August 31, 2006
Heirloom Caprese

I've thought about it, and if I ever find myself in a situation where I'm offered a last meal (probably in food jail as a result of beating a vapid tv chef to death with a day-old baguette), I think a salad caprese made with fresh mozarella, good olive oil, fresh basil, and heirloom tomatoes will be my choice.

I emphasize heirloom tomatoes because unless you're growing tomatoes in your back yard, you're just not likely to find tomatoes that smell and taste like tomatoes. Because of the rigors of shipping, most tomatoes are picked while still hard, green, and relatively flavorless. The tomatoes are stored in a warehouse and treated with a gas that makes them turn red, but that doesn't really ripen them the way they would ripen on the vine.

Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, tend to come from local farms. And I don't mean local the way some places define it - within a day's drive. By that sleight of hand, supermarkets in DC/Maryland claim Florida produce as "local" even though it comes from 800 miles and a couple of climatic zones away. I mean local as in down the street, up the road, no more than a few miles on your odometer away.

They have to come from a local producer because heirloom tomatoes aren't engineered for travel. The skinson heirloom tomatoes tend to be thinner, they tend to bruise more easily, and unlike the hyper-engineered beautiful red smooth beefsteaks you see so often in the market, they often are kinda ugly, maybe lopsided with splits, streaks of black, or even wormholes. What they lack in beauty, however, they more than make up for in taste.

I selected about 5 pounds of various heirloom tomatoes from Dave's Natural Market in Columbia Maryland. All the tomatoes come from within 15 miles or so from the store, and at $2.89/pound, they aren't cheap. My nearly $20 worth of tomatoes have reminded me just how good this schizophrenic fruit/vegetable can be.

I don't know the names of any of the varietites I found, though I thnk there were a few green zebras in there, but I discovered a variety of flavors. Some were deep, rich, and complex like a tomato version of balsamic vinegar. Those I used for the caprese above. Some were sharp and sour, and some of the yellow tomatoes were a tangy sweet mix of flavors. You have to try them to learn which heirlooms are right for different applications.

These dark red beauties above were a bit larger than the average beefsteak tomato, and more crinkly at the top. That makes for slightly more complicated cutting, but leads to a caprese salad you can be proud of.

The basic recipe for a salad caprese is two tomatoes, one 8 oz ball of fresh mozarella, 5-15 fresh basil leaves - chopped if large, just laid carefully on the plate if small, and a drizzle of your best olive oil. I add a high pinch of salt. By that, I mean I hold my hand way up over the plate and let a small pich of salt fall from my fingers as I wave my hand above the plate to distribute it evenly.

Check your markets for heirlooms and start with this simple recipe. You might be surprised by how much flavor you're missing out on.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 8:00 AM | Comments (3)
August 30, 2006
Gibsons straight up

GIBSONS

Many years ago, when Barrett first announced that he was giving up meat for the sake of love, his cholesterol and his weight, my first thought was a purely selfish one: what about GIBSON'S?? Barrett had introduced to me to this Mecca of steak dinners in Chicago a several years before and it had become a fixed feature in my visits to Chicago. Wicked martinis, steaks you could cut with a butter knife, embarrassingly generous side dishes: Gibsons was an institution and a temple to excess. The first time I went to Gibson's with my good friends Barrett and Tom, we had to wait about 45 minutes for our table. Yes, this was for a table we reserved in advance. We squeezed into the heaving bar and stationed ourselves near the baby grand piano, on which a Billy Joel type was pumping out jazz age tunes. I made the classic mistake of downing two of Gibsons huge signature martinis while waiting in the teeming bar. The rest of that evening is a bit of a blur, but I do remember a fiery hot pepper steak, huge platters of broccoli, baked potato and spinach, and a killer hangover the next morning. A few years later, I introduced the Critic to Gibson's and he too made the Two-Martini-Mistake. But he loved the steaks, the buzzing atmosphere, the Experience. (By the way, Barrett's vegetarianism turned out to allow a few exceptions, including Thanksgiving turkey, Gibsons-once-a-year and corned beef on St. Patrick's day. I would have gone for bacon, myself.)

Since then, we have learned to limit ourselves to ONE martini pre-dinner and go easy on the wine afterwards. Those martinis are killers.

This year, it was with a slight tinge of sadness that we asked our friend Tom to reserve a table for three, no Barrett, no Redhead.

We arrived at Gibsons about fifteen minutes early for our reservation, fully expecting to be asked to wait in the bar for our table. To our great surprise - a first in many years of visiting the place - our table was already waiting for us, and this in the middle of the dinner rush. However, when we arrived in the great dining room we found that as usual, it was packed with tightly fitted tables, all full (except ours). We ordered drinks: two Martinis (No, just a normal olive, who on earth came up with the revolting idea of stuffing them with blue cheese? Shoot him, please.) and a Gibson for the Critic, who loves pickled onions as much as he dislikes olives. The free table, the trendy blue-cheese-olives: I was starting to worry a bit about my old friend Gibson's. Was it losing touch?

gibsonsraw.jpg

Our drinks arrived promptly, and immediately afterwards our waiter was back with the tray of Meat to help us make our selections. I can never remember what all the cuts are, so you are on you own with the above photo. I ordered, as usual, the pavé with peppercorns and a soothing Bearnaise sauce to accompany it. Over the years we have become older and in some small way, wiser: we only order one side dish now because it's embarrassing to leave enough food on your table to feed a small village in Mexico at the end of the evening. So we went for the baked potatoes. And starters? Shrimp for Tom, a soft-shelled crab for the Critic (who afterwards admitted, "I never would have ordered it if it weren't for that Gibson...") and oysters for me.

oystersGIBS.jpg

The oysters arrived, as usual with a spicy tomato and horseradish sauce. In France, they are invariably served with lemons and a sauce of shallots and vinegar, which is lovely, but it's also welcome to have a change sometimes. The tomato sauce was just the right balance of sweet, sour, salty and hot: just a dab on each oyster was enough to bring out its briny goodness without overwhelming. That said, the oysters were a bit watery, as though they had lost their original sea-water contents and been replaced with tap. I dont' know much about the logistics of transporting live oysters from the coast to land-locked Chicago, though, and perhaps this is necessary. As you can see in the photo, I also tried one of Tom's shrimp and it too was well complimented by the tomato-horseradish relish, hot and sweet balancing on your tongue perfectly. The Critic raved about his soft-shelled crab, but by the time he remembered to offer me a taste it was already gone.

