in lots of good food). Most of the women are native born speakers. Several of them come from other countries but also happen to be fluent in Italian. One of the newest members is Aspasia - a lovely and lively young woman from Greece (and Canada) who is married to an Italian. The melt-in-your-mouth cookies above – kourabiedes – were just one of the offerings Asapasia made for us last week.

She hosted the group at her house with Claudine, who is from Belgium and also married to an Italian. Claudine contributed a wonderful tarte tatin, which I unfortunately failed to photograph. In addition, she made a delicious goat cheese and pesto tart topped with slices of red onion, pictured below:


Among the various Greek dishes Aspasia made was this dish of spanakopita, rolled up rather than folded into the traditional triangles:


She also made tsoureki, a treat that’s typically made at Easter. Usually the egg or eggs that are nestled in the dough are colored red to signify the blood of Christ but you can leave them uncolored, as Aspasia did. The recipe calls for machlepi, made from ground cherry pits.IMG_0857A plateful of melomakarona also tempted us. These sweet treats  are flavored with cloves and sprinkled with syrup and nuts.

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Are you hungry yet? Or ready for a Greek feast? This was only a portion of last week’s bounty. I haven’t even shown you the Greek dips, the zucchini pancakes and lots of other goodies we ate. Oh yes, and ouzo too. There were at least twenty women present, but here are a few (including Aspasia and Claudine, second and third from left) raising their glasses in a toast. To your health! Stin iyia mas!


Can’t send you the ouzo or the food through the computer, but there’s something for you too – not one, but five recipes - for all the items pictured in the photos.

Aspasia told me that “These are recipes my mother made from memory  ... or she'd call a friend on the phone to remind her of the quantities.  I sat beside her and wrote them out by hand when I was in my teens and photocopied them.”

Now as a tribute to her mother and her Greek heritage, they are on the internet for so many to share.

One last thing – now you can connect with Ciao Chow Linda on Facebook. Stop by and check it out.

Kourabiedes (Greek Almond Shortbread Cookies)

Printer friendly recipe here

1 lb. butter (salted or unsalted)

2 egg yolks

¼ cup white sugar

2 tsp. baking powder

1 cup crushed or sliced almonds*

¼ cup warm water

2 tsp. vanilla or almond extract, ouzo or amaretto

4-6 cups flour

Cream butter with fork or hand.  Add two egg yolks and mix well with a mixer.  Add sugar, baking powder and mix well.  Add vanilla extract (or other), water and almonds.  Add flour and work with hand into a paste stiff enough to roll out.

Roll out ¼ inch thick on floured board and cut into moon-shaped crescents with the rim of a thin glass (or use cookie cutter shapes).  Place on ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 350-400 º F for approximately 20 minutes (until browned on underside).

Let cool and dust with icing sugar (use flour sifter or sieve).

These cookies are traditionally made at Orthodox Easter time.

* Remove skins from almonds before slicing by dipping them in boiling water and then popping the skins off.  Once sliced, you may brown the almonds in a pan with butter before adding them to dough.


Goat Cheese –Basil Tart

Printer friendly recipe here

2 medium size red onions, unpeeled, each cut into 12 wedges

3 T. olive oil

1 sheet frozen puff pastry (half of a 17 1/4 ounce package) thawed

1 large egg, beaten to blend

8 ounces soft goat cheese (such as Montrachet)

1/4 cup pesto (purchased or homemade)

1/4 c. whipping cream

3 T. chopped fresh basil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Oil heavy large baking sheet. Toss onion wedges with oil in medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Arrange onions in single layer on baking sheet. Bake until bottoms of onions are golden and onions are very tender, about 25 minutes. Transfer sheet to rack; cool (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and let stand at room temperature.)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roll out pastry on lightly floured surface to 14 x 11 inch rectangle. Trim edges to even. Cut 1/2 inch strip from each side of pastry, forming 13 x 11 inch rectangle; reserve strips. Transfer pastry rectangle to another heavy large baking. Brush edges with some of the beaten egg; reserve remaining egg. Place strips on edges of tart, creating border. Trim strips; press gently to adhere. Pierce bottom of pastry several times with fork. Bake until edges puff and pastry is golden brown, about 15 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to rack. Using metal spatula, loosen pastry from baking sheet. Cool completely on sheet. Reduce oven temp. to 350 degrees.

