Monday, August 30, 2010

Delicious Chicken!

Yes. You read that right. Delicious chicken. Usually chicken is unremarkable, but the chicken I made last night was pretty freaking delicious. So I'm posting to share the recipe. I just tossed this stuff together, so I don't have exact measurements.

Take a chicken breast and slice it in half, then pound it as flat as possible. Season with salt and pepper. Layer diced sun dried tomatoes, spinach, fresh basil, and bleu cheese in the middle of the chicken. I used about half as much basil/bleu cheese as SDT/spinach. Season again with salt and pepper.

Roll the chicken starting at the small end. Secure with toothpicks.

Set up three bowls. One with flour, one with a beaten egg, and one with fresh bread crumbs. Dredge the chicken in the flour, dip it in the egg, and then coat it in the fresh bread crumbs. Set the chicken in the refrigerator for 10 minutes to 2 hours to let the bread crumbs set.

Heat olive oil in a skillet on the stove. Sear all sides of the chicken until the bread crumbs are crispy, about 2 minutes (less if the oil is smokin hot like mine was). Bake in the oven 15 to 25 minutes at 350, or until a thermometer reads 165. Let rest for 5 minutes before cutting.

And...its that simple. And really really delicious! I will definitely make this again. It was even guest worthy!

Restaurant Review - Appalachian Brewing Company

The scene: Located in a former warehouse just outside of Downtown Harrisburg, the Appalachian Brewing Company (ABC) is a large restaurant, small brewery, and overall fun place to visit. Fun fact: ABC bought the building from the city for $1, because it had serious water/fire damage. They've done a wonderful job fixing it up. Downstairs they've got the restaurant and bar, where you can see the brewing tanks. Upstairs they've got a bunch of pool tables.

The food: Well, this place is more about the beer than the food, but the food wasn't bad. I had the wild hog sandwich, which was pulled bbq pork. There were lots of other things on the menu, and I probably should have picked something else, because there was no way this sandwich could compete with the deliciousness that was Ridgeway BBQ. So, the food was just all right.

But the beer! The beer was pretty fantastic. They had about 16 beers on tap. The sampler was eight "small" beers, probably 4 to 5 oz each, and a sample of their root beer! I liked most of the beers, with the exception of the IPA. But that's because I don't love hops. So if you do, then the Hoppy Trials IPA might be for you. My favorite was probably the Scottish Ale I started with, although the Mountain Lager, and the stout were also very good. And for $9? Awesome deal!

The service: The bar tenderess was very good. She asked me what I wanted, I said "Nothing too hoppy" and she brought me the beer that I ended up liking the best. Well played, Ma'am, well played. The waiter was not as fabulous. He was a little slow, but they seemed understaffed, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

The price: The food seemed a little overpriced, but the beers were reasonable. And the sampler was a great deal.

The highlights: They've got a 1pm tour every Saturday,and its free! Show up at 12:45, get yourself a beer, and sip it while you learn about the history of ABC, and how they make their beers. Free samples await you at the end of the tour, too!

Final thoughts: I love a good local business, and this place was pretty great. I'll definitely be going back, if only to get my growler filled with something they've got on tap. It beats going to my local bar to get a six pack!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Cherry Pie...Cobbler...Mush?

Why is a pie crust so freaking difficult when it only involves five ingredients? FIVE INGREDIENTS!

I'm really intimidated by pie crust. To the point where I actively avoid making things I think would be tasty, because I'd have to make a pie crust. But not anymore! I am going to fix that, by practicing with my pie crusts until they are easy peasy.

Unfortunately, based on the way tonight's pie crust went, I will be making many pie crusts in the near future. Sigh.

So, what went wrong? Not exactly sure. First pie crust was definitely too dry. I made the second pie crust in almost the same way, except I added a teeny bit more water. Still a little short on liquid, but even stranger...there were visible chunks of shortening and butter. The first pie crust ended up cracking during the initial baking process. As far as appearances go, that wasn't a big deal, because I filled it with the cherry filling and covered it with another crust. The second pie crust tore in the places where there was a chunk of butter/shortening, so I had to patch it using trimmed dough and a pastry brush with butter.

Since this is a pie, the filling is a big deal, right? Right. So I was going for All American Cherry Pie. Started with about 2lbs of fresh Bing cherries. I took out the pits (it was a very messy business), and cooked the cherries over medium heat, covered, until there was almost enough juice to cover the cherries. I took them off the heat, added 1/3 a cup of sugar, 2 tablespoons of cornstarch, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, and 1/8th of a teaspoon of vanilla. I mixed it all together, and let the mixture cool completely. Poured it in the cracked pie crust, and covered it. Baked it at 375 for 50 minutes.

So, here's the outcome. It tasted great. And it looked like pie when it came out of the oven. And it looked like pie when I sliced it. And it looked like...a pile of mush once I managed to get it to my plate. Yeah. My crust was apparently too delicate and thin, and so it crumbled into a bajillion little crusty pieces. BUT it was really delicious. So, sort of a victory. Right?

I will be reattempting the pie crust in the near future. Good thing lots of fruits are in season! Apricot next time? Peach? Blueberry?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Salad Week - Day 5 - Fresh Raspberries!

I had some raspberries that were fast moving toward a moldy death in my fridge. Rather than let that happen (again), I decided to take the last group of them and make a salad. I wanted to have fresh berries on my salad, and also to make a dressing out of some of them.

Here's what I used: spinach, raspberries, avocado, cubed rosemary goat cheese, chopped cucumber, diced red onion, and lemon-basil chicken. I topped it with a super easy homemade raspberry vinaigrette.

