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 www.tascarestaurant.com

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 www.summershackrestaurant.com

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 www.innboston.com

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 www.thekells.com

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.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Chiles Rellenos

Do the salt-kissed ocean breezes off the gulf call your name with their sandy sweetness? Do you long for a country where reposado tequila is sipped like a fine wine instead of tainted by the salt and sour mix of a restaurant margarita? Do the memories of the sights and smells of your abuela’s Mexican kitchen still take your breath away?

Even without a Mexican grandmother to call your own, it is still possible to yearn for the flavors of a particular cuisine as if you had been eating since it since birth. Maybe you’re like me and grew up in Southern California with at least one great Mexican joint for every neighborhood. Maybe you’re like my husband, Mike, who has family ties in Texas and a taste for Mexican flavors that is dead-on, thanks in part to his extended stay in Puebla.

I was one lucky senorita on an otherwise dull Monday night when Mike channeled his inner abuela and made us chiles rellenos that transported us out of Fort Lauderdale and straight across the gulf to Mexico.

We were both a little apprehensive, as neither of us had ever tried to pull off an authentic version of this stuffed pepper dish. The chiles are often deep fried, but we agreed that shallow pan-frying was the only way to go, both for simplicity and healthy, fresh flavor. I say “we” over and over, but Mike gets all the credit for this one. The excellent batter and shallow frying technique were borrowed from the October issue of Saveur which has a wonderful article about a Mexican family whose patriarch went from picking grapes as a migrant worker to owning his own successful vineyard in California. The sauce and fabulous filling is all Mike’s. Pinning the stuffed poblanos with toothpicks in order to fry them looked a little precarious, but they cooked beautifully with no tearing or oozing cheese making a mess of our cast iron skillet. Mike thought whipping the egg whites is what made this batter work so well.

You could top your golden, lightly fried chiles rellenos with your favorite salsa, but Mike made the same genius Mexican tomato sauce that he uses for his Saucy Enchiladas. This stuff is velvety and full of pure tomato flavor with a mild heat. It requires no cooking at all, so even a gringo can make it. One special authentic touch that I suggest you try is queso cotija. It is a crumbly, salty Mexican hard cheese that blends well with the milder, softer manchego that we used in the stuffing. Serve these chiles with a side of seasoned rice and black beans. Sip a Negro Modelo, and get in touch with your Mexican roots, either real or imagined.

Roast the poblanos, peel off the skins and remove all the goodies inside.

Stuff with meat, cheese and a little sauce.

Play poblano voodoo.

Chiles Rellenos
Mike roasted and peeled the poblanos and made the side dish of rice and beans several hours in advance which makes the rest of the preparation go much more quickly. You could also do this the night before. For the salsa verde, use any brand and heat level you like. It is sold in cans in the ethnic food section or in jars with the other salsas. Cotija cheese is available in Latin markets and supermarkets with Latin sections. Mild feta is a good substitute or you can use all manchego or monterey jack.

Serves 4

8 poblano chile peppers
1 (15 oz) can tomato sauce
1 (7 oz) can salsa verde (we used Sabores Aztecas brand from Whole Foods)
1 lb ground beef
1 small onion, diced
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup manchego cheese, grated (or substitute monterey jack)
1/3 cup queso cotija, crumbled
¾ c. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
2 eggs, separated
Canola or other neutral oil, for pan-frying
2 tblsp. chopped cilantro
1 tomato, seeded and chopped
sour cream, for serving

Blacken poblanos under a broiler, directly over the flame of a gas cooktop or on a grill. Put in a bowl and cover with cling wrap to sweat. Wait until chiles are cool, at least 30 minutes, and peel off the skins. Cut a slit in each chile lengthwise and remove the seeds. Set aside.

Mix together the tomato sauce and salsa verde in a bowl.

Heat a skillet to medium-high and add ground beef and onion. Season with salt and pepper and cook stirring often until meat is no longer pink, but not quite finished browning. Add the garlic and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add ¼ cup of the sauce mixture and cook for about 2 minutes more, or until sauce coats the meat.

Mix the two cheeses together in a small bowl. Stuff each chile with some ground beef, cheese and a spoonful of sauce. Use two toothpicks to “stitch” together the slit in each chile. You may prepare the chiles up to this point several hours in advance. For the two of us, we fried four chiles right away and saved the rest to fry another night.

Mix flour, cayenne pepper and black pepper in a shallow bowl or on a plate. Beat egg whites with a hand mixer until peaks form. Lightly beat the egg yolks with a fork and fold into the whites.

Dip a chile into the egg mixture, taking care to coat well. Dredge in flour and set on a plate. Repeat with remaining chiles.

