Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Holiday Sweets

It's nearly the end of 2008 and I fully intended to write here more often. So perhaps a resolution is in order to write here at least once a month!

So for December, it seems appropriate to write about homemade sweets. Growing up, my parents' kitchen was always full of either Mom or Dad cooking.

Mom made candy and cookies every year. Fudge (the 'family recipe' is on the marshmallow creme jar), penuche, divinity, butter cookies from the old cookie press, sugar cookies that she'd let us decorate with colored sugar.

My favorite candy she made was a family recipe she called Dixie Cremes. They have a center of crunchy peanut butter, cornstarch and powdered sugar and a hard maple coating. The coating was a pain in the ass...you had to cook it to a certain temperature, cool it a little, beat it by hand until it was sugary, then put the pan in hot water to melt the coating again so you could dip the peanut butter balls. I haven't made them in years. My copy of the recipe was ruined. I can't read the card anymore. And I don't know that my mom's recipe is in the house anymore. But that's another story.

I started making candy and cookies when I moved out on my own. It made me feel like I was continuing a tradition, gave my holidays away from home a feeling of familiarity. I always made fudge, sometimes I made dixie creams. My own addition to the tradition was butter caramels. I found a recipe in the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that made amazingly smooth, slightly chewy, buttery caramels. They were my grandma's favorite.

Over the years, the holidays have gotten busier and it's hard to spend the time making lots of candy, especially hand-wrapping five pounds of caramels. So a couple of years ago I decided to shorten the cooking time and make caramel sauce instead. It was a hit with my friends!!
This year, with the popularity of salted caramel, I decided to try something different. I made the caramel sauce like I had before, but when I put it in the jars, I sprinkled a layer of grey salt on top. I'd considered doing it for several years, ever since I had my first glorious Fran's grey salt caramel.

When I gave the first jars to friends last Friday night, just reading the label made them squeal. :o) One of them immediately got a spoon, opened his jar and ate a spoonful. He pronounced it "Jesus in a jar". *g* Needless to say, I was rather proud.

I remember when I was little how excited people got when Mom would give them a wrapped platter of homemade goodies. My Mom and Dad are both gone now, but one of the things I do to honor them now is make homemade goodies for my friends at the holidays. And with the jars of caramel sauce (and Kahlua hot fudge sauce), if they give back the jars when they're empty, they'll most assuredly get more! :o)

So, Mom and Dad, thank you for teaching me the value of sharing something homemade, something made from the heart. I miss you and I love you.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Adventures in Freshness

Recently N and I started getting a produce delivery service from New Roots Organics. We'd been talking about eating better, eating more healthily. Her acupuncturist talked about this service...we thought it sounded like a cool and easy way for us to increase our fresh food intake, so we decided to go for it.

This is how it works. We get a bin of veggies and fruits every two weeks. Fresh, organic produce, as much locally grown as possible, but supplemented by organics from California if the local season is light. For example, our first bin was almost all from California because the spring growing season was so cold for so long.

This week's bin contained, among other things, local lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, green beans, summer squash, a Walla Walla sweet onion, nectarines, a cantaloupe...lots of gorgeous produce.

We're really loving the incredible summer bounty we're receiving right now. It brings back dreams of childhood summers spent with homemade ice cream, just-picked berries, eating myself sick on bing cherries, shucking sweet corn on the back porch or snapping green beans in the living room. Things we remember being excited to eat. Things we're still excited to eat.

Tonight we enjoyed some incredibly tasty treats that were direct results of our organic bins. We had some homemade avocado ice cream with a pluot (a cross between a plum and an apricot) that had been sauteed in butter and brown sugar. Dense, creamy ice cream with the fresh taste of avocados covered in sweet, tangy, warm plouts.

Of course, we don't really choose what we get in the bin. It's what's fresh now. And sometimes, that's not so exciting. Getting these bins is going to force us to eat some things we wouldn't otherwise eat. Like beets. We got beets in the bin, too. I don't like beets. N likes them roasted...little yellow and red baby beets. But these are the big, purple monster beets of my childhood nightmares. I live in fear, wondering what we're going to do with them.

