Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Pane e Vino

Among the tastiest restaurants in Baltimore's Little Italy is Cafe Gia. Owned by Gia Fracassetti with husband Gianfranco in the kitchen, they produce fresh and flavorful Italian cuisine. We highly recommend the place, but if you're more in the mood for a drink and something more akin to small plates, pop next door to Pane e Vino.

Pane e Vino, or bread and wine, is owned by Gia's brother, Steven, but it's still very much a Fracassetti collaboration; Gian created the bar's menu, and Gia helped with the interior design. The space itself is quite small and very intimate, and feels like a really chic private club.

Mr Minx and I recently attended a media tasting for an introduction to the bar's cocktails and several types of snacks.

Mini burrata, fava, prosciutto, and tomato salad.
With our first cocktail, the Spicy Sicilian (pepper vodka, limoncello, kumquat syrup, lemon), we were brought dishes of Pane e Vino's burrata with tomatoes, fava beans, and prosciutto, and calamari cooked en sous vide with broccoli rabe and tomatoes in a savory broth, with toasted bread on the side. Both were delicious. I'm a big fan of creamy, rich, burrata cheese, and thought the small ball was the perfect size for one (or two, if I am feeling generous but probably not).

Sous vide calamari, rapini, tomatoes
The calamari was silky and tender and the bitter rapini was a nice accent. I was rather annoyed, however, that I had to share this lovely dish with two other people and didn't have it and a plate of toast all to myself.

Porcini, prosciutto, and gorgonzola flatbread
We then sampled a flatbread. Not particularly flat, the focaccia-based treat was generously portioned and definitely enough for two or three. The salty combination of gorgonzola and prosciutto worked very well as an accompaniment to an alcoholic beverage or two, like the Charm City Girl (MD's own Sloop Betty vodka, fresh grapefruit, ginger syrup, club soda), Redheads Have More Fun (tequila, blood orange, ginger beer, lime), or a Smooth Country Ride (cognac, anisette, lemon, rhubarb black pepper syrup).

Chicken drumsticks, homemade spicy harissa, bleu cheese and celery
Rather than the usual chicken wings, Pane e Vino serves chicken drumsticks, cooked until delightfully moist and juicy, and generously sauced with a fiery harissa. Those of us who favor heat enjoyed the spicy and flavorful legs on their own, but the faint of heart will appreciate the cooling nature of the accompanying celery sticks and bleu cheese dressing.

Giant buffalo/ricotta meatball with rustic garlic toast
What we tried so far was really quite nice, but my favorite dishes were yet to come. The giant meatball of lean bison made moist and super tender by ricotta cheese reminded me of the amazing meatballs made by my late Aunt Stasia. So good! And while the garlic toast sopped up the sauce perfectly, Mr Minx was not so secretly hankering for a big pile of spaghetti, instead.

Piadina with grilled steak, Stracchino, arugula, harissa, pickled onions.
The piadine, stuffed with steak and a type of creamy young cow's-milk cheese called Stracchino resembled quesadillas. A piadina, or piada, is a thin rustic flatbread, reminiscent of pita, roti, or lavash, which is served rolled or stuffed with cheese and other ingredients. I loved the bite of the harissa with the steak, cooled down by the creamy cheese.

Nutella bread pudding, banana ice cream
Finally, we had dessert--a simple but decadent Nutella bread pudding. Not just Nutella-flavored, there was also a ribbon of the gooey chocolate hazelnut spread inside. The banana ice cream was good, but not really even necessary. More bread pudding, please.

More of everything, actually. It was all really delicious, from cocktails to sweets. We look forward to going back and sampling more of both food and beverage. And maybe another of those terrific meatballs (or two).

Pane E Vino on Urbanspoon

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Monday, April 27, 2015

The Peppermill

Mr Minx and I have been doing quite a bit of research on Maryland seafood for an upcoming project. We found that shad, seldom seen these days, was a very popular product of the Chesapeake Bay. So popular, in fact, that the shad fisheries were closed in 1980 in order to allow the species to repopulate.

The shad roe, or eggs, were even more popular than the shad itself. Of course, if you eat the roe, you're killing the females, and that's not helping the population any. But there are still some areas where shad fishing is allowed (not in Maryland) and occasionally it will pop up on menus here and there, for a short time in the spring.

Out of curiosity, I checked the online menu for the Peppermill, to see if they had whales. Whales are jumbo soft shell crabs, and the restaurant usually hangs a banner outside the restaurant declaring their availability. While soft crabs weren't on offer this time, shad and shad roe were, so Mr Minx and I drove up to Lutherville to see what it was all about.

The only time I had ever seen shad roe before was in the early 90s, when a friend ordered them at Jeannier's. My palate wasn't as adventurous in those days, so when offered a bite, I demurred. They didn't look too appetizing. This time, I was determined to get over their unattractiveness and enjoy them for myself.

