Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas Vacation!

I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. I thought you might get a kick out of this little guy hanging on our Christmas tree. He's a recent addition to my beloved ornament collection. A gift from my mom, he's got measuring spoons for a tale, slotted spoons as ears, a box grater head and, well, you can see the rest. My mom has been giving me a special ornament every year since my first Christmas. One of my favorite holiday rituals is lovingly unwrapping them and decorating the tree.

This year, Mike and I will be in Bellingham, WA at his parents' home to cook, eat, drink and hang out with them as well as my sister-in-law, Meg, brother-in-law, Scott, and CJ (short for "cousin James"). We're thinking tapas for Christmas Eve, a champagne brunch the next morning and crab legs for Christmas dinner. I have no doubt that it will be a great time. I'll be back to my blog in about a week. I want to leave you with an interesting article that the lovely owner of Kalyn's Kitchen pointed out. YOU just might be Time Magazine's person of year... I don't know about you, but it did make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Have a wonderful holiday!

Last, but not least, this is our cute little "Charlie Brown" tree. Since we'll be away, we just couldn't justify buying a full-size one. But going treeless was simply not an option!

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Stuffed Mushrooms with Arugula & Prosciutto

Easy Holiday Appetizers!

Though not quite as old school as pigs in a blanket or swedish meatballs, stuffed mushrooms definitely fit into the category of "classic" cocktail appetizers. What makes a classic? I say a classic appetizer must be a perenial crowd-pleaser and exhibit a simple elegance that doesn't feel dated. These tasty babies are all that and more.

Mike has become the maker of the stuffed mushrooms in our house. At some point, he was inspired by Paula Deen ('nuff said), but since then, he has made this appetizer his own. As a true classic, they lend themselves well to new interpretations and updates. Just like a perfect pair of jeans or little black dress, they can be an ideal canvas on which to express your personal style. These days, Mike is big into arugula. As for the proscuitto, let's hope that never goes out of style.

You can stuff the mushrooms and refrigerate them for several hours before you want to serve. Just put them straight into the oven from the refrigerator and add a couple extra minutes to the baking time. Mike's other favorite interpretation of this appetizer is his crab leg version. Just substitute the prosciutto for crab meat, the arugula for spinach, and the creole seasoning for Old Bay. Delicious is always in style.

These humble little shroomies were surprisingly fun to photograph. Love the sleek, geometric look.

Stuffed Mushrooms with Arugula and Prosciutto
Makes 24.

3 to 4 oz. cream cheese, softened
4 thin slices prosciutto, finely chopped
1 c. arugula leaves, thick stems removed, finely chopped
2 oz. freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Cooking spray (I use the olive oil variety)
24 button mushroom caps, cleaned with a damp paper towel, if necessary
Creole seasoning (substitute any spicy blend or use a combination of black pepper, cayenne pepper and chili powder)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, combine first four ingredients. Lightly coat a baking sheet with cooking spray. Arrange the mushrooms on the baking sheet and give them a quick coating of cooking spray, as well. Stuff each mushroom cap with some of the filling. Sprinkle creole seasoning over the tops of the stuffed mushrooms. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until mushrooms are soft and cooked through.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Pear Muffins

Bloggers to the Rescue!

I nearly had a food emergency yesterday afternoon. When I returned home from spending the weekend in Toronto, I was greeted by eight perfect pears on my kitchen counter, and every single one was perfectly ripe. My mom had thoughtfully sent Mike and I these pears in a Harry & David gift box last week. When I left for Toronto on Friday, they were all hard as rocks.

If you like pears and try to eat them often, you know that there is a very short window of opportunity for optimum ripeness. Once the bright green color matures to a warm, freckly harvest yellow and the fruit yields to gently pressure all around, you must eat right away. I guessed that my pears were one day away from this stage--perfect for eating, but still suitable for certain recipes. Since I knew I could not eat eight pears in the next day and a half, I set out to find a recipe that would put these beauties to good use.

First I tried recent issues of some of the many food magazines I have scattered around the house. I didn't find anything great there or on the recipe websites that I like. Not only did I want something simple (I had gotten up at 4:45am that morning to catch my flight!), but I wanted to make something I could freeze for Mike to taste when he got back from his business trip in a couple days. I was determined not to let these pears go to waste. The Oregon-grown Harry & David pears are the best I have ever had, so failure was not an option.

Then I remembered the very cool google search tool that Elise recently added to her Simply Recipes blog. It looks for matches exclusively within the food blogs that Elise has on her own comprehensive list. Within seconds, it pointed me to a recipe for pear bundt cake that I remembered seeing on Baking Bites. Just when I was getting excited to use the brand new bundt pan I bought, I noticed a comment referring to this great recipe for pear muffins.

I happened to have every single ingredient for these easy, low-fat muffins, so my search ended there. I liked that Nic used whole wheat flour and plain yogurt in this recipe. Despite their healthy profile, the muffins came out very moist and sweet thanks to the delicious pears. I just polished one off as I wrote the previous paragraph, and they make a very satisfying snack.

I must thank Nic and Elise (not to mention mom, for sending the pears). If I ever have another impending emergency, I will look no further than my fellow food bloggers for help! I absolutely recommend Nic's great recipe whether you are desperate to save some pears or you actually want to plan ahead and avoid any possible produce drama.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Pumpkin Doughnuts

There are certain things that everyone should do at least once. The list could be long and varied, but here are a few that come to mind:
  • Spend time in a foreign country
  • Go skinny dipping in the ocean
  • Stay out all night
  • Fall in love

As it's true in life, so it goes in the kitchen. At least once, everyone with an inclination toward the culinary arts should bake yeast bread, try their hand at a souffle (see this post for inspiration), throw a dinner party and make sushi rolls (with or without raw fish). This past weekend, I added a new item to that list--make your own doughnuts. Like so many other food-related achievements, it was not nearly as complicated as we thought.

I got pumpkin doughnuts on the mind recently as I read all the blogs and magazines full of seasonal dishes spiced with warm fall flavors. When I saw Ivonne's, aka Cream Puffs in Venice, glowing recommendation of a recipe for pumpkin doughnuts from I am not one to whip out the deep fryer at the drop of a hat (difficult, because I don't own a deep fryer), so I doubted that I would act on my desire to beat Dunkin' Donuts at their own game. Then I mentioned the pumpkin doughnuts to Mike, and he lit up like, well, a Christmas tree. Off we went to buy a deep fry thermometer and a whole lot of canola oil, and we were ready to go.

Just in case you're thinking,

"Why do I have to fry my own doughnuts just to prove my culinary mettle, anyway?"

I have two words for you: Krispy Kreme. Just think how amazing a hot, fresh doughnut tastes melting on your tongue. I will warn you that these are more like a cake doughnut than a Krispy Kreme, and I actually preferred to eat mine once they cooled off. But the most important reason for you to make them is that it is really fun! Just follow the directions to keep the oil roughly between 365 and 370, and this is one of the easiest cooking projects you'll ever do. I would also recommend increasing the quantity of all the spices in the recipe, as I felt it was a bit stingy with those fall spices. It took us a total of about 5 minutes to fry the doughnuts to a sufficiently deep brown color, but otherwise, we followed the instructions in the recipe. Do a test donut to see how it cooks, inside and out. If pumpkin's not your thing, here are a couple more tasty recipes that I came across for cardamom-glazed and espresso-glazed doughnuts. Now, if you too are a fan of Dunkin' Donuts famous advertising slogan, repeat after me:

"It's time to make the donuts."

This dough was moist and sticky, so ample flour was used when handling it. We used a 2 1/2 inch biscuit cutter to cut the large rounds and the lid from a bottle of olive oil for the holes.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Blue Cheese Soufflés

When you make a soufflé, do you use a complex, nuanced method that is as sensitive to subtle changes in behavior as an eleven-year-old girl courting her first boyfriend? Are your laborious creations puffing and golden one day, but heavy and sunken the next? If you have a soufflé recipe that puts you through such paces, I would like to see a copy because I have come to believe that no such thing actually exists.