We think we're going to grill them...we found some cool recipes on the internet. Most of the recipes we found said that beets were fantastic paired with goat cheese. So tomorrow we're going to grill beets and eat them with goat cheese.

Maybe, just maybe, my nightmarish fear of beets will depart after the grilling experiment. But if it doesn't, I still have a one pound bag of bing cherries in the fridge. I don't have a back porch, but I still might be able to eat myself sick. :o)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Saltoro Splendor

One of the greatest pleasures in life is sharing a meal with friends. Last Saturday I did just such a thing with two of my nearest and dearest. They took me out to dinner as a belated birthday present to a local restaurant called Saltoro.
It was ‘girls night out’ since my partner was out of town visiting her family. My friends, Lo and Shtup, picked me up at my house and promised to drive so I could drink. :o) They showed up in velveteen top hats (which aren’t real until they’re loved according to Lo’s husband), sunglasses and feather boas, holding a set for me. We were decked out for a night on the town.
Seated in our booth, we got to the most important thing first...cocktails.
Lo went for a classic Manhattan, Shtup had their Basil Grande (vodka, muddled basil and strawberries, splash of cranberry juice), I had their Peach Ginger Cosmo (just what it sounds like...a little sweet for me, but tasty). I think I liked Shtup’s drink better than mine. It was sweet, but not cloyingly so. The Peach Ginger Cosmo could have used a splash of lemon to brighten it up a bit.
Then the food started in. First, an order of their truffle fries, a gigantic pile of shoestring potatoes tossed with truffle oil and parmesan. Dark, dusky truffle and salty, creamy parmesan atop perfectly crispy fries. I had to have the waitress box them after we’d eaten half because I just couldn’t stop. The next morning I had an egg scrambled with some of the leftover fries crisped in a skillet. They were equally delicious the second time around.
We ordered salads for a second course, the Saltoro Salad (Lo and I) and the Spinach Salad (Shtup). The Saltoro salad was comprised of greens, citrus shallot vinaigrette, Point Reyes Blue cheese and toasted slivered almonds. A tasty salad that would have been even better with some grilled skirt steak.
The Spinach Salad had an anise vinaigrette, proscuitto, pickled onions and little nuggets of crumb-crusted, fried goat cheese. Shtup was kind enough to get the prosciutto on the side. She’s vegetarian, but didn’t want to deprive us of the whole experience. It was quite delightful...I will certainly have it again!
I thought I was done eating...but they had other ideas. Lo ordered a small pizza with tomatoes, basil and mozzarella and an order of butternut squash ravioli in a mushroom cream sauce. The ravioli was tasty, the creamy squash filling balancing the earthy mushrooms. However, it was oddly under-seasoned, unusual for this restaurant.
I had but one slice of the pizza...I was so full by that time. It was good, and it was nice to have some fresh tomatoes. But again, the flavors seemed a little flat.
With all of those delightful flavors, we drank a tempranillo, Finca Antigua 2005. Dry, a little tannic, some cherry notes.
Of course, since this was a ‘birthday’ celebration, we had to have dessert. We ordered a chocolate pots de creme and a fallen chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream melting on top.
The custard of the pots de creme was dense and silky, the cocoa flavor present but not overpowering. I could still taste the cream and egg underneath, which is what I love about custards.
The fallen chocolate cake didn’t really look like a cake at all, except for the candle sticking out of the top. *g* It was a gratin dish full of rich, hot, chocolatey goodness. I wish I hadn’t been so full because I wanted to eat it all...the chocolate was dark and velvety and delicious. The vanilla ice cream was also rich and delicious, but I would have been happy without it. I want the full-on chocolate experience. Maybe next time. :o)
For all the great food, the best part was sharing it with good friends. By the end of the meal, Lo was the only one still wearing her hat and glasses. The meal over, we put our feathers back on and waddled out of the restaurant under the weight of the fabulous dinner, buoyed by the joy of sharing it with friends.
Thank you, Ladies, for a merry and memorable evening!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Truffle Night at Fiamma Trattoria and Bar

I've been lax in getting our last night in Vegas posted here. My apologies!

