Sunday, October 28, 2007

Let's Dish

I understand that there are busy people out there who have no time to prepare a decent dinner. Really, I do. Rather than resort to fast food or frozen dinners, or worse yet, Sandra Lee, they flock to a new breed of take-out that allows them to prep dishes in advance of cooking and keep them in the freezer until it's time to cook. According to the Web site for one such enterprise, Let's Dish:
Need help with dinner...every night? Then you need Let's Dish! - a totally fresh approach to meal making. It's the fun, easy and affordable way to prepare healthy and delicious, homemade dinners in no time.

I like to cook and find it enjoyable. What I don't find fun is competing for ingredients in a small room with thirty other people who have dubious hygiene. A dear friend gave Mr Minx and I a very generous gift certificate to Let's Dish for Christmas last year. We managed to put off using it for nearly 11 months; realizing that it expired mid-December were finally forced to schedule a session. So we put ice packs in our cooler and made the trip to Timonium.

Mr Minx had envisioned a cooking class, with some knowledgeable chef leading us through the preparation of a meal step-by-step. I envisioned a room full of stations, each laden with ingredients for a particular dish, and people sipping wine while casually chatting and laughing and putting meals together. I was closest. There was no wine, of course, just water and coffee with some amazingly gooey and highly artificial-tasting brownies and still-frozen chocolate chip cookies. Because there were so many people signed up for our session, there also was no casual chatting, just rigid determination to get through one dish and onto the next while receiving the Death Stare and heavy sighing from others waiting for your station.

Upon arrival, we received bandannas and aprons and a cursory "orientation" that involved several admonishments to wash our hands before, during, and after food prep. It's possible that Mr Minx and I were the only people adhering to this cleanliness warning, as the sinks were consistently free and uncrowded, despite 30 busy food assemblers in the room.

Basically, it's like this: Find a station holding ingredients for one of the items you signed up to make. It will have the "recipe" and the ingredients needed, plus plastic crocks for mixing. One takes a gallon-sized plastic bag and places it in the crock as a liner, then tosses in the various ingredients - beef strips, frozen veggies, soy sauce, etc. The bag gets sealed, labeled, and bagged again before going into the freezer. Rinse and Repeat until all items signed up for have been completed. Then pack all of the myriad plastic bags (the hungry landfills of America thank you, Let's Dish) into a cooler and get the hell out of there. We completed our eight dishes (each serves 6 people) in an hour. The woman at the front desk said that none of the folks who had signed up for four dishes were finished yet. Huh? How difficult can it be to measure one tablespoon of oil (with provided tablespoon measure and squirt bottle of oil) and put it in a plastic bag? There were several women at the Jambalaya station who seemed to need remedial reading lessons and/or to better familiarize themselves with chicken chunks, rice, and shrimp because they were sorely confused and took twenty minutes to pack up one bag of ingredients.

So now we have a ton of new food in our freezer, waiting for the day we attempt to cook some of it. Does baking something pre-prepared for 45 minutes really save time? ::shrug::: I guess it depends on the individual. I realize we'll have to season some of the dishes, as salt and pepper were not residents of every station, nor were they on the instruction sheet. Truthfully, I'm looking forward to trying the flank steak with caramelized onions and the curry shrimp. I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Three Duck Weekend - Bolo

Because my dear husband and I had marvelous meals at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill in both New York and Las Vegas, we thought we'd give Bolo a try. Until recently, I had never been particularly interested in Spanish cuisine, but the tapas trend has got me hooked.

Bolo has a four tapas for $16 deal that seemed quite reasonable, so we tried a few items we've never had before, like crispy frog's leg with mint & garlic and a salt cod fritter with parsley garlic sauce. Our choices were presented in a square plate with four individual compartments. Mr. Minx's carby choice of twelve layer potato with caramelized shallots was the best of the bunch, with meltingly tender potato, seasoned subtly with onion, and perfectly caramelized shallots. A big bowl of this would have made me very happy. The next favorite was a bit of pan fried duck liver with sherry vinegar, honey, & black pepper. This was not foie gras, but the more strongly-flavored liver of a normal duck, cooked lightly and dressed with a nicely acidic vinaigrette that cut the richness of the meat.