The only soufflé I ever had as a kid was in a nice French restaurant in Southern California where I grew up. We had to order it at the beginning of the meal, and the waiter made much of presenting it to us at its airy zenith and drizzling it ceremoniously with chocolate sauce. I thought soufflé-making was the pinnacle of culinary achievement, one that I might reach someday if I became a glamorous hostess with all the time in the world to practice my art or all the money to hire a private chef to practice it for me.

Then I got older and slightly wiser, thanks to watching Sara Moulton make soufflés time and again on her old show, Cooking Live. As long as I didn’t scramble the yolks and remembered to fold in the egg whites ever so gently, according to Sara, I could do this.

My first time was individual raspberry soufflés dusted with confectioner’s sugar, made for Valentine’s Day. They were perfect, delicious and so easy I thought I’d cheated. What about all those liars whining that making a good soufflé is equivalent to successfully navigating one’s way through The Temple of Doom?

Now, I love to make soufflés, and even though the whiners are wrong, I still feel like a chic domestic goddess when I pull them out of the oven. This blue cheese soufflé has become my favorite. I have been making it for a couple years, usually at the holidays, because it makes a festive meal seem that much more special. I love it with steak, but this time we served it with an arugula salad as one in a series of small plates. With its light, tender texture and bites of melting, mellowed blue cheese, this soufflé is even better than you think it’s going to be. Use the best blue cheese you can get, whether you prefer Roquefort, Stilton, Gorgonzola, Cabrales or an American blue.

This dish is even accomodating enough to bake unattended for 25 minutes while you grill a steak or toss together a salad. As long as you took the time to fold in those egg whites ever so gently, you will be sitting down to one of the most elegant dishes ever to grace your table. And once the last bite is gone, you will be exceedingly anxious to do it again.

Blue Cheese Soufflés
Adapted from Tyler Florence for Food Network. Makes enough for 6-6oz. ramekins, 4-8oz. ramekins or a 2 quart soufflé dish. The 8oz. versions may take slightly longer to bake. I have also divided the recipe in half successfully when I want to make just 2 or 3 individual soufflés.

3 tblsp. unsalted butter, plus more for greasing ramekins
2-3 tblsp. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 tblsp. all-purpose flour
1 c. milk (I use 2%)
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
½ tsp. salt
freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 tsp. dry mustard powder
6 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
5 egg whites

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare the ramekins by rubbing the insides all over with butter. Divide the Parmigiano among the ramekins, holding them sideways and spinning them around to get the cheese to adhere to the sides. This gives the soufflé something to cling to.

In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. When it is completely melted and the foam subsides, add the flour as you whisk constantly to form a smooth béchamel sauce. Cook for about two minutes, whisking constantly, to remove the raw flour taste. Slowly add the milk as you continue to whisk until incorporated and slightly thickened. Remove the saucepan from the heat.

Whisk a small dollop of the hot butter-flour mixture into the egg yolks so they don’t cook when you add them to the saucepan. Now add the tempered yolks to your saucepan, whisking to incorporate. Add the salt, pepper and dry mustard. Whisk in the blue cheese.

In a large bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they hold soft peaks. Add 1/3 of the egg whites to the saucepan and gently fold them into the cheesy mixture with a spatula. Add the remaining whites in two more additions, folding them in gently. It is not necessary to fully incorporate the egg whites. Since the goal of folding is to preserve as much of their volume as possible, it is okay to see small bits of whites in the mixture. Divide the soufflé mixture evenly among the prepared ramekins. Bake, directly on your oven rack, for 25 minutes. The tops should form golden brown, jagged plateaus and the centers should jiggle ever so slightly. For the most beautiful presentation, serve immediately.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Spiced Lamb Patties with Minty Yogurt Sauce

Meatballs and hamburgers are incredibly versatile foods. Meatballs may be shaped to the size of a tennis ball, baked and served on a bed of smooth polenta or pan-fried to crispy little bites and eaten with toothpicks at a cocktail party. Burgers are an icon of American cuisine, whether flipped off of a backyard grill onto a soft, ketchup-coated bun or stuffed with gorgonzola, topped with red onion compote and broiled in a restaurant kitchen. Meatballs can be make of beef, pork, veal or any combination thereof, and ostrich and salmon burgers are not all that rare.

These lamb patties combine the best elements of the meatball and the burger to create a surprisingly flavorful appetizer. Just as convenient a finger food as a cocktail meatball, the flattened shape of a mini-hamburger allows the development of a dark, crusty char as they cook in a skillet. When we made them, they were actually part of a menu of small plates, since Mike and I would rather eschew the "appetizer-entree-dessert" model in favor of tapas-style eating whenever we have the chance.

I had the idea to make lamb patties, then found a recipe for Middle Eastern-spiced meatballs in December's Bon Appetit. Cinnamon adds an essential element of sweetness and warmth that I heightened with Hungarian sweet paprika. I discovered how this type of paprika can add a smoky sweetness to meats when I recently bought a fresh, quality product instead of resorting to the generic red powder that never tasted like much of anything. It may come in handy for adding a little color to deviled eggs, but it is useless as a seasoning. Cumin further underscores the smoky flavor, and mint, parsley and diced red onion add freshness and moisture.

Bon Appetit calls for a sun-dried tomato aioli with their lamb meatballs, but I decided to try a minty yogurt sauce. Unlike the mayonnaise-based aioli, the creamy Greek yogurt is a cooling, tangy counterpoint to the warm spices and juicy meat. You could make a full meal of the patties and sauce by serving them in pita bread with some romaine lettuce. Whatever you do, I think this is a great formula for creating a new dish: start with a classic (or two); change one element, like the choice of meat; add some unexpected spices from another cuisine; and serve in a creative way. How do new dishes evolve in your kitchen?

Spiced Lamb Patties with Minty Yogurt Sauce
Patties adapted from Bon Appetit. Makes about 12 little patties.

3/4 lb. ground lamb
1/2 c. panko (I used whole wheat)
1/4 c. red onion, finely chopped
1/4 c. fresh parsly, chopped
1/4 c. fresh mint, chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tblsp. Hungarian sweet paprika
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1-2 tblsp. olive oil

In a large bowl combine lamb, panko, onion, parsley, mint, egg, paprika, cumin cinnamon and salt. Use your hands to mix all the ingredients. Form the lamb mixture into little patties, about 1/2 inch thick. Meanwhile, heat about a tablespoon of oil in a skillet (I use cast iron. You could also cook these on a grill or under the broiler.) over medium-high heat. Add half the patties, or as many as you can fit allowing 1/2 inch of space between them. Cook until the bottoms of the patties are browned to the degree that you like, about 4 minutes. Flip and finish cooking on the other side, about 3 minutes more. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate and cook the remaining patties, adding more oil to the skillet if needed. Serve with the yogurt sauce.

Yogurt Sauce:
8 oz. Greek yogurt (I used Fage Total 0% fat)
5-6 sundried tomato halves, packed in oil, chopped
3 tblsp. fresh mint, chopped
1/4 tsp. salt
sprinkle of freshly ground pepper
1/2 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl. Serve with the lamb patties. I like to make this before the patties so that the yogurt is not refrigerator-cold when serving and flavors can mesh.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Quick & Healthy: Sausage, Spinach & White Bean Ragout

Tuesday night I sat at our table eating an Amy's Vegetable Lasagna that I cooked in the microwave. Mike was sitting on the couch watching Jeopardy, having already polished off some leftovers. This is generally the scene in our house when it's been a long day and we're too busy to plan and execute a real dinner. I don't necessarily mind nights like this, but I didn't want the rest of this harried week to come and go without sitting down to a nice meal with my husband.