Our final dinner in Vegas was a bit of a surprise. We couldn't decide where to eat. We knew we didn't want to leave the MGM, where we were staying. We just wanted to relax, drops some money in the slot machines, and enjoy the little city that is MGM.

We thought we'd try Emeril's...I've been to his restaurant in New Orleans, which remains on my top ten list of restaurant experiences. But we couldn't get in until 9pm, which was too late for us. Putting the promise of eating at the bar in our back pocket as a fallback, we looked at the other choices:
Shibuya - sushi, which sounded fabulous, but we weren't really in the mood for seafood in a landlocked place.
Seablue - seafood, meditteranean - again, didn't want seafood. We come from the Pacific Northwest. Las Vegas is too far away from the ocean for us to want to eat seafood there. :o)

Several times we walked by Fiamma Trattoria & Bar, thinking, huh...Italian...okay, but how special could it be? Well, we looked at the menu and found several things that sounded tasty. We were lucky enough to get reservations at 6:30...a perfect time for us.

First on the menu for us was an order of beef carpaccio with a salad of chopped mushrooms and black truffle vinegar and shavings of parmegiano reggiano. The beef was so thinly sliced and tender that we couldn't pick the slices up. It was creamy, tangy, salty and earthy. Delicious!

For our entree we decided to have the Fusilli with prosciutto, English peas, and black truffle butter sauce. The flavors were fairly delicate, smoky prosciutto, sweet peas and earthy, luscious truffle butter.
Accompanying our dinner, we drank an effevescent white wine called Conundrum. Aptly named. We puzzled and puzzled till our puzzlers were puzzed. I wanted a red wine. My palate was ready for a dry, tannic, Italian red. But nothing on the by-the-glass list really hit us. So we went with the waiter's recommendation. Then we realized we'd had it before! So we're going to try and find it again here at home.
Nicely fruity, with some hints of pear and a clear finish, it cut through the fat of the butter sauce and highlighted the individual flavors of the pasta dish beautifully.

So it ended up being truffle night at Fiamma for us. And we left satisfied and very pleased with our choice.

Our trip really woke my palate up. I wanted to cook when I got home! Just like a trip to see theatre in New York makes me want to be a better actor and fires my desire to perform, this trip to Las Vegas made me want to be a better cook and baker.

And speaking of being a baker, up next will be a writeup of the cake I made for my friend Maia Strong's book release party.
Thanks for all the comments, y'all!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Colicchio Day - Vegas Day 2

Day two, really our first full day in Vegas, began with a rather predictable trip to Starbucks. We were awake and hungry, but the place where we wanted to eat breakfast wasn’t open until 10am. So coffee and a small snack (I wish they had cheese pockets here in Seattle...they were yummy!) started our day.

Our destination for what ended up as lunch was an establishment called ‘wichcraft, located on the Studio Walk in the MGM Grand, where we stayed. ‘wichcraft is a sandwich place owned by Top Chef judge and James Beard award-winning Chef Tom Colicchio. Again we were checking up on a favorite tv chef. We really enjoy Top Chef (especially this season), but knew little about Chef Colicchio and wanted to see what his food was like.

‘wichcraft had two breakfast sandwiches on their menu that had us salivating. One was a skirt steak, fried egg and oyster mushroom sandwich and the other a fried egg, bacon and frisee sandwich. Both sounded wonderful to us, being great fans of breakfast sandwiches. Nancy got one (steak) and I got the other (bacon) and we shared. The steak was cooked perfectly, the flavors nicely balanced, not too bold for morning, but still very tasty. The fried egg and bacon sandwich was a little piece of breakfast heaven. The bacon was thick cut and sweetly smokey but not salty, the egg perfectly cooked (though I would have preferred the yolk left unbroken) and the frisee dressed with a light vinaigrette, all served on a soft roll. The sandwiches were so large we couldn’t quite finish them, though we made a valiant effort. I did eat all the bacon, which was probably the best bacon I’ve ever had.

