K's in Town!

My very best friend K came to visit from New Orleans last week. She was here for a conference at Yale and finnagled a way to stay the weekend with me. Although I had to work during the day, I commuted down to New Haven to have dinner with her a couple of times. We had so much fun catching up and enjoying each other’s company. Of course, much of this we did while eating and drinking, so I thought I should blog about our food adventures.

One night we had an awesome dinner at Zinc, an eclectic restaurant with Asian tendencies run by Chef Denise Appel. K, a big fan of Chambord, invented a new drink for herself, which we have dubbed the Razzilla. It’s vanilla vodka with a splash of Chambord and a splash of soda over ice. We split the “Smoked Duck Nachos” which were amazing: chopped smoked duck was cooked until it caramelized, tossed with a chipotle sauce, served over crispy fried wontons and garnished with a lime crème. K chose the “Scottish Salmon and Shrimp Romanesco” which consisted of a generous and perfectly cooked piece of fish, I can’t remember how many shrimp, and a delicious wild rice/quinoa/golden raisin pilaf. I enjoyed perfectly prepared "Smoked Maine Diver Sea Scallops" served with chanterelle, pea and lobster risotto. Dessert was a chocolate tasting trio of mousse cake, pot de crème and a superb, rich, satiny dark chocolate sorbet over which we almost resorted to spoon sword-fights. Chef Appel certainly knows what she is doing. The menu is varied and reasonably priced, the service en pointe, and the food superb. Cheese lovers may want to visit, as there is a wide range of fresh cheeses including many local cheeses available.

Another night the person running the conference graciously invited me to join them at a reception at the Peabody Museum where we had the unique experience of enjoying a variety of finger foods among the dinosaurs. Still hungry after our noshing on apps we walked down to Tuscano Ristorante, a little Italian place adjoining the Gotham Citi Café club. One of only two parties, we enjoyed personalized and attentive service from our server as well as the manager. The server was full of suggestions, and when K ordered her Razzilla, she mentioned a similar drink made with Chambord, Amaretto and pineapple juice that she and her friends made up and called “Sex at My House.” The three of us decided to marry the two drinks and thus was born the great cocktail “Sex at Our House.” Beyond drinks, the mozzarella en carrozza was the lightest I ever had, with not only mozzarella but also ricotta cheese fried with what had to be panko breadcrumbs because they were nice and crunchy. We split that as well as beautiful, perfectly shaped fluffy gnocchi tossed simply with fresh tomatoes, basil and mozzarella. Dessert was out of the question, but we were offered after-dinner drinks on the house and invited to visit again soon.

On K’s last night in New Haven, Chris and I did what any decent Nutmeggers would do and took her to the world famous Frank Pepe’s Pizza on Wooster Street. This has been the home to New Haven-style pizza since 1925. No frills pies (start with the basic tomato pie and build your way up) and no frills service make it a must-do for the first-time visitor. Dessert from Libby's Italian Pastry Shop sealed the deal - cannolis, cookies, Italian ice and gelato are among the many fabulous choices.

Finally the weekend arrived and with it, our annual neighborhood St Patrick’s Day Progressive Party. The timing of this and the Easter holiday forced us to move our celebration to this past weekend, but it was a major success. Ten households take part, each making a dish and a cocktail, and we parade from house to house until the night ends. In keeping with the Irish theme, I decided to make Potato and Tarragon Soup. Here is what I did: The night before the party, I melted three tablespoons of butter in a large soup pot over medium heat. I chopped four green onions, 1 small white onion, and 4 garlic cloves which I sauteed in the butter for about 10 minutes, adding 2 tablespoons of water about half way through. I then added 6 chopped red potatoes and 4 cups chicken stock. I brought all this to a boil and then simmered it for about 15 minutes until the potatoes seemed tender. I mixed in about a tablespoon of chopped fresh tarragon and blended all of this with an immersion blender. This base was allowed to cool overnight. When our house was next in line, K and I scurried over a few minutes early to heat up the base and to finish off the soup. We seasoned it with salt and white pepper, then stirred in ½ cup whipping cream and ½ cup plain yogurt. Creamy and flavorful, yet light, the soup was a success. Since K was visiting, she too wanted to add to the festivities, so we also made her Broccoli Cheddar Cornbread. She has given me permission to share this recipe as well, so here it is. Saute one onion and 3 cloves of minced garlic in olive oil. Add in one box of frozen chopped broccoli or about 2 cups of chopped broccoli that you have already blanched. You want nice small soft but not mushy pieces that are spread throughout the cakey cornbread. In a large bowl, mix 2 boxes of cornbread mix (we both swear by Jiffy brand), ½ cup milk, 4 eggs, 8 ounces of cottage cheese and 1 cup of shredded cheddar. Pour the onion/garlic/broccoli mixture into the cornbread/cheese mixture and combine well. Pour into an 11x14 pan and top with about ½ cup additional cheddar cheese. Bake at 375 for 30 minutes. This was really awesome, especially served warm.