Meanwhile heat about 1/8 to 1/4 inch layer of canola oil in a heavy skillet. Add as many chiles as you can fit, leaving about an inch of space around each one to prevent crowding. Cook 1 minute per side, or until lightly browned all over. Use tongs to turn. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate.

Serve topped with the tomato sauce mixture, cilantro, chopped tomato and sour cream.

There’s More Mingling for You to Taste!

Wishing you could remember where to find that spectacular recipe for Loaded Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting? My new recipe index is here to help. Click on the link to the right and browse through all my recipes, thoughtfully classified for your ease.

I’ve also added a completely new section to the website that is all about South Florida. Click over and you will find links to all my local restaurant reviews. Blogs posted on this page that relate to SoFla will be posted on the South Florida page simultaneously. Besides restaurant reviews, I will write about produce that’s in season here in the Sunshine State as well as gourmet shops and other destinations for food lovers. I hope this will be a place where locals can share their dining experiences and suggestions with me and other readers through their comments.



Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Woodlands Vegetarian Indian Restaurant

I came to love Indian food when I spent my third year of college studying in London. Although I went to museums constantly and read wonderful British literature, I should probably have put the word studying in quotation marks. Mostly, what I did that year was get intimately acquainted with the city of London, travel as much as possible and enjoy British university life with my friends. This meant spending a lot of time in pubs and having countless dinners out at the Indian curry houses in our east London neighborhood.

The spicy tomato-based lamb curries were my favorites, but Chicken Saag, a spinach-based curry, was a close runner up. The naan bread, light and blistered from the tandoori ovens, was a revelation. For awhile, I would have named the sweet peshwari naan my favorite food in the world.

Having worked my way through much of a typical Indian menu since my time in London, I thought I knew quite a bit about Indian food for an American. It turns out that someone could fill a book, or at least a menu, with what I didn’t know. That is how I felt when I ate at Woodlands, a quiet little place in a strip mall on University Drive in Lauderhill.

Woodlands serves Southern Indian cuisine which caters to a vegetarian diet, whereas the more familiar Northern style is know for meat-based curries and succulent tandoori dishes. Woodlands is, in fact, a completely vegetarian restaurant which meant I had to work slightly harder to “sell it” to my husband. He loves Indian food and is happy to eat a vegetarian meal at home, but he wondered how interesting the food could possibly be with no meat involved. He has now completely reversed his opinion. Southern Indian cuisine is Ganesh’s gift to vegetarians and soon will become the latest obsession of adventurous food lovers.

The majority of the food we ordered at Woodlands consisted of things we have never seen before. Pictures in the menu and the helpful staff gave us some idea of what to expect. On our first visit, we were ready to order several items, but our waiter told us that the Royal Thali would likely be enough for two. A thali is a sort of sampler platter, complete with various curries, including chana masala (chickpea-tomato curry) and coconut-vegetable curry; rasam soup, basmati rice, yogurt and dessert; and a golden balloon of freshly made fried bread called batura (or a big puri). This giant, chewy puff of warm, slightly sweet bread crowning the lovely thalis is enough reason to eat at Woodlands. A selection of appetizers accompanied the thali, introducing us to medhu vada, a fried “lentil donut” that had a greaseless, mildly-spiced bread-like interior. Though lacking the novelty of the vada, a simple vegetable fritter was another favorite.

From left to right: vegetable fritter, vegetable samosa and medhu vada.

The menu also has a large selection of dosais, or thin rice flour crepes that can be ordered with sauces on the side or chutney and vegetable fillings. The Woodlands Special Dosai is the Indian version of a really great hot veggie wrap -- a crisp crepe stuffed with curried vegetables and fluffy potatoes, tinted yellow with turmeric. These crepes are about 20 inches long, so there is plenty for sharing. Uthappams are another staple of Southern Indian cooking. These thick pancakes made from a lentil and rice batter are served with a variety of toppings like tomatoes, onions, and peas.

A variety of Indian breads are available a la carte, including my beloved naan. Woodlands’ selection of vegetarian curries can also be ordered in entrée-sized portions, but for your introduction to Southern Indian food, one of the thalis is a must. If you can make it for lunch, the buffet promises an even wider array of Woodlands’ vegetarian creations. It is available 7 days a week. I would love to tell you why a off-dry reisling pairs beautifully with spicy Indian flavors, but Woodlands does not have a liquor license. Take comfort in knowing that my husband and I like our glass of wine with dinner, so we would not be driving out of our way to eat there at every opportunity unless the food was fantastic.

