Sunday, December 23, 2007

Daring Bakers: Yule Log

Happy Christmas, friends! The December challenge for the Daring Bakers was, in the spirit of the holidays, a recipe for a yule log or buche de noel. It was far more challenging than the potato bread from last month! Somehow I managed to pull it off but not without my brother and refering to The Cake Bible.

The yule log cake is an ancient tradition, probably pagan, but now associated with the Christmas holiday season.

The Daring Bakers' challenge comprised three main components: a genoise cake, buttercream frosting, and meringue or marzipan mushroom decorations. None of these elements are easy on their own and in combination I have to confess that this recipe was a bit daunting, especially right before Christmas.

I decided to try this recipe with my brother, who is an accomplished cake baker, with assistance from his two little girls ages three and five. We made the cake at my mother's house. That added another layer of complexity because neither of us were cooking in our own kitchen.

We experienced two major yule log disasters: the genoise didn't quite roll up and the buttercream tasted awful! We realized the pound of butter in my mom's fridge was SALTED! (Salted butter is only good melted and for dipping lobster in). So we had to start that over, but that wasn't a bad thing because we decided to make a frosting without butter so lactose intolerant among us could eat it. Neither the genoise nor the mushroom decorations contain dairy.

First I made meringue mushrooms dusted with cocoa powder. They look adorable and exactly like real mushrooms complete with dirt.

The next day we made the genoise. It is made without dairy or a leavener. It relies solely on eggs to make it light. We poured it into a jelly roll pan so it was very thin and only cooked for 10 minutes. When we rolled it up we ran into trouble. The cake didn't quite want to roll up, but we easily remedied that with a liberal use of frosting.

We made the buttercream while the cake was cooking but next time we will make the buttercream before making the cake. It takes longer than 10 minutes to make buttercream. Our first batch of buttercream was an umitigated disaster. We decided to do a non-dairy buttercream for the second batch. It turned out great, though not as great as real buttercream would have been, and it was very easy to spread.

Before rolling up the cake, we drizzled it with sugar water, a treatment for genoise that my brother learned in The Cake Bible. Then frosted the flat cake, rolled it up, and frosted the outside. We used the tines of a fork to give the log a bit of rustic texture. Then we dusted it with powdered sugar for a bit of snow effect and garnished it with the meringue mushrooms. We will eat it on Christmas Eve.

Meringue mushrooms:
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup (3-1/2 ounces/105 g.) granulated sugar
1/3 cup (1-1/3 ounces/40 g.) icing sugar
Unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting

1.Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. Have ready a pastry bag fitted with a small (no. 6) plain tip. In a bowl, using a mixer on medium-low speed, beat together the egg whites and cream of tartar until very foamy. Slowly add the granulated sugar while beating. Increase the speed to high and beat until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted. Continue until the whites hold stiff, shiny peaks. Sift the icing sugar over the whites and, using a rubber spatula, fold in until well blended.

2.Scoop the mixture into the bag. On one baking sheet, pipe 48 stems, each ½ inch (12 mm.) wide at the base and tapering off to a point at the top, ¾ inch (2 cm.) tall, and spaced about ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. On the other sheet, pipe 48 mounds for the tops, each about 1-1/4 inches (3 cm.) wide and ¾ inch (2 cm.) high, also spaced ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. With a damp fingertip, gently smooth any pointy tips. Dust with cocoa. Reserve the remaining meringue.

3.Bake until dry and firm enough to lift off the paper, 50-55 minutes. Set the pans on the counter and turn the mounds flat side up. With the tip of a knife, carefully make a small hole in the flat side of each mound. Pipe small dabs of the remaining meringue into the holes and insert the stems tip first. Return to the oven until completely dry, about 15 minutes longer. Let cool completely on the sheets.

3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
pinch of salt
¾ cup of sugar
½ cup cake flour - spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off (also known as cake & pastry flour)
¼ cup cornstarch
1 t vanilla extract
1/2 t almond extract
one (1) 10 x 15 inch jelly-roll pan that has been buttered and lined with parchment paper and then buttered again

1.Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.

2.Half-fill a medium saucepan with water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat so the water is simmering.

3.Whisk the eggs, egg yolks, salt and sugar together in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Place over the pan of simmering water and whisk gently until the mixture is just lukewarm, about 100 degrees if you have a thermometer (or test with your finger - it should be warm to the touch).

4.Attach the bowl to the mixer and, with the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed until the egg mixture is cooled (touch the outside of the bowl to tell) and tripled in volume. The egg foam will be thick and will form a slowly dissolving ribbon falling back onto the bowl of whipped eggs when the whisk is lifted.

5.While the eggs are whipping, stir together the flour and cornstarch.

6.Sift one-third of the flour mixture over the beaten eggs. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the flour mixture, making sure to scrape all the way to the bottom of the bowl on every pass through the batter to prevent the flour mixture from accumulating there and making lumps. Repeat with another third of the flour mixture and finally with the remainder. Stir in vanilla and almond (or other flavorings).

7.Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

8.Bake the genoise for about 10 to 12 minutes. Make sure the cake doesn’t overbake and become too dry or it will not roll properly.

9.Once the cake is done (a tester will come out clean and if you press the cake lightly it will spring back), remove it from the oven and let it cool on a rack.

Sugar water:
6 T sugar
2/3 c water
optional 3 T of liqueur

In a saucepan combine sugar and water. Bring to a rolling boil, stirring constantly. Cover and remove from heat. Cool completely. Transfer to a measuring cup and add liqueur. Use this sauce to pour over cake before frosting it.

Chocolate frosting:
4 cups confectioners' sugar
1 cup shortening
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon clear imitation vanilla extract
1/2 cup cocoa powder

In a large bowl, combine sugar, shortening, water and vanilla. Beat on low speed to combine, then beat on medium speed for a full five minutes. It won't look like Icing at first, but keep the mixer going for a full five minutes. Stir in the cocoa. Add additional water if the frosting becomes too thick.

Assembling the yule log:
While the cake is still warm, turn it out of the pan onto a towl sprinkled with powdered sugar. Roll up the cake with the towl. Then unroll, remove towel, and drizzle with some sugar water. Frost it with a layer of chocolate frosting. Next, gently roll up the cake. If it breaks a little, don't worry, you can gently press them back into place. Put the cake in the fridge to rest for an hour or so.

Take the cake out of the fridge. Drizzle with more sugar water. Frost the exterior of the roll being careful to cover the entire cake. You can cover a multitude of sins with frosting. We dip our knives into hot water to make spreading easier. Once the cake is frosted, dip the tines of a fork into hot water and rake gently across the frosting to make a bark pattern on the log.

Dust with powdered sugar and garnish with the mushroom.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Nana's for dinner

Last night I went to Nana's for dinner. In need of vegetables, I had the field greens salad that included radish, fennel and cherry tomato in a lemon vinaigrette. The fennel with the lemon vinaigrette was a lovely combination. I might have to try some think slices of fennel the next time I make a salad.

My main course was an item listed under the starters. It was a bowl of wide pasta with a duck sauce. The duck had been ground and cooked for a long while. It was delicious, warm, comfort food, perfect for a cold night. My friend had venison. It was surely good because not a morsel was left on his plate.

The menu had several interesting game dishes: venison, bison, and wild boar. I'd love to try the wild boar. I like boar so much that I'm ready to go hunting for one!

For dessert we had gooey pumpkin cake with eggnog ice cream. The cake had a layer of dark ginger then a layer of lighter pumpkin. It was gooey indeed. The ice cream lived up to its billing and tasted exactly like frozen, creamy eggnog. YUM! The dessert was garnished with a ginger (I think) crisp.

We drank a big, bold red, a blend, from the Barossa Valley in Australia.

I cannot wait to eat there again! Besides good food, the service is always friendly and attentive.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Chocolate truffles

One of my blogger friends pointed out the chocolate truffle recipe and video from Mark Bittman in last Wednesday's NYT Food section. It had been a while since I made truffles and since I had a block of Caillebaut dark chocolate in the cupboard, I decided to make some. I cannot underscore enough how easy these truffles are, however, good ingredients are key. I used the French chocolate and some heavy cream from a local dairy. I also added a dash of cinnamon.

