Tuesday, March 24, 2009

spring fever and a date with grace

Spring is here and as with fall, I'm extremely excited for in-season produce, herbs, and most importantly, restaurant menu changes to complement the climate.

One of my favorite thing to make is salads. Although seemingly simple, I love to experiment with different fruits, veggies, homemade vinaigrettes, cheeses, nuts- you name it! Specifically in the summer months, a watermelon goat cheese salad or a caprese with off-the-vine heirloom tomatoes would beat a burger anyday.

This past warm Sunday afternoon (tank top, flips flops and all), I went on one of my frequent trips (better yet, rampages) to Central Market. After a date with the floral department (you can't beat the orchids and hydrangeas), I grabbed ingredients for dinner along with my staples- organic skim milk and kashi cereal for breakfast along with some Pam's pimento cheese from the sauce bar (my new guilty pleasure).

For dinner, the menu was:

Whole wheat angel hair in a lemon cream sauce with minted peas, sauteed chicken, shaved asparagus and pecorino

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 small carton heavy cream
3 Tbl butter
juice of 5 lemons
zest of one lemon
1 bag frozen peas
1/2 bunch chiffonade mint
1 bunch thick asparagus (shaved into long "ribbons" with a peeler)
1/2 package whole wheat pasta
shards of pecorino toscano as desired
olive oil
salt and pepper
3/4 cup CM celery Greek dressing for marinating

First, I marinated my chicken with some of CM's celery Greek dressing, salt and pepper. Usually, I would make my own marinade for an upscale occasion but this works just as well. After letting it sit for half an hour, saute the chicken in olive oil until browned then finish in the oven until cooked through. After chicken is cooked, let it cool then shred to later add to pasta.

Meanwhile, boil pasta water with salt and make the lemon cream sauce. For the sauce, I simmered the lemon juice, lemon zest, cream, salt and pepper and let reduce.

At the last minute, boil your angel hair and make your peas so they stay bright green when serving. In a saute pan, add your frozen peas with a bit of olive oil, lemon zest, salt, pepper, butter and chiffonade mint. Saute until peas thaw and flavors meld.

Right before serving, add your chicken to the lemon cream sauce and with tongs, add the cooked pasta to the sauce as well. To serve, place the pasta atop the shaved asparagus (the hot pasta and sauce will cook it slightly) with the minted peas on top. Garnish with fresh mint, fresh ground pepper and shards of pecorino.
Serves 2-3

A few nights later, dinner was more on the rustic side but equally delicious.

The menu was:

Grilled pork chop with salt, pepper and thyme
Red wine gastrique with brown sugar
Roasted garlic mashed potatoes

2 pork chops
1/2 cup fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 cups red wine (something you would drink)
3 peeled and quartered Idaho potatoes
1/2 head roasted garlic
1/2 cup milk
3 Tbl. butter
1/3 cup sour cream
olive oil
coarse salt and pepper

First, marinate the pork with a wet rub of olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme. Wrap bone with foil to prevent burning on the grill. Wrap half a head of garlic with olive oil in foil and roast at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. For the potatoes, add your chopped potatoes to cold water with salt and boil until fork-tender.

Next, start your reduction for the gastrique. Combine wine, brown sugar and a bit of salt then let reduce for about 20 minutes.

When potatoes are tender and gastrique is thickening, grill your pork chops on the outdoor grill on both sides to get grill marks and a nice crust. Finish in the hot oven until pork is just cooked through and juicy. To finish the potatoes, add the roasted garlic, milk, butter, sour cream, salt and pepper. Serve hot with pork chop atop the wine gastrique.
Serves 2

This week I was also finally able to try Grace- modern American classics- in downtown Fort Worth. For my meal, I chose the "wine me, dine me" 4 course wine pairing special so I could try a bit of everything.

The menu was:

Pork terrine with lemony watercress, rye bread and stone ground mustard
2007 Viognier

Chicken fried artichokes with meyer lemon aioli
2007 Austrian Gruner Veltiliner

Housemade jumbo shrimp ravioli in a roasted shrimp broth with julienned vegtables
2006 Sauvignon Blanc

Pecan Pie sundae with butter pecan ice cream, salted caramel, pie crust and candied pecans
10-year-old Tawny port

The standouts of the meal were definitely the beginning and the end. The pork terrine was outstanding and had all elements cohesively working together. The artichokes were ok; although they were battered well and the aioli was nice, some were too tough to chew.

