Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving - The Sides

For the past 8 years, we've been spending Thanksgiving at my Mother-in-law's house. Every year, she makes the turkey, brother-in-law makes the stuffing, and I make most of the sides. Mr Minx gets mashed potato duty when we get to the house, plus he is in charge of carving the roast beast. This year, my MIL has been suffering from the dreaded Big C, so we switched venues to make things easy on her. My brother-in-law lives two streets away and has a huge kitchen. Despite that, I still made most of the sides in my tiny kitchen on the day before Thanksgiving.

We never had green bean casserole in my house when I was growing up, so it's actually a once-a-year treat to me. I made it the traditional way, but with Campbell's Cream of Mushroom with Roasted Garlic soup, rather than the plain c.o.m. And a whole freakin' can of French's onions, baby! It was crunchy yummy good!

I also made some simple cranberry sauce (1 bag cranberries, 1 cup sugar, zest of 1 orange - cook together until cranberries soften, remove from heat and stir in 1 T of Grand Mariner and the flesh from the orange, supremed and lightly chopped).

This is my standard corn pudding, the same recipe I've been making for at least a decade. It has only four ingredients - corn, eggs, cream, and sugar - and is perfect every time. Why mess with it?

On the other hand, I think sweet potatoes need a bit of messing-with. Last year I made Bobby Flay's sweet potato and chipotle gratin, which was well-received. This time I decided to make up a dish of my own, keeping the chipotle aspect but going in an even more savory direction. I call it spicy sweet potato and bacon casserole.

Casserole before streusel topping

Spicy Sweet Potato and Bacon Casserole

6 large sweet potatoes (enough to produce 5-6 cups of pulp)
8 slices meaty bacon
1 medium-large yellow onion, chopped
1/2 t ground chipotle pepper
1/2 t smoked paprika
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 T butter, melted
4 scallions, white and green part chopped
salt and pepper

1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 ground chipotle
1/2 cup sliced almonds
2 T butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350F. Scrub potatoes and prick them all over with a fork. Place on foil-lined baking sheet and bake until soft, about 1 hour. Let cool.

While potatoes are cooling, cook bacon until crisp. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to cool. Discard all but one tablespoon of bacon fat from skillet and add yellow onion and a pinch of salt. Make sure to scrape up the bits of bacony goodness that remain on the bottom of the pan while you're cooking the onion. Once onion is soft and lightly golden brown, remove from heat.

Remove potato pulp from skins and place in large bowl. Mash potatoes with melted butter and heavy cream. Add chipotle and paprika and stir well. Chop bacon coarsely and add to potatoes along with cooked onion and raw scallions. Salt and pepper to taste. Spread mixture into a 13 x 9 baking pan; top with streusel mixture and bake at 350F until brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes.

To make streusel: combine flour, brown sugar, and chipotle with melted butter, mixing with a fork until all four is incorporated and mixture is crumbly. Stir in almond slices.

Serves 10-12

It was a big hit! It took a bit of prep, but this might become the standard for a few years, until I get the itch to try something new.

What did you have with your turkey this Thanksgiving?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gobble, Gobble

Happy Thanksgiving! A big thank you to all of my readers for being the audience for my foodie rants.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

They Like Me - They Really Like Me!

I've just been given the IAMA by the Baltimore Snacker for my snarky Top Chef and NFNS recaps. Thank you John! I'd also like to thank the Academy...

....ok Kanye, get out of my way or I'm going to clobber you with this thing....

Wendi, of Bon Appetit Hon, started the award to give recognition to some deserving bloggers. But there's a catch: if you receive the award and you choose to accept it, you are asked to:

1. Post an entry on your blog that displays the IAMA! logo and links back to the person who gave you the award.

2. Name as many other blogs as you like that are deserving of an IAMA! award. But in doing so, you’ll need to say a word or two (or more) about what makes them awesome a winner.

3. Include links to the blogs you are giving the IAMA! award.

4. Leave a comment on the newly awarded blogs letting them know that they have been recognized with an IAMA! award.

5. That’s it.

While I agree with all of John's choices and think they deserve multiple awards, I'd like to pass out a few additional awards to:

Mango and Ginger, for all of her interesting posts on various subjects including home decor. Plus Kit is a fantastic co-blogger.

Skillet Doux, even though Dominic isn't in Maryland anymore, it was his blog that introduced me to the fabulosity that is Grace Garden. His Top Chef power rankings are always interesting as well.

