Thursday, December 31, 2009

Meat and Potatoes

I had just finished reading a selection about steak from Jeffrey Steingarten's It Must Have Been Something I Ate moments before Mr Minx and I went on our weekly trip to the grocery store. I was in the mood for red meat and though I knew from my reading that no cut of supermarket beef would be particularly satisfying, I threw a package of cheap bone-in "strip steaks" into the cart. (I use the quotes because judging by the shape and placement of the bone, they were only strip steaks by virtue of their long and narrow form.)

They were fried up in butter with some mushrooms and served with sliced potatoes cooked in duck fat. Yes, I said duck fat - we had about a cup of it leftover from Christmas dinner. OMG yum. Especially when the potatoes are dusted with a little Cajun seasoning (a.k.a homemade Emeril's Essence).

The steak itself, although lean, tasted well enough. It satisfied the urge to chew, but was gristle-free, unlike the NY strips we had at Ruth's Chris earlier in the year.

I also whipped up a little "steak sauce" with a bit of black bbq sauce and Worcestershire.

We prefaced this meaty meal with bowls of parsnip velouté. Not really velouté because there was no flour in it, but I just like saying the word. Velouté. Parsnips are my new favorite root vegetable and I want to put them in everything. Including velouté.

The recipe? I peeled three huge parsnips and cut them into chunks, placed the chunks in a pot with about 3 cups of water and one Knorr chicken bouillon cube and cooked them until tender. After it cooled, I pureed the lot of it in a blender, adding about a cup of milk (we had 1%) to assist in the blending. The puree went back into the pot with a scant cup of light cream, another cup of water, and another half bouillon cube. (If you have chicken stock on hand, by all means, use it! I had none.) Add more or less water and cream depending on the consistency you want to achieve. Taste for seasoning and add salt if needed (mine needed no further seasoning).

I just so happened to have some diced, sauteed parsnip from a Petit Louis doggie bag, so that became my garnish, along with a few bits of scallion. Later in the week, I'll garnish the leftover soup with some bacon.

Ok - maybe "meat and root vegetables" would have been a better title for this post....

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fruitcakery

When I made Coconut & Lime's Cranberry Ginger Tea Bread, I thought the recipe needed something. I was originally going to try again and add more oil and maybe another egg and be done with it, but as the original loaf sat around, the more I thought it tasted like a fruitcake base. So that's what it became. Dad was over on cookie-baking day, lamenting the fact that he had not yet had any fruitcake. He's not a connoisseur--he'll eat the super-commercial Claxton or Hostess brands with no complaint--but I thought he should have a good fruitcake this year. A home-made one, even.

You legion of fruitcake fans out there are probably thinking "Wait up there, Miss Minx! Fruitcake must be made weeks, even months, before its eaten! It needs to be wrapped in cheesecloth and doused in spirits (so consumers won't notice how bad it really is)." Yeah yeah, I tried that once. It was a lot of work and expense and the cake came out moldy because the fridge I stored it in had humidity issues. Never again.

And that's why a quickbread version sounded particularly attractive to me. I changed the original recipe by swapping out the 1/4 cup of oil for 1/2 cup of butter. I didn't have sour cream on hand so used yogurt instead. And I omitted the fresh ginger.

The fruit component of the "fruitcake" was made up of 3/4 cup of mixed dried blueberries, raspberries, and cranberries that I soaked in warm vanilla rum, about a cup and a half of chopped walnuts and pecan halves, and a good handful of that weird plastic-y fruitcake fruit (because I know Dad likes it).

All of the extra ingredients required an extra half hour in the oven, but look at how golden brown and delicious it came out! I made sure the cake wasn't stuck in the pan before I brushed on a vanilla rum syrup (simple syrup with rum added). After unmolding the bread, I brushed the syrup on all sides and let it cool completely before wrapping it in foil.

I presented it to Dad on Boxing Day. He wasted no time in getting a knife.

