Wednesday, July 30, 2008

French Laundry Salmon

After reading this entry on the blog French Laundry at Home, I was determined to try it for myself. After all, I owned the cookbook, and had neglected the huge tome ever since I purchased it from a book discounter several years back. Mr Minx and I both enjoy salmon, and I thought the recipe could be fairly simple, with some modifications.

The original recipe calls for creating a rub of citrus zest, salt, and sugar in which the salmon would marinate for a period of time. That was easy enough. Then it should poach in 110º olive oil. Yeahh...olive oil is expensive. Sorry. I'm not going to waste a bottle of it to cook fish. I figured pan-sautéeing would be good enough.

The fish was supposed to marinate for 1 hour for every half inch of thickness (if memory serves). That would be less than two hours for the salmon I had on hand. Unfortunately for us (and the fish) following that time frame proved impossible as the kitchen sink decided to back up and refuse to drain at just about the time I was ready to remove the fish from its citrus spa treatment and had pots and pans stacking up to be washed. The cookbook admonishes that leaving the fish in the marinade would result in a dish that was too salty. So as Mr Minx ran out to get some drain cleaner, I, in desperation, resorted to rinsing the fish in our tiny bathroom sink. As I opened the foil wrapper, I was sad to see a puddle of liquid under the fish. Not only would it be too salty, it would also have the consistency of rubber bands because too much moisture had been drawn from the flesh.

Maybe poaching in oil would have restored some resiliency? But I was not to find out.

In addition to all of the citrus zest, the recipe also calls for marinating orange segments in a mixture of simple syrup and vinegar to create a confit (you catch that, Kit?) As I had a whole grapefruit on hand, I used that as well. It turned out fine.

Another component of the dish was pea shoot coulis. The local supermarket doesn't carry pea shoots, and they're probably not in season anyway, so I used sugar snap peas. Unfortunately I had no tamis in the house so the purée wasn't as smooth as it should have been, and I opted not to thin it out so it was more like a mash. Or mushy peas. Only not mushy.

I didn't think that pea puree was enough of a veg, so I made asparagus as well. And of course the dish had no starch element, and that's simply not allowed in Casa Minx! So I fried up some sliced yellow potatoes, simply seasoned with salt and pepper.

Plated, it looked pretty enough. But the citrus flavor was barely noticed beyond the salt. And the texture of the fish was terrible. The confit was mild, as were the peas. The potatoes, however, were quite good. If not for the chopped chive garnish and the asparagus, this would have been a fairly flavorless meal.

One I'm not likely to try again.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Baltimore Restaurant Week Summer '08 - Lebanese Taverna

It's Restaurant Week once again and Mr Minx and I have chosen two places to visit this year, both new to us. (The event is a great way to audition a restaurant without fear of breaking the bank.) Our first destination of the week was Harbor East's Lebanese Taverna, at the corner of President and Lancaster Streets, right across the street from the construction of the new Legg Mason tower, sure to be another blight on the shoreline and a helluva way to ruin a perfectly good view. But...I don't blog about architectural monstrosities here, just food, so I'll move along to just that....

Lebanese Taverna is an outpost of the Arlington restaurant mini-empire that includes six restaurants and four cafés plus a market. I read good things about the place over the years and was happy that Baltimore now had its own restaurant. Now was the perfect time to check it out.

The space is large and high-ceilinged, decorated in shades of brown and white. It's spare and modern (check out the long rectangular metal mesh lamps, below) but with ethnic touches such as the tiled wall at the back of the room and the beaded curtain that separates the main dining room from the bathroom area. Lebanese music (including some throbbing disco) was piped in at a nicely quiet level over the sound system.

The one thing I found weird about the decor is the wall separating the dining room from the kitchen. You can't see it too well in this shot because of the glare, but it appears to be covered in brown wood grain-patterned Contact Paper, making it look like something from Dean Martin's living room, ca. 1972.

It was early, and we were the only folks in the place for a few minutes as we perused the menu and decided to stick with the Restaurant Week offerings. We were brought a basket of freshly-baked pita breads and a little dish of olive oil with za'atar (a blend of herbs like thyme, oregano, marjoram, plus sesame seeds and salt. Sometimes Lebanese za'atar contains sumac, but I didn't notice any in this particular blend).

