Sunday, April 27, 2008

AUGH! The End is Near

Just a couple of posts ago I expressed my fears that my mom-and-pop-dominated neighborhood is slowly being taken over by chains.

You can't believe my horror when I saw last night that a Starbucks had opened on my strip. Not only was it a Starbucks, but it was two doors down from the independent coffee house, Cafe Mozart and a block from The Tea House, which also does specialty coffee. Cafe Mozart has outdoor seating, live entertainment on weekends, and they serve actual hot dinners. Their desserts are far superior as well, so maybe they stand a chance. The writing is on the wall for The Tea House though (although their desserts are the best of the lot).

I try to hold out some hope. Last night Kevin and I had dinner at the excellent (and fairly new) independent Indian restaurant down the street, Rani Mahal. We stopped for dessert at Sal's Gelateria. This place is very new, but is owned by a local institution, Sal's Pizza. The gelato flavors were excellent. I had bacio (like the Baci candy) and he had caramello. This place is thriving while Hagen Daaz and Coldstone have both come and gone.

The fate of the Jolly Trolley though reminds us to be grateful. for those few mom-and-pop places left. I found out the restaurant closed due to losing its lease. The building may be knocked down and turned into waterfront condos. It may also become a Pizza Hut. If it becomes a Pizza Hut, I will laugh instead of cry. You know why? Because a Pizza Hut is doomed to fail. With the famous Sal's and two other pretty good independent pizza places in the neighborhood, no one wants to eat at Pizza Hut around here. I remember in high school, growing up in a neighboring town, they tried to open a Dominos down the street from me. Quick delivery gimmick aside, it failed miserably. Why order from Dominos when Mama Sofia's was on the next block and it was a thousand times better?

Monday, April 21, 2008

My First Matzah Balls!

I've been wanting to make matzah balls for my husband for years. He always get matzah ball soup when we go the diner. He loves it and it's very seasonally appropriate right now.

For quite some time now I've been saving any chicken fat that comes off my soups and chickens in the freezer for use in future matzah balls. As far as I'm concerned, there is no substitute for chicken fat in your matzah balls. Nothing tastes like chicken fat (well, I suppose bacon fat does, but this is one time I think I need to tone down the "Gentile Variations" in my cooking).

I admit I used canned, low-sodium broth for my soup. I added some chopped onions, chicken, and carrots to it, but I just didn't have time to make my own stock this time around. I won't be doing anything like that till this show is over (they just "promoted" me for a better role, which would be great if we weren't less than a month away from performance time).

Kevin wanted some bread to go with it, so I bought some rolls. It's Passover this week. What's wrong with the picture?

I would have liked to have made more of these. I adjusted a few recipes that I already found to make them richer and more flavorful, but I think the thing I really needed to do with those recipes was double them. My balls were small. I like big matzah balls that fill up a small bowl.

You are supposed to simmer these in water and then add them to the soup. I simmered them right in the soup. I'm not sure how that might have affected the final outcome.

Kevin thought they were wonderful. I thought they were a little chewy. I wonder what his grandmother would have thought.

I'll-Never-Be-a-Bubbe Matzah Balls

1 1/4 cup matzah meal
5 tablespoons chicken fat
1 Tbp chopped fresh parsely
1/4 cup hot water
4 eggs lightly beaten
1 tsp salt
Few grinds black pepper
One big pot of chicken soup.

Mix eggs and chicken fat together. Blend in matzah meal, parsley, salt and pepper. Add water. Refrigerate one hour. Roll into balls and add to simmering soup. Cover and cook 20 minutes.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Foodies Who Make You Feel Bad (With bonus rant on the world domination of chains)

I think of myself as a foodie in training. I love to cook and I love to eat, but my palate is pretty unsophisticated in many areas. I probably couldn't tell the difference between a Sysco steak and one from Peter Luger's if I didn't taste them side by side. I'm clueless about authentic Asian food and Latin American food. I am completely in the dark about wine. That's one of the reasons why I love food blogs. They do a very good job of educating me. I also enjoy foodie message boards because they allow me to "converse" with a broad range of tastes and experiences on one page. My current fave is Chowhound.