The next day, in the midst of a busy morning at work, I started digging around online for dinner ideas. I did not know what I was in the mood for, but I needed it to have a fairly short ingredient list with nothing so out of the ordinary that I couldn't find it at the supermarket during my lunch hour. When I don't know what I want, I usually end up searching through tons of online recipes, getting sidetracked by the siren call of a chocolate torte here or a cream pie there and still not finding something for dinner.

This time, I vowed not to be picky. All I wanted was something we could cook in less than 30 minutes and drink with a glass of red wine. I must have built up good recipe karma because right on the homepage of, I hit pay dirt. This quick and healthy gem was the "recipe of the day," and it fit all my requirements: simple ingredients, minimal prep, very healthy and amenable to a nice, inexpensive bottle of Sangiovese. This is a stew with less liquid, so it is quite attractive in a wide soup bowl with Parmigiano Reggiano sprinkled on top. Do use red potatoes, cut small so they cook quickly, for their smooth, waxy texture. Any sausage, even pre-cooked or vegetarian will work, just as long as it tastes good with your favorite weeknight wine.

Sausage, Spinach and White Bean Ragout
Adapted from Serves 3-4

Other greens like, swiss chard or mustard greens, would be great here (the original recipe called for escarole, but that's not exactly a staple in my supermarket). You could also add about 1/3 cup of white wine after cooking the sausage and onion, but we were drinking red.

1 tblsp. olive oil
3 spicy Italian turkey sausage links, casings removed (or any sausage you like)
1 c. onion, chopped
1 generous cup cubed red potatoes (about 1/2 inch)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (15 oz.) can cannellini, or white beans, drained and rinsed
2 to 2-1/2 c. low sodium chicken broth
1 bag baby spinach
1/2 tblsp. fresh rosemary chopped (or substitue 1/2 tsp. dried)
Parmigiano Reggiano, for serving

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper, then add the sausage. If you are using pre-cooked sausage, slice it and add it when the onions are almost done. Break the sausage up into small pieces with a spoon as you cook. When the sausage is no longer pink and the onions are lightly browned, add the garlic, potatoes, beans and chicken broth. Use just enough broth to cover the potatoes. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook for 7 minutes. Add the spinach, a handful at a time, then add the rosemary. Continue to simmer uncovered for 4 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with grated cheese.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Mini Pumpkin-Cranberry-Walnut Loaves

Pumpkins start turning up in early October so that we can bring them home and gleefully disembowel them and carve them up for our own morbid amusement. I know I'm not the only one who enjoys scooping out the slimy, stringy insides with my hands. We tell ourselves it's okay because we are going to dry out those slippery seeds, then roast, salt and eat them later when we can't stand the thought of another fun size Butterfinger.

Once the ritual abuse of pumpkins comes to an end, we immediately start making kinder, gentler plans for these innocent gourds. It's a given that they will have a place at the Thanksgiving table in the form of a simple, classic pie. They might find their way into a creamy soup this year, or even homemade ravioli served with a browned butter sauce.

On many of my favorite food blogs, last week was the week of pumpkin. On Baking Sheet, there were light and fluffy Pumpkin Streusel Muffins. Immediately after reading about these muffins, I visited Cream Puffs in Venice where I was delighted to find Ivonne making Pumpkin Donuts with a powdered sugar glaze using this recipe from epicurious. Mike and I plan to try them this weekend. If you want to have dessert and still go the healthy route, you could try this Layered Pumpkin Cheesecake from South Beach Diet guru, Kalyn.

If you are like me, you probably will not touch a fresh pumpkin after Halloween, opting instead for the handy pumpkin puree obtained at any supermarket. I kicked off the holiday baking season last weekend by opening a couple cans to make Mini Pumpkin-Cranberry-Walnut Loaves. I love these because I can get them done early and keep them in the freezer until I am ready to give them as little holiday gifts. I may end up making another batch the week before Christmas because Mike will have eaten all of them, but that's what happens when you leave such tasty things lying around.

Mini Pumpkin-Cranberry-Walnut Loaves
Adapted from Makes 6 mini loaves.

I bake these in mini disposable foil loaf pans that I buy at the supermarket. Because the loaves are tiny, I like to chop the walnuts finely and give the dried cranberries a good chop as well. Though small, these loaves require quite a long baking time. Wearing oven gloves, turn them upside down and flip them out of their pans to make sure the bottom is browned.

2 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
3/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
24 oz. canned pumpkin puree
1 c. sugar
1 c. (packed) golden brown sugar
1 c. vegetable oil (I use Spectrum expeller-pressed canola oil)
4 large eggs
3/4 c. buttermilk
1 1/2 c. (packed) dried cranberries, roughly chopped
1 1/4 c. walnuts, chopped
6 mini loaf pans
nonstick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves in a bowl; whisk to blend.

With an electric mixer, beat pumpkin and both sugars on medium speed until blended. Slowly add the oil while beating. Continue beating and add the eggs, one at a time. Add the dry ingredients in four additions alternately with buttermilk in three additions. If using a stand mixer, keep the machine on low to medium-low while adding flour mixture and buttermilk. Otherwise, stir these in by hand. Stir in the cranberries and walnuts.

Coat the loaf pans all around with cooking spray. Divide the batter evenly among the six pans. Bake for 70 to 80 minutes. Test with a toothpick or cake tester, as well as by checking the bottom of the loaf. It should be lightly browned. If not, continue baking. Cool completely in pans.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Creamy Butterfinger Pie

This is Anna's Chocolate Butterfinger Cream Pie, and it restored my faith in baking. Maybe that is because there is barely any baking involved, but why split hairs? Here's the thing: I was coming off of a string of homemade desserts that just did not send me over the moon. A chocolate cake recipe that turned dry and hard, a chocolate torte that didn't bake evenly... and all this after the fruit pie debacles of the past summer. I was feeling demoralized about my baking skills, but most of all, I just wanted to eat an insanely good dessert that was worth every calorie. I am stringent about only eating desserts that taste absolutely delicious to me. Anything else is just a waste.

I have a predilection for chocolate; in fact, sometimes a dessert cannot truly satisfy me unless chocolate is involved. I also love creamy things: whip cream, icing, mousse. But not ice cream- it's too cold. I admit that I am very picky about what I eat, but it is because I love food and aim to enjoy every last bite. That is why my bad baking streak was so painful. I just wanted something tasty!

Well, this pie did the trick. I saw it on Anna's great baking blog, Cookie Madness, and was enthralled. Imagine a homemade Oreo crust, a rich base of silky chocolate topped with a layer of crushed Butterfingers folded into cream cheese, flavored with butterscotch and lightened with cool whip. I don't think I've ever used so many prepared food items in a recipe before, but I don't care! If you're wearing your 'food snob' hat, fling it off and make this pie!

I even got to practice my previously nonexistent piping skills with the remaining cool whip and a ziploc bag. There's also a secret ingredient that no one eating this pie will ever guess- silken tofu. You blend it with melted chocolate chips to make the chocolate layer, and it sets up to a smooth, yet firm texture. I used semisweet chips, but I thought the flavor was a bit intense next to the lighter Butterfinger layer, although Mike didn't mind it at all. I might use a little less chocolate or go with milk chocolate next time.
I want to thank Anna, a really talented and prolific baker, for her recipe. Visit her blog everyday because she is always doing something wonderful and giving insightful baking tips. The dessert curse is officially broken, and not a minute too soon for holiday baking season!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Most Entertaining Recipe I've Seen in a Long Time

Who doesn't crave familiar, comforting food, especially after a long holiday weekend? Surely even the most skilled cooks occasionally like to fall back on a meal that is so simple to prepare it requires little more equipment than a spoon, a saucepan and a toaster. I came across a certain kitchen maverick who did just that. Without further ado, check out this recipe for Bunnies & Dogs, complete with fantastic illustrative step-by-step photos. Don't worry, this IS safe for vegetarians.

One disclaimer: This blog belongs to my fabulous sister- and brother-in-law. I think they're tired of me being known as the gourmet in the family. I'm going to have to start making my recipes more entertaining to compete with this...

