Thursday, November 26, 2009

Going Greek for Thanksgiving: Dolmas!

I love dolmas. For the last couple of months, every time I order one I think "hm. I wonder how they make these?" I decided to figure it out over Thanksgiving. And I was surprised to find out they were not as complicated as I expected.

Here's the recipe I used:

I stuck to the recipe on this one, because I honestly didn't know what I was doing. If the first thing that confuses you is where to find grape leaves, try the grocery store aisle with the olives, pickled veggies, and tahini. One jar should be plenty.

I did have one place where I had to change course. I ended up with more dolmas than would fit in my (rather tiny) pan. So I had to use two. This ended up giving me one pan of dolmas that tasted rather different. One pan ended up with more lemon juice in the simmering liquid. You could really tell! It overpowered the other flavors, and was a bit too tart. But the other set were perfect!

Final word of warning on these. Dolmas are sensitive. Don't wrap them too tight, because they will explode. Don't wrap them too loose, otherwise they will explode! And don't take them off the simmer until it is easy to pierce them with a fork! Otherwise the leaves will be tough to bite through.

But if you want to totally impress people at a potluck, this is a pretty good recipe to go with!

Sweet Potato Pie

I stopped by a local restaurant just before Thanksgiving, and they had sweet potato pie on the menu. Never having had it, I decided to order it and see what all the fuss was about. I was extremely disappointed. The pie was bland, and not sweet enough. But I could tell that with the right balance of spices, and a few tweaks, that pie would have been delicious. So I decided to make my own for Thanksgiving!

I started with this recipe:

I fully lazied it up, and used a pre-made pie crust. I was in a surly "not making a crust" mood. Plus there was an insane amount of cooking over two days, and pie crust got ranked as the least important. I think I could have improved the pre-made pie crust by brushing it with melted butter and sprinkling a cinnamon sugar mix on it. I'll try that next time.

I followed the recipe pretty much exactly. I used an 8-inch round pan with high sides. I forced the first half of the sweet potatoes through the fine mesh sieve, and then I decided that wasn't really worth it, and pureed the bejesus out of the rest of the sweet potato in my blender. Save yourself time and arm strength. Seriously.

As a finishing touch, to add a little bit of additional sweetness, and give it that good old southern look, I added a brown sugar crumble on the top. I took it from the following recipe:

Made the topping and sprinkled it on before baking. I might recommend baking the pie for a few minutes and then adding the crumble, so that it doesn't sink into the top of the pie as much as mine did.

The toughest part of this was that I made it on Wednesday night, and wouldn't allow myself to eat any until Thanksgiving. SO HARD! But when I finally did get to eat it, it was AWESOME!

Overall, this was easy-peasy deliciousness. I thought it was much better than pumpkin pie, and this may be my new Thanksgiving contribution!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fiesta fiesta!

Hola! I hosted a friend's birthday party, and we went with "Fiesta" as a theme. I decided to make fish tacos and mushroom enchiladas.

Here are the recipes I used:

So, for the enchilada recipe, I used a mix of portobello and button mushrooms. I added a teaspoon of diced garlic to the onions while they were sauteing. I also added about a teaspoon of ancho chili powder to the mushrooms mixture while it was on the stove top. I used small corn tortillas, but it probably would have been better and easier to use larger flour tortillas. If you insist on using corn, make sure you microwave them before you try to stuff and wrap them, otherwise the tortillas will just break and crumble and be generally non-cooperative. I also used a ton of cheese. I used a pico de gallo type salsa for the bottom of the pan, but I think more liquid on the bottom might have made them more moist. Not to say that I'd use a red sauce. Just a more thoroughly pureed mixture. Overall, they were really tasty, especially with a little guac and sour cream. Mmm.

For the fish tacos I started with tilapia (because it was on sale!) and cut it into small squares. I laid them on a baking sheet with a substantial lip on it. Instead of using oil, I used butter. Why? Because butter is delicious and makes everything better. I used two sticks of butter (I had 14 tilapia fillets), one salted and one unsalted. Then I added about a cup of lime juice, ancho chili powder, jalapeno, chopped garlic, and pepper. Poured it over the fish. Baked it at 350 for 15 minutes. Tasty tasty!

Special shout out to my awesome kitchen assistant Sarah. She did all the hard stuff! Thanks Sarah!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Can Can Brasserie

I had to spend a night in Richmond, or really a sketchy motel just outside of Richmond, before the MPRE. Three of my other friends were taking the MPRE in Richmond as well, so we made reservations at the Can Can Brasserie. Here's their website: The brasserie is a French bistro style restaurant, which certainly has the look of a traditional Parisian location...if it were only 1/4th of its current size. Its an extremely large restaurant, and was crowded and a little loud. So, maybe this isn't where you go for a romantic pre-MPRE dinner. But it was a fun place to go for a group of friends playing catch up.

