Sunday, July 30, 2006

Toronto by the Mouthful

Saturday Dinner Goes Canadian!

This week's Saturday Dinner wasn't dinner at all. Instead, it was an all-day gastro-tour of Toronto where I was visiting my husband, Mike, while he is spending two weeks there for work. I had never been to Toronto, so I searched online for guides to restaurants and cultural events, but I was mostly interested in food. One of the best ways to spend a day in a big city is meandering around with a few points of interest in mind, stopping for drinks and snacks at various places along the way. It's sort of like a pub-crawl for foodies.

Toronto is a huge, modern city, but there is good public transportation, so a car is not a must. We found that most of the neighborhoods we were interested in were quite close. The number one destination on my list was the St. Lawrence Market, so that is where we headed on Saturday morning. The market, named one of the 25 best in the world by Food & Wine magazine, according to the market's excellent website, was established in 1803. The South Market building, pictured above, was Toronto's first city hall, but since 1901, has housed the city's finest meat, seafood and produce vendors as well as many other gourmet and specialty stalls.

Fresh ravioli being rolled out in the South Market. We had a sample...tasty and a perfect al dente.

Most of the sampling you'll do at the market is probably from the cheese vendors...we didn't try a cheese we didn't like, but the best was a soft, brie-like cheese that tasted of wild mushrooms.

One vendor had several antipasto bars like this full of olives, roasted vegetables, cheese and stuffed grape leaves. We had to try some, so we picked out roasted artichoke hearts, grape leaves and fantastic, nicely charred oyster mushrooms, all coated with olive oil. We wished we could enjoy some wine with our antipasto, as we've been known to do, so we took a look in a liquor store across from the market. There, we discovered one of the greatest innovations ever introduced to the wine world: the single-serving wine juice box!
As you can see, this incredibly convenient product fits nicely into the pocket of your cargo shorts when you are on the go. We got a grenache-shiraz from France that was medium-dry and spicy with fruit flavors in the background...even tastier than we expected!

After our mini-lunch at the market, we walked several blocks to the Distillery District, a national historic site that was once the largest distillery in the British Empire. Today, it is a pedestrian-only village where you can enjoy a sunny afternoon relaxing in one of the several beer gardens and listening to the live music that started early on Saturday afternoon. In the past few years, the area has become one of the city's most popular entertainment districts. We wandered around the cobblestone streets between all-brick, Victorian industrial warehouses that now house innovatively designed restaurants, unique shops, theaters and art galleries.

Mike enjoys his Mill St. Coffee Porter at Pure Spirits in the Distillery District. The bartender insisted that he taste the coffe porter first, becase "you either love it or hate it." We didn't hate it; not at all. Across from the restaurant, Mill St. Brewery has a shop where you can sample all their microbrews and buy a six pack to take home. I loved the Stock Ale with an amazing pineapple flavor that could get addicting.

Enjoying another local beer, Steam Whistle, a light and summery pilsner.

One of the day's highlights was a stop in Soma Chocolatemaker in the Distillery District. This beautiful shop roasts their cacao beans on the premises, and you can watch the confections being made behind large glass panels, above.

Soma has chocolate bars, chocolate-covered nuts, hot chocolate and homemade gelato, but I was mersmerized by the stunning truffle display case.

We tasted (clockwise from top left) an olive oil truffle, an aged balsamic truffle, a pecan praline and a chile pepper truffle. The texture of the thick rich chocolate inside the shells was a little different in each truffle and the flavor of the balsamic was more pronounced compared to the subtle olive oil. The one that made me rave like a chocolate-fool was the chile pepper. It was spicy with a hint of heat and the most memorable texture that was rougher on the tongue than any of the others. Go to Toronto and go to Soma.

After a lazy afternoon in the Distillery District, we headed up Yonge Street, hoping to cross College Street, another area with lots of great restaurants and cool shops. This part of Yonge Street reminded us of New York City. Like NYC, there is so much to see (and eat) in Toronto that a weekend was not nearly enough. We did find College Street, but were so hot and thirsty that we didn't make it any farther than a little Greek restaurant just west of the intersection of Yonge and College. I thought it was just a hole in the wall takeout place, but Mike said, "they have a bar," so we went in. The name of the place was Greek Islands which is also the name of our favorite taverna at home in Fort Lauderdale. I should have known this was a good sign. The restaurant was very cute and cozy with whitewashed walls and blue accents. They had a good selection of Greek wine which we've come to enjoy a lot lately. On the advice of the very hospitable bartender, we ordered a half liter of dry white wine to go with the cold appetizer sampler, a heavenly selection of fresh dips served with warm pita bread.

The sampler had (clockwise from left) feta cheese, tapenade, Greek Yogurt dip, hummus, baba ganoush (eggplant dip), taramosalata (fish roe and potato dip) and a whipped feta and red pepper dip (in the center). The amazing bubble gum-pink taramosalata was my favorite and had a light texture and a hint of potato flavor.

We ended our day at Brix, a wine bar and bistro near our hotel that turns a bit clubby after 9:30. We had some juicy grilled mini-ribs and some cocktails while we listened to an 80s cover band. It was too dark to photograph the food, but I did manage to get this majestic shot when we stopped in for a beer on Friday afternoon: A lovely Hoegaarden, one of my all-time favorite beers, fresh from the tap.