With a reference to its name, the restaurant is sparsely decorated with a whimsical wooded garland painted along the borders of the walls. With booths lining one side and long tables filling the sunny front half of the room, Woodlands does not exactly resemble a maharajah’s palace, but no matter. I do not know of another restaurant in South Florida where two people can dine on so much exotic, fresh, healthfully prepared food of this quality for no more than $25.00. I am thrilled that Woodlands has given me a whole new facet of Indian cuisine to explore. It makes me wonder what other culinary aspects of the mysterious subcontinent that I have yet to uncover.

Another South Florida strip mall gem...

4816 N. University Dr.
Lauderhill, FL 33351
(407) 854-3330

This post is a perfect fit for Dine & Dish, the online event where bloggers dine out according to a given theme and blog about it. This month, the theme is Like A Virgin. Head over to Sarah's blog, The Delicious Life, on October 20th and find out who else gave it up.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Wholemeal Loaf For World Bread Day

Growing up in the lowfat nineties, I had no quarrel with bread. My favorite was a fluffy white loaf of French bread that was always available hot from our grocery store. Slathered with butter next to a plate of my mom’s spaghetti, it was bliss. The low-carb diet had not yet taken the nation by storm when I was battling the “Freshman 15” in college so, thankfully, I never went in for its restrictions on all things yeasty and wonderful. I am thrilled that the “bread is evil” mantra of early low-carb devotees has evolved to the current thinking, that whole grain breads are a healthy and essential part of any diet.

For sandwiches and buttered toast, nutty, chewy whole grain bread is my favorite. I will not pass up a gorgeous baguette or ciabatta loaf, especially when a bowl of fragrant olive oil is nearby, but whole grain is my everyday choice for a filling, nutritious slice. The best whole wheat bread I’ve eaten is the humble wholemeal loaf, available in every supermarket in England, in a stay-fresh plastic sleeve. Wholemeal toast with butter saved us many times after long nights out at the pub when I was studying in London during college. I loved it with a thick layer of cottage cheese on top, as well. Even though my flatmates cringed every time I ate this tasty snack, I was not deterred.

Wholemeal bread is one of many things I still miss about living in London, but I am hoping to rectify that situation with a recent discovery. The lovely people at the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Catalogue sell an Irish Wholemeal Flour. I ordered a bag recently and already used it to make my Whole Wheat Irish Soda Bread. It turned out very well, but the real test came with this simple Wholemeal Loaf recipe.

After much googling, I decided to adapt a recipe from Delia Smith, one of England’s celebrity chefs whose audience seems to be the type of homemaker who would bake wholemeal bread for her family on a regular basis. The recipe is unbelievably easy, with only four ingredients that could be blended together in no time with a wooden spoon. I almost wished it would have been challenging enough to warrant using my nifty mixer, but ease of execution is hardly something to scoff at! I’ll play with my kitchen gadgets another day.

When I finally tasted my still warm wholemeal loaf, I was more than happy. Though it did not bake up to great sloping heights as I had envisioned, the yeast worked fine, and the bread baked evenly throughout. The wholemeal flour created a dense, chewy texture that is not as soft and light as supermarket bread, but that is the beauty of homemade. The taste was nutty with a slight, pleasant sourness. Eaten with grilled vegetables and cheese, and with a tangy fig tapenade, the wholemeal bread was flavorful without overpowering the toppings. Although I was full, I could not resist trying one more little piece straight up with butter. Perfect. Now I just need a group of tipsy college friends sitting around my table, and the scene will be complete.

I baked this wholemeal loaf in honor of World Bread Day on October 16th, as declared by The International Union of Bakers and Bakers-Confectioners (UIB). The German food blog, Kochtopf, will be posting a roundup of breads from bloggers around the world in the next day or two, so be sure to check it out.

World Bread Day '06
Fit the dough into the baking pans and leave it to rise, preferably in a warm place, for an hour, covered with a towel. Because the temperature is still in the 80s here in South Florida, I just turn off my air conditioner for an hour and I'm set.

Wholemeal Loaf
This recipe will work fine with regular whole wheat flour, but if you can get some wholemeal flour, I highly recommend it. It has a flavor and texture that is not quite like any whole wheat bread I have tasted in the U.S.

Makes 2 small (9x5x2) or one large loaf.

1 packet active dry yeast
3/4 c. hot water (should feel hot to the touch, but not scalding)
4 ½ c. Irish wholemeal flour
2 tsp. salt
1 rounded tsp. light brown sugar
All purpose flour, for dusting

Butter 2 loaf pans, size 9x5x2. Pour the yeast into a small bowl. Add the hot water to it and stir quickly for a few seconds. Let it sit for several minutes until foam appears on the surface of the water. While the yeast activates, combine the wholemeal flour, salt and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Form a well in the center of the flour and pour in the activated yeast-water mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon to combine.

