Saturday, January 8, 2011

Thanksgiving Dinner in Harrisburg - A Review

**This is a guest entry, written by Aaron Paul and Kristin Russell-Paul, two of my lovely dinner guests. I didn't change anything, or unduly influence them with bribes!**


Cheddar Cayenne Coins and Pepper Dip
Veggies and Ranch Dip
Arugula, gorgonzola, pears and candied walnut salad
Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Roast Duck and Confit
Cranberry Stuffing
Brown Butter Cake

For Thanksgiving this year, our lovely friend and host Jessica invited three of us to her new domain in Harrisburg for dinner. She promised a classy dinner with drunken shenanigans to follow, and who could turn down such an invitation? So we all travelled in on Thanksgiving morning, by train or car, in order to see what our always-talented chef was going to serve up.

The two of us arrived to find preparations well under way, and the kitchen smelling delightful. While the dogs played, the people snacked. First up on the menu were hors d’oeuvres of Cheddar-Cayenne Coins and fresh veggies with two delightful dips. The Cheddar-Cayenne Coins were a huge, huge, huge hit. Like Madonna in the 80s. Jess said she had not made up all of them, because she assumed that 10 per person would be plenty. This was an inaccurate assessment, because our merry group devoured them with as much enthusiasm as 12 year old girls at a Jonas brother concert. These were totally perfect, just a hint of Cayenne and a deliciously creamy cheddar flavor overall. They were also quite pretty, and had a good size and consistency for dipping. It was basically love at first bite, and the poor little things stood no chance. The flavors held up well against both the lighter-bodied red that Jess and Dean had already started in on before we arrived, and the heavier Cab Sauv that we moved on to shortly thereafter.

The sit down portion of the meal began with an arugula, gorgonzola pear, candied walnut, and pancetta salad. The ambitious combination of tart and sweet flavors in this dish resulted in a fantastic blend that allowed the dish to be simultaneously light and heavy. The arugula and pear combination gave the meal a green beginning while the gorgonzola and pork piqued one’s appetite for the impressive flavors to follow. What was amazing about the dish was its ability to remain well balanced while exclusively using big-flavored ingredients.

After finishing our salads the ducks were ready and were served alongside roasted Brussels sprouts and a cranberry stuffing. Probably due to the popularization of freeze dried foods in the 1950s and 60s, Brussels sprouts have earned an undeservedly bad reputation. These were fresh and roasted in olive oil and fresh herbs. A simple combination but one that made you feel like you were doing your arteries a favor while still being hearty enough to fend off the coming cold weather. The difference between fresh and frozen brussels is like the difference between Oscar Meyer cold-cut roast beef and a grass-fed, beef tenderloin cut from your local butcher the morning before you grill it. They’re virtually unrecognizable apart from the incredible fact that they’re from the same species.
The stuffing of cranberries and bread crumbs was a playful complement to the roast duck and, when enjoyed in conjunction with the confit, continued the evening’s successful juxtaposition between tart and sweet flavors. For anyone considering substituting duck for turkey on your favorite November holiday keep it mind two things: first, it’s worth it; second, it’s more work and more greasy than the iconic bird. We split two birds between the four of us and, instead of harvesting them for their meat, simply cut them down the middle with a pair of kitchen shears and allocated a half to everyone. While possible to conduct in a civilized manner, it really pays to use your hands so as to get at all of the delicious morsels of meat that these birds have to offer.

For dessert, Jess did her best to send us firmly into a sugar induced coma for the evening in the most delicious of possible ways. She made a brown-butter, pumpkin spice layer cake that also involved candied pecans, crystallized ginger and totally delicious, cream cheese frosting. We had been looking forward to the cake since she first described it and posted a picture on Facebook, and it was more delicious than it looked. Ample slices were served with a drizzle of pumpkin fudge sauce and we might have gotten instant diabetes, but it would have been worth it. The cake itself was nicely spiced and moistened, with a good crumb. There was a really lovely ratio of cake to frosting and toppings. The combination of flavors really worked well together, and made for a holiday appropriate alternative to the standard pumpkin pie. Jess described this as the Thanksgiving cake of Gloriousness, and we’d say that’s a fair assessment. One of us is not usually a fan of cream cheese frostings, but the frosting on this one was very smooth, with a good balance of flavor. The butter and two types of sugar cut the flavor of the cream cheese so that it wasn’t overwhelming or unpleasant, but rather quite yummy.

Overall, this was a delightful dinner, and Jess a very gracious host as always. The menu did an excellent job of putting a slight twist on the Thanksgiving standards, and we are very grateful to have been able to share the evening with our friends.

Bricco - Italian, Harrisburg Style

I hit Bricco for dinner the other night. Apparently they have a partnership with the local culinary school. And, honestly, you could sort of tell. Lots of good ideas that were not executed so well. With almost every dish there were good things, and, unfortunately, there were not so good things. Except the dessert. It was adorable! The restaurant itself was really nice. Great layout, lots of space, nice bar and awesome chef's table. The prices were reasonable, and the portion sizes were very large.

Here's what I had:
Salted roasted beets with goat cheese and pistachios
Pappardelle with duck and pancetta
Risotto with beef short ribs and mushrooms
Adorable mascarpone cheesecake square are my thoughts on the food:
The caponata was very sweet. Not what I was expecting, but good on the crostini it was served with.

The salted roasted beets were a miss. The combination of beets+goat cheese+pistachios just didn't work. The beets were, as beets are prone to be, very sweet. But the goat cheese didn't really do anything to off set that. And the pistachios were added on whole (at the most slightly chopped), which meant that you would occasionally get a pistachio, but it wasn't evenly distributed. So. eh. This dish didn't really work for me.