I put the finished truffles into gold foil candy cups, placed four in a little favor box, and wrapped a pretty green ribbon around each box. I am going to give these to my friends at work for Christmas.

Chocolate truffle recipe from Mark Bittman:

7/8 cup heavy cream

8 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Unsweetened cocoa powder as needed.

1. Heat cream in a pot until it steams. Put chocolate in a bowl, pour hot cream on top, and stir until chocolate is melted and incorporated into cream.

2. Chill until solid all the way through, 1 to 2 hours. Using a chilled melon baller or latex gloves to prevent the ganache from melting or sticking to your hands, scoop out about a tablespoonful and quickly roll it into a ball. Repeat, lining truffles on a plate or a baking sheet.

3. If truffles become too soft to handle, place them in refrigerator or freezer for a few minutes. Roll them in cocoa powder, confectioners’ sugar or a mixture of sugar and ground cinnamon. Serve immediately or store, wrapped in plastic, in refrigerator for up to four days.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups ganache, or 24 truffles.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Truffle oil and mushroom pizza

On Friday I headed over to A Southern Season to pick up a gift for my cousin who is a bit of a chocolate connoisseur at the tender of age of 23. I really like to wander around the store looking at everything. But this is dangerous to my wallet! I left the store with chocolates and a $30 bottle of black truffle oil.

I've been wanting to cook w/ black truffle for a long time but I cannot bring myself to pay $185 for one mushroom no matter how delicious. Having said that, I will marry any man who brings me fresh black truffles and a Judith Leiber evening bag!

Truffle oil is, relatively speaking, a much less expensive alternative. The good news is that a little goes a long way so a 3.5 oz, $30 bottle will last awhile.

Last night I made mushroom pizza and drizzled a few drops of truffle oil over the slices. It was perfect! The oil imparts an earthy richness. Tomorrow I am making some mushroom risotto and I'll put some truffle oil on that too.

Mushroom pizza w/ truffle oil:

Pizza dough, enough for a large pie (homemade, frozen, canned, doesn't matter)
1lb sliced white, shitake, cremini, whatever combination you like
4 T. olive oil
3 or 4 cloves of garlic finely minced
8 oz of shredded mozzarella
8 oz of shredded Parmesan or Swiss or whatever you like
Salt and pepper to taste
Truffle oil to taste

Preheat oven to 400F. Roll out the pizza dough and brush with 2 T. olive oil. Scatter the garlic on top of the oil. Bake the pizza dough for 8 minutes. Meanwhile saute the mushrooms in the remaining olive oil for about 8 minutes. Top the half-baked pizza dough with mushrooms and cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Bake for 15 minutes or until crust is brown and cheese is melted and golden.

Slice into pieces and drizzle each slice with a few drops of truffle oil.

Friday, December 14, 2007

No more onion tears!

Onions and shallots make me sob, not a couple of tears but full on gushing. Even just peeling and cutting in half to throw into the food processor makes my eyes start running. I've tried a variety of techniques: wearing contacts, wearing goggles (now that's pretty), keeping onions in fridge, cutting them in a bowl of water (messy and too hard), and finally I just gave up and let the tears and mascara run down my face...until now!

I read a tip in Cooks' Illustrated to cut onions near an open flame such as a candle or a gas burner. Since I have a gas stove and my cutting area is right next to it, I decided to give it a try. If I am cooking the onions anyway, I figured I could warm the pan and the oil while the burner is on thereby killing a couple of birds with one stone.

Et voila! It worked. The fumes from the flames counteract the fumes in the onion that burn the eyes. So put a candle nearby or get that skillet warmed up next time you have to cut up an onion.

I love those Cooks' Illustrated people! They have such good ideas. If you know of other techniques that work, let me know.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Watts Grocery: Dinner

Last night my dive buddy and I went to Watts Grocery for dinner and to exchange Christmas gifts. He gave me a gorgeous book called Reef by a team of photographers called Scubazoo. I gave him a very useful tool, a hammer with a bottle opener, and 16 bottles of beer that I bought from Wine Authorities: Dogfish Head 90 Minute Imperial IPA, Bell's Cream Stout, and Prima Pils.

Dinner was as usual very good. We didn't order starters but we did share some hushpuppies. My friend was skeptical about them but I liked them. I've never met a hushpuppy I didn't like. They were formed into balls, crisp on the outside and soft and breadlike inside. There were specks of green onion and parsley visible inside. They were served with a cilantro mayonnaise.

I had molasses chili glazed salmon with collard risotto in its pot likker. For those of you who are not from the south, pot likker is the resulting broth from cooking collards in water with onion, salt, pepper and fat back or ham hock. I know some Southerners who save the pot likker, pour it into cups and make their children drink it because it's full of nutrients that boil off the collards.

The salmon was perfectly cooked to medium. I really liked the molasses chili glaze. The sweet glaze complimented the bitterness of the greens.

My dive buddy had the pork. The portion was huge and it looked tasty. I always want to pick up a pork chop like that and gnaw on the bone, but I spared my dining companion my atavistic impulses.

We were too full to get dessert. The portions were huge. I'm glad we didn't order starters.

Our waiter was helpful. He made a good wine recommendation.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Chocolate peanut butter candy

One holiday tradition in my family is that my maternal grandmother makes tons of candies and cookies every year. After her pralines, this recipe is my favorite. It is dead easy and it reminds me of Reese's peanut butter cups, only better.

1 c. creamy peanut butter (I have never tried it w/ crunchy)
1 c. powdered sugar
1 T. butter, softened
Dipping chocolate, melted

Mix together all ingredients but the chocolate. Roll mixture into small balls. Using a toothpick, pick up each ball and dip into the melted chocolate. Place the balls on waxed paper to allow the chocolate to set and dry. Remove toothpicks.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Gambas a la plancha

On Saturday at the Durham Farmers' Market, I found some small, round, sweet, slightly spicy Puerto Rican peppers like the ones I had at Jujube. Inspired by Charlie and Josh's dish at the 20 course tasting menu, I thought I'd buy the peppers and try my own version of the dish because I happened to have freezer full of shrimp from Ocracoke and I love these little peppers!

It turned out well, especially the shrimp, but the peppers were not quite as delicious as the ones made by the geniuses at Jujube. They were still good. I think I didn't get the oil hot enough and I let the skins on the peppers get a little brown which made them somewhat bitter, I think. Not sure though.

Gambas a la plancha:

24 shrimp not peeled (shrimp cooked w/ the skin on is SO MUCH BETTER)
juice from 1 lemon
1/2 c. olive oil
salt and pepper
several Puerto Rican peppers (they have another name but I forgot it)

Rinse the shrimp and pat dry. Whisk together the lemon juice and olive oil until emulsified. Add salt and pepper. You could add some minced garlic too. Stir in the shrimp until they are well-coated.

Heat a cast iron skillet until it is very hot. Add the shrimp in a single layer. Cook shrimp for 1 minute on each side and then for another minute or two. Remove to a plate. Cook shrimp in batches and hold in a warm oven.

Once all the shrimp are cooked, add canola oil to the pan, enough for about 1/2 inch of oil in the pan. Once the oil is hot, add the peppers. Cook for a minute or two until the skin blisters. Remove to a plate to drain the oil from the peppers.

Arrange some shrimp and a couple of peppers on each plate and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with some olive oil if you like. Be sure to give your guests big napkins because peeling the shrimp is messy!

I am thinking of what else to do with the little, fried peppers. They might be good served on a plate w/ a slice of fresh goat cheese, drizzled with oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Next time I find some, I will try this. I am determined to perfect cooking these peppers.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Splurge! The Umstead

Since I work in the Park, I venture to Cary every once in awhile. Last night I went to a meeting after work in the bar at the luxurious Umstead off of Harrison on the SAS campus.

The place was full of corporate suits and elegant ladies, but I guess that is no great surprise given its location. The bar has comfy chairs and sofas and interesting art. The staff are friendly and helpful. The atmosphere is understated elegance and warm. The N&O review from last January when the place opened is on target.

The cocktails are dazzlingly expensive. Last time I paid $14 for a cocktail was in Manhattan. The good news about such prices is that you'll only drink one so you'll make it home safely! Instead of peanuts or pretzels, each tables gets snacks like wasabi peas, pickled okra and olives.