Shockingly, amazingly - it was good. I hate fruitcake, and I thought this was pretty great. It wasn't too sweet, and there wasn't too much of the green cherry stuff. I think I might make this an annual tradition, switching up the recipe a bit every year. I realized as I was eating it that candied citrus peel is an integral part of the fruitcake flavor, as are nuts. The other candied bits are for texture and color. So next year I'll skip the red and green stuff. I think figs would make a good addition, maybe some dried sour cherries too.

Any other suggestions? Does anyone out there actually like fruitcake?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas Dinner 2009

Some people make turkey for Christmas, but not me. If I never see turkey again, I'd be very happy! This holiday, my bird of choice was duck.

Meet Donald. I roasted him for 4 hours at 300°F and an additional hour at 350°F, after slashing through the skin all over. Most of the fat rendered out (and was greedily saved by me for cooking potatoes in the future) which resulted in crisp skin.

Donald was yummy.

While he was a-roasting, I prepared an appetizer of chicken-fried sweetbreads with lemon mayo.

Man, sweetbreads are a pain-in-the-tuckus to make. First they have to be soaked for a couple hours, then poached. Membrane-removal is next, followed by several hours of pressing. After all of that, I cut them into small pieces, dipped each one in seasoned flour, then beaten egg, then seasoned breadcrumbs, and shallow-fried them in canola oil. The lemon mayo was a simple concoction of 2 T mayo, the juice and grated rind of one half lemon, and a pinch of salt.

Overall, it was pretty good, although I feel I could have poached the sweetbreads just a tad longer. The texture I achieved wasn't quite as firm as the sweetbreads we ate at Volt.

The duck was a much easier preparation. I wanted to make a riff on Thai Luong's Basil Duck, so I mixed up a chunky sauce of sautéed onion, fresh basil, garlic, and a couple of tablespoons of Thai chile basil sauce.

The sides were a leek and mushroom fondue (leeks, fresh shiitake, dried chanterelle, and white mushrooms cooked in butter and olive oil until the leeks "melt" and the mushrooms are tender), and Jasmine rice.

Everything turned out deliciously, and I impressed even myself.

For dessert, I put to use some of the many cookies we had on hand and made ice cream sandwiches. This was accompanied by hot chocolate.

A shame Mr Minx and I had only one guest for Christmas dinner. It meant more food for us...which is not necessarily a good thing. [urp]

Monday, December 28, 2009

Andy Nelson's BBQ

Can you believe that I've lived in Baltimore for 44 years and had never experienced Andy Nelson's bbq? Until now, that is.

After our marathon cookie-baking session a few days before Christmas, Mr Minx, my brother, and I were trying to think of a place to grab some dinner. Somewhere not in the vicinity of the Towson mall and the insane traffic situation that was bound to exist in the area. I was pushing for sushi, but somehow we simultaneously decided that ribs were the perfect post-baking food. Mr Minx and I retold our tale of disappointment at the Charred Rib, and we briefly contemplated Razorback's (very briefly, as it is across from the mall) and the Corner Stable. We ultimately settled on Andy Nelson's, down the road from the surprisingly-desolate-for-Christmas-Week Valley View Farms.

Former Baltimore Colt (that's right, Baltimore Colt) Andy Nelson serves real barbecue, not just cooked meat with sauce on it. The meat is hickory smoked until tender, and sauced or not.

We went for a full slab of dry-rub ribs...

...a pound of pulled pork...

and cole slaw, BBQ tater wedges, and cornbread as sides.

I'm used to falling-off-the-bone, porky-tasting ribs. I think the ones I make are some of the best, but I understand that for purists, they aren't 'que. The ribs at Andy Nelson's have more of a "chew" - the meat must be manually (or dentally) separated from the bone. It's still very tender, however, and sports a bright pink shade from the hickory smoke. The flavor was almost a bit like ham. The dry rub was heavy on the paprika and not at all sweet, but I didn't think the meat necessarily benefited from a dribble of sauce. It was fine as is. Next time we'll definitely taste the wet style, for comparison's sake.

The pulled pork had a vinegar-based sauce and was nicely tangy. The sweet-ish cornbread was in perfect contrast, but I also enjoyed the non-sweet cole slaw that reminded me of my grandma's. The huge potato slabs were well-seasoned and nicely fluffy on the inside. Next time we try the potato salad. And the collards. And definitely the brisket.

