Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cheese: my new favorite goat cheese

One of my favorite things is to hang out at the cheese counter at WholeFoods or A Southern Season. Whenever I am in the mood for cheese, I will go to one of these fine purveyors and stand around asking questions. Usually they will offer to let me sample some cheeses. If not, I am brazen enough to ask for a taste. How can one buy a cheese without tasting it first? Not possible. I recommend you insist on a taste.

Cheese is probably my favorite food. I might even give up coffee AND chocolate before giving up cheese. I could not live without cheese. Thank goodness I got the low cholesterol gene in my family!

Those of you who read my blog regularly (you are probably related to me or you are an indulgent friend) know that I go on ad nauseum about goat cheese. I have a lot of recipes with it. Well, my new favorite goat cheese is called capricho de cabra available at WholeFoods. It is, *gasp*, not French but Spanish. While I still prefer aged goat cheese in the capable hands of the French, I've crossed the border with my preference for fresh, white goat cheese. Capricho de cabra is sharp yet smooth, creamy yet with body. It is too fine to use in cooking. It deserves the gentlest of treatment: only a cracker or a thinly sliced baguette. Go get some but leave enough for me!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Foccacia and eggs

One of the best parts of visiting friends is sharing meals and learning new recipes. My friends in Oriental fixed a wonderful breakfast on Saturday morning: fresh fruit, bacon, strong coffee and a wonderful dish called lemon and basil eggs over foccacia by the smokin' hot chef Giada De Laurentiis.

I don't usually think of basil and lemons with eggs, but it was a stunning combination. The recipe calls for meyer lemon olive oil. Who has that hanging around the house? Instead my friend used normal olive oil with some lemon zest. It worked fine. Instead of basil and lemon, you could put in sausage and parsley or some ham and rosemary.

This is going to be my new brunch recipe.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Flavored water?

I have recently tried two types of flavored water, mostly out of curiosity because I'd seen them on the shelves at the supermarket. One was Target's own brand and the other was Dansai . The Target brand was elderflower and pear flavored. The Dansai was lemon flavored. Both were horrible. What is wrong w/ plain old water? If you want flavor, cut up some REAL lemon or lime wedges and squeeze it into the water.

The list of artificial ingredients in these flavored waters is shocking. I do not want to drink things I've never heard of. In addition some of these waters have a lot of carbs and all of them are high in sodium, relatively speaking. Drinking water is supposed to be healthy.

I am a water purist. I do not even like my water gaseuse like the French. Put bubbles in my champagne but not my water, please.

So I stand in the aisle at Target surrounded by flavored water and think, "Water, water everywhere but ne'er a drop to drink."

Monday, July 23, 2007

Wilbur's or King's?

Once I knew two guys from Goldsboro and Kinston respectively who would argue mightily about where to get the best barbecue down east. Both places are on highway 70 going east towards New Bern.

I decided to try both since I was headed that direction for a weekend of sailing in Oriental, NC. At each place I would get a pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw.

On my way down I stopped at Wilbur's on hwy 70 in Goldsboro. I'd been before years ago but I couldn't remember much about the experience. Many people have told me that their favorite is Wilbur's so I was expecting greatness. It was very good but I felt a little let down. The good news is that the pulled pork Wilbur's actually looks like pork and not some chopped up, unidentifiable pig parts. The sandwich was good but it was lacking the distinctiveness of the Eastern NC vinegar sauce. Maybe the kid doing takeout forgot to put it on. I don't know. The sandwich was porky rather than bbq-y. I was let down.

The slaw was ok. It seemed overly sweet without the sharpness of the bbq sauce to balance it. Next time I'll eat in the restaurant instead of getting takeout.

On my way home from Oriental, I stopped at King's in Kinston. I was very tempted to order something called pig and puppy which is basically a giant hush puppy (YUM!) covered w/ pulled pork and topped w/ slaw. As much as I want to harden my arteries w/ hush puppies, I decided to get the sandwich in order to do a fair comparison with Wilbur's. It was perfection! The spiciness of the sauce was balanced by the sweetness of the slaw. The pork was mild and tender. If you are ever headed down east on hwy 70, stop at King's for a pig and puppy and let me know what it was like!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Easy summer recipes from Mark Bittman

This week's NYT Food section includes an article from Mark Bittman, one of my favorite cookbook authors, with 1o1 easy summer recipes. These recipes are geared towards people who don't like to cook much when the weather is sizzling hot and people who like quick, easy, tasty recipes because they've worked all day and don't want to slave in the kitchen on a Tuesday night. I fit into both categories. Sometimes I also come home from work and stare uninspired at my cupboard wondering what to make. This list of recipes will be great inspiration when I'm stuck.