We had so much fun walking and eating our way through Toronto. What cities would you like to do a foodie pub-crawl in? It's a great way to sample all kinds of local delicacies, as well as to discover little gems like this...

The condom on the right reminds me of Mr. Hanky from South Park. Hi-de-ho!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Fideos from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Suppers

Cookbook Review: Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison's Kitchen

Madison's Fideos. See the recipe below.

I am not a vegetarian. Therefore, I was pleased to discover that Deborah Madison, author of the tome Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, as well as Local Flavors, an ode to cooking from the farmers market, enjoys a little meat with her veggies every so often too. In the introduction she states:

“If you cook vegetarian all the time, it’s not so hard, of course, because it’s a habit. But if you’re a “vegophile,” like me—you love vegetables and cook vegetarian most of the time, but you also cook fish, an occasional rib eye, or a roast chicken—it’s harder because you have to shift gears and mentally start from scratch each time.”

I am steadily broadening my repertoire of vegetarian meals because that is often the kind of food I want to eat. I would estimate that one third of the dinners I cook are vegetarian, and I have even won my husband over to this way of eating simply because vegetarian cooking can be so utterly delicious. Make no mistake, I love meat and eat it without guilt. We like to cook flank steak, filet mignon, roast chicken, duck, lamb, and any wonderful fish we can get our hands on. Lately I have spent more and more time considering, as so many savvy food lovers today seem to be doing, the moral, ethical, nutritional and cultural implications of the food I eat. I wish I could afford the most pristine meat and produce from exclusively local sources, but that is not quite realistic. I don’t even live in an area with a regular farmers market that could support even half of my food shopping needs. As far as meat is concerned, I subscribe to the idea that we should pay for the best, most naturally and humanely produced meat that we can afford. And in order to make it affordable, we should eat it just a few days a week instead of every day, and eat a reasonable portion, not a super-size one. I try to put this belief into practice as much as possible.

Happily, eating meatless meals has never felt like a sacrifice, as I love vegetables, any whole grain under the sun, and other vegetarian staples like eggs, cheese and tofu (sorry, vegans, I could never go that far). To find inspiration for all those meatless main dishes, I have lately been turning to Deborah Madison’s smaller (compared to her previous titles), beautifully photographed book, Vegetarian Suppers From Deborah Madison’s Kitchen. The recipes offered here are fresh, seasonal, sometimes homey, like the Greens and Grits, and sometimes elegant enough to entertain with like the Dried Porcini and Fresh Mushroom Tart. Many of these meals can be put together quickly, but there are quite a few that involve multiple components, like the Beet and Tomato Ragout with Twice-Baked Goat Cheese Souffles and Baby Bok Choy, and require a bit more planning. I quite like this variety, as well as the fact that some of the recipes will challenge me in the kitchen and teach me new techniques. There are chapters on Savory Pies and Gratins; Vegetable Stews and Braises; Pasta with Vegetables; Crêpes and Fritters; Mostly Tofu (and some Tempeh); Eggs for Supper; Hearty Cool-Weather Suppers; Light Meals for Warm Weather; Supper Sandwiches; and Basics. I like that these creations come from a meat-eater like myself because I feel they have to be just as satisfying and nourishing as any steak, chop or fish that an omnivore could choose to cook up instead.

My favorite recipe so far is from the pasta chapter, but Fideos with Pasilla Chiles, Avocado and Crema is no ordinary noodles with red sauce. In fact, Mike and I have never had anything like it and loved the combination of flavors. Fideos are short, skinny egg noodles. In this dish, they are cooked as a pilaf, resulting in a Mexican sopa seca, or dry soup.

This dish is full of visual appeal from the skillet-cooked noodles mixed with roasted chiles, to the pickled red onions, soft green avocado, cool sour cream and bright cilantro used as toppers. It came together very quickly, especially considering that I have never cooked noodles quite this way before. The first ingredient called for is dried pasilla, New Mexican or guajillo chiles, which are then rehydrated. My Whole Foods Market no longer carries dried chiles, so we improvised by roasting a poblano pepper, removing the skin and seeds and cutting it into strips. It added a smoky-sweet roasted flavor, and I think Madison would approve as she regularly lists two or even three options for an ingredient. For example, we used her suggestion of Muir Glen Fire-Roasted Tomatoes as an alternative to fresh Romas, and we chose sour cream over Mexican crema or crème fraiche. She calls for either feta or queso fresco, and I must urge you to go with queso fresco. Feta is one of my favorite cheeses and I always have it in the fridge. For this dish, however, I did not want to evoke the Mediterranean dishes that I associate with feta, so I bought queso fresco which is not as salty and has a less crumbly texture. If you can find queso cotija, which is firmer than queso fresco, I've found that to be even better. Often it is the little touches like garnishes, toppings and extra components like the pickled red onions that make Madison’s dishes stand apart. These extras do not add any great strain to the preparation, but pay off exponentially when you take that first perfect bite. Try this for yourself and let me know what you think!

Don’t skip Madison’s tasty garnishes.