Kitchenography who recently started posting again (yay), for her stunning photography. I mean seriously, look at this:

990 Square for the wonderful pictorial way she presents recipes. What's to Eat Baltimore, for sharing her experiences at Baltimore events. And she's the Re-Tweet Queen!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mint Love Letters

While last week's ravioli experiment was a failure, this time around it was a rousing success. See? Ravioli. :)

Rather than re-attempt the pumpkin and beet variations, I decided to do a riff on Mario Batali's Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage - I had peas and ground lamb in the freezer, and thanks to the warm weather we've been having, my mint plant was still putting out leaves.

I didn't have the extravagant amount of Parmesan cheese called for, but I had some leftover ricotta. And while the mint was still hanging in there, it was hardly flourishing; I put a bit of mint in the filling and saved the rest for garnish.

As for the sauce - without merguez handy, I made my own. To the pound or so of ground lamb I had, I added 1/2 teaspoon each of ground cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds, plus a half teaspoon each of smoked and regular paprika, three cloves of garlic, and salt and cayenne to taste. Precooking the lamb and draining off the fat meant I didn't have to constantly skim fat off of the tomato sauce once the meat had been added.

Voila, the finished dish. It had an interesting Moroccan flair from the combination of mint and spicy lamb sausage. As I used won ton wrappers, the ravioli were a bit on the delicate side, but they still worked with the sauce, which in itself was really terrific. I'd happily make it again to use as a topping for a pasta like rigatoni or farfalle.

Overall, the dish was a bit fussy and had a lot of (non-difficult) steps that required several pots and pans and the food processor, but I wanted to try something new. Mission accomplished.

Next: We're making most of Thanksgiving dinner this year, including the turkey, but not at Casa Minx. Stay tuned!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hunan Taste

After stumbling upon news of a fledgling Hunan restaurant in Catonsville, I rounded up the clan on the ruse of a birthday celebration and we hit the road. Catonsville is so much closer to us than Odenton, and it would be nice to find a restaurant serving authentic Chinese food in Baltimore County.

Hunan Taste is certainly a prettier restaurant than Grace Garden, and seeing that most of the patrons were Asian was a good sign.

And having to wait for a table at 6:20 on a Saturday night also seemed like a good sign. Gave us a few moments to peruse the hundred-plus-item menu as well. That's the authentic Chinese menu, which was hard backed and spanned many pages. These expensive-looking tomes were obviously straight from the printer because some of the pages on mine were still glued together at the edges.

Dad was along for the trip and busied himself with the American-style Chinese selections on a much smaller menu. From it we chose appetizers.

This had been a plate full of pan-fried dumplings. Hey - we were hungry and attacked before I remembered the camera. They were good - generous filling, wrapper wasn't doughy, and the bottoms had been browned nicely. But the wee container of dipping sauce was a tad too small for the huge dumplings and much of the sauce was displaced onto the table top. And there's one of my main complaints - too many bowls, cups, plates and not enough table top. The tables are just big enough for eating, say, a sandwich and some fries, but try to eat family style and there's just not enough room for serving dishes and everything else. It is good that the individual dishes from which to eat are small and dim-sum sized, and not full-sized dinner plates. I also liked that diners were automatically provided with chopsticks and had to request forks, not the other way around.

Dad wanted to try the barbecue pork appetizer. It was a bit like a horror movie on a plate. When I was a kid, we got roast pork quite a lot, in fact, for a while there, it was the only thing my once-picky brother would eat in a Chinese restaurant. I remember it as usually being quite succulent, cut in thicker slices, and having maybe a bit of juice but no real sauce. This version was a little tough, and other than the sweet sauce, it didn't taste like much.

The four of us each ordered won ton soup. It was bland. And thus concludes the American-Chinese portion of the meal.

Duck-crazy people that we are, we had to order the roast duck. It was much like Peking duck, on the bone with rendered fat and crisp skin, served with a bowl of hoisin for dipping. It was good, but not stellar. Nothing has yet to beat the Peking duck from the late, lamented, Jesse Wong's Hong Kong.

I had to order the tea tree mushroom and pork casserole, simply for the fact that a Chowhound user called it a "mega-mushroom orgasmatron." According to a woman who I am assuming is one of the owners, the tea tree mushroom is not available in any other restaurant in our area and that Hunan Taste imports them from China, along with a container-full of other special ingredients. From what I could tell, tea tree mushrooms have long thin stems and small heads. The flavor is delicate and the texture is crunchy/snappy, much like jellyfish or to those who haven't eaten such exotica, the skin on a natural-casing hot dog (imagine a hot dog about half the thickness of a pencil). There were bits of pork belly (mostly fat) in the dish and a mild broth. I would say this dish is more about texture than about flavor - no mouthgasms for me. That's not to say it wasn't good - it was.