And I definitely won't be waiting anywhere near as long for that next visit.

Andy Nelson's BBQ
11007 York Road
Cockeysville, MD 21030
Phone: 410-527-1226 • Fax: 410-527-1167

Andy Nelson's BBQ on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 27, 2009

God, I Love Language....

...even if it is just an f'd up translation. While perusing teh Innernets for Top Chef-related items, I found this fab article on the Voltaggio Brothers. It was originally English, translated into another language, and then translated back into English.

Some highlights:
The tall propagandize culinary humanities clergyman who taught Bryan Voltaggio how to put together the great bearnaise watched him "deconstruct" the salsa upon inhabitant TV.

The courtesy as good as await from everybody in locale has been unbelievable," pronounced Bryan, 33.

The Voltaggios grew up in Frederick, sons of the ecclesiastic workman as good as the state guard whose moonlighting in road house confidence got them in to the Holiday Inn kitchen as teens.
"Road house confidence?"

Thursday, December 24, 2009

More Christmas Cookies

Not only did I bake peanut butter and chocolate gingerbread cookies, I also went a little crazy and made plain chocolate and regular oatmeal cookies to accompany the usual snickerdoodles and Toll House. And I took the leftover bacon fat shortbread dough from the freezer and baked those up as well. Good thing I had my trusty helpers to assist with baking, otherwise I'd be more crippled than I am.

I think we baked at least 30 dozen, if not more. Dad stopped by and took home a bag of assorted goodies (he favors burnt ones), and my brother got about a third of the remainder.

We'll be eating cookies until February. Want some?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Apple Tasting

I'm not a big apple eater, as I am slightly allergic to them when raw. I definitely can't eat the skins. But recent trips to the supermarket revealed a whole new world of apples beyond the usual Red and Gold Delicious and Granny Smith varieties. I thought it could be interesting to do an apple tasting and picked up three that neither Mr Minx nor I had tried before.

The Ambrosia apple is a cultivar from British Columbia. It has a fairly typical sweet apple aroma. The flesh is crisp and juicy. Low in acid, the flavor is nicely sweet and slightly complex. It is a perfect apple for eating out-of-hand. They are also slow to oxidize, so are good for fruit salads. As I tend to like sweet apples, this was my favorite of the three.

The Macoun, a cross between the McIntosh and the Jersey Black, had a pear-like aroma and a mushy texture reminiscent of my mother's favorite Winesap. Like the Winesap, Internet info tends to call both apples "crisp" whereas I think they are anything but. The flavor is gently sweet, aromatic, slightly floral, and what Mr Minx called "candy-like, or vanilla," and very low in acidity. Great for eating out-of-hand, if you appreciate the texture.

The Pink Lady apple, a Aussie cultivar, is a cross between a Golden Delicious and a Lady Williams. It has a sweet smell, like a Red Delicious, but a very tangy flavor, almost like a Granny Smith, with some perfume-y aspects. The texture was hard/crisp and juicy; Mr Minx called it "refreshing" and a good apple for summertime eating. I think it would be terrific for pies, and in salads.

What are your favorite apples and why? What do you suggest I try next?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Baltimore Winter Restaurant Week 2010

Over 70 restaurants are participating in Baltimore's Winter Restaurant Week this coming January 22 - February 7th. Lunch prices are up a penny to $20.10, but dinner prices are now $35.10 for three courses. Still a great deal!

For more information and the list of participants, please go to http://www.baltimorerestaurantweek.com/

Christmas Cookies

To keep my mind off of the crazy amounts of snow that were falling this past Saturday, I decided to bake some cookies. I usually bake Christmas cookies with my brother, who functions as both helper and Head Cookie Tester, but as he was snug in his own domicile on the other side of town, I thought I could bake a few kinds that might not interest him as much as the usual Toll House and snickerdoodles. He's deathly allergic to peanuts, so it seemed a good time to make peanut butter cookies.

I've never ever made peanut butter cookies, so not knowing the ultimate recipe, I went online and chose one at random. I like the idea of chewy cookies (although I'm seldom successful in achieving the proper chewy texture) so this recipe attracted my attention.