The Peppermill is one of those long-standing establishments generally patronized by people of a certain age. We always joked that we'd have to show our AARP cards to get in. Now that we are hovering around that age, and one of us has embraced gray hair, we figure we could get in without attracting too much attention. We knew that if the fixed income set frequented the Peppermill, the restaurant had to have decent prices, but would they have good food?

The answer is yes on both counts.

So on our first trip to the Peppermill, I had both a full side of boned shad (they are very bony creatures) and a half set of roe. Both were broiled in lemon and butter, and the roe was topped with bacon. The shad was $18.95 and the roe was an additional $12, so not an economically-priced dish, but the serving was enormous and we chalked up the expense to the cost of research. The fish was delicious, very moist and rich flesh with a very light flavor for what is considered an oily fish. The roe was...interesting. The sac was firm to the touch, somewhat grainy inside, with a vaguely metallic/livery flavor. It's not anything I'll rush to eat again, but it was better than expected. The bacon helped. Since I was going old school with my entree, I chose stewed tomatoes as one of my sides, along with a baked potato. The tomatoes were sweet, but not cloying, and I appreciated that the potato hadn't been swaddled in foil before baking.

Mr Minx played it safe and ordered the Chicken Baltimore, a perfectly cooked and moist boneless and skinless chicken breast topped with lump crab, mushrooms, and mozzarella, in a creamy sauce. I thought the sauce was a little thin and a bit like canned chicken gravy, but that could be overlooked because the chicken itself was pretty perfect.

We didn't order dessert, and had no intention of doing so. However, my leftover shad, slated to become lunch the next day, had an unfortunate collision with the floor on the way to a carry-out container, so our gracious and apologetic waitress packed up an absolutely elephantine slice of house-made coconut cake to make up for it. The cake, enjoyed over two evenings at home, was incredible. Sadly, it's seasonal, like the shad, and only appears around Easter.

A week or so later, I was still curious about when whales would make their appearance on the Peppermill's menu, and checked online once again. Not only did they still have shad and shad roe, but also my jumbo soft shell crabs. Mr Minx wasn't heavily invested in making dinner that night, so we hopped in the car and headed back up to Lutherville.

I had a choice of two crabs in a platter or sandwich, or one or two crabs stuffed. I'd never tried a stuffed soft shell, so that was my choice. Rather than pile crab imperial on top of the carapace, the top shell had been removed and replaced after stuffing, decorated with imperial sauce, and a festive strip of pimento. The crab itself was plump and meaty, but the extra helping of crab was a welcome addition. The binding sauce was more loose than what I'm used to with crab imperial, seeming more like a light gravy than the usual somewhat gloopy binder. Quite nice. My side of coleslaw wasn't cut as finely as I'd have preferred, but its flavors were a nice balance between mayonnais-y and vinegar-y.

Mr Minx went for the 1/2 rack of lamb, a steal at $19.95. Four meaty lamb chops, cooked to a perfect juicy medium, had a nice chargrilled flavor and a light aftertaste of rosemary. They came with classic, somewhat scary, bright green mint jelly, and his choice of two veg.

This time, due to the deliciousness of that coconut cake, we did order dessert. Mine was chocolate cake with a butterscotch-flavored buttercream frosting. American buttercream, alas, which is never my favorite, but it had a nice caramel flavor. The cake was very dense and moist and fudgy.

Mr Minx's serving of creamy rice pudding was huge, and studded with fat raisins. It was good enough to ignore the raisins, and he finished every drop.

While the Peppermill is a bit old-fashioned and anyone under 50 will be the youngest person in the room by at least a good handful of years, the restaurant has plenty of good points. The food is simple but well-prepared and the service is excellent. And for those of us who are sick and tired of having to shout at each other across the table in order to be heard over the shrieking millenials who were never taught to speak in inside voices, the modest hubbub of genteel folks in a carpeted room makes for a soothing dining experience.

The Peppermill isn't on your radar, hipsters. Let's keep it that way, shall we?

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Flashback Friday: Spicy Buckwheat Noodles With Leftover Fried Chicken

This post was originally published on May 10, 2013.
Spicy Buckwheat Noodles With Leftover Fried Chicken

For weeks, the Minx has been strongly suggesting that I make some recipes from Fuchsia Dunlop's recent cookbook, Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking. A quick scan of the book made me realize why she was so insistent. The recipes not only look delicious, but they are relatively simple and use ingredients we normally keep around the kitchen. Trouble was, we'd been eating out quite a bit lately and, on the few nights when I would cook at home, there was little time to prepare anything but a fast meal.