Those were the food highlights of a fun week spent with a great friend, a wonderful husband, and good neighbors. Here’s to all those things.


Let's Go Outback Tonight

Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of the chain restaurant. I’m a strong believer in the slow food movement. I like my restaurants to have unique dishes made from fresh ingredients, and I like to know exactly where I am rather than feeling as if I could be in any city in the world, in a carbon-copy of a restaurant.

That said, sometimes a girl just needs a good, cheap steak. Now Chris is not a big red-meat-eater, so I don’t like to go all out to a classic steakhouse when I have that craving. Instead, I give in to the big corporate monster and go to Outback Steakhouse. I usually sit at the bar, chat with the amiable bartender, and dig in to what I consider the perfect steak: the 9-oz. Outback Special, which the menu can justifiably say is “a center cut sirloin, seasoned and seared to perfection.” They’ve got something in their “secret 17-spice recipe” that just hits the mark.

Consistency is key at corporate restaurants, and here is where Outback shines. It is only at this particular restaurant that I can be the anti-me; I top off going to a chain restaurant with ordering the exact same thing every single time I go. It’s against everything I stand for, but I do it all the same. How can I not? It’s a thing of perfection. My steak is always the right size and is always cooked exactly as I ordered it. These guys know what they’re doing.

Many people feel that the sides make the meal. It’s a close call at Outback. The special comes with a choice of sides, and I always choose the steamed vegetables, which are a nice medley of not-mushy carrots, broccoli, zucchini and snowpeas. The house salad with bleu cheese dressing is my other choice. They make their own croutons, and they are to die for. They also make their own salad dressing, and I find theirs to be among the best I’ve had, creamy but with plenty of bleu cheese chunks. Other ingredients include chopped cucumbers, red onions, shredded cheese and ripe red tomatoes, not to mention a nice iceberg/romaine mix. It’s really a great salad.

If I had to make one complaint, it would be the wine list. It’s not a great one, to be sure. Although there are several wines by the glass, none of them is one that can stand up to the seasonings of the steak. In fact, last night, I had a particularly terrible glass of Pinot Noir that tasted as if it had been opened six months ago. I switched to the decent-enough Black Opal Shiraz and was a little happier with that.

Back on a more positive note, I need to talk for a minute about the bread. They give you a mini-loaf of pumpernickel that is warm and delicious. But what’s better is their butter. It’s creamy and sweet, with a hint of honey. It’s so good that although I order the veggies to make it look like I’m eating something relatively healthy, I end up spreading that buttery goodness all over the vegetables. Yummy.

Speaking of unhealthy, I have reached the dessert paragraph. Sidney’s Sinful Sundae does it for me every time. Creamy vanilla ice cream rolled in toasted coconut, topped with what has to be homemade hot fudge, sliced strawberries and fresh, coat-the-roof-of-your-mouth whipped cream. Sinful is right. It is just soooooo good.

Chain restaurant, yes, but perfect every time. And no, they didn't pay me to say all these things.


The Windowed Hearth: A Review

Not much time to blog for the next few days so here is an old restaurant review I wrote. Enjoy!