The chocolate-y blobs are mini peanut butter cups from Trader Joe's. I like to gild the lily.

Next up were chewy chocolate gingerbread cookies, which I discovered at Sweet Mary. She used Martha Stewart's recipe for these spicy cookies with cocoa powder and chocolate bits. I love gingerbread, and I love chocolate cookies, so these sounded especially delicious.

The verdict? The peanut butter cookies are my (and Mr Minx's) favorite of the two. They are crisp on the outside and a bit chewy at the center. The gingerbread cookies have a similar crisp/chewy texture, but the recipe has a tad too much molasses for my taste. Although I love gingerbread, sometimes this is an issue for me. I think my Dad will love them though.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

One Last Brave Tomato

There's about 8" of snow outside, with expectations of much more before morning, and this tenacious little pear tomato is still valiantly hanging in there.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Party Food

I took a tentative bite. When my teeth bounced off the shrimp instead of biting through it, I placed it discreetly back onto my plate and covered it with a lettuce leaf. And so it goes every year at our Group party - our boss brings in a ton of extra large steamed shrimp, plus extra spicy cocktail sauce. Every year the shrimp are still partially frozen, water-logged, rubbery, and tasteless. Every year I try one, just in case it's miraculously edible. It never is.

Other than that, our food is usually pretty good. The holiday party is a pot luck affair, with several of us bringing home-made food, and a few people opting to buy goodies from the Lexington Market and beyond. Down one microwave this year, we planned on chow that was good at room temperature or chilled: two guys made different variations of mayo-less potato salad, one lady brought two huge vats of home-made Thai rice and noodle dishes, and I made several pounds of curried chicken salad. I usually prefer the home-cooked food, but this year my favorite dish was the "Bruce Lee" wings purchased at the Cross Street Market. They were perfectly cooked, crispy crunchy despite being a) cold; 2) coated in a vaguely-Asian sauce (think General Tso's, without the heat).

There are twenty of us in the group, and we eat like pigs. Even our resident vegan becomes omnivore for a a day. The result is that few items end up as leftovers - usually some green salad, some rotisserie chicken, a bit of 7-layer dip. And of course those dreaded nasty shrimp. Every year, the fridge is full of leftover shrimp. With any luck, the non-Group people who work on our floor will pilfer some.

Wonder if we could get the boss to spring for Bruce Lee wings next year instead?

Things a Baltimore Foodie Must Try

Sun columnist Elizabeth Large prompted readers to submit ideas for her list of "100 things area foodies must try." The only rule was that they be "quintessentially Baltimore." Some of the suggestions included:

"Eat the pumpkin appetizer at the Helmand" (so no other Afghan restaurant in the world serves kadu bouranee?)

"Eat a Wockenfuss caramel apple!" (I can make them at home, even if I didn't live in Baltimore.)

"Thin crust pizza! Iggies and Joe Squared." (I don't think thin crust pizza was invented in Baltimore.)

"Chicken salad from Graul's Market!" (Used to be that the chicken salad at the Woman's Industrial Exchange was called the best. I like it from Mary Mervis in the Lexington Market. The stuff at the UMMC hospital cafeteria is pretty darn good, too. Hey wait - does this mean that other places sell chicken salad? I hear they sell it in other states, even!)

"Have a special occasion dinner at Charleston. Ask Chef Cindy Wolf to fix what she thinks is best that night." (The restaurant is called
Charleston, for crap's sake!)

"Change your mind about vegan/vegetarian food at Liquid Earth" (Why leave out one of the only other notable vegetarian restaurants in town, the Yabba Pot?)

"Try the charcuterie at Clementine." (Cured pig parts are eaten the world over, and probably in greater quantities outside of Baltimore.)

"Sit at the bar at Cinghiale and order anything. Talk to Rob about wine when Tony isn't in town." (Cinghiale is relatively new and hasn't had time to become "quintessentially" anything yet.)

"Eat sushi in Towson." (Ok, that's just plain dumb. Charles Street downtown probably has as many sushi restaurants. And if you think sushi is a Baltimore thing, then you're hopeless.)