Stir cheese, pesto and 2 T. basil in medium bowl until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Mix in remaining beaten egg. Spread cheese mixture evenly over bottom of crust. Remove peel and stem end from roasted onions. Fan wedges, golden brown side up, over cheese mixture.

Bake tart until crust is brown and cheese sets, about 20 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to rack and cool tart to room temperature.

Sprinkle tart with remaining 1 T. basil. Cut into squares.


SPANAKOPITA (Greek Spinach and Cheese Pies)

printer friendly recipe here


1 cello package of fresh spinach (chopped)

3 green onions (chopped)

1 chunk of feta cheese (3x3 inches)

4 tbsp olive oil

2 eggs (beaten)

2 tbsp flour

salt and pepper

Steam spinach.  In a separate pot, heat oil and add onion and spinach.  Sauté for a few minutes.  Remove from heat.  Add crumbled feta cheese, eggs and flour.  Mix all together and salt and pepper to taste.

Phyllo Preparation

Lay out a package of fresh or frozen phyllo pastry (usually 8-10 sheets).  Cut the rectangle into 4 equal strips lengthwise.  Brush the top layer with a mixture of melted butter and olive oil.

Starting at one end, place a teaspoonful of filling and fold one sheet (strip) upwards making a triangular shape.  Continue to repeat this action with the remaining 3 strips.  Once one sheet is completed, butter the next sheet and continue until the sheets are used up.


Grease a baking sheet with some oil or Crisco.  Place the triangles on the sheet and brush the tops with either milk or butter and oil mixture (to brown).

Bake at 400 º  F for 10-15 min.



Greek Honey-Walnut Cookies

printer friendly recipe here


½  pound, (250 gr.) unsalted butter or shortening

2  cups of vegetable oil

½ cup white sugar  (if you like them sweet, add up to 1 cup sugar)

½ cup milk

½ cup orange juice

1 shot glass of liqueur  (cognac, amaretto)

2 tbsp. vanilla extract 

4 tsp. baking powder

1  tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. ground clove

grated rind of one orange

white flour (enough to make dough)

Cream butter and sugar together.  Mix in oil by hand or whisk.  Add dry ingredients except soda and flour to the oil mixture.  Add milk.  Add soda to the orange juice (let it foam) and then mix it with the rest of the mixture.  Add enough flour to make a manageable cookie dough (not too stiff).  Form into small ovals by rolling in the palms of your hands and place on ungreased cookie sheet.  Bake at 400° F (200° C ) until browned (approximately 20 min.).

Let cookies cool.  Prepare the honey syrup.  Place 3-4 cookies at a time in the pot and let them soak for a few seconds.  Remove them with a slotted spoon to drain excess syrup and place them on sheet. Immediately sprinkle them with the walnut topping.  Let cool again an EAT THEM!!


2 ½ cups water

3  cups white sugar

½ lemon (juice of)

1  tbsp. honey 


1 ½  cups finely chopped walnuts

1  tsp. white sugar

1  tsp. cinnamon

1  tsp. ground clove

Mix all ingredients in small pot and bring to boil.  Keep hot during whole cookie- dipping procedure.


Greek Egg Loaf (Tsoureki)

printer friendly recipe here

All the measurements here are correct. It makes 7 loaves! Aspasia said, “As a Greek woman..if you are going to put aside a day to make bread...MAKE IT LARGE!!!:

12  eggs

1 lb  butter, unsalted

1  cup vegetable oil

2  cups milk

2  cups hot water

2  cups sugar

2  tbsp ouzo

1  envelope ground machlepi

3  envelopes yeast (for pizza dough)

3-4  kilos white flour

sesame seeds/shaved almonds

In bowl #1 (small), place yeast with 1 cup hot water and 2 tbsp. of sugar.  Let rise for 20 minutes.

In bowl #2 (small), mix melted butter and 1 cup hot water and oil.

In bowl#3 (large), mix sugar, milk, eggs (beaten), ouzo and machlepi.

Add bowls #1 & #2 into bowl #3 and mix well.  Slowly add flour and mix with hands until dough is formed.  Knead until consistent.

Cover the bowl with a sheet of plastic and cover it with blankets to keep it warm.  Let rise for 2.5 hours.

Separate the dough into small balls and roll out into long cylinders.  Braid 3 of these into a loaf and place onto greased baking pan.  Cover and let the loaves rise in the pans for 1 hour.

With a pastry brush, brush the tops of the loaves with a mixture of egg, milk and sugar.  You can add sesame seeds or shaved almonds on top.  You may also add a red egg for decoration.

