F&W Star Chef
Tom Valenti of Ouest Restaurant shares the best places to visit on New York City’s Upper West Side, the secret to great eggnog and a clever technique for reheating make-ahead holiday dishes.
What are your favorite holiday food gifts?
To give, I make a dried fruit compote around the holidays, it’s almost like mincemeat: a dice of dried apricot, prunes, currants, raisins, along with fresh diced apple or pear. I add white wine, orange juice, sugar, a touch of white vinegar and all those pumpkin pie seasonings—cinnamon, allspice, sometimes clove or nutmeg—then cook it for a long time. Then I put it in jars with a little ribbon. It lasts a long time. I think the best application is to warm it slightly and spoon it over a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Along with some good-quality store-bought shortbread cookies? Done.
To receive, when he was cooking in New York, Gray Kunz used to send his buddies these little mi-cuit foie gras terrines in these tiny Pillivuyt molds, made by the traditional French ceramics company. When the package would arrive, I would always feel so incredibly lucky he considered me one of his pals. His foie gras went quite well with my fruit compote. And then he moved away and now I’m reduced to chopped chicken liver. But it was great while it lasted.
What’s your favorite holiday cocktail?
I can’t drink it anymore because of my gout, but I used to get myself—or have somebody give me—a beautiful bottle of ruby port. I can’t even remember any of the producers’ names, but I usually liked whichever one I found wrapped under the tree. It’s so easy to drink at 11 o’clock in the morning. It has that nice spice to it, and ruby port in particular still has that fruit freshness.
But I must confess that I make an excellent eggnog. It’s basically a crème anglaise recipe, with a nice vanilla bean, some mace, nutmeg, a pinch of clove and just a little cinnamon. And lots of hooch. Some people come from the rum school of eggnog, some from the whiskey school. I’ve tried both, even together, and every version is perfect.
Can you share a great entertaining tip?
Prep ahead—and I have a great technique: Especially at the holidays, Ziploc freezer bags are my salvation. I figured out my system once I realized that, after running around at the last minute cooking everything the morning before the meal, the last thing I wanted to do was to eat any of it. By the time everything was ready, all I wanted was a bologna sandwich and a beer. So now I make everything the day before. The butternut squash puree, the mashed potatoes, the brussels sprouts: I make them, slip them in a Ziploc bag and refrigerate them overnight. Right before the meal, I immerse the bags in a gentle water bath. Once they’re hot, I cut a corner off the bag, squeeze the contents into a bowl and I’m done. With brussels sprouts, I’ll blanch the sprouts and make a separate slurry of bacon, onion and garlic, which I’ll deglaze with a little chicken stock and butter. I’ll cool everything down, then throw the blanched brussels sprouts into the bag with the slurry and tuck it away until the next day. Just make sure the bags are well sealed; those mashed potatoes will quickly turn into vichyssoise if they’re not sealed properly. And if you don’t want to reheat them in a bag, you can just as easily warm them in a sauté pan.
Your restaurant, Ouest, has drawn crowds on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for close to a dozen years. What are 5 top don’t-miss places on a holiday stop in the neighborhood?
- You’ve got to start at Barney Greengrass for breakfast, and get anything that has the words “smoked” or “fish” in it—and that shouldn’t rule out the pickled herring. My God, their entire menu is fabulous.
- Shun Lee West is enormously popular, especially for those who don’t celebrate the Christmas holiday. They have a restaurant dining room as well as a café where they serve dim sum. Their dim sum is well liked, but my wife and I are both creatures of habit, and have always gone to the dining room. It’s horribly gaudy but that’s part of the fun; this 100-foot-long dusty dragon looking down on you as you eat. We always get the pickled pig’s kidney. I don’t even know how they prepare it, I don’t want to know, but it’s fantastic. From there I just take the lead from the waiters or manager about whatever they think is good.
- We love going to my friend Cesare Casella’s Salumeria Rosi. That’s an ideal place to grab some antipasti to bring home, like one of his excellent terrines or some salumi or prosciutto. They all travel well.
- We now live in New Jersey, but when we lived on the Upper West Side, Riverside Park was our go-to. We certainly appreciated Central Park, but found Riverside more peaceful; we like walking in long stretches, and it stretches right up a good part of Manhattan, most of it overlooking the Hudson River. Our favorite thing was to stop at the dog runs. New York City dogs are just like everybody else in New York: When they walk down the street, it’s as if they have blinders on, they keep to themselves. But at the doggy playground, they party down. It’s so much fun to watch them, the Chihuahua chasing the pit bull that’s chasing the poodle that’s chasing the Great Dane—it’s hysterical.
- Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. We’d often end up there after walking north along Riverside Park. That place is responsible for several inches on my waistline. It’s all good, from the fried green tomatoes to the pulled pork sandwiches to the fried catfish to, obviously, the ribs and the brisket and killer sides. They also have desserts like banana cream pie and cheesecake, decidedly Americana stuff that makes your teeth ache slightly. But they’re irresistible.
