Saturday, January 18, 2014

Cyn's Birthday Meal - In Pictures

Just the other day, Cynthia posted this blog about the meal she was planning to make for her birthday. Well, I thought it was worth posting the pictures. Before you read further, go get a napkin just in case you can't help drooling a little.

Goat Cheese Tartlets with Onion Jam
Arugula Salad, Balsamico, Calimyrna Figs

Asparagus and Orange Salad, Fried Shallots

Roasted Shitake and Leek Risotto,
Black Truffle, Duck and Veal Demi Glace
Macerated Florida Strawberries, 
Blood Orange Zabaglione, Orange Scented Olive Oil Torta

Bayley Hazen Bleu, Marcona Almonds with fresh Tuscan Blue Rosemary
Aged Irish Cheddar from County Kerry, Plum Chutney,
  Pistachio Biscotti and Dove chocolate

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Celebrations....happy birthday to me!

Every year, around this time, The Husband asks, "What would you like for your birthday?"  And every year, around this time, I'm still playing with the cool things I received for Christmas (except this year, as that new sous vide thingy is back ordered and won't ship for awhile yet).  So most years, I just want to play in the kitchen and make food that I love to celebrate another year of living.  Here is the menu for this year, dinner starts at 6 - don't be late!

Goat Cheese Tartlets with Onion Jam
Arugula Salad, Balsamico, Calimyrna Figs

Elderflower Martini, Tanqueray No. 10
Roasted Shitake and Leek Risotto, 
Black Truffle, Duck and Veal Demi Glace

Asparagus and Orange Salad, Fried Shallots

Cline Cellars Ancient Vines Mourvedre
Macerated Florida Strawberries, 
Blood Orange Zabaglione, Orange Scented Olive Oil Torta

Earl Grey Tea with Lemon
Bayley Hazen Bleu, Marcona Almonds with fresh Tuscan Blue Rosemary
Aged Irish Cheddar from County Kerry, Plum Chutney
Fresh made Ricotta with Gainesville Honey,  Pistachio Biscotti

Lustau Pedro Ximenez, San Emilio Sherry

Appears ambitious, doesn't it?  I will share a secret with you - a good portion of this menu has help from trusted sources.  For example, the Goat Cheese Tartlets?  Trader Joe's makes fabulous little canapes and freezes them beautifully.  Pop them in the oven, toss some arugula with a little reduced balsamic vinegar and slice some beautiful dried figs (also from TJ's) and voila!  You look like a genius.  Use a larger plate that you normally would and take time with your presentation and you'll have something a restaurant would be proud to serve.  

In the next course, the duck and veal demi glace is a product I trust from D'Artagnan.  If you don't know about this producer, and their amazing product line, this is a great introduction.  Using a little of their duck fat, fry some potatoes, add some cheese curds (preferably Beecher's), top with warmed demi glace, and you will think you have died and gone to foodie heaven.  

Do you know about Spanish tortas from Ines Rosales?  Imported from Seville, Spain, they come in several flavor variations, and all are terrific.  A round, pita like crisp cracker like cookie, they are superior to adding a bit of crunch and flavor without any heaviness.  

I will make the ricotta myself, but that is as easy as making a cup of tea (a future blog!) and the plum chutney is from a local producer - Virginia Chutney.  When you're putting together a cheese plate to finish a meal, try to consider a little savory with your sweet and creamy.  It leaves the palate refreshed.

So while we will have a fabulous dinner tomorrow evening, I won't work as hard as I typically would, making everything from scratch.  After all, it is a school night.  What are your favorite foods for celebrations?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pomegranates and Persimmons

Pomegranates and Persimmons

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the food world is in the midst of a renewed love affair with pomegranates and persimmons, and they are a formidable culinary combination.

Pomegranates are easier to tackle than it appears.  Simply cut in half through the middle, hold the cut end down in your palm over a bowl and whack the uncut side with a wooden spoon.  Seeds come flying out (best to have a nice generous bowl for this process) along with some of the white membrane that holds them in place.  Hopefully I don’t have to tell you the membrane is yucky and should be composted.  Seeds are ready for eating or juicing at this point.