For the chicken:
Medium sliced lemon (I used 2 rounds for each piece of chicken)
Fresh sprigs of basil (enough to cover each lemon round)
Minced shallots (I used 1 medium shallot for two breasts)
Fresh ground pepper and salt

Preheat oven to 350. Lay the lemon rounds down on a piece of foil. Cover the rounds with basil. Sprinkle half of the shallots on to the lemon/basil. Separately, season chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Lay breasts on top of lemon/basil. Pour remaining shallots over the top. Fold the foil up around the chicken, and bake for 45 minutes. Warning: You might want to bake for more like 35 minutes. My chicken was not fully defrosted. Let rest for five minutes before slicing.

For the vinaigrette:
1/2 cup macerated raspberries
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

Combine the ingredients, and add sugar (or sugar substitute - I used splenda) to taste.

This is a tasty easy salad. Definitely something you can throw together during a work week without feeling stressed.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dean Razavi's Guest Post - Break Bread

I'll be honest, baking has never been my forte. Bread matters get complicated when I see “yeast” listed anywhere in the ingredients. So when I found a recipe for Orange Quick Bread that involved no yeast, and took about an hour from start to cooling-on-a-rack, I immediately had to try it. Except that I didn't have orange marmalade.
Without further ado, I give you Apricot Quick Bread!

Step 1: Mix 3 cups of flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, and 1 teaspoon of salt in a bowl

Step 2: Over low heat, in a small sauce pan melt 4 tablespoons of butter into 1 cup of milk

Step 3: Once the butter is melted, stir in 1/3 cup of apricot marmalade (but really, any jam, preserver, marmalade, or other fruit spread you have on hand will do!) until the marmalade is broken up.

Step 4: Let the butter, milk, and marmalade mixture cool. Once it has, add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice

Step 5: Combine wet and dry ingredients until you have a dough

Step 6: Bake in a cooking-sprayed loaf pan (mine was 8 x 6) in a 350-degree oven for 40 minutes

And that's it. The prep for this is a whopping twenty minutes of work, and most of that is waiting for your mixture to cool to add the lemon juice. I went to the kitchen at 8:40 pm and had the loaf in the oven in time for True Blood.

Noticeably absent from the ingredient list? Sugar. Look, this may have a fruit in the name. This may, on paper, sound sweet. But make no mistake ladies and gentlemen. This is bread. This ain't pastry, this ain't dessert. And this ain't sweet. Spread some butter on it, or use it to make a turkey sandwich, or toast it with some (more) marmalade on top for breakfast. Don't expect to eat it on its own and have a revelation. Do expect a tasty, fast loaf of bread.

- D

Restaurant Review - Alvaro's Bakery

The scene: Harrisburg, in the residential neighborhood a little more than a mile from downtown. Also, and conveniently, a four block walk from my apartment! Hence, you may see other posts in the future, to update on different menu items as I try them out. This is really just a corner shop, with a few tables outdoors and a few tables indoors.

The food: We ordered the eggplant Parmesan special for lunch. This was simply delicious, even if it was served on a styrofoam plate. I want to start with the pasta first. It was clearly homemade, so it was thick, and a little chewy in a very pleasant way, with a flavorful tomato sauce. The pasta actually reminded me a little of spaetzle, which was a good thing, because I love spaetzle.

The eggplant parm was superb. It was very lightly breaded and fried, and then the large piece of eggplant was folded and "stuffed" with ricotta cheese that had some herbs blended into it. It was served smoking hot, which posed a bit of a problem because it was so delicious I wanted to eat it all and very quickly.

After we finished our surprisingly good pasta, we decided to finish the meal off with gelato. These guys make the gelato in the shop and serve it up fresh, which is pretty fantastic. The vanilla had just been put out, so it was at its peak. It was creamy and and not overly sweet. I decided to go with the lemon. It was much more like granita than gelato, which on a hot day was just fine with me. I'll definitely go back and try different flavors in the future. Although, speaking of, I do wish they had labels telling you what the flavors are!

The price: Good value. The eggplant parm special was $7.99, and the gelato was about $2.50. Worth it for the quality of the food we had. I'll have to try some of their other things, to see if the price:quality ratio holds true.

The service: You shouldn't have high expectations of fancy service here, since its really more like a deli/bakery than a restaurant. But the people who worked in the shop were friendly, and efficient. And that's really all that matters.

Final thoughts: I'll probably be a regular at this place. Convenient location for me, and the food was worth it. I'll certainly be back to try some of the very pretty pastries they had in the display case!

Real Muffins!

So, in reading Alton Brown's book on baking, I discovered a horrifying truth. Okay, that may be an exaggeration. But I did learn something I was a bit disappointed about. I have never made real muffins. Ever. First, I almost always use a mix. Second, I always over mix everything. So, on a fine Saturday morning, I set out to do what I had never done before. I was going to make muffins.

I decided to make this a double experiment. I figured making muffins didn't seem that intimidating, so I also decided to test different liner options. First, according to Alton, you should always use both a lubricant and a liner. He says not to use butter, because it will release water, which will result in steam, and may change the way your goods bake. He recommended shortening, and that is just what I used. I lined 6 muffin cups with foil muffin liners. I lined 3 with paper liners. And I didn't line 3 cups at all.

