Thursday, May 14, 2009

Thai mussels and shoddy service

I've now ventured to the pastry side at culinary school and it's a complete 180 from the savory side of the kitchen. It forces me to slow down, be more patient and think logically about how ingredients work in conjunction with each other. Our past class concentrated on cookies, brownies and bars. I was paired with a talented friend from class and we immediately got busy making an array of sweets.

After 4 hours of mixing, piping, slicing and chopping, we finished with an assortment of gingersnaps, apricot and toasted hazelnut cookies, cream cheese brownies, nut cookies, carrot cake cookies and whole wheat crackers. Although our gingersnaps were the most successful, the cream cheese brownies were my favorite! Next week we concentrate on pastry dough.

A few nights later, fellow chef-in-training and friend of mine hosted a supper club at her home. The theme was Southwestern and there was a smorgasbord of delicious (and spicy!) food including smoked pork tenderloin, grilled pork tenderloin with an orange tomatillo salsa, salad with cilantro lime vinaigrette, spicy tuna nachos with a chipotle mayo, southwestern eggrolls with chorizo and an avocado cream, poblano cream sauce, chili grits and orange almond flan for dessert.

To keep up with the delicious Southwestern theme, I made an inspired dinner a few nights later. The menu was:
Pulled orange chicken tacos with chimichurri, scallions, red onions, cilantro, manchego cheese and lime juice

For the chicken:
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (I bought the Southwestern marinated breasts at CM)
zest and juice of one orange
salt to taste

Grill the marinated chicken on a grill or grill pan until marks form. Add the orange juice and zest and finish chicken in the oven until just cooked through and moist. After chicken has slightly cooled, shred into large pieces and set aside.
I built my tacos with pan-fried whole wheat tortillas, chopped scallions, cilantro, red onions, shredded manchego cheese, shredded chicken and fresh lime juice.

Serves 2-3

Guacamole with baked chips

I made my "signature" guacamole then added a twist with orange at the end. The result was delicious and the orange lended an unexpected freshness.

2 ripe Hass avocados
juice of three limes
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 tbl orange zest
1 clove minced garlic
1 tbl extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup minced red onion
salt to taste
Mash all ingredients together until chunky. Garnish with cilantro leaves, a squeeze of lime, fleur de sel and serve with baked tortilla chips.

This week, I was finally able to dine at the notorious French restaurant, St. Emilion. I was eager and excited to try St. Emilion but was my mood quickly turned sour minutes after I arrived. Although we were warmly welcomed by the owner, we were ignored by our waitress the entire night- my champagne glass was empty for 10 minutes, she never checked on our food and she acted insulted when asked if the chocolate tart was made in-house. Apparently it was...although it tasted store-bought and previously frozen.

In terms of the food, I was extremely content with the appetizers, salads and soups but left underwhelmed and a bit peeved with the entrees and dessert. For appetizers, our table shared:

Grilled sea scallops with a mango tomato confit
Gnocchi with spinach pine nut pesto
Roasted tomato soup with duck confit
Butter lettuce salad with lardons, walnuts and a house vinaigrette

The sea scallops were buttery, perfectly cooked and light. The gnocchi was light as well and delicious with the spinach pesto- I was left wanting more. The tomato soup with duck confit was the best dish of the night. The creamy soup had a spicy kick to it and the duck confit was a perfect savory addition. The salad was ok... a bit bland and underdressed.

For our entrees, we shared the:

Sole almandine with asparagus and a potato thyme gallete
Rack of lamb with haricot verts and Israeli couscous

The sole was cooked nicely but the asparagus was bland and the potato gallete was greasy, under seasoned and unappetizing. Although the lamb was served in a beautiful tagine, it was fatty and tasted of burnt mustard. The Israeli cous cous included chorizo, celery and tamarind and gave me a bitter, sour aftertaste. Like the asparagus, the haricot verts were under seasoned.

For dessert, I ordered a glass of tawny port and the table shared a raspberry and a chocolate tart....I've had better. Although I enjoyed the appetizers at St. Emilion, I will not return due to the neglectful service and mediocre entrees.