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Future of Wine Tasting

Welcome to the ultimate wine store for gadget-mavens, wine-swilling techies and boys who love toys. It's also pretty great if you are a wine lover who subscribes to the try-before-you-buy theory. Even if you have little interest in wine, 7th Street Wine Company is so cool, it could turn you into an amateur sommelier.

The best comparison is to a grown-up video arcade where you plunk down some cash that gets loaded onto a debit card by the cashier who hands you a glass and leaves you to run wild from machine to machine. However, instead of chances to earn a high score on Golden Tee, your little card buys you tastes from the store's selection of 1100 different wines. At any given time, about 100 bottles are "on tap." The sleek, futuristic enomatic wine dispensing machines are imported from Italy and calibrated to mete out a perfect tasting pour.

A taste of a priced bottle will be in the $1 to $3 range, while others, like a Canadian ice wine, will run you about $9 for a frosty swig. Mike and I tend to stick to the lower end of the price range and compare France to California or Riesling to Gewurztraminer. We usually load about $25 onto our debit card, and taste enough different wines to leave us feeling very content. If we did happen to be in the market for a special bottle, we might not mind spending $10 or so on a taste before we spend considerably more to bring it home with us.

The picture above shows Mike inserting our debit card into one of the enomatics that holds all the white wine selections in a temperature-controlled environment. I have to admit that we actually purchase almost all of our wine at our other favorite wine shop in Fort Lauderdale because they have phenomenal prices, a knowledgable staff and a great selection. Mike gets such a kick out of the enomatics at 7th Street however, that we keep coming back for the novelty, as well as the sleek atmosphere of this beautifully designed space.

7th Street has frequent free tastings, often hosted by one of their distributors. There are usually more than a few couples on dates or groups of friends enjoying the casual ambience, complete with jazzy mood music and low, blue-tinted lighting.

I do not think there are many set-ups like this yet in the United States, but it is bound to catch on quickly. Hopefully not too quickly, though. It's nice to be ahead of the curve down here in sunny Fort Lauderdale for a change.

7th Street Wine Company
701 S. Federal Highway
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Orange-Sage Sauce for Roast Turkey

I’ve finally made it to the turkey. Having prepared all these dishes and written about them throughout the week, I have to keep reminding myself that the real Thanksgiving holiday is still to come. With all the Christmas food displays and decorations that have gone up in the past week, I feel like Thanksgiving is already behind us. Happily, my mind is just playing tricks on me. I will be able to eat all this fantastic food again on Thursday with my big extended family.

When I cooked the whole T-Day spread for Mike and me, a 10 lb. turkey wasn’t practical, even for someone who loves leftovers as much as I do. A mere fraction of a bird does the job, so I like to roast a large turkey breast, bone-in, when it’s just the two of us. The one we bought was big-about four pounds, and it provided enough gorgeous, juicy meat for a feast and several sandwiches afterwards. I coat the bird (or partial bird) with olive oil, salt and pepper, over and under the skin; squeeze the juice of half an orange all over it and nestle the spent orange in the cavity; and stuff a bunch of sage between the skin and breast meat. I follow the cooking guidelines in my Betty Crocker cookbook (about 1 ¾ hours at 325 degrees), covering the bird with foil once it browns on top, and otherwise I don’t touch it.

The breast meat, often derided for being dry and stringy, is incredibly moist and succulent. We honestly didn’t need any sort of gravy, but I love my orange-sage sauce. It’s perfect if you don’t care to recycle your turkey drippings, or you’re just not crazy about basic, brown gravy. Now that it’s almost time for Mike and I to head off to Connecticut, I can’t wait for the cooking and feasting to begin again. I have had one of the busiest, happiest years of my life in 2006, so I have more than a lot to be thankful for.

Orange-Sage Sauce for Roast Turkey
Makes 1 cup. Double recipe to serve more.

½ tblsp. olive oil
½ tblsp. unsalted butter
2 tblsp. minced shallot
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. no pulp orange juice
¾ c. low sodium chicken broth
1 bunch of sage (or small handful leaves) plus 2 tblsp. chopped sage leaves
1 tblsp. corn starch mixed with 2 tblsp. water
Salt and pepper to taste

Add the oil and butter to a small saucepan over medium heat. When butter is melted, add the shallot and garlic and cook, stirring often, for 3 minutes. Add the orange juice, chicken broth and bunch of sage. You don’t have to take the sage leaves off the branch; just leave the whole piece to infuse the sauce. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat so the sauce is at a steady simmer. Cook until the sauce is reduced to about one cup. Remove the sage.

Add slightly less than half of the cornstarch mixture and stir to thicken. If you want the sauce to thicken further, keep adding more of the cornstarch mixture. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper. Serve hot over roast turkey and garnish with chopped sage leaves.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Chestnut, Cranberry & Pear Stuffing: Countdown to T-Day!

When trying to come up with the title of this recipe for my absolute favorite stuffing, I could not determine which of the main ingredients was most important, so I just put them all in alphabetical order. I was first attracted to the original version of this recipe for the chestnuts, which are a unique textural addition to a lot of dishes. Then I prepared it and loved the sweetness coaxed out of the pears in baking. I have never had a particular fondness for dried cranberries (Sorry, Ocean Spray, I mean, “Craisins.”), but the bursts of sweet-tart flavor are absolutely perfect when you take a bite of this addictive stuffing.

Technically, this should really be called a “dressing,” since I do not stuff it into anything aside from my mouth. Calling it, dressing, makes me feel like a Southern belle (no offense to my Southern friends, I love Gone With the Wind), so I am just going to stick with “stuffing,” misnomer, or not. All the ingredients from the pears to the chunks of whole wheat bread are cut into fairly large pieces, about ½ to ¾ inch, because I like to see and taste all the individual components with their distinctive textures.

I like to think that this is stuffing for those of us who aren’t exactly “stuffing people.” With whole wheat bread and not much fat, this is a really nutritious side dish, so don’t even think about following the typical T-Day diet advice and measuring out a dainty half cup portion. You don’t have to peel the pears, you can use fresh or dried thyme and feel free to bake on whatever temp your oven happens to be at for your other dishes. I like this stuffing so much, I’m afraid I sound a little evangelical about it. Just one last thing: it tastes amazing left over.

Chestnut, Cranberry & Pear Stuffing
Originally adapted from Redbook magazine. Serves 6

Soft supermarket whole wheat from the bread aisle works well in this recipe; I don't remove the crusts. I have used different varieties of pears here, and they are all delicious. This stuffing can be used to fill a turkey as well! You'll have some left over, so bake it separately.

11 slices whole wheat bread, cut into ¾ inch pieces
1 tblsp. unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped or a 3/4 cup chopped scallions
1 c. sliced celery
1/2 cup thinly sliced carrots
12 oz cooked, peeled chestnuts, broken into chunks
½ c. dried cranberries
1/2 tsp dried thyme
2 semi-firm pears, cored and cut into ½ inch pieces
¼ c. red wine, white wine or chicken broth
salt and pepper
1 c. chicken broth

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put the bread pieces into a large bowl. In a skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and celery, season with salt and pepper and cook until soft and lightly browned, about 6 minutes. Add chestnuts, cranberries and thyme and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring gently. Add the pears and wine, season again with salt and pepper and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes to allow the wine to reduce a bit.

Add the contents of the skillet to the bowl of bread and toss to combine. Pour the broth over the stuffing and toss again. Coat a 2 qt. baking dish with nonstick spray and add the stuffing. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking for an additional 5-10 minutes until the stuffing is lightly browned and slightly crisp on top.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sweet Potato Galette with Spinach and Fontina: Countdown to T-Day!