I started with escargot. I thought the portion was huge, and was well prepared. Plenty of bang for your buck. I prefer my escargot to be extremely garlicky, so a bit more garlic would have been fine with me. But the dish was buttery, and the meat was prepared properly (read: not chewy). And once I finished dipping the meat in the butter and garlic sauce, I used it on a couple of pieces of bread, because it was just too delicious to waste!

For my entree I ordered the sweetbreads. First off, I lovelovelove sweetbreads. Probably one of my all time favorite dishes. And the sweetbreads at the Brasserie were perfection. Some of the best I've had. The portion, again, was very large. I'd almost say it was overwhelming, because sweetbreads are so rich. But if you are a fan of sweetbreads, this place does them extremely well. The chef here is a fan of purees, so one of my sides was pureed sweet potatoes. Good, not amazing. But the sweetbreads were wonderful, so it didn't really matter what else was on my plate.

Finally, for dessert I split the goat cheese cake with black, white, and pink peppercorn ice cream, topped with a pear compote and pear caramel sauce. I was extremely underwhelmed by the goat cheese cake. Probably because I made the mistake of thinking it was a cheesecake made with some goat cheese. And instead it had a dry crumbly cake texture. But the ice cream was a wonderful surprise! It was spicy, and had both the savory and sweet sensation. I was also pleased to find that I really enjoyed the pear compote. It was just the right balance of spices, and was not overly sweet, which is often my problem with fruit compotes.

Overall, this is great restaurant if you're looking for a fun adventurous night out! And you're in Richmond...

So, the breakdown, on a scale from 1 to 5:

Ambiance: 4
Service: 3
Entrees: 4
Desserts: 3
Overall: 4

Friday, November 13, 2009

Roasted Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese

It was finally that time of year! Time to make soup and grilled cheese sandwiches! This was my second attempt at a soup from scratch. I roasted the tomatoes myself, which was super easy. Here's the recipe I used for the soup:

I made a few little alterations. I added 1/4 tsp cayenne, for a little kick. And I also added about 2 tablespoons of rendered bacon fat, to make it savory and delicious. Because, lets be honest, bacon fat makes everything better. I used a good old counter top blender rather than a hand blender, and it worked out fine. I also recommend having a lot of fresh ground pepper on hand. It really helps balance the flavors.

For my grilled cheese, I used the following recipe:

Yes. I used a recipe for grilled cheese. I wanted something a bit more than bread and cheese. I used my Foreman grill, which worked out AWESOME. That thing is so fabulous. If I make these sandwiches again, I'd actually use a combo of gruyere and cheddar. I think that would have played nicely with the bacon and apples. Oh, and I used plain dijon, but I think a hearty deli style mustard would have worked better. I remade them (sort of) a few days later and used a sweet and spicy mustard, and it was great.

Overall, both of these recipes were easy and crowd pleasing.

Continental Divide

I've tried to go to Continental Divide three times. First two, the wait was ridiculous. Third time's a charm, right?! Well, sort of. We got there on a Wednesday night at 6:30, and we still had to wait at the bar for a bit.

But, while at the bar, I decided to try one of their highly touted margaritas. And, I'll be honest, it was pretty good. Nothing fancy. Tequila and lime juice. No flavors. No foam. No froufrou. Just a nice, clean, margarita. I think Ventana has the better margarita. But Continental Divide's was very satisfying.

Once we eventually got seated, we started with the Texas hummus. Meeeeeh. I was not wowed by this. I thought the hummus could have used more lemon juice. And I really wished that they had used homemade tortilla chips, like the ones that Mono Loco makes. Overall, the appetizer did not wow me, and none of the other things on the menu looked all that appealing either.

The entree was a different story. I had the mushroom and spinach enchilada. And it was amazing. Cheesy deliciousness! And the price was extremely reasonable, especially given that Charlottesville tends to be not so reasonable in its pricing.

Sadly, I went a little more than a week ago. And I honestly can't remember what I had for dessert! On the plus side, neither can my dining partner. But we both remember it being good.

Honestly, I just can't recommend this place. The wait is always way too long, its always too crowded, and there is no place to stand while you are waiting. AND they don't take reservations. It's one of those places where I recommend you stop by and see if there is availability, and if there isn't, then walk over to one of the other restaurants nearby.

So, the breakdown, on a scale from 1 to 5:

Ambiance: 2
Service: 4
Entrees: 4
Cocktails: 4
Desserts: 3
Overall: 2


I'm generally a skeptic about Italian food. I hardly ever go to Italian restaurants, because most of the time I end up disappointed.