Adapted from Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen
Serves 3-4

½ large red onion, pickled, for garnish (see pickling method below)
olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 15 oz. can fire-roasted tomatoes (I recommend Muir Glen)
½ c. yellow or white onion, chopped
Salt and fresh ground pepper
3/4 lb. short, skinny egg noodles (if you can’t find these in the regular pasta section, you can break up pasta nests or any other long egg noodle)
½ c. chopped parsley, divided
1 large poblano pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced, divided use
1 avocado, sliced, for garnish
Sour cream, for garnish
Queso fresco, or other semi-soft Mexican cheese, or feta, for garnish

A lovely roasted poblano.

Make the pickled onion: Thinly slice half a large red onion and place in a bowl. Pour in equal amounts of water and white vinegar, just to cover the onions. Stir in 1 tblsp. of sugar and one tblsp. of salt. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 15 minutes, or while you prepare the fideos. Lift the pickled onions out of the liquid with a fork or slotted spoon and use as garnish.

Heat a little oil in a large cast iron skillet (you can use nonstick, but I like the crusty effect of cast iron) over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook for two minutes, stirring often. Put the garlic in a blender along with the tomatoes and their juice, 1 tsp. salt, the onion, and ½ c. water. Blend until mostly smooth. Taste for seasoning and consistency, adding an extra ¼ to 1/2 c. water if the sauce is very thick. The consistency should be a little thinner than canned tomato sauce.

Heat 1 to 2 tblsp. of oil in the skillet over medium heat. Add the noodles, breaking up longer noodles if using, and stir to coat lightly with the oil. Add the tomato sauce, all but a few tablespoons of the parsley, about half of the roasted pepper strips, and fresh ground pepper. Lower the heat so the sauce is at a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the noodles are done. You should check the noodles every 2 minutes so that the ones on the bottom do not burn. Add small amounts of water if the skillet is too dry and use a spatula to flip and move the noodles around the pan as the bottom ones get crisp. You will end up with a lot of “clumps” and little “noodle cakes” but that is the texture you want.

This is what the fideo looks like when it is done…mmm, crusty.

Top each serving with sliced avocado, the reserved fresh parsley, a dollop of sour cream, a few pickled onions and a sprinkling of queso fresco. This could serve 4, but 2 hungry people could easily eat it all.

Another successful recipe from the pasta section was the Pasta and Chickpeas with Plenty of Parsley and Garlic (pictured above). It is such a simple recipe with minimal ingredients, I can’t believe that it was so delicious. It is an illustration of Madison’s immense experience and ease when it comes to creating new dishes by combining the flavors and textures she likes best. She recommends whole wheat shells made by Bionaturae, imported from Italy. We were pleased to find this exact item at our Whole Foods, and enjoyed the subtle nutty flavor and toothsome firmness. The chickpeas end up getting stuck inside the shells, making them the perfect shape for this dish. You would probably want to round out this meal with a salad and maybe some crusty bread, but I doubt you will miss the meat if you are a non-vegetarian.

Just last night, I made Madison’s Yellow (I used red) Peppers Stuffed with Quinoa, Corn and Feta Cheese, cooked on a bed of caramelized red onions. They come from the “Light Meals for Warm Weather” chapter despite the fact that these tasty peppers must spend about 30 minutes in a 400 degree oven. One bonus about living in Florida is that everything is aggressively air-conditioned, including my condo, so I didn’t mind using the oven. This meal was a bit more elaborate than the two pasta dishes, and took just over an hour to cook by myself. I even planned ahead and steamed a cup of quinoa the night before so I could get a jump on preparation. I simplified the recipe a bit by using chili powder instead of chopped jalepenos (my grocery store only sells jalepenos in huge packs of like, 20—I will never need that many!). Also, I have a confession to make. It is twofold, and both parts are rather embarrassing. First, I was out of garlic. How could I let this happen? What was I thinking? I’ll tell you: I wasn’t thinking. The second part is even more shameful than the first. I used garlic powder in place of the real garlic I was out of. Please don’t exile me from the food blogosphere. It will never happen again.

I also used frozen corn, but you won’t make me feel guilty about that one because Madison says either fresh or frozen is fine. The dish came together easily, but I wish D.M. had reminded me to grease my baking dish so my delicious wine-glazed red onions did not stick to the bottom. That’s wrong. I shouldn’t blame Madison. It is time to take responsibility for prepping my own bakeware. My own personal shortcomings aside, the stuffed peppers are a pretty dish made special by the unique texture of the quinoa, the sweetness of the corn and the oven-blistered, salty feta. Save this one for a weekend or a more leisurely weeknight. They also make a great leftover lunch.

Madison’s low-key personality and relaxed encouragement permeate the book’s text, especially in the introductions to all the recipes and the sidebars with tips on how to streamline the prep or create variations. She suggests simple side dishes and desserts, many of which can be found in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. There is a wine suggestion for each recipe as well. Some ingredients may be harder to come by, like the dried chiles, and not all of us may have access to as much wonderful fresh produce as Madison. With all the suggestions for ingredient substitutions and Madison’s general feeling that we should work with what is fresh and available, these recipes are a great vehicle for your own experimentation. Next I want to tackle the chapters on tarts and gratins and crepes. I already made the Eggplant Gratin with Saffron Custard, and it could not have been simpler. I think vegetarians out there will appreciate Madison’s skillful take supper, and omnivores will find themselves cooking vegetarian not because they have to, but because Madison knows how to create delicious, interesting combinations of wonderful foods.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Loaded Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Icing

A simple, frosted cake is a wonderful thing. When cake is merely one element of a more complex or “fancy” dessert, the actual cake is often overlooked, leaving us with a dry, flavorless sponge. Such a foible, committed at the hands of countless unlearned pastry chefs, diminishes the taste of the dessert no matter how beautifully turned out or perfectly composed it may be.