2 places we like to go in Somerset County, New Jersey:
- The Tewksbury Inn in Oldwick, New Jersey, is so old school. The inn is I don’t know how many hundreds of years old. The chef is a young fellow who honors tradition but also puts a very intelligent spin on it. He has a couple of great farms within throwing distance from the restaurant, so he leans heavily on the great local produce. He’s also a fly fisherman, and gives me flies when I go there, so that’s another hook, no pun intended.
- 90 Acres at Natirar is in a much more modern setting—I think the property was a summer home belonging to the king of Morocco. Now Sir Richard Branson is one of the investors. It’s a decidedly more modern setting, although it melds nicely with the property, with a lot of wood and stone for the interior. The menu is modern American, and delicious; again, they rely heavily on local growers. It’s one of these casual places where you can dress up or dress down.
What’s your most requested recipe, the one dish you’re most known for?
Our braised lamb shanks. To a lot of home cooks, lamb shanks are one of those mystery meats they don’t know how to cook. We’ve provided a simplified recipe in a couple of my cookbooks. At the restaurant, I make a point of not completely immersing the shanks in the braising liquid, but leaving maybe 20 percent exposed to the dry heat of the oven so they can caramelize. Then I’ll give the shanks a half-turn every half hour or 45 minutes to give the other half or other third the opportunity to caramelize as well. So in two and a half hours of braising time, you turn them maybe a half-dozen times. I also use anchovies in my braising liquid, which is one of those mysterious flavors—nobody can really identify the fishiness, just a deep saline quality.
If the braised lamb shanks are the dish we’re best known for, our most requested recipe could be our appetizer, a truffled omelet soufflé. But when customers tell me “I want to make this at home!” I tell them, “No, you don’t. It’s the biggest pain in the ass you can imagine. Just come here and eat it.” We bake it on a sheet pan, cut it into rounds, and stack two rounds with a layer of duxelle and preserved truffle puree in the middle. Then we nap it with mousseline sauce and give it a little glaze under the salamander right before serving it. I’ll give the recipe to customers who cook, but even they look at it and agree that it’s a pain.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
The Escoffier Cookbook. It’s such a window onto the past, and some of the recipes are off the hook, like, “take a three-pound chicken, stuff one pound of sliced truffles beneath the skin, then stuff the cavity with an entire lobe of foie gras, truss it and roast along with some beautifully turned potatoes.” All right, all you millionaires out there, let’s have some chicken for supper! Obviously there are some recipes in there with measurements, but mostly it’s such a testament to its times, that sense of excess and luxury.
Best cheap (under $5) gadget?
I love a Microplane for chopping garlic, it’s definitely one of my favorite tools. But I also like truffle slicers—they cost more than $5, but they’re so old-school and sturdy, they get the job done instantaneously. You can have the oil shimmering in the pan, and take a clove of garlic and in 4 seconds you’re rolling. To slice garlic the ordinary way, you’ve got to clean the cutting board, clean your knife, and wash your hands four times to get out the garlic smell. Microplanes and truffle slicers make it much easier.
What’s one technique everyone should know?
How to season, or how to cook fish. Those are two things I see people struggle with the most. With seasoning, you can always add more, but you can’t take it away. When you season also varies depends on the application. I season something more liberally if it’s going to go directly into a sauté pan with some cooking fat, since a lot of the seasoning will wash away into the oil or butter. For the same reason, I’ll season something a little less liberally if it’s going on the grill, since there’s nothing there to wash it away. But if I’m building a braising liquid or making a soup or stew, I season at every stage: I season the mirepoix, and then I add tomato paste, and deglaze, and season again. After I add stock or broth, I season a third time. With soups and stews it’s all about building a depth of flavor.
When I talk to home cooks at the restaurant, they often tell me they don’t even bother to cook fish at home because they don’t know how to do it. The first thing I suggest is, if you’re going to cook four fillets of halibut or salmon or swordfish or whatever you want to try, buy a fifth fillet to crack open to see if it’s done. Or cook it in advance to give yourself a little lesson on how it works. I think the easiest approach for a home cook is to use a Teflon or nonstick pan. Then add only a very low amount of oil or butter, or—my favorite—both. Sear the fish over high heat, then flip it and transfer the pan to a 500-degree oven. Then, baste, baste, baste. Remember, there’s no exact timing. Even with four or five fillets of swordfish, every piece of fish is different. With every fillet, I always have to poke it and squeeze it to figure out what’s going on. Once it’s ready, pull the fillet out of the pan, and transfer it to a plate. At the restaurant we handle the fish with fish spatulas, and dab the fillets while they’re still on the spatulas on a towel to remove a little excess fat before we plate them.
Won Best New Chef at: Alison on Dominick Street, New York City