"Smith Island Cake, but only from Sugarbakers." ("Smith Island Cake" by its very name, is not Baltimorean.)

It's not that I disagree that foodies should experience most of the things on the list, I simply think that many of them can be found in some form in any major city. That would include good deli, roasted vegetables, diner food, hand-made ice cream, and the non-food related "making fun of hipsters." Hell, I do that while surfing the Internet - no comestibles required. In other words, they're not "quintessentially" Baltimore. (Not quintessentially anything, really.)

Things that I do agree that a Baltimorean should try at least once (foodie or no) are Berger cookies, lake trout, pit beef, coddies, and all things crab: crab soup (both varieties), crabcakes, soft shell crabs, crab imperial, stuffed shrimp, etc. And Old Bay. Apparently some of the best (or only) examples of those foodstuffs can be found in the Baltimore area, and on Maryland's Eastern Shore. (My condolences to those who are shellfish-intolerant.)

Older folks, like myself, should have eaten at Haussner's, Maison Marconi, Mee Jun Lo, Danny's, Connolly's, and Martick's. While they're still around, young folks should stop into Jimmy's (on Broadway), Chiapparelli's and Sabatino's, Attman's, and Trinacria. Not that any of the restaurants mentioned are unique to Baltimore, but because they were and are Baltimore institutions. And that's just as important a consideration as quintessential-ism when it comes to making lists of "must dos." Those new-fangled farm-to-table, hipster, restaurants serving "New American" cuisine that have been popping up all over the place are as much Seattle, New York, or Chicago as Baltimore. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at things), that seems to be the way that things are headed, the new generic that is replacing the "Continental" food restaurant of decades past.

So forget the county sushi and the roasted vegetables, and go find yourself a restaurant where the veteran, apron-wearing waitresses call you "hon" and have yourself a plate of crab imperial before it becomes a memory. That's a must-do Baltimore foodie experience.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Soft Tacos

I'm always printing out interesting recipes I find on the Internet. I have a stack of paper 2" high that desperately needs a binder to keep it all organized. Maybe I'll have time during my holiday vacation (16 days this year!) to work on it. Or not.

One of those recipes was for soft corn taco shells. Kinda sorta tortillas. But maybe more like pancakes or thick crepes.

The first one I poured out ended up more like a gordita, so I used a lot less batter for the rest of the batch. They were kinda interesting - a little rubbery in texture and they needed a bit more corn flavor. But they did the trick.

I served them with some flank steak that had been marinated in my usual soy/ketchup/garlic/Worcestershire, plus a healthy dose of sambal oelek. And sautéed mushrooms and onions, plus a heaping spoonful of Trader Joe's corn and chile salsa. (So good - I can almost eat the whole jar in one sitting. Love the coriander seed and spicy kick.)

Kinda looks like Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors having lunch, doesn't it?

There are several "taco shells" left, and I might try melting some cheddar cheese on them and pretending they are "corn bread." Or not.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Another Take on Rice Pudding

When we think of rice pudding, we generally think of the typical Greek-diner version of rice grains suspended in a custardy base, garnished with a sprinkle of nutmeg or cinnamon. But apparently the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, preferred a gussied-up version, with candied fruits and a little hooch. Known as Riz à l'Impératrice, or rice in the manner of the empress, it was one of the first truly adventurous dishes I tackled as a home cook.

My high school French club was having an after-school party and I volunteered to bring a dish. After poring over my dad's collection of food magazines, I found Riz à l'Impératrice in Cuisine. It seemed simple enough (ha!), plus my mother had a collection of groovy copper molds that she wasted on various Jell-O creations.

The Riz was far more impressive than any other dish that showed up at the party that afternoon. Certainly more than the runny chocolate mousse served in Dixie cups. At least *I* thought so.

Recently I decided it was high time to try it again. That old issue of Cuisine perished in a leaky ceiling/mildew incident some years back, and the only other version of the recipe I could find was that of James Beard.

Riz à l'Impératrice, from James Beard
House & Garden, January 1965

2/3 cup rice
2 cups milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon gelatin soaked in 2 tablespoons cold water
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
3/4 cup candied or preserved fruit
Rum or whiskey
1 cup heavy cream
Red glacé cherries or candied citron and candied pineapple

Wash rice. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes. Drain and transfer to a saucepan containing 1 1/4 cups milk and simmer until the rice is very tender. Heat remaining milk.