Bake in hot oven at  200 ° C for 10 minutes (to brown tops) and then 150 °C for 45 minutes.  If they become too browned, place some foil over the loaves.

When finished baking, remove from oven and  let cool before eating.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

It’s a Wrap

 April 2010 210Calm down. This dish of potato-wrapped halibut may look tricky, but it’s a lot easier than you think. But you’re going to need a mandoline – the kitchen kind – not the kind you use as musical accompaniment to “O Sole Mio.”  The key to this dish is cutting the potatoes thinly enough – and it’s nearly impossible to do that without a mandoline. Even with the mandoline, the first time I tried this, I didn’t have the setting thin enough and the potatoes refused to hug the fish the way they were meant to. The ornery little slices were too thick and had minds of their own, and I ended up sticking toothpicks in them just to get them to stay put.

The second trick to this dish is to NOT soak the potato slices in water. You might be tempted to, thinking they won’t discolor that way. But what happens is that they’ll start to release some of their starch in the water – starch that they’ll need to stick to each other. And if you work quickly, the potato slices won’t discolor anyway.

Here’s how to make this simple dish. I’ve made it with halibut and with sea bass, but you could use any firm-fleshed white fish you like – cod also comes to mind. It needs to be fairly thick in size, so forget about flounder or sole or something equally thin and delicate. For two people, I used a piece of fish that weighed about 3/4 pound or so and one potato – scrubbed but unpeeled.

Take the skin off the fish – or have the fish monger do it for you before bringing it home. Sprinkle the fish pieces with salt, pepper and any herb you like. In this case, the herbs in the garden were still on their winter nap, so I used dried dill. Slice the potato very, very thinly with the mandoline.

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Start to overlap slices over one of the pieces of fish – they’ll sort of remind you of fish scales.

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Then flip it over and wrap the potato slices up and over the fish.

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Cover any gaps with more potatoes and bring the slices up and over to meet and greet each other.

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Press them gently together. If you have time, put the whole thing in the fridge for an hour. (I didn’t do this and had no problems, but if you’ve never made this dish, this step could make your life easier.)

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Repeat the procedure with the other piece of fish and remaining potato slices.

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Heat a cast-iron skillet and melt some butter inside. You won’t need very much butter if you have a seasoned skillet. You could use a nonstick skillet too, but I prefer the cast iron.  Maybe you’ll use  2 T. butter at most for this entire thing. Use olive oil if you prefer. But not just plain old canola oil – you want the fat to impart some flavor and butter greases my wheel (or pan in this case) just right for this dish. Place the fish pieces gently into the skillet and adjust the flame or temperature of the burner if necessary. The temperature shouldn’t be so hot that the potatoes brown too quickly. You want the fish to cook through and if you brown the potatoes too quickly, then the fish will be raw in the middle. For this size of fish, the cooking time on each side was about three or four minutes. Let the slices brown before attempting to flip over. You want to flip these over only once - the less you handle the better your chances of keeping everything intact.

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OK, flip over the fish – gently now – so you don’t mess up the nice pattern of potatoes. I also turned it over on the edges too, holding it between two spatulas, so those edges could cook and crisp up a little too. It’s a little hard to hold spatulas in both hands and take a photo too, so you’ll just have to imagine what that looks like. I know you can visualize.

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I served it very simply with some lemon slices, but you could get fancier and make a sauce too. If you’ve got some aged balsamic vinegar, this would be a good time to crack it open and drizzle some on top.

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But really, if you’ve got a good piece of buttery sea bass or halibut, all you need is a sprinkle of parsley and a squirt of lemon juice. Start to finish and you’re done in 30 minutes.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Lemon Cornmeal Cake

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OK, so maybe you didn’t make those candied violets like I suggested in my last post, but you can put this cake together in less time than it takes to go to the store and buy the ingredients. Of course if you had made those candied violets, you could use some of them to decorate the top of this cake.

Don’t worry, the cake looks pretty with the lemon glaze alone and you can even get fancy and make a cross-hatch design like I did.  The recipe is from Bon Appétit magazine but I first saw it on The Food Librarian’s blog.

April 2010 438 It’s called a lemon cornmeal cake, but honestly, without the lemon glaze, the cake has a very subtle lemon flavor. I might add even more lemon peel to the recipe next time. It’s really so simple to make you don’t even need a mixer – just a bowl and mixing spoon. If you don’t have the candied violet decoration, you might want to make the blueberry sauce that Bon Appétit includes.