The basic recipe for muffins is really pretty simple, so I don't know why I always buy a mix. I mean, I guess the mix is easier, but I get a lot more credit for doing it from scratch. I mixed my dry ingredients in my food processor (WAY better than sifting!), and mixed all my wet ingredients together, seperately. I had a hard time deciding whether I should use a liquid or dry measuring cup for the yogurt. With the liquid, I had less than I needed, with the dry, I had more. Sigh. So I also added a tablespoon of skim milk, in case it was not wet enough. I combined my two add-ins (chocolate chips and fresh, slightly macerated, raspberries) with the dry ingredients, then added in the wet ingredients until they were just combined. Juuuuuuust combined! Scooped the batter into the muffin tin and popped it in the oven.

I had a hard time figuring out if I had the right temperature. My thermometer is crap. Time to get a new one. Eventually I decided that the tops of the muffins looked "done", and I took them out. **NEW TIP!!!** When you take muffins out of the oven, you should immediately tip them all sideways in their little muffin cups. This releases the steam that may be trapped in the cup, and keeps the bottom from getting soggy. (Or you could use foil...see my experiment results below.)

Experiment Results:
All of the muffins tasted pretty delicious. The smaller ones were a little more dry than I would have liked, because my muffins were not uniform in size. Next time I'll make sure to fill all my muffin cups to the top. But they were all pretty delicious. And when I broke them open...MUFFIN CONFIGURATION! Woot! I made muffins!

So, as far as liners go. The clear winner was the foil. It was easy to get out of the muffin tin, and it didn't stick to the muffin, either. The muffin stayed more moist, as well. Second place in my book went to the no liner option. It was a bit hard to flip the muffin on its side, but not terrible. And the no liner muffins all had a nice crispy edge to them, even on the muffin bottoms. The big loser was the paper liner. Both the no liner and paper liner options had absorbed all of the shortening in the tin, which is not something I was thrilled to see. But the paper liner also really stuck to the muffin, so that when I peeled it off, it took some of the muffin with it. Dislike.

So....foil! Winner! This was a big muffin win for me! Muffin win!

The Recipe:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Prepare the muffin tin with shortening and liners, if you so choose. Once you combine all ingredients, bake for 18 to 20 minutes, internal temperature should be 210 (or 180 if you are my thermometer :( ), or a toothpick inserted should come out clean.

Dry Ingredients:
2 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of Salt

Wet Ingredients:
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 cup plain yogurt

Add-Ins: you can add 1 to 2 cups of whatever you'd like. I went with 1 cup macerated raspberries, and a heaping 1/2 cup of chocolate chips.

Salad Week - Day 4 - Umm....avocado and tomato salad?

I'm learning that cooking can be quick, easy, and delicious. This tuna takes about 10 minutes. Think you can handle that?

1 teaspoon of Japanese Seven Spice (enough to coat each side of the tuna)
1/4-1/2 teaspoon coarse salt (enough to give an even spread of salt on each side)

Heat a non-stick skillet with grape seed oil. FYI: grape seed oil is my new favorite thing. Once the oil is hot, drop the tuna in. I had a particularly thick piece of tuna, so I did 2 to 3 minutes per side. But for a really good piece of tuna, like sushi quality tuna, I'd only do it for 30 seconds to a minute.

I served this with a "salad" of diced avocado, heirloom tomato, red onion, and lemon juice. Let's pretend like this keeps with the theme, okay? Thanks.

Overall, delicious and way easy.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Salad Week - Day 3 - Caprese

I've never really loved Caprese. I think it takes the right combination of vine ripened tomatoes (the tomato snob in me comes out!), fresh picked basil, and good mozzarella. And when you're shopping at the local grocery store, its hard to find that combination.

For tonight's salad, I used three heirloom tomatoes. They looked beautiful. One was red, one green, and one yellow. But they didn't taste as great as they looked. The basil was picked from my plant in the backyard. And the mozzarella was...$4.99. Suggests to me it wasn't the best choice, but the grocery store didn't have much else.

So, I'm sure you've seen caprese. Not rocket science. Slice of tomato, basil leaf, mozzarella. Stack. Make another. Then another. I always like to layer them in a ring, but if you're serving this as a group appetizer, individual stacks are convenient.

Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkle with fresh ground pepper and coarse salt. I also like to add a drizzle of balsamic, or vincotto for a real treat.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Salad Week - Day 2 - Citrus and Chicken Salad

I'm trying to be efficient in this effort. Okay, fine. I'm lazy! So, tonight's salad included many similar ingredients from last night's effort. But the taste was totally different!

I started with a bed of chopped spinach. Chopping made it SO much better! And allowed me to put more on my plate. Good good! Then I put a layer of sliced chicken that was leftover from salad day one. Added some slices of grapefruit on top of that.

In a separate bowl I tossed some avocado, cucumber, red onion, and red heirloom tomato. I tossed some citrus vinaigrette (recipe to follow) into the veggie mix, along with some salt and pepper to taste. Threw it all on top, and it was just delicious! Refreshing and healthy. And definitely a more balanced salad tonight than last night.

The citrus vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed grapefruit juice (or to taste)
1 tablespoon grape seed oil
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 tsp Dijon mustard (or also to taste)

Combine ingredients. Mix. This is where I got the basics for this recipe, so if you are making salad for more than one person, or don't like my balance of ingredients (or grapefruit, because it can be a little bitter) try the original:

Salad Week - Day 1 - BBQ Chicken Salad

Okay, this may be misleading, because it wasn't BBQ chicken. But it was chicken with BBQ salad dressing. This was pretty simple. Some spinach, chicken that I baked (below), avocado, cucumber, and my semi-homemade BBQ dressing. What does that mean? Oh, I mixed some of the amazing BBQ sauce that I got from Ridgewood BBQ (see my last post) and mixed it with some yogurt and the garlic and onions from the chicken recipe.