Because we were in a Hunan restaurant, we had to order Hunan-native Chairman Mao's favorite dish of red-braised pork belly. The large squares of pork were succulent and did not seem overly unctuous, despite all the fat. It was seasoned with many whole garlic cloves that had softened during cooking and a bit of star anise. The flavorings were very subtle which made this dish quite enjoyable.

Finally, after we had finished just about everything else, we received the shrimp fried noodles we had ordered at the start of the meal. The food comes out as it's ready - they had originally brought out something the server called "beef chow mein" but when I said we had ordered shrimp (really, who orders beef chow mein, except maybe werewolves?) she took the dish back and started a new one. And this brings up a service issue. From the start, I thought it odd that our waiter, who was clearly American-born, wasn't familiar with the menu...and it seems despite my having to point things out to him, he managed to write things down incorrectly. (We had ordered four won ton soup and received two. I reminded the server we had asked for two additional portions. Those bowls took a good 15 minutes to arrive.) I'm going to chalk up the uneven service to the fact the restaurant is still brand new (it opened in late October) and that it was pretty busy in there. The owner lady was fairly attentive though, asking if she could answer questions and steering us away from the "bullwhack" saying that it was a "beef part" and that we didn't want to order that. I'm guessing it's penis....

Anyway, back to the noodles. They were much like a simplified version of lo mein, but pleasantly non-greasy. The shrimp were plump and plentiful. Overall, a good basic dish that's worth ordering.

So while the food was good, there was nothing mind-blowing or earth-shattering about it, unlike dishes we tried on our first trip to Grace Garden (fish noodles, tea smoked duck, pork belly with mui choy). But then we didn't try anything funky, like the "soft shell turtle in brown sauce," or "stir-fried pig blood and meatballs" (which I have to admit is intriguing), nor anything with Hunan-style heat. But we'll see if we can't correct that on the next visit....

Hunan Taste
718 North Rolling Road
Catonsville, MD 21228
(a few doors down from H Mart, in the same shopping center)
Hunan Taste on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chicken Parm

Is still ok to call chicken Parmesan "parmesan" if it's made with Swiss cheese? After all, it's usually topped with mozzarella....

Friday, November 20, 2009

More Food Competition Shows

NBC orders "United Plates of America."

Bangkok Delight

For my birthday this year, like last year, I chose to have my celebratory dinner in a Thai restaurant. I was swayed to visit Bangkok Delight by some effusive praise I had read recently. Plus they had an item on the menu called Basil Duck, and I had to see if it was anything like our favorite dish from Thai Luang in Herndon.

My hopes were high, and they were dashed. Bangkok Delight serves what I would consider American-style Thai food, at least that seemed to be true of the dishes we tried.

From the specials menu, we tried the Triple Delight appetizer of chicken satay, fried wonton, and spring roll. The spring roll was bland, as were the wontons, and both probably came from a bag in the freezer. The satay had been battered and deep fried, rather than grilled; thankfully the chicken was still moist. I normally love peanut sauce, but the version we were served at Bangkok Delight tasted as though it had been made from a dry mix.

I had heard that Laab, a spicy salad made with chicken, herbs, and lime juice, was delicious and so I wanted to try it. This version had so much Western celery in it, it tasted like regular chicken salad, albeit with a little fish sauce. It was good...but it was not Thai. And it was certainly not hot and spicy.

For the soup course, Mr Minx went for won ton, which tasted like Western chicken soup because of the plethora of celery. My tom yum gai had a strong fish sauce flavor that was not unpleasant, but it overpowered any subtlety this soup usually has.

Here's the Basil Duck. The menu said the dish came with bell peppers, and I asked that they be omitted. In its place we received a much-appreciated mix of fresh green beans, zucchini, carrots, and baby corn. The duck had nice crispy skin but the meat was quite tough. The sauce was only mildly spicy, and despite a generous quantity of basil on top, it didn't have much basil flavor. Not that the dish wasn't good - it just fell short of my expectations.

We also ordered the Drunken Noodles with pork. Drunken noodles contain no alcohol, rather they are called that because of the amount of alcohol one would want to consume to put out the fire-y spice of the dish. Our drunken noodles had no discernible heat, and the noodles didn't have any of the luscious texture I'm used to in rice noodles. They were a bit tough. Overall, the flavor was fine, but it didn't seem particularly Thai to me.

