Wednesday, February 25, 2009

antipasto and the crab cake snob

Our "journey around the world" in culinary school came to an end last week with our Mediterranean class. After researching the cuisine of these regions (mine was Egypt) we were assigned two traditional dishes to recreate along with a dish of our choice reflecting our region.

I was assigned chicken saltibocca from Italy and tabbouli from Greece for my traditional dishes to recreate. I've had tabbouli many times and it's a pretty simple process to make. First, I soaked the bulgur wheat in a bowl of boiling water and set it aside to cook and soften. After it softened, (about 45 minutes) I squeezed the residual liquid from the bulgur and added the dried grain to a bowl. To the wheat, I added chopped tomatoes, cucumber, mint, fresh lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper as desired....easy, healthy and delicious.

For the saltimbocca, I decided to make a chicken version instead of veal. I started by pounding out my boneless, skinless chicken breasts to about 1/8 of an inch. Next, I lined the breast with fresh sage leaves and a slice of prosciutto on top. I then floured the breast "package" pun intended....and pan fried the breast prosciutto side down. Because the chicken was pounded so thin, it took mere minutes to cook. After the breast was brown on both sides, I added sliced fontina on top and let it melt in the oven.

Next, I created a pan jus with the brown bits left in my saute pan. I added red wine and more sage and let the sauce reduce to thicken. To plate, I drizzled the jus on my plate followed by the chicken and topped it all with fried sage leaves.

For my individual dish, I did a dessert reflective of common spices used in Egypt. First, I toasted walnuts with turmeric, cardamon, paprika, cayenne, honey and salt. Then, I added the spiced nuts to the food processor with some Mediterranean apricots to make a thick "paste". I then cut puff pastry into 2 inch squares and baked them in the convection oven. After they were browned, I stuffed the puff pastry with the spiced walnut and apricot paste and finished the dish with a sweet mint and honey yogurt.

The next evening, my girlfriend and I spent a quaint evening at Nonna Tata for dinner. Although we arrived early, we were faced with the inevitable wait. Fortunately, we spent our hour wait blanketed outside and sipping wine.

Once inside, we were greeted with an "amuse bouche" of pureed white beans, olive oil and thyme with crispy pita-type chips. It was light, pleasantly salty and perfect with our bottle of sweet Riesling.

To begin, we ordered the antipasto #2 served on a wood carving board complete with:

bresaola (air-dried, salted beef)

grana (hard, mature Italian cheeses similar to a Parmigiano-Reggiano)
riccota salata (similar to a dried, Italian feta)
goat cheese crostini
fritatta with leeks
grissini (crispy bread sticks)
mini puff pastry tarts stuffed with sausage and tomato
lemon soaked arugula

The board was delicious with our Italian cab...we were in heaven. Soon after, our salads arrived- lettuce, corn, cabbage and carrots with a raspberry chipotle or balsamic vinaigrette. We tried both dressings and I enjoyed them both.

For our entree, we split a pasta dish with penne, sauteed shrimp and a green olive pesto with cherry tomatoes and leeks. I was literally sopping up the delicious pesto with every instrument I could find. The shrimp was well cooked, the pasta was al dente and the green olive pesto was a perfect balance.

The worst part of the dinner was being too full to order dessert.

Last Saturday, my partner and I had to feed a crowd of 30 for an afternoon party. Our menu was a collaboration of requests from the clients and our own ideas.

The menu was:

Skirt steak atop crostini with mango tomato salsa
Chorizo stuffed sweet peppers
Spiced shrimp in a butter herb sauce
Asian style crab cakes with a roasted red pepper sauce
Skirt steak with pears, onions and herbs de Provence
The crab cakes were my "creation" and I was really happy how they turned out. First, I picked over my fresh lump crab for any shell remnants and gently combined it with thinly sliced scallions, cilantro, an egg to bind, homemade baguette crumbs, ginger, soy, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.
On a side note- I'm a HUGE crab cake snob. I can't stand when restaurants serve a deep fried pile of breading instead of letting the crab shine through. As a result, my crab cakes had just enough breading and egg to keep them from falling apart when hitting the deep fryer.
After I formed the mini crab cakes, I gently fried them in the deep fryer for a couple minutes. To plate, I garnished them with cilantro, scallions and the red pepper sauce.

For the sauce, I roasted two red bell peppers and removed the blackened skin and seeds. Combine the roasted peppers in the food processor with olive oil, lime juice, cilantro, honey, red pepper flakes and soy. This is a great fiery combination for the sweet crab.