Bittman contends that all of these recipes take 10 minutes or less. Furthermore, cooking at home is more economical and healthy than dining out. The recipes seem easy to follow. I trust Bittman's work. His compendium How to Cook Everything is a cookbook that everyone should have, especially cooking neophytes.

I really want to try the gazpacho recipe.

Go print the article before it is archived by selecting the print icon on the right of the page.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Nana's after work

I'm so lucky to have Nana's as my local restaurant / bar. It is a 5 minute walk from my house. Last night I met some girls there after work for drinks and apps. The apps were hearty enough for us not to need dinner.

We shared a bottle of Vouvray that was buttery, crisp, bone dry and ever so slighly effervescent when it was poured. I'm obsessed with finding good Vouvray here after my sojourn in the Loire last month where the wine lists had pages of Vouvray!

For our apps, we shared three items: 1. cheese plate comprising two goat cheeses from Celebrity Dairy and three cows milk cheeses from Chapel Hill Creamery, 2. liver pate with currant jam, mustard, and cornichons, 3. gnocchi with lamb ragu.

The cheese plate and pate are regular features on the menu. My girlfriends and I order them often. The pate is silky smooth and the liver does not overwhelm the flavor. I like the cheese plate although I buy the local cheeses all the time so I would have liked something different and something blue.

The gnocchi with lamb was just great! I am picky about how lamb is prepared. Sometimes it is tough and too strong. This lamb was braised for hours and perfectly tender. I am thinking of going back some evening soon and just ordering that for my dinner if it is still on the menu.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Champagne punch

For a twist on a mimosa, try this champagne punch. I made it for a baby shower on Saturday. Everyone loved it. It is great for brunch and totally easy to make. The hardest part is opening the champagne. By the way, never pop a champagne cork in an uncontrolled fashion unless you want to cause property or bodily damage. Instead, keep a firm hold of the cork and gently pry it out of the bottle. There will be a pop because of the pressurized contents but people will not need to duck and run for cover.

Citrus champagne punch:

¾ c. apricot juice

¾ c. pink grapefruit cocktail

12 oz. can of orange tangerine frozen concentrate thawed

3 c. champagne

Combine juices and mix w/ champagne

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Tonali: Gourmet Mexican

Last night I finally went to Tonali on Shannon Road. It must've opened about 8 months ago. The only way I can think to describe the food is as gourmet Mexican. It is located in a strip mall over by the Post Office. The decor is warm and inviting. Instead of velvet sombreros or cattle horns adoring the walls, there are abstract paintings.

The food bears little resemblance to the food at El Rodeo or Torero's. The menu changes often and is, rather than a compendium of all things Mexican, limited to a handful of starters, around 6 main courses, and 3 desserts.

My friend and I shared a wonderfully fresh and delicious mixed green salad with papaya, avocado, and jicama in a citrus vinaigrette. The textures of papaya and avocado provided a lovely contrast to the crisp jicama and mixed greens.

I ordered a main course was red snapper Veracruzana with fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and capers in a mild vinaigrette and served on a bed of lettuce. My friend had a pork loin marinated in chili spices with mashed potatoes. Both of our dinners were delicious. We practically inhaled them. I think we must've been very hungry!

Tonali only recently got its liquor license so now they serve a small selection of beers and wines. There was only one white wine by the glass. It was Spanish, crisp, easy to drink.

I will go out on a limb and say that Tonali is one of the top restaurants in Durham. It is better than Pop's and all of George's restaurants. I'd say it is comparable to Alivia's and right behind Nana's and Magnolia Grill.

It is somewhat expensive especially for a Mexican restaurant, but Tonali is anything but a typical Mexican restaurant! You must go.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Parker and Otis

Parker and Otis has recently opened in the space formerly occupied by Fowlers. I stopped by for lunch last week. The menu is short but the food is fresh and tasty. I had a vegetarian sandwich of avocado, sprouts, tomato, lettuce and white bean puree. It needed salt and pepper but that wasn't a problem because I got it to go.