The pappardelle was rather interesting. I was really excited about this dish, but as it turns out, I just don't think pappardelle was the right pasta for the sauce. The sauce was hearty, and a penne would have probably been a better pair. Pappardelle are wide noodles. The sauce was also a little too salty. I think the chef underestimated the salt factor of the pancetta. But, man, this was close to being a delicious sauce. And they were generous with the duck and pancetta. So, if this dish was made by a culinary school student, then they're getting close!

I'm starting to wonder if I've gotten sensitive to salt. Because I had a soup at another local restaurant a few weeks ago, and sent it back based on the fact that it was way too salty (in fairness my friend sent hers back, too). I just said the last dish was salty, and, finally, I thought that the major failing of this dish was that it was a bit too salty. But, as far as risottos go, this was otherwise very good. The texture was creamy, the dish was hearty, and the short ribs were cooked perfectly. So, aside from the fact that I thought they'd gone just a touch heavy on the salt, this was a good effort.

Finally, just a little note on the dessert. They had two dessert menus. One for full size desserts, and another that featured what I'd describe as tapas-style desserts. And those little desserts were the perfect size and price, not to mention the fact that the one I ordered was delicious!

So, while I wouldn't say this restaurant is the best Italian I've ever had (I'm lookin' at you, Perbacco) I'll certainly go back and try other things.

Short Ribs - Without my Secret Ingredient

So, since I've been making short ribs, I have always had one secret (and secretly awesome!) ingredient: the magic braising liquid. It was a lovely gift from one of my favorite friend-cooks, Lee. He gave me the braising liquid he had perfected over the course of six braises. And, man, you could not go wrong with it!

Well, when I moved to Harrisburg, I sadly had to leave it. That's actually how it came to me. Lee was moving, and it just doesn't travel well. So, now after being in Harrisburg for a few months, I'm taking a stab at my first braise without the magic ingredient.

Here's what I used:
3 boneless short ribs (another thing I've never used before, usually I do bone-in)
1 cup of chopped carrots
1 cup of diced onions
1.5 tsps paprika
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 cups beef stock (low sodium)
1.5 cups red wine (separated)
1 cup water
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
Oil for browning

What to do:
Salt and pepper the short ribs. Heat the oil, and when its hot, brown the short ribs on all sides (about 3 minutes per side) in a heavy bottom pan. I used a cast iron skillet. Set the short ribs on a plate. Pour out some of the oil, add about a tablespoon of fresh oil, and toss in the carrots and onions. Add about 1/2 tsp salt. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are a little soft, scrapping up some of the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the garlic, paprika, and thyme. Cook for another minute. Add 1/2 cup of the red wine to the skillet, and make sure all of the bits are scraped off the bottom of the pan. Let the liquid reduce a little, about 2 minutes.

Preheat a slow cooker on the low setting. Once the wine is reduced, put the short ribs on the bottom of the slow cooker. Add the reduction to the slow cooker, then add the beef stock, red wine, and water. Mix thoroughly. Put the lid on the slow cooker, and set the timer for 5 hours. Once every hour, turn the short ribs. At 4 hours in, I taste teseted, and decided to cut all of the large chunks in half. I think this ended up being a good decision.

After 5 hours, I took the meat out. I took 2 cups of the braising liquid, strained out the veggies, and then put the liquid on the stove top. I added some salt, a pat of butter, and then reduced it by about 50%. I served the short ribs (to myself!) with plain couscous, roasted asparagus, and the strained vegetables, all topped with the reduction. Delish!

Even without my secret ingredient, the braise still turned out delicious. Thanks, Lee, for introducing me to short ribs!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Candied Bacon!

I was reading an article about New Year's Eve party hosting, and it suggested putting out candied bacon. Candied bacon?! How had I never thought of this? I love bacon. I love candy. Why hadn't this amazing idea come to me?

Now, sometimes you put together two awesome things and get something awful. Example: riding a scooter = awesome, playing in the rain = awesome, scooting in the rain? Distinctly not awesome. But I was willing to give this candied bacon thing a try.

The recipe the article offered looked like this:

8 strips of bacon
4 tbsp light brown sugar
Pinch of cayenne

I decided to try a few different varieties. I made one strip of bacon following their recipe. Then I did a strip using granulated sugar instead of brown sugar. And a third strip of bacon where I substitute maple syrup for the brown sugar.

The maple syrup was definitely the easiest of the three to prepare for the oven. Granulated sugar came in second, and the brown sugar came in a distant (and kind of annoying) third. I could dredge both sides of the bacon with the syrup and the sugar. Not so much for the brown sugar. With the brown sugar I had to sprinkle the sugar mixture onto the bacon once it was in the pan.

Speaking of the pan, I crumpled some aluminum foil to line the baking sheet, so that the bacon didn't sit in its own fat while baking. Popped into the oven for 15 minutes at 325, and then cranked up the heat to 375 for 5 minutes.

How did the flavors compare? Brown sugar was the clear and easy winner. It had the best "candied" effect, giving the bacon a little extra crunch. It also had much more depth of flavor when compared with the granulated sugar. The maple syrup had good flavor, but I really liked the extra crunch from the brown sugar. Another perk of the brown sugar was that it gave the strip of bacon a more rich color than the granulated sugar.

So, brown sugar is a bit more difficult to work with, but that's definitely the way I'll go when I make this dish to bring to a party!