Fancy, professional, multi-layered desserts are not easy things to pull off, even for professionals. So casual home baker that I am, I choose to glorify the kind of cakes that so many of us Americans got to enjoy as kids, if we were lucky: moist, sweet sheet cakes with sugary white frosting, round yellow layer cakes decorated with shredded coconut, or dense, spiced carrot cakes with irresistible cream cheese frosting. And what better time than a birthday to bake up one of these classics? It is guaranteed to make your birthday person feel special.

For Mike’s past birthdays, I have made some very successful German chocolate cakes and one ridiculously rich, huge, lopsided coconut cake. Despite its many faults, Mike liked my coconut cake so much that he froze what was left and carved off a slice every day or so until he had finished the entire thing. I did not have room in the freezer for another never-ending coconut cake, so I considered our other options. We are both huge fans of carrot cake, and it had been quite awhile since I made one. The last time I baked a carrot cake, I was hell-bent on finding the ultimate recipe for the cake of my dreams. I had clippings, cookbooks, the internet, all at my disposal. I knew what I wanted, and I liked a lot of the recipes I found, but none of them was my perfect carrot cake. I finally stopped searching and used the recipe in the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion , with a few tweaks of course, because it was the closest to what I had in mind. The King Arthur book is a great reference for home bakers. It has clear, exhaustively tested recipes for absolutely everything homey, American and delicious that could fall into the category of baking. All things sweet are covered, but there are also great chapters on breads and breakfast items.

In my mind, the perfect carrot cake is loaded with everything. Raisins and walnuts are required, but from there personal preference can dictate whether you want coconut, pineapple, both of those or neither. I wanted it all. My thought process went like this: “I know pineapple makes it moist, but the coconut probably adds sweetness and a nice texture. And Mike loves coconut. But I can’t give up the pineapple…oh, why not, I’ll add it all!” So I did; and while this carrot cake is thick, rich and definitely loaded, it is simply dreamy.

Carrot Cake
Adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baking Companion
Makes one 9 x 13 cake or one three layered 8-inch cake

4 eggs
1 ½ c. vegetable oil (I used Spectrum Super Canola Oil; it is expeller-pressed)
2 tsp. vanilla
1 ¾ c. sugar
2 c. AP flour, or 1 c. AP flour plus 1 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tblsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
2 c. grated carrots
½ c. finely chopped walnuts
½ c. raisins
1 c. shredded coconut
1 8 oz. can crushed pineapple, drained

Preheat oven to 350. Grease your baking pans with butter or line with parchment paper. Beat the eggs with an electric mixer, then slowly add the oil while the mixer is running. Add the vanilla, then add the sugar about 1/3 cup at a time, beating on high speed after each addition. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture, a bit at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon to combine. Next, add the carrots, walnuts, raisins, coconut and pineapple.

You can’t have carrot cake without some mighty fine carrots.

Pour the batter into your prepared baking pans. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes for 9 x 13 or 35 minutes for 8-inch rounds, rotating the position of the round pans in the oven during cooking so they bake evenly. You should use a toothpick to test for doneness, but it may never come out of the cake clean. As long as the center of the cake is no longer liquidy, it is done. The cake will start to brown before the center is completely set, but that is okay. This cake is so moist, that you will not be over-baking it. Cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack and cool completely. You can sprinkle the cooled cake with powdered sugar and serve, but you’ve made it this far, so you might as well go for the cream cheese icing.

Cream Cheese Frosting
From The King Arthur Flour Baking Companion

6 tblsp. good unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 8 oz. package cream cheese (I use Philadelphia’s low fat version because I honestly think it is just as good as the full-fat variety)
1 tsp. vanilla
4 c. (a one pound box) confectioner’s sugar
2 to 4 tblsp. milk, half and half, or soy milk

Beat the butter, cream cheese and vanilla together for several minutes. Add the sugar about 1 cup at a time, beating after each addition. Start on a low speed, then gradually increase so sugar does not fly all over the kitchen. Add some milk, one tablespoon at a time, just to achieve a spreadable consistency. You will probably need 2 or 3 tblsp. at the most.

For reasons that remain unexplained, I prefer a 2-layer cake, as opposed to a 3-layer. In that case, I just use 2 round baking pans and fill them with a about ¾ of the batter. I know, it’s a terrible waste! What can I say, I like it the way I like it. Either way, ice the bottom of one cake (it is flatter than the top), then stack the next cake on it. You may want to use a large serrated knife to trim the slightly rounded tops off the lower layers so that you have completely flat surfaces for stacking. Once your cakes are stacked, ice the sides and the top. I like to press chopped, toasted walnuts onto the sides of the cake, although I know of no easy way to accomplish this, short of tossing nuts against the sides or gently pressing them on.

This is a creation for serious carrot cake lovers. It is so packed with spice (I like to add a little extra nutmeg) and other goodness that one sliver will satisfy. But please, don’t skimp on the cream cheese icing.