The bar menu looked good. I had an app for my dinner. It was a crab cake on a bed of black-eyed peas with red and yellow pepper topped with a fried green tomato. It was yummy. The tomato needed a bit more salt but the rest of the dish was perfectly seasoned. The crab cake was mostly crab without a lot of filler.

My colleague had the BBQ sandwich with fries. We laughed at him when he ordered because a place like the Umstead is not the place to order BBQ! But he got the last laugh. It was really good! The pork actually tasted and looked like pork. It had a great smoked flavor.

So if you are ever feeling rich or are on an expense account and in the RTP area, then try the Umstead. The Herons restaurant is supposed to be good but I've not been. It's not on the top of my list at the moment, but eventually I want to check it out.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Cranberry-onion confit

I made this recipe for Thanksgiving because I thought the standard cranberry sauce was a bit boring. The caramelized onions and wine really make these cranberries special. It makes about three cups which is a lot. I ate the leftovers with goat cheese on crackers. It would also be delicious spread over cream cheese.

Cranberry-onion confit from The Best Recipes:

6 T. unsalted butter
4 large onions thinly sliced (about 7 cups)
1/2 c. sugar
2 c. whole cranberries, picked through
1 c. red wine
1/4 c. red wine vinegar
3 T. grenadine (optional)
1t. salt

Melt the butter in a non-reactive pan or dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions and cook until the onions are very soft, about 30 minutes on medium low heat. Turn up heat to medium high and add sugar. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are golden brown and caramelized, about 15 minutes.

Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Simmer, partially covered, until most of the liquid is absorbed and mixture has a jam-like consistency, about 25 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


My friend Joe reports about a certain local restaurant that planning to go to all disposable utensils by the end of the week in order to save water. I find disposable utensils objectionable unless they are biodegradable, but I'd rather a restaurant use disposable than have to close completely which is what may happen if we run out of water.

We have 53 days of easily accessible water left in Lake Michie. I've been thinking about what I'm going to do if one day no water comes out of the tap. Imagine the impact to how we live! Daily life would change dramatically. Lot's of businesses would have to shut down.

The most important thing is to have water to drink, but just think of how much water you'd need at minimum to get by for a day. Do you know how much water you could get by on? Bare minimum for living, I'd need two gallons for drinking, washing hands/face/teeth, flushing, washing a couple of dishes and my morning cup of coffee. Even if I go to biodegradable utensils and plates, there will still be a need to wash up some pots and pans. Maybe 2 gallons isn't enough. Who knows.

Imagine the pandemonium if 210,000 people in Durham don't have water coming out of their faucets. Does standing in line w/ a bucket or jug to get water at a FEMA truck sound fun or what?

I might just have to get out of Dodge. I'll pack the cats and computer into the car and go live at the coast for a while.

You need a plan B just in case this happens. You might also start praying for a week of nonstop rain.

Shopping fun: Trader Joe's opens

The new Trader Joe's opened in Chapel Hill at the weekend. My cupboards were bare, well at least my fridge was, so I headed over to check it out last night. I'm glad I wasn't there on the weekend because apparently it was a madhouse. They had trouble keeping the shelves stocked. That's a good problem to have if you are a supermarket! Apparently a delivery was coming today so this evening would be a good time to go.

All I really needed to buy was some milk, fruit, and cheese. Seventy-five dollars later I left the store with all kinds of interesting things at good prices, less than Harris Teeter and Whole Foods for comparable items: 8oz of goat cheese, smoked mozzarella, dried wild mushrooms, raw almonds, sugar coated macadamia nuts, a whole marinated pot roast, a block of Ghiradelli dark chocolate, a box of frozen profiteroles, frozen French green beans, coffee and more.

Other things looked good like the proscuitto and pancetta as well as the variety of inexpensive cheeses, nuts, dried fruits, coffees and the European butters Plugra and President (these take bread and butter to a whole new level of delicious). The frozen fish and seafood tempted me but my freezer is already full of trout and shrimp from the coast.

The nuts are a great value. I never met a nut I didn't like. My favorite are marcona almonds that are blanched and lightly salted. They are great with cocktails. In fact, all you really need to do is put some in a bowl and pour the drinks.

I'm looking forward to trying the profiteroles, small cream puffs filled w/ ice cream. Easiest, elegant dessert on earth: open a box of frozen profiteroles and arrange three on a plate. Make this chocolate sauce and drizzle generously over the profiteroles. YUM!

I bought some dried orange slices but I am not sure what to do with them. Maybe some mulled wine or tea. I know what I will do with the dried mushrooms: wild mushroom risotto with marrow.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Wine class: Tempting Tempranillo

Last night I went to a wine class at The Wine Authorities called Rioja: Tempting you with Tempranillo. I learned so much -- there are actually excellent white Riojas -- and tasted some great wines that are a super value like the $9.99 Cruz de Piedra Garnacha Calatayud 2005.

These guys really have a passion for wine and amazing knowledge. What's great is that you couldn't meet two more unpretentious guys. They make wine accessible, they want to share their knowledge, and they are always very happy to make recommendations to people who visit the store. Snobbery is obnoxious and thankfully you won't find that at The Wine Authorities.

Craig and Seth design their classes themselves. The Rioja class began with an overview of the wine history of Spain, the growing regions, wine designations, and the varietals. Then the tasting began as a deeper exploration. We tasted two whites. I especially enjoyed the Bodegas Lopez de Heredia Vina Gravonia Rioja Blanco. It was a rich ambery gold in color. The bouquet was cheesy at first and moved to spicy and sherry-like. By the end of the evening, it reminded me of toffee. I could drink this by the bucket but it would give me a headache. It costs $23.99.

We moved on to the reds next sampling five wines: one 100% tempranillo, one 100% garnacha, and three blends. Two of the blends were traditional in style and production methods. The third represented the modern styles of wine making in the region.

I enjoyed all of them, but especially worth mentioning is another wine from Bodegas Lopez de Heredia, the Vina Tondonia Rioja Gran Reserva 1987. It was an amazing color. I've not seen anything like it: rich brown red, almost rust in color, but translucent. It reminded me of dried fruit and sherry. It is priced above the $50 upper end of the wines Craig and Seth carry in the store, but they can order it.

The other red I really enjoyed was the one made in the modern style: San Vincente Rioja Tinto 2002 priced at $49.99. It is a dark, inky red more like a Bordeaux than a traditional Rioja. 2002 was not a great year but Seth and Craig pride themselves on not being vintage prejudice. If there was a great wine made in a bad year, they will not shy away from it just because the year is wrong.

There is a class on wines from central Italy on December 20. More classes to come next year.

For me this has been quite a week for food and wine. I am going to take a break for a couple of days but will be back soon with an easy recipe that won second place in a dessert contest!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Twenty course tasting menu: Jujube

Last night several local bloggers dined at Jujube , the "almost Asian" restaurant, in Chapel Hill for Chef Charlie's fantastic tasting menu. We had twenty exquisite courses, yes, twenty! Each course was a small plate with a delectable morsel of two or three bites. Here is the run down:

Chips and dip:
house made ricotta and butternut squash puree with a taro chip, salt cod with a shrimp cracker, and Tuscan duck liver pate with a sesame chip. Loved the salt cod!

Calamari salad with dashi aspic, cerignola olives, and black Chinese vinegar reduction: dashi is a Japanese fish stock and the olives were mild and green. The vinegar was sweet and rich and a nice compliment to the squid and the hint of lime lurking in the aspic.

Wagyu beef carpaccio with egg gribiche and a potato waffle chip: Wagyu is the American version of Kobe beef-- nice, happy, beer-fed cattle. The beef was amazingly tender and very delicate in flavor. I've never had carpaccio so yummy! Gribiche is like a mayonnaise but the eggs are soft boiled instead of raw. It includes Dijon mustard and some parsley. I nearly licked the plate.

Encorotza: In Italian this mean "carriage" and it is basically a grilled cheese sandwich. The chef de cuisine, Josh DeCarolis, takes this simple delight to new heights with mini smoked buffalo mozzarella and anchovies sandwiches dipped in egg and fried. I am a huge fan of cooked, melted, oozing cheese so this was one of my favorite dishes.