Two nights later, we had an impromptu "dinner party" courtesy of my significant other. The menu was:

Pork loin stuffed tart apples with rosemary and wine
Roasted red pepper mashed potatoes
Quick sauteed brussel sprouts with a balsamic glaze

Although it was all delicious, the brussel sprouts were my favorite. I drizzled them with this incredible balsamic I bought from a fantastic food boutique in Dallas (Snyder plaza) called Flavors from Afar. Very delicious- and quite healthy- dinner.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Asian meets soul food

Wow...February has flown by so quickly! The past few weeks have been delicious ones.

Thursday evening started my bliss with Asian cuisine at culinary school. As with European cuisine from last week, we were assigned different Asian regions, asked to research the cuisine and then shared our newfound knowledge with the rest of the bunch. We were also given traditional Asian dishes and asked to recreate and serve them family style.

My dish was Phở, a legendary Vietnamese broth-based noodle and beef soup. I was ecstatic to recreate it. The great thing about Phở is it is more of an experience than a mere bowl of soup. The different elements work like a well oiled machine to create a well balanced meal based on many years of tradition.

For my version of Phở, I began by toasting peppercorns, a cinnamon stick, star anise and cloves to release their oils. I removed the spices, and added onion, ginger and garlic to the pan to char for a few minutes. I then added the spices back in, and filled my pot with homemade vegetable stock and let simmer for about an hour.

Traditionally, brisket, beef bones and thin, rare cuts of beef are added to the soup. Having to use what was available, I decided to make a meatball with ground pork instead. To the pork, I added salt, fennel seed, turmeric, ground clove, olive oil and cayenne and then formed my meatballs. Meanwhile, I soaked my rice noodles in hot water in 10 minutes to let them soften then set them aside.

After an hour plus of simmering (traditional Phở simmers for hours), I added my pork meatballs until cooked (about 10 minutes) then strained my broth through a chinoise to remove fat and the aromatic and spice remnants.

To serve the Phở, I arranged the rice noodles and pork meatballs at the bottom of my bowl. At the last minute, I poured the strained broth on top and served the Phở with sides of lime wedges, cilantro, basil and bean sprouts to add as desired.

After a long day of work Friday evening, I met a group of friends at Buttons- the new restaurant of Keith Hicks. I've always been a fan of Ovation's pot roast and fried-green tomatoes so I was looking forward to a taste of his gourmet soul food.

While I sipped my Button's Dirty Martini (Grey Goose with olive juice) I looked around and really started to people watch. Even in the early evening (6 p.m) the place was hopping- the waitresses were attractive and upbeat, the customers had smiling faces and the bar was jam-packed.

My boyfriend and I decided to split the pork chops with a prickly pear puree, caramelized apples, dijon apple butter and jalapeno cheese grits. The pork chops were perfection...crispy, charred crust with a moist, tender inside. The perfectly cooked chop went perfect with the smoky cheese grits and the apple butter.

I also snuck a bite of my girlfriend's pot roast with a beef jus, garlic mashed potatoes and veggies. It was quite tasty but had nothing on our pork chops. Also around the table were the infamous fried green tomatoes with andouille sausage, a fried egg and gravy along with homemade macaroni and cheese. The mac & cheese was gooey and comforting but had a slight overload of nutmeg.

Buttons satisfied on all and ambiance combined. On my next visit, I'm looking forward to trying the curried grilled lamb chops with chorizo, artichoke radicchio orzo and a fennel cream sauce- sounds amazing!

The next day was Valentine's day and I was looking forward to dinner ALL day at work. After arriving home to find beautiful roses, chilled champagne and a set was time for an outstanding dinner made by my significant other who just happens to be a chef...lucky me:)

The menu was:

Carrot saffron soup with turmeric

Heirloom tomato and spring mix salad with avocado, orange, braised onions, fleur de sel and a citrus vinaigrette

Homemade ravioli with fresh, steamed lobster, sage and a roasted butternut squash buerre blanc
(may I please mention the ravioli was cut into hearts? :)

Prime grilled filet of beef with Moroccan-spiced fingerling potatoes, asparagus and spinach with a braised pearl onion buerre rouge (red wine butter sauce)

After the truly fantastic meal (and about two hours to let our food settle), I was in charge of dessert and totally cheated with help from Central Markets' bakery.

Along with Häagen-Dazs vanilla bean ice cream and fresh berries, we split chocolate mousse cake with a raspberry coulis and chocolate ganache. I guess the saying is really is the way to my heart!

The next night, we decided to put our leftover pasta dough to good use. We rolled the dough out into 2-inch circles for ravioli and stuffed them with sauteed ground sirloin, red peppers, onion, garlic, rosemary, salt and thyme. With the additional stuffing, I deglazed my Dutch oven with red wine and let simmer to create a hearty sauce for the ravioli- nice "leftover" meal.

Tuesday evening I headed to the Covey for a late dinner with a friend. We started with the beer sampler and the sliders with a garlic mayo, smoked Gouda and fried onions. Although the fried onions were stone cold, the mini burger was delicious. The beef was nicely seasoned, the bread was soft and sweet and the smoked Gouda pulled it all together.

