Monday, December 26, 2022

Gluten-free Non-Dairy Chocolate Orange Cake

Most readers know that I try (and fail miserably) to follow a gluten-free diet, but have I mentioned that what I really need to stay away from is dairy? As of May 2022, I am lactose intolerant. One day I could put half and half in my coffee, and the next day I couldn't. It's hard to avoid dairy, since many commercially manufactured foods contain milk in some form (WHY?), and restaurants love to use tons of butter in everything. The best and most obvious way to keep lactose out of my body is to cook everything from scratch, which is fine, if I was into that sort of thing. Instead, I have invested in large jars of Lactaid pills, which need to be taken every 30-45 minutes if I'm eating something that might contain dairy. And as I said, it seems to be everywhere. 

I was dreaming about cake the other night (literally) and when I woke up, I decided it was time to bake one. Specifically, Nigella Lawson's clementine cake. We had a big bag of clementines, plenty of eggs, and a new bag of almond flour. It's an oddball cake in that the clementines are first boiled, then cooled, and finally plopped into a food processor for a spin. Peels, flesh, all of it. This makes for an extremely moist cake with a ton of orange-y flavor.

I've made this baby a number of times over the years, and this time I thought I'd make it a little differently. I wanted a chocolate orange cake, one that might taste like those Droste or Terry's chocolate oranges. If you've never had one, they're balls of orange-flavored chocolate made up of orange-wedge-shaped pieces, all wrapped in foil to resemble--you guessed it--an orange. I already had the orange portion of the program under control, but needed to incorporate chocolate. I did this by subbing out 1/3 cup of the almond flour for cocoa powder, and I made a non-dairy chocolate ganache for the top. Can't have too much chocolate! And to make it pretty, I decorated the cake with candied orange slices from TJ's. If you don't have those, leave the cake as is. It will be delicious no matter what.

This cake is not super sweet, so if you like 'em sugary, you might want to try a different recipe.

Chocolate Orange Cake

For the cake:
4 to 5 clementines (about 1 lb total)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 large eggs
2 cups ground almonds
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

For the ganache:
1/4 cup unsweetened non-dairy milk
1/4 cup sugar (optional)
1/2 cup non-dairy chocolate chips (I like Ghirardelli 100% Cacao Unsweetened Chocolate Chips. If you use sweetened chips, omit the sugar.)
1 teaspoon non-dairy butter substitute (I like Earth Balance original)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

Candied orange peel or candied orange slices from Trader Joe's

To make the cake:
Put clementines in a pot with enough water to cover and bring to a boil. Turn temperature down so the water is at a hearty simmer and cook for 2 hours, adding more water if the pot looks like it's running dry. Drain and allow fruit to cool. Once the fruit is cool, tear them open, remove the stem bit from the end and any seeds.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Place the clementines--skin, pith, and all--into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade. Add the sugar and puree. Add the eggs and pulse to combine. Add the almonds, cocoa, and baking powder and pulse until completely incorporated.

Line an 8-inch springform pan with a circle of parchment and coat bottom and sides of pan with butter or release spray. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top. Bake for 1 hour then check doneness with a toothpick. If the pick comes out with moist crumbs, it's done. If it comes out with batter on it, add more time. At this point, the cake might start to burn, so cover the top with a piece of foil for any remaining time in the oven.

Remove the pan from the oven and cool completely on a rack before loosening the pan sides. Move the cake to a cake plate by putting a plate on top of the cake and inverting it. Remove the pan bottom and carefully peel off the parchment. 

To make the ganache:
Put the non-dairy milk and sugar (if using) in a microwave-safe bowl. (A 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup is perfect for this.) Cook on high for 2 minutes, then stir. If the mixture hasn't yet boiled, put it back in the microwave for another 30 seconds or so. Watch so it doesn't boil over! Remove the cup from the microwave and add the chocolate chips. Stir to melt chocolate. Once the chocolate is nearly all melted, add the butter substitute and the vanilla bean paste. Stir until smooth. 

Ganache will thicken as it cools. When it reaches a consistency that is thick but still pourable, pour over the top of the cooled cake. Use an offset spatula to smooth out the top. Decorate with candied orange peel or slices.