For Thanksgiving, I absolutely must have a sweet potato side dish, but I am forever baffled as to why anyone would insist on sweetening this delicious, nutritious vegetable to within an inch of its life, then topping it with mini marshmallows as a final insult. I don’t mind lightly candied sweet potatoes done in a skillet with butter and a bit of brown sugar, but a savory preparation is so much less cloying and heavy, especially when a good serving of fresh spinach is tucked into the package.

This galette, crisp and caramelized on the outside and tender within, is a new recipe that turned out to be my favorite in our pre-Thanksgiving feast. Richness comes not from cream and sugar, but a layer of aged fontina cheese. A good fontina melts without a fight, adding an earthiness to the bright, garlicky spinach and sweet spuds. The galette can be completely cooked hours ahead and re-warmed in a low oven or even a microwave, if you’re hard pressed. It is delicious just slightly warm or at room temperature.

The most important trick to cooking this galette is cutting the potatoes as thinly as you possibly can (Thank you, Mike!). A mandoline would make easy work of this, but we did fine without one. Although, after cutting all those paper-thin potato slices, Mike might be in the market for an adjustable blade slicer as one of my Christmas gifts. What I like most about this galette, aside from the fabulous taste, is that it looks like much more of a hassle than it really is. I could eat this as a meal with bread and salad, but it is definitely a classy take on the requisite sweet potato side dish.

Sweet Potato Galette with Spinach and Fontina
Making this for the first time, I let the first layer of potatoes cook for a while before building the rest of galette. This would account for the particularly burnished appearance of the finished dish, but I love veggies caramelized to the point of blackened, so I didn’t mind. For a lighter coloring, just proceed immediately with the rest of the layers and transfer to the oven as soon as the potatoes on the bottom start to take on some color, as directed below.

Inspired by two recipes in Gourmet, Sept. ‘06
Serves 4-6

2 tsp. olive oil
1-10oz. bag baby spinach, thick stems removed
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper

1 tblsp. olive oil
½ tblsp. butter
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced crosswise, 1/16 inch thick
¾ c. grated fontina cheese
½ tblsp. melted butter

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (if your oven is on a lower temp. for the turkey, just extend the cooking time of the galette slightly). Heat 2 tsp. oil in a heavy, nonstick, oven-proof skillet over medium heat. Add the spinach (in batches, if necessary) and sauté until beginning to wilt. Add the garlic and continue cooking for 2 minutes or until the spinach is completely wilted. Remove to a bowl and wipe out the skillet.

Heat 1 tblsp. oil and the butter in the skillet over medium heat. Arrange slices of sweet potato in a circular pattern in the skillet. Crowd the slices over the whole surface area, overlapping them, as they will shrink up a little when cooked. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cover the sweet potatoes with the spinach. Arrange another layer of sweet potatoes the same way and season with salt and pepper. Cover with the fontina and a final layer of sweet potatoes and seasoning. Press down with a spatula or your hands to help mesh the layers. When the bottom layer of potatoes starts turning golden, drizzle the melted butter over the top and transfer the skillet to the oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the galette is tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife. If you like, you can run the galette under the broiler for a minute at the end to crisp the top, but be careful not to burn the potatoes. Let the galette cool in the skillet for 10-15 minutes. Fit a plate over the galette, and invert the skillet to release it. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms: Countdown to T-Day

I have Bobby Flay to thank for this one, but not in the way that you think. Zucchini blossoms have been one of my culinary obsessions, like truffles, figs and mizithra cheese. It kills me that I lived in Southern California for the first 18 years of my life and didn’t grow these myself. Now, they are one of those things I look for at markets and hope to see on restaurant menus in the summertime.

I still haven’t found a source for them here in Florida (if only I could garden in my condo!), but last week, Mike saw good old Bobby Flay giving the macho grill treatment to some gorgeous zucchini blossoms. While stuffing his blossoms with a ridiculous pork mixture (those blossoms must have been on steroids), Flay mentioned that zucchini flowers, like everything else nowadays, can be ordered via the internet.

Knowing how I’ve yearned for zucchini blossoms of my own, Mike called and told me the news, and we googled until we found an organic produce source in California. I have never ordered produce online before, much less paid to have an out-of-season, perishable food overnighted to my kitchen. It kind of goes against my principles, but there was no turning back. We were planning our pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving dinner, and we knew that delicate zucchini flowers, stuffed with a seasoned ricotta filling, lightly battered and pan-fried would be a perfect appetizer. These could not have turned out better. We hoped they would be good, but these lovely blossoms were totally worth going to extreme measures for. I guess I really have Mike to thank for this one. Sorry, Iron Chef Flay...

If you don’t reside in warmer climes, save this recipe for summer, and absolutely enjoy it with champagne.

Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms
The method used here of beating the egg white until stiff peaks form, then folding in the beaten yolk is a genius trick that we learned from Saveur magazine when Mike made chiles rellenos. It makes the batter light, crisp and helps it adhere to the blossoms.

Serves 2-4

½ c. ricotta cheese
2 tblsp. fresh basil, chopped
5 to 6 sun-dried tomato halves, packed in oil, chopped
2 tblsp. parmigiano reggiano, grated
¼ tsp. coarse salt
½ tsp. pepper
12 zucchini blossoms

2 eggs, separated
½ c. flower
salt and pepper
½ tsp. cayenne pepper or chili powder
Canola oil, for frying (I use Spectrum expeller-pressed)

In a bowl, combine the ricotta, basil, sun-dried tomatoes, parmigiano reggiano, salt and pepper.

Gently pry open the zucchini blossoms or cut a slit on one side to open. With your fingers, stuff about 2 tsp. of the ricotta mixture into each blossom. Twist the tips of the petals to close. You will have leftover ricotta.

Using a hand mixer, beat the egg whites until foamy and somewhat stiff. Lightly beat the yolks and fold them into the whites. Put the flour into a shallow bowl and season with salt, pepper and cayenne. Dip one zucchini blossom into the egg mixture, then into the flour, coating it well all over. Set the blossom on a plate and proceed with the rest of the blossoms.

Meanwhile, heat about ¼ to ½ inch of canola oil in a heavy skillet (I use cast iron) to medium high. The oil needs only to cover the zucchini blossoms about half way. Add six of the zucchini blossoms to the skillet and fry until golden, then turn with a spatula and fry the opposite sides. Watch closely as the first side takes 2-4 minutes and the second side slightly less. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain and fry remaining zucchini blossoms in the same oil. Serve immediately. No accompaniments are needed other than a glass of sparkling wine.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Baked Oysters - Countdown to T-Day!

Last night, Mike and I had Thanksgiving dinner. It's not that we were confused or couldn't wait two weeks for the real holiday. It's just that we like to cook (and eat), and our house is filled with stacks of food magazines with beautifully styled, golden birds on their covers. Notwithstanding the enticements of the food media, I like to make time to do Thanksgiving on my own. When T-Day does roll around, I'll be in Cheshire, Connecticut with Mike's, and now my, extended family. We will eat lasagna on Wednesday, cook and eat the traditional Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday and hike up The Sleeping Giant on Friday. Somewhere along the way, we will fit in a highly competitive beer pong tournament.

I LOVE spending Thanksgiving in Connecticut. But, being the foodie that I am, I can't resist the urge to roast a turkey in my own oven, cook my favorite side dishes and try a few new ones. Last year, I did it a couple of weeks after Thanksgiving, when we were sufficiently recovered. This year, I decided to do it ahead of time so I could share the menu here.

Instead of trying to orchestrate half a dozen side dishes to be ready at the same time as our bird, we took the more leisurely approach and made some appetizers in the early afternoon. It's a great idea if you want to pop open a pre-dinner bottle of champagne and start the fun a little early. We bought a dozen oysters on the half shell at the fish market near our house, calling ahead to have them freshly shucked and waiting for us. Baking the shells on a bed of rock salt makes a great presentation, but you could also buy the oysters in a jar, sans shell, and arrange them in a baking dish. This is a lighter version of Oysters Rockefeller, which leaves plenty of room for the rest of the feast!