My favorite thing about the shrimp ravioli was the balance of textures. The soft, pillowy ravioli sat in a fragrant broth with raw, crunchy brussel sprouts, red onion and spinach slivers. Although the plate was a bit cool from sitting, the flavors were spot on. For dessert, the pecan pie sundae was orgasmic (sorry, Dad). But seriously, I can't think of a better word to describe it. I took one bite with the tawny port and was in complete La-La land. Yum.

While I was enjoying my own meal, my boyfriend ordered the clam chowder as an appetizer, filet of beef and spaetzle and cheese for his entree. The clam chowder was pretty delicious and the knifework of the veggies was really superb as well. The filet of beef arrived undercooked (rare when we ordered medium) but when it came back, it was juicy and the pepper crust was tasty. The spaetzle and cheese was baked in a ramekin and came out piping hot and cheesy.

I enjoyed Grace. Along with the simple, yet modern ambiance, the food was overall delicious and the service was impeccable (ask for Sam). We will return soon.


Monday, March 23, 2009

the food rut

I've gotten in a food rut.

After my "inspiring" last blog post to cook more at home, I've instead eaten out almost every meal. Here are the most note-worthy:

Kincaids (burgers)

I don't think Kincaid's is as overrated as some may say.

No, it's not the best burger I've ever eaten... but, the place is consistent and the burgers always hit the spot. I went with my boyfriend on a slow afternoon last week and we both ordered cheeseburgers and shared an order of fries.

My burger was complete with cheese, mayo, lettuce and tomato and it was pretty good. Despite its' slight greasiness, the veggies were fresh and the cheese was melty (I know, melty is not a word but I like it anyway) and the bun was nicely toasted. My only other complaint was a lack of seasoning on the meat patty. After a shake of salt and pepper, I was good to go. I really like their crinkle-cut fries too. Salty fries have always been a guilty pleasure of mine...especially dipped in ranch. These had the salt content and a pretty solid ranch dressing.

Nonna Tata (handmade Italian)

A new girlfriend (and fellow foodie) and I ventured out to Nonna Tata after an unsucessful attempt to try Aventino's new menu. Definitely not disappointed toward our alternate decision, we settled on a couple bottles of vino at Central Market and began our long, yet pleasant wait for an outdoor table for two.

Once seated, we split the antipasto plate, bruschetta and a side salad to begin. The antipasto was a wooden carving board covered in bresaola, salami, lemon soaked arugula, ricotta salata and crostini with a savory spread (I'm guessing ham). The bresaola was our favorite- the salty, dried beef was really nice with the peppery arugula and the tangy lemon. The bruschetta was nice too. It was tart and refreshing with plum tomatoes, basil and a balsamic vinaigrette.

For our entree, we split the special of the night- a housemade pasta stuffed with a potato puree and bacon with a sage butter sauce. The pasta form was interesting; it was twisted into a candy-wrapper like cylinder with the potatoes and bacon inside.

I know everyone is going to hate on me for not loving everything from Nonna Tata, but I just wasn't crazy about this dish. The pasta was chewy where twisted and the flavors were just too rich for me. I needed a little freshness or acid- but, it was still a lovely dinner.

Railhead (Smokehouse)

Being from Austin, I've had some outstanding BBQ that Fort Worth has yet to touch. Fortunately, Railhead, a worthy Fort Worth contender, has perpetually consistent BBQ perfect for my smoky cravings.

On a recent visit, I ordered the sliced beef sandwich plate with potato salad and baked beans. Although the sides were tasty, I could have skipped them and gone for two sandwiches instead. The brisket really hit the spot and the sandwich wasn't overly sauced. I'm not a huge mustard/pickle person so I prefer the plain meat with a bit of sauce- simple, smoky, tangy and savory all wrapped into the ole' faithful Mrs. Baird's hamburger bun.

Old Neighborhood Grill (diner-style)

I discovered "ONG" back in my TCU days and have enjoyed going ever since. The environment is homey, the selection of sides are endless, the desserts are homemade and the chicken fried steak is fantastic. Although I've tried many things there (fried shrimp, black bean burger, cheeseburger, grilled chicken salad), I think the blackened tuna sandwich is my favorite. On this particular trip, I virtually ignored my own plate (fried shrimp) and helped myself to my fellow diner's chicken fried steak...good stuff.