Later in the week, two chefs up at school and I were testing components for a flavors and flavoring class. The head chef came up with a light and delicious pesto idea and I had to share it. The pesto was a combination of garlic, fennel, toasted walnuts, orange zest, preserved lemons, Italian parsley, feta, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper and olive oil- the pesto was fantastic sauteed with shrimp or would be a great dip for pita bread.

Also while experimenting, I took advantage of some interesting fresh herbs (chocolate mint, stevia, orange thyme, candy mint, lime mint) and made a couple simple syrups to have on hand- lime mint simple syrup and ginger orange simple syrup.

Friday evening, I headed to Dallas for a fun night with good friends from the past. For dinner, I met my girlfriend Justine at Sala Tex-Mex. Although the location was a bit iffy, the restaurant was modern, inviting and the food was straight-forward and tasty. We split the guacamole, sour cream chicken enchiladas (recommended by the waitress) and spicy nachos with chicken and beef. I left content- the service was great, the food was delicious and the tequila list was extensive.

After an eventful night and a date with Grey Goose, we had a girls brunch at Toulouse the next morning. Amongst freshly-squeezed grapefruit juice mimosas, we started with the Thai mussels with coconut milk, curry, lemongrass, ginger, cilantro, lime and plenty of bread for sopping the delicious broth. Next, I ordered the lump crab florentine served benedict-style and it arrived cold. Although the mussels were fantastic, Toulouse wasn't as good I expected it to also burned a hole in my wallet.


Monday, May 11, 2009

eggs benedict and a tea sampling

I finally attended my first Central Market cooking class this weekend- Mother's Day Tea. I went in with expectations to actually cook and was disappointed when I found it was demonstration and tasting only. Regardless, it was a nice change, our instructor Christine was extremely knowledgeable and the food was yummy.

In the swift two hours and a sampling of soothing hot teas, we were shown how to make vidalia onion tarts, quiche lorraine crepes, angel biscuits with smoked salmon and a dill mayo, crescenza (a soft cheese) with golden raisin bread, cream cheese brownies, bourbon balls and egg custard. Although my mom was digging the bourbon balls, my favorite was the crescenza and golden raisin bread.

After a day of excessive shopping, dinner was a late-night stop to Michaels Restaurant and Ancho Chile Bar. Eager to try a bit of everything, we split three appetizers:

Borracho nachos with pickled jalapeno, beans and cheese (simple bar food)

Three guys pizza with sirloin, red bell peppers, jalapenos, kalamata olives and tomatoes
(The pizza was ok. The ingredients didn't meld well for me and the sirloin was sparse.)

Beef teres with chile bourbon sauce, mashed potatoes and fried onions

(This was my favorite. The beef had a nice bitter bite from the pepper crust and was perfectly cooked. The appetizer portion is definitely enough for an entree.)

I liked Michael's but I think it will be more of a "bar food and cocktail" type of place for me.

Sunday morning, we headed to Taverna for Mother's Day Brunch. Amongst ice teas, coffee and bloody mary's, we started with the beignets with a cappuccino sauce. The beignets were warm, airy and had an unexpected lemony addition to them.

For the main course, my mom and I ordered the eggs benedict with lump crab meat, hollandaise and breakfast potatoes and my friend Megan ordered the eggs benedict with smoked salmon and grilled asparagus. My benedict was great- the eggs were runny, the lump crab was buttery and the english muffin was perfectly toasted. My only complaint was the undercooked and under seasoned breakfast potatoes.

Sunday night, I found some beautiful short ribs at Costco (they only had boneless) and went to work making dinner for that evening.

My menu was:

Red wine braised short ribs

3-4 boneless short ribs
2 cups chopped onion
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup fresh chopped rosemary, sage and thyme leaves

1 bottle red wine (I used a Spanish cab)
3/4 cup water
salt and pepper to crust short ribs

First, coat your short ribs with salt, pepper and olive oil then sear both sides in a Dutch oven until a brown crust has developed. Remove beef with tongs and set aside. Add vegetables to pot and saute for a few minutes. Add wine, water, herbs and a bit of salt to deglaze the pot. Return short ribs to pot and immerse in braising liquid. Cover pot and place in a 350 degree oven for at least 3 hours (mine were in for 3.5) until wine sauce has reduced and beef falls apart easily with a fork. Serve with sauce spooned atop short ribs.