From here, keep adding water in small amounts until you have formed a sticky dough. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as you go. All the flour should be incorporated. Using your hands to mix the dough at this point might help you to judge the consistency. The exact amount of water will vary depending on your flour, so go slowly and stop when everything just comes together in a slightly moist ball.

Turn the dough out onto a surface dusted with all-purpose flour. With floured hands, divide the dough into two pieces and form them into oblong shapes. Place each one in a loaf pan and press the dough slightly into the shape of the tin. Dust the tops with additional flour. Cover the loaf pans with a kitchen towel and leave them in a warm place to rise for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. After the loaves have finished rising, bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes (40 minutes if you have one large loaf pan). Remove from oven and invert loaves onto a kitchen towel. Using gloves, place the loaves back in the oven, out of their pans, upside down, in order to crisp the bottoms and sides for 5 minutes. If your loaves are already dark on the bottom, you may skip this step. You may also turn the oven off and let the residual heat crisp the loaves for the 5 additional minutes. Cool on a rack. This bread can be frozen once it is completely cooled.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Rib Eye Steak with Pomegranate Glaze

When Mike and I have a nice bottle of red wine, we often pair it with some variation on a steak dinner. The structured body and bold, yet balanced, tannins in a quality cabernet sauvignon absolutely beg for a serious steak. As much as I enjoy this pairing, we do not eat red meat very often, and we almost never go to steak houses. Why pay the wine mark-up at a restaurant just to order a meal that you can easily cook in your own kitchen and enjoy in the intimacy of your home?

Not only is a great steak dinner easy to do yourself, but you’ll have the chance to be more creative than most steakhouses. I love to smother a filet in creamy mushroom sauce or a simple red wine reduction with shallots. Not in the mood for the standard issue baked potato and creamed spinach? Serve your steak with lightly sautéed salad greens and grilled ciabatta bread instead.

Salad and toasty, garlic-rubbed bread were our choices to complement the slightly Mediterranean feel of our Rib Eye Steak with Pomegranate Glaze. The recipe for the glaze, adapted from September’s Gourmet magazine, includes a sprinkling of sumac to season the steak. Sumac has a fruity, sour flavor and deep, blood-red color. It is an essential ingredient in the Middle Eastern spice mixture zaatar which I made for my Goat Cheese-Stuffed Grape Leaves with Tomato Jam. It can be found in gourmet shops or online at Penzey’s. It will not make the steak taste sour or overly acidic, but it does offer an extra layer of flavor to the dish. If you can’t get it, you can leave it out as long as you use pomegranate molasses to give the glaze the acidic punch it needs.

A generous handful of pomegranate seeds sprinkled over each portion is an essential addition for both their snappy texture and jewel-toned color. They are available in grocery stores right now and work beautifully in salads, salsas and grain dishes, like couscous. If you are lucky enough to have some lovely person extract the seeds for you while you make the rest of the meal, even better!

You will be saving so much money by dining in that you may as well splurge on the best meat possible. We found dry-aged rib eye at our Whole Foods Market that replaced our usual choice of filet mignon. The rib eye had a lot of flavor and was incredibly moist and tender even when we cooked it just past our intended medium-rare.

We were not celebrating anything in particular with this steak dinner except that it was the weekend, and we had some tasty wine on hand. As far as I am concerned, just making it to the weekend is cause enough for celebration.

Rib Eye Steak with Pomegranate Glaze
Any cut of steak you like may be substituted. Cook or grill the meat with any method that works for the cut you choose. Lacking a grill, I like the stovetop to oven method for cooking thick cuts of meat because it allows me to get a good sear on the outside without burning from prolonged time on the stove. A one pound rib eye was enough for two, but there will be enough glaze for up to 4 servings of steak.

Serves 2

For Glaze:
2 cups bottled pomegranate juice
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
1/4 cup red wine
2 tsp. pomegranate molasses (or substitute 1 tsp. lemon juice)

For Steak:
1 tablespoon sumac1 teaspoon black pepper
½ tsp. salt
1 lb. rib eye steak, at room temperature
1 tblsp. olive oil
Fresh pomegranate seeds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a small saucepan, combine the pomegranate juice, sugar and salt. Simmer over medium heat until liquid reduces to about ½ cup, 20-30 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Rub the sumac all over the steak and season with salt and pepper. Let stand for 10 minutes. Heat the olive oil in an oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the steak on one side for 2 minutes. Flip and sear for 1 minute more. Transfer the pan to the middle of the oven and cook to your desired doneness, about 5-8 minutes for medium rare, depending on the thickness of the steak. Test by pressing the thickest part with your finger. The meat should feel soft and spring back slowly. Look here for more info on testing for doneness. It is best to error on the side of caution, so you may want to make a small cut in the steak to check. When finished, let the steak rest on a cutting board for 5-10 minutes, then divide among 2 plates.