Persimmons are the tomato of winter in our house.  They are in season now in Virginia, and when choosing an eating persimmon, choose a Fuyu variety, the ones that look like an orange tomato and are pretty firm.  The peel can be a little tough, but it is edible, so make the call to peel on whether you’re feeling up to it (a veg peeler works well) or your guests warrant the effort, i.e., will your mother-in-law complain?  The Hachiyas are tasty as well, but not to be eaten fresh until they’re good and ripe (read: soft and schmooshy).  You’ll know Hachiyas by their large acorn like appearance.  For all you mnemonic people out there, Hachiyas ‘hatch a seed’, Fuyus ‘eff yeah I want a bite.’  Hey, you’ll remember it now, won’t you?  Just don’t pass this trick on to the kids.

So why do these two autumn superstars work well together?  I think it’s a combination of the disparity in texture, as well as the contrast in acidity.  Persimmons are creamy and dense, with a subtle sweetness that plays backup to the vegetal fruitiness.  Pomegranate seeds aren’t dense at all, until you hit the tiny crunchy nugget in the center of the seed, which is a nice surprise and adds meatiness to an otherwise ethereal experience.  The bright acidity with a touch of twang brings out the best in a persimmon, and the persimmon adds character and depth to the pomegranate.  Substitute the combination of p&p for tomato and onion in a salsa, and watch the magic unfold when paired with a piece of grilled fish or over a salty queso fundido.  Magic I tell you, magic!

Our fastest and most favorite way to enjoy p&p is in a fresh salad, where the flavors are separate but combine to make a bright and palate readying appetizer.  This salad would also be fantastic at the end of a meal, when you want a little something to cleanse, with some cheese, but you don’t want dessert.  Have I mentioned the beauty of the composition??  The bright orange of the persimmon and the gemlike quality of the pomegranates are a feast for the eyes as well as the tummy.  

Persimmon and Pomegranate Salad - The Basics
serves 4 as a side

Greens - three nice fat handfuls of a green with a little bitterness to it, like arugula, frisee, baby kale or a combination thereof.  Mesclun makes a nice base, especially if bolstered with a little endive or radicchio.

1/2 pomegranate, just the seeds

2 Fuyu persimmons, stem removed, peeled if you like, sliced

at least 2 ounces of a good, salty cheese, like Manchego, ricotta salata, feta or gorgonzola

1/3 cup nuts, your choice, but I like the Pomegranate, Persimmon, Pecan alliteration

That’s it.  The basics.  Add a nice vinaigrette, nothing too flashy, maybe add a little smoked paprika or other interesting herb, and voila!  You look like a food stylist.  Our favorite dressing for this salad is a simple white balsamic vinaigrette, with a dash of garlic dust in it.  Lemon, honey and thyme comes a close second.  

If you wanted to really gussy up the salad, add a few pears that you’ve baked off with a dusting of cardamom. Prosciutto shavings are divine with persimmons - think melon and prosciutto and you have the flavor profile.  My mouth is watering just considering the possibilities.  Hope you get on the persimmon train this week - let us know how you use them!

Friday, August 30, 2013

An Unexpected Birthday Treat

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know these two things:

1) I've been very lazy about writing posts and 

2) I was born and raised in NJ. See this blog post for more on that...Tomato Pie, Pork Roll and Oyster Crackers

 I'm trying to get back to posting more often and I hope this is the start of that. I bring up the New Jersey connection because I spent a lot of my youth at the shore. Yes, we called it the shore, not the beach. Those from NJ will understand. Well, these days I rarely, if ever, get to the NJ shore but in the last 4 years, Cynthia and I have fallen in love with another beach community, the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Just about 5 hours from our home in Northern Virginia, OBX, as they call it, is a narrow strip of islands just off the East Coast, connected to the mainland by the occasional causeway or bridge. 

That's where we recently spent 3 days celebrating my birthday. Did I mention it was one of those "round number" birthdays? The ones that seem to have all kinds of special meaning and sometimes traumatic effect? For me, this one was number 60 - or as I prefer to call it, 30 version 2.0. The trip was a bit of a last minute thing that Cynthia convinced me to do. After all, we have a week scheduled back down there at the end of September. But, it was my birthday, so I managed to rearrange some stuff at work and Cyn found a bed and breakfast willing to rent us a room for exactly the three days we needed AND allow us to bring both our dogs.

gratuitous dog picture

Our first full day was a Monday, my birthday, and after a perfect day at the beach and then an exploration of a part of the area that we hadn't seen before, Cynthia mentions, oh so casually, that she had done some research and found a restaurant that looked pretty interesting. You know, good reviews from people on Chowhound, good looking list of craft beers, solid menu - and that she hoped we could get in.