While I usually find the conversation stimulating, sometimes these people make me feel like an unsophisticated bumpkin. Maybe they don't intend to, but I sometimes come away from these exchanges feeling stupid.

Here is my most recent example. About a year ago, I made a post about a restaurant in my neighborhood called the Jolley Trolley. It had been there for years and I had never been in it. Kevin and I tried it one night and found we liked it. Granted, the first time I went, I had let myself get distracted by the cuteness of presenting petite filets on top of onion rings and the fishbowl-sized margaritas. On subsequent visits I came down to earth a bit and realized that the food isn't all that good. Don't get me wrong. It's not bad. If it were bad we wouldn't have kept going back, but it's hardly gourmet. They do some things pretty well and there are some things they do that are quite mediocre. They have a really good salad bar. You have to just take your chance and order. The restaurant's main draw is that it's a decent, low-end, American bar and grill. Many of the restaurants in my neighborhood don't have good bars for hanging out, are pricey, or are ethnic. Our only other options for that sort of cheap American classic food is either the diner or Applebees. We get tired of eating at the diner all of the time and we don't like Applebees (I've developed my palate that much at least).

A couple of weeks ago, through the Chowhound boards, I found out that the Jolley Trolley had very suddenly closed its doors. I was shocked because the place had quite popular. Just a couple of weeks earlier Kevin and I tried to go there for dinner and ended up having to go elsewhere because of the long wait. Why had it closed? I made the comment online that I would miss it. It has been our go-to place for some casual fare. Otherwise, our only other choice is Applebees.

Well, I got a rather highbrow response from another poster that the Jolley Trolley is not better than Applebees. It's just as bad and they serve inferior wine there and try to pass it off as something better. Well, I don't go to places like the Jolley Trolley to drink wine. I go there to drink big fruity drinks made with cheap liquor (can I admit that sometimes Sandra Lee's cocktails look good - I drink like a girl) or a Coke. I'm know they don't use the best quality ingredients in their dishes, but I know that they are at least prepared in the kitchen by a cook and that some of them do taste good.

I just felt like that person was talking down to me. I must be an idiot to think that the Jolley Trolley was somehow better than Applebees. The poster informed me that she always just went for ethnic food or to the diner when she didn't want to spend a lot of money. I got the impression that she thought she was better than me.

It's not as if I don't try to be a better foodie. I'm really working hard to educate myself right now on various Asian cuisines for example. The blogs I read really help to educate me about so many aspects of cooking and eating. I like to learn from people who are far more experienced than I am in terms of dining experiences and cooking skills - AS LONG AS THEY'RE NICE ABOUT IT. Besides, I'm sure there are plenty of serious foodies out there who admit to the guilty pleasure of liking something made with cheap ingredients, or store-bought, or containing mysterious chemicals. I might spend years developing a better palate and still feel that some of the Jolley Trolley food tasted good.

If people who are passionate about quality food don't want to be seen as a bunch of elitist snobs, they really need to avoid talking down to people.

That brings me to my next point though. Classic American bar and grill type places have all but disappeared from my neighborhood. There aren't many restaurants where there are bars where you can hang out and eat bar snacks (the only one left is Chinese). The diner is fine, but it only serves cheap wine, beer, and Mike's. (I'm not complaining. I love Mike's. Seriously, I drink like I'm still in college and experimenting with alcohol for the first time.)

I used to love the fact that my neighborhood is filled with mom-and-pop restaurants. The only Starbucks in town is pretty far away from where I am. You can walk down my street and find Italian, French, coffeehouse (of the independent variety), Mexican, Chinese and Chinese takeout, and a huge proliferation of Japanese and Asian fusion places (there are three Japanese restaurants on my street and three Japanese/fusion places set to open all on the same strip). I've always been pleased that the major national chains have stayed out of my neighborhood except for Applebees. Then I realize that Applebees is now the only restaurant of its kind in my neighborhood!

Well, I should clarify one thing. The Jolley Trolley was part of a chain. It was owned by Charlie Browns. But Charlie Browns is hardly a big chain. You don't find them outside the tri-state area. But even as a chain, you can't compete against the big guys anymore. I wonder if in a few years' time if anyone will be able to eat in an independent restaurant anymore.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Going Asian This Week

My weekly recipes have so far covered (or bastardized) Italian, Mexican, and classic American. It was time to go Asian.