Then our schedule settled down and I actually had a day when I could truly ponder a proper dinner. However, we didn't have a whole lot to work with in the fridge. There were three pieces of leftover fried chicken that we picked up at the supermarket a couple days earlier, a random jalapeño pepper, and the usual assortment of vegetables. I decided to flip through the book to see if there was anything I could adapt to cold leftover chicken. When I saw the recipe for spicy buckwheat noodles, I knew I was on the right track. Since I'm a hardcore noodle guy, we always have a wide array of pasta and noodles in the pantry.

Aside from the chicken and buckwheat noodles, the rest of the recipe included seasoning elements which we always keep around. I still had to make some adjustments, though. It turned out I didn't have as much of the buckwheat noodles as I had thought, so I tossed in some leftover linguine (it made a nice black-and-tan effect in the bowl). Also, we were out of chili oil, so I replaced it with sriracha. The recipe calls for shredding the chicken and tossing it in with the noodles, but since I had fried chicken, I couldn't just throw away the crispy skin. I chopped up the now slightly flabby skin into pieces and fried them in a frying pan for about 5 minutes until they were super crispy bits. It made for a pleasant crunchy contrast to the slippery noodles.

Spicy Buckwheat Noodles With Leftover Fried Chicken (adapted from Every Grain of Rice)

3-4 leftover fried chicken legs and/or thighs
5½ ounces dried buckwheat soba noodles
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 tablespoon Chinkiang vinegar
½ teaspoon sugar
salt, to taste
1 tablespoon sriracha
1 clove finely chopped garlic
1 finely chopped jalapeño
1 tablespoon sliced spring onion

Put a pot of water on the stove for boiling the noodles. While you are waiting for the water to boil, break down your fried chicken. Remove the skin (with crispy coating intact), chop it into smallish pieces and put it into a hot pan with about half the cooking oil and fry for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. When the skin is nicely crispy, move to a plate with a paper towel on it. Also while you are waiting, mix together the soy sauce, Chinkiang vinegar, sugar, sriracha, and garlic in a bowl. Then chop your spring onion and jalapeño and set aside.

When the water is boiling, add a tablespoon or so of salt to the water and put in your buckwheat noodles. The noodles should cook in about two minutes. Drain the water, but leave the noodles in the pot. Put the pot over a medium high heat and add the rest of the cooking oil. Toss in the sauce mixture and the jalapeño. Combine thoroughly, and then add the shredded chicken. When everything is warmed through, place in serving bowls. Sprinkle the spring onion and fried chicken skin on top for garnish.

Serves 2 to 4 people, depending on how hungry everyone is.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Don't Let Paella Scare You

Paella seems like such a luxurious restaurant dish, doesn't it? Usually chock full of shellfish and meats and scented with saffron, this Spanish one-pot meal may be daunting to the home cook. But it really needn't be.

Making paella at home doesn't require any special culinary prowess. There are no fancy techniques involved. And while having a paella pan is a nice touch, you can make it in any large, shallow, flat-bottomed pan that's designed to be used on top of the stove. There are also some standard recipes for paella. The most famous, paella a la Valenciana, calls for chicken, chorizo, and several types of shellfish. But who is going to stop you from using completely different proteins? There is no Paella Police, and you won't get into any trouble if you don't feel like dealing with fresh, in-shell, shellfish, or if you'd prefer to use pork instead of chicken, or kielbasa instead of chorizo. Because it's going to be tasty anyway.

Now, I'm not advocating that you go crazy and stud your paella with chunks of tofu or tempeh or tuna (but hey, you can if you want--I won't be eating it). You also aren't stuck with using particular vegetables. Onion and garlic, of course, are the basis of any tasty savory dish, so they shouldn't be omitted, but you can use green beans, sugar snaps, or edamame in place of the peas, or add something else green, like the asparagus I put in mine. Artichoke hearts are great too, and fennel, but make sure to add these during the initial cooking.

As for seasoning, saffron is traditional, but if you don't have/can't afford saffron, don't worry about it (although it is delicious). If you don't have smoked paprika, use regular paprika. Stir in a handful of chopped parsley or cilantro at the end, even basil, if you have it. I used a bit of chipotle, too, because I wanted a little heat in the dish.

The only ingredient that you should be mindful of is the rice; it should be short grain. While special paella rice is hard to find, pretty much all supermarkets should have arborio (risotto) rice.

No matter what combination of protein and veg you use, follow these simple instructions and you'll have something delicious on your hands.

1. Brown the meat and remove from pan
2. Cook onions in fat rendered from meat
3. Add rice and saute for a few minutes
4. Add non-green veg, seasonings, and stock and return meat to pan
5. When rice is done, add green veg
6. Eat!