A good salad is like a good drink. There is a fine balance of ingredients and proportions. This salad was lacking something. I think either some roasted corn or spicy toasted walnuts would have added that additional touch. Also some roasted red peppers might have been nice, or just juicy red tomatoes, to add color.

Here's how I did the chicken. Super easy, and could be served over pasta, rice or on its own.

Mix together:
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh chopped rosemary
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (I used chili powder. That was a mistake because I wanted some kick.)
1 teaspoon dried thyme (or 1 tablespoon fresh chopped)
1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon olive oil

Brush mixture onto four chicken breasts. Set aside. Pre-heat the oven to 350. In a cast iron skillet, brown 1/4 of a red onion (diced), and 2 cloves of garlic (finely sliced). Once brown, remove from heat. Put chicken over the top of garlic and onion and cover with foil. Place in pre-heated oven and bake for 15 minutes. Increase the temperature to 375, turn the chicken over, and bake for another 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest 5 minutes before slicing.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Best BBQ You'll Probably Never Have

The scene: Ridgewood BBQ, in Bluff City, TN. Kids, this is seriously off the beaten path. Originally just a single room diner hidden not far past the border of TN/VA, it is now a multi room diner hidden just past the border of TN/VA. They've got limited operating hours, so don't show up at 7:30 hoping for dinner, because they'll be closed. And do show up expecting to wait. We got there around 6:30 and had to wait about 15 to 20 minutes to get a table. But, I promise, it is absolutely worth it!

The meal: This place serves up heaping helpings of mouth watering BBQ. We ordered the BBQ pork sandwich, which was thin sliced pork in homemade BBQ sauce on a giant bun topped with some slaw, and with a side order of fries. The portions are huge. I'm a big eater, and splitting the sandwich was plenty for me. They leave a bottle of the BBQ sauce on the table, which should be used on everything! The fries. The sandwich. It's so delicious, I'd worry that people might drink it, or put it on a spoon.

I also heard the Blue Cheese and crackers are fabulous, but we didn't try those.

The service: Just what you would expect from a roadside BBQ diner. Friendly, efficient, and bustling because they've got tons of people to serve!

The price: Everything seemed reasonable. You're definitely not going to break the bank at this place, although you might have to spend a few bucks on gas to get there!

The highlights: The baked beans. Seriously out of this world. Homemade, delicious, and served in an adorable little bean pot. I could have eaten two servings, they were that good.

Final thoughts: If you're ever out this way, particularly if you're going to Asheville, this place is definitely worth the detour. Heck, even if you aren't out this way, it would be an amusing weekend adventure. And if you're hitting the NASCAR race at Bristol, then you should definitely stop in. Or place an order to pick up!

Here's the link to the yelp review with the address (ignore the 1 star reviewer who was clearly high on hater-ade):

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Jessica -1. Pineapple Upside Down Cake - 1.

So, I wanted to make the PUD again, for my grandma's birthday. I was again baking in an unfamiliar kitchen. And it did not go so well.

First, I know my grandparents have a cast iron skillet. Did I know where it was? No. Did they know where it was? No. Sigh. So I had to make due with what was there. I chose a spring form pan. Probably not the best decision of my life.

I also did not have the internet, so I couldn't really look up the properties of the spring form. If I had, I may have discovered that baking in the spring form would take more time than the cast iron skillet. Sadly, I hypothesized that the spring form had thinner walls, and a thinner bottom, and would therefore take less time to bake.

At least I made one substantial right life decision. I put a baking sheet under the spring form. Good thing, because the spring form, well... it sprung a leak. So I lost a little of my delicious brown sugar topping.

I pulled the cake out early, because I'd overbaked the last time. And it was definitely not done in the middle. The only thing I'm surprised about is that I did toothpick test it. And when I pulled the toothpick out, it came out moist, but pretty clean. This means I either didn't test it in the middle (where it was still not set) or...I don't know. Because the edges were perfectly baked. They were moist, they were fluffy, the topping was delicous. And I think if I'd baked it long enough for the middle to set, the edges would have burned. But maybe I'm wrong about that.

So, if you can imagine the pineapple upside down cake, I ended up tossing the entire center of the cake. I just cut around that middle pineapple ring, because everything underneath it was not done.

Sigh. Best out of three, PUD?

Tomato Provencal

Maybe this isn't exactly the right name, and I certainly don't have all the little tillday fancy French letters, but I made a stuffed tomato a la Chef Mosher at Robert Mondavi.

I was working without a recipe, and trying to recreate the side he served with a little bernaise. I did not make the bernaise. I'm just not there yet!

These were really simple. I again used my grandparents' home grown tomatoes. One per person. I had to gently squeeze out the seeds and juices, which was a little difficult because some of their tomatoes were just too ripe. An over ripe tomato in this recipe is not the greatest, because the outer skin of the tomato will ripe, no matter how delicate you are in squeezing. A slightly younger tomato will spring back.

So, in order to squeeze out the tomato, you should cut off the top. Make sure you cut deep enough to get the stem off, and any of the whitish portion underneath the stem. Just hold the tomato over the sink (or a bowl if you want to use the juice for something else later), and gently squeeze. Rotate. Squeeze. Rotate. Do this a couple of times, until you've gotten most of the seeds out. You should have three to five little chambers for stuffing.

Now, to make the stuffing. I minced five cloves of garlic. But I like garlic, so probably two would have been fine. I minced two large shallots. I used my food processor to make fresh fluffy bread crumbs out of a single piece of bread. Just drop it in, hit pulse a handful of times, and you've got bread crumbs! I combined my garlic and shallots with the crumbs, then tossed in some chopped fresh thyme and basil. I think there are any number of fresh herbs that would work really well with this dish. Added some salt and pepper to the mix, and that was that. I would also recommend putting just a little salt and pepper down into the tomato itself.