Corn succotash with scallion butter, white cheddar and lime

4 ears of fresh corn, cut off the cob
1 stick butter at room temperature plus additional for sauteing
3 scallions, sliced thinly

1 cup shredded white cheddar cheese
2 limes (one juiced and one cut into wedges for serving)
salt and pepper to taste

First, make your compound butter. Combine one stick of soft butter with scallions and a bit of salt. Spoon into plastic wrap and form butter into a cylinder shape. Refrigerate until butter hardens.

For the succotash, heat a few tablespoons of butter in your pan. Add corn, salt and pepper and saute. After a few minutes, add the juice of one lime, half of your cheese and half of your scallion butter. Serve succotash with a lime wedge, the reserved white cheddar sprinkled on top and a round pat of scallion butter.

Sauteed baby portabellos with thyme

2 cups of sliced baby portabellos
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
1/2 stick butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
salt and pepper to taste

Saute all ingredients together until mushrooms absorb all ingredients and cook down.

Vanilla lime baked custards with a blackberry lime sauce
I used Central Market's basic egg custard recipe and added my own twist.

For custards:
4 eggs
1-2 cups sugar
1 Tbl vanilla bean paste
1 cup whole milk
zest of two limes and a squeeze of juice
few pinches of salt
3 tsp grated fresh nutmeg
In a sauce pan, whisk together all ingredients until just combined. Heat mixture until warm but not boiling. Pour into individual ramekins and top with fresh grated nutmeg and lime zest. Place ramekins on a baking sheet (no water bath required) for 40 minutes at 325 degrees.

After cooking and cooling, serve chilled or room temperature with a spoonful of blackberry sauce on top.

For blackberry sauce:
zest of one lime and a squeeze of juice
1 cup sliced blackberries
1/4 cup sugar
3 tsp vanilla bean paste

Combine all ingredients and let macerate while custards cook and cool. Spoon atop custards.

The next evening, I was introduced to some of the best coffee I've ever tasted from the owners of Aduro Bean Micro-Roasters. I sampled a cup of the coffee blend called Nutty Blonde- freshly roasted, cooled then ground. Coffee not masked with ounces of skim and packetfuls of splenda?! Wow...what a concept. The coffee was smooth, light and flavorful with not a hint of bitterness.

Later in the evening once at home, I took my own bark-making virginity and made a white chocolate bark with dried apricots, toasted walnuts and dried cherries compliments of my beloved Barefoot Contessa. This recipe is seriously pastry for idiots...even I didn't screw it up:)

You will need:

16 ounces of good white chocolate
(I used the CM bulk white and buttery)
1 cup chopped toasted walnuts (toast them yourself)
1 cup chopped dried apricots
1 cup dried cherries
(the recipe called for cranberries but I used cherries instead)

First, melt 3/4 of your white chocolate slowly over a double boiler until melted and shiny. Take off heat and add to remaining chocolate. Stir until melted and smooth then pour in an even layer over a baking sheet covered with parchment paper.

While chocolate is still warm, sprinkle cherries, apricots and walnuts uniformly over chocolate. Cool in the fridge until hardened. When ready to serve, cut bark into large shards for munching.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

blueberry scones and the beer companion

The start of May has been a month of new beginnings for me- new apartment, new opportunities and my impending 24th birthday on Cinco de Mayo! It's also been a week of yummy food...

Tuesday evening, a group of us headed to the Ginger Man for happy hour. I sipped on my Sunshine Wheat (I'm not into the dark stuff) while we snacked away at the beer companion- an array of cheeses (cheddar, pepper jack, smoked gouda), salami, green apples, stone ground mustard and baguette.