Porcini-stuffed rice fritters with aged shoyu: basically risotto balls made of sweet sticky rice sitting atop a sweet, thick, soy sauce. Italian-Asian fusion at its finest!

Things you can do with shrimp
Gambas plancha: The chef's charming take on this typical dish found in Spanish tapas bars included a pretty Puerto Rican pepper which is mild but looks like a habanero. The peppers were thrown into a deep fryer without batter causing them to blister and plump up. I'd be tempted to eat an entire plate of these peppers!

"Shrimp and grits" -- tempura shrimp with crispy daikon cake and oyster sauce: Oh my goodness, the oyster sauce was wonderful! They make their own oyster sauce from amino acids and it doesn't actually have oyster in it. I wish they would bottle and sell it! Its smooth saltiness was a beautiful foil to the crispy, sweet shrimp.

Shrimp and edamame siu mai with fennel cream: These little dumplings stuffed with chopped, fresh soy beans and shrimp were atop a fennel cream that gave the dish a hint licorice sweetness.

Seared foie gras with Vietnamese-style shrimp pate and mint: I've eaten foie gras in some great places like Nana's in Durham and the inestimable Gotham Bar and Grill in NYC, but hands down this was the most delicious foie gras I've eaten. It was a silken, buttery morsel of yumminess, cooked to perfection, not overdone or underdone. The mint was a surprising and delicate touch.

Things that are neither shrimp nor meat
Braised salt cod with fennel, capers, and olives:
this was one of the two dishes that I was not overly crazy about. I was a bit disappointed because I love every ingredient in the dish. It was simply too salty even for me (I am an advocate for salt and its amazing properties). I much preferred the salt cod flaked with the shrimp cracker in the chip and dip starter course.

"White-trasherole": This cheeky take on the green bean casserole w/ cream of mushroom soup included Chinese long beans, shitake mushrooms in cream, and fried shallots. MMMMM, mmmm good, minus the Campbell's cream of mushroom soup.

Quail egg filled won-ton with brown butter and truffle: This dish was the other one I didn't really love. I'm not saying it was awful. I'm only saying that out of 20 dishes this one and and the salt cod were my least favorite. This one was basically a ravioli (using won-ton wrapper) stuffed with sauteed spinach and a quail egg that gently poached when cooked so the yoke is runny when eaten. A bit of shaved black truffle garnished the ravioli. I know black truffle with eggs is combination that many people love, but I prefer black truffles with stronger flavors that can stand up to the strong earthiness of this divine mushroom that is more expensive than gold. Keep reading for examples of what I mean.

Seared scallops with squid ink and black truffle cream: Loved it! The scallop was perfectly cooked, sweet and flavorful. The cream sauce was a dark, mysterious, purple black thanks to the squid ink which also added a briny flavor to compliment the earthy truffle. The briny, earthy sauce and the sweet scallop combination was a balanced marriage of flavors.

Venison truffle angolotti with robiola cream: By the time we got to the meat courses, I was starting to suffer from sensory overload, fatigue, and a full tummy. That didn't stop me from wanting to lick the plate again! This dish was another of my favorites. Angolotti is a stuffed pasta. Robiola is a creamy Italian cheese made of goat or sheep's milk. It should be no shocker that both of my favorite dishes include cheese! The robiola cream also included cilantro and lemon giving brightness to the rich, heavy venison pasta. I wonder if I could go back and order just a plate of this!

Seared sweetbreads with persimmon-shallot compote: Wow, I've had sweetbreads twice in one week. I have to say that the idea of eating thymus gland of a calf is disconcerting. Once I got over my squeamishness, I discovered that sweetbreads are good. Oddly, it reminds me of pork rather than beef.

Truffle stuffed spinelis steak with roasted fingerling potatoes: Loved this one too! Unlike my other two favorite dishes, this one does not have cheese. It was fork tender steak from a ribeye with shaved black truffle stuffed inside. The earthy truffles went great with the steak. I think it might have had a garnish of cilantro but I don't quite remember. By this point I was simply hoping to be capable of tasting the remaining courses.

Grilled venison with truffle jus and farro: Farro is a grain from emmer wheat. It seems very similar to bulgar wheat but coarser. I really liked the texture of it. It is one of the oldest cultivated grains. The venison was tender and the truffle jus, well, it was truffly. I was so full by this point that I could only muster ONE bite much to my dismay.

Bacon not stirred: Before we began the desserts, the chef presented us with digestifs of Makers Mark and butterscotch in glasses rimmed with salt and...wait for it...bacon brittle! It tasted fantastic but I was done drinking by this point so I only had a taste.

Sweet potato pie with candied baby walnuts: All these years I've been missing out by not eating candied baby walnuts! They are an Armenian specialty. Young walnuts, green husk and all, are preserved in a dark syrup. The chef served a thin sliced of sweet potato pie with slices of candied walnut on the side. Sweet potatoes make an excellent pie! This one was smooth and rich with a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

Truffled chocolate truffle: The last bite of the dinner was so good that I almost couldn't bring myself to eat today! I have never tasted anything quite like this combination of dark chocolate and black truffle. Yes, black truffle powder in the chocolate. The forcefulness chocolate stands up well to the earthiness of the black truffle. The perfect morsels were shaped even like black truffles. I think I may have died and gone to heaven for just a moment.

My dining companions will be posting their impressions on their blogs:

Eat at Joe's Hopefully Joe can give a rundown of the wines we drank. I didn't drink very much because I had to drive. Plus I am done with writing this tome!

Cooking Eating Durham DurhamFood had two friends with him so he should have some interesting views based on their discussions after the meal.

Eclectic Glob of Tangential Verbosity Lenore will even post photos of our dinner on Flickr as soon as she has time.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Daring bakers: Tender Potato Bread

I recently joined an online community of home cooks and bakers. Every month we are given a challenge recipe that each of us tries. Everyone must follow certain elements of the recipe but there is room for creative license. On a given day at the end of the month we post our results on our various blogs.

My first challenge recipe to make was the tender potato bread. I have to say that I was somewhat bummed that it was not a gorgeous dessert! It worked out just fine though because I served the bread at my Thanksgiving dinner.

It was also surprisingly easy to do the basic recipe. I was nervous about doing anything complicated since I'd never handled potato dough but it was a success!
The crumb is moist and dense with bits of potato but not at all heavy or stodgy. I don't know what baking chemistry occurred to make that happen. I'm not a huge baker, so I am always impressed by the magic of food chemistry.

The recipe makes one loaf plus a small loaf, or 12 dinner rolls, or a foccacia. I chose the loaf and dinner roll. The loaf was especially gorgeous. I didn't like the shape of the rolls. I was hoping for rounder. They looked more like hockey pucks than baseballs. While very tasty, I would have preferred something a little more attractive.

No one seemed to mind the hockey pucks, and maybe I'm exaggerating, because we ate them up. I sent half a loaf of bread home with some friends and I kept the other half for the endless cycle of turkey sandwiches.

Here is the recipe as I followed it for tender potato bread:

2 large Idaho potatoes (approx 8 0z), peeled and cut up
4 cups of water, save this water after boiling potatoes
1T plus 1t of salt
1 package of active dry yeast
7 cups unbleached all purpose flour (I used King Arthur)
1T unsalted butter softened
1 cup whole wheat flour (I use Bob's Red Mill...they are nice people)

Put potatoes and water in a pot and bring to boil, then add 1t. salt. Cook until potatoes are very tender. Drain but SAVE the potato water. Thoroughly mash the potatoes w/ a masher or food mill.

Measure out 3 cups of the potato water, adding additional water if necessary to make 3 cups. Put the water and the potatoes into the bowl you plan to mix the dough in. Allow to cool to lukewarm and mix well. I cooled the dough to 100F on a candy thermometer (as I am notorious at killing yeast by putting it into hot water).

Sprinkle the yeast over the water/potato mixture and let stand for 5 minutes. Stir. Then add 2 cups of the unbleached flour. Mix well. Allow it to rest another 5 minutes. Stir in remaining 1T of salt and softened butter. Add the 1 cup of whole wheat flour, stir briefly.

Add 2 cups of the unbleached flour and stir until it is incorporated. At this point 4 of the 7 cups of flour will have been used.

Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface (you'll need the remaining 3 cups of flour for the surface and you'll pick up the flour as you knead the dough) and knead for 10 minutes. This is my favorite part!

Bear in mind that this is a very soft dough even once it is kneaded. Place the dough in a large oiled bowl cover w/ lid or plastic wrap also oiled (I smear some butter on everything so there is no sticking). Allow it to rise for 2 hours or almost double in volume. My bowl wasn't quite big enough so the dough raneth over.

Turn the dough out again onto a floured surface and need gently for several more minutes. Divide the dough into two unequal portions: one portion is 2/3 of the dough, the other is 1/3 of the dough.

Shape the larger piece, on a floured surface, into a 12 x 8 inch rectangle. Roll it up from the narrow end to form a loaf. Pinch the seam closed and place the loaf seam side down into a buttered 9 x 5 x 2.5 loaf pan. Cover and let rise 35 or 45 minutes or until puffy and almost doubled.

Shape the rolls by dividing the smaller piece of dough into 12 equal pieces and roll them into balls. Place them in a buttered 13 x 9 cake pan or baking sheet leaving 1/2 inch between the balls. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes until puffy and almost doubled.

Brush dough with butter. Slash the top of the loaf three times with a sharp knife. Bake at 450F for 10 minutes. Then put the oven on 375 for the remaing time: the rolls cook for an additional 25 to 30 minutes and the loaf for an additional 40 to 45 minutes.

Dinner at Federal, again!

Last night, finally feeling hungry again, I headed with a friend to Federal. I love that place! The daily specials are consistently good and a great value.

My companion ordered roasted duck with cranberry relish and roasted potatoes. It was good but a bit too Thanksgiving-ish for me. I don't want poultry w/ cranberries again any time soon, or at least until Christmas.

I ordered beef stew with spaetzle and baby carrots. Spaetzle is basically small homemade dumplings. It reminds me of homemade pasta cut into short pieces. The beef stew had a rich gravy that the spaetzle soaked up. The beef was fork tender. It was perfect comfort food and enough for two meals. I look forward to having the leftovers for lunch today!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Not hungry

Don't know about you, but I'm still full from Thursday's feast.

I made a really tasty sandwich with the turkey, cranberry, and stuffing on homemade potato bread with mayo (Hellman's). It was seriously carb overkill because then I had to take a nap for two hours.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What are you fixing for Thanksgiving?

The silver is polished, the linens are clean and the shopping is almost done. For the first time in a while, I'm hosting Thanksgiving dinner. I'm fixing the standard fare with a few twists: turkey breast w/ an orange and honey glaze, corn bread stuffing with kale instead of sausage (so the vegetarians can eat it), cranberry and caramelized onion confit, and a starter of smoked trout with watercress and granny smith apples. We'll also have mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, pie, and homemade dinner rolls. I've got port and stilton to finish the meal.

I hope it goes well. There is a lot of housecleaning and cooking that needs to happen in the next 24 hours!

My friends are hitting the Wine Authorities today to pick out some vino to go with the turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving to all. Let me know what you are cooking that is interesting or different from the usual.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

South Carolina adventures

I just returned from a long weekend in Hilton Head w/ a friend who has a condo down there. She and I had a great time shopping and eating and sleeping late.

If you ever happen to be down there stop by a placed called The Boathouse. They are well-known for their daily specials which are inspired preparations of the catch of the day they buy from local fishermen. All I needed to hear was "we got a 25lb snapper off the dock this morning" to know that I'd be a fool not to order the snapper special. It was served on top of a bed of garlic spaghetti squash with a side of wild mushroom risotto and a tomato salad.

My friends ordered shrimp and grits and the other daily special: flounder with saffron rice and steamed veggies. It was a whole fish (headless) and my friend ate every morsel! The shrimp and grits were almost too rich. For me to say there was too much cream in anything is rare, but the cream and cheese in the grits competed too much with the delicate shrimp flavor.

After Hilton Head, I stopped by Beaufort, SC, on my way home (pronounced "Bewfort" as opposed to "Boefort"). It's a small version of Charleston and the second oldest town in SC. The little town has a very interesting and troubling history: battles between the English and the Spanish, battles with the Creek and Temmasee Indians, the amassing of great wealth through slavery, and shifts in the agricultural industry.

I enjoyed walking around the town, looking at the river and reading the historic markers. I picked out a cafe with large porch facing the river for my lunch. It's worth a visit if you ever get the chance.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Dining bliss: Bonne Soiree

Recently I dined with a friend at the sublime Bonne Soiree in Chapel Hill on W. Franklin Street. It was dining perfection: a beautiful setting, attentive service, wonderful food and wine.

Bonne Soiree is a gorgeous little place tucked into a square behind Panang. The lighting is dim, beautiful and very flattering. The walls are a cool, soothing blue. The ceiling are painted dark brown and the curtains are luxurious brown dupioni silk. It embodies elegance without stuffiness. The average age of customers seemed to be around 55 so if you are looking for young and trendy, this is not the place for you. We noticed several business dinners as well as couples and families (like the parents taking their UNC student out to dinner, not young children).

Bonne Soiree only has eleven tables. Making a reservation is a must. The advantage of this small establishment is that the service and food are very focus on precision and subtlety. I will go as far as saying that the service is -- bar none-- the best I've experienced in the area with the exception of Fearrington House. The staff was attentive but unobtrusive. We were never in want of anything. The proprietors manage the front with an attention to detail. They made excellent food and wine recommendations based on our preferences. I was most delighted that they served hot tea after the meal in a proper china teacup. The delicacy of tea really does require china, not a pottery mug!

The food matched the service in elegance, detail and subtlety. We started by sharing the terrine of chicken liver. It was smooth and rich and served with two mustards, pickled red cabbage, poached pear slices, and some field greens. We had a half glass of 2006 Spatlese on the recommendation of the proprietor. The fruity, yet fairly dry wine accompanied the terrine perfectly. My friend had fork-tender braised lamb for his dinner. He had a glass of Haut-Medoc that was smooth, smokey and full. The lamb was very good, but it did not match the trout that I ordered. The trout was truly inspired! The chef stuffed a trout filet with oven-roasted tomato and spinach then wrapped the filet in bacon. The bacon wrapped filet sat atop a crispy potato cake surrounded by a buttery, chanterelle mushroom sauce with a touch of tarragon. Every flavor in the dish was subtle and balanced. The chef must be a genius! I've not had a dish in a long time that was such a perfect marriage of flavors.

I had a terrible time deciding which dessert to order. I settled on a six layer coconut cake. The cake had coconut milk mixed into the batter. The frosting was silky, shiny and reminded me of a seven-minute frosting. Huge flakes of coconut topped the frosting. It was more than I could possibly eat, so like an overgrown five year old, I had three bites of cake and then ate the frosting. As much as I liked the coconut cake, I wished that I had ordered something more complex in flavors. My friend ordered a pear and almond tart with a scoop of ice cream. Again, the flavors were well-married and balanced. Sometimes I find almond desserts too heavy on the almond. This dessert succeeded at enhancing the delicate flavor of pear with the almond. I don't know what the ice cream was but it tasted like browned butter and browned sugar. I could eat it by the gallons!

Bonne Soiree is dining bliss. I cannot wait to go back!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Food and art

This Nasher Museum Art-for-All event looks like it could be fun for people who like modernism/post-modernism in food and art. I'm previously engaged or I'd be there! If you go, let me know how it was.

Nasher Art-For-All
Thursday, November 15, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
At the Nasher Museum of Art

In celebration of the exhibition: "Taste of the Modern: Rothko, Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, Kline."

7:00 pm Bar opens

7:20 pm Gallery Talk with Duke graduate student Heather Mallory. Ms. Mallory's research focuses on Nouvelle Cuisine.

8 - 9pm Cheese tasting led by Duke Senior Bryan Zupon. Zupon's cooking was recently featured in the New York Times.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Prison food

I had a very memorable meal today. I ate lunch at Central Prison in Raleigh. I must've been expecting gruel or something because it was surprisingly more edible than I'd imagined. We had barbecue chicken, collards, fried potatoes, carrots and iceberg lettuce salad. It needed a lot of salt and pepper. I would say that it was one notch above school cafeteria food. At least it well-balanced.