By now, we had ordered another round of drinks and another sign of slippage appeared in the service: mine came with those darned blue-cheese-stuffed olives. When I pointed out the mistake, it was taken away and came back, obviously the same drink judging by the smears of cheese on the sides and floating in the gin. They also, confusingly, brought me the offending b-c-stuffed olives in a separate glass. Not class.

steakGIBS.jpg

Finally, the steaks arrived. Gibsons is primarily a steak house. If you eat fish (like the Redhead), you can order a fine lobster and maybe some oysters. But if you are a strict vegetarian you'll be limited to the (admittedly generous) side dishes. So it's perhaps fitting that the steaks arrive on a simple white platter, no garnish, just steak and sauce. But it's a bit sad looking, even once you perch a hunk of potato on the side.

However, the steaks themselves are still just fine. The knives are not particularly sharp, but they cut through the meat easily and the flavour is exceptional. These are the steaks that remind you why you are a meat eater. Yes, there are ecological, health and perhaps sentimental reasons for sticking to vegetables. But these steaks remind you that man is at base a carnivore and for a very tasty reason. The crust of black pepper is perfectly proportioned to the steak and just spicy enough that you welcome the rich creamy Bearnaise sauce that comes with it. I have also tried the blue cheese sauce in the past and although it is very good it misses that wonderful spicy/creamy combination that the pepper and Bernaise captures. The portions were, as always, over-generous. The food was very, very good. With the exception of the blue cheese olives (can you tell that one bothered me not a little?) the taste is still impeccable. But I'm a little worried about the service issues and trendy touches like those olives. Let's hope that the managers of Gibson's don't lose their grasp of the important part: delicious steaks cooked to perfection.

And those martinis. George Orwell famously wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London that the key to a great steak restaurant was sharp knives. I would add to that observation that killer Martinis don't hurt either.

Gibsons Steakhouse
1028 N Rush St
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 266-8999

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 4:10 AM | Comments (2)
August 25, 2006
Frozen Wonders

Sometimes I just know a post is going to be controversial. This is one of those posts because in it I praise frozen foods.

In his years in Labrador, fur trader Clarence Birdseye discovered that quick frozen foods, specifically those frozen during the winter, tasted much better than those frozen in the warmer Spring. Birdseye leveraged this observation into a frozen foods empire when he invented a quick freeze machine in 1925. The smaller ice crystals formed by quickly freezing foods preserved the quality of vegetables and meats mush better than older, slower methods.

Frozen foods have since morphed into TV dinners, and then into the Lean Cuisine era of workplace lunch where in addition to the coffee machine, every workplace has a microwave (or two or three) for worker bees to use to defrost and cook their prepackaged inexpensive frosty lunches. Frozen foods today are a huge industry, with sales of over $40 billion dollars as of 1999, the latest figure I could find.

What I've noticed lately, however, is that the quality and ethnic variety of frozen dinners and foods is improving dramatically. For example, what you're looking at above, is a pair of frozen Goya brand Tostones - double fried smashed green plantains. They come about a dozen to a box, and you don't microwave them. Instead, you fry them as you would ordinary tostones, but most of the work is done for you already. A little tomatilla salsa on one and a little red sala on another and you have a delicious snack. The difference between these and fresh? These were pretty close to homemade. Maybe the oil they used for th efirst fry wasn't quite as light as my oil, but otherwise, I'd have no problem serving these at a party. They were delicious.

For most office workers, a simple easy and tasty hot lunch for under $5 is just not going to happen unless it involved speaking into the clown's mouth. Bringing one of the new frozen foods is a way to save money and eat better than at your local Burger Shack. We've been experimenting with frozen foods of a more organic/vegetarian bent. Here's a few to keep your eyes out for.

Amy's - Amy's is the standard brand for us for a variety of frozen dishes. Their meals tend to have under 500 calories, and the quality is pretty good. I've enjoyed the Meatless Meat Loaf Dinner (or as a friend calls it - Wheatloaf) which comes with bright tasting peas and mashed potatoes. The Samosa Wraps - samosa filling in a tortilla - are very tasty indeed. My wife loves the Mexican Casserole and the Enchiladas with Cheese. I'm not as crazy about the cheeseless enchilada meal. Their Indian meals, which usually consist of rice that microwaves very well, a side, and a main curry, are consistently good. The Palak Paneer, Dal Makhani, and assorted chickpea dishes I can recommend highly. They miss with the Vegetarian Pot Pies. The filling is generally pretty good, but the crust is just not right. It comes out not buttery enough and not worth the calories. I think they also miss with most of their frozen burrito line. The breakfast burrito and other burritos that don't have cheese are just too boring. The cheesed burritos are better, and they have a couple of Indian burrito-shaped snacks that I enjoy. We haven't tried their Southeast Asian dishes yet.

Generally, Amy's is reliable and not too overpriced. They offer gluten free meals, vegan meals, and low sodium meals in addition to their regular vegetarian entress. They do not offer non-vegetarian foods. Oh - one more line to avoid - their little pizza bite and veg bite pizza-puff like things are not good. It's the crust again, and I suspect its the same recipe as the crust for the pot pies I found so disappointing.