Easy Paella

Vegetable oil
4-8 boneless, skin-on chicken thighs
3-5 links Spanish chorizo (I used D'Artagnan brand, which is delish)
1 onion, chopped
1-1 1/2 cups paella rice, or other short grain rice
1-2 cups cherry tomato halves
3-5 cloves garlic, chopped
Pinch saffron that has been soaking in a few tablespoons of hot tap water or stock (optional)
1/2 - 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder or 1 chipotle in adobo (optional)
1 - 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3-5 cups chicken stock, plus more
1/4 - 1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
6-10 stalks asparagus
Handful chopped parsley or cilantro (optional)

Heat up 17" paella pan or other very large flat-bottomed pan designed to be used on a stove top. If all you have is a 12" skillet, then use the smaller quantities of ingredients. Put a small splash of oil to the pan, just enough to keep the chicken skin from sticking as soon as it hits the pan. Add the chicken thighs, skin side down, and cook over medium heat until well-browned. Turn and brown on other side. While chicken is cooking, add the whole chorizo and turn them occasionally. When chicken is browned, remove all meat from the pan and set aside.

Wipe out some of the chicken fat from the pan, leaving 2 tablespoons or so. Add the onion and cook until softened and slightly brown, 6-8 minutes. Add the rice and stir well to coat with the fat. Cook for a few minutes, until rice is starting to get toasty, then add the tomatoes and garlic. Add the saffron, paprika, optional chipotle, and salt. Stir well to combine. Pour in the chicken stock, then put the chicken back in, skin side up. Slice the chorizo and scatter around the chicken.

If you're using a large paella pan that fits over two burners, put them both on low heat. Cook until broth has evaporated and rice is no longer crunchy, 20 minutes or so. If the broth is gone and the rice is still crunchy, add more broth. Don't stir the rice during this time; you want some of it to stick and brown on the bottom of the pan. This crunchy layer is called the socarrat and some think it's the tastiest part of a paella. Don't worry if yours doesn't form a socarrat--it will still be delicious.

When the rice is done, add the peas and tuck the asparagus down into the rice. Cook an additional 5-10 minutes, to cook the asparagus (and give the socarrat another chance to form).

It's important that the heat be on low or medium low - you don't want the rice to burn.

Serve a big scoop of rice and veg and chorizo and top with a chicken thigh per serving.  Garnish with green herbs.

Serves 4-8.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Bo Ssam (ish)

My brother suggested I make a bo ssam for Easter dinner. Only he didn't really want bo ssam. He just wanted the pork butt. Bo ssam means "wrapped" or "packaged," so the real thing needs to be served with lettuce or cabbage leaves. But I didn't want to go through the trouble of washing and drying lettuce, so didn't even purchase it. Which is why this post has (ish) in the title. It's actually just Momofuku-style pork butt.

In any case, it was delicious. And it's amazing how much pork five people can put away. We decimated that thing in about 45 minutes. Sure, there was a giant Flintstonian bone in it, but we still managed to eat more than half the meat. Plus jarred kimchi and homemade brussels sprout kimchi and lots of rice. And dessert.


Bo Ssam (ish) (adapted from Momofuku)

1 whole bone-in pork butt (8 to 10 pounds)
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
5 tablespoons brown sugar

Put the butt into a foil lined baking pan just large enough to hold it (it should fit snugly). Combine the white sugar and salt and rub it all over the pork butt. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 300°F. Discard plastic wrap, make sure butt is skin-side-up in the pan, and roast for about 6 hours, until it's fork tender. Remove pork from the oven. The skin should be a crispy sheet at this point. Lift it; scrape out and discard any soft white fat still under the skin. Put the skin back down, schmear with the brown sugar, and put under the broiler until the sugar melts. Watch carefully so it doesn't burn. If it does, no worries - just scrape off the burnt parts. The skin will still be edible and have a nice caramelly flavor to it.

Serve with white rice and kimchi. Make some dipping sauces if you are so inclined. A combination of miso, gochujang, and sherry vinegar loosened up with a bit of oil is nice. And if you want to eat it properly, have some lettuce or napa cabbage leaves available in which to wrap a bit of pork, some skin, kimchi, and sauce.

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Chocolate Coconut Parfaits

I get ideas for desserts all the time, but they're usually random things I put together on a weekend and mostly for the blog. Blogging requires attention, you see, and I'm always thinking about it. When I have to come up with a dessert for an occasion of some sort, usually a holiday, I panic a little. It's all well and good to dream up something that only Mr Minx and I are going to eat, but there's more pressure when guests are involved, even if it's family and they're (mostly) non-judgmental about what we put in front of them. But there are always diets and dietary restrictions to think of and what sort of thing will go well with the entree we've just eaten.

I liked the idea of coconut cake for a party dessert. A big ol' yellow layer cake slathered in white icing and mounds of coconut, like the lovely versions at Clementine and the Peppermill. Unfortunately, not everyone likes the texture of coconut shavings. (I'm looking at Mr Minx here.) He doesn't mind the flavor of coconut though, and had in the past suggested that I make Martha Stewart's coconut crunch cake without the macaroon layer. While I agreed that it was a good idea, I still made the cake as written three times. (He did eat it all three times, coconut shavings and all). This time, I decided to do as the poor dear said, because I wanted a flavored cake to use as layers in a mini trifle of sorts, with chocolate pudding and almonds. Sometimes you feel like a nut and all that.