The salt cod fritter was largely potato, and it reminded me of an old-fashioned Baltimore coddie, sans mustard. Last was the frog's leg, which indeed tasted "like chicken," but with a touch of the sea. It was completely unremarkable, apart from its novelty value.

We sat at the table against the wall on the leftmost side of the picture.

Our salad course was the duck course for this meal. Since I had the duck salad the night before, it was my husband's turn to have it tonight. His preserved duck salad with tangerines, pomegranates, & spicy almond brittle consisted of a very generous confitted duck thigh, on the bone and with crisped skin, next to a little pile of white endive and other greens. The duck was meltingly tender, and the almond brittle was a lovely touch that added a bit of sweetness to a savory dish. Truly delicious. Never having tried merguez before, I was interested in the white chicory salad with spicy lamb sausage, poached egg, and mustard-toasted almond vinaigrette. It struck me as I was eating this that it would be a perfect breakfast dish. The sausage was definitely spicy, but the heat was tempered by the mildness of poached egg and the light dressing. The egg was a bit overcooked, as the yolk did not ooze gracefully over the greens but rather sat on top as a bright orange semi-orb. Regardless, the combination of flavors worked well and I did enjoy the salad.

The two entrees that were the most attractive to Mr. Minx and myself were the black squid ink risotto with grilled prawns, lobster, & green onion vinaigrette and the pork tenderloin with walnut romesco, oloroso sherry-fig sauce, & whipped green onion potatoes. The risotto was a gorgeous pile of glossy, jet black rice, topped with two head-on grilled prawns, and a ring of green onion vinaigrette around the very edge of the bowl. My first forkful tasted of chile, and my second of green onion, so I am guessing that Bobby Flay's famous squeeze bottles of chile and scallion oils were also employed on this dish (as they were on all of the tapas items). The vinaigrette gave yet another, tangy, variation of onion flavor to the dish. The bits of lobster were perfectly cooked, but one of the prawns was a little mushy. And the rice was softer than that of classical Italian risotto; still, I would fight over this dish. Not only was it beautiful, it was a festival of flavors.

Not so the pork tenderloin. I had the pork tenderloin at Mesa Grill and it was glorious; served medium, it was tender and juicy. The three large chunks of pork in the Bolo dish were sadly dry and overcooked, and the sauce was too darkly flavored, like burnt licorice. The potatoes were pretty, but did not have the flavor to stand up to the overwhelming sauce. And the walnut romesco went completely undetected. With better cooked pork, a lighter version of the sauce, and a stronger starch like sweet potato mash, this would have been an excellent dish as well. Perhaps it was merely an off night.

Finally, dessert. Mr. Minx chose the sherry-Robiola cheescake with fruit shortbread crust, citrus granita, and apple cranberry compote. (Robiola is an Italian soft-ripened cheese, similar to cream cheese.) The cake was topped with a bruleed sugar crust and was delicately flavored with sherry. The best part of the dish was the amazing granita that was both fantastically tart and sweet at the same time, and a perfect accompaniment to the creamy cake. My caramel apple date cake with warm toffee sauce and vanilla creme fraiche ice cream was also quite good, although the toffee sauce didn't taste of much at all, and the ice cream could well have been made with regular cream. Both desserts went well with the remainder of our 2005 Christopher Creek Zinfandel.

Although not quite as good as Mesa Grill, I still would go back to Bolo just for the risotto.

Bolo on Urbanspoon

Three Duck Weekend - Centro Vinoteca

The executive chef of Centro Vinoteca is Anne Burrell, perhaps best known as Mario Batali's sous chef on Iron Chef America. I love watching her make fresh pasta on that show - she works so hard and she is really a big part of Mario's ICA successes. When I heard she had opened a restaurant with Sasha Muniak of Gusto and Mangia, one that serves small plates called piccolini, I knew I had to try it. Even though here in boring Baltimore they are calling the small plates craze "dead," "over," and "so 2005," NY has yet to hear that news. Not only are there lots of tapas joints in the Big Apple, there are also other ethnicities trotting out their own versions for those of us who like to experience lots of flavors at one meal.