I kept the plastic bag they packed our sandwiches in...what a great souvenir! And that afternoon, for a snack, we went back for a homemade whoopie pie, a chocolate cake sandwich filled with lightly sweetened whipped cream. *drool*

The meal that came closest to sex was at Craftsteak that same evening, the steakhouse in the MGM Grand. Also headed by Chef Colicchio, Craftsteak promised simple ingredients cooked well. Where Mesa Grill offered up layers of bold, complex flavors the night before, Craftsteak presented clean, well-executed simplicity.

Knowing we would be sharing so we wouldn’t overstuff ourselves, we were heartened when the server, before we even said anything, mentioned that their menu was set up with sharing in mind. All their sides are served family style.

We ordered a 12 oz. hanger steak after asking the waitress what it was. *g* We’d heard of the cut before, but couldn’t remember anything about it. When she told us it’s often called the butcher’s cut because it’s what the butcher usually keeps for himself, we decided to go for it. It turned out to be the best single decision we made the whole trip.

The steak arrived medium-rare, already sliced, in a cast iron gratin dish, a scattering of thyme on top of the gorgeously seared beef (the only other seasoning was salt and pepper). Our side of fried squash blossoms came with the baby zucchini still attached to use as handles. To drink with our meal, we ordered a Tamarack Cellars Firehouse Red blend...a bit of wine from our home state of Washington. Suggested by the waitstaff, it perfectly complemented the steak. Flavorful, yet lean, the steak was exquisite. Quite literally the best steak ever.

As if the incredible meal weren’t enough, the cocktail menu boasted over 100 single malt scotches. If I wasn’t already in love with Tom Colicchio, that cinched the deal. Awed by the sheer depth of choice, I went with a scotch flight of Bowmore, 12 yr, 16 yr and 21 yr. These are the kind of Islay malts I love, smoky without being peaty.

The 12 year (distilled in 1989, Jewels of Scotland, Bottled by Lombard) had a nice deep smoke with some grassy notes that opened up with some added water.
The 16 year (distilled 1988, bottle #221 by Signatory Vintage) looked almost paler than the 12 year, had a surprisingly fruity nose and a sweetly smoky flavor.
The 21 year (distilled 1982, cask strength, Duncan Taylor Collection) nearly singed my nose hairs on first sniff. I’m guessing it was upwards of 55%. *g* Dark honey and smoke on the nose, toasted coconut and caramel to the taste. It was delicious with dessert.

Oh, yeah, dessert! How could I forget the molten chocolate cake crusted with hazelnuts, served a quenelle of espresso ice cream? Yeah, molten chocolate cake was really popular a few years ago. Frankly I was a little surprised to see it on the menu. I didn’t think it was ‘the thing’ anymore. But it was perfectly cooked, dark and richly chocolatey, and the ice cream was smooth and tangy with espresso. The perfect end to a perfect meal.

In case you’re wondering how I remember all this when we’ve been back almost a week now, I took notes. I had a little notebook that fit in my purse and I wrote notes because I knew I wanted to come back and write about it. At the end of the notes for this meal, there’s a small note from Nancy. OMG. What it took me several hundred words to say, she expressed in three letters. That’s my girl. :o)

There was one more evening in Sin City and one more dinner to go with it. Come back in a couple of days for tales from Fiamma Trattoria and Bar.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Las Vegas: Not Just for Gamblers Anymore

It's not news to anyone, really. Vegas has long been touted as a place to shop, see shows and eat as much as fritter away your hard earned cash. Still, its reputation as a gambler's paradise kept me from visiting until well into my adulthood (don't ask how far, it's not polite).

