Sunday, May 10, 2009

Entertaining on a dime, and in a kitchen that isn't mine...

As I'm moving out of NYC at the end of May, I have been subletting an apartment on the Upper West Side, near Lincoln Center. The apartment itself is amazing - a large layout with a new kitchen in a great full-service building. The location, too, is perfect - 15 minutes to my office, right near a huge Food Emporium, a block from one of my favorite wine bars (Barcibo Enoteca), and of course the UWS Magnolia Bakery (I've never been!). The best part? I'm on the 23rd floor, so the views over the West Side, Central Park, all the way to Roosevelt Island are amazing!!!
All this talk of mine had my friend, The LunchBelle, craving to come uptown for a girls night on the Upper West Side. Given the economy, and the fact I'm about to leave my salary

behind, we are two girls looking to save a penny or two here and there. So, instead of dining out, we were going to dine in! I was saving my bottle of Chandon Brut Classic from my California trip last November, and this was the perfect celebratory dinner to pop the cork! Having worked a lot in the past couple of weeks, I was also in need of some comforting indulgence - but, watching my waistline for an upcoming gala, I knew that I couldn't go over the top. Creaminess without the heft, nutrition, flavor and texture maximized, and the calories minimized.

I decided to make my favorite mac and cheese from my college days, when a trip to the cheese shop wasn't in my budget. Add to the fact that my sublet's kitchen is NOT like my kitchen - no baking dishes, no graters. So, I had to improvise. I really don't like boxed pastas, but given I now had to create my cheesy masterpiece on the stove, not oven, I knew the preparation from my college days would be the trick. I love whole wheat pasta, so I decided on whole wheat shells, combined with a bit of plain elbow pasta. While the pasta is cooking, I mix together two cheese packets (I like one white, one regular cheddar - good contrast later in the dish) with a cup of 2% milk - this is like my bechamel, the glue of the dish that brings things together - til smooth. To the fully cooked pasta, I toss in two tablespoons of good butter (European-style: Plugra is a favorite) and let it melt. I then pour in my sauce and stir. I then add about a cup of 1/3" cubed part-skim mozzarella to the pasta and stir. I let it sit covered over very low heat till the sauce thickens, and the mozzarella begins to melt. Then the most important addition - a drizzle of white truffle oil! I turn the heat off after about 5-10 minutes (it varies) and let it sit for about 10-15, so the cheese really melts.

I had been up early that morning for work, and wasn't going to make it out late that night, so we knew this would be a relaxing girls dinner. Lindsay arrived around 6:45pm, with a bottle of her favorite Moscato D'Asti in hand (Neirano Pitule) and our dessert - Haagen Daaz's Fleur de Sel Caramel bars (we're both in love with salted caramel and chocolate!) - plus a special surprise! Fresh and perfectly ripe avocadoes and cilantro! I popped open the Chandon, and we toasted to dinner, the UWS, and my upcoming job changes. While our pasta was...melting (??), Lindsay and I caught up and I prepared a simple avocado salad tostart the meal - sliced avocadoes, sprinkled with fleur de sel and fresh cilantro.

Once ready, Lindsay refreshed our glasses of bubbly while I served the mac and cheese. The lightly golden cheese sauce contrasted slightly with the white cheesiness of the mozzarella, and with a drizzle of truffle oil again on top, the meal-in-a bowl was complete! I first dove into the avocadoes, having already been mesmerized by its ripeness. The crunchy salt was the perfect compliment to the creamy avocado, and the cilantro added the perfect mexican touch. It also went divinely with the mac and cheese. I took a bite of the pasta - perfect. A rich flavor, thanks to the truffle oil, and a lot of cheesiness, thanks to the mozzarella. All without the heft of a lot of cheese or fat!

Plus, the whole wheat pasta rounded out the dish, adding the perfect nuttiness.

Once dinner was finished, we then popped open the cork of Lindsay's moscato for our dessert! I do love sweet wines, recently becoming obsessed with Chateau St. Michelle's riesling - not too sweet, but just perfect when you're craving a little sweetness without eating dessert. The moscato was just what I like - light bubbles, light sweetness, and easy to drink. My only complaint was that the flavor could have been a bit bigger for me (I love full bodied wines, oaky chardonnays, etc), but I was quite happy. Talking about travel and life, we opened up our ice cream bars and enjoyed the last part of our meal. What a treat! The salty caramel combined with the sweet chocolate shell, and the creamy caramel ice cream was just perfect. It was like a more sophisticated and refined version of one of my Ben & Jerry's favorites, Chubby Hubby. I will definitely have to take Lindsay's word and purchase a pint of this ice cream, where there is even more saltiness and caramel.

Our bottles empty, dishes cleared, and night fallen, the evening was coming to an end. Lindsay and I took a walk around the neighborhood before she got in a cab. Of course, we followed our noses to Magnolia Bakery. Unlike the one downtown, I swear this one never has lines (I walk past it daily!). Already warm outside, we walk in to what I likened to an oven with cupcakes baking - it was hot in there, with all the baking treats! Lindsay had to pick up a little gift for a friend, so I accompanied her down the line, thinking about what I was going to purchase later in the week as my sweet treat. Vanilla frosted chocolate? Chocolate frosted vanilla? Or a slice of coconut cake? I spotted a slice of my favorite - carrot cake - and paused. My old favorite from the Good Food Store in Darien, CT had recently been replaced by the amazing version of my current favorite at Two Little Red Hens. Could this be better?

As I write this, I'm enjoying the little surprise thank you Lindsay got me at Magnolia - one of their peanut butter patties. Anyone who knows me knows I LOVE peanut butter! This hits the spot: graham crumbs combined with peanut butter (freshly ground, I think!) and covered in a dark chocolate shell. A definite home run! As for that carrot cake, stay tuned, as I'll be sampling a slice in the coming weeks.

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