Why I was at the big house today is a long story, but suffice it to say that I'm involved with a group in Raleigh that got a tour and a lesson or two about drugs, race, poverty, and mental illness.

The inmates joked to us about the food, but their biggest complaint is not being able to hug loved ones who come to visit. They also want the outside world to know that what we see on TV and the movies is not real. Real prison life is more mundane, very structured, and very boring.

I was shocked to see how young so many of the inmates are. Many are kids, barely 20. How do we prevent kids from ending up on death row or life w/o parole?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Brazilian steakhouses: Brasa and Chamas

On Saturday I took my dive buddy to lunch for his birthday. He chose Brasa, the Brazilian steakhouse in Briar Creek. For those of you who have not been to one of these so-called Brazilian steakhouses, they are basically heaven for red-meat carnivores. Chicken and fish might appear on the extensive salad bar, but that's about it. Everything else is red, bleeding meat brought to the table on giant spears. They don't have menus. At Brasa there are three levels: $10 for the salad bar only, $18 for salad bar plus 5 types of meat, $23 for salad bar plus 9 types of meat.

Now, I'm as much of a carnivore as the next girl, but I am not such a fan of these places. I'd much rather have one steak that is done perfectly than all-you-can-eat piles of flesh. Might be a good place for people doing South Beach though, except all of the meat at Brasa was really fatty. I love a nicely marbled steak but I don't really want to see it dripping puddles of grease.

Chamas, at Brightleaf Square in Durham, offers higher quality meats that taste a lot better and don't have as much fat dripping off of them. Chamas also serves these yummy, cheesy popovers. Another good thing about Chamas is that they are easy to work with for event planning. I believe Chamas is locally owned, although I could be mistaken.

We had a good time at Brasa, but we were underwhelmed by the quality of food for the price of it. The best thing we had was yellow rice and black beans which my dive buddy does superbly in his own kitchen for a couple of bucks.

So the next time you want to please a meat and potatoes kind of person who does not like "frou frou food" as my dive buddy would say, take them to Chamas. But be warned, it will leave your wallet a lot lighter. For dinner the fixed menus is around $30/person. For the price, you could go to Rue Cler and order two steaks frites.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Broccoli soup with chive pesto

With the onset of colder weather I am ready to start making soups. Tonight I had a lovely dinner of broccoli soup, bread (I really like the half loaf from La Ferme Bakery that WholeFoods carries since I don't live near the actual bakery in Cary), and cheese from the Chapel Hill Creamery.

What makes the soup extraordinary is a garnish of pesto made from chive, olive oil and cayenne. My fabulous friend in Pinehurst gave me the recipe. He calls it fit for the gods.

Broccoli soup w/ chive pesto:

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (or 1T butter for the extra tablespoon)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped chives
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 medium onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
a good glug of dry white wine
1 pound broccoli, stems and crowns cut into 1-inch pieces (about 6 cups)
4 cups home made chicken broth
salt and pepper

Puree 1/4 cup oil, chives, and cayenne in blender. Season with salt. -- Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil or butter in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and bay leaves; cook until onion is golden, stirring often, about 7 minutes. Add a good glug of wine and let it burn off. Add broccoli; stir until bright green, about 1 minute. Add broth. Simmer until broccoli is tender, about 5 minutes. Remove bay leaves. Cool soup slightly.

Working in batches, puree soup in blender until smooth, about 1 minute per batch. Return soup to pot. Rewarm until hot. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide soup among 6 bowls. Drizzle with chive-cayenne oil and serve.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Better than pumpkin pie

Several years ago when I was planning Thanksgiving dinner, I felt bored and uninspired by the prospect of pumpkin pie. For one thing, I can never get my pie crusts to turn out quite as delicious as my grandmother's. For another, I don't like having to cook something just for the sake of ritual. And finally, I actually prefer sweet potato pie to pumpkin but then I didn't want to forgo a delicious recipe for mashed sweet potatoes as a side dish.

Happily I stumbled across a recipe from Gourmet for pumpkin cheesecake with bourbon sour cream topping. It suggests pumpkin pie flavors with a new twist. And the bourbon sour cream topping, well, need I say more?

Now I make it almost every year for the holidays not because I have to but because it is so good and everyone loves it. It has to be made the day ahead so that frees up your time on the big day. If you are really frazzled, lick the bowl where you made the bourbon sour cream topping. Or just have a shot of bourbon.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


For the Cuban feast I fixed with my friends on Saturday, I made picadillo which is basically seasoned ground beef served over rice. But this is no ordinary ground beef dish. It is flavored with spices, olives and raisins. As leftovers it is very tasty as filling for a burritos or tacos.

I looked for picadillo recipes online but they were so varied that I could not decide what to do so I consulted my beautiful Cuban friend who is fabulous cook. She sent me her grandmother's recipe. It allows for quite a lot of adaption because the seasonings are basically to taste.


3lb lean ground beef
2T. olive oil
1c. white wine
2 medium onions, diced
2 medium cubanelle peppers or green bell pepper, diced
4 cloves of garlic
2 small can of tomato sauce
lime juice
garlic powder
onion powder
lemon juice
dried oregano
salt and pepper
sliced green olives with pimento

Mince the garlic with some lime juice and salt. Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the onions and garlic and cook for a minute. Add the peppers and cook until the veggies are softened and the liquid begins to evaporate. Pour in a cup of white wine and cook until it cooks away. Begin adding 1 can of tomato paste little by little, alternating with seasonings: add lemon juice, oregano, salt, pepper, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder. Remove from heat.

In another skillet, brown the beef seasoning w/ salt and pepper. Drain the fat. Add the tomato mixture. Cook over medium heat, adding sauce from the other can of tomato sauce if needed. Add a little water to the mixture if it is too dry. It should be a thick sauce, not a runny liquid. Adjust all of the seasonings. Stir in the sliced olives and a handful of raisins. Cook until the raisins and olives are warmed.

Serve over rice and with a plate of sliced avocados topped w/ a mixture of garlic minced w/ lime juice and salt. Fry up some very ripe plantains for a side dish.

Monday, November 5, 2007


On Saturday, I had some friends over for a Cuban feast. I made picadillo, fried plantains, and an avocado salad. My friends brought red beans and rice and collard greens.

I fixed mojitos for cocktails. Often I find mojitos overly sweet. A dash of bitters and going easy on the sugar fixes that.

Tomorrow I'll write about my Cuban friend's grandmother's recipe for picadillo, but for now, here is the recipe for the famous Cuban cocktail:


2-3 t. powdered sugar
Juice from 1 lime
4 mint leaves
2 oz. white rum
2 oz. club soda
dash of bitters
1 sprig of mint for garnish

Put the mint leaves, lime juice and sugar in a glass. Muddle with a wooden spoon until the mint leaves are crushed and the sugar disolved in the lime juice. Fill the glass with ice. Add rum and stir. Top with the club soda and a drop or two of bitters and stir again. Garnish w/ a sprig of mint.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The best rice crispy bars

On Halloween I joined some friends on the front porch of their house where we ate pizza and passed out candy to the kids. As if candy weren't enough on Halloween, a friend of mine made this recipe for rice crispy bars from the New York Times food section. I immediately noticed these were not the usual. They had a rich, nutty flavor thanks to browning the butter and the marshmallow before stirring in the cereal. It is a grown-up twist on a kid's treat! I asked her for the recipe:

Caramelized rice crispy treats from NYT, 10/30/07

8 ounces butter, salted or unsalted, preferably cultured, plus extra for pan
1 10.5-ounce bag marshmallows
1 12-ounce box Rice Krispies cereal.

Line rimmed sheet pan w/ parchment paper or wax paper, or butter it well. In a large pot, melt butter over medium-low heat. It will melt, then foam, then turn clear golden and finally start to turn brown and smell nutty. Watch closely and stir often.

When butter is evenly browned, stir in marshmallows. (If using unsalted butter, stir in 1/8 teaspoon salt.) Melt and cook, stirring often, until mixture turns pale brown, then stir constantly until lightly browned but not dark, 3 to 5 minutes.