Serves 8.

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Monday, December 19, 2022

Pepperoni Beans

I was musing about what to do with two partial meat sticks--sopressata and salami--left over from Thanksgiving and decided I could cut them up and simmer the bits in a sauce. And then I remembered the pepperoni sauce that former DC restaurant emperor Mike Isabella created on Top Chef All Stars back in 2012. I tried it then, and like Isabella, I served it with chicken. This time, I didn't have any chicken on hand. What I did have was a plethora of beans from Rancho Gordo, including some big-ass Royal Coronas. The website describes these beans as "enormous, thick-skinned runner beans with a surprisingly creamy interior. One of our all-time best sellers, it's a versatile giant that works in all kinds of cuisines. A true pantry staple." 

I figured they'd be a fine meat substitute in a brothy tomato sauce studded with cured sausage.

Royal coronas partway through soaking. They are at least twice as large as limas.
I made some changes to the original recipe. I used crushed tomatoes rather than whole, omitted the bay leaf and olive oil, and didn't puree the sauce. I also used half salami, half sweet sopressata, and rather than slice the meats thinly, I cut them into 1/4 inch slices, stacked several of them, then cut them into strips and then dices. The first time I made the sauce, I used pepperoni, which I added after cooking the onions in olive oil. The result was an oily mess that needed a lot of skimming. This time, I cooked the onion and the meat together. The fat that oozed from the sausage was the perfect amount in which to cook the onion, and there was no oil slick on top. I guess pepperoni is greasier? 

I wanted a thicker and more homogenized sauce, but before I added it to the beans, it was more of a tomato liquid with bits of tomato and meat. A spoonful of tomato paste and a cup of starchy bean broth was just the thing to bring it all together. The sauce also needed a touch more acid, so I chopped up some grape tomatoes and stirred them in at the last minute. 

Some arugula gave the dish color and a little extra pep. I also couldn't resist adding a spoonful of The Flavor Society pizza chili crisp, though Mr Minx didn't think the dish needed anything else.

I was pretty happy with the beans. They are very meaty, and though the skins are a tad firm even after several hours of soaking and cooking, the insides are lovely and creamy. Will definitely be purchasing them again in the future.

Pepperoni Beans

For the beans:
1 lb Rancho Gordo royal corona beans
2 stalks celery (leave whole)
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 teaspoons salt 

For the sauce:
2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 pound Italian hard salami-type sausage, like pepperoni or sopressata, cut into 1/4" pieces
1 medium or 1/2 large onion, diced
5 medium cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 15-oz ounce can imported crushed Italian plum tomatoes
1 15-oz can of water

To finish the dish:
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup reserved bean liquid
1 teaspoon of Italian seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup raw grape tomatoes, cut in half (optional)
Parmesan cheese
Something green, like baby arugula or spinach

To make the beans:
Check beans for debris, and rinse thoroughly. Place in a large pot and fill with water to cover by about 2 inches. Let soak at least 2 and up to 8 hours. Drain the beans and either refrigerate, covered, until the next day, or proceed with recipe.

Put fresh water in the bean pot to about 2 inches above the level of the soaked beans. Add the celery, carrots, and salt and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to a simmer and cook for two hours, or until the beans are tender. The skins will remain somewhat firm and will not look cooked, so you should cut a bean in half and taste it to check the texture.

Once done to your liking, remove the beans from the heat. Fish out and discard (or eat) the carrot and celery debris. Strain the bean broth into a lidded container and set aside. Leave the beans in their pot.

To make the sauce:
Put the fennel seeds in a skillet and turn heat to medium-high. Shaking the pan and/or stirring the seeds frequently, cook until seeds smell toasty and start to brown, 2-3 minutes. Immediately remove from heat and pour seeds into a small bowl.

In a 12" skillet, cook the meat and onion together over medium heat, stirring regularly, until the onion starts to get brown and the meat begins to render its fat. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or so. Stir in the toasted fennel seeds and red pepper flakes. Cook for about a minute, stirring. Then dump in the can of crushed tomatoes and another can of water. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat so the sauce is gently simmering. Cook for 1 hour. If an excessive amount of oil pools on top, skim it off and discard (or use it to make a vinaigrette for a salad).