The Windowed Hearth at the Lord Jeffery Inn, 30 Boltwood Avenue, Amherst, MA

Visited on: 17 March 2006

Having grown up in a nearby town, I always wanted to stay at the famed Lord Jeffery Inn in Amherst, MA. When I had to attend a conference at UMASS Amherst last week, I did the next best thing. Rather than giving in to the buffet dinner, with its mass-produced food, cash bar, and schmoozing with the colleagues, I made a reservation for dinner at the Inn’s fine-dining option, The Windowed Hearth.

On the website, one can find a great explanation of the restaurant’s name: “In colonial times a windowed hearth served as a guiding light for travelers, beckoning from a distanced flickering assurance that warmth, hospitality and a fitting end to the day's journey were within reach.” The page goes on to promise an “offering of local products prepared with heartfelt care, a combination of the traditional with the innovative…the finest fare New England has to offer.” A large promise, indeed, but one that, by the end of the evening, I felt was definitely fulfilled.

It was freezing cold in downtown Amherst, and I could see my breath as I walked from my convenient parking space in a small lot across from the Inn. I entered at exactly 7 p.m., and the hardwood floors creaked the way they do in colonial homes. The front desk staff welcomed me with a smile and pointed me to the small, firelit room on my left, the one that I had walked right by. This was The Windowed Hearth. To my dismay, not a soul was present. Empty restaurants make me nervous. I wonder, “Does everyone else in the world know something I don’t?”

The host/server/bartender appeared. A courteous, handsome, warm young man, he was the consummate professional during my visit. After joking about my having a reservation, he sat me right in front of the roaring fire. He handed me the menu, and the winelist, and informed me that the restaurant doesn’t have specials. This was fine by me, because I had seen the menu online, and had been thinking about certain items since then.

The menu is not vast, but it is complete. We’ll start at the beginning. Appetizers range from $5 to $9.95 and include the traditional New England Clam Chowder, the ubiquitous Crab Cakes with Remoulade Sauce, and an interesting Baked Camembert Cheese, “topped with brown sugar, toasted almonds and honey oven baked and served with inn-made toast points.” I had my eye on the Lobster Ravioli, however. They were served in a pasta bowl, three large diamonds overlapping each other. The pasta had black stripes made of squid ink, and the contrast with the white plate was dramatic. There were large chunks of lobster in the warm, creamy filling, and the accompanying sauce, described on the menu as a sherried cream sauce, did not disappoint. To go with my appetizer, I had inquired about sparkling wines by the glass and was offered Cook’s Champagne. I don’t usually follow the white-with-seafood rule, as I am not a big fan of white wine, so I went ahead and ordered the Cook’s. It was delivered to me in a white wine glass, a service error to some, but a bonus to me, as it offered a much larger portion than a flute would have and complemented the raviolis well.

Entrée choices are very reasonably priced and included beef (Filet Mignon - $26, Tenderloin Tips - $21), chicken (Pecan Encrusted Chicken - $19), and several seafood choices (Herb Seared Shrimp - $21, Fire Roasted Salmon - $20, Grilled Scallops - $22). There was a unique version of surf-n-turf called One by Land, Three by Sea ($26), that was a petite filet mignon served with three lobster ravioli. According to the menu, their signature dish, priced at $21, is a 16 oz. Braised Lamb Shank that is “slow braised at low temperature in lamb stock and red wine flavored with garlic and green olives which results in remarkably tender and flavorful lamb.” Although it sounded quite delicious, I don’t do lamb.

Which brings us to the Culver Duck Breast ($20), my final decision. The menu informed me that the Culver is a strain of Long Island duckling known for its larger breast.. When it was delivered to me, I understood what they meant. Medallions of perfectly seared, medium-rare duck breast were fanned in such a way that they made a whole semi-circle on the large round plate. Never have I received so much duck for the buck. It was cooked to a spot-on medium rare and was fork-tender, well-seasoned, and simply delicious. In the center of the plate was a generous portion of creamy garlic mashed potatoes, and at 6 o’clock, five crisp, perfectly cooked asparagus spears. A demi-glaze made of cranberries and port wine, and a garnish of round red grapes not only gave the plate beautiful color, but enhanced the flavor of the duck. I followed the menu’s wine suggestion and partook in a glass of the very versatile red zinfandel, of which only one choice was available by the glass. Lush and lively, with strong dark berry and pepper undertones, the wine brought out the cranberry port glaze and was an excellent choice. I wish I knew the name of it!