The restaurant, the Brine and Bottle, is less than imposing from the road. It's the kind of place you might ride by for a really long time without giving it a second glance. That would be a mistake. When we arrived and I say to the person who greets us, "two for dinner", Cyn manages to slip in, "we have a reservation, Cynthia and Alex". Next thing I know, we being escorted across the room to the perfect table for two overlooking the deck that sits right on the Roanoke Sound. As we're seated, I see she has that sly smile on her face giving me a look like "fooled you, didn't I?"

Then, I look down and see this.....

Note the date and the "Happy Birthday Alex". My wife had been planning this little soiree for quite some time and had been working with the owners, Andrew and Ashley Donovan, to plan the individualized six course meal with paired craft beers!

I won't bore you to death by recounting the meal blow by blow, but do know that the food was nothing short of outstanding and the beer pairings were spot on. Well, maybe I'll bore you just a bit, if only to show off the presentaion.
If you haven't had bacon jam, find some or find a recipe and make some. This rich, slightly sweet dollop of heaven is making my mouth water just looking at the picture.

Scallops can either be great when done right, or terribly disappointing when done badly. These were clearly the former. Perfectly seared on the outside and translucent on the inside they were paired with summer squash fritters that just screamed southern food. The charred tomato vinaigrette was tart and complemented them both.

Admittedly, foie gras isn't my favorite (OK, I'm a heathen, I admit it), but I will say this was prepared expertly and I ate my share, you know, just to be polite. For the record, I think Cynthia is still salivating over hers. For me, the stewed honey fig compote was the star of the dish.

It wouldn't be a southern meal without shrimp and grits, right? Well, these local shrimp were perfectly complimented by the rich cava creme and the grit cakes were a surprising and pleasant twist on the typical version.

Perfectly cooked duck breast with goat cheese spoon bread - this is about where I started to run out of steam. I wonder if the 5th beer had anything to do with that?

I rallied a bit when this inspired choice of desserts was served - watermelon brulee with a beautiful little cheese plate

Seriously, if you ever find yourself in or around the Outer Banks make a point of eating a meal at the Brine and Bottle. Thanks Andrew and Ashley!

Side note from Cyn:  These smaller, 'boutique' restaurants are worth seeking out - no matter where you are.  Usually owned and managed by dedicated and educated food people, they're working their butts off to make sure your dining experience is spot on.  Ashley was a dream to work with on this surprise for Alex, and the wait staff at the restaurant followed up with amazing service.  The kind you don't expect from a little place on the causeway to Manteo but are delighted to receive.  I didn't catch our servers name (thank goodness she wasn't required to give us the 'spiel') but she was personable, friendly and had exactly the right amount of personality while maintaining a professional attitude.  If the food didn't impress the heck out of me (and it did! Chef, you're talented!) then the service we received would have made us repeat customers anyway. Can't wait to see these guys again in late September and see what new seasonal offerings appear!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

a simple sandwich with tomatoes still warm from the sun

One of the great joys of gardening is eating the tasty fruits of your labor.  And one of the great joys of summer is the vine ripened tomato.  Put the two together and you have my favorite lunch.

At the moment, it's open faced, just showing off the gorgeous color of the tomatoes.  This particular sandwich has all my favorite tomatoes in it, Green Zebras are under all the baby Gem lettuce.   Green Zebra has the best flavor - slightly tart with a hint of acid but big bold tomato flavor and a certain richness.  The heaping pile in the foreground sees red Juliet, a large grape tomato with fabulous meaty flavor and wonderful disease resistance, and it's our favorite for sauce making as well.  (See this post for my sauce recipe.)  Cherry tomatoes top Juliet, both Sungold, an early prolific producer of sweet sort of tropical flavored tomatoes, and White Cherry, which isn't really white, but a blushed lemon color, and has a true tomato flavor with a nice juicy finish.  A beautiful collection, even if I do say so myself.  