For our entree, we spilt the slow roasted chicken with green beans almandine, caramelized onion mashed potatoes and a Texas Wheat gravy. This dish was really delcious as well. The chicken was moist, the skin was crispy, the green beans were al dente and the gravy was icing on the cake- we just wished for a bit more.

Last evening, I played chef for a few friends to watch the Top Chef finale. The menu was:

Cayenne-cashew crusted chicken breasts with a raspberry jalapeno sauce

At first, I wanted to do a pecan crusted chicken but I found some spicy cashews at CM that looked really good. So, I made a crust in the food processor with homemade bread crumbs, the cayenne cashews and chopped Italian parsley.

Next, I started the whole "dredge station" process with seasoned flour (salt, pepper, cumin and paprika), whisked eggs and my cashew breading. I pan-fried the breaded chicken breasts for a few minutes each side then finished them in the oven for about 10 minutes.

For the sauce, I pureed raspberries, seeded and ribbed jalapenos, honey, olive oil, salt, lime juice and cilantro. Ordinarily, I would strain the raspberry seeds but I couldn't find the dang strainer! Next, I added the puree to my saucepan and let it simmer with a bit of red wine while the chicken cooked. Serve atop chicken.

Queso fresco mashed potatoes with cilantro and lime

Of course I can't make normal mashed potatoes:) These started with fork-tender boiled potatoes that I added warm cream and butter to. As I mashed, I added queso fresco, a bit of olive oil and salt. Right before serving, I added a quick splash of lime juice to balance with the rich potatoes and salty cheese. Serve potatoes under chicken with rasperry sauce.

There was a pretty great response with this meal. Next time, I'm definitely finding a strainer for the raspberry seeds!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

upscale burgers and a date with trouble

My new favorite place to waste time (and money) is World Market. I ventured there this past week and for under $50- I found an array of culinary goodies. For myself, I bought a nice bottle of Australian Shiraz and a square, white serving platter with 12 little "compartments" within it for sauces, spreads, olives, etc.

For my girlfriend with a birthday coming up, I filled a basket with jarred honey, Nutella, champagne, water crackers, marmalade, balsamic vinegar, chocolates and cheeses for entertaining. I told her to hope I don't keep them for myself :)

Culinary class last week began our new found "journey" of cuisine from around the world- this week was Europe. Prior to class, we were assigned regions in which to study and everyone shared in class. Amongst my pick (Ireland), there was Germany, Hungary, England, Sweden and Belgium.

Within our groups, we were required to recreate a traditional dish from these regions as well as prepare an individual dish of our country made with potatoes. My group was assigned Russian pierogies, Shepherd's pie and Irish coddle. Of course I took the coddle- an Irish casserole traditionally served with layered sliced potatoes, bacon, sausage and onions.

For my play on the dish, I first fried some bacon and used the reserved bacon fat to saute sliced onions, apples, thyme sprigs and rosemary with a bottle of Guinness. After a dash of caraway seeds and some salt to taste, I let the saucepan of yumminess simmer away.

Meanwhile, I sliced and fried my own potato chips with salt and fried thyme. I then chopped my reserved bacon and grilled a link of pork sausage on the grill pan. When the sausage was finished, I sliced it on the bias and added it to the onion, apple and Guinness mixture.

My Irish "coddle" was plated with the the onions and apples beneath the sliced sausage topped with the homemade chips, crumbled bacon and was garnished with reserved fried thyme. Next week is Asian cuisine- I'm extremely looking forward to this one.

After work the next evening, I was off to Austin for a weekend of much needed merriment and partying for my bestie's Tyler 24th birthday blowout- it was a blowout indeed. After my 3 hour ride it was time to dress to impress and meet my girlfriends at Kenichi for a night on the town.

Fashionable late, I arrived to find chilled champagne and spicy edamame already on the table. Who could want more? We were then presented with an array of rolls and sashimi- my favored was sea bass sashimi served with paper-thin apple slices and crushed macadamias.

After an evening of antics on West 6th, I awoke early with a yearning for breakfast tacos. With my mind on my beloved Taco Shack on Lamar, my dad swayed me into trying the Tamale House on airport.The tacos were SO worth it. My dad ordered a simple choice of bacon, eggs and cheese while I went for chorizo, eggs and cheese with a homemade guacamole.

When we finally arrived home to inhale the tacos, I was more concerned with figuring out everything in the homemade salsa. The salsa was extremely fresh and had an almost sweet and salty flavor combination. After dousing my taco with salsa, I dove in and the flavors were extreme. The guacamole was a thinner and smoother puree than the guacamole I'm accustomed too- perfect accompaniment.