I forced myself to finish the duck, leaving behind a few bites of potato and a couple of asparagus spears in doing so. The server cleared and brought the dessert list. I didn’t think I could do it, but I would give it a go. He ‘strongly recommended’ the Peppermint Ice Cream Pie, made with ice cream from a local dairy farm. This tugged at me. I am a fervent supporter of using local products, and had it been any flavor but peppermint, this would have sealed the deal. However, having had a French favorite for my main course, I settled on the Crème Brulee. Again, the portion size amazed me. I have had dozens of crème brulees in my life, always served in a shallow ramekins of varying shapes. The larger area of the shallow dish allows for more of what makes crème brulee such a prize – the burnt sugar. This version was served in what I can only call a “tea-cup without a handle.” Rich, thoroughly chilled, creamy and full of vanilla flavor, it was among the best I have had. Although there was less sugar, what was there was caramelized to the ideal crunchiness, and there was more of the delicious custard to enjoy in the larger-sized cup.

As I watched the fire flicker and sipped a cup of Earl Gray, I realized I was completely and utterly satisfied. I imagined the many travelers who, having been drawn in by the fire in the window, felt this same contentment after their meal. The food quality and freshness was excellent, the portions were large enough that I felt I received a deal for the price, and the service was first rate. I will most definitely be back to The Windowed Hearth.


Luckless Lentil Soup

Hooray, it’s March. We’ve “sprung forward,” the sun is out, and the temp is in the 50s. Regardless of the weather, Chris loves soup and yesterday the man came home with a boatload of produce, so much that, once again, we felt compelled to make a homemade vegetable stock. Into the stockpot went carrots, celery, white onions, green onions, carrot tops (see March 5th post), whole garlic heads, handfuls of parsley, and sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary. First we let all of this saute for awhile then we covered it with water and let it simmer for a few hours. In Chris’s words, it was “carrot-heavy,” but it had great flavor, wasn’t at all greasy, and tasted like spring. Which brings us to tonight’s dinner. Background: I had to proctor a test today which was supposed to last 75 minutes and instead lasted two hours. Needless to say, I got bored and began to think about what to do with the stock. I checked out a few recipes online and made some notes. After the testing period, the students were more than a little bonkers which made for a rough teaching day. Several other things went wrong for both of us – it was one of those days – such as when Chris shattered the mug I got him for Christmas, I took at “short-cut” and ended up in a half-hour of traffic, and more. So when I got home, I took out some frustration on the cutting board and we enjoyed the fruits of my frustration: Luckless Lentil Soup. The victims of the knife: one onion and one celery stalk. These were sauteed with some sea salt in olive oil until they were translucent. I added ½ of a large can of diced tomatoes with basil (we’ll call it 1 ½ cups?), a pound of lentils that I had rinsed thoroughly, a teaspoon each of ground cumin and coriander, and 2 quarts of the vegetable stock. I boiled this, stirring often, then covered it and simmered it for about a half hour. I added a teaspoon each of sweet and hot Hungarian paprika and simmered the soup for another ten minutes. We used our handy hand blender for a few seconds and voila! We had dinner. When Chris came home, he said the house “smells like Panera,” and I, for one, would have happily paid for that soup in any restaurant. Bad day, farewell; food conquers all!


A Tale of Two Goulashes

When I was growing up, I thought “goulash” was macaroni mixed in meat sauce. I don’t know where that came from – feel free to ask my parents. On our recent trip to Prague and Budapest, however, I learned that what is considered goulash in Czech Republic is very different from Hungarian goulash. Allow me to explain.