Small plates are perfect for nibbling with a glass or two of wine, and Centro Vinoteca offers several varieties by the quarto. We tried two, a Dolcetto d'Alba with a deep fruity flavor but a surprisingly light body; and a montepulciano that had an earthy mushroomy quality that became woodsy later (and reminded me of a wine version of Shisheido Feminite de Bois, a plummy, woodsy perfume).

Although several of the piccolini were tempting, we tried only two, the polpettini (tiny meatballs with a crisp crust arranged in a bowl of rich beef jus) and the fried cauliflower wedges with parmigiano crust and agliata. The polpettini very much reminded me of my grandmother's itty bitty meatballs, but much herb-ier, and I wanted to use all of the basket of good bread to soak up the sauce. The cauliflower was tender, undoubtedly pre-steamed, coated in batter and deep fried. The agliata tasted more of olives than garlic, and there was a bit too much cheese in the dish.

The titular duck of the evening comes in the salad course. As soon as I spotted the warm duck salad with caramelized onions, belgian endive & pears, I knew I had to have it. It was plated as a pile of warm shreds of duck alongside a small salad. The caramelized onions added even more richness to the already rich duck, and the crisp matchsticks of pear were a welcome contrast of crunch, as were the lightly dressed greens. I only wish there were more duck (not that it was a measly portion, but it was so good).

Mr. Minx opted for the braised oxtail cakes, as he had never tried oxtail and was naturally curious about how it might be presented in a cake form. It resembled a small hamburger, with a crispy outside and meltingly tender inside, due to a nice meat-to-fat ratio. It was accompanied by a generous portion of shaved celery salad, the tartness of which nicely balanced the rich meat. In addition, there was a crispy round of parmesan frico for another level of flavor and texture.

We could have stopped there and been happy, but we also ordered entrees. Sadly, Mr. Minx's lamb bolognese with crispy gnocchi and fried onions was marred by too little sauce with far too much salty cheese flavor that obscured the flavor of the lamb completely. The gnocci weren't quite "crispy" but had a harder outside texture than the very soft insides. They were well-made gnocchi, tender and not of the rib-sticking, overly-glutinous variety, and might have worked better with a wetter, less-cheesy sauce with more lamb flavor.

My crispy skate in "acquapazza" with bay scallops, calamari and rock shrimp with raw fennel salad was also a miss. Although the skate was nicely cooked, crispy on the outside and possessing a fresh, scallop-y flavor, the "crazy water" broth was far too acidic for my taste, rendering the tiny scallops, shrimp, and tender calamari rings into merely textures. Only the fennel salad was assertive enough to cut through the acid. The sauce would have been better balanced with the addition of some fish stock and perhaps a nice knob of butter for richness.

As I noticed the wine menu included a Brachetto d'Acqui, I knew we had to get dessert. At the recommendation of our server, I chose the goat cheesecake with figs because I thought that a tangy goat cheese would work especially well with the lightly fizzy sweet wine (as it did at Babbo). The cake was disappointingly neither tart nor noticeably goaty, although it was otherwise a good, soft-textured cheesecake. My husband's cappuccino "panna cotta" appeared to have been missing the gelatin ordinarily used to set the dessert, as it was the soft texture of mousse. The generous portion was well-flavored with strong coffee and was accompanied by lovely cinnamon shortbread cookies topped with a pinch of salt and chocolate covered espresso beans.

The highlights of this meal were pretty high, and the lowlights weren't unforgiveable, so I definitely would be willing to go back and give Centro Vinoteca another try. Especially that duck salad.

Watch Anne Burrell discuss her restaurant:

Centro Vinoteca on Urbanspoon

Three Duck Weekend - Prem-on Thai

Sadly, since our favorite Thai restaurant closed some months ago, Mr. Minx and I have not been able to properly satisfy our jones for Thai food. Sure there are other restaurants nearby, but none of them are particularly good to our liking. So when planning our weekend in Manhattan, we were sure to include a Thai restaurant on our dining agenda.