Tu Hai (Vietnamese)

It's been a while since I've been to this modest, yet quaint Vietnamese restaurant off East Belknap but I was eager to return. I started with the egg rolls but soon looked around and realized that the spring rolls were the popular vote. Regardless, the pork and cabbage filled egg rolls were crispy and nice with a mild, ponzu-type sauce with julienned carrots.

For my lunch entree, I ordered the lemongrass chicken with sauteed onions, steamed rice and sliced cucumbers and my significant other ordered the #20- chicken with vegetables. Mine was nice but they really weren't playing around with that lemongrass. The citrusy lemongrass flavor was pungent but fortunately for me, I loved it. The chicken with vegetables had a really subtle and delicious sauce that I couldn't stop eating. I would highly recommend this place- don't forget to bring cash.

Spiral Diner (Vegan, mostly organic)

Spiral pancakes- where have you been all my life???

I'm a pretty quirky breakfast eater- I don't like to mess around with sweets and I would pick breakfast tacos or eggs benedict over pancakes and waffles any day. For this breakfast, I got to have my (pan)cake and eat them too. After I ordered the big taquito with a tofu scramble and veggies, I coerced my close-minded-about-Vegan-food-boyfriend to order the pancakes for me to try as well. Complete with agave nectar, the banana walnut pancakes were piping hot, fluffy and delish. After gulping down a glass of freshly-squeezed, organic orange juice, I was in heaven.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

the melting pot & my chicken phobia

It's Lent and one of my "resolutions" is to cook more at home.

Beside saving me money, I'm really trying to explore different flavors and techniques. Here are a few meals from this week:

Our "Bachelor finale-watching" meal:

Flank steak tostadas
Grilled corn and radish salad
Avocado crema

Not only is this meal pretty healthy (minus the fried tortillas), but fun to make as well. To begin, I made the corn salsa and avocado crema. For the salsa, I grilled my corn on the grill pan with olive oil and salt then cut it off the cob. Add the warm corn to minced jalapeno, red onion, cilantro, sliced radishes and lime juice. For the crema, I added the fruit of two avocados to the food processor with plain Greek yogurt, lime, honey and salt to get a smooth, thick consistency.

Meanwhile, I fried tortillas (I chose CM whole wheat) in vegetable oil until puffy and crispy then set them aside to drain on paper towels. I also heated vegetarian refried beans with a bit of garlic and oil to later spread on the tortillas.

Now for the steak...first, I made my marinade with chipotles in adobo, salt and pepper and rubbed the flank steak with it. Keep in mind, these chipotles are HOT so use with caution. I actually wiped most of the marinade off right before grilling but the smoky flavor still remained. I then grilled the steak on my grill pan to medium rare, let it rest and sliced it.

To serve, spread the fried tortilla with refried beans and arrange steak slices. Top with cheese (we used fontinella and I highly recommend this), the corn salsa and a dollop of avocado crema...Olé!

Our homemade "BBQ" and Heat-watching meal:

Salad with romaine, candied pecans, feta and homemade balsamic dressing
Smoked brisket
Pork ribs
Scallion cheddar mashed potatoes
Corn on the cob

Although my contribution to this meal was minuscule, it was so dang great I had to mention it! The brisket and ribs were smoked for 24 hours and were to-die-for tender. My contribution was the candied pecans (I was too busy watching DeNiro and drinking beer) and they were super simple. I toasted the pecans with butter, honey, red pepper flakes and salt then let them cool before they went into the salad.

Our "Ode to Morocco" meal:

Moroccan chicken with saffron risotto

Although I can't take credit for this meal either, I can definitely comment on the preparation. The risotto was made with saffron threads, onion, garlic and herbs. For the chicken, sear it first with salt and pepper, then add a wet paste of smoked paprika, curry powder, turmeric, saffron, salt, pepper, cumin, chopped kalamata olives, cilantro, onion and olive oil and return to the pan. Add white wine to cover chicken and reduce until sauce consistency is reached (about 10 minutes). Finish the sauce with a few pats of butter and serve with saffron risotto.