Can’t you see how special he feels? Very special, and very hungry...

Whether they were treated to a childhood full of birthdays with mom’s homemade cakes or had an entirely different experience due to culture or circumstance, a cake like this, covered with glowing, rainbow-colored candles will make anyone feel like a kid again.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Restaurant Review: Michy’s, Miami

Michy is the girl at your high school with the really great collage on the inside door of her locker. She’s not a brainiac, but she gets fairly good grades, and all the teachers love her. She’s not in a clique, but the alternative kids, the smart kids and the cheerleaders all think she’s a cool girl. She’s got plenty of guy-friends so she always has someone to take her to school dances without dealing with the whole dating thing. Yes, everyone either wants to be friends with Michy or be just like her. Unlike most of the kids at your high school, Michy doesn’t lack self-confidence. She likes being unique and feels comfortable in her own skin.

Are you starting to wish you could revisit your awkward high school years and be more like Michy? Let me save you and your inner child the unnecessary angst and suggest that you check out Michy’s in Miami for your next dinner out. Unlike so many Miami restaurants, particularly the South Beach establishments, Michy’s is not a loud, over-glammed prom queen or a pouty, cooler-than-thou fashionista. Michy’s is fun, sassy and confident—the kind of girl who’s not afraid to laugh out loud. Sure, the host staff and most of the servers definitely fall into the category of “beautiful people,” whose presence seems to be a requirement in Miami restaurants. Aside from being staffed mostly with models, Michy’s seems to be consciously trying to break the mold of the standard Miami hotspot.

These chandeliers represent Michy's original Florida style. They could have come out of Miss Havisham's Florida house in that remake of Great Expectations with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Michy’s is the baby of Chef Michelle Bernstein who made her reputation at Azul in South Beach’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Now that she has her own place, Ms. Bernstein appears determined to infuse as much of her personality into the Michy’s as possible, and this individuality shows. Situated on a comfortably worn-in stretch of Biscayne Blvd., the restaurant is a tiny space with a narrow dining room right up front and a surprisingly comfortable bar area in the rear. In fact, as soon as we stepped in the door, we were standing right next to a table of diners finishing up an early dinner. We had to walk along the narrow right side of the room to the host stand located in the back, near the bar. This set up obviously makes use of every available square foot of dining space, but it is a little awkward.

Once you find your way in, however, the Michy’s vibe starts to take over. The right wall of the space is covered with a crisp white curtain and the left side is a long, comfy banquet with bright orange cushions and a mirror along the wall. Bordering the ceiling, around the entire room is what I can only describe as a Hawaiian shirt design of graphic white flowers on an orange and blue background—more surf shop than catwalk. The high ceiling is the same bright royal blue shade and is nicely outfitted with recessed lighting. The tables and chairs are all painted with a glossy white enamel, accented with flower-patterned cushions in hot shades of green, yellow and fuchsia. The 8 to 10 chandeliers that hang throughout the room add a cheeky, dramatic effect that completes the fun, unpretentious South Florida style. This bright, lively room instantly conveys that Michy’s is all about fun, and anyone looking for a serious, ceremonial dining experience can find it at somebody else’s restaurant.

Mike and I went to Michy’s on a Saturday night to celebrate his 29th birthday. I have been hearing good buzz since before it opened a few months ago. Then Food &Wine did a big feature story on Ms. Bernstein, so I was thrilled to get a reservation just 4 days in advance. Still, the place filled up over the course of our meal, keeping the large, energetic and attractive staff busy. Michy’s menu works a little differently, giving a nod to informal, small plates dining. The menu is not separated into appetizers, soups and salads and entrees, although there are salads and some clearly lighter options. Every dish on it is available in either full or half portions so you can chose a traditional app and entrée or mix it up, sharing and tasting as many items as you like.

We started with one of the night’s specials, Gnocchi with Bay Scallops in a Parmesan-Pepper Sauce. The creamy sauce, bespeckled with fresh ground pepper was light and spicy, and the scallops were sweet and perfectly cooked. The gnocchi, although lightly caramelized, tasted a little too doughy. I recently ate the best gnocchi of my life at a restaurant in Denver, so maybe nothing would have compared. Mike thought the gnocchi quite good, so try it for yourself. We also got a half portion of the Truffled Polenta with Parmesan, Bacon and a Poached Egg. If there is a heaven, and I go there, this is the breakfast I will eat every day on my cloud. The texture of the polenta was silky but not too creamy and the egg yolk was golden and runny, just as it should be. The delicate shavings of parmesan were like angel dust…divine.

Yes, I just said "angel dust"...look at this picture and try to tell me I've exaggerated!

Our next round of dishes was a bit more substantial. We ordered the Duck Breast in Mole Sauce with Squash Ravioli and Duck Ragu. I did not find this to be very successful. There was not a blissful union of the dish’s separate components, creating a harmony of textures and flavors. The duck was cooked nicely with a crisp skin, but it sat awkwardly adjacent to the bright butternut squash and shredded bits of dark duck meat and squash-filled ravioli. The mole sauce was so chocolatey, it tasted more like dessert, and its role on the plate was not quite clear. Again, I have to mention that Mike thought the mole sauce was very good. He says that it should taste this strongly of chocolate. Still, with the sweetness of the squash, it was all too much even for a sweet-lover like me. Perhaps the thing about this dish that gave me the most pause, however, was the pasta. The ravioli noodles were thick and heavy and had a bit too much bite. Technically speaking, everything we tried at Michy’s was well done except for these and the gnocchi. Maybe pasta is not Michy’s forte?

