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A carfree cuisine jockey pedals round Manhattan on his cargo bike!
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The Asparagus Pedals to Work
June 2, 2004
By DANA BOWEN
THREE mornings a week, Peter Hoffman pedals down the side
streets of Lower Manhattan with his children Theo, 11, and
Olivia, 7, perched inside the pallet-size basket of his
unusual bicycle, a tricked-out reverse rickshaw. After he
drops them off at school, Mr. Hoffman, the chef and owner
of Savoy in SoHo, rides over to the Greenmarket at Union
Square to fill his basket with the makings of a restaurant
He is a popular character at the market. On this balmy
morning he shook the hands of farmers and old friends,
swapped recipes, chatted about agricultural literature and
the rising price of ramps and fielded questions about his
bicycle, which sports a sticker that reads, "The revolution
will not be motorized."
"This is really where my meals begin," Mr. Hoffman said,
his bike brimming with spiny rhubarb, bunches of asparagus
and heirloom apples picked upstate. He stopped at Linda
Hoffmann's stand, where city dwellers fondled gnarly wild
mushrooms, and told her about an omelet he served his wife
on Mother's Day. It was perfumed with a few small morels he
had bought there.
Mr. Hoffman has been a Greenmarket regular since 1981, so
he anticipates its seasonal swings and has an eagle eye for
first sightings. Surrounded by spring's leafy green frenzy
of early roots, he announced, "Turnips should be in." And
there they were, tiny white bulbs dangling next to heaps of
beautifully variegated breakfast radishes. He bagged
bunches of them both and trailed off in search of something
else. A dish was in the works.
This kind of spontaneous recipe creation, impressive as it
may seem, is not limited to restaurant chefs, Mr. Hoffman
swears. In most cultures cooks prepare dishes from whatever
is available on the farm and in the pantry. And that is Mr.
Hoffman's secret, too: he scours the market for local
seasonal ingredients, and pairs them with staples in his
"Bacon, saffron, olives, anchovies - these are the
counterpoints that give contrast and background to your
changing canvas of vegetables," he said, zeroing in on the
turnips and summoning their possible partners. "They're so
tender and sweet - How would they taste with saffron?
Wonderful. Or with bacon and white wine? Great as well."
Later, as he stood in Savoy's second-floor galley kitchen,
sunlight streaming in and piles of produce all around, a
decision was made. Mr. Hoffman had planned a riff on
shellfish bouillabaisse, but his mood had shifted toward an
aromatic summer stew of root vegetables and morels, topped
with seared striped bass and flavored with a chunk of bacon
he had in the refrigerator. The sweet juices from young
roots, turnips, radishes and spring onions would blend with
the pork's smoky salinity to create a simple, summery
"You know, the French have a term for these young
vegetables," he said, scrubbing flecks of dirt from the
roots under running water. "They call them les primeurs.
There's always excitement when the first of anything
With his vegetables cleaned, he started the chopping.
"Greens are great to use, but you don't need them all for
the stew," he said, discarding the radish tops, which were
mottled yellow and brown, but reserving the crisp turnip
greens. "Still, it's good to cook them all now, rather than
forget about them in the refrigerator," he said, outlining
plans to saut� them for a chilled salad.
Before slicing the turnips into even wedges, he left a good
inch attached to the bulb, "just to remind ourselves of
what they really look like." Then he unwrapped the bacon
and sliced it into thin lardons. "We usually buy it on the
ribs from a Ukrainian butcher in the East Village, so we
can use the bones to throw into a soup." But this is what
he had on hand, and it would work just fine.
With his ingredients laid out in piles on the cutting
board, he lighted a flame under a saucepan containing a
slab of butter and a splash of water. When the butter
melted, he added the bacon with a word of caution.
"This recipe is all about quick, gentle cooking, so nothing
should get caramelized," he said, stirring the lardons
until they turned translucent, then mixing in the onions.
He covered the pot and let it alone.
When he lifted the lid a few minutes later, the kitchen
overflowed with the fragrance of warm country breakfasts.
In went the turnips, radishes and a splash of wine. "The
wine adds water with sweetness and acidity," he said,
noting that now would be a good time to add more water, if
you prefer a lot of broth.
About the morels, which he pulled from a paper bag in the
refrigerator: "You know, it's funny, I've been asking the
Hoffmanns to take me foraging for years," he said, slicing
the mushrooms he bought from them into thin strips. "I
guess people are just protective about their mushroom
By the time he added the mushrooms a few minutes later,
along with some tarragon leaves, the stew had swelled with
a fragrant, violet-colored broth. He removed the pot from
the heat to allow the woodsy flavors of the morels to steep
under cover and turned his attention to bass fillets, which
he seasoned with kosher salt and pepper. "A local, seasonal
and great-tasting fish," he proclaimed, but any fish that
is not too strong or oily would work fine, like fluke or
Mr. Hoffman chose to sear the fillets, to give them a nice
crunch, but said they could just as easily be steamed atop
the stew. He heated an olive-oil-slicked frying pan over
high heat, and when the oil went thin, seared the fillets
skin side down until they threatened to burn. Then he
carefully flipped them with tongs, browning both sides in a
matter of minutes.
"Oh, you know what?" Mr. Hoffman said after he spooned some
stew into a shallow bowl. "We were supposed to put some
greens in with the morels, weren't we?" He shrugged, then
placed a saut� pan with a few spoonfuls of stew broth over
medium heat to wilt some turnip tops. Then he tucked them
into the stew and topped it with the bass and chive
When you create recipes like this on the fly, sometimes
things go so well that you forget one of your bright ideas.
And that is just fine. This stew forgives.
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