While the steak is in the oven and resting, finish the glaze. In a skillet over medium heat, melt the butter, add the shallots and saute for 3 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until reduced and slightly thickened, 2-3 minutes. Add the pomegranate juice reduction and bring back to a simmer. Stir in the pomegranate molasses and simmer for another minute to combine the flavors, stirring all the time. Remove from heat and immediately serve over steak. Garnish each steak with plenty of fresh pomegranate seeds.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Quick & Healthy: Chana Masala with Butternut Squash

When I woke up Sunday morning after a meal of steak with pomegranate sauce and a hefty slice of my Flourless Bittersweet Chocolate Cake with whipped cream, I only had one food-related thought on my mind: chickpeas. All I wanted to eat were chickpeas. If only I could skip my morning oatmeal and go straight to a nourishing salad or sautéed vegetable dish full of chickpeas. This common bean that Mike prefers to refer to as “garbanzo” (he finds the word “chickpea” inexplicably creepy) is one of my favorite choices when I want to eat healthy, yet satisfying food. I let go of my urge to eat a bowl of chickpeas for breakfast so that we could enjoy a big, aromatic pot of chana masala that evening.

If you love Indian flavors, but are a bit too daunted by the exotic ingredients and preparation to try them at home, then chana masala is the answer to your cravings. It is a straightforward chickpea curry dish with tomatoes from the Punjab region of India. I add butternut squash to “beef up” the vegetable content, and because I love its sweet flavor and substantial texture. The red bell peppers are not traditional either, but they mesh beautifully with the fire-roasted tomatoes.

If you do not feel like peeling a squash, add another favorite vegetable. Regular or sweet potatoes would be perfect. For something lighter, try cauliflower or zucchini, but add them in the last few minutes of cooking so they don’t fall apart. This dish is warm, comforting and easy to put together. Served over some basmati or brown rice, it is a complete meal. The most fussy part of the prep work is toasting the cumin seeds for a few minutes, but they will perfume your kitchen with such a clean, smoky fragrance, you won’t mind the extra bit of effort.

Chana Masala with Butternut Squash
Serves 4-6

1 tbsp. canola or other neutral oil
1 ½ tsp. cumin seeds
1 yellow or white onion, sliced into half moons
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
salt and pepper
2 tsp. garam masala
2 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. ground ginger
1 ½ tsp. turmeric
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
1 28 oz. can fire-roasted, diced tomatoes (I use Muir Glen)
1 small to medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and chopped into bite-size (1/2 inch) pieces
3 c. water, or as needed
1 28 oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
½ c. cilantro, chopped, divided
½ c. onion, chopped, for serving

Heat the oil in large soup pot over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and stir them around in the oil until they start to pop and become fragrant, about 2 minutes. Turn the heat up to medium-high, add the onion and bell pepper, season with salt and pepper and cook until lightly browned, 4-5 minutes. Add all the spices, garlic and jalapeno and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, then add the squash and stir to combine. Pour in about 3 cups hot water, or as much as it takes to just cover the squash. Bring the curry to a boil, add 1 ½ tsp. salt, or to taste, cover the pot and simmer on medium-low heat for 8 minutes. Add the chickpeas and continue simmering the curry, uncovered, for 7-12 minutes or until the squash is tender when pierced with a fork. Stir in ¼ cup of the cilantro. Serve the chana masala over rice and garnish with the rest of the cilantro and chopped onion.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Flourless Bittersweet Chocolate Cake

I’m here to give it to you straight. This cake is rich. Even serious chocoholics need only eat a sliver. With fresh, lightly sweetened whipped cream, it is utterly decadent. Bake this cake when you have an unmanageable itch for the deepest, darkest, truest chocolate taste. Make it when only expensive, bittersweet, 70% cocao chocolate - baked into a dense, fudgy dessert - will satisfy you.

I eat a very little bit of dark chocolate almost daily, but lately I have been craving something more. I made this cake as a sweet ending to a wonderful steak dinner that accompanied a bottle of soft, luscious Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that Mike got for his birthday a couple months ago. The cake was so satisfying that the next day I could not even think about eating chocolate. Over 24 hours without even the slightest chocolate craving—that is the power of this cake.

Ever since I saw a similar flourless chocolate cake on the September cover of Bon Appetit, there has been a little devil on my shoulder urging me to start baking. When I took a close look at the actual recipe, I realized that it called for twice as much chocolate as other flourless cake recipes and might be too much for even me. The devil couldn’t convince me to go quite that far, so I read several other recipes and adapted one from Lisa Yockelson’s great book, Chocolate Chocolate.