In the top of a double boiler, combine the egg yolks and sugar. Gradually stir in the hot milk and continue stirring until smooth and thick. Add softened gelatin and vanilla. Strain. Mix into the rice and cool until the mixture begins to set.

Soak the 3/4 cup candied or preserved fruit in a little rum or whiskey for 1/2 hour. Whip the heavy cream and fold in the soaked fruit. Mix into the rice mixture. Turn into a decorative ring mold and chill. Before serving, unmold on a platter and decorate with glacè cherries or candied citron and candied pineapple.
-------------------------------

I found the copper mold I had used originally and realized it had a 6-cup capacity. As I was cooking the rice, I knew it would never fill such a large mold. What to do? Luckily, the rice seemed to need more than 1 1/4 cups milk to reach a properly tender state, so I added an additional cup, a bit at a time. To compensate for the additional liquid, I added 1/4 sugar to the egg mixture. And I thought, what the hell - I'll whip the whole damn pint of heavy cream rather than just half of it. And it fit the mold perfectly.

Needless to say, I skipped the icky glacé cherries and candied fruits; of course that meant I couldn't use the booze. That's ok - my high school friends didn't get any either. At least - not in my dessert.

Now, unmolding creamy desserts can be a tricky thing. One must gently heat the mold to melt just enough of the gelatin to allow the filling to slide out. Too much heat and...

$@*%$@*!!!

Ah...toss some toasted almonds on top and who's gonna know? (I have no idea how I unmolded the thing successfully at school.) What really matters is the taste - so rich, so yummy - possibly the best rice pudding ever. At least, according to Mr Minx. :)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Tastes Different? or Different Tastes?

As I get older, I find myself thinking that some commercial foods just don't taste the same as they used to. My flavor memory is pretty strong, and in my mind's palate, I can still taste a 70s Milky Way bar. I eat one today, and there's no comparison - it's just not the same. Tastykakes? Again, not the same. I blame it on high fructose corn syrup. Were Doritos and Cheetos always so salty? Or is that an effect of my now more-sophisticated sense of taste?

I'm happy to occasionally discover that some things have stayed much the same: gherkins, Utz potato chips, Hershey bars (not that they were ever good). But I'm sure eventually they will change. Or I will.

What are your favorite snack items/candies that just aren't the same as they used to be?


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Top Chef Las Vegas Finale Part Two Recap

Here we are at last, finally the final finale for Top Chef Las Vegas, a season of sheer professionalism and relative lack of drama. Honestly, I miss the shenanigans of past seasons - they made for more entertaining recaps.

It's been a long, long, long season and our three remaining cheftestants are looking forward to their final battle. Kevin is both "pumped" and "stoked." And the Brothers Voltaggio are bickering amongst themselves. At least neither of them says "awesome" or walks around with hugemongous umbrellas.

They stop needling each other long enough to put on their chef coats and head out to the Rutherford Hill Winery, where they find Tom and Padma standing in the blazing sun.

Tom gives them their final challenge - prepare a three course meal. Sounds simple enough, right? But this is Top Chef, so there's a twist. The first course must be prepared from a Chopped-style "Mystery Box." (The Food Network has been ripping off Top Chef in their competitions for a few years now. Turnaround is fair play, I suppose.) For the second course, the cheftestants can prepare anything they wish from any available ingredients. And finally, the third course must be dessert. The meal will be prepared and served at Cyrus, a Michelin 2-Star restaurant in Healdsburg, and served to top restaurateurs. Tom says that this meal can make their careers.

Then Padma tells the cheftestants they will have help, and from the surrounding vineyard emerge the first 437 eliminated chefs, from Jen Z to Jen C. Jen C. is carrying the knife block, the sight of which causes Michael to say that there are a couple of names he could pull that would make him slit his own throat.