Chef Jeff tossed in a little olive oil before stuffing the tomatoes, to make the mix more cohesive. Probably a tablespoon or two of olive oil is sufficient. It shouldn't be soup. I took the stuffing, and pushed it down into the little chambers of the tomato, then made sure to cover the top completely with a heaping mound of stuffing. It should end up looking a bit like a small stuffed pepper. Add a little salt and pepper to the top, and the tomatoes are ready for baking!

Put the tomatoes in a baking dish, and put them in an oven that has been preheated to 350 degrees. I baked them for 30 minutes, but you should bake them until the breadcrumbs on the top are golden brown in color. Take them out, let them rest for a few minutes to cool. Then plate and serve!

I'll admit, the bernaise would have been a nice touch. But, hey, I'm just learning!

The Tomato Snob

I made a delicious and refreshing gazpacho. Problem being, it was delicious because I used homegrown, fresh out of my grandparent's garden, juicy sweet tomatoes. So, if you have 4 to 6 of these lying around, then make this super simple gazpacho!

4 to 6 home or locally grown tomatoes, super ripe
2 red peppers
1 red onion
3 cloves garlic
1 jalapeno
1/4 cup good olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
Tomato juice (I only used about 12 ounces, but the original recipe called for 23. I like a really thick and chunky gazpacho, though)
Fresh ground salt and pepper
1 hot house cucumber

Roughly chop all of the vegetables. Get out your food processor! I processed the garlic, jalapeno, and onion together until they were all very finely minced. I did the peppers and tomatoes until they were chunky. Don't over process the tomatoes and peppers, because you want the gazpacho to have some texture to it. Combine all the vegetables in a bowl, along with the liquid ingredients. Salt and pepper to taste (probably about 1 tsp salt and 1/4 to 1/2 tsp pepper). Let stand in the refrigerator for a few hours before serving, so the flavors can mix.

Serve chilled on a hot summer day!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Restaurant Review - Alexis Baking Company

The scene: Napa proper, hidden on a quiet semi-residential street. This is kind of a hole in the wall. Nothing fancy about the setting. Just a store front with about 15 tables. But I knew I’d made the right choice when almost everything else in Napa was asleep on Sunday morning at 8:45am, and this place had a waiting list.

The meal: I’m not even sure I need to describe the food I had the pleasure of eating. The names will do it. Stuffed pancakes with sweetened cream cheese and fresh nectarines. Cinnamon French toast with fresh nectarines and powdered sugar. Omelet with wild mushrooms and sweet onions, cinnamon toast, and breakfast potatoes. But, in case you can’t guess what these taste like, I’ll give you a little description.

The omelet had fabulous flavor. I might have made a few adjustments (cheese! Hello?!), but when you got a bite with the onion and the mushrooms together it was earthy and sweet and wonderful. The breakfast potatoes didn’t wow me, but the fresh, homemade cinnamon bread did. The portion size was also substantial.
The French toast was made with that same delicious homemade cinnamon bread. And it was just awesome. Plain and simple.

Oh, you thought the highlight of the meal was the French toast? Sure, it was awesome. But it was not nearly as freaking fantastic as the pancakes! The sweetened cream cheese between two fluffy and light pancakes was a little reminiscent of a crepe. But with better filling. The filling had the flavor of cheesecake (because, duh, it’s the same stuff!), but was creamy and smooth. With all that fresh fruit, it all came together for my favorite pairing. Sweet and tart. And wowow delicious.
You cannot go wrong with this place. I oogled everyone’s food until I got mine, and then I was so happy!

The service: Awesome! Our server, let’s call him T-Rex, was a big guy. The table was long, and it was hard to get to the farthest coffee cup, so he joked that he couldn’t reach it because of his little T-Rex arms. They were not little, but he was funny. When we asked what was better between the pancakes or french toast, he said, “Why don’t I give you half an order of each, then you can try them both.” Um, SOLD! He was attentive, and stopped by frequently to top off our coffee.

The price: For the portion size and quality it was worth it.

The highlights: The purple house across the street. Seriously, it was adorable. The ambiance wasn’t fabulous, but who the heck cares when the food is that delicious?

Final thoughts: Go. Enjoy. And then don’t eat anything else the rest of Sunday!

Restaurant Review - Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen

The scene: St Helena, California. This is a back alley diner, as only St Helena can do it. Because by “back alley” I mean adorable ranch house style diner with enough tables and booths to accommodate a lot of folks. On a beautiful day, the little outdoor patio is just splendid, but the interior is quaint and comfortable, with large booths for bigger groups. Warning: the bathroom is the only thing about this place that is small. Only two stalls, so be prepared to wait.

The meal: This place had a menu that mixed comfort with cutting edge. I did some entrée splitting with a friend, so I got to sample a number of things. I started with a grape and fennel gazpacho, then had half of the duck burger with shitake mushroom “ketchup”, and an adult grilled cheese that had bacon and apricot jam on it, with polenta fries. So, let’s get to the details!

The gazpacho was just fantastic. It was green, which made it a bit different from your normal gazpacho. The initial taste wasn’t all that different from a tomato based gazpacho, but was followed by the taste of the fennel, and finished with a serious spicy bite courtesy of some jalapeno. Fabulous! I loved the layers of flavors. It was the special, so you’re not likely to see it again, but apparently they do gazpacho on a regular basis.