Turn off heat, add cereal, and mix well, preferably with a silicone spoon or a spatula. Scrape into prepared pan and press down lightly. If necessary, butter hands to press mixture flat. Let cool, and cut into squares or bars.

Yield: 30 to 50 treats.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Tunisian side dish

While we're on a Middle Eastern food theme, I thought I'd share a gem of a recipe from Paula Wolfert's bible Mediterranean Cooking. When I cooked a Middle Eastern feast for some friends, I searched for a tasty but unique vegetable side dish. I decided to try this recipe because the color and texture seemed a nice compliment to the main course, but I wasn't sure how it would taste because I'd never used harissa, a red chili pepper paste from North Africa. Harissa gave the carrots a rich color and a depth of flavor that contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the carrots. The addition of olives and feta makes it perfect. The dish was a huge hit, and it has subsequently become my favorite preparation for cooked carrots.

Houriya (Carrot Salad)
Serves 6 to 8

2 lbs fresh carrots
3 large garlic cloves unpeeled
fine salt
1 t. harissa or more to taste
2 t. caraway seeds
7 t.vinegar (cider or malt)
2 to 3 t. olive oil
2 doz. small black olives
4 oz. feta

Cut carrots into thin rounds and arrange in a pot. Add 3 T. water, garlic, and a pinch of salt. Cover and cook until carrots are tender. Drain carrots, reserving 1T of liquid. Allow carrots to cool and then mash w/ a fork.

Blend in harissa w/ reserved cooking liquid. Add carrots, caraway, cooked and peeled garlic, and vinegar blending well. Gradually beat in oil. Correct seasoning w/ salt. Keep covered in refrigerator and bring to room temperature before serving. To serve, mound the carrots in a shallow serving dish and garnish w/ olives and feta.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Lamb and date tagine

Now that it's finally cool outside, I'm in the mood to cook heavier, saucier dishes. Some people have said to me that lamb is intimidating because it has to be cooked correctly or it tastes awful. This Moroccan recipe for a lamb and date stew, or tagine, is delicious and easy. My dad ate a similar dish in Paris at a place called Wally Le Saharien. Dates and lamb are a match made in heaven. The dates bring a touch of sweetness to the lamb.

Lamb and date tagine
Serves 4
2 T olive oil
2 ½ lb lamb shoulder, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1 ½ inch chunks
¼ t. turmeric
¼ t. ground ginger
¼ t. finely chopped garlic
½ ground black pepper
6 fresh springs coriander (aka cilantro)
¾ to 1 c. pitted dates
2 c. water
¼ t. ground cinnamon

Heat oil in a large heavy casserole and lightly brown meet in all sides. Add salt, spices and garlic. Toss w/ meat and cook over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes. Add the onion, coriander springs, and water. Bring to boil and simmer, covered for 1 ½ hour (adding more water if necessary), or until meat is tender.

Preheat oven to highest setting.

Spread meat in one layer in an ovenproof serving dish. Place the dates in between the meat. Remove coriander sprigs from cooking liquid. Correct the seasonings, adding cayenne to taste. Pour sauce over meat and sprinkle with cinnamon. Set on highest shelf of oven and bake uncovered until dates become crusty – about 15 minutes.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Tortilla pie

Wednesday I stumbled across a foodie's delight quite by accident. At lunchtime, I headed over to Raleigh for a meeting at the Capital Center building on Jones Franklin Road. When I walked in the door of the office, I could smell something delicious so I made a note to stop by the little cafe on my way out.

Much to my delight, I discovered the Comfort Cuisine Cafe run by Maggie Radzwiller. Those of you who've been around Durham for a while might remember her as the manager of Nana's and one of the original partners of Pop's. Now she focuses on her catering business and this small restaurant in Raleigh.

The dish that I smelled cooking was her tortilla pie. It is a regular feature on her cafe menu and she'd made it as the daily special because the N&O had featured her recipe for it in the paper that same day. I ordered a serving and took it back to work for my lunch. It was perfect comfort food as the newspaper suggests.

I asked Maggie if the recipe in the paper was actually the one she made or if she had some secrets in her own batch. She said the only secret was the quality of the tortillas, and she graciously offered to sell me or anyone else the tortillas she uses at cost. I thought that was very generous of her. A cafe that is an abundance of food and an abundance of heart! I like that.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Thai Cafe again

Last week I met a colleague at Thai Cafe on University Drive. The lunch entrees come with either a bowl of coconut soup or a salad. I had the soup. It was spicy, flavorful broth. Besides coconut milk, it had lemongrass and red chili in it. I found it light and refreshing.

For a starter, my friend and I shared an order of four crab angels, aka crab Rangoon. They were rich and therefore perfect for sharing. When I was a kid I loved crab Rangoon. One time my mother and I even made them at home. The crab angels did not disappoint although they were probably not as good as homemade.

My main course was spicy basil chicken in a curry and coconut milk sauce. It was hot but not bring-me-to-tears hot.

On Saturday at the farmers' market, I bought some Thai basil and decided to try some Thai food at home. Thai basil is more fragrant when cooked. It seems sweeter to me than regular basil. I tried an easy, stir-fry recipe for gai pad bai gaprow from

It turned out great, and I thought I might try it sometime with shrimp. The sweetness of shrimp would go well with the Thai basil and the spiciness of the red pepper.

My next venture in Thai cooking will either be summer rolls or a red curry with coconut milk.

Monday, October 22, 2007


An anonymous commenter on the Watts Grocery post mentions how messed up compensation for waiters and waitresses is. That got me to thinking about tips.

I cannot think of a single time when I haven't left a tip. The waiter would have to slap me, cuss me out, AND call my momma a whore for me not to leave a tip. I'd probably also leave him w/ a black eye.

For the record, in America these days 20% is standard for restaurants, hair cuts, massages, whatever. Yes, tip your hairdresser. If you think 15% is standard, or (gasp!) 10%, then you are cheap. Do you really want people to think you are cheap? No, I thought not.

I leave a tip of 15% if the service has been really poor. In spite of being cranky from time to time about getting silverware and drinks in a timely fashion, I usually don't even knock it down to 15% for those minor infractions. Generally it takes a slew of mistakes: no silver or dirty silver, plus slow service, plus the wrong order, plus surly attitude.

A very long time ago I worked as a waitress. I found that waiting tables is far more stressful than a desk job, even the management job I have now. And customers can be a real pain. My biggest pet peeve is when I dine out with people who treat the wait staff as if they are servants. This is just wrong. In France, people respect their waiters and waitresses as founts of knowledge about the wine and the cuisine. Somehow we should recapture that.

So the next time you don't leave a 20% tip, or 15% if it is bad service, just remember that you are showing your own ass. And that is not a pretty sight!

I'm sure y'all will have opinions on this, but I stand firm in my own belief of what is correct and what is cheap and tacky, so beware.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Coffee and beignets: Rue Cler

This morning I met a friend for coffee and beignets at Rue Cler before wandering over to the farmers' market. Love Rue Cler in general. I've not been for dinner in a few months, but I really like how they do the prix fixe menu. More places should offer a set menu. It's got to be a good business model besides being exciting for the customer.

But I digress. When my friend suggested coffee and beignets, I wistfully recalled my trip to the Big Easy a few weeks ago where I went to Cafe du Monde for the most famous and most delicious coffee and beignets in the world. Those beignets are the size of your hand. The coffee is rich and dark and uniquely flavored with chicory. Yes, I know the place is touristy, but so what? It is beloved by many people for two very good reasons: one being in a cup and the other being deep fried.

Knowing that I might approach Rue Cler biased by my recent experience in New Orleans, I decided to be intentionally open to the differences. To say "Well it's not like Cafe du Monde" would not be helpful or insightful or fun! I'm all about the fun.

The cafe au lait was dark and strong and milky the way I like it. It seems like they serve the coffee in paper cups regardless if you order it as take out or dine in (now if this is some thing they are doing to save water by doing less dish washing, don't everyone yell at me or call me names for not being au fait with restaurant regulations and political statements!). I'm OK w/ paper cups but I sure would love for Rue Cler to serve coffee in some huge, white French cafe au lait bowls when I am dining in.