It would have been fun had he picked Robin, but the ensuing bloodbath would probably have been too much of a distraction for Kevin and Bryan. And one of those two is going to win this thing, right? Instead, he gets Jesse and Eli. Kevin ends up with Preeti and Ash, and Bryan gets the best of the bunch with Jen C. and Ashley. One of these sous chefs will help them with prep, the other will help them cook the next day.

With 15 minutes to plan, the chefs head to the kitchen to examine their Mystery Box [insert dirty joke here]. It contains Pacific rockfish, kabocha squash, Dungeness crab, Meyer lemon, matsutake mushrooms, and anise hyssop.

I love the way my spell check is recommending different words for kobocha (kaboom, kabob), Dungeness (dungeons, dungarees, strangeness), and matsutake (matchmaker, mistake) but seems to think that "hyssop" is just fine.

Kevin is upset at getting stuck with "I'm a Lesbian But I Can't Shuck Clams" Preeti. He doesn't have much faith in her abilities so gives her very few things to do, none of which involve pasta salad. Bryan, on the other hand, is quite pleased with his own personal lesbian helper, Ashley. And Michael is on his knees thanking the heavens that he didn't pull Robin.

The next morning, Kevin is upset because he feels he lost the whole first day being mad at Preeti. Michael is still contemplating the contents of the Mystery Box. Suddenly, there's an ominous knock on the door. Immediately they speculate that it's Padma announcing another twist, but instead they find...

Mom Gillespie reminds me of a faded country singer, with her sparkly eye shadow and blue eye-liner.

Voltaggio Mom helps her little boys button their jackets and roll their sleeves and reminds them that they are brothers and best friends, no matter what happens. :::sniff:::

Mom Gillespie lets her little boy roll his own sleeves, but tells Kevin to be himself and that he's got what it takes to beat the Volt Boys.

They then leave their Moms behind and head to Cyrus to finish prepping and cooking. Tom meets them there and finally gives them the expected extra twist. Instead of a three-course meal, they must now prepare a four-course meal, with the first course being an hommage to their mommies. Something inspired by a childhood dish.

Kevin decides to make something with chicken skin, since that was his mama's favorite part of the chicken (a woman after my own heart). Bryan says his parents divorced when the kids were very young, and if that wasn't bad enough, their mom made a lot of tuna casserole. And he was going to make it even yuckier by using sardines. Michael said he likes to transform things he doesn't like to eat into things he does like to eat, so he opts to play with the hated broccoli.

With three hours left until they must plate the first dish, they have to get cracking, especially with a fourth course on the table. Michael has finally figured out what he wants to make with his Mystery Box, and calls it a "scavenger hunt" of flavor. Later, when it's time to plate his first course, we hear him say that it's "bold and rustic" as he's spooning some spooge-like foam onto the broccoli. Doesn't get more rustic than foam....

The cheftestants enter the dining room with their first dishes and notice their moms seated at the table along with Tom, Gail, Toby, and Padma, plus restaurateurs Douglas Keane of Cyrus, Donatella Arpaia, Stephen Starr, Drew Nieporent, Sam Nazarian, and wine guy Bill Terlato. Padma then apologizes to the moms, saying that the judges' comments to their baby boys may seem a little harsh.

After the first course, the moms are unceremoniously kicked out. Next up is the Mystery Box course. Kevin's dish is merely ok, and features a tough mushroom. Bryan's dish is bland and safe and is compared to a "blind date you don't want to go on." As if anyone ever looks forward to a blind date. (I had one and it was a nightmare. The guy didn't make eye contact, nor did he speak to me even once. Thank goodness it was a double date with my then-best friend. Believe me, bland fish would have been far preferable.) Michael's dish is the best-received of the three, although nobody mentions scavenger hunts.

The third course is "Chef's Choice" and of course Kevin chooses to make pork. Unfortunately, it seems that his pork belly didn't get cooked long enough. And at this point I'm realizing he's not going to win this competition. That means Bryan is going to be victorious, right?

Bryan, who reveals to all assembled that he hunts, is told that his venison dish is perfectly cooked, "rich and pungent," and not at all bland. That gives me hope. Michael's squab is excellent, but Gail thought the sundry mushroom and pistachio garnishes were gimmicky. Ok! Go Bryan!