Mr Minx had the Kibbeh appetizer (ground beef and crushed wheat shells stuffed with ground lamb, beef, pine nuts and almonds) . The description made them sound like they would be little meat tarts, but instead they were meatball-like objects. They were crisp on the outside and tender and dry-textured inside, spiced with cinnamon and perhaps nutmeg. Served with very rich yogurt sauce, the four large pieces were almost a meal unto themselves. We both enjoyed them and I wouldn't mind attempting these at home.

I went for the Shrimp Arak (shrimp sautéed with garlic, onion, cilantro, Arak). I was disappointed that I could not taste the Arak, a Middle Eastern anise-flavored liquor. Instead, the sauce was extremely tangy (but in a good way) and did not need those additional lemon slices. The shrimp tasted like they had been grilled before being sautéed with the sauce, which was a nice touch.

For his entrée, Mr Minx chose the mixed grill, a heaping helping of lamb, chicken, beef, and kafta skewers, onion salad, rice, and a ton of barely-grilled zucchini, pearl onions, and green pepper, all liberally sprinkled with fresh parsley. The chicken (breast meat) was a little dry, but everything else was tender and juicy, particularly the beef.

I had the salmon meshwi, despite having had salmon the night before. The difference between the Lebanese Taverna dish and mine was like night and day (my adventure with salmon will be chronicled later in the week). LT's was cooked to medium, enough to just melt the fat and render the meat tender and unctuous. I particularly enjoyed the crispy top layer. The salmon was served with couscous decorated with tiny chick peas (which I picked out since they tend to make me sick), a ton of grilled veggies, and a bit of tomato sauce. I loved it.

For dessert, Mr Minx had the Halawet Jiene, crepes stuffed with sweet cheese and sprinkled with finely ground semolina pistachio brittle and candied orange zest and drizzled with a honey-like sauce. Somewhat bland, it was also cool and refreshing after all of the grilled meat, and the brittle lent a crunchy counterpoint. I liked it better than my dessert, warm "kaak" (a type of Arab bread) bread pudding with fig puree, sesame seed caramel sauce, and a disk of crispy katafy (a type of shredded pastry). The fig puree was more like Fig Newton filling - chunky and rich. The dessert was good, but a bit heavy for such warm weather. I think I would have preferred it with a thinner puree and a bit of ice cream or custard.

We washed all of this goodness down with bottles of Sam Adams, which was included in the $30.08. (The menu offered LT draft, or a glass of red or white wine. We opted for the draft, which they did not have, hence our choosing a more expensive bottled beer.)

For the amount of food they gave us, I'd say Lebanese Taverna was quite a bargain. And the flavors were excellent, so we'll definitely go back for more at some point in the future.

Lebanese Taverna
719 S President St
Baltimore, MD 21202
(410) 244-5533

Lebanese Taverna on Urbanspoon

Lebanese Taverna

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Next Food Network Star - FINALE

The end to this excruciating contest is now upon us!

The three remaining wannabes are now back in NY for the finale. The beginning minutes of the episode is dedicated to filling us in on the activities of the past eight weeks, both the joys and the heartbreak of psoriasis.

We finally see the wannabes trooping into the Food Network studios and meet with Tushface and Fogelson about their final challenge. They are to create 4 1/2 minute pilot presentations of their own shows, to be filmed in Rachael Ray's kitchen.

They will be creating their shows under the watchful eye of Executive Producer, Liverpool-born Aussie Gordon Elliot, he of Follow That Food and Doorknock Dinners (among other failed TVFN shows) fame.

The first task is to put together a pitch that will be the basis of the show. Cut to Lisa telling us she's not a "one-trick" pony as she swaps out her Louboutin stilettos for Ferragamo loafers. "See? Sometimes I'd don't wear heels!"

She gives three pitches to Elliott, each presented as a gift in a box, with props: "Beautiful Basics," "Pure and Simple," and "Fashion Feast." Elliott likes the first one best.