Baked Oysters
Adapted from Cooking Light magazine
Serves 2-4

1 dozen oysters, either on the half shell or shelled
2 tblsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. olive oil
2 thin slices proscuitto, chopped into small pieces
2 large handfuls baby spinach, thick stems removed
coarsely ground pepper
2 tblsp. pine nuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Arrange the oysters in a baking dish either on a bed of salt if they are in their shells or alone with a bit of nonstick cooking spray to prevent sticking. Drizzle the lemon juice over the oysters.

Heat the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the proscuitto and cook, stirring often, for 1 minute. Add the spinach and continue cooking until spinach is wilted and proscuitto is lightly browned on the edges. Season with pepper.

Top each oyster with a bit of the spinach mixture. Sprinkle the pine nuts on top. Bake for 5 minutes, or until oysters are slightly firm around the edges.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Guess the Secret Ingredient in This Bolognese

Perfect for the season, they are often a supporting player in fall cooking. They are hard to categorize, so they rarely get the respect they deserve. They are encased within a shell, have a unique, firm texture and taste incredible when roasted on an open fire (or in a 350 degree oven). They are chestnuts, the holiday nut that has a nutritional profile similar to brown rice, with more carbohydrates than fats, and vitamins not found in other nuts. Barely noticeable to the eye once you stir them into the slow-simmered sauce, the chestnuts add a special sweet meatiness, similar to a thick, roasted portobella mushroom.

The first time I had a chestnut was when my mom roasted fresh ones in the oven when we were decorating our Christmas tree on an early December weekend (we didn’t have a fireplace in Southern California). I tried this myself a couple years ago, but forgot to make slits in the shells that would have allowed steam to escape. When I took them out of the oven, they started exploding, and I thought I was going to be blinded by chestnut shrapnel. Thankfully, I was unscathed, but now I buy canned chestnuts, usually imported from France, that have already been cooked and peeled. Ready-to-use chestnuts are also sold in jars or vacuum-packed and are easy to find in stores at this time of year.

I adapted this recipe from Food & Wine magazine, which previously adapted it from Daniel Boulud. I used a whole 10 oz. can of chestnuts and a combination of ground turkey, ground sirloin and pancetta for the meat. Because of the 45 minutes of simmering time, this is best done on a weekend when you want a warm pot of something cooking on the stove. It also makes a ton of sauce, but freezes very well. The lucky people you feed with this may not be able to put their fingers on the secret ingredient, but they will love this Bolognese.

Spaghetti Bolognese with Chestnuts
Serves 6 to 8

1 lb. lean ground turkey
¾ lb. ground sirloin
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
4 oz. pancetta, cut into small pieces
1 rib celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 white or yellow onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tblsp. fresh rosemary, finely chopped
½ tsp. dried basil
¼ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 ½ c. dry red wine
1-28 oz. can tomato puree
2 c. low sodium chicken broth
¼ tsp. sugar
1 lb. spaghetti
½ c. heavy cream
10 oz. can cooked chestnuts, drained and roughly chopped
parsley, chopped, for serving
parmigiano reggiano, for serving

In a large pot or dutch oven, cook the turkey and sirloin over medium heat just until the meat is no longer pink (If your pot is not nonstick, cook the meat in a small amount of olive oil). Season with salt and pepper. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towel to drain. Pour out any remaining fat from the pot. Add the pancetta to the pot and cook until lightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Drain off all but a tablespoon of the pancetta fat from the pan and add the celery, carrot and onion. Cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are soft and beginning to brown. Add the garlic, rosemary, basil and crushed red pepper flakes and cook for one more minute. Season with pepper and a pinch of salt. Add the turkey and sirloin back to the pot. Stir to combine and add the red wine. Raise the heat to bring the liquid to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the liquid is almost evaporated, about 10 minutes.

Add the tomato puree, chicken broth and sugar. Season with pepper and raise the heat to bring to a boil. Lower the heat again and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce is reduced by half, about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water.

Stir the heavy cream into the sauce and add the chestnuts, reserved pancetta and a small handful of chopped parsley. Drain the pasta and serve, topped with the Bolognese sauce, additional parsley and grated parmigiano reggiano.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Secret of Gourmet Travel

How do you feel civilized when you’re squished into a musty airplane seat that reclines all of two inches and is in startlingly close proximity to a public bathroom? The answer is NOT schlepping your own germ-proof seat cover or a personal blanket with foot slots to keep your toes warm (these are real products, people). The thing I’ve found to keep me feeling like the clever, discerning traveler that I am, as opposed to a piece of vacuum-packed ahi, is my homemade tapenade.

Imagine the seatbelt sign being extinguished by the captain as you rub a generous squirt of hand sanitizer between your palms and unwrap an ingeniously packed (to prevent smooshing) ciabatta roll laden with roasted vegetables, a slice or two of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella cheese and a schmear of salty tapenade. As you dab a bit of eggplant juice from your chin with the corner of a napkin, the fellow-passengers in your row will wince at their own lack of planning as well as the after-effects of the Cinnabon they scarfed down before boarding.

Sometimes I use pita bread; sometimes I switch the prosciutto for salami. I change up the tapenade as well. We were feeling like something particularly pungent when we created the recipe here, so we included some anchovy fillets for a fuller, more complex saltiness. They are offset nicely by about half a cup of sun-dried tomatoes (not the marinated ones) that we rehydrate in simmering water before adding them to the food processor along with the rest of the ingredients. We also use a generous handful of fresh basil leaves, making this nearly a cross between a tapenade and a pesto. I also find that I do not need nearly as much olive oil as most recipes call for. You can always add more oil or a bit of the water used to simmer the tomatoes for additional moisture. This spread can be used on anything from crostini to grilled meats, but when I take it along for a mid-flight meal, being a frequent flyer is a lot tastier.

Sun-Dried Tomato Tapenade
The sun-dried tomatoes are usually found in the produce section or near the tomato sauce. I used a mixture of green Queen olives and Kalamata olives, but use any kind of good Mediterranean olives you like.
Makes 1 ½ to 2 cups and keeps in the fridge for up to a week.

½ c. sun-dried tomatoes (not in marinade)
1 c. olives, pitted
3 anchovy fillets (packed in olive oil)
1 to 2 garlic cloves
1 rounded tsp. capers, rinsed
1 c. basil leaves
1 1/2 tblsp. lemon juice
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil, or more as needed

Put the sun-dried tomatoes in a small saucepan and add water to cover. Bring water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes and drain, reserving a couple tablespoons of the cooking liquid.

Add the rehydrated tomatoes, olives, anchovies, garlic, capers, basil, lemon juice and pepper to a food processor. Blitz for 20 seconds, scrape down the sides and keep blitzing until the contents is finely chopped. Turn the processor on and add the olive oil through the tube. Check for seasoning and consistency. You might want to add more pepper or lemon juice, additional olive oil or some of the reserved tomato cooking liquid if you think it is too dry. I like to be able to see tiny bits of the individual ingredients in the finished product, as opposed to a totally blended paste.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Best of Boston, Part 2

Considering a trip to view the gorgeous fall foliage of New England? Skip the quaint country roads and stay in the city! Not only are there endless options for amazing meals (read on), but the cornucopia of colors and the brisk air coursing through the city on a sunny fall afternoon make it a spectacular place to be this time of year.

Best Tapas and Best Restaurant Overall - Tasca
1612 Commonwealth Ave. Brighton, 617-730-8002

This is the place I dream about on a regular basis. When I lived in Boston, it was always a short walk from home. Take the "B" line down Commonwealth to get to this always crowded, amazingly affordable spot, and you will not be sorry. They have entrees, but I have never ordered one. Get tapas. Our favorite is setas al jerez (above), or mushrooms in a broth deeply flavored with homemade stock, sherry and a touch of cream. On this visit we also had a wonderfully warming lamb stew (top of post); a salt cod and potato stew; fresh, marinated anchovies (behind the mushrooms); and a tortilla espanola.