Prem-On Thai, the fifth New York restaurant of Thai chef/restaurateur Prakit Prem-on, opened in 2005 to favorable comments from the Times' Frank Bruni. I liked the look of the Web site, and the menu looked promising and reasonably priced, so we made a reservation.

The weather had been less than stellar that Friday, rainy and steamy hot, but by evening it had cooled down enough to make sitting by the open front windows at Prem-On pleasant. We started our meal with the two soups on the menu - Tom Yum Goong (a spicy broth with shrimp, lemongrass, and mushrooms) and Tom Kah Gai (coconut milk-based chicken soup with galangal, kaffir lime, and mushrooms). The former, served in a stone mortar, was rich and delicious, with an intense broth spiked with chiles. The coconut soup came in a mere bowl, but the flavor was equally deep, if less-spicy. Probably the best versions of these classics that I have ever tried.

We next tried an appetizer sampler consisting of spring rolls, dumplings stuffed with chicken, peanut, and radish, and another dumpling, Kanom Jeeb, stuffed with chicken and seafood with garlic. The spring rolls were nothing to write home about. Both varieties of dumplings were delicious, however, but suffered from too-thin wrappers or too much filling, as they were nearly impossible to pick up without bursting their contents onto the plate.

Now comes the duck. Mr. Minx and I both love duck, and if it's on a menu, one or the other of us will order it, almost without exception. At Prem-On, we both opted for duck entrees. The sauce on his Duck Panang Curry was full of chile flavor yet was not overtly spicy; string beans and slices of pumpkin added their vegetal qualities to the generous portion of well-roasted, fat-less, mostly-boned duck. I went for the Thai Orange Duck - another generous portion with a not-too-sweet orange sauce with orange segments and curious flat deep-fried objects that I determined were eggplant. There was too much batter on the eggplant and the sauce rendered them into soggy blobs of flannel. Although my duck itself was good, it was only half as good as my husband's entree, and I almost wished I had ordered something else. But I couldn't resist the multiple duck options!

All of the above was washed down with Thai iced teas and many glasses of water. The fancy Thai-tini-type cocktails looked interesting, but tea had more allure.

A pretty decent meal, overall, that made us miss our local Thai joint all the more.

Prem-On Thai
138 W Houston St
New York, NY 10012
(212) 353-2338

Prem-on Thai on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Lunching in New York

My husband and I just got back from a long weekend in Manhattan. We had, of course, planned out our three dinners, making reservations at Prem-on Thai, Centro Vinoteca, and Bolo. But what to do for breakfast and lunch?

As it turned out, our hotel, the Hudson, was across the street from the Time Warner Center, an ugly glass behemoth housing a tony shopping mall and offices. And the Bouchon Bakery. We'll probably never have the opportunity (nor the budget) to eat at Per Se or the French Laundry, but a quick luncheon grabbed at the Bakery was certainly within reach.

People waited in line to dine in the reserved, restaurant-style part of the bakery, so Mr. Minx and I headed to the carry-out. It was nearly 2pm and although we had 7pm dinner reservations, we were starving and needed sustenance. We decided to split the roast beef and fontina sandwich, an almond brioche, and a pumpkin macaron. Because the area was so crowded, and I had forgotten to get something for us to drink, we headed to the Whole Foods on the lower level and found both beverages and seats. I was momentarily tempted by the huge array of prepared food at the vast salad bar, but knew we already had enough food to keep us satisfied.

The sandwich was delicious, light and crunchy ciabatta bread stuffed with roast beef, fontina, and an herby green pesto. So often one gets roast beef that is gristly, or worse, marinated in something to hide the off flavor of the cheap meat. This roast beef was meltingly tender and tasted of nothing but beefy goodness.