To finish:
Pour the sauce over the drained beans. Stir the tomato paste into the cup of reserved bean broth and add that to the pot of beans. Stir to combine, then turn the heat on to about medium. Simmer for about 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Stir in the raw grape tomatoes. 

Place some arugula in the bottom of a bowl, spoon over some beans and sauce, and sprinkle with cheese.

Makes about 2 quarts.

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Monday, December 12, 2022

Woodberry Kitchen is Back! Who Cares?

Woodberry Tavern menu. Click to embiggen.

When Woodberry Kitchen originally opened to rave reviews, including from people whose opinions I respect, I just rolled my eyes. I'd been to other of Spike Gjerde's restaurants, the ones owned with his brother, Charlie, and while they were good, none were particularly impressive. One was memorable, however., as it was the location of a birthday dinner on a particularly bad birthday. I won't bore you with those details. Let's just say that a whole Maine lobster served in a bowl of oily sauce is almost impossible to eat. Had I been in charge, that lobster would have had its claws and tail pre-cracked, or better yet, I would have removed the meat from the shell and arranged it daintily on a plate. Instead, the Powers That Be dictated that I wrestle with the whole greasy beast, which refused to submit to the cracker (which was also greasy, as were my hands). I should have sent the dish back, but I was already having a terrible day and some part of me must have felt that I deserved my fate. In any case, I've had it out for the Gjerde brothers since then.

Well, mostly Spike. Charlie seems like a nice guy, and his restaurants are all accessible places with decent grub. Spike, however, has long suffered from delusions of grandeur, which can only have been exacerbated by winning a James Beard Award. (Meanwhile, poor Cindy Wolf of Charleston, et. al., is the food world's version of Susan Lucci.) 

Mr Minx and I ate at Woodberry Kitchen a couple of times. Once was for our anniversary in 2011; while the overall experience wasn't optimal, we did have some good food. Another time was a free dinner sponsored by an olive oil producer; I assume I was invited because I was attending the Natural Foods Expo going on at the Convention Center that same week. And the third time was for Restaurant Week a few years back. I chose paw paw pie for dessert. It had the most unappealing curdled texture, beige/vomit color, and little to no flavor, yet somehow it made it out of the pastry kitchen. And while we didn't despise the restaurant, we always wondered how it was so popular. Honestly, I can cook homey dishes like chicken and dumplings myself, so why should I pay good money for it? Yes, it's nice to know that the animals that go into my food have been treated humanely, but I don't want to feel like I'm paying their condo fees.

Woodberry Kitchen has been closed for a while because of Covid, and Spike took advantage of the time off by revamping the place. He sold off the old fixtures and kitschy country barn decor crap and is dedicating what used to be the restaurant dining room to private events. The old private event room on the side is now the restaurant, rebranded as Woodberry Tavern. Just for shits and grins, I put myself on their mailing list so I could find out when they were reopening. Maybe he was going to take a page from Charlie's book and reopen the restaurant as a place the common man can go to enjoy a nice meal. Or maybe not. In advance of the Tavern's opening on December 8, I received an email with a link to the menu, which I have inserted above. 

Spike's out of his fucking mind. $59 for fried chicken with dumplings! $35 for "red pepper squash" and tofu. Perhaps he plans to use part of that $35 to buy a comma. The pig would have to come out in a top hat and do a little soft shoe for me before I'd pay 49 bucks for a schnitzel. Yeah yeah, entrees come with "miso-roasted" carrots, creamed kale, and potatoes with a fancy name that translates to "like a straw doormat" in French. Mr Minx makes incredible pommes pallaisson (note to Spike--you also need to buy an S) regularly, with about .75 worth of ingredients.

I'm sure Woodberry Tavern (hmm...perhaps the prices include an overnight stay?) will still pack in the people who have nothing better to do with their money. The least expensive 2-course meal there, without beverage, will cost $61.50pp including the 23% service fee. (The menu notes, "You are welcome to add additional gratuity for the service staff." Perhaps you should pay your staff a living wage, eh, rather than expect your customers to do it for you, on top of your ridiculous food prices.) We Minxes will only eat there for free, which of course ain't happening. LOL In the meantime, we'll be spending our money at places like True Chesapeake, Cosima, La Cuchara, Petit Louis, and all the mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants we favor. 