When Michy’s stuck to its strong suits, the results were wonderful. The Steak Frites was delicious twist on the venerable bistro dish that incorporated a respect for the classics with a little Miami spice. Inspired by the Argentinian Churrasco, Michy’s served a generous cut of marinated skirt steak cooked to a text book medium rare and expertly cut against the grain into thin slices. It was accompanied by a homemade steak sauce with soft green peppercorns and a wonderful, frothy béarnaise sauce, for dipping. The steak was so moist and flavorful on its own, we mostly used the dipping sauces for Michy’s fries. They were not the tough little shoestrings that are often served with steak frites. These fries were medium cut, crispy on the outside and soft in the middle. They were not at all greasy and truly tasted like potato. They go into my personal French fry hall of fame.

Even though we had a big hunk of birthday carrot cake (check out tomorrow’s post for all the birthday cake details) at home in our fridge, we were not leaving Michy’s without sampling the dessert menu. When Mike was a kid growing up in Utah, he thought he was pretty special because his parents told him that the big parade every year on July 24th was held in his honor. Eventually he figured out that July 24th is a Mormon holiday (Mike’s family was among the roughly 1% of non-Mormon Utes), and the parade was not all about him. Well, Mike got to experience that special feeling one more time, because Michy’s was serving the dessert of his dreams: A dark chocolate ganache tart with peanut butter-banana sauce, served with peanut butter ice cream and peanut brittle. Mike loves chocolate and peanut butter, as well as bananas. It’s like they made it just for him. The tart was sweet, yet had the rich complexity of quality chocolate. The pastry shell was flawless, and the peanut butter ice cream was refreshing and flavorful without being overpowering. It was a wonderful dessert, and the espressos we ordered were hot, foamy and fresh.

"This cup makes me feel giant...I love Michy's!"

Michy’s wine list has a nice mix of varieties and price points. We got a summery pinot noir from Monterey, California that had a lot more forward berry flavor than is typical. It worked with Michy’s bold flavors and bold ambience. In keeping with the fun, casual vibe, two can eat and drink very well at Michy’s for less than $130. The menu design lets you control how much you eat, as well as how much you spend. The restaurant is just as good for a casual bite as it is for a birthday dinner. We had intended to order 4 half portions and decide if we were still hungry, but our waiter, in an honest misunderstanding, made our second round of plates full size. Happily, it turned out to be just the right amount of food, but next time I will be very clear when ordering to avoid confusion.

Despite the very few flaws, Michy’s is a delicious change of pace. It is breezy and relaxed, yet the service and the details are on point. It plays with comfort foods like polenta and remixes classics like steak frites. It retains its own unique spirit, but can still mingle with the other kids at the party with ease. I like to think that Michy’s is like that cool girl in high school who does not look back on the prom as the highlight of her life, but only grows more confident and capable over time.

6927 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33138
(305) 759-2001

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Seasonal Ménage à Trois: Fresh Figs

The term ménage à trois evokes clandestine meetings, guilty pleasures and hot, steamy…ovens? My kitchen has been host to a series of luscious encounters as I launch a new regular feature on Mingling, the Seasonal Ménage à Trois. Every few weeks I will post a trio of recipes starring one seasonal ingredient at the peak of its culinary possibility.

The purpose of this feature is to tease out the freshest recipe ideas and make the most out of seasonal produce before it is gone. All too often, Spring will pass me by, and I’ve hardly had the chance to steam a few stalks of asparagus. To counteract such a folly, I leave myself beholden to you to take full advantage of the season’s offerings. I will aim to include one main course, one dessert and one wild card dish. I will strive for creative uses of my star ingredient, but will not entirely forsake classic choices like rhubarb pie or spring pea soup. Of course, even with classics there is room to deviate from the norm. So join me as I explore forbidden farm stands in search of plump berries, bitter greens and other objects of seasonal desire.

For the first ménage, I chose one of my personal obsessions, fresh figs. I am saddened by how few people have actually tasted these sweet little gems. My favorite variety, the Black Mission Fig, looks like a swollen tear drop that, when soft and ripe, is utterly pregnant with tiny seeds held together by sticky-sweet pulp. You can eat the skin as well as the seeds, which are not grainy like kiwi seeds, but provide a little texture for the rich flesh. They usually turn up in markets in midsummer and can be found into September. As soon as I live in place with sufficient space and the right climate, I will grow my own fig trees and, hopefully, feast on the glut of my harvest.