After the sandwich was dispatched, we split the flat slab of brioche, coated in sliced almonds and dusted with powdered sugar. I missed the whimsical typical brioche shape which always reminds me of Babar (he dined on brioche with the Old Lady), but enjoyed the flavor and thought that unsold leftovers would make a killer bread pudding. The macaron, one of those pretty pastel yummies that I've been seeing in Parisian blogs, was delectable perfection, and I hope to try my hand at baking some of these whimsies during the holiday season.

The next morning, we had breakfast at Bergdorf Goodman. It consisted of flavorless bagels, no doubt un-boiled and un-authentic, tiny commercially-produced muffins and danishes, and a decent fruit cup. Needless to say, after our adventure in the fragrance department, hubby and I needed actual food. We had decided to spend most of the day wandering through the museums on the Upper East Side and discovered a Papaya King not far away. We had heard that a papaya drink alongside a hot dog was an improbably perfect combination that we needed to experience for ourselves. Papaya smells like vomit to me, so I opted for a mango shake instead. And yes, it did go well with the two Sabrett's dogs in a toasted bun with mustard and onions in a ketchup-y sauce.

Sunday's bagel at Bond No. 9 was closer to the real thing, small and chewy, and enough to get us through to our lunch at the Pizza Box on Bleecker Street. I had been there last November, on a trip to NYC with my dad, and enjoyed a regular slice of cheese pizza. This time, Mr. Minx and I opted for the Sicilian style slice and were rewarded with a nice, non-doughy bread crust, crisp on the bottom, with just the right amount of cheese and sauce.

Monday's breakfast was poached eggs and bread smeared with hazelnut spread at Le Pain Quotidien. Lunch consisted of more hot dogs, this time from Nathan's at Penn Station, followed by more yummies from Bouchon Bakery.

It's a darn good thing we walked so much, to burn off all of the calories we consumed over the weekend. Dinner-related posts to follow.

Bouchon Bakery on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 15, 2007

Buttermilk Pancakes

Pancakes were always a favorite breakfast treat in my house; they were a nice switch from the usual eggs or cereal. But for many years, decades even, I didn't know what a from-scratch pancake tasted like. My parents' recipe was the one on the side of the Bisquick box, which turned out leaden cakes that no amount of Mrs. Butterworth's could moisten. We called them "syrup suckers."

Even after I got married, I still made my pancakes with Bisquick, only this time it was the reduced-fat version, thinned out with yogurt or canned pumpkin to make less flannel-y cakes. My hubby said his mother used to make pancakes from scratch and that always made me feel just a wee bit guilty that I didn't do that, too.

The day before our seventh anniversary we were going to my Dad's to celebrate his birthday. I made a lemon bundt cake for the occasion, using a recipe that required buttermilk. DH bought a quart, but I only needed a single cup. So as an anniversary treat, the next morning I made buttermilk pancakes. From scratch. They were revelatory. So light and airy, yet somehow crispy around the edges! Bisquick didn't do that, no matter how many additional ingredients I added.

We still had some buttermilk left over this weekend, but only a scant 3/4 cup. I dumped in a cup of vanilla lowfat yogurt to compensate, and the resulting pancakes were maybe not as light as the previous week's, but they were still far better than the kind from a box. I think I might never go back.

Buttermilk Pancakes, adapted from the Joy of Cooking
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3 tblsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cup buttermilk
3 tblsp unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Stir together wet ingredients in a separate bowl. Do not combine wet and dry until you are ready to get cooking (so sayeth anal-retentive cooking geek Alton Brown). At that point, pour wet over dry and stir until just combined. Don't worry about lumps, as they will work themselves out in the cooking (according to Alton). Add any additional dry ingredients (berries, nuts, chocolate chips, coconut, etc.) and stir briefly.

Grease and heat a griddle pan or large sautée pan until hot. Add batter to create whatever size pancakes you'd like. Cook on first side until you see bubbles appear on the top surface. Flip and cook until golden brown on the other side. To keep warm while preparing all of the pancakes, stack finished cakes on a plate and tent with aluminum foil.