Kashi - The makers of all those Kashi cereals have started selling frozen dinners. Only one is vegetarian, but it's a winner. The Black Bean Mango Kashi is a great mix of fresh ingredients that comes out tasting nearly as good as if it had been cooked in front of you. This is the best reproduction of fresh out there. I just wish they'd make more vegetarian dishes.

Moosewood - I was very excited to see the Moosewood label on frozen dinners at our local brown-rice-and-granola supermarket. The Moosewood cafe is famous for good vegetarian and vegan foods and the Moosewood cookbooks have been a staple on our kitchen bookshelf for years. I bought the pasta arrabiata and eagerly brought it to work with me. I nuked it, peeled the wrapper off, and was very disappointed in the product inside. The sauce was skimpy for the amount of pasta, the residual water in the bottom of the bowl was a little gross and the pasta itself was overcooked. Avoid. I bought another one of theirs - a Moroccan stew - because I can't believe the Moosewood name would end up on something so awful. I'll let you know how it is.

Linda McCartney - The best thing I can say about Linda McCartney is that she was on the Simpsons and provided an excuse for Apu to sing a mixed up version of Octopus's Garden. The dinners- ugh. Avoid.

Tandoor Chef - If you like vegetarian Indian, this is what you should be on the lookout for. They make a Kofta Curry that's outstanding. Tandoor Chef is a division of Deep Foods, a large company that also sells foods under the Mirch Masala, Bhagwati, Udupi, Reena's and Bansi labels.

Now are the best of these dinners as good as making these dishes from scratch? No, of course not. Your well prepared home cooking is always going to be better than any of these frozen foods, but if you occasionally don't want to devote your entire evening or lunch break to cooking, having a few frozen dinners in your home can give you the break you need. The variety and quality is much better than even just a few yeasrs ago, and a frozen dinner is a lot cheaper than eating out.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 8:51 AM | Comments (12)
August 23, 2006
Okra-at-homa

Today was the day the Northern boy cooked okra. I don't think I'd ever eaten this Southern and African staple before. I had thought i'd had okra, but now I'm not so sure. Or, if I had, it was a prepackaged mess that was cooked within an inch of its life, and nothing like the real fresh article prepared in your own kitchen.

I bought fresh okra from the farmstand. I've been told that in matters of purchasing okra, size matters, but in this case you want small okra rather than the big personal self-defense size you sometimes see. The big stuff is just too tough.

What turns most people off of okra is the goop that oozes from it when cut. If you refrigerate your okra (not freeze, but refrigerate), you'll slow the goop down a bit, but basically you're going to have to learn to deal with it if you want to enjoy this vegetable. The goop is actually very useful if making a stew or gumbo as it helps to thicken the liquid up. And once fried, the goop just isn't a factor.

How's this taste? Great. It's a little chewy, which I like (if you don't, cook your okra longer), and has a lot of good flavor. Some recipes call for soaking the cut okra in salt water for a significant period of time before drying and frying. I'll try that next time, but I'm not unhappy with the unsoaked vegetable.

Wash and dry a pint of okra. Cut the tops and tails off each pod and discard. Slice the okra 1/4"-1/2" thick on the bias. Place the cut okra in a big bowl. Pour 1/2 cup of whole milk or half and half over the okra.

In a separate bowl, add a cup of corn meal, two teaspoons of garlic powder, a generous pinch of salt, a grind of black pepper, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Mix well.

Drain the milk off the okra. Stir the cornmeal mix into the bowl of okra pieces.

Heat enough peanut oil in a nine inch skillet over medium-high heat. You want hot, but not smoking oil. Gently place the okra pieces into the oil, stirring to separate and to get each piece coated with hot oil. Fry for about five-eight minutes, or until the okra takes on a golden brown color. Drain, blot, and serve. Serves two.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:57 AM | Comments (14)
August 21, 2006
Mexican Corn and Peppers Casserole

Is this a casserole or a souffle or a big frittata or what? I can't decide. I used a recipe I found online as a starter for this Mexican Corn and Peppers Casserole, but I deviated from the recipe significantly so I'm claiming it as a semi-original.

Whatever it its, let it be recorded that this is the first from scratch dish cooked in our brand-new green kitchen. Ok, the kitchen isn't new, but the wall color certainly is. We spent most of Saturday and an hour or two Sunday painting the ceiling off-white and covering over the awful peach and orange color scheme that the house came in with a beautiful green. It finally feels like someplace we'd live rather than someplace we were visiting.

And this dish is very "us", as well. Roasted red peppers, fresh corn and fried corn, chipotles in adobo, a roasted poblano, and a couple of jalapenos are set in a custard base and given structure by masa corn flour. The end result is tasty, and The Redhead described it as "meaty", though there is no meat in the dish at all. Those of you who indulge in the porcine realms might consider adding some bacon or pancetta, and using the grease from that instead of the olive oil I've used to fry the one batch of corn.

We ate this for dinner, but it would make a great Mexican- or Southwestern- themed breakfast food. One 10x10 square baking dish will yield 9 servings.

Mexican Corn and Peppers Casserole
5 medium ears fresh corn on the cob
3-5 roasted peppers, assorted red bell and green poblanos, skins removed, cut into 1/2" pieces
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded, flesh cut into 1/4" dice
3 cloves garlic, minced fine
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt
pepper
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 cup masa harina
3 tablespoons chopped chipotle peppers in adobo, with sauce
1 cup half and half (or 1/2 cup heavy cream and 1/2 cup milk, mixed together)
1 1/2 cups shredded extra sharp cheddar
1/2 cup grated queso anjeo
2 beaten eggs
2 tablespoons yor favorite tomato-based salsa per serving (18 tablespoons in all, or one cup, 2 tablespoons)

Cut the corn kernels from the cobs into a large bowl. Mix with the roasted peppers, garlic, and jalapenos. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large sauce pan until shimmering. Dump the corn and pepper mix into the skillet. Reduce heat to medium-high and sautee three-five minutes until everything is wormed through and the jalapenos are starting to soften.

