Friday, April 10, 2009

Spring Has Sprung at Union Square Cafe

Until last night, the closest I had come to eating in the dining room at Union Square Cafe was an appetizer at the bar some years ago and the Union Square Cafe Cookbook (1st edition) that I've been cooking from for 15 years. We had a very good dinner and I couldn't think of a nicer place to share a meal with my husband on my birthday.

Known for their rustic yet sophisticated fare (which is why I love the cookbook), and casual dining room with impeccable service, they are best known for being located next to the Union Square Farmers market and buying seasonal and local ingredients from the farmers at the market. In fact, according to an interview of Danny Meyer, the owner, in New York Magazine  (3/31/2003) ... 

 “If the Union Square farmers’ market were to close, I may as well not even have restaurants,” says Meyer."
Ordering was a challenge, as there were quite a few dishes that caught my eye. While reading (studying) the menu, Henry and I sipped on a glass of Schramsberg, Blanc de Blancs, Napa Valley which our friends Theresa and Peter Kaufman had sent to the table for our celebration. A lovely wine indeed and sparkling too.  

For an appetizer, the calamari or cream of garlic soup sounded good but I wanted to eat lightly and pace myself for a long weekend of birthday celebrations. Besides there were a few items that jumped out -- every item with SPRING VEGETABLES. GREEN, SEASONAL VEGETABLES to kick off day one of my 50th year. Asparagus, chives, peas, lima beans..... I love being an April baby.

To start, I ordered the Grilled Asparagus, Blood Oranges, Chives, Chopped Egg and Guanciale (or pig cheeks) - lightly grilled, pencil thin asparagus, tasty, delicious and seasonal (probably not local), served with juicy blood oranges and a hint of bacony tasting pig cheeks and boiled egg. I enjoyed several spoonfuls of the impressive Cream of Garlic Soup with Sweet Pea-Robiola Crostino -- and, with my own spoon as the waiter overheard that I wanted to taste Henry's soup (Union Square Cafe is also known for their superb hospitality).

For the main course, the Seared Sea Scallops with Spring Vegetable-Bacon Farrotto and Black Trumpet Mushrooms did not disappoint. I love scallops. I love farro made like risotto (and especially when it's firm and chewy). I love mushrooms.  And, all with spring vegetables. Together, the flavors made a truly impressive dish. Eating one at a time, I savored every bite of bright green peas and crisp (not mushy) baby lima beans. The bacony taste of the farro risotto "farrotto" was so rich but not overly so although I'm sure the fat pushed the calorie count way above where I wanted them to be for a "light" meal - oh well. I ate it and enjoyed EVERY BITE.

An ancient grain, farro is the Italian name for emmer wheat and was the first domesticated wheat. According to research, carbon testing shows that farmers had it in their fields 10,000 years ago in the Near East and Middle East. Today, farro as it's better known in the US, is making a comeback in restaurants across Europe and US. A low-yielding wheat, farro has largely been replaced by high-yielding wheats and become more of a specialty or health food product. Most recipes call for soaking farro (which I never do and it always turns out chewy, nutty and al dente which is how I like it). In January, I served Farro with Chucker (click
here for the Chukar Braised with Anise and Orange served over farro recipe). You can cook it following any risotto recipe or boil like pasta for 12-14 minutes which is what I did for our chukar dinner. It's delicious hot or served at room temperature in a Mediterranean style salad. 

Farro is a whole grain variety of wheat and excellent source of fiber (it's wheat so if you are on a wheat-free diet you are also on a farro-free diet). Farro is high in B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, and selenium similar to other whole grains. It gets easier and easier to find farro but primarily in specialty grocery stores (Dean and Deluca, Citarella and Time Warner Center's Whole Foods carry farro -- I pay about $8 per pound at Citarella or you can order AMERICAN GROWN Farro from Anson Mills in South Carolina). 

21 East 16th Street (off Union Square West) 

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