Now is no time for daydreaming, as I have three glorious fig dishes to share with you. I will begin with the dessert because I had been itching to make it for weeks as I waited for my market to put out a supply of figs that would be beautiful enough to justify a foray into the world of pastry. I consider myself more of a cook than a baker, but I am coming to appreciate the patience and care required of the pastry chef. I wanted to create a simple fig tart that would showcase their light ruby flesh in a substantial and wholesome shell. I wanted to pair the figs with goat cheese, glaze them, and bake the whole thing to add some caramelization to the already sweet fruit. I could not find any one recipe that approximated my vision, so I took ideas from several and left the rest to my own invention. For the crust, I used a recipe for a fig tart from that ran in Gourmet. I loved the addition of the cornmeal and fresh rosemary to the tart shell, but I substituted whole wheat pastry flour for half of the all-purpose flour called for in the recipe. Whole wheat pastry flour is so light that you can hardly tell any difference in baked goods. Next time, I will use a higher ratio of whole wheat to white flour in this recipe. I searched for goat cheese tarts and got some inspiration from an Ina Garten recipe, but ended up reworking it and adding a bit of ricotta to the goat cheese. I topped it off with a glaze of honey and red currant jelly from the Gourmet recipe.

I have to be honest and admit that this was my very first tart. I was sure it would be disastrous, but I am thrilled to say that my Fig and Goat Cheese Tart was a success! The dough was easy to work with and the end result was a lovely, not-too-sweet union of figs and cheese in a pleasantly hearty shell. It could be a dessert after a light meal or a midday treat. The tart kept for 4 days in the refrigerator, and only tasted better to me over time.

Fig and Goat Cheese Tart
Serves 8-10. You will need a 9 to 11 inch tart pan with a removable bottom.

For the tart shell:
¾ c. all-purpose flour
¾ c. whole wheat pastry flour
½ c. fine yellow cornmeal (not stone ground)
1 tblsp. sugar
¼ tsp. salt
1 stick cold butter, chopped into pieces
1 ½ tblsp. fresh rosemary, chopped or ¾ tblsp. dried
4 tblsp. ice water plus more as needed

For the filling:
8 oz. goat cheese
½ c. ricotta cheese
1 egg
¼ tsp. salt
¼ c. cream or half & half
1 lb. fresh figs, trimmed and sliced crosswise
1 tblsp. honey
2 tblsp. red currant jelly

Make the shell: Preheat oven to 425. Add the flours, cornmeal, sugar and salt to a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the cold butter (straight from the fridge) and rosemary. Process until the mixture resembles a coarse meal with little clumps of butter still visible. Add the 4 tblsp. of water and pulse until just combined. Pinch a bit of dough with your fingers. If the dough holds together, it is done. Otherwise add a bit more water, a half tablespoon at a time, until your dough just holds together. It should still be fairly dry and may seem a bit crumbly. As long as it holds together, you’ll be fine. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured cutting board and bring it together into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Roll the dough into a large disc, about 1/8 inch thick. Then roll the dough so it is draped over the rolling pin and lay it back out over your tart pan. Gently press the dough into the edges of the pan and into the fluted sides. If your dough looks like a bit of a patchwork because it did not roll into a perfect circle, don’t worry. Once it is filled, no one will know. Run your rolling pin over the sharp edges of the pan to cut away any excess dough. Place the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes. Remove your shell from the freezer and prick all over with a fork. Put it on a baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes or until firm and just barely starting to brown. If the bottom of the tart starts to bubble up during baking, just prick the spot with a fork. Cool completely in the tart pan, then add the filling.

Make the filling: Preheat oven to 350. Add the goat cheese, ricotta, egg, salt and cream to the food processor. Process until you reach a smooth consistency. Transfer the goat cheese mixture to the cooled tart shell and spread evenly with the back of a spoon. Arrange the figs in concentric circles starting at the outside of the tart and working your way to the center. Add the honey and red currant jelly to a saucepan over low heat. Cook stirring frequently until melted and combined. Use a pastry brush to dot the glaze all over the figs. Place the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake for 35-40 minutes or until the cheese is firm and the figs are softened. The glaze will bleed around the edges of the shell, but you will not have a soggy tart as the dough is incredibly firm and resilient. Cool on a wire rack, remove the tart from the pan and serve warm or at room temperature. Keeps tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

My next dish was an idea that I tried during fig season last year. This year, I managed to improve upon it tremendously and will make it again soon, perhaps with variations if figs are no longer available. I made my Feta-Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Fig Sauce on a week night after work, and had the whole thing done in 30 minutes (with Mike’s help). Stuffing chicken breasts is a great, simple technique to jazz up your basic boneless, skinless fillets. I used a long, slim boning knife to cut horizontally into each chicken breast, creating a pocket that I filled with crumbled feta and caramelized red onions. I used a cast iron skillet to brown the stuffed chicken breasts, then put them into the oven to finish while I made a fig and red wine sauce in the skillet. At the last minute, Mike sautéed up a mound of spinach and we were done.

Feta-Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Fig Sauce
Serves 4

3 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
Salt and fresh ground pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of fat
½ c. feta cheese, crumbled
8 fresh figs, trimmed, halved lengthwise and chopped into sixths
1-1/2 c. red wine (shiraz, malbec, zinfandel or a blend will work well)
1 tblsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tblsp. cornstarch mixed with 1/3 c. water
1 bag baby spinach, thick stems removed

Preheat oven to 350. Heat 1 tblsp. of the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and lightly caramelized. Set aside. Cut a horizontal slit in each chicken breast to create a pocket. Season each fillet with salt and pepper and stuff with all the feta cheese and half of the caramelized onions. Reserve the remaining onions to add to your sautéed spinach. Heat 1 tblsp. of the oil in a skillet (I like cast iron.) over medium-high and add the stuffed chicken breasts. Sear until the chicken is browned, about 4 minutes, then turn and sear the other side for 3 to 4 minutes. Place the chicken breasts on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes or until juices run clear when pierced with a knife in the thickest part of the fillet.