And that, in a nutshell, was the biggest issue for me. Although we were in a Thai restaurant, we could have been eating Chinese food. Nothing was bad, and I'm sure some folks would find everything quite delicious. It just made me miss the deep flavors and aromatic subtleties my old favorite Thai restaurant, the now-closed Bangkok Place, even more.

On the plus side, portions were huge, and we took home a goodly amount of food to eat later in the week. After I doctor it up, of course.

Bangkok Delight
8825 Centre Park Drive
Columbia, MD 21045

Bangkok Delight on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Top Chef Las Vegas Episode Twelve Recap

On our penultimate morning at the McMansion, we find that Bryan is worried about money, since his fledgling restaurant's business is slowing while he's been gone. Kevin is missing his wife. And he must be a big fan of 80s Madonna, because we see him put a rosary on like a necklace and tuck it under his chef's whites (thankfully we were spared the scene of him putting on ripped fishnets). Eli mentions that season 4 finalist Richard Blais was his mentor and he wants to win the big prize for the both of them. I can just hear the conversation now:

"Hey Richard! I won! For both of us!"
"That's great, Eli. Where's my half of the giant check?"
"Um, well. I have to give it to Mom. But I'm sharing the glory! That's good, right?"

Jen, as usual, is feeling the pressure but hopes she can perform better in the day's challenges.

Nobody misses Robin.

/navel gazing

On to the M Resort where the five remaining cheftestants find Padma with a rather elf-like creature.

Not only did Wee Gavin win a Beard Award but he also represented the U.S. in the prestigious Bocuse d'Or competition in 2007. Yet he was beat out in the Next Iron Chef competition by Michael Symon. Go figure. Anyhoo, Wee Gavin talks about creating a ballotine of chicken with a crayfish center for the Bocuse. What he doesn't mention is the Tale of the Dishwasher. One of the side dishes for Wee Gavin's platter involved chicken wings. His hungry (and possibly stupid) dishwasher saw the wings, thought they were reject parts, and ate them. The result: Wee Gavin came in 14th. So the next time you scoff at the dish of butter-and-hot-sauce-soaked yumminess that is Buffalo wings, remember just how crucial they can be in a competitive situation.

Back to the Quickfire Challenge you say?

But wait - what's a ballotine?

I know there's a dirty joke in there somewhere.

There is no immunity, but the winner of this challenge will receive a significant advantage in the Elimination challenge.

Bryan is pretty confident, since he's made ballotines before, and is planning one with merguez sausage and lamb. His brother is even more confident and decides the contest isn't about ballotines at all but about combining three proteins, so he's making a compressed terrine. Meanwhile, Kevin thinks they're both a little dumb to try something so risky in a short 90 minutes.

Jen jokes about making a turducken, but switches to what she knows best - seafood. And Eli does his own thing too.

Obviously Top Chef Masters had not aired by the time this episode was filmed, otherwise Eli would have seen how successful Chef Art Smith was with his Scotch Egg. Not.

Time's up! Padma and Wee Gavin go around and taste everyone's wares. Bryan's dish was complimented; Kevin's breaded catfish dish may not have been risky, but it was dry. Wee Gavin actually did like Eli's egg. He wasn't crazy about Michael's terrine, as it was a terrine and not a ballotine-style preparation.

Apparently his ego was so puffed up, it clogged his ears or something.

Wee Gavin loved Jen's calamari with scallops and salmon and proclaimed her the winner, to loud sighs of relief from both Jen and the many viewers who have been pulling for her to make a comeback. Way to go, Jen!

No time to celebrate, next up is the Elimination Challenge which will be a Top Chef-ified version of the Bocuse d'Or. Let's call it "L'Excuse du Jour." Each chef must create a single protein dish and two fancy garnishes and plate them all on those silly mirrors (I think they're used so the puffed-up judges have something in which to admire themselves). They have the choice of salmon or lamb and the rest is up to them. They will have four hours to cook at Alex Stratta's restaurant Alex at the Wynn. Because she won the Quickfire, Jen gets the advantage of an additional 30 minutes to cook. The cheftestants will be judged by a party of 12, some of whom are reps from the American Advisory Board for the Bocuse d'Or, one of which is the illustrious Thomas Keller. None of which is Toby Young.

The cheftestants then pile into Sponsormobiles and head to Whole Paycheck for the obligatory shopping scene.

Back at the McMansion, we find Bryan shoveling Alexia Crunchy Snacks into his mouth while they all stare glassy-eyed at videos of Bocuse d'Or competitions. Michael has gone straight to bed, still in his chef's whites (hygiene is important in the kitchen but apparently not in the bedroom). Kevin asks Bryan about cooking sous vide, and Bryan explains the technique.