Best Place to Spend an Afternoon - Quincy Market

Right behind the historic Faneuil Hall, Quincy Market has a massive food court, bars, restaurants and shops, as well as some of the more talented street performers you're likely to see. It is also in very close proximity to the following attractions...

The Holocaust Memorial

The Union Oyster House, the official oldest restaurant in America. It is a great place to get a bite and a frosty mug of Bass Ale.

The Bell in Hand, our favorite among the row of bars along Union Street that fill up on weekend nights or after games and concerts at the nearby Bank North Garden.

Best Restaurant Earning National Recognition - Oleanna
134 Hampshire St. Cambridge, 617-661-0505

Ana Sortun's cozy, yet elegantly designed place on a quiet street in Cambridge is a unique gem of a restaurant. The menu consists of creative interpretations of Turkish and other Middle Eastern Cuisine through a local, seasonal lens. The menu changes throughout the year and incorporates many foods from the farm that Sortun's husband runs outside the city. We ate light, feathery pumpkin falafel; veal that was shredded and so scrumptiously moist, that it was quite like duck confit; and lamb steak with a perfect crusty char that was accompanied by a wonderful, up-market take on moussaka. We loved every bite and hope all of these dishes are in Sortun's new cookbook, Spice, so we can try them at home.

Best Raw Bar - Jasper White's Summer Shack
50 Dalton St. Boston, 617-867-9955

The great selection of mostly New England and Canadian oysters are always fresh and resplendent with the salty goodness of the ice cold Atlantic waters. All the food is good, but the most special item at summer shack is the fried clams. If you haven't eaten fried clams in New England, you may not be aware that they are completely different from the greasy fried clam sticks made from frozen strips of something that may have once been a shellfish. Fried clams with bellies are fat, juicy, fresh and amazing with tartar sauce. Summer Shack does them better than any place.

That's me on Newbury. The picture isn't really blurry; it was just incredibly windy that day. I love how the Hancock tower in the background nearly blends into the sky. That is what the architect, IM Pei, intended.

Best Place to Shop - Newbury Street

I love hunting for bargains at Downtown Crossing (home of the famous Filene's Basement), but Newbury is where it's at. Whether you're more Gap and Niketown or Armani and French Connection, you will be happy here. There are also some unique clothing and home boutiques, a first rate knife sharpener, an independent book shop and a Hello Kitty store. It also wins the award for Best People-Watching. Get a table outside at Stephanie's or snag the window seat at Starbuck's and you're set.

Best Place to View the Foliage - The Esplanade

The stretch of the Charles River on the Boston side is a perfect place for a morning jog, or a quiet stroll with a cup of coffee in your mittened hand. The trees that shelter you are shedding their fall colors, but the views of downtown Boston, the Prudential and Hancock Towers and my favorite, the new Zakim Bridge, fight with the leaves for your attention. Start at Kenmore Square and go as far as the Longfellow Bridge to take it all in.

Best Bed & Breakfast - The Gryphon House
9 Bay State Rd. Boston, 617-375-9003

Staying here was one of the best hotel experiences I have ever had. We stayed in the Garden Room, one of eight unique suites in this beautiful brownstone a few steps from Kenmore Square. Coming from Florida, we were thrilled to have a fireplace, and the wet bar did not go to waste. I rarely think hotels are worth the high rates, but this place (less expensive than ANY of the Boston hotels) actually made our trip even better. We walked to the Charles to jog in the mornings, had easy access to the "T" at Kenmore and were five minutes from Newbury and Boylston streets.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Best of Boston: Julie’s 28th Birthday Edition, Part 1

If you could spend a long weekend in any city with the express purpose of eating, where would it be? Paris and San Francisco come to mind. I would put Barcelona in the running, and they don’t call New York the Big Apple for nothing. How about Istanbul or Delhi?

Combining any one of these places with a hefty restaurant budget would be a dream. While I wouldn’t pass up a single one of these destinations, the city I’ve been dying to eat my way through for the past two years is Boston. I lived there for seven years, and it is where I met my husband. I went to college there, got my first job (followed by my second, third and fourth jobs), matched wits with mice and landlords in decrepit apartments and finally gave it all up for the year round sunshine and (at the time) affordable real estate of Florida.

I have always been a city girl, and sometimes Fort Lauderdale’s lack of sophistication gets me down. It’s not that Florida is a provincial backwater, but I miss my favorite restaurants. I miss the five minute walk to the neighborhood bars, shopping downtown and world class museums. I miss the gorgeous Boston skyline seen from a cab crossing the Charles River from Cambridge late at night. I miss being a quick “T” ride from anywhere and not needing a car. I miss wearing clothes made with wool and the chill twilight air in October.

For my 28th birthday, Mike gave me a trip to Boston. For the past few months we have been planning our itinerary based on the meals we wanted to eat. We chose our hotel based on restaurant accessibility. We ate healthy in order to indulge later. And now we’re back. I love Boston even more than I did before, and I’ve got a very personal, very subjective guide to The Best of Boston to share with you.

Best Italian/Best Antipasto Platter - Teatro
177 Tremont St. Boston, 617-778-6841

The Italian restaurants in Boston's famous North End has nothing on this place. Housed in a former bank, Teatro is sleek, chic and always filled with a lively, downtown crowd. Gorgeous, cream-colored marble work is everywhere and the prominent design feature is the intricate molding on the ceiling, backlit with blue lights that create a sexy glow. Ambience aside, the food is spectacular and contemporary. The antipasto platter for 2 (pictured at the top of the post) is a must. Always changing, it generally features an eggplant caponata with thick chunks of the fleshy vegetable, garlicky white bean puree, cured meats, cheeses and vegetable dishes like the thinly sliced fennel salad we sampled on our visit. We also ate a beautiful beef carpaccio finished with parmesan cheese, arugula and olive oil and decadent mushroom and white truffle ravioli with porcini mushrooms and a porcini-port glaze (below).

Best Thai (in any city!) - Bangkok Bistro
1952 Beacon St. Brighton, 617-739-7270

I ate my very first thai food here during my freshman year in college, and I have never had better pad thai ANYWHERE. I make my own credible version at home because I cannot order it anywhere else after Bangkok Bistro. They take this over-exposed, abused dish that other restaurants turn into some over-sauced version of Southeast Asian spaghetti and create something truly sublime. They toss together the long list of ingredients with the toothsome rice noodles at the last minute, creating a sweet-sour-spicy gloss that allows you to taste the individual flavors that, together, create one glorious dish (below). Mike and I also recommend the best Drunken Noodle you will every eat. Bangkok's amazing "large flat noodles" are tossed with a pleasantly spicy sauce, vegetables and meat of your choice. Fabulous food and perfect every time.

Best Neighborhood Bar - White Horse Tavern
116 Brighton Ave. Allston, 617-254-6633

This place has pool tables, two bars, good food and huge front windows that open onto a colorful stretch of Brighton Ave. on balmy days. The juke box is always playing rock songs with plenty of 80s and 90s stuff, and there is a good selection of beers on tap including the locals, Harpoon and Magic Hat. As spacious as White Horse is, it always feels cozy, filling up every night with college kids and people from the neighborhood.

Best College Bar - The Kells
161 Brighton Ave. Allston 617-782-9082

Everyone has a story about The Kells, some of which cannot be repeated in polite company. Calling this place a "meet market" is using too generous a term. The days when this bar appealed to my tastes are long past, but those were some fun times... at least the ones I can remember.

Best Burger - Sunset Grill
130 Brighton Ave. Allston 617-254-1331

These burgers are ridiculously moist due to Sunset Grill's patented "beer-steaming" technique. The turkey burger is so deliciously tender, you will not even think about the beef you're missing out on. Choose from about a dozen topping combinations or create your own. We like the Acabura Burger with swiss cheese, sauteed mushrooms and peppers. Ask for sweet potato fries instead of regular is you want to change it up. Oh, yeah, they also have 112 beers on tap.