While the chicken bakes, make the fig sauce. Turn the heat under your skillet to low. Add the figs, let them sear for 30 seconds, then add the wine. Bring to a simmer, increasing the heat slightly if necessary, and simmer until reduced by nearly half. Add the balsamic vinegar, then add 1 tablespoon of the cornstarch mixture. Stir to incorporate. The sauce should thicken slightly. If you want a thicker consistency, add one tablespoon at a time until you reach the desired thickness. I generally add about 3 tablespoons. Season with salt and pepper to taste and remove from heat.

Meanwhile, add the rest of the oil to your nonstick skillet and heat over medium. Just when the chicken comes out of the oven, add the spinach and the reserved onions. Season with a little salt and pepper and sauté until the spinach is wilted, about 3 minutes. Place a mound of spinach on each plate and put a chicken breast to the side of spinach. Spoon the fig sauce over the chicken, drizzle a little around the plate and serve.

The stuffed chicken breasts being seared in my cast iron skillet.

Reducing the wine to made the fig sauce.

The fig sauce was luxurious and the cooking method resulted in flavorful, moist chicken. You must try this at home!

Finally, I would like to offer you one of Mike’s and my old favorites, Fig Pizza. We were inspired by the signature fig pizza that Todd English serves at his restaurant, Figs, in Boston. His version uses a fig jam, but we love the fresh ones. You can use any prepared pizza dough you like, but do try making it yourself. It is one of the most simple and gratifying things. Pizza dough is the first thing I ever made with yeast. I was very anxious about it, but now I know to always have extra on hand in case my yeast doesn’t proof on the first try. Trust me, you will feel like a domestic goddess (or an Italian cassanova) if you start turning out homemade gourmet pizza for your friends. Each batch of dough is enough for two thin-crust pies, so you’ll get two dinners for the price of one. I lazily put together the dough the night before and let it sit in the fridge overnight instead of doing the second rising at room temperature. After work, we had a gorgeous fig pizza in under 30 minutes. I have to mention that Mike did make pizzas in his college dining hall for a couple semesters, so that may be one reason why our dough consistently turns out so well, according to him.

Fig Pizza
Serves 2-3
Adapted from Curtis Aikens for Food Network

For pizza dough:
1 ¼ c. warm water
1 tblsp. granulated sugar
1 package dry yeast
2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1 ½ c. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. salt
1 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 tblsp. honey

Pour the water into a bowl, add the sugar, then gently stir in the yeast for just a few seconds. Let it sit in a warm place (like on your stove top) for several minutes or until the yeast forms a foamy layer on the surface of the water. Add the flours, salt, olive oil, honey and the yeast mixture to a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Process until the dough comes together, forming a ball. This should only take 1 to 2 minutes. If your ingredients get stuck, you may need to open take off the lid and move them around a bit so they can come together properly. Place the ball of dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and lay a kitchen towel on top. Let it sit until the dough doubles in bulk, about 45 minutes. I find that warm conditions are best for baking with yeast, so if you like to blast your air conditioner, you might want to turn it off while the dough rises.

Put the dough on a lightly floured cutting board and knead for 1 to 2 minutes. Divide the dough into two equal balls. If you want to bake the dough that day, let it rise for the second time on the cutting board, covered with a kitchen towel, for an hour and a half, then proceed with the pizza. Otherwise, place the cutting board with the balls of dough in the refrigerator covered with a kitchen towel overnight. In the morning, you can wrap each one in plastic wrap to use that night, or you can freeze them. Defrost in the refrigerator or for 2 hours at room temperature.

More beautiful figs.

Roll the dough directly on the parchment so it can go straight into the oven.

For fig pizza:
3 tblsp. coarsely ground yellow cornmeal
1 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil
8-10 figs, trimmed and chopped
8 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto, torn into bite-size pieces
3 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
¼ c. basil, finely chopped
freshly ground pepper

Place a pizza stone in the oven and preheat to 500 degrees. Roll one ball of pizza dough out on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle the cornmeal onto a large sheet of parchment paper and roll the dough out into a roughly 16-inch oval right on the parchment. This is my method for coating the bottom of the pizza with cornmeal. The parchment paper also allows you to transfer the large pizza onto the pizza stone in the oven. Use any method that works for you. The dough should be rolled quite thinly (less than 1/8 of an inch) and an irregular oval shape is fine. Drizzle the olive oil over the dough and spread it around with your hand. Top the pizza with the remaining ingredients, reserving half the basil for the finished pie. Transfer the pizza to the oven by lifting the parchment paper and placing the paper directly onto the pizza stone. Bake for 10 minutes or until the edges start to brown. Sprinkle with remaining basil and serve immediately.

Our pizza toppers.

I hope you enjoyed this first Seasonal Ménage à Trois as much as we did. Fresh figs inspired me to begin this series. It is fun to get your creative juices flowing in order to derive as much pleasure as possible from one fleeting ingredient. I encourage you to experiment a little too. Who knows where it could lead…

Be sure to look for my next Seasonal Ménage à Trois as well as more new features to come on Mingling.