After our drinks, we headed across the street for an outdoor dinner at Winslows. Although it was a bit chilly outside, we cozied up with blankets and their outdoor fire. To begin, we started with the bruschetta trio- tomato, cranberry bean and mint and a baba ganoush (roasted eggplant dip). I liked the baba ganoush but wasn't a huge fan of the mint and bean. The beans were undercooked and underseasoned.

Next, our table ordered soups and salads. Amongst our picks were the wedge salad, spinach salad with grilled pineapple, house salad with a quail egg, roasted tomato soup and vichyssoise. Thankfully, my favorite was exactly what I ordered- the roasted tomato soup. The bacon added a nice smokiness and there was also a warming heat at the end.

Our entrees were the Spanish pie with chorizo, chicken pesto pizza and bacon-wrapped sea scallops with a honey-thyme tartar sauce. I really wasn't crazy about the pizzas but the scallops were well cooked and the sauce was really delicious.

The next evening, I broke in my new apartment and cooked my first meal in my tiny, yet quaint little kitchen. Although I'm usually veggie-crazed, the menu was a little more Rustic and heavier than I'm used to.

My menu was:

Salt and pepper crusted filet of beef

2 6-ounce filets of beef (take out of fridge to remove chill about 20 minutes before cooking)

Sea salt

Fresh-cracked pepper

Olive oil

3/4 cup red wine

2 Tbl butter

First, remove filets from packaging and dry both sides with paper towels. Next, liberally coat both sides with a mixture of the coarse sea salt and fresh-ground pepper. Sear the first side with olive oil in a smoking hot pan until a nice, brown crust has developed. Flip filets, deglaze pan with red wine and finish beef in a 350 degree oven with a pat of butter on top. I cooked mine medium rare (5-7 minutes in the oven). To serve, top filets with pan sauce.

Gnocchi with a roasted garlic and sage cream sauce

1 package potato gnocchi (I'm too lazy to make my own)

3 heads roasted garlic
(Cut garlic bulbs in half, drizzle liberally with olive oil and roast about 20 minutes in a 400 degree oven until browned. Squeeze cloves out, let cool and mince.)

1/3 cup fresh chopped sage

1 quart heavy cream

4 Tbl butter

1/3 cup milk (Whole would be ideal but I used skim because that's what I drink)

salt and pepper to taste

Boil water and cook gnocchi according to package directions. After draining, return gnocchi to pot. Add cream, butter, minced roasted garlic and sage. Add salt, pepper and milk if mixture is too thick. Simmer on low for a few minutes until sauce reduces a bit then serve immediately.

Sweet and spicy pan-fried okra

2 cups fresh okra sliced vertically

1 Tbl olive oil

2 Tbl honey

1 tsp red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

Saute okra in olive oil for a few minutes. Add honey, red pepper flakes and salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

The following rainy weekend evening, my girlfriend Cat and I snacked on an antipasto tray and a bottle of Riesling at my apartment then headed to Ferre for dinner. We split:

My antipasto platter:

Green grapes, blackberries with fleur de sel and honey, brie, parmigiano reggiano with a honey glaze, dry salami, marinated feta with olives and fresh baguette

Once at Ferre:

Martinis (I went for Grey Goose Poire straight-up and Cat ordered the Pink Heart with vanilla vodka and pomegranate liquor)

Crab cakes with a scallion puree and Fuji apple slaw

Housemade pasta with beef tenderloin, mixed mushrooms and a cognac sour cream sauce

Creme brulee with berries and Sambuca

Dinner was delicious and the service matched the food. My favorite dish was the crab cakes with the apple slaw. The crab cakes were light, almost all lump crab and the apple slaw was a delicious match.

My week ended with a visit to the Artisan Baking Company- specializing in fresh, seasonal and local bread-making. After a delightful interview with owner and chef, Gwin Grimes, I found some yummy goodies for breakfast and snacking- multigrain bread, spiced nuts with sugar, cumin and cayenne, mango spread and blueberry scones fresh out of the oven...what could be better?

My mom, aunt and cousin are coming in this weekend and it should be one full of shopping, delicious food and good company. More foodie details to come...