Return the mix to the large bowl. Mix in the masa, cilantro, chipotle in adobo, one cup of cheddar and all the queso anjeo. Salt and pepper to taste. In a smaller bowl, mix the half and half and eggs well.

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Get a 10" square baking dish. If it is not non-stick, lightly oil the insides. Pour the contents of the big bowl into the baking dish. Pour the custard (the egg/half and half mix) over the contents of the baking dish and mix well. Level the surface out and top with the remaining 1/2 cup of cheddar.

Cover the dish with aluminum foil tightly. Bake in the 375 F oven for 40 minutes, then remove foil and bake for 10 minutes more. Let cool five minutes before cutting/serving. Top with two tablespoons salsa on each serving.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:38 AM | Comments (4)
August 16, 2006
Where's the Good Mexican in Baltimore?

I saw yesterday that census figures were released for my old home of Chicago and that the city is now 28.8% Latino, up 2.8% from 2000. The Latinization of Chicago explains to me why there are so many great restaurants with Mexican, Guatemalan, and other Latin food.

In fact, living in a largely Mexican neighborhood, I got a little jaded about good Mexican food. I assumed that when we moved here to the Baltimore area, Mexican would be nearly as abundant as in the Windy City, with a good burrito or sitdown Mexican restaurant never more than a couple of bocks away.

I've been disappointed, unfortunately. Instead of the little burrito joints, there are chain restaurants like Chik-Filet and Panera never more than a few blocks away.

So the Redhead and I set out to find the best Mexican or Latin food we could find in Baltimore. We excluded DC from the searc because its a bit out of the way, and we know that Jose Andres is doing great things with Spainsh tapas with a New World flair at places like Oyamel and Jaleo. If we need a fix, we can go there for slightly overpriced, but very good Latin food.

The first place we tried was at first pretty good. We found La Fiesta Mexican at 8825 Centre Park Drive while scouting the area for houses. It had a nice atmosphere, good margaritas, excellent vegetarian and seafood-based entrees and perfectly acceptable guacamole. We enjoyed our meals there three times and thought our Mexican food needs were taken care of. But then, something changed. The last two times we ate there, the food was mediocre to dull. The margaritas were OK, but not great, and the spiciness of the food was gone. We think this might be due to what seemed to be a much younger high school aged staff coming on as summer job season set in. We will try it again after school's back in to see if it recovers its mojo.

The second Mexican restaurant we located was not far from the intersection of the Columbia and Baltimore National pikes. Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant at 3355 St. Johns in Ellicott City has somewhat worn decor and booths, but seemed clean and smelled great so we gave it a try. The margaritas were not bad, the guacamole pretty good, and the entrees squarely in the middle of what I've had in Chicago Mexican restaurants. We weren't floored, but the food was much better than the changed food at La Fiesta, and overall I'd say this is a place that can satisfy your Mexican-jones when needed. It seems to be family run, the ingredients are fresh, and they were very accomodating to our requests.

The Redhead's been working long hours, and I don't get to see her much. I've been exploring Baltimore a little and wanted to show her some of what I'd discovered. We parked near the Charles street market and walked around the neighborhood a little before settling on the Blue Agave. The Blue Agave is a bar and restaurant, and both sides of the place were hopping on a Saturday late afternoon. This is more of an upscale Mexican establishment and it shows on the menu of tequilas. We ordered the usual plain rock margaritas and were somewhat disappointed with their sweetness. I'm guessing, but it tasted to me that they're using either a super-sweet sour mix or bottled lime juice.

Our appetizers were excellent. I'd almost put them in the Topolobampo category. I had a sweet and spicy velvet sopa de elote (corn soup), and we both enjoyed the slightly chunky and perfectly seasoned guacamole. The Redhead gave it the highest compliment, saying, "It's almost as good as mine." And she makes very good guacamole. We scooped up the guac with the chips from the table which were warm and generally good, but the red corn chips that came with the nachos were stale tasting.

We looked forward to the entrees, but when they came, we both had the same complaint - there was no salt used at all. I had a salmon veracruz that needed more seasoning, and the salmon itself was overcooked. The Redhead's vegetarian enchiladas had a bit of spice, but again no salt or seasoning. With no salt shakers or hot sauce on teh table, we used a little of the salt off the rim of her glass to season up the food to make it edible. I also ordered a side of squash and pumpkin seeds and got a small ramekin of oily squash with no pumpkin seeds at all. And no sesoning, of course.

Blue Agave is very close to being a great Mexican restaurant, but they need to actually taste the food they prepare. I appreciate their wanting to not over-salt their food, but they've gone too far the other way.

Last night, we decided to get serious and consulted the Baltimore City Paper's Best of Baltimore issues for the past few years. Pretty consistently Los Amigos ranked as the best Mexican restaurant, winning 3 times since 2000. Well heck, that's promising, right?

We gave it a go last night and I have to say we left pretty disappointed. Now, please remember we're looking at this from a pescetarian viewpoint. It may very well be that Los Amigos is ranked best based on their chicken and beef dishes, but that's not what we eat and so its not what we experienced.

The margaritas were very disappointing. We'd hoped with the authentic-looking menu that we'd be getting some of the good stuff, but it was more sour mix with too much sugar. A good margarita should be fresh and lively, not unbearably sweet.

I can say the salsa at Los Amigos was excellent as were the table chips, which were warm and crispy. They served not only the usual red salsa, but a white crema and jalapeno (and cumin?) blend they called white salsa. It was interesting and something I might try to create a version of on my own.

The entrees and appetizers were acceptable, but nothing to write home about. My chiles rellenos were stuffed with a low flavor, high heat retention mix of potatoes and a bit of cheese, and the coating was soggy. Having just made really good chiles rellenos, I was particularly disappointed.