I had a partially unused jar of tamarind sauce in my fridge. I decided it was time to use it. Not only would I be going Asian, but I know Sue likes the stuff. When I began Googling recipes for chicken in tamarind, I was expecting to find Indian recipes. Imagine my surprise when I found the recipe that came up the most was Chinese Ayam Siow.

The recipes I found required whole bone-in chicken pieces and long periods of marinating. In the interest of time, I used boneless, skinless thighs and marinated them two hours. They also took less time to cook. Speed is important when you have to be at rehearsal by 2PM (and don't come home till 10PM with an hour break for dinner).

I would have liked the recipe to be a bit sweeter and would use more sugar in the future, but otherwise I liked the dish. The shallots took on the sharpness of the tamarind and reminded me a bit of pickles. I served this with rice that was simmered with ginger and garnished with chopped scallions and green beans (frozen) that I defrosted in the microwave and tossed with soy sauce, sesame oil, and sesame seeds.

Chicken in Tamarind Sauce

2 Pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs
10 shallots finely chopped
1/2 cup tamarind paste
2 Tbp soy sauce.
2 Tbp rice vinegar
2 Tbp brown sugar
1 Tbp ground coriander
1 Tsp white pepper
2 Tbl oil

Combine all ingredients except for chicken in a bowl. Add chicken and marinate at least two hours. Heat oil in a large skillet and add chicken and marinade. Cook about 20 minutes (turning once) or until cooked through.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Great Friday Night Experiment

Last night I was home with no dance class, no rehearsal, no invitation to join my popular coworkers for drinks (I'm sure it was just oversight), and no more leftover turkey bucati. I needed to make a nice, simple dinner.

Michelle can take credit for my inspiration. As soon as I saw her poached eggs resting upon a bed of mushrooms and spring onions, I knew I had a winner for nights like this when I didn't feel much like cooking a fancy meal, but I had to cook something. I was off to the market to find some spring onions and mushrooms of my own.

I headed to Whole Paychec-I mean Whole Foods and my simple dish took on a surprising detour.

I had some trouble finding the spring onions. They weren't on display with the regular onions. Once I found them, I was quite impressed with their great beauty. I didn't know if I should eat them or just photograph them. Since I am still without a digital camera, I had to settle for eating them. (Quick update on that topic. I have the full intention of buying one, but my husband says I should wait until we get the Best Buy gift certificate that Verizon promised to send us as some kind of reward for having FIOS installed. The gift continues to fail to materialize, so I remain without my own camera and the blog remains unillustrated.)

At least I knew where the mushrooms were. I headed to the back of the produce department and grabbed a package of cremini. That's when something caught my eye. Nestled in a bed of chives were these speckled things that didn't appear to be vegetables. Upon further inspection I saw that they were quail eggs. I had trouble believing that they were quail eggs (what were they doing in the produce department?) but there were signs about unspecified sizes and grades and signs about safe egg storage, so I had to believe them. I had never eaten quail eggs before. I had the crazy idea that I would use poached quail eggs instead of chicken eggs that night.

But wait...there's more!

Right beneath the quail eggs were fiddlehead ferns. I had never tried them before and I know the season is short. I figured this was the perfect time to try them. I would add them to the mushrooms and onions for a totally new experience.

I had no idea how to cook fiddleheads. A little research online told me I had to boil them for at least 10 minutes. I'm loath to boil any vegetable, but it seemed to be the only way. When I got them home to prepare them, they looked sort of scary. I cleaned them well because they do look sort of dirty and sort of like contorted alien insects. I boiled them as directed. Eight minutes was all I needed to get them tender and they looked sadly far less green when they came out of the pot as they did when they went in. I must investigate further cooking methods for these things.

I bought some prosciutto too. Michelle used crisped up prosciutto in her dish. I figured I could at least have some proscuitto in my portion. My rationale was simple. If everything else ended up tasting bad, at least I'd have prosciutto. I can always know that tastes good. I used 4 slices. That would be enough for two people. Oops. Kevin doesn't eat it. More for me. Oh and the rest of the slices in the package? Um...they went to good use. I mean, I'm sure those competely uneaten slices in the package will go to a good use in the future. Yeah. That's the ticket.