On our second day in Prague, we ate lunch at a small Czech pub. It was a chilly Sunday afternoon and the restaurant was cozy and inviting, buzzing with the conversation of friends and couples enjoying a Sunday get-together. We must have looked cold, and I was very excited when the server sat us right in front of the wood-burning stove and suggested a glass of hot mulled wine to warm us up. She delivered the wine quickly, along with a slice of lemon and some sugar to sweeten it. There were large salted pretzels hanging from a small wooden rack on the table, underneath which were jars of different types of mustards. We heeded the guide book warnings that the pretzels are not complimentary and avoided them in favor of the goulash we had heard was a Czech favorite. This particular restaurant offered goulash served in a bread bowl and that sounded perfect for us and we both ordered it. The bread bowl was a very large, hollowed-out round loaf of crusty rye. It was hearty and delicious, but did not compare to the stew inside. And that’s pretty much what the goulash was – a beef stew sans vegetables. Well, there were onions in there. The goulash was brown and very thick and the beef was so very tender and the sweet onions were caramelized just so – it was heaven in a bread bowl. We left the restaurant warmed inside and out and completely satisfied.

Until we went to Budapest. On the pedestrian shopping street known as Vaci Utca, we found the Old Street Café. Here we had the pleasure of tasting Hungarian goulash, served in individual enamel soup pots. Less a stew, more a soup, this treat had the color of its main ingredient – paprika – which is Hungarian for pepper. It also had beef, onions, carrots, potatoes, garlic, and tiny doughy dumplings. The potatoes and dumplings gave it just the right amount of thickness. Contrary to popular belief, there wasn’t a tomato in sight – that color comes from the real authentic Hungarian paprika and it was smoky, savory, and packed some serious heat. The dark Hungarian beer Dreher Bak stood up to it very well. I started perspiring about half way through my bowl while Chris was scratching his head because spicy foods make his head itch. All I need to add is that when we were done, we practically ran to the Central Market Hall to buy paprika to take home.

In summary, the two types of goulash are so different that you can’t really compare them. If a thick brown meaty beef stew is your thing, go Czech. If you like spice, go Hungarian. I for one am happy to have had the chance to enjoy both.


Dinner in Hell

Our first day in Prague we walked (and walked, and walked) to the “Lesser” part of the city known as Petrin Hill. We took the funicular up the hill, looked at the sun and moon at the observatory, walked through a mirror maze, and hiked up a gazillion steps (okay, it was really only 299) to the top of a smaller-sized replica of the Eiffel Tower. From this observation point we could see Prague, the city of red roofs. It was cold up there, but it was an amazing view on a sunny winter day and was well worth the effort. After that, we checked out the Muzeum Miniatur, a secret gem of a museum near the Strahov Monastery, which displays the incredible work of artist Anatoly Konenko. From 10 mm X 10 mm – sized mini-copies of the works of Botticelli and Dali to the Lord’s Prayer written on a human hair to a caravan of camels in the eye of a needle. You can check it out at the website, but there was something truly awesome about looking at his works through the dozens of wooden microscopes set up for that very purpose.

But this is a food blog. We asked the only museum worker if there was place nearby that he would recommend for dinner. He didn’t mention a name, but gave clear directions that we easily followed. When we reached the place, I couldn’t believe this was a restaurant, but I was in the Czech Republic, so I let my sense of adventure take over. The name of the restaurant was Peklo, which we later learned means “Hell.” The small door led to a descending staircase and red lights flickered in a kitschy attempt to play up the theme. We were led inside an underground grotto which had been transformed into a dark Czech eatery. It was early and the waiter/bartender did not seem at all pleased to see us. Having waited tables for thirteen years, I could totally sense his vibe. So I played up the eager tourist in me, gushing, “It’s our first night in Prague and we can’t wait to try some traditional Czech cuisine, you have a beautiful city, the guy at Muzeum Minatur suggested we come here…” etc. etc. His body language completely changed, and next we knew, we were sampling wines and eating pork knee, pronounced with the K by our now friendly server. The k-nee comes on its own serving platter, with its own serving utensils instead of a regular fork and k-nife. A little pickle, mustard and horseradish are the garnishes of choice. Now, I never thought I’d be eating a pig's knee in the former Czechoslovakia, but this thing was roasted to a perfect tenderness the likes of which I may never have again. Suffice it to say, our first dinner in Prague left us wondering what else was in store.