Aaron wants to work with something bold and spicy, but doesn't have a name. Elliott suggests they go with his nickname, "Big Daddy," and add "'s Kitchen" to it.

Adam knows he wants to be "Hungry in Philadelphia" (a la Sleepless in Seattle) and his schtick will involve talking to people over the Internet, answering their culinary questions and interpreting their recipes. He seems to have put some genuine thought into the whole thing, which inexplicably makes me like him.

Lisa goes first (aren't they so gentlemanly?) in an eye-popping fuchsia dress, and it seems like they shoot only a few takes while making the poor gal nervous and rushed. Probably because the dress is blinding the crew and they want her out of there asap.

Adam is second and he realizes that he's probably bitten off more than he can chew. Again. His Internet caller," McCall," is annoying him by asking too many questions that he probably cannot answer. My estimation of his abilities once again plummets to its original level.

Um, no, Adam. That's Rachael Ray's set.

Aaron takes his turn and as always, looks the proverbial deer in the headlights. He seems awkward and scared during the whole thing.

As you should.

Then we cut to the finale. There are 100 guests, plus the selection committee. All of the old wannabes are also brought back so the fact that none of them are finalists can be rubbed in their faces. Cruel, cruel Food Network. I half expected to see Emeril brought in for the same treatment.

Bobby Flay acts as host of the show, and once he starts introducing the three finalists, I'm reminded of cheesy game shows or maybe even cheesier daytime talk shows. Do you think Bobby is more like Tyra or Jerry Springer?

Speaking of cheesy, no matter what is said on the stage, the audience claps and laughs uproariously. And it's obvious that they're not laughing at what we are being shown. Apparently they had a comedian come in to warm up the audience and then just badly edited in the reaction shots.

Like that.

They show Lisa's clip first and with the extreme editing it obviously got, it looked pretty good. Lisa is still too good for the Food Network though.

I'm serious, people! Damn, they're laughing themselves blurry.

Adam was next, and his clip was actually really really good. I mean, I would watch the show. He was engaging, funny, and he came off as if he actually knew what he was doing. Quel surprise!

Aaron, on the other hand, was partially crippled by his awkwardness. He seemed better than in the past, but I could sense that he was still uncomfortable in front of the camera. He seemed rushed. But maybe I'm the only one who caught that?

Bobby then tells the audience that the selection committee needs a few minutes to make their decision. How unlike the judges on Top Chef who sometimes needed to discuss the day's challenge into the wee wee hours of the night. But then, that show involved an actual prize.

Back in the judges chambers, they discuss the finalists in a very scripted way, pretending that they hadn't made their final decision 6 weeks ago.

They go back onstage and Bobby makes the announcement - Aaron McCargo, Jr is the Next Food Network Star!

Sorry Lisa. Sorry Adam. Although I liked Aaron from the beginning, I can't say I think he's the best man for the job. But still, he's very appealing, and doesn't seem like a tool at all. Not like that Fee Eddy guy.

So Aaron "won." I predict that they will make 8 episode of "Big Daddy's Kitchen" before they switch him to something even more fabulous and suitable for his abilities*.... which he'll travel the country, visiting cafeterias of sundry medical institutions where he will eat entire meatloaves in one bite while raving about their awesomeness with his mouth full.

*Thanks to Mr Minx for the fab idea!

Saturday, July 26, 2008


Recently I've been seeing a lot of a new commercial for Red Lobster that features bacon wrapped scallops. Although it doesn't look particularly appetizing, as most food in commercials is dripping with some sort of mucilaginous glaze, the concept struck me as something I wanted to eat. So I stopped by the Giant today, hoping they'd have some big diver scallops in stock. No such luck - but they did have medium-sized ones and "super colossal" shrimp. Mr Minx is not a big fan of the scallop, so the shrimp were for him. I also bought a package of Gwaltney "40% less fat bacon" because I couldn't imagine a lower fat bacon that wasn't made from poultry.

Once home, I pre-cooked the bacon so it was done but still pliable. It seemed like regular old high-fat bacon to me. I poured most of the rendered grease out of the pan but saved a little in which to cook the seafood. I also prepped a glaze of brown sugar, soy, mirin, and sriracha. But what to do as a side dish?