The next day, the chefs settle in at the Alex kitchen. Tom comes in with Thomas Keller to give the chefs a pep talk.

Michael is already pretty confident.

He also takes the opportunity to trash talk Kevin.

Kevin explains why he's trying a new technique.

Tom ditches Keller and comes back for his Sniff 'n' Sneer. He gives Kevin funny looks when he sees his immersion circulator. As if leprechauns aren't allowed to use technology and must rely on their elfin magic!

Bryan seems confident but he's obviously nervous because suddenly he's smiling and doing this weird staccato laugh, "hahahahahaha."

Tom decides to throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings. Or does he?

Guess who finds this funny? "Hahahahahaha."

We then cut to a schmancy dining room where the guests are arriving. They include Padma, Gail, Tom, Thomas Keller, Wee Gavin, Traci des Jardins (who also won a James Beard Award but lost the title of Next Iron Chef), Alex Stratta, Daniel Boulud, Jerome Bocuse (son of Paul), and Timothy Hollingsworth, the French Laundry sous chef who represented the U.S. in the Bocuse d'Or in 2009.

Kevin's shiny mirrored platter comes out first, bearing Poached Lamb Loin, Sherry-Glazed Beet, and Asparagus in Sunchoke Cream. While they seem to enjoy the flavors, Keller says the dish seemed a bit "elemental" for the length of time and the caliber of chef.

Michael is next with his Salmon with Cauliflower Chickpea Tart and Zucchini Tzatziki. He calls it "Mediterranean" but that was declared a misnomer by most of the judges. And then Alex Stratta found a bone in his fish, which seemed to concern Padma more than most.

Bryan was next with Crusted Lamb Loin, Lamb Shank Crepinette, and Orzo Au Gratin. Bocuse liked the presentation but the lamb was undercooked and tough.

Eli's Sausage-wrapped Lamb Loin, Carrot Puree, and Tomato-Piquillo Canapé came out next. His lamb was seriously undercooked with unpleasant bits of raw fat. His meat was also sliced unevenly. Padma liked the flavors, and the judges agreed that the idea was good but the technical production was a failure.

Finally we have Jen's Salmon and Caviar, Shrimp Flan and Truffle, and Celery Root and Shiitake. The flavors and presentation were nice, but not well thought-out. And the salmon was unevenly cooked.

After the judges finish eating, the cheftestants were brought back out to face the diners. Gail said she was proud that they could produce the food they did with only 12 hours to shop, plan, and cook. After a round of applause, the chefs were told that the winner of this Elimination Challenge would be allowed to compete for a spot on the 2011 Bocuse d'Or team.

The chefs are then herded to the Glad Family of Products Stew and Booze Room where we get our fakeout scene which is all ooey-gooey with emotion. Bryan says they should be proud because they cooked for the best chefs in the world! And Tyler Florence. Jen says at the end of the day, even though they are competitors, they are all friends. Awwww. /fakeout

Padma comes in, far perkier than in any prior episode, to call *all* of the chefs to Judges' Table. Wee Gavin has been replaced by Jerome Bocuse for the occasion. The chefs were alternately complimented and castigated for their dishes and then sent back to stew. It seemed to me that none of the judges exactly agreed with each other, so this was going to be a tough elimination.

Finally, the cheftestants were brought out again. Tom told them he had incredible respect for all of them - but one of them had to go. First - the winner. Despite complaints about the over-simplicity of his dish, Kevin's lamb was perfectly cooked. He was given the 30K in poker chips, plus a Bocuse d'Or jacket and some reference materials he might need if he wanted to compete for a position on the 2011 team.

After Kevin leaves the room, they again tell the remaining chefs their shortcomings.

Not only was there a bone in Michael's fish, but his cucumber wasn't impressive. Now that should knock his ego down a few pegs!

Then Padma said the magic words, which this week included the name "Eli." He managed not to cry and snivel too much on his way out the door to be briefly reunited with his ladylove, Robin (who no doubt was already fighting off the attentions of DoucheyMike).

Next week: the Final Four do battle in wine country!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

An Easy Dinner

This plate of pork tenderloin with cilantro pesto, black-eyed pea salsa and green chile bread pudding looks like a lot of effort, but it really wasn't. The salsa and bread pudding were left over from the Blogfest last Friday. I merely marinated the pork and tossed it in the oven and browned the bread pudding in a sauté pan to give it a much-needed crust. My blender did all the work of making the pesto.