Best Street - Quint Ave. in Allston, Baby!
I did not intend to make a pilgrimage to my old apartment, but it was on the way to the bar! My balconey was the one above the funky arches.

Check back soon for the rest of the best!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Quick & Healthy: A Little Food with Your Wine?

I would like to say I came up with this meal because I was trying to eat healthfully, but my real motivation was booze.

Mike and I frequent a fantastic wine shop in Fort Lauderdale that hosts free tastings nearly every weekend. At a recent Australia tasting, along with the requisite Shiraz and GSM, we picked up a bottle of Kangarilla Road Viognier. Since the first time I tried this varietal, I perk up every time I see it on a menu or in a shop. Sadly, there is not an exceptionally wide selection of this wine in the marketplace. The closest thing I can compare it to is a Gerwurtztraminer because of its aromatic quality. Those aromas are usually more fruity and herbal than floral, however. Good Viognier also has the acid structure to back up its heady nose and complement foods like white fish, shrimp, coconut mussels, or even a roast chicken with some citrus.

I spent a few days thinking about a great pairing for this bottle, and citrus was the element that I wanted to focus on. I decide to do a firm white fish with a simple pan sauce based on freshly squeezed orange juice. A thick halibut fillet worked well for my favorite cooking method, searing in a hot skillet and finishing in the oven. I had a foil-lined baking sheet in the pre-heated oven waiting for the fish so that I could use the hot skillet to make my pan sauce. The couscous can be done in minutes either while the fish is cooking or before. Just leave it steaming away in its covered pot until you are ready to eat. The fennel and shallot create a sweet, herbaceously fragrant base that marries perfectly with the orange sections and the citrus-y fish.

And there you have it. Quick, healthy and totally inspired by some lovely, lovely booze.

Fish with Citrus Sauce
Serves 2

½ tblsp. olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¾ to1 lb. halibut fillet (or other firm white fish)
¼ c. chicken broth
1/3 c. freshly squeezed orange juice (or substitute store-bought)
2 tsp. white wine vinegar
Pat of unsalted butter (I used a bit less than ½ tblsp.)
1 tblsp. cilantro, chopped

Place a foil-lined baking sheet in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Heat the oil in a cast iron or nonstick skillet to medium high. Season the fish on both sides with salt and pepper. When oil is very hot, add the fish. Sear for 2 minutes on the first side, then turn and cook for 1 additional minute, or until browned. Transfer the fish to the baking sheet in the oven and cook for 12 to 15 minutes (for a very thick fillet) or until fish is opaque in the thickest part.

While fish bakes, add the chicken broth and orange juice to the skillet, still on medium high. Bring liquid to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until reduced by half. Add the vinegar. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper, add cilantro and serve over fish.

Orange-Fennel Couscous
Serves 4

1 tblsp. olive oil
1 fennel bulb, trimmed, halved vertically and thinly sliced
1 large shallot, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 ¼ c. chicken broth
1 cup whole wheat couscous
1 orange, peeled, with sections removed from the membranes and cut in half (use the method here)
1 tomato, seeded and chopped
3 tblsp. cilantro, chopped

In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and fennel and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 3-4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add chicken broth, turn heat to high and bring to a boil. Stir in the couscous and return to a simmer. Cover saucepan, remove from heat and steam for five minutes. Fluff the couscous with a fork and stir in the orange pieces, tomato and cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning, if desired. Cover the couscous and let it stand for an additional 3-5 minutes or until ready to serve.

Monday, October 23, 2006

A Tofu Dish Worthy of My Favorite Soba Noodles

I have always had mixed feelings about tofu. On one hand, it is nutritious, easy to work with and lends itself to a host of different flavors. When I don’t have time to buy fresh fish or lack the will to handle raw chicken, tofu is a boon. On the other hand, I have always found it difficult to season the actual tofu, even when I toss it with fresh ginger, garlic, soy sauce and spices for a lively vegetable stir-fry. Perhaps its inherent blandness is what makes tofu useful as a blank canvas, but overcoming that blandness in a finished dish has always been a challenge for me.

Hoping to find a way to prepare tofu that would make it stand alone as a delicious, crave-able part of the meal, I tried a peanut-crusted version, spiced with the warming flavors of ginger and cayenne pepper. Mike is crazy about peanuts, and even if the lightly sautéed tofu triangles fell haplessly into the “just so-so” category, I would have an excuse to make my favorite soba noodles on the side.

This dish proves that where spices and marinades fail you, a well-seasoned coating of roasted, lightly salted nuts is the ticket to big flavor and a crisp texture that doesn’t feel like a soy version of Aunt Ethel’s jell-o salad on your tongue. The only high-maintenance prep work involved here is pressing your sliced tofu between paper towels and heavy cutting boards to extract as much water as possible. I also had to be careful not to let the skillet get too hot and watch the tofu closely, as the peanut crust can go from pleasantly roasted to blackened rather quickly.

This tofu would be great served over any rice or noodle dish, but I love these soba noodles. Made with buckwheat, they are a good source of fiber, but also have a nice chewiness and more personality than white flour or whole wheat pasta. We could eat them plain, but some soy sauce, oyster sauce for sweetness, and sesame oil drizzled on at the end creates a sauce that is too simple not to toss together right in your pasta pot. I sautéed some yellow bell pepper, white mushrooms and green onions to mix with my sauced noodles, but you could use other vegetables like eggplant or blanched broccoli and carrots.

Try this, and you might start cooking tofu because it is tasty and appetizing, not just an obligatory protein stand-in. Next, I’m envisioning a nice sesame crust, or ground almonds. Either way, the soba noodles stay in the picture.
Crave-able tofu-- it can be yours!

Sauteed yellow peppers and mushrooms for the soba noodles.

Peanut-Crusted Tofu
Adapted from Cooking Light Magazine
Serves 4

1 (14 oz.) block of firm or extra firm tofu, drained
½ c. dry roasted, lightly salted peanuts
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. ground ginger
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp. water
1 tblsp. peanut or canola oil, divided

Cut the tofu into 8 slices. Place 2 or 3 paper towels on a cutting board and set the tofu slices on top. Cover with more paper towels and place another cutting board or heavy plate on top. Let it sit for about 20 minutes to press excess water out of the tofu.

In a food processor, blitz the peanuts until finely ground. Add the garlic powder, ginger and salt to taste. Pulse a couple times just to combine. Remove peanuts to a shallow bowl or plate. In a bowl, combine the water and the lightly beaten egg. Season with salt and pepper.

Cut the tofu slices diagonally into triangles. Heat half the oil in a nonstick or cast iron skillet over medium heat. Dip a tofu triangle in the egg, and then press both sides into the peanut mixture to coat. Set the tofu in the skillet and proceed with the next piece of tofu until the skillet is full, but not crowded. Cook the tofu triangles for about 2 minutes on the first side and 1 minute on the second side, or until lightly browned. You could also coat all the tofu triangles before adding a batch to the skillet if that makes it easier. Remove tofu triangles, heat the rest of the oil and cook remaining tofu. Serve with soba noodles.

Mushroom & Bell Pepper Soba Noodles
Serves 4

½ tblsp. peanut or canola oil
1 yellow, red or orange bell pepper, thinly sliced
8 oz. white button mushrooms, sliced
1 bunch scallions, white and light green parts, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 oz. package soba noodles
2 tblsp. low sodium soy sauce
1 tblsp. oyster sauce
2 tsp. sesame oil
3 tblsp. cilantro, chopped

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bell pepper and cook until they begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue cooking until they are soft and the peppers are lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Add the scallions and garlic and cook for two minutes more or until most of the water from the mushrooms evaporates. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt and soba noodles. Cook according to package directions, drain and return to pot off of heat. Add soy and oyster sauces. Stir to combine and coat the noodles. Add sesame oil, toss, add vegetables and toss again. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve immediately.