On to the duck burger! This was a fun twist. I generally love a good quacker, so I decided to go for it, even though I had no idea what a duck burger would be like. And, really, what the heck is shitake mushroom “ketchup”?! Well, turns out that shitake mushroom ketchup results in a caramelized glaze that tastes a bit like teriyaki. It has a certain sweetness to it. The duck burger was pretty delicious, but it was a little dry. I don’t know if this was because they overcooked it, or if it was just the natural differences in duck versus beef. But I still enjoyed the duck burger.

Finally, the adult grilled cheese. It had some fancy shmancy cheese on it, that was in the gruyere family. So, white and full of flavor. The bacon was a nice touch, although I should have ordered it extra crispy. And that apricot jam was just superb, tart and sweet. It paired with the savory sandwich so nicely.

The service:
Meeeh so-so. They brought me a shrimp BLT, rather than my grilled cheese, and then it took a while to get the grilled cheese. The restaurant was busy because it was a Saturday at noon, so I’ll cut them a little slack. But it was hard to get the waitress’ attention. So, really, it was just so-so.

The price:
A little pricey for a simple lunch. But you’re in Napa! So live a little. The sandwiches were anywhere between $11 and $15, and that delicious little cup of gazpacho was a mere $4.50. And worth every penny, I’ll tell you!

The highlights: That gazpacho. Delicious!

Final thoughts: Worth a lunch time visit.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Restaurant Review - Robert Mondavi Winery Garden to Table Dinner

The scene: Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville, California. The winery offered, for the first time, a four hour dinner experience to embrace Robert Mondavi’s belief that wine is best enjoyed with food. This experience requires a detailed description. There were 10 other people who had the opportunity to enjoy this amazing, intimate, adventure with me.

Our adventure began on the back patio of the winery, next to the garden. We started with a glass of Fume Blanc, a crisp, tart, and refreshing wine for a gorgeous, sunny, 78 degree afternoon in Oakville. We were greeted by our guide, Peter. More about Peter later. Head Chef Jeff Mosher joined us on the patio, and described what we would be making for dinner. He described the garden he had planted, and the different herbs and vegetables in it. Then it was time for some work. People snipped basil and picked beans. I had the personal pleasure of cutting eight beautiful little purple eggplants for us to use. The garden also featured other glorious items like tomatoes, rosemary, watermelon, peppers and fruit trees.

Once we were done collecting our ingredients, it was off to the kitchen. Every guest was given a black Robert Mondavi apron, which I wore the rest of the day. Chef Jeff doled out a few tasks, such as washing the ingredients and doing prep work. I eagerly volunteered for the task of mincing garlic and dicing shallots, because I wanted a knife lesson from an expert chef. And I got one! Chef Jeff showed me how to properly cut the shallot to avoid eye irritation (I’m a big crier when I cut shallots and onions). While my knife skills were not as quick as his, I made it all the way through my shallots without crying! And all of my prep work looked like his. I was very appreciative, and thrilled! Chef Jeff showed us how to prepare stuffed tomatoes, how to get the right consistency in a béarnaise (you want your base to have ribbons, where it doesn’t come back together quickly, before adding butter), and he let us taste test some of the items. While he worked, he answered all sorts of questions about his personal experience, how he chooses menus, and how to make your food compliment your wine (if your wine tastes flat, the secret is to add a little lemon or salt to your food).

Eventually we had to leave the kitchen so that the real kitchen staff could finish the preparations. While dinner was being finished, our wonderful guide Peter took us on a private tour of the winery. By this point the winery was closed to the public. We went into the vineyards and tasted the different varietals of grape that would later become exquisite Robert Mondavi wines. The roses in the vineyards were in full bloom, and smelled lovely. From the vineyards we then went into the wine making facility, to see the big barrels that were being prepared for this fall’s harvest. Two stories tall! We visited the cellar, to appreciate Mrs. Mondavi’s commitment to keeping everything aesthetically pleasing. She has the center panel of all the oak barrels painted red, so that if some wine spills out, the stains won’t be noticeable. During the tour Peter showed the amazing depth of his knowledge. He gave us the history of the winery, the science of wine making, and he answered the glut of questions that we had. Nothing stumped him!

Finally we made our way to our table in the rose garden.

The meal: We sat down at our gorgeous dinner table, with beautiful flower centerpieces, in the rose garden. We started with a Chardonnay, to compliment the hors d’vours. The Chef had made a few small bites to start out our experience. First came a smoked salmon on a vegetable slaw with dill mayonnaise. I’m not a huge lover of smoked salmon, but I enjoyed this small bite. The vegetables were crisp, and it brought out the notes in the wine. We had a small bite of the Chef’s take on the BLT. Mind-blowingly thick crispy bacon, thicker than I’d ever had before, paired with a bit of fried green tomato, avocado, and even a little bit of cherry tomato. Delicious. As a special treat, we also had an amuse bouche of melon gazpacho, served in an adorable little espresso cup with a tiny spoon. I loved the plating. The gazpacho was crisp, sweet, and made me look forward to what was coming next.

The second wine was poured. It was the 2008 Fume Blanc Reserve. Another light and refreshing wine, but with deeper tones than the first Fume Blanc we’d had. And then the food arrived. Seared wild salmon served over a caponata with garden basil, eggplant (I picked those!), and tomatoes. I’ll be honest. This salmon was absolutely the best salmon I have ever had, and it may have been the single greatest dish I have ever had. It was that good. Chef Jeff had used some white pepper and salt. It was seared in grape seed oil so that the salmon developed a delicious, almost decadent, crust. The caponata was great, too. The eggplant has been rolled in Wondra (a super fine flour), and lightly fried in grape seed oil, so it maintained its crisp texture rather than getting soggy. The caponata was full of big flavors, because everything was so fresh. Chef Jeff scored huge with this dish, and it brought the wine to life, too. My taste buds have never been so happy!