I love leftovers.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Baltimore Food Memories

This article by Jacques Kelly, longtime writer for the Baltimore Sun, reminisces about foods distinctive to Baltimore once upon a time. I remember some of the things he mentions - the soda fountain at Read's is an especially fond memory.

There was a Read's drug store around the corner from us on Broadway in Fells Point. My favorite sections were the toys (natch), the magazine section near the front door (I was a precocious boy-crazy reader, demanding Tiger Beat and 16 before I started school), and the soda fountain area, which stretched along the left wall and featured hard Formica booths as well as a counter with high swivel stools. Occasionally I could connive my father or grandmother into buying me a cherry Coke or - even better - a hot fudge sundae. Even today, the smell of maraschino cherries makes me nostalgic for the best-ever sundae of my childhood.

Best ever, until I had the hot fudge at Marconi's. By that point, I was well out of my childhood. My mother had started this early Saturday dinner thing that involved the family heading out to a particular restaurant week after week until she got tired of it, at which point we switched to a new one. For a few weeks, it was Maison Marconi, and I never missed the opportunity to order the rich vanilla ice cream with it's own trough of deliciously grainy hot fudge. I wish that Mr Minx had the opportunity to experience it, but Marconi's is gone forever, along with sweetbreads three ways and Lobster Cardinale.

Kelly also mentions Panzer's pickles and sauerkraut. Their plant was once located on the 500 block of South Ann Street in Fells Point, next door to my grandmother's house. When I was growing up, it was a tank-cleaning outfit called Goodhue's, but my mom always called it Panzer's. Coincidentally, a panzer is a German tank, but not the same kind of tank in which Goodhue's specialized.

I never did eat a Panzer's pickle, but consumed many from the barrels at Jack's and Attman's on Lombard Street's "Corned Beef Row." My first bagels came from Jack's, and no bagel since then has been quite the same hearty rib-sticking experience. Attman's corned beef is fortunately still available, and some of the best I've ever eaten. Folks who have only eaten corned beef (or pastrami or roast beef) from a supermarket deli are doing themselves a disservice. Real Jewish deli meats, made with brisket, are superlative.

I left a comment on Kelly's post (which he mined extensively for this follow-up article - not sure whether to be flattered or to charge him) mentioning my memory of Levin's bakery, on Patterson Park Avenue. Every Sunday, without fail, we would head to Levin's after church to buy a loaf of seeded rye bread. Once home, dad and I would fight over the heel, which we slathered in butter and devoured while reading the Sunday paper. Several slices would get wrapped and taken downstairs to grandma, and the rest of the loaf would last us for the week. I didn't eat a sandwich on "box bread" until adulthood, unless it contained bacon and/or eggs and was toasted for breakfast. Rye bread was our daily bread, and to this day I have never had a rye as good as Levin's.

I could go on and on, but it's your turn. What are your favorite memories of local delicacies long gone?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sometimes My Experiments Don't Always Work

I got the idea in my head that I would make ravioli for dinner, using the fresh lasagna noodles I bought at Wegman's last week. So I whipped up a batch of filling using leftover pumpkin, some sweet potato, and ricotta cheese, and another batch with chopped beets and both goat and ricotta cheeses. Then I opened the package of pasta only to discover they were stiff as boards and nearly as hard as dry pasta. Mr Minx volunteered to go to the grocery store to pick up won ton wrappers, but there were none to be found.

I contemplated throwing everything away and calling out for pizza when I remembered seeing a recipe for pumpkin gnocchi that weren't pre-boiled before pan-frying. So I added flour to the fillings, rolled it into logs and lopped off bits which were then tossed into a pan of butter. I also tossed in some walnut bits and a chiffonade of basil. And garnished it with pomegranate seeds.

Ok, so maybe I was a little overzealous with the browning (it was dark and my kitchen lighting isn't all that great) - and there was too much textural similarity between the crusty gnocchi and the other stuff. But hey - it tasted good.

I had the forethought to freeze half the gnocchi, so next time I'll cook them for a shorter period of time to maintain some of the creamy texture (test gnocchi made a few hours before the actual dinner were perfect). And a cream sauce instead of brown butter might be a nice idea as well.

So how did your weekend dinner turn out?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Rainy Weather Supper

A bowl of homemade tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich almost makes one forget that it's raining.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Top Chef Las Vegas Episode Eleven Recap

Six chefs left and the finale is looming. Who will Padma send home this week? Yeah yeah, we know who you *want* it to be....