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Friday, December 09, 2022

Gluten-Free Non-Dairy Sunflower Seed Crackers

Pazo was a pan-Mediterranean restaurant in Fells Point/Harbor East that closed in 2016. Why did it close? Because it was one of my favorites, and somehow my affection for a place dooms it to failure.

As far as I'm concerned, small plates are the way to go when dining out. Appetizers are usually more inventive and interesting than entrees, and I'd rather have 2-3 (ok, 4-5) of those than a slab of protein served over a starch. If the menu lists mostly appetizers/small plates/tapas, chances are good that I will like the place. (The food has to be good, too, of course.) Pazo had tons of tapas-style options and we ate there a number of times. While all of the food was delicious, my favorite nibble was the sunflower seed crackers. I loved the crisp texture, the light sweetness, and the toastiness of the seeds. Lucky for me, the recipe is on the interwebs. I adapted it to fit with my mostly gluten-free, lactose-intolerant life, and I think my version is as good as the original.

Gluten-free Sunflower Seed Crackers

1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup gluten-free flour
Pinch of salt
3 large egg whites
1/4 cup non-dairy butter substitute, melted (I used original Earth Balance sticks)
2 cups sunflower seeds 

Whisk together the sugar, flour, and salt. Whisk in the egg whites until well combined. Dribble in the butter substitute a bit at a time while continuing to whisk. Chill the batter for one hour. 

Preheat oven to 375F.

Spread a thin layer of batter on a parchment-lined baking sheet and sprinkle with the sunflower seeds. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until firm and browned. Let cool for a few beats and score into 2" squares. Break apart the squares when the crackers are completely cool.

Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days--if they last that long.

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Monday, December 05, 2022

To Misquote Bon Jovi, You Give New Jersey a Bad Name

My friend Kim and I were born at the same hospital exactly a week apart, but we didn't meet until high school. Forty-plus years later, we're still friends. We try to get together a couple times per year, and in 2022, we decided a joint birthday celebration was in order. I made a reservation at the Fogo de Chao in downtown Baltimore and waited eagerly for the day we would indulge in a festival of meats.

Fogo de Chao has always been a personal favorite of mine, though I don't think it's as good as the Brazilian bbq restaurant my family would frequent in the 90-00s, Green Field Churrascaria, in Rockville. Back then, $25 would get you a crazy selection of meats, including beef and pork, but also chicken hearts, duck, and sometimes rabbit. The salad bar was loaded with everything from cheese and salads, hearts of palm and asparagus, to various starches and soups. The shrimp and chayote squash soup was delish, and I'd put away a couple bowls of that before I started my meat fest. I once consumed so much protein I ended up with a nasty hangover the next day. Fogo's menu is similar to that of Green Field, minus the weird bits and duck, and they have feijoada rather than chayote soup. I've enjoyed some fabulously tender cuts of beef and flavorful pork there and the bacon-wrapped chicken shouldn't be missed. But I learned something on this most recent visit:

Don't go on a Saturday.

The restaurant was packed. It's a huge space, and every inch of it was filled with diners and gauchos (servers) bearing sword-like skewers of proteins, everyone talking at once. The din was incredible. And if I didn't get COVID after sitting in that space for two hours, I'll never get it.

The best thing about eating at a Brazilian bbq, besides the food, is that there's no wait to eat. Once you get to the table and decide you're going for the full churrascaria experience, you can go fill a plate at the salad bar and once re-seated, the gauchos will begin their parade of meaty goodness. And that still happens when the restaurant is packed. Still, we didn't have an optimal experience--or even a good one. I cannot fault the kitchen, as hot and juicy meats came out in a steady parade all evening. Our waitress was a little slow with the drinks, however, as she waited by the bar to fill several tables' orders--including water--at once. I get it. We were seated in Siberia, waaaay far from the bar. But I needed water. And wine. But mostly the water. I feel like I'm being nit-picky, but when one pays $61.95 per person, not including appetizers, drinks, dessert, tax, or gratuity, one wants impeccable service. At some point during hour two (!), our waitress' shift ended.... <crickets> Fortunately, the somewhat giggly young man who took her place was attentive. More on that later. 