April 2010 400 The cake is deliciously moist and has a tender crumb and you’ll probably find yourself falling back on this recipe all the time. You don’t even have to think ahead of time about having the butter at room temperature – it gets melted in a pan instead.

If you happen to have any of those candied pansies, place one in the center with a mint leaf and stand back to admire. It’s almost too pretty to eat.  But I never let that get in the way of me and my fork.

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Lemon Cornmeal Cake

Printable recipe here

from Bon Appétit


  • 1 1/2 cups (packed) powdered sugar, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons (or more) fresh lemon Juice

  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon peel
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, cooled

For glaze:
Combine powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons lemon juice in small bowl. Stir with spoon until smooth and paste-like, adding more lemon juice by 1/2 teaspoonfuls if glaze is too thick to spread. Set aside.

For cake:
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter 9-inch-diameter cake pan with 2-inch-high sides; line bottom with parchment. Combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt in large bowl; whisk to blend. Whisk buttermilk, eggs, lemon peel, and vanilla in small bowl. Pour buttermilk mixture and melted butter into flour mixture. Using rubber spatula, gently fold liquids into flour mixture until just blended (do not stir). Scrape batter into pan; spread evenly.

Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean and cake pulls away from sides of pan, about 30 minutes.

Immediately run knife around sides of cake. Place rack atop cake in pan. Using oven mitts, hold pan and rack firmly together and invert cake onto rack. Remove pan from cake. Place another rack on bottom of cake; invert 1 more time so that cake is top side up. Stir glaze until blended. While cake is still very hot, drop glaze by tablespoonfuls onto cake; spread to within 1/2 inch of edge (some glaze may drip down sides of cake). Cool completely.

Friday, April 16, 2010

How To Make Candied Violets

April 2010 333It’s time, it’s time. Violet time, that is.  In the Northeast, it’s the time of year when many people regard these dainty little flowers as pests in their lush suburban lawns. I see them as an opportunity – a once a year harvest to gather for free. The only thing it costs is your time.

Last year I told you all about making violet water and violet jelly, and even using raw violets in a luscious cold lemon violet souffle.


This year it’s all about candying violets.  It’s a bit tedious, but you can get a bunch of them finished in under an hour. All you need are violets, sugar, egg whites and a small paint brush. It’s kind of a fun project for kids too and I remember making these when my kids were little with my friend and former neighbor Jeannette, who moved back to her home town, Santa Barbara.

Gather some violets from your lawn, a nearby park or anyplace that hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides. Pick them with the stems for this recipe since they’ll be easier to maneuver while you’re using the paint brush.

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Wash the flowers carefully and let them dry.

Take one egg white and beat it with a whisk for a few minutes – only until it starts to foam.

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Then take a small container and put some of the beaten egg white into it. I find it easier than trying to paint the petals directly from the big bowl, but you can find your own comfort level. With the big bowl, I have the tendency to put way too much egg white on the petals. You might be tempted to just dip the flower in the egg white and then dip into the sugar. Go ahead and try but you’ll end up with a big clump of something that’s unrecognizable at a violet. Painting with a brush will allow the individual petals to show.

Dip the paint brush in the egg white and holding the stem of the flower in one hand, use the other hand to paint the petals on both sides. I kind of flatten them in the little container and brush each side.

Then dip into the sugars. Holding the stem with my left hand, I lay the top of the flower into the sugar, then with my right hand, I use a demitasse spoon to cover the other side with sugar. Use superfine sugar if you can find it – that’s what the white sugar is in the picture. The other sugar is something I’ve had in a container in the basement for probably 10 years and it’s not superfine. The color is also more pink than purple, but hey, I didn’t think it was all that important to take a trip to the store just to find the perfect color match.

April 2010 274 Shake out the flower and set it on some parchment paper or waxed paper that’s been put on top of a cake rack. The air space will help them dry faster.

April 2010 280 Unless it’s a humid day, they shouldn’t take too long to dry – a few hours at most. When they’re dry, snip the stems and you’re ready to use them. Here are the ones covered in white superfine sugar.

April 2010 288 And here are the ones covered in pink sugar that’s not superfine.

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I also tried using the same technique with some pansies. It’s a little trickier, but you can do it. They are very delicate and break easily, so handle carefully. When they’re completely dry, store in a covered container in a dark, dry place. They don’t keep indefinitely, but they’ll be fine for at least a month, maybe longer. The pansies in particular have the tendency to fade if kept too long.