Once again we meet our intrepid cheftestants in the McMansion, getting ready for another day in the salt mines. Jen thinks it's a big deal that DoucheyMike isn't around anymore. And Bryan, although enjoying his TC experience, is feeling a bit homesick.

Cyborg technology is apparently quite advanced. They can breed now.

He's allowed a brief phone call to his family. His almost-2-year-old son, Thatcher, answers the phone with an excited, "Bryan!" Gee...only a few weeks away and already the family treats you like a stranger.

Rather than the M Resort, the cheftestants head to the Venetian where they are whisked to a kitchen in the bowels of the hotel, somewhere deep under the faux canal with faux gondoliers and overpriced gelato. A phone rings - it's for the chefs.

If DoucheyMike seemed excited about cooking for scrawny vegetarian Natalie Portman two weeks ago, then how would he react to the voluptuous Nigella Lawson? Alas, we'll never find out. And I'm not all that sorry.

The Breakfast in Bed Quickfire requires that the cheftestants each prepare a yummy breakfast for Padma and Nigella and wheel it through several rings of hell to their suite somewhere upstairs. They, in the meantime, are having fun in bed.

What passes as fun for you, dirty-minded reader, is not necessarily the same thing that turns on our raven-tressed lovelies. A damn shame.

Eli and Robin head off to cook first.

Eli decides to make a Reuben Benedict with 1000 Island hollandaise, and Robin scurries around like a chicken with her head cut off, making something or other. They deliver their dishes to the ladies.

Robin ended up making blintzes with pineapple, and the ladies don't seem too impressed. Eli presents next and his dish is very well-received; Nigella thinks it would make a great hangover breakfast.

The next duo to cook are Michael and Kevin. Michael spends the first 5 of his 30 minutes cleaning up the mess Robin left behind, which puts him directly into the weeds. He of course can't make anything simple, and concocts Huevos Cubana, with banana puree, rice, bacon, and arugula salad. Kevin, pretty much his polar opposite in the kitchen, does steak and eggs.

Finally, Jennifer and Bryan create their dishes. Jen does the American classic, the aptly-named, "shit on a shingle."

Bryan does a four-minute egg, polenta, asparagus, crab and a vanilla butter sauce which does not go over well with Nigella.

After Nigella and Padma finish pigging out, they get dressed (after taking a shower together) and summon the cheftestants for judgement. Nigella's least favorite dishes were Bryan's and Robin's. Her favorites were Kevin's and Eli's, with the latter being the winner. Padma then announces that Eli will get his recipe published in the Top Chef Quickfire Cookbook. Viewers who watched the preview vids for this episode and have the cookbook (or who, like me, read too many blogs and face the dreaded spoiler on a regular basis) already knew the winner. If I remember correctly, Richard Blais was the only cheftestant from season 4 to get a recipe in the original Top Chef Cookbook...and Eli just so happened to be the best man at his wedding. Coincidence? Most likely.

On to the Elimination Challenge. The cheftestants are to celebrate the Strip by creating a casino-inspired dish which will be fed to 175 of "Las Vegas' Elite" (to me, this means Cher, Elton John, and Wayne Newton, but apparently it merely refers to non-tourists who wear things other than ugly shorts and baggy t-shirts).

The knife block comes out.

Each knife bears the name of one of the gaudy hotel/casinos on the Vegas Strip. Bryan draws Mandalay Bay, Michael draws New York, New York, Eli gets Circus Circus, Robin gets the Bellagio, Kevin draws the Mirage, and Jen gets Excalibur.

Each cheftestant has a car and driver to ferry him or her to their designated Palace of Sin. First we see Michael disembark at New York New York. He is immediately inspired.

Next, Jen goes to Excalibur to eat roast chicken with her hands at the Tournament of Kings.

She says she's having a hard time focusing and doesn't know what she's going to do. She's been slipping more every week, but I think the beer had to have something to do with it this time.

At Mandalay Bay, Bryan opts to head directly for the shark reef, where he encounters a sign touting sustainability. (You know Rick Moonen, whose restaurant rm seafood is in Mandalay Bay, had to have something to do with this.) Immediately the idea unit in Bryan's circuit board starts blinking.

On his way out, he visits the gift shop to buy something for young Thatcher.

This disturbs me. First we see Bryan claim he misses his kid and phones home. Now he's buying toys. This is usually a type of loser edit. I express my thoughts to Mr Minx who says he thought Bryan's eyes looked red in one of the Confidentials. Nooooooo! Not my favorite expressionless chef! I calm myself by repeating, "this does not compute," and put my attentions back to the show.