The beignets were good. They taste like, well, fried dough. What's not to love about fried dough coated in powdered sugar? Crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. I wondered how they would be with a good dose of cinnamon sprinkled on them or maybe a side of apple or strawberry compote.

Rue Cler offers other items for breakfast if you are looking for a non-deep-fried option. You could always have beignets as a starter ad order egg for a main!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Favorite kitchen gadgets

I love kitchen gadgets and small appliances! I could spend hours in places like Williams Sonoma and, my fav, A Southern Season. However, a person does not need a lot of gadgets to be a great cook. Some gadgets are so specialized that they get used once in a blue moon. Think pasta maker or fondue pot. Other gadgets are items that no one ever needs, like the $130 cast iron, made-in-France, mussel pot I saw at A Southern Season.

Some gadgets are worth having. My ten favorite ones:

1. Microplane rasp -- Ditch the box grater for fine grating. This grater gives much more control and will prevent you from grating your fingers. I use it for cheese, chocolate, and zests.

2. Chinois -- This is the queen of strainers. It is a very fine mess sieve with a mortar to push the food through the fine mess. It is perfect for smooth soups and sauces.

3. Garlic press -- Buy a good quality one that will allow you to press the garlic with the skin on.

4. Pastry brush with acrylic bristles -- Easy to clean and no annoying bristles that shed. You need one.

5. Cuisinart automatic grind and brew coffee pot -- It makes morning so much more bearable. An evil boyfriend bought this for me. I ditched him but I never hated a man enough to return presents!

6. A saucepan with a spout for pouring -- I have on by Analon that has a spout on each side and a lid w/ holes for straining. It is very convenient.

7. An old cast iron skillet -- If you haven't inherited one from a grandmother or a great aunt, go to a thrift store and buy one. A cast iron skillet takes a good 30 years to be seasoned to a nice, slick, black surface that is non-stick. Cast iron does need to be looked after. It requires oiling and re-seasoning from time to time, but I love it. I only bought a non-cast iron skillet for cooking tomato and other acidic sauces. Apparently cast iron is not good for those flat glass, electric stove tops.

8. A tiny whisk -- It's perfect for whisking up a quick vinaigrette for one or two people.

9. Mandoline -- For those of us lacking the patience or fine motor skills to slice things very thinly, a mandoline is a savior. It takes up a lot of room, I don't use it that often, but when I need it, I love it.

10. Bread knife -- Not only is the serrated knife good for bread but it is also great for tomatoes or other soft fruits/vegs.

What do you have in your kitchen?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bad manners

For the record, I will not countenance being called names in comments. I reserve the right to delete anything rude or abusive. I believe in the freedom of speech but I also believe that your mother raised you better.

Believe it or not, I do not actually have time to keep abreast of all the restaurant regulations on water restrictions. So sorry about that. I have been too busy straining my pasta water into a bucket so I can water my plants.

Oh, I went to Watts Grocery for dinner, and they asked me if I would like some water. I asked about it, and the waiter said, "Well basically I asked you to tell me you would like some water," wink, smile, and I got my water.

It is somewhat worrisome that arm-chair commentators get worked up about a posting on a food blog. This is supposed to be *FUN* and if it isn't then, please, find something that makes you smile. Or better yet, get out of your chair and do some good for the world.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Deluxe grilled cheese

I adore grilled cheese sandwiches. Cook cheese cannot be beat especially when it is melting and oozing between two pieces of nice toasty bread! My mom always made my brother and me grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup.

I found this recipe in the NYT a couple of weeks ago, and I finally tried it out last night. Taleggio had great flavor and it melts nicely. The mustard, apricot, caper mixture reminds me of a chutney: fruity, a hint of sweetness, but savory and tart. It goes very well with the raisin bread, an interesting twist on the classic, and cheese. The arugula gives the sandwich a peppery kick. I could eat this every day for a week!

Taleggio grilled cheese sandwiches:

15 dried apricots

1 tablespoon nonpareil capers

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

8 slices dark raisin bread

5 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

4 small handfuls arugula

8 ounces taleggio cheese, rind removed, at room temperature

4 pinches fleur de sel.

1. Place apricots in small saucepan and add water just to cover. Bring to full boil and immediately remove from heat. Mix in capers, mustard and olive oil. Pulse in blender to chunky consistency; set aside.

2. Spread one side of each bread slice evenly (to the edges) with 1/2 tablespoon butter. With buttered sides down, top four slices with 2 tablespoons of apricot mixture, handful of arugula and equal portions of cheese. Top with remaining slices, buttered side up.

3. Place large skillet over high heat, and melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Reduce heat to low and add sandwiches. Cook until browned and crisp on both sides, about 2 minutes a side. Transfer to a platter lined with paper towels, and sprinkle each with a pinch of fleur de sel. Cut in half and serve.

Yield: 4 sandwiches.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The enomatic at Wine Authorities

My buddies at the Wine Authorities on University Drive have now installed two enomatics: one for red wines and one for white wines.

The enomatic is basically a vino vending machine. It stores several bottles of wine at the right temperature and dispenses it in servings of 1 oz, half glass, or full glass. This gadget is wonderful for people like me who want to taste a higher end bottle of wine before buying it.

Yesterday was the first time I'd tried it. I bought a card for the machine for $1 and then put $20 on the card. The 1 oz tastes start at around 90 cents and go up from there depending on the price of the bottle. A taste of the $40 Pomerol cost about $4. That's a bit pricey, and a full glass of it out of the enomatic is $20 so a person may as well just have a taste and then buy the bottle. I did enjoy being able to taste three French reds though, two Bordeaux and one from Languedoc. In the end, I bought a smooth and rich 2004 Graves from Chateau Lusseau for $16.

Seth and Craig at the shop change the wines featured in the enomatic regularly. It's a great way to try different wines without committing to a whole bottle.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Brunch at Watts Grocery

Marginally recovered from my cold, I headed to Watts Grocery for brunch today with a friend.

I have a few minor bones to pick before I get to the food:

1. They don't open for weekend brunch until 11am. ELEVEN AM?? They need to open earlier. Seriously that's too late to open for brunch.

2. When I order coffee, bring me a spoon. Ok, fine, for the sake of good manners, don't wrap a spoon up the cloth napkin with the knife and fork (a coffee or tea spoon should never be put on the table w/ a place setting, bring it with the cup and saucer...or mug), but bring me a spoon so I can properly give my coffee a swirl, pour in some cream and watch it magically spin into the coffee. A spoon, please. A lady never wants to use a fork to stir coffee!

3. Don't make me beg for more cream. Two cream drinkers are going to polish off that dinky little pitcher after a two cups.

4. Serve water without having to be asked.

Minor details, I admit. Now, regarding the food. I have to confess that my taste buds are not quite up to par at the moment because my nose and head are stuffy. This is a problem for someone who likes to TASTE food and who can usually taste individual ingredients in a dish. My remedy was to order spicy and hope I could taste it.

My friend and I had churros for a starter. These are fried strips of dough coated in sugar and cinnamon and served with a dark chocolate dipping sauce. The churros were light and crisp, almost like cookies, not like donuts as the menu may suggest. I could taste the cinnamon and that was about it. The chocolate sauce had a good texture but the taste was too subtle for my defective sense of smell/taste.

My main course was rather astonishing in its complexity: a grilled biscuit split in half and covered with a sauce of andouille sausage with tomato topped with a poached egg and a hollandaise w/ cajun spices and crawfish tails. It was good except for the crawfish which was too fishy, probably from being frozen. Crawfish should taste sweet and lobstery not strong and fishy. Like lobster, don't bother if it isn't fresh because frozen doesn't do it justice. I moved the crawfish to the side and at the rest. It was good, but next time I'll order something else like the shrimp and grits.

My friend had French toast. It looked amazing when the waitress brought it to the table. The slices were huge. It was served with delicious cooked fruit in a tasty caramel sauce with whipped cream on the side. I tend to like egg dishes for brunch but I will certainly order French toast at some point too!

Aside from the minor problems w/ the spoon and cream, the coffee was delicious. It was rich, dark, bold and served in large mugs. I'd say their coffee is nearly as good as Alivia's, which is the best coffee in town.

So, let me know when you head to Watts Grocery for brunch what you think of the other menu items. I might have to go back tomorrow to try the shrimp and grits!