The bread used here is a miche from Wegman's made with a nice sour starter and OG flour.  Crusty and relatively dense, it makes a nice sponge for all those juices.  To help prevent the bread from getting too soggy, I've shmushed an avocado with a little sea salt and used that as my schmear, something all good tomato sandwiches need.  Very often the schmear is mayonnaise.  Now we can debate the merits of mayo vs Miracle until the cows come home, each has their audience.  As long as there are tomatoes and good bread, in a pinch, I could go either way.  

The baby Gem lettuce is basically miniature romaine, and I cut it in thin slices the sort way to get more surface area.  This helps prevent the dreaded sandwich slide.  You know the one, where your sandwich  filling squirts out the bottom of your bread and you end up taking the next bite with your hands over your head?  The shreds create all sorts of nooks and crannies for the tomatoes to snuggle into and stay locked in place.  Have I sold you on the merits of the shred yet?

This simple sandwich benefits from a good amount of seasoning, so be generous with the salt and pepper.  Dousing the shred with a housemade balsamic dressing that the husband makes adds umami to the dish and really brightens up the acidity, something I love.  You could just as easily use a Green Goddess or something else creamy and tangy.  In fact, if you're so inclined, there are infinite variations to my tomato theme.  You could add or substitute:

-fresh mozzarella and basil
-shmush some white beans and spread 
-arugula, feta and watermelon
-prosciutto, salami, crispy pancetta
-simple drizzle of the best olive oil you can buy along with aged balsamic

Or for something a little outside the box, cube and toast your bread and mix with wedges of tomatoes and basil for a panzanella.  Add some butter or olive oil and garlic to that bread before toasting takes your panzanella to a whole new level. 

You can't go wrong with tomatoes and bread, enjoy!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Savory Stuffed Peppers

Originally posted on November 8, 2012 at as a guest post.

It's been nearly a full year since I started writing as A Reluctant Foodie. I’ll admit to having been a little lazy about posting lately, but this is my 83rd posting -- not bad for someone who hadn’t written much since college ( I won’t date myself by telling you when that was). In that year I've learned a lot about myself, blogging and social media in general.

Like every other new blogger, my biggest challenge was getting people to actually visit and read what I had written. I figured out pretty quickly that the best way to drive traffic to the blog was through Twitter. So, @ReluctantFoodee was launched on Twitter. Yes, I know it is spelled wrong -- @Reluctantfoodie was taken. At first, I struggled to get followers but as of this writing, I have over 1,400 followers! I'm proud to say that since I don't buy followers, rarely follow back commercially oriented people/businesses and I block the obvious spammers my follower count is pretty pure.

A few amongst this illustrious group have become friends, as much as people who have never met can be friends. One in particular stands out. Anneli is an Englishwoman living with her husband and children in the French Pyrenees. She is a private chef who blogs at Delicieux . You really should check out her out.
Recently, in an effort to pull me out of my writing funk, I proposed that it might be fun for both of us to prepare the same basic dish and to guest blog the results for each other. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, and I've pointed this out in many of my other posts, I don't cook. The culinary talent in our home is all with my wife Cynthia. I eat, clean up and write, period. So really, Cynthia and Anneli decided to make the same basic dish. There, I feel better now.

If you're a regular reader you know that Cynthia and I garden a good bit. We try to grow a reasonably wide selection of veggies because they are so much better than anything you can buy at even the best supermarkets. When Anneli and I hatched our little plot, we happened to have a goodly number of ripe peppers ready to be harvested. We agreed on stuffed peppers as the common dish because, everyone loves a good stuffed pepper, right?

Here is the recipe Cynthia put together for the great stuffed pepper challenge!

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 4-6 whole peppers, tops and ribs removed, meat from around stem chopped and reserved for filling

  •         2.5-3 cups cooked rice 
  •          3 slices good smoky bacon
  •          1 cup chopped onion
  •          vegetable oil
  •          2 cloves garlic, smashed
  •          2 tbsp tomato paste
  •          2 tsp curry powder (or to taste)
  •          1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (or to taste)
  •          1 tbsp brown sugar, 1/3 cup sherry, 1/3 cup Kikkoman teriyaki sauce, 2/3 c water – mixed together
In a large mixing bowl, place beef and room temp rice.  You'll be adding ingredients to this bowl as we go, so size accordingly.

Cook bacon in skillet until crispy.  Remove from heat and set aside to drain.  Leaving bacon fat in pan, add enough additional oil so you have a nice thin coat of fat in the pan.  About a tbsp total.