The overall result was pretty good. The mushroom-fiddlehead-onion mixture benefitted greatly by the addition of lemon juice, white wine, and fresh thyme. (I love fresh time. It's my favorite herb. Is there an herb on the planet that smells better than fresh thyme? I didn't think so.) I'm not sure how I feel about the fiddleheads. I was a bit shocked that Kevin picked one up, asked me what it was, and calmly ate it. All I can say is they taste like - plants. They taste like what you might think picking up the stalk of a houseplant or some plant you pick up in the woods would taste like. But it wasn't unpleasant. They weren't at all bitter. They were just plant-like. The quail eggs weren't radically different from chicken eggs. They are VERY hard to crack because the shells are sort of leathery. You have to just break a hole and squeeze the egg out. That's okay. They're pretty sturdy. I only broke one yolk doing this. I'm a terrible egg poacher (yes, I know about the vinegar thing), so they didn't have much shape, but it was kind of cool in a gross way to pop a whole poached yolk in your mouth and let it ooze around. I might try these again.

The testament to the succes of the dish came was when it was eaten. Kevin grabbed some slices of the fresh baguette I bought to go with it and began sopping up the juices. I did the same. I wasn't sure how he would react to the spring onions. The key to making anything with onions with him is to chop them small and cook them long. Nonetheless, he did leave a small pile of the more scallion-like bits on his plate. I expected him to do that, so I decided he must have liked the dinner.

Onward to the recipe. Measurements are inexact as always. Use your judgment.

Poached Quail Eggs in Mushroom-Fiddlehead-Spring Onion Compote (with optional proscuitto)

10 quail eggs
2Tbp each butter and olive oil
2 cups fiddlehead ferns (Okay. I just grabbed what looked like enough for two people at the store. This is totally inexact. I never measured or weighed, but I think it looked like about 2 cups)
4 slices prosciutto
10 oz. cremini mushrooms (or mushrooms of your choice) sliced
2 spring onions finely chopped, white and green parts
1 Tbl fresh thyme
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper

Bring a pot of water to a boil and add fiddleheads. Cook about 8 minutes or until tender. Set aside.

If using prosciutto, put the slices in a hot pan until the fat has rendered a bit and the slices are crisp. Set aside.

Heat butter and olive oil in a large skillet and add spring onions. Cook till soft and add mushrooms until they are soft and brown. Add cooked fiddleheads. Pour in wine, juice, and thyme. Stir well to get all vegetables coated. Season with salt and pepper to taste and allow to reduce a few minutes. Finish off with the cream.

Meanwhile poach the quail eggs.

When eggs are cooked, put the mushroom mixture on a plate and top with prosciutto slices and eggs. Serve with a nice crusty baguette for soaking up the sauce .

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Bucati with Turkey-Mushroom Sauce

Reading this recipe might make you want to glance down to a post I made a couple of weeks ago about a vegetable lasagna with a mushroom-tomato sauce. A curious reader might note that I said that there would be leftover sauce and it might be a good idea to freeze it for future use. Some of you might wonder if I've been recycling recipes. You might think I'm just doctoring up the stuff I left in my freezer two weeks ago.

I'd never do that of course. I'm here to provide a fresh and humongous weekly recipe until my show is over. Pay no mind to my insane rehearsal schedule this week. It's not important at all.

I have a weird obsession with bucati lately. I really shouldn't. What is it? Is it thick spaghetti with a hole in the middle, or is it ectomorphic ziti? It always looks so cool and so hearty. I can't help but buy it. Then I'm stuck with long pasta that's too thick to twirl (it just breaks) and too long and thin to spear. All you can do is slurp it. Maybe I just like slurping too much. This recipe can certainly be substituted with any type of pasta you think is proper.

I like San Marzano tomatoes because they have a wonderful, thick consistency, but I know they're not always available. I had to buy some extra - I mean two fresh cans - of tomatoes and I happened to get them at Trader Joe's, which doesn't have a particularly wide variety of tomatoes available.