Chocolate Coconut Parfaits

For coconut cake:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup cream of coconut
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
1/4 cup coconut oil
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs

For pudding:
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch of salt
2 cups whole milk
1 large egg
4 ounces semi sweet chocolate, finely chopped

To assemble:
Coconut shavings
Sliced almonds

To make cake: Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a jelly roll pan with a single piece of parchment cut to size. If you are like me, you don't have a jelly roll pan, so just use a smaller baking sheet with sides. Mine is about 9" x 11" but it's very old--YMMV. Cut parchment to size. If you're using a small sheet pan, cut two pieces.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl, stir cream of coconut and vanilla.

Beat butter and coconut oil on medium-high until smooth. Slowly add sugar; beat until pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Reduce speed to medium; add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each and scraping down bowl as needed. Add the cream of coconut mixture and beat until completely mixed. Stir in the flour until just combined.

If you're using a jelly roll pan, you can probably add all of the batter. You don't want it to overflow though, so if there's excess batter, put it in a muffin tin and bake it later. If you're using a smaller pan, put in about 1/3 of the batter and spread smooth. Bake a larger sheet for 20-25 minutes and a smaller sheet 13-17 minutes, until cake springs back when pressed lightly with a finger. Cool on a rack. If you're using a smaller sheet, once cool enough to handle, remove the cake from the pan with the parchment attached. Place a fresh parchment in the pan. Add 1/3 of the batter, spread smooth, and bake 13-17 minutes. You can bake a third cake, if you want, or put the remaining batter in a muffin tin, or a mini loaf cake pan.

When cakes are cool, place them face down on a cutting board large enough to hold them, or, barring that, a clean countertop. Peel off the parchment. If there's cake clinging to the parchment, just scrape it off and eat it - cook's treat.

Using the top of the glass you plan on layering the cake in, cut out at least three rounds per glass. Save the cake scraps for snacking on. Place cake circles between layers of waxed paper and store in a covered container up to overnight, until ready to use.

To make pudding: Whisk together sugar, cocoa powder, cornstarch and salt in a 2-quart heavy saucepan, then gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly, and boil, whisking, until pudding is thick, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Immediately beat egg lightly in a medium heatproof bowl, then very gradually add hot pudding to the egg, whisking constantly. Whisk in chopped chocolate until smooth.

Pour pudding into a bowl with a lid or cover surface with wax paper to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate, covered, until cool, at least 2 hours.

To assemble parfaits: Place a cake round at the bottom of each of six serving glasses. Add two tablespoons of cooled pudding, a big pinch of coconut and another of almonds, then another cake round. Repeat layers, ending with a cake round. Garnish with coconut and almonds.

Serves 8.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Braised Duck Legs with Winter Squash

We Minxes love duck. If we see it on a restaurant menu, one or both of us will order it, but we don't make it at home very often. It's not a particularly difficult protein to work with, but unless we're talking whole ducks, it can be quite expensive. (Whole ducks aren't exactly cheap, but they're not outrageous.) Raw duck breasts are a fairly elusive creature; Wegman's usually has the D'Artagnan brand in stock at a cost of around $30 per pound. Legs would probably be cheaper--if they sold legs in any form other than pre-confitted.

We end up buying our duck legs at Great Wall, a Chinese supermarket in Catonsville. I have heard that they sell breasts, but I have never seen them there. Tongues, sure. Feet, ok. But not breasts. I've also heard that H Mart sells duck, but again, I haven't found it there. So Great Wall it is. A pack of two legs sets us back a bit over $6, which I suppose isn't insane, but considering they have about as much meat as a chicken thigh, it's not cheap, either. In any case, we love duck and will buy it when the mood strikes/when we happen to be at Great Wall.

In the past, I've made cassoulet-type dishes with duck legs. I wanted to do something else this time, so consulted the Oracle (aka Google). The recipe that leapt out at me was one for braised legs with figs, star anise, and winter squash. The combination sounded good, but our grocery store didn't have any dried figs. We had a bag of dates in the pantry, so I decided to use them. Since I was already making substitutions, I looked for a way to make the dish mine. I didn't like the idea of having big chunks of vegetables in the finished dish, or serving it with rice. It would remind me too much of my mother's pot roast. While I loved the meat itself, I wasn't fond of the giant chunks of stewed celery and carrot, both of which my mother made me eat. Instead, I'd turn the winter squash into a puree and dice the other vegetables finely, so they'd merely flavor the sauce rather than serve as a vegetable. I was unsure of the flavorings though. I liked the idea of star anise, but would it be better in the squash than in the duck? Would it be redundant if I used it in both? So I consulted with my other Oracle, Mr Minx, who has the occasional flash of culinary brilliance. He suggested adding a smoky and spicy element, so I added chipotle to the duck along with the star anise. I seasoned the squash with salt and pepper only, so its mild sweetness could stand on its own.