Finally - the dreaded mandatory dessert course. Kevin had worried earlier on that dessert was not his strong suit, so he opted to use an ingredient that was more in his wheelhouse - bacon. Bacon desserts are starting to be a bit played out, I'm afraid, and there were mixed emotions about Kevin's bacon and bananas among the judges. Michael's cake was overbaked and dry, but overall it was "almost very good." Bryan's cheesecake with fig sorbet, on the other hand, showed real finesse. Yay! Bryan is going to take this competition! Right? Right?

Despite my wishful thinking, at this point I'm positive Kevin has lost. I'm (obviously) rooting for Bryan, but a small sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach tells me that Michael is going to end up winning this thing.

Next we see the cheftestants once again stewing in the Please Buy Chimney Rock Wines Stew and Sip room, this time without the wine to take the edge off. I need a glass myself, at this point.

Bryan, Michael, and Kevin all head off to Judges' Table by themselves, like big boys, without Padma having to come in to get them or their mommies to re-roll their sleeves.

The judges tell the cheftestants about their successes and mistakes. And then Padma asks the always-stupid question "why do you deserve to be Top Chef?" Bryan seems a bit flustered, but tells the judges that he thought he expressed his cuisine well throughout the competition. Michael wants to win because he doesn't want Bryan to win. Then he adds, "Food is me. Food is how I express myself." Damn good thing he has food, because grammar isn't his strong suit. And we hear from Kevin that he loves food (no!) and its ability to comfort people.

Back at the stew room, all three seemed slightly depressed.

The judges make their decision and call the cheftestants out to stand before them one last time.

Padma fakes us out by saying, "Kevin..." (long pause) "...you are not Top Chef." At which point he hugs everyone and goes back to the stew room to be comforted by his mom.

It's down to the Volt Boys. And the winner is....

Bah. Oh, he deserves to win alright, unlike Hosea. He's a talented chef, but he was my fourth choice to be Top Chef, after Bryan, Kevin, and Jen C. Sigh.

Next week: A Top Chef Reunion where we, no doubt, will hear how much certain people hated Robin. Yawn.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Dinner at Asian Court

Although Asian Court is now our go-to dim sum joint, we had never been there for dinner. That changed on Sunday, when we enjoyed a bit of a feast from the "authentic cuisine" part of the menu.

We tried the whole fish with soy bean paste, ordered "medium spicy." The fish turned out to be tilapia, which lent a bit too much of its metallic/raw sewage flavor to the dish. The sauce, which wasn't really spicy at all, was quite nice, and would work better with a fish with a more neutral taste.

We also had the Peking duck done right, with tender meat sliced into slender ribbons and super crispy, fat-free skin (it was so crisp, it was actually sharp). Jesse Wong's Hong Kong had the best, but now that it's gone, Asian Court gets the title.

We usually get Chinese broccoli, but this time tried the Yu choi sauteed with garlic. Yu choi is a delicate-tasting member of the Brassica family, and this version was juicy and crisp.

The chef's special "E-noodle" (yi mein) with seafood consisted of chewy wheat-flour noodles stir fried with shrimp, scallop, squid, and bits of crab stick. They had a nice mild flavor and provided a soft textural contrast to the other items we ordered.

Finally, we ordered duck tongues with chive flowers. I had read about duck tongues recently and was very curious about them. Each tongue has a little bone inside of slightly fatty meat. Pop 'em in your mouth, work out the bone, spit it out (well, don't actually "spit" it out in a restaurant). Tasted like duck, but with a moister, chewier texture. The chive "flowers" were actually chopped Chinese chives. They packed a nice green onion flavor, but were much milder than expected.

We were quite happy with everything we ordered at Asian Court, so now we know that not only is the dim sum good, but also the dinner selections. The staff is ridiculously friendly and accommodating, and the decor is pleasant. While it gets crowded for dim sum, the restaurant wasn't half-full at dinnertime, which is a shame. It's worth the trip to Ellicott City.

Asian Court
9180 Baltimore National Pike (Rt 40)
Ellicott City, MD 21042
410.461.8388

Asian Court on Urbanspoon


Asian Court
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