Yockelson would have you separate the eggs, beat the whites and fold them into the batter to create an airier texture. That sounded lovely, but the chocolate devil and I wanted this cake to be dense and a little heavy. I used Scharffen Berger’s 70% cocao bittersweet chocolate in the cake. It has a complex flavor, almost alcoholic, that hinted to me of coffee and port.

The ganache is another unnecessary indulgence that I added to the recipe. You could skip it and dust the cake with powdered sugar or coco powder, but I like how the cake looks wrapped in this sleek cape of silky chocolate. I used Ghirardelli semisweet chocolate chips for the ganache in order to offset the intensity of the bittersweet chocolate in the cake. You have now been sufficiently warned—bake at your own risk.

Flourless Bittersweet Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Chocolate Chocolate by Lisa Yockelson
Serves 12-16

For Cake:
2/3 c. plus 2 tblsp. sugar
2 tblsp. cocao powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 stick butter
9 oz. good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract

For Ganache:
½ c. heavy whipping cream
4 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped if necessary

For Serving:
1 c. heavy whipping cream
1-2 tblsp. sugar, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the base of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper, cut to fit the pan. Butter the parchment and the sides of the pan.

Combine the sugar, cocoa and salt in a large bowl. Whisk the eggs with the vanilla and add to the bowl. Stir to combine. In medium saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the chocolate and whisk constantly until completely melted. Remove from heat. Add the chocolate to the sugar-egg mixture and whisk until completely combined. Batter should be thick and fairly smooth. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 40-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. The cake will be firm and pulling away from the sides of the pan. Cool completely in pan.

To prepare the ganache, bring the cream to a simmer in a small saucepan. Add the chocolate and stir until completely melted and smooth. Pour the ganache over the cake, still inside the springform pan. Shake the pan to even out the ganache. Chill for 2 hours to set the ganache.

To serve, add the cream and sugar to a large bowl. Beat with an electric mixer at medium speed to the desired consistency. Release the sides of the pan. Slide the cake with the parchment paper onto a serving platter and serve with the whipped cream.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Mike's Saucy Enchiladas

The first time I had an enchilada, I was a kid growing up in southern California where good Mexican food could be found with ease in our quiet little beach community. It was from some hole-in-the-wall takeout place, and it was spicy, oozing with greasy cheese and very saucy. Now let’s take this trip down memory lane over to a valley in northern Utah where my husband was growing up with a Texan mom who has been a Spanish teacher for most of her life. Mike learned a few things about Mexican food from her, most notably how to make amazing fajitas with fresh guacamole and pico de gallo (not surprisingly, he learned how to make the margaritas that go with them from his Irish dad). Recently, Mike also demonstrated that he can make some very fine enchiladas.

Mike’s taste for Mexican flavors is really wonderful considering the obstacles he had to overcome growing up in Utah. When Mike had an assignment to bring a dish to share with his 7th grade Spanish class, there was no place to buy fresh poblanos where he lived, so they substituted canned peppers for their chiles rellenos. Mike got to experience some truly authentic Mexican food when he studied in Puebla, located 110 km southeast of Mexico City, during college. Even though he was warned not to eat the food from the street vendors (strange foreign contamination and whatnot), Mike dined almost exclusively from their carts and sampled the best tacos in town.

When Mike said he wanted to make enchiladas for us, I had (only!) one request: they must be saucy. I railed on and on about the pitfalls of enchilada making – stringy meat, too much goopy cheese and dry, under-sauced tortillas. We must have none of that! I looked at an otherwise fine recipe that he found online and said, “Sounds good, but you’ll have to add twice as much sauce.”

One look at these saucy babies, and you can see that Mike knows what I like. The poached chicken breast filling was moist and not petrified in clumps of cheese; the salsa verde added an insidiously spicy flavor; and the tortillas were soft and positively saucy.

Not saucy yet, but wait for it...

That's what we like to see!

Mike's Saucy Enchiladas
Inspired by this recipe from Zachary Smith, via Food Network. Poaching the chicken ahead of time (or using the meat from a store-bought rotisserie chicken) lets you assemble this dish quickly. You can also refrigerate the enchiladas for 24 hours before baking. Salsa verde is added to plain tomato sauce to create a quick enchilada sauce. Use any salsa and heat level you like. Salsa verde is sold in cans in the ethnic food section or in jars with the other salsas. Red salsa is fine too, but smoother varieties work better than chunky. Be sure the heat level of the salsa is okay before you add it to your tomato sauce. Cotija is crumbly, salty Mexican cheese that can be found in Latin markets and many grocery stores. Other Mexican or Spanish hard cheeses can be substituted. Makes enough for a dozen enchiladas. You will have plenty of leftover sauce for serving, or for another use.