Bucati with Turkey-Mushroom Sauce

1 pound ground turkey
2 28-oz can crushed tomatoes (or get whole ones and crush them yourself)
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 large onion, finely diced
4 cloves garlic
1/2 cup white wine
3 bay leaves
A few grates of nutmeg
1 package bucati or pasta of your choice
Pinch of salt and a few grinds black pepper
2 Tbp olive oil

Heat oil in a large pot. Add onions and cook till soft. Add garlic and mushrooms and cook till mushrooms get brown. Add turkey, breaking it up. (You can also brown off the meat separately and drain it. You may want to do this if you aren't using all white meat turkey. Me? I confess to being lazy and lacking in health consciousness.) Add remaining ingredients and simmer for at least 30 minutes.

Cook pasta while sauce simmers. Serve pasta with sauce and lots of freshly grated parmesan. Go do some tap dancing.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The World's Most Difficult Food Couple

If you asked me what my biggest challenge in the kitchen is, I would tell you it would be making meals that Kevin and I would both want to eat.

We make Jack Spratt and his wife look like lightweights.

The problem is not just that we're picky eaters. It's the fact that we're picky about completely different things. What I love is bad for him. What he loves I detest. For anyone who wonders why certain foods never show up in my blog recipes, or why I often make cryptic comments about my husbands, "Delicate Widdle Tum-Tum" here is the full story. I'm not sure if people will find this amusing, sympathy-inducing, or just plain bizarre and ridiculous.

I can recall the first time I ever cooked for Kevin when we were dating. As we were making dinner plans he told me I should know there were certain things he didn't eat. "I don't eat red meat. I don't eat cheese. Also I don't eat fried foods (LIAR! He love fried chicken, french fries, and fried fish sandwiches)." Apparently all of these foods are bad for his digestive system, which does at times seem more delicate than most. My ideas for a nice steak dinner with a brie appetizer went out the window right there. It's never a clear-cut list of things he can or can't (or won't eat). Sometimes I can get creative and hide stuff. Sometimes he'll make exceptions.

Want to know what he won't eat and how I deal? Read on.

Things He Says He Can't Eat

Red Meats: No beef. No lamb. No pork. No veal. (That's okay. I don't eat veal either.) I have to make meat loaf, bolognese sauce, and burgers with turkey or chicken. Recipes that call for bacon or sausage have to have chicken or turkey bacon or sausage.

The funny thing is that if small amounts of pork products make it into his food, he seems just fine. On two separate occasions while having dinner at our favorite restaurant, I saw him eat risotto studded with pancetta and soup with bacon in it. He once ate a thin slice or two of pork that was served to us for dinner while we were on vacation in Ireland. There may have even been some bacon *ahem* accidentally *cough* stuck in some home cooked meals he might have eaten *cough* somewhere. I never saw any ill effects. I swear some of this stuff is in his head.

What's ironic is that pork products are the meats that he seems to accidentally ingest the most and yet he's Jewish. Of course he loves shellfish, so the Jewish thing doesn't count for much.

Dairy: "Lactose intolerant," he declares. He'll turn up his nose at a cheese tray. He'll reject a caprese salad with fresh mozzarella. He won't eat cheesecake. He won't eat creamy dips. You would think he was being poisoned if even offered any. Ice cream, on the other hand. Well, Lactaid takes care of that nicely. He'll do pizza, pudding, cheese grits, string cheese, and lasagna/ravioli - sometimes seemingly without the Lactaid. I've asked him why he'll eat a string cheese or a pizza, but not a slice of mozzarella on a salad. He never has any explanation for this.

Raw Carrots (except for where it's part of something bigger like a salad)
Bell Peppers
Onions (unless you chop them up finely enough so they're not really recognizable as onions)
Apples (pies excepted)

But I'm not going to let myself off the hook. You see, I'm just as bad. The problem is that I dislike different things.

Things I'm Just Too Picky About (and occasionally can't eat)

Cooked carrots: I have been snacking on raw carrots my whole life, but never got into them cooked. I will eat them in certain forms (like in my soup), but I don't like them by themselves. If I eat a raw carrot, Kevin seems to view this as another carrot taken out of the mouth of his horse.