The result was pretty terrific, if I do say so myself. The chipotle, while adding a good deal of heat, played nicely with the star anise, and the creamy squash helped soften the impact of the chile. The dates broke down in the sauce completely, adding a subtle sweet creaminess. We served the dish with pieces of crisp sourdough toast, which added a bit of textural contrast and was useful in mopping up the luscious sauce.

The dish seems a bit fussy, and maybe it is, but it's worth the effort. As a plus, the duck perfumes the whole house.

Braised Duck Legs and Winter Squash Puree (Adapted from Fine Cooking)

2 (12- to 16-oz.) fresh duck legs, trimmed of excess fat
1 teaspoon canola oil
1 medium carrot, diced
1 medium stalk celery, diced
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
8-10 dates (8 if you're using the large medjool variety, 10 if smaller, like barhi or halawi), pitted and chopped roughly
1 whole star anise
1 chipotle en adobo, minced, or 1 teaspoon chipotle powder
2-3 cups chicken broth
1 medium winter squash (such as red kuri, buttercup, or kabocha)
Heavy cream
1 teaspoon Champagne vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Heat the oil in a large (8-quart) pot over medium-high heat. Add the duck legs, skin-side down, and cook until the skin is very well browned and crisp, turning once or twice to make sure they are browned all over. Use tongs to transfer duck legs to a large plate. Drain off most of the fat from the pan and add the carrot, celery, and onion. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables soften, 5 minutes or so. Stir in the garlic, the chopped dates, the star anise, and the chipotle. Cook for an additional minute or two. Put the duck back into the pan and pour in enough broth to just about cover the duck. Increase the heat to high and bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover pot, and simmer the duck until tender, 1 1/2 - 2 hours.

While the duck is cooking, preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut the squash in half, scoop out and discard the seeds. Place the squash, cut side down, on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 60-90 minutes, until the squash is very tender. Set aside and allow to cool until it can be handled without burning oneself.

Scoop flesh from squash into a blender container. Add heavy cream, a few tablespoons at a time, and puree squash until it's the consistency of baby food and very smooth. If you're using a squash with a fluffier, drier consistency, like buttercup, you might have to add water to help the blender along--I used about 2/3 cup of water and 1/4 cup of cream to my buttercup. Season puree with salt and pepper to taste. Pour into a small saucepan and set aside.

When the duck is done, remove it from the pot. Turn the heat up to high, uncover the pot, and reduce the remaining liquid to about a cup. If there's a lot of fat floating on top, skim it off, but I find that the combination of the dates and the boiling emulsifies everything nicely. Once liquid is reduced, use a stick blender to puree the vegetables and dates into a smooth sauce. Add the champagne vinegar and season the liquid with salt and pepper to taste. Add the duck back to the pot and turn the heat to low.

Reheat the squash puree. Place a puddle of it in the center of each serving plate. Top with a duck leg and a few spoonsful of sauce. Garnish with chopped parsley.

Serves 2, with extra squash puree and sauce.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Rhubarb, Rhubarb, Rhubarb

Spring has sprung, which means it's rhubarb season. And in the Casa de Minxeats, we do make a valiant attempt to eat as many fresh fruits and veggies as we can. Personally, I have no problem eating something completely vegetarian (or even vegan) for dinner, like a whole steamed cauliflower topped with nothing but salt, pepper, and butter, but you know Mr Minx likes to eat more substantially. Even if we're not doing our typical meat-and-potatoes meal, we're eating something closer to veggies and potatoes, or more likely, veggies and pasta (but I do like to sneak in some quinoa now and then). Sometimes I'll throw together a seasonal vegetarian appetizer, like roasted asparagus, as a starter for our meal, rather than eating veggies as merely a side dish.

I found this recipe for a lovely soup made with rhubarb and strawberries on the Eating Well web site. It's super simple to make, very slightly savory with the salt, basil, and pepper, and completely refreshing. While it's very spring-like, it would be a perfect summer recipe, too, especially as one can find frozen rhubarb these days (and some supermarkets carry it at the oddest times of year).

Speaking of rhubarb, the title of this post may remind those of you of a certain age about a particular Jan Brady rant ("It's always..."Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!'"), but it has another, very different, showbiz connotation. Because the word "rhubarb" doesn't have any recognizable phonemes, it was often used as crowd scene "conversation" in old films. Overlapping layers of the sounds of "rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb," sounds more like actual chatter than having people just say something like, "blah, blah, blah," and certainly is a lot less effort than coming up with actual conversation.