1.5 lbs chicken breast, poached in water seasoned with salt and pepper and shredded

For the enchiladas:
3 (7-ounce) cans salsa verde (Mike used Sabores Aztecas brand from Whole Foods Market)
1 (28 oz) can tomato sauce
1 (15 1/2-ounce) can black beans
salt (or substitute adobo seasoning)
freshly ground pepper
1/3 pound pepper jack cheese, grated
1 (7-ounce) can diced green chiles, drained
1 dozen whole wheat flour tortillas
queso cotija, a few ounces for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, combine salsa verde and tomato sauce. Drain the beans and season with salt (or adobo seasoning) and pepper. Add a thin layer of sauce to bottom of a very large or two smaller baking dishes (we filled a 9x13 and an 8x8 dish). Put some chicken, beans, pepper jack cheese, a little sauce and some green chiles in a tortilla. Roll up and place in dish. Repeat until dish is filled. Cover with sauce. Sprinkle remainder of chiles and crumbled queso cotija on top.

Cover dishes with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove foil and cook for 5 minutes more. Remove from oven when sauce is bubbly. Let rest for 5-10 minutes and serve.

Cook until the sauce is bubbling and the top is blistered.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Perfect Matcha

If you plan on doing some fancy entertaining soon, I have the perfect easy, make-ahead dessert. I was not doing any fancy entertaining when I prepared these individual Green Tea Panna Cottas, but I was excited to cook with matcha, or powdered green tea. Panna Cotta is an Italian molded custard that comes together quickly, but requires at least four hours in your refrigerator to set properly. Make them the night before a dinner party for a light bite after an indulgent meal when you may not be quite in the mood for a rich, chocolately thing. Although I am always in the mood for a rich chocolately thing, even I can admit that sometimes restraint is the better strategy.

Do these custards taste like tea? Well, not exactly. The sugar, vanilla and half & half create a mellow milky sweetness that is enhanced by the faintly herbal flavor of the matcha. The light minty-green color is soothing and looks lovely contrasted with bright, juicy berries.

I bought a pack of the most beautiful, plump raspberries that I intended to serve with my panna cotta, but when I sampled one, there was no berry taste whatsoever. I tried another and another, but still the same watery juiciness was all I could detect. These were conventionally grown raspberries from the supermarket, not local and not organic. I couldn’t help but think that these were some kind of Franken-berries, genetically modified and over-fertilized to achieve their flawless, fresh appearance at the expense of their natural flavor. I did some quick online investigating and found that this was not the case, although my razzies most definitely did not provide the “Delightful Eating Experience” promised by Driscoll’s Berries. I had much better luck with the strawberries you see in the photo which were sweet and delicious even though they were a bit mottled and misshapen in their package. Clearly, looks aren’t everything where fresh produce is concerned. It is too bad that sampling is considered bad manners at the grocery store. If you live in a city that does not offer a bounty of farmers’ markets, where and when do you find the most flavorful berries? To avoid disappointment altogether, you could make a light raspberry sauce with frozen berries and sugar to drizzle over these creamy custards.

Green Tea Panna Cotta
Adapted from Bon Appetit, Sept. 2006, here.
Matcha can be found at Whole Foods Market in the fine tea section, where you can get a small amount and pay by weight. It is also available online from Special Teas.

1-1/4 tsp. unflavored gelatin
1 tblsp. cold water
3 tblsp. plus 1 tsp. sugar
1-1/4 c. half & half
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1-1/4 tsp. matcha
Fresh berries, for garnish (optional)

Mix the gelatin with the water and let it soften for a few minutes. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, dissolve the sugar in the half & half. Add the softened gelatin and vanilla and whisk to combine. In a bowl, combine the matcha with two tablespoons of the half & half mixture and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the remaining half & half mixture. At this point, you can strain the liquid through a fine sieve if your matcha is coarse. If the liquid already looks very smooth, skip this step. Divide the liquid evenly among 4, 4-oz. or 6-oz. ramekins. Cover each one with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

To unmold, fill a large pot with hot tap water. Remove the plastic wrap from one ramekin and dip the lower three-quarters of the ramekin in the water for 30 seconds. Put a dessert plate over the ramekin, invert and lightly shake the ramekin to release the panna cotta. Repeat with remaining ramekins. You may have to change the water once or twice so it does not get too cool. If you get a bit of liquid on the plates from the panna cotta, just wipe with paper towel. Your custards are still set; the liquid is a result of dipping in the hot water. You could also unmold these a few hours ahead of time, cover with plastic wrap and keep chilled in the refrigerator until dessert. Garnish at the last minute.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Special Breakfast - Baked Eggs

Some people are really difficult to buy gifts for. Maybe they already own everything you can think of getting them, or they are the type who lacks a sense of materialism, or fascination with "stuff." Maybe you pick out clothes for their birthdays and gift cards at holiday time, but what about when you just want to say, "thank you." Sometimes the words are not enough to express your appreciation, and you wish for the perfect little gift to demonstrate how you feel.