My partner and I returned from a vacation to Las Vegas just a few days ago, my wallet decidedly lighter and my ass a bit heavier. Only ten dollars were left at the casinos. Most of our money went to the restaurants of Sin City and our stomachs are more than happy for that.
And since I'd been toying with the idea of starting a food blog, I thought "Why not now?" Hence, the inaugural entry in Culinary Hedonism!

Since the meals were so fantastic, we're going to take it one day at a time. First, our arrival on Monday, May 26th. We knew we wanted to visit Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill, so we'd already made reservations before we hit town. A little early, 5:30pm, but after a day of driving and flying and shuttling, we were glad of it. We hadn't really had time for a decent meal, so dinner was it.

For a long time, I didn't like Bobby Flay. His reputation as brash and arrogant preceded him, led by his grandstanding appearances in the original Iron Chef. But over the last year or so, watching his new shows on the Food Network (yes, I'm a junkie and make no apologies for it!), I've developed a new respect for the man. He is willing to put his skills on the line against anyone, his intent not to outcook them, but to showcase their talents.

We were excited to eat at Mesa Grill. We would finally find out whether Chef Flay knew his business. The pre-trip intelligence we'd received from one of my partner's coworkers pointed us toward the mashed potatoes, which were billed as better than sex. Of course, the coworker admitted to being drunk at the time she consumed the potates. *g* Still, we had to try them, right?

I'd done a little recon of my own before we left for vacation, reading the menus online. Hence, I already knew what I wanted for a cocktail. They had a pisco sour on the menu, so I wanted to try it. I'd had a taste of straight pisco a couple of years ago (nearly breathing fire as a result!) and wanted to experience the famed cocktail. Sadly, the restaurant was out of one of the ingredients, the pasteurized egg whites, so we had to go without. *sniffle*

Since the menu declared that Mesa Grill lives and dies by the margarita, we decided instead to put our faith in my favorite cocktail. The bartender did not disappoint. A silver tequila, house-made sour (lime juice and simple syrup) and a dash of triple sec. No fancy extras, just a basic margarita served on the rocks. Not even a mention of a blender (thank gods!). Just a glass of sweet-tart heaven with a salted rim. The evening was indeed looking up.

Booze problems solved, we turned to the food. For a starter, we ordered the creamy wild mushroom grits with a poached egg, charred serrano sauce, cotija cheese and crushed blue corn tortilla chips. There's something sexy about breaking the yolk of a poached egg. The yolk mixed with the creamy grits and crunchy chips, the spicy, smoky sauce. Man, that was a mean bowl of grits. An extremely satisfying combination of textures and flavors.

We decided to steer away from seafood for our entree in spite of the yummy-sounding tuna steak on the menu. We went instead for the Sixteen Spice Duck Breast with carrot-habanero sauce, a chorizo-goat cheese tamale and thyme butter. The duck arrived sliced, medium rare and juicy. The waiter was generous enough to give us a few more ingredients to the sauce...carrot juice, habanero pepper, orange juice, star anise and cinnamon. Sweet, spicy, melding beautifully with the flavor of the duck. The tamale made a great, mellow accompaniment, though it kind of underwhelmed me. I missed the goat cheese...don't really remember seeing it or tasting it.

When we looked at the dessert menu, there was really no other choice than the profiteroles. Instead of whipped cream or plain ice cream inside, there were small nuggets of cornflake crusted fried ice cream. The sauce covering the lovely puffs of dough wasn't an ordinary chocolate sauce. It was a mexican chocolate sauce with cayenne and cinnamon. We wanted to lick the plate, but we restrained ourselves. *g*

The verdict? Chef Flay definitely has something good going on. The combinations of flavors and textures never stopped challenging and delighting my palate. I only wish I'd had room for more! It was a fantastic meal.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot! We did order the mashed potatoes, swirled with cilantro pesto. They were indeed delicious, though not quite as good as sex. That distinction was saved for our dinner the following evening. Stay tuned for details...