Bugs Bunny Broth and Pasta Fazoo

One of our foodie-friends, J, stopped by on Friday. He works in the city in which we live and has a long commute, so every now and then he’ll come by and wait out the traffic. We usually talk, eat, and have a cocktail or two. Sort of like an in-house happy hour. J is a city boy and on Friday, Chris came home with these carrots like J and I had never seen before. To us, carrots come in a cellophane wrapper, you know? Both of us were quite intrigued. I immediately began plotting what I could do with those carrot tops, and remembered that we had the gizzards from five Mardi Gras turkeys in the freezer. We would make what is now affectionately known as Bugs Bunny Broth. In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, we threw the carrot tops, 2 roughly chopped onions, a pound of chicken thighs chopped (with skin and bone), 2 pinches of herbs de Provence, a pinch of sea salt, some olive oil, some clarified butter, and the gizzards. Since we had no celery in the house, I added a tablespoon of dried celery flakes as well. We stirred it often and allowed the chicken to heat through and the vegetables to get soft. We then added enough water to fill the pot and let it simmer on low for a few hours. Well, like six hours. Actually, I don’t know how many hours but we put it away when we went to bed that night. The next morning we strained it out, first in a colander, then in a fine-mesh sieve.

We had our stock. Now what to do with it? Chris and I decided on Pasta Fagiole, or what I like to call Pasta Fazoo. Chris comes from an Italian family and they tend to pronounce their Italian foods correctly, although not quite as distinctly, as Giada DeLaurentis does. So I come up with some pronunciations of my own just to poke fun. Here’s what we did. We cooked up 4 slices of bacon until they were just about brown. Then we added some olive oil, a medium chopped onion and 4 cloves minced garlic. When the onions were translucent, we added a teaspoon of oregano, ¼ teaspoon red pepper, and 2 sardines that we had minced up into a mushy paste (no anchovies in the house). We let those flavors sit for a couple of minutes and then added a 28-oz can of diced tomatoes, juice and all, stirring to pick up the brown bits in the bottom of the pan. We added a small piece of parmesan rind and a large can of beans – all we had were Goya pink beans, but I wanted cannellinis and would use those next time. This we brought to a boil and then simmered it for about 20 minutes. Next came the broth, 3 ½ cups of it. When that was boiling again, we added 4 oz of ditalini and 4 oz of orzo because I couldn’t decide which pasta I wanted to use. Ten minutes of boiling and some salt, pepper and grated parmesan later, we had a delicious, flavorful, hearty soup. One criticism: we could definitely taste the turkey-ness in the broth, so maybe a store-bought chicken broth would work better. One warning: this soup does not keep very well because the pasta tends to soak up the liquid and it ends up very thick, so eat it all up right away and use some good Italian bread to dip in it.


Cocoa-Cumin-Spice Rub

I made a great steak rub on Sunday night. We had a one-pound ribeye, my favorite, with gorgeous marbling that was just begging for a good rub. Right now Outback Steakhouse is featuring an espresso-rubbed ribeye special, and although I have yet to try it, that was my inspiration for this “Cocoa-Cumin-Spice Rub.” However, I decided to use MarieBelle Aztec Hot Chocolate, the spicy version, rather than coffee as a base. MarieBelle uses pure Columbian cacao and the “spicy” version adds cinnamon, nutmeg and chipotle. It’s decadent as a drink, but also works well in pies. Great stuff. Moving on…In a small bowl I mixed 4 tablespoons of the hot chocolate powder, 4 teaspoons of ground cumin, 4 teaspoons ground black pepper, 3 teaspoons of salt and 2 teaspoons of allspice, then I gently rubbed/patted it onto the ribeye. C grilled it to a perfect medium rare. The spice was just subtle enough to let the flavor of the meat shine through, and that was my goal. I put the extra in a snack-size baggie for the next ribeye.

Chris made his famous carrots-and-onions as a side dish. Very simply, he sautes 1 medium chopped onion, 1 cup of cut carrots and 2 teaspoons of butter, until the vegetables cook down. Then right before serving, he adds another teaspoon of butter and ½ teaspoon of sugar. Here’s a good way to get your kids to eat vegetables! It was a buttery-sweet side dish that paired well with the smooth-spiciness of the steak.