Seafood: I loves me my meat, but I don't eat fish, or shellfish, or mollusks. Didn't I just say he loves shellfish? He loves the shrimp and crabcakes and spaghetti with clam sauce, and halibut and sole and tilapia and red snapper.

Peas: Just the smell makes me gag. I hate them with a loathing that rivals my hatred of Dick Cheney and the Rachael Ray show. They're one of his favorite vegetables.

Walnuts: I love them, but they make my mouth break out. That means I don't make him Kentucky Derby Pies anymore. They were his favorite.

Things We Can Agree to Hate On:

Olives (thank goodness)

Bananas: I actually like these, but for some mysterious reason they give me heartburn so I stopped eating them. I can make a banana dessert now and then, but I can't snack on bananas anymore. He'll eat a banana dessert as long as there are no actual bits of banana in it. (He'll eat banana bread, but not banana cream pie for example.)

Blue Cheese: It's one cheese neither of us will eat. I love cheese most of the time, but if I see a blue vein, I won't go near it.

The upshot is that cooking in our household is a daily challenge. One thing about having a food blog is that it keeps me sane about all of this stuff.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Rost Chicken Revisited

I've hit another milestone. On the heels of my first anniversary, I have now reached my 100th post.

I've also joined the Foodie Blogroll. Check it out at the bottom of the page.

Back to the chicken thing, I decided that this week I would go with a classic for my high-volume recipe of the week. I actually might have a rehearsal this week, so I guess it's a bit more crucial that I have food at home at all times (the rehearsal schedule for this show is so disorganized).

I have waxed poetic in the past about my love of roast chicken. It's a great dish that can feed you for a few days if only a couple of people live in the house (although I think I could probably eat a whole one by myself in one sitting if given half the chance, but we won't go there). It seems in recent weeks I've been seeing a lot of roast chicken on the Food Network. It also always seems that the chickens are covered in bacon. I've never roasted chicken covered in bacon before and decided this would be the perfect time to try it.

Both Ina Garten and Tyler Florence have done variations on this kind of chicken. My recipe is closer to Ina's. Tyler's version had herb butter stuffed under the skin. While I normally do this when I roast chicken, putting butter under the skin and covering it with bacon seemed like overkill to me. Ina's recipe also stuck with my favorite chicken flavors: thyme and lemon. I couldn't find a big enough chicken for my purposes at Whole Foods yesterday, so I bought two small ones, causing yet another variation on the theme.

The perfect accompaniment for roast chicken is mashed potatoes. Once again, I used a variation on Ina Garten's idea. She poached garlic in olive oil and then used all of that oil in the potatoes and mixed cream into them. I used whole milk and half the olive oil and added a couple of tablespoons of butter instead. You can't do mashed taters without butter. You just can't.

Bacon-Wrapped Roast Chickens

2 3-ish pound chickens, rinsed and patted dry
2 Tbsp butter, melted
1 good-sized bunch of thyme
2 lemons - one juiced, one quartered
1 onion, quartered
1 minced clove garlic
12 strips bacon
Salt and pepper

Heat oven to 425.

Sprinkle chicken inside and out with salt and pepper. Mix lemon juice and garlic with butter and brush all over chickens. Divide the lemon quarters and the thyme and place in the cavities. Cover chicken with about 6 bacon strips each. You may need to cut a strip in half to cover evenly. Place on baking pan and lay onion quarters around them.

Roast for one hour. Remove bacon and roast 15-30 minutes more until skin in nice and brown and crispy.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes

3 lbs Yukon Gold poatotes, peeled and quartered
1/2 cup whole milk, warm
3 Tbl butter
1 head garlic, cloves peeled.
1 cup olive oil

Boil potatoes for about 20 minutues or until tender.

Boil olive oil with garlic cloves for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and continue to let garlic infuse the oil.

When potatoes are tender, drain and put back into the hot pot on the stove for a couple of minutes to let them dry. Then mash them using whatever your preferred method is. I like using a masher myself. Add the 1/2 cup of the oil, butter, and milk and salt and pepper to your taste.

Use the remaining 1/2 cup oil to dress your veggies, or spread it on tortilla wedges or pita wedges and bake for a garlicky, crispy treat.

I used my remaining oil on some braised green and red chard last night.