Use these to decorate cakes, cupcakes or other desserts. I’ve got a great recipe for you coming up in my next post using these candied violets, so get out there and start foraging this weekend.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010



Do you want to go back to ‘Le Bernardin’ for our anniversary,” he asked?

Oh, I was so tempted to say yes after that heavenly experience there a few months ago.  Instead I said no. Having read so much about the restaurant ‘Elements’ here in Princeton, I really wanted to find out what all the buzz was about. “Let’s go there instead,” I said.

After years of complaints that Princeton, N.J. has no really great restaurants, professional reviewers and regular diners alike have been touting ‘Elements’ as the first place in town where the food is finally up to big city standards. I wanted to find out for myself whether the hype was warranted or whether I’d still be heading to New York for special occasion meals.

Elements is located on Route 206 in a building converted from a former garage. The transformation is nothing short of remarkable - sleek, subdued and elegant, (and dim at night too, hence the mediocre food photos).

exterior_601 Considering the refined space, we were taken aback while waiting in the small vestibule when out came a group of diners, one of whom was wearing bib overall blue jeans, complete with multiple tool and utility pockets. Obviously Elements has no dress code. Even though we weren’t dressed to the nines,  the sweater set I was wearing and the blazer and tie my husband sported might have looked a bit out of place on a tractor in the back forty, unlike the diner with the blue jean bib overalls who had just left.  Farmer John was just a bit jarring, but not a deal-breaker, to be sure.

We were seated a few minutes later, not in the main dining room, but upstairs in a private space with three tables. Well, it would have been private if you didn’t count the two other groups seated there – one of which was another couple also looking forlorn and the other a large family with at least half a dozen children. I have nothing against children, having raised two of my own, and they may have been well-behaved, but it felt like we were interloping at a party we hadn’t been invited to.


“Did they relegate us up here because I told them it’s our anniversary,” I wondered.  Who knew? But the real party was downstairs in the main dining room and we were in a celebratory mood. We wanted to feel the vibe with everyone else. Fortunately our request to move downstairs was honored and a table was soon cleared for us.

“Much better,” I thought, especially after the amuse-bouche was delivered to the table. It arrived in a small, narrow vessel and was meant to be gulped, not eaten with a spoon. If first impressions count, this one made a good one – a flavorful sweet red pepper and coconut soup. Among his other credits,  executive chef and co-owner Scott Anderson has worked at the Ryland Inn, Mediterra and the Baystreet Grill.

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Since it was our anniversary, we decided to order the spring tasting menu, complete with wine pairings suggested by the restaurant. Still, I asked if they could give a couple of substitutions; otherwise, we’d both be eating the same dishes all night. The restaurant was happy to oblige when I asked for a different cold appetizer and meat course.

My husband’s Kindai fluke sashimi (a farmed, bluefin tuna raised for sustainability) arrived swathed in a jumble of white asparagus, sorrel and cucumber.  The tangle of fresh and flavorful ingredients complemented each other perfectly and we both agreed that the dish was a great way to start the meal.

April 2010 222 I was equally, if not even more pleased with my selection – a citrus soup that tasted like a grown-up creamsicle interlaced with herbs, cashews and laughing bird shrimp (a sweet and sustainable alternative to rock shrimp). Another pair of laughing bird shrimp topped with avocado bits were perched astride the soup, awaiting my eager palate. It was an inspired combination of ingredients and presentation and I would happily return for a larger bowl of this anytime.

April 2010 223 The wild grouper followed for each of us  – another one of the evening’s highlights. It had a decidedly Thai accent, with curry, coconut, cashew, scallion and kaffir lime lending an explosive flavor, along with small bits of broccoli and cauliflower peeking out from under a perfectly cooked nugget of grouper. 

April 2010 224 A pasta course of spaghetti alla carbonara came next. Any lover of Italian cuisine worth her weight in mozzarella knows the classic dish is made with pancetta or guanciale (an unsmoked type of bacon), eggs, parmigiano or pecorino cheese and plenty of coarsely black pepper, hence the name carbonara, or in ‘coal man’ style.

I’m all for reinventing something to make it better, but in this case, it was worse. I didn’t mind the nouveau touch of peas, but the house bacon was so heavily smoked it overpowered the dish. Even the pasta itself was overcooked, when it should have been al dente.