Enter Tavola. It definitely broke the mold. Its a cute little joint next to The Local in Belmont. Be careful, because the inside is small and seating is limited, so on a really cold night you might want to make sure you have a reservation, because they do not have a waiting area.

The restaurant has an open kitchen. It was a nice feature, not because I paid any attention to what they were doing, but because the smell of butter was wafting through the restaurant. So delicious!

We started with a bottle of chianti. I thought the range of wine options was good, mostly on the pricey side. And the menu had excellent variety in all categories. I'd like to pause here to comment on our waitress. She spilled some of the wine down my glass, and didn't offer to clean it up. And she told us we could read the specials off the board ourselves. We were as far away from the board as you could get. And, oh, no glasses on! Couldn't see. My dinner partner had to read the board for me. I thought that, overall, the service was not the best. Especially given that the restaurant was small.

So, back to the food. We had the bruschette special. It was three different rounds of toast, one with goat cheese and roasted tomato, one with pork, and one with tuna that was garnished with light lemon juice and capers. Out of the three the tuna was my favorite, although it was made better by adding some fresh ground pepper. I thought that the goat cheese could have been improved with diced roasted tomato, rather than a single roasted tomato. I thought the pork was a little dry.

For my entree I ordered the costoletta alla milanese. Bone in veal, breaded, with lemon and capers. It was delicious. I thought the breading could have been a little lighter. But it was really cooked well, and the portion was substantial. Price to portion and quality, I thought it was very reasonable. One of the best pieces of the meal was the side order of pan roasted brussel sprouts. Oh how I love brussel sprouts! And these were beautifully browned and buttery.

For dessert we split the cookies. One was almond biscotti, nicely soft. Not break your teeth hard, which is often my objection to biscotti. And then dark chocolate and sea salt cookies, which I thought were fantastic. The salt really set off the chocolate flavor.

Overall, I really enjoyed the experience, and I'd go back again. But only with one or two people at a time, otherwise you might not get a seat!

So, the breakdown, on a scale from 1 to 5:

Ambiance: 4
Service: 3
Entrees: 4
Desserts: 3
Overall: 4

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Brunch Club - Eurotrip!

This week's brunch club theme was Eurotrip. So, I thought about one of my eurotrips, to France and Italy with my mom. We had pain au chocolat pretty much EVERY day. So, that was what I decided to make.

I also decided to lazy it up hardcore, and I bought crescent rolls. Sort of a mistake, because I should I have bought puff pastry and cut it myself. It would have been lighter and fluffier. Sigh. Definitely will do that next time. Anyways, here are my suggested directions:

1. Pre-heat oven to 350
2. Cut puff pastry into squares, and then cut each square diagonally (to form triangles).
3. Spread nutella in a triangle shape stopping about 1/2" or so from the edges
4. Roll from the wide end of the triangle towards the pointed end.
5. Pinch the ends closed
6. Shape into a crescent and place on a foil covered baking sheet.
7. Bake for approximately 15 minutes. Be careful not to bake for too long, because no one likes burnt croissants.

Overall, this is a super easy thing to make in the morning for a brunch, and it'll be a big hit because, let's be honest, who doesn't love chocolate? If you don't, you are unamerican. Just putting that out there.

Apologies for the lack of pictures. They just looked like croissants. Not that exciting.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Brunch Club - Its November!

This week's brunch club theme is November. November makes me think of Thanksgiving, so I decided to incorporate some traditional thanksgiving flavors into my creation.

I started with english muffins. Then I added some sliced brie. I popped that in the oven for 5 minutes at 350, just to get the brie a little melty and the english muffins a warm and toasty.

I was lazy (and running way late because I went to the grocery store at 8:45 in the morning, and had to be done and at brunch by 11) so I used pre-made turkey sausage patties. Made this recipe SUPER easy. I prepared them in a frying pan, and put them on top of the english muffins. Then I chopped some sage and rosemary and sprinkled it over the top of the sausage patties.

While all this was going on, I also prepared a cranberry sauce to go on top of everything. I used this recipe: Make sure you give it enough time to let the cranberries pop completely, because otherwise the sauce ends up having awkwardly bitter moments whenever you eat one of the cranberries that didn't burst. But, overall, super easy recipe to make. I took the cranberry sauce as a side, because putting it on too early would make things soggy.

This was a great brunch recipe, especially given the theme. It was fast and easy to make, easy to transport, and had a great flavor combination. The sage and rosemary were critical for that, because they really brought out the Thanksgiving feel.

In other brunch deliciousness, Kristin made an AWESOME corn casserole and Floren made a spicy pear bundt cake, with real pear. Recipes please!