Robin is at the Bellagio, one of the rare classy joints on the strip. She is awed by the Chihuly sculpture in the lobby and vows to make something with gelatin. Sure, I see the connection too.

Kevin is at the Mirage, where he is impressed to see waterfalls and flowers. He looks around carefully, hoping to spot some leprechaun brethren; finding none, he goes to the dolphin show.

Finally, Eli gets to Circus Circus where he's disappointed to find there's no big top, no clown cars, no lions, tigers, or bears, just lots of circus-y junk food like candy apples and cotton candy. He calls his mommy for permission, then gorges himself on sugary treats before heading back to the McMansion and the rest of the cheftestants.

The next morning, the chefs head to the Top Chef Corporate Sponsorship Kitchen for 3.5 hours of cookery, after which they pack up and go to the rooftop of the World Market Center, where they draw straws to decide who will be the one to push off Robin. They get another hour to set up and do finishing touches before the hungry hoardes arrive.

Not surprisingly, Jen is having issues. Robin is as well, as the sugar work she attempted to recreate the look of Chihuly glass did not set up. And Michael is worried that he has to crisp up 175 portions of chicken wings.

Padma and the judges arrive and head straight for Jen's station, where she is not quite prepared. Padma snottily remarks that Jen's empty table looks as if she's sold out of food. Jen's dish is inspired by the Sword and the Stone, using overcooked beef in place of stone.

Next the judges visit Kevin who has made cured salmon with tomato water. Nigella enjoys it quite a lot.

Good thing the cameras didn't catch any of the men from the waist down.

Michael's curried chicken wings, inspired by something the FDNY might eat, had nicely crisp skin and a disc of cold bleu cheese sauce that some of the judges loved. Toby, in place of Gail (because three sets of boobies would have been too much), wasn't entirely impressed.

Robin indeed used gelatin in her panna cotta - too much of it - which caused it to set too hard. And without the sugar work, it was difficult to see the connection to Chihuly.

Bryan prepared an escabeche of halibut with parsley coulis that Nigella thought had fantastic balance. Whew! They liked his dish. He's not going home. Not that I ever thought he was. Of course not.

You know, I think Nigella would make a great permanent judge, don't you?

Finally, Eli's caramel apple and peanut soup with raspberry froth was a bit of a mess. Padma didn't like it at all. The textures didn't work. Toby, however, admired his willingness to try something that might fail. Speaking of fail, I'm wondering where Toby left all of the amusingly harsh insults he tossed about last season.

Then comes a Fake Out Scene that's so dull, it should have been included in last week's Reunion Dinner Special. The chefs open Korbel and toast each other.

/end Fake Out Scene. Yawn.

The cheftestants then head to the Glad Family of Products Stew 'n' Booze Room to stew and booze. Padma shuffles in and drones that she would like to see Michael, Kevin, and Bryan.

Everyone loved Kevin's broth. Bryan's dish was "quiet and elegant" according to Nigella. Toby called Michael's food "effeminate" to which Michael replied, "I believe a chef's personality should be evident on the plate." Huh? Did he just out himself?

Girly or not, Michael is awarded the win, and a big old bottle of Terlato wine. Plus, a trip to the Terlato winery in Napa. I'm sorry, but "Terlato" sounds to me like a euphemism that Archie Bunker might use for bad wine.

The remaining chefs - Jen, Robin, and Eli - are on the chopping block. Jen didn't have a clear vision of her dish, and Tom said she had a lack of knowledge about Medieval food. Because food back then spoiled for lack of refrigeration, it was usually heavily spiced. Oh yeah? Well tell the bozos at Medieval Times that. I hardly think that their Lipton dehydrated-vegetable soup and plain roast chicken could be called "spiced" at all. Toby suddenly gets pithy again and says Jen's dish was more Spamalot than Camelot. Heh. Good one.

Robin's panna cotta was too firm.

Damn, she's hot.

Finally, Eli, who thought he was conceptually on the mark, was told his dish was a failure. Padma didn't want to eat it again, and Nigella said her good upbringing was the only thing that prevented her from spitting it back into the cup. I love that woman.

But just when it was starting to look like Eli was out, Padma asked Robin to please pack her knives and go. :::putting earplugs in to drown out the deafening roar of approval:::

You'll hate me for admitting this, but I got a little choked up as Robin thanked the judges and packed her knives. She should be proud of lasting so long in such fierce competition.

Next week: Thomas Keller and Bocuse D'Or!