We finished with a fried ice cream dish that we don't think was fried much or very proximately to the time we ordered it. It was not bad, with the bizzare but charming addition of sprinkles, but not as good as other fried ice creams I've had.

So what up, Baltimore? Where's that hole-in-the-wall place you don't tell anyone about that has truly excellent Mexican? Am I going to have to give my Mexican restaurant dollar to DC? If you have a Mexican place in the greater Baltimore region to recommend, please do in the comments. I'll be watching with great hope that you'll turn us on to a place that will convince me that the best place for Mexican in Maryland is not our kitchen.

Restaurants Mentioned:
La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant
8825 Centre Park Dr # B
Columbia, MD 21045
(410) 997-7182

Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant
3355 Saint Johns LN
Ellicott City, MD 21042
(410) 480-2900
http://www.micasamd.com/

Blue Agave Restaurant
1032 Light St
Baltimore, MD 21230
(410) 576-3938
blueagaverestaurant.com

Los Amigos
5506 Harford Rd
Baltimore, MD 21214
(410) 444-4220
losamigosbaltimore.com

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 8:28 AM | Comments (22)
August 15, 2006
Lessons Learned

What do you think of that beautiful photo of patty pan (or petite pan) squash with mustard greens and kale and baby eggplant sauteed in garlic oil with worcestershire, mustard powder, and red wine vinegar, all in a small amount of vegetable broth? Isn't it lovely? No, that photo right there. The one with this post. Ohhh, you don't see it either?

Well there's a reason for that. I put together the above described dish and dutifully took photos of the meal. It looked interesting and somewhat attractive for those herbivores among us. The dish smelled great. But when the fork hit the bowl... not so tasty.

One of the hazards cooking and of writing a food blog is that you get a little cocky and think you can improvise a dish from a few great ingredients. Sometimes you get away with it. I've had many a post here that originated in my head the night before dinner as I peered deep into the refrigerator.

But sometimes it just doesn't work out so well.

I had hoped to highlight the delicious patty pan/petite pan squash. They look like tiny little UFO's or like tiny round bread loaves (petite pain - I'm guessing that's the origin of the name). They taste a little bit like zucchini and other summer squash, but have a little more flavor and a little less bitterness, especially if you get them really young. If you see these a the farmer's market, pick them up and try them out. Throw some garlic and oil into a pan, sautee, and toss in the squash. Sautee until fork tender and season with salt and pepper to taste.

As it was, in a crowded skillet, the squash weren't done until the eggplant and kale were too tender. I might have liked them even more tender, but that would have disintegrated the eggplant and made the kale far too soft. Bad choice to have them all together - lesson learned.

The addition of the baby eggplants was not a bad choice, but my order of sautee was. I tossed in the firm eggplant ahead of the squash and the greens. Big mistake. Cut small, eggplant cooks very quickly. That's one lesson I won't forget. The eggplant were very tasty, but as I said, too squishy for my taste.

The greens also taught me a lesson. I used a mix of collards and kale, cutting the stems and tough veins from each leaf before cooking. The kale was tender and delicious, while the mustard greens still were a bit tough. They both soaked up far too much of the small amount of vinegar I'd used in the cooking. Another lessons learned - use a sparing amount of vinegar with greens because the greens drink it up like it was whisky and the greens were that branch of my family we don't talk much about.

The biggest lesson was that this should not have been a one-skillet dish. I should have sauteed the squash separately from the greens. That way the two major ingredients each would have had the appropriate time to cook, and I might have rescued the greens from the excess vinegar (how? More veg broth and mabe more oil or mabe even more greens of some sort. The Redhead always says "The solution to pollution is dilution." And she's right.)

So no recipe today, I'm sorry to say. Make sure that when you screw up a dish (and we all do), you figure out what went wrong and take those lessons with you to the next dish you attempt. Tonight - I try to fry okra for the first time ever. There will be lots of authentic Southern expertise consulted for that one, to avoid a repeat of last night's dinner disaster.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 8:01 AM | Comments (4)
August 14, 2006
Bear garlic potato salad

barlauch.jpgI've mentioned a few times the trips I've made to the salon de saveurs that takes place each spring and autumn in Paris. I invariably find a few interesting ingredients that sit at the back of the refrigerator or cupboard, waiting for me to be in desperate need of inspiration. Just before our holidays, I hosted a couple of barbecues on the terrace and so I was in desperate need of something quick and easy. I hit on the idea of using some of the Ramsons sauce I had purchased at the salon in a potato salad. Ramsons is also known as wood garlic or bear garlic. As you can see in the photo, the jar I bought was from Germany and so labelled "bärlauch", or "bear leek". I like that. I can just about see a brown bear delicately balancing a frond of bear garlic on his portion of freshly caught salmon before popping it in his big mouth. Before buying the jar, I tried a sample of it on a crouton. The vendors explained that they first toasted the bread and then sprinkled it with a little white wine and tossed it in a hot frying pan before cooling and spreading it with the sauce. (This sauce, by the way, seems to consist mainly of chopped bear garlic and vegetable oil with a couple of stabilisers thrown in for good measure.) The sauce is deep green and looks a bit like a very soupy pesto sauce. And the taste? Garlicky of course but with a herbal aftertaste. It's less sharp than fresh garlic, but somehow not as mellow as cooked garlic. It was extremely tasty and so I bought a jar.

For the potato salad, I decided to follow the example of the vendors and use a little white wine. It's really not a recipe: take a kilo of new potatoes and boil them until tender. You can cut the big ones in half if you like so they are all done at the same time. Toss them with three generous tablespoons of wild garlic sauce and a half glass of wine. Taste for salt and pepper - I added a generous amount of the latter.

I had toyed with the idea of using a vinegar with the bear garlic sauce, but decided it would clash with the flavour. The white wine really did add a nice crisp touch without overpowering the herb.