I'm not sure what Parker and Otis is. Is it a candy shop with a wine section and a deli attached? Or is it a deli with some wine and candy? In a way, the place reminds me of what Foster's on the Durham Chapel Hill Blvd is doing, but at Parker and Otis the emphasis is definitely less on restaurant side and more on the retail side. Rumor has it the owner used to work at Foster's. I have no idea if this is true.

If I want good candy or wine, I go to A Southern Season. Parker and Otis is more convenient but they do not yet have a proven track record with me yet on wine (like Fowlers did and A Southern Season still does) and most of their chocolates were American. Like my wine, I want my chocolates to be French!

As far as I can tell, Parker and Otis stands the best chance of success if it emphasizes the restaurant/deli/cafe side of the business. But that means comfy tables and chairs are necessary. Right now the actual dining experience is somewhat lacking. That's why I got my sandwich to go. I hope there are plans to improve the eating space.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Coconut icebox cake

Let me be very clear about what we mean when we say "coconut cake" in the South: we do not mean a cake with a buttercream frosting with coconut stirred in or sprinkled on top, and we do not mean coconut frosting with pecans or other nuts or dried fruit stirred in. We mean cake with a coconut, sugar and sour cream icing that has been wrapped up tightly in the fridge for five days so the sour cream, sugar, and coconut can seep into the cake to flavor it. It takes amazing will power to keep the cake in the fridge for five days without eating, but it is worth the wait.

When you take the cake out and unwrap it, it is not the most beautiful sight to behold, but fear not, it will be delicious. You can make some additional icing to put on top of it when it comes out.

The recipe is so easy:

1 boxed white cake mix
3 eggs
1 1/3c. water
2 T oil, canola or vegetable
2 6 0z packages of frozen, unsweetened coconut (this could be tough to find up north)
2 c. sour cream
2. c. sugar

Mix cake mix, eggs, water and oil. Blend w/ electric mixer and divide btwn 2 9in. round cake pans that have been oiled and floured. Cook for 27 to 29 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

While cakes are cooking, make the frosting by combining coconut, sugar, and sour cream. Let sit in fridge for 1 hour so sugar dissolves.

Let cakes cool on wire rack for 10 min. Turn out onto wire rack and let cool completely. Then slice each cake in half horizontally so there are four layers. Place the bottom layer on a big piece of plastic wrap. Frost the bottom layer and then stack and frost each additional layer. Frost the top of the cake. Wrap tightly in the plastic wrap. Wrap it again in a second sheet of wrap. Then wrap it up tightly in foil. Put in the fridge for five days.

Unwrap the cake (it will be somewhat messy) and frost with extra frosting made with a bit less sour cream so it is firmer.

I would probably skip the presentation of the cake on a cake plate and just serve it from the kitchen directly onto dessert plates. It is so good that no one will care what it looks like!

For the people who don't like coconut, well, that leaves more for the rest of us!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Best banana pudding recipe

Banana pudding is, I think, by definition low brow. Anything with cool whip and nilla wafers is not going to qualify as haute cuisine. But isn't it good? The IBM cafeteria on Davis Drive excels at old-fashioned banana pudding with nilla wafers and meringue every Wednesday. It's reason enough to get a job there.

I'm not a huge fan of nilla wafers. I think my mom tried to pawn them off on me as "cookies" when I was a kid. Nilla wafer does not satify the cookie craving. So imagine my delight to find a banana pudding recipe with Pepperidge Farm chess men instead! It is a recipe by a Southern superstar chef, the inestimably charming Paula Dean.

Her recipe is called "Not Yo' Mama's Banana Pudding Recipe," and indeed it is not! A friend gave it to me and it is published on the Food Network web site.

This recipe breaks all of my rules in terms of organic and local ingredients. It contains (*gasp*) instant pudding, sweetened condensed milk and (OMG!) cool whip. I'd never bought cool whip before! The secret ingredient is Philadelphia cream cheese. By the way, for any recipe calling for cream cheese, use Philly. It is superior. I do not know why.

Not only did numerous people tell me that it was the best banana pudding they'd ever eaten but also it made enough to feed an army. So, here is a link to Not Yo' Mama's Banana Pudding by Paula Dean.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Paris: Angelina's for hot chocolate

After a long morning of Musee D'Orsay and a lovely lunch, my friends and I needed an afternoon pick me up in the form of hot chocolate from a tearoom called Angelina's right on the rue de Rivoli overlooking the Tuileries.