I have come through with some creative gifts for my husband, Mike, but I often run into this problem, especially when I want to give him something "just because." It happened this week. I racked my brain in vain trying to come up with the right token of love, but my thoughts kept coming back to the same thing - food. I finally gave in, and decided to make Mike a special Saturday breakfast. I call it breakfast because it is my first meal of the day. Mike calls it lunch because it is rarely eaten before noon. I shopped for the ingredients on my lunch hour on Friday, and told Mike that I would be making him something special and was touched by how happy he was. I have the hardest time suprising him, because I usually get too excited to keep anything a secret. Early on Saturday morning, I told him what I was making, and he handily determined that the bottle of Australian rosé we had in the refrigerator would be a nice accompaniment. I love giving gifts when it is just as much fun as receiving one myself.

The excellent September issue of Gourmet had a couple gorgeous egg dishes, and I chose the Romaine- and Egg-Stuffed Tomatoes with Pancetta for this special breakfast. Show me a new way to combine runny eggs and a pork product, and I am a very happy cook. Gourmet claimed that these lovely tomatoes with pesto and eggs on a bed of sautéed romaine would take an hour and a half, start to finish. I changed the order of some of the steps in the simple recipe and had us eating this impressive dish no more than one hour after I began cooking.

The store had run out of pancetta, so I substituted regular bacon which worked fine. Start by washing your lettuce and parsley, then remove the spines from the lettuce and add it to the food processor along with the parsley, garlic, cheese, salt, pepper and olive oil. My damp greens contributed some moisture, and I found that I needed to add only 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil instead of the huge 1/2 cup that the original recipe calls for. Once the pesto is made, slice the tops off the tomatoes, scoop out the flesh and seeds and fill each one with a generous tablespoon of pesto. I did not want to break any of the egg yolks or get bits of shell inside my tomatoes, so I cracked each one into a ramekin and tipped them into the tomatoes one by one. Once the eggs were safely in the oven, I cooked the bacon, then sauteed the lettuce ribs and some extra leaves in a bit of the bacon fat. I made 3 eggs to serve two people, but you can easily alter this as you see fit.

Romaine Pesto- and Egg-Stuffed Tomatoes with Bacon
This recipe makes enough pesto for 6-8 tomatoes. Freeze the leftovers so you can make this meal even more quickly another time.
Serves 2

2 romaine lettuce hearts
2 cloves garlic
½ c. loosely packed parsley leaves
¼ c. Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for garnish
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
3 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil
3-4 large tomatoes (about 3 inches in diameter)
3-4 large eggs at room temperature
6 slices bacon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash and trim the lettuce, then the cut the leaves away from the ribs. Reserve the ribs and tear the leaves into 2 inch pieces. Turn on your food processor and add the garlic to finely chop. Turn it off and add the three-quarters of the romaine leaves, the parsley, cheese, salt and pepper. Pulse until finely chopped. With the processor running pour in the olive oil.

Trim the tops off of the tomatoes, loosen the flesh with a paring knife and pull out the insides with your hand. Get as much of the juice and seeds out as you can. Set the tomatoes in a baking dish and fill each one with a generous tablespoon of pesto. Crack an egg into a small ramekin or bowl and tip it into one of the tomatoes. Repeat with remaining eggs. Sprinkle some salt and pepper on top and bake in the upper third of the oven for 18-22 minutes or until the eggs are set to your liking.

While the eggs are in the oven, cook six strips of bacon in a nonstick or cast iron skillet. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate and add the lettuce ribs and the remaining leaves to the rendered bacon fat in the skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the ribs are soft, about 3-5 minutes. Season the lettuce with salt and pepper and arrange on serving plates. Crumble the bacon and sprinkle over the lettuce. Place one or two tomatoes on each plate, sprinkle with a bit more grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.

Earlier in the morning, I made a fresh loaf of Irish soda bread (see the recipe here) with Irish Wholemeal Flour that I just ordered from King Arthur Flour's online catalogue. It has a coarse quality that gave the quickbread a wonderful, rustic texture and nutty flavor.

We both loved the baked eggs which made a striking presentation on the bed of sautéed romaine. I am glad Mike is so hard to shop for because a special breakfast is absolutely my favorite kind of gift to give.