Our plates were cleared, and the third wine was poured. This wine was a real treat. The 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. The most expensive bottle of wine I’ve ever had (aside from the corked Opus One I tried **shakes fist!**). I sipped it while waiting for the next round of food, and it had a deep rich flavor. I could see the difference between this wine and the cheap $15 bottles I often buy. There was no bitter aftertaste. It was smooth, and the taste that lingered after I’d taken a sip was warm, pleasant, and comforting. This was a very good wine. And it was made better by the next round of food. Pan Roasted Niman Ranch Ribeye, served over a potato puree with mushrooms and summer beans, and a garden tomato a la Provencale in a béarnaise sauce (stuffed with my minced garlic and diced shallots!). Makes your mouth water, right? Starting backwards, I loved the tomato. It had the rich taste of something that had taken a very short trip from the vine to the kitchen to my plate. I love a fresh, ripe, tomato. And the béarnaise sauce complimented it nicely, with notes of fresh herbs. The beans were crisp, and eaten in combination with the mushrooms and potato puree made a lovely pairing with the meat. The ribeye! The ribeye probably got less love from me than it should have, because it was following that absolutely unforgettable salmon. But the ribeye had crispy, flavorful edges, and was cooked to perfection. It was tender and juicy in the middle. This course, above the others, really captured Robert Mondavi’s dream. I appreciated the wine even more because of the food. I savored a sip of wine after every bite, and was sad to see when both my wine (okay, my third glass of the amazing wine) and my food were gone.

The final pour of the night was a 2009 Moscato d’Oro. It was paired with a peach and blackberry crostada, whipped crème fraiche, and a blackberry sauce. I wish I could have watched the pastry chef at work, because the crostada was perfect. It had a delicate and moist crust. The pairing of fruits made a dessert with some edge. Sometimes fruit based desserts are sickeningly sweet, and then paired with the dessert wine, it just overwhelms my sugar sensors. But this dessert had a bite to it. And the crème fraiche was a fantastic touch. It, too, was both sweet and tart with hints of vanilla floating through it. I had never thought of using whipped crème fraiche, but this dessert has inspired me to move away from plain old whipped cream or ice cream, and strike out in new directions. I thought this dessert really paired nicely with the wine. Chef Jeff had carefully picked a dessert that wouldn’t compete with the sweetness of the dessert wine. Instead the sweet flavors of the peach in the crostada worked with the flavors of the wine, making both taste better.

The service: Our main server, Ken, was just wonderful. All of the waitstaff were efficient and pleasant. Ken went out of his way to make sure we had everything we needed. He poured the wine frequently and generously, was friendly, and made an effort to treat each of us as individuals. First class service.
The price: We paid $150 per person, and I’m going to tell you that this program is WAY WAY WAY underpriced. I think a more appropriate price would have been $250 or $300. The amount of wine and the quality of the food, alone, easily justified paying the price we paid. But to include private access to the winery, the ambiance, and the uniqueness of this experience, they should definitely be charging more.

The highlights: Honestly, everything about this experience was amazing. We also got to keep our aprons, and we received an autobiography of Mr. Mondavi’s life, as well as a small cookbook from Chef Jeff Mosher.

Final thoughts: This was a unique and memorable experience, and I am so very grateful to all the people at Robert Mondavi winery whose contributions resulted in such an amazing adventure. This has given me a new and profound appreciation for the power of pairing a good wine with a delicious meal.

Restaurant Review - Perbacco

The scene: Financial District of San Francisco, a few blocks from Union Square. This place was packed on a Friday night, so if you want to go make sure you have a reservation. There is a bar at the front where you can have a drink while waiting for your table. The tables were comfortably spaced, the décor was both cozy and modern. There were exposed brick walls, which gave the place a lot of character.

The meal: Perbacco does Italian the way it should be done. Fresh ingredients, thick sauces, colorful combinations, and big, big flavors. We did a bit of family style ordering, so everyone at the table shared the starters. The restaurant actually offers family style pasta servings, which they will plate for you.

We started with a tomato salad, and a fritto misto. The tomato salad had a wonderful variety of colorful tomatoes. Red, yellow, green. Small, medium, large. It was drizzled with basalmic and olive oil, and lightly seasoned. The tomatoes were delicious. Flavorful and juicy. While I can’t be sure they were locally sourced, they had the taste of locally sourced and recently picked. (I’ve become a tomato snob. I can taste the difference between a homegrown tomato and a store bought one.) The fritto misto involved a number of “fried” items, the feature being “fried” rock shrimp. Why “fried” and not just fried, you ask? Because these were more tempura style than the type of frying you imagine when you think of fried seafood starters. The batter was thin and light, and really highlighted the flavor of the food. The plate also featured “fried” green beans and green olives. The olives were unbelievable. It was served with a lemon aioli, which was nice, but could have used just a touch more lemon, I thought.

So. That was the starters. Ready for dinner?