This was no ordinary cup of hot chocolate! It is the house specialty called Chocolat a l'Africain. It is a thick, dark, creamy, smooth cupful of heaven served with fluffy clouds of fresh whipped cream. We all pretty much agreed that it was the most wonderful liquid we'd ever tasted. There are not words to describe it. Orgasmically good! Maybe even better than that. In fact, I'm not sure there is sex that good!

Do not even think about skipping a stop to Angelina's for Chocolat a l'Africain if you go to Paris. Try not to think about the fact that you are drinking a $10 cup of coffee. It was so good, I'd even pay $50 and my firstborn!

Monday, July 2, 2007

Paris dining: Auberge St. Roch

Tired, hot and hungry, we stumbled across a tiny restaurant in an old timbered building on rue St. Roch off of rue de Rivoli. I noticed French people inside eating so I figured it had to be decent at least. Much to our great delight, the meal was fantastic!
By the way, if you are looking for a place to eat in Paris, go to the places where you see French people eating (you can identify the French by their style and their cigarettes). Do not go to places were you see a bunch of German or English tourists. What do they know about food?

The Auberge St. Roch must surely have the best escargots in Paris if not the world. I wish I'd ordered them, but my friend gave me a taste of hers. She described them as good enough to make her weep. In addition to the usual treatment of garlic and butter, these escargots also included cream. I cannot think of anything better than a sauce of garlic, butter and cream. If you go to Paris do not miss this place!

Those of us who did not order escargots were not let down either. We ate veal roulade in a mushroom cream sauce that also featured some butter. The roulade was perfection! The stuffing was mildly spiced meat. Other than that, I could not identify the ingredients and the menu only said roulade de veau aux champignons so I do not know precisely what was in it. It doesn't matter though, the veal was delicious! I wanted to lick my plate again.

We didn't have dessert. Instead we went to Angelina's for hot chocolate. Angelina's will get a posting of its own, so stayed tuned!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Paris dining: Drouant

Organizing a dinner for 20 people in Paris is no easy feat. Twenty people cannot just stroll into an establishment and expect to get some tables. It requires advance planning. Happily I was given this task (my only other skill besides cooking is being a planner...oh and speaking enough French to be dangerous or at least to understand when French men are being charming).

After some research, I decided to book the table for 20 at Drouant at place Gaillon. Drouant has been recently acquired by the French celebrity chef Antoine Westermann. The staff was extremely helpful and courteous. The service alone is worth a dinner either for a group or a smaller party.

That the food was outstanding is almost a given since it was 1. France and 2. Antoine Westermann's place, but preparing a set menu for 20 people is no guaranteed success. Happily, the culinary execution of our meal was nearly perfect.

We started the dinner with amuse bouches in the form of crostini with a fish mousse and crostini with nicoise olives. The first course was chilled asparagus soup. It was silky smooth, full of cream, seasoned with a hint of cayenne and garnished with chives, a dollop of creme fraiche and butter-drenched croutons.

The main course was perfectly cooked chicken breasts (although we could not quite figure out how it was cut so that bones were sticking out. Maybe these French chickens had arms or something. I don't know) in a delicately seasoned sauce made with butter and drippings, of course. Chicken is not the first thing I normally order on a menu because it can be overcooked and generally boring. At Drouant, the chicken was moist, fleshy, and flavorful. The sauce did not overwhelm but rather enhanced the taste. The chicken rested on a bed of carrots and zucchini, cooked tender but not mushy.

For dessert we had a rum-soaked yellow cake served with whipped cream. It was so delicious that, overcome by enthusiasm, my mother and I both forgot to take pictures! After dessert we had coffee and dark dark chocolate served with preserved oranges. I'd eaten preserved lemons but never oranges. They were spectacular served with the dark chocolate. I did have enough wits about me to get a picture of that plate.

Unfortunately I had no say in what wine we drank. The gentlemen were handed the wine list of course. They made an excellent choice but I have no idea what it was. As an independent woman who regularly picks her own wine, I was a bit antsy about not seeing the wine list at any of the group meals.

The best part of my dinner was the company. I had a tall, handsome, blue-eyed stranger sitting next to me. He had fine lines at the corners of his eyes which I imagined he acquired from smiling a lot. He even had good table manners!