Our current focus in culinary school has been the ever-flowing melting pot of American regional cuisine. For the northern and eastern states (I drew Pennsylvania) we drew dishes out of a basket to recreate and then had to make an individual dish using any type of beans. Yes, beans.

I drew Boston baked beans (ehh..) and Buffalo stew (double ehh...). The beans actually turned out pretty delicious. It was your typical dish with dry mustard, molasses and brown sugar but I added chopped bacon and thyme to it as well.

For my personal bean dish, I grabbed the garbanzo beans and decided to make a salad- Spinach apple salad with spiced fried chickpeas and a lemon ginger vinaigrette.

The next class, we concentrated more on the Southern and Western states (I chose Florida). For my required dishes, I drew Jambalaya (yay!) and Navajo fry bread. For our individual dish, we were required to incorporate any type of corn (fresh, frozen, canned, corn meal, masa harina, etc.)

Beside my torment of cutting up an entire chicken*, the jambalaya was really fun to make.

*Disclaimer: I have a huge chicken phobia. I don't like to order it in restaurants unless I've had it before. The raw skin irks me and I feel like the raw chicken is going to jump up and start dancing before I cut it. I also hate slicing the backbone. Yes, I'm a huge baby and this is ridiculous. Just let it go...

First, I seared my beautifully fabbed chicken with salt and pepper then removed it from the pan. Next, I sauteed onion, garlic, parsley, cubed ham, cubed pork loin and sliced kielbasa in the same pan. I then added the spices (dried basil, thyme, cayenne, paprika, salt, pepper, etc.), homemade chicken stock, long grain rice and my reserved chicken back in the pan. Bake for 45 minutes (stirring occasionally) at 350 degrees and you've got some damn good jambalaya.

For the fry bread, I made a dough of flour, baking powder and salt. After kneading for a few minutes, I set the dough aside to rest for 15 minutes. To prepare the dough for frying, roll out until about 1/4 inch thin into circles 3 inches in diameter. Deep fry the dough circles- it only takes a couple minutes a side.

For my individual dish with corn, I stuffed my fry bread with a fried corn salsa of jalapeno, lime juice, cilantro and salt with a mango vinaigrette. For the vinaigrette, I combined the fruit of one mango, orange juice, lime juice, chopped scallion, salt and olive oil in the food processor. To serve, I stuffed the fry bread with the corn salsa, a bit of mango vinaigrette and slices of orange and salted avocado.

The next few weeks will be crazy- seafood class in culinary school, catering a tea party for 50 then catering an outdoor BBQ for 300! Time to start menu-planning...


Friday, March 6, 2009

the protein lottery

It's Friday and I'm exhausted. Here's a recap of my hectic evening in my advanced sauces class last night...

To begin, we were given a bucket filled with different proteins. We blindly picked one then had 20 minutes to prepare it with the sauce of our choice to present for critique. After we were finished, we picked another protein and repeated the same process for the next four hours. After cutting my finger open (nail included) and my legs almost falling off from exhaustion, I got 6 dishes out and I was pretty dang proud of myself :)
They were:

Protein 1: Catfish (ugh...)
Dish: Cornmeal-crusted catfish pan-fried with lemon-sauteed spinach and a horseradish yogurt
Critique: Oversauced but nice balance of flavor

Protein 2: Bone-in pork chop
Dish: Grilled pork chop with a rosemary balsamic reduction, blackberry coulis and fried rosemary
Critique: Good presentation, juicy chop but a little on the sweet side

Protein 3: Boneless pork loin
Dish: Orange glazed pork with roasted fennel
Critique: Pork a little over but liked the flavor combination

Protein 4: Shrimp
Dish: Grilled skewered shrimp with a scallion, honey, lime, orange and jalapeno salsa
Critique: Would have been a home run if I added a bit less pepper to the salsa (grr....)

Protein 5: Cod
Dish: Sliced almond-crusted cod (on the top only) with a preserved lemon and thyme white wine sauce
Critique: Fish cooked perfectly, loved the concept but the sauce was a bit tart

Protein 6: Boneless, skinless chicken breast
Dish: Sauteed chicken breast with sourdough croutons and a rosemary, apple butter sauce
Critique: Chicken cooked perfectly, pretty presentation, a bit too much rosemary

Whew...what a night!