We did a trio of pastas. We went with the gnocchi, a tagliatelli, and a ravioli. It was a nice spectrum, and the plate was extremely colorful. The gnocchi was in a cream sauce with wild mushrooms. Delicious. I thought the gnocchi was a little softer than I usually prefer, but the flavors were right on. The tagliatelli was in a pesto suace, and had sautéed summer squash and haricot vert mixed in. It was much heartier than gnocchi, with deeper flavors. Finally, the ravioli was in a light cream sauce that had summer peas, which give it just a hint of green. Great color palate. The ravioli was delicate and delicious, stuffed with a lemon flavored ricotta. Not the clunky stuff you may be used to. We also ordered two sides. The roasted fingerling potatoes, which I would describe as unremarkable. And the brussel sprouts. Oh the brussel sprouts! Hands down my favorite part of this meal. They were roasted in brown butter and seasoned with a honey mustard of some sort. Absolutely delicious. I can’t possibly rave about these enough. Wowowow.

For dessert we had the doughnuts with the salted caramel sauce. The doughnuts had a great flavor, although I thought they were either a little heavy or baked slightly too long. The sauce was heavy on the salt. Don’t dunk your entire doughnut deep into it, or you will not enjoy that bite. But just a little sauce on the doughnut was nice. It was a bachelorette party, and so they brought out an interesting dessert. Mascarpone semifreddo. It was round, and looked a bit like cheesecake. But it was not. And it was not panna cotta. It was creamy. Not exactly ice cream, but served chilled. It was freaking delicious, with its diced nectarines and blueberries. They also served hazelnut cookies that were really light (main ingredient was air). It was a great way to end a dense and filling meal.

The service: Five stars. Impeccable. Our waitress was attentive, knowledgeable, friendly, and concerned about our experience. Umberto, the manager, stopped by our table to welcome us to his restaurant. The excellent service really made this a great experience.

The price: Reasonable. Don’t remember seeing anything over $30 on the menu. The Pasta tris was $18 per person, with fair portion sizes. They had heartier entrees which looked really delicious, too. Quail. I love quail.

The highlights: The brussel sprouts. Get them. Love them. Oh, and a comprehensive wine list, featuring lots of different prices and options. The sommelier made a wonderful recommendation for us, that was at a reasonable price.

Final thoughts: Best Italian food I’ve ever had. Trust me, you’ll never want to go to Olive Garden again.

And so it Begins...

I have undertaken a new direction in my kitchen life, and my blog is going to reflect that. Yes, that’s right. After months of failing to chronicle my kitchen adventures, I’ll be blogging again. I’m trying to master the art of baking. I’m starting with the science, first, so I’m reading Alton Brown’s book on baking.

After reading the introduction, I learned something very important. I have been living a lie. A muffin based lie. All these years, I thought I was making muffins. But it turns out I was making cakes masquerading as muffins. WHO KNEW?! Not me. And obviously not most of the people who were eating what I was baking.

In order to remedy this horrible truth, I decided to take a “muffin style” recipe from his book. Okay, that wasn’t the only reason. There was also the fact that I was visiting Southern Virginia, and thought that a “traditional” Southern recipe would be nice. And maybe the biggest factor is that I’d be visiting my grandma in a week, and as a belated birthday celebration, I wanted to make her favorite kind of cake.

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake. PUD.

So, the recipe is pretty simple. First you’ve gotta make that delicious top. Melt butter in a cast iron skillet, toss in the brown sugar and stir it until it’s melted. Put your pineapple rings in and make a pretty design. Don’t forget the cherries in the middle of each one! I sprinkled some pecans into the delicious mixture, and added some pineapple juice on top.
For the cake itself, sift together your dry ingredients (or use a food processor, or if you are desperate like I was, you can use a blender. Yes. A blender.), then separately mix your wet ingredients. Here’s the secret muffin key right here! Don’t overmix! Dooooon’t do it. It is so so so hard for me not to mix until the batter is completely combined and smooth. But, hey, that makes a cake. In order to make a muffin, you want to mix the wet and dry ingredients until they are just combined. Alton says he walks away ten seconds before he’s really ready to. It felt like I walked away about one minute before I was ready. And then I worried that I’d over mixed. A history of over mixing will do that.

Pour the batter on the top. I’ll tell you, when I did this I had a mild conniption fit. There was so little batter! There was so much topping! My batter made a thin layer over the topping. A very thin layer. I spent the first 20 minutes of baking worrying that I had done something wrong. But when I peeked in, it had fluffed up dramatically, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I searched the strange kitchen I was in for a thermometer. No dice. A toothpick? A cake tester? Noooo dice. I eventually decided that the bottom just looked really done, and pulled it out of the oven.

I let it sit for a few minutes, and then I attempted to flip the cake onto a serving platter. I may have sprained my wrist in this process, because the platter I was using was heavy, and the cast iron skillet the cake was in was heavy, and apparently I’m not as strong as I used to be. But I got it flipped, and it was beautiful! I paced around the kitchen waiting for it to cool, and then cut myself a small slice. Delicious. A little over baked. But delicious. I checked the structure of the cake. Muffin-like. Not cake like. Win!

So, this was PUD cake, attempt No. 1. I will attempt this cake again for my grandma, and hopefully I won’t over bake it this time. I think I’ll also be adding a little whipped crème fraiche with some pineapple juice added.

The Recipe:
Pre-heat oven to 350. Make topping in cast iron skillet (melt butter and brown sugar over medium heat on stovetop, then move off heat for remainder of topping preparation). Prepare dry and wet ingredients. Combine. Pour over topping. Bake for 40 minutes, or until 210 degrees. Take out and cool slightly, then carefully invert onto the serving platter.

1 stick of butter
1 cup of brown sugar
Canned pineapple (recipe says in heavy syrup, I like it in its own juice)
Maraschino cherries
¼ cup chopped pecans
3 tablespoons pineapple juice

Dry Ingredients:
1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt

Wet Ingredients:
3 large eggs
5 tablespoons pineapple juice
1 cup granulated sugar