Saute onions on med-high heat until soft.  Dump on meat and rice.

Crumble bacon.  Dump on meat, rice and onion.

To make the sauce:  Put the pan back on medium high heat, add 1 tbsp veg oil and when hot but not smoking, add curry powder and red pepper, stirring constantly.

When fragrant, about 30 seconds in, add garlic and tomato paste.  Cook for a minute or so - the fragrance should be roasty, but not burned.  (If your curry or garlic burns, start over.  The bitter taste will never go away.)

Add the sherryaki mixture (get it, sherry-aki) and whisk a bit to remove all lumps and smooth out the sauce. Simmer for 10 minutes, until you taste the sauce and the alcohol from the sherry isn't prevalent.  (If this doesn't happen, you need to buy better sherry.  I use an amontillado that I also drink as an aperitif.  If you can't drink it from the bottle, it won't get better with cooking.)

Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper.  Add more crushed red pepper if you like a little hurt.

Add about 1/4 cup of sauce to the bottom of a baking dish.

Add half of what's left to the meat, rice, onion and bacon mixture. Mix thoroughly but gently.

Fill pepper one at a time and place in baking dish.  It helps if it has high sides and holds the peppers snugly. If all you've got is a low rider, cut peppers in half instead of removing top.  Not as pretty, but I like the ratio of pepper to filling better this way.

Before covering with foil (I parchment first then foil) distribute the remainder of the sauce on top of the peppers.

 Bake covered for 45 minutes at 350.  Uncover and bake an additional 15.  The sauce takes to browning very well, so if you're of a mind, a low broil helps you get your brown on.

 Let sit a few moments before serving.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Yes, I did! Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Quinoa Cookies

We get a lot of requests from our no wheat friends for gluten free sweets - something with a nice buttery richness and that crunchy crunch that seems to be missing from most wheat flour free baked goods.  Ladies and gentlemen, I have your recipe.

This came about when we received a new cook book pre-distribution for comments and a possible talk up in the blog.  This was our first bit of unsolicited swag, and you may note, we have not talked up a new cookbook of any sort.  The recipes we tried just weren't great.  And we shoot for great.

There were quite a few recipes for gluten free sweets of one sort or another - now this was not a gluten free cookbook, but one all about using an ancient grain from the high desert south of the equator.  Just so happened a lot of the recipes were gluten free.  After trying 3 or 4 of the desserts, and throwing out 3 or 4 of the desserts into the garrrbaggge, I set out to make something better.  Through trial and error, and quite a few taste tests (thank you to those of you who tried the icky ones even when I told you they stunk just so we could agree on it), I have an easy recipe for a gluten free chocolate chip cookie.  They're delicious and easy.

Quinoa Chocolate Chip Cookies
makes about 2 dozen

1 1/4 cup quinoa flour*
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt or other fine salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 mini chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees for at least 1/2 hour.  Cookies will not be as crispy as they can be if your oven isn't hot enough.  

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, soda and salt.  Add egg to the melted and cooled butter and beat well until egg is incorporated.  Add brown sugar and vanilla, stir well to combine and add to the flour mixture.  Mix well and stir in chocolate chips.  Chill dough well - at least 20 minutes and 30 is better.

Dough will scoop easily once chilled.  Roll into 1" balls and place about 2" apart on cookie sheets, flattening slightly with your fingers as dough will not spread during baking.

Bake for 9 minutes, until ever so slightly brown at the edges and top.  If you over bake, you'll get a crumbly dry cookie.  Cool in the pan.  Since these rarely make it out of day one, I'm guessing a sealed container on the counter would be fine for storage.

*****UPDATE on these cookies - I inadvertently over baked a batch by about 6 minutes.  My quinoa go to guru said that if this happened, they would be sandy and dry.  Boy was she wrong!  They got nutty and crispier and didn't dry out.  They were better!*****

*quinoa flour can be made by grinding quinoa in a high speed, high power blender like our most favorite tool, the VitaMix.  They even have a special attachment for making grains into flour.  But should you not have a beloved VitaMix, you can purchase quinoa flour ready to go at most well stocked grocers these days, and my personal favorite is from Bob's Red Mill.  
Made with Love Mondays, hosted by Javelin Warrior