(You're probably wondering where New Jersey comes in. I am getting to that. Finally!)

As I said, I am being nit-picky. But there was also a huge non-food/non-service issue that made me somewhat angry. Directly to my left was a table of twelve people who were shouting at each other across and down the table. Not angry shouting, just conversational shouting. There were distinct New Jersey accents involved, and the loudest of them emanated from a female personage at the end of the table. She was on her cellphone for a good 45 minutes, dropping the f-bomb frequently, and get this--complaining regularly about the noise level in the restaurant. THEN GO OUTSIDE, YOU RUDE $@*#! Also, GET YOUR FEET OFF THE CHAIR! This chick wasn't a toddler, or even a teenager. She was at least in her mid-20s, and clearly had been raised by hyenas. The whole group of...individuals...(I promised Mr Minx I wouldn't use the pejorative that initially came to mind, one that might be used to describe folks involved with the manufacture of cement overshoes) seemed ill-mannered, but she was the worst. Part of me wanted to say something, but the rest of me didn't want to end up in the Inner Harbor, swimming there any sea life in that cesspool?...the fishes. 

After about an hour of this noise pollution, the group--many wearing hoodies bearing the name of an automotive industry-related company from northern NJ--left. Suddenly, the decibel level of the restaurant decreased. I looked around and saw several other large parties of ten or more, and all seemed to be conversing at normal tones while enjoying their food. I could finally hear my dining companion, who had been as disgruntled as I was while the noisy ______s were next to us. Sadly, they had bothered me enough that my food didn't taste particularly good, even after they left. (I continued to eat, however, to get my money's worth.) I have to wonder if that group was in Maryland because they've already been kicked out of the restaurants in their own area. 

Our new waitperson came over to see if we wanted dessert, and Kim mentioned that it was our birthday, angling for a complimentary slice of cake. We were brought a menu so we could choose. Unfortunately, said menu included calorie counts. Did you know that a piece of Fogo key lime pie has 820 calories? Suddenly, I felt very full and thought if I ate pie after all that meat, I'd be sick. I suggested that we share a dessert. When we told the waiter, he exclaimed that we must each choose a dessert because it was our birthday! Then, sotto voce, he said we could take it to go. So we ordered pie to go and requested that the check be split between us. Neither of us are fond of calculating tip, but the bill included calculations for 18%, 20%, and 22% "for your convenience." So we added the 20% amount to our bills and left. 

I'm not sure why $99 dollars didn't seem like too much money. And only now that I am writing this blog post am I noticing that the convenient tip calculations were on THE ENTIRE $143 TAB, not half of that. After I noticed the error, we each called the restaurant and asked for a refund of the extra 20%, which they honored.

To add insult to injury, when I got home after that dinner, I found an email from OpenTable claiming that I didn't show for my reservation. With that particular reservation service, it's 3 strikes (or no-shows) and you're out. I've been a member of OpenTable for at least a dozen years and in all that time I've had one no-show, and it wasn't my fault. I would never leave a restaurant hanging like that. When Mr Minx and I got food poisoning on a trip to Los Angeles in the mid-00s, in between trips to the bathroom I called the restaurants at which we had dinner reservations and cancelled them. The reservationist at Spago thanked me and said few people bothered to cancel. They just didn't show up. At Spago! 

I guess not only the Joisey Wench at Fogo was raised by hyenas.

I'm not sure how I feel about Fogo anymore. It might still be a good place for lunch, as the Market Table is less than $20pp and is essentially a vegetarian buffet with a few cold cuts and sugared bacon. But it will be a while before I go there for dinner. To be honest, the huge jump in price, from $40-something last year to $62 this year is a deterrent. I understand that inflation has put food prices through the roof, and they probably have to pay higher wages to retain that many staff, but the experience is not worth it to me. If I'm going to pay $71pp (that's including my glass of wine), I'd rather be in a quieter restaurant with fewer patrons. Or one with Michelin stars. Or in New York. But hey, if you have an expense account, by all means go to Fogo. The food is good, as are the drinks. It's just maybe not for me anymore.

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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