Mr Minx had bought some leeks last week and they still lingered in the fridge. I cleaned and chopped them, sauteed them in butter, then added a bit of chicken stock and half and half, and cooked them on low heat until most of the liquid had evaporated and the leeks were practically a puree. Voila - leek fondue.

When it came time to cook the seafood, I realized I had not thought to buy toothpicks with which to secure the bacon, so I used skewers instead. I added a tiny bit of olive oil to the bacon fat in the pan and arranged my skewers of bacon wrapped shrimp and scallops. After turning them once, I poured in the glaze and basted the skewers until I thought everything looked done, maybe 12 minutes total.

The leek fondue and skewers were garnished with some cherry tomatoes from the garden, plus chopped cilantro and slivered green onion (left over from last night's yummy Chinese-style duck "tacos"). The fondue was smooth and had a great mildly oniony flavor. The seafood was nicely bacon-y with a subtly sweet and hot flavor from the (non-mucilaginous) glaze. Mr Minx thought it tasted very exotic, considering the ingredients were pretty pedestrian, and I felt it was a successful meal. Perhaps I'll try this one again, but either broiling or grilling it so the bacon would get crispy. (Although personally, I prefer soft bacon.)

Tomorrow night: I will attempt a dish from the French Laundry Cookbook. Wish me luck!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Duck Bacon?

Remember I mentioned that we brought more than half a tea smoked duck home from Grace Gardens? Well, yesterday the clever Mr Minx removed the skin from the meat and rendered it in a pan, creating something more like bacon than cracklins. He then sauteed onions and garlic in the rendered duck fat and tossed that with fettuccine, which he topped with pieces of duck bacon. Man, now that tasted like MORE!

We'll be using the duck meat in some duck tacos. And he wants to see if he can squeeze any duck stock out of the bones. Stay tuned!

Free Vivanno

You can get a free Vivanno drink at participating Starbucks locations today July 25th and tomorrow July 26th. The catch is - you need to have a registered Starbucks card, which I do. I got the chocolate banana flavor, and it's pretty good. I also have a coupon for a free one and I might use it to try the fruity one with the addition of matcha tea powder.

Here's the official Starbucks propaganda on Vivanno, a smoothie with a really dumb name:

Starbucks Coffee Company is raising the bar on good nutrition with the introduction of Vivanno™ Nourishing Blends, which are available Tuesday, July 15 at Starbucks stores across the U.S. and Canada. Developed with a strong nutritional goal in mind, the Orange Mango Banana and Banana Chocolate flavored beverages provide at least one serving of fruit, 16 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fiber with 270 calories or less and no artificial colors, artificial sweeteners or high fructose corn syrup (nutrition based on 16 fluid ounces).

With customers looking for healthier options to fit their on-the-go lifestyles, the new Vivanno™ beverage line is one way Starbucks is meeting requests for great-tasting, good-for-you offerings while furthering its commitment to food and beverage selections that support a healthy lifestyle. The simple ingredient list for both beverages includes:
• one whole banana,
• a proprietary whey protein and fiber powder,
• choice of milk,
• and ice (in the Orange Mango Banana Blend, Naked® Juice is also added).

“Our customers have told us they’re looking for overall well-being in their lives and healthier options are part of that. We feel the simple, transparent ingredient list and the functional nutrition of Vivanno™ meet this need,” said Katie Thomson, registered dietitian and senior nutritionist, Starbucks Coffee Company. “We developed this beverage to help our customers get through their busy days by creating a proprietary whey protein and fiber powder that delivers the sustaining nourishment they’re looking for without interfering with the great taste.”

