This Halloween, I cashed in the let’s-try-to-be-sexy costume in exchange for a low key, very gourmet evening. I didn’t need to worry about impressing anyone because I was the one that was actually impressed. A nice BYOB glass of red wine, a multi-course meal and a room full of good people appreciating good food is how I spent this past Friday evening.
If you read my feature about ways to do well this season, you may have come across my suggestion to forgo a typical restaurant experience and attend one of Natural Gourmet Institute’s Friday Night Dinners. To be honest, NGI was a place that I had never heard of until I began digging further into the amazing wellness scene that is New York City. It was during a random search for vegan friendly hands-on classes that I came across a cupcake baking class that lured me right on in. I’m not one to be so shy about my crazy sweet tooth, so this was an initial win in my book.
Anyhow, I wanted to know more. The more I dig, the more that I respected NGI's approach. They understand that there is no single dietary regimen that works for everyone and therefore created a framework for healthy food selection that encourages people to tailor their eating style to support their individual health needs. In a world of gluten free, dairy free, paleo, vegan, vegetarian and so on, there is no cookie cutter diet that works for everyone. For example, I made a decision to nix meat from my diet several years ago and also learned that my body is lactose intolerant, however I still have eggs or seafood here and there. And that seems to work well for me. I couldn't have told you what tempeh was a few years ago, but now I love it and it has become a more prominent part of my diet. It takes a bit of curiosity, experimenting, self education, a flexible palate and the notion of trial and error to really determine what works best for you.
Press play to a year or so later and there I was at Le Pain Quotidien in Flatiron for a class led by Olivia Roszkowski, an esteemed graduate and Chef Instructor at the Institute. Thanks to her, I learned how to matchstick carrots and "fan" avocados which became a game changer. In fact, anything involving avocados is a game changer to me. It was Olivia's wealth of knowledge, genuine approach to cooking (and people) paired with her exquisite execution that further increased my respect for the program. She was the type that you’d like to have as your personal chef. HA. Wouldn’t that be nice for every New Yorker? Saying farewell to Seamless delivery and Chop’t salads and instead coming back to your apartment to someone cooking up the next best thing (or maybe just your favorite kale salad). Anyhow, that was the second check in my book.
Further digging allowed me to discover that they actually host a series of Friday Night Dinners where their Chef’s Training Program students and instructors prepare a three-course vegetarian (many times vegan) dinner that’s innovative, delicious and beautifully plated. And by three courses, yes you can bet it includes dessert…! Better yet? 10% of proceeds from each dinner go towards a non-profit organization, such as Grow NYC or the NY Coalition for Healthy School Food.
After keeping a close eye on their dinner line-up as well as a generous invitation from the Institute, there I was this past Friday finally able to experience it all first-hand. I was beyond impressed, shared lovely conversations with others and left with a very content belly, but by no means was I overstuffed. The portions, ingredients, flavors and execution was spot on. Get your palates ready, because you are in for quite a treat with this delicious three-course menu rundown.
Radicchio Salad with Spicy Pepitas, Coconut "Bacon" and Sherry-Maple Vinaigrette
Crispy Phyllo Triangles with Tofu & Spinach
This appetizer was light, bright and crisp. I began on the salad, anxious to see how the coconut bacon turned out after seeing a few recipes that called for it here and there. It gave the salad the perfect crunch and complemented the sherry-maple vinaigrette extremely well. The crispy phyllo triangles were a wise pairing, because honestly, who doesn't love a little phyllo? It wasn't heavy at all, considering that tofu has a nice neutral taste which allowed for the spinach to shine. They had that flakiness that reminded me of Pillsbury biscuits that I loved having growing up. You know, the ones where you get to peel back layer by layer. This was just the grown up version with a vegan-friendly filling.
Moroccan Stew with Autumn Root Vegetables and Chickpeas
Macadamia and Basil-Mint Pesto
As you might expect from any entree, this one stole the show and completely won me over. The autumn root vegetables and chickpeas were so tender and served as the base of this dish which was then topped with red quinoa (a nice protein powerhouse). It was then topped with a dollop of a rich and flavorful macadamia based pesto with notes of basil and mint, which I saved to enjoy with the last few bites. Wise decision on my part. The crispy kale leaves on top were the perfect garnish and made the plating of the dish itself very fun. I loved watching them being served one-by-one from the kitchen. Every single bite of this dish was mouthwatering thanks to the amazing combination of warming Moroccan spices, including curry and turmeric which happen to be two of my absolute favorites. They were like the hidden sprinkles of this dish and I literally found myself scraping the bowl clean while trying to keep my table manners at bay. It's the type of stew that you would make in a large batch for guests, as a potluck or as healthy comfort dish to indulge in and keep you warm on the inside during these cold evenings ahead.
Raw Chocolate Brownie with Pomegranate Sauce
Pumpkin Spice Ice Cream
Cardamom-Cayenne Pizzelle dipped in Chocolate and Nuts
YUM. This raw brownie was very dense and very good. Dense in that it was full of nourishing and wholesome ingredients like almonds, dried cherries, dates and cocoa. There wasn't a speck of refined sugars anywhere on this plate. And the pumpkin ice cream...hello. There was no dairy in it whatsoever and one of the chefs described the ingredients as almost anything that you would find in pumpkin pie - cinnamon, ginger, cloves...you know how it goes. It's truly amazing how delicious ice cream still is, and any dessert for that matter, when you remove the dairy component. It forces you to become inventive, and this dish (and meal) was not short of that. I strategically tried to make sure that each bite had a brownie chunk plus a little scoop of pumpkin ice cream and a drizzle of the pomegranate sauce. Of course, I saved the pizzelle for last to scrape up the leftover pomegranate sauce. SO GOOD.
So how is that for a gourmet Friday evening? Sure, sometimes I like to sneak in my favorite Reese's peanut butter cup special edition pumpkins around Halloween, but that wasn't necessary this year. Better yet, I didn't wake up with a sugar hangover, however I did have a withdrawals of the Moroccan stew. Really, it was that good.
May I also mention that the Friday Night Dinners on deck look just as delicious? From acorn squash to pear crumble, there's no shortage of palate pleasing dishes to go around. So don't feel at all that you missed out because these dinners are sticking around. Break out of your typical restaurant routine, invite a friend or two and make sure to get one of these dinners on your calendar at some point this season. It's the perfect time to enjoy all of the amazing fall flavors and produce that are in full swing.
Perhaps you may way to get a little hands-on as well? Don't miss their fantastic line-up, from vegetarian holiday side dishes to basic knife skills and even vegan umami (with Olivia!).
Thank you, Natural Gourmet Institute for such a welcoming and delicious Friday evening. I shall see you again very soon because I sure could brush up on my knife skills. Haven't quite nailed down the matchstick approach.