For a little more information on where ramsons grow and how long humans have been eating it (very), you can check out this short article in the wikipedia.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 4:10 PM | Comments (4)
August 10, 2006
Staying Starbucks-Free in St. Charles

One of the things I loved about the University of Chicago when I studied there some 20 years ago was the fact that every faculty had its own coffee shop. On a freezing Chicago day, when the wind cut across the Midway like a knife, you knew you could pop into any university building and find a haven of hot coffee and snacks. What I loved about these coffee shops is how each one seemed to reflect the spirit of the academic subject taught in that building: the Classics building coffee shop had big old comfortable leather couches surrounding a neo-gothic fireplace and home-made chili. The Humanities building had hard bright plastic chairs, but every variety of herbal tea known to man. The Geology building had stark florescent lighting and truly awful coffee.

When I left the oasis of Hyde Park, I was delighted to discover that it wasn't just a University of Chicago phenomenon: the North side of the city, where Barrett and I were roommates, also had loads of great coffee shops, where you could meet friends or just escape from the Chicago weather for an hour or two. Often, the coffee shop was combined with a bookstore, making it just about the perfect combination in my mind. We didn't have quite the extraordinary selection of skinny, latte, double espresso, soy-milk iced coffees that you find in a Starbucks. But there was some good coffee available nevertheless. And each shop had its own character and mood.

My boyfriend at the time, a Seattlite, complained long and loud about the lack of a Starbucks or a "proper" Italian coffee shop. (I seem to recall the ex-boyfriend remarking sniffily truck drivers in Washington state demanded better coffee than could be had in Chicago.) We were humbled in the face of his sophisticated certainty. And so we were all excited when the first Starbucks appeared in Chicago. At last we would be able to taste that ambrosia of good coffee. Although I went along with my friends in saying it was the best coffee ever and a really good thing (I was young after all) I didn't really find it all that much better than my usual haunts. The Starbucks (notice how quickly that became plural?) were all pretty hip looking and had comfortable chairs and - like McDonald's - you knew that the product and selection would be the same in every location.

Then the rumours started circulating about one of my favourite coffee shops, Scenes. Scenes combined a theatrical bookstore and a coffee shop and although it wasn't the best coffee in the city it had a great atmosphere. The waiters and waitresses were friendly and you could pick up a book and sit for hours with the bottomless cup, reading or talking to friends. But rumour had it that Starbucks was offering the landlord of the building twice the rent Scenes paid for the space. And a few months later, Scenes was no more and a gleaming green Starbucks logo was in its place. By then, I was no longer living in Chicago. But I couldn't help noticing how each time I returned to visit Chicago, there were fewer independent booksellers and coffee shops and more Starbucks and Borders. Back in the early 90s you could visit 20 or more used bookstores and an equal number of independent coffee shops in a very small radius. Now I can name about three of each.

I didn't immediately decide to boycott Starbucks. Business is business after all, and they were obviously delivering a good product that simply succeeded better than others. And then I read No Logo, by Naomi Klein. I read about the Starbucks strategy (which many others soon mimicked) of saturating a neighborhood with more Starbuck's cafés than the area could support, thus driving out the competition and leaving only Starbucks. Even if one out of two cafés ultimately closed doors, they had eliminated the others in the field. That is truly evil. And so I have been Starbucks-free for a few years now. I don't want to give them my money and I like supporting small business owners.

But I've noticed on this trip that it's getting harder and harder to avoid Starbucks. The coffee is served on the plane I fly to Chicago. It's in the Target coffee shop where we went shopping the other day. At the train station, when I asked if the coffee shop had iced coffee, the fellow behind the counter directed me to the bottles of Starbucks iced lattes in the refrigerator. (The Critic, who thinks I'm a little obsessive on this issue, tried one: it was tooth-achingly sweet.)

So where will it all end? Will Starbucks coffees start marching into my home and lining up in front of the fridge? Will it become impossible to consume coffee anywhere in the city without seeing that darned green mermaid? Will I have to give up coffee altogether? Because it's starting to look that way. I'm finding it increasingly difficult to stay Starbucks-free in St. Charles, IL.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 7:55 AM | Comments (10)
August 9, 2006
Sopa Elote (Corn Soup, Mexican style)

Every good Midwestern boy enjoys corn. Some like it on the cob, some off. Some like it in cornbread or creamed, and some like it in soup.

I like it all those ways, but my recent new favorite is in a coup with Mexican style ingredients. It seems every good Mexican boy likes corn as well.

As I make this soup, its a peasant food (OK, food for a peasant with a hand-blender), but you could easily make it a little fancier with a little straining to get the corn niblet skins out. I like the fiber and don't mind the texture at all.

Unlike yesterday's chiles rellenos recipe, this is a recipe to make when you've got a lot going on and not much time to pay attention to making dinner. You could make this recipe with fresh corn, but frozen works well here. I'd still avoid canned corn, which is only good for weighing down tofu presses, in my opinion.

You can substitute jalapenos or serranos for the poblano and yogurt or sour cream for the crema in this recipe, but if you have to pick only one of those to keep, keep the crema. It adds a very authentic feel to the soup.

This soup is spicy, creamy, sweet, sophisticated, and simple all at once. No, really. Try it and tell me if you disagree.

For additional flavor, thaw and roast the niblets first to concentrate their essence.

Sopa Elots (Corn Soup, Mexican style)
2 leeks, cleaned and chopped roughly, white parts only
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
pinch of salt
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1 16 oz. bag frozen corn niblets
1 poblano pepper, chopped coarsely
1/2 red onion, diced coarsely
1 teaspoon cayenne
3 cups vegetable stock
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup Mexican/Salvadoran crema

Sautee the leeks and garlic in the oil and butter over medium heat until the leeks are softened but not colored.

Add the poblano, corn, and onion. Sautee for about a minute or two. Add the stock and cayenne. Bring just to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook covered for 20 minutes.