Serve with butter and real maple syrup, preferably grade B (because it actually has flavor). Enjoy!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sotto Sopra

Hubby and I celebrated our seventh anniversary with a trip to Sotto Sopra. We had eaten there once during Restaurant Week a couple of years ago, and had always wanted to go back. We picked a good time to return - they just got a new chef who definitely has a way with food.

Everything on the regular menu sounded good, but we were especially intrigued by two dishes from the specials menu: a lobster-stuffed portabella appetizer, and a lobster risotto entree. I chose the latter, and started with the frittura di calamaretti; DH took the former, followed by Ravioli d'Anantra.

The stuffed mushroom could have been a real disaster--I imagined a heavy imperial sauce over tough lobster in a limp mushroom cap, a version that I might have encountered in my youth at someplace like Smitty's or Haussner's. But after an effusively elaborate description of the dish by a waiter, I had high hopes. And they were, I am happy to say, certainly met. The dish was a triumph of flavor. A large portabella cap had been laid on a bed of basil chiffonade and topped with a mixture of chopped tomato, onion, artichoke and lobster knuckle meat in a light basil sauce, and garnished with two whole lobster claw meats and a drizzle of balsamic reduction. The lobster was absolutely perfectly cooked; it was tender and juicy and had the lovely light springy quality that the claw should have. It was also imbued with a light herbal flavor. My husband said the dish was too good *not* to share (especially with his wife on our anniversary) and fed me forkfuls of tender mushroom, shreds of basil, and luscious lobster. As the sauce did not become gummy as the dish cooled (it was not the most heat-retaining of ingredient combinations) I thought it must be mayonnaise-based. Even at room temperature, the resulting lobster salad was delicious and would have been just as welcome served cold on a bed of baby greens as warm on a mushroom cap.

I really can't go on enough about how much I enjoyed this dish. Seriously. was only $12. In New York, it would easily have been an $18 appetizer.

My fried calamari was just ok in comparison. The rings were a bit thicker than I'd like, and their coating didn't seem to be seasoned much at all. The accompanying wasabi sour cream and warm tomato sauce were nice, but not quite perfect. I think the sour cream could have benefitted from a bit of thinning. I did like very much, however, the scant few salty morsels of fried zucchini that were buried under the squid.

I had originally wanted the mint pappardelle with lamb ragu, but was told the restaurant did not have the lamb that night and were taking the item off the menu. I then decided to splurge and ordered the other lobster special, described to me as a lobster tail stuffed with roasted cherry tomatoes resting on a bed of lobster risotto studded with crawfish and sauced with lobster bisque. Again, the lobster was perfectly cooked, with a light herbal flavor. The risotto was perfect, creamy and unctuous, with the proper faintly crunchy-centered rice and tasty nuggets of crawfish. The bisque sauce was light and perhaps a bit underseasoned, but full of lobster stock flavor; was nice to see that they had utilized every part of the crustacean between the two lobster dishes.

Mr. Minx's house-made ravioli were stuffed with shredded duck meat and bathed in a strongly meaty brown veal sauce with an unmistakable truffle savor. Despite the deep flavors of the sauce, it was still obvious that the contents of the pasta pillows was indeed duck. All the dish needed was a garnish of duck confit. Heh. Yum. The sauce would have been magnificent on a juicy steak, and despite it's long-simmered bone-rich quality, it did not make our lips stick together (yes, I'm talking to you, Cindy Wolf).

To gild the lily, we had dessert. Mr. Minx's Nutella- and strawberry-stuffed crespelle (crepe) was decadent. My selection of house-made gelato in lavender, pistachio, and tiramisu was some of the best gelato I've had in this town. The lavender, recommended by our server, was a delicate surprised that DH and I both enjoyed.

All of the above was washed down with a singularly unexceptional bottle of white burgundy and lots of ice water (why is it still so hot in October?).

Sotto Sopra is a restaurant we should visit far more often. The decor is charming, the waitstaff is even more so, and the food can be exceptional.

Sotto Sopra
405 N Charles St
Baltimore, MD 21201
(410) 625-0534

Sotto Sopra on Urbanspoon

Sotto Sopra