Sometimes I wish I could do that in real life.

Chilled Strawberry Rhubarb Soup

4 cups 1/2-inch pieces rhubarb, fresh or frozen (about 8 stalks, if fresh)
3 cups water
1 1/2 cups sliced strawberries
1/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil or mint, plus more for garnish
Freshly ground pepper to taste

Bring rhubarb and 3 cups water to a boil in a large saucepan. Cook until the rhubarb is very soft and broken down, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl. Put a couple inches of ice water in a large bowl and set the bowl with the rhubarb in it to help cool it quickly. (If you aren’t in a hurry, you can skip the ice-water bath.) Refrigerate, stirring occasionally, until cool, at least 20 minutes.

Transfer the rhubarb to a blender. Add strawberries, sugar and salt; blend until smooth. Return to the bowl and stir in 1/3 cup basil (or mint). Serve sprinkled with more herbs and a generous grinding of pepper.

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Friday, April 10, 2015

Want to Own a Restaurant in Baltimore?

Ok, budding restaurateurs in the Baltimore area, this is for you - but time is short.

Marriott International is doing a food and drink concept lab they're calling CANVAS. Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor at Camden Yards invites entrepreneurs, chefs, bartenders and artisans throughout the greater Baltimore area to pitch a food or drink concept to be actualized at the hotel.

Submit an application by April 30th, 2015, get judged by a committee of local restaurateurs, foodies, hotel owners and restaurant/bar experts (a la Shark Tank) on May 11th, and if you're a winner, Marriott will kick in up to $50,000, including the resources, space, and expert support needed to flourish. The winner of the contest will have six months to try out their idea. If the traffic is good and the concept sticks it may become a downtown fixture.

Check out the guidelines and faq here:

“We believe the key ingredient of CANVAS is to marry the best ideas of local entrepreneurs with Marriott’s resources, space and capital that will transform ambition into action right inside our hotels,” said Onahlea Shimunek, general manager of Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor at Camden Yards. “Just like travel, food and drink experiences today are about indulgence and discovery for modern travelers and local clientele alike, to savor, enjoy and share.”

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The Crackpot

In the early 2000s, the basic cable channels were peppered with commercials for the Crackpot restaurant. The announcer would rattle off the eccentric list of crab cake offerings like the Hawaiian crab cake, the Caribbean Jerk crab cake, the Cruise Missile crab cake, and their Pounder Plus. The latter was announced with a slightly suggestive lilt in the voice, implying that size really did matter. The Minx and I would joke about these commercials and we swore that we had to check this place out. Then the commercials disappeared and so did our curiosity. Over 10 years later, a coupon appeared in the mail for the Crackpot, so we decided we should finally make due on our pledge.

The Crackpot is a pretty old school establishment and they make no bones about it, even declaring themselves a "retro" restaurant on their web site. Being rather retro myself, I'm all for it provided the food is good. Before diving into some of their signature crab cakes, we ordered some appetizers. I went with the fried calamari since I think it's a good gauge of a restaurant's ability to handle seafood.

To my relief, the calamari were properly cooked. No rubber bands here. The light coating tasted of Old Bay, and in place of the usual chunky marinara, I was given a thin, slightly sweet tomato sauce that would make for a pretty good pizza sauce.

The Minx ordered the oysters imperial. Talk about old school! The sauce had that lightly sweet richness that we remembered from childhood, and the vivid yellow color, too. There was a decent amount of crab involved, and the oysters were succulent and meaty.

For the crab cakes, we didn't want to go too crazy. After all, a Mexican cake with salsa, onions, and green peppers probably will not taste much like crab against all that spice and sauce. Instead, I opted for the blackened crab cake with Creole seasonings. The cake itself was quite good. Not authentic Maryland crab or jumbo lump, but meaty all the same with very little filler. The Creole seasonings were barely noticeable on the first few bites, but the spice slowly caught up with me as I continued to eat it.

Minx's Caribbean Jerk crab cake looked more blackened on the outside than my blackened cake, and the spices were more prevalent right from the first bite. Not sure that this combination is entirely correct for a crab cake. Ingredients like allspice, nutmeg, and thyme don't really connect in my mind with seafood, but the cake itself was pleasant to eat. Hers seemed to have a bit more stuff other than crab in it, too, but she felt it more "saucy," than "bready," which is a good thing.

The specialty crab cakes were fun to try, but next time we'll likely stick to their "old-fashioned all lump" crab cake (old fashioned and all lump don't quite go together in our minds, but whatever) or some of their other seafood entrees. The Crackpot is the kind of place that reminds me of my youth. Satisfying seafood dishes, families huddled over piles of steamed crabs, and an Orioles game on the television, This is the kind of retro I can appreciate.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Your Chocolate in My Peanut Butter (and vice versa)

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of Doctor Dolittle, a 1967 movie about a man who could talk to animals, starring the hunky Rex Harrison. I even had a stuffed pushmi-pullyu--allegedly a cross between two animals with unique horns (a gazelle and a unicorn, and yes I know the latter is fictional) despite not having any horns at all. It looked just like a two-headed, buttless llama. How the poor creature pooped, I do not know, but I loved my little stuffed beast anyway. I still have it, actually, 40-umpteen years later.