After my breakfast taco and orange juice pick-me-up, I headed to the Central Market on Lamar to find things to make for my girlfriend's cocktail party later that evening. I decided to make spring rolls with wasabi aioli and spiced to make, fun to eat and able to sit out at a cocktail party without wilting or ruining.

For the spring rolls, I layered napa cabbage, blanched asparagus, cilantro, pickled ginger and salt atop soaked and dried rice paper. I sliced the spring rolls on a bias and served them sitting up. For the sauce, I made a wasabi aioli with tubed prepared wasabi, mayonnaise, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and chopped cilantro.

After rolling spring rolls for a couple hours and chatting with Mom, I cleaned up and "glamorized myself" for the cocktail party. Running out the door with the spring rolls, wasabi aioli, rosemary spiced nuts, a bottle of pinot and Ty's birthday gift- I was good to go.

The night was one to remember- fun people, interesting conversations, bar hopping until 3am...blah, blah. Let's get to the food:)

The spread was great...especially at 3am after a night of partying. We had the infamously delicious Thundercloud party platter of sandwiches, mini-quiches (homemade of course), munchies from Moonshine (shrimp "corn dogs" and chile bacon mac and cheese...upscale comfort food at its finest) and a delicious vanilla butter cream birthday cake a la Central Market.

The next morning, a group of us struggled to recover from the previous nights events and headed to the Counter Cafe on Lamar for a delicious organic breakfast in a diner-style setting. I ordered the breakfast tacos (I'm addicted) but my favorite was the eggs benedict. Eager to take part of nonconformity to its predecessor, this benedict ousted the english muffin for a dense, yet fluffy homemade biscuit and the typical Canadian bacon for perfect slice of spiced salami. After two perfectly poached eggs and a drizzle of hollandaise, this was a bite worth waiting for.

A few hours later, I met the fam at Galaxy Cafe in the Triangle to celebrate my Uncle Jack's birthday. The food here is pretty straightforward and always delivers for me. I ordered the fresh mozzarella, roma tomato and basil sandwich served on ciabatta with a drizzle of olive oil. I wasn't shouting from the rooftops about it, but it was pretty good. I was more concerned with the delicious sweet potato fries and stealing my little cousins homemade mac and cheese from his child's plate (sad, i know).

After the meal, my Mom brought out the gorgeous coconut cake we ordered from Texas French Bread and my uncle Jack blew out his candles. Although I'm not a huge coconut fan, the cake was so pretty that I was happy staring at it.

After too much food and a long nap, I awoke to start prepping dinner for the evening. Eager to please a long-time friend from high school, the menu was:

Blood orange mimosas and rose Prosecco

Sirloin burgers with arugula, avocado, rosemary-sauteed onions , heirloom tomatoes and a horseradish aioli or grilled eggplant "burgers"

For the burgers, I added minced ginger, olive oil, honey, salt, pepper, garlic and red pepper flakes to the ground sirloin. The eggplant was sliced and seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper. The eggplant, burgers and whole wheat buns were all grilled on the outdoor grill.

For the accompaniments, I used sliced heirloom tomatoes with salt and pepper, sliced avocado with lime juice, fresh, peppery arugula and onions sauteed with salt, olive oil and minced fresh rosemary.

For the aioli, I combined horseradish, mayonnaise and lemon juice for a quick sauce.

My "grown-up" fruit salad

This delicious fruit salad is compliments to my cousin Catherine. I used her idea, then put a twist of my own on it. First start with any fruit of your choice- I used blackberries, blueberries, red grapes, Asian pears and oranges. The trick is to dice everything uniformly small so every bite has a piece of everything. For smaller fruits and berries, I left my berries whole and sliced my grapes in half.

After combining the diced fruit, I added lemon juice, lemon zest, chiffonade mint, sugar and a healthy douse of champagne. Let the mixture macerate and cool in the fridge while preparing the rest of the meal.

Cabbage slaw

Baked sweet potato fries

Gingerbread cake with caramelized ginger and Meyer lemon curd

Ok...who is obsessed with Ina Garten (Barefoot Contessa) as much as I am?
No don't even try it. Her boxed desserts are marvelous for all of you "non-bakers".

My mom picked up her gingerbread mix with crystallized ginger and served it with Meyer lemon curd from was a knockout dessert.

After a great (and tiresome) weekend in Austin, I was glad to be back to Fort Worth. A couple nights later, my girlfriend Cat and I headed to Cafe Aspen. Although it was my first time to dine there, I had heard positive things about the food.

We started with Chopin and Belevedere dirty martinis and a couple appetizers- quesadillas with candied walnuts, brie, caramelized onions and bacon with a mango salsa along with fried calamari with a marinara sauce. Surprisingly, I had no complaints...I'll be back.