Customizing Vivanno™ Nourishing Blends
The two blends can be easily customized to fit taste preference and lifestyle.
• A Shot of Espresso added to the Banana Chocolate Blend provides the bold, smooth flavor of espresso with no extra calories.
• Matcha Green Tea Powder added to the Orange Mango Banana Blend gives the beverage the antioxidants of green tea with only 40 additional calories. The powder also increases the amount of Vitamin C to 45 percent Daily Value.
• Nonfat Milk in place of the standard 2 percent milk shaves off 20 calories and up to 3 grams of fat.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Creepy Cake

Yeah, let's slice this baby up and have it with ice cream! Who wants the hand? (Well, it is a cake.) See more horrible cakes at the Cake Wrecks blog.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Next-to-Last Episode of the Next Food Network Star

This week we see that the final trio of wannabes is still soaking up the cigarette smoke and the rich fragrance of flop sweat at the blackjack tables in Lost Wages. For this penultimate challenge, they are herded to the Venetian where they wait for something interesting to float out of the canal. Sucks to be them because all they get is a big turd boat full of Guy Fee-eddy, accompanied by Bobby Flay.

Rid the world of the bristle-headed bozo!

Like I said, sucks to be you, Leese.

Fee-eddy explains the upcoming challenge to the wannabes. Each will be spirited off to a different cheeseball location on the strip and forced to memorize an equally cheesy 30-second promo written by the Food Network especially for them.

Lisa is taken to Charlie Palmer's Aureole in the Mandalay Bay, admittedly one of the less-cheese-ical spots in town. She is wardrobed in black and harnessed-up Bond-age style and hoisted into the gimmicky Wine Tower for her promo. She gets about 14 seconds to learn her lines, understandably *@$#-ing them up several times, completely frustrating herself. The fact that the harness is probably crushing her ladyparts is not helping.

Ever the trouper, she tries to look on the bright side of things.

Aaron films his spot on the casino floor at Planet Hollywood, aided by Bobby Flay. He was nervous and a bit stiff, but in the end did a pretty good job of it.

Adam goes off to Bally's to canoodle with members of the "most critically acclaimed topless revue" (according to Bally's site) Donn Arden's Jubilee. He did not appear to successfully talk the ladies into removing articles of clothing, although he did offer to take off his pants and show them his hairy Tuschman.

But wait, Aaron - it gets worse. Fee-eddy returns! He announces the elimination challenge - create an "over-the top monster buffet" for fifty guests. Each wannabe gets six hours to make at least five dishes. And to make matters worse, they get "helpers" - Shane, Jennifer, and Kelsey.

The wannabes shop at Whole Paycheck where Lisa leaves behind a 5+lb package of monkfish filets and Adam begs for a donation of wood. Get your mind out of the gutter! Hickory wood! For smoking. Damn, Adam, just carry your food through any casino and you're sure to end up with a smoked product by the time you leave!

We then see boring scenes of cookery. Apart from the wide selection of asshats, Top Chef this ain't.

The wannabes set up their buffets and await the guests. It turns out to be a bunch of performers - guys who appear to be from Spamalot but may well just be bellhops at Excalibur, a selection of female impersonators, chefs from the Wynn, and "singer-comedian -impressionist-actor" Danny Gans who was so Botoxed-up and perma-tanned, he looked like Wayne Newton.

Lisa decided it was time to show another facet of her personality and sang her presentation.

Although it initially looked like he was going to play the harmonica, instead Aaron said something utterly stupid about having an eating disorder and forks in his pocket.

Joan Rivers (or is that Doctor Joyce Brothers? or is it Regis Philbin's wife?), Diana, and Cher were not impressed.

Adam merely bored the crowd.

After the painful presentations, the entertainers stampeded the buffet. They complimented both Lisa's and Adam's food.

Back at Seizures Caesar's...

...the judges discussed the promos as well as the buffets and deemed that Aaron's 30 seconds displayed "winner's energy." His buffet, on the other hand, failed because of the inexpensive pasta dishes, although his crabcake was very well-received.

Lisa's promo looked pretty good to me after editing, and she was complimented on her "huge huge risk" in singing for her supper. The buffet itself was praised for looking like who she was.

Adam's promo turned out well. His buffet also received accolades, particularly for his smoked pork chop which was the favorite overall dish. Unfortunately, it was clear that he did not prepare well for the presentation portion of the program. He cried, because someone has to cry every week.

Because everyone pretty much sucked evenly this week, the judges decided to do something never before done...on TNFNS. Top Chef already did it this season. Yes, they decided to not eliminate anyone this week and have all three go back to NY to compete in the finale.

Only one more week left, people! Thanks for slogging through this with me!