Why do I bring up this inconsequential trivia? Because that's how I roll. And I thought it was an apt introduction to my latest baking invention--the two headed-brownie. Or is it a two-headed blondie? It's both, really. Half of the bar cookie is a blondie, flavored with creamy peanut butter and studded with chocolate chips. The other half is a brownie with peanut butter chips. Together, the combination makes for one decadent, peanut-butter-y treat with more than a hint of chocolate.

I used a large baking pan and made standard 3/4"-high cookies, but you can certainly pack the dough into an 8"- or 9"-square pan and bake it for an extra 15 minutes or so, if you want something impressive that shows the layers more obviously. Just make sure to cut them into fairly small pieces, as these babies are rich.

Double Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar Cookies

For the blondie layer:
1 stick butter, melted
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
Pinch salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup chocolate chips

For the brownie layer:
1 stick butter, melted
1 cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup cocoa powder
Pinch salt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup peanut butter chips

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease an 9 x 13 pan.

To make blondies: Whisk together the melted butter and sugar in a bowl. Stir in the egg, vanilla, and peanut butter and beat until well incorporated. Stir in the salt and flour until no streaks of flour remain. Stir in the chocolate chips.

To make brownies: Whisk together the melted butter and sugar in a bowl. Stir in the egg and vanilla and beat until well incorporated. Combine the cocoa, salt, and flour. Stir/into the butter sugar mixture until no streaks of flour remain. Stir in the peanut butter chips.

Scrape the blondie batter into the prepared baking pan and smooth the top. Dollop the brownie batter on top as evenly as possible and spread slightly with a spatula to fill the gaps. Try not to mix or marble the two batters.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs.

Allow to cool before cutting into squares.

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Monday, April 06, 2015

Gluten Free Gnocchi Verde

I don't know why, but I'm a sucker for gnocchi. And not the typical, chewy, stick-to-the ribs, potato-based gnocchi, but rather the light airy kind made with cheese. I made the potato ones once, long ago, and they turned out so badly and were so dense, I haven't tried again. (There is a new potato ricer in my life, however, so another attempt at potato gnocchi may be in my future!)

I saw this recipe for gnocchi verde on the very excellent site, Food 52, and thought I needed to give them a try. There's a ton of spinach in them. So much, I'd say they were primarily greens. And only 6 tablespoons of flour, basically a binder to keep them from falling apart. It was very easy to make this dish a gluten-free one - just replace the all-purpose wheat flour with an equal amount of some other gluten-free flour with a neutral flavor. There just happened to be oat flour in the pantry, so that's what I used. If you don't have oat flour on hand, just put a cup or so of dry rolled oats in the food processor and whiz to a fine powder.

Besides the oat flour, I also monkeyed with adding some onion to the mix. Everything is better with a bit of sauteed onion in it. I also cut back on the fat, using olive oil instead of butter to saute the spinach and onion, and less butter to finish the dish. Really--you won't miss it.

Don't despair if when you plop your gnocchi into the boiling water that the water is soon full of floating scraps of spinach--it happens. If you've added the proper amount of eggs and cheese and binder, and have refrigerated the mixture before cooking, your balls will stay together.

We ate our gnocchi as is, with an additional sprinkle of grated Parm, but you can serve them with a tomato sauce if you'd like.

Gluten Free Gnocchi Verde (adapted from Food 52)

2 (10-ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 eggs
3/4 cup ricotta cheese
6 tablespoons oat flour
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Pinch ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons melted butter, divided

Defrost the spinach and squeeze it dry. Chop finely to make about 1 1/2 cups.

Cook the onion in the olive oil with the salt over medium heat until translucent. Add the spinach and cook until most of the moisture has evaporated, 2-3 minutes.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs lightly. Stir in the ricotta, flour, 1/4 cup of the Parmesan, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the spinach and onion mixture and combine well. Refrigerate for about an hour, or until firm(er).

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and season well with salt. Shape the gnocchi mixture into 1 1/2" balls. Drop them into the water and cook until they puff slightly and are somewhat firm, 5-8 minutes. Transfer cooked gnocchi with a slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate to drain.

Preheat your broiler.

Put 1 tablespoons of the melted butter into the bottom of a shallow ovenproof dish or baking sheet with sides. Arrange the boiled gnocchi in one layer across the bottom. Dribble the remaining butter over top, then sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup of Parm. Broil until cheese melts and is golden brown.

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