April 2010 227 My meat course was no better. The “48 hour” short ribs arrived and I had great hopes after reading a few rave reviews about the dish. Yes it was fork tender, but where was the seasoning? Did somebody forget to add it before starting the sous-vide technique?  Oh well, at least I had those pretty pea and carrot puree dots to swish it through.

April 2010 229 My husband was a little happier with his veal dish made up of three different elements. The veal loin and sweetbreads were tender and delicious, but surprisingly, the third element – the veal cheeks - lacked much flavor. A dab of burrata, a couple of gnocchi and fava beans were strewn around the meat and there was nothing about the dish that elevated it to above average.

April 2010 232 The cheese course struck a good note and all the cheeses were delicious, from the Berkshire Blue from Massachusetts, to the Appalachian washed rind from Virginia to the Sweetgrass from Georgia. Still, the note could have expanded to a real song if a goat or sheep’s milk cheese had also been substituted for one of the cow’s milk choices.

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Next came a course compliments of the house – a specialty that our waiter said was designed as a transition from the savory foods we had just eaten to the sweeter desserts that were still to come. The dish was a playful take on bacon and eggs, with a hollowed-out egg filled with brioche and bacon custard and topped with maple foam. A small piece of French toast and a candied bacon strip drizzled with maple syrup sat next to the egg. 

Visually, the egg reminded me of a similar treat I had eaten at Le Bernardin, created by Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis. I guess it’s not surprising, since Element’s sous chef Joe Sparatta worked with Laiskonis at Le Bernardin.

April 2010 235But where Laiskonis’ egg was ethereal, the one at Elements was heavy. Delicious, but heavy. It was a clever idea, but it belonged on a breakfast or brunch menu, not after two fish courses, a pasta dish, a meat course and a cheese platter. Although all the portions were small,  the very filling egg/french toast/bacon was unnecessary with dessert still to come.  A more welcome transition would have been to serve some savory jams or mostarda with the cheeses, as is customarily done in Europe.

Dessert was still ahead and the tasting menu offered two. One was a deconstructed black forest cake, with a lambic granite and something that the menu refers to as “sponge.”  I do not exaggerate when I say the two alcoholic-flavored cherries garnishing the plate were the best thing about this dish. Without belaboring the point, both the lambic granite (made using a kind of beer) and the roulade cake lacked any intensity of flavor (and who wants chocolate cake to be subtle?)  and the “sponge” (whatever that was) never had a chance. After a small taste of the other elements in this dish, we lost interest.

April 2010 241 On the other hand, the second dessert was loaded with flavor, but it was all the wrong kind. No complaints about the shortbread cookie acting as a base, but the little square of panna cotta above it was made with more gelatin that any panna cotta has a right to exhibit, giving it a firm texture reminiscent of a refrigerator jello cheesecake dessert, rather than a creamy, unctuous texture of a properly made panna cotta.  But what was really offensive was the crunchy brittle layer atop the panna cotta, made with peanut and bacon. Yes, bacon.  But wait, it gets worse with a small scoop of spring pea ice cream on top of it all.  A bad idea all around. The entire dessert was probably only about two inches square and most of it went back to the kitchen uneaten.

April 2010 243 When making the reservation, I was asked if it was a special occasion, and the restaurant honored us with a greeting handwritten in chocolate as they brought out the little mignardise plate. Thank goodness the evening ended on a positive note. These little cookies and confections were far better than the desserts listed above and each table of diners gets these gratis after the meal.

April 2010 238 I haven’t mentioned anything about the wine pairings yet but I have to admit that even those missed the mark in some of the courses. Some were really wonderful however, and I would gladly order a couple of them on a return visit.

Return visit? Yes, even after what we considered some real misses and a very expensive tab, we would return to Elements again - never again to order the full tasting menu, or to sit at the even more expensive chef’s table, (which thankfully was fully booked when I called to reserve two spots) given the inconsistent quality of the cuisine and uninspiring wine selections among some real standouts. The fish courses, the soups and the cheeses however were all stellar and I would order them again in a heartbeat.

Yes, we’d go back to Elements again, but we’d stick to one or two courses that lived up to the hype. Forget the dessert course – enjoy the free mignardise instead.

But the next time my husband suggests Le Bernardin for a special occasion meal, I’ll be on the train or the NJ Turnpike quicker than you can say “Eric Ripert.”

Princeton Elements, Le Bernardin, restaurant reviews