Take the soup off the heat. Add the cilantro and crema. Blend the soup with an immersion blender until smooth. Serve with a tortilla chip and cilantro garnish.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:15 AM | Comments (17)
August 8, 2006
Chiles Rellenos

I've decided to start taking on the dishes I've been intimidated to attempt cooking. Number one or numero uno on my list is a dish I order at just about every Mexican restaurant I eat at - chiles rellenos.

Though there are other versions of chiles rellenos that use different peppers or a pork-based filling, my goal was to reproduce the simple poblano-based, cheese-stuffed chiles rellenos that Ive loved for years. The distinguishing feature of a good chiles rellenos is the fluffy batter that the chiles are dipped in before frying. A good batter makes the dish, and I've avoided making this dish because I didn't think I could reproduce the batter.

Before I could have a go at the batter, my first hurdle in recreating this meal was locating some good quality poblanos to stuff. In Chicago this would not have been a problem - every local fruteria has good quality poblanos year round. But here in Maryland, the poblanos are a little hard to find in August. I searched several mainstream supermarkets, including a couple with a pretty good Mexican foods aisle and came up empty.

I finally found the poblanos of my dreams in a little market in Columbia off Dobbin near the Fuddrucker's across the street from the Walmart shopping center (no, I don't live in the heart of the heart of suburbia, really). There, in the refrigerated case was a case of beautiful dark green poblano peppers. And, although they didn't have real Chihuahua cheese, they did have a decent Oaxacan substitute that I also snapped up.

A little research online and in Rick Bayless's books showed general agreement on the proper way to make the fluffy batter, though I think it made far too much of the stuff.

This isn't a recipe to make when you're pressed for time. Blistering the peppers and stuffing them are a little fiddly and you shouldn't take these steps when you're pressed hard for time. Give yourself an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half to complete all the steps here and you'll be much happier with the results.

Chiles Rellenos serves two as a main dish
4 poblano peppers
4 ounces chihuahua cheese, shredded - amount varies with size of peppers
4 eggs
pinch of salt
1 cup of flour
1 tablespoon flour additional
enough vegetable oil to fill a skillet 1/2" - 3/4" deep
1 cup your favorite red tomato based salsa
1 cup your favorite marinara sauce
more shredded chihuahua cheese to top
two tablespoons crema, or creme fraiche or sour cream

You'll also want a paper bag and some toothpicks.

When you purchase your poblanos, try to find some that are smoother and have no deep folds. These folds are difficult to blister, and may cause some skin to be left on the pepper.

First, we need to remove the skins from the peppers. Rick Bayless recommends frying the skins off, but I prefer to blister them directly on a gas burner. Hold the pepper directly over the gas fire (not with your hand, obviously - try tongs or set them on a cooling rack that's sitting on the burner). Get every side of the peppers blistered and black.

Put the peppers in the paper bag and close the top. The steam from the insides of the peppers will loosen the skin. When they've cooled to merely warm (about ten minutes later), take the peppers out and scrape the skin off using a blunt knife (like a butter knife). If you've done it right, just about all the skin will just slide off easily.

Make a slit about two inches long in the in one side of each pepper, being careful not to cut through to the other side or to slitting the tip.

Reach in with a finger and pry out all the seeds that cluser like a chandelier along the stem on the inside. Rinse the pepper to remove the seeds you've loosened. Dry the pepper and let it drain on paper towels, slit down.

After a few minutes, stuff each pepper with as much shredded cheese as each will hold comfortably. Try not to tear the slit any wider than it already is. Use toothpicks to pull the slit closed.

Separate your eggs into whites and yolks, dropping the whites in a large metal or glass bowl. Add a pinch of salt to the whites and beat them on medium until you get firm peaks. Add two yolks to the whites and beat them until they're well incorporated. Add the final two yolks and beat them until thy are well incorporated also. Finally, add the one tablespoon of flour and beat it into the mix.

Spread a cup of flour on a plate or in a pie tin.

Heat the oil in a skillet until shimmering hot, but not smoking.

Take each pepper and roll it in the flour, and lightly shake the excess off. Dip the floured pepper in the fluffy batter, covering well, and let the excess drain for a second or two before transferring the pepper to the oil. Continue with the rest of the peppers.

As the peppers fry, use a spoon to baste the top side with the hot oil to help set the batter. In about three to four minutes, when the down side of the pepper is golden brown and delicious, GENTLY flip the pepper using the stem and a spatula to control the flip. Always flip away from you so you don't get spattered with hot oil. Fry them until the second side is golden brown and delicious and remove the peppers to a plate covered with paper towels to drain.

Combine your marinara and salsa in a microwave-safe bowl. Put the bowl in your microwave, cover the top with a paper towel loosely to reduce spatters, and nuke on high for one minute.

Turn on your broiler.

Place the peppers on an aluminum foil covered cookie pan. Spoon about two tablespoons of sauce on each pepper, and cover lightly in cheese. Place the peppers under the broiler for 90 seconds to two minutes until the cheese is lightly browned and crispy.

Remove the toothpicks from the peppers.

Put 1/2 the sauce on each plate and serve two peppers to each person, slit down. Spoon the crema on top of the peppers sparingly. The usual pinto beans and rice sides go well with this dish, but some garlicky greens would be an even better accompaniment.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:07 AM | Comments (12)
August 4, 2006
The Quinoa Virgin

rawquinoa.jpgBack in May, I visited the twice-yearly salon des saveurs with a couple of friends and readers of this site. "I am so grateful to you guys for introducing me to quinoa!" enthused my friend Taina. "We just love it!" Um. That would be Barrett. Or Justin. One of those vegetarian types anyway. I shamefacedly admitted that I am a quinoa virgin. I haven't even tried out the recipes of my co-contributors.

So last week with the conservative Critic off fishing in Canada (they caught big fish, just so you know) I decided to redeem myself and give the stuff a try. And you know they were right. It's a lot tastier than couscous and has a much more interesting chewy texture. But it's not as chewy and stodgy as, say, barley. I love anything with a nutty flavour (you'll see that adjective come up frequently when I am enthusing about a recipe I really love). And yet it makes the perfect backround for fresh vibrant flavours like tomato and fresh basil. I liked it so much I'm going to try to convince the Critic to give it a go.

Quinoa Goat's Cheese and Tomato Salad

I nearly called this Quinoa Caprese, but I figured someone was bound to notice that it calls for goat's cheese and not buffalo mozzarella. The goat's cheese gives a delightful sharp bite to the salad and it also makes it more substantial. I frequently find that vegetarian recipes seem to be missing a bit of weight and cheese completely makes up for it for me. On the other hand, it's a tasty salad to accompany a bit of protein in the form of sausages or other meat from the barbecue. If you are so inclined.

I read quite a few recipes before trying my hand at quinoa myself and found that there are many different theories on the best way to prepare it. One epicurious.com one called for washing the grain several times, partially cooking it, washing again, and then cooking it again. I decided to follow the directions on the package which seemed logically and much simpler.

quinoasalad.jpg1 cup quinoa (uncooked)
1 Tbs olive oil
2 medium tomatoes, cut in chunks
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
2 Tbs lemon juice
1/2 cup goat's cheese, cut in small (1 cm) cubes
1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan
1 large spring onion, thinly sliced

Put the olive oil in the bottom of a medium saucepan and heat it. Rinse the quinoa once in a strainer under running water. Drain it well and then add it to the sauce pan. Stir for a few minutes until coated and heated through. Then pour in two cups of water and bring to a boil. Once it is boiling, reduce the heat to a medium flame and allow it to cook, uncovered, for about 15 minutes. Once the grains have swollen and become slightly transluscent, turn of the flame and cover. Leave for about five minutes and then fluff the grains with a fork. Once the quinoa has cooled, toss it with the rest of the ingredients. Before serving, taste to see if it needs a bit more olive oil, lemon juice or salt (or some combination thereof) to round out the flavours.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 8:27 AM | Comments (12)
August 2, 2006
I Wouldn't Eat It: Boiled Peanuts (or maybe I would...)


It's been a while since we've had a good I Wouldn't Eat it post, but I found the perfect candidate at a farmer's market a week or so ago. Boiled peanuts. In a can.

Boiled peanuts are a staple of Southern cuisine. The most classically correct way to eat these goobers is to drop one in a bottle of Royal Crown cola and drink it down along with the cola. Well, I didn't have any RC laying around, but I did have a serving suggestion on the side of the can - "Heat in brine from can".

So first, we know that the peanuts inside this can have been boiled. Second, we know they've been canned. Third, we know they've been sitting in brine. Fourth, they're described as GREEN peanuts. What's not to like? (Shudder.)

The pop top on the can suggests that for many, heating the peanuts is something optional. Once I pop the top, I see some sad looking wet peanuts, with a not altogether pleasant smell. They don't look green, just ordinarily brown. Science must advance and so, into the pot with the brine the contents of the can goes.

By this point, I'm pretty sure this is going to be a bad experience, though not as bad as my Pennywort or Marmite experiences.

The nuts are hot by now, and I drain them. I'm left with damp peanuts in the shell. I take a bowl for the shells and a paper towel over to the table and prepare for an unpleasant experience.

The first nut. I usually eat about half my dry roasted peanuts in the shell with the shell still on. I try that here and the shell doesn't break crisply but wilts between my teeth before issuing the mildest crunch ever. The nut inside tastes like a salty peanut, but softer, more malleable. It's not unpleasant, but there's no way I'm swallowing this shell and nut mess like this. The strings would choke me. I spit it out.

The next nut, I crack open with my teeth (OK, pry open gently more than crack open). The nut inside is salty, soft, and flavorful. I continue. Not so bad. The peanuts themselves are definitely softer and moister than the dry roasted nuts I'm used to. Sometimes the nuts are almost mushy, which is disturbing, but overall, they're pretty tasty, and I don't get that dry nut dust cough that often accompanies a round of peanut eating.

So, basically, peanuts, salt - I guess I Would Eat It. What I'd worried would be a gross mushy mess turned out to be not bad at all. I don't get the same satisfaction of eating the shells that I do from dry roasted peanuts in the shell, but as their own thing, these were pretty good. I'm not sure I'll go out of my way to find these again, but I won't avoid them either. As for the green thing, it turns out that "green" in this context is a term used for freshly picked peanuts, and not for underripe actually green legumes. If I'd known that going in, I might not have been so apprehensive.

Good lord, am I becoming Southernized?

I will try to find a good recipe to make these fresh myself. Canning rarely does any favors for the flavor of food, so I'm sure that if I found this canned version of boiled peanuts acceptable that the fresh version might be quite tasty. If I find and try that recipe, I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

History of Boiled Peanuts
Wikipedia entry
Lee Brothers Boiled Peanuts Catalog

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:48 AM | Comments (47)
August 1, 2006
Hard-Boiled Detective

The Times Online of London today is reporting that Lion Quality Eggs is now marketing eggs that tell you when they're cooked. The key is a thermal ink that shows up only after sufficient heat has been applied to the egg. Boil the egg and the second it's done, the ink appears on the side of the egg to let you know.

Unfortunately, if you like variety, you'll have to buy three dozen eggs. Each egg is only printed with one type of ink, so you'll have to decide whether you intend to eat them soft-boiled, medium boiled, or hard boiled. I don't know why they don't just print each one with all three inks, but I suspect it's to make space for that big logo on the side.

No word on progress in printing egg yolks for over easy, medium, or hard.